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!
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 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 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…
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!