How To Launch a Mac App and Become #1 Top Paid App Globally
This article was originally published on my personal blog.
It’s pretty hard to put eight months of your life in a single blog post, but I’ll try to outline the most interesting and crucial facts behind how Readdle created our first Mac app and how it became a #1 top paid on Mac App Store globally.
Readdle makes great productivity apps for iPhones and iPads. We managed to build a sustainable business with 8 apps (Scanner Pro, Spark, Documents, etc) that are used by 45 million people, got numerous reviews and awards, and even pre-installed on demo devices in Apple Retail stores.
It’s been almost 8 years and now we finally released our first Mac app — PDF Expert. PDF Expert is a fast, robust and beautiful PDF editor.
After All These Years on iOS, Why Go Mac?
Good question. About a year ago, we started the conversation of ‘what’s next?’ What new challenges can we tackle, and what have been our top customer requests?
That discussion brought us to the Mac. Here’s why:
- PDF Expert grew to the point where we wanted to provide a consistent user experience across iPhone, iPad, and Mac.
- Readdle is now in a position where we have enough resources and a good base to launch a Mac app.
- Building a sustainable, profitable business around just one platform is getting increasingly harder.
Is It Harder To Develop a Mac App?
According to our developers, it’s about three times harder, largely because it requires:
- More input sources
- More devices and OS versions to support
- Mac Core Framework is much older its iOS counterpart
- Developing two versions of the same app — one for Mac App Store, and one for distribution through our website
Although it’s harder to make a desktop app, we wanted to keep Readdle’s core principles: we want our apps to be lightweight and easy to use from the first glance, yet powerful enough to solve most use case scenario for users.
Using our core principles for design and user experience helped us to build a product that stands out. But it wasn’t easy.
Many people told me that it doesn’t make sense to build a product that already has some decent alternatives. But honestly, I like competition. Healthy competition indicates that there is a good addressable market out there. Having a superior product that does things better and is differentiated enough can lead to a successful and sustainable business.
Thanks to our research and preparation, we were able to position PDF Expert for Mac really well. It steps in where Apple Preview is too basic and Adobe Acrobat is too cumbersome. With PDF Expert, people can actually do their PDF work much faster and easier, including reading, annotating, form filling, and signing documents.
But we didn’t just build for 1.0. We are already working towards the next destinations on our roadmap for PDF Expert, which includes more PDF editing tools, OCR, conversion to other formats, and much more. Once again, having a superior product is the key to a successful launch and marketing.
Distribution: Mac App Store vs Web Site
When the app was 90 percent ready, we had to decide which distribution channel to choose: Mac App Store or our site.
If you’d like to see our research and thought process, here’s a quick comparison table for Mac App Store vs site distribution.
After we weighted all of this, we decided to use both distribution channels, even with the higher overhead. So now we have to continuously support two separate versions of PDF Expert for Mac.
Ultimately, it proved to be a great decision. I’ll tell you why in a bit.
The Business Model
It was crucial to pick the right business model for PDF Expert. Since we are a privately owned company and never raised any capital, we have to make profit in order to develop great software — an expensive endeavor these days.
Consider these realities of the current software space: people don’t like subscriptions unless you give them a very good reason to subscribe, and productivity software rarely succeeds with freemium business models. At least for now, the choice was clear.
We decided to go with a paid upfront business model because it’s already working for us on iOS, and Mac seems to be a good fit for it as well. PDF Expert is available at an introductory price of $19.99, but that will rise in the near future to $60–70 once we add PDF editing and OCR.
The Hard Choice of a Trial
It’s hard to convince a person to spend $5 on software, how do we do that for $70?
All the major players on Mac provide trials. But how do you pick the best trial terms that both convert people into paying users and demonstrate the ultimate value of the product?
I can make an entirely separate blog post about trials, but to keep it short for now: we decided on a time limited trial with full functionality. However, watermarks will be added soon.
Giving full functionality with a limited time window won’t convert users who are coming to do one-time task (say, fill out a tax form). Since they have completed that task there is no reason to pay for the product. And we know, that it’s better to ask for money when the need is high and the maximal perception of value is at its peak.
Since this is the very first version, I wanted to get the full version into customers hands for a full seven days. We may have gained millions of customers on iOS over the years, but remember that this is the big version 1.0 debut of our first Mac app. We need to test the waters and give customers the best opportunity for feedback.
Surprisingly enough, the conversion from trial to paid is about 20%, though it’s worth pointing out these are highly motivated users who know Readdle and probably use PDF Expert on their iOS devices.
So I had PDF Expert for Mac ready, and now it’s time to prepare for a big launch. But where do I start, and how do I launch on a completely new platform?
It was crucial to see what other people are doing in this market. So I spent a decent amount of time learning and analyzing how people do business. A quick analysis of CleanMyMac, Waltr, 1Password, Fantastical, and other major players set the right narrative towards the next actions.
Backend and Licensing
Now, the App Store is a great distributional tool, but it’s also a great platform that empowers developers to focus only on making great products. I came to realise how powerful this is once I had to design and code the backend for our app to be distributed outside the App Store.
There were a few new challenges that Readdle has never had to deal with:
- Distribution — hosting and bandwidth for an app that we have high hopes to reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of customers
- An update mechanism for easy delivering new versions to all existing customers
- A licensing and activation framework
- Payment processing
Dealing with all this can be its own blog post as well. But for another short summary for now, we ended up using a combination of tools: DevMate for activation workflow and security, FastSpring for payments, and our own system for distribution and updates.
Once I had the backend ready, I could design the process for how to put this all together.
9 Marketing Steps
Of course, if an app is released but no one is told about it, was it ever really released? This is when we started preparing the marketing.
Some of my friends call me “the launch guy”, and I believe they do it for a reason.
Let me share my secrets with you.
1. Figure Out Positioning
It’s vital for every business to position itself right and to establish a strong brand. Fortunately, with PDF Expert for Mac, we had a clear product vision from the start, so this task was fairly easy this time around — it’s a fast, robust, and beautiful PDF reader for Mac. It fits where Preview is too basic and Adobe Acrobat is too complicated and expensive.
Defining your core audience might be hard sometimes, but another advantage we had in this case is the hundreds of thousands of customers who already use PDF Expert for iOS. These are people who want a better user experience and advanced functionality.
2. Craft a Great Pitch
Once you solidify the position of your product, it’s much easier to create a compelling pitch that should resonate with its intended audience and media. This topic is outside the scope of my post, but there are many articles on how to make a great pitch. I personally recommend “Pitch Perfect” by my friend Steve Sande and Erica Sadun.
3. You Need a Video
People are lazy. Or at least, a lot of them are.
Watching 51 seconds and understanding the concept is much easier than reading a webpage or article, no matter how great they are. That’s why I strongly recommend shooting a professional video for your product launch. It should be simple, short, stylish, and engaging. Don’t forget about call to action at the end.
Every product at Readdle has a video. Some of them have over 220K views on Vimeo.
P.S. Let me know if you need a video for your product or app, I’ll get you in touch with professional guys who did this video for me in just 6 days!
4. Effective Site
Just like focus is absolutely necessary when positioning your product, you need it when building your site’s messaging about it.
An effective product site needs these core principles:
- Effective — it has to convert visitors into trial users
This is what we kept in mind when building http://pdfexpert.com, and I think we did a pretty good job.
As I’ve mentioned before, email is an effective, but often overlooked, tool for communicating with your customers. While we are fortunate to have built a pretty good subscriber base over these past eight years, we had to start at zero like everyone else.
I absolutely recommend adding an email signup form on your site or apps for existing and soon-to-be customers, and make it clear what and how often you intend to share. The point is that there are people who want to hear from you and about your products. Newsletters about what’s new and tips for getting more out of your product can do wonders for your company.
There are too many articles on the topic of what and how to write to your audience, so I won’t rehash them here. However, there is one tip I don’t see mentioned often enough: don’t forget to localize all your marketing materials! It’s vital if you are aiming for a bigger reach.
Not only did we do promotional emails when PDF Expert when live, we also send:
- Informational email — On the 3rd day of a trial, we share some cool tips to keep prospective customers interested and show the value of PDF Expert.
- Trial Expiration email — This mentions the 7 days trial is about to expire and suggests getting a full version to continue using advanced features.
- Post-expiration email — This targets all those who didn’t get the full version and offers a one-time, 20% discount code for a lifetime license.
- iOS emails come when a person asks to try PDF Expert for Mac either on his/hers iOS devices or while browsing pdfexpert.com from an iOS device
I am very careful with email marketing since it’s the most sensitive medium of communication, so it’s important to build trust and be relevant.
6. In-app Correspondence
Being a multi-product company sometimes helps! Since we have millions of users across our various apps, it made sense to cross-promote PDF Expert for Mac within our other apps by showing a friendly, informative message about it.
What’s interesting is that those banners were shown on iOS devices, so people were going to our web site. Since PDF Expert for Mac is a desktop app we had to come up with a smart way for the next action.
That is why, when you visit pdfexpert.com from your mobile device and click on “Get a Free Trial”, a pop-up asks you to leave your email. Once you do that, you will get an email with more info, video and a download link that you can use when you are back to your desktop.
Don’t forget to A/B test!
A/B testing — the practice of trying variations of content to see which performs best — can double your results. I highly recommend it, and as an example, I came up with two different versions for our email. Guess which one performed better.
The dark one was 80% better, which generated 20,000 more clicks. Not bad, hey?
7. Apple Editorial
Apple is being very helpful these days, and they want developers to succeed. That is why you really should keep in touch with App Store Business Management and keep them updated on what you’re building and when you’re getting ready for a launch.
I wrote an article on how to get featured by Apple, and those points are still relevant today. If you do it right , working with Apple can do wonders for your product. Of course, you can’t avoid the most important detail of all: make a great product that people will love.
This time, we were chosen as Editor’s Choice on Mac App Store. As you’ve heard plenty of times elsewhere, this gave PDF Expert a lot of traffic and downloads.
8. iOS Free App of The Week
PDF Expert for iOS regularly costs $9.99 on the App Store, and it is the most robust editor on the platform. Apple has long wanted to feature it on Free App of the Week, so I thought this Mac launch would be a good time to do it. There are two reasons for that:
* We would gain millions of new users.
* We can sell the Mac version to those users.
Apple wound up picking PDF Expert as Free App of The Week at the very same time when the Mac version went live. This is what I mean by communicating with your Apple App Store staff.
We got 3,800,000 new users of PDF Expert on iOS in just a week, which means we got 3,800,000 chances to recommend PDF Expert for Mac to new customers.
I will make a separate blog post to delve further into when and how Free App of The Week can make sense for developers, even though we lost money for that week.
9. Talk to The Press
The best way to get covered by media is to make a product that they like and use themselves. Assuming you’ve done that and built good information resources, a video, and ultimately a great pitch, be sure to send your pitch and, to an extent, hope for the best.
Once you find the right media outlets and people to send your pitch, make yourself available. If they like what you’ve built they’ll have questions, and there’s a good chance you’ll need to get back to them the same day, if not the same hour (or sometimes less!). There are many great articles that go more in-depth into how to get your product or company covered by press, and they are still relevant.
Don’t forget to set the exact launch time and date.
Assuming you’re talking to the press a decent amount of time before you launch (and you should), be sure to set a specific launch day and time. Publications usually don’t want to get scooped on something new, but you also don’t want news of your product going out before it’s ready. This way, you cut down on confusion and customer support issues. Happy press, happy launch.
The Launch Day
At 9 AM EST on Nov 12th, our embargo lifted and the official launch began. Millions of emails were sent. Press articles and banners were activated. Social media buzz and other beautiful aspects made this launch one of the biggest in our history.
Developers don’t often do this, but I’d love to share some of our launch stats if they can help the community and other developers:
- #1 Paid App in the Mac App Store
- 20,000 Free Trial downloads in 5 days
- PDF Expert for iOS downloaded more than 3,800,000 times
- Editor’s Choice on Mac App Store
- 10–15 articles in Press
- 1000 Retweets from our blog post
- Great reviews from our users
It was one of the most exciting and exhausting periods in my life. Yet, we made it happen and there is a lot to reflect upon:
- The power of branding — All those users who bought PDF Expert for Mac instantly are familiar Readdle and they are aware of quality of the products that we ship. It’s important to build a loyal and engaged userbase around your business. They are going to be the main driver of initial adoption and sales, your best advocates and marketing. Look at Apple, for an example. How many people queue overnight to get a new shiny product? Well, H&M and Ballmain did something similar a few weeks ago :)
- Positioning is vital — As I mentioned before, it’s very important to come up with a compelling product offering and position it to the right audience. It could be a niche, or a niche of a niche. Once you make a great product for the core audience, you can expand.
- Track everything — Don’t forget to track every click. Build funnels and test your hypothesis, further adjust them and optimize results.
- A/B test! — Once you start tracking everything, be it banners, CTR, or open rates on your emails, you should start endless testing what works/ converts best without compromising users experience!
- The Mac App Store is bigger than expected — I initially thought that Mac App Store is pretty small, but it’s possible to pull solid revenue just there. #1 position in Top Charts will give you 1000–1200 installs a day in the US alone.
The Future: It’s All About Scale
We are just scratching surface on what’s possible on Mac platform. Overall, I think we ultimately provide great experience to our users across platforms. So what’s next?
Improving PDF Expert
PDF Expert for Mac is already a great product, but our goal is to make it best-in-class. That’s why our PDF team is already working at full throttle on powerful updates that will move our user experience even further ahead. For a glimpse into our roadmap, full PDF text editing and OCR are on the roadmap.
What’s interesting is that we will give these features to all existing users for free, even though the price will go up from $19.99 to $69.99.
Setting a platform for scalable growth
Some companies I know make $5–20 million a year just with 1–2 products on Mac. This means that they’ve done something right. Usually it’s about the product, positioning, and scalable marketing.
To break the approach down in terms of costs: if the lifetime value of one customer is $50, you can spend $30–40 on its scalable acquisition.
Mac is different from iOS because we finally have a bigger Life Time Value, which means that it’s easier to acquire users at scale. Again, it has to be done right. Adwords, the Facebook pixel, retargeting and remarking, great funnels, and conversions are variables that help make the whole equation work. Then there are things like bundles, discounts, and cross promotions which are all great options for driving success.
I hope that you’ve found something valuable here for you or your business. I am sure that there are many people who have spent more time in the Mac industry and have more experience they could share. I would also like to hear your thoughts on Twitter about anything I missed!