7 Lessons Learned From Interviewing 100+ App Developers

This post originally appeared on the Clarity blog.

While the focus of the press is on the over 1 million apps in both the App Store and Google Play and the crowdedness of the app market, I believe there’s still a market for app developers to make a good living and build a lasting business around mobile apps.

In fact, since starting the Mobile App Chat podcast I’ve had the privilege of interviewing over 100 entrepreneurs including Chris Barton (co-founder of Shazam), Paul Haddad (Tapbots), Lucy Zhang (Facebook Messenger), and many more.

Through these interviews, I’ve learned a lot about how to grow my app business and how anyone can get started building apps.

Here are the top 7 lessons I’ve learned from interviewing over 100 amazing app developers about how to build a successful app.

#1: Build Something That Delights You

“Build something that disturbs you in a deep way.”
- Ouriel Ohayon, CEO & Co-Founder of Appsfire

Build something that you personally want to see in the world, because the passion and energy that you put into it will shine through and kick start the early traction and the positive reviews. It’s important to take yourself as the most important user of the app.

When I asked Paul Haddad the developer for Tapbots about his favorite app, he told me it was his own app, Tweetbot. His answer did not sound self-promotional at all. In fact, he sounded very genuine and said it’s the app he uses most.

It’s the same thing that Appsfire CEO, Ouriel Ohayon, said in his interview. Appsfire went through many iterations and it wasn’t until the entire team used it every day that they were able to build the right features and remove the unnecessary ones.

Often times we make the mistake of building an app for profits rather than usability, but with Tweetbot, you can see and feel Paul’s passion and attention to detail. He built something that he wanted to use every day. It’s a lesson that we all can apply to our own apps.

#2: Start Talking to Real Users

A lot of times as developers we tend to shy away from talking to our target audience.

Having the ability to code is both a gift and curse.

It’s a gift because we can build whatever we’d like to see in the world. However, the same ability to code becomes a curse because we start building instead of talking to real users.

When Jake Fuentes was building Level he asked two acquaintances if he could follow them around while they shopped at a mall. Level is a real-time money tracker that tells you exactly how much you have left to spend this month based on your budget and current spending activity.

Jake wanted to understand how people were making their buying decisions to make sure his app was catering to their needs. When someone was deciding between a pair of jeans, he wanted to understand how the consumer decided whether or not to buy the jeans.

Jake wanted to build an app that allowed users to see exactly how much they had to spend in real-time. The app doesn’t have the unnecessary information clutter as some of its competitors. It was only through talking to real users could he get a sense of what information to display and what features to build.

Another method of talking to real users is to post an ad on Craigslist for early beta testers. I actually did a Google Hangout with someone I found on Craigslist to get some early user feedback for my next app called oSnap — a completely gesture based camera app that allows you to tap anywhere on the screen to take a picture.

What I learned from my Hangout was that people who take selfies tend to take them using the rear facing camera of the iPhone because its resolution is higher than the front facing. While this wasn’t the real problem I was trying to solve, it did allow me to see that there may be a real need in the market for my app.

Remember to try to find those early beta testers to get real user feedback.

#3: Don’t Fall in Love with Your Idea

It is common knowledge that ideas are a dime a dozen and that a success of an idea is all about the execution.

However, no matter how often we read about it, we still have a tendency to fall in love with our great app idea. Blinded by the love of the idea, we don’t perform enough market research on the competition nor do we conduct a thorough analysis to make sure it’s something worth building.

And even worse, when we do conduct research, it is often tainted by the love of our idea and we only seek data that support our idea.

Often times it is more important to find the naysayers and get their feedback. They are the ones who will allow us to see the holes in our idea and improve upon the initial concept.

#4: Have an Implicit Driver

“Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.”
— Oprah Winfrey.

The vast majority of apps in the App Store are not making any significant money, so if you are getting into the app business make sure you are passion about it.

I’ve interviewed over 100 app developers and very few have had hockey stick like growth with their first app. It was the constant tweaking and learning that allowed each one to become successful.

Remember Rovio developed 51 titles before Angry Birds.

Most overnight successes were 10 years in the making and if you talk to any of the top game developers, they would tell you that they would be making games even if they didn’t get paid. They just love building and playing games.

If you don’t have an implicit driver then your desire to continue building apps will eventually flame out when you don’t achieve success as early as you think you will.

#5: It’s Not Too Late

While the gold rush days of the App Store may be over, it’s certainly not impossible to earn a good living from mobile apps. The media may cover the Angry Birds and Temple Runs of the world, however there’s a whole different group of indie developers who make their living off of apps.

One of my past guests, Mochi Bits is run by a two person team and develop word games for the App Store, Google Play and Amazon Store. One of the founders, Kyle Yamamoto came up with a great term called “blue chip developers” when referencing the app developers who are making a living off their apps and have never raised a penny from outside investment.

Focus on solving a problem, designing it well, and making someone’s day more enjoyable or easier with your app.

There’s still a market if you can do all that.

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#6: Focus on Doing One Thing Really Well

On the web, the more features a product has, the more robust and appealing it is to many of us. On the other hand, in the fragmented mobile space, it is better to have less features and do one thing really well.

Songza came into a market with a few already established competitors namely Pandora and Spotify. However, they took a completely new spin on the music listening experience.

Songza plays you music based on your current activities. In short, Songza plays you the right music at the right time and the app was awarded App Store Best of 2012.

Focus on doing one thing really, really well. Make that one thing be substantial and meaningful to people.

Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Don’t try to solve a problem that doesn’t exist for real people.

The best apps solve a problem for the everyday people.

#7: Build Your Platform

Anyone who has tried pitching to blogs understands the pain and difficulty in getting someone to review your app. Running my own podcast and contributing to iPhoneLife, I see hundreds of press releases a day, of which 95% go unnoticed.

However, if you build your own platform whether it be a blog, podcast, or video show, you already have your own audience to promote your next app. You don’t have to rely on external factors to reach the masses.

In addition, you don’t need tens of thousands of people in your tribe. It’s actually preferable to have a smaller, more engaged tribe that will be there to support you.

It’s also important to remember that you have to bring value to your audience first and foremost. Gary Vaynerchuk talks about this concept in his latest book, Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook You should continuously “jab” your audience by giving away your best content so that when it’s time for you to “right hook” them and ask for something in return like buying a book, they are more likely to do so.

Here are some other app developers who have built their own successful platforms:

David Smith of Developing Perspective
Marco Arment
Carter Thomas of Blue Cloud Solutions

It’s not about who you know, but who knows you.

My biggest advice to you would be to start the platform that you are most passionate about. If you don’t like writing, don’t blog.

I love talking and interviewing people, so my natural extension is a podcast, but yours could easily be a Dribbble account where you post your latest designs.

If you take away only one thing from this post, let it be this — go start your own platform NOW!


I once heard some great advice — “learn from those who have already been there.”

There’s no shortage of advice on the internet, but you need to find and get advice from those who have been through the trenches and have already achieved the success that you wish to achieve.

That’s why I started the podcast so that I could learn from the experts and take my app business to the next level.

Founder of AppMasters.com. We help clients grow downloads through ASO, Apple Features & other brilliant growth hacks.

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