The app story of Charlyn Keating, an indie app developer from Florida, United States who makes $2400 per month on the app store. Read the story of how frustration with making money on app store led her to interview 32 app experts in the Appreneur Summit, write an Amazon bestseller and made her a successful app entrepreneur in the process.
Tell us about yourself and what are you working on?
I am Charlyn Keating (@charlynkeating) and I’ve been developing mobile games and apps since 2012 when I put my first indie game out.
I built a prototype, then partnered up with two artists to create it and release it for iPhones. The game wasn’t a big commercial success, but I had so much fun with the process that I was hooked.
Since then I’ve released two dozen games and apps, all bootstrapped with no marketing budget.
When I’m not head-down on development, I’m actively learning as much as I can about marketing and creating revenue from apps.
Because where’s the fun in creating something no one knows about or wants to use? Plus I want to keep doing this for a living as long as I can.
How did you come up with your app idea?
It happened when I was walking through Epcot at Disney World on my lunch break.
My stay is generally near the theme parks, and once or twice a week I’d grab lunch in Morocco, or Paris, or pretty much anywhere in the world.
I was wandering through the shops and all the things you wouldn’t know you could find at Disney World – everything from manga to Venetian glass.
I play tour guide for friends and family when they visit, and even though I spend a lot of time at the parks, I still didn’t know where to find everything they asked about. (For example, kids always want hot dogs, but in Epcot, there’s only one place you can find them.)
It was then that I started wondering how tough it would be to catalog everything in Disney World. Right from merchandise to food to drinks to attractions and even bathrooms.
A crazy idea – the place is twice the size of Manhattan!
But the more I thought about it, the more I figured how useful it would be. I couldn’t wait to take on the challenge.
How did you go about developing your app?
I hired an offshore firm to create the app and brought it to Disney World when my sister’s family was visiting.
I handed it to them to see what they would think. They couldn’t use it at all!
I realized my design was flawed, and had to pretty much start from square one.
I learned the tough (and expensive) way that I should have started with a much cheaper prototype and tested it out first, before I spent all that time and money!
Second Attempt at App and an Apple Feature
After that experience, I simplified the design, released it, and scored an Apple feature. Suddenly I had lots of data on how people used it and the things users actually searched for.
I used Flurry and watched, screen-by-screen. I read and responded to every support email. The app evolved based on what I learned.
And what I learned surprised me.
I had cataloged nearly 10,000 individual items in the app. It was incredibly powerful and ambitious – if you wanted to find a margarita with a specific tequila, the app would tell you which bar to head to, and even map it for you.
But users didn’t care!
Why Did I Pivot My idea (After Spending 2 Years and Thousands of Dollars)
One user complaint was basically, “I just want to find a margarita that’s close to me. I don’t want to look through a list of 45 different kinds of margaritas.”
It would have been easy for me to dismiss this as, “She just doesn’t get it.”
But she was right. My vision for the app to list every single available thing, in detail, wasn’t what customers wanted.
I had spent SO much time photographing and listing every single manga title, every Doctor Who souvenir, every Italian wine bottle or German candy brand.
On top of that, I had to keep up with all that content. And it changed every day!
The app wasn’t pulling in enough revenue for me to hire the team of researchers I would have needed to keep it current.
The truth was, people didn’t know they should want to search for those things. They wanted to know what food options were nearby, or where they could find a Frozen Christmas ornament.
I needed a way to give them what they wanted, while letting them discover what they didn’t know to look for.
I had to completely pivot on my original idea.
The hardest part was letting go of all the time and money I’d spent up to that point (it had been two years and thousands of dollars) and heading in a different direction.
You had a great strategy for marketing your app. Tell us more about it.
When I released that first app, and it was featured by Apple, I just figured that’s all I’d have to do for the downloads and revenue to pour in.
But after the first few weeks, all that slowed to a crawl.
I tried pretty much everything I could think of – sending emails to bloggers, buying Facebook ads, tweaking my ASO. It all helped, but it was expensive and time-consuming.
(Learn how to do better App Store Optimization for your app with The Ultimate Guide to App Store Optimization ]Including Pro Tips and iOS11 Updates])
It felt like I was missing something big.
Then I Came Upon Influencer Marketing and Things Changed…
I decided to try something new. I created a new app for the same audience (regular visitors to Disney World).
It was personally difficult for me to keep up with all the news that was coming out of this vacation spot.
There are dozens of blogs that focus on it. I wanted to collect them in one app so I could check the headlines a few times a day, really easily.
I could have downloaded an RSS reader and configured it, but I had a hunch most of my users wouldn’t bother to do that. So I made a custom RSS app (iOS/Android), completely focused on Disney World news.
I emailed all the bloggers I included, and even went to an event to introduce myself to them. At the event, I told them I chose them for the app because I personally was a fan.
I wanted to share their content with my audience, driving more traffic to them.
The crux was I was able to show them the app personally.
When the app was released, I was really surprised by how successful it was.
Users were coming back to the app every day, multiple times a day! The reviews were 5-star.
Best of all, I didn’t have to work overtime to update the app (as I did with my previous app). It refreshed itself throughout the day.
Now I had a constant stream of new, loyal users I could introduce to my other app.
Did I Just Find the Holy Grail of App Success?
I wondered if the success was repeatable.
I chose a random niche I had no experience in – people who sold crafts on Etsy – and tried it. It worked again!
I did it a third time, this time with smoothie recipes. Several of the bloggers I chose decided to email their lists to spread the word. Overnight, the app went to #3 on Google Play for Health & Fitness apps!
This demonstrated two things: the power of partnering with influencers to drive traffic to the app stores specifically to download my apps, and the wisdom of creating a “toothpaste app” that users opened every day.
(‘Toothpaste Apps’ was listed as the key requirement for app idea by Charles Du, in an interview with App Disciple, who created the first iPhone app for NASA).
This was working way better than ASO alone.
To see if other people could replicate this success, I created a course called Appsanity around the strategy.
It walks people through creating that first, simple “toothpaste app” that could drive traffic to a bigger app or even a suite of apps, all designed for a specific niche audience in mind.
The first students were able to apply this strategy to niches like luxury shopping discounts, homeschooling, and homeopathic remedies. It works with pretty much any solid niche.
How do you make money from your app? Can you share the revenue and user growth?
I currently have 682k downloads with an average revenue of $2400 per month.
I’ve experimented with just about everything. I adjust the revenue strategy to each app.
Whenever possible, I stay away from advertising, especially over-advertising (popping up screen after screen).
I don’t like the trade-off between the revenue it generates and the bad feelings (and bad reviews) it creates from the users.
Some, like the RSS readers, aren’t even focused on revenue at all. They’re just intended to attract an audience that can monetize in another app.
I’m a big fan of the subscription model, and when Apple opened it up to more than magazine apps, I switched my first app over.
I like it because it creates a predictable, steady revenue stream.
I also released my first paid app last year and, although it’s not a very good app (and has terrible reviews), it consistently brings in revenue.
I’d like to experiment with a paid app that’s better quality.
My other apps use ads with a paid purchase to remove them. I’ve also added features or additional content as in-app purchases.
Every app is different, and I try to approach monetization creatively.
What’s next for you?
I’ve taken one of those learning breaks from development.
For me, the biggest leap ahead in my business (by far) was when I put together The Appreneur Summit a couple of years ago.
It was just before I pivoted on my first app, and I was still pretty frustrated with the lack of success I’d seen on the app store.
I made a list of the people I admired in the app space, people who had seen huge success already, experts who wrote articles that helped me puzzle out what to do, and the authors of my favorite books on the mobile app and game business.
Then I sat down with each of them and asked, “What am I doing wrong? What could I do better?” I showed them my app and asked them how I could improve it.
It was then that I realized if I have all these questions and frustrations, a lot of other people probably did too. I learned a TON.
It really steered me in a different direction, one I wished I’d had from the beginning. It would have saved me two years of expensive frustration with my first app.
And best of all, I got a lot of “THANK YOUs” from everyone who watched the interviews, so I know it helped them too.
Time for a New Appreneur Summit
But I still see people making a living on the app store. And I’m stubborn.
So I decided to put together a follow-up to the Appreneur Summit, focused on what’s working NOW, since ASO is dead 😉
When that’s finished next month, I’m going to spend the next year continuing to experiment with apps and games, and doubling down on things I find that work (like the niche marketing strategy from Appsanity).
What’s your advice for app disciples who are just starting out?
Start small! Get an app or a game out there as quickly as you can and learn from the process.
Do this before you commit 6-12 months to development, or spend a small fortune hiring a developer to make your dream app.
Buy a source code and thoughtfully and carefully recraft it for a specific niche audience.
Or create something small, an MVP that does one thing particularly well. Get it out there and listen to what your users tell you.
You will learn invaluable lessons from going through this process on a small scale, and then you can apply what you’ve learned to something bigger down the road.
Where can we go to learn more about you?
You can hear me talk in much more detail during the Appreneur Summit interviews. These interviews are free during the launch week towards December end.
You can always connect with me on the Facebook group, where I am always happy to answer questions. (And since I don’t have all the answers, the App Summit experts hang out there too.)
What tools/books do you find indispensable for your app business?
I got a lot out of Appsters: A Beginner’s Guide to App Entrepreneurship and The Lean Startup.
Right now, I’m reading Blue Ocean Shift.
And I pulled together all the great advice I got from the first App Summit into a book, The Appreneur Playbook, which I still refer to even now.
|Developer Name||Charlyn Keating|
|App Name||Where in Disney|
|App Niche||Travel app|
|App Description||Find souvenirs. attractions, etc. in Disney theme parks|
|Pricing||Subscription annual/Paid apps|
|Revenue per month||$2400|
|Total Revenue||Not available|
|No. of people||1|
|Reason for success||Influencer marketing|
Did you like the app success story above? What is the one thing that will be your take away from reading the above? Is there any other question you would like me to ask? Let me know in the comments below.