in Startups

Building a Chrome Extension Startup: The Pros and Cons

One year ago I had the bright idea of developing a chrome extension for a business problem I had. This was in stark contrast to my motto of only building standalone web SaaS apps — all of which had failed to an audience of ghosts. I had a saying that I still pretend to abide by: Never build your home on rented land.

Thankfully, it wasn’t a foolish decision. Developing a SaaS extension meant my code would be public and the powers that be could discontinue the app at a whim. But what might have been a total disaster flourished into my first successful acquisition.

You’ve probably heard of browser extensions and you’re thinking — “those things from 2010?” Yep, they’re still around and kicking. Their usefulness has only grown as browser capabilities burrow their roots in mobile devices. Everyday people are jabbed with problems that are ripe for a browser extension to solve. Potential customers sit in anticipation for something they don’t know they need but will swing out their wallets for when presented to them.

The most famous browser extensions are of the ad-block variety — anything that blocks those pesky advertisements on your favorite websites that cause you minor heartburn. They’re usually coupled with another service like a password manager or a coupon hunting website.

My last tool was an analytics chrome extension. It was born out of frustration from having to manually calculate the ROI for dozens of properties. An extension was the perfect vehicle to analyze hundreds of properties in a couple of mouse strokes.

Why build a browser extension startup?

For some, it’s an easy way to jump into the startup world. A full blown SaaS is hard to develop. From coding to marketing, a SaaS app involves a ton of work and planning — and many times they don’t succeed. Starting off with something smaller like an extension is an easy way to build that tech and business skill in the beginning.

For others, it serves as an auxiliary product to their main service. Established companies use extensions as an audience driver. For example, coupon hunting websites allow customers to easily search and enter promo codes. Or the extension is the product itself, like AdBlock.

For me, it was a series of baby steps into the startup world. It gave me an avenue to explore my creative dev skills to solve a problem that affected me on a daily basis. I also enjoy building small tools that positively impact people and extensions are a practical way of doing so.

Whatever the case may be, extensions can serve as a lucrative arm for any entrepreneur.

The Good

As mentioned above, extensions are quicker to develop and release. They don’t require as much complexity as a full blown SaaS app (technically they shouldn’t but that may not always be the case). I’ve found an extension to be an easier sell compared to SaaS, but that also hinges on the business model. Most extensions tend to follow a freemium model which is in contrast to a monthly subscription. Therefore, the payment expectation may lead to easier adoption. Finally, you can utilize all of the wonderful things that a browser API offers.

The Bad

Browser extensions come with their own share of disadvantages. The most glaring one is one shared by mobile applications — you’re at the mercy of the extension store. Like the Apple App Store or Google Play Store, the extension store owners can remove your app and destroy your business overnight. Any infraction (or perceived infraction) could cost you your livelihood. Furthermore, your code can be easily decrypted and used by competitors. This can be circumvented by hiding the proprietary parts of your app behind an API. Lastly, mobile devices haven’t caught up to browser extension adoption yet, so most of your audience may come from non-mobile users.

TLDR: Comparing the pros and cons

Shorter/easier developmentNot widely accepted on mobile devices
Easier adoptionAt the mercy of the app store
Can leverage the immense power of browsersCode easily decrypted

My take: Extensions are an excellent way of building a satisfied audience and validating with paid interest. Use it as a method of complementing and extending the reach of your main service. If you’re deciding between a web app SaaS or an extension, I would suggest the extension first. I find SaaS tedious and time consuming so I’d want strong interest that the idea is even worth the effort.

Are you building a browser extension? If so, tell me about it on twitter! @iamjerryalex