Larry Page, the CEO of Google, has what he calls the toothbrush test.  It simply asks if your product is useful enough to be used two times a day and something you can’t function without.  Ever travel without a toothbrush?  That’s how life should feel if your service went away.  It’s a good litmus test as we only use 30 apps at most and it turns out that the majority of millions of app developers are making poverty level wages. So how do you become something as indispensable as a Toothbrush or as breakout as Secret, Timehop, or Whatsapp?

If I were starting a consumer mobile company tomorrow, I’d obsess on achieving one thing and one thing only for the first 12 months: Make your service become a daily habit for the majority of your users. That’s it. Seems simple, right? Wrong. It’s the most difficult thing to do in mobile. There are 24 applications that can fit on the iOS home screen. Half are already eaten up by default applications from Apple such as Mail, Safari, Messages, and more. The other 12 have been taken up by other companies that have become daily habits to its users. You’re talking companies like Uber with over a billion in funding, Facebook with Instagram, and Google with Maps.  Becoming a daily habit is so alluring it’s even become Yahoo’s entire mission – “Yahoo is about making world’s daily habit inspiring and entertaining.”  It’s not easy to do, but here’s how I would approach it:

Have a simple and clear use case for the application

There is zero room for margin or buzzword jargon here. You need to give users a clear and compelling use case for downloading your application. Not only what problem does it solve, but why is this a problem I need solved everyday? It’s clear why you need to brush your teeth twice a day…because if you don’t, they will rot. If you can’t find a reason for your service to become something that’s useful everyday, it’s unlikely you’re going to make it to a user’s home screen. Keep in mind, this is for consumer applications. Most commerce businesses can survive without habitual usage. The simplicity of what you’re trying to build should be so evident, that it seems like something is wrong.

Pick a verb phrase for your application that you want to own

One way to come up with a simple application and use case is to think of the verb and/or associated phrase you want to one. I’ve always thought of apps as verbs — software that enables you to take action. What is the crystal clear verb and phrase that you want to own? You get one verb with your application, that’s it. Trying to do more? Way too complicated. The word and is forbidden from being used.

Instagram — Take a picture that’s beautiful through filters

Foursquare — Discover where my friends are in my city

Mailbox — Manage my email better through gestures

Whatsapp- Message my friends without paying SMS costs

Runkeeper — Track my run

Timehop — Remember what I did in the past on this day

If you start to focus yourself in on a verb and phrase that you want to own on a regular basis for a user, your entire company begins to get aligned around it. Less bloat, less features, and more focus.

Use Push Notifications To Set a routine

Push notifications can easily get annoying, but they can also be a secret weapon for app developers. If they are used right, they can start to engage users at the right time to start setting habits. Think of them less like popup ads and more like guide posts to give your users a daily habit. The best example I’ve seen of this is Runkeeper. Over time they track when you’ve made a habit out of using the app aka your ideal running time. Most people run at set times on the weekends and weekdays. When they see you’re a bit off course, they send you a message that says

“Let’s work out. You thought this was the perfect time a while back…remember?”


This is a very smart use of push notifications.  Instead of popping up at a random time or sending a notification that one of your friends is using the service, they’re using push notifications to set a routine.

The Magic Metric – DAU/MAU %

The magic metric for consumer mobile apps is the DAU/MAU ratio.  You may have a lot of users coming to your app every month, but that can easily be due to an influx of press or buying downloads.  It’s great to increase your MAUs, but it’s likely to be a short term investment if you don’t build something that has your user base coming back daily.  Many investors I talk to want to hear the % of users that are coming back on a daily basis.  Instead of focusing on growing the MAU portion, you should work on nailing down the % that comes back everyday.  Once you have nailed the daily habit portion, you can start to grow the overall user base.

Think About Starting As An Email Newsletter

What do Craigslist, Groupon, Timehop, and Thrillist all have in common?  They started as simple email newsletters.  Maybe you don’t need to build a mobile app at first.  Maybe you should actually start as an email newsletter.  Email is an old school piece of technology and many often think it would be the opposite of a mobile app.  Once you have permission to be in someone’s email inbox, you can start becoming a part of their daily routine.  It also constrains your feature set and thinking to something very simple.  This won’t work for many consumer apps, but if it’s possible, I’d suggest going for it.  It’s also a great way to have a dedicated fan base that can install your app once it launches.

Re-Engagement Through Network Effects

This is a dangerous tactic and can easily backfire if done wrong.  How so?  If you’ve ever been spammed by friends to “Play” Candy Crush or Farmville, you know what I’m talking about.  A way that it has been done right is in the messaging space with WhatsApp and Snapchat.  As you start to add more users and begin to enjoy network effects, you can start to have virality increase your DAU/MAU usage.  What do I mean?

Let Node X be defined as Jack and let Node Y be defined as Jill.  Jack has not made your app a daily habit yet.  They have ignored your push notifications so far.  Luckily they haven’t uninstalled the app…yet.  Jill is a fanatic user though.  She has made it a daily habit and just met Jack at the top of a hill.  Jill starts using your app to interact with Jack.  Due to the network effects of having Jill on the app, Jack is now using it daily.

Try to recreate this scenario.  Have a scenario where the daily habits of one node can cause other inactive nodes to become active users on a daily basis.  This happened with my girlfriend and I with Foursquare.  She had downloaded the app right around when we started dating, but never used it.  When we started dating and going out, I would check her in and use the app for exploring.  She then started becoming an active foursquare user.  Don’t just focus on a blind viral co-efficient, focus on specifically getting your daily users to recruit others in.

As important as I make it sound, having someone use your app on a daily basis isn’t something every startup has to do.  Many commerce applications would do well with once a month usage and many products like TurboTax only need to be used once a year.  What are products you’re using on a daily basis and more importantly what are some that you AREN’T anymore?