February 5, 2018Comments are off for this post.

Side Projects, a New Job, and the Holidays Don’t Mix

I’m about four months into my challenge to build four apps in twelve months. I’m writing about the experience. You can subscribe for updates here.

As the post title suggests, I’m falling behind on my ambitious goal of launching four apps in twelve months. To stay on track I should have shipped my first project at the end of December. Luckily, Savor & West will be launching this week and I have a plan to catch up.

Savor & West

Curated and based on your mood, Savor & West is an iOS app that’s your “personal bar expert.” My last post shared my ideation and design process for Savor & West. As a refresher, unlike crowd sourced bar review apps (such as Yelp), every bar in Savor & West is reviewed and curated to ensure it meets a high quality standard. Then, to pick something from this list, the user will input their mood with different tags and Savor & West will suggest the best fit. The idea is that a user shouldn’t spend their time searching through a few different apps with hundreds of bars, many mediocre, to find something they might like. Instead, they should use Savor & West to find a high quality bar that actually fits their mood.

Building and the Holidays

I started off October and November with a good pace, coding the app. However, in December things slowed way down. I started a new job in December, a job that I love. But starting something new takes up a lot more mental energy and I felt drained when I got home after work. It was much harder to motivate to work on my side projects in the evening and on the weekends. I kept telling myself that I’d make up the lost time over the holidays when the office was closed for a week. That didn’t happen. I’ve heard mixed things from people who work on side projects, some find the holidays a great time to block off huge chunks of time and make progress. I found it incredibly difficult to prioritize coding over spending time with family and friends. I don’t think I touched my computer for a week, but it felt great to recharge and I had a wonderful week relaxing.

This is my third iOS app and I’ve come a long way in my skills. I still pinch myself when I realize that I’ve been writing lines of code for a solid session without pausing to Google  the correct syntax. I’ve also moved away from using XCode drag and drop storyboards and instead code the entire design programmatically. On the left is a screen I designed in Sketch. On the right are some of the lines of code required to generate that screen.

Screenshot of Xcode and the Swift code required to build a design

 

The Database of Bars

One thing that’s taken up a big chunk of my time is building out a database of quality bars. I don’t want to rely on Yelp, Google or Foursquare’s APIs for the data. I want to control the quality and to have more control over my app. When I made Bar Roulette I was forced by Foursquare to change some things in my app, and I had to comply with the fear of having my API access shutdown. Now I don’t need to worry about that.

The flipside of having more control is that it takes time to build up a database. The initial project is only launching in four cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and New York City. To build the database and curate the list I started by just trying to find bars in these cities by talking to friends and family and looking on Google, Yelp, Eater, etc. Then I read the bar websites and reviews to get a sense of the quality of the bar. San Francisco was a bit easier because I’m familiar with many of the bars. However, I did find some new bars that I haven’t tried yet. Thankfully, my wife has been helping me with this portion by researching and writing about the bars. Airtable makes it super easy to collaborate with a “database” as if it’s a Google Sheet. I’ve hooked up Airtable to an Algolia instance that allows me to use more complex Elastic searches, such as latitude and longitude searches and tag searches. Both Airtable and Algolia have free tiers for small apps, which is a perfect pricing model to validate an idea.

Here’s a screenshot of what the Airtable database is starting to look like as we fill it out.

A screenshot of my Airtable database

 

Getting ready for launch

I submitted Savor & West to the App Store last week and it was approved a day later. Surprisingly it was approved on the first submission. I’ve never had that happened before. There has always been a back and forth with the reviewers finding issues. I’m pretty proud with myself. That means that I’m getting better at knowing what makes a bug-free and good app.

Last week I also built out the landing page using the Carrd platform. I can’t give enough praise to AJ and the product he’s built. I used to build my own landing pages from scratch, but it was a pain to ensure they worked on all browsers and devices. Carrd has easy to use templates to make a slick landing page. It took me about 45 minutes to make the landing page.

My wife and I also created an Instagram account for Savor & West. Food and drink is popular on Instagram so I think this will be an interesting acquisition channel. I’ll put a unique App Store url in the Instagram profile so I’ll be able to see how many downloads came from Instagram. Also, because I added Facebook analytics to Savor & West they gave me a $100 advertising credit which I’m going to use for Instagram ads.

I’m planning to launch Savor & West later this week on Product Hunt. I’ll hopefully track someone down who can help me get it featured on the frontpage.

What’s Next

To get back on track with four projects in twelve months I need to launch my next project by the end of March. If Savor & West took me four months, how am I going to do it in two months? I’m pivoting slightly - my next project is not going to be an app. I’m still working on the details of exactly how it’s going to work, but at a high-level, it’s going to be a service that connects people who want to become product managers with experienced product managers. To launch this business I don’t need a bunch of software, a lot of it can be done manually. All I’ll really need is a landing page (Carrd anyone? ? ) and an integration with Stripe for payments.

Intercom has a great book, On Starting Up, where they have three questions to ask yourself when deciding to start a business:

  1. Is this a real problem people want solved?
  2. Do I have the experience with this problem that will help solve it?
  3. Can I build something that is magical, and is substantially better than existing products?

I think my next project checks all three of these boxes. And it’s also a niche business so I can focus on solving a problem for a small group of people, but solving it really well. I’m excited about this business because I’m a product manager and have experience in this area.

Hopefully I’m back here in a month updating you on the launch of Savor & West and the imminent launch of my next project. ?

November 13, 2017Comments are off for this post.

One Month Down: Four Apps and Eleven Months to Go

I’m now about one month into my challenge to build four apps in twelve months. I’m writing about the experience. You can subscribe for updates here.

Last month I kicked off the first project in my four app, twelve month challenge: I’m building a bar discovery app, Savor & West. Curated and based on your mood, Savor & West will help you discover new bars. Think of it as that friend that can always recommend a great bar to try for any given situation. After I launched Bar Roulette, many people said they wanted to use an app to go bar hopping, but they didn’t want to use Uber and they wanted to know where they were going before they left. Savor & West is inspired by that feedback.

In my first two weeks working on Savor & West, I’ve focused on design, database architecture planning, and a little bit on monetization and launch strategy. Here’s where I’m at so far:

Design

To start my design process, I first made a list of what the app is going to do for the user. In this case, show a user the best bar in a given area that meets some basic inputs or criteria from the user. Next I listed out all of the bits of information I’ll need from the user to give them the best recommendation. In this case, some of the things I need are the user’s location and bar preferences.

Afterward I used a shorthand from Basecamp with pen and paper to design the user interface flow. This framework helped me think through everything the user will see and the actions they will take to get to the next part. It also helped me understand how I will collect all the information outlined above. As I did this exercise I started to get a sense for the screens that I’ll need. In some cases I modified the inputs or combined steps as I figured out the details.

Notebook UI Sketch

Next I started sketching out the various screens in my notebook. These designs were partially based off what I’ve built in the past or things I’ve seen before. They followed the user interface flow from above. I went through this pen and paper flow a few times, redrawing and trying to simplify the steps. I found that drawing the different screens really helped me spot things that were redundant or could be simplified. If it was taking me tons of time to draw, then it was probably too complex.

Notebook sketches

Once I had the drawings in a nice spot I stopped. Seriously. I stopped working on the project for a couple of hours, even days...and thought about other things. This let me mull it over in the back of my head and come back later if I’d thought of changes or improvements.

Then I broke out my Sketch skills. I love using Sketch to make my prototypes. I started with recreating the hand drawn wireframes in a gray scale. Then I added colors and icons. My wife was super helpful during this phase. I constantly asked her to come over and take a look at my computer screen and tell me what confused her or made sense to her. She’s also much better at picking the colors than I am. We used Tobias Van Schneider's Color Claim which has a lot of great combos.

Here are some screenshots of the design phases…

Savor & West Wireframe

Savor & West Final Design

Throughout the design process I also started thinking about a name for the project. Because this app is about bar discovery and bars, I want people to think of a distillery or a bar. A couple of names that inspired me were High West Distillery and Bourbon & Branch. I had a big list of app names going…

List of Possible App Names

My favorite and what I ended up deciding to call the app was Savor & West. I love this name because I want people to find bars where they can savor the experience and the drinks. West is a bit nostalgic thinking back to the old west and the sense of adventure when people go west.

Once I finished the designs, I exported the screens and put them on my phone to see how they look at scale. Swiping through them to make it feel *almost* app like. Based on feedback I went back and did some tweaking. I ended up doing most of the tweaking on the final screen that displays the bar information to simplify the layout.

Architecture and Database of Bars

In addition to my designs, one of the first decisions I had to make last month was what will be the source of information for the bars search. Most of my past projects have involved me hacking together a few APIs from different data sources and companies. I initially thought I’d do the same and use Yelp’s API. However, the more I thought about it, I decided that to show the best bars to users, I needed to ensure that my data quality was high --even if this meant I had to hand curate the list and only launch in a limited number of cities. It still haunts me that someone who used Bar Roulette ended up at a Chili’s ?. Technically, Yelp classifies Chili’s as a bar, and in a smaller town it was highly rated. I don’t want this to happen for Savor & West.

Because I need to create my own database of bars, I decided to go with Airtable which makes entering data and managing a database as easy as Google Sheets. I’ve hooked up Airtable to an Algolia instance that allows me to use more complex Elastic searches, such as latitude and longitude searches and tag searches. Both Airtable and Algolia have free tiers for small apps, which is a perfect pricing model to validate an idea.

So far, I’ve entered about ten bars into my database for testing purposes. This month I’ll need to do a lot of Google searching, data entry, and writing to fill out the database. For the initial launch my goal is to have four cities and about 100 to 200 bars per city. I’m going to base the four launch cities based off of usage data from Bar Roulette. We’ll see how the data entry goes, maybe my post next month will be titled, “F*ck It, I Only Launched in One City.” ?

Monetization

A brief note on the monetization strategy for Savor & West. I plan to make the app free and to include a banner ad at the bottom of the screen. These banner ads will bring in a small amount of revenue, which will hopefully offset any server or database costs. Eventually, if usage grows then I’d want to sell sponsored bar listings or larger ad placements to liquor companies. With Bar Roulette, I had some good conversations with liquor companies wanting to advertise, but they wanted to wait until I was large enough to give them the minimum $$ buys they are used to.

Build Build Ship

I started building Savor & West a couple of weeks ago. I have the basic search and tag selection functionality working. I will hopefully make a lot of progress in the next two weeks and be close to beta testing. I’ll then need to set up a landing page - I think I’m going to use Carrd. Their pages are inexpensive and have an excellent responsive design. I want the page to be a little nicer than landing pages I’ve built in the past, that were very simple.

To prepare for launch and to build a beta list, I also created a Product Hunt’s Ship landing page. I’m on the free tier so it’s unlikely that they will promote it on their homepage. So far it’s been super easy to create the beta landing page with Ship. Feel free to sign up or share to get early access to Savor & West.

Until Next Time

The next four weeks I’ll be heads down on finishing Savor & West, adding lots of bars to the database, and preparing the landing page. I’ll share more feedback about Product Hunt’s Ship next month after I’ve used it to launch the app.

If you want to hear my next update, sign up here.

October 5, 2017Comments are off for this post.

Why I’m Building Four Apps in One Year and What I’ve Learned From My First Two

When I started building apps I found very few resources that share tactical details about how to create, launch, and grow an app on your own. Starting today, I plan to build four apps in twelve months and write about the experience. I’ll share all the details…challenges, successes, user feedback, downloads, engagement, revenue and more. Many people have asked me what it’s been like to build apps and they’ve often asked me for the details. There are posts out there that talk about building apps, but many are full of growth hack techniques that lack substance. What’s the real story when it comes to downloads, engagement, and revenue? I want to answer those questions and share my experience with the hope that it’ll help others get started too.

This first post includes my goals for this 12 month project, a short summary of how I got here, including all “the details” of my first two apps (already launched), and my plan for getting started on the next four. I’d love to hear your feedback along the way, so please drop me an email or tweet with questions or comments, and I’ll try to incorporate in my next post. Sign up to receive my updates!

 My goal

Since first learning iOS in Dec. 2015, I’ve built two apps and learned a ton. My three key learnings are the impetus for this 12 month project: (1) launch quicker, (2) set realistic expectations, (3) and build apps that need limited upkeep so that I can focus on growing users. My goal for this 12 month project is to incorporate and build on these learnings. I want to come out of this experience with: (1) a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t with the full end to end experience of building apps, (2) a stronger ability to quickly validate ideas, (3) an understanding of the pros and cons of outsourcing development, and (4) at least some side income.

Writing about the experience will help me be more retrospective and truly reflect on what’s working...and not working for the entire process of creating an app. I really enjoy the creative aspect of brainstorming an app idea, conceptualizing that idea into a useful product, building it, and then sharing it with people. It fascinates me how something goes from idea to product, and focusing on writing and retrospectives for my next four apps will help me grow and learn faster about this entire end to end process.

I want to get better at quickly validating an idea in the market to understand if it has the potential to be grown into a business. The four apps are not going to be grand business schemes. I’m going to validate simple ideas with the smallest possible app.

I plan to try outsourcing the development of at least one app to understand the pros and cons of that approach. Perhaps having other people execute the development of an idea is better since I don’t have as much time or coding experience. Will giving me more time to focus on the business and marketing side of the idea and help it grow quicker?

There are lots of posts about how making money in the App Store is challenging and my experience has been no different. Hopefully by the end of these twelve months I’ll have some side income from the apps and have a clear path to growing that income.

My first two apps: a look back at what I’ve learned so far

As I kick-off this 12 month project, here’s a quick summary of what I’ve built and learned so far. I started down this path in 2014 when I decided I wanted to learn how to code beyond the free code academy courses and signed up for front-end web development at General Assembly. I loved it and as soon as I finished I took the back-end web development course to learn Ruby on Rails. I’ve always been fascinated by the interesting ways that people use mobile devices to create unique and compelling apps. To jump into the mobile development world I took an online Swift course from Udemy and Rob Percival in December 2015.

After I finished the Swift course, I designed and built two iOS apps: Bar Roulette and Alder. Bar Roulette was my first app and it was fun to see it receive some success and organic press articles about its unique value prop to bar goers. My biggest learning was that it’s better to launch early and set realistic expectations for myself about engagement and adoption. Alder was my second app and therefore it was fun to build because I was a bit more experienced and I approached it with a goal to build it as quickly as possible. My biggest learning was the need to balance not focusing too much on scalability for an MVP, with the realities of upkeeping an app that isn’t automated.

Bar Roulette Launch

Bar Roulette was the first iOS app that I built. It combines Uber, Yelp, and Foursquare to take you to a highly rated bar. You enter your location and the neighborhood you’d like to go to and Bar Roulette picks a top rated bar… but keeps it a secret. An Uber is dispatched to pick you up and drops you off at your destination, only revealing the bar once you’ve arrived.

Before the iOS version I built a web app MVP as my final project in my General Assembly back-end programming course. I didn’t know what to expect when I submitted it to Product Hunt in August 2015, but was thrilled by the community’s positive reaction. The hunt received over 250 upvotes and inspired several news articles.

On January 1st, 2016, I began designing and building Bar Roulette for iOS. In the new version, I made a few small but significant changes based on user feedback to allow them more control over the neighborhoods and types of bars the app searched.

I launched the iOS version of Bar Roulette on Product Hunt in April 2016. Naturally, I saw a big spike in downloads and usage over the following few weekends. The launch was a success but I didn’t get as much organic traction as I had for the initial web version. I think this was because people had already shared the web version the previous year and didn’t find the iOS version to be any different. Bar Roulette wasn’t new and unique anymore. Since launch it’s been downloaded 6,530 in the United States.

Bar Roulette by the Numbers

After the Product Hunt launch the downloads decreased every week. There was a nice bump in October 2016 when Bar Roulette was featured in Cupcakes and Cashmere. This was a pleasant surprise because they never reached out telling me it was featured. I only figured it out a couple weeks later when I looked at my downloads and saw the big spike. Looking through Google Analytics I saw their domain at the top of my referral traffic list.

You’ll notice on the traffic chart there was a spike in late August and into September this year. At first glance I was ecstatic that my daily downloads had increased from about five to 50. However, when I dug a bit deeper it turned out all of the downloads were coming from China, which doesn’t have Uber anymore. Exactly 0% of them were signing in and using Bar Roulette. I'm only speculating but there might have been some confusion as to what my app actually does. I excluded it from the Chinese App Store and downloads returned to normal.

While there have been roughly 6,500 downloads, there have been far fewer people who have signed in with their Uber account (~2,100) and even fewer who have completed a ride to a bar (309). In trying to diagnose why this is the case, here are a few theories that I’ve come up with: While a lot of people like the idea of the app, few are willing to get into an Uber without knowing where they are going. This is a big hurdle for folks. Also, messaging and positioning is important: I’ve gotten some feedback that people didn’t understand exactly how the app worked. A number of people have said they thought the app helps them pick a bar and tells them the name of the bar, that’s it. They didn’t understand that they also have to request an Uber and ride to the bar before they find it out the name of the bar.

Bar Roulette Monetization Strategy

My initial monetization strategy for Bar Roulette was to have an in-app purchase that unlocked premium features, such as being able to use Foursquare instead of Yelp to power your bar search. In my first week I had a handful of upgrades. Unfortunately, Foursquare reached out to me in the first week and asked me to remove the in-app purchase. They didn’t like me charging for access to bar results powered by their API when Yelp was free. It was an understandable objection and I quickly removed it and made everything free in the app. In the past month, in a renewed effort to monetize some of my apps to cover costs, I added in a new in-app purchase ($2.99). When a user wants to search for a bar, the price filtering functionality (for both Yelp and Foursquare) is behind the upgrade. If users want to have a bit more control over the type of bar they go to they can upgrade to use the price filtering. The first weekend after I added it, four people upgraded.

Bar Roulette Key Takeaways

My biggest takeaway from Bar Roulette is that it’s better to launch early and set realistic expectations. I put a lot of time into the app (100+ hours) and I didn’t see the engagement that I was hoping to see. I had lost perspective from the organic popularity of the initial web mvp. I was disappointed that my first app, something I had built entirely by myself, only had 2,000 downloads in the first week. Looking back I realize now that this was a solid achievement and something that I should have been more proud of. I’m proud now. ?

Alder Launch

Alder was the second iOS app that I built. It gives you one relevant political action to take each day directly from your phone. Not everyone is a full time activist, but Alder lets you make a difference by doing one simple action every day. The app allows users to enable push notifications to be reminded to take action when they haven't used the app in a day, week, or month.

My goal for building this app was to get more people involved with politics and social justice. I started thinking about it after Trump won the election and I began building it in January. I launched Alder, posting it on Product Hunt, in February 2017.

Alder by the Numbers

I launched Alder as a paid app, but quickly pivoted to make it free. I originally priced Alder at $1.99 and planned to donate the profits to various organizations, like Planned Parenthood, ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation, or The Natural Resource Defense Council. However after about a week I realized that the $1.99 price tag was turning off a lot of people. I could see that there was a high number of people visiting the App Store page, but few were purchasing it. I decided that it made more sense to make the app free and then have some of the actions be donations directly to charities. You can see that after making the app free, the downloads increased significantly.

To date, Alder has 1,220 downloads. Of those downloads, 140 were paid downloads that resulted in $279 in Sales.

Alder Marketing and Adoption Strategy

I haven’t done any paid marketing for Alder. I set up a Twitter handle for the app, since there are a lot of highly engaged folks interested in politics on Twitter. For a few months my wife and I were active, following and engaging with people on Twitter. There was a clear correlation between our engagement on Twitter and the number of Alder downloads. After a few months of this my wife and I found that regular engagement on Twitter was taking up too much time for us and we stopped. You can see on the chart that there is a noticeable dip in weekly downloads when we stopped. I recently began picking it back up, but it’s tough to find the time to thoughtfully engage and do social right.

Recently I’ve considered testing Facebook ads to increase downloads and usage. To offset the marketing costs I could try having one of the daily political actions be a donation to Alder, and do this once a month. The goal of this approach would be to grow the user base and make enough money through the donations to cover the advertising cost and also my server costs. As I grow the user base I may be able to arrange partnerships with nonprofits where they promote Alder to their base and the nonprofit writes some of the daily actions or have an action be to donate to their cause. The value I can bring to a nonprofit is that they can reach other people from different causes with their message.

Alder Sustainability

Alder was my first project where I followed Paul Graham’s famous advice to, “do things that don’t scale.” Since Alder provides users with a political action to take each day, I have to write a political action every day. October 1st marks 228 actions written. I do repeat some evergreen actions, such as donating to Planned Parenthood, but I still need to load them into my Firebase database each week. I’ve gotten into a good routine, but this has still been challenging. There have certainly been a few days that I’ve woken up early on a Saturday and realized I forgot to load the day’s daily action and all users are receiving error messages.

Alder Key Takeaway

My biggest learning was the need to balance not focusing too much on scalability for an MVP, with the realities of upkeeping an app that isn’t automated. While it’s good to “do things that don’t scale,” I need to find the right balance. Building things that require daily upkeep from me is not sustainable long term. When I start an app I should have a tentative idea of how I can scale the workload and make it manageable if I decide to continue to invest in a project. In the near-term, I’ll continue to focus on launching fast by doing some things manually and worry about automation or scaling later. To strike a balance, building apps that require only weekly and/or monthly updates could be more sustainable than the daily upkeep that was required for Alder.

My Plan for the next 12 months

Building four apps in 12 months is a hard goal, and that’s good. It will help me learn to quickly validate ideas, and give me ample opportunity for retrospectives and learning. Four apps in 12 months means I should be launching an app every three months. The administrative process of getting an app live in the App Store is about two weeks. I’ll need two weeks to test my app for bugs. So I have about eight weeks to build each app.

How am I planning to do all of this when I have a full-time role as product manager? By putting in the work on the nights and weekends. I’m still trying to figure out the ideal schedule but what has worked for me in the past is working at least three hours two nights a week and then taking six to eight hours on Saturday. In addition, I get up early and put in at least an hour every morning.

Constant idea generation is also important since I’ll need a lot of ideas. There was a period this year where I was really struggling to come up with app ideas. Eventually I started keeping idea notes in Bear. I had a great tip from my cousin, Liz, who suggested that I write down a few ideas every morning, regardless of how bad they are. Creativity is a muscle and needs to be trained and stretched. This approach has worked really well for me and helped my break out of my idea funk. Here are some of the first ideas I brainstormed with the daily technique. Clearly I was on vacation and thinking about donuts…

Next Up

The focus for October and November is to build the first app. I’m planning to build an app inspired from user feedback I received on Bar Roulette. Many people said they wanted to go bar hopping, but they didn’t want to use Uber and they wanted to know where they were going before they left. They had hoped Bar Roulette would generate a list of bars for them to visit. The first app will be a pub crawl planning tool. A user would input their pub crawl parameters and preferences, and the app will recommend a list of bars to visit for the optimal pub crawl. I’m planning to use Yelp’s API since I’m already familiar with it.

I plan to write a post about once a month. If you’d like to hear my updates, subscribe here. As of today, I have three subscribers (one of them is my wife, Jody ?)

And off we go!

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