Conscious Apps

Martin Adams discusses the technical challenges he overcame to build and eventually sell a $10 app to over 20,000 customers on the App Store.

Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?

Hello Courtland, and everyone at Indie Hackers! My name is Martin Adams, and I'm the man behind the curtain at Conscious Apps. I've loved programming since I was twelve, but was never serious about it until last year when I became a full-stack software developer.

That's when I decided to develop Conscious Apps full time. Conscious Apps is an app development agency that creates "apps with a purpose", though so far there's only one app: the Life Purpose App.

The Life Purpose App makes between $1,000 to $2,000 per month. I recently launched a new version, and it has nearly 1,200 active users so far. The success of the Life Purpose App is inspiring me to develop more apps like it.

What motivated you to get started with Conscious Apps?

When I first came across IndieHackers.com, I could scarcely believe I'd found my tribe: a community of people who find innovative ways to create passive income. For me, the urge to create passive income is driven by a desire for personal freedom. I've reluctantly come to the conclusion that I'm not made for employment — I'm too independently-minded for it — and I also don't want to continuously trade my time for money as an independent contractor.

Back in 2009, I reached out to bestselling author Dan Millman, author of Way of the Peaceful Warrior, with an idea to build an app that was based on one of his books, The Life You Were Born to Live. That book has positively affected me for nearly twenty years, so to develop an app based on this book seemed deeply rewarding.

At first, Dan replied that he wasn't interested. But then, about half a year later, he reached out to me with an "idea": would I be interested in developing this book into an app? (Apparently he had forgotten I had previously reached out with that idea.) Needless to say, I happily agreed.

I usually don't make decisions based on logic, but rather on a mixture of feelings and intuition. This was definitely the case with the Life Purpose App: its uncanny ability to reveal one's hidden life purpose made it to me a worthwhile endeavor. At the time, I had no idea about its financial potential whatsoever.

In a way — and the sweet synchronicity does not escape me — by developing the Life Purpose App, I ended up discovering a life purpose as an app developer.

What went into building the initial product?

While I had graphic design skills, I had next to no experience in Objective-C (Apple's programming language for iOS at the time), so I had to hire app developers.

This was in the early years of the iOS App Store, and there were few app developers with real skills. Worse still, those with significant skills were prohibitively expensive. Then there were the language barriers working with coders in India, the only affordable option to me. Quality-wise, you get what you pay for: v1.0 was exceptionally poor quality, and it took about 10 months to develop.

I also spent a lot of money on features that were "nice to have" but not essential to the app. I spent over $30K out-of-pocket (using my savings) developing v1.0 of the Life Purpose App. (Fortunately, I used parts of that technology to sell ebooks before the advent of Apple's iBooks app, which paid for a portion of that expense.)

Version 2 became better once I met a local app developer who agreed to also get a cut of the revenues rather than only be paid upfront. This meant I was able to upgrade the app more frequently.

However, technology kept on evolving, and I was forced once again to face the fact that I needed to further invest in the app if it was to keep pace with the times. By 2016, we were on version 4, but the app still contained mostly legacy code and was based on a 32-bit infrastructure. (It is widely believed that iOS will drop support for 32-bit apps with iOS 11 later in 2017.) The Life Purpose App also had occasional bugs which I didn't know how to fix myself. So I made the plunge and became an app developer.

Since I love the iOS platform, I tried learning Objective-C (and later Swift and Objective-C together) twice. On both occasions, I paid a lot of money for a one-week bootcamp, and each time I dropped out because I did not understand any of it. It was incredibly frustrating: how is it possible that a reasonably intelligent person with a knack for programming is unable to comprehend Objective-C? The language seemed unwieldy and complicated, as if it had been deliberately engineered to make my life as cumbersome as possible.

If employment is easy money and being an indie hacker isn't (at least at first), you have to love what you do.

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I finally came to the realization that computer programming languages are like human languages: some languages we love, while others we don't. Some we have a knack for learning, while others are just not our cup of tea. This insight helped me accept that I would never learn Objective-C, and also helped me realize that the language I do love — and have always loved since I'm also an independent web developer — was JavaScript.

Thus, I expanded my knowledge of JavaScript last year by attending Enspiral Dev Academy in New Zealand (at a discount to U.S.-based dev schools due to a beneficial exchange rate). I graduated at the end of October 2016, and on January 3, 2017, I began the difficult work of rebuilding the Life Purpose App from scratch, using Facebook's React and GraphQL technologies (which interfaces via Graph.cool, a service I highly recommend).

The iOS and Android versions use in-app purchase (starting May 1, 2017) while the web app contains a Stripe Checkout in-app purchase module. I wrote about how to create one here.

I also looked into React Native, but the effort it would take to retool the app for mobile in another JavaScript "dialect" seemed disproportionate to the needs of the app. So I kept the app in a single codebase using Cordova, a JavaScript-iOS/Android interface, and launched version 5.0 in April of 2017 for iOS, Android, and on the web at LifePurposeApp.com.

How have you attracted users and grown Conscious Apps?

As the author of 17 books, including the well-known bestseller Way of the Peaceful Warrior, Dan Millman has a consistent following. Along with the immense value that his book The Life You Were Born to Live provides (and on which the Life Purpose App is based), this following draws in the vast majority of users.

Conscious App Revenue

Overall, 22,000 users have downloaded the $9.99 app so far.

In addition to Dan's efforts, I've also played with Facebook ads, with mixed results. The final cost of ads often came in between $6.50 to $9.00 per actual sale, which more often than not was above the $6.99 profit we made per app (after deducting Apple and Google's fees). In the early days, I also advertised the Life Purpose App's Facebook and Twitter accounts, with unknown results.

It occurred to me during the development of version 5.0 that the key to selling this app is to create a community of users. Thus, I integrated user accounts into version 5.0 which allows users to personalize the Life Purpose App not only on their mobile phone, but on the web as well. (If, for example, they add the life paths of their friends on their phones, their friends will also show up in their account when they use the Life Purpose App on the web).

This, in turn, allows for email automation. Suppose someone signs up but doesn't take the $9.99 plunge after 24 hours. MailChimp will send them an email reminding them of the value of the Life Purpose App. Then there'll be another email a week later if they still haven't signed up for the full version, and so on.

This additionally opens the box for cross-promotion of other apps I might develop in the future. However, to safeguard the integrity of the services I provide and to make sure that users feel safe handing over their personal data, I've instituted a strict privacy policy. In effect, users own their own data, as they should.

What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

The Life Purpose App costs $9.99. I find this interesting, since most mobile apps are far less expensive, yet a price in this range makes sense given the value the app provides. If I had to give one piece of advice about pricing to other developers, it would be this: Insist on pricing your app well. People pay for what they value. If your app provides good value to people, they will pay for it.

Currently, there are three ways the Life Purpose App makes money: through the iOS App Store, the Google Play Store (and, to a tiny extent, the Amazon Store), and now also directly via the web.

At first, with versions 2 through 4, we had two apps: a full version for $9.99 and a "lite" free version that promoted the full version. Then, Apple came out with in-app payments (IAP), but because I didn't have the requisite programming experience, I never integrated IAP into the app—until now, with version 5.

My hunch is that free apps that contain IAPs are superior to paid apps, since many more users end up downloading them, leading to greater exposure and revenue. That's why I decided to integrate IAP into the app with version 5.

People pay for what they value. If your app provides good value to people, they will pay for it.

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However, transitioning from a paid version to a free version with IAP presents an interesting challenge. On the one hand you don't want to alienate users who previously purchased the app by charging them again via IAP. (This was especially true since the app costs $9.99, which, while fairly priced, ain't cheap).

On the other hand, neither iOS nor Android tells your app if the user is new to the app or if they bought the app previously. Therefore, how do you figure out whom to charge and whom not to charge?

That's why it was also necessary to integrate user accounts into the app. With version 5, I created a grace period during which the app continued to be sold for $9.99 and during which users who either updated it from version 4 or who bought version 5 were able to register their account for free. Then, on May 1, 2017, the app became a free app.

Now, anyone who registers from within the app will be marked not as paid, but as being on a trial. Users can then upgrade to the full version using IAP.

For iOS and Android, both Apple and Google own the IAP payment methods (while taking an incredible 30% cut). For the web app, however, I was free to integrate any payment method I wanted, so I chose Stripe Checkout, a gorgeous product that I find to be both simple and elegant. (Being a web developer, I've used it in a few client websites as well). But since the web app is only a few weeks old as of this writing, web app sales are slow so far.

Overall, my guess is that once the Life Purpose App becomes a full-fledged free app with IAP on May 1, 2017, downloads and sales will pick up. I'm estimating this will increase its monthly average revenues from its current $1K to about $2K to maybe $3K.

What are your goals for the future, and how do you plan to accomplish them?

Now that the Life Purpose App v5 is done, I'm setting my sights on the next project.

I'm not yet entirely sure whether I will replicate the partnership model that Dan Millman and I have successfully created with other content creators, or if I will set out to develop an app with a unique value proposition.

What I do know is that I'm 100% on the indie hacker bandwagon and will continue to develop passive-income generating apps that hopefully add value to people's lives.

If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

One thing I found crucial in the journey of being an app developer was applying my strengths rather than fighting against my weaknesses.

For example, instead of taking (and paying for) a second Objective-C/Swift course, I could have simply accepted early on that I had no knack for Objective-C whatsoever, and instead focused on JavaScript. Then I could have gotten started on developing early on, rather than paying other developers. This would have no doubt propelled sales much sooner.

Another important lesson for me is to know myself and to act accordingly.

I've finally admitted to myself — after struggling many years denying that reality — that I'm not a team player. It's not that I don't get along with people. On the contrary, I generally get along great with people. It's just that I love to code and design so much and that I have a precise idea about how an app should work and look (being the perfectionist I am) that I want to do the work myself.

This is difficult for me to admit, because "being a team player" is not only valued in today's economy, it's often even considered a morally-superior position. That really sucks when your natural personality gifts tell you otherwise.

Still, I better be myself "since everyone else is already taken," as Oscar Wilde reminds us. Had I accepted this sooner, I would have focused on being an indie hacker sooner in life rather than trying out employment or coasting through life on web development gigs.

What were your biggest advantages? Was anything particularly helpful?

Self-doubt is probably my biggest enemy; it's ubiquitous in my life.

During the summer of last year, my life came to a head. I felt like I had been drifting from one thing to another, not quite knowing what I should be doing with my life (whether to remain a web developer, become an app developer, or become a Ph.D. economist, since I had once written a book on a new paradigm economic system).

That's when I had a phone call with my mother during which she rightly pointed out that I was always second-guessing myself. She told me that once I chose something I needed to have faith in my choice, that no matter what obstacles I faced, I needed to persevere, and that I needed to focus with a laser vision on whatever I chose to do.

From this simple yet relatively earth-shattering counsel (my mother is a wise woman), I gleaned three necessary ingredients for success that have been with me since, and which I've been applying to the best of my abilities.

  • Focus — to do one thing at a time
  • Perseverance — to finish what I start
  • Faith — to trust that I've made the right choice and, if that choice appears to have lead me astray, to trust in the deeper purpose of that choice

I got my chance to apply these three principles while I was developing version 5 of the Life Purpose App.

At one point I hit an intense block: React Native or Cordova? Would the app even be able to do all the things it needed to do using Cordova? I explored certain paths for days on end, only to then tear that work down. I became overwhelmed with self-doubt and I didn't know if I would even be able to finish the app (after all, I'd never done anything like this before).

Yet I knew I had to focus, persevere, and have faith. And sure enough, after three and a half months of long days and a few restless nights, version 5 was complete.

What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?

Even though it's cheesy to do, I can't think of a better piece of advice for indie hackers than to reiterate the famous words of Steve Jobs. And even though they've been rehashed a countless times across the internet, the truth contained within them bears repeating (regardless of whether one thinks Steve Jobs was a genius, a jerk, or both):

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

To "follow your heart" is the best advice for indie hackers, I think. Because if employment is easy money and being an indie hacker isn't (at least at first), you have to love what you do so that your passion can sustain you as you move toward greener pastures. And even if you don't, at the very least you'll have had fun along the way, and you'll likely have become a better human being as well.

Where can we go to learn more?

Please feel free to ask me anything! So glad to have found my tribe, fellow indie hackers!

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