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.