A while back I wrote a post on whether the mobile app market is too saturated for independent developers to make a living in. In it, I made it 100% clear that it definitely is possible to do just that and maybe even more if you have great ideas and great execution!
However, there are always going to be skeptics. No matter what business you’re in, there will be people who will tell you that you will fail. Look on app developer forums around the web and see for yourself. There are quite a few people who after having one bad experience developing apps are ready to throw in the towel. And not only that – they want everyone else to do the same!
Well, to all those people who still think it’s not possible to crush it as an independent app developer, I want you to meet Alex Keim. Alex is the owner of Big Blue Clip, LLC and the developer of the immensely popular photography app – Pic Stitch. Alex has made over 50 mobile apps and in total his apps have been downloaded over 20 million times!
Alex was kind enough to answer some questions for the MAT readers, so without further delay let’s get right to the interview!
Are you an individual developer or are you the head of a company with in-house developers? If individual, do you code the apps yourself or outsource this?
Individual developer. I code the apps myself but do take on contractors from time to time when I simply have too many things on my plate.
What made you decide to get into mobile app development?
When Apple launched the iTunes Apps Store I immediately thought that it was going to be something big and wanted to get in on the ground floor. I have a degree in Computer Engineering and was already working as a programmer so making the leap to App Developer really wasn’t much of a stretch for me.
How many apps have you made? If you don’t mind sharing, how many times have they been downloaded total (roughly)?
I currently have about 50 apps on the app store. Though a number of those are essentially the same app with both a free and paid version. Total downloads free and paid (not including updates) is somewhere around 20 million.
What categories of apps do you mostly create apps for? Is there a reason you prefer these categories?
I’ve tried almost every category from Utility to Game though I prefer Utility and Photo apps. Mainly because that’s where I can get the best return on investment. The apps that are the easiest to sell are the ones that you can describe in a sentence or less, preferably a single word. That’s why you see 100+ flashlight apps on the app store. The top flashlight apps make thousands of dollars a day. When the user see’s the name of the app they immediately know what it is. They can then look at the screen shots to see if it looks appealing and 99% of the time never read the description before downloading.
Are most of your apps free or paid apps? If you don’t mind sharing, do free apps or paid apps make you more money?
I have close to an even split. There’s not a clean cut answer to “which one makes more money” because the paid apps can’t really survive without some sort of free version. Whether you have a lite version promoting a pro version, or simply a free app with paid premium features; you have to have some form of free. I can say on any given day ad revenue makes up 30-40% of total revenue with the rest coming from paid downloads and In-App purchases.
What platforms to you develop apps for? If you don’t mind sharing, which platforms make you the most money?
Currently only iOS. I ported a few of my more popular apps to Android about a year ago but it was a complete waste of time. At best Android did 10% of the revenue of iOS. I remember reading some data published a while back that I will likely mis-quote but the numbers were really quite revealing. Something like 60% of iOS users were willing to spend money on apps while only 16% of Android users were willing to spend money.
What happens if you have an idea for an app but someone already “beat you to it”? Would you still consider pursuing this idea?
Absolutely. In some ways it’s almost better because you can get an idea of whether or not there’s any demand out there for your idea.
About Pic Stitch:
How did you come up with the idea for Pic Stitch? Were you certain that this idea was a “winner” from the beginning?
Free Photo Crop was the first photo editing app I created. While I was working on the borders feature of that app I came up with the idea for Pic Stitch. I was pleasantly surprised with the success of Free Photo Crop so I did suspect that Pic Stitch would do well.
How long did it take to create this app from start to finish and If you don’t mind sharing, how much did it cost you (roughly) to build this app?
I created Pic Stitch in August of 2011 so it’s hard for me to remember exactly how long it took to create. Probably no more than 40 hours for version 1.0. The current version is 2.5 so it clearly has had plenty more work done since. With version 1.0 of Pic Stitch I actually did the complete app (design, implementation and art) so my only real cost was opportunity cost. One thing I should point out here though is that the photo editor used within Pic Stitch (added after version 1.0) was developed by a company called Aviary. This photo editor is a free SDK that they have made available to developers on various platforms. I have no idea how much time or money they spent developing this SDK but it is a crucial part of Pic Stitch.
What were some of the challenges in developing this app?
The biggest engineering challenge was handling large photos. Particularly on the first iPad where there is no camera, most of the users photos are imported from a traditional digital camera so we’re talking rather large photos. As you probably know, third party apps are given very little memory to run in and if you exceed that limit the OS will shut your app down, which to the user, looks like a crash. A lot of care went into making the app as lean as possible during run time.
The biggest challenge today is keeping the app fresh amidst all of the competition. It seems that a new Pic Stitch clone hits the app store every other day.
How has this app been doing sales wise? If you don’t mind sharing, (around) how many downloads has Pic Stitch app gotten? Is it your most successful app?
Pic Stitch has been doing great. It currently ranks in the top 40 free apps in the US and topped out a few weeks ago at #12. It’s been downloaded over 4,000,000 times since it’s launch in August and half of those downloads have come in the last 2 months. Yes it is my most successful app.
How did you market this application?
I never did anything more than house ads with Pic Stitch though it did receive some unsolicited write-ups on various blogs/web sites. One thing I’ve discovered is that most forms of marketing for apps are not worth the money. As in, you will not make back nearly as much as you put in. Hands down the best way to advertise is to promote from within your other free apps.
How are you monetizing this app?
Pic Stitch has banner ads and premium features available as In-App purchases.
What is your typical day like?
The hardest part of being self employed and working from home is staying focused. So for that reason I treat it like you would a normal job. I work Monday through Friday, 8am to 5pm. I almost never work nights or weekends. Every morning I get my coffee, go into my office and shut my door. There’s no TV, music or other distractions. So in a lot of ways my typical day looks a lot like any software developer. I start with every one’s least favorite thing, answering emails. I then look at the previous days sales reports and read through app reviews to make sure no one is complaining of serious bugs. After that it’s simply a matter of picking up on the project I left off on the day before. My day to day really does look a lot like any other job but the experience is a million times better.
Where do you see the mobile app industry going?
Believe me I think about this one a lot and I really wish I had the answer. Clearly mobile devices are going to continue to evolve and become an even larger part of our lives. The current structure where you basically have two app gate keepers (Apple and Google) deciding what things we can or cannot do, doesn’t seem sustainable to me. That makes me think things will move towards a web-apps model at some point. However, for developers large and small, this is almost like a WWW do-over. We finally have a way to monetize and no one wants to screw that up. So maybe we end up with some combination of the two where games and utilities stay as native apps you pay for to download to your device, while entertainment and informative apps move to web based apps.
If you were able to go back in time, what would you do differently in regards to app development?
I hesitated a little bit out of the gate simply because of the start up costs. I didn’t have a Mac computer or an iPhone so I knew I would have to buy a computer, a phone and upgrade my cellular plan to a more expensive data plan. Those seem like such tiny little expenses now.
What is your advice for people interested in making mobile apps?
Do It! Stop waiting and don’t give up after one or two apps. You absolutely can make money selling apps, and a lot of it. The key though is to study the app market. If you simply make an app and put it on the app store you probably won’t be successful. But if you spend the time to really investigate what apps are successful and why, then you can be successful too. Keep in mind your first app probably is not going to be a smash hit right out of the gate. But take it as a learning experience. Figure out what things you did right, what things you did wrong and build on it for your next app. If you stay with it you can create your own little app empire 😉
What are your plans for the future?
What to Take From This:
If you only take one thing away from this interview please have it be this: It is definitely still possible to make a killing in the app store as an individual developer!
There’s also a ton of other extremely useful bits of knowledge in here! One thing that intrigued me is that both Alex and Maciej Czekala (developer of Gravity Maze – check out my interview with him here) report that it’s not really worth it to make apps for Android as the number of sales and downloads aren’t even in the same ballpark as the app store. I currently have three Android apps in development – is it time for me to reconsider?
Another important thing to learn from this interview is that Alex is definitely a really successful developer, but he is not an overnight success! He has 50 apps in the app store and Pic Stitch was NOT his first app!
Once again, I want to thank Alex for his time and expertise! This interview definitely helped me refine my plan for my new iPhone app that I will discuss here on MAT soon! I hope it helped you as much as it helped me!
With that being said, it’s time to turn it over to you! What questions would you want to ask Alex? What did you take away from this interview? Let me know in the comments section below!