Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?
My name is Ross Rojek, and I didn't really get into tech as a creator until 2009. I had started a book review business in 2008 with my wife Heidi, and we wanted to make an app for the kids' book reviews we'd been doing. So I dug around online, found a platform that seemed to do what we wanted, and got an app produced.
The system was easy enough that I made a second personal app for a nearby wine region we had started visiting regularly, and one of the major wineries in the area asked if we could make it public and offered to help pay for it. That was our entrance into app development. Since then, we've made more than 100 apps for ourselves and clients. Along the way, we've used a number of app marketing and analytics services.
I was a fairly early Product Hunt user — I was on Ryan Hoover's email list originally. It helped me keep up-to-date on new apps, tools, and trends. One of the tools that I found through Product Hunt was LaunchKit.io. The first tool they launched was a screenshot builder, which not only let you create your screenshots with comments, but also exported them in the various phone sizes (an annoying problem with iTunes at the time). So we started using that and the other couple of services they rolled out.
In July 2016, Cluster, the parent company of LaunchKit, was acquired by Google, and LaunchKit was sunsetted for July 2017. We were dependent on several of the services, so we started looking around for replacements, and then decided to take the open-source version of LaunchKit and rebrand it as AppToolkit.io.
What went into building the initial versions of AppToolkit?
My initial thought when they announced that LaunchKit was going to be shutting down was, "I hope someone picks it up." My second thought was, "Why not us?" So, diving into this was a decision based on need and assumptions that we weren't the only ones in this position needing a LaunchKit-like service.
Because we'd already used all of LaunchKit's services previously, we didn't really need to validate the project. We knew from a user experience perspective what we liked and what we didn't, so our approach was more "let's get this done for ourselves and then open it to other users to reduce our costs" rather than an independent product launch. All of our initial work was from that point of view. Creating a service for ourselves and our app clients and any paying users would be a bonus.
As we got closer to launch and had some early beta users, we realized that we probably did have an independent platform that could have a serious user base. One of the first additions we made to the screenshot builder was allowing horizontal screenshots. For whatever reason, no one had ever made them as an option, which surprised me, because so many games are played in landscape. Once we added that, our users for the screenshot builder started growing just from word of mouth.
AppToolkit.io's home page today.
We've always been a bootstrapped company. My wife and I still do the book review business I mentioned earlier (her more than I), and I focus on the apps and some website technology. We used our cash flow from that to pay for AppToolkit, and sometimes AppToolkit development was put on hold while our app business other in-house tasks took priority.
What else went into getting ready for launch? How long did it take?
I think we probably dedicated 20-30 hours a week to AppToolkit over about four months. (We still spend about that much time as we continue working on new services.) It probably took about three months just to start letting users in.
Our long-time app developer, Casey, shifted his primary focus from updating and adding to our app code base to digging into AppToolkit almost full time. Because (we think) the original LaunchKit code was sort of bolted onto each previous piece, he had to just work at one segment, then the next, and often go back to the previous to do new edits as we found problems or user tracking elements that needed updating.
A lot of the technology we use for app development was actually good for this. We develop native apps, but we use an online content management system (CMS) for content updates and image dumps. So throwing up several new instances on Amazon's EC2 and setting up Route 53 and S3 buckets was the easy part. Dealing with load balancing and data moving between several different instances, along with front-end dev work, rewriting the existing content, and replacing it with our own was harder.
We had some friends from the Product Hunt community kick the tires and give us feedback on the initial screenshot and website builders and the iTunes review monitor. This was the period when we started feeling comfortable making small changes to each of the initial services.
Getting initial user feedback from people who had previously used LaunchKit was also valuable. I always worry about making product and business decisions just based on my needs or beliefs, realizing I'm a sample size of one. Adding in new opinions is critical for development of any new product or service.
What strategies have you used to attract users and grow AppToolkit?
Once we were comfortable with the three public services, we launched on Product Hunt. I figured because AppToolkit wasn't entirely "new" technology, we wouldn't have the best launch ever, but it was a good start. We ended up in the top ten, but not the top five. One of the other products launched that day was self-tying shoe laces, so my main goal for the day was just to beat them, which we did.
Because we're mainly focused on app developers or app owners who aren't developers, we have a pretty narrow audience. I've made some Reddit posts and Show HNs, a newsletter to our early signups, and some blog and directory listings. We also submitted to BetaList and a few other product sites, looking for early users of the SDK before releasing it to everyone else. But Product Hunt and BetaList are the two big ones in the early adopter field.
As we go forward, we're doing general outreach through some PR channels, interviews like this, and some advertising. We're about to try Twitter ads, aiming them at people who have followed or used LaunchKit and tweeted about it. Our actual medium-term goal is to be the top search result when someone googles "LaunchKit replacement," because LaunchKit will be closing soon, and any legacy users there will need a place to go. We also integrated the LaunchKit API into AppToolkit, so we can easily move over an existing user's content from LaunchKit (their screenshots and websites).
We're feeling out a partnership with Mockuuups to integrate some of their images into the website builder and give them credit in the footer of every website that uses them. That might let us tap into the Mockuuups' audience and start getting some of them to use the screenshot builder or website builder.
We've considered doing a small side project similar to Mockuuups, but as a selection of phone/tablet images that can be used for app marketing. We figured we could create a series of images of devices being used in real-world situations that marketers would like, similar to what Crew did with Unsplash. However, if the partnership with Mockuuups works out, we probably won't create that.
We have a lot of payroll costs sunk into this project, but less than if we'd done it from scratch. Using open-source code to build the basics of AppToolkit was really helpful. We wouldn't have been able to afford it otherwise.
What are your goals for the future, and how do you plan to accomplish them?
We've already hit our first couple of goals:
- get enough paying users to cover the cost of the AWS bill
- get more than 100 users total
The next milestone will be to gain enough paying users to cover the cost of ongoing development hours, so that it becomes revenue neutral. Beyond that, we'd like to generate enough revenue to recoup all the initial development costs, so that AppToolkit will be a working standalone project.
Because our initial product is based off of someone else's code, we're making lists of the things we want to do to expand it and make it unique to us. We want to be a place where LaunchKit users can easily move to, but we don't want to be seen as just a LaunchKit clone. We have a really good base to start from, so our new features can really make us useful.
Today we really believe that AppToolkit is more than just a side project that helps us and our existing app clients. It has the potential to be a complete set of tools for app developers for their marketing and user management. Our goal by summer 2017 is to move from being a "LaunchKit Replacement" to a fully developed independent platform.
What have been your biggest challenges?
I initially hired an outside developer to take a look at the code. It didn't cost much, but it was a waste of time. I eventually realized that it was better to assign that work to our in-house developer, Casey, who had to figure out the iOS code base and CMS, and write the Android code from scratch. He's been instrumental in developing our app and getting AppToolkit launched. Overall, however, we probably lost 2 months in just getting started.
Casey was also living in Taiwan and working remotely, so when he decided to move back to California over the Thanksgiving holiday, we probably lost another month of dev time. But I don't know that we could have avoided that.
Review Monitor by AppToolkit.
This particular project came down to being in the right place at the right time. LaunchKit could have chosen not to release their code to open source, in which case we never would have had the chance to develop AppToolkit. But at the same time, taking it and doing something with it wasn't a weekend project. At this point, we've put hundreds of hours into it, which we could have used on something different to make money sooner.
What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?
Don't be afraid to try something just as a test. You don't know what will work and what won't until you get at least one person you don't know to try something out and see if they'll use it. Market-fit surveys only do part of that. I might tell you I'm interested in your idea, but until I see it and put a credit card in play you won't know if I'm actually interested.
But there is a balance: You can't just throw an MVP together and make a single post to Reddit. You have to keep at it over a period of time, looking for users, and retooling what you did based on user response.
Making an MVP is key, but it's also important to have an idea of what'll work and make money, and to understand the needs of your target market.
I don't read as many business books as I used to. Too many of them are either too narrow or not specific enough. (I know, an odd complaint.) But for me, a business book should be practical, with specific tools to help you achieve the ideas presented in the book. And not too many business books do that. However, some of the books that have influenced me a lot on how to approach new ideas or projects include:
- Blue Ocean Strategy by Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim
- Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur
- The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
- The Upstarts by Brad Stone; I also interviewed him for my Startup BookBuzz podcast
I think we're going to see more actionable strategies from podcasts and newsletters over business books. Consumers have less time to commit to long form reading, so capturing several ideas from a Medium publication or some YouTube videos is probably the trending alternative.
Podcasts and newsletters are also critical. Sign up for a bunch, read/listen to them over a couple of weeks, and unsubscribe from the ones that didn't give you anything new after four listens.
That's why I started the book reviews originally. I'd read the New York Times Book Review for 6 weeks in a row and didn't see a single book I wanted to read. Considering I'm open to a lot of different genres and styles, that's not a good thing. So I figured there must be a market for a book review that is more open to genre fiction, along with all the mainstream stuff. Accordingly, we launched the City Book Review in 2008, and we're still running that as our primary income nine years later.
Where can we go to learn more?
Our social media is:
Feel free to ask my questions or leave comments below. I'll check back to answer all of them.