How Much Money I Made on the App Store

appstore

Some time ago I began learning to develop iOS apps using Swift. It was a massive learning curve. Some quick takeaways:

  • The iOS framework is huge.
    I doubt it is possible for a single human being to be familiar with the whole thing.
  • There is no cross-over from typical web development.
    Things that seem so easy in web design are completely baffling in native iOS.
  • The rate of change that Apple keep pushing is exhausting.
    Even during my app development process of a few months, the Swift language changed – requiring significant changes to the code. And there were two iOS updates.
  • The smallest bugs can have you down a rabbit warren for hours if not days.
  • Stack Overflow became my new favorite website.

All that said it was immensely satisfying to write my own app, get it submitted to Apple, and live on the App Store.

Once up on the App Store I will confess to struggling with a lot of self-driven stress. I now had a product for sale and I felt a strong obligation to fix bugs as soon as they were found. And of course there were a few, and many a late night was spent poring over code.

The submission process is time-consuming. Each release would be in the review queue for at least a week. Creating the images for the store was a hassle. 5 images for each of 4 iPhone sizes. That’s 20 images, and if you change something in a new version you’re probably going to redo a lot of those images.

What About Sales and Revenue?

This was more than a hobby. I have a web-based business and this thing had to produce income at some point. I have people depending on me, and like many don’t have the luxury of spending endless hours indulging in pursuits that don’t end up as a viable business enterprise.

I charged 99c for the app.

Here are the actual sales from May 2015 to Feb 2017.

The first few days it was a rush. I was checking the app store reports morning and night – excited to see someone actually bought the app. Within a few days it hit 10 sales in one day. Little did I know but that was as good as it was going to get.

Over the following weeks I feverishly worked on some updates to get the app to the point I had always intended (along with bug fixes).

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Then reality set in.

199 units old  = US$209 in sales = US$135 proceeds (net to me). In order to get the app on the app store I needed to pay the $99 developer fee.

So after 2 months and 1 week my (before tax) profit was $36.

UPDATE 2017: Since the initial rush, the app has sold about 1.2 copies per day – at 71 cents per sale to me. Of course I still have to pay the Apple Developer Fee of $99. So profit for the last year was about US$217. I’ve updated the app for ios10, but will not be building in any new features. The only way I could do that is if it became a hobby. Just updating the code for new versions of Swift and Xcode has chewed up enough hours.

I did my best on the marketing front. I carefully researched app store optimization. I wrote personal emails to a few of the sites that write about apps. I gently pointed out some points of difference in my app and what I’d discovered about cellular data usage that had prompted me to write the app. That effort lead to nothing.

In doing so I stumbled on the bizarre after market for app store code. So that’s why so many Flappy Bird clones appeared within weeks.  It seems like hordes of developers quickly discovered they made no money on the app store – so they might as well endlessly recycle their source code.

Talk about a way to kill innovation and no wonder the app store is so chock-full of all kinds of stuff.

So why am I doing this?

I had sunk so much time into this. I’ve gained some new skills but in doing so – discovered just how challenging it is for a team of one to get anywhere in this new world of apps. Apparently the app store gold rush finished sometime in 2009.

I get that. My own app does what dozens of other apps do. BUT – of course I coded it to improve on issues I saw in other apps. It is something I prefer to use to measure my data usage rather than the 4 other apps I tried before hand.

It’s buried in the app store. It’s hard to locate even with a fairly specific keyword search.

Where to Now For Software?

The app store model has changed things. Our expectations as consumers are for free everything.

We buy a $5 cup of coffee without a thought or throw $50 of gas into our car as if it were monopoly money. But any software over $1 is shockingly overpriced! And the developer better FIX MY PROBLEM RIGHT NOW OR ELSE…

As a child I bought games on cassette tape for my Commodore 64. They cost over $70 (in old money).

Things have never been better as a consumer – unfortunately the app store model has made things weird.  Most games (for example) are now little more than vehicles to drive in-app purchases via a cynical addiction cycle.  It’s tough to find something that you pay for once and enjoy. And even then – we expect to pay a developer a couple of dollars and have the app upgraded for free forever.

It’s a bit like the web: the moment we expected (and demanded) content for free, publishers began to turn sites into content silos in order to drive ad views. So we bitch about the ads, but none of us would be willing to spend money on a website (the paywall experiment failed years ago).

Where to Now For Me?

I had a few other app ideas for the future… but the cost/benefit ratio simply does not justify it.

I’m going to leave it.

I’m too slow at coding. Maybe if it was something I did full-time I would no doubt get faster – but I can’t afford to do that. Not with $36 to show for it (and don’t tell my wife – I barely got my head out of the laptop for a month).

For those who purchased my app. Thank you so much. I will support the product as long as it is available. I will answer your emails and read your reviews and listen to your suggestions.

 

Hi, I'm James, and for the last decade I've made a living by making my own blogs and websites.
Updated: February 16, 2017

31 Comments

  1. As a solo app developer who has followed pretty much exactly your own path and process, I can unfortunately thoroughly corroborate your experience as mine has been identical. Taught myself coding, created a simple but useful iPhone app and launched it last summer, in July 2016. Although I have received good reviews for it, and in spite of having invested considerable resources in trying to market the app on social media and elsewhere, my revenue figures are identical to yours and the more I look at the App Store ecosystem, the more I’m realizing that it is utterly unsustainable as a business venture. I never imagined I would get rich with this, it was never my goal, but I did expect to be able to generate revenue that could at least partially sustain a basic livelihood. Not so. I feel it is even questionable as to whether it is even worth pursuing as a hobby. The sheer volume of apps on the App Store is partly responsible for this situation, but what has been the most detrimental in my view is the slow and constant devaluation of apps, something that has unfortunately been actively encouraged by Apple. It is mind boggling to me that people should balk at paying 4$ for an app when they spend that much everyday on lattes… The mobile app culture has become all about get something for nothing and Apple, in the case of the App Store, has been doing very little to curb that trend and create a climate where apps are valued in a way that is commensurate with the level of work required to produce them. I am left extremely discouraged and feeling that the huge investment of time and resources I have made in acquiring the necessary skills to produce apps cannot possibly provide an acceptable ROI. I am therefore in the process of evaluating where to take my business next as I have run my own business for over 20 years and have no interest in slaving away coding in a cubicle for some faceless corporation. Thanks for sharing your experience, it is always helpful to know one is not alone! Best of luck to you!

    • Such an insightful and honest comment, so thanks. I feel your pain.

      I have COMPLETELY moved off any kind of app development. The complexity of iOS makes me feel stressed just thinking about it (a good sign that its not for me). Would love to know where next for you.

  2. Hi James
    Thanks for your blog.
    I’m in starting phase to develop some apps for blind people and for scanner and fax services, and I will promote them on social media.
    What is your advice to me?

  3. Hey, wats the name of your app? Can I check it out?

  4. James, as someone who has worked in mobile game marketing for 5+ years, I can affirm your concerns about making money developing apps. The story you laid out here will be very valuable to others and your generosity in laying out your experiences should be applauded. Most devs won’t divulge their numbers, whether good or bad. That makes this blog post an important piece amongst your fellow developers and you should be congratulated for it.

    Based on my experiences, you are correct:

    – Yes, users have been trained that they can find what they need for free.

    – Yes, it’s hard to cut through all the clutter and make money in the overcrowded app stores.

    – Yes, constant updates can make for time-consuming fixes that unfortunately can end up just not being worth it to do (see: Fez https://www.polygon.com/gaming/2012/7/18/3168486/fez-developer-reposts-kinda-broken-patch-with-no-plans-to-fix)

    – Yes, marketing the apps pre- and post-launch is more important than ever and while your strategy was good in reaching out to a few sites, that’s just not enough effort nowadays to fill the top of a sales funnel.

    – Yes, I agree that the app store “gold rush” is over.

    – Yes, keywords, screenshots and even the app icon are very important elements to consider in the app store. Probably more important than you would think.

    I also want to leave you with a bit of candid (and hopefully not too pessimistic) advice that I give to people who are looking to “hit it big” with a mobile app. You mentioned maybe treating this as a side hobby moving forward. I would say that this is the ONLY way to have any kind of shot making any meaningful revenue if you don’t have the backing of an organization with a dedicated full-time team, large marketing budget as well as a built-in distribution platform with co-marketing opportunities. The small 2 or 3-person teams seem to be the most effective/efficient. Most of the apps that win nowadays seem to come from established companies that leverage their previously-created userbase, marketing budget and app portfolio for cross-promotion. Most of the rest of the winners, in my opinion, get lucky — not because they don’t have great products, but because for every app that generates a million installs there are 3,000 that are just as good but don’t get found (I’ve spoken with many successful app devs and they have ALL said that luck played a big part in it). I also think there’s a certain phenomenon in the oversaturation of apps which leads to consumer apathy. I remember when I was a kid and I scoured magazines to see what new games would come out for my console that month. I would study each of the half-dozen or so game boxes to try to figure out if it would be a good fit and worth my $$$. Now there are 150+ new games that come out EVERY DAY on a variety of platforms, so my buying habits have shifted to “I’ll buy something when I’m available” rather than “I’ll buy that game when it comes out”. That’s just me, but if others do the same then that shifts the sales paradigm dramatically.

    I don’t mean to be “doom and gloom”. There are other strategies and tactics that can aid in creating a popular/profitable app. They require planning, time, effort and money and they don’t always work, but it’s possible. And you gave yourself the gift of some valuable experience that you can use in a future project or on a resume’. Not to mention the priceless feeling of accomplishment for getting an app from idea to app store — that is HUGE. I hope you and others reading don’t get too discouraged because we all need creative developers like yourself. I wish you the best on your next project.

    • That’s one of the most insightful and informed comments I’ve seen on this blog (and any blog for that matter). Hopefully will be helpful to many.

      Thanks so much for your thoughts. Would be interested in where you see the app industry headed over the next 5 years?

  5. Late to the game here, but wanted to give my gratitude for candidly sharing your experience. I just started learning iOS development and am in the early stages of “Hello World” excitement. But, it is quickly becoming clear that if I am going to make my idea reality, I will have to invest a lot more time learning new skills. And that doesn’t include the time required to develop the actual content, which is weeks or months of work in itself.

    Before I invest that kind of time, I want to align my expectations with reality, and your experience is a little sobering to say the least. I think I’m better off chasing a different pursuit…

    • Thanks. I think you have to treat it as a side hobby. Maybe something could grow out of that.

  6. Hi James,
    Thank you so much for taking the time to write (and update) this. I’ve been toying with the idea of picking up commercial app development to generate a little extra income and not have all ‘eggs in my daily job basket’. While writing a simple ‘hello world’ app and seeing it run on my phone felt tremendously empowering, the seemingly gargantuan effort required to learn all the in’s and out’s of iOS development made me search for info on cost/effort/profit/benefit ratios…
    Your article was a sobering and enlightening read.
    Thanks again.

    • Thanks for your comments. I would say to you – don’t give up. Maybe explore other development alternatives such as React.

      I’ve had a go at so many things, and a few of them have stuck and been successful. But if I’d done nothing, I’d have… well… nothing.

    • I just repeated your comment almost verbatim… I should have just replied “ditto” to your comment!

  7. Hi James,

    Thank you so much! I my self have also been in and out of e-biz for the last two decades. And have been very curious about the app development, for the last couple of years. But, as you say there is a very steep learning curve and a lot of bug fixing for iOS.

    Maybe the way to go, is to develop ideas for other platforms and outsource the app development, if there are any proof of success.

    Your story has been worth huge amount of working hours for me. I know that it is not money in your pocket. So, I’ll hit some of your banners and click some of your linkes, hopefully that’ll return a buck or two.

    Best Regards,
    Rune

    • Thanks Rune. I just updated the graph above to show sales until now. I am amazed that the app has continued to have sales trickling in, but it does not warrant any more development time.

      The reality is that most people don’t install a lot of apps (see my research here).

  8. This article is so true. Starting out is really tough but you have to hang in there. I recently started to get a steady stream of revenue but it takes work and time, being just a one man team with a full time job and family. Good luck all.
    *Hint* If you are developing an app and you find a similar one on the App Store, read the comments. Make sure your app does not have the problems the people complain about and try to implement things that they want.

    • Too true. Good luck with your app, and definitely worth checking out competitor reviews.

  9. Hi James,

    Great blog and thanks for sharing it with everyone.

    Just wondering if you thought of trying a different model?
    Such as, give that game away free (maybe with ad venue) and make a sequel adding new features, charge for the sequel.
    If people liked your first free game they might be prepared to pay a bit more for the sequel.
    I know this means going back and re-doing the game, but the original coding is done.
    Another option would be to use something like construct 2, which is really easy to create a game, I guess depending on how complicated the game is.
    Either way well done for trying.
    Thanks

  10. Hey James, I realize that the $36 wasn’t much after a month. However, you gained some intangible assets. I think if you scaled your game and hired, you could make more money off of it. The fact that you made that many sales is quite an accomplishment.

  11. You said you only made a profit of $36 but you aren’t looking at it properly. That $99 developer fee lasts a year. You’ve already covered your costs. So any future apps you make within that year would be way more that $36 per app if the sales are consistent.

    Also did you do any marketing for the app? or were all the sales purely organic?

  12. Why did your profits go from $209 to $135?

    • That wasn’t profit but revenue. The 209 -> 135 is the actual dollar amount sold ($209), and the actual that I got in my hand ($135). That’s because Apple takes out a fee for each sale.

  13. Great things are discussed in the article from beginning to the end for the app development and after the development.

  14. James,
    Consider this: If you were approached to write another app like it, would you be able to do it more confidently, and perhaps, better?

    — $36 and useful app development experience, not to mention something you can mention in your resume!

  15. thanks u so much

  16. I’ve trie d to comment on this now and it doesn’t accept it

  17. Great article. Very interesting read. I think that like selling any commodity advertising goes a long way to shifting units.

    • Thanks, and yes of course. I guess it depends how much time you are willing to devote to that effort. The sheer scale of the app store always makes it attractive as an avenue for easy sales. However that same scale makes it a confusing mess to navigate through.

    • I think the app store is an exercise in futility. It’s an ever increasing market of opportunity which levels itself out and you lose in the end.

  18. The problem with apps is that you have to know what people want. If you don’t know the particular app they want, then you have to know what kind of trend they want. There is a lot of marketing and strategy that needs to go on, but not only after the app is made.
    Take that Clear app, for example. All is does is manage todos. It’s stupid. Yet, for some reason, people latched onto it like it was a 2-year old walking on the ledge of a building. The way it manages todos isn’t great, but because it does it differently it gained all kinds of press. Ridiculous.
    There’s only 1 app that I’ve seen so far that I would say is great in BOTH design and functionality and that’s Fantastical. Other apps may do great things functionally, but certain interface elements make the design not so great. Other apps have a great UI, but the functionality is so-so.

    • I have a newfound respect for app developers after having a go myself. Coming from a web background I found it very challenging.

      I frequently get people asking for apps on a few websites I run… they want the functionality of the website in an app. However I’ve held back as I just don’t see the point. Content is not software.

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