There are a lot of questions out there right now about coding, skinning, making money, and everything in between. People ask me in comments, on FB, Twitter, and others all about the app process. I do my best to respond to everyone (within reason) but I also know that it’s still only my perspective.
Because of that, I asked Elaine if she would be willing to team up for a big blog post that addressed a lot of the biggest questions we’re all seeing in the app world. Elaine is a rockstar. She started in the app biz in 2010 and hasn’t looked back, amassing over 120+ apps, countless top 10 and #1 ranks, and millions of downloads. If that wasn’t enough, she decided to start an app marketing blog and teaching courses to help other people in the industry follow in her footsteps. Truly remarkable and I’m glad to call her a friend.
All that aside, Elaine knows her shit. In the article below we’ll both respond to seven of the biggest topics so that hopefully we can shed some light for anyone out there with similar questions. I’m also going to put in links to Elaine’s courses where appropriate so that you can check them out and start learning how to crush it.
1. Chartboost Direct Deals – How to get big returns
Elaine: I’ve used Chartboost for a while now. Firstly I focus on making a game that will get downloads. More DLs = more impressions = more chances to monitise. To qualify for direct deals you need to have 20,000 bootups in one day in one game. So that’s your first goal. When you do that, email Chartboost and they’ll enable your access.
Direct deals can be quite lucrative but you have to pick and choose your partners. First you need to analyse what ads are doing really well in your games. You can do that with a little pivot table magic in the analytics xls file you download from the Chartboost dashboard. I would only do direct deals with companies that have a history of converting really well in my games.
Once you have a list of 4 or 5 companies, I’d email them. Let them know their ads convert really well in your boys/girls/kids games, and ask them would they be interested in a direct deal. A lot of times you’ll get no reply. Or maybe they will reply to say they have maxed out their budget till next month. That’s ok, don’t give up. A little hustling at this stage is definitely worth it in potential revenue. Once you get the green light your direct deal campaign can be live in five minutes.
Carter: Once you are able to do direct deals, they can really help. Sometimes you can lock down a monster bid of $4-5, but most of the time it will be in the $1-3 range. There are a variety of factors that can change your return.
The first thing I do is that I always put my best Direct Deals at the highest priority, even if they aren’t the highest bids. I do this because then I can prove to the advertiser that it was a good investment for them and that I can provide solid value. When I do this, I can negotiate higher prices. Similar to what Elaine said, I also only approach companies that have a lot of money to spend or ones that will deliver high eCPM (usually bc they are similar category or theme).
Getting a company to spend the time to setup a direct deal with you is worth a lot, so treat it with respect. Your biggest ROI won’t come from your first DD, it will come from being able to develop a long term relationship.
2. How to determine good apps/codes for re-skinning
Elaine: When looking for app source code, you want something which will be popular with your target audience, is easy/fast/cheap to reskin and has a price that suits you. Usually I have a game type in mind when I go looking. But if I see something totally different but interesting, I’ll keep an open mind.
I’ve bought code I hadn’t planned for under $300, reskinned it myself with bad graphics in an hour or two, and earned thousands in profits from it. There are opportunities out there. Do try and get the link from the store and play the app/game yourself. Is it fun? Does it crash? Check its history on toppappcharts.com. When you download the app, see if you can get an idea of how many graphics are needed.
The less the better as you don’t really want a game with 500+ graphics to reskin. Also check from the seller if the game uses sprite sheets or anything other than straight individual PNG graphic files. Sometimes they can get funky. And not in a good way 🙂
From May 1 all apps have to be retina & iPhone 5, so I’d get this covered. Check out how it’s made. If it uses something usual, then the major ad networks SDKs may not be compatible. I’m usually looking for cocos2d, cocos2dx or Objective-C code. I’ve got some unity code too. If the app is universal that’s great as it’ll save on SDK integration costs.
Apps that have IAPs already built in are great. I’d also check if the license is for one or multiple reskins. Multiple is good. Ask yourself can you reskin this code a few times? Google the seller. There are a couple of cowboys out there that sell code they do not own.
Lastly, if you can get feedback from someone who has the code already that’s really valuable. On price, the lower your cost, the sooner you will be profitable. Don’t over spend.
Carter: The most important thing to keep in mind when looking for good codes is the history of the code – not necessarily how well its done on the charts, but how much effort has been put into it. Moving forward you will have an enormous amount of control and can easily “flip” a bad code to a profitable one with keywords, icon, screenshots, etc. What you can’t do is spend hours fixing bugs and reprogramming stuff – you need a code that is bulletproof as it is so that you do not have to think about anything other than design.
When I buy code or pick ones for this site, I almost always opt to work with developers instead of marketers. The difference is the pride they each take in the code – developers treat it with respect and fine tune details, marketers push the code for as much money as it will give them. I’m a marketer so I can understand both sides – but this is about buying code, not buying the app. Huge difference.
My best advice is to contact the seller, get a sense of their involvement with this code and expertise, and keep your flexibility high.
3. How to find a quality developer or team
Elaine: This is probably the biggest challenge for new app producers. It took me a while to figure out how to do this correctly. I lost money, got burnt, got Skype stalked and met some unsavoury ‘developers’ who had no intention of doing the work I had hired them too. The problem is when you start making apps your budget is really small. You just can’t afford to hire idiots. But you don’t yet have the knowledge to tell the good developers from the bad ones. I use oDesk, so there are a few steps I follow that have worked for me:
- STEP 1: Filter by work type (mobile app development), select 5 stars, candidates must have lots of good feedback, good English, respond to your ad instead of spamming you with a random cover letter, and look for teams only. If it does go wrong at least you can vent at their manager to get another developer. Ignore all requests for Skype conversations.
- STEP 2: I’ve been burned a few times by Chinese developers. There is an odd $33 dollar / 1st place Objective-C exam thing going on in some developer profiles. If I can code faster than them – and have done – then something is not right in the world. I’ve had a lot of success with teams from Eastern Europe so definitely worth a shot searching for teams there. They generally tell it like it is, and it’s always better to know the truth up front in any type of offshore development.
- STEP 3: This really seems to work…. using the filters we’ve already discussed above, now search for key terms for the SDKs you want to integrate… eg. Nextpeer, Chartboost, Revmob. If a developer has SDKs listed on his profile he is more likely to have integrated them once or twice before.
- STEP 4: Knowledge is power. When I taught myself how to do the basics in xCode I found it much harder to hire a good developer. The problem was I was now much better at identifying the devs who were trying to fleece me. I used to ask them how long it’d take to integrate Revmob or Chartboost. If they said anything longer than an hour (I could do it in about 15 mins or less) then the conversation was over.
- STEP 5: Confirm a start date, price and an end date. All 3 are Very Important. Do fixed price projects only, never hourly at the start no matter what. If they refuse, end the conversation within seconds.
- STEP 6: When you hire them, really it’s still all to play for. So pay nothing or very minimal upfront and set up milestone payments. When you hire them, set it up so you will lose no money or very little money if you need to fire them in two days’ time. And EXPECT that you will need to fire them very soon.
- STEP 7: Fire people. Fire LOTS of them. The only way to get a great team is to keep firing the useless until you’ve got genius developers left. Don’t feel guilty. Enjoy it. They committed to a job and they messed it up. So it will come as no surprise to them when they get told politely to take a hike. And do it fast. Any weird feeling in your gut at all… FIRE THEM ASAP. I have never regretted firing anyone. It has made my business 100 times stronger. Developers that are not that great, never get any better. They only get worse.
Carter: Building off of what Elaine said, I want to explain an example of what I used to do when it comes to re-skinning apps that worked really well (still does). Often, when you buy a code and go into the marketplace, it’s hard to get someone to agree to re-skin a basic app for $100 as a one time deal. Most developers understand the re-skin thing at this point and know what they’re getting themselves into.
Developers also know that CLIENTS are actually pretty shady as well – devs get ripped off and screwed, projects go on for months, etc. They’re apprehensive to get in bed with people just as much as we are. That’s why you need to sell them on a long term relationship and establish trust with them.
Let’s say I have a simple card game that I want to re-skin for $100. I’m having a really hard time getting anyone to do the job for this price and the ones that will are super shady. I also know that if this re-skin works out and I make my money back quickly, I’ll build 5 more of these card games. But first I need to get one finished up. On Elance or Odesk, what I would do is bid the job out for $500 and say it’s for all 5 re-skins.
Then during the interview process, I find someone I like and offer them the first re-skin for $100 and if they do it well, they get the rest. Of course they agree much more easily and you are both happy because you get what you want. If it doesn’t work out, you were clear about it being a “test” but if it does, you’re off to the races.
Click here to see Elaine’s course on How To Hire Developers for Re-skinning
4. How to determine theme for re-skinning
- Market research: Go into the category you are interested in. If its games, go into the specific subcategory (eg. games > kids) Write down the three biggest trends in there. I usually look at the top 30 apps in free, paid and grossing, and take the big players with well known brands with a pinch of salt. You can’t complete too well there and you don’t know how many installs they had to pay for. There are definitely trends happening that you can find. Some trends are short lived (slenderman, gangnam) and some stay in demand for months, if not years. It’s worth noting that non-games can be slower at the start too, but can live for a lot longer and bring you in healthy consistent daily income months after the launch. But make sure the price is right.
- Cater to the advertisers: As Carter did, make apps that really appeal to the demographic of the high paying ad companies.
- Piggy back on viral memes and themes and do it fast.
- Piggy back on national events and holidays. This can be a great excuse to reskin nearly any type of app and it’s very cost effective as you don’t need to change a lot sometimes. Check anything going viral on facebook, new hot videos on youtube, major US sporting events coming up or maybe it’s nearly Christmas?
Carter: I think choosing themes is important, but is also a smaller factor than people think in terms of monetization. It will definitely impact downloads, but doesn’t mean it will make you more money over the long term. When choosing a theme, yes of course you can choose popular keywords to work from and all that. Scour YouTube and see what’s trending. Tabloids are actually great places to find app themes.
I have learned that design quality is way more important than design theme. If you have two apps on the same source code, one is poorly designed with a hot theme and one is beautifully designed on an OK theme, it’s no surprise that the better designed will do better in the store. It will also retain its users better.
My point can be boiled down even further – choosing themes is still a shot in the dark. You can make educated guesses about hope you ride the traffic wave, but I had plenty of apps flop that were “hot” themes. Instead of thinking about theme in terms of “what’s popular” think about it in terms of “how can I make my game clever” – then design something great around that. If you can make your user react to it, they’ll share it with their friends.
5. ASO power points (App Store Optimization)
- Make an app or game that people already want to download. This links into doing your market research to know your app will get downloads before you start to develop it. It’s nearly the most important part of the whole operation.
- Have an eye catching appealing icon that works with your demographic. Have great screenshots that explain very simply what the user can enjoy, if they download play your game.
- Combined with a popular theme great art will drive downloads. This will help drive long term DLs as well. Great art will never bite you in the ass.
- Make sure your app suits the category it is in. Don’t guess your category selections.
- After a week when you slip off the new charts, then your keywords become more important to drive downloads. Appstorerankings.net has worked well in the past for me.
Carter: I’ll do a quick list as well:
- Tell a story in your screenshots. Have users want to see all 5 before the leave that area
- Icon is king. Keywords will help get eyeballs, icons get clicks.
- Localize descriptions for popular languages. If you don’t have a budget to hire someone to translate everything, try using a translate program and just putting a translated first line of your description in that language that says “Download this app today!” or something
- Don’t stress about the description. It really doesn’t make or break you.
- When possible, release a Paid version and a Free version and A/B test the keywords. If needed, make the paid version free so you can really see the delta.
- Remember the idea of control – let’s say you are getting 100 downloads a day. You spend tons of time on ASO and try to increase that to 200. That’s still a risk – you work and put in all this effort HOPING it will increase your downloads. Instead, you could just create another app very similar to this one and use all the same ASO tactics to get another 100 downloads. There are way fewer unknowns and your risk is way down. The more you control in any part of the app process, the more you can guarantee success.
6. What to outsource, what not to outsource
Elaine: t the start I would recommend outsourcing very little. You need to save your money to pay for important things like developers, and you need to do all this stuff yourself to learn the ropes of the app business. So I only outsourced:
- The parts that would take me too long to learn (like serious app development)
- Areas which are technically impossible for you to do (like being an artist, I’m just not that talented!)
I can edit images in photoshop but I will never produce great art. And I have no intention in spending months or years learning Objective C. So I hired an iPhone
developer and app artist from the beginning for most projects. Then I taught myself the rest of the business, including doing some basic game reskinning myself which was a MAJOR turning point in my business. The best managers and producers know how their business works inside out. I was fast and cost effective. And I got an invaluable education in the process.
Once you are a well-oiled profitable app machine (and which may takes months, and totally depends on how fast you learn, the effort you put in, and how often you execute) then I would outsource as much as you can, without compromising quality. I only outsource when it makes financial sense to have more leverage and move faster.
At this stage I can train people to do what I do. Then I can free up my time to work on growing my business. Or I can sit on a beach 🙂 But I would not do this until the business has proven itself as being PROFITABLE and the model works consistently. I am putting a team in place to outsource at least 90% of my daily work right now. It’s pretty exciting stuff.
Carter: I agree that at the beginning you really want to focus on learning more than outsourcing. Not always the case, but it’s a terrific way to learn. When you’re ready, I have two rules of thumb when it comes to outsourcing: only outsource to people that are better than me and never outsource strategic/creative work.
The first step is having a grasp on how the whole process works and understanding what Xcode is all about and being able to upload a completed project. It will save you years of headaches and keep your costs WAY down. If I didn’t know anything about this, based on my first rule, I would have to outsource even the most basic stuff. When I first started, I was quoted $450 to install Playhaven. Yeah right! That got a fire lit. Now I still can’t program, but I can review their code and tell them what’s wrong with it.
In terms of creative stuff, I don’t mean design. I always outsource design (because they’re better than me) but I never outsource “select a theme” or “you choose the characters” type stuff. When it comes to decisions, I always want to be in control of the ones that will affect the broad strokes of the game. Small details of course you want someone to handle themselves. But I would never buy a code, send it to someone and say “re-skin it, just pick one of the top grossing games and use that theme.” Kind of an extreme example but you get what I mean.
Click here to see Elaine’s course on learning the basics of Programming and Xcode
7. Biggest difference between what you’re doing now vs one year ago
Elaine: My two biggest differences between now and 12 months ago, is the level of my knowledge and my team.
One year ago I had limited knowledge. I didn’t know how to find great developers. So I hired useless developers and lost money. I thought my art was great but in hindsight it was terrible. I spent too much money getting apps made from scratch. I relied too much on hiring people with my limited budget, instead of saving money and doing the work myself. I had no idea how to use Chartboost properly and lost money when my apps started to move into the top charts. I didn’t know what categories were the best to do so I made apps in nearly every category out there to test them. I was doing very few games so my returns were slower than I would have liked at the start. I didn’t have a proven system in place.
Now I know how to find great developers. I can do dangerous things in xCode. My technical knowledge means I can now manage people to do this for me faster & cheaper than I can (and I was pretty fast!). I can now afford to hire people to help me, and know exactly what I need them to do to grow my business. My app investments have faster returns than 6 months ago. My art is better, my keywords are better, my market research is better, and ad and IAP revenue have increased. I can use Chartboost and I’m better at understanding the market. Most importantly I have a system in place that works, tweaked from learning from my successes and mistakes along the way.
Carter: The biggest difference for me is shifting from someone who generates income to someone who builds assets. This is much more on the business side of things. Re-skinning apps and buying code will generate monster cash flow if you work hard and stay with it. It’s a linear graph – put in X amount of work/apps, you will get out an average of Y. That’s a great way to drive lots of income.
Now I’m focused more on the users than on the dollars. I’m very fortunate to be in a position where I can build expensive games and not worry about my daily revenue. What’s weird, however, is that only 4 months after I parted with all my previous apps, I’m already making more money now than I was at the height of my 12 month app flipping tenure. I’m building really nice games that people actually enjoy playing for hours. With that comes a different mindset about customer service and analytics.
It’s also a different feeling to know that your growth is less about how many apps you can get in the store and how many users you can drive to your app. Huge perspective shift. I now focus on every piece of an app, fixing, tweaking it to make the experience top notch. What that also means is that I can spend time buying traffic instead of creating my own. It’s a lot less stressful 🙂
Thanks again to Elaine for all her help with this. If you want to enroll in her top level “Learn Everything” course, click here and join the hundreds that have.
I like the tip about asking devs how long it would take to install CB and Revmob. I saw Elaine post on her blog before and tried it out this time when looking for a dev. One from India said 10-15 hrs.
I said thanks but no thanks.
Yea that tip about asking about SDKs are gold. I thought I had a solid developer on the team until she told me that it was about 7-8 hours to setup SDKs. She reassured me that it was “8 hours MAX” and would not charge me if it took her longer lol.
I’m on my 4th fired contractor so far counting her. (sigh)
Is safe send your identity document to odesk?
@Max – what is an identity document? Like a resume?
too much informative!!
Wow! You guys have distilled your collective rockstar knowledge into an epic post!
Question regarding hiring developers – I’ve generally found it really hard to find top devs on the freelancing sites. For example, with designers, I generally find much better workers via professional sites such as Behance or Dribbble…
Any corollary for hiring devs?
Hi David 🙂
I haven’t found any sites like that but if you come across one let me know. To be honest, I know you have to wade through a lot of poor quality devs on the big freelancing sites, but I have had success finding really good devs there too.
Elaine & Carter,
This post was really really helpful. Thanks to both of you for putting this together. I have tried a strategy of looking up developers that have apps on the app store and hunting them down on LinkedIn. Some developers have come in pretty high with their rates and want to charge hourly and others seem to have a lot of projects going on and not have the time to develop for others.
Seems like if you do find a good developer and want them to stick around in your business you have to give some sort of incentive. For instance, Trey Smith I think gives his main developers a percentage of profits or a nice lucrative salary, but they only build for him only.
So I guess my question is are any of you incentivizing your top developers that have been with you for awhile so that they are only busy with your projects and likely not want to develop for anyone else? If you are giving them incentives, what are you doing to make them want to stay with you and not leave?
Thanks for your thoughts!
What an epic post, awesome!
1. High rates / hourly / no time = you don’t want to hire them anyway 🙂
2. I was chatting to a guy who does some art work for me on a fixed price basis a while back. He was very excited as he had just been offered a full time job. Not good for me, but he was very happy. It made me think about some of my team members who were great but still working on fixed price projects…. so I switched them to full time and pay them once, monthly. They are happier as now they work fulltime, get paid fulltime, have job security and I have actually reduced my wages bill.
3. But whats actually more important for your staff…. be very organised, know what you are talking about, have everything set up in a dev kit that they will need (all instructions, IDs, art, etc) and send this to them before they start work. Reply to all emails asap and ALWAYS say thank you & pay them QUICKLY for a job well done. Don’t wait for them to ask you for money. People appreciate being appreciated, and people appreciate being paid on time.
Hope that helps,
Dude i just stumbled across your blog today and i should say its already made my week i guess, its just sooooooooooo inspiring
Sorry if i’m putting this comment in the wrong section , **i don’t know how else to contact you,
i read through your blog a lot and i guess its for people who’re really into all this app bushiness
i’m currently in my freshman year in college pursuing a b tech in computer science with a lot of time to kill and a passion for android and tech in gereral and i want to ask you a few basic (embarrassing) questions
1 Does all that you talk about apply to android too?
2 How do i go about building my first android app ,i mean what’re the requirements for it
as for now i only have some basic knowledge on c and c++, what languages should i know to set about building my first app,they say it varies on the type of app, for instance
i have this amazing (I THINK) idea in my head of a kinda TO DO app ,i have the entire
look and feel of it in my mind , but don’t know where to start , Please tell me about the kinda languages to learn , i can enroll myself in courses for learning them but i can’t really afford to hire developers or advertise etc right now …
Please guide me on how to make my first app ,one i get it done i’ll consider spending cash on all sorts of stuff
ONCE AGAIN thanks for the awesome posts !
We’re just releasing our first app on android and hopefully next on iOS. Installed revmob but wondering about using something like http://beachfront.io/faq with their ‘super fast video ads’
Have you used video ads? I haven’t noticed any mention of them here. What’s your views on them?
Just started reading your blog. Love it. Keep crushing it buddy!
-Barnabas from Toronto
Hi Carter – new to this site and loving it. Question. You sold your app portfolio for $200k but how much money did you put into all the apps before selling it for that amount?
@Karen – hard to say. I’d say I spent about $50-60K over the course of my tenure. Also remember that I was making between $20,000-$60,000 a month as well. So when you add it all up, on the aggregate, I made about $4 for every $1 I spent on apps.
Wow Carter – amazing ROI. I’m sure you get this a lot and you have addressed it in your blog but you sold your apps for way too less! I know you wanted to experience the acquisition, meet the big dogs, move on to the next big thing but don’t you think you should have kept your portfolio longer? You would have made more money (accruing monthly) and maybe another investor would have come around.
Or do you feel this app biz won’t last too long? Could that have been a reason to sell? Maybe the monthly revenue stream would not have lasted long with the pouring of new apps and app developers getting into this business?
@Karen – A few points to that:
1. Your apps are only worth what someone is willing to pay for them. Because people with a lot of money don’t understand how it works, they won’t pay what they would for other assets. That’s very important to remember if you’re ever going to sell your apps – you can’t sell unless you have a buyer.
2. I could have kept my portfolio longer, but I bet I’d still be focusing on it and thinking about it. It’s more about being able to cut your ties so that I can fully focus on new projects
3. The app biz is just starting. Seriously. The numbers I’ve seen put mobile on par with markets as big as coffee and gold, and then some. If I had kept doing what I was doing, I would easily be making $100-125,000 a month right now, but I’d be bored. I hate being bored.
Question: Is the Carter Thomas Free Book “A step by step guide…” also available for sale as a printed book?
It’s difficult to read on a computer screen only.
What is the cheapest app you have finalized and published, considering purchase of code, design and developing? Did it have a good return?
Its really a good article that describes vividly about the most common questions and issues. We hope that the gamut of mobile apps and games developers of revmob or tapjoy or appnext will take notes seriously and they will be immensely beneficial.
Hiya Carter & Elaine,
Your blog has been a huge inspiration for me however I am confused with the following:
You have mentioned multiple times that you should make apps which appeal to the demographic of the high paying ad companies. Is there any way to know who these companies are or do you base it on your previous campaigns?
And why should you target this demographic? Apart from app filtering on CB / Revmob the ads you get are picked by the system and you have no influence on it as publisher.
Im a low budget college student, nevertheless I have been enlightened and thought of an unique app which can arise within a huge impact at the social networking. I’ve read some of your articles, which I appreciate now that my path and road to success is much clearer. It seems that the best way to go is flapping and re-skinning, taking into account investment money and short term inflating ROI, but at the same time it leads me to certain questions:
1. Does this method of re-skinning implies the freedom of other developers and users to use my idea? As in someone else doing my app, or at least a really look-alike app with same objectives in which a considerable amount of money invested would take me entirely down and my idea was just a re-skinning or flapping for someone else?
If so, there must be an out-of budget investment for preventing fraud?
As of now, that’s all the doubts I have. I’ve been gathering associates for funding the project and some other IT engineers for the code source.
Thanks A Lot!
Hey Carter, Elaine, Brian or Austin or anyone reading this blog. I am in the process of re-skinning Super Mouse and Match 3 game, not Viva Stampede I will do that one as soon as the iPad version comes out. Any way, as well as buying source code from BlueCloud Solutions, I try to make a habit of asking developers on elance and oDesk if they own any source code I could re-skin. Some said NO, some said YES and they did and it was good and their own code but some appear to be selling on or offering other peoples Source Code including Super Mouse World and Avalanche Mountain look a likes…………is this common in anyone else’s experience?? I don’t want to name said developers but any hints on how to deal with this shitty practice so we can keep the re-skinning world clean would be good. Thanks in advance.