Many thanks to App Disciple for letting us share their article with Rob Caraway, offering insightful tips on validating an app idea and growing your user numbers.
Tell Us About Yourself and What Are You Working on
I’m Rob Caraway, an iOS developer, and entrepreneur living in Austin, Texas. I developed a portfolio of apps, with GifShare (an app that allows Instagram users to share great GIFs) as the most popular among them.
Currently, after selling my last app portfolio with 725k downloads and peak revenue of 10k/month in 2016, I’m working on sharing everything I know about apps and looking for opportunities to begin another app portfolio.
How Did You Come Up with the Idea to Build Your App?
In early 2014, I’d used all my savings to build an app that took five months of my time, only to flop. The pain of that failure motivated me to improve my process — I wanted to validate that my app would get downloads before ever building it.
I started immersing myself in other people’s problems and asking people, both offline and online if they had any particular problems an app could solve.
My last app portfolio, starting with GifShare, was eventually brought to my attention by a stranger who found me on the internet through a Reddit post. He told me it would be cool to have an app that allowed sharing GIFs onto Instagram.
I thought “that doesn’t exist yet?!”
You Had a Great Strategy for App Idea Validation. Tell Us More About It.
I believe you shouldn’t build your app until you’ve got an audience ready to use it. Traffic is the hardest part of making a successful app so I wanted to spend the time getting that right before anything else.
I used the web to search related keywords. Most things ranking high for keywords related to “Instagram GIFs” had Youtube videos, Yahoo Answers, and blog posts ranking near the top.
So I created a landing page using QuickMVP that I made in like an hour and posted it to the Youtube comments, Yahoo Answers as answers, and blog comments saying something like “This app here solves this problem pretty well: [link to landing page].”
Since the app GifShare didn’t exist yet, I instead linked them to a page that said “this app isn’t quite ready, but sign up with your email and get notified when it is.” To my surprise, lots of people enthusiastically signed up and couldn’t wait for the app.
How Did You Go About Developing Your App? What Was Your MVP?
My MVP was as basic as possible. The app needed to convert a users’ GIF file to a video shareable to Instagram, so it allowed
- Choosing a GIF from the camera roll
- Cropping it to fit Instagram (back when that mattered)
- Converted the GIF to the new video, and
- Allowed saving to the camera roll and opening Instagram
It took about a week of work to throw together. My app icon was really bad and I only used one screenshot because I wanted to see if users would even use a barely functional version.
When Did You Start App Marketing? What Was Your Budget for the Same?
Because I had traffic coming to my landing page already, marketing was already happening. When my app went live, I switched my landing page link to the App Store link and put a download link on the existing landing pages.
I notified my email list and my first version averaged somewhere around 150-200 downloads daily.
How Does Your App Make Money?
In June 2014, its first month, the app did ~$900 in revenue. At that point, I thought that if I made this puny app into something with better design and functionality, maybe I could turn it into something I could live from.
In order to do that, I needed to experiment a lot to see what worked. On the App Store, experimenting was a huge pain. Pushing an update could take upwards of eight days and could even get rejected, meaning you’d have to submit the update again.
I had a handful of excruciating weeks where changes I made negatively impacted sales, and I just had to live with it.
That pain made for a great teacher. I found ways around these long updates by planning certain changes I was going to make in advance. Also, programming a “switch” for them onto a back-end service was a great help.
This way, I could measure the results of the change, and if they sucked, I could immediately change them back, or in some cases try another option.
Once I adopted a faster mobile strategy, I was able to figure out the major elements that grew GifShare’s daily downloads much more quickly:
- Good app reviews
- Great app icon and App Store screenshots
- Effective watermark
GifShare and GifLab both benefited from using a watermark on the resulting video that said “Made with GifShare/Giflab” and users could pay to remove the watermark.
The initial version of GifShare charged 0.99 to remove the watermark but the final version was all the way up to 3.99.
There were other in app purchases to unlock fonts and filters but these only accounted for 5% or so upgrades.
What’s Next for You?
I’m writing some very high quality, free courses on three things:
- Building an app from scratch
- App building for an existing audience (Building an app for your existing web app), and
- Build apps to maximize sales (focuses on the app itself, not traffic)
I’m offering various reports and other productized consulting along with development soon. I’m also collaborating with a business partner on starting a new app portfolio, that’s in the really early stages though.
What’s Your Advice for App Disciples Who Are Just Starting Out?
Learn to market your apps. Building your apps and never showing them to anyone is the easiest thing in the world.
Get your work in front of people and listen to their feedback. Talk to people about your work. Gauging people’s feedback towards your products is a very valuable skill set.
Put in the time. I sucked when I started but I always reminded myself that each failure I went through made me better. You cannot skip this.
Think of each failure as one step closer to being good. Failures are a good investment.
I started entrepreneurship six years ago. While I was lucky to do it full-time, that’s a six-year investment that will pay off for the rest of my life.
Forget about money — I’ve learned to be in full control of my time, energy, and to surround myself with good people. Sometimes I take it for granted how liberating all that is.
I encourage others to think similarly. Entrepreneurship can be accomplished through small phases of taking control of your life.
Where Can We Go to Learn More?
What Tools/Books Do You Find Indispensable for Your App Business?
- The Four Steps to the Epiphany is a hard read but totally worth it.
- Chad Mureta’s App Empire is a bit dated, but the basic structure of making your own apps is still there.
- The Lean Startup is another favorite book.
- And obviously, Xcode and Git since I develop myself 🙂
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