Wednesday, May 6, 2015

4 Years of Success and Failure on the App Store

I quit my job 4 years ago this week. At the time I was making about $15 a day on apps I had done in my spare time. I'm crazy right? Biggest regret? Not quitting sooner. The first mover advantage for iPhone apps was huge. Keys? I saved up a decent sized emergency fund, paid off all my debts, and my wife works. Her salary as a teacher isn't enough for us to be excited about surviving on alone, but that and our savings meant I didn't have to stress too much about money (though I still did). I had a long runway.

I'll lead with the chart everyone wants to see - Last 4 years app sales, trailing 30 days to smooth it a bit. Total of ~222k including ads, not including freelance I've done from time to time as a supplement.

T30D - Trailing 30 days

The big spike in April 2012? That's the release of Debt Snowball+. It got several good reviews from popular blogs on release day which helped it peak at #2 in Finance and about #130 overall (I can't remember exactly, somehow). The decline soon after? That's the Chomp search update followed by iOS 6 and the card app store layout. So sad.

The seasonal ups and downs are due to most of my revenue coming from fitness apps, and more people go running in June than in December. Shocking, I know. Jan-May is meh, June-September is pretty good, Oct-Dec is awful.

TTM - Trailing Twelve Month

The trailing year graph is really the most interesting. Though, perhaps this exaggerates how well the beginning went, as obviously full year sales are going to be more when they actually include sales every day.

TTM, starting with year 2

Frankly, my decline in sales doesn't look as bad in those charts as it has felt to me. It's a 19% drop from the peak to today. Less than 5% drop from the trough in 2013. 

Success and Failure

My biggest success, as a whole, is simply that I'm still here. While if the numbers don't start growing again I might not be able to say that a year from now, I've very much enjoyed working for myself and having that freedom over the last few years. My wife is about to have our first child, and while she plans to keep working for now, we'd love it if she could stay home. My current income is such that we are incredibly comfortable with both of us working, but not super excited about dropping it by 35% overnight. For her to quit, I either need to make that chart turn back up, or go find a real job :-)

My biggest failure, is simply using a shotgun strategy when I started. It's actually pretty interesting really, and sad that it took me so long to realize where the pitfalls were. The idea is pretty simple. It's not that hard (at least it wasn't back then) to make an app that would make 5-15-30 dollars or so a day. It wasn't hard to go from that, to say I'll make an app every month or 2 and each one will add to the total. Sales will grow and life will be good.

Frankly, that's pretty much how it worked for the first year. Then the Chomp search update hit and I was thrown for a loop. I actually managed to recover pretty nicely from that, but the problem is that it hid the real problem I see now.

The real problem, is that you hit a point where you can't keep up with updating all of the apps, and they don't each make enough individually to justify updating them really. As time progresses, new iPhones and new versions of iOS are released. New screen sizes, deprecated API's, flat design, etc. All kinds of things change that mean if you aren't updating your apps, their sales will decline. Not even touching on the fact that there are a lot more apps competing with you. It does help that there are a lot more people with iPhones buying apps, but it doesn't outweigh the negative forces.

That means that any new apps are just trying to replace sales being lost from the old apps, as opposed to increasing the total. Given that it is much harder for a new app in 2015 than a new app in 2011, you get the situation I'm in today, with (slightly) declining sales.

In hindsight, I definitely should have focused on a much smaller handful of apps, perhaps 2-3 at most. The problem at the time was, I didn't feel like any of the things I'd done were successful enough to justify putting all my focus into. I'm pretty sure now that at least 2 of the apps were worth putting more effort into. Alas.

Where to from here

I'm going to stop the shotgun approach, as of today. That doesn't mean I won't ever release a new app. I plan to focus my attention for the next year on 2 total apps. One of my current apps, and 1 that I've been planning to build for awhile now, which is actually an update to another of my current apps. It will however be a complete overhaul and likely a different business model, so we are going to release it as a new version 2 app. 

Vima - GPS Run Tracker and it's Biking and Walking variants will be the first major focus. It has been featured in the Health and Fitness "Apps for Runners" and "Get in Shape" sections since it was released about a year ago. We recently added a few major features including several charts showing things like weekly and monthly distance, and an Apple Watch app to let you start and stop runs without taking your phone out of your pocket. We have more planned on the way over the next few months as well. If you are a runner or biker etc, I'd really love to hear what you think of them and what features we should focus on next. Feel free to get in touch clarky07[AT]gmail[DOT]com.


It's been a bit of a roller coaster 4 years, but it's been a fun ride. I'm excited for my next adventure narrowing my focus. It's going to be a bigger challenge to have 1 or 2 significantly more successful apps than it was to have a bunch of moderately successful apps, but I'm confident that it's the only reasonable way forward. It's simply too much work for too little reward to keep up with as many apps as I have. 

As a side note to all this, I may end up selling some of my other apps. It's possible I'll just keep them and the moderate income they give each month, but I haven't completely decided yet. If anyone is interested in any of my apps, feel free to contact me at clarky07[AT]gmail[DOT]com. I'm happy to share details. I will definitely keep a few of them, but I could part with many of them for the right price. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

2014 Year in Review for My App Business

2014 was a crazy year for me. Note that I'm almost 3 weeks late writing my year in review, that's pretty much how my year went. 

In June we finally sold our townhouse. We have plans of building on some land that we purchased a few years ago. While we wait on that, we are renting. This occupied much of June. 

My Dad was diagnosed with cancer for the third time in 5 years in July. He had a large tumor on his spine that was causing him tremendous amounts of pain. In August, he had surgery to remove most of the tumor, which included removing parts of several ribs and fusing his spine. Following surgery, he went through chemotherapy for the next few months, and then in December he had a special extended chemo (6 straight days) to wipe out his immune system and then a stem cell transplant. He is now slightly past 30 days from the transplant and he is doing well so far.

I told you all that to tell you this. This has had quite an impact on my business, because I spent a lot of time taking care of my parents and driving them back and forth to hospitals over the last 6 months. The great thing about my business is that I can take the time to do that. The other side of that coin is that I haven't spent nearly as much time on the business as I would have liked to, and it suffered as a result. It happens.

That being said things weren't all bad, and I still made more than I did at my previous employer. This year was however below market rates by a decent amount. Given the amount of time I actually worked though, it's not too bad.

Paid Apps

iOS - $41,319.32
Android - $1,740.01
Mac - $1,256.92
Windows - $672.15
Amazon - $181.58

Paid Total - $45,169.98


Xplode - $1,043.67
Admob - $8,739.62
iAd - $893.23
Amazon - $40.76

Ads Total - $10,717.28

Apps total -    > 500,000 total downloads

Freelance - $12,400

Total Revenue in 2014 - $68,287.26

As for 2015, to add to the craziness of dad's health and building a house, my wife and I are expecting our first child. That being said hopefully my dad has turned the corner and this year can just be crazy and stressful for good things (house and child).

As for the business, I still have hope for the app stores. I did some interesting experiments this year, and while they weren't completely successful they weren't failures either. I tried out a subscription monetization model for an app, and it had pretty reasonable conversion rates. I'm hoping to drive more downloads in 2015, but I'm interested to see how many people will actually still be using the app after the 1 year mark (it has a monthly and yearly subscription options). I expect the revenue to be higher this coming year than it was last year based on how things have gone so far, and that will be something that hasn't been true for most of my apps.

In addition to my being off work quite a bit recently, one of the other things effecting my revenue is that most of the work time I have done since September is on an app that hasn't yet launched. This will be my first serious attempt at making a game, and it is almost done. I'm just putting some finishing touches on it, and I hope to submit it in the next week or two.

While I know the game market is exceedingly difficult, I have wanted to give it a shot for quite awhile now and I finally decided to do it. It started out as a nights and weekends project with a friend to learn Swift. I have really enjoyed making it, and (surprisingly to me) I actually think it's pretty good. I enjoy playing it, and it has become far more polished than I expected it to be.

All that being said, my expected ROI is approximately 0, but it is a nicely polished lottery ticket, and it does account for part of my lower revenue last year. Perhaps it pays off at least a little bit and affects this year's revenue numbers a bit.

Aside from launching my first game, I do plan on doing more freelancing again this year. With the baby and house on the way, it helps give a nice supplement to the app sales, and it is more guaranteed money. I may or may not make any money at all on the this game, but I will make money on the freelance project I'm getting ready to start.

Perhaps this will be the year I finally start a SaaS business. Don't get your hopes up though, I still don't have any ideas I'm excited about. Maybe someday.

If you have any interest in my new game, sign up to the newsletter and I'll shoot you a link when it gets approved. If you want to beta test it, send me an email and I'll get you on the list. The game is a number puzzle game with almost no similarities to Threes or 2048 :-) (There is a grid of numbers, but that's the extent of it).

P.S. If you are in the market for an app developer, shoot me an email at clarky07[AT]gmail[DOT]com. I'm not looking for anything full time, but if you have a smaller (1 - 6 weeks) project let me know and I'll get you a quote. I prefer iOS but have also done many Android apps.

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.