Rob Caraway explains how he carefully conducted market research to find and validate an idea for a suite of mobile apps that netted him over $240,000.
Discuss this interview or ask questions of your own for Rob.
Hey there, great post!
I am a designer who has been working remotely for about 6 months now and have spent my spare time learning Swift. I found the decision between learning swift vs web programming tricky, but after about 10 hours on both, I felt swift was more for me. The problem is, I am always disheartened when I see blog posts like "the app store is dying" or "I havent downloaded an app all 2017" with plenty of comments seeming to agree.
Do you feel it is still worth getting into the appstore with the intent to make products but also potentially make money (im not talking massive amounts, just maybe enough to live on).
Also, within your app portfolio (can you list some of the apps that were big hits and some that failed by any chance?) did you ever get copycats and how did you deal with them? I want to test an idea by landing page whilst I slowly learn (and build) an app but worried that someone who already knows how to make it will obviously be faster and get it out much quicker than I will?
AppStore is not dying. It'll be growing as long as Apple sells more iPhones.
For solo-preneurs I would strongly advise AGAINST doing mobile, for several reasons:
prices are low. At $.99 per app, you have to sell 10k each month for a full-time salary
competition is insane. Every app that is successful and easy to clone (and most of them are easy to clone) will be cloned (according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flappy_Bird Flappy Bird was getting 60 clones PER DAY at peak)
you can't go deep (i.e. sustain the app over a long term by adding useful features)
it's a hit driven marketplace - most people discover apps by using various top 10 lists. If you're in that list, you make a lot of money but if you're not, you're making next to nothing
Since you're learning Swift I recommend writing Mac OS X apps.
If you solve non-trivial problem, you can charge at least $29 per app, so you only need to sell 30 copies per month.
There's always competition but it's much lower on Mac. For example, there's only one really good GUI client for Postgres - there's room to compete there.
You have more opportunities to do marketing (content marketing).
The apps are usually more complex so that if you have a successful product, you can spend years adding more features that will be useful for your users.
With complex apps there are more opportunities to distinguish yourself by doing things differently.
For example, I believe you could compete even in a very crowded space like file managers as long as you build some unique UX or functionality that existing file managers don't have.
Yeah that was my main problem when deciding general web dev or swift . The fact that the app store seems hard to compete in with so many apps yet so little space to be seen. And then everywhere I read about someones app randomly spiking getting to liveable amounts then dropping again.
If I were to sell apps at .99 I would be happy enough to just sell 3000 a month, but that still seems like a lot to me. I did look into more Mac OS X apps and have a few ideas to solve personal problems (or making better looking ones of down right ugly apps I do use). I have been tempted to stop with swift and learn web dev, but then it seems to me there are so many web apps as well, that that would be just as hard a market to break into. The only real thing that kept me within swift is that whole server side swift thing? (specifically vapor) which from what I understand, is basically making web apps with swift instead of the multiple alternative languages.
What are your thoughts on learning native app vs web dev stuff?
Both desktop apps (Mac or Windows) and web apps are good choices, as long as the idea is viable. So I would focus on generating ideas, pick the best one and then decide if it's best done as web app or desktop app.
Sometimes the decision is obvious, sometimes you have to consider pros and cons.
Web apps those days are much more about front end (for which I recommend TypeScript and React) than the backend.
I wouldn't use Swift for the backend. Even the OS X UI stuff is still in flux and immature and backend stuff has not been validated at all.
Personally I use Go for the backend and TypeScript + React for the front end (that's how I built e.g. https://quicknotes.io).
Unlike Swift, Go has been validated as a backend language (I keep a list of companies using Go in production https://quicknotes.io/n/1XB0-companies-using-go).
The App Store is 100% not dying but growing fast. "I havent downloaded an app all 2017" << People who say this are not your market then.
"Do you feel it is still worth getting into the appstore with the intent to make products but also potentially make money (im not talking massive amounts, just maybe enough to live on)."
"...worried that someone who already knows how to make it will obviously be faster and get it out much quicker than I will?"
This is a worry that many newbie entrepreneurs face. I can assure you that it is nonsense-- no one is going to take your idea. I never dealt with any copycats worth anything.
Thanks for the reply.
I know it is a very common worry around newbie entrepreneurs (wantrepreneurs as some call them!) but I guess it is just something that fades away after realising it yourself. So I appreciate the reminder/reassurance.
"The App Store is 100% not dying but growing fast. "I haven't downloaded an app all 2017" << People who say this are not your market then"
Yeah I guess you are right. It just seems everyone I follow in certain fields seem to say it, but I guess that's because the ones who are downloading it are not mentioning it.
Again, really great post. I shall be keeping my eyes on your website for new posts/updates :)
I think now ill take some time out from learning to code and get a landing page up to validate my idea. Do you have any other initial marketing tips beyond the ones you mentioned?
The thing about marketing is you're free to be creative. The important thing is simply: does it get your idea in front of people you hypothesize could be converted to customers? If it fulfills that, you're in good shape. Be prepared to try a lot of different channels and ideas, its rarely going to be the first one that works.
I agree that no-one copies ideas but I think it's very common to copy successful products.
For iOS cloning is common, especially for 1 person businesses, because if it was possible to write by 1 person, it's even easier to clone by 1 person (you can skip the time that original developer spent iterating on UI).
That's why every obvious simple app has 10+ implementation (todo lists, note takers, flashlights, timers of all kinds).
Even huge businesses can be copied if you have ruthless, equally big competitor (see Snapchat features being copied by Facebook's Instagram).
That's why I think desktop apps are much less risky than mobile apps. There's less developers and before other people realize your product is successful, you have a year or 2 to build a competitive moat (2 years of engineering can't be copied as easily, your SEO ranking won't be easily overcame etc.).
"That's why I think desktop apps are much less risky than mobile apps"
I don't disagree at all. Mobile is flooded and the margins are low per download.
For some ideas, it still makes sense. In fact, I encourage most mobile developers to also learn a web stack (I use MEAN.js) so that they're ideas are not limited to one platform.
Would you learn Swift or MEAN first?
I can't really answer this without knowing anything about your situation. Listen to your gut?
I think I'll go with Swift first since that's what everyone on ProductHunt seems to do. Thanks!
Great insights, thank you for sharing your story. I've loved the advice you've left at the end of the article.
I wonder how you sold the app. Did you use any marketplace?
Can you elaborate more here?
and sold for how much?
Curious what your conversion rate was from free to paid users? I've got several apps in the 2-3% range (which I don't love, but I feel like isn't too far outside of normal). If I could get to 5-7% I'd be thrilled. (Note these are subscriptions and not 1 time payments)
I believe I had around 7-9% conversion rate though my rate was way above industry standards. I experimented with lots of changes to get that number to go up using my backend service. It helped to have a strong grasp on good app design.
Yeah that's definitely fantastic
"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."
Any advice or strategies for finding these problems or pain points for apps?
Hey dc, I'm writing in elaborate detail currently about idea discovery and finding real problems. Will go up first on my email list!
very inspiring! I made a video in Chinese for Chinese reader：https://youtu.be/HSUcXN57BJc 我做了个中文版的总结视频在这里
Rob, great interview! What is your best tip or tips for user onboarding?
What is your opinion on mobile web app verse native apps?