Hello Weather

Jonas Downey talks about design as a competitive advantage, the challenges of succeeding on the App Store, and the economics of running a side project.

Hello! Tell us about yourself and what you're working on.

Hi! My name's Jonas. I'm a product designer at Basecamp and the co-creator of a useful little iOS app called Hello Weather.

I'm a bit of a professional misfit. I studied Computer Science in college and came out of it feeling creatively unfulfilled, so I decided to go art school, too. I got my MFA after a few years of making weird net-art projects about data and truth.

Throughout that time, I always loved building things on the web, and so web design evolved into my full-time career after school. I started doing UI design for scientific software at Argonne National Laboratory, and from there I found my way to Basecamp.

These days I'm always working on great new features and refinements for Basecamp 3, and in my occasional free time I dream up new fun stuff for Hello Weather.

What motivated you to get started with Hello Weather? What were your initial goals? And how'd you come up with the idea?

My friend Trevor and I were complaining about weather apps a few years ago. There were seemingly endless weather apps in the App Store, but nobody had really nailed a decent UI. Most apps were either too simplistic and gimmicky, or heinously overcomplicated.

We thought we could do better by making something totally obvious: an app that showed only the most important info in one straightforward view.

We also wanted to learn how to make a native app from scratch. (We were web veterans, but entirely new to native app development.) I don't think either of us anticipated that we'd actually finish a shippable product — we just wanted to fiddle around with an idea and have fun for a while.

What did it take to build the initial product? How long until you were ready to launch?

It took almost 2 years from conception to our first production release in the App Store. That long gestation period was due to:

  1. Our limited free time, since this is a side project.
  2. Our total lack of knowledge about iOS development.
  3. Our total lack of knowledge about the domain. We had no experience working with weather forecast data, so we had to figure it all out as we went along.

What marketing strategies have you used? How have you attracted users and grown Hello Weather?

We didn't start the project with any marketing strategy at all, since our only goal was to make an app we'd personally use and enjoy. After we did that, we felt it was good enough to share with the world, too, so we made a website and a Twitter account. That way we could talk about it and show it to our friends.

Our first release wasn't very good. It was slow, buggy, and missing a bunch of features. We didn't charge any money for it. We just wanted people to try it and tell us what they thought.

To our surprise, the app received some attention on Product Hunt, and then got positive reviews in AppAdvice and Macworld. That sent some nice traffic spikes our way. We quickly amassed a few thousand downloads, which gave us a bit of motivation to continue working on it.

We spent the next few months fixing the bugs and problems that inevitably surface when you launch something to a wider audience. Then in the summer of 2016, we improved the fundamentals, added more features, and made the app blazing fast. We also introduced some in-app purchases for the first time, in the form of an optional Fan Club membership.

We called that release Hello Weather 2.0, and wrote about it with a couple of blog posts on Medium. After that launch, we got even more positive press on Product Hunt and Twitter, and downloads shot up again.

Feeling proud of what we'd accomplished, we took a shot in the dark and asked Apple to feature Hello Weather in the App Store. Again to our surprise, they did just that! We've been featured at the top of the Weather category for a couple of months now.

To date, Hello Weather has a 5-star rating in the App Store. It's been downloaded 25,000 times, and we have around 2,500 daily active users. We have a sweet and enthusiastic group of people using the app, and it's been fun and rewarding to get to know them and hear their feedback. The response has exceeded all of our (modest) expectations in every dimension.

How does your business model work? What's the story behind your revenue?

This isn't our full-time job, so we're able to be pretty loose about making money. We mostly want the app to pay for itself so we can keep it running without paying out of pocket. (Weather apps incur ongoing API and server infrastructure costs, so it's not free to maintain.) Any profits we make on top of that will go back into making the app better by adding new features that were otherwise cost prohibitive, like additional weather data providers.

Currently we've kept the app free to download, so anyone can use it for as long as they want at no cost. The free version includes all the important fundamentals, so you could use it as your main weather app without paying and be plenty satisfied.

If you end up liking it or you want to support us, then you can join our Fan Club (via an in-app purchase) which also unlocks a bunch of bonus features. Right now we have three tiers for the Fan Club: a 1-year membership at $1.99, a 2-year membership at $2.99, and a lifetime membership at $4.99.

We believe that our app competes entirely on design, so we've resisted including ads or charging upfront. That stuff would probably make us more money, but would also detract from the premium feel we're going for.

We've only had our in-app purchase setup for about five months, and so far we've made $3,000 in sales. That's more than enough to cover our costs to build and run the app — we've paid about $1,000 in total so far.

However, in the scheme of things, $3,000 is pretty paltry. It's a bad sign that after a lot of work, some decent press coverage, and even an App Store feature from Apple, we haven't made anywhere near enough to support one full-time developer on the project. The iOS App Store economics are rough.

What are your goals for the future? Any big challenges you see on the horizon?

We're planning to add a few more exclusive features and then double the Fan Club prices. We may also eventually do ads on the free tier. This app is a fun tech experiment, but it's also a business experiment, so we're open to messing around with the business model to see how things turn out.

We'd also like to do some platform ports. It's pretty likely we'll make a Mac app and maybe an Apple Watch app in the future. Android's not out of the question, but we don't regularly use Android, so I think we'd end up neglecting it.

The biggest challenge will be our long-term attention. It's hard to keep a side project running forever, because life stuff gets in the way. We really do love this app though, so I think we'll stick with it.

What are the biggest lessons you've learned so far? What's been most helpful to you on your journey?

We learned a lot about what it takes to make native apps, how to promote them, and what kind of money you can make. Our expectations were always quite modest, so any progress we made was always a pleasant surprise. If we had entered into this project looking to get rich, famous, or quit our day jobs, we would have been sorely disappointed!

When we were first starting out, we made one important decision that set us up for success: we made a real prototype web app in Rails. Then we used that as a home screen web app on our phones for over a year, so we could determine what weather information was most valuable and fine tune all the details.

We didn't make a real native app until we were confident we had a strong concept and design, and at that point, it was relatively easy to wrap a native UI around our webview. (To this day Hello Weather is still a hybrid web/native app, and it probably always will be.)

I firmly believe we'd have failed if we tried to do native stuff right away. The web app gave us a massive head start. I highly recommend this approach.

What's your advice for aspiring indie hackers?

Find a problem you personally care about and build what you believe in. Don't put pressure on yourself to nail down a perfect product right away. Grow it slowly. It's OK to release stuff that's incomplete. Experiment and have fun. Instead of expecting to have success, expect failure and be pleasantly surprised by success.

Where can we go to learn more?

Check out the Hello Weather site to read more about what it does and why it's different. You can download it on the App Store here. You can also follow along on Medium or Twitter to keep up with what we're doing.

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