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How to build $1M grossing iOS apps without coding experience

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David Barnard has been developing iOS applications since the dawn of the App Store. A former freelance recording engineer, he first became interested in app development in 2008 when Apple released the iPhone SDK with the iPhone 3G.

At the time, no one knew how to build iOS applications and David was no exception. To fund his business, he asked his parents for a $20,000 loan and the money went towards hiring a developer who then became his long-term business partner. Their first app was called Trip Cubby, an app that tracked gas purchases. It was also the inaugural release of their App Cubby product suite.

Since launching Trip Cubby thirteen years ago, David has gone on to launch several other apps - including Gas Cubby and Weather Up - three of which have grossed over $1M in revenue.

I spoke to David via Google Hangouts about his experience bootstrapping his apps business and why the App Store is still an opportunity for Indie Hackers. If you’re interested in reading David’s ideas on how to game the App Store, you can do so here.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

On founding Contrast (Formerly App Cubby)

David: It was very personal. My wife and I had just married a year earlier.
At the time, I was working as a recording engineer and didn't see her often. I would go in at 12 PM and work until 2 AM. She worked from 9AM to 5 PM, so I'd be asleep when she left in the morning.

The bright side of working as a recording engineer was I became a Mac nerd. I'd heard rumors that the iPhone was going to have a software development toolkit (SDK) and it really got me thinking...the iPhone was going to be something. At the time, I had no tech background, no coding background, not even much of a business background. But I formed an LLC, borrowed some money from family members, and dove headfirst into building a company.

In 2008, when my first app launched on the App Store, it was the dark ages. All you had was a Mac programming book. I ended up hiring a Mac programmer who was really excited about working on iOS apps and then never looked back. Since 2008, I've worked with a combination of contractors and programmer partners.

Receiving A Loan To Start The Business

David: I've shared this publicly, so it's not a big secret. My parents loaned me $10,000, and then my aunt and uncle loaned me $10,000 as well. Even though we structured it as a loan with interest, I also gave them both 10% of the company. (I’m quite proud to have now paid them both off in full and then bought out their shares at a healthy profit.)

Thankfully, my wife was working at the time but it was just the two of us. We didn't have kids. We didn't have really high expenses.

At one point, though, we had to sell her car to keep the business going. Once I started making decent money, I still had to wait over a month to get paid by Apple. I remember one night calling my dad up in the fall. "Hey, things are really tight. I just need a bridge to get to Apple’s next payment."

And he said, "That's just going to put you in the payday loan trap. If I give you this money now, sure, you're going to pay me when you get paid, but then what are you going to do between then and the next payment?"

We ended up selling my wife's car. It was a '97 Honda Accord, and got a few thousand dollars for it. Just enough to get by on till the next Apple payment came in.

Growing A Portfolio Of Apps

David: Early on, the plan was to build out multiple data capture apps. Trip Cubby was the first to capture mileage for tax and reimbursement. Gas Cubby was second to capture fuel economy and maintenance. And then Health Cubby was third, and that was to track your weight and exercises and fitness goals and stuff like that.

Taking Multiple Bets

David: Health Cubby tanked pretty quick. It just never got any traction. After that experience I doubled back down on Gas Cubby and Trip Cubby and then started throwing stuff against the wall. I had a kaleidoscope app. That one flopped. The interesting one that took off was a mirror app.

When the front-facing camera was coming out on the iPhone 4, I was thinking, “What can we do with a front-facing camera that's never been done before? What new opportunities does this provide?” And I realized, "Well, people need to check their teeth or put on makeup and the front-facing camera isn't perfect.” So, we repurposed the code from the kaleidoscope app into the mirror app.

It ended up becoming the top search result in the App Store for “mirror” and received five million downloads. I sold the app years later in 2017, but it just goes to show you what's possible if you repurpose old projects.

Apple Approval Woes

David: The Apple App Store launched July 10 of 2008, but my App Store account didn't get approved until August. In the meantime, there was another mileage logging app that got a ton of attention because John Gruber of all people made fun of it as an example of, “What not to do in building an iPhone app”.

When I launched my app I found his email on his site and sent my app to him. Within a few days of the launch, John Gruber mentioned it. I also made friends with journalists at The Unofficial Apple Weblog, Macworld, and other enthusiast sites that mentioned my apps. In 2008, It was super easy to pitch an app to the press if you did anything remotely interesting.

How To Maximize A Launch’s Potential

David: A lot of times, I'll focus a launch around a marketable feature. Sometimes that marketable feature lands and is valuable enough for people to actually pay for it. Then sometimes it falls flat. For example, I built a new weather app in 2017. We launched this feature where you actually saw your calendar appointments in the weather app.

Imagine you have a soccer match coming up and you want to know what the weather is going to be like - you see the weather for the time and place of the soccer match alongside your regular forecast. The feature got us a lot of attention, but in the end it didn’t generate much revenue. Marketable features help build momentum for a product, but then they have to actually deliver value to potential customers.


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Hacking The Notification Center

David: Launch Center Pro has been one of my most successful apps, and it started as a hack to use the Notification Center to trigger actions. Interestingly, Apple actually rejected the app for what we originally intended because they thought it wasn't an appropriate use of the Notification Center. Our plan was to be a speed dial for apps instead of a speed dial for contacts.

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Forming Partnerships & Using Subcontractors

David: There were two separate projects where I invested $50K each and after spending $50K realized I probably wouldn't recoup my investment unless I put in another $50K. Rather than throwing good money after bad, I canned both of those projects and lost $100K. That scared me. I'd still love to have that in a retirement account somewhere rather than having pissed it away. But I do feel like it was my MBA in hard knocks. You learn a lot from those kinds of failures.

After that experience, I shifted to working more in partnerships. I would invest my time, expertise, contacts, and business savvy into the product and then partner with a developer who would invest their time and coding expertise.
I'm currently still working with two separate partners on two separate apps where they invest their time and they get recouped as a revenue share on the profit that we make.

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Regrets Along The Way

David: In some ways, I regret selling my mirror app. I basically sold most of my passive income. It was making great money every month, more than enough to support my family financially. Once I sold it, I started living on the profit and blew through that over time.

Software businesses are incredible in the way they can deliver passive income once you get them rolling, and especially a subscription app. If you build something that people care enough about to subscribe to and it has reasonably good retention, you don't have to be working on it day in, day out for it to continue to be profitable. When you sell your income stream, then you either need to quickly get that income stream back or find a job.

In some ways, I regret selling my mirror app. I basically sold most of my passive income. It was making great money every month, more than enough to support my family financially. Once I sold it, I started living on the profit and blew through that over time.

Landing a Complementary Day Job

David: While struggling to replace the income stream I sold with my mirror app, I ended up taking a part time contracting gig at RevenueCat. I actually first got in touch with them as a customer, looking to use their SDK and backend in my app, but one thing led to another and now I’m working full-time as Developer Advocate for RevenueCat and running my app business on the side.

I know so many people are working full-time and wishing they could quit to work on their side projects, but I’ve come to really enjoy running my app business as a sort of passion project and place where I can experiment instead of relying on it to feed my family. I’m lucky to have landed such a perfect job where so much of what I do at work helps with my app business and running my app business makes me better at my job.

Capturing The RV Community With Influencers

David: Influencer marketing is really interesting if you can find influencers in the community of your target market. A buddy of mine runs an RV app - he's actually the one I sold Gas Cubby to - he emails me saying, "I got a ton of downloads the other day. How do I find out where these downloads came from?" I emailed him a few tips and he emailed me back a week later saying, "You'll never believe it, a YouTuber organically reviewed the app."

Afterwards, the download per video view was off the charts, way higher than you'd ever expect for an ad. Those kinds of things are hard to make happen, but if you're able to work with people in these communities that are your target market, your conversion rates can be just insane. It can be worth it, whether you have to pay for it or give a free license to the person who has an audience in that space.

  1. 3

    Great story, thanks for telling it.

    I especially appreciate your talking about combining your hustle with a day job. The Silicon Valley culture where you raise a $5m seed round right out of the gate isn’t for everyone. We need to talk more about how we all juggle hustles and day jobs to make both our finances and dreams work.

    1. 2

      Thanks! Now that I’ve got the day job paying the bills, part of me wishes I had taken some sort of part-time job or consulting clients years ago. My wife quit working pretty soon after I launched the company, so I spent a solid decade where our only family income was the App Store. And it was a stressful rollercoaster, especially as we kept having more kids.

      1. 1

        I can’t imagine that kind of stress! It makes me feel calmer to hear that you have a better balance now.

  2. 2

    Thanks for sharing your story!

  3. 2

    Thanks Seth for taking the time to interview me. I'm happy to answer any questions here in the comments…

  4. 1

    Thanks for sharing the story, David. Very inspiring and good luck on your adventure

  5. 1

    How to build $1M grossing iOS apps without coding experience: hire a developer.

    Lol.

    Great story though. Love seeing this content!

    1. 1

      thanks, more to come!

  6. -2

    This comment has been voted down. Click to show.

    1. 5

      A bit dramatic, no?

      Take his parents out of the equation and he has the same or even faster access to a similar loan via mechanisms like Stripe Capital.

      And as the story soon reveals, $20,000 is scant fuel in the early days of a startup:

      Thankfully, my wife was working at the time but it was just the two of us. … At one point, though, we had to sell her car to keep the business going.

      1. 2

        I founded the company in 2008 and had zero experience with the startup world. Even if Stripe Capital had existed, I probably wouldn't have heard of it. And even if I had, I'm not sure I would've qualified.

        To be quite honest, in retrospect it all was a bit crazy. I had very little relevant tech experience and decided to build a software company for a platform that hadn't even launched (though it did obviously show a lot of promise). My family took a pretty big leap of faith to loan me the money, which is why I structured it as a loan AND gave them equity.

        The App Store exploding is really what helped me survive and grow. The chances I could've done the same today are near zero. I’ve made so many dumb mistakes over the years, but App Store growth continued to make up for it.

      2. 0

        A bit dramatic, no?

        Yeah possibly. Probably.

        However the bank of mum and dad is very different to applying to some banking institution where a lot of people won't meet the criteria.

        I realise 20k isn't a lot in startup word but it is MASSIVE to most of us folk that don't have rich parents to get them started.

        1. 2

          Even though we structured it as a loan with interest, I also gave them both 10% of the company. (I’m quite proud to have now paid them both off in full and then bought out their shares at a healthy profit.

          He gave his family 10% of the company and then paid them out when he got the cash, I don’t think it invalidates David’s success. This is a guy who was a recording engineer, he wasn’t making a ton of money. Most audio engineers I know are struggling.

    2. 2

      Yup, I was incredibly fortunate to have family willing and able to invest. Not only that, if the company had failed and forced me into a tight spot financially or even into bankruptcy, I could've moved in with them while I got my feet back on the ground. I did take some risks and work hard, but I try not to take for granted just how much of a leg up I had compared to many entrepreneurs.

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