After All, It’s Just Apps

How to get the most out of your passion for making things.

Disclaimer: this is not a billion dollar app story. If you love to make things, code or are just thinking about getting started, this is for you.

I got started with app development about 2 years ago. I’m not a developer but I do have a background in computer science and I wanted to make some extra bucks. It seemed just logical. Apps were the easy way to go.

After all, we see the most absurd stories, and they stick to our mind.

That’s when it works out well.

You get excited. We’ve all been there. Then, you start doing some serious googling.

That’s when you find out how it really works.
Time to get a real job?
Too much competition?
No, there is no error. Dark green doesn’t exist [for single indie developers].

So how do you end up on the yellow to green side of the bar? Especially when app development is not your job, and you’ve just got a couple of hours in the evenings or weekends, how do you build a sustainable app business?

When I say sustainable I mean that you can live off your free-time apps on about 98% of the planet. Not in San Francisco.

Here are a few things that I wish I had known before and might help you getting started or focusing on the right path. Note that the common theme here is being passionate about what you are making. I’m not considering work for hire or consultancy or getting stuff done on elance.

This is about you, the maker.

The niche is everything.

I made 28 apps in the first 19 months. At the beginning of my journey I had read on some blog that you shouldn’t be striving to make the perfect app. Just make tons and it’ll add app. It sort of made sense, the guy was making the most ridiculous apps (for example an app faking to control traffic lights), and it was working out pretty well for him.

No way.

I have only 4 apps right now on the store, they make more than what the other 24 together used to make.

Why? Because they address a specific need in a niche market. Finding your niche is the greatest challenge but it will pay off. What are you good at? What do you know more than others? What do you know that others would pay for?

My niche is measuring and making sense of physiological data using the phone’s sensors [you should really try them out]

Finding your niche will help at many different levels. The extra ours will be easy work. You’ll love to do it because you’ll most likely be the first user.

Once you find your niche, go deeper. Improve your work. Add features but keep it simple.

I once made an app that was supposed to do it all. Track activity, heart rate, heart rate variability, sleep, etc. I made basically no money out of it. Too many features.

Solve one problem at the time.
10 thousand steps was one of the first apps using the M7. Top-charting in the Netherlands sucks. I made less than 300 euro with that 5th spot [iTunes store].

On the other hand, the simplest app of all was the only one I had top-charting. A step counter before another million companies made one (mine retired at that point).

Launch day doesn’t matter.

I had somehow the feeling that once you have an app out, that’s it. Or at least that’s what you read online. Updates won’t make your sales go app. You already missed the launch day opportunity. Guess what.

The launch day opportunity is a myth.

People talk about apps. The better you make them, the more you improve them, the more they will be downloaded. Stick to a few apps. Make them amazing. People will notice.

My sales went up 300% in the last year. Going from 5 to 4 apps [app Annie].

Another myth is the launch day of the week. “Launch in the weekend, people will download it more”. For me, it works the exact opposite. I get the lowest downloads during weekends.

People download apps at work. When they are bored.

Ideas are overrated.

Everyone is looking for that great idea that will change the world and make them rich. Getting good ideas is easy. It’s just a simple exercise. Start thinking on a daily basis about what problems you could solve. Take 30 minutes. Challenge yourself. You’ll be blown away by how many good ideas you can get.

Then the hard part really starts. Execution.

Execution is tough.

Developing for iOS is still much easier than for Android, at least from a UI point of view. However, fragmentation is catching up. With many different versions of iOS, iPhone sizes, iPods, iPads, etc. it’ increasingly hard for a single developer to be able to maintain it all. Provide rock solid code, fancy UI and high performance is challenging. Be prepared to put in many hours for that last 20%.

Start easy. Go incremental. Test. Talk to your users. Fix bugs. Drink more coffee. Sleep less.

Get ready for the worst.

And I really mean the worst.

Many people will love your apps. They’ll write you emails on a daily basis. They’ll be doing the most interesting tests, experiments and ask for your support. You’ll collaborate with brilliant people all over the planet. However, there’s one thing they will not do.

They won’t review your app.

You know who’s gonna review your app? This guy

We are talking about a FREE app. I should choke on my bloody IAPs for that [app Annie].

Or this guy (you can get how fun this one is only if you know what heart rate variability is)

What’s that “HRV readout” again?

Needless to say it takes a great deal of patience. Especially because Apple doesn’t let developers reply.

Collect your murder threats. Practice deep breathing. Do yoga.

Expectations are high. A product worth 2 bucks must be updated at least every 2–3 months or it won’t be worth downloading. If you are a perfectionist, it’s gonna be tough.

Yet another easy month at Bloom Technologies [rescue time]

Nobody cares if you made that app while feeling inspired during a trip on the other side of the planet and now you are busy working 300 hours/month in a startup while finishing up your PhD.

They paid 2 bucks.

Smart marketing.

The odds are that you are not investing anything in marketing. It’s your pet project, you hope to make some extra bucks, not to spend lots for some marketing campaign with obscure outcomes.

Don’t spend money.

It took me a couple of failed attempts to understand this. It’s full of companies out there ready to spread the voice on your amazing app for a modest 100–500 bucks. Press releases, articles on apps blogs, social media, etc.

Save it for a trip and get inspired.

Try a different kind of marketing. Circulate your code. Help out on stackoverflow. Post it on github. Reach out personally to the communities that might be interested in your work. You most likely belong to those communities. Blog about your work. Show how users can benefit from your work.

Since I started blogging about my work, visits to my website and sales both went significantly up. I can predict how much I’m gonna sell on a given day based on the website visits the day before.

My personal website visits. I started blogging in december 2013. At about the same time I started selling more apps [google analytics].
Show you are an expert. Back up your apps with solid data. Blog more.
Engage with communities interested in what you are making and with developers going through a similar process.

That’s all for now.

Code. Anywhere. Anytime.

Make something unique.