A growing number of companies adopt a mobile-first perspective and investors increasingly encourage entrepreneurs to think about mobile before the web, and it’s not hard to understand why.

Smart phones penetration in developed nations has jumped significantly over the past several years, mobile internet usage has skyrocketed and there are now literally billions of mobile devices in use around the world.

For many companies, that means one thing: if you’re behind the mobile curve, you’re probably going to be behind the eight ball sooner than later. Not convinced? One need only look at the usage of mobile this holiday shopping season for evidence that retailers without a mobile strategy are inevitably losing business.

But mobile-first in and of itself isn’t a strategy, and for all of the impressive mobile statistics that are used as justification of a mobile focus, many businesses still haven’t yet figured out how to capitalize on the mobile opportunity.

From web to mobile, and back again

Take, for instance, Everyme. The startup, run by a former Threadbox and Myspace employee, is a YCombinator graduate and has raised more than $3.5m in venture funding. It has seen more than 300,000 downloads of its mobile app, but is now moving from mobile-first to web-first.

In great detail, the company’s co-founder, Vibhu Norby, last week took to his blog to explain the numbers game that makes it hard to win with mobile apps. In short,  he says it takes Everyme 550,000 eyeballs to produce 100,000 app users. And his experience apparently isn’t atypical. “I have heard privately from an app maker with a 100m+ downloads that 50% of people don’t even open their app after downloading,” he writes.

But it gets worse:

At best, we retain 5% of users through the entire onboarding process. Attempts to fix it have raised it only nominally. We are not alone on that count even amongst apps with much better onboarding and many more app versions than our own.

Simply redesigning or reengineering mobile signup/onboarding is not enough because on mobile, you can’t deploy or react to user behavior fast enough to test a lot of things. Non-active users tend to only download big updates and those updates take a ton of development time. You can’t ship bugs because your rating will hurt. You also have already lost a potential user because there is no great way to tell a user that got lost in your funnel to come back and try your new funnel.

So what’s the solution? Increase downloads. But that, naturally, costs money.

“If you paid Google’s $1 CPC for people to enter your funnel, you’re really paying $20 per user and you will never recoup that cost,” Norby writes. In short, “The Android and iOS platform set us up to fail by attracting us with the veneer of users, but in reality you are going to fight harder for them than is worthwhile to your business. You certainly need a mobile app to serve your customers and compete, but it should only be part of your strategy and not the whole thing.”

A grand delusion?

Norby’s experience suggests that mobile-first is a more difficult proposition than it’s often made out to be and while it would be naive to dismiss the importance of mobile generally, his experience and others like it do suggest that mobile challenges may deserve more attention than the highly-publicized mobile opportunities.

For every mobile success story, there are thousands of developers making next to nothing from their mobile app development efforts. While finding success on the web is hardly a walk in the park, entrepreneurs and business owners shouldn’t be blinded by the sheer number of people using mobile apps, or the attractive interactions mobile alone can support. After all, Norby’s points about the challenges associated with engaging users and developing better experiences through iteration make it clear: there are additional barriers to building and delivering awesome mobile experiences.

Solution-first

Obviously, these barriers shouldn’t dissuade companies from taking on mobile. But instead of thinking in binary terms (eg. mobile-first versus web-first), it’s worth considering that there’s only one viable approach: solution-first.

Mobile is an extremely important channel — one that, in many cases, can’t be ignored — but before a company tries to tackle mobile, it’s important to take a step back and figure out whether there’s a problem that needs to be solved, and what it is.

Successful products, both on the web and mobile, fill a need. Period. Unfortunately, in all the hoopla surrounding the mobile gold rush, many entrepreneurs and business owners are losing sight of the fact that what you’re offering matters a lot more than the device on which you’re offering it.