Why Facebook Wants an Early Look at Your Mobile App via FbStart

Xconomy New York — 

Even the head honchos at Facebook remember their days working at a scrappy, more nimble startup, and want to keep such spirit in their veins.

That is an obvious reason why the company runs FbStart, a program now in its second year of reaching out to and cultivating mobile app startups around the world. But late last week in Brooklyn, Facebook showed there is a bit more at play in its strategy. The company wants to be entrenched in the development of new ideas in mobile in a major way—yet also show it is a mature enterprise with stable software.

Hosting a half-day session in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, Facebook sent some of its staff to meet with local app developers and show them how they could get some technical and mentorship support through the company. This was one of the latest stops on a tour to put the word out about FbStart.

The program is divided into three tiers. Startups that are pre-launch and just starting to form ideas for an app can get access to up to $15,000 worth of free software tools and services from Facebook and about two dozen other partner companies such as MailChimp, Hootsuite, and Zendesk.

The size of the pot expands to up to $30,000 for early-stage startups with apps and some evidence of growth. Teams that have already sustained growth in their markets, and are looking to scale up on the global stage, will be offered up to $80,000 worth of services and software tools.

On the surface, working with startups in mobile is supposed to help Facebook pursue some sort of cozy company mission about connecting the world. Peeling back the layers, though, this is a way to get more new apps developed with ties to the Facebook platform.

“It might be an app that is blowing up and doing well in Romania, but they are thinking of expanding throughout Europe,” said Michael Huang, who works in strategic partner development at Facebook and is co-lead on FbStart. He told me Facebook wants to discover, through the program, startups that create mobile apps with the potential to scale up, but have not yet moved to those next levels.

Since its initial launch, the FbStart program has accepted some 3,800 startups with more than 60 percent of the companies coming from outside North America. Some of the new aspects this year for FbStart are opportunities for developers to work with specific Facebook teams that closely match their objectives. For example, developers working on mobile games or apps for social good can collaborate with comparable personnel at the company.

Trying to get a flood of new apps woven into Facebook also raises the possibility of glitches and bugs cropping up. And that puts another recent focus at the company in the spotlight.

Eddie O’Neil (pictured above), platform product manager with Facebook, said 30 million apps and websites are integrated with Facebook. With such a multitude of virtually moving parts, the company has been working more on the stability of its software, he said. “We used to ‘move fast, and break things,’” he said. “We took that very seriously and broke things every Tuesday.”

Over the past 18 months though, he said, there has been a fundamental change at Facebook regarding how new products launch, how the company communicates with developers, and technical support for mobile by not breaking the apps that developers launched in the past. O’Neil heads the team responsible for such things as Facebook login, sharing, the analytics for apps, and various underlying developer tools.

With this emphasis on stability, he said the backlog of long-term bugs the company tracks has been reduced from more than 2,300 to more than 800. Still nothing to sneeze at, but O’Neil said the company fixes about 80 percent of the bugs that get reported within 30 days. “Our ultimate goal is to get that to 90 percent,” he said, allowing room for complex technical issues that will always take longer to fix.

This is part of the overall evolution at the company. Back in 2012, Facebook did a lot of work to bring its main app to mobile in a native way, O’Neil said. That effort has since expanded to the company’s other apps, he said, which Facebook sees as a way to extend its platforms to more developers. “You can reach your audience through Instagram for marketing, or support Facebook sharing in your apps,” he said.

Now Facebook also has an interest in the rise of the Internet of Things. As the company saw more developers build apps and hardware for this tech movement, O’Neil said, Facebook envisioned a way for Parse, its cloud-based platform for app development, to come into play. “At the F8 conference, we announced a bunch of software development kits to help developers use Parse embedded in devices,” he said.

That also feeds into the broader plans for FbStart, which includes Parse among the services and software tools offered to the startups.