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 Max Kraynov, Group CEO of FunCorp, developer of mobile apps in the entertainment space.
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?
I grew up with a big tech and computer obsession, and have always been intrigued by the inner workings of seemingly complicated machines. I was fortunate in that others recognized the potential of my passion - I received my first computer at 13 years old, and from there, set out on the path to programming.
I’d spend hours developing projects, teaching myself how to code, and discovering to my delight how complex combinations of characters, numbers, and punctuation could make whole sequences, worlds, or experiences come alive.
These efforts, driven entirely by my own interests, helped to carve out a satisfying and fulfilling path in my adult years. At 21 years old, not only had I worked on the world’s first mobile Forex trading service, but I was also part of the team behind a notable crime prevention software, which included systems that helped authorities to identify bodies and track stolen cars. A varied and colorful developer resume to have at a young age!
As well as the ‘developer’ gene being a defining part of my life, I’ve also always had an entrepreneurial streak in me. I founded my own company, Unwiredtec, in 2002, having already spent three years developing in the mobile space. The company helped form how mobile content is downloaded, and I built this from the ground up, before selling it in 2006 to focus on exciting new challenges.
Having reveled in experiencing the synergy between programming, development and entrepreneurship, I decided to delve deeper into finance, investments and growth, and focus on creating tech products that would enhance shareholder value.
Then after a decade of building a flight search service, Aviasales - which became the third largest in the world, (and where I still remain a chairman), I joined entertainment company FunCorp as Group CEO in 2021 - which brings us to today!
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?
Mobile apps are a relatively new phenomenon: the dominant form factor before them were PC apps—and later, PDA apps (I loved my Palm Pilot back in the day). It’s only when phones became more powerful and introduced a wide range of controls that people started using them for longer and demanded more use cases, especially from their favorite apps.
Most of my time was spent on reading books, playing chess and programming the computer my parents gave me. The best way to motivate oneself to try something new is to be bored with past activities, so I spent most of my time in front of a computer tinkering with various stuff and writing a newsletter detailing my experiments and new discoveries, motivating myself to push on with new ideas and projects. Bear in mind, this was 1994-1995, long before blogs became prominent.
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?
My past company developed a (sorry for the nerd-speak) mobile content delivery system for various pieces of content, including apps (those were the pre-iPhone times), and we advertised it as a one-stop solution for curbing piracy.
Content protection is only as good as the laziest hacker or motivated individual. We very quickly realized that our clients’ users would go to huge lengths to overcome protection and, just to add insult to injury, distribute the pirated content as widely as they could.
What have I learned? Never underestimate the abilities of motivated people to spend hours to save a few dollars—not for the savings, but simply for the pleasure of it.
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’m a boring person in this regard: these days I prefer convenience and utility over experimentation with the latest technologies, even though the latter can get one in the ‘featured’ section of various app stores. Not all problems are worth solving, even fewer of them are worth solving via mobile apps, so from a completely utilitarian perspective, transactional apps should perfectly solve the problem they promise to solve—and do just that.
Entertainment apps have a completely different value proposition; no one develops a mobile entertainment app because there’s a burning problem to be solved. It’s like throwing a bunch of ideas quickly implemented against the wall and seeing what sticks. This trial-and-error approach to developing entertainment products benefits from the ‘techie’ mindset, where looking at tasks from various angles and persevering when things don't go according to plan is key to success.
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?
In my case it was the need to solve the (then) technically impossible challenge of writing an HTML rendering engine for the Nokia 7110 (WAP 1-enabled device) for my employer. I realized that there was demand for this functionality from other early mobile developers, so I set up a website, paid $100 for a .com domain name (which was a lot back then), and started a newsletter aimed at crazy people like me. It was initially the potential for recognition (in addition to the extra few thousand dollars a month, who am I kidding?) that drove me and kept me on my toes.
It took seven years for me to incorporate the business, hire a bunch of smart people and eventually sell it, so it definitely wasn’t a quick hit. And 17 years later, I can still remember the emptiness in my stomach that used to come from uncertainty about the market, client’s loyalty, employees’ needs, etc. As luck would have it, demand for the platform my company had developed went off the charts a year after its sale. The reason? Steve Jobs’ introduction of the iPhone to the world.
There’s one more thing I painfully understood: the reason why the Founder is a coveted concept is that no one else does (or should!) experience this level of stress, uncertainty, mood swings, desperation to make ends meet and retain staff, etc. I’ve been a non-founder CEO twice since then and while it’s a thankless job with huge impact, founders should receive ultimate credit for the risks they’re taking.
Can you tell us a bit about your app? How does it help people? What do you think makes it stand out? What are you most proud of?
FunCorp develops several apps—all related to short-form entertainment (images, memes, short funny videos)—and our most recent app Yepp compensates people for the time they spend in the app. We do it through providing engaging app mechanics and ensuring that users have a fun but entertaining experience.
There is a new trend in mobile apps (unsurprisingly, most people spend more time on their mobile devices than laptops, computers and often, tablets) to establish a two-way street in communications between a user and the app (and its developer). People’s usage patterns of mobile apps have shifted towards rewarding time spent using these apps.
There’s a wonderful retail term, “share of wallet”, which means the percentage of a consumer’s disposable income that a retailer can target; and the mobile entertainment space is one of its most competitive battlegrounds. If we count all Netflixes, Facebooks, TikToks and FunCorps, it’s a gargantuan “red ocean”, with oversaturation and fragmentation—to the point of customer overwhelm.
We hope that when the dust settles, new business models will emerge, with the help and active participation of end users.
Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app currently have? Can you share three of the main steps you've taken to build such a large community?
We have more than 3 million daily users across all our apps. We separate all of our activities into several categories (that’s what everyone does, to be frank, so I’m by no means original here):
- Acquisition - We employ a wide variety of acquisition channels, from the most obvious, paid installs, to the more subtle branded installs and installs via social media influencers, the latter of which we’re currently most actively exploring and investing into.
- Engagement - The value proposition of an app is personalisation of experience and entertainment. I do love cat videos, but also DIY videos make me curious, and sometimes I relax watching the unmatched beauty of Northern European forests, glaciers and rivers. Your mileage will vary and our goal is to ensure that everyone, regardless of their personal complexities, has an enjoyable experience.
- Retention - Different people get entertained at different times of the day (some of them are obvious: during morning or evening commute, or at lunch break) but there’s a very fine balance between our desire to invite a person to have one more session in our apps and the user’s wish for privacy and non-disturbance. The complexity is that this gentle balance changes every year in response to the “red ocean” I’ve mentioned above, and people’s tolerance for interruption sometimes swings quite unexpectedly.
What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?
It’s advertising, of course. Over the past 10 years, we’ve built an excellent monetisation engine that is capable of showing relevant (but not annoying) ads to our audience while ensuring brand safety to our countless advertisers. Advertising revenue is what keeps the lights on in the company and what allows us to provide value to users by having better content, or allowing our loyalty program users to exchange their points for something that has monetary value.
We’ve thought of other means (and some of them are present in our apps but their contribution to our revenue is negligible) like in-app payments or subscriptions. The main reason why these methods haven’t taken off is that the value offered to subscribed users has to far exceed the value of a regular user; we offer full app functionality to all users, so charging users is not really an option.
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?
In my previous company my colleagues bought ad placements for our app in airport bathrooms. It was implemented in a humorous yet classy way, which led to a considerable spike in brand search queries and app installs. I’m sad it’s hard to pull this bunny out of a hat twice, even though we had a copycat in Australia running a similar campaign and benefitting from its results.
The campaign was conceived when my colleagues analyzed passengers’ journeys around the airport and realized there are not many opportunities to overcome the noise and stand out. But it also proves the rule that walking in customers’ shoes is a powerful mental trick.
What are some of the strategies you have used to improve your products and build on their success?
We are a data-driven company and our apps capture all events possible while religiously maintaining user privacy. This helps us run experiments on slices of our daily audience—be that an algorithm change, a new feature or even a different caption. It’s a perpetual process for us - we don’t roll out features that hurt retention rates or negatively impact user experience.
We have “platformised” a number of app capabilities, ensuring that the best practices and their embodiments are being used by all or most apps. Moving common features into a platform is an intuitively obvious thing - until these features need to perform differently between apps. We are very careful to balance the need to have a stable technology platform and the flexibility of each app’s individual behavior.
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 . Not everything that can be made social should be made social. I’d gladly share a meme I’ve created, but please don’t then ask me to join a social network of Jura coffee machine lovers for sharing our recipes with each other.
2 . Also, not everything needs an app - and not everything needs to be done on the go (I’m looking at you, my Bosch dishwasher!!! I am not turning you on when I’m on a plane). IoT products can certainly provide convenience, but referring back to my point about retention, the level of intrusion and interruption some of these apps and notifications can create often obliterate any of this to the point of ridiculousness.
3 . Optimizing an app for frequency of use leads to better user retention than session length. The reason? Habit-forming. It’s a far better business model to have users keep coming back and re-using and visiting your app, even for short bursts and breaks throughout their day/week, than to have a cycle of download > deep dive > fatigue > delete.
4 . If an app has more than 100k daily users, it’s worth investing in a 99.999% crash-free experience, even if it means twice the development cost. Users are forgiving, but their patience is not limitless. Bugs don’t fare well in the red ocean.
5 . If your colleagues are not using your app, fix that ASAP. If they’re using your competitor’s app instead—start something new. If you aren’t getting buy-in, interest, or time invested by those closest to the project, it’s a good indication that it’s not the right one.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
It seems a simple premise, but therein lies its effectiveness: keep your ego in check, and manners make the world go round. While respect is important, it’s too easy to conflate that with self importance and taking oneself too seriously, which often has the opposite outcome. Always say ‘thank you’ and acknowledge someone’s efforts whenever possible, it makes such a huge difference on people’s sense of self-worth and general wellbeing. I’ve always tried to instill this with colleagues and friends, and hope it continues to be shared beyond that.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
When I’m not eyes-down in code, I’m also an avid book lover. I have a Substack which recounts the key points, thoughts and experiences of my latest reads.
Of course, my work is also poured into the Yepp app which I’d encourage readers to download, and have some fun creating new memes, or even building on the jokes and humor of other user’s creations. Marrying comedy and entertainment with creator and audience rewards is a satisfying thing to behold.
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