Thursday, December 6, 2012

Pros and Cons of Developing for Android vs. iPhone

I've been saying I'd do this post for awhile, but I hadn't actually gotten around to doing an Android app myself until recently (we previously published a small app, but I didn't do much of the dev work). Since I just finished porting Run Tracker+ and Run Tracker Free I thought now would be a good time for this review(iOS version). Side note: I don't have a free version on iPhone, this is the start of a new experiment I'm trying to upsell the full version. From what I hear free apps really dominate Android, so I thought this might be a good idea.

There are actually quite a few pros and cons for both platforms, and they don't all match up, i.e. there are some things that suck on both, and some that are good on both.

Learning Curve

IMO, this is a pro for both of them. I didn't find either one to be too bad. I'm coming from a C/C++ background with a lot of time spent doing embedded development. Obj-C for iPhone is obviously a bit different, but not so much that I didn't pick it up fast. My Java experience prior to Android consisted of 2 weeks of a class in college, but the basics (syntax) are similar enough that I didn't have any troubles getting up to speed.

Winner - Tie

Development Environment

This one is tough. I've been using xcode for so long now I'm really used to it. I'm using Intellij for my Android development based on a friends recommendation and I like it too. I've also used Eclipse. If we were talking about pre-xcode 4 I'd say Android wins because I hated interface builder. With xcode 4 though that's solved. I did have a slight problem with Android, as everything in the documentation is Eclipse based. Maybe that's just my problem, but I like Intellij better, so....

Winner - Leaning iPhone. 


For me, the iPhone wins hands down. Supporting lots of different screen sizes and resolutions and aspect ratios is a lot harder than supporting 2. (and we just got 2 with the iPhone 5.) Also, being able to just drag and drop stuff onto my interface is really nice. iPhone allows for pixel perfect design easily. If you want that on Android you have to have way more patience than I have.

Winner - iPhone

Coding Time / Built in Features

This one sort of surprised me. I've never had a problem getting things done with iPhone, but there are a few things I found to be really awesome in Android. 1 example being that it has built in text to speech and the iPhone doesn't. My voice summary function is 50-100 lines in iPhone. In Android it's 1:

foo.speak(text, TextToSpeech.QUEUE_FLUSH, null);

That was handy. I wasn't sure if I was going to include that feature in 1.0, but I decided to look it up real quick to see how much work it was going to be. 5 minutes later it was done.

Winner - Android

Submission Process

At the start, Android has an advantage in that it is $25 and iPhone is $100, but that's where it ends. Back to earlier, all the documentation is for Eclipse. Getting my submission ready required a command line. While I've spent countless years of my life using the command line for various tasks in various operating systems, I'd much rather have a button that says, "Build this app and then submit it to the store." Maybe eclipse has this button, I'm not sure, but I know Xcode has it so...

At this point, iPhone has a big lead. Unfortunately it throws it out the window at some point during the 2 week review process. The part where apps that work get rejected for absurd reasons, and apps with major bugs get through (and then more weeks to fix said bugs) frustrates me. <Rant> I just had an iPad app update that I tested on my iOS 5 iPad pass a review. Unfortunately, I didn't realize they deprecated the screen rotation stuff in iOS 6. In iOS 6 it turns out, my app was entirely unusable. Not just not that great, UNUSABLE. It got stuck in the opposite rotation it was supposed to be in, and you could click on anything at all. Apparently Apple doesn't test on their latest version either (or at all). Then, when I asked for an expedited review for a critical bug fix, they said, "unfortunately we cannot grant your request at this time as it does not meet the criteria for expediting a review." Seriously? What the hell is a critical bug fix, if, 100% not working app doesn't qualify?</Rant>

Winner - Tie - Yeah I had a big rant against iPhone, but they were way ahead up to that point :-)

App Store

I've spent a lot of time talking about the Apple App Store so if you're interested check out the archives. It's terrible, awful, really freaking bad. Android wins hands down. The searching auto complete isn't broken like Apple. It completes what you were typing instead of completing into a 15 word app name. (While I'm at it, they limit app names to 30 characters, something Apple really really should do. Instead of random rejections based on a reviewers subjective view of how long an app name should be, we get a nice clear rule.)

Continuing with search, after a few hours, searching my app by the first part of its name "Run Tracker+" gave my app as the first result. On iPhone, +'s are ignored, and searching for my entire app name (that's been in the store for 18 months and has 5 figures of downloads) "Run Tracker - GPS Fitness Tracking for Runners" puts my app at #2. Seriously. Unbelievable. Note that people will actually search for this because of the above mentioned absurd auto complete.

Moving on, the Android store also offers the option to a video and large promotional headers. I don't really care about the header, but the video is definitely a nice touch.

Winner - Android


Ah sales. The only category here that actually matters. This particular app has only been on the store for a day, and other app has been there for about 6 months. On the other hand I have > 20 apps on the Apple Store and have had some of them there for several years. It's certainly not a fair comparison, but the app I have had out for 6 months has done has made 5% of what it's iPhone counterpart made over the same time period. That being said, the recent Apple App Store changes have made it really hard for a new app to succeed. We'll have to see how that plays out for me on Android.

I'll update this after I have more significant data, but from the data I have, and from what I've read and talking with other devs:

Winner - iPhone

Overall Conclusion

I actually liked working with Android more than I expected. If it wasn't for all the different aspect ratios I'd like it significantly more. That being said, it all comes down to money in the end. The verdict is still out on that front. Assuming I can get it to make a reasonable amount (> 50% of my iPhone sales) I plan on making it a first class citizen for my next new app (That is assuming I can my sales back to a reasonable point and I do a next app instead of trying something new or freelancing). Until then, I do plan on porting several more of my apps to try and get a better feel for the store, and how much it can make.

If you've read this far and are interested in the mobile app market you may want to check out my newsletter. It's periodic emails (no more than 1-2 a month) on mobile app sales and the different markets.

Friday, November 23, 2012

How To Improve the iOS 6 App Store

There are several good things and several bad things about the new store from both a user and a developer perspective. A quick rundown includes more focus on featured apps, removal of new release list, Chomp search changes, and probably the biggest, cards with screens instead of scrolling icons.

From a user perspective, frankly most of these changes are fine, some even good. Apple always wants great apps to show up, and weighting the store towards already popular apps makes that happen. It really hurts discovery of new apps though, and that's a problem for developers. Over the short term it isn't a problem for Apple or its users, but over the long term if it convinces developers like myself to move to other platforms, it is definitely a problem.

I've talked at length about the App Store search changes so I won't rehash all of it. I will say I think some of the changes are fine, and others are rough. The change to very heavily weighting downloads has a couple of consequences. When they are relevant, it is probably a good change for users. They good popular apps with a lean towards popular free apps.

However, it also ends up showing these popular apps for searches where they are less relevant. Specifically, searching the exact name of many of my apps doesn't show them first or in some cases even close to first. That is a problem for devs, and it is a problem for users. Case in point, my app "Hacker News Reader!" is 4th currently for the search "Hacker News Reader!". (Note the 2nd app also has all 3 of those words in it's longer name, the other 2 don't.)

I haven't gotten to my improvement yet, and that probably why you came so let me get to it. The side scrolling cards are having the effect of many less apps being seen in searches. I personally like the new view, but I really hate the scrolling as a user, but especially as a dev. Having a 1 app scroll instead of a 5 app scroll means it is much harder to be seen, and much harder to browse.

That being said, I think showing the screenshot is awesome. It rewards well designed apps, which is something that is good in my opinion. The simple fix to all this?


Why do we need this view to page and force users to scroll for each app? Make this a fluid scroll where users can quickly browse through the apps to find one that catches their eye. This would stop the frustration when you are looking for a specific app that somehow got to 16 in the search for its exact name, and it would get more apps a little visibility.

This is a roughly one line of code change that I think would really improve the user experience and the dev experience on the App Store. It doesn't fix everything, but I don't think it breaks anything. Let me know what you think in the comments.

If you've read this far and are interested in the mobile app market you may want to check out my newsletter. It's periodic emails (no more than 1-2 a month) on mobile app sales and the different markets.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Getting Hacker News Reader Approved, 5 Months of Rejection

At the end of May I was looking for a good Hacker News app for my iPad. I hate using Safari. I don't even just go to the site on my computer, I have a plugin that puts the front page in a list on the left in a frame, and the comments and story on the right (Hacker News OnePage). I wanted something similar and I noticed an app on the front page that day so I went ahead and got it.

Sadly, the comments weren't threaded, and there was no way to comment at all. As the discussion is a big part of HN for me I ended up wasting a few bucks. I ended up trying several others and none of them satisfied me. All I wanted was a few tabs with the comments in one and the article in the other, with the ability to do everything you could want on HN, like comment and vote.

This is really a pretty simple app to make, so I decided to sit down and write it. Just make a parser for the RSS feed (I used the bigrss link because I hate the expiring more button. 10 pages of stories instead of 1). Throw the stories in a table on the left and then setup a tab on the right side with a webview. If they click on comments they go to that, article they go to that website. Switch back and forth effortlessly.

I was done. This is the app I wanted, and I used it everyday. I went ahead and submitted it, not expecting much, but I figured I might as well. I have a few friends that wanted it, and surely a few people will pick it up. Might as well make a few bucks for my efforts. Rejected.

Too similar to Safari. Apparently my reviewer doesn't read Hacker News. Click article. Read Article. Go Back. Can't find it, not in the same place, or even on the same page. Find it. Click comments. Read comments. Want to refer back to article. Back, can't find it, got it, new tab this time.

Or with my app. Click on article. Click tab for comments. Click tab for article. Oh well. They don't see it I guess. (This is of course, even though there are other apps with this functionality, they just fail at allowing me to comment which is what drove me to make my own.) Remember, it doesn't matter what's on the store, it may have been approved under different rules. They weren't, just at a time when we wanted more apps on the store so we could say our store had "REALLY BIG NUMBER" of apps.

Oh well, I'll add some small features that Safari doesn't have. I tried Instapaper on vacation this summer when I didn't have much internet access and loved it. It was great, so I decided to add support for that. Click a button, login, save article. Perfect. Rejected again. Seriously? When did Apple add Instapaper support.

This time, in addition to being too much like Safari, they said the app was crap. I.E. not pretty enough. It's a table and a webview. Those are built in, but I guess I can improve the look of the table cells.

I decided that the Safari problem might not be so bad if I made a great looking table cell. So I redid that. Added a comment button so you can go straight to the comments from the table, added word wrap, and dynamically sized the cells so everything was uniform. Rejected.

At this point I gave up. This was about 2 months in, with me spending a few hours to a day on each rejection. I just kept using it on my iPad, and gave test copies to my friends. Oh well. Fast forward a few months and the app I used on my iPhone suddenly stopped working. So annoying. No idea what happened. So now I have to find a new one, or make my own. Well, after trying almost every other one, I decided to make my app universal. And this time, I know how to get approved.

I decided I'd bite the bullet, and make a new page for the comments, parsing them out and making my own page. I put them in a table with an indentation to keep the threading. Clicking on the top of the comment takes you to the website, and I added 1 cell at the very top to take you to the whole comment page website. Now it's, IMO, actively worse than just showing the website, but I have the button at the top so it just adds 1 click to get what I really want to see.

While I was at it, I decided to add sharing with Twitter and email just to satisfy a very small desire of mine to do that once in awhile.

Approved. Finally, after 5 months, it's on the store. You can check it out here, Hacker News Reader! I'm not sure if it's better or worse than it was 5 months ago, but it's out there and I enjoy using it everyday.

P.S. There's a slight bug in the iPhone version I found after submitting that will get fixed in the next version. Something is going wrong in my sizing function and a few long comments end up having the last line cut off. I mostly just go the website, and it only happens on a few comments, so I didn't notice it right away. Hopefully I'll get that update in soon.

If you've read this far and are interested in the mobile app market you may want to check out my newsletter. It's periodic emails (no more than 1-2 a month) on mobile app sales and the different markets.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Windows 8 Killed My Day

Windows 8 completely killed my productivity today. I decided to buy and download it last night. Since it said it was going to take a few hours, I just left my computer on and went to bed. This morning it was done and ready to go. Awesome, I'll just install this real quick and then get to work. (Work for me is currently working on a BaaS for mobile apps called, solving a personal pain point in my app business and hopefully others). I plan on adding support for Windows 8 after I finish iOS and Android, and I also plan on making a few of my apps available on Windows 8 just to test things out.

The installer prompts me, do I want to keep all my apps, settings, and personal files, just my files, or nothing at all for a clean install. Great, I love this upgrade option so that I don't have to save my files elsewhere and reinstall all my software. Check for keeping everything.

Loading screen, we're checking to see if everything is ready for us to install. Ok good, you're going to let me know if there will be problems ahead of time. Ready, ok install.

....45 minutes to an hour later after 5+ restarts....

I'm sorry, there was an error. We are going to return your computer to the state it was at the start. Shoot. I wonder what could have happened, as it gave me no indication as to what the problem was or how to fix it. I decided I just got unlikely and I would try again. This time though I'd be smart enough to change my boot settings to go to Windows automatically, as catching every restart last time sucked. (I dual boot my iMac with OSX and Windows).

....45 minutes to an hour later after 5+ restarts....

I'm sorry, there was an error ..... Well that sucks. Something about repeating things expecting different results and insanity or something. One more try, this time I decide I'll change stuff and not worry about keeping my settings and apps.

....45 minutes to an hour later after 5+ restarts....

Good news. This time it worked. Apparently it was a problem with transferring my settings. That seems silly, but oh well. Then I remember it just killed all my apps. I'll have to download and reinstall all of those. This takes me another hour or so, and I don't have all of them, just the ones I use the most.

Needed to call my co-founder for something. Shoot, I didn't get Skype back yet. Go to and hit the download button. The "Download Skype" button takes me to this page. It turns out there is no way to download it from their website, at least not one that I could find on that page. Instead, and I don't think it says this anywhere, you have to go to the Windows app store. I find the store in the "Metro" (Modern UI) interface and Skype is on the front page. From there it was quick, easy and painless to get it. Wish I'd thought of that sooner (or maybe that link would have been smart enough to launch the store).

Almost 5 hours later everything was working and I started to get used to the UI. I'm not sure how I feel about it yet, I'll have to play with it for a few weeks before I can give a real review. I was a bit annoyed that i took me quite a few clicks and some searching to find the shut down button though. I'm hoping there is a way to pin that to the sidebar or at least the metro dashboard.

Anyways, that's my frustration for the day. Back to iOS side of things is just about done and I'm putting it in a few of my apps now. Hoping to have a beta ready by the first of the year.

If you've read this far and are interested in the mobile app market you may want to check out my newsletter. It's periodic emails (no more than 1-2 a month) on mobile app sales and the different markets.

Friday, June 29, 2012

More Apple App Store Search Changes (Good News!)

Just a quick update today saying that Apple "fixed" (in my opinion) the bug where they weren't searching a combination of app titles and keywords. While I would have liked a heads up before the change, at least they are willing to listen and fix things when they screw up. I noticed a few other quirky things today as well just as a heads up.

1. It seems they have given a bit of weight to "exact matches" of titles IF the title isn't generic. I have no idea how this is determined algorithmically, but one of my apps is now the only result where it didn't used to be. Another of my apps doesn't show up for keywords I have that is an exact search of another app. Other, more generic app names that I have do not get the same treatment. No idea how exactly this algorithm is working, but it is definitely a bit different. This is probably a good thing for most cases, though the auto-complete makes this slightly less useful.

2. It seems only free apps (or exact match title) will show up if you use "free" in the search. I would probably consider this a good change if it weren't for my app that helps people become "debt free." Generally speaking when someone searches for free they probably just want free apps, this corner case is a little frustrating though. I guess it's time for me to make a lite version :-)

For more on Apple's search change check out parts 1 and 2 that I wrote earlier this week:

Apple Changed Search Algorithm for App Store
Apple's App Store Search Change - Part 2

If you've read this far and are interested in the mobile app market you may want to check out my newsletter. It's periodic emails (no more than 1-2 a month) on mobile app sales and the different markets.

Discuss on Hacker News

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Apple's App Store Search Change - Part 2

Update: More Search Changes (Good News)

This weekend I wrote about changes to the iPhone App Store search algorithm. That post got quite a bit of attention, including the front page of Hacker News and a mention in TechCrunch. From that article, "Nonetheless, it’s hard to blame developers who tried to game the old system, any more than I’d blame websites that use SEO to get more traffic from Google."

I just thought I'd take a minute to respond to that, and clarify a few things I didn't explain as well as I'd like. First off, I think the idea behind the change is a good thing. It seems to me they want to lower the importance of the title and give more weight to other aspects. The point of this would be to presumably get people to stop stuffing keywords in their titles giving them 10 word titles for an app name. That also sounds like a good idea to me.

The problem, as I said in the last article, is that one small part of the change did exactly the opposite. They stopped searching on a combination from the title and keywords. For example (from the original article):

App Name - Debt Snowball+

Keywords - method, pay, off, free - etc

Doesn't show up for these phrases:

debt snowball method
debt free
pay off debt

Also note that it used to be against the rules to have your title also appear in your keywords. This means that this app, which doesn't have a huge keyword stuffed title, now DOESN'T APPEAR AT ALL for my top search phrases. I'm not complaining about getting knocked down a few notches in the search results (though that did happen in a few places), I'm complaining about being completely removed from almost every search that could have found my app except for a search of my exact app name. I've dropped to #2 for that search, replaced by:

"Debt Free - Pay Off your Debt With Debt Snowball Method"

Just to be clear as I throw my competitor under the bus, this is a very good app. However, the title illustrates my point very well so I'm going to use it. Without touching his keywords as I don't know what they are, this app shows up for all of those key phrases simply by having all of the words in his title:

debt snowball method
debt free
pay off debt

It turns out that this small modification of not combining the title and keywords has given the keyword stuffing app less competition, and completely taken out my non-keyword stuffing app. If you'll note my apps on the right, in the past I've done a few apps with titles that can definitely be considered keyword stuffing. Those apps haven't been hurt very much with this update. The apps that didn't have been all but killed. That's what I've been frustrated with. 

All of this could have been avoided by some simple communication from Apple. Just send a note that says we are making some changes to move away from people stuffing keywords in titles. If you want your apps title to be part of your keywords we are now allowing this. You should submit an update with your modified keywords if you want to appear for search phrases including both. Hopefully the huge loss of sales this week won't kill my rankings once my updates get approved and I start showing up in the store again.


Now, this last part doesn't have to do with the changes, but rather something I think should be changed. The auto-complete for the app store doesn't make any sense to me. When you start typing it doesn't work to complete the word you are typing, rather it puts down app titles that are close to what you are searching for. If you start typing "debt ..."instead of complete the word you are typing like "debt free" it gives the most popular apps. In this case, the top result is again "Debt Free - Pay Off your Debt With Debt Snowball Method." Now, there are probably 30+ apps that have 6-8 of those keywords. Before the recent change 3 apps were returned that happen to have all of them. Currently, only one app is returned (technically 2, the lite and full version).

I don't think that is the best user experience. While this is a good app as I mentioned earlier, I think it makes a lot more sense when someone is typing "debt free" to show all of the apps that are trying to solve this problem, and not just one of them. This could be solved in 1 of 2 ways. The first is to obviously stop auto-completing to app names and just use search terms. That being said, I assume the reason they don't do this is that they don't want people to get empty searches. Since they are doing only keyword matching, if someone throws and extra word out there they would have to improve their search algorithm. Empty searches are a very bad thing from Apple's perspective.

The second option, would be to also show apps similar to the exact match. Show the genius recommendations or the "other apps people bought with this" or something. When someone types in the word "debt" they should really be getting lots of options. There are quite a few very high quality apps in this niche (glad I decided to go for the easy niche, oh well). More than 1 app should show up for the user.

Discuss on Hacker News

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Apple Changed Search Algorithm for App Store

Update: See Part 2 of the App Store Search Change
Update 2: More Search Changes (Good News)

Ouch. My sales have dropped by over a 30% over the last few days. I was a little confused as to what happened. I was wondering if maybe I got a few bad reviews or something. Nope. Actually quite a few good ones since I'd last checked. It turns out I just stopped showing up in the search results for all of my major keyword phrases. Not lowered in the rankings. GONE.

So obviously Apple doesn't release their ranking algorithms, but there are plenty of guesses going around. It seems that they have lowered the weight placed on the title and added weight to things like downloads, ratings, time on the store, etc. At first glance, that sounds like a good thing to me. I have a lot of apps that have been on the store for awhile, have lots of downloads, and are ranked very highly. This should be a boon right? Right?

Another small change as part of this, which is much easier to test as a developer, is that they stopped mixing the title and keywords. In other words, you show up for searches of your title or keywords, but you don't show up for search phrases including both. They really don't want you to use keywords in the title apparently.


Debt Snowball+
This app has been on the store for a few months, has quite a few downloads, and is ranked a perfect 5 stars for both the current version and for all versions. It has 28 reviews. 24 of them are 5 stars and 4 of them are 4 stars. Not a single bad review. Highest sales day - 568. Average - ~45-50. Yesterday - 2. 

App Name - Debt Snowball+

Keywords - method, pay, off, free - etc

Doesn't show up for these phrases:

debt snowball method
debt free
pay off debt

Clearly almost any phrase you'd use to find this app includes the word debt. Until recently you weren't allowed to put your app name in the keywords. This restriction has been recently lifted.

Radar Gun
This was a simple app I made just because I like baseball. Nothing too crazy, just some simple math. Speed = Distance/Time. You can actually get pretty accurate results if your reaction times are decent. It's been tested with a real radar gun and you can get pretty consistent. It also has lots of downloads and pretty good reviews, though not as many. A few people didn't like it, but that's to be expected with an app like this. If you don't understand math and have bad reaction times you are going to think it sucks.

App Name - Radar Gun

Keywords - baseball, softball, etc.

Doesn't show up for these phrases:

baseball radar gun
softball radar gun


Lest you think I'm just whining about losing some money over the last few days, I actually think these changes overall aren't too bad. Or at least the thought is good. Implementation is lacking. Highly ranked popular apps should probably show up a bit higher in the search rankings. The keyword stuffing in titles was/is a big problem. I'll admit I've done it a few times, though not nearly to the extent of my competition. My biggest competitor has a 10 word app name. "Debt Free - Pay Off Your Debt With Debt Snowball Method." Ironically, he hasn't been hurt at all by this, as all of the keywords are right there in the title. No need to worry about phrases.

The problem with all of this isn't the change. The problem is that Apple didn't give devs any kind of heads up. It used to be against the rules to put your app title in the keywords. It was considered stuffing. I assume their algorithm did some weighting based on the words that were in the search versus keywords and title. If you had the same words in both you'd be on top most likely. Now it's apparently allowed, and as it turns out, 100% necessary in my case. I made my apps 2 word descriptive titles and I'm losing out to the 10 word keyword stuffed titles. The exact opposite of what they probably would have wanted to happen. If they told us about this change, I could have had an update ready with my keywords updated. I can only hope that my rankings don't drop so badly in the next week while I wait for my updates that I can recover. 

If you've read this far and are interested in the mobile app market you may want to check out my book on how I make money on the mobile app stores called Building an App Business.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Where Do I Go From Here - 1 Year Anniversary

My business just turned 1 on June first. I made over 50k last year on the app store starting from almost nothing. April was my highest revenue month yet thanks to a new app launch, and June is likely to be higher. Last week was several hundred dollars better than my previous best. So why do I feel like this isn't working and I need to do something else?

Just to be clear before I get into this, I'm not complaining about how things have gone over the last year. The last year has been amazing, and I don't regret quitting in the least. This is just me sharing my thoughts over the last few weeks to maybe help someone else going through the same thing, or maybe find someone to share what they've learned with me.

As I've shared before, my plans going into this year was to focus on niche apps that might not sell a ton, but each one sells consistently and added together they become a decent salary. At this point I have a decent lifestyle business going. That's great, and that's the problem. I've recently realized that my focus for the last year isn't quite in line with my long term goals. 

I want hire people and have high 6 figure if not 7 figure revenue. I want to work on big problems, and make the world a better place, even if it's only for a few people. None of those things are going to happen with my app business. I can keep growing it as long as smartphones and apps continue to be popular, but it is a long ways from growing into 7 figure revenues. Hiring someone is also quite a ways down the road.

I'd also like to have a more stable revenue source. The lifetime value of most of my customers is 70 cents. Seriously, think about that for a minute. That is scary. Some form of recurring revenue that is just a bit higher looks really good to me right now.

Now I've focused on the cons, there are some pros to what I've done over the last year. The first is that while we aren't swimming around in dollar bills, we don't have to worry about going hungry any time soon. Having this revenue coming in from apps gives me the freedom to pursue something more ambitious. My goal would be to have that big payoff so that I can do something even more ambitious after that. This was a good first stepping stone though.

The only question is what now? I've spent my last year thinking entirely about mobile. I have a long list of ideas for things to implement that is entirely composed of apps. My next two months are mostly booked with an app that is already in progress and a couple of freelance projects. 

The (seemingly) obvious choice is to start taking more consulting projects. There is certainly plenty of demand in that area. The projects I'm working on now I haven't searched out at all. They just came from friends of friends that heard I do app development. 

That being said, I hate freelancing. With a passion. The only thing about it that I like is the paycheck at the end. That is not a good way to live. With the app business at least enjoy every day. That being said, if I decided to grow a consulting business that would allow me to do the hiring I want, and growing into low to mid 6 figures revenues wouldn't be too hard. It could be another stepping stone.

Is there another way though? I'd like to think there is. I have enough revenue and savings now to give me a pretty long runway if I can find a something interesting to work on that I can get to MVP by myself. I just don't have any idea as to what that project is right now.

Well, that's my rant for the day. I'm not sure it will be helpful to anybody else, but at least I got it out there. If you've been in this position before let me know what you did.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

How I Went From 0 to $50k on the App Store(s)

I've been meaning to write this post for awhile and I got the push I needed with this 10k Bootstrap Challenge on HN today. It reminded me of my start so I thought I'd share my story.

When I graduated college I had no idea I wanted to start my own business. I just got my degree, started interviewing for jobs, and accepted one that I thought sounded cool. I went to work writing software for jet engine testing. That's pretty cool right?

Actually I really enjoyed it, but it didn't take long for me to realize I didn't want to work for somebody else. I knew how much money I made my company, and it turns out if you make that money for yourself you get to keep more of it. After 4 years I finally decided to give it a go.

My wife and I had been working towards this goal for awhile. We purposefully got out of debt by paying off 28k in school loans in 10 months. Then we saved up a 25k emergency fund. We wanted to have a big runway so that I didn't have to have a ton of pressure to make money NOW! If you are thinking about quitting and starting your own business, I'd highly recommend this. Getting our expenses down and our savings up meant I didn't have to worry about money for a few months, and that made starting the business much much easier.

Down to the business part. I make mobile apps. I started working on them in spare time just because I thought it was a cool technology and it might be useful to know. My first apps were simple utility type apps that look really terrible because I'm not a designer and I didn't want to spend a ton of money on my "hobby." I just wanted to go through the process of getting a few apps on the store and see how things worked.

One of those first apps was a simple battery app. It's almost embarrassing to admit. As ugly as it is, it does what it is supposed to and is rated 4.5 stars. Several years later it still makes roughly $50 a month.

Learning how to make iPhone apps ended up helping me at my old job as well. We added some things to the business and one of those led to me making a large iPhone app for them. I also made a version for WP7 while others worked on the Android version. It was great to get to spend my days learning more and  making apps instead of just nights and weekends.

After working on apps on and off in my spare time for almost 2 years I decided I might like to try this full time. I started working almost as much during nights and weekends as I was at my regular job during the week. This part sucked. After about 2 months I decided that I couldn't stand doing that for much longer and I decided to quit. So in May 2011 I turned in my notice. That month I made 500 dollars from app sales.

Over the next few months I spent most of my time working on a set of budgeting apps. Getting out of debt we followed Dave Ramsey's debt snowball and envelope budgeting methods, and so I had been looking for an app to help with the budgeting. I was sick of trying to deal with envelopes of cash so I decided an iPhone app would work. At that point there were lots of budgeting apps, but none that imported transactions from banks AND had cloud syncing so my wife could stay up to date on the budget as well.

I made Ez Budget with a friend (which is free now, more on that later)[1] and it worked great for what we wanted. I get all my transactions from the debit card, put them in envelopes, and it syncs on my wife's phone. Unfortunately, it didn't hit #1 on the app store. Turns out nobody likes budgeting, and spending $50 on UI design is just not enough. On the bright side it works great for my wife and I, and between the iPad and Mac version that I made over the next few months it does bring in a decent amount of money, not quite what we hoped though.

Side note: The worst/hardest thing about the last year has been customer support. It's amazing what people expect for free and $2.99 apps. Also, the major banks in America suck. They make connecting using the open Direct Connect standard a huge pain. When we were testing the apps with our banks they worked awesome. Fifth Third just lets you use your normal login and password and everything just works. I found out later that the major banks make you sign up with them ahead of time, change passwords, pay them $3.99-9.99 a month for the privilege, mail back a separate pin for logging in, etc. It has been a huge source of frustration and most of our bad reviews. Even after adding popup help in the app telling people this and offering my email to help them through, I still get reviews that say "This sucks I just get an error when I try to add Bank X."

Back to the business. After I realized the budgeting market wasn't going to fill 100% of my needs, at least not in it's current form, I made a list of apps that I'd like to have for myself. It doesn't matter if it already exists. There are over 600k apps on the store now, whatever you are thinking of probably exists. Just like any other business though, you can take marketshare if you make something decent.

I made some bigger apps and some more smaller utilities. I have 2 speedometer apps, one analog and one digital, because some people prefer one over the other.

Last fall I met a designer that wanted to get into the app business. That has been really awesome for me. We decided to partner on a few apps, and they look much better and have gotten great reviews.

Another short side note: It's amazing how the look of an app factors into reviews. I've seen apps that work terrible get 4-5 star reviews that go something like "This crashes a lot and doesn't do what I was hoping but it is beautiful" and then I get 2-3 star reviews on my budgeting apps that are "This is a great app that does just what I needed but it doesn't look that great." Unreal. My latest though is 5 stars after a month. 19 out of 21 5 stars and the others are 4 stars. It's amazing what a great UI designer can do for you - Debt Snowball+.

I'm not sure what conclusions I have other than it is definitely possible to make a living on the app store(s)[2]. The main thing would probably be to spend as much as you can afford on good design. It is really key. I haven't had anything you could call a hit, though the Debt Snowball+ app got to #125 overall when it released. Everything I've made sells though, and making roughly an app every 2 months keeps building the revenue. The biggest project so far has been the Mac version of the budgeting app and it gave me a huge revelation.

I worked on it from July - October. Nothing new released for a couple months. In October I made several thousand dollars, and more than in the previous few months just because Apple released a new phone. All of the money I made in October came from work I did in Feb-June. That was when I realized how great making money on products is compared to working hourly for someone else.

When you are working for someone else, the things you create make you money that month, and they make someone else money for months and years after that. When you work for yourself you don't make as much immediately, but you get to keep reaping the benefits month after month. Time != Money anymore.

Now for the pretty charts:

[A] Ez Budget for iPad released. Got some decent initial press which is the spike you see here.
[B] The upward trend and new plateau in Q4 was from the new iPhone 4s as well as Ez Budget for Mac finally getting released.
[C] Christmas. The end of December and much of January is a great time of year for app developers just like many other businesses. The new devices are helpful, but the bigger key in my opinion is the iTunes gift cards people get. They have extra money to spend on apps for awhile and it shows in our results for at least 3-4 weeks.
[D] Debt Snowball+ released. Featured on a few app websites and peaked at #125 overall and #2 in Finance.

[1] Biggest mistake I've made in the last year. I decided to try and make the Ez Budget iPhone app free as a way to get new users and up-sell people to the more profitable iPad and Mac versions. I added some ads on the main page and an in app purchase to remove them and submitted it to the store. The day it was approved we had about 750 downloads. Not as high as I was hoping, but if that continued it probably would have worked out ok.

That day I noticed I made a huge mistake. The ad network I added had a class named the same as one of my classes in a different part of the app. This means going to that part of the app is instant crash. I hadn't tested it before because I didn't change anything there. Lesson learned.

Then I made an even bigger mistake. I took the app off the store while I submitted an update to fix it. I was afraid I'd get too many bad reviews for having a crash button in the app. By the time the update was approved I lost my positions in the search rankings. It crashed to almost no downloads. Experiment fail.

[2] We just started working with Android last month. So far we just have 1 Speedometer utility app on the store to see how the whole process worked. Sales haven't been very impressive, but it's just a speedometer and we were a bit late for the party. Part of the plan over the next few months is to spend more time building Android apps not because I think they will make more money, but because I want to spread the risk some, and because porting things that are already done is quicker than starting from scratch. At some point I'll do a post comparing Android and iPhone, but this post has gone on long enough.

P.S - For anyone interested to see the entire range of apps you can check out all of them here.

If you've read this far and are interested in the mobile app market you may want to check out my book on how I make money on the mobile app stores called Building an App Business.