How I Worked On A Mobile App For 10 Months And Made Less Than $50
Dragos spent 10 months building a travel packaging list for Android devices. He launched the first version and kept improving it for a few months based on the feedback of his users. After months of working for free, he decided to monetize it. But he failed.
With this story, I want to help you learn from my mistakes.
What you will find:
How I invested hundreds of hours building an Android app
How I got users and where I promoted it
Why it took me eight months to add a paid plan and why you shouldn’t do it
How I made less than $50, and I could have prevented this “failure.”
Last year in October, I was doing my usual Product Hunt visit when I saw this app.
It was called simply: The Packing List for iOS.
I followed the listing on that day, and I saw that it got a lot of upvotes, around 500.
Being an Android developer and a person with a lot of ideas that flow through my mind, I thought that I could try and do a similar thing, but for Android.
I went to Google Play, and after a bit of research, I looked at what were the apps offering and what features they were missing.
This was the first mistake I made.
You always think that you can do better, but is that “better” necessary for your future customers?
Some functionality that I think it’s good to have might not be useful for the users.
I was also excited by the number of downloads that the first 2-3 apps from that niche had.
A lot of downloads doesn’t mean that they are making a lot of money.
Who knows what their retention or their ROI or how much they were investing in marketing and so on was.
I didn’t consider anything of this.
Instead of trying to see if there is a way to make a passive income from making the app, I just wanted to build it.
I thought that I could do better, no matter what.
I had something else in mind as well. In the worst case scenario, I could use the app in my resume for a future job.
This was another bad thing.
If you try to find excuses when building something, you will try to find reasons and not the cause, when something terrible will happen.
I’ve made my Trello list with some minimum features, and it took me around two weeks to build the first version. I also had a full job. Otherwise, I think it would have been faster.
I tried to find a great name for the app too, I’ve asked my friends, I’ve asked on social media, and I decided to call it: Packable - Travel Packing List.
The first version had only one thing better than what the other travel packing list apps on the market had. You were able to create unlimited travel packing lists for free. They were stored locally in the phone storage.
I launched the app to my Facebook friends and on Linkedin and other social networks.
I also did some Google Adwords paid promotion in November 2017, and I got exactly 351 first time installers.
I was promoting the app to gain users, but inside I didn’t have any tracking metrics, and it was very bad.
Besides social networks and Adwords, I had no big plans for marketing.
I already had version two in my mind. I was telling myself.
This time I’m going to add more features, and I will make it the best travel packing list app.
I looked through the comments on the existing apps from my niche.
I found a lot of exciting things, but again this was a mistake.
Why would you build something for someone that it’s not using your product and it is not ready to pay you anything?
A lot of people fall into this trap of accepting feedback from everyone. It’s wrong.
Feedback it’s okay if you receive it from people that have a problem and are willing to pay to solve it.
I’m not talking here about building a landing page and asking your friends if it is nice.
I’m talking about spending tens or hundreds of hours into developing features for no reason.
Did I have any monetisation plans for version two?
Of course, not. I remember I was lying by saying “I will first get users and then I will add a paid plan in the app.”
The version two took more time than when I launched.
I used Firebase, and it helped me a lot to let people create accounts with Facebook and Google.
Even today users can save unlimited travel lists in the cloud, share lists with friends or family, duplicate lists, delete them and so on. These were all included.
For those of you who do not know what Firebase is, I recommend taking a look, if you want to build something and need backend storage.
It has a free plan which will help you a lot when you start. It is more focused on mobile apps, but it works for web apps. I think Indie Hackers is built with Firebase.
Anyway, in the second version, I added a lot of new features which even today I do not see in the apps from the travel packing list niche.
Did it matter? I could say it did. I will tell you why a bit later.
So after I finished all the features, I wanted to create some beautiful images for the Google Play listing and improve the description of it.
I used Canva to do fast some simple banners, and you saw those images in the above image.
Why did I want to change the description of the listing?
Before launching the new version, I read a lot about ASO ( App store optimisation)
ASO acts like SEO (Search engine optimisation).
If you have an app, I would suggest to go now and change the title and the description.
It’s not a short-term success, but it will help you in getting organic downloads.
From my experience, other things can help you to rank well in the Google Play searches.
I have three other apps on Google Play, and I’ve noticed that reviews, number of downloads, retention and crashes are critical on how you rank in the store.
I might write some blog post about this as it is not that hard to do, but many people are not aware of how they can get organic users.
After I arranged my listing, it was time to promote it.
I was so proud of my work, and the first place that came to my mind was Product Hunt.
I contacted Chris Messina, who offers his hunting services for makers that want to launch on PH, and he was very responsive and helpful. ( Thanks, Chris )
My fault was that after I contacted him, I didn’t check my email for two days, and I saw the listing on Product Hunt by mistake. ( You’re probably wondering what kind of person doesn’t check his email for two days )
It still got around 80 upvotes, but it was a complete failure.
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After this story, I wanted to promote my app on Google Play with Google Adwords, again.
Did I have any analytics in the app? I did, but not a lot.
I wanted to gain some users fast and see how they respond to the app’s new version.
Because I was not tracking anything in the app, I was looking at the metrics from the Google Play Developer account.
Things like how many people install and uninstall and Firebase was also showing me other things like how many daily active users there are and how much time they were using the app per session etc.
I think I finished the second version in December 2017 and I started to promote it in January 2018. You will see in the image below that the organic traffic grew from November.
I have to say that it went well. The users seem to be happy with the features they had; they were emailing me feedback, people were rating and were using the app.
Why wouldn’t they? Everything was free, with no ads, with better features than my competition.
All these things made me add more and more features, fix bugs, listen to the feedback sent to my email.
The app’s organic downloads were growing month by month, and I had no plan.
I remember that I told myself that I would add a paid plan once it gets over 1000 users that have the app on their phone.
The question I had now was: What paid things I could add more as a lot of them were already free?
I came up with night mode and no ads plan, and I was also trying to make users pay by explaining how much I worked on the app.
I set a price of around $ 4.99-lifetime fee, I say around because in some countries it is euro or here in the UK it is GBP, and I launched the app.
People started to uninstall it, organic traffic decreased a lot, and I’m pretty sure that it is related to the fact that people were uninstalling right after installing the app.
You can see the above report and where the graph is going down it started after I launched the new version.
Of course, there could have been other reasons for people not wanting to use the app anymore, but I guess I will never find out.
I’ve decided to leave the app as it is, as it already has a lot of features and not focus on it anymore.
After hundreds of hours of work, I had a few customers too.
The app made less than $50, and Google got it’s commission as well.
You know what is the interesting fact about this story? I made this mistake twice.
Two years ago, I had an app for the Romanian market.
When I decided to add a paid plan, 2000 users had the app on their phone, and they were quite active.
No one paid for it when I launched even if I was selling the paid plan for $1.
I remember I had another excuse that maybe the market is not right and I should try an international one.
I could say that the monetisation part of Packable was a complete failure, but people are using the product, and it helped me in my Android career.
I’ve never seen this app as a thing that I want to focus on entirely, but more like a try.
Of course, I would love to make more money from it, but it’s not the end of the world.
I strongly suggest you not to make the same mistakes as I did and to think about monetising your app as fast as possible.
Why is it important?
We all love to build things, launch them into the world and make people happy, but money is one of the most critical facts in our lives.
Of course, you could launch an app, gain millions of users and then make money from ads, but how easy is that?
It is essential to make money so you can feel that your work is appreciated and you don’t lose focus.
You can get more and better feedback from people that are paying for something, and with money, you will be able to build an excellent product.
I do know if I’m going to do any more work on Packable, as someone recently sent me an email to let me know about some bugs, but who knows.
I’ve decided to entirely focus on one thing, and today I’m working on Netcrumb.
A web app that will allow creators to create beautiful responsive landing pages on Wordpress quickly.
The product ’s still in development, but it will be launched soon in beta.
If you want to learn more about me and what I’m building next, you can find me on LinkedIn and do not hesitate to drop me a message.