AllTrails CEO Ron Schneidermann on becoming Apple’s 2023 iPhone app of the year
I’d never gotten this answer before.
In all the years I’ve been talking to growth marketers and CEOs about growing mobile apps, I’ve never heard what AllTrails CEO Ron Schneidermann told me. In a long chat for Growth Masterminds about AllTrails becoming Apple’s most recent iPhone app of the year, I asked him about the key factors in his app’s growth. His answer was literally unique in my experience.
I’ve heard ad network hacks. Smart traffic arbitrage opportunities. Features. Celeb shoutouts, random Tiktok virality, relentless creative optimization. But I’ve never heard “process design” before as a growth hack or vector for doubling performance.
But as I listened, it started to all make sense.
“Honestly, one of the biggest levers for growth is process design,” Schneidermann says. “As lame and boring as that sounds, you can hire the best people in the world, you add all this mass, but if you don’t create the system for velocity around them, you lose your momentum.”
It’s a unique answer for a unique app.
In the fast-paced world of mobile apps, few can claim the level of success and recognition that AllTrails has achieved. Named the iPhone app of the year in 2023 out of all the millions of the apps on the App Store, AllTrails has become a go-to platform for outdoor enthusiasts and adventurers. With likely 10s of millions of users, a massively successful subscription plan, and 7X better user retention than the average app, AllTrails is a bit of a unicorn.
On being named iPhone app of the year
Many accolades in our professional lives are not worth the plastic in their plaques. We all know the game: events and organizations dream up awards because they’ll drum up interest. When you have an award, you need to have winners, so a LinkedIn search happens, a few questions get asked, and BOOM … winners are found.
In some cases, you can simply buy the award from an organization that exists simply to sell awards. (Yeah, check your LinkedIn inbox.)
$500 later you too can humblebrag to your bestest friends on LinkedIn that you’re SHOCKED, so HUMBLED, just absolutely SPEECHLESS because the universe has decided to pick you (yes, you!) out of the teeming masses and recognize your innate genius, dedication, hard work, and spare cash. Finally, someone besides your mom sees you for who you really are.
That’s not like iPhone app of the year.
Even after Apple’s late 2022 app-aggedon cleared out old and out of date apps, there are close to 5 million apps on the App Store in 2024, according to Statista. Everything Apple does is data driven, AppFigures CEO Ariel Michaeli recently told me on a livestream, and you know it’s true especially for something as high profile as this.
So it’s meaningful.
“It feels like our Pulitzer Prize, our Academy Award, our Super Bowl, all rolled up, and to be able to share that with the team … as I’m sure most of your listeners know, software development is a grind,” Schneidermann says. “So much of it is not very glamorous and oftentimes it just feels like this uphill grind. And so to be able to share it with every single person involved in the company — every single employee outside of just product development and engineering, customer support, marketing, data integrity, like every single function had had a part in getting this — that’s a really wonderful thing to be able to celebrate together and share it with our board, share it with our investors.”
Living the brand
Schneidermann should know what a grind is. He’s an avid hiker and outdoor enthusiast who is raising his kids on trails. For hikers, a grind is a particularly hard and grueling stretch of trail that is generally mostly uphill. As anyone who’s built software or a startup, it’s a good analogy for the work and dedicated commitment over time required.
But it was never supposed to be like that.
Instead, it was supposed to be a quick flip.
“I took over from the founder in 2015 when it was a six person company,” Schneidermann told me. “The handshake agreement was to try and grow it a little bit and sell it: that was what I signed up for.”
The goal was to sell for $30-40 million, but 9 years later, he’s still at AllTrails, having refused an offer from a big tech company. And his definition of success has changed so much he really can’t see himself anywhere else.
“I love the outdoors: it’s a core part of my life,” he says. “I have three kids. I’m raising them on the trail, and so to be able to spend my time and energy on something that means so much to me personally and to my family personally, that that’s a very unique opportunity.”
Organic growth FTW
AllTrails’ success story begins with organic growth.
With a deep understanding of their target audience — mostly the team and the intended customer were a pretty good match already — and a commitment to providing value, AllTrails built a product that resonated with outdoor enthusiasts.
A big driver: the subscription business, which was not nearly as sexy in 2015 as it later became.
Another huge driver: a rich legacy on the web that provided excellent SEO for premium — and cheap — discoverability that led to a metric ton of app installs. (The fact that it’s a multi-platform service that you can subscribe to online and therefore avoid platform fees on IAPs is another plus, of course.) Adding strong ASO to strong SEO, AllTrails capitalized on organic traffic to fuel their early growth.
All of that is driven, of course, by a massive community engine.
Most startups talk community and want community — or the potential positive benefits of it. Few achieve critical mass of an active, growing group of users that get as much or more value as they contribute. At AllTrails, the community contributes huge amounts of value: trail info, mapping tips, photos, scores and difficulty grades, among other things.
One of the more surprising things I noticed about AllTrails: they update their app on average every 11 days. That seems high to me, and I asked Schneidermann if it was relevant to the company’s growth story.
“Absolutely,” he says. “That’s very intentional and the reason why is that aside from our employees, our single biggest asset is our community, right? AllTrails is nothing without our community.”
“Why do communities ebb and flow? Why do once vibrant communities suddenly disappear? Sometimes it keeps me up at night … I think one of the key things, because it is a symbiotic relationship: our community members, our users are taking time to invest in content within our platform. They’re leaving reviews for other trail goers. They’re adding photos, they’re emailing us with new trails that we should have on our platform. They’re emailing us with product feedback and ideas. It’s a very vibrant and active community, and so in return, our obligation to them is to demonstrate our investment as well.”
There you go:
How often you update your app can be an important part of your organic growth strategy … if it’s aligned with a strategy to provide incredible values for users, customers, or players.
Plus paid acquisition …
Of course, there’s also paid acquisition.
As AllTrails scaled, they recognized the need to diversify user acquisition channels. While organic growth continues to be a significant driver, AllTrails uses paid user acquisition to reach new users that might not have stumbled across them on the web or in an app store.
Other tactics include strategic partnerships and investments in channels such as podcasts and CTV.
One key: just like the ever-evolving nature of organic acquisition, paid channels are always evolving, requiring AllTrails to stay agile and adapt to changes in algorithms, costs, and privacy regulations.
All of which, of course, will sound very familiar to any other growth marketers.
Big question: still willing to fail after being app of the year?
One of the luxuries of being tiny is that you can fail in the dark.
No-one notices, and so it’s easier to aim high, take risks, and generally do things that big corporations and successful companies don’t want to do because … they’re successful, and that becomes part of their core identity, and therefore failing would be a horrendous, awful, inconceivable thing.
Like most, though, AllTrails’ growth journey has not been without its share of failures and learning opportunities. Schneidermann says they’ll continue to embrace failure as a means of growth, fostering a culture that acknowledges mistakes, learns from them, and uses them to drive improvement.
Even when you bring on new people that might not initially have the same mindset.
“This is where core values and like cultural tenets and, and everything else like really come into play,” Schneidermann says. “One of the fascinating things is that we had 30 people at the start of the pandemic. We doubled head count, doubled head count, and doubled head count year over year over year. And we were bringing people from all sorts of different companies, and what we found was like there are certain, bigger companies specifically where folks were just trained to be more risk averse.”
“And so we had to get in front of that and just be really proactive about what it means to work here. And, at AllTrails, it’s all about momentum. It’s all about momentum. We can’t let perfect get in the way of good. We’re gonna embrace our failures. Sometimes you have to move forward when there isn’t statistical significance or clear cut research. We kind of have to trust our intuition or our gut sometimes. The key thing again is momentum.”
So much more in our full conversation …
There’s much more in the full podcast.
00:00 Introduction to the Journey of Success
00:25 The Making of an iPhone App of the Year
01:45 Understanding the Significance of Being iPhone App of the Year
04:10 The All Trails App: A Closer Look
05:18 The Journey from Startup to Success
07:24 The Decision to Reject Quick Flip and Aim for Long-Term Growth
07:44 Key Decisions that Ignited Growth
12:14 The Role of Product Development in Growth
25:33 The Importance of Regular App Updates
27:50 Advice for Aspiring App Developers
28:15 Conclusion: The Importance of Humility and Openness