App Cubby: An App Store Success Story

The App Store Hype

"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."
-Thomas Edison

Throughout history the lure of fame and fortune has sent many a would-be entrepreneur-writer-actor-musician to an early grave without a friend or penny to their name. People will take incredible risks and sacrifice everything—friends, family, and even health—in the hope of living happily ever after. Hard work, dedication, and a bit of luck can turn almost anyone into a success story, but it’s the get-rich-quick schemes and entitlement mentality that most often devastate a person’s life.

The App Store is an unparalleled opportunity in a burgeoning market, but it’s not an instant ticket to a carefree life sipping margaritas pool side on your own private island. The press has sensationalized the notion that anyone can come up with the next great idea (or gimmick) and make it big in the App Store. Way too many people in our hyper-materialistic society are blinded by the dollar signs and don’t take the time to do a bit of 3rd grade math and analyze the situation through the lens of a high school economics class—that’s the picture Tony Dokoupil was trying to paint in a recent Newsweek article. The success stories aren’t as sensational as the headlines (especially after taxes) and no one, even those with prior success, is guaranteed anything. The App Store is amazing, but comes with it’s own set of unique challenges.

When I founded App Cubby in March 2008, no one really knew what would happen with the App Store. The opportunity looked really good—a growing market of self-selected early adopters with disposable income—but NO ONE could have predicted 2 billion apps would be downloaded in less than 18 months. The App Store has been an incredible success, far exceeding the expectations of everyone, including Apple.

I didn’t found App Cubby with a gold rush mentality. I never presumed Apple owed me a living or I somehow deserved success. I’ll admit I’ve occasionally been blinded by dollar signs and hoped for millions, but that’s not why I founded App Cubby.

My Story

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction I wrote for a chapter in the forthcoming Apress book on iPhone UI:

"I came to the iPhone platform not as an experienced developer, seasoned entrepreneur, or even programming hobbyist but as a rabid fan. I happened to be traveling in China in January of 2007 and vividly remember sitting in a Beijing hotel lobby, paying way too much for subpar Internet access and trying desperately to get news on the Macworld keynote. Did Apple actually announce a phone? What does it look like? Is it a real Apple device, not like the terrible ROKR I bought, but quickly returned?

Fast-forward six months. I’d been watching and re-watching that keynote, reading every blog post, and listening to every podcast. I couldn’t wait to purchase an iPhone. My brother called me up late in the afternoon on June 28 and asked me to meet him at the Apple Store. We waited almost 24 hours in line, and I ended up being the first person in San Antonio, Texas to purchase an iPhone. After just a few minutes using the device, it became quite apparent to me that Apple had delivered on the promise of revolutionizing the mobile phone. Being an intellectually curious person, I started thinking quite a bit about this little touch screen device and what made it so compelling. Why was I grabbing it instead of my laptop for certain tasks? How in the world did my Baby Boomer father take to it like a duck to water when he had struggled for years with computers?

That curiosity and the successes of burgeoning jailbreak development community got me thinking about what I might want to create if I were to develop an app for the iPhone. Web apps for the iPhone were functional, but they lacked the power and finesse of Apple’s native apps. Rumors started floating around that Apple might actually be announcing an official SDK for native iPhone app development. My casual ideas about iPhone development slowly started forming into real thoughts of starting a business. I had just gotten married and was quickly realizing that my career as a recording engineer, working late into the night for weeks on end, wasn’t congruent with my desire to start a family.

In March 2008, Steve Jobs took the stage and laid out a very compelling opportunity. For a very small fee, anyone could start developing iPhone apps and soon sell those apps to a rapidly growing install base. I was sold. My last scheduled project had just wrapped up in the recording studio, so there was no better time to jump head first into iPhone development.

Having spent the better part of a year casually studying the iPhone and thinking about potential apps, I knew that I would need to start working on this full time if I were going to build anything polished enough to match Apple’s default apps. It didn’t take much to convince my father and uncle, who are partners in a small business, to help me finance this new venture.

With bootstrap-level funding in the bank and my schedule completely open, I dove in…”

Happily Ever After

Storybook endings never quite play out in real life the way they do in our collective imagination. Pop sensations with all the fame and money in the world often end up living tormented, drug-fueled lives and die at a tragically young age. Billionaires are often as empty and insecure as the high school kid flipping burgers at McDonalds. It’s impossible to attach a specific dollar amount or milestone to happiness or success and those who do end up chasing their tail, endlessly hoping their next big achievement will satisfy.

App Cubby has not made me rich, but it has provided an opportunity for me to live my life richly.

My wife and I were blessed with our first child earlier this year and working from home has enabled me to spend tons of time with my wife and son. I got to see (and grab a video clip on my iPhone) his first attempt at crawling and I’ll probably be in the room when he takes his first steps. You can’t put a price on that kind of involvement in your child’s life.

Beyond the joy App Cubby has provided through having a flexible schedule, it’s also been fun to see my name and apps mentioned all over the web and in print. The following is a small portion of the positive press App Cubby has garnered:

AppleNY TimesTime/CNNWiredMacworldTUAWTreeHuggerBoingBoing
MSNSmartMoneyTheAppleBlogZDNetGizmodo

Gas Cubby was even mentioned in the June 2009 issue of GQ:

As an Apple Fanboy who’s been reading most of those sites for years now, it blows my mind that I’ve managed to create something interesting enough to warrant coverage in so many notable places, online and off.

Though App Cubby’s bank account isn’t currently flush with cash and I still have quite a bit of financial stress day to day, I feel confident about the long term prospects. My apps have continued to sell well and should have a great holiday season. In the next month or so the chapter I wrote for Apress will be published, adding to my credibility for any future writing, speaking, collaboration, consulting, etc. I’m currently in talks with a Fortune 500 company about leveraging my apps and experience to help them build a solid mobile strategy. I’m also working on another app that has been completely funded by App Cubby profits. Anything I make on this new app is pure gravy.

I’m not an iPhone millionaire, but I’m doing quite well, all things considered. App Cubby has been a TON of work and caused quite a few sleepless nights, but these last 18 months have been some of the more fulfilling times in my life, both personally and professionally, and I can’t wait to see what the next 18 hold.

Thank you Apple, fellow developers, tech press, and App Store customers for helping to provide for my family and helping me build something fun, worthwhile, and profitable.

Clearing the Air

There is a fine line between constructive criticism and offering so much critique that it comes across as incessant complaining. While quite a few developers, several contacts at Apple, and even a few people in the tech press have told me that my writing has been some of the more thoughtful and constructive critique regarding the challenges of the App Store, I’ll admit to having crossed the line into complaining on more than one occasion and it saddens me that I’ve been labeled by some as a whiner. I’d like to clear the air and have another shot at being a positive AND honest voice in the iPhone developer community. The challenges of the App Store are real, but that doesn’t negate the fact it’s an incredible opportunity and a heck of a lot of fun.

david