Now the “haters” have died down a bit, let’s take a slightly more relaxed (though critical) look at color, the new smartphone app phenomenon sweeping the tech scene.
When I first heard of color it took me an absolute age to discover what it was. So for those not keeping up here’s a run down; the premise is to combine photography of your surroundings with the social web. So you take and share images with those in your vicinity. There is a cool idea somewhere in there – connecting us as nodes via our location. I definitely see mileage in the notion.
This, though, is where the story turns crazy.
Big Piles of Cash
Sequoia, a venture capital firm, have invested $41 Million into Color. That’s a lot of money, and something that struck a lot of people as madness. It certainly caused a lot of consternation and argument in the tech and startup communities.
So why would Sequoia make such a huge investment – I have some ideas on that, but first we need to take a look at the app itself.
Minimalism is supposed to be Simple
This is where we hit on the second problem – the actual Color app is a disaster. There is a popular maxim among some entrepreneurs: “ideas are valueless, execution is everything“. I’d not call that a hard and fast rule, but the idea that poor execution can kill an idea stone dead is tried and tested.
Color have gone for a minimalist app, unfortunately they are of the school that has heard of minimalism but don’t really know what it means. The UI is atrocious, and unworkable. There are a few icons, with no real guidance on how to use them and what to make of the app. Minimalism doesn’t mean “very little stuff”, it means clever design and simplicity. Color, by virtue of having barely any interface at all, does the reverse and adds complexity. A lot of people will dismiss this as a problem that can be addressed, and it can, but putting off users from the outset is a bad move – especially in this case.
To a techie (even one like myself) Color is a brilliant idea and something I’d love to start using and enjoying. But the tech crowd is piecemeal compared to the “ocean going” ship that is the wider consumer market – and from what I have seen so far they don’t get it. This is a problem; we can create a lot of hype about an idea and get excited about the potential, but if consumers don’t pick up and understand the concept then it will inevitably flounder. My friend said to me the other day “yes it’s a cool idea, but I’ll forget to use it”.
Color also suffers the classic chicken and egg problem. Without users the near-by sharing idea isn’t going to work so well, but to attract users they need people making content. Usually this is not a massive issue because you seed a concept with early adopters passionate about the idea, who then provide content for the masses. In this case I think the critical mass of early adoption is just too high for Color to achieve.
Color have positioned themselves as the next social network, or at least the evolution of one. But at this stage consumers don’t quite get the concept, they can’t figure out the UI and they can’t jump straight into a wealth of content. Alone these problems might not kill it, but together they sound a death knell, at least to my ears.
It is telling that on both Android and Apple app stores Color have 2 stars, and shed loads of reviews saying “how does this work?” or “what is it?”
So why have Sequoia invested so heavily? Well someone there did (I think) come out and say this was the most exciting new startup since Google, and there was much suggestion that Color would be the next Facebook.
Suffice to say I think that this is unlikely in the current form. Apart from the execution errors I don’t think that sharing photographs is rich enough to become the de-facto place to be on the internet. Facebook took off because you could use it to share photos, but it is the features on top that give rich and social interaction. The current Color idea does none of that, it is more like a massive art project.
So could they pivot? Probably, but they need traction on the original idea and I don’t see it for all of the reasons outlined above. There is no point building Color out into a full social network if you haven’t got the users.
This isn’t, I am sure, why Sequoia invested.
The other avenue is data mining; here we are on much more likely footing. Color seem to make clear their business model will be mining data (and I presume targetting in-app adverts, deals, etc). This has legs, if they pull off such an endeavour it would make them the Google of augmented reality advertising.
But they still need the traction, and for that they need the execution.
The final facet to this is their technology; clearly the core of what Color have created is very cool. And there is definitely money in it; but again they need an execution on top that consumers “get”. However, I could very well believe Sequoia is investing in that technology as much as the idea.
Of course, Sequoia could be investing based on things not yet public, but I don’t see what they could be. And it doesn’t strike me as sensible to speculate that this is the case (Occam ‘s razor and all that).
Show me the Money
This is almost certainly all about advertising, hence the obscene investment (corner an ad market and you are beyond made). The investment has spurned much discussion of a possible “technology bubble” to match the last. I’m not sure that is the case, but Color is almost in a bubble of it’s own creation – building on hype about it’s idea without any current traction or focus. They are saying “give us lots of money and we will corner this market”.
Right now, without a pivot or improvement, Color will burn. Of course, with $41 Million they should be able to pivot easily and I am sure they won’t peter out of existence.
On the other hand the current execution of the idea is terrible, leaving something of an opportunity. Color may have shown you the future, if you believe them this is the time to strike hard and fast. I feel they have overplayed their hand and a quick operator could corner a portion of the market for themselves (who knows, an inspired individual could even steal the whole market out from under Color).
I think the key here is social; and to get critical mass in that area you need traction in a specific portion of the consumer market – younger people with smart phones.
These people want to play with cool ideas like Color, but they also want a proper network to connect with friends and share a rich variety of information (i.e. Facebook). Hook them with the hype of the Color idea and then retain them with the social features. Even a simple Twitter-esque setup would be enough, I feel, initially.
What will come of Color? I expect the large amount of cash will do them more damage than good, they will start hiring I am sure and expand, losing focus on the core idea. This is quite common, of course, to any company – but so soon in its history could scupper Color.
I suspect they will make some big partnerships, pivot the app in some way and take a portion of the market – and then exit for some sort of profit.
But right now the door to this area stands wide open, and Color don’t really look sharp enough to slam it in our faces…