Jordan Morgan built his first iOS app, Spend Stack, in his college dorm room. When it launched in 2013 the app "crashed and burned", but Jordan never quit working on it - even during his child's birth.
Afterwards, instead of resting on his laurels, Jordan picked up a day job as a Software Engineer at Buffer. He is still there today, soaking up game from Joel Gascoigne, Co-founder and CEO of Buffer.
While he thinks fondly of his time building Spend Stack, these days Jordan's focused on a new project, "A Best-in-Class iOS App: The Complete Five Book Series." The book tells readers everything they want to know about how about to create an elite iOS app.
I spoke with Jordan over Google Hangouts about the overlap between writing a book and launching an iOS app, and why marketing is equally as important as engineering.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Jordan: There have been two versions of Spend Stack I've shipped over the years. The original one I shipped in 2013, which crashed and burned - it didn't really find many users - and then one that I shipped in 2019, which is the one that ended up getting acquired. The second launch it definitely changed into a budgeting app.
I've had a long journey with SpendStack, but ultimately I built it to solve my own problem. My wife and I were newlyweds spending a lot of our budget and we needed a better way to budget.
My wife jokes that Spend stack is our fourth child. It's always been a part of us since as far back as we can go as I started it in college. There's even pictures of me working on it at the hospital while we were waiting for my wife to go into labor with every single one of my kids. We've got this long history with it.
Jordan: When Spend Stack shipped it didn't do enough for me to even consider doing it full time. The design of the original app was just not good at all. It didn't pass what I called the “Mom Test”.
If you give an app to your mom, and they don't know how to use it off the bat, you're going to be in trouble because that means only the tech crowd are going to know how to use it.
For something as general as an iOS app, you want everybody to use it. I spent years learning about user experience and trying to figure out why these iOS apps that I love, and that Apple loves, keep winning Apple design awards. Why are they so good? What do I love about them?
The number one thing it taught me was - you need a product that solves a problem, but you also only get one chance to make a first impression on your users. But that's just part of it though. You don't know what you don't know, and you don't know a lot until you launch something.
Jordan: Along the way, I joined Buffer. It just had that real startup feel to it. I was learning something new every day and luckily at Buffer, they love side projects. In fact, the CEO, Joel, loves to talk about them and share his experience of how he got the first Buffer users. I soaked up all this information from someone who had done it a lot better than me, and figured out how to apply that to my own app.
If you're in a position like me - I've got three kids, work at Buffer and I'm married - there's all these competing priorities, right. Having a day job that you like along with the product that makes money is a really good sweet spot that I found for me, because you can get the healthcare and the stability of your day job.
The number one thing it taught me was - you need a product that solves a problem, but you also only get one chance to make a first impression on your users.
Jordan: SpendStack was selected by Apple as a Store Demo App.
You'd go into Apple stores or Best Buys and SpendStack would be preloaded on the iPhones. And that's great, but what I really took away from Spend Stack is you've got to do more.
Where does my target audience hang out? How can I reach them there? If I have a general audience, how can I narrow that down and find the people who are really going to enjoy it, and how can I get them to know about SpendStack?
Before I just wanted to code, code, code, but now I'm borderline obsessed with marketing. Once you have the product and once you have marketing, you're a dangerous combination and a lot can happen from there.
Jordan: Once word was out that I was entertaining offers more of them came in. There ended up being about five or six different avenues to really travel down. But I'd been working on this for so long, I was at that point where I wanted to explore new things. I ended up selling it to a company that didn't even have the highest offer, but it was one that I felt good that they were going to grow it.
Jordan: Subscription apps - that's where the money is. I talked to a friend the other day who started a year ago and got to 1 million ARR in about 10 months. A lot of that was through paid advertising on social media.
Apple itself is pushing subscriptions hard and they have been for a few years. But there's still a stigma about it in the developer community on iOS. If you want to go down the acquisition route, recurring revenue is going to bring a lot to the table because that's what they want to see.
Jordan: Everything that I missed on the second version of Spend Stack, I applied to “A Best-In-Class iOS App” to make it more successful i.e. putting out a teaser tweet of a product that doesn't exist yet and seeing if people would pay money for it.
For the book series, I thought: what if I wrote a blog or a five book series about how to make great apps, would people pay for that? I set a number in my head. If I can get 200 people to sign up, then I'll go for it. Then the list got up to 1600, and I dove head first into it.
If you want to go down the acquisition route, recurring revenue is going to bring a lot to the table because that's what they want to see.
Jordan: Every year when a new version of iOS comes out I update a blog post called 'best-in-class iOS app’. It's a giant list of things that I think make a great app. I had always thought I could do a book on that, so I put that tweet out asking if anyone would read it.
There was a ton of interest. I just said, "Hey, listen, this is a five book series. Each book's going to be huge. It's going to cover accessibility, design, user experience, iOS APIs, and tips and tricks. It's going to take me a long time to write, but if you want to get in early, here's a 50% beta discount".
That's how it stands today. And that's where it's at. I release content updates every two weeks and that's worked out phenomenally because people get something to look forward to every two weeks, which gives me a natural marketing cadence every two weeks to reach new people.
It also gives me revenue to try new marketing techniques. Recently, podcasts advertisements have done really well for me. It just passed $70,000 and has really embodied the lessons of shipping fast and validating your product which are two things I wanted to focus on.
Jordan: I don't shy away from trying anything. I'll try any paid advertising once. There's just so many people that skip right past it or think it's for bigger companies, but it's more accessible than ever. Anyone can make a social ad right now, even with 20 bucks. Don't be afraid to try it out and see it. See what's working for you. A lot of people are afraid to do that. They think that's something you do when you're VC funded or when you have the money to do it. No, try it now. I didn't do any paid advertising for Spend Stack.
I’ve been doing a lot of advertising for the book, and I've seen a lot of sales coming through that way. For someone like me, who's doing a content creation based product right now, you're only going to get that first wave from the people who trust what you have to say already.
The launch is always the best part of building a product, but it'll go away if you don't keep talking about it. Paid advertising is a great way to keep talking about it.