How did we get an iPhone app to 10k/month in revenue without any outside marketing? Icon driven development- design by logo!
Our first app, Kindling, was stuck in the quagmire of app review hell, pocket vetoed into oblivion, with no communication outside of robo emails. It had already been 17 days since first submitting the app and we needed revenue- money was running out in three months and it was time to get profitable or face impending cashflow doom.
Sitting in a Budapest technical university, working with my co-founder Zsolt and playing faux-students to take advantage of the 100 forint espresso, it was time to put together a game plan. We took stock of our resources- we had already collected tens of thousands of public domain books, created a great interface for browsing them on the iPhone, and created the ability to email those books directly to a Kindle.
The Kindle part was in review hell, but could a simple book emailing application be acceptable? Nuke the Kindle support, add PDFs, and sell it as a separate, cheaper application. If we could get just 10-15 sales a day we’d be able to pay the rent and keep the lights on while building our main product.
As we deliberated on what to do next, the sense of impending cashflow doom wasn’t being helped any by the building’s stark, Soviet-built concrete interior. And, thinking of it, the duality of the whole situation was bizarre- here we were, figuring out how to make money off a bunch of public domain books, and here I was, on a Skype call to Apple developer support, trying to figure out what was taking so long, as we planned an app to distribute free books…
And there it was! Free Books! It was perfect- and, in an instant, everything changed. As a capitalist endeavor, the irony was too much to pass up. Free, public, sharing, no limits, available- and then is struck me. A google of ‘hammer and sickle’, a splash of red, a rounding effect, a bit of shine, a nice propaganda font… boom! The perfect distillation of Free Books.
The second we had that logo we knew we had a winner- and, with such a, shall we say, ‘eyecatching’ logo, there was no reason to not go all the way and build a reader component. And so it began- two weeks of extra development to get the reader done, tune the interface, and get the retooled Kindling out the door.
Submission, rejection for a bad genre icon, resubmission, acceptance, and the moment of truth arrived at last: how would Free Books perform?
Earth shattering? YES! If you live in San Francisco, maybe it costs $2,000-$3,000 to live acceptably. In Budapest, $1,000 is more than enough- cost of living is a choice, and we had already made the choice to operate Spreadsong, Inc. from the developing world. Simply by virtue of being out of expensive locations, our revenue effectively tripled. We gained the purchasing power of $30,000 from our $10,000- and that’s some serious, serious money for a new company.
In gaining revenue we transitioned immediately from startup scrounging for cash to a company able to cover month to month costs without debt, and even pay (gasp!) salaries. We gained a foundation upon which to build and increase revenue. The shift from startup to company is really the shift from chasing glimmers of success to planning cashflow, planning functionality, and getting to respond to paying customers.
And, in a very real sense, it all started with a logo- we didn’t do any outside marketing, not even submitting to review sites. We just launched the app and it took off on its own.
Why did it take off? It comes down to differentiation- not differentiation of feature lists and cool page turning animations, but differentiation of design. And not design in the sense of graphic design, but in the sense of clarity. There are tons of book readers, book stores, and book collections. Readers with beautiful page turning algorithms, readers with Harry Potter for sale, readers for individual books, readers for classic books. But, through it all, they were all the same.
Though we didn’t realize it at the time, browsing through the list of Paid Book apps, virtually every icon was a play on a bookshelf or an individual book. Everyone was focused on pretending to be physical books, leaving an opening for us to stand out with a big, obnoxious, ridiculous logo with clear-cut positioning. Free Books, click here! Want 10 painstakingly rendered books? Check out that book over that. Want 20,000 books with everything from Oscar Wilde to Andrew Carnegie, Poe, Mark Twain, and Shakespeare? Free Books! Click here.
As we build our next products and get ready to expand to other platforms, we do so with a profitable base to build off of- all because of logo-driven development.