There are millions of apps out there. Many are very successful, but most are not. What are the steps taken by successful app makers that distinguish them from unsuccessful ones? In addition, many people have ideas for an app but don't know where to begin. What are the steps you need to take to create a successful app? As part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aman Birdi.
Thank you so much for joining us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your 'backstory' and how you grew up?
Growing up in traditional British-Asian culture, I knew nothing about entrepreneurship and business. All I was taught was that in order to lead a good life, you had to work hard at school, get the best grades, and study to become an accountant, lawyer, or something healthcare-related. Having failed at attempts to get into dentistry and medicine, I chose to study pharmacy.
It was in my second year of university that I failed an exam, and it was a critical failure too. I had to retake the whole year just to resit one exam. I chose to work in pharmacies to gain some experience and I was actually DJ’ing at the time too, so for a 21-year-old, I was earning more money than I ever had done in my life.
I decided to use that money to build an app idea that I had. It was a simple numbers game, where the app would give you a target number and some base numbers, and you had to use the base numbers to make up the target number using only addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. For example, let’s say the target number was 60 and the base numbers were 6 and 10. You would do 6x10 which equals 60. As the levels progressed, it would increase in difficulty and complexity.
We released the app into the App Store having built it with an agency and we reached number one in the Educational Games category and the top 50 of all UK games! It was incredibly exciting and the app became a success! Then it was time to go back to university and carry on with my studies.
Whilst in my third year, a lot of friends and family started to ask me how to make apps or how to get started on their apps. During my time with my numbers game app, I networked with some of the best freelance app developers and award-winning app-building agencies, helping friends and family to get started on their apps. I quickly realized that this was my calling. So I qualified as a pharmacist, worked for 3 months, and then started my own app agency. Fast forward 7 years and we’re now an award-winning agency who have helped hundreds of startups and businesses to get started on their app!
Most of us have been around a lot longer than apps have. What were your hobbies and interests in your youth before anyone knew what an 'app' was?
The times were different when I was growing up. Being born in 1990, it was all about playing outside. I was (and still am) a huge football fan, and so I played a lot of football with my brother after school. Importantly though, I loved technology. I remember being fascinated by computers and software, learning Microsoft Publisher, Powerpoint, Word, and Excel fairly fast, and being able to type faster than a lot of my friends. I was just a natural at working with computers and could learn things instantly because quite simply I just loved it. When the first iPhone came out, I knew this was going to be a game changer and it was the first thing on my birthday wishlist.
It has been said that our mistakes are our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or 'takeaways' you learned from that?
There have been plenty of mistakes that’s for sure! The funniest is hard to say because I look back now and think it was hilarious how naive I was in some of the decisions I made. At the time though, laughter was the last thing on my mind.
I think if I was to be pushed, the funniest mistake I made was not capitalizing on the growth we had with the numbers game app. I mean, we were ahead of Disney and Marvel! That’s incredible and people were loving the app. It had the potential to be huge, yet I decided I was just going to carry on with my degree and let the app go to waste. Looking back, it’s hilarious because I never would have done that now. Imagine having a successful business and the potential to earn millions, and you just decide to carry on with your degree when you probably weren’t going to earn that same amount of money. It’s a funny mistake which I can look back on and laugh, but I wouldn’t be here in this position without that.
The takeaway I took from that though is to never have regrets. Your life is shaped by the decisions that you make, and the decisions that I made back then have led me to the life I’m living now. No decision is a bad decision. It just takes you on a different trajectory but as long as you know where you want to be in life, you’ll always reach there one way or another.
I tend to meet two types of app developers; people who are passionate about app development and technology and people who started an app because they saw it as a means to solve a problem. Which camp would you put yourself in, and how did you arrive there?
I would definitely say I’m in the boat of being passionate about app development and technology. I arrived there because similarly to how I felt as a kid with computers, app development just felt very natural to me. Being a pharmacist was great, but even in my early days practicing, I just felt that I had hit the ceiling. I was a very good pharmacist, having been spoken about (in a good way) in the Houses Of Parliament. The problem was thought that it just didn’t give me the same fulfillment as app development and running my own business. I knew ever since I was growing up I was always destined for something more, and so I followed my calling and that led me to where I am.
Entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint—though I suppose sometimes it's both at the same time. What kept you motivated to develop your first minimum viable product, and how have you kept your momentum since then?
I think there are two main things to keep you motivated and keep up the momentum and these are traction and your vision. That first bit of traction you get, whether it’s your first in-app purchase or your first download, any sort of traction is a sign of viability. People always tend to expect their app to be an instant hit on release but, in my experience, that’s rarely the case. You have to be prepared to do the hard work, the grinding, the marketing, everything. Seeing that first bit of traction from all of your efforts, no matter how small is a great sign, and being able to recognize that it’s a great sign is something all budding app entrepreneurs need to realize. Once you realize this, it’ll motivate you to keep going during that marathon or sprint.
The second thing is your vision. Your vision is your destination and is at the heart of every successful business, including app businesses. Officially, it is a description of what your app business would like to achieve or accomplish in the mid or long-term future. I can’t tell how many apps that fail by not having a vision. You need to have a picture in your head of what you want your app business to look like, and it needs to be so compelling that whatever hardships you go through, you’re going to push through and believe that you’re going to achieve your vision no matter what. It should inspire and motivate you and give you the momentum you need to build the app that you want. If you have a vision that doesn’t do that, start with a new vision. Get really specific because once you do, it’ll change the way you think and those marathons and sprints are going to feel a lot different.
Can you tell us a bit about an app you're especially proud of? How does it help people? What do you think makes it stand out? What are you most proud of?
There are plenty of apps that we have developed for our clients but I think the one I’m most proud of is Amore Pizzeria. I did a talk at a business seminar and one of the audience members was a great gentleman called Paulo. He asked me if we could build an app for his business. It was a small pizzeria in the UK but he had a grand vision for it and where he wanted to go.
Compared to our competitors at the time, we were relatively new in the game but we were trusted to build out this piece of software for him with the sole purpose of generating significant results. After three months of building and having analyzed existing solutions on the market, we built the app that was dubbed ‘the best pizza ordering app’ in the world. Fast forward three years, the app generated so much significant revenue that Paulo was able to expand his pizzeria to three branches, and for a period of time, the branches were so busy with app orders that his pizza was only available on the app! It was a huge success and still is. In the words of Paulo himself, we turned them from a small pizzeria into a multi-million-pound business.
I think what really made it stand out is that we took a user-centric approach when building it. We didn’t care about what we thought worked or what other apps on the market were doing at the time. We purely focused on the users that were going to order from it and how the app could benefit them. The result was more than we all could have ever imagined, but looking back, it was to be expected because we put users at the forefront of our thinking during the app-building process.
Approximately how many users or subscribers do your apps currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you've taken to build such a large community?
If we take all of our apps combined, we have acquired tens of thousands of users and subscribers. If someone wanted to get the same results, I believe the three main steps you can take to building such a large community:
- Be authentic: You’re competing in a world full of sharks and standing out is difficult. One of the best ways to stand out is just by being yourself. You’re unique and people love that uniqueness. Be yourself and the community will naturally start following you with what you’re trying to build.
- Listen to your audience: It staggers me how many of the big companies don’t do this. Your audience, no matter how big or small, will tell you what they want and what they don’t want. Listen to them and respond to their feedback. Involve them in the process and you’ll build a larger community of like-minded people. It’s easy as that!
- Communicate your vision: I’ve spoken previously about the importance of having a vision for your company, but you need to communicate this vision to your community in the early stages. Show them where you want to take your app. With a vision, everyone involved with your app, including your community, will understand the bigger picture of what you’re trying to accomplish and therefore are more likely to help you create it. People like good apps, but they love being able to get behind something bigger. It will generate a domino effect where you can start building up a larger community.
What is your preferred monetization model?
The most common type of model used to monetize your community in apps, and the one we recommend the most, is the freemium model. The freemium model is having users download your app for free but with optional paid premium content i.e. in-app purchases. It allows the user to try before they buy. The app provides value free of charge to the consumer. Once they see they’re getting this value, such as an app making a normal day task quicker and easier, they are more likely to pull their card out and spend money with you on the app i.e. make an in-app purchase in exchange for even more value.
Only you can decide which model is best for your business and your target audience. The important thing to remember is to let the market research about your target audience and competitor research guide the decision.
For us, we recommend the freemium model with subscription in-app purchases. The reason why is that it combines the advantages of the free and paid model. The free model is great because the user has nothing to lose when downloading your app. They can download it, try it, and if they like it great. If they don’t, they can delete it. As a result, the amount of traffic generated compared to the paid model where you have to give something in return to try the app, is miles apart. The paid model, on the other hand, has the massive advantage that being only available for a fee gives off the impression that this app is valuable and of course, gets you income right away regardless if the user likes your app or not. With that said, you get both of these advantages with the freemium model.
Can you tell our readers about the most unconventional tactic you've used to test, market, or gain feedback on a product? What did you try, what was unique about it, and what was the outcome?
One of the most unconventional tests we did for an app was for an app called Epowar. It’s a safety tracking app that measures your heart rate and movements from your Apple Watch to detect the presence of an attacker whilst on your walks and runs. The question that loomed, however, was how could we simulate a genuine attack? It was a question we pondered because no one wanted to be attacked for real! So we were all on a call, and basically we were jumping up and down, bouncing off our beds, being tackled to the ground by our friends and family plus more. It genuinely was one of the most unconventional ways to test an app. It’s actually quite funny when people ask what you’re doing and you tell them it's your job! Laughs aside, it gave us incredibly valuable data and we were able to seriously test our algorithms and refine the various models to be more precise and accurate for when the app launched.
What are some of the strategies you have used to improve your products and build on their success?
There are so many strategies you can use and they all depend on the type of app and business that you run. However, there are proven strategies that all apps can use to improve them and build upon their success. The main one that everyone needs to take is to simply get feedback from their users about how they want to improve the product. The simplest way to do this is by getting quantitative data and qualitative data.
First, create a survey online with questions linked to your app. Ask users whether they would use it. Does it currently solve their problem? Would you pay monthly for it? What would you improve about it? Get this survey sent out to as many people who are in your target audience. This could be friends, friends of friends, colleagues, people from a Reddit search, people you may have found at local networking events, meet-ups, and more. This is highly valuable quantitative data.
Next, get qualitative data. Get a group together, around 5–10 people, of your ideal target audience and focus group them. Pitch them the app and ask them for their complete and honest feedback. Go through everything you possibly can with them, from the problem the app is solving to the features of the app. Ask for their feedback using open-ended questions. Unlike closed-ended questions which require a simple “yes” or “no”, open-ended questions require more thought and provide you with rich sources of information that you can use to help improve your app and build upon its success.
Both sources of quantitative and qualitative data are extremely powerful and can really help in shaping major elements of your app moving forwards.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app?
1 . Ask for feedback from your potential audience
I know I sound like I’m repeating myself at this stage, but the success of your app depends on your users and how much you listen to them. Ask for feedback as much as you can and I promise that if you take it on board about what they want from the app rather than what you want, you’ll be creating a product for the masses. One of the best examples that I’ve seen when it comes to asking for app feedback is when looking at the Twitter page for the app Headspace. They were and still are an incredibly successful app, and they were asking on Twitter whether users wanted dark mode next or a different feature. If they are still asking their users for feedback, you should too!
2 . Analyse your competitors
Your competitors are valuable sources of information as they are currently serving your target market. Look at what they are doing and see what you can learn to improve your app or in fact, remove from your app. I’ve interviewed a bunch of app founders and found that all of them look at their competitor reviews at least once a week. They look at them to see what users like, what they’re finding trouble with, and what features they want next in the app. It’s a great way to get insights and make valuable, highly significant updates to their app.
3 . Test your app
This one is severely underestimated. Test your app as much as you can! Normally when an app is ready to be released, people launch it straight away. This is fine and I actually encourage this because if you’re waiting for perfection, it’s never going to happen. That doesn’t however mean to stop testing your app and let the audience do it for you. Keep testing your app daily even when it’s released and have the intention to break it as much as possible. It will save you so much time and help you find problems before any of your users do. Some of the largest organizations have people dedicated to testing daily. That’s their sole job! It should be taken really seriously because if you keep testing and find bugs and issues fast, you can rectify them quicker and get yourself in a position to become a success at a rapid rate.
4 . Pivot fast
I can’t stress this enough but pivoting fast is a game-changing tactic on how to generate a highly successful app. When you know something isn’t working out with your app or your users are consistently telling you there is a problem, you need to learn to drop what you’re doing and action that feedback really fast. The faster you can pivot, the faster you’ll get to becoming a success. Try not to delay because once users see how fast you’re pivoting for the better, the more likely they are to look past any defects and continue using your app.
5 . Validate your app idea before building it
The first thing people with an app idea like to do is to get it built straight away. This is wrong! You may find that you love the app idea, but people may not want or need it. What you should be doing is testing if your app idea will be accepted by your core audience. This is called app validation. It’s a way to find out whether your app idea is able to get the kind of success you want. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars can be spent to build an app, which makes it a super expensive task. Without validation, you may end up building something that will cost you a bunch of time and money which you like but ultimately no one will use. Validate your app idea first and if it is validated by your core audience, you’re already on your way to building a highly successful app.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
The movement I would start that I genuinely believe brings the most amount of good to people is to get everyone to always be on the lookout for new app ideas. Ideas are surrounding us all the time, and it all starts with looking at your life and the problems you would like to solve with tech. Some of the most successful apps in the world are born out of solving a problem. Just look at Skype. Niklas Zennström traveled a lot and was often calling colleagues across Europe, but as a result, was picking up huge phone bills. Whenever he traveled, he had to buy a new SIM card for his phone and pay overseas rates to call his team. This was a problem he had in his life that needed solving. He knew there had to be a better way. Using his knowledge of peer-to-peer networks, Skype was launched by Niklas and his co-founder Janus Friis.
They achieved exponential growth almost instantly, growing to one million users after the first month only. By January 2005 they had 20 million active users and were gaining 5 new users every second. Fast forward time, and in September 2009, 65% of Skype was acquired by eBay for $1.9 billion. Later, Microsoft bought Skype in May 2011 for $8.5 billion, and it all started from a single problem one person had.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
For more content like this, subscribe to The Product Manager newsletter.