David Smith is a full-time independent app developer. Since 2006, David has owned and operated a small company focusing on creating applications for the iPhone and Apple Watch.
David has built many successful apps over the years. His most recent app, Widgetsmith, went viral and hit #1 on the App Store. It has over 50 million downloads. David’s other successful apps include Watchsmith, Pedometer++, and Sleep++.
David also co-hosts a weekly podcast called Under the Radar, where he and his co-host Mario Arment discuss Apple-related topics.
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- How to transition from a hobbyist to a full time app developer
- Two big mistakes to avoid when starting out as an app developer
- How customers find new apps in 2021
- The biggest waste of time and money for an app developer
Links & Resources
David Smith’s Links
- David’s Website
- Audiobooks app
- Widgetsmith app
- Watchsmith app
- Pedometer++ app
- Sleep++ app
- Under the Radar podcast
- David’s Twitter: @_DavidSmith
- iOS Version Stats
David Barnard: https://twitter.com/drbarnard
Jacob Eiting: https://twitter.com/jeiting
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David Smith: 00:00:00
I’ve launched, I think it’s 56 or 57 apps at this point, and all but about six of them have completely failed.
I say that mostly because I’ve launched more failures probably than anyone in the App Store in some ways, and that’s the way that you can end up with success, I’ve just kept trying, and it got me that little baseline of income that it was like, okay, I’m not just wasting my time here.
Welcome to the Sub Club podcast. I’m your host, David Barnard, and with me as always Jacob Eiting. Hello Jacob.
Hi David Number one, How are you?
I’m good. Our guest today, maybe number two, is David Smith, long time indie developer and podcaster. Starting with Audiobooks in 2009, David has built many successful apps over the years, including Widgetsmith. Pedometer. His most recent app, Widgetsmith went viral on TikTok, and hit number one in the App Store.
David Smith: 00:01:10
Thank you, It’s great to be here.
Yeah, it’s great to chat. We’ve chatted in person a few times, and bumped into each other at WWDC over the years. You’ve been doing this pretty much since the very beginning, right? Audiobooks came out in 2009, when did you actually start working on that?
David Smith: 00:01:27
So, It wasn’t even my first first app. I think my first app that never went anywhere, it was launched in 2008. So, I mean, I was within a couple of months of the App Store launching. So I’ve been doing it essentially as long as you could, and I think I started working on, oh yeah. Audiobooks, the end of 2008.
And it’s just kind of grown from there. So it’s about 13 years in the App Store.
Like me and Jacob, actually, we both had apps...
In the on days of paid up front, and only 200 apps on the App Store, and all that. It is a good time. Were you a developer, like a Mac developer before that? Or how did you trip into iOS?
David Smith: 00:02:06
Sure. I was a web developer before I did this, and so, I mean, honestly, I started writing apps before I even actually owned an iPhone. I just, it seemed like a good opportunity and I wasn’t particularly happy where I was at work and it was just something that I thought would be interesting opportunity.
And I started learning and didn’t know what I was doing for a long time, but just kept at it. And so it’s just one of those things I got into mostly because it seemed like a good opportunity at the time. And so, you know, I just, eventually I initially was doing some web consulting as well as my iOS work.
And eventually they just, the web consulting disappeared and it became iOS full-time, and that’s sort of been the story for more than a, you know, like 10 years now probably.
Yeah, no, I was, Kind of similar, like I just saw it coming and it was like, Hmm, maybe I should. And I went and picked up the Macco OS, the the Hillegass book and learned Mac OS programming, like, yeah, because there wasn’t the iOS book, right. There was no iOS, it was iPhone iOS. But yeah, it was a different time, fewer apps way, smaller community.
So, yeah. Interesting decade.
I do want to start by digging into the story of Audiobooks, and, I think one of the, one of the interesting things to me, because it happened to me as well, is how having this kind of foundation app that, that started in 2009, that did well enough. And, and I’m, I kind of jumping ahead here a little bit, but I, I think if I know your story correctly, Audiobooks is kind of what helped you make the leap to be full-time indie. And then once you become full-time indie, you started to have the time to experiment with all these other apps, and a similar thing with me, like I’ve had a couple of key apps over the years that kind of provided that like foundation of income that let me keep going.
And then, that allowed me to experiment with all these different apps, like launching a pro ended up coming out of, of already having income to be able to take this big bet. and then mirror came along where it was doing really well, and I was able to take other bets. And so it seems like that’s somewhat the story of Audiobooks.
So, so let’s, let’s dig into that. So it was 2008, you had had a failure and then you, you start working on Audiobooks in late 2008. what was the, what was the inspiration and, and, and, and how did how did you kick off that?
David Smith: 00:04:31
Audiobooks was an app that it’s essentially, it’s a, it’s a wrapper and a player for a free public domain Audiobooks. that was all it was, and it was essentially just coming into the market because. at the time, I mean, there were there, wasn’t an easy way to listen to any Audiobooks, on the iPhone at that point.
And there wasn’t an audible app there wasn’t, apple didn’t have anything and it was just, you could, I guess you could listen to Audiobooks, I think in the music app potentially, but it was...
Yeah, you can buy them on iTunes. Right. And they were like, 20 bucks a pop.
David Smith: 00:05:02
Yeah. And So that’s where the idea for the the app came from, and it became, and it’s just sort of, it, it just, it took off in a way that I wasn’t really expecting and it was successful.
And because it was an app that had a very broad appeal, it was something that I think, as you say, it’s sort of like built a platform for me to. Then continue to experiment and try things. And, I mean that, that app has gone through originally, it was paid up front and then it went free with ads. And then I tried selling my own ads for awhile.
I sort of went through lots of different models over it over the years, but, it was certainly the app that I think was my first thing that was commercially viable, where I don’t think. On its income. Initially I would have been able to go into, but it was the kind of thing where it became a client for me when I was doing consulting work.
And I would say like, you know, it would buy my time because it would start generating enough income. And at first it was like, maybe it would buy me 10 hours a week that I could work on my kind of like independent stuff and then make the event, it would do better. And, and now could buy 20 hours a week of my time and eventually it bought all of my time.
And I think that model worked really well for me to have that initial success that I could then keep trying things. And I mean, I’ve. Launched. I think it’s up to, I think it’s 56 or 57 apps at this point. and all of it, about six of them have completely failed.
David Smith: 00:06:20
And I say that mostly because it’s like, it is so easy.
It’s like I’ve launched. So I’ve launched more failures probably than anyone in the App Store in some ways. And they’re like, that’s the way that you can end up with success though, is, is that it’s just like, I’ve just kept trying. And I think Audiobooks was a useful one because it got me that a little baseline of income that it was like, okay, this is not just, I’m not just wasting my time here.
But it allowed me to then just keep trying and lots of things that, you know, lots of ideas and lots, lots of things went different places. Some of them had their moment in the sun and then like failed off. Like there was a period in the App Store where you, the classic model is you had a paid up front app and you’d make, you know, a reasonable amount of money in the first two weeks.
And then it would make almost no money ever again. And that was just the way it was. And like that’s a model that. isn’t very sustainable, but you know, it’s like if you had something that had a bit more, you know, regular income as a baseline, you, you could make work.
And that’s how you incentivize a developer to make 60 some apps it’s still like,
David Smith: 00:07:17
And I just said it like a curiosity. Did the Audiobooks in Audiobooks, what was the source for those are those like prerecorded public domain or.
David Smith: 00:07:27
Yeah, exactly. So there’s a thing called the LibriVox project where people volunteer to read, classic Audiobooks, such as, you know, essentially, you know, Dickens or Jane Austin or things like this that are out of, out of copyright. And so people volunteer to read them. And then, those are just available on the internet.
And this, essentially my app was just a wrapper for that. It was just a way to, get into that. And the people who act, who run the liberal box project were actually very happy with it. Like they, they cause for them. There was no easy way to get their audio onto an iPhone. And so they were delighted that there, you know, this app is just creating a venue for their project to get a lot more visibility and interest.
And he got an incredible like App Store parked name, just Audiobooks. That’s a great one.
That’s exactly what I was going to dive into. Like how did, did, did that, was that just kind of a happy accident or in 2008, did you already start to notice? Cause it took me like. Three or four years, I’m a little slow on the uptake to, to realize that these like naming a keyword instead of trying to create a brand was actually a fairly successful strategy for a lot of apps.
So did you just stumble into that or was it somewhat intentional?
David Smith: 00:08:37
No. I mean, I think it was largely just a result of, I didn’t have a name. I didn’t have a better name and because the content of it was so generic, it wasn’t like there was a natural branding that I was doing this and it’s like, yeah, it’s the related to the App Store. So you could just pick a proper noun and it would be available because there only a few hundred.
Grow a few thousand apps in the App Store. And so I picked it, I tried it and it certainly has turned out well in that regard that it still has reasonably good, you know, search, search, search optimization and things. Cause if you want an audio book and you go into the App Store and search Audiobooks, it’s an exact name match.
So, you know, audible likely, still ranks higher because it’s has more traffic, but, it’s going to be in one of the top, couple of hits. and that’s just a natural thing. And I wouldn’t say it was intentional. Like this is part of some grand plan, but, it is certainly something that. I found useful. I mean, many of my other apps, like I have an app called pedometer plus plus, and sleep plus plus, which, the plus plus when the App Store is doing its algorithm for searching, typically just sort of drops off.
And so they start, they rank very well for those terms for sleeper pedometer. and then, but I learned though that it’s important to have something be somewhat trademarkable just for, legal reasons and copycats and those kinds of things. And so. Having something additional to it, was helpful that I could trademark those terms and go after people who are, are being, you know, sort of trying to, trying to get that benefit from the, any sort of success I’ve had on it.
But I think in those tricks, they’re always a bit tricky cause like they, they are useful at the time, but they’re not really long lived and you can’t rely on them. Like. It’s something. If apple just tweaks their algorithm slightly, then it goes away. So it’s not worth chasing necessarily, but it certainly in this case, worked out well for me and was useful, but know less and less of a factor now.
If you, if you made Audiobooks today, it would be Audiobooks, degree sign, tiny cross, probably.
That’s I was going to ask though about, you know, algorithm changes over the years and things like that. Did you, have you seen a, cause you took it free in like 2010 or something, right? Like pretty early you switched to the in-app purchase model. so like, what I saw with my mirror app was that once I switched it to, it was like mirror by app heavy or something.
And that switched it to mirror with like a little, Unicode symbol that looks like a mirror. And so then it was the exact match for a mirror. And then it just really took off and it was, it it’s been the number. And I ended up selling that app in 2017, but it’s still the number one, one hit for mirror on the App Store.
And, I got to, I think around 2015, there was kind of a peak of like five, 6,000 organic downloads every single day. And then even though, even though like the ASO didn’t change, like it still ranked for all of these keywords and everything else, it did slowly kind of start to dip. And, and I kind of wonder if that was, if that somewhat follows the kind of people going to the App Store searching generic keywords, it was like the iPhone more and more people were buying them more and more people were coming like first time into the app.
So you can either confirm or debunk my, thesis here that, that. There was kind of a wave and then a, a, a crest and a, a fall of the, of these, organic searches on the, on the App Store.
David Smith: 00:12:06
I couldn’t speak with authority about it, but that seems consistent with my experience where I think they’re in the early days of the App Store, there is definitely a higher sense of just curiosity that people would open the App Store and just be browsing and just not necessarily looking for anything in particular.
'Cause they didn’t know what their phone could do. They hadn’t like that they have a phone and they knew it was going to be good for, you know, texting an email, but, oh, there’s an App Store. Let’s see what it does. And I think that phase is certainly behind us that I think people know what they know. They know what they’re to know.
They know what they want to use their phone for. And very often they’re going for a particular thing, not just like browsing. And I th and I think if you were. and similarly, I imagine if you’re just one looking for a generic term, you may not start in the App Store, even if that’s where you gonna get the app, you may start in, in Google or YouTube or somewhere else.
Yeah. Like you’re, you’re, you’re, that’s because there’s a mature enough ecosystem there. That there’s a better way. Find that even though the App Store is a great place, but it’s, I think that’s some, those kind of just generic, organic downloads are much harder to sort of define at this point. And I think that that’s just the reality.
Similar kind of build and crest and fall as far as like. Since, since Audiobooks is so heavily rely on organic installs you don’t. I mean, from my understanding, you don’t do any paid advertising for it. did it kind of pressed around that 20 14, 20 15 and then, or have, have organic downloads been pretty stable?
David Smith: 00:13:35
Yeah. I mean, I think I know, I couldn’t tell you a date. I don’t know if it, I actually look at the numbers, but it certainly isn’t that way that there is that I think there have been a couple of phases of the App Store and there was the early first, maybe four or five years. you had that much sort of just higher interest and it was easier to be, be seen.
And I would say sort of in the last five years, the ACQUITY user acquisition. Reality of being in the App Store is very different. That it, it is, there’s a lot more either like, or just organic, organic is more and more challenging. And, I D don’t do very much paid, but I think if that would be the only way that I’ve actually wanted to affect change, to my downloads beyond kind of just word of mouth and natural, sort of, I think at this point, a lot of my downloads are coming from.
Sort of the word of mouth version of organic, rather than the someone coming to the App Store with a need and then trying to find it. and so that’s just, that’s just a guess, but I think there certainly is those, there, there, the App Store has changed dramatically in 13 years. I think there’s, there’s certainly no doubt about it.
User base too. I mean, I think about the way that, that what we were talking about as I was thinking about like my usage patterns pre and kind of post that era. And I think one thing that has changed is kind of, I kind of found all the apps I needed by 2015, you know, I kinda got, I got my podcast app, I got my, this app, I got my, that app.
I don’t really go in there just doing that, that way. You’re talking about, the, the like, oh, what can I find for my phone anymore? Right. It’s just not something I do. I still occasionally get a recommendation or I find something organically or whatever, but, you know, and yeah, like. In 2021. This is very few people’s first smartphone, right?
This is like somebody’s fifth iPhone plus. And so it’s just like, there’s less curiosity, I think, but I guess that’s exactly what we’re arguing here. Okay.
So you mentioned you you’ve probably failed more than any developer ever on the App Store, which is really cool. I mean, I, in some ways feel the same way. I mean, I’m, I’m not nearly as prolific as you, but I mean, I’ve had gosh, like 26 apps and maybe four or five have been reasonably successful. But so I’m going to put you on the spot here.
Are there any, any things that really stick out of like, you know, and I can think of one app, cause I’m still working in this space w your weather app, but are there any apps that you can point to and say, you know, I learned a very specific lesson from this, in those failures. Cause I think a lot of people who’ve only ever had one app and that one app was super successful.
There’s kind of a confirmation bias. Like I’m awesome. I did everything right. But it’s like, they don’t even know what they do. Don’t know, they don’t know what they did wrong. They just happened to like hit some level of product market fit. So any, any specific apps and lessons you learned from these failures?
David Smith: 00:16:18
Failure is obviously a complicated thing because I think I learned something from all of them. And so in some ways they were, they were useful. But I think from a financial perspective, it’s mostly what I’m talking about when they’re sort of a failure on that. And I think the two areas that the biggest mistakes that I’ve learned is one is under.
To try to really understand and having an honest evaluation of the size of the market you’re addressing. and some of the things that I’ve launched are very focused. were very niche and. That kind of a thing. It it is possible to make it work, but the economics are incredibly difficult and you’re dealing with a very uphill battle.
If you’re dealing with something that, there is only ever going to be useful to 10,000 people then great. That for that 10,000 people it might be really cool, but it’s very unlikely. You’re going to make a sustainable living on an app at that unless your economics can be so high, that each one of those people is giving you a substantial amount of money on an ongoing basis.
I think some of my failures were things where I was like, Ooh, this is really cool. And it’s an app that does something, very specific and it doesn’t really end up working out. I think the other thing that I found too is just having that sense of. that apps understanding what are the ongoing costs of related to an app going to be, and making sure that the economics of that can balance out.
So, in your example of my weather app, ultimately like the app was successful. It had, a reasonably good user base, but at that, this was, it existed in a time before, subscriptions were a thing. Like they just did it didn’t exist in the App Store. And so. The economics of trying to make it so that people could continuously, you know, pay for the weather data that I had to buy for.
It just wasn’t there. And at a certain point, it became, it’s like a change from being a business to a charity because I was spending more money on the backend. than I was, you know, getting people on an ongoing basis. And that was something that I don’t think I really it’s easy when I’m building something to just ignore that because the costs, especially early on are so low when you look at these things and especially with, with, with most, if you’re some kind of data service or some kind of hosting provider you often will have a free tier or something that like the E and if in some ways, success can be your own failing because you haven’t taken into account that, oh, if this, you know, if I get any amount of volume, then suddenly I’m going to be spending thousands of dollars a month.
Supporting this app. And if the economics aren’t balanced for that, then it can, you have to essentially shut it down and deal with that. And I think those are two things for that. It’s usually when an app has failed it’s because either I didn’t fully understand what the ongoing constantly going to be, or I didn’t sort of real it.
Wasn’t realistic about how big of a market it is.
Yeah, the unit economics are tricky because at the beginning, it’s, it’s hard to get good to data because everything’s so small. It’s like, oh, I can’t really tell. I don’t really know what my CAC is or what my cost to service cogs are. So you’re just like, whatever. And then by the time it matters, it’s too late.
Right. And in some cases,
David Smith: 00:19:12
The two that you just used several terms that I have no idea what they mean. and I think this is another failing on my part that like, you know, Kat Mike hack and my Sasser service caught, like, I dunno, like it’s it’s, this is fun. That was just fine. I think. But that’s...
An educational moment. Cost of user acquisition. And what’s the cogs cost of goods sold. Sorry. Yeah, those were like, those are the things I didn’t learn until I had a SAS company though, to be honest. Right. Like it’s, it’s interesting. Like, yeah, the different. Which, which, which, I mean, just highlights kind of the world we’re in now.
Right. Which is where most app developers are running a SAS business. Right. would you, would you wear with the weather app, you just didn’t kind of think about it in those terms. It was like an app with an API, but really it was a SAS business. and, and, that’s why we’re email@example.com to educate people.
Actually, it’s not.
David Smith: 00:19:58
Yeah, well, but I think there’s definitely that teachable moment in that insofar as it’s just it’s that’s another aspect of that failing is I think it’s so easy coming at it from an engineering background that I can get too excited about the engineering aspects of what I’m doing that. I think that, oh, there’s this cool, cool new API.
There’s this fun new feature. There’s this cool problem I’m solving. And I can go down, you know, spend a month of my time building this app. And then in the end, I haven’t. Really thought about the marketing side or the economic realities or all of those things. And in some ways it’s like, that’s fine because part of what I’m like, what I’m good at is the engineering.
And if anything, I’ve been able to just engineer my way out of this problem by keeping I can just keep building. And eventually I’ve had enough things that just kind of naturally hit. and it isn’t necessarily the most efficient way to do it or the way I’d recommend it. But I think that is an aspect of my failing, where it is.
You know, and it’s, it’s also the reality of being an independent, independent developer where. Like, I don’t have a staff. I don’t have anyone else in that regard. And so it’s not like I have a business, a business, a business team, or someone doing user acquisition or any of those things, which on the one hand is great because it means my costs are really low that, you know, my, my revenue is divided by one and I get to see, you know, and I keep it.
So if I was a team of five people and I’m dividing my revenue by five, it’s quite a hard thing to, you know, Have five times to five X the revenue. And so it’s like a trade-off that you, in some ways it’d be great if I had both have both, but I’m not sure if it’s actually reasonable or practical too.
I mean, really though, that’s, it’s a good algorithm for finding a new, new API APIs are the apps or version of the market shifting, right. It’s when something gets created, right? There’s a new opportunity. So exploring those and understanding those and finding out how you can remix those with existing ideas that might, that, you know, as a, as a team of one where one is an engineer, that’s kind of your strategic advantage, right?
It’s might not, might not be ASO. It might not be acquisition and all these other things. it might be like, Hey, what can I do? Cool stuff with computers. And I think historically that’s been a pretty good, ROI for, for a lot of companies. So I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t necessarily call that a weakness. though it’s both right, but yeah.
Yeah. And that, that specifically has been part of your strategy, right? So like you, you know, I mean, Widgetsmith, which we’ll, we’ll get to in a little bit, but even, watch plus plus, but domino plus plus, or Widgetmith’s sorry. yeah. Tell us about your thinking around using these new API APIs to get attention.
Doing something that’s never been done before as marketing, which, which is, is, is a great way to do it.
David Smith: 00:22:42
Yeah, well, anything. So this is certainly something I’ve done time of day. And again, that like predominant or plus plus, which is, after Bridget Smith, the most successful thing I ever made was the first pedometer app in the App Store. And it was, you know, when the iPhone 5s launched apple introduced to put a step counting ship into it.
And it was the first app that took care of it. And it’s like for a few weeks, even it was the only one. And it was. Probably one of my strategic advantages is the fact that I’m just one guy who really likes to program and is pretty good at doing things quickly. And that means that I can be there on day one.
And I think that’s beneficial in sort of two main ways that being out there early is something that often gets Apple’s attention and. It’s ebbed and flowed in terms of whether that’s important for apple featuring you or not, but it’s never a bad thing for a, for apple to feature you or to get on their radar.
And, you know, as an independent developer, that’s one of the few things that I have that I can kind of pull on that apple gets excited about where on day one, here’s this app that takes care of this new thing that they’re trying to sell their new phone with
Yeah. And that speed, that speed. Even like a one person team compared to like a three or five person team. There’s a real advantage. If it’s just one person like no communication overhead, no, nothing. Like you can just do it all in your brain. And like, it’s really hard to be. I mean, now I’m saying this is watching, I haven’t watched our company grow so much.
It’s like, wow. The just like getting all these folks coordinated at the same time really is a different world than when it’s. Just yourself, like trying to put things together quickly.
David Smith: 00:24:09
Yeah. I mean, I think that, that, that’s just such a, the other aspect of this, just so much. It’s so, so often I can do something faster than anyone else. Not necessarily because there’s something magic about me, but it’s just, I don’t have it. There’s no, it’s not like it does that. Oh, there’s a designer who will, you know, do a bunch of specs and then that’s going into it.
We’ll have it, then we’ll have a sprint planning meeting and we’ll break up the features. And it’s this whole thing that like, that’s not my process. I just open up X code and start working. And so it’s an, you know, maybe it means that, I, you know, it’s like, and I ended up with as long as I have a good idea in my mind, I can just be driving towards it.
I don’t need to go through a lot of infrastructure to get that. Like, I don’t have. You know, a roadmap with tasks, with, you know, sort of issues that I’m working through and burning down my, like, whatever, all those software things that you need to do, if you have a big team and are valuable, but I just don’t exist for me.
And so there’s that extra multiplier. And I think being there early. Is just, it gets, it gets attention and it creates opportunity that there’s a vacuum. It’s, it’s a short-lived thing. You know, the, if I, if I had launched Widgetsmith a few, a few weeks later, I don’t think it would’ve mattered. It would have been complete.
Like it is this very ephemeral, like thing. It wasn’t, you know, once a year, there’s this giant opportunity for me and I’ve done sort of dove in and taken advantage of it several times. And sometimes it’s worked and sometimes it hasn’t, you know, like my message App Store apps didn’t go anywhere, but. That turned out that was a market that didn’t exist, but I spent my summer making sure that I was there and if they hadn’t, if they hadn’t been really important and was super cool.
Cool. And apple cared about it a lot, then I would have been there and yeah. Or know that ahead of time, unfortunately, but that’s, I think just something that a small team can benefit dramatically from is like taking advantage of that and being okay with too of not shipping things that are as robust and complicated as fair enough.
If I was. A five person team. It could do more or have more capabilities or, you know, be localized into more, more languages or also launch on Android or whatever those things that, that you would imagine would be beneficial. I don’t have those, but like, it’s just a trade off
Yeah. Search your marketing channel primary. Right? It makes a lot of sense. We did this at, when I was at elevate. This was a constant strategy for us was what does apple interested in? Even, even for us, we were a team of 10 or 20 at that stage, but like, yeah. Adding APIs. Oh yeah, sure. It kind of makes sense.
Okay. Yeah, we can add that. Like it’s not on our product roadmap, not really something, but like yeah, the, the benefits were tangible, but as you kinda mentioned, it has gotten at some point, I think for a team of that size, the benefits of being in the, like what’s new, I forget what the, they used to always have a feature like what’s new in iOS, whatever.
And you would get Nat and it would be a pretty good feature, but that has gone down over time. So now it’s like, It’s exclusively the, to the benefit of really small developer teams, right. That they can take advantage of.
David Smith: 00:26:53
Yeah, well, and it’s just, I think that the impact of being fee, because to your earlier point about, I think fewer people are searching for apps. so being in a featured list in the App Store is not as the, is not the thing that it used to be. That I remember the first time I got featured in the App Store and it was.
I just rev. It was completely, mind-bending where I would go from like, yeah, you lasted a week. And I went from, you know, maybe having like in the tens of downloads a day to suddenly I’m having like tens of thousands of downloads a day and it was just like completely mind-bending, but that’s not the reality anymore.
Like that, that multiplier isn’t there in, the same way. Like, it’s It’s lovely to be featured, but it also is very muted now because it’s not for a week. It’s kind of on this random algorithmically driven basis, where if you’re the app of the day, you’re actually the app of the day, only for one person necessarily.
Like it’s not like everyone in the world got it that day. Um it’s and so those, those things lessen the impact of it. and Their benefit becomes more in aggregate rather than kind of in an acute way.
One of the things you mentioned kind of in passing there was, not having to wait on a designer and that’s something I actually wanted to talk about. I, you know, as much as it’s like the apple ethos to be pixel perfect, and to like, have these like amazing, you know, leather stitched icons back in the day or whatever.
I regret spending as much as I did and kind of letting design in some ways, overly drive the process. because as an independent developer, where every penny I spend is, is money. That’s not going into my pocket. I spent tens of thousands probably over well, over a hundred thousand dollars on design over the last 13 years.
And from what I understand, you’ve spent very little, so, so I mean, it sounds like that’s intentionally part of your strategies. Like you, don’t one you were saying, you know, you’re not a team of five, so you keep your expenses down, but two you’re, you’re also not waiting on them. So yeah, it was at, have you spent much on, on design over the years or have you done it all yourself and then has that been a very intentional for, for speed and cost?
David Smith: 00:29:07
Yeah. I mean, I think I’ve certainly tried spending money on design and it over the 13 years, like I it’s, it’s not that I’ve never done it, but it’s, it, it, I, it was never, it never paid off for me enough that it would. For it to be something I continued doing. And I don’t think I’ve done it in five, six years now.
And at this point, the only design that I typically will ever pay for is, icon design. because that’s just something that I can’t do very well myself, but even like recently, like Widgetsmith, the icon I made myself, cause it’s just a blue round direct, like I could handle that.
That’s a good icon.
David Smith: 00:29:43
Which has been it’s fine.
And it’s number...
David Smith: 00:29:45
Think, yeah, like.
Icon designer actually.
David Smith: 00:29:49
And I think, but it’s to the point of like, I think eight. It’s easy enough to like, if you try to learn basic design and get competent at the basics, you can go, that can take you a very long way. And I think really elegant, new fancy design that’s doing really like groundbreaking or cool things with fancy animations and all that stuff.
Like I love it. And we’re using an app that does that, but that kind of design, like that takes a tremendous toll on your development process. And I think. A M like a, if you’re a thoughtful to the developer who wants, is willing to put in the work to just kind of like study what the basics of design are, you know, you can get good enough that you can do a lot of it yourself.
And I think that’s something that has worked really well for me. and I think it’s also been to my benefit that it isn’t necessarily that I’m not waiting on a designer. It is that I’m able to, I’m a better developer because I understood, I took the time to. Study what makes a good design for an app.
And so I’m w that informs my development, and then it allows me to build things that’ll be easy that are structured, such that the design will naturally flow from it. And those types of differences that if I just was being hand handed a list of like, here’s a, you know, a handful of mock-ups go and build it.
And I don’t really understand why things are structured the way they are. Then I would often find myself in kind of, I’d pay myself into technical corners that, if, if you, if you are responsible for both the design and the development, you’re that the two are blending together really well. And so I think it’s something that I certainly recommend.
And I think like, I mean, some of the best apps I think have come out of the one developer, one designer teams, like I think that is a can, we can be a useful model, but. For me, it’s just something that I think, you know, in the same way that often I’ve, you know, I’ve known many designers who learn just enough coding to be able to sort of, to make the basics of the key, to the same thing and go the other way that, a developer who puts in a little bit of time and is a student of what, like, if you’re using something and you start paying attention to why is this good?
And you don’t try and overreach and. Like try and do things that are beyond your capability. Like, I can make a really nice clean UI. I can’t make a, you know, something that is, is clever and fancy and that’s it. That’s fine. And I’ll just, if I scale my scale, my applications to fit, what I can do, then I’m fine.
Yeah, I, I’ll share it. Not like we’re revenue count. We didn’t have a, it, I mean, we have a full-time, product designer now that helps with like dashboard work and stuff like that, but we didn’t have, I was the only person doing design for the first two years and very similar, like I, I knew going into it.
It was my weak spot. So I spent a few weeks, one summer just like taking. I took an online color theory class. And then I just like learned, did some like basic tutorials got really good at sketch and like made some mock-ups. And, you know, I had worked with a lot of great designers and kind of had knew what the process was like.
But yeah, again, it’s like, what’s your advantage? And in your case, it’s the API APIs and being first to market and all that stuff. And so you’re not likely to get a lot of like, Yeah, leverage or whatever out of having really great design, you just needed to be functional. You needed it to be good enough something.
That’s not going to turn people off right. When they see the app on and that’s, and that’s kind of the bar and yeah, I agree with you. I think it’s actually pretty easy to achieve, at, you know, with a, with a minimal investment.
David Smith: 00:33:14
Yeah. And I think you also, it’s, I’m very, I very much like a model where the initial upfront costs are as low as possible. And if I need to double down on something and like, it becomes a situation where, oh, now I need design resources or I need something more graphically oriented or like things arise.
Like. I’m delighted to spend money on an app. That’s making money.
David Smith: 00:33:37
it, rather than spending the money on something before it’s even proven itself
Yeah. We’ve spent a lot on design since like revenue cat’s hit like our stride, but in the early days it was like, not like this API is like the design of the Jason is more important than the website.
David Smith: 00:33:53
Yeah, and it does force this kind of function over form approach. And I think that’s where your apps have really succeeded. Is that there is it, you focus on them doing things well, Like serving a specific purpose and serving that specific purpose very effectively. And that’s where I think a lot of the kind of form over function design either within apple.
I think apple still makes this mistake a lot of, of focusing too much on, on how things are going to look and how things are gonna, come across versus like, well, how, how is it actually going to be used by people? And, I, you know, that’s where I think I’ve fallen down a lot, as well as like spending so much time on these pretty graphics.
And then, and then everything then like the user you can’t like iterate quickly on a user interface based on feedback when it’s all so polished and pixel perfect. Like it’s so much harder to do iterative design. To enhance the usability of an app when, when there’s so many barriers and then so much already kind of like set in stone because it was designed this way and you can’t, step back out of that as easily.
So, yeah, I think, I think it’s great the way you’ve, you’ve done that.
The one thing that resonated with me that you said David was, just how a designer, if they don’t fully. And I love designers, all of my designer, friends are gonna hate me for talking bad about designers, but I think one, one universal experience of developers when you get handed something that. It’s it looks great and like functional on paper, but like, there’s just like, because there isn’t like internal knowledge of UI kit.
Right. And just like this thing that looks like, yeah, I know it’s just pixels and it should be really simple, but like, it’s actually going to add hours and days to my, to my, and, and you know, if you’re not an assertive developer, that’s going to be like, no, I’m just not going to do it. You can do that on your business.
Right. But like, Because you own it, but, but if it, you know, if you work on a team or whatever, sometimes there’s a lot of loss there where a developer will feel. And also like, I feel like it’s a challenge, right? Like, oh yeah, I can do that. Right. And they ended up over investing in these ornate, user experiences or use user interface elements.
It just like you talk about like ROI and whatever, like just not there, you know? so I think it’s a very like prudent approach.
So I did want to touch on real quick and. I want to get to Widgetsmith and talk more about that. But, I wanted to touch on the, your iOS version stats. So, it’s something I’ve really appreciated over the years. There’s a flurry has, has published stats here and there that your site has been like my go-to place to say, you know, how’s I was 14 adoption going, how are so you published publicly?
The, the version stats of your Audiobooks app, which is a fairly broad market app. It’s not perfectly representative probably of the entire market. but yeah. Tell me about why you publish that and then do you actually run a customer analytics to power that, or, or do you have a third party analytics provided that you just pull the stats in front from.
David Smith: 00:37:09
So, I mean, that came from, I think there were certainly, I mean, I’m running it for years and years, because in the early days of the App Store, there just wasn’t good data on this kind of thing. And it was so I, I remember finding that it was just so frustrating. Right. I, I couldn’t get. Basic sense of like the different device distributions and, iOS adoption rates and things.
And so I just wrote something, myself to do this, and I sort of shared it because it was really helpful. I thought, I, I, I, if it’s helpful for me, it’s going to be helpful for someone else. and Audiobooks was the best app. I had to make the public version of this for, because it was my broadest kind of user base, that it wasn’t as like pedometer is great, but it’s.
Dealing with people who are fitness oriented. And so like my, at some of my adoption numbers are like th there’s a skew to it and it’s a bit less mass market. but it’s all built in custom. I I’ve used analytics packages and things before, but, in the, in, especially with apple being. I think it’s a sort of like the privacy consciousness and things.
It became something that I just didn’t want to have. I want to have it the minimum amount of third party code in my apps as I could. And something like the, the kind of analytics I’m collecting is very easy to do as just a little, sort of custom thing that I wrote. That’s just, you know, it’s just a little website.
That’s collecting some very basic stats and being thoughtful about making sure that it doesn’t log essentially anything except for very anonymized. aggregated things just so I don’t collect any user level information whatsoever. It’s all just being collected, at, at, at an aggregate level. And it’s just something that I wrote and it’s, it’s a basic thing.
And I think it’s a useful tool because this is sort of to the same thing of a question about philosophy. It’s like, you can’t know when you can drop all the old devices or which device to optimize for. And this, you actually collect that data and you actually look at it. and so like right now, for example, send that, I re like I always try and optimize my apps for the iPhone 10 R because in all of my apps, it is by far that screen size.
So the it’s the F1 10 or the iPhone 11. those are by far the most popular phones in the world right now. And so like, that’s my primary testing device. That’s where I start, but I wouldn’t know that if I wasn’t collecting that kind of data and. You know, sort of, I wouldn’t have guessed that necessarily.
And especially because I live in the like apple tech ecosystem and I wouldn’t, you know, in my mind, oh, it’s probably just like the pro size, you know, like the, the, the 11 pro is probably the most popular phone because that’s what all my friends have. But, that’s actually not the case. That’s, you know, that is a popular phone, but it’s by no means the most popular.
And so. Having that kind of data to back up my choices and making sure that, you know, like, I, I, I, if am doing a design, I’ll optimize it for that and then adjust it for the other ones rather than going the other way around. Or if I’m doing screenshots for the App Store, I make sure that my screenshots.
Are perfect for that one. And even if, sometimes I’ll do you know, for the, my, the more minor phones, I might just say, like use the scale down the assets for something else, but that’s a size that I’ve we’ll for sure. Use. I think also it’s speaks to, there is, I think there’s still some of this, but maybe a bit less, but in the earlier days of the App Store, there was a, I felt like there was a group of.
People who were kind of, we felt like we were in this together. And, like, especially among kind of indie small developers, we tend to try and like help each other out. And so like I made that public, it was an internal dashboard. And then I just like, well, let me just publish this to a different URL. because if you had to kind of just help out.
And I think that was a nice thing that I think there’s just, there are fewer Indies than there used to be. but it’s certainly an aspect of the community that I think is still nice when there are, there are some aspects of it that still exists.
It’s also really nice to have. usually I would caution people to roll against rolling their own. Right. but I think there is this like somewhat unserved niche of some of these tools get really expensive, even like an amplitude or a Mixpanel or whatever. They’re, they’re more. There, the pricing often is more favorable towards a B2B and like smaller headcount kind of, or smaller like user based size apps.
And you can lose this, this like kind of information. I, and I gathered not an App Store connector. It’s probably crappy if it is.
David Smith: 00:41:24
Like some of it’s in there, but not really in a way that like abstract connect sometimes has some of the stuff, but I like, I like just having it myself and there’s also, it means that I can do additional beyond just, demographic collection. There are a few things that I will do in here where I can add in a hook and say, Oh, like, do, does anybody ever open this page of the app?
And I can do a little basic, like those kinds of basic analytics things that you can’t do on that, do an App Store connect. and so I can put, you know, put this into my system and do those kinds of basic collections, which a more sophisticated analytics packages, just like, that’s just a basic feature of it.
But, it’s a, it gives you that kind of middle ground and it’s, it’s just, it’s a tricky reality of, you know, apple once, you know, I have to put in my privacy things, all the, you know, all the things that I do. And so. I start using a third party thing. I have to be completely on board with everything they’re using my data for.
And so sometimes it’s easier to just roll it. Have it be basic and simple. I mean, the actual, these apps are not complicated or I think the initial version of this was actually, I just based it on the error log of a, engine X server, where I just ran it and they would make, they would make the record.
They would just. Yeah, they would just make the request and they would actually just all 4 0 4, like the trend analytics requests were just 4 0 4 and I would just parse the error log and add it to a SQL file. And it’s like that, that was super straightforward and easy to build. And it’s just a script and it’s...
Mixed panel, basically like in...
David Smith: 00:42:49
Like, You know, and like that’s where I think mostly just to say is it doesn’t have to be like super sophisticated and fancy.
This is a backend utility tool. So you can very easily, like you could go crazy making it fancy, or you can just, you know, write a little scripts to process a log file and it’ll get just as much data out of it.
Yeah, that’s great. I did want to touch on, on witness Smith. You you’ve talked about it at length, so, There’s a great episode with you and Marco. I think what came out like two weeks after we just hit number one. And so that’s a really fun episode. People can kind of go get the history, but it’s a cool kind of, culmination of this story of launching 56 different apps, trying all these different things.
And then you, you go after these brand new features with the widgets in iOS 14 and. somebody picks the app up on Tik TOK. It goes viral. It hits number one in the App Store. It’s just such a cool story as an indie developer to hit number one. And, and, and again, you’ve told a lot of that story. other places I don’t want to just rehash the whole story.
But there were a couple of things that I wanted to go over and I don’t know if you’ve talked about it, since so one of the things that I think would be to follow up on is just how the, Durability has been. So like you hit number one, it stayed there for like, gosh, like weeks, right. Or almost a month.
And then, yeah. So how has it, how has that gone since, and like, you’re still like number five you’re you’re in the top 10 of productivity regularly. how has the app been durable? download wise and revenue wise, like how, how has it gone after hitting number one? Like.
David Smith: 00:44:37
I mean, I think it is, it certainly continues to be my most successful app. And I think it probably, it seems like it will be for, for, for quite some time. And obviously the first couple of weeks were insane and completely. Like mind bending and, you know, I think I exceeded my luck like to date App Store downloads.
You know, of all my apps over the last 13 years were in a few hours of it when it kind of hit that crazy moment.
We’ve seen a couple on revenue casts, a couple of viral events like that, and I am blown away every single time. It’s it’s more like it outpaces the App Store featuring like by 10 or a hundred X. It’s insane.
David Smith: 00:45:15
And I think that, and let me say that it was really cool and fun and exciting and a little bit like scary and like terrifying. But I think it’s, what’s, I didn’t know where it would have, where it would settle down to. And it’s like, where is that? Come see the nature of. Something being a flavor of the moment is that like, that moment ends and it just vanishes like the, the driver behind that, you know, it’s not like it’s being featured in Tik TOK videos anymore, at least not in the same way.
And so the durability, I believe now is largely just coming from the fact that that initial spike generates enough kind of ongoing word of mouth advertising, that the nature of. Especially the nature of what it does is it puts something cool on your home screen. And it has that natural. If someone sees your home screen or you show them something or you share a screenshot and it has the name of the app in it, and it’s like, it, it has that natural, oh, I want to do that to witness to it.
And that seems to be where the durability has come from because, I’ve. Tried sort of like the, the sort of like the paid marketing things to try and keep something going. And for me, it’s a model that gets very, it’s very hard to not just like, lose your shirt on it because you can.
David Smith: 00:46:22
Spent a way out, spend what you’re getting back or not have.
Someone else’s money to blow.
David Smith: 00:46:27
Yeah. And so like for me, it’s just, it never makes sense. And so, like, I w I wonder if something’s going to be something that I keep working on, it needs to be sustainable kind of on its own. And for it, it’s still, you know, it still continues to do really well on a, on a, on a download basis. And it’s also, it’s, you know, it has, it’s monetized both with advertising and with subscriptions.
And so. You know, th the two together create a really nice, sustainable, revenue for me that it’s based mostly on usage rather than, needing necessarily to have big spikes in downloads to keep it going. It’s like as long as people keep using the app, that they’re opening, it they’ll see ads, or if they’re, you know, power users who really want like the pro features of it and they’d pay for a subscription, if it’s continuing to provide value to them that they’ll continue subscribing.
And so it’s, that durability has been there. I think largely it certainly is easy to be durable when you have. This wild spike at the beginning to kind of kickstart that, effort. but it’s, it seems like the there’s enough ongoing utility of it, that it keeps people keep using it. And, that has a natural sort of knock on effect of people just telling their friends about it.
And I mean, it’s kind of a cool thing that, even after. You know, many millions of downloads, it continues to find new art, find it, find a new market and people will continue to sign up for the subscription. And it’s, it’s that’s happening sort of on its own without me having to necessarily do anything other than just keep adding, you know, features and improvements to it.
I don’t need to worry necessarily on that side of things as much.
Yeah. One of the things that I was, initially taken aback by, but now see the, the maybe accidental brilliance of how permissive you were with the feature. So, and I mean, I made a mistake with launch center pro. I was actually trying to kind of ride your coattails with my app and. I was much more aggressive with the paywall.
So I pay walled one of the like more prominent features instead of, instead of paywall and some of the lesser features. And then to your point earlier about like user acquisition, you know, part of how you make user acquisition work, is it, you forced, you can’t pay $5 for a download. If you know, one out of 200 people are paying you.
But we just Smith going viral. It went viral in part, because you were so permissive with the features. So like, how did you decide where to draw the line in the paywall? yeah. How did, how did you make those decisions?
David Smith: 00:49:01
Yeah. I mean, I think, I think a lot of this comes from a place of my goal is to, I want a business that lets me keep developing, like what I love and what I enjoy is programming. That’s that’s, that’s, I’m gifted in it. I enjoy it. I love it. And I will just keep doing it. Like if it wasn’t my job, I’d probably still be making apps.
But, and so I don’t, I’m not chasing some kind of like wild exit or something dramatic. And so I think, I, I feel like I want to make things that people will like using, and that will won’t be annoying or irritating. And, that I can feel proud of at the end of the day, like that. I’m not, you know, like the people who are paying for my subscription.
Or paying it out of a genuine desire to support the app, to do the really advanced, like these are my super fans who really care about it. and there are the people who I’m sort of sort of going after for that. And so I don’t didn’t feel necessarily compelled to make the paywall up all in your face and be limiting features and kind of doing those types of things.
And in this case, it worked out really well because it, it created a. it created its own marketing machine as a result. And like what I gave up potentially in having a less permissive market, pay paywall strategy I made up for in essentially free marketing for, because the app is used by so many more people.
And I think that trade off is something that’s easy. It’s like I don’t have, or I don’t necessarily want to spend the capital. To acquire those people, but in some ways I’m spending that capital by just making my paywall more permissive and making it have a natural, more virality to it. and that, for me, I think works well for everybody that like more people are getting more out of the app and, I, I benefit from it.
It’s sort of coming along and I don’t think it was, it’s not like that this grant. Strategy that I had for it. It was just in general, if someone’s going to pay me something I want for what they’re paying to be something that is super clear is super straightforward and is compelling. That is something that I feel like I would pay for that.
It isn’t an arbitrary restriction or something that feels kind of. mean-spirited, that’s sometimes a lot of paywalls can ha you can run into these limitations that feel completely contrived, that there isn’t a reason for it. Like most of what I’m people paying me for in Widgetsmith are things like my weather data, the tie data, and some graphical assets, things that I have to pay for that there are, they are ongoing and tangible costs that I have to pay.
So I can’t make those free because then I go out of business because millions of people are requesting weather data. Like that doesn’t work for me. And so, yeah. Making it paid feels good to me. And if anything, it works well, but I think that’s definitely something that you can get. If you’re too stingy with you, with what you offer, you’re kind of like shooting yourself in the foot because you’re ma you know, you want to make that first run experience feel so good that people want to keep coming back.
And if you get too uptight, that the first thing, the first thing the app does when you open the app is ask for money. Like if I open that app, I’m just closing that up and deleting it. Like, I don’t want to, I don’t want that, that, that
I mean, that’s, that’s...
David Smith: 00:52:06
Be them asking.
That’s an app that’s for distribution basically is what you can tell. And if you’re not then like, I mean, I think this is not a comment on an uncommon strategy, but, but, but, you know, optimizing for distribution early, Becoming not a monopoly because there’s other apps like we just missed, but becoming a dominant player or like the best app, you get data, you get usage, you get word of mouth, you get a brand.
And then in the future, if it becomes an operational requirement that you make more money per download or whatever, like, oh, you have a lot of levers there and you can go about it more thoughtfully than if you try to like, Try to shoot blindfolded, like from, from the start, there’s just no way you can, you’re going to be able to get, I talked to a lot of people getting ready to make their subscription apps and whatever.
And they’re like, ah, they’re going back and forth. I go, what should I put on my paywall? What should I, whatever. I’m just like, just don’t think about it too much. Just don’t do something stupid. Like just see something reasonable and normal and don’t try to be too clever. And then, you know, be prepared to iterate and change like over time.
Cause inevitably, well...
David Smith: 00:53:06
That’s good advice.
This is such a fascinating time. I wish we could talk another hour just on, on, on paywall strategies and, and freemium. I think a lot of developers do make the mistake in the subscription space of because they’re spending so much on user acquisition, they have to be more aggressive with the paywall, but then in the long run, you’re, you’re, you’re paying for users that you immediately ostracize.
You know, if you’re, if you’re only getting, you know, 10% to start your free trial, and then only 50% of those convert. It’s like, you’re paying for all these people who ultimately have a bad experience in your house. And so it works cause that’s their model, but, but they’re leaving a lot on the table long run by not having a more, permissive freemium strategy where you can get people in using the app, finding value and then over time bringing them along.
And it seems like that’s part of what Smith has done well with, like, you didn’t start with ads. Ads came later, right. And then. The paying for assets, I think came later as well. so like exactly to Jacob’s point it’s like you just got out there with a great product, you know, found that product market fit.
It went viral. I mean, you know, it probably wouldn’t be the success it is today without that, but, but then you’ve kind of layered on some additional moneymaking over time. And so that’s great. but anyhow, we’re, we’re at the top of the hour and need to, to wrap up, in the show notes, we’ll have links to your, Twitter underscore Smith, underscore David Smith,
Oh, my God. I never realized that pun Widgetsmith, Dave. Oh my God. I’m so slow.
David Smith: 00:54:43
The brand is just so it’s perfect, but we’re on your lap. It’s so great.
David Smith: 00:54:49
That was a, as soon as it was one of those names where once I, once the name came to me, it’s like, yep. That’s the
Oh, it’s even, it’s a good name on its own. Right.
David Smith: 00:54:55
I just love when things are like tidy and tied up like that. It’s so perfect. Sorry.
Anyways, anything else? anything else you wanted to share or, anything else you want to mention as we wrap up?
David Smith: 00:55:08
Yeah, no, I mean, I think we covered some good things and I think it is, I, I always like sharing my story as an independent developer, because I feel like in this industry, they’re like, there’s a, there’s an aspect of it. I know this is something, you know, I’ve listened to this podcast before. Like there there’s a, there is an industry in a branch of this.
That is very data oriented. And if you’re built almost like you’re building a machine to try it, like a business machine to try and like spin off money. And it’s all about how you’re getting your conversion rate value to this, and then you can put it into this and the eights. There’s a very like, and I respect that and understand that, that, that is a very viable business.
But I think what I, I was like sort of to share the other side of the story where it’s also possible to just make cool things and have them have just have enough, enough of a business in them that it makes a good living for you, but you don’t need all of that infrastructure and all of that other things.
And I think to our point, we’ve made many times is if you have something that you take the approach of simplicity and straightforwardness, and Craftsmanship early, you can shift and pivot and change as you go. And if you start to numbers driven and you start to like kind of cold in that way, I think you can lose just as many opportunities, as, as, as you could.
And I personally, I enjoy this way. I think this is fine. I, you know, I’m very excited about WWDC next week, because it’s the, the time that I get to just discover what I’m going to launch this year. Kind of thing. And so I’m very excited to become about that. I think that excitement is something that I wouldn’t have if I was building something that I didn’t enjoy doing in quite the same way.
Well, thanks, David so much for your time.
Good luck next week.