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 Matt Svetlak.
Matt Svetlak is a Vice President of Product at iScanner, BP Mobile (AIBY Group). Matt started his career as a mobile app tester. His desire to improve product quality has led him to the position of Product Manager and, subsequently, VP. For 7 years, he has been developing iScanner, a document platform based on in-house AI solutions and a mobile-first approach. Living in London, he leads a globally distributed team and knows how to make apps #1 in their niche.
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?
I started my career in mobile app development as a tester at BP Mobile (AIBY Group), a US-based company. I didn’t limit myself to testing and constantly expanded my knowledge on all aspects of app development, from UX to data analytics. Two years later, I took an opportunity to become a Product Manager. The company was launching a new scanning app. In a few years, iScanner has become the #1 document scanner in the US.
I moved to London and continue to grow professionally. About a year ago, I became VP of Product at iScanner, which includes more strategic product development tasks.
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?
At university, I studied management and economics but then got into web development. Together with a friend, we created several websites. I was in charge of content, generating ideas, and the product vision, while he was responsible for the development. Our business didn't turn out to be very successful, so I decided to focus on mobile app testing. I studied the theory on my own and started looking for an internship.
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?
The mistake that comes to mind is not hilarious, but it taught me a good lesson. After becoming a Product Manager at iScanner, I realized that we needed to make the app more modern, simplify the UX, and reduce the number of steps during scanning. We released a major update and faced a massive wave of negative feedback.
At that time, iScanner already had a significant number of users, and I didn't take into account how painful the transition to the new UI and user flow might be. The wave of negativity was very large, but according to the metrics and some of the feedback, the update reached its goal for new users. It was too late to roll back the update. In this case, we would have faced negative feedback from the users who had become familiar with the new UI. Settling on this update, in the future, we tried to release all subsequent updates gradually and only for a part of the users.
What motivated you to develop your first minimum viable product, and how have you kept your momentum since then?
In 2014–2015, we saw the impressive rise of Utilities on the app market and decided to take a close look at this category. Surprisingly, there were almost no solid scanner apps. Our search for an all-in-one solution for our business needs resulted in iScanner—a simple and quick scanning app that does a perfect job digitizing documents. The first version of iScanner appeared on the App Store in 2015, and in 2016, the app became available for Android.
Our app has succeeded thanks to the consistent work of the team, constant user feedback study, and hypothesis testing. Plus, our team is doing a really good job and is constantly looking for new opportunities to improve the product. We would never have become leaders in our niche if we just copied our competitors.
With time, we realized how to properly organize teamwork so that the product will keep evolving and become a leader in the market. Gradually, I became more aware of intuitive aspects, such as respect for both the team and our users. I explain my decisions and actions to stay open to discussion. This helps make better decisions and stay on the same wavelength with the team.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let's shift to the main focus of this interview. 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?
Today, iScanner is a document management platform based on artificial intelligence. It enhances document quality, turning a simple photo into a professional digital document. It also provides users with a wide range of tools for working with scanned files. They can remove, add, or move pages in a document, add a signature, text, or image, and convert a scan to different formats.
In iScanner, we use cutting-edge technologies and our own solutions. For example, we have recently implemented our own distortion correction algorithm and greatly improved OCR. Just a few weeks ago, we launched the cloud storage and Web version, which will allow users to sync scanned documents on all their devices and work with them on a computer if necessary.
What makes me most proud is that we have managed to move from a simple combination of existing standard solutions to in-depth creation and development of our own algorithms. This approach creates a significant difference between products, brings competition to another level, facilitates the emergence of truly breakthrough solutions, and advances progress.
Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you've taken to build such a large community?
The total number of downloads on iOS and Android has already exceeded 90 million, and we hope to hit 100 million in the nearest future. We have been paying special attention to working with the community from the very beginning of iScanner.
Firstly, we study users' feedback and refine the features according to their wishes. For example, we see what types of documents users scan most often, so we have developed special scanning modes to improve the border detection algorithm.
Secondly, we always inform users about our new features and improvements so that they can follow product development. That's why we actively use in-app banners and social media.
And thirdly, we allow users to directly participate in product development. For example, we invited users to share photos of handwritten text. We ran the HandWriting Challenge, which helped train the AI and improve the recognition of handwritten text in users' documents.
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?
We use a subscription model. Subscriptions have become the standard in the industry and obviously bring more revenue. The use of subscriptions allowed us to continue developing the product, implement neural network solutions, and add cloud storage.
Earlier, we used advertising monetization in the app, but over time, we decided to abandon it. We are focusing on the long term. Scanning with a mobile phone often entails urgent situations, and being interrupted by ads could be very frustrating in this case. That's why we removed ads from the app and expect that over time, the free version users will appreciate the quality of the app and the ever-expanding set of features and switch to the pro version.
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?
This is quite a complicated question since we use solutions based on product development needs and not on what is commonly used. Therefore, it's difficult for me to judge how common this tactic is. Timing is important as well. What once seemed unusual but proved to be effective becomes a standard solution after a while. This was the case with the early switch to the subscription model, the use of AI in the app, the gradual launch of features through A-B testing, and many other tactics.
To my mind, the approach itself is the most important here. You should always remember that any tactic is aimed at solving a specific problem. If a task requires you to come up with something that our competitors don't have, you should pay attention to generating solution options at first. At this point, you don't need to consider the solutions that already exist on the market. You can do this during a brief brainstorming session. After that, you can look at the current standard approaches and choose a solution from a broader list. If we look at standard solutions right away, it will be harder to think outside the box and in a completely different direction when generating ideas later on.
What are some of the strategies you have used to improve your products and build on their success?
For iScanner, the defining strategic decision was to analyze the product and determine long-term development directions. At some point, you get used to the product's current capabilities, the state of the market, and the competitors. At that point, it may seem that almost nothing else can be implemented and you can reduce the resources, leaving the project with just enough for maintenance. This stage and the decisions you make could be very dangerous in the long run. It's vital to study the product and market carefully. Try to consider long-term prospects and take into account the direction of technology development for several years to come. Based on this information, decide whether you should move the product to the maintenance phase or invest in its development and transformation to meet future challenges.
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. Make sure your app has value to your audience and that you understand what it is. It's the foundation for everything. You can hardly create anything without it. If there is value in your product you are not aware of, it will lead to wrong priorities. Therefore, it's very important to identify and understand this value.
2. It's crucial to realize what you're doing and why you're doing it at all levels. This applies both to the app as a whole and to small tasks. In any task, it's essential to point out "what" we are doing it for. It's a kind of unnecessary action filter that gives everyone an understanding of what you're doing and allows room for constructive criticism and suggestions.
3. It's important to carry out relatively quick experiments in the app and analyze the results. This greatly accelerates growth and allows you to move forward.
4. You need a team to create a really successful product. Even if you're at the MVP stage and doing everything yourself, be prepared that you'll need a team to grow and build a successful product.
5. Common sense. Don't ignore it when looking at the numbers. It's important to understand what's going on in the product and the reasons behind it. In the modern world, where we increasingly rely on ready-made numbers, KPIs, and metrics, you may easily forget about common sense. Without it, you can fall prey to data errors and make wrong decisions.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would like to see the world adapt the best global problem solutions developed by certain countries. I haven't delved enough into this question, but it's the first thing that comes to mind. Many countries around the world have managed to address important issues related to the environment, recycling, infrastructure, and access to education. Of course, there are local peculiarities everywhere, but the basic approaches are usually universal. It's strange to see several successful solutions and approaches either not being adopted at all or very slowly in other countries. The spread of the best practices, I think, would make the biggest difference in all spheres of life for as many people as possible.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!