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There's One Acquisition Channel Where "Build it and They Will Come" Still Holds True

I've analyzed all 494 Indie Hackers interviews and identified 34 acquisition channels that work consistently for founders (see Zero to Users for more details).

While doing my analysis, I've identified a single acquisition channel where the saying "build it and they will come" still applies. It's not a specific channel per se, but a set of channels in the category of platform app stores.

Platform App Stores: More Powerful Than You Think

Shopify. Slack. Chrome. These are all huge platforms with respective app stores.

While reading through the founder interviews, I discovered a surprising number of founders who were successful in using different app stores to get a steady stream of users. In fact, this was the second most-mentioned acquisition channel/strategy (after SEO) - with 78 mentions overall.

The interesting part was that almost none of the founders mentioned actively promoting the apps they launched on these platforms... They just built the app...and they (the users) came in. This was different from any other acquisition channel/strategy I've encountered before.

Take Shogun ($4.5k/mo), a drag-and drop page builder. They launched a Shopify app on Shopify's app store and here's what happened:

When we launched on Shopify, sales began to trickle in and have been growing ever since. We've been attracting users in the Shopify app store from the **beginning with very little marketing,*...

Shoutgun built their app, and they (the users) came in.

Or take UpDown ($4K/mo), a website monitoring service. They launched a Slack app which also got them early traction:

I was one of the first apps to be a part of the Slack platform when they launched in late 2015, and this drove a lot of users to updown.io (more than 500 active users).

Sure, Shogun & Updown had some success, but how did Shopify/Slack users find out about them?

While reading through more founder interviews, I've noticed that a large percentage of platform users actively use the platform search engine to find third-party apps.

Take Shopify. According to the official Shopify blog, 60% of installs on the app store come from searches on their app store. Or take the Apple's App Store. 70% of users there use search to find apps. Salem Software ($10k/mo) is a Spanish Bible app for iOS, and they've noticed this fact:

The app got 99% of its downloads from people searching in the App Store. We ended up going back and forth between ranking #1 and #2 for "la biblia" and "la biblia reina valera" in the App Store.

These platforms are like mini search engines and there are literally hundreds of them.

Good News: Platform App Stores, Not One, But Hundreds

Wordpress. Electron. Infusionsoft. Shoutcast. RapidAPI. Mozilla Add-on store.

These are just some of the platforms I've discovered founders are using to get paying users (I'll do a post on this next week, subscribe to my series to get notified when I'll release it):

This is good news for you. There are literally hundreds of platforms (with respective mini search engines) that you can target. Geocode.xyz ($10k/mo) is a geoparsing API, and they're getting users by being listed on the AWS marketplace:

AWS Marketplace is another revenue stream, clients pay for their own instances on the AWS cloud running my software.

And now for some bad news...

Bad News: App Stores Are At Different Levels of Saturation

I started digital marketing back in 2006, when "build it and they'll come" still applied to Google and SEO. All I needed to do is create a bunch of Weebly/Blogspot blogs, make some on-page optimization for medium-difficulty search keywords, wait 1-2 weeks, and that was enough to rank on Google's first page.

I built the pages...and they (the users) came in.

But then things got a lot more difficult. Today, SEO is an acquisition strategy that founders mostly use after they've succeeded with another channel first.

Things seem to be heading in the same direction for larger platform app stores, as they get more saturated. For example, Apple is (probably) currently the most competitive platform search engine. Still, founders like Matt (from Happyfeed, a gratitude journaling app that makes $800/mo) find ways to break through:

The majority of the traffic has come from organic app store search and word of mouth. "Gratitude journal" was not a competitive term when I launched so it was a lot easier to get downloads (even though the app was pretty lame at first). (source)

As these platforms become more competitive, things usually move from:

Build it -> They will come

to

Build it -> Optimize -> They will come

This is how SEO was born (and developed) as an industry, as search traffic became more competitive. Now with Apple, ASO (app store optimization) is also becoming a fairly mature industry, similar to SEO.

Is Shopify likely to be following suit? Are we going to see a SSO (Shopify search optimization) industry next?

Good News: Fast-Growing Platforms Regularly Launch App Stores

Lastly, there's some good news...

New, fast-growing platforms launch their own APIs/app stores all the time.

Just recently Notion announced they'll be launching a private beta of their API. The next logical step is for them to launch an app store. In case live under a rock, Notion is becoming one of the fastest-growing SaaS platforms with ~50M monthly users.

Keep an eye on these fast-growing platforms and announcements. Luckily, IndieHackers is a great place to stay up-to-date with news like this. These announcements are good opportunities to be an early adopter, build something and get users just because you got there early.

Do you think I'm right or wrong? Let me know.

  1. 7

    Definitely true, I wrote some basic browser extensions and now I have like a few thousand users a month that I didn't even realize until I looked at the Chrome and Firefox web store stats for my extensions.

    1. 1

      Yeah that's one of the killer parts of making browser extensions — easy users! This is one of the reasons I made ExtensionPay — so browser extension creators can release their extensions on any marketplace and still take payments without needing to run their own servers. To my mind, the combination of good marketplace, easy-to-add payments, and no costs makes browser extensions one of the lowest barrier to entry ways to make paid apps. And I've found that users are more willing to pay for extensions than I thought!

    2. 1

      Pretty interesting, thanks for sharing. Are you aware if those users came from search?

      1. 1

        I assume so since the reviews said they were looking for other similar apps which didn't work but mine did.

        1. 1

          Is this a paid extension? Always wondered how extension business work.

          1. 1

            Free extensions but paid ones can work too, see Honey which sold recently for ~4 billion dollars to PayPal.

            1. 1

              Interesting. Well it seems a huge % of extensions on Chrome are free, but you eventually need to pay something in order to unlock a feature (correct me if wrong).

              1. 1

                It's just the subscriptification of the internet, everyone wants to make money so the easiest way is to make things freemium or paid.

                1. 1

                  How do free extensions make money? Do they sell data or show ads? I wonder why so many extensions are free.

                  1. 1

                    If they're fully free, without a signup, subscription, paid version, or ads, then they don't make money of course.

  2. 3

    That's true, at least for Shopify. I built the app and did zero marketing at the start and I had plenty of installs(However, grow is very very slow). But! your product should be really good, or free, or both. Much better or different than competitors.
    And you have insane competition, and copycats too, so get ready :)

    One more thing to keep in mind:
    Bigger niches are too saturated and most customers are taken by early adopters, so it's hard to compete with them.

    1. 2

      Wow, I'm pretty amazed so many IHers are confirming my theory. It seems that Shopify will move on the same trajectory as SEO/Google. Nowadays it's prob easier to rank for medium-term keywords. As the competition heats up, things are going to get harder and harder. My prediction: In a year or two, a new term (similar to ASO) will be invented for Shopify and new agencies will spur up that help you rank on the app store.

  3. 2

    I was surprised actually that this still applies even to App Store and Google Play. I thought it's so saturated that it's not possible to get a traction through search there, but to my big surprise my fresh app got quite a bit of views recently.

    I now optimised my descriptions and waiting for the results.

    1. 2

      This may be less surprising than it seems.

      As a geek and Android user, I'd love to follow blogs or websites reviewing and suggesting interesting apps. But there are almost no ones, so the only option when I need an app is to search the Play Store. The average user doesn't even follow the tech press so, again, the only option is search.

      Word of mouth can go only so far. Any other major channels?

      1. 1

        Word of mouth can go only so far.
        Depends. The more friends a user will invite to the app the better it will get for him in my case. But we will see how it will work out.

        Any other major channels?
        Not enough traction to tell anything right now. Just posting on subreddits, groups etc. Also tried to respond directly to people in need by setting up filters in Tweetdeck.
        But I'm thinking about using "powered by" marketing in the future.

    2. 1

      Interesting to hear. Do you also plan on doing “off-page” optimization (incentivizing people to leave a review, etc.)?

      1. 1

        Yes. Android recently added in-app reviews feature which helps to collect them greatly. iOS had it for a long time.

        Also already have a "viral" mechanism included in the app, which I hope will add to growth too.

  4. 2

    I can definitely attest to this. I built my product (https://appreviewbot.com) to scratch my own itch and then put it live on the Slack App Directory and that’s how a lot of folks find it. I’m now trying to replicate that success by getting listed on the Microsoft Teams store since it is picking up steam.

    1. 1

      why don't you have pricing on the page?

  5. 2

    Build it -> They will come TO Build it -> Optimize -> They will come

    Nice one!

  6. 2

    Long-time subscriber, first-time commenter. This is gold! Thanks!

      1. 1

        You mentioned part 2, when do you plan to release it?

        1. 1

          Probably after the holidays.

  7. 2

    Surprising that so many people use platform app store search engines. Do you happen to have stats for the Google Play Store as well?

    1. 1

      See this: https://techcrunch.com/2014/10/03/roughly-half-of-users-are-finding-apps-via-app-store-search-says-study/

      It's a bit old (from 2014) and the number is probably higher. For example, this article says that 47% of iOS users find apps using the built-in search engine, while the latest stats say 70%.

      I think this is because as app stores age, people get familiar with them more and more and use the built-in search engine to find third-party apps/extensions.

  8. 1

    Great Post!!! This is kinda creating a FOMO inside me! :-|

    Grab a good opportunity at Shopify Platform as early as possible or else, this will be gone too!

  9. 1

    I remember a friend of mine making simple WordPress plugins back in the day (ca. 2010), when the markets weren't completely flooded. All of them were free and he had 2k a month roll in from donations only.

  10. 1

    Really great piece of content @zerotousers.

    Do you have example of companies that built an extension as a "bonus" just to acquire users ? Seems like the one you have mentioned had a clear strategy around these platforms.

    1. 1

      Yes, definitely. I also see a lot of examples where a SaaS app will take its functionality and create a Chrome/Firefox extension, for example. It's pretty common.

  11. 1

    It's a shame that Twitter doesn't have an App Store for apps that uses its API.

    1. 1

      B2C platforms don't seem to have reliable APIs/marketplaces. B2B platforms are much more stable for some reason.

  12. 1

    After your product becomes bigger through platform app distribution, do you then open up your product to be the next platform ecosystem? Has a very nice "circle of life" aspect to it.

    1. 1

      I’ve also seen people take that audience and try to create a standalone product (Tettra, for example).

  13. 1

    Interesting, are there any game platforms for indie devs, except steam?

    1. 2

      Don't forget that popular games (like Fortnite) also have a whole ecosystem behind them (with people buying skins, v-bucks, etc.)

  14. 1

    Just wanted to say I really enjoy these posts and the research you’ve done to put them together is awesome. Great work!

    1. 1

      Thank you for your kind words, Justin.

  15. 1

    Any app store has a search engine by definition. so I don't think its a valid question whether Search Optimization will come to a certain platform or not. Its already there from the beginning. But it might get a fancy name (like ASO) when competition inside the platform grows

    1. 1

      I think one of main reasons for the fancy names is so consultants can easier sell their services. Eg. take a look at how the number of ASO “growth marketing” agencies vs. Shopify app-search-result-optimization firms. Curious to hear what you think about this.

  16. 1

    Thanks for sharing this piece of useful information. Once we develop the app, we need to make necessary changes to submit it to each platform, eg: Slack or Salesforce app marketplace.

  17. 1

    I don't like appstores at all. But this notion thing looks like something a media business should try.

    1. 2

      I'm not sure what you're referring to exactly. 99% of businesses I've seen succeed with app stores were SaaS/software.

  18. 1

    That point about the importance of optimization really resonates. And if you are in it for the long game is not so bad news. Filters out the fakers and give the real players an edge. Great article as always Darko, keep up the good work!

  19. 1

    Great post Darko as always, Thank you.

  20. 1

    My guess was porn, but this works too.

  21. 1

    Amazing insights again! Thanks Darko

  22. 1

    Darko, like you are reading my mind, this is exactly what I needed!
    Thanks a lot!!

  23. 1

    Interesting post! I liked the part about ASO.

    And yes, I'm seeing the same trends with Shopify. I'm a member of 2 Shopify app dev groups and more and more people ask questions like "how do I optimize my app to show higher on the search results".

    1. 1

      Same here. Long live SSO :D Do you think this will happen soon with any other major app store?

        1. 1

          Maybe someone with a Slack app can chime in on this...

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    1. 1

      Good luck with your Sudoku site, although I don't think it's a good idea to post your links in an automated manner here...

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        This comment has been voted down. Click to show.

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    This comment was deleted 9 months ago.

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