When I launched my first app, Mustache Bash, back in April 2012, I used what was then a little-known technique to get approximately 100,000 downloads in less than 48 hours for free.
After the app was approved, I set the price as $1.99 and published it. I then emailed, texted, and called friends and family, and asked them to download Mustache Bash and leave a review. Within a day or two, the app had over 20 reviews.
These activities set the stage for the technique I mentioned earlier: about a week after launch, I dropped the price from $1.99 to free, and all of the app review sites that track price drops for four- and five-star apps took notice and put up posts about Mustache Bash.
The technique worked so well that I tried it will my next app. Guess what? The price-drop only brought in around 8,000 downloads.
I share this story to emphasize a very important trait of the App Store (and also, Google Play): it changes constantly. What worked yesterday won’t work tomorrow. (Those readers who have already published apps will be nodding their heads by now.)
If you want to make money with apps, then you’ve got to watch trends, and focus on these app reskinning fundamentals, which are surprisingly easy to forget:
1) Apps don’t make you money; customers do.
What do I mean by that? You’ve got to spend money on marketing. Most developers I know—and frankly, I’d include myself in this group—spend 80-90% of their budgets on design and development. By the time the app launches they’re too strapped for cash to pay for marketing and promotion. You can have the best productivity, photo, or health app in the world, but if you can’t pay for a big marketing splash, it will sink straight to the bottom of the ol’ app ocean.
The smart developers I know spent 80% of their budgets on marketing, not product development.
Believe me, you cannot afford to ignore marketing. The day you begin development is the day you begin marketing. And when you finally publish the app, you should only be about halfway through with your launch strategy.
2) As any market matures, good design helps to separate the winners from the losers.
You might think you can’t afford top-quality design—i.e., $75 USD or more per hour. That is short-term thinking. Long-term thinking suggests the opposite: you can’t afford low-quality design.
If your app’s user interface is frustrating to use or your game’s character artwork looks like you put Super Mario Brothers and neon dyes in a blender, then most people will make a snap judgment and move on to a new app or game.
Don’t skimp on design. Come up with the absolute biggest budget you can afford (and then add another 50%).
3) Your budget is not your budget.
You’ve got to think of your app as a butterfly with multiple life cycles. Version 1.0 may only be the caterpillar. The goal of v1.0 is to figure out whether or not your assumptions about monetization and ROI were correct.
Versions 1.1 through 2.0 will involve using customer feedback and your own product roadmap to iterate quickly and improve monetization. Your app is in a chrysalis figuring out how to be a butterfly—that is, a money-making machine.
Thus, your original development budget is only your budget if you factored in 5-6 of these updates.
4) Feature creep is like high cholesterol for your app business.
Most apps just have too much going on. They’re like buffets: they do a lot of things reasonably well, but they don’t really do anything with excellence.
By contrast, the best apps typically begin their lifecycle by doing only one or two things really well: they scan documents accurately, or they enable you to put stickers on your digital photos, or they teach your kids the alphabet. They don’t also teach your kids numbers, and long division, and how to tie their shoes, and how to sell Girl Scout cookies.
The best apps deliver one complex idea or task in a simple package. Sure, you can take on a really ambitious project down the road. But don’t start with a dauntingly sophisticated project like Faded. All those extra mediocre features may just clog up arteries. Your app doesn’t need tons of sugar to make money. It needs simplicity—protein—to make money.
KISS: keep it simple, stupid.
5) Reskinning offers an inexpensive form of market validation.
By licensing an existing source code, you can minimize your app’s startup costs while also getting a working prototype into the hands of real people.
You can play around with App Store Optimization (ASO) and launch tactics. You can fine-tune your app icon, screenshots, keywords, app name, description, app size and experiment with the right mix of reviews and other launch marketing tactics. You can try a new market or test new themes, features, or ideas in an established market.
For my startup Closeup.fm, we created a “minimum viable product” before we started scaling our app into a full-featured platform. The more sophisticated apps that we release later will have a much better chance at profitability.
In short, reskinning helps you keep costs down while diversifying your app portfolio.
6) Look for hungry crowds.
You can create a product that is absolutely best-in-class that nobody wants. You can create premium Wagyu beef on homemade hamburger buns with your secret recipe ketchup, and if your restaurant is in a predominantly vegetarian neighborhood, you’ll still go out of business.
Instead of starting with what you want to create, start with what people are buying.
The App Store is brilliant in that respect: it’s a research tool that enables you to do free market research (by seeing which apps are successful), free crowdsourcing of new ideas (by reading comments for competitors’ apps), and cheap beta testing (by publishing apps and gathering feedback).
Develop apps now to feed hungry crowds. The profits from these apps can later help fund your “passion projects”—those apps that may not have a huge market or upside but that you would personally enjoy.
To see how my team has put some of these app reskinning fundamentals into practice, check out Flip Flip Fox.
Austin L. Church is Founder & Chief Newt at Bright Newt Apps.