What Lessons Can SaaS Companies Learn From Pokemon GO?

by Art

Last updated on July 25th, 2017

Let’s get one thing straight: this is NOT just another “X things marketers can learn from Pokemon Go” or “How to launch your product like Pokemon Go” article. Lord knows there are enough of those around already.

And that’s not even to mention the fact that Pokemon Go had virtually zero paid marketing before launching, as well as numerous issues involving broken servers, confused players and defective features when it did launch. Is that really the type of thing you want to actively emulate?

With less than a month, at the time of writing, in the books it’s simply too early to say whether or not Pokemon Go has what it takes to make it in the long run. Yes, it’s seen phenomenal download numbers in its short life so far, but we have no idea if it’s the next big thing or just a fad. As such, trying to emulate the product really isn’t a very good idea.

Pokemon Go is, however, a good example of a product that had to scale very quickly out of necessity. With that being the case, it’s possible to identify a few things that Pokemon Go did well (and not so well) in its early days. More importantly, it’s also possible to learn a few really valuable lessons from what Niantic did with the product.

Start with an MVP

From its broken “Nearby Pokemon” feature to its inability to battle your friends, unless they’re part of a different team and the leader of an opposing gym, Pokemon Go as it appears today probably looks nothing like what the game will be in a year or even a month or two. In fact, according to its creators, only 10% of the game’s features are there right now.

Let’s remember that this game was two years in the making, and it STILL feels like a half-finished product. So why release it at all? To figure that out, we need to take a look at Niantic’s first game, Ingress:

Ingress screenshots

Source: Oxgadgets

Released almost three years ago, the game mechanics of Ingress are very similar to those of Pokemon Go. It’s clear that Niantic believes, and has believed for some time, that AR is the future of mobile gaming. Judging from the immediate success of Pokemon Go, they could be absolutely right.

Waiting any longer than they did posed a serious risk to Niantic, namely that someone else might release an AR mobile game that would dominate the market in the same way that Pokemon Go is doing right now and make their game look like just another copycat.

The lesson here? Sometimes, it’s much smarter to release a product that’s “Work In Progress” than wait so long that it becomes irrelevant or is beaten to the punch by someone else.

Utilize multiple revenue streams/pricing tiers

In 2014, the game du jour was not Pokemon Go but Candy Crush Saga. Players spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the game, which might lead you to expect that the majority of them made at least one purchase. In actual fact, just shy of 98% of players never made a purchase.

One thing that the freemium Pokemon Go does very well is offer players different ways to get ahead. Casual players who just want to buy a lure or some incense can do so by dropping a few dollars on coins in the game, while those who take the game a little more seriously might spend ten dollars or more stocking up on Pokeballs.

But real fanatics will probably want to pick up Pokemon Go Plus for $35, which tracks rare Pokemon around you and notifies you of in-game events without the need to keep your phone active the whole time.

Pokemon Go hands on

source: The Verge

The model employed by Pokemon Go is not unlike that used by MailChimp and countless other companies, offering different options and pricing plans such as Startup, Growth, Pro and Enterprise, which maximizes the appeal of products by, effectively, making it suitable for all sorts of different users.

There’s a reason why this is the norm in SaaS companies – it exposes products to a wider audience comprised of everything from casual consumers who may use the product once in a blue moon all the way through to power users.

Cater to hardcore fans

Confession time? I’ve already given up playing Pokemon Go. Deleted it from my phone and everything, even though I have tens of GB of free space on there.

I enjoyed the novelty value of chasing Pokemon in the real world for a few days, but I don’t like having my phone out all the time and I can’t keep up with the surprising number of high-level players in my small town. In short, I am not the target audience.

With a level cap that’s almost exponential, Pokemon Go is aimed at grinders. Like World of Warcraft, Destiny and The Division, players who thrive are the ones who spend hours and hours leveling up their character however they can, collecting items and so on.

The demands of high-level players are ultimately those that will shape the future of the app, and the same should be true of any SaaS product. However, the problem with releasing an MVP (as advised above) is that it makes it too easy to let any Tom, Dick or Harry using your app direct the future development of the product.

Nathan Powell comments that:

Regardless of where your product’s at, you will always have requests for new features. It may be that you have no intention of building these features or that you simply haven’t had time yet. Either way you’re sure to hear, “It would be cool if I could do this…” on a regular basis.

Looking at metrics like frequency of logins, number of tests run or whatever else might be appropriate for your product can help to identify power users of your app. Those who would be level 40 if your app was Pokemon Go. When you’re coming up with feature ideas, email them and ask them what they’d like to see next.

There’s a very good chance that, if you hear the same things being said over and over again, these features will be well received by other users too. However, don’t rush to build every feature that’s requested. Feature bloat can be the downfall of your product. It’s important to conduct very rigorous customer development and find out what the real need is behind these “requests”. Consider using the 5 whys analysis to get to the root of customer pains and desires.

Partner, partner, partner

It didn’t even take a month for Pokemon Go to strike its first deal with a big-name partner, with McDonald’s working with parent company Niantic to turn all of its restaurants in Japan into PokeGyms.

With more daily users than Twitter, Netflix and Spotify, Pokemon Go enjoys a certain position of privilege that your company or website does not. In other words, if you call up the CEO of McDonald’s then he’s probably not going to answer.

pokemon go mcdonalds

Source: The Drum

However, that’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of meaningful partnerships out there to forge. That could mean using APIs or integrations to partner with other companies or it could mean using a partner program to encourage growth.

In fact, it’s not unusual for entire products to be built on the back of APIs. Let’s stick with our Pokemon theme – third party app Pokevision, designed to make it easier to find rare creatures in Pokemon Go, racked up a huge 27 million users in just five days.

It’s probably unlikely that anyone will use your API to build an audience that big (although you never know!), but it’s always a potential route to bringing more users onboard. Integrations, on the other hand, are a great way to connect with like-minded companies that you admire and want to emulate.

Even going back a couple of years, two-thirds of ISVs (Independent Software Vendors) were saying that partners are vital to SaaS success and, in 2014, HubSpot’s VAR program was responsible for almost a quarter of its revenue.

Test it to death

Pokemon Go was in closed beta for more than two months before it was released and…it’s still extremely buggy. The controls aren’t particularly intuitive, tutorials don’t cover nearly as much as they should and the game will often freeze right in the middle of when you’re trying to catch a Pokemon.

Without knowing how much testing Niantic did on Pokemon Go, it’s unfair to accuse them of not doing enough. Plus, you can’t always predict how some things will work when you’re outside of HQ, when people may not always use the app or product in the way that you intended.

One big issue seems to have been that, as soon as it was released in one country, every other country started clamoring for its release too. That might not apply to your product, but there’s still a lesson to be learned from this: once something is out there, it’s out there.

Rolling back a major update or trying to go back on some other significant change/release often leads to a lot of headaches, so it’s always wise to make sure that you’re prepared for every eventuality. And, if you can spare the time, beta test the heck out of products/features before you even think about releasing them!

Make sure your servers can cope

“Our servers are experiencing issues. Please try again later.”

If you played Pokemon Go in June, or July for that matter, you were probably exposed to this message on multiple occasions. And server issues are still causing trouble. In a recent update, Pokemon Go disabled the “Nearby Pokemon” feature (much to the dismay of players) quoting server issues as the main reason behind the move.

Trying to find servers that can handle Pokemon Go’s 80 million players is far from an enviable job but, fortunately, making sure that your servers can handle the load probably isn’t quite such a big job. We also know that site speed remains a huge issue in 2016.

Of course, you can never guarantee 100% uptime but the least you can do is provide prompt updates via Twitter or even a dedicated website when something does go wrong, as well as information about the problem and when it will be fixed…if that’s possible. This is something that Slack does really well. Pokemon Go? Not so much.

slack status website

Final Thoughts

Pokemon Go has had a bumpy ride. From the server issues mentioned above to the delays in producing Pokemon Go Plus, the product has probably enjoyed the clumsiest launch of any product to become one of the most downloaded ever just several days after being released.

It’s done a lot of things pretty well – getting people outside and improving their mental health, for example – and a lot of things not so well, and Niantic has only been able to get away with the latter because the Pokemon franchise invokes such a strong sense of fanaticism in children and nostalgia in millennials who remember spending their own youth playing Pokemon.

Unfortunately, most SaaS products don’t enjoy such a luxury, and that’s why it’s hugely important to iron out as many problems as possible prior to launching AND have systems in place to handle, not to mention deal with, issues that will inevitably materialize further down the line.

Do that, and you’ll be maximizing your product’s chances of success and growth. Maybe not quite to the degree of Pokemon Go, but you can always try…

* Featured Image Attribution

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Art is a freelance copywriter/content marketer based in the UK. He's worked with both startups and large corporations on topics ranging from fitness to tech and business issues.


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  1. Veronica says:
    August 4, 2016 at 7:50 am

    Pokemon Go lately is some crazy all over the world. Thanks for the interesting analytical material, it is very actual at the moment

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