14 Lessons from 4 Years on the App Store

image

Well, technically, it all started December four years ago, when I decided to start an app studio from my home office. It took me another six months to get to the App Store. At the same time, I was expecting the birth of my first daughter, which is why my first app Pocket Zoo is a kids app. A lot has happened since. Tiny Hearts has grown up and is now a real software company with an office and a small and talented team focused on making profitable products that people love. We’ve expanded beyond children’s apps; we are about to launch a major update to Wake, our beautiful and intuitive alarm clock app, and we recently submitted a new fitness app called Quick Fit.

I’ve survived over three years on the App Store with three successful apps and millions of downloads. It’s been a wild ride filled with extremely high highs, like features in The New York Times and Wired Magazine, as well as the trials of fierce competition, copycat apps and the constant struggle that is staying visible on the charts. I’ve been fortunate to have every one of my apps featured prominently by Apple on the App Store and bunch of top blogs like TechCrunch, TUAW, Lifehacker, and Fast Company’s Co.Design. This list captures some of my key learnings over the past 3 years on the App Store.

Version 1 is Just the Beginning 

image

Don’t launch an app if you don’t plan to invest at least one or two years of development after launch. Hitting the App Store with your V1 is just the beginning.

All of the hard work you put in upfront in terms of concepting, designing, developing and marketing your app only gets you to the starting line. After this, you have to hit the race – with bug fixes, updates, maintenance, support, tracking usage and marketing. It’s a constant battle to stay on the charts and the only way to increase your chances of survival on the App Store is to continually put care and attention into your apps. Apps, much like Apple seeds (see what I did there?), only grow with ongoing maintenance and nourishment. Proper maintenance is just as important as a flawless app or perfect launch.

MVPs are Useless on the App Store

image

via

Make sure your app has maximum desirability, viability and feasibility, especially for version 1. That’s MDVFP. It’s not as marketable of a concept as MVP, but it will take you much further on the App Store. Challenge yourself to make the most polished first version in as little time as possible. V1 for Quick Fit took just one and half months.

Make it feature worthy. And most times this means spending half your time on polishing up the experience. Get to the prototype as fast as you can and polish your way to V1 from there. That’s our motto and it’s exactly what we did with Wake Alarm. What was supposed to be a 1 month side project turned into a 6 month masterpiece app. Making an alarm for iOS isn’t as easy as it seems, especially if your goal is to make the best (side note — this should always be your goal when making an app; if it can’t be the best in it’s category then why pursue it?). We had our first really barebones prototype a few weeks into development and subsequently we went through over 110 alpha and beta builds until we had something we were happy with. We obsessed over every tiny detail to get as perfect as we could. The thought and care we put into it showed in the final product. We subsequently got a call from Apple shortly after submitting, turns out they were fans of what we had built. Wake went on to be featured prominently on the App Store at launch and is still featured today. The care and polish paid off with a huge spike in revenue. MDVFP is the new MVP!

Most Apps are not Making Any Money

It's true there is a lot of money being made on App Stores, but it’s also a fact that most apps don't make much. Apple has paid more than $13 billion to developers but when you break that down between the top publishers and everyone else you get a graph like this.

image

via

The App Store is a hit-driven market where a few of the top developers earn the majority of the wealth. The media tends to sensationalize the extreme cases where you have an indie studio or solo dev with a breakout hit. That’s part of the reason everyone wants to get into the App Game, for the money. If that’s your only reason — then stop, stop now.

If you’re looking to get rich quick with apps, think twice. To succeed with apps, you better be in it for the long-term, because there are much easier ways to make short-term money.

It’s not cheap or easy to make an app. A typical app could cost tens of thousands of dollars. And the hard truth is most apps don’t even make enough to cover their expenses. The average revenue per app on the App Store is $4000. As TechCrunch highlights, it’s getting even harder for newcomers: “Only 0.25% of the total revenue from the top 250 applications goes to new iPhone app publishers”. The bar has been raised really high. This is great news for those who can compete at this higher level of quality and who are in it for more than just money.

The Six Month Rule

If it takes longer than six months, don’t do it. The App Store is an unpredictable place; it’s nearly impossible to tell if something will fly before it's out. Reducing scope to a few months is a great way to manage risk. Three months is ideal, six months should be the max; don’t gamble with twelve months of your life. Remember, time is a finite resource. Nobody wants to invest a year into something and their whole life savings only to find be disappointed with a lacklustre response. Blockbusters are hard to engineer, but not impossible. You can increase your chances of success by testing ideas quickly. Prototype and bring products to market and iterate on them within a tighter, more controlled, timeframe. You can kill weaker ideas sooner and focus your energy on the ones that have the most potential.

Develop Good Taste by using Good Apps

image

via

Your production standards rise with your consumption standards. You develop good taste by using great products. Use things that are impeccably designed, from the exterior to the experience to the entire product’s essence. (I’m a fan of beautiful apps, Macs and Moleskines.) Using well-designed objects and apps develop your product sense over time. You’ll raise your standards, just like how professional food critics expose themselves to critically-acclaimed cuisine to develop a great palate.

If you don’t know where to start, approach it like you would any other product. There’s always #1, #2, and #3 in each industry/category. The App Store makes it really easy to see what’s on top of the charts but that’s not always a great way to gauge quality. Its one of many indicators. Check out the weekly featured Apps, read app reviews online and get recommendations.

But don’t limit yourself to the cream of the crop. You should also use poorly designed apps but only so you learn what not do! There’s even a site for crap app reviews. Take heed!

Set External Constraints 

image

External constraints do wonders for helping you to ship quick. We decided to submit Pocket Zoo our first app to the Appsfire App Star Awards early on. The only problem was we didn't have a product. We used the deadline for the App Star Awards as a way to rally the team so we would have a real hard deadline. We ended up building 80% of the app in a matter of a couple of months. Just enough to create a trailer in time for the App Star Award deadline. Here’s our demo video entry from 2010-  https://vimeo.com/12166061.

While we didn’t win the App Star Awards, we were the runner-up in our category which allowed us to get early press mentions on places like Techcrunch and Read Write Web before launch.

New version of iOS coming out? Use that as a constraint. New iPhone or iPads due, use that as a deadline. Baby on the way? Use that as goal. Holiday app rush around the corner? Use that as a constraint. It will help you ship faster!

Stop Making Cheap Apps

Stop making apps and start making businesses, as Jeremy Olson eloquently put it. Marco ArmentJeremy OlsonSarah Perez,Christina Warren and David Barnard have recently all written about a trend of the death of paid apps. I don't think paid apps are dead but they are definitely not making as much as they used to. One way to reverse this trend is to stop making cheap apps! And to find other creative and sustainable ways to get paid for your software. Business model experimentation is just as important as designing a great user experience.

Most people think of apps as cheap, disposable software. The remedy is to provide more value than you extract. A good example is Tweetbot 3: it’s a fully featured twitter client that’s made for a specific audience that’s willing to pay for the value the app provides. $2.99 isn’t much for an app you’re going to use everyday. Don't be afraid to charge more for your work, whether you do it up front like Tweetbot or after the fact with free + IAP (in-app purchases) like Lumosity or Evernote.

Cheap isn’t just about price, it’s also about value. It's extremely difficult to build a sustainable business off of a $0.99 app, just as hard as it’s difficult to build a successful business around a $199 app that doesn’t provide much value.

And don’t be afraid of free either. It’s a great way provide value before you extract it via IAP or subscriptions. We plan on experimenting with other business models with our new fitness app starting off with paid + IAP and eventually free with IAPs and/or subscriptions. If your goal is to keep making apps for years to come, then you're going to have to stop making apps and start making businesses that can thrive on the app store.

Bootstrap Your App

No funding required, you don't need permission or large piles of cash from VCs to make your idea a reality. That’s one of the most exciting things about the App Store. Apps aren’t cheap, or easy to make but barrier to entry isn’t so high as to require big investments for most apps. Self fund it, partner with a designer or developer, or code it yourself. The more you learn, the better you get and the more chances you’ll have of not only surviving but thriving on the App Store. Think big, start small! And don’t quit your day job until you can make it on your own.

Every one of my apps was self-funded and that’s something I’m extremely proud of. I don’t have to answer to investors. My board is comprised of thousands of paying customers from all over the world and that’s who I’m working to please. The ability to be an independent studio is one of the biggest reward of making apps.

Marketing is 50% of the Work

Making the app only gets you halfway to your goal. The other and equally important half is marketing and promotion. You better get really good at it: whoever said, “If you build it, they will come,” is a liar or (s)he has never launched an app before. You should assume that ‘if you build it they won’t come’ without marketing.

Spend 50% of your marketing efforts on PR. Getting press coverage for your app is the best and most cost effective way to spread the word. For $0 you can potentially reach millions of people. How? By building relationships. This starts with building great products. A product that gets people excited and gets them talking . The next step is to be genuine and reach out to the people behind the blogs you read. Think of it like building a friendship with people you like and have things in common with not networking or pitching. It’s easier said than done but that’s what it boils down to.  There’s a great conversation on Branch on “How To Befriend Journalists”. I highly recommend you take a look at the advice being shared there from folks in the app press like Rene Ritchie of iMore, Ellis Hamburger from The Verge and Federico Viticci from MacStories. Make something great and get on the radars of the bloggers whose job it is to write and tell their readers about the latest and greatest.

Use Videos to Promote Your App

Have you noticed how Apple always debuts a shiny new ad at each of their new product launches? Most people don't like to read. Take a page from Apple's book and make a high-quality video to promote your apps. We would all choose to watch a short and slick video over reading a description.

Videos will help you communicate your product to not only customers but the press. The promo video was probably one of the most expensive components of our first app back in 2010. We submitted it to the App Star Awards and it helped get us some early attention and blog coverage before our launch. The judges included folks like Robert ScobleMike Butcher from Techcrunch, Zee Kane from The Next Web, Mike Rose from TUAW and Gary Tan. Sarah Perez covered the App Star Awards while at ReadWrite, which made it easier to get her attention when she began writing for Techcrunch. She wrote this great piece on our second app which ironically is the only one that doesn't have a promo video (and was our least successful app). Wake, our most successful app also had the highest budget video. That video has gotten more than 100k views. That’s part of the reason we decided to create a second promo video for the launch of Wake 2 and Wake Alarm for iPad.

Clumsy Ninja is a great example of where things are heading. Apple recently set an App Store precedent by allowing Natural Motion, the company behind Clumsy Ninja, to use a trailer video within their App Store listing. Google Play already allows developers to use video as a way to sell apps; it is only a matter of time before we see it on the App Store as well.

image

via

Make it For Yourself

image

I created Wake Alarm because I have a hard time waking up at times and I hated the design of the original third party alarm clocks on the App Store. Scratch your own itch. Make what you love and love what you make. It’s a great formula for making products others love because you are so close to the problem and don't need to get out of the building as they say. You can stay in the building and make something great for yourself. Be confident in the power of your own curiosity and passion. Do your homework first though by browsing through the App Store and the web to see if there’s a market of other people just like you, that would be excited about the product.

Make it Feature-Worthy

image

Make sure everything you do is feature worthy. That's one of the goals we always set. Before we even start on an app we ask ourselves it this something Apple would feature? When designing an icon - we ask if it's worthy of a feature on the App Icon Gallery. And even when we recently redesigned our site - our goal was to make it worthy of an Awwwards website design award which we achieved with a special mention. Even the footer! We wanted to make a footer for our site that would get on the Footerlove.com gallery. Thankfully, Apple has been a kind to us. Every one of our apps have gotten prominent features (well all 3) on the App Store. Hopefully, we'll continue the streak with our next app.

Getting featured is not just about the recognition, it goes back to marketing. A feature on the App Store is like getting $100,000 to $300,000 in free advertising. The other benefit is that it allows you to set an ambitious goal for your product. Apple for the most part features great products, that make their platform look good. When you make a feature-worthy app you’re not only doing yourself a favor but you're also doing Apple a favor. You’re creating a win / win. If you win Apple wins, and if Apple wins you win. Think of it like that!

Do Your Homework

image

Don’t be lazy. Do your homework! Understanding how to research your market, competition, unique differentiators and opportunity thoroughly is as important as designing your app. Most ideas should die at this phase of research/discovery but they don’t because we fall in love with our ideas as opposed to listening to the cold hard truths that the market whispers into ours ears. Know your goals and objectives. Start there and start with your why. Why are you making what you’re making, why should anyone care, what makes yours different? Who’s doing it well today and what are their weak points? Will people give you their hard earned money for this thing? Is the audience large enough to make this sustainable?

You can start by opening up iTunes or the App Store on your phone and reviewing the charts. Check out the top apps overall and the top in each category. Use services like App Annie and App Figures to get even more detailed info.  The market is speaking to you loud and clear. Read your competitors’ reviews. A couple of other areas you can explore are Amazon and YouTube to figure out what the market cares about. Google also has two tools, Trends and Adwords Keyword planner, to gauge search volume as well. The tools are there, you just have to do your homework before you start!

Final Thoughts

Even though I’m going into my 4th year on the App Store and getting ready launch my 4th app I feel like I’m just getting started. It’s still very early in days for App Store’s and mobile computing in general and a lot is changing.

My goal for Tiny Hearts is to continue to make great apps for many years to come. To accomplish this, we need to always be learning. Learning from the examples of others, learning from experience, learning from mistakes, learning from success and learning to love the process and the craft of making apps.

You can follow me on twitter @robjama and Tiny Hearts studio @tinyheartapps.