How I Went From $1,000 to $200,000 With Apps

by Carter Thomas

“Speed provides the one geniunely modern pleasure.” - Aldous Huxley

Consider this a victory post and how I would advise my family if they wanted to get into apps.  I can’t promise you’ll be able to replicate what I’ve done, but I wanted to share my story in case you’re able to figure out a way to apply it to your business.  Abundance is better than scarcity, so here goes…

Apptopia sale

In case you didn’t hear, I sold my app portfolio. Woo!

Now that the champagne hangover has passed, I wanted to address a question a lot of people asked me.

“Carter, if you started over, what would you do RIGHT NOW? How would you approach the app market?”

I think this is a really good question to ask because it forces me to address the age old “if I knew then what I know now” type of thinking. Even more than that, the market is so different now than it was in October 2011 that there is a lot that I would do now that is completely different. What’s hard at this point is that there is a sense of urgency mixed with a million different options about how to move forward with apps. It’s overwhelming. I totally feel you on all counts.

In a lot of ways, I am starting over myself. I’m launching new apps with new models. But it’s different – I have money to play with now, I’m not beholden to a job or other responsibilities. I’m 29 and don’t have to think about a lot that many of you do, which allows me to roll the dice a bit more. So this post is for everyone out there trying to make the TRANSITION that the internet and internet marketing have promised for years. That life of passive income and excitement that grows to a point that can be your full time gig.

Let’s be honest, this post is about how to make money as fast as possible using apps.

Here’s what I would do.

Step 1: Buy Low, Re-Skin, Repeat. Only Make Games.

reskinning

Call it app flipping, re-skinning, or just good business, the best way to enter the market is to hit the ground running.

In other words, leverage the work that someone else has done by licensing or purchasing source code. My drug of choice is Apptopia because you can get an app in the store immediately before having to re-skin. If you go to another source code marketplace, you have to re-skin the game before you can launch. It just adds time to your bottom line, although sometimes you can get powerful engines for cheap. Also, if you can get a universal (iPhone & iPad in one) you’ll have a big boost in revenue.

Typically you want to get a code engine that is “endless” or has an enormous number of levels. There are a few reasons for this:

  • More opportunities to advertise
  • More opportunities to advertise
  • More opportunities to advertise
  • Sell some In app purchases
  • Make the user happy-ish
  • Re-skin multiple versions a LOT more easily
  • More opportunities to advertise

I’ll get to this in a minute, but the golden rule is that you want to be re-skinning GRAPHICS and not re-skinning CONTENT. That’s a huge difference.

Once you have this re-skinnable engine in your hands, move to Step 2.

NOTE: DO NOT try to build something from scratch. I say again – this is not about pride or being a revolutionary. This is not about your idea being great. This is about making money. 

Step 2: Monetizing in 33 Days

So you have an endless runner engine ready to send to your designer and/or developer. Awesome.

Now you need to strategically place advertisements to maximize your game’s value. This is not pretty, but it makes money.

Without fail, the best place to place advertisements is at the beginning of the game. Use full screens and don’t be afraid to layer them. I use RevMob and Chartboost for iOS and launch them at the same time. It’s very aggressive, but it makes money.

userexperience

The next is to place both these fullscreens on the Game Over action. The user jumps off a cliff and dies…BOOM you serve up both Revmob and CB. Same with when they hit the pause screen and exit back to the main menu. If they’re trying to leave the game, try to get them to leave in a way that makes you money.  These ad networks hinge on selling installations of other games so you need to get users to click on the ads, go to the app store, then install the displayed game.

Within this framework, you should also be using banner ads. The revenue won’t be nearly as good, but it’s something. I use iAds and MoPub. I hear OpenX is pretty good too. The trick is display as many ads as possible. Banner ads typically refresh on a 40-60 second interval, so you need to keep a user playing for about that long OR find ways to increase the number of times banners are served up.

Example would be: User opens game, sees RM/CB ads, picks level, starts playing, banner is displayed while they are playing. Play for 30-40 seconds, then end level or die which leads to Game Over screen. RM/CB fire off and while the the user closing those ads, you’re serving a NEW banner impression behind it all. That creates a secondary impression for the core user flow. This doesn’t work quite as well for CPC (cost per click) campaigns, but helps a lot of CPM (cost per impression) campaigns.

HOT GANGSTER TIP: On the game over screen, make the level score tick up from zero to whatever score they achieved. That way the user has to wait for 4-5 seconds while the scoreboard gets to their score…while they stare at the banner ad. Not only does this give the servers enough time to download the ad and increase your fill rate, it will increase your click rates A LOT. I did this on some of my runner games and it crushed it.

When it comes to IAP (in app purchase), you’re not going to make nearly as much money on these type of games. Even if you put tons of cool stuff in your store, the IAP will be a joke compared to what you make on advertising.

The best thing to do is offer some ridiculously high, very clever options for the few people that are die hard lovers of your game (maybe 1% of users). Adding things like “Unstoppable Kid Mode!” where it’s impossible to die for $29.99 type of stuff. Remove ads for $0.99 is not going to help you retire. Sorry.

The reason for this is economics – the top 1% should pay for everyone else’s marginal cheapness. People who love the game should pay for everyone else who doesn’t have the money or find the value to spend the money. NOTE: that is not a political reference so please don’t go there. 

What’s the 33 day reference?

30days

33 days is my window for making a 100% return. If I spend $600 on a re-skin, I give it 33 days to make $1,200. I’ll watch it and update it and do whatever, but after 33 days, I forget about it. Everyone’s got their own number, but after the first month, these low quality games really aren’t worth your time relative to the value you get from focusing on the next game.

That bring us to….

Step 3: Choosing Your Theme

This is something I talked about in my App Empire talk. The one difference that I had early on was that I chose themes that weren’t “hot” themes – I chose themes that would provide qualified traffic for advertisers. Revmob’s top advertisers last summer were Pocket Gems and TinyCo, so I made animal style games that crushed eCPM.

When you choose your theme now, you have a few options:

  • Find the top advertisers on the networks you’re using and cater to them (casino, mafia, fantasy, young women, etc)
  • Capitalize on popular trends (I’ve seen plenty of examples of this being an AWESOME strategy for fast ROI)
  • Capitalize on hot apps (If Temple Run 2 is coming out, might want to make a game similar….)
  • Capitalize on flashy design (No matter how crowded, if you have a sick racing icon and screen shots, it will crush it for a week or two)

Bottom line is that you should choose your theme based on where the money is and where the volume is. When you can match those two together, it’s party time.

Step 4: Publishing

publishing

The #1 thing I tell people to do when they ask where to start is to get awesome at publishing. Publishing is the process of going from having an Xcode project sent to you and then having a live app in the store. What it includes:

  • Title
  • Screenshots
  • Description
  • Keywords
  • Provisioning Profiles and Archive uploading
  • In-app purchase setup
  • Game Center setup
  • All ad network setup

You’ll find that with the re-skinning model that this is almost always the bottleneck. The better you get at doing this, the more money you’ll make. Developers and designers, especially when they are using the same code over and over, can pump out projects for you. Then you have to move them to the store. Over and over. And over. Ugh.

Step 5: Repeat

Do this again. Do it often. Start slow and do it right, then ramp up once you can publish apps like it’s a part of your body. Everyone I know who’s making $50-100K a month has gone through this exercise so many times it makes their head hurt. They are total masters at this 5 step process. They have a lot of it outsourced, but only after understanding the mechanics first hand dozens and dozens of times.

Step 6: Go Get Started!

The obvious next question is that you have to get the source code to start with! Duh. If you’ve been watching the charts lately, you see that there’s a very clear starting point. Some of these people build their own apps, but most are buying source code somewhere.

There are a lot of marketplaces out there but I think they can be overwhelming and also FULL of garbage. It’s hard to know what’s good and what’s not. That’s why I am selling codes on my own site. I’m just getting started but also only put up stuff that’s top quality and easily ROI positive.

Check out the source code area here. 

Kick Some Ass

And that’s it. These efforts will start compounding and you’ll find yourself making more and more money. It’s SUPER intense for a while and really doesn’t get less intense, but it’s how you make money with apps when you start with a few thousand dollars (not even!).

Hope that helps you guys. Everyone I know who’s done this makes more money every month than they did the month prior. That’s all that matters. Every month has to be more than the last. Do that and you will make a lot of money :)

Good luck! Keep rocking! Get the champagne ready!

Hear more on my Facebook Page or Follow me on Twitter. Or both (even better!).

Carter

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{ 210 comments… read them below or add one }

LOL February 6, 2014 at 4:03 pm

” Carter Thomas October 4, 2013 at 11:51 pm
Sigh. Haters gonna hate. Funny thing is the apps I make are probably better than half the shit most indie developers spend months of their lives on…then go broke.”

OH Wow! Thank You, you’re making the world a better place, really thank you.

Daniel February 6, 2014 at 9:02 pm

I got mixed feeling with the post. It’s inspirational in a not-so-good mannter. Teaches something about software reusing. It’s a remarkable “business” to find. I should look for analogies all around the world (probably less malicious). And there are programmers who may get value ($ or non-$) creating some skeleton code and non-programmers capable of making $ selling it.
However, I understand you aim at dork teens. Somehow like selling drugs to kids. And that you cannot be too honest in this business (as in honest reviews as commented earlier). Jeez, this is the most revolving part.
But, hey, in the end, you are just a domestic/donwscaled/cheapo version of Electronic Arts. So, best luck. Get as much as you can, invest in weapons, long-lasting food and hidden bunkers, and wait for the crash. And protect your children from people like you.

god February 7, 2014 at 9:14 am

youre a bad person and I really hope you die slowly and painful

Sein oder Sollen February 8, 2014 at 9:14 am

Carter,

This is a great post in my book – and I’ve read a lot since 1992. The discussion/comment thread is equally interesting – some rather ‘deep’ knowledge can be inferred from it.

And my professional perspective: as a business lawyer, I’m completely used to team & incremental efforts, procurement of half fabricates for further development and in general the adage ‘beter goed gejat dan slecht verzonnen’ – yep I’m Dutch.

Writing that last line, I also remember the aha-moment when my father pointed out a painted steer in a Paris museum and asked me how original a painted steer can be… Have seen many since – and I ain’t never been to Texas, BOY ;-)

Max February 9, 2014 at 4:49 pm

“Everyone I know who’s done this makes more money every month than they did the month prior. That’s all that matters. Every month has to be more than the last. Do that and you will make a lot of money :)”

This article summarizes so much of what is wrong with capitalism.

JP February 9, 2014 at 7:13 pm

So glad I have adblocker on my browser whilst reading this. I don’t care how much money you’ve made out of this, you are creatively and ethically void and one of the reasons that the proper hardworking indie devs go bust – because there’s so many other corrupted people making a fast buck out of others’ hard work, flooding the app stores with copycat clones and burying the original content from the light of day.

You are scum. I hope you lose all your misgotten gains in multiple lawsuits.

Nick March 1, 2014 at 3:47 am

This article is deceptive. It sounds like apps being made by you are useless and of no value, to the advertisers or to the users. The market will eventually recognize this and a purge will happen.

Apps should be developed with a purpose and with value. No doubt this aspects of making money is available, but eventually even the advertisers will know that they are wasting their advertising money and will not utilize such service.

Francine March 31, 2014 at 7:51 am

great article! I don’t understand why there’s so much hating in all the comments. App flipping is a business just like any other business. No different then flipping condos.

kathy April 8, 2014 at 10:55 pm

Doesn’t apple tend to not approve apps that have been reskinned too many times? I’m reskinning one of my apps and I’m worried that if I do more than 3 reskins of this app that on the 4th I will get refused…they are all different graphics, sounds etc..but have some similar elements as they are part of a ‘brand’..and it’s my brand but still I’m concerned and I can’t get a straight answer from itunes about this. Please help.

Igor April 15, 2014 at 5:55 pm

An interesting article, and so very true about mobile stores nowadays. I’m (or WAS) an indie developer myself, lost maybe 1.5 years and thousands of dollars on a few projects which never earned much on mobile (didn’t even cover their costs). Until I finally found a type of apps which pays out and, just as the article’s author says, I keep pumping them out like hell. It’s all digital recycling. My only difference is that I am a programmer and write all the code myself (and do the publishing myself), so it all goes at a much slower pace, and the quality of my apps is much higher. Yet, in the end, it’s all just about ads, ads, and more ads.

Thanks for the great article! I’ve certainly learnt something. So, I’ll use the lesson to increase my revenues. Basically, I need to speed up and care less for quality, prefer quantity instead because, well, my user don’t give a shit about quality. They need tons of crap.

To all the haters: guys, I understand you completely. I hate what I have to do with all this “digital recycling” but it’s the market which dictates this. Who is playing mobile games anyway? I don’t play them myself. As a hardcore gamer with 20 years of playing experience and years of experience as game reviewer in specialized journals, I can’t stand the free-to-play model and don’t enjoy any of that “endless runner” crap or similar games. Still, there are millions of people playing that garbage. Who are they? Low-IQ kids? Their low-IQ moms? I don’t care really. If this ads-raping works for them and if their tastes are so low that they can endlessly swallow this garbage, why not make use of it and at least accumulate SOME money which you could later make use of in your other, serious projects. It’s still better than sitting in some shit company like Dilbert and “exercise in futility”.

Where is the world going… Idiocracy as it is. And this new world has its new heroes like the article’s author.. At least give him credit for his good math skills and the entrepreneur’s drive. It’s not his fault that there are so many stupid people out there who play crap. He just adapted to it.

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