How I made my first $100k on the Play Store

Jon F Hancock

How I Made my First $100k on the Play Store

Overview

This talk is intended for independent developers who want to know more about what it is like to do business on the Play Store.

I plan to cover how my app rose from obscurity to one of the top 100 apps on the Play Store  and it’s decline back down as I saturated my market.  

Along the way there will be anecdotes about an expensive, but failed contest, testing the market by adjusting app price to maximize net income, and dealing with angry customers through server outages.

Developers should leave this talk with some ideas for how to price their app wisely, and some solid “what not to do” ideas.


The Idea

In the early days of customizing Android, there were a handful of launcher replacement apps.  At one time, LauncherPro was king.  Federico Carnales had produced a launcher that was fast, smooth, and pretty.  Especially pretty were the dock icons he included for a handful of core apps. They had this elegant look about them, as if they were each cut from a sheet of frosted glass.  The LauncherPro forum exploded with other people making icons for all kinds of apps in the same style, some doing it well, and others not so much.

I desperately wanted a central, organized, and curated place to get these icons for my own phone, because I hated diving through forums to find what I wanted.

I was a mediocre web developer at the time, and pretty familiar with a content management system called Drupal. So I built a web application where users could submit icons they had created that strictly followed the LauncherPro style, and made it as easy as I could for people to download them on a Android device. 

But that just wasn’t enough; for the users or for me.  So I got my hands dirty in Android code for the first time.  The app I produced was awful.  It had no caching, and no local data storage.  Every time it was launched, it spend 15 to 30 seconds downloading the list of icons and displaying them in a gridview.  Even worse, it crashed very frequently if you tried to scroll down the list. 

The really annoying part though was the way users applied the icons.  They had to go to my app, click all of the icons they wanted.  Then go back to LauncherPro, and long press each home screen icon and select the image they had downloaded from their SD card.  Not a huge improvement over going to the website.

 It went live in that poor state on July 27th 2010, and sold 51 copies that day at $.99 each. $35 is not bad for a first day, I think!

Even with all its flaws it became instantly popular because I advertised it effectively on my own website that was already getting a couple thousand visitors a day.  I also scoured the internet for mentions of LauncherPro and icons together.  I dropped into several forums and lightly spammed posts with links to the app. Sometimes I was myself, and others I posed as an excited user who was just being helpful.  I was even able to get a moderator on the LauncherPro forum to make a sticky post linking to my app. Then I set about writing “tips” to every android blog I could find.  I wrote them posing as a user who had stumbled upon the app rather than as the developer.  It seems a little childish now.

The First Hurdles

I wasn’t the only one creating icons for the website and app.  Two of my biggest contributors were Brian Hermon, and Vanessa McLean.  They were also contributing beautiful dock backgrounds to the website.  Those eventually made it into the app too, and turned out to be quite profitable.  However, I didn’t communicate well with my content creators.  Brian tried to email me his concerns about my making money on his work.  A valid complaint.  Sadly though, I didn’t see his emails until I suddenly noticed that all of his work had been pulled off the website. I emailed him to ask what was up, after he responded, I went searching for his previous emails. 

I reached out to him and apologized.  I really didn’t mean to ignore him or infringe on his rights.  We came to an agreement, and I started paying him and some other top contributors per submission.  With Brian back on the team, I had other challenges to face. The app had become so popular so quickly that on August 7th, my web server came to a screeching halt.   It was a shared hosting account, and they couldn’t provide more resources to the account, and I didn’t know how to optimize the code to be less demanding on the server.  So I spent a couple of feverish days migrating the website to a dedicated hosting account with the same company while users complained loudly at me.  While I was putting out that fire, one of those blogs I had tipped got back to me.

Kellen Barringer of Droid-life replied to my fake identity saying he had heard of it and remarked on the website’s stability problems.  I forwarded the conversation to my real email account and replied to Kellen asking him to wait a few days because even my new dedicated server couldn’t handle the load.  I migrated the website one more time to VPS.net and raised the price to $1.49 both because of the inclusion of dock backgrounds, and because the new hosting was way more expensive, then told Kellen I was ready for a blog post.

Kellen made his post on August 17th, and the result was just euphoric.  I made over $700 dollars that day.  After that, things went great for a while.  There were hiccups.  I had server outages that cost me hundreds of dollars in lost sales.  I had to devise a new plan that would allow the app to continue working even if my server went down.  That involved moving most of the heavy lifting to Amazon S3.  That allowed my server to focus on serving the website and leave file serving to the pros.

I had made 24k by the end of 2010.  In February of 2011, I got brave and decided to play with pricing.  My wife urged me not to mess with a good thing, but I figured it is better to know exactly what your limits are.  On the 7th, I raised the price to $2.99 and braced for a huge drop in sales.  But it didn’t happen.  It kept selling at about the same rate.  But I was making a dollar more per sale.  On the 9th I tried $3.99 and then the sales dropped off.  However, the revenue didn’t change very much.  Still, I set it back to $2.99 and revenue increased over time.  I kicked myself a bit for not testing the prices earlier.  I had missed out on a few thousand dollars because I was too scared to go from $1.99 to $2.99.  Over the life of the app so far, I have experimented with as high as $5.99.  At that price, it doesn’t sell at all.  The current sweet spot is $4.99.  If I set it any lower, I make the same number of sales, but less money. I have also tried running advertised sales to boost the temporary popularity of the app.  In every case, I have sold more on the day of the sale, and made less than I would have at normal price. Then I saw no particular increase in sales afterward. I advise you to test the market price of your apps not just once, but on a regular basis.  

In March of 2011, I quit my day job.  I was working on my Masters in Computer Science, and I had been working on a complete rewrite of Droidicon.  So I divided my days between homework and Android.  

I released that new version of the app in April, and it was a success.  It worked a lot better, and was generally smoother.  It even had an ActionBar before ActionBars were really a part of the Android design language.

Things continued to get better and climaxed in May of 2011, where I made 9k in one month.

At that time, and for a while after, Droidicon sat between number 10 and number 100 on the top paid apps across the entire play store.  Not just in the personalization category.

 Then in June, Google changed the behavior of search on the Android Market, and Droidicon began its descent. For terms like “custom icons,” apps like Gmail and CNET news were ranking first, and Droidicon was nowhere to be found.  No update I could make to the app could get the attention of bloggers anymore, partly because LauncherPro was declining in popularity too, and partly because there were so many other themes available.  

I decided to try to raise the popularity of the app organically by holding a contest.  A slick homescreen contest where the prize was an Android tablet.  I managed to get some great judges including Ander Webbs, Fede of LauncherPro, and the cast of TWiT’s All About Android.  I also managed to get some good coverage by a handful of blogs.  My hope was that people would spend the money to buy the app to make the entry to try to win the prize.  They did indeed make entries.  Many really good ones too.  From an outside observer, the contest looked like a success.  In truth it was a huge failure for me.

The problem though, is that sales didn’t increase perceptibly.   I had put in several hours of work preparing the website to handle the contest, and I had to plop down $450 dollars on a tablet for the winner, then I had to pay to ship it to Ireland.  But my revenue never increased.  In fact it continued its steady decline.

Still, 2011 was a good year, and by the end of the year, I had made 100K on the Play Store.  Since then, I think the usefulness of Droidicon has decreased since stock Android has become more and more beautiful.  Plus the quality of the artwork in Droidicon is put to shame by theme makers like Dave Kover, Tha Phlash, and Will Windham. Additionally, I think I have just about saturated my market.  Most of the people who want Droidicon already have it. 

My summed up advice to you is this:

  • Find something you wish existed, and make it.

  • Charge for it.  Don’t give it away for free.

  • Market it shamelessly.

  • Test the market price to maximize your revenue.

  • Be wary of running promotions like sales and contests.

  • Plan for obsolescence.  A single idea won’t propel you forever.

Q & A

Q. How do you feel about freemium vs pay-up-front?

A. I worked with Tha Phlash to release a similar product with much better artwork.  It uses the freemium model. There are about 40 styles for free then there are hundreds of premium styles that the user can pay to unlock.  Despite the higher quality artwork, I have consistently made far more money on the pay-up-front model. I for one am not a fan of freemium.  Additionally, since I have server costs, free users are too expensive to maintain.

Q. Have you had a big piracy problem?

A. Yes and no. Early on, I was outraged at the piracy, so I sailed the seven seas and tried to fight the pirates.  I issued dozens of DMCA takedown notices to file sharing sites. They always complied, but every time I updated the app, the apk would pop up on the same sites again.  I watched the analytics and found that the number of people using the app closely matched what the Play Store Dev console reported.  So I realized that I was wasting my time chasing pirates and I just gave up.  They don't hurt me that much.

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