OWNER'S MANUAL

Why Should You Put Mobile First? To Level the Playing Field

No matter what the size of your company, customers want interact with you on their devices.
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You've spent tons of time and effort building your website. So when you add content, features, or functionality, you naturally focus on your website first. Wrong move. Smart businesses now think mobile first. Here's another in my series where I pick a topic and connect with someone a lot smarter than me. 

This time I talked to Chet Kapoor, CEO of Apigee, a provider of API technology services for developers and enterprises. (Basically they build products powered by data to deliver applications.) 

In theory, every business has shifted its focus to mobile, but not necessarily in practice.

Mobile changes everything. It's driving a very profound change--we see it in our personal lives, too, and it's changed everything we do. Simple example: Most people don't buy a bubble level to hang a picture straight. Now they buy a level app.

Mobile has a tremendous impact for small businesses because unlike websites, a small mobile presence levels the playing field. Whether you're a small company or a Fortune 500, whether you start as a Netflix or a GE, as a digital native or a digital immigrant, all businesses must connect with customers and have to extend the brand through every kind of mobile device. No matter what the size of your company, customers want interact with you on their devices.

But "mobile" doesn't just apply to phones or pads?

When I say mobile, I'm definitely not referring only to smart phones. All devices that can compute and connect, whether it's a tablet, Fitbit, Fuel band, vending machine (like the Coca Cola Freestyle machines)--they're all digital end points.

Ultimately, mobile enables a business to shape and enhance customer--or employee, depending on the goal and implementation--behavior.

Give me an example of shaping and enhancing customer behavior.

One of my favorite examples is Walgreens. Like most retailers, Walgreens has a physical store strategy and a mobile strategy. They started out with QuickPrints for photos; what you used to do is take pictures on your camera and upload them to the Walgreens website.

They realized that 30 percent of photos are taken by smart phones, so they decided to make it much easier for their customers to print those photos. So they extended their infrastructure with an API.  We build a mobile app so when a customer takes a photo they click on the app, go to their camera roll, select the picture, select a zip code, and say, "Print."  Everything is done through the mobile device.

Then customers go to the store to pick up their prints, and they buy a few other items.

Walgreens knew their customers well enough to know that people who come to their stores and visit their website and use their mobile apps spend much more than people who don't use all three. So they leveraged an existing capability through mobile to enhance the customer experience--and enhance their business.

Think about your business: everything in a physical store that can be virtualized can be done through APIs. All you have to do is take digital assets and expose them as APIs. You don't have to build everything from scratch. And the best part is you can then analyze your results to better know your customers and better meet their needs--and do it all through mobile.

What if I want to do something internal? If I'm not in retail, an internal app might generate much greater results.

We generally see three types of customers. One wants to connect with customers through mobile apps, another wants to collaborate with partners, or and the third wants to build productivity apps for their employees. Generally, though, they end up doing all three. Even so, starting small is the best idea. You don't have to do a big bang. Take a baby step, then crawl, then walk, and only then try to run. That's the approach we take.

So say we run into each other in an airport lounge and I ask you how my small business can start better using mobile. What advice would you give me?

I'd tell you there are five basic steps:

1. Start taking a mobile first approach. Think about how much work you do on your laptop and your pad and your phone. You use all three differently, but you're definitely using your laptop less. And so are your customers. So think mobile first, and build everything with mobile in mind.

2. Decide which app you want to focus on. Will it be for employees, partners, customers, productivity, collaboration: what is most important to your business? If you start walking down the mobile path you can eventually do all of those, but it makes sense to start with what is most important.

3. And don't just fall into the, "Everyone's doing a mobile app, so we need one too," trap. Think about your goals and how you want to measure your initiative. They don't all have to be hard benefits like increased revenue or better gross margins--maybe you just want to increase customer loyalty by going where your customers are. Or maybe you want to collaborate better with partners. Or increase brand exposure. Your goal can be hard or soft--just make sure you're clear on how you'll measure results.

4. Realize you'll probably need a partner. If you're not already embarked on a mobile path, in all likelihood you don't have the skills internally to make it happen.

The best approach is to pick a partner that is self-service. For example, we have a cloud offering that lets customers get started with just an email address. Beyond the ecosystem what you also need is a good consulting partner. They should advise the baby step theory rather than the big bang approach. Find a partner that feels you're in this together, who wants to work with you long-term, so they try to get small wins while you gain expertise. The best partners deliver projects. A lot of people talk about mobile. Fewer reliably deliver projects that work.

5. Repeat, repeat, and repeat. Go back to step two, over and over again, so you make mobile a part of your company's muscle memory.

Check out other articles in this series:

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Jan 27, 2014

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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