For the past three years or so I’ve been a moderately successful app developer with over 20 different apps in the Apple iTunes store. I’m not a programmer, I haven’t hired anyone else to do the work for me and I have almost no expenses.
Making money with apps is more difficult than ever and the chances of a single app making millions of dollars is about the same chance you have of winning the lottery. But if you start making little apps and expand from there you can create a small but steady income with apps.
Here’s how I began…
I Blame Pat Flynn
Pat Flynn is famous in blogging online marketing circles as a successful writer who made it big with this smartpassiveincome.com empire. He was laid off from his job, started selling a specialize e-book online, made a ton of money and has since expanded his business 10 times over. I was listening to one of his podcasts in early 2011 and he mentioned something about making over $50 per day just from selling his iPhone apps. Pat was one of the few app developers who actually shared real income numbers online, so it confirmed that app development was something worth investigating.
So I looked up his apps at http://www.lolerapps.com/ and I noticed that most of his apps were, to put it bluntly, total crap. He has a “traffic light remote” app (with one button) and a few silly game apps that mix up photos or involve shaking your phone really fast. His iPhone “Crapps” are remarkable in the fact that they are completely unremarkable in every way.
Pat Flynn himself readily admits that his apps aren’t changing the world. But they’re making decent money, so that’s impressive. Like me, Pat isn’t a programmer, but unlike me Pat had plenty of extra money to spend on hiring app developers for his ideas. From what I can tell, that’s how he makes his apps: he gets and idea, he pays $3,000 – $5,000 to a contractor developer and he has an app produced for him.
Don’t get me wrong: it works. He’s making over $100 a day now with a small collection of unimpressive apps.
I had some little app ideas and I had always wanted to make some interactive storybooks for my kids, but I didn’t really have the income to justify hiring a developer. So I went looking around for an alternative solution.
GameSalad Isn’t Just for Games
There are lots of different programs and systems out there for creating smartphone apps without a lick of programming, but many of them are centered on producing business apps or include an outrageous “monthly hosting fee” that may run $40 – $70 or more. The two software packages I heard the most about at the time were GameSalad and Corona.
After a few months of investigating both I decided to go with GameSalad because it looked to be “easier” to work with, didn’t involve any real coding of any sort and the basic version was totally free. The “free” factor was a major influence in my decision. GameSalad is complex enough to make some pretty clever games so I figured it would definitely be good enough to make the simple apps I had in mind.
The only drawback to this plan was my lack of an Apple computer (which is required for iPhone app publishing).
Initial App Business Expenses
So on Father’s Day of 2011 my family and I went our local Apple store and I purchased an iMac as a gift to myself. A little later in the day we stopped by a discount store and picked up a simple computer desk. The next day I set everything up, turned on my iMac, downloaded GameSalad and began learning the software.
My initial business expenses looked something like this:
$1300 – New iMac
$45 – Computer Desk
$99 – iOS Annual Developer Fee
$499 – GameSalad Pro (purchased later in the year, after I had an app ready to publish)
To be fair, I already had a few other resources. I already had a folding chair to sit on. I also had a 3 year old PC and an old version of Adobe Photoshop Elements. For less than $2,000 I had everything I needed to be an app developer.
My First App
GameSalad itself is actually very easy to use but it still took me a while to understand a few key concepts about how to work things out. I decided to take an app concept that Pat Flynn had used – the fake traffic light controller – and make it a better fake traffic light controller. That would allow me to learn the basics of using GameSalad and help me figure out the whole App Store process as the same time.
For the rest of the June and July I spent a few hours a week (mostly after the kids were in bed) noodling around with graphics on my PC, transferring them to the Mac and then working with rules and actions in GameSalad. Even with GameSalad’s relatively easy interface (and tons of available YouTube videos) there is a rather steep learning curve in the beginning, especially when it comes to working out app provisions and developer certificates all the little magic features that allow you publish and app to your phone.
I chose to use the two-prong approach to app marketing by releasing a free version with ads and a paid version without ads. After a few false starts and frustrating mistakes I finally published my Traffic Light and Crosswalk Controller in the Apple iTunes App Store in early September.
I saw my first app earnings report in October 2011. That same month Steve Jobs died. I like to think the two events are unrelated.
I made a few bucks (literally.. a few dollars) and was encouraged. My kids liked playing with the traffic light controller app that I’d made. They seemed to have no problem hitting buttons and making annoying sounds for hours at a time. My GameSalad skills weren’t very impressive, but I knew how to make buttons and I had kids as active app testers, so I decided to run with the gag apps. Soon after I produced an Elevator Remote button app, a Monster Zapper app and a Santa Scanner app.
It turns out that the Christmas season is a big time for app downloads (no one can exactly explain why). Many developers make more money in December than they do the rest of the months of the year combined. I was no exception. I made about $65 from September to November, but ending up making a little over $1,500 in December of 2011 and a few hundred more in the following January. I had four different apps in the app store, and a few had a free and a paid version as well.
Within just 6 months of buying an iMac, a desk and GameSalad Pro I had recouped just about all the money from my initial investment.
Steadily Producing More Apps
The great thing about being a small-time app developer is I can usually work in small blocks of time. I have a full-time job and my kids keep me pretty busy. It only takes 10 or 15 minutes to make a rough graphic or test out a concept in GameSalad. Some developers have a big marathon coding sessions when they are working on their smartphone games or apps, but I’m more likely to have a hundred 20 minute sessions over several months.
I’ve purchased a few GameSalad templates for games and apps, but I usually find that they need some modification before they’re up to my standards. I’ve released a few more scanner apps and a few trivia games and I even tried making a useful app with my HDTV Calculator. Most of my apps make a little money at first and then taper off to just about nothing.
Silly and stupid apps seem to do better for me, so maybe Pat Flynn is on to something. My few games have not done very well. This could be due to the fact that there is intense competition for games, but it also could be due to the fact that despite all my hard work they really aren’t very good. They’re playable and interesting, but I’ll be the first to admit they’re not the best of their kind available.
I’ll be honest: making apps has been more a labor of love than of money at this point. It’s fun. It’s still a bit astounding to see your app in the iTunes app store, much less on someone’s phone. I even made the front page of BoingBoing back in 2012, so that was a lot of fun.
I am not making Pat Flynn’s $100 or more per day with my apps. I have more than 20 apps in the iTunes App Store alone and I generally make anywhere between $3 to $8 per day from a mix of app purchases and ad clicks. I also have a few apps for Android in the Amazon App Store and they sell marginally well. The few apps I’ve put in the Google Play store sell almost nothing.
The Christmas season is the exception to this rule. I mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating that during November and December app sales for almost all developers go through the roof. Part of it could be Apple’s pattern of release new products in the fall, part of it could be cold weather coming in and people being in a “buying” mood due to the holidays. Whatever it is, most independent app developers see a big bump in sales at the end of the year followed by a quick drop off back to normal sales levels in January.
Making Your Own Smartphone Apps
I’m a marginally technical guy but I’m not a programmer by any means. I have a full-time job, two young kids and a house that needs a lot of work. With a little investment and some determination I’ve been able to make a steady (but not exactly large) monthly income from the apps I build in my rare moments of free time.
If I can do it, so can you.