That Time a Developer Stole My Idea and Made Millions

A Horror Story

Back in 2014 I had an idea for a new app that I was really excited about. It was groundbreaking…. no one had ever done anything like it before!

But I can’t code myself, so I started looking for a developer to make my idea come to life.

I found a bunch of people on Elance and made each of them sign an NDA before I revealed the project.

After lots of back and forth I finally hired someone. He started coding and at first everything was great.

But then suddenly he stopped answering my emails. Countless attempts to get in touch were no help. Eventually I just gave up and moved on to another project, frustrated by apps and developers.

Lo and behold a few months later I found that same app (my app!) in the App Store. Attached to that developer’s name!

Now I read about him in the news. The app has millions of users and the developer is making untold sums of money.

He stole my idea.

What Really Happened

I recently got another email from a reader who was afraid of losing his ideas; he wouldn’t even tell me what it was when he asked for my help:

“I apologize about the vague nature of this idea however I’m not in the habit of giving ideas away.”

That’s the classic horror story right? If I tell a developer my idea, he might steal it.

Well, that story above? Never happened. I totally made it up.

That’s total clickbait, you say. What a jerk.

Eh, not really. The reason it’s not clickbait is because so many people think that’s a real possibility.

I wrote it because the most common question I get is “how do I prevent a developer from stealing my idea?”

So let me be straight up with you. There’s some good news and some bad news.

Bad news first…

The Bad News

If a developer really likes your idea, there’s nothing you can really do to stop them from stealing it.

While perhaps you could make them sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), that still wouldn’t help you (And frankly would also scare away the good developers.).

Why? Because a signed contract, any contract, gives you the mere right to sue someone for breaching said contract.

Do you know:

  • How much it costs to use the courts to find a legal remedy?
  • How long that would take?
  • The likelihood that you’d ever get anything out of it?

The answers are: 1. Lawyers cost more than developers, 2. Months if not years, 3. Zero chance.

The Good News

This will never happen to you.

I’ve literally never heard of anyone losing their idea to a developer.

To back it up with some numbers I even tweeted asking if any of my followers had ever heard of such a thing occurring:

Potential app directors still ask me “What if the dev steals my idea” Have any of you EVER heard that happen? Please fav this if NO

— Trevor McKendrick (@TrevMcKendrick) June 10, 2015

According to Twitter analytics, that Tweet was seen 350 times, and at the time of this writing, it’s been faved 26 times. That’s a huge level of engagement for Twitter.

And most of my followers right now are app developers themselves. If anyone would have heard a story like this it’d be them.

Why Don’t Developers Steal App Ideas?

I can go a step further to put your mind at ease. Developers have very good reasons and are highly incentivized to not steal app ideas.

1. Developers See Lots of Ideas

Developers see tons of app ideas all the time.

At dinner parties, during the holidays from relatives, from strangers at the grocery store who find out they make apps, etc. They get pitches from pretty much everyone.

And the cold truth is that most of the ideas they hear aren’t very good. To them your idea is nothing special. It’s just another heap to add to the pile.

They’ve probably forgotten about your ideas within 2 minutes of hearing it.

2. Developers Have Seen Many Great Apps Tank

Because developers have made so many apps for clients they’ve seem big successes, but they’ve also seen many apps do poorly. Good apps. Apps that cost tens of thousands of dollars to make.

And what they realize is that with so many ideas, it’s really hard to successfully predict winners.

So even if your idea could be somehow be instantly turned into a high-quality app, a developer still wouldn’t be able to predict how well it would do.

3. Developers Want to Get Paid

It takes a lot of work to code an app. After all that time and effort of making your app, your developer has two options:

1. Give the app to you and get paid cash, immediately.

2. Steal it and put it on the App Store as their own, praying it makes money.

The 2nd one doesn’t happen because they want to get paid!

They are in the business of making apps. If they don’t get paid for the apps they make their families don’t eat!

All a developer wants is to make your app, get paid, and move on to the next project so they can get paid again.

If they wanted to bet on the likelihood of a given app succeeding, they’d be an investor instead.

4. Developers Live and Die Based on Referrals and Ratings

If they stole your idea you’d (rightly) make a huge fuss about it and tell anyone online who would listen.

And you’d obviously give them no referrals.

Here’s the thing: developers live off word-of-mouth referrals. Or ratings, if they work on a platform like Elance.

They can’t afford to steal your idea. They need you to be happy. And they want you to send future clients their way.

Developers Respond to Incentives

Just like you and I and every other human being, developers respond to incentives.

And the incentives are aligned: devs want to make your app, get paid, and earn referrals for future jobs. That’s it.

So the next time you think about telling someone your idea, don’t be so afraid! Do it openly.

You’re more likely to get good feedback and improve the idea than lose it to some random developer.

App Store Pricing and Top Charts: A Lesson on Apple’s Priorities

Marco Arment wrote there are three problems with the “Top Charts” list in the App Store:

  1. It encourages shallow apps with really low prices
  2. It’s easy to game
  3. The rich get richer

For the most part these simply aren’t true.

It encourages shallow apps with really low prices
This argument falls apart quickly if you look at the reviews of apps that are ranking well.

I just scrolled through the 300 currently Top Grossing apps on the iPhone. Going through all those apps it’s apparent that 75%%2B of those apps have 4 or more stars. And the vast majority (all but two!) had 3 or more.

(For the curious the two offenders were Zoosk with 2.5 stars, ranking #22, and MS Office Mobile, ranking #113 with 2.5 stars.)

Glancing through individual categories you see the same trend. Many (most?) of the apps ranking the highest in Top Grossing have 4 or more stars. Practically all have at least 3. Whatever the problem, the people reviewing these apps seem quite satisfied. I don’t think a bunch of 4- and 5-star reviews shout “shallow.”

There are a few spammy apps here and there that are making decent money. I think that’s to be expected in any lucrative and hot marketplace. But it’s not nearly as prevalent as say, Twitter spam, which is currently an accepted part of that ecosystem that users simply must deal with.

It’s easy to game
I’ve spoken with developers who paid for downloads in the hopes of “sticking” in the Top Charts. They all told me it was not worth it. In fact, they said that while they ranked in the top 200 for a day or two they immediately fell off the charts.

My hunch is that gaming the App Store with directly purchased downloads would require a significant budget of 6 figures, minimum. It would have to be enough to rank in the top 20 or so apps. Of course some companies with deep pockets are paying these large sums to rank well.

But even so, doing this is not “easy” and definitely can’t be done by spammy developers looking to make a quick buck. (Whether you’d classify some social gaming companies as spammy is a separate debate.)

The rich get richer
This is the most true of the 3 assertions. But it’s also true for capitalism in general. Life is a hits-based business. If you win you’re going to be there for quite a while.

All that said, we still don’t actually know whether top ranking apps receive materially more downloads because of their ranking. Marco sums this up well in a footnote that I agree with 100%:

“This is all just speculation based on fuzzy data, since developers still don’t have another important metric: where buyers came from. It would be extremely helpful to even have a simple breakdown between three huge channels: browsing the App Store, searching the App Store, or following a direct link […] > > Without this information, we have very little insight into why people buy our apps, which makes it harder to know where to invest our marketing efforts, how to price our app, or how to improve it. (Emphasis mine)

The fact is we don’t know why people buy apps. How can we demand a solution when we can’t even analyze the problem? If anything our current battle should be getting that data from Apple.

No one has a good solution
In the many articles written on this subject there are a few solutions proposed to the App Store discovery issue. Unfortunately they likely won’t work, either:

Use engagement, as measured by # of times an app is launched, amount of time spent in app, etc. This won’t work because apps are not comparable across these metrics. Some apps are “successful” if they help the user perform a task really quickly. Others, like games, are doing their job if the user spends more time in the app.

Other apps are used frequently and throughout the day, like Tweetbot. But banking or movie ticket apps are used only occasionally.

Even the # of launches isn’t great evidence. Some apps like Dark Sky have people so accustomed to push notifications that, while they love and use the app, they don’t ever open it!

Show Gamer Favorites This obviously would only work for games, and would likely mirror the current Top Grossing ranks anyways.

Apps used over long periods of time should be given more weight. This is the best of the three suggestions, but still lends itself towards the “rich get richer.” What if I just launched an app and people love it but have only used it for a few days?

What Does Apple Want?
It’s important to remember Apple’s priority order: 1. Apple 2. Customers 3. Developers

Apple will always put customers before developers. It’s part of what makes Apple great.

With that in mind…

Apps are Complements to iPhone and iPads
Joel Spolsky wrote a great post on the competition between technological complements. Chris Dixon wrote a similar post predicting, way back in 2009, the confrontation between Twitter and Twitter clients.

The idea is that there is a finite pie customers have to spend on the iOS ecosystem. The less customers spend on device complements like apps the more they can spend on Apple hardware.

From a slightly different POV, think of iOS as your mom might see it. A big part of the iPhone is having 100’s of thousands of apps available for < $5.

Imagine how much less desirable an iPhone is if suddenly most apps are $20%2B. At that point the ecosystem is too expensive for casual users. And while we techies frequently forget it, casual users are 95%%2B of Apple’s customers.

For both of these reasons Apple wants to keep app prices as low as possible.

Competition for Developers
Apple does have to compete with Android for third-party developers. But right now that alternative is still not financially viable for most of the developers I talk to. Even at current App Store prices, Apple has more than enough devs creating great apps.

Marco’s request that they “start rewarding great software” is simply not an objective of Apple in and of itself. Sure, it falls under the umbrella of “make a great iOS ecosystem.” But helping developers at the expense of customers is the last think they’ll do if that ecosystem is already running smoothly.

Why is Everyone Like their Parents?

Why do many people end up in the same socioeconomic rung as their parents? There’s at least two reasons I can think of.

First, it’s easier to do something when you’ve seen someone else do it.

People thought the human body could not run a mile in less than four minutes until Roger Bannister did it in 1954. Once he had shown it was possible, two months later two other runners did it in the same race.

It’s the same with being raised by parents who got rich. You saw what they did, you know it can be done.

On the other hand, if you don’t know anyone who has gone to college you might not know how that process works or even consider trying.

Being the first to do something is hard.

Second, I think everyone has what I call an “internal productivity quota” (IPQ). Your IPQ is the amount of stuff you need to accomplish so you feel happy and productive instead of lazy and depressed.

IPQ levels are different in everyone. They help explain (part of) the reason why people who don’t need money continue to work so hard: they’d feel unproductive if they didn’t.

Like other human behavior I think IPQ’s are a function of nature and nurture.

I believe humans tend to fall and rise to the average behavior of the people around them. If we spend our time with others who don’t do well in school, don’t have jobs, and watch a lot of TV, our IPQ will adjust down.

We won’t be as productive, but over time that will feel okay because it’s what everyone else is doing.

On the flip side if we’re around friends who wake up at 6 to hit the gym and work a disciplined 12 hour day, our IPQ will slowly adjust up. We’ll feel the difference.

So to answer the question in the post title, most people end up like their parents because no one else has as large an influence on one’s IPQ.

And because our parents probably chose to live in a place with people similar to them, everyone you knew growing up was the same way, too. After 18+ years surrounded by the same type of people, it becomes difficult to break out and do something different.

How I Convinced Multiple $100 Million Companies to Sign My Contracts Without Knowing a Soul

After my Spanish Bible app experienced some success I made plans grow it even further.

Since lots of people were already buying our Bible audiobook inside the app, I figured it was a natural extension to offer other items to our users. Like ebooks.

The problem of course was that I didn’t own the rights to any good Christian ebooks. Publishers do.

So somehow I had to figure out how to convince them to let me license their books to sell as in-app purchases in my apps.

Eventually I convinced LifeWay, The American Bible Society, Barbour Publishing, Biblica, a subsidiary of HarperCollins, and other publishers to sign book licensing agreements with me.

Cold calling and email would have made this hard if not impossible. So I found a conference that’s devoted to the Spanish Christian publishing industry and bought a plane ticket to Miami.

My goal was to convince as many publishers as possible to license their books to me so I could convert them to ebooks and sell them in our apps.

Step 1: Know What You Want & Who Can Give It To You

When I showed up I didn’t know who were the decision makers at the publishers. So I just started asking the employees at the booths and eventually found out that each company has a licensing manager who has the authority to sign license agreements.

Unfortunately when these same booth workers asked me what kind of terms I was looking for, I didn’t know.

I’d never seen a licensing contract in my life. But this had an easy solution!

I hopped on to Rocket Lawyer and downloaded one of their example contracts. They have tons of contracts you can use (or at least start with before you get an expensive lawyer). You can see the example I started with right here.

With that example agreement, plus talking to a bunch of publisher employees, I learned the following about the publishing industry:

– Since I was in the Spanish publishing industry, sometimes there was a single person for Spanish licensing. Other times Spanish was just a part of a larger licensing job.

– Licenses are sold regionally, by country. You can also ask for a worldwide license

– Everty medium (book, ebook, audiobook, etc.) is a separate type of license

– You can also get a license to create and sell something new based off of someone else’s work (e.g. a license to make an audiobook)

I’ll spare you more details, so just know that was enough to learn what I needed, and from who:

A worldwide license to sell Spanish ebooks, signed by a licensing manager

Step 2: Learn How to Pitch a Stranger on Their Terms

When I very first arrived and started talking to booth workers my pitch went something like this (warning, it’s awful):

Hi! My name’s Trevor McKendrick. I’m the founder of Salem Software and we make Bible study software for mobile devices. We focus 100% on native Spanish speakers because we believe they’re a neglected demographic. This is natural since most companies do English first, then Spanish as an afterthought. We also sell other Christian books and content in our mobile app store.

You probably didn’t even read all that because it was so boring. And it was boring because it was about me!

A pitch needs to be from the point of view of the person you’re pitching.

How will they benefit? What’s in it for them? What words do they use to describe what you’re talking about?

After politely being listened to for a few hours, I changed my pitch a bit. After some experimentation and listening to publishers for a few hours, I got it down to this:

We do digital distribution.

So much better!

The publishers now instantly understood 2 things:

1. What Salem Software does (sell books digitally)
2. How we could help them (sell more of their books)

Of course at this point I was still a long way from closing a licensing deal, but at least now we could have that conversation using terms we both understood.

Step 3: Find The Decision Maker

A Digital Licensing Manager Job from LinkedIn

Because the licensing managers have so much power they’re also in high demand, and can be hard to reach.

One of the things I learned is that most of them were not on the ground floor of the conference. They were up in private offices on the 2nd floor. The offices were for meeting with distributors like me, but most people seemed to already have appointments before the conference even started. Oops.

So instead I had to do a great job pitching the booth manager so they would feel comfortable introducing me to the licensing manager. This worked roughly 50% of the time.

The other 50% of the time the booth manager would happily give me the name of the licensing manager, but tell me that either 1. they weren’t at the conference at all (bad), or 2. they were already all booked with appointments (not as bad).

In that case, I’d go up to the offices upstairs and just ask to speak with the licensing manager, by name.

This worked every single time.

Step 4: Pitch the Decision Maker

The one-page document I Made on Elance to Pitch Publishers

Now I had the full attention of the licensing manager. Perfect. This was the exact moment I was hoping for when I flew 3,000 miles and spent $1,000 to get here.

I’d then go into more detail about how the arrangement would work. To my surprise, what we were doing was fairly new to most of these managers.

So instead of asking whether I could email them a draft contract, I’d ask permission to email a one-page summary instead.

This gem of a PDF explains step-by-step how the process works, and how it benefits them.

(Had I created that one-pager yet? Nope. I did that via Elance later that night for $100.)

Really important: By the end of the conversation it should be crystal clear what the next step is in the process, and who will be doing it. In my case, I was going to email the manager that 1-page summary.

I don’t know for sure, but one of the keys to convincing publishers to work with me was that I did all of the work for them. They just signed the contract, sent over the PDF’s, and then received a quarterly check. I promised to convert the PDF, upload it to our platform, answer customer support, send them a royalty report, etc.

If you’re still trying to just get a leg up, I’d suggest doing as much as reasonbly possible for the person on the other side of the deal.

Step 5: Record Notes From your Conversation Immediately

After every single conversation I would immediately write down the details of what happened. This included:

– the person’s name
– something specific about them to help me put a face to the name
– the follow up we agreed on (phone call, email, etc.)
– any personal details they might have mentioned

This would all go on their business card. Later that night I’d type all my notes into my giant tracker (aka a Google Spreadsheet, see Step 6).

Step 6: Follow Up, Follow Up, Follow Up + Track Deals

It’s amazing how many people don’t follow up. By just showing up and doing what you promised to do, you’ll be ahead of 80% of the field.

Seriously.

Here’s an example of the first email I sent after the conference (names changed):

Hi Adam,

We met the last day of Expolit after I spoke with Allison down at your booth.

By way of reminder, we do digital distribution through our Bible study app in the App Store. We’re looking to license additional Spanish Christian content to sell as in-app purchases (Our website is here: http://salemsoftware.org.)

I’ve identified a few titles that look like a good fit for our customers (e.g. Diario Vivir|Muerto, Fe Asombrosa). It would also be good to know if you have any Bible study guides, translations, or study plans available.

Attached is a 1-page PDF explaining how we usually work with publishers. Let me know if you have any questions and what next steps are.

Thanks!

Trevor

With hindsight (this was one of the first followup emails I sent) this did some things well and others poorly:

Good:

– I followed up quickly and mentioned when I met him
– Reminded him of who we are and what we do

Bad:

– Should NOT have asked him what next steps are
– Instead should have asked if I could send over a copy of the draft contract
– Should have been much shorter. 5 sentences or less, ideally.

Some people will say I should have just included the contract in this email. But I like sending the 1-pager and contract in separate emails. By allowing him to specifically agree to let me send the contract he’s also agreeing to read it and respond.

This is exactly what customer-relationship management (CRM) tools are for. But if you’re not trying to contact hundreds of people (I reached out to maybe 20), this is totally doable with a spreadsheet.

The most important thing is update it after every conversation. Whether an email or a phone call, you gotta write it down.

If you don’t you’ll lose track of the status on each person and you’ll have to dig through your entire email chain to figure it out.

Step 7: Keep Going Until You Get a No

This is the hardest part. These people work in big companies with huge bureaucracies. They can’t move as quickly as small companies like us.

So you have to kindly stay in touch. Once every 2 weeks. Once a month. Email them. Call them and leave a friendly voice mail.

One important thing to do: don’t say the same thing every time. Show them you’re making progress.

Even better is to show them you’ve made progress with one of their competitors.

For example, this would work in an email:

Hi Stephanie,

I’m still looking forward to hearing back about that contract I sent over. I’ve attached it here for your reference.

We just got INSERT COMPETITOR HERE on our platform and things are going great. We’d love to have you, too.

Let me know when works for a phone call with you… I’m available all day Thursday and Friday.

Cheers!

Trevor

This does a few things:

1. You can follow up without sounding stale. Nothing is worse than being bothered by the same person with the exact same request, over and over.

2. I made it easy for them to see the contract again. They don’t have to dig it out and search for that old email.

3. By mentioning the competitor it implies they are missing out.

4. I have zero idea what their schedule is, but I don’t want to just say “tell me when works for you” because that’s too broad. So instead I tell them I’m totally free for two specific days and let them work that with their schedule.

Follow up is the name of the game. Don’t get discouraged! One of my contracts took over 7 months to close. The VP in-charge of the deal was just incredibly busy. She wasn’t annoyed by me. She wanted to work with me. It just took some persistance to get to the top of her todo list.

Some people will eventually get back to you and say they’re not interested. And that’s actually a good thing, since it lets you focus your efforts on other places.

But if talked to your contact in person and they were interested then, don’t stop reaching out until you get a definite no. They’re probably like most people and are just busy.

That’s it.

This would work with finding customers, vendors, partners… anyone you want to do business with. Find them, show them how you add value, and keep in touch until you close that deal!

What Everybody Should Know About Contracting Developers

One of the key pieces of my app success has been working with the right developer at the right price (which, by the way, doesn’t always mean cheap).

Working with a developer for the first time can be scary. You might now know how to speak their language, or you’ve never seen code before… that’s okay! The good news is you don’t have to know anything about coding.

After working with almost a dozen or so devs I’ve found it’s not too bad as long as you follow a few important rules.

Know your project goals
You have to start by really understanding your project goals. Do you want to test a new product idea or make something really awesome regardless if people use it?

Depending on your goals your developer needs will fall somewhere in this spectrum:

The more you move to the right, the more you’ll pay, but the more the developer will “think” for you.

Pay them to Code, not Think
One of the key things to understand about finding a contracted developer on the left is that they want specific, exact instructions. They’re not being paid to think for you; they’re merely turning your ideas into code.

And that’s fine! You can still get “good enough” products made to test a market, if that’s your goal.

A smart way to make this work is by creating mockups. Showing them a picture of what you want built willl do more to explain your project than anything else.

My very first Elance project I had no clue what I was doing, but I made the below mockups for the very first version of my app. I didn’t care about what the mockup looked like, I just need to show the contractor where the buttons went and overall layout.

They look really bad! But the point is that it worked. Below the mockup is the first version of the app. (BTW now I do all mockups by hand in an app called POP. It’s awesome, and free.)

Once your mockup is ready you can post confidently to Elance.

Hiring on Elance
Elance is great for finding “good enough” developers. To find a good fit I look for people who:

  • Have good reviews
  • Have a decent portfolio
  • Speak English well
  • Are very responsive

Sometimes I’ll just ask them a question to see how long it takes to respond. Hiring an unresponsive contractor is a terrible experience so you want to get that out of the way as soon as possible.

On smaller scoped projects I also prefer working with individuals versus agencies. That way you know what you’re communicating about the project is going straight to the person doing the actual work.

Skype is your Friend
Once I’ve narrowed my choices down I’ll interview a few people via Skype. I want to get a feel for how we communicate with each other.

“Does she understand me when I describe product features?”

“Does he ask good follow up questions?”

It also helps humanize each other. This is very overlooked with Elancers, myself included. I’ve worked with so many people now that I often forget that on the other side is a breathing, living human being.

Seeing and talking with that person goes a long way towards a great working relationship.

Negotiations & Milestones
When negotiating terms with a new developer remember that the power is generally on your side. You have 10+ people bidding for your work. You can set the terms.

A great term you can use to protect yourself are milestones.

The idea is to put the majority of the contract payment at the end of the project. Personally I like setting 50% of the contract price as conditional upon Apple approving my app. That way if Apple rejects it unexpectedly your contractor hasn’t made off with the money. They’re still bound to help you fix it.

Some might say that’s unfair to the developer. If Apple rejects my app why is that the dev’s fault? The key is that you both set expectations and agreed to those terms upfront. Of course the contractor can turn down the job.

Underpriced Developers
There are also very talented, professional developers on Elance. And there’s even a way to hire them on a budget, too.

It’s turns out it’s really hard for new contractors to win their first Elance job because they don’t have any reviews. You can use this to your advantage.

What this means is sometimes great developers will work for really cheap on their first few jobs just to get into the game. That’s how I found the amazing developer I have now.

He had no reviews, but:

  • He had a great portfolio, including his own apps in the App Store
  • He spoke amazing English in our Skype interview (he’s from Europe)
  • He answered all my questions intellegently, and had smart questions of his own
  • And he was willing to work at a discount, so I figured I could take the small risk for a great developer

I pay him much more now (see below) but that was the start of a great working relationship.

Managing Developers
Of course hiring is only half the battle. Managing developers is a different story.

While yes, you have hired the contractor and yes, you are paying them, you still have the choice to make their life easy or a living hell. They do their best work for their favorite clients so it’s in your interest to make them happy.

Know what you want
I was once told by my developer that he likes working for me because I know what I want. So again, make mockups! Just doing them on your own makes you think through how the ap will work.

That’s much better than going to a dev and saying “I want a Bible app. Go.” That requires a ton more work on their part.

That said, don’t feel like you have to stick 100% to what you showed them initially. As development progresses you’ll realize some changes need to be made. That’s ok. Just be reasonable about your requests.

And if you don’t know whether something is reasonable, ask your developer.I’ve been surprised on multiple ocassions when the answer is simply “yeah we can add that no problem.”

Actionable Feedback
When you’re reviewing a build and you don’t like something, be as specific as possible as to why.

Ideally you’ll describe: (1) what you don’t like, and (2) what would make it better.

I admit this can be really hard to do. Sometimes it’s just a gut reaction and you don’t know why you don’t like it.

That’s okay if it’s only ocassional and you admit it (e.g. “I don’t like how this works… sorry I don’t know why/can’t give a better reason”) but if you do it too much you’ll frustrate your developer.

Remember: reduce ambiguity. A well-defined and scoped problem with specific feedback is a developer’s best friend.

Pay them Well (if they’re worth it)
This only applies to the best developers.

True story: A few months ago I rehired Bart. He’s a 100% class act. He does great work, gives quick but thorough updates, gives me unsolicited advice on how to make my apps bettter, etc. He takes care of me as a customer.

When we first agreed to this new project we agreed to a price of $4,000. That’s a lot for my little company, so I swallowed hard and went for it.

But as time went on and I thought more about the app’s requirements and the importance of this rebuild I reconsidered.

The guy is amazing and has done great work for me before. Why shouldn’t I show him that I appreciate it?

So I emailed him one day and said “hey, I want to do this right and I want you to know I appreciate your work. I’m raising the contract to $6,000.” He didn’t ask for that, I just did it.

Now, can I directly measure what impact that’s had? Not really.

But personally, I feel better working with him. I feel more comfortable making the occasional additional request. And I know that if he thinks something isn’t right he’ll tell me. He trusts that I’m not trying to screw him over.

Pay them Quickly
You think this would be obvious.

But many a contractor’s fear is not getting paid. Who doesn’t have stories of calling clients about invoices 90+ days outstanding?

So my rule is: — Do I have the cash to pay them? (I hope so or why on earth did I hire them) AND — Am I satisfied with the finished project?

If both of those are true then I cut the check.

“But you should wait for the invoice….didn’t you get Net 30 terms?”

That’s exactly why I should pay quickly. It will surprise them and they’ll want to work for me again. They’ll try and keep me as a client by doing great work.

I once paid a developer literally 5 minutes after he sent me the invoice. He was going on a trip soon and I knew he’d want to get his loose ends tied up as soon as possible.

After I sent the payment he quickly emailed me, saying that was the fastest he’d ever been paid!

Remember: developers talk to each other! Not only should you treat them well because that’s the right thing to do, but because your reputation is important.

In Summary
Depending on your project goals you can find a good developer at a reasonable price. And if you treat them well that relationship can grow into something powerful.

Talk to me more on Twitter.

How to Find the Right Designer (at the Right Price) for Any Project

Finding the right designer depends on your goals. Do you need the best or can you try your luck with something cheap?

As covered in other posts, picking the right person or company to do your design work is significantly influenced by your budget.

As you might have read on other places in the blog, I highly recommend getting started for as cheaply as possible. It doesn’t make sense to make something expensive if you don’t know whether anyone’s even going to buy it!

So my goal would be to get a design that’s just good enough to test the market.

How do you do that?

Enter 99designs.

For the unfamiliar, 99designs is a marketplace of designers and clients. You, the client, write out a design brief describing what you want and the 99design community creates dozens of designs to compete for your contest.

The entire process lasts 7 days, at which point you pick a winner.

Contests start at $200 and can go as high as you’re willing to pay. Of course the more you pay the more people contribute work to your contest. Here are some designs I’ve received, all of which were $300 or less.

The person I found did the entire quote app for $250. Pretty remarkable.

If you manage the process right there’s no doubt in my mind you can get great work from 99designs.

How I use 99designs
To get the best possible work out of 99designs I recommend the following:

Show examples of what you like
Finding examples of things you like helps establish the look and feel for the designer. It also helps force you to understand designs that you like. You’ll be surprised by how much work this takes.

Do your own (very) rough mockup
What I mean by a “rough mockup” is something that shows each screen of the app, where each button goes, where the button should take the user, etc.

Creating a very rough idea of what you want will go a long way towards getting what you want. I like doing mockups with pencil/paper by hand and scanning them in, some people like using software… it doesn’t really matter. Just make sure you do it.

If you absolutely have no idea what you want that’s okay too. In the job description let the designers know you’re open to a lot of things and will have a better idea of what you want once you’ve seen a few mockups.

For my logo contest I gave these logos as examples:

And my logo ended up turning into:

Give concrete feedback, quickly
You’re going to get a lot of designs. My logo contest ended up with 245 separate designs! My least favorite part is opening my email and seeing dozens of designers all awaiting feedback on their work. Ugh.

The way to manage this is to give feedback twice a day.

Log in at say, around lunch, then before you go to bed (you want space between so designers can make changes). Then you can get through them quickly and in bulk. This is much more efficient than handling them one at a time. Don’t procrastinate this though. The contest is only 7 days. To get a lot of iterations you need to avoid a long turnover.

Giving concrete feedback is even harder, but equally important.

Here’s a heirarchy of feedback if you were making, for example, a logo:

Bad: The logo’s okay (being nice because you don’t want to hurt their feelings)

Good: I don’t like the logo

Better: I don’t like the lighting of the logo

Best: I don’t like the lighting of the logo because it makes it makes our brand appear too dark. We need to appear more light-hearted and happier.

Giving the designer the “why” behind your opinion gives them context. Instead of guessing on their next try they have a better idea of what will make you happy.

For my logo contest here’s an example design with feedback that I gave:

“One of my favorites. I like that both “s” ’s are lowercase. And the font is subtle. I’m not sure I love the symbol. It’s not bad, but could you play around with it? Positioning, colors, size, etc?”

I didn’t end up going with the lowercase “s” as you can see. And my feedback wasn’t perfect, e.g. I could have told him what colors and symbol types I was looking for and why I wanted them.

But it was good enough so that he knew exactly what I did and didn’t like and he could continue to make progress.

Make all feedback public
This is my favorite part of 99designs. By making all feedback public every designer can learn about your preferences through the feedback you give to other designs.

You’d be amazed how quickly this will move your design in the right direction. Usually the first dozen or more designs are terrible! I hate them all. But I give specific feedback and indicate why I don’t like them. The next round is always better, and it continues that way until I find a winner.

Broadcast announcements
In addition to giving individual designers feedback you can make general announcements that everyone sees. Once I’ve seen enough designs to know what I’m looking for I’ll let everyone know. While some designers will look at all the individual feedback you give, you can’t assume they will. It’s your job to do the heavy lifting of communciating what you want.

Use the polls (when it makes sense)
99designs lets you make shareable polls that let your friends vote and give feedback on their favorite designs. These can help reveal design preferences that you didn’t previously notice.

That said, be careful. It’s likely your friends are not your target demographic, so don’t automatically go with what they say.

If you don’t like something, eliminate it
I used to make the mistake of keeping designs around that I didn’t like. This sometimes led the designer to believe that I was still interested in that piece of work, which often wasn’t the case.

By eliminating the design you’ll send the right message that they need to work in a new direction.

Build relationships
With so many people vying for your attention it can be very easy to dismiss people and “push” your way through a contest. Kind of like a bully. Someone doesn’t make sense? Just eliminate them.

But by acting that way you’ll probably lose out on future opportunities. Instead I’ve learned it’s better to take a long-term view on your potential designers.

I’ve developed relationships with a few designers from 99designs that I’ve gone on to work with more later. Aditya Chhatrala who I mentioned earlier is one of them.

People like Derek Anderson of Startup Grind have even found business partners.

So treat everyone you interact with like a potential partner. You never know you might mind end up working with again.

Graduating to dribbble
If you have a larger budget and want to work one-on-one with a great designer you can also turn to dribbble. These talented people will do more of the thinking for you if you’re not exactly sure what you want.

Dribbble.com is like Pinterest for designers. Designers put up examples of their work to give you a flavor of their style. Then for $20 a year dribbble lets you talk to and work with designers on the site.

There’s a lot of talent on dribbble. You might not know where to start when you’re there.

I found my current designer there, Vu Hoang Anh of CSS Hat and abdoc. He’s awesome and worth every cent. This is some of the work he’s done for me:

This is all I did to find him:

Pay your $20
It costs $20 a year to talk to people in dribbble’s database. If you can’t afford $20 to look for a designer you probably shouldn’t be trying to build an app.

Find ~5 people you like
I found 5 or 6 designers whose work I really liked. It took a long time because you have to make sure you love their work. Assume that what they put on dribbble is their absolute best, so if you don’t love it right now you’re likely not going to be happy with whatever they make for you. [Keep looking. Don’t settle.]

Create stock email
Using TextExpander I created a stock email that I sent to my top 5. Feel free to copy mine:

Hi (Designer Name),

I need to hire a designer for an app that I’m currently rebuilding.

It’s basically a book store that customers download for free. They can take notes, highlight favorite sections, search globally, etc. And of course they can purchase additional content.

I have a budget of $2,000 that would include all screens for iPhone and iPad. My developer is ready to go so I’d like to get a designer on board quickly.

I have 95% of my screens mocked up, but am also open to your input.

If this sounds interesting to you please email me to discuss more details.

Thanks!

Trevor

Three important notes on dribbble
1. I was specific about my budget to get their attention. $2,000 wasn’t enough for a few of them, but at least it gives both parties an idea of where you stand. With no number you don’t have a place to start talking seriously.

2. I mentioned I already had a developer on board and that 95% of the screens were mocked up with paper/pencil. Again this lets them know you’re serious. They need to feel that if they take the trouble to respond they’re not wasting their time.

3. I was open to his input. I wanted him to know that while yes I had a solid idea in mind I was still hoping he’d provide some of his expertise and offer suggestions on how to improve what I’d thought of.

Finalize scope/price/payment schedule
This is simply to establish clear expectations on both ends. They have to know what they’re providing you, at what times, and when they’ll get paid. You need to know exactly what you’re getting. Don’t get lazy and treat this lightly; you’ll likely regret it later when you disagree on whether a particular deliverable was in scope.

How To Choose a Profitable Niche

When I was considering building my Spanish Bible app I wanted to be as sure as possible that people were going to be able to find it & buy it. With that in mind I came up with the idea of the ideal target niche.

What’s the ideal niche?

The ideal niche:
1. Is profitable

2. Can be found via App Store search

3. Has crappy competitors

Let’s start with #1.

#1: Is the niche profitable?

Step 1. Find an app that ranks #25 Paid
I found two apps in the Business category that have a history of ranking around #25 Paid. You can see their historical Paid rankings below via AppFigures:

PDF ExpertDocuments

Why #25 Paid? See step 2.

Step 2. Calculate the apps’ daily revenue using Distimo
Last year I asked the nice folks at Distimo to analyze how many downloads it takes an app to rank #25 Paid by category.

Gert Jan Spriensma, a Distimo analyst at the time, was nice enough to respond with this post which got picked up by TechCrunch.

You don’t even need to read the whole post, just this one chart:

This means our two example apps are being downloaded roughly 90 times a day. We can estimate their daily revenue by multiplying their prices by 90.

Step 3. Look up Gross Ranking
Easy with AppFigures:

Eyeballing the charts it looks like their average Gross Ranks are #13 and #50, respectively.

Step 4. Plot the Data
This is what we’ve collected:

Plotting it we get this:

This gives us an estimate on how much apps in the Business category make.

#2: Will Customers find you via Search?

You need to find something that can be found with a frequently searched keyword that doesn’t have a lot of competitors.

This is a tough one because Apple doesn’t release keyword data. While there do exist tools now that approximate keyword search frequency, I didn’t know about them when I picked my niche.

One in particular that I’ve started using lately is Straply.com. I’ve talked to the cofounder and he calls it the first “Google Keyword Tool” for App Stores. The interface isn’t very good yet, but the data he’s collecting is remarkable. It’ll tell you how often a term is searched and how many competitors also appear in the App Store Search Results (ASSRs).

Do it Yourself
But I’d also recommend doing your own tried and true research. I did the following before most any App Store optimzation tools went mainstream:

For each niche I brainstormed a bunch of keywords/phrases. I plugged those words into the Google Keyword Tool and clicked the “mobile only” option.

From there I selected the top 30 or so keywords. And I plugged those into the search bar of the App Store.

Then I go through the ASSRs.

For the top 5 or 10 results for each keyword I consider a few metrics:

  • Does the app have a lot of reviews? How recent are the reviews?
  • When did the developer last update the app?
  • Are there any apps that make good money and only rank high in the ASSRs for a few KW’s?

In an ideal world you’d find an app that has lots of reviews and that ranks well in the ASSRs for one keyword phrase, and of course is making money. That means the phrase is likely to be something users are searching for.

If a profitable app ranks well for a few keywords look at the other apps in the ASSRs. Do they appear to be making money, too? Generally, the more money the top results are making, the more likely the keyword is searched by users.

You do have to be careful here though: some apps will rank well for many KWs and it requires much more detective work to figure out which KWs are the ones users are actually searching.

Is the keyword competitive?
Simply look at the # of apps in the ASSRs for the KW phrases research above.

E.g. below are the # of results for different KW’s with the word “calculator”:

“calculator” = 10,930
“tip calculator” = 777
“scientific calculator” = 336
“graphing calculator” = 81

I consider anything less than 100 to be great. Anything over 500 is probably too much.

Again, the App Stores are great because they give public reviews. You already know what user do and don’t like about your competitors. If you decide to get into that niche, you know where the improvements need to be made.

Also subjectively look at competitors: does it appear the developer is putting time/care/love into the product? Maybe she’s become apathetic because she has so little competition and users can’t find anything else. That’s exactly how the landscape looked with Spanish Bibles (It’s worth noting that since then the competition has picked up significantly.)

If it looks like the competition isn’t trying very hard but they’re still making money, it’s likely you’ve found a niche worth investing some more time in.

Talk to me more on Twitter.

My First Year in the App Store

I released my first app one year ago yesterday. It started as a small side project with the explicit goal of paying my rent.

As of yesterday it’s done $73,034 in net revenue, after Apple’s cut. While not considered “VC” successful, I’m extremely happy and proud of how well it’s turned out thus far.

Today I’m going to give a brief history of our apps and talk about why I got into mobile apps in the first place.

Meeting Cameron

In February of 2012 I went to a family dinner where I learned a relative was doing $8k to $10k a month in the App Store. The crazy part was that he wasn’t a developer or a designer. I’d read that most devs/designers were struggling to make money in the App Store, so seeing a business guy be successful was a surprise, and a little weird.

But I figured if he could do it so could I.

For the next few weeks I thought a lot about what I’d make. See my next post for that decision process, but ultimately I decided to make a Spanish Bible mobile app for iPhone.

You read that right.

It turns out that most of the Spanish Bible apps out there are really bad. (I should point out there are a few exceptions to this from competitors that I admire. Their “problem” is trying to be everything to everyone, so Spanish speakers don’t get as much support.)

My hypothesis was three fold: (1) Whoever was making Spanish Bibles right now was making decent money, (2) I could make a better Spanish Bible app relatively cheaply, and (3) the competition wasn’t too heavy so I’d still be able to be found.

Who Launches on Sundays?

Because I’m selling the Bible, I launched on a Sunday. I was checking rankings all day, which didn’t really help because I still didn’t know how well you had to rank to make any money.

The next morning (and literally every day since) I woke up and first thing checked my email for that magical message from AppFigures. My total day one net sales? $36.35. Admittedly not very much.

But remember: my goal was only to pay my rent. I’d spent ~$500 on the app, so if I made that back everything else was gravy.

That $36/day average actually went up, and so the first 30 days I made $1,475.99, almost $900 more than our rent at the time. While still not a lot of absolute money, relative to the time and initial investment this side project was a success.

From there I expanded.

I contracted a professional audio studio to record the entire Bible as an audiobook. That was released a few months later in a separate app and made the side project that much bigger. Revenues at that point were around $4k to $5 a month.

Test the Market, Cheaply

Since then I’ve slowly improved upon and expanded our product line.

To show you how far we’ve come, below are screenshots from the first two versions of the app. I’m pretty embarrassed to show these because they don’t look very good. But they were good enough, which at the time was all that mattered.

I didn’t want to spend $10,000 making something really great that nobody wanted. I wanted to test the market, and cheaply.Once the apps were generating more revenue I was able to invest that back into a complete overhaul.

The latest version looks awesome. It’s faster, has more functionality, and I think customers are going to love it.

We’re releasing the update in the middle of next month.

And May 1st I’m flying to a Spanish Christian publishing conference in Miami called ExpoLit. I’m hoping to make friends with people who own copyrights to additional content our customers have asked for. Not only would the in-app purchase revenue be nice, but our customers would love us.

All of this from a little app that I launched for less than $500.