How I Lean Startup’d my way to $240k+ on the Saturated App Store

I cofounded a social app startup at age 22. Because I was gonna change the world, DUH.

If you could believe it, our private social networking app, our BABY, never found product market fit.

Zero sales, but that design looks pretty crisp eh?

Our strategy was basically “Let’s brainstorm ideas and ship massive features. If we believe hard enough, maybe people will want them”.

Yeaaaahhh, NOPE. That failed. Should’ve believed harder.

In attempt to salvage our trainwreck, I absorbed everything I could on Lean Startups. But everyone gave me heat for “shipping junk” and I hated my life.

Two years, zero sales, no friends outside of work, and countless failed iterations and pivots later, we ran out of funding.

Once I was free, I was happy-ish. “Wait, I no longer have any decision overhead. Let’s try this lean startup thing FOR SERIOUS.”

You ever have moments where you try a new skill thinking you’ll be good because you’ve read everything about that skill ever published but then you realize you still suck?

Yeah. That happened.

I wanted some authentic “validation” that the next app I made had customers! No made up problems or ideas.

My friend told me she was looking for a way to manage her passwords. That’s validation right?

And so I rode those goodfeels of false validation for five months.

Five months of building immaculate features, ambitious designs, a pretty website to convert web users, and a made up funnels all the way to my awesome subscription payment.

And it flopped.

Perfectionism should be payin off ANY MOMENT NOW

We lived a poverty lifestyle so my over-engineered app and website could have negligible downloads. My (ex) girlfriend had 90% lost faith in me.

We had to borrow money to afford a life-saving surgery for my poor cat. Another victim claimed by my poor decision making.

You know what this whole debacle taught me? My brain hates pain. And bad entrepreneurship is gargantuan pain.

I adopted lean startup principles because my brain hurt.

The next few months kicked off an App Store portfolio that I ended up selling two years later, netting over 1 million downloads, nearly $200k sales and a modest exit.

How I found a legit idea

“The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas” – Linus Pauling

My former process on approaching ideas summed up:

  • Get a “game-changing” idea in your head
  • If Competition exists: I could make this so much better
  • If No competition exists: The market is all mine muaha!
  • Romanticize about all the awesome features you will build
  • Start building the product immediately. Who needs customer feedback am I right.
  • Make it perfect. Then make it perfect some more.
  • Build it in complete isolation. No on can see it until its beautiful.
  • Start marketing it after you launch it

This is actually the guide on how to almost kill your cat. If you’re reading still, you’ve probably done this. Hope your cat is okay.

If I were going to commit to building any idea, it would have to prove itself over. And over. And over.

I wanted the world to beg me to build the app.

Because 99% of ideas don’t have people begging for a solution, I knew needed lots of ideas. I needed a habit of ideas.

Not just any idea. Ever had a business winning homerun idea that you made up on the spot? That pretty much never works.

Ideas come from real problems. And real problems come from real people. So my ideas came from clues other people gave me.

I use the Clear app and also have places around my apartment to keep ideas

I learned to tell people I was an app developer and ask people for their app ideas.

And I mean ANYONE — from random people online to a cashier at Chipotle.

You were going to tell me your app idea and you were going to LIKE it, damnit!

After turning myself into the Sherlock Holmes of iPhone app ideas, this one dude online told me about his idea for “turning GIFs into videos so I can post them on Instagram.”

“Wait. That doesn’t exist?” My cautious optimisism had peaked.

How I validated before building

“Post GIFs to Instagram” passed the research test (which all my other ideas failed):

  • People were actively searching for a solution.
  • Some people were even making some clunky workaround to solve it already.
  • Traffic, as indicated by Google Trends, Keyword Planner, were good enough for an app
  • There was none or very little competition

Not a bad lookin trend

Old Me would’ve immediately jumped in and built the best product ever.

But New Me knew too much pain which I highly recommend not experiencing.

How could I validate without building an app?

A good question because the App Store SUCKS for fast moving entrepreneurship.

I can’t post a “Landing Page” to the App Store to see if it gets downloads. So I “settled” for a landing page on the web.

Using QuickMVP, I threw together a promotion in like 30 minutes that said “GifShare: Post GIFs to Instagram” with a call to action that said “Download for $1.99”. I made an awful app Icon that took me like an hour.

Remove the “Vine” and that was it. 1 hour compared to 2 weeks. Not bad.

I embraced shittiness. If users took action on an ugly landing page, imagine what they would do when I optimized it later.

I posted it to the Youtube videos, Yahoo Answers and forum questions I’d found where people were talking about the problem and seeking solutions (do you see a trend? Get people involved before you build!)

Curious users were flooding to my site, but they wouldn’t click the download button. Was the price too much? I changed it from $2.99 to free and people started clicking like crazy.

Since I didn’t actually have an app yet, I asked them for an email after clicking through. Emails were coming in. More than I thought would.


From a crappy app to $900 in first month revenue

I cobbled the whole first version together in a week.

As minimal and “just good enough” as an app can be. Same app icon as before. Stock interface design. Free to use icons. A single App Store screenshot with a sentence or two for the app description.

And to make money, an In app purchase to remove the watermark from the app.

Compare that to the 5+ months I did on the previous app. I spent hours grinding out every single detail to perfection. And for what? (Spoiler: overwhelming anxiety & shame)

I wanted to see some beta testers to prove an extra level of validation, because beta testing an app at the time was a chore. I had to get them to click through an email, sign up for an extra service, give me their iPhone UDID which they’d have to look up how to do, then recieve a download link through email then HOPE the app works.

I thought if I even got 10 people to endure that process, that’d be enough. I got 20. I even set up a fake In app purchase to see if people would remove the GIF’s watermark to see if they would pay.

Many of them paid so I finally had the confidence to launch.

The first month of launch did $900ish. I wasn’t about to quit freelancing, but if I could figure out how to “growth hack” this bad boy, maybe I could soon.

My first taste of passive income

Growth hacking my way to $200k in sales

1. Getting new customers

App business = big number of downloads. At its peak, I believe my business did ~3k downloads/day.

After MUCH experimenting (failing), I found a few things mattered here:

  • Improving the App Icon
  • Improving the App Store screenshots
  • Making the watermark that showed on the gif to be prettier and more noticeable (but only to an extent that felt ethical to me). This worked because people would see “Made with GifShare” on Instagram and download my app from there.
  • Encouraging good, abundant reviews

Keywords barely appeared to matter for me though it mattered for other businesses. Neither did the App Store description. I figured this out by test test testing.

2. Making more per transaction

This was simply adding more In app purchases (paying for filters, fonts, etc) and… charging more for the IAP that was working well (removing the watermark).

The original version, I charged 1.99 USD. By the time I sold, the same IAP was 3.99USD. All extra IAP were .99 or 1.99.

I tried ads, and they added decent revenue. ($600ish a month). However, I eventually took them down because I felt a bit scummy — so scummy that I actually lost motivation for working on the app until I removed them.

3. Creating more loyal customers

I struggled the most improving loyalty. Users often would use the app once or twice then never again.

I found a few things worked pretty well though:

  • Get people to follow the app’s Instagram account
  • Build an email list and email them occasionally for feature updates
  • Make the app a super usable, fast, and rewarding to use
  • Encourage sharing multiple GIFs (after they finished one, I’d try to get them to create another one)

The Process

In order to discover these changes, I wanted to move as fast I could which is a challenge on the App Store when you’ve got release cycles that sometimes last a full week or longer.

To get around this, I used a backend service like Firebase and I would turn on/off various changes (like what color a button should be, should I show certain things or not). This allowed me to test if something worked or not without having to wait for a new update to push.

Apptemize seems like an even better solution (as you can make sweeping changes with it without pushing any updates) and I’ll be testing that out thoroghly in my apps soon. I’ll get back to you on how well that works.

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