Aleksandar • Vacić

iOS bits and pieces

The App Store's slow grind

Last few days, the mood turned way too sombre among iOS app developers. I see it going in cycles, but the worrying trend is that period between those days is getting shorter. This time is was sparked by Jared Sinclair’s post about the sales numbers for one of the best RSS readers on iOS: Unread.

Given the feature placements on the App Store, glowing reviews at prominent blogs - I expected this app to have earned at least 300-400k. Instead, it barely eked out over 40k. For such a quality app, this is really disheartening.

Many people chimed in, before and after with varying thoughts, but frankly - the mood is not good. I may be wrong, but I think that Jared is now in the position where I was about 3-4 years ago, but with way more success and recognition than I had back then and now. Which is fantastic position to bounce up, if he chooses to do so.

My history back then was:

  • I had a so-so app that I used to learn Objective-C (Run Mate)
  • I had come to realization that the app I invested months on was a rather big flop (Quickie to do)
  • I had few other apps that were very simple and did not amount to much, despite one earning over 2k$ for essentially 6 evenings of work

In essence - I wanted to be in this business, but I was unsure will it be worthwhile. As life would often do, other factors decided instead of me and I had no other avenue than to pursue this career.

I had to make it work so I looked around and examined what other developers have tried to do. One great example I found was Mr. Underscore. I noticed David through Marco’s repeated mentions on the great Build & Analyze podcast. I went in, checked out the apps on his site and went to his App Store profile, where I was shocked to find that he (at the time) had over 450 published apps.

“Holly crap! If at least quarter of those get one sale per day, he has 300$+ per day”

In reality, it may be more, it may be less, but it does not matter. I realized that’s the way you need to approach this market. Do not put all your cards in one sleeve, get them all over and on average you’ll probably do fine.

At that time, my best app ever - Go Couch to 5k - has just heavily dropped in sales. From being able to easily support my whole family on its own it went to not earning enough to pay for monthly expenses. In the span of just one month.

So the first thing I tried was to replicate the engine of this app and publish several apps with varying running programs. 1 mile, 2mi, cardio intervals etc. I spent about a month working on this, published 6 apps and…it flopped. It amounted to nothing, not even recouping the cost of my time.
Ok, so…that failed.

Time to try something else; I looked around the App Store, looked at the charts, what I could do better than the apps that were there. I noticed that the Catalogs category on the iPad was overrun with a pile of crap & nonsense (it still is, just look at it). Hm…catalogs…

I noticed there were many apps pretending to be car collections, but mostly being re-packaged crap picked up from the Google image search, some even not bothering to pack up any actual content - literally wrappers around web search.

So what I did was build a template app where I could give it an icon, a .zip file of pics and few other necessary bits and just create dozens of targets in the same project. I built - for that time - great interface based on spiffy new collection views and published them all in the span of 2-3 months, just before Christmas.

I figured - as a college guy at the dawn of the Internet, I collected two things - pictures of supermodels and fast cars. Heh - I got my first web gig using tribute to supermodels of the 90s as main CV item. I spent weeks collecting those pics back then so I figured some other young chaps would not hesitate to spend few bucks to get something like 150-250 hand-picked beautiful photos.
This did good. Nothing earth-shattering, but at least I started to earn enough to not worry about monthly bills. And there was no support. These apps just sat there, dripping few bucks a day.

Still, it was not enough. My C25K app was repeatedly getting great reviews, people who bought it were very satisfied but it was darn impossible to get traction. It was and it still is the most expensive app of its kind. Everything else was either free or $1-3 - mine was pocket-ripping 5! Jiminy, a whole huge latte!

So I thought to try something else - I would leave the paid app on the store, but I would also publish a free to try app that has 2 weeks (6 runs) for free, but if you want to complete the program’s 9 weeks you would need to pay the same $5 as in-app purchase. I figured this gives people enough time to try the app and see is it worth it to them.
I knew the app was good and I needed to get some downloads. But - I failed to get a single review of this app. I failed to get even a whiff of a feature on the store. And yet, probably through search - yes, that App Store search - I was getting several 100s downloads per day and after about a month I started getting a very nice conversion rate.

After about 3.5 years of trying, I got myself to first sustainable revenue stream with no unexpected spikes. Along with catalog apps, I had a steady business, enough to sustain me and my family here in Serbia.

Coming back to the topic of the day - the revenue is about 40% lower this summer than the year before. This sort of confirms what other devs are worrying about. However, I don’t think this is that hard to explain. One reason is that competition in the Fitness category is freaking insane these days, probably the most crowded market apart from games. And most of them are (initially) free and/or venture backed. But it’s also a fact that my C25k app is still sporting iOS 6 look & feel. (That will change in upcoming weeks). It’s also a fact that it still has 100-150 downloads per day, it’s not a lost cause. I have high hopes for the second part of this year, fingers crossed.

What would I do in Jared’s position?

  • Raise the app prices now: iPhone $4.99 (he did this), iPad $9.99. Forget about discounts and sales.
  • Make a much better and more informative app site than this. Show the people what they will get for their money.
  • Make a video of about 2mins or so that shows what the app does, highlight the user experience bits.
  • From then on, leave it in maintenance mode, without major new development. It’s one of the best as it is, it’s worth the money already.
  • While that’s there, think up about 2-3 concepts of simpler apps, possibly some that could be templated. Hell - make it be with some API you never worked with before, just so you get experience.
  • Aim for 20 SKUs by the end of year, preferably apps that don’t require much support
  • Get few contract gigs to fill the holes

Then use all that to have a piece of mind and then start working on what your heart asks you to do. And price it way above the muck that dominates the store and look for better customers.

Slow grind. This is the only way to stay afloat. The time of one-app indie life is mostly gone and it takes a whole lot of luck to achieve that today, as Brent’s call-out showed.

If I was 20, I would probably try few more times to score big. Being almost 40 and having a family, this is not an option. I need a steady business.