January 22, 2017
After starting a mobile app company, I met tons of people who wanted to make their own apps just like I did. Some of these people shared their ideas with me and asked questions about how to build, market, and publish mobile apps.
I started to write this post as a Q&A to some of the most frequent questions like “How can I get started on my mobile app?”, “What technology should I use to build my mobile app?” and “Android or iOS”. The answers to these questions are interesting because there is no easy answer, so I spent a good deal of time writing out my nuanced answers to each question. But then I deleted the entire post and started from scratch. These questions are interesting, and important even, but the answers don’t matter at all compared to the answer to the question that these people could have asked themselves instead of me. That question is “Who am I making this app for, and why do they want it?“.
For the remainder of this post, I will tell the story of each app I developed, and how I came to realize why this question is the most important thing that I learned from publishing 5 mobile apps.
eVubble Lite was the first mobile app that I published, but not the first that I worked on. My brother, Dan, and I started working on a mobile platformer, but we never finished it because at the time my programming skills were not refined enough for me to be able to turn our vision for the game into something that actually worked. Determined to actually publish a game, I decided that we should make the simplest game possible, publish it early, and then continuously improve it by releasing new versions. The idea for eVubble Lite was inspired by a mobile version of the game Fishy.
The concept for eVubble Lite was simple:
As simple as the game was, it still took us several months to put together. At the time I started, I still had taken 0 college level programming courses, and this was the first time that we had built an app.
As we made more and more progress on the game, what started as a fun little project, turned into us formally incorporating a company and starting to seriously think about how we could make money from the game.
And we started to pick up some momentum. We ran a Kickstarter, and got some funding. I won an entrepreneurship scholarship. We got some local press to write articles about us. But then we launched and got only a handful of downloads.
At some point during this process someone asked me some version of “Who did you guys build this app for?” or “What kind of player would enjoy this game?“. Our answer was always anyone and everyone. It was a casual game, simple enough for anyone to play and enjoy. I think there are 100 ways we could have made the game better, but this was our biggest mistake.
In creating eVubble Lite, we made a game that almost anyone could enjoy a little, but almost no one could enjoy a lot. Instead of fixing this mistake by going back to the drawing board, and really thinking about what kind of game player we wanted to serve we doubled down and built a better eVubble Lite.
With eVubble, we changed so much about the graphics and the game mechanics that the eVubble Lite/eVubble naming made little sense. The fact that both games were free did not help either. The lesson here was that we did not fundamentally change too much with our creative process or approach to marketing. We still had a vague idea of our target market instead of one that was specific and concrete. Our improvements to the game attracted a few hundred more downloads and our first few dollars of revenue, but we came up way short of any commercial success.
Island Warsquare was an app I developed for a game design class. I developed this app in only a few weeks and published it on Google Play with no commercial intent. It has been downloaded less than 10 times, but I am still very proud of it because I think it is creatively interesting, and it was a good practice of prototype-based object oriented design, which is something that I struggled with when developing eVubble and eVubble Lite.
Speech Writer is by far the most successful app that I developed if you measure using a vanity metric - downloads. At the time of writing it has been downloaded almost 3,000 times, with a fraction of the marketing we did for eVubble and eVubble Lite. Speech Writer was an app that I developed for a class in college, and it is basically a practice tool for giving speeches or presentations. I observed that it was quickly drawing more attention than eVubble and eVubble Lite, so Dan and I decided to seriously consider it as a product. We redesigned the app as Speecher and published it on iOS and Google Play (Speech Writer is only on Google Play).
What seemed to work(to some extent) with Speech Writer was that I had stumbled onto the edge of what the startup world calls product market fit. Product market fit happens when a business finds a compelling answer to the question “Who am I making this app for, and why do they want it?“. With Speech Writer I was building an app to solve a very real problem - public speaking anxiety, and I had a target market in mind the whole time - myself at first, and later college students and subsets of that market.
Speecher failed commercially for a number of reasons. First, we were wrong about our target market. We started with the target market of “college students”, which I learned was way too broad. We eventually narrowed our target market to something much more specific - English as a second language graduate students with public speaking anxiety. Here we found a group of students who really struggled with the problem we were trying to solve, but our solution was off. I found this out by giving a workshop on public speaking and going to talk to people in my target market. What I learned was that the app alone did not help them.
At this point, we decided to give up on Speecher after disproving most of our hypotheses about the product (a process that requires another post). I was able to take a lot away from the experience and improved a lot as an entrepreneur in the process.
The take away from this blog post is if you want to build a mobile app, focus on product market fit above all. If you can’t reach product market fit, then building more features, improving your landing page, getting press, and virtually anything else you are doing to improve your metrics is a premature optimization.
The best place to start learning about what product market fit is and how to get there is to read The Lean Startup. This book helped me look at the process of app development from an entrepreneurial and product development perspective rather than my natural perspective of a software developer. Going forward I think the insights that I learned from the book, and an entrepreneurship class where I applied the techniques while working on Speecher will give me a much greater chance at building a software business that can have a greater impact.
Below are links to the 5 apps I mentioned in this post. The ones that I published under our company Yosuatreegames are no longer on Google Play and the App Store, but we did open source the code for these apps.
If you enjoyed this post, please check out the new decentralized social network that I am building at fragmented.world.
I am a full-time software engineer and part-time entrepreneur. I am currently working as a contractor at Nutrien. In my free time, I am working on Fragmented, a decentralized social network for Ethereum enthusiasts.