What Yahoo's Marissa Mayer can teach developers about tough choices

Editor's Corner
Shane Schick

Most mobile developers would probably find it difficult to see any resemblance between their challenges and those of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, but there are at least three: a dizzying array of apps in the market, an enormous audience that's confused by the choices available to them, and only so much time and resources to improve and market an individual app effectively.

The big difference, of course, is that Mayer's firm actually offers at least 75 apps, whereas most indie developers have one or two at most. They're also largely part-time, after-hours entrepreneurs rather than CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. But Mayer's announcement last week at an investor conference that Yahoo would pare down its mobile offerings to a mere dozen can be read as a larger entity's response to near-universal developer struggles with discoverability, engagement and retention. And even the smallest developers could take a cue from her approach.

It may sound too simple to just shut down dozens of other apps and focus on a few. If you only have one game, that option obviously isn't available to you. Mayer's strategy, however, is more about being strategic in the choices Yahoo makes around its mobile initiatives. It's about prioritizing your projects, paying attention to competitors and considering your target market. These are all tactics that even small, one-person developers can adopt in running a business, even if that business is a sideline.

For smaller developers, the choice might not be to pare down the number of apps they've created, but instead to pare down the numbers of features and functions the app provides to just those that have proven the most popular. It could be looking more closely at your social media strategy and the demographics of your users, and realizing that, for certain games, Facebook may be the best channel, and Google+ may not be worth the time and attention. It could be about paring down the number of platforms for which an app is developed. If it's already available on iOS and Android, there needs to be a business case for developing for BlackBerry or Windows Phone 8 beyond the fact that those other platforms happen to exist. Perhaps most important is the choice of paring down the customers with whom you develop close relationships. Through A/B testing and audience segmentation, it may become clear that only a select few users should be receiving those push notifications or personalization options.

Yahoo is a little like Apple back in the 1990s. When Steve Jobs returned there in 1996, one of his first acts was to eliminate scores of Apple products, grouping those that were left into four categories of high-performance users, home users and so on. It allowed the company to focus--and focus is something that smaller developers, with their myriad other professional and personal responsibilities, sometimes lack as well.

The wonderful thing about being an app developer and entrepreneur is the limitless possibilities, but as Mayer showed, sometimes limits can be useful. They force you to recognize your strengths, where you'll get the most bang for your buck, and where you should move next. "We grade ourselves as honestly and as brutally as we can," Mayer said last week. Do you?--Shane