KJ Jones

@KJ.Jones

Lessons from an Experienced Dev’s First Solo App

Tips for Launching a Side Project

I have wanted to engage in side projects for a long time. I’ve created or helped create many successful web and mobile applications in my career. I love to build and create. As I take on more of a lead role at work, though, my time writing code has decreased.

So earlier this year I set out to create my first solo mobile application. The main goal was to go through the entire development and deployment process. I wanted an easy to build app to get my feet wet. Nothing Editor’s Choice worthy.

I am passionate about productivity. After switching from Android to iPhone, I knew that Apple’s Reminders app was actually close to what I needed. The only problem is how difficult it is to add a reminder. Adding reminders using Siri has date parsing, but the iOS app doesn’t. Siri and I aren’t exactly on speaking terms most of the time. So I created Natural Reminders.

Natural Reminders

I’ve since cancelled my Todoist membership and the app has become a part of my daily workflow. I launched it on the App Store for $0.99 and it has been downloaded a whopping… 5 times. And I know all 5 people. This was not a failure though. Here are some of the things I’ve learned during the process.

Create an MVP

It’s important to have some sort of a gauge in the interest level of the product you’re creating. If you don’t believe in it, you may as well stop right now. I knew that I wanted Natural Reminders. That was enough to get started and to keep me going.

But I spent too much time perfecting little things. Too much time adding extra functionality that I didn’t need. I could have launched the app a month sooner. I won’t say that month was a waste of time. But I could have embarked on a new side project, or spent more time getting users.

Next time, I’ll focus on creating a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). A solid product that may be missing some features. You can always add features. You can always adjust based on customer feedback. You can’t if you have no customers. Accept your losses and move on.

Free is Key

I didn’t spend much time considering pricing. I figured I’d put ads in and call it good. After some research, and knowing how much I don’t like ads, I decided against it. Productivity apps typically cost money, so I priced it at $0.99 and that was that.

Source

A dollar is not a lot in the App Store. I know people who have spent hundreds of dollars on Pokemon Go alone. But it is a lot for something you know nothing about, from someone you know nothing about.

A couple of my 5 downloaders even scoffed at the idea of having to spend a dollar on my app. And they were family! How could I expect a stranger to wonder upon it? Productivity apps may usually cost, but you have to have some context.

Next time, something has to be free. I can only think of a handful of times I purchased something on the store with no context. Only after trying a limited version am I convinced this is something that should be a part of my workflow.

Launching a Product Takes Time

Last weekend my wife and I went hiking. It was a great time, and we were thrilled to arrive back at the parking lot. Only to realize it was the wrong one. Our car was about 3 miles away. Oops. Normally 3 miles is easy, but we arrived at the parking lot with a mindset that we were finished. That was a rough 3 miles.

Not Quite Done

Similarly, I was excited when I called the app production ready. I figured it would be on the store in no time and I’d be ready for my next project. I was ready to move on. I just had to figure out how to launch it. But that is a very time consuming process.

I am a software developer. One of my main motivations for side projects is the ability to focus on coding. And during development I was able to do that. But then it was time to launch the thing. Now I have to be a marketer. A salesman. There’s a lot that goes into it.

After some research I figured the easiest way to get the product out there for free would be Product Hunt. I did everything the “Product Hunt” way. I tracked down someone to hunt out and even beta test the app. I even spent time creating a marketing site for it.

The app launched and got a total of 4 up votes.

Next time, I’ll plan to spend a lot more time on marketing. I was so ready to move on I didn’t spend enough time on marketing. Granted, I knew this particular app wasn’t worth marketing anyway. But the point was to go through the whole process.

Success is What You Make It

All this said, it may seem like my first app venture was a failure. I don’t see it that way though. Creators should never see any completed project as a failure. I accomplished my goal of going through the entire development and deployment process.

Not only that, but I still use the app as a part of my daily workflow. I saved $2.99/month on my Todoist subscription. I also have some great date parsing code that I can use on future work/solo projects. This side project was a success.

Next Steps

Now that I’m not so eager to move on from this project, there are some things I could still do with it. The best experiment I could do is make it free. I can offer core functionality with an in-app purchase to unlock everything. It’ll be interesting to see if this would add any users.

More importantly, though, is to continue with my next side project. All programmers should have side projects. The lessons learned are invaluable. They look good on a resume. You might even make something that’s successful. But success of the project is not the goal. Side projects are one of the best ways to improve your value, despite the success of the project itself.

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