How I Got Started Developing Android Applications

I am not a programmer. At least I never considered myself to be one. But I have always wanted make my own way in the world, and as much trouble as I have spelling it, I guess that makes me an entrepreneur. Like most people I am not a source of endless ideas, and I go through life being constantly inspired and distracted by the events that occur in my daily life — at work, at home and in between. That’s exactly how it happened between me and mobile applications.

Meeting the Smartphone

I resisted getting a smartphone for quite a while. I am in general a pretty frugal (read “cheap”) person, and I didn’t see what all the fuss was about right away. When I started my first job after grad school, they gave me a Blackberry. I did the reasonable thing, bought a holster for it and became addicted to checking my email constantly throughout the day. It didn’t occur to me at the time that it was really any good for anything else, and frankly, it probably wasn’t given the little spinny-wheel thing for navigation and the tiny little keyboard that I had to turn my fingers sideways to type on. Eventually, my employer opened up the available smartphones for employees to include the iPhone. After the friendly folks at one of our major airlines put an end to my Blackberry’s screen, I decided to take the leap. This was a major transformative moment for me. This device could actually do something besides email. I could put all of my music and podcasts on it. I could track my runs and my weight lifting workouts, check the news and weather, catch up on sports scores, and more importantly play games. After a couple of years I decided to take the plunge and get my own smart phone for personal use. I wanted to live without the restrictions of my employer, and while I could envision myself without my job, I couldn’t envision life without a smartphone. I’ve always liked trying out new things, and my wife really liked hers, so I decided to try Android instead of the now familiar iPhone. That was the day I became an official mobile aficionado.

It hadn’t yet occurred to me that I would be capable of building a smartphone application. That was the realm of the programmer, a strange yet noble creature about which the common person knows very little. When a gentleman who works for me created an iPad application to solve a small problem collecting some data for our research, I started to think that maybe it wasn’t so impossible after all.

Maybe I Have The Skills To Do This

I am an engineer by training, and as a result I know just enough about programming to be dangerous. Before I started working with Android I had a considerable amount of experience with Matlab and a little with Python analyzing and visualizing data. None of the programs I had written were particularly complex or designed with the user in mind, after all the user was going to be me, and I was going to be reading in some data from this file and spitting out some data and graphs and storing them in that file. Beauty, performance and the overall user experience were not something I was concerned with.

So I had this idea in the back of my head that I should learn to develop applications for Android, but I didn’t act on it for months. When I would have a bad day at work, I would dream about raking in millions from a smartphone app, even though the rational part of my brain knew that this was a fantasy at the time. The dreamer part of me really hoped that it would happen. But that has always been something I have struggled with. It is very easy to dream of big exciting things happening, and it is even easy to set lofty goals for yourself. But it is very difficult to make the habitual changes you need to make in your life to actually make those things happen. You can spend a ton of time learning a new skill, and all the while it will comfort you into thinking that it will move you further toward your goal. But it is very hard to choose the strategies that are going to be effective in getting you closer to your dream. If it is financial independence that you are after, figuring out how you are actually going to make money doing whatever it is you want to do is the hardest part.

Finding a Pain Point

Then I found an opening in the market, a pain point that I was experiencing (or at least that I convinced myself I was experiencing). I had been trying to keep track of my weightlifting workouts with my phone, but I just couldn’t stick with it. Every app I tried was either too hard to get to work or just wasn’t worth it to spend the time on. Usually there was a function missing that I wanted and I would always just end up going back to pencil and paper. Pencil and paper had its merits (it was easy to use), but it wasn’t easy to go back and see what weight I used on an exercise I hadn’t done in six months, or to easily estimate my 1 rep max and track it over time. There were some pretty decent apps for the iPhone, but I really wanted to use my Android phone for my workouts. Therefore I felt that I had a target market, and while I knew that it would be small, I figured it was reason enough to get started in the business.

The Struggle To Get Started

I spent months of nights and weekends (I’m not even sure how long) learning Android (without first learning Java, big mistake) and eventually I set up an LLC and launched my baby on the app store. Looking back it was a real peice of crap, with some obvious bugs, and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I had focussed quite a bit on the code to make the app functional but I taken very little time to understand testing or how the app might work on different devices or how I might get people to notice me on the store. All-in-all it was an incredible learning experience, but not one that made me feel very proud about the product that I had put out.

I spent alot of time focusing on getting as much free marketing as I could on social media and experimented a little bit with advertising, but overall I would not deem the project a success (primarily because I never got very many downloads and certainly never made much money). I continued to learn more about the programing environment, ironed out some bugs and drastically improved the user interface all the while rolling out incremental improvements to the application. I spun off a variant of the app for a niche that I thought would be easier to target keywords for. I was right and the app took off considerably faster than the first (though it still never did make much money). I needed something fresh, so I built a third app, which was much more streamlined and well-designed than the first. But, I rushed through the keyword research, Icon and other elements of the graphic design. I wasn’t particularly proud of any of that either, but I launched the app anyway. Then I added more social media elements (more plates to spin) and built a more professional looking website. All of this amounted to me making bupkis in the money department. So much for quitting my day job and buying a private island.

Seeking Knowledge

After all of this time struggling on my own I started reading books (some of them optimistic, some not so much) about how to actually succeed in the app game, and I thought to myself “you all picked a fine time to tell me.” But that wasn’t fair to the authors, I had picked a fine time to start learning what was important. I could have benefited from a mentor, because in the beginning I was my own worst enemy.

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Originally published at gettingstartedwithandroid.wordpress.com on July 12, 2015.