Memo: The Greatest App Ever Scrolled

It’s one of the most impressive media properties in the world and one of the best (and most obscure) examples of linear commerce that I’ve stumbled upon (move over, Michelin). But you won’t find many success stories written about it.

Today, its track record, growth, and technology are on par with many of the strongest technology companies in the United States. It has one ownership group, no venture capital, and – with the exception of one 2013 New York Times article – it has gone virtually unnoticed by business or mainstream media. And still it is home to one of the largest online communities in the world. With just 165 employees (many of whom could work for any major tech company), it is responsible for over 545 million users and 5.5 billion app opens. Over 497 million videos have played through the app, it has 2,600 translations to cover as many formats and languages as it can. It sounds world changing to me. There are only few precedents for this type of reach.

Take a step back into time for a moment to understand the significance of the YouVersion Bible App.

The Gutenberg press is in part to thank for the boom in European literacy, the Italian Renaissance, the scientific revolution, the Age of Enlightenment, and Protestant Reformation (Martin Luther was once the world’s most published author). Gutenberg’s invention allowed for the mass production of books for the first time in human history. In 1455 Mainz, Johannes Gutenberg printed 180 copies of the Bible and from there, made history. In the larger scope, Biblical scholars now consider YouVersion to be a key player in the next third in how the book is consumed:

  • scroll to codex
  • codex to the 15th century printing press
  • printing press to digital media

Innovation comes in all shapes, sizes, industries, and denominations. This report on an unheralded little mobile application headquartered in Edmund, Oklahoma may shock you, guide you, or even encourage you. It’s not objective; the app has played a major role in my previous year of deep thought and reflection. From that 2013 report on the then-eight year old company, here is a standout quote by former Kleiner Perkins investor, Chi-Hua Chien:  

This is a remarkable tech startup by any measure.

Now the managing partner of Goodwater capital, Chien went on to compare YouVersion to then-hot companies Pinterest and Path, a now-defunct social media network that garnered wide praise, 50 million users (in 2013), and a $500 million valuation. At a tenth of the size of the app at the center of this report, it begs the question: what can we learn from its trajectory? Regardless of belief, this business deserves the Harvard Business case study treatment. This will have to suffice in the meantime.

The YouVersion Bible app, which was first launched in 2007, has had a significant impact on the growth of Life.Church and Christianity as a whole. Bobby Gruenewald, the CEO and founder of YouVersion and Life Church’s Pastor and Innovation Leader, has all of the pedigree of your traditional Silicon Valley entrepreneur:

As one of the leading voices in the Church on innovation and the use of technology, Gruenewald has been featured in The New York Times, TechCrunch, CNN, and more. Prior to joining the Life.Church team in 2001, he started and sold two technology companies as well as served in advisory capacities for various startups and venture capital funds.

Life.Church was founded in 1996 by Craig Groeschel, a leader that impresses with every book, sermon, podcast, and leadership session I have observed by him. Under Groeschel’s leadership Gruenewald left traditional business to work for Life.Church, and seven years later with Tory Storch, he co-founded YouVersion. The side project became one of the foremost media companies and spiritual development tools on earth. Here is Groeschel in an earlier interview on the genesis of the YouVersion app:

As our team thought about how Gutenberg’s invention revolutionized the accessibility and distribution of Scripture hundreds of years ago, we wondered how technology might be able to do something similar for our generation. So, we launched a website specifically designed to create community around the Bible. The only problem was — it didn’t work.

As a last-ditch effort, we offered a mobile version of the site and engagement took off. Shortly after, we heard Apple would be launching something called “apps.” With the momentum of the mobile site, we asked ourselves, “What if the Bible could be one of the first apps in the App Store?” We had a 19-year-old guy on staff create the first version of the YouVersion Bible App, and within three days we saw it downloaded on 83,000 devices.

The app has made the Bible accessible to millions of people worldwide through its free and user-friendly platform. It offers various versions of the Bible, reading plans, and devotionals, which have encouraged individuals to engage more with the scriptures on a daily basis. Additionally, the app’s social features, such as the ability to share verses with friends, have facilitated personal connections and helped to spread the message of the gospel.

As a result of these features and the overall growth of iPhone and Android usage over the last fifteen years, Life.Church and many other Christian organizations have been able to reach and impact more people than ever before. Like the Gutenberg Press, the app has been instrumental in promoting biblical literacy, fostering spiritual growth, and strengthening the faith of its users. It has also helped break down geographical barriers and connected people from diverse backgrounds, allowing them to engage with one another and share their faith journeys. It’s no coincidence that Groeschel and Life.Church now steward over 35 physical locations with 85,000 members, according to Outreach Magazine, the authority on tracking fast-growing churches.

Both the Gutenberg Bible and the YouVersion app have played a major role in increasing access to the Bible and making it easier for people to study and engage with the Christian faith. They have also had a profound impact in this way.

Let’s look at this from a purely business perspective.

Technology is in Life.Church’s DNA. Because of Groeschel’s ability to think and hire smart people, the church is likely the largest in the world. The YouVersion Bible App was formative in the trajectory of the church’s growth and its ability to raise funds for debt-free expansion. The app’s social features have helped democratize access to the Bible and other tools that were never centrally-located prior to YouVersion. These features have contributed to a more engaged and connected Life.Church community, ultimately leading to its growth. What’s even more impressive is the financial technology built within the mobile app.

Smooth, in-app eCommerce functionality with subscription capability.

With Apple Pay, Paypal, and other one-click tools, the app supports its own growth without the continued investment from Life.Church (it is reported that the app’s initial investment exceeded $20 million). Imagine: just a few years after the growth of Facebook from college campus to college campus, Groeschel felt compelled to pitch a world-changing mobile app to his first campus in Edmund, Oklahoma. Still, there are plans for more.

In a 2021 article in the New York Times on Facebook’s intentions for integrating more religious content into its platform, Gruenewald explained:

Facebook’s outreach was the first time a major technology company wanted to collaborate on a development project. Obviously there are different ways they ultimately, I am sure, will serve their shareholders. From our vantage point, Facebook is a platform that allows us to build community, and connect with our community and accomplish our mission. So it serves I think everybody well.

His point of contact at the company (now Meta) was Nora Jones, who served as Meta’s direct of global faith partnerships. On January 19, she left Meta to join YouVersion as the Chief Content Officer. Hiring Jones and other pedigreed executives from Fortune 500 companies is all a part of the plan, according to Gruenewald. The article goes on:

Currently, 165 people work on the app, said Gruenewald, and there are plans to double the team in the next few years.

It’s a remarkable story of an alternative to the growth customs of any organization, one whose success story from a two-car garage in 1996 is already enlightening and encouraging enough.

Over the last 317 consecutive days (at the time of publishing) and counting, this app has quite literally changed how I view the world. I am a product of its numerous “growth hacks.” The app sat dormant on my phone for nearly a decade. Here is a summary of the eight most effective ones:

  • universal access: 2600 versions including 50 English versions
  • UCG: daily devotionals and reading plans
  • feel good: badges for streaks and participation
  • daily reminders: maintain your habit of study, meditation, and prayer
  • audiophile: you can now listen while you work
  • streaks: just like Snapchat but the Bible
  • reason to login: a verse of the day, each day, everyday
  • leadership through love: a team devotional function that helps others around you

The last hack is the one that turned a dormant app into a daily fix for me. A venture-backed entrepreneur in the eCommerce logistics industry reached out to me in December 2021 and said, “Join my men’s devotional group.” I did. And then, weeks later, I kept digging and digging until I decided to drop what was once important to me. I went all=in on really studying and understanding. I began to read what I should have been reading all along.

The Gutenberg press began with a bible and unlocked a tidal wave of secular literary milestones that changed humanity. What lessons from this will be applied to modern business? I suspect that as more people learn of this story, there will be more than a few.

The business of church is incredibly difficult to navigate. Few organizations have the tech-adjacent entrepreneurial spirit that Groeschel cultivated in Oklahoma. It began with what I suspect to be a key question: “What is our Gutenberg press?” That’s a big question that requires a moonshot of an answer. His was to self-fund one of the first 200 free apps in thee Apple app store in 2007. The result is the most far-reaching and powerful media company in the modern church. Over 545 million people later and I think he’s found his answer. I am eternally grateful for it.

By Web Smith | Edited by Hilary Milnes with art by Alex Remy and Christina Williams

Member Brief: How Netflix Took It To Old Hollywood

Streaming took over Hollywood. Will it win best picture, too? This was the question asked in a March 2022 New York Times article on the streaming industry’s rise to dominance.

This content is designed exclusively for Executive Members

Memo: Size Charts, Returns, and EBITDA

Retail is all about EBITDA. The keys to profitability for eCommerce-driven modern brands in the fashion retail space are:

  • develop a sustainable omnichannel strategy
  • master first-party data collection and retargeting
  • minimize returns by providing the best tools for fit-sizing and customer service

For nearly a decade, it seemed as if the digitally-native retail class of internet companies would never realize a string of positive outcomes. The prospects for most digitally-native vertical brands (DNVB) were minimal at best and exit optionality remained slim even when that brand demonstrated a strong “tech-like” growth curve. Cap tables were bloated and war chests were filled. But over time, many investors began to realize that industry shared an unfavorable attribute: there was little to no strategy for long-term sustainability or a potential exit.

Over the course of the pandemic, Vuori became one of the fastest-growing modern brands in the fashion retail space. When the retailer landed its $400 million Softbank investment (at a $4 billion valuation) in 2021, I admittedly didn’t understand the buzz. Then I bought my first pair of joggers from them around a year later. REI, one of Vuori’s top wholesale partners, made it easy. A section of the store is devoted to the brand and an REI associate is frequently stationed within the shop to answer any questions. I was an immediate fan, shifting spend from Lululemon to the slightly more affordable (and better constructed) DTC brand. Their 2021 press release:

With a strong ecommerce business, thriving brick and mortar stores, and a network of best-in-class wholesale partners, Vuori, unlike many other digitally-native brands, has been profitable since 2017.

Vuori is considered one of the top M&A targets in athleisure and rightfully so. Primarily an eCommerce shopper, I would have likely chosen different sizing than I did when introduced to the brand in early 2022 at REI. To account for this common issue, the brand recently partnered with Bold Metrics to encourage first-time buyers to find the right fit for their products. This got me thinking about the chief problems for clothing retailers trying to acquire customers online. The top eight reasons brands fail to convert new customers are:

  • a lack of clear product information and high-quality images
  • complex or confusing navigation
  • slow page loading speeds
  • high or unclear pricing
  • limited payment or shipping options
  • a lack of trust or few credibility signals
  • poor mobile optimization or limited mobile functionality
  • a poor returns policy

How do we minimize returns?

Business of Fashion recently noted an alarming data point in its latest report, The DTC Reckoning is Coming For Fashion: “Profitability in the online DTC channel is suffering, as digital marketing costs grow alongside online return rates — costing brands between $21 and $46 per returned product on average.” It’s an excellent report if you haven’t read it. This excerpt will be on the minds of all DTC fashion retail executives:

In the US, return rates across all sales channels increased to 16.6 percent in 2021 from 10.6 percent the year before, with the average return rate for online orders even higher at 20.8 percent.

Here are the eight ways that I found would be most beneficial for retailers to reduce return rates:

  • at the very minimum, include measurements and size charts on product pages to help customers find the right fit
  • carry a range of sizes to accommodate customers of different body types
  • allow for easy returns and exchanges: make the process clear and easy for customers to initiate a return or exchange if the item doesn’t fit
  • encourage customers to reach out for help: provide a customer service contact for customers to ask any questions they may have about sizing
  • consider offering customized or made-to-measure options for customers who have a hard time finding the right fit
  • use models that are representative of the target audience, so customers can see how the clothes will fit on people with similar body types
  • use of fit technology tools, like virtual try-on, to help customers visualize how the clothes will fit on them

Virtual try-on technology uses artificial intelligence (AI) and computer vision techniques to analyze a customer’s body shape and size and match it with the clothing item being considered. It simulates how the clothing item would fit on the customer’s body by using a 3D model of the customer’s body, created from a single image of the customer or a selection of data points.

I was skeptical when I first tested this.

It can also use machine learning algorithms to automatically adjust the fit of the clothing item to the customer’s body shape and size, taking into account factors such as body measurements, age, and even activity level. This allows customers to see how the clothing item would look on them in a highly realistic way, helping them to make more informed purchase decisions and reducing the chances of returns due to poor fit.

Three of the leading artificial intelligence-enabled sizing tools are True Fit (Lululemon, Todd Snyder, Madewell, Carhartt), Fit:Match (Savage x Fenty, Fabletics),  and Bold Metrics (Canada Goose, UpWest, Burton, Vuori). While both technologies are proprietary, I expect the vast majority of fashion retailers to adopt one of the two services for their product pages. One of the value propositions for Bold Metrics is that it will help a retailer reduce returns and improve conversion rates – both directly and indirectly improving profit margins for retailers.

Sizing technologies like True Fit and Bold have a role in the three-fold approach to profitability for DTC fashion retailers. While it’s not one-size fits all for brands, virtual try-on technology will become a requirement for any brand still relying on sizing charts to communicate fit to an interested customer.

By Web Smith | Edited by Hilary Milnes with art by Alex Remy