I recently did an interview with Tope Abayomi for Appville Magazine and was really proud of how it turned out. With his permission, here is a re-print:
On Getting Launch Buzz
Launch Center Pro launched with a splash. It was reviewed on a number of well-known sites. What tips would you give developers on how to give our apps a good start right out of the gate?
I used to think that mentioning an app before launch day was a huge mistake. Why hype people on an app when they can’t buy it? But with Launch Center Pro I finally figured out that the right kind of pre-launch hype will build anticipation rather than just frustrate potential customers.
A week or two before Launch Center Pro hit the App Store, I released a teaser video and started talking more specifically about the features of the app. Having never done a teaser video, I still worried that it would steal some of the launch day buzz, but the opposite ended up happening. The video was tweeted and retweeted quite a bit and I started getting press inquiries. Having someone like Ellis Hamburger at The Verge email me was incredible. Most developers just SPAM every press related email they can find and have a very low hit rate, not to mention piss off the very people they are trying to befriend.
And speaking of befriending, that’s one of the keys to a great app launch — getting to know lots of people in the industry. Unfortunately, that’s also one of the hardest things to do. I’ve been going to conferences, blogging, tweeting, etc. for years now. And many of the people who write about my apps are people I now consider friends. The kind of people I hang out with at WWDC just to hang out, and talk to about industry news on AIM, and debate on Twitter about random stuff.
There are some really cool people in this industry. If all you do is beg for coverage, you’re missing out on getting to know some great folks.
Ultimately though, the key to a great launch is to just build great apps. If you build an amazing app, people will want to get to know you and buzz builds on itself without having to spend a ton of time and money on traditional marketing strategies.
On Focusing on Strengths
You have some nice designs and icons in Tweet Speaker and Gas Cubby. How did you get your design concepts and skills? And is it something a developer can learn?
Well, since I’m not a designer, a developer could definitely learn my skills — hire a good designer! I do spend a lot of time in Photoshop, but I’m smart enough to not ship any of my own work. I mostly do mockups and tweak assets that were created by real designers. And that leads to one of the best tips I have for developers — know your weaknesses. So many developers fancy themselves designers, UX pros, copywriters, etc. but ultimately their products suffer. I do think developers can work hard to get better in areas of weakness, but in my opinion it’s better to partner with or hire people who are experts in particular fields.
Over the past few years I’ve spent thousands of hours learning about and working on pretty much every aspect of mobile apps except design and coding. In building Launch Center Pro, Justin was able to focus almost completely on coding the app and Julien was able to focus on the art.
We discussed and collaborated on quite a few things, but ultimately I managed every aspect of development process so that they could thrive at what they do best.
On Hiring Designers
Do you always do your own design? I know you hired an artist to work on some your apps. What tips would you have on finding and hiring designers?
When talking to artists, even artists I don’t intend to hire, I always ask about their tools and workflow. If you ask about generating @2x assets and don’t get a long and impassioned response, you probably don’t want to hire that artist. There are many great artists who just don’t understand the intricacies of creating iOS apps. Sure, they can learn, but I don’t want them to learn on my dime. I also don’t want to pay a developer to educate them.
Slicing assets for re-composing in Xcode is an art, and if the first round of assets are a mess, it could take a lot of time for the team to sort everything out and get the project back on track.
I also look for specific indications of design and UX theory. You have to assume that much of a freelance designer’s portfolio was significantly influenced by their clients, but you should pick up a general idea of their approach to design. Tiny little buttons, odd controls, garish designs, etc. all make me think twice about whether a designer really understands the nuances of designing for touch.
Another thing I’m personally picky about is willingness to iterate and communicate about the design work. There’s probably a very fine line between being an annoying client and a great art director, but I like to think that my collaboration with the designers I’ve hired over the years led to better overall results. That said, I think that most developers who don’t spend a lot of time thinking about design and UX would be better off deferring to a great artist rather than trying to art direct the project themselves.
And, of course, I look at a designer’s overall aesthetic. Most artists can work in a variety of styles, but if their taste seems to not mesh with the goals of the project, it might be better to find someone whose portfolio looks closer to what you envision for your app.
On Pricing Apps At 99¢ Or Free
Your app Launch Center Pro costs £2.99. Others like Pocket and Cheddar are now free apps. Some people say all app need to be $0.99 to stand a chance. What do you have to say to the race to the bottom (on pricing apps)? And how can developers create a pricing strategy that can support a business?
I’ve argued that Apple caused the race to the bottom in App Store pricing, but now I’m starting to think that Apple just accelerated the inevitable. The App Store is by no means a free market, but it is an efficient one. Early on I was able to charge $9.99 for my app Trip Cubby, but now most people use free or cheaper alternatives, even though I dropped the price all the way to $2.99.
The odd thing about paying a fixed, one-time price for software is that people who find the most value are essentially subsidized by people who pay, but don’t end up liking/needing/using the app.
People have no problem paying 99¢ for a gimmick, and don’t mind risking 99¢ on an app whose value is unproven, but trying to make the boxed software model work at 99¢ a pop is a fool’s errand. Sure, gimmicks and mass market apps like Camera+ seem to prove the opposite, but they are the outliers. The vast majority of apps are financial flops even though they deliver tremendous value to their niche.
The age of selling software to users at a fixed, one-time price is coming to an end. It’s just not sustainable at the absurdly low prices users have come to expect. Sure, independent developers may scrap it out one app at a time, and some may even do quite well and be the exception to the rule.
After 4 years in the racket, this is my best advice for making millions in the App Store: build a game, a gimmick, or an app that has some sort of revenue outside a one-time purchase. Oh, and if it’s a game, make it “free-to-play”. You might be able to build a sustainable business selling useful apps, and carve out a decent living for yourself, but it’s almost impossible to make millions.