Following on from our first post where we described the ups and downs of launching CopterKid and the lessons we learned, the harsh reality was that after the iTunes database bug, CopterKid never managed to recover its momentum and high ranking. I guess that whilst the bug with iTunes played a part in preventing CopterKid's mainstream success, the truth was that the first version of our game was simply too difficult for the average user.
Since we had been testing the game ourselves for months, we personally found it very easy to play, but didn't consider how a first-time player might feel. We failed to take on board the feedback we had received during beta testing and overlooked the most critical aspect of a casual, pick-up-and-play game - that it has to make the player feel happy. The best way to achieve this is to allow them to succeed and perform well at the game, particularly for the initial levels. No one wants to fail repeatedly after a few seconds and feel like they suck - that doesn't exactly invoke positive emotions!
Lesson #4: Don't give up and always keep looking for new opportunities
A few weeks after CopterKid's launch, our revenue from the app had fallen to only $15-20/day. By that time, we were really feeling the pressure to start making money, particularly since all our friends had found jobs and were earning a good income. The social stigma surrounding being 'unemployed' really sucked, so much so that we had to force ourselves to start looking for graduate jobs. We spent the next few months interviewing at various banks and hedge funds, but it never really felt right.
By May 2010, we were almost ready to take up jobs in the City when I came across a newspaper article about the new London bike rental system, or 'Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme' as it's known here, which was due to launch at the end of July 2010. In that article, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, challenged developers to create a mobile app for the upcoming bike scheme. This seemed like the opportunity we had been waiting for. That night, I phoned Anirudh and he agreed that we should pursue this idea as it was a great way to get the FIPLAB name known throughout London.
Lesson #5: Get exposure for your startup by capitalising upon topical news events
Over the next four weeks, we worked around the clock with our programmer, James Long, to build a simple app, which if proved to be popular, would be developed further. During that time, we found out about other similar apps that were being developed and thus knew that we had to be the best app in terms of features whilst also being the first to market. We ended up implementing the CycleStreets API, which gave our app the ability to provide cycle-safe directions from one point to another. This was definitely a significant point of differentiation from the competition.
After testing the app thoroughly, we submitted it to Apple for review along with an email literally begging to be fast-tracked, citing the impending launch of the cycle scheme as our reason. Luckily, Apple agreed and we managed to get our app out on the 24th of July, the weekend before the launch of the scheme. The timing was perfect and the app ended up getting a lot of media attention as the cycle scheme was very popular with the press at the time.
It all started with a great, unsolicited feature in London's most popular newspaper, The Evening Standard, and after that, it snowballed with other major newspapers and magazines following suit. The highlight of all this press attention was being contacted by the Apple iTunes Marketing team, who gave us only 24 hours to design promotional graphics to be used on their front page, large App Store banner feature.
Man, sitting up that night ensuring all our images, icons and banners adhered to Apple's ultra strict guidelines for the banner feature was nerveracking as anything, but what a crazy and exciting time!
Lesson #6: Don’t underestimate the importance of your App Icon
We had achieved our goal - London Cycle: Maps & Routes was receiving tens of thousands of downloads a day and helping Londoners on a daily basis. Taking a walk around Regent Street in Central London with Anirudh during this time, we both actually saw people using the app on their iPhones before embarking on their journeys - I can't tell you how downright awesome it felt to see complete strangers using our product in front of us. London Cycle soon became the No.1 free Travel app in the UK, trumping Google Earth, which had held that position for several months.
Apart from the press exposure, one of the reasons our app did so well was that it had a very distinct app icon, which not only stood out from the others, but was incredibly clear in what it stood for. We incorporated the iconic bike and colour scheme into our app icon, and this really paid off as people could instantly identify it amongst other apps.
Thanks goes out to my friend Colin Plamondon, who demonstrated to me how important an app icon is when he initially launched his app, Free Books. Despite being an ugly yellow and red icon with the Free Books text plastered over the top, it definitely helped his app get noticed in the early days and eventually led to him killing off his competitors (Classics & Eucalyptus [Eucalyptus - sweet name for a tree, not so hot for a book app...]) and taking the No.1 spot in the paid Books category.
Lesson #7: When you’re desperate, you’ll often end up making stupid decisions, so always sit back and think twice
Within a few weeks, we had amassed over 80,000 downloads and had thousands of daily users. Since our app was available for free (we wanted to dominate the market), we started looking for health/fitness related companies to sponsor the app in return for advertising on the app itself. We had a fair bit of interest, the most exciting of which was from Barclays Bank themselves (the official sponsor of the cycle hire scheme, these guys had spent over £25m to secure their branding on the cycles). Things were looking up! Our app was pretty much essential for using the cycle scheme and since launching, we had added real-time cycle availability to our app, which displayed how many bikes and free spaces were available at each docking station at any given time.
We had some very encouraging meetings with Barclays at their headquarters - this was especially surreal for Anirudh, where previously he used to walk in to the very same office as an intern every morning. Now he was walking in to directly discuss business with them. Nuts! They seemed really interested in sponsoring our app for a period of 5 years and the kind of money we were discussing was amazing. Barclays basically told us that they had two options, to make their own app, or to sponsor ours. Since it was preferred by TfL (Transport for London) for Barclays not to make an "official" app, and the fact that the Mayor of London had asked independent app developers to create apps for the cycle scheme, we felt that Barclays would go for the latter choice - sponsorship.
We left our final meeting with Barclays feeling pretty confident of a deal being done and they asked us to send them our development timetable with all the new features we were planning to add. We didn’t feel comfortable with sending them all this information, but we thought what the hell, this is Barclays and the deal was too important to potentially ruin over something as seemingly little as this. What a mistake! After sending them all our plans, the senior sponsorship officials at Barclays went completely silent, did not get back to us with their decision on their sponsorship and ignored all our emails.
It felt like we had been played and that Barclays had now taken all our ideas and were probably planning to develop their own app (they did, it took them a year though - by that time we already had 300k+ downloads and pretty much every iOS user who was part of the cycle scheme, already had our app). The cheeky buggers even went so far as to add ‘fiplab’ as a keyword in their app description!
Despite missing out on the Barclays deal, we moved forward by adding mobile ads to our free version (iAds + AdMob) and also launched a Pro version that we cross promoted on our free app. The Pro version became a Top 5 paid Travel app in just 24 hours after it launched. Just goes to show that people are willing to pay for useful apps that they use day in and day out. We priced our Pro version at £1.79, which was 3 times the price of competing paid apps, but they didn’t stand a chance against our feature list and well regarded reputation. After 3 days, our Pro app was the only cycle hire app remaining in the Top 100 Travel charts - we were now dominating both the free and paid markets, whilst generating a solid $120-150/day from ads and Pro app sales combined.
Lesson #8: Build something that people value and you'll never have to pitch for projects again
An unexpected side-effect of our London Cycle app’s popularity and press coverage was that a lot of media/tech people in London thought of FIPLAB first when they were thinking of getting an app developed. We literally got at least one email every day with people eager to hire us for development work. Also, we regularly got emails from happy users thanking us for creating an app they swore by, some were even high level executives such as Accenture's Managing Director for the UK, amongst others.
Since we were bootstrapping our company, we decided to take on a short two week project for a company called Orangebox, who wanted us to develop an interactive iPad sales tool/catalogue for their high-end office furniture. The app was showcased at the Royal College of Art's ‘Exploring Innovation’ expo and was very well received. The client ended up buying 25 iPads loaded with the Orangebox app for each of their sales reps, saving a lot of money by no longer having to print expensive high quality paper brochures that would be outdated every quarter and require reprinting.
We made a nice lump sum from this contracting job, which gave us enough runway to keep operating for another 4 months.
What we decided to develop in those 4 months led to our first taste of true success. In our next post, we are going to dive deep into exactly how we achieved over $1000/day in passive revenues with a marketing budget of only $500.
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Btw, we're launching a podcast called App Teardown. From the feedback we've received in our bootstrapping series (Part 3 now out!), we teamed up with our friend Colin to produce a show where we will teardown top apps to find out what makes them tick, bring on guest developers to help them improve their products, and generally just give the inside line on how to make money on the App Store.
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- Rishi, Co-founder, FIPLAB Ltd