Finding that killer app

For the ones looking to build a lasting business, as opposed to a one-off hit, the key to success depends on more than just momentary product-market fit.

Jeff Bezos moved to Seattle in ’97 to build amazon.com, an online bookstore. The interesting thing is, he didn’t do it because he was passionate about the publishing or literature industry. In fact, it didn’t take long for amazon.com to become an “everything store”. Why then, did he choose to create an online marketplace for, of all things, books?

Microsoft built the Windows operating system, and 5 years later, introduced the first versions of the Microsoft Office tools that ran on it. Word and Excel solved operational and business problems, and ran atop the Windows operating system. They were not a part of the Windows operating system platform itself. What prompted Microsoft to build and market applications instead of directing all of their investments into making Windows even better?

MongoDB is an open-source database (free for developers to download and use in it’s vanilla form). What was the company’s initial strategy to market this open-source database to businesses that would pay them to run it, in spite of being able to download the source code themselves?

Building lasting businesses

The answer is that these companies figured out that in order to build a lasting and impactful business, you need a killer app. An app that your market can’t live without.

When Bezos began amazon.com, that app for him was books. Reading books was a big part of American lives, and using the internet to sell books meant tapping into this inherent desire to read. By selling books online, amazon.com was able to collect data about millions of people who made the purchases. What would you sell first if the goal was to collect data about as many people as you can? His answer was books. Soon enough, amazon.com started selling a lot more than just books, and became the data power-house that we now know it to be.

Similarly, when Windows was gaining popularity among enterprises as an operating system of choice, Microsoft starting building and packaging Word and Excel (at least, nascent versions of them) with Windows. This was an important strategic play, since it tapped into other markets that existed within organizations. Decades later, Office is still the “killer app” of Microsoft on all software platforms and all devices.

The MongoDB team identified that organizations cared most deeply about their mission-critical applications, since these related directly to their business’s success. So if MongoDB software was running as a part of these mission-critical applications, organizations would be more willing to pay to make sure it is run in a reliable way. Mission-critical applications was their killer app.

What makes an app a killer app?

As we’ve seen in the examples above, a “killer app” can be a category of physical goods, a software application, or even a scenario in which your offering plays an important role. The key is that it should provide value in a way that the customer can’t live without it.

It is more than product-market fit. Killer apps find their way into gaps that an individual or organization can’t live without. People can’t live without books. Organizations can’t live without the Office suite. And digital businesses can’t live without their mission-critical applications.

Some killer apps fill in gaps that didn’t exist earlier. Companies like Apple do a great job of creating such “new needs” in the eyes of their customers, and then filling those needs with a product of their own.

Killer apps serve the happy path extremely well and the focus is on adoption. Once you see adoption, and the customer can’t live without your killer app, you now have a platform for monetization.

Killer apps are here to stay

Killer apps are not easy to find. But once identified, they can be leveraged time and again to grow the business forward. The killer app may create “land and expand” opportunities, it may accelerate adoption of your product line, and it may even reduce the churn of your product. We see this across industries, geographical boundaries, and generations.

There are several examples of successful businesses that all managed to find their killer apps. Apps that people can’t live without. AirBnb, Uber, Expedia, VMware – some we knew we needed, and some we didn’t know could exist.

Make sure you have your killer app thought through, before you invest too deep in building the product.

Leave a Reply