There are over 2 million iOS apps and almost as many Android apps in the growing app economy. However, for every Flappy Bird app that gets lucky and goes viral, there are thousands of apps that take time and hard work to launch and persistence to maintain, grow and avoid the app graveyard. While we typically hear about overnight success stories, this article explores the more typical experience of an appreneur, or app entrepreneur.
I spoke with one such appreneur, Amit Murumkar, about his journey with Canvsly over the past three and a half years. Canvsly helps parents capture and store their children’s artwork for posterity (and avoid the piles of paper!).
Amit independently funded the iOS app for two years until it became self-sustaining, and he experimented with different monetization strategies until settling on revenue-sharing from services. Not being a developer, he outsourced development, only to learn the hard way that building a team with some skin in the game is the best long-term approach. His guerrilla marketing tactics paid off but also got him kicked out of a mall. And while he won’t be quitting his day job anytime soon, he is bullish on his upcoming plans with Android and expansion in foreign markets.
The conversation excerpts that follow highlight ten lessons for first-time app entrepreneurs, which I hope will be helpful for readers who are considering a similar journey.
Prototype, Validate, Iterate
Question: Amit, what sparked the idea for Canvsly?
Amit: In October 2012, our company intranet hosted a competition for art created by employees’ kids. Clicking through the entries, what struck me was the pride employees had in showcasing their children’s drawings and the sense of community that it generated. My daughter was 3 at the time and would bring art back daily from her Montessori school, but there is only so much you can put on a refrigerator door. It saddened me that I didn’t have any of my childhood artwork saved. All of these triggers made me realize that many parents like me have a need for, and would appreciate, a way to capture, store and share their kids’ artwork.
Question: The expression “Necessity is the mother of invention” certainly holds true in this case. How did you bring your idea to life?
Amit: I built a simple prototype in a few evenings using PowerPoint and Keynotopia and showed it to friends at a Diwali party the following month. Looking back, it was embarrassingly rough, but it presented a visual concept for how you could capture, organize and share your kids’ artwork, and everybody loved it. That set the ball rolling.
Question: That counts as guerrilla user research. What about any competitive analysis?
Amit: [laughs] I ran one search in the App Store for “storing kids art” and did not find anything. I mean, there are public apps like Instagram, but those are not secure. I took that as a sign to go full steam ahead and started building the iOS app.
Question: What made you start with iOS?
Amit: I was bootstrapping this app with my own funds, so I knew I couldn’t create both apps. I did some searching and found that iOS is a better platform for me to start with. For one, at that time, iOS had one OS, one screen size and no fragmentation like the Android market, making it easier to develop, and that was my primary consideration. I had also read that my primary audience, largely soccer moms with a certain demographic and lifestyle, used iOS devices. Lastly, the probability of developing a business out of an app was higher on iOS than Android.
"Validate your app concept with your target users early on - even a rough prototype can visualize the app concepts."
You Don’t Have To Do It All By Yourself
Question: You mentioned that you’re a product guy, not a developer. How did you go about building the app from the prototype?
Amit: I think I could have coded it if I wanted to learn coding, but that would have meant time spent learning how to code. I initially tried putting together a small team here, but that fell through after a few weeks. To keep things moving, I started looking for someone I could pay to build it. Because I was on a limited budget, the cost-efficient way seemed to be offshoring design and development. Google helped me find a few options, and I ended up selecting one of them based on a gut feeling. However, offshoring came with its own challenges. If I had to do it all over again, I would spend more time assembling a core team — that’s what I did before launching the Android app.
Begin With A Minimum Viable Product
Question: When you say challenges, are you referring to the typical communication issues, or anything else?
Amit: Communication over distances and time zones was a small factor. I had thought through the core features and would think of improvements as it was being developed. However, the quoted cost was strictly based on my initial prototype, and any changes came with a price tag — for example, the changes I had to make based on consistent feedback from family and friends during beta testing. In hindsight, outsourcing is a good way to experiment with a minimal viable product (MVP), without any bells and whistles. If the app gets traction, assemble a team to add other features — Skype is one such success story.
Have A Monetization Strategy
Question: You bootstrapped your way through user research, design, development and testing. What about the big M — monetization?
Amit: I didn’t want to display ads in the app — I personally feel they destroy the experience of the user. I was also looking for ways to engage and reward users to keep them motivated. I introduced badges for kids, and, when trying to find ways to reward parents, I stumbled upon Kiip, a mobile advertising network. Instead of displaying ads in the app, they reward app users for reaching different milestones or moments of pride. These are real-world gifts, like store gift cards and MP3 downloads, that are a clever way for a brand to advertise without becoming intrusive. At the time, they were running a competition for innovative uses of their reward system. They loved our app’s concept, and we were expanding their audience to parents, rather than young gamers. Just a week before launch, they informed me that Canvsly won Kiip’s Build Fund award, which was a $10,000 cash award and $5,000 in services! Coincidentally, they announced the award winners on The Next Web on the day we launched, giving us a boost. I had a few ups and many downs on my journey, and this was one of the big ups!
Marketing On A Budget Takes Creativity, Time And Persistence
Question: Nice! That also jumpstarted the other M — marketing. How did you raise awareness and promote Canvsly?
Amit: This is where I had the least experience, no network and, most importantly, no big marketing budget. When you are bootstrapped, you have to be creative. I used three things for marketing: social media, traditional media and guerilla marketing. I made a Facebook page and started generating initial buzz three to four months before launch. I knew about the power of Twitter but was not an active user, so I started building an audience on Twitter as well.
I soon realized that I would need a bigger bang than this to make an impact. The app needed to be covered by a parenting-related magazine or a tech blog with a large audience. So, I made a list of about 50 to 60 journalists who write about family- and parent-related apps and cold-emailed them a write-up and screenshots. Only one wrote back — from TechCrunch. I couldn’t have asked for a better platform! When the app was covered by TechCrunch, other media also started taking notice, and over time the app was covered by newspapers and local TV stations.
Finally, I did a lot of guerilla marketing locally, including leaving flyers everywhere I could — I even got kicked out of my local mall for distributing flyers. I also held art competitions at our dentist’s office and my daughter’s pediatrician.
Question: Hold on! Go back to what you were saying about getting kicked out of the mall. What happened?
Amit: [smiles] The iPhone 5s launched the month after our app went live. There was an Apple Store in a nearby mall, so I went there the day they started selling the 5s and began distributing app flyers to the people who were lined up. I was halfway through the line when security rode up on their Segways and “escorted” me out of the mall for soliciting. It was a crazy thing, but an entrepreneur with passion and limited resources gets creative and will go to any length to make it work.
Question: You have a run-in-with-the-law story for the grandkids! How did your family feel about this?
Amit: My Dad, a professor, was visiting from India and was with me at the mall. I’m sure it wasn’t his proudest moment, but he did not say anything. My wife was very supportive; I could not have done it without her. I did most of this with a full-time job, spending every free hour on the app. I even quit my job for a few months to focus on the app. In fact, my second daughter was born just a few months after the app launched.
Monitor Your App And User Feedback
Question: You essentially had two babies born a few months apart! What did you do to nurture and grow your app child?
Amit: My app child! I was a single parent of Canvsly, playing the role of product owner, marketer, PR rep, salesperson and customer support, among others. But that also helped me keep my finger on the pulse of what users like and don’t. I monitor App Store feedback, emails that come in with complaints, and feature requests. Analyzing and acting on analytics is another important activity. For example, we used to have the “Print pictures” option at the top of the screen, and analytics showed us that users never clicked it. They only clicked the tabs at the bottom. We moved it to the tab bar and people started placing orders. Another request we heard was for worldwide shipping, so that people could ship prints and photo products to their families anywhere in the world, and we found a partner to enable that.
Question: Analytics are an important feedback tool. What do you use for analytics?
Supporting Services Are An Easy Way To Bring In Some Money
Question: How did you find the right partners?
Amit: Everything is and should be driven by customers. I initially offered photo prints through Fujifilm, but they only ship within the US. Our users were across the globe and constantly reminded us that they would like to create keepsakes, too. So, we had to find another partner that offers worldwide shipping capabilities. We also added Walgreens because of the convenience of being able to pick up prints the same day in their stores. The app is now self-sustaining because of these services.
Question: Does that mean you will be quitting your day job soon?
Amit: [laughs] Not anytime soon! When I said self-sustaining, I meant that it covers its own maintenance and infrastructure costs. I think it’s a long way until the app pays us salaries. Even Instagram and Facebook have not made any money until recently. B2C is a tough space to be in, but we are focused on building a community and making sure the users are happy with our app.
Take The Long View
Question: Did you ever lose confidence in the app or feel like giving up?
Amit: The thought of giving up has never crossed my mind. A startup is a three to five year journey; if you quit before that, you’ve not done it justice. However, there were a lot challenging and trying moments to deal with. The app did not have a good 2014 holiday season, and the little Facebook and Twitter advertising I was doing didn’t seem to be worth the spend. So, I made a decision in 2015 to stop spending my own money on the app and made it a paid download. People still purchased the app, though in smaller numbers. I experimented with pricing and saw how it impacted downloads (we made it free after Vishvas joined). But, for every 10 challenging moments, there is at least one moment of joy that keeps you going. For me, these are things like winning the Mom’s Choice award, being featured by Apple, and even getting a great review or email from a user telling me how thrilled they are to have found an app like this!
Assemble A Team With Some Skin In The Game
Question: You were a team of one for a long time. How did you get your team in place?
Amit: It was a very lonely journey for the first two years, and I tried very hard to find people, or at least one engineer I could work with, since that was a skill I lacked. I attended Meetups, pitched to startup groups, offered incentives to join me, but nothing seemed to work. It finally fell into place with someone who was on my cricket team! Vishvas and I would also keep running into each other on train rides back from New York City. He was from the startup world, too, and understood what it takes to grow and, most importantly, shared the same passion. In a small team, it is very important that the others you work with share your passion and have some skin in the game. It’s so much better than doing it alone — I have someone who I can bounce ideas off of, who challenges me and who brings his own thoughts and skills. The launch of our Android app was our first milestone together!
Question: What did you do differently for the Android version?
Amit: We applied all of the learnings from the iOS app and could build the Android version in six weeks, versus nine months for the iOS app! We had all the infrastructure in place, we knew which features worked, and there was no learning curve like we had when starting with iOS. This was also because we had the engineering skills in-house this time!
Question: How would you define success, and what are your plans to get there?
Amit: Success for us is making Canvsly synonymous with kids art — we want to be the largest community for kids art around the world. Our recent Android release will give us a bigger market footprint. We have just released the Android version, which has a bigger market footprint. In the near future, we have strategic plans for the Indian market, which has very large potential. Our goal is to make Canvsly a one-stop shop when it comes to kids art — be it storing, sharing, printing or learning.
It’s Never Too Late To Begin
Question: Any words of advice for readers thinking of becoming app entrepreneurs?
- Ideas are a dime a dozen, and they don’t mean anything unless you act on them. So, make that leap. Pick something that you’re passionate about, and be persistent.
- Secondly, it is a long and lonely journey, and not as glamorous as it sounds, but it is a very exciting journey. So, find people to work with who share your passion and have some skin in the game.
- Finally, it will take time, effort and a lot of patience, but you will get the satisfaction of seeing your ideas come to life, and seeing others benefit from them.
- If I can do it, anyone can!
Earlier this year, Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defense, launched an app at the age of 83, proving that it’s never too late to begin.
To summarize the key takeaways from this conversation:
- Start small with the core features (MVP planning).
- Have monetization and marketing strategies in place well before launch.
- Build a cross-functional team whose members have some skin in the game. If you have to outsource instead, be crystal clear about the scope.
- Monitor your app and user feedback for opportunities for improvement.
These lessons were identified from the ongoing journey of one app entrepreneur. The links section below has a few other examples. What other lessons would you add from your experience? Please share them in the comments.
Links And Resources
Big Picture And Marketing
- “App Annie 2015 Retrospective: Monetization Opens New Frontiers,” App Annie
- “Top App Predictions of 2016,” App Annie
- “5 Growth-Hacking Strategies to Increase Your App Downloads,” Steve Young, Entrepreneur
- “9 Daily Habits of Successful Mobile App Entrepreneurs,” Steve Young, The Next Web
Self-Funding, Successes, Failures And Hard Numbers
- “10 Reasons Why I Self-Funded My Startup and So Should You,” Jon Yongfook
- “How Hours Became a Top-Grossing App” Jeremy Olson, Medium
- “iPhone App Failure: Income, Losses, and Lessons From My First iPhone App,” Spencer Haws
- “Overcast’s 2014 sales numbers,” Marco Arment Marco says, “I’m probably coming in under what I could get at a good full-time job in the city.”
- “A Candid Look at Unread’s First Year,” Jared Sinclair Jared calculates his take-home as $1,750 per month.
- How To Succeed With Your Mobile App
- The Last Goodbye: How To Shut Down A Failing Product
- So You Want To Crowdfund Your Startup App?
- Tale Of A Top-10 App, Part 1: Idea And Design
- How Limitations Led To My Biggest App Store Success and Failure