I remember two things about the Kevin Costner movie, “Field of Dreams“. The first is that, as a cynical teenager with no interest in baseball, I thought it was goofy (but maybe I just didn’t get it).
The second thing I remember is the line, “If you build it, they will come”. In the movie, Costner is a farmer who hears a voice that keeps saying, “if you build it, they will come”. He interprets this to mean that if he turns his cornfield into a baseball diamond, the ghosts of some famous Chicago White Sox will come play.
Spoiler Alert 1: It worked for Costner. He built his baseball diamond and the White Sox came.
Spoiler Alert 2: Making apps is not a Field of Dreams.
Believe it or not, it took us a while to figure out that second spoiler. In the beginning, the App Store actually was a field of dreams for a lot of developers. But by 2013 when we started making apps the situation was very different. By then launching an app was akin to pouring a glass of water in the ocean – and that is even truer today.
For a variety of reasons, we were pretty slow learners. In this post, I am going to recap the launch of our first 2 apps.
We launched our first app, The Tinkamaker in January 2013. In the first month, The Tinkamaker had 905 downloads. Our main goal with the Tinkamaker was to drive users to Tinkatolli (our Flash-based virtual world for kids). Our marketing “strategy” for launch was to send an email to the kids on our Tinkatolli mailing list. At that point, we were only getting about 10 new users a day in Tinkatolli so we were pretty impressed with 905 downloads in a month.
The Tinkamaker never did meet the goal of bringing loads of new users to Tinkatolli. But that was our fault. We thought we’d just put it on the App Store and it would magically get downloads. The Tinkamaker itself was a delightful, creative app for kids. It could easily compete with the best from Toca Boca. But we treated it as a means to an end (getting users to Tinkatolli), instead of treating it as a fun product that had the potential to be a success on its own.
Lesson learned: An app is not a magic marketing tool for another product.
The 7 Minute Workout
Our next app, The 7 Minute Workout, was made in a week and on a whim. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from that app (I think we’re still learning them). Unfortunately for us, we started by learning the wrong lessons.
We fell upon the 7 minute workout almost by accident. While on vacation I read about The Scientific 7-Minute Workout in the NYT. I tried to do the workout but had a hard time switching between the instructions and the stopwatch on my phone. I looked for an app to guide me, but there were none. When I got back I mentioned this to Konrad and Luke. We had just that after 4 hard years of trying, it was time to give up on Tinkatolli. We were pretty depressed and anxious for something completely different to take our minds off of Tinkatolli.
We decided to make a 7 Minute Workout app. We had a feeling that we should move fast because the NYT article was becoming pretty popular and we figured we weren’t the only ones who thought there should be an app. We sent version 1 for review 1 week later.
The 7 Minute Workout launched on May 3o, 2013 with zero marketing. By the time it launched there were 4 competing apps in the store and we felt very confident that ours was the best. In the first month, the app had 106,000 downloads but only earned about $450 (we launched as a paid app and then ran a free promotion for a week)
Ironically, we actually did a pretty good job launching The 7 Minute workout. But back then, we had no idea.
What did we do right?
We had created an app based on a hot new trend that was getting a ton of press. We didn’t need marketing because every day thousands of people were going to the app store and searching for “7 minute workout”. The second thing we did right, was launch as a paid and then run a free promotion. With all the buzz around the 7 minute workout trend, a lot of sites picked up on our free promotion and wrote about it. This led to a spike in downloads from 0 to 100,000 in about a week.
What did we do wrong?
Our biggest mistake was not realizing how lucky we were. We still believed “if you build it they will come”. In our minds, 100,000 downloads in a month was the norm. So instead of being excited about the potential, we were demoralized that the downloads plummeted back to zero as soon as we changed the price back to $1.
By the end of July, we concluded that The 7 Minute Workout wasn’t going to make money as a paid app. We decided to make it free and move on, and hopefully, figure out a way to monetise the app at some point in the future.
While we moved on, some of the other companies that had made competing apps stuck with it. The 7 Minute Workout trend grew into a cottage industry. Several of the companies that stuck with kept iterating and successfully found ways to monetize the trend. And a few of them managed to build successful businesses around their apps. We have since gone back and created version 2 with several premium features. Today the app is doing ok, but nothing compared to the guys who stuck with it all the way through and slowly worked to build and retain their user base.
In the next post, I’ll tell about 2 more strikes (baseball metaphor) and follow that up with a post about how we finally got it right (or how we increased our chances of getting lucky).