How to Make an App – But don’t make Instagram!

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Back in 2012, my friend Lee texted me out of the blue and asked what I was up to. I was in my cubicle and immediately began reminiscing about our days in business school. I used to dream big back then, when I was sure I’d have my own business within a couple of years. What happened to those days?

I texted him back, “Just working, and always trying to come up with new ideas to start up.” Next thing you know, he’s sending me an article by Tim Ferriss, talking about how Chad Mureta built an App Empire. I was sold on the idea. This is something we can do!

We brainstormed for weeks and decided to create a photo polling app from scratch—Pixtant—in our minds, it would eventually be known as “the Instagram of polling.” It was a brand new idea, and we loved it. We invested thousands of dollars of our own money and had to get additional funding from Lee’s Dad.

I spent most of my free time building up a big Instagram account to get ready for the release, which would be about 9 months after coming up with the idea (development can be a long, long process). Surprisingly, we were actually able to build an Instagram account with over 50,000 followers through lots of sweat and blood. It was not an easy task.

With such a large Instagram following, it’s no surprise that we were able to bring in downloads at launch. Within a couple of months, we crossed 100k downloads and more. The growth was so fast that I quit my job to focus on it full-time. But there was a problem… we weren’t making money. In fact, we were losing $1000+ every month, supporting the server and app functionality. The app wasn’t built to monetize; after all, it was going to be the next Instagram that we’d sell for millions, if not billions! On top of that, we had to shell out more money for any updates we wanted to make.

As our users increased but our funds dwindled, we quickly realized that we had only one option: get more money. We first thought it would be pretty easy to get institutional investment, but quickly realized that investors are only interested if you’re either making a lot of money, or you have millions of users, not hundreds of thousands. So that was out. Also, monetizing Pixtant was pretty much out of the question, because adding in-app purchases and/or ads would cost even more money… money that we didn’t have.

So we went back to the drawing board, did some research, and discovered a little thing called app reskinning.

Enter Reskinning

Because we were short on funds, we could only buy a couple of source codes to start. The first was a pretty terrible photo app that we bought off of a developer, and we were lucky to have made our money back on that one. For the second app, we purchased a license for a small slot machine and entered the casino world. This time, we outsourced all of the work. Again, we pretty much broke even. This was sort of working, but not to the extent that we wanted. We needed to cut costs even more… but how?

DIY

I’ve always had a bit of a technical mind. At 16, I started learning HTML on my own, and I learned the basics of computer programming as well. So why not dive into app development a little, too?

Now, many gurus will tell you:

“Outsource, outsource, outsource!”

“Don’t spend your time doing something that someone else can do!”

But how do you do this when you’re low on funds and just starting out? How do you talk to developers intelligently if you don’t know what Xcode is, or what language apps are built in? How do you hire the right developer? Does knowing this stuff matter? Absolutely. But I’ll get into that later.

I decided to look around for some reskinning tutorials. Back then, there weren’t very many, and the only one that looked pretty comprehensive was one by some girl named Elaine Heney who happened to have a cool accent. Side note: I was watching Sons of Anarchy at the time, and couldn’t help but think about how Irish accents in that show were much stronger than hers. But I digress…

I took her course and watched every second of it, multiple times. I distinctly remember my excitement of changing the slot machine graphics to show pictures of my girlfriend’s dogs. It only took like 5 minutes to do that. I showed her the app, and while the pictures were bad and made no sense for the slot machine, I was ecstatic. I changed the app within only a couple of hours of learning the basics!

We picked up another source code and I successfully reskinned the whole app by myself. While this first solo reskin still might’ve technically been a loss, it was much less because we didn’t have to pay hundreds of dollars to reskin it. At this point, I could create multiple reskins for little (or no) money and recoup the cost of the source code pretty quickly. On top of that, I no longer had to wait days or weeks to hear back from developers and graphic designers.

Fast-Forward

Within a couple of months, we had 15 apps in the App Store, most of which I reskinned myself… and each was profitable because the reskin was so cheap when we took it into our own hands. Some apps made $10 in 30 days, but some made $1000+ in 30 days. The revenue was beating the expenses. Take a look at our app revenues. These are real numbers straight from our books (app revenue only), and May 2014 will be our first 5 figure month.

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And just as important, we were really beginning to understand what worked and why—what keywords, icons, screen shots, descriptions, themes, and source codes brought in the best results. When you have tens of apps in the App Store, you start to see things that you never would have noticed before. You really start to figure out that there’s much more skill than luck involved. This was turning into a money-making system, as opposed to a shot in the dark.

Without even realizing it, we were also beginning to speak the language. When we decided to build some apps of our own from scratch, we really knew what we were talking about. Explaining to developers what we wanted and how to set up the code was a breeze. I could tell them to “#define the keys in a config file” and they would understand me. If they quoted more than an hour to implement the Revmob SDK, I could call them out on it. Having this knowledge in your head is priceless. This has saved us, and made us, thousands of dollars.

Lesson Learned

Learning how to reskin an app from start to finish has taken us to the next level. When you’re just starting out, you can only make it if you minimize risk and cost. Both are achieved when you take the do-it-yourself approach, which is how Elaine started out. As you learn to reskin an app and become efficient at it, you can churn out more apps and thus minimize the risk. If you spend all your money on one app, your risk is great; spend the same amount of money on 100 apps, and you stand a much better chance at success. You can hire a developer and graphic designer for hundreds or thousands of dollars, or take a course for $100 and never deal with them—or at least postpone dealing with them until you have the ample resources to invest in them—and then you’ve minimized costs as well. Again, we’ll open up our revenue to you.

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That’s our daily revenue (in red) with the number of apps we have (in blue). As you can see, as we create more apps by reskinning, our revenues increased at the same rate, possibly even more as we gain more and more knowledge… and the random, lucky spikes in revenue didn’t hurt either!

Can you imagine how much different the Pixtant app would’ve been if we developed it now instead of first? Knowing what we know now, we could’ve monetized it with (the right) ads, irresistible in-app purchases, and more. You might argue that we should’ve implemented those things from the beginning, but even if we did, which ad networks should we have used? What in-app purchases would’ve worked and where should they be placed? We wouldn’t have known the answers to those questions; it would’ve been a lot of trial and error. But if we did it all over again now, we’d know.

A quarter million downloads could’ve meant thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars in revenue… but lesson learned. Don’t make the same mistake we did.

Your brand new idea for an app might be great, but before you decide to invest thousands of dollars, try a reskin of an app in the same category. Thinking about building a multiplayer casino game? Get your hands on a Bingo source code and take a course on how to reskin an app. You’ll see what keywords, title, description, icon, and screen shots work the best. You’ll also get a feel for the market and understand which in-app purchases users buy most frequently and/or what ads they actually click on. That information will make your new app 1000 times better and more profitable.

But… But… But…

What if you have a family? Kids? A full-time job?

You can still do it. Most of these courses are less than a couple hours long, and even if you don’t do the whole app yourself, you can take on certain aspects, like development, and then only hire a graphic designer. This will still save you money and you’ll learn much more.

And if you fail, no big deal. Wouldn’t you rather try your hand at it for little investment and fail, than hire designers and developers for hundreds or thousands of dollars and fail? From our perspective, the choice is pretty easy. Minimize risk and cost. Once you’re profitable, do what you please! You can reinvest your profits into apps that are built the right way, ensuring you will make a solid return on your investment.

So take a course and learn the basics yourself! I guarantee it will be time worth spent.
To the success of your new app!

Justin

Justin Malik, MBA, left his full-time job to pursue app development in April 2013 and has since launched over 50 apps in the App Store and acquired over a quarter million downloads. When not developing apps, he is blogging about the process and results on MoneyFromApps.com, creating tutorials & courses, and binge-watching Netflix.
MoneyFromApps.com

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Elaine Heney is the CEO of Chocolate Lab Apps, #1 Bestselling Author of "The App Escape Plan". Elaine has over 300 apps published with over 10 million downloads, 5 online App Development Courses, and mentors international mobile startups.

{ 4 comments… add one }

  1. 1 Justin April 30, 2014, 8:24 am

    Thanks for posting, Elaine. I’m here if anyone has any questions… I’ll be happy to answer!

  2. 2 Elaine Heney April 30, 2014, 9:15 am

    My pleasure Justin, great to have you on the blog!

  3. 3 Shawn April 30, 2014, 12:23 pm

    Hi Justin
    Your willingness to share your experience, tips and data have given indies like myself inspiration and more importantly, hope.

    Ive published 12 apps thus far, with not much luck but this has just shown me that you just need to refine your process with each iteration and plough through with it
    Thank you for the article and thanks Elaine for publishing this.
    All the best!

  4. 4 Justin April 30, 2014, 7:46 pm

    Thank you for the kind words, Shawn! Good luck with your apps–I’m sure you’ll be able to turn solid profits soon.

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