Making Over $500,000 By Building the First Face Swapping App

Can you tell us about yourself and what you built?

Hi, I'm Jonathan Plackett. My company is called I Think And Do, and 4 years ago I made the first automatic face swapping app: Face Juggler. Since then it's been copied by everyone.

The peak monthly revenue was about $45,000 back in 2012, but today the app is free, as there are much better apps available doing video face swapping, including Snapchat.

What led to you creating Face Juggler?

I started out doing a graphic design degree and then converted to advertising. I got a job as an advertising creative coming up with ideas for adverts. My favorite type was online and interactive ideas, and I ended up teaching myself to program to help other people understand those ideas.

I'm a bit of a jack of all trades with programming. I started with Flash and PHP, and then moved to JavaScript. When the iPhone came out I thought Flash's days were numbered, so I started learning Objective C. At the time I was just between two advertising jobs and had a bit of time to spare to play around. Face Juggler was my first app!

How'd you come up with the idea?

About a year before I started Face Juggler, I'd written down a goal in my diary to make a website that 1 million people visited. (I had just listened to one of Anthony Robbins' courses. I think he's a genius.) I didn't deliberately make Face Juggler to do that, but I think I had it in the back of my mind. I saw the new face detection technology Apple had put in iOS5 and thought I could use it for something funny, so I started playing around and came up with face swapping.

In order to validate the idea, I showed the initial version to my wife (my girlfriend at the time) and a few friends, and they thought it was funny. That was it really, but I think that's the most important test for something that's meant to keep people amused. If you make things that you and your friends like, chances are other people will like them too.

What did it take to build the initial version?

Face Juggler is the embodiment of the 80/20 principle. It only took about 2 weeks to think of and make. I just built the absolute most basic version I could. No added features or adjustments — just take a photo and you get your Face Juggle to share. I deliberately built the app to not rely on any other hosting or server so that nothing could go wrong, and also to keep the expenses as low as possible. I didn't do any legal stuff to begin with either. Instead, I waited until I'd made some money from the app.

As for my schedule, I work best late at night. I find that it's the best time to concentrate and get into a flow. So I would start working at about 5pm and then just keep going until the early hours. I was just having a lot of fun making it, and testing on friends who came over and on Facebook photos.

I also got some help from others. My wife Karrie Fransman is a graphic novelist, and she drew the logo for me, which I think made a massive difference to the feeling of quality of the app. It really sticks out in the App Store and on your phone screen amongst the other apps. I'd also like to give a shout out to Ray Wenderlich and his brilliant tutorials. He taught me most of what I know. And Stack Exchange is a life saver, but we all know that already. I remember getting so frustrated I nearly broke my computer trying to install all the certificates to upload the app. All that's done for you these days, but it used to be such a headache.

How did you launch Face Juggler and start getting users?

I launched Face Juggler just before Christmas 2011. Well, I didn't have a launch per se — I just put it in the App Store and people started downloading it. It initially didn't get many downloads, although I do remember being super excited when I got my first paid download and a check from Apple for about $12.

I put a lot of tracking in the app to begin with, so I could see what people liked and didn't, and then I reacted to that each week or so. After releasing the first version, I made a small update or tweak every couple of weeks until February. I remember it was Valentine's Day when the version that took off actually went live. From February 14th through mid July, downloads doubled almost every day. (I owe a lot to Australia as a nation. They got into face swapping about a month before anyone else, and from there it spread to the UK and USA. Thanks Aussies!)

The tweak that set it off, which seems like a no brainer in hindsight, was to stop trying to charge people to share their Face Juggle. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but was obviously really stupid!

After that I continued to make small tweaks and improvements like being able to edit the face positions, but they never made that much of a difference.

You need two people to Face Juggle, so a lot of the spread was through word of mouth and through sharing of the pictures created. My biggest usage and download times were at the most social times of the week — Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. There were also big bumps for holidays like Christmas. Any time people are hanging out together, that's good for downloads.

I eventually posted the app to various review sites and blogs, but I didn't put that much effort into it. I was convinced that the virality of the app was the only thing that mattered. I still think that's fundamentally true. Advertising can get the word out for you, but if people aren't passing it on it's not going to work in the long-term.

I also tried Facebook ads about a year in, but found them very ineffective. At one point I spent $200 to get 2 downloads! I had only been trying to spend $100 as a test, but because I set the campaign from midday to midday, Facebook decided that was 2 days and spent $200 of my money. I stopped doing Facebook ads after that. For an app only making a few cents per user, it just doesn't make sense even if it's only costing you a few dollars a download.

I did get a call from the agent of the girl band Little Mix at one point about doing a tie in for their new album, but nothing came of it.

To date Face Juggler has been downloaded by just over 5 million unique users. The conversion rate from free to paid was about 1 in 15 to begin with, which I think is really high. It dropped off to about 1 in 25 in the second year, and to 1 in 40 after that.

How did you make money from Face Juggler?

I had a premium version right from the start, but I always gave away most of the features for free. I didn't have a marketing budget, so the free app itself had to be the marketing. I made sure to include as many free features as I could and only charged for stuff people would want on top of that. I didn't want to make an app that annoyed people by not working correctly unless they paid for it.

Ultimately, the only differences between the free and paid app were swapping more than two people in a photo, a watermark, and higher resolution images. I set the price at $2 rather than $1, because I figured it wouldn't make a big difference to the number of people who'd buy it. The free app was already good, so the people upgrading must really like it and be okay with paying a proper amount for it.

I also experimented with in-app advertising for a while, but the paid upgrade was always by far the best way to make money. It was also the business model that people seemed to like the best. I think I lucked into a good model from the beginning, and in general making changes to it didn't produce any great results.

What happened to revenue in the long-term?

The growth and fall was very dramatic! It went from making virtually nothing to about $2000 a day over a couple of months, and then dropped way back down again and ended up settling at about $100 a day for a few years. A few months back (in mid 2016) I decided to make Face Juggler free and remove all advertising, so it's not making any money now. In total, Face Juggler has made just over half a million dollars.

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

I would probably have spent less time tinkering and trying to keep it going. It didn't make that much difference. Apps have a lifespan and Face Juggler just ran its course. Newer and better face swapping apps were created and are now built into apps like Snapchat, so the market for individual apps doing it is basically gone.

Did you run into any challenges while things were going well?

I was once forced to make an investment in better servers, which turned out to be my only big expenditure. I'd started using a server-side script to post images to Facebook in a more sharable format when my existing host suddenly called me to tell me they were shutting down my account because it was taking up 100% of the server's resources and other customers' websites were crashing. They were incredibly unhelpful and didn't even offer to upgrade me or do it gracefully. They just pulled the plug, and I had to buy a better server and figure out how to move over to it while everything was live. Not helpful! I will refrain from publicly shaming them, tempting though it may be.

Also, the strangest thing was when someone offered to buy the app from me. It was an American company who offered me just shy of a million dollars for Face Juggler in the week that it hit the top 10 in the USA. It was so much money that I panicked a bit. The CEO flew over to meet me and we discussed the offer. I said okay in principle, but that's when the games and skullduggery began.

It turned out that he wanted to pay me in stock in his company which I wasn't that interested in doing. I knew enough to know that it was a risky business and that I might never see that money, if the stock was even worth what he said. So he offered me half that in cash. That was still pretty good going, so I accepted. He then tried to offer me half again, and I declined.

I didn't think he was negotiating in good faith and wouldn't have wanted to work with him anyway. He sent me a very amusing email including the fabulous line, "If someone offers you a seat on a rocket ship, don't ask which seat." He then created an exact replica of my app and launched it into the App Store! I will again refrain from any public shaming.

At one point he also sent over this really onerous contract that meant I had to supply all the source code for Face Juggler and take the app off the market while they reviewed it, and then they'd have a week to say if they were going to accept. That would have totally destroyed the app, because it was all about viral growth. Any break in downloads would have stopped the momentum. When they released their own version a few weeks later it all made sense — I am suspicious that was their plan all along.

What would you say were your biggest advantages?

Being able to program myself made a big difference at the beginning when I wanted to make a lot of small changes very quickly. It meant I didn't have to invest much or take many financial risks to get going.

Because it's just me working alone, I vary greatly in my efficiency. I think the main thing for counteracting this is working on stuff that you think is really fun/exciting/amusing, and then the motivation takes care of itself.

What are your goals for the future?

I'm working on more apps that I hope people will like to play with. I really enjoy making things that allow other people to be creative. My newest app DRAWX4 is a version of the exquisite corpse drawing game where people take it in turns to draw a head, body, legs, and feet and only get to see what was drawn before when the whole thing is finished. You probably played it as a kid on folded up paper. Try it out here if you like: drawx4.com.

I have a challenge to myself over the next year to launch something every few weeks. I'm also working on some collaborations involving less techy-centric ideas. I just want to make things I find fun, amusing, or useful and hope other people will too. If I can make some money along the way then that would be good, too.

What's your advice for aspiring indie hackers?

One thing Face Juggler taught me is that effort and reward are completely uncorrelated. Face Juggler has made me far more money than my day job over the same period. It took a few weeks to make and only a few months of total effort. You just have to get stuff out into the world and sometimes you will get lucky.

Where can readers learn more about you?

I have a website at plackett.co.uk, and I'd love to hear from anyone who wants to say hello. Twitter is probably the best place to reach me: @jonplackett. Or check out the comment section below.

Jonathan Plackett , Creator of Face Juggler

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  1. 2

    I'd be interested to learn more about the technical details of this project (as well as others on this site). It sounds like it would require some super complex programming to create tech like this, but obviously it was created by a guy without some kind of deep CS degree (like myself). How long did it take, how did he figure out how to accomplish this in his code, etc.

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      Hey Aaron. Well a lot of the work is done for you as far as Face Juggler goes. Apple and in fact loads of tech companies create amazing APIs that you can use for free. iOS5 had an API for Face detection. You just give it a photo and it tells you the positions and angles of every Face and every feature (Eyes, mouth, even if the eyes are open!). So you can stand on the shoulders of lots of giants! Was there another project you wanted to know about from the site?

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        This is amazing! I thought that you had to develop your own algorithm...

        I wonder if there's a website that's lets you track API changes and new APIs?

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          If you do a google search for 'best APIs' you get loads of 'top x things' type articles about the best / most creative / most useful APIs.

          Also watch Apple and google's keynote speeches and read the release notes of new operating system updates. They usually make a fuss about any cool new stuff!

          Ios10 for example has an API for developers to use Siri and a bunch of other interesting stuff. https://developer.apple.com/library/content/releasenotes/General/WhatsNewIniOS/Articles/iOS10.html

      2. 1

        Ah, so interesting, I had no idea they opened that up. Thanks! I actually thought about doing this awhile ago since I have always photoshopped stupid pictures of my friends with their faces swapped, but figured it would be way beyond my abilities to make an app that automated it. It's funny that there are apps like these, snapchats, etc that do it on the fly, but it would take me anywhere from ~15mins-2hrs to do some of mine. Of course it's not the same quality, but it certainly doesn't scale to do it manually!

        I would be curious about pretty much any SaaS product or app that gets featured, beyond just a basic CRUD app I'm curious about those questions.

  2. 1

    I like the idea of you have to just launch stuff. Of course most will not get as lucky as your app, but the idea of launching regardless is great.

  3. 1

    Hey! Great post. As a Graphic designer wanting to start creating the stuff I am designing for fun, this really struck a cord with me!
    I have had an on off battle in learning swift vs web dev (do I want mobile native or webapps) I think swift offers me a more visual aspect and allows me to focus solely on apps.
    My question is, how do you feel about that really shady sounding company who offered to buy the app then launching their own, and do you feel it impacted yours in any way?
    Also, as a complete beginner any tips on how to progress from the typical "beginner" tutorials all over the internet and dive into some of the more obscure stuff (Such as face swapping, i haven't seen tutorials for that!)
    Are you working on anything interesting these days?

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    This is a total What-If, but why did you stick with basic Face Swap instead of adding new Features like video Face Swap, and other Effects as they became popular?

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      Good question. I actually did have a go at video Face swapping but I think I went too early when the phones weren't fast enough to do it well and the results weren't that great. After a year or so I have to confess I got a bit bored of doing Face Swappijg and wanted to do other stuff. I also released some kind of similar apps like one that made all the faces the same but ultimately didn't find continuing to do that very fun. I also know there are much better programmers than me in the world who could probably have done it and ultimately did do it. In a way it's cool that someone takes your idea and takes it even further. It's not like I invented Face swapping. But still, after the crazy success of video Face swapping its hard not to think what if!