In 2012, 3 friends and I decided to start a mobile app side hustle. The plan was to invest some money to build a couple simple, low budget apps, and use the profit from those to build more apps, or maybe one big app that could really be a game changer. At the end of 2016, 4 apps and 12k downloads later, we shut down the business. The business failed, but I learned a lot in the process. Here are some reflections on the experience.
You can learn how to do anything online
"If information was the answer, we would all be billionaires with perfect abs." -Derek Sivers
There is a Youtube tutorial for everything these days. And websites like Udemy and Creative Live and Mixergy are awesome, you can take a course for very little money, and learn any skill and how to start up any kind of business you want. I took a couple courses on Mixergy about how to launch a mobile app business, and within a year and a half had 4 apps launched into the App Store. But the truth is, the business didn't succeed because the apps just weren't that good. One of my favorite quotes of all-time is from Derek Sivers: "If information was the answer, we would all be billionaires with perfect abs." There is so much knowledge and information out there, but that's not the answer. The answer is in the execution, and the dedication, and the work.
I did learn a lot even though the business failed. I learned how to create an LLC through LegalZoom, hire developers through eLance, run design contests on 99 Designs, be a project manager, sketch and wireframe user interface concepts, use Photoshop, create a website on Strikingly and blog on Wordpress, and about SEO, ASO, and content marketing. Learning all of this didn't equal success for my app venture, but at least gave me experience for future potential ventures.
Making your first sale always feels awesome
Even if it's only $.99. Our first app was called Notepad+. The idea was a simple note taking app, not too different from the stock Notes app on the iPhone, except a little fancier with fonts, colors, and syncing features with Evernote and Google Drive. A developer in Pakistan built it for us for $1800. I’ll never forget the first morning after the app launched. It was December of 2012 and we were all in New York. We woke up very hung over from the night before, opened the sales numbers and saw that we had gotten like 2 downloads. We were so pumped, literally high-fiving each other! We had successfully launched our first app and had 2 real customers, and couldn’t be more stoked!
The setbacks are the stories
Our second app was called Smart Goals. The idea was to take the SMART (specific measurable attainable relevant timely) goal-setting methodology and turn it into an app. The goals would be tied to a calendar with deadlines and reminders, and the bigger goals would be broken down into smaller, measurable goals. We built some wire frames, paid my buddy Fox a couple hundred bucks for some graphic designs, and hired a developer in India to code it for $3600. The first couple milestones of app development seemed to go smooth. When the app was finished and uploaded the app into the App Store, we paid our developer the final payment. A week later we got a notice from Apple that the app had bugs and was rejected. We sent it back to the developer, they spent a few weeks fixing things, and we tried to upload it to the App Store again. And again, it was denied. When we tried to contact our developer this time, they had literally vanished, never to be heard from again. We hired a new company based in Fremont CA to try and fix the app, and they said that the code was bogus and our best best was to just develop the app again from scratch. So we were out $3600 with an app that was completely useless. I was pretty discouraged, and remember feeling like we should just cut our losses and give up on this whole app business idea.
But instead of throwing in the towel, we decided to double down. We used this as an opportunity to change the concept of Smart Goals a little bit. I had started to track my habits pretty regularly and wanted the app to have a habit tracking feature. I realized that there are 3 different types of goals that people set: habits which are small daily goals, bucket list goals, and smart goals which are more long term goals that require smaller milestones to achieve. So the new app was Smart Goals - Goal Setting, Bucket List, and Habit Tracker… “All your goals, dreams, and habits in one app on your iPhone.” This was definitely a concept we were excited about, and there wasn't anything else in the App Store that was like it. After our bad experience working with a cheap developer in India, we wanted to build this one the right way. We all invested more money, paid $6800 for a US-based developer, and ran a 99 Designs contest for the UI and graphics. The app came out awesome, and got approved into the App Store on the first try. This would go on to be our best app, for a total of 6460 downloads at a $2.99 price.
New Year's Resolutions are lame, SMART goals really work, and small habits make the biggest difference
I truly wanted to help people accomplish their goals, and tried to become an expert on the topic. I set out to learn everything I could about goal-setting, and created a goal-setting blog called Smart Goals Never Fail where I could write about it. I read books and attended workshops about goal-setting. I tried to figure out why people fail their New Year’s Resolutions and why behavior change is so hard. I set personal goals and did my own habit experiments, and wrote about it. I ended up writing over 200 posts about goals and habits. Here are some of the big things I learned:
The New Year is a great time if you sell goal-setting apps or gym memberships. I personally think New Year's Resolutions are lame. If you want to make a change in your life, why are you waiting until January 1st to do that? In November and December, January 1st is just a good reason to procrastinate, and by February or March most is forgotten. If you want to make a change in your life, do it now! I've found it's much more useful to use the New Year as a time to reflect, which is why I do Annual Reviews.
SMART goals really do work. We use them in my company to set sales goals, but there is more to it than just the 5 point acronym. I've learned that to accomplish big goals, you need to break them down into smaller more manageable goals, like weekly goals. The weekly goals need to be SMART. There also needs to be a focus on the process or system, not just the goal or the result. The goal is the "what" and "why", but the system is the "how", and the actual work. The system is the daily goals, that added up equal the weekly goals, that will eventually equal the big goal.
And daily goals are basically habits. Creating the right habits requires discipline. One of my favorite quotes about goals and habits is from Seth Godin:
"Your audacious life goals are fabulous. We're proud of you for having them. But it's possible that those goals are designed to distract you from the thing that's really frightening you--the shift in daily habits that would mean a re-invention of how you see yourself." -Seth Godin
Running a business with your best friends is fun
It never really felt like a business. Business is the wrong word, "side project" or "side hustle" feel a bit more appropriate, but still, it never felt like work. We talked about ideas over beers. We worked on it in our free time. It was fun.
The apps were making a few thousand dollars per year, which wasn't really enough to build more apps, and wasn't really that exciting to cash out and split 4 ways, so... we did what most people would do with the money... Vegas baby! We did 3 epic Vegas trips over the years, because why not?
At the beginning of 2017 we finally shut down the business. Maybe with a little bit more time, money, and passion around the project, it maybe could have gone somewhere. But oh well, you can't win 'em all, and it was a lot of fun and learning in the process.