At its recent F8 developer conference, Facebook announced FbStart, a new program designed to help app developers by providing free tools and services to get themselves up and running. Having initially been available to only F8 attendees, today the program is opening up to all developers.
"The goal of FbStart is to help mobile apps grow and monetize," says Vijay Shankar, one of the program engineers behind FbStart.
Selected parties get credits for Facebook advertising and Parse, plus free services from companies working in product testing, recruiting, customer care, video conferencing, and document management.
As a brand, FbStart isn’t new. Originally used as the name of a series of developer-oriented events Facebook organized around the globe, its success led to Facebook expanding the program for its current incarnation. This, in turn, meant working out what was good about the program and then applying it on a grander scale.
"We used a lot of the feedback from those events to help shape FBStart," says Shankar. "For example, one thing we heard from developers was that they wanted access to more tools and services, as a way of helping take their apps to the next level. From there it was just a matter of figuring out which tools would be most valuable to a startup, and working out deals with the great partners we’re working with."
The partners working with Facebook on FbStart include the likes of Adobe, Appurify, Asana, Blue Jeans, Desk.com, MailChimp, Proto.io, Quip, SurveyMonkey, UserTesting, and Workable.
Of course, Facebook itself is pretty far from a plucky upstart these days. With this in mind, it took a bit of trial and error before the company was able to settle on the exact services it should offer.
"One of the things that was interesting for us to learn was what mobile apps need at different stages in their life cycle," Shankar continues. "If you take the hockey stick curve that people typically use to look at how apps grow there is an initial phase where people are trying to find product market fit—where you’re trying to build the best possible app and find the right audience for it. At the next stage, it’s about trying to scale the business, and the challenges that came with that. We took these two phases, and tried to structure the whole project around that."
The result is two separate "strands" of FbStart, called Bootstrap and Accelerate. Bootstrap (which offers $5,000 worth of services) is a track for companies just getting started, while the Accelerate track ($30,000 worth of services) is for apps that have demonstrated initial traction and are trying to grow.
"For Bootstrap the bar is really just for you to have a working iOS or Android app," says Shankar. "You don’t need to fulfill any criteria beyond that to be eligible. For Accelerate, that bar is much higher, and there are far fewer spots available. We’re looking for a combination of growth and quality to admit someone into the Accelerate track. With both Bootstrap and Accelerate, we’re trying to walk a line between both getting as many people as possible onto the program, and also keeping the quality high."
This desire to keep the quality high was evident from the very beginning. As a company with its fingers in many digital pies—from facial recognition to augmented reality—as an accelerator FbStart shows surprising focus: mobile apps.
"I believe that this is the first program of its kind to focus exclusively on mobile apps, and what it takes for them to grow and be successful," Shankar continues. "Other accelerators and programs focus on helping entrepreneurs generally, but I think that our focus on mobile helps set us apart. It’s what the mobile startup ecosystem has been waiting for. If you’re a startup and you have a mobile app, it doesn’t get easier than this."
So far the feedback from other accelerators has been positive.
"I definitely view it something which can run in conjunction with, rather than counter to, what we’re doing here at Techstars," says David Brown, cofounder of the startup accelerator, which offers seed funding and mentorship.
"A hypothetical team could start a company, based on an idea for a product that would be run on Facebook’s platform," says Brown. "They could then take advantage of some of the services that are offered as part of FbStart, and then join the Techstars accelerator to help refine the idea and help bring a product to market."
"It’s never been more straightforward to create a startup, and a big reason for that are tools like the ones Facebook is offering with FbStart," says Sidharth Kakkar, CEO of Frontrow education, and a graduate of Imagine K-12, a startup incubator focused on ed-tech. "It basically offers you a lot of the backend components and core components, which startups therefore don’t have to make themselves. That’s a major upside for developers."
Kakkar describes the tools offered as part of FbStart as "nice to haves"—tools which are useful to a would-be startup, but not necessarily essential. Some, like Facebook’s offer of $500 of ad credit to developers on the Accelerate track (Bootstrap trackers get $50) is significantly more than is offered in many other places. The user-testing tools and one-year access to Adobe Creative Cloud are also excellent, since these can be expensive services for a new developer. Other tools are perhaps less valuable, since other versions are available for free, or because they appear at times in the startup life cycle when they can’t yet be taken advantage of to the maximum.
"The downside of this is that, if you experience major growth—where you’re picking up tons of users—then a lot of your free credit runs out for services such as Parse, and you can now be charged the regular prices for these services, which in many cases can be quite high," Kakkar says. "At that point as a developer, you’re kind of stuck."
Ultimately, it’s not the "added extras" which make FbStart valuable, since this pales in comparison to the physical cash offered by some incubators. In fact, the real advantage of FbStart might simply be that you get the chance to learn from the best—in this case from the people working at Facebook. Although apps don’t need to be integrated with Facebook to be supported by FbStart (just as developers can develop for the Facebook platform without joining FbStart) this seems to be the best way to take advantage of all that is offered.
"We’re continuing to run global events which come under the FbStart banner," says Shankar. "Companies which are part of the program have priority when it comes to attending these events. These are useful because it means that developers can work with us to learn what it is that makes a successful app. We also spend one-on-one time with developers, answering questions about what we’ve learned building apps for Facebook."
Facebook isn’t the first tech giant to offer support to startups, of course. Both Microsoft and Amazon offer or have offered similar support in the past. What makes Facebook particularly valuable in this role however is that—despite its tech giant status—it too is undergoing many of the same shifts as the much smaller apps that use its platform.
"Over the past two or three years we’ve become a mobile first company," says Shankar. "We learned a lot of great lessons in the shift. If you look at some of the problems and challenges we’ve faced, we feel like we’re well placed to help developers working in the mobile space."
Certainly Facebook has had both successes and failures along the way, while positioning mobile front and center. Some apps, such as Paper, have been widely acclaimed. Others, like the now defunct Poke and Camera apps, have proven to be flops and have now been thrown to one side. Where Facebook has been a pioneer, though, is as a driving force in the quest for could be termed "single purpose" mobile apps.
Unlike the the early days of mobile, when too many apps tried to be all things to all people, Facebook has led by example when it comes to splitting its core services into different apps according to function. As a company still going through many of the teething problems thrown up by the switch to mobile first, Facebook is therefore able to draw on this well of knowledge for the benefit of FbStart startups.
And what does Facebook get out of this?
For one thing, Shankar is keen to point out that there’s no equity stake involved for the company. "This is not about Facebook trying to get into the venture business," he says, while Facebook later confirmed by email that the company has no financial stake in the companies involved with FbStart.
Instead, Facebook is playing a longer game. "I think Facebook is viewing this as a way to build integration with its services," says Sidharth Kakkar. "The way I view FbStart is as another step in Facebook’s goal of becoming a core utility of the Internet. It’s a long-term, high-level play, that in some ways is not all that dissimilar from how Google operates. If more and more apps use Facebook as their login mechanism, then Facebook becomes entrenched in the way that people operate online. And as people share information from those apps on their Facebook walls, those apps become more reliant on Facebook, and Facebook becomes harder to replace."
This summary seems to mesh with Shankar’s vision for the program. "The more successful mobile apps are out there, the better it is for the entire ecosystem," he says. "Our goal is to partner with some great companies, who are also interested in engaging with startups, and then making as many tools available as we can. Because at the end of the day, if these apps are successful all of us stand to benefit."
It might be too early to call FbStart an undisputed winner, but as a concept which clear benefits to both Facebook and startups, it’s definitely a giant step in the right direction.
[Image: Flickr user Mike Deerkoski]