10 Marketing Lessons I Learned by Building a Top 100 App

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This post originally appeared on Growth Everywhere, a marketing and business growth blog.

I shut down my startup this year.

It really sucked.

I had poured a lot of sweat and tears into my app company, but it didn’t matter. It wasn’t meant to be.

But just because it didn’t work out for me, doesn’t mean it can’t work out for you. In fact, it made me more motivated than ever to write this blog post because I’d like to share the lessons I learned along the way. I wish I had gotten this insight early on when I first started out—it would have saved me a ton of heartache.

Over the last 5 years, I've started two companies, built fourteen iPhone apps and had four of them hit the top 100 in Business, Lifestyle and Entertainment.

It had been an incredible run but my struggle to recruit top technical talent made it ridiculously hard. Basically I was a business guy trying to hire developers and I had no idea how to effectively screen for top talent.

My screening process consisted of:

  • Looking at their portfolio of work (but how would I know if it was even real?)
  • Doing a 30 minute to 1 hour Skype interview

At the end of the day, despite having solid app ideas, my apps failed over the long term because the quality of the development work wasn’t good enough.

One of my best apps was called Hair Booth HD. When I first released it, it quickly shot up to over 75,000 downloads—in a single day.

10 Marketing Lessons I Learned by Building a Top 100 App

But within a few days it came crashing down to 50 downloads a day. Why? The app was constantly crashing on people.

The developers didn’t know how to fix it and by the time we figured out how to, it didn’t matter. All momentum was lost.

Free Bonus Download: Get ready to receive more actionable advice on starting and growing a successful business — info not found in this post! Click here to download it free.

I wish I had known about Toptal at the time. (Full disclosure, I work at Toptal now.)

Toptal screens developers and designers extensively with a 4-step screening process and only accepts the top 3%. Using Toptal would have saved me a lot of time and money. It also would have reduced my financial risk because they offer a no-risk trial for 2 weeks, so if you’re not satisfied at the end of the trial period, you can walk away and pay nothing. (If you want to try it out, click here to get started and a sales engineer will set up a call with you.)

Most importantly, using Toptal could have launched my app business to the next level.

I’m emphasizing this because amazing marketing won’t save your product. Your product has to be amazing to begin with. Marketing accelerates your product’s success; it doesn't create it.

Read More: Drift CEO David Cancel Explains Why Free Products Are The Best Acquisition Method (podcast)

Along the way, I learned that the mobile app business is an incredibly competitive one that requires founders to be on top of their game—and today it's harder than ever to stand out. Of course, a little bit of luck doesn't hurt either. 

According to Statista, as of June 2016 there were over 2.2 million apps on the Google Play store and 2 million apps on the Apple store.

Mobile apps

Holy moly. That’s a lot of apps to compete against. So how do you build and promote an app so that you can stand out from the crowd?

I spent the last 5 years learning how to do this based on experience, best practices from other apps, and detailed online research. I'm here to pass on my lessons to you, so that hopefully you won't be faced with the obstacles that I did.

In addition to my own experience, I've included lessons learned from many of the top mobile app companies in Silicon Valley. Over the last year I hosted and attended over 20 events in San Francisco that included customer stories and executive, product and growth panels.

Here Are My Top 10 Tips on How to Make Your App a Huge Success

1. Build an app that delights users

happy mobile app user

All too often I hear people talk about advertising to drive mobile app downloads. Before you dive into advertising, start with building a strong foundation. Ask yourself the hard questions:

Have you built an app that's so incredible and delightful that your users want to use it every month? Every day? Every hour?

Does your app solve a problem for your users in an incredible way?

For example: One day, I didn't want to wait in line at the Post Office to ship something, so I used Shyp instead. They picked up my package from my doorstep and delivered it for me. It was such an awesome experience that I told my friends about it whenever we talked about shipping things in San Francisco. Shyp was worth talking about because it made shipping so easy and painless.

Here's one more example: A long time ago I made an app called “Interview Questions Pro.” People hated doing the research, making their own flashcards, and carrying them around. This app solved that problem by featuring over 500 interview questions and answers and consistently hit the top 50 in Business.

Bottom line: If you build an app that solves a huge problem and delights your users in the experience, they will promote it for you. And those are your best promoters!

2. Create a wait list

One of the best ways to make your app a huge success is to leverage a wait list. The League (a dating app) is such a great example of this: they amassed a waiting list of 75,000 people! Wait lists are incredibly effective because they provide:

  • Social proof: “If 59,392 people ahead of me are waiting for it, it must be an amazing app!”
  • Anticipation: “I can't wait for this app to finally be released!”
  • Exclusivity: “I got on the wait list but 5 of my friends didn't! I feel special!”

3. Run a free promotion

Every once and a while, I would offer my paid apps for free in order to drive downloads. Often times a blog or site would take notice and then notify their users of the change in app pricing and this would usually drive a pretty sizable spike in free downloads. Typically it wasn't a long-term solution, but it was a nice short-term way to drive awareness and user acquisition.

I also did this with my Kindle e-book The Resume Is Dead which helped drive a massive amount of downloads (over 44,000 Kindle downloads) and launch it to #1. There’s no way I would've hit that kind of critical mass without a free promotion.

Free Bonus Download: Get ready to receive more actionable advice on starting and growing a successful business — info not found in this post! Click here to download it free.