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5 Product Lessons from the Success of the Arc Browser

January 4, 2024

Since I started using it as my browser in 2022, Arc has made my online life more organized and fun. I’ve seen their product progressively gain new unique features, grow into more mainstream territory, and establish a brand. They achieved this largely thanks to a unique and effective playbook that I believe any startup can learn from.

Over-communicate in release notes

Nothing makes a product feel dead like reading “bug fixes and performance improvements”. If you want users to care about your product, you need to let them know how it evolves and gets better.

Arc does that every week in their Release Notes. It’s not a text-only changelog — though they also have that. It’s a highly visual document, right within their app, with an interesting design. It also includes newsletter components, as it includes the highlights of the week that aren’t related to the update, like an important milestone or a media appearance.

Of course, these updates are easier to write if you frequently ship interesting new features. But they don’t only communicate on these, they also share about the bugs they’re fixing, and about their efforts to improve performance. It got to the point where I’m excited to see the release notes every Thursday night. If a desktop browser can pull this off, any product can.

Tailor the product for its early adopters

The folks Browser Company are pragmatic, and know that even if they want to build a browser for everyone, they first need to win over a smaller community. They probably wondered, who’s most likely to try out a new browser that no one has heard of? The nerds, of course.

So they adapted their product accordingly. Since many nerds work in tech, they added powerful integrations to the services they already used, like Notion, GitHub, Linear, or Figma. Something no other browser does.

This is not scalable. As they expand to a wider user base, they won’t be able to integrate with everyone’s favorite apps. But they did something important for the first users: making them feel like the product was for them. And in doing so, they gave them a good reason to take a chance on an unknown and unproven product.

Keep the invite-only phase short

Launching your product with a waitlist is a popular strategy. It lets you roll out to only the most invested users, those who will share insights and bug reports with you. More importantly, it can create FOMO: some people, like me, stupidly want something more when they’re told they can’t have it. But for normal, sane people, it’s a big turnoff. Most won’t care enough about your product to fight their way in.

In Arc’s case, the waitlist worked very well for them at first, but probably stuck around for too long. For early adopters, finding a golden ticket to try the hot new thing is a fun game. But once you have a first batch of users and a decent MVP, invites can only slow down your growth, as you’re adding huge onboarding friction.

A notable recent example of an invite-only launch that took too long is Bluesky. As people started looking for Twitter alternatives, they generated lots of interest. But most potential users still weren’t being invited, so they moved on. In July, Meta launched Threads, another direct competitor, and scaled it to 100 million users within a week. Bluesky seems to have missed its moment because of the waitlist.

Communicate like influencers, not corporations

Social media has proven repeatedly that people care about people, not brands. If you want to build a strong connection with your audience, you need to show your face, personality, and avoid corporate talk.

That’s why Arc’s videos are often vlogs, in a typical YouTube creator style. Producing content like this as a remote company is hard, but they make sure to leverage the IRL events for it, like board meetings or offsites. They share more mundane aspects of a startup’s life as well. Their CEO often records Q&A sessions, where he’s surprisingly candid, even about sensitive topics like their struggle to settle on a vision for Arc on mobile.

You also get to know how they work, like with this video about abandoned internal prototypes. First, it gives you some exclusive content, letting you understand how they come up with new features. But more importantly, it’s a portrait of one of their employees: you get to hear about Patrick, his background, and the way he views his work. By the end, you feel like Patrick is your own colleague, and you can’t help but root for him.

As usual, this video was carefully edited and narrated, making it more appealing. But other companies have shown that there’s value in just uploading an internal meeting with no editing. 37signals routinely do this, like this design review recording for an upcoming Hey feature.

Focus on what makes you special

Building a fully-featured browser from scratch is an impossible task. The work required to build the rendering engine, the devtools, the extension ecosystem, and then to maintain all of that is gargantuan. The reason the Browser Company even exists is because they didn’t need to do that, as they built Arc on top of Chromium. That allows them to focus on their own ideas, what makes them special, like the tab management.

Most industries don’t have a Chromium equivalent that they can piggyback on. But there are always parts of building an app that aren’t specific to your business, and that could be better handled by another service. The obvious ones are email delivery, asset management, or authentication. But you can also extract larger blocks of logic: RBAC, full user and organization management, notification logic (not just delivery), feature entitlement… See the Yes Code website for more examples.

2023 was a huge year for Arc, so I’m excited to see what they bring us next year. In the meantime, happy browsing!