We love mobile apps. We really do, and not just because it helps put food on the table, but because we truly believe it is an expanding market with limitless potential. We are known for iphone app development… We've developed resource apps for law firms, engineering calculator apps, ecard apps, survey apps, television show apps, apps that make fart sounds, apps for celebrities, apps for big box retail brands, apps as a business tool for enterprises, and even apps that allow you put funny hats on people. And yet, with all the apps we’ve produced, we’re occasionally blown away by a couple of developers that manage to trump our efforts, with just a single app.
So naturally we’re quick to try and gain insight on what it takes to make a winning app. And when we say “winning” we’re referring to an app that has been downloaded and installed on more than 7 million devices.
So what exactly does it take to generate this amount of success? For starters, maybe a double major in Math and Economics from Stanford University and perhaps an equally talented business partner of the same school - but we’re sure there were a fair amount of caffeinated drinks, and absolutely no shortage of ambition and motivation.
So meet Eddie Marks, co-founder of Inedible Software. Eddie shares with us some insight on what it takes to be one of the top 100 developers by volume of downloads in the Apple iTunes App Store. We hope maybe some of his wisdom and luck might rub off on us just by listening to (or reading) what he has to say.
Company Name: Inedible Software, LLC
Name: Edward Marks
1. ISBX: Please tell us how you got into developing iPhone applications.
Eddie: In the summer before my senior year at Stanford I learned that there was to be a class on iPhone programming. For various reasons this seemed like an interesting opportunity, not the least of which was that it was illegal. The NDA hadn't yet lifted, and so developers weren't allowed to talk to anyone about the iPhone SDK unless they were on the same development team. I proposed the idea to my roommate at the time, James, that we should take the class, and he agreed. 150 people showed up the first day for 50 spots, and so we had to apply to get in -- one of the only classes at Stanford for which that was the case. The professors admitted us, which was a bit surprising as neither of us were Computer Science majors (I studied Mathematics and Economics, James studied Physics), though we both had taken the CS core already. We worked together on our final project, spent most of our month-long winter break shining it up, and released Air Guitar to the store mid-January, 2009. Everything just kept rolling from there.
2. Did you have an expectation that these apps would bring in money and have high user adoption?
In a word, no. We certainly had high hopes for Air Guitar, which was supposed to be like Ocarina but with rock guitar, but we tried to be very realistic with our expectations. Revenue wise, we were still in school and weren't used to having any income whatsoever, so what for most people might be disappointing (and to most large companies certainly disappointing) was totally awesome to us.
3. How did you come up with the idea of the Shotgun app?
The professors of the iPhone class (Paul Marcos and Evan Doll) encouraged us to think about what made the iPhone different -- things like the multi-touch screen, always-availbale internet connection, and GPS. We looked at the accelerometer, looked at what the market was doing with it, and thought we could do much better. While people had shake (Urbanspoon) and tilt (Super Monkey Ball), we thought we could do real gesture detection. The idea that berthed Air Guitar was tilting the phone to pitch bend the note after you strummed. We thought that would be way cool. Air Guitar launched and sold a good number of copies, but it didn't blow up, and so we tabled our plans to expand its feature set. We were also a bit burnt out from laboring on it quite so hard for quite so long. James one day mentioned that the shotgun cocking gesture was an iconic gesture we might be able to detect, but when I said it was a genius idea, he dismissed it as stupid. I, however, went to my room and coded the gesture detector, and only when he got a chance to test it himself did he get excited about the project, at which point we jointly created an app to house that gesture detector.
4. What do you think makes this app (and your other apps) so interesting that it attracts such a large volume of downloads?
Apple has always called the iPhone a "magical" device. I think detecting how the user is moving the phone captures a little bit of this magic. It definitely helped that the App Store was only a couple of months old and no one had really started to leverage the power of the device like they have today, so there was probably an additional sense of novelty with the idea, but even today no one but us is focused on gesture detection.
5. What are the most effective ways of marketing and promoting your new apps?
There are a lot of ways to market and promote your applications, ranging from free to extremely expensive. The problem is definitely a little easier if you have some money to throw at it, but we didn't pay for almost any promotion until our latest app, Shotgun Free 2, so it's certainly possible to get recognition without it. By far the best bang for your buck is to shoot a YouTube video and then to email it, with an elevator pitch of what your app does, to blogs. With nothing but a cold-call email we got our apps covered on dozens of blogs including Gizmodo, IGN and Mac World. The YouTube video helps because the reviewers get thousands of apps sent to them, and a quick video can help them identify whether yours is actually worth checking out.
6. What's next? Any other business ventures you're working on?
After running Inedible for two years, James and I decided that, while we enjoy making toys, it's time for a change of pace. To that end we've been exploring either starting a new venture or acquisition. Unfortunately I can't say much more than that, but stay tuned.
7. What companies in the mobile space interest you?
There is an all out war going on in the social gaming space in mobile. Zynga has shown it to be quite profitable on the web, and the game mechanic might be even more compelling in mobile. But since Zynga has proven out the concept so well, there are more than a couple of companies working on this in mobile. Of note are Pocket Gems, Brooklyn Packet Co, Team Lava, Capcom, The Playforge, Zynga itself, and probably more. I'm very interested to see who the winner is and how the games transform as they adapt themselves to mobile devices.
8. What is the distribution of your company’s income, between ad revenue, paid apps, and outside work?
I will say that nearly 100% of our revenue comes from our free-to-play apps, namely POW, Shotgun Free, and Shotgun Free 2. The pay lists became very competitive very quickly, and companies like EA tend to dominate them. The free lists were much easier, and we found ways over time to make more and more money from our free apps. The breakdown is roughly 10% from In-App-Purchase, 50% from banner advertisements, and 40% from incentivized-installs. We did some contract development early on, but we had less fun and made less money than we did on our own projects, so we quickly wound down that part of our business.
9. Can you give us a breakdown of active users vs total downloads of the latest version of your most downloaded app?
Our apps have a relatively unique adoption pattern, though one perhaps typical of toys. We didn't design our apps to be useful on a day-to-day basis (like a utility). We didn't design our apps to have tons of playtime (like a game), so we don't see huge amounts of time invested over the week or so after download. We did design our apps to make people smile, so we get a ton of downloads. We did design our apps to make other people smile, so we get periodic and random usage as circumstances warrant, be it pranking an office worker, playing on the playground, or shooting down ideas in the board room. In numbers, any particular user has about a 5% chance of using the app on any particular day but a 25% chance of using it in any particular month. Multiply that over a large number of users, and its turned into a business.
ISBX sincerely values Eddie’s time in sharing his experiences as a young mobile app developer. And we can really appreciate what it takes to be able to develop a rather complex app while going through the rigors of school coursework. A little over 10 years ago, our very own CTO was programming in his dorm room long before the iPhone came to existence, before being plucked out at the end his freshman year by a venture funded dot com company.
Having some insight on the uniqueness of the iPhone and developing to take advantage of that while keeping things simple seems to be the winning formula in this equation. Oftentimes we’ve found that the simplest, single-purposed apps have the strongest viral element, but we’re still not quite sure what makes some of these the ones that everyone, including your mother, would want to download and play with.