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How HoursTracker earns five figures a month on the App Store (medium.com)
306 points by wallflower on Jan 7, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 71 comments

One thing that I really notice a lot as I get older is that so many people say it isn't possible to make money anymore, early adopters had it easy, etc. People say this about apps and startups and the like.

I tell myself these same things sometimes, but then I have to check myself - it is actually easier to make way more money on an app these days than ever before. What is bigger is the risk proposition, which is why people tell themselves that success is entirely about luck - if your own skill doesn't matter, there's no reason to try, and if you try and don't succeed it isn't your fault.

This is a very real trap and I think in the reddit age (where if you aren't a cynic by 15 you're behind the curve) it is a mental virus. The world still rewards value, even if it takes some time. The people clamoring that it doesn't are doing so because they want to believe that it isn't their fault they didn't succeed.

You need to be willing to emotionally and mentally invest yourself in something with a reasonable chance of failure or you will never, ever succeed. The people that you see who you are smarter than that have succeeded haven't gotten there because of luck - they've gotten there because they tried. Luck just helped.

It's partially a problem of silent evidence. For this time tracking app there are hundreds mouldering in some corner of the App Store. And the people who made them aren't gonna write any blog posts, and we wouldn't read them if they did. It's a blockbuster model, sure it's possible to make money but unlikely. It's possible to make money acting, but you probably won't. That's just how it works out. I don't think that's so cynical.

Those who succeed in such a scenario are often insensitive to the unlikelihood of their success - so are those who fail.

There are lots of people writing blog posts complaining that their apps don't earn them money. Conventional wisdom right now seems to be that it's normal that developers don't make any money.

But it is very much possible to make a money selling apps. Just identify a market that you can serve, then make a good app, then advertise it effectively. Profit!

However, it's not easy to become a billionaire with your app; for that you need lots of luck among other things.

I think the comparison with acting is actually pretty good. There are a lot of people who make money acting. It's not that difficult. You need a bit of talent and a lot of commitment, but I happen to know more than one person who managed to become professional actors.

It is of course unlikely to become a world famous super-rich actor; but making a reasonable living from acting is absolutely achievable.

> Just...

> It's not that difficult...

> I happen to know more than one...

> ...absolutely achievable.

I admire your optimism, but have you personally tried and succeeded at these things you claim are so easy?

I make a living (and support a family) by selling two Mac apps I have written. It didn't seem hard to get to this point, it just took a lot of dedication.

There was no claim of ease, just of plausibility.

The best decision I ever made as an iOS developer was to quit. Now I don't owe Apple $99 a year.

Most people have misconceptions about making money.

They think it's sometimes easy to make money. The truth is that it is always hard to make money, and always will be. To see why, we can reverse it in our heads: do you think carefully about how you spend your money? Me too; and so does everyone else. That's the hump a product or service needs to get over before it can make much money. And it's true 100% of the time.

When a product or service looks like an easy way to make money, what's really happening is that it's a great product or service, so it gets over the hump more easily.

Another big misconception is that they think that ideas make money. They say, "there's already a great time-tracking app in the App Store," and think, "so it's not an idea worth pursuing, because it already succeeded."

The reality is that execution and operations are what make money--which means that many businesses executing on the same idea can all make money. How many dry cleaners are there in the U.S.? How many pen manufacturers? How many car companies? How many Mexican restaurants? Or car washes?

It's extremely rare that a concept is totally dominated by one large company. But because it is rare, those stories are endlessly told and retold within the culture. So if people are not thinking carefully, they can come to (paradoxically) perceive those rare types of companies to be the norm.

Here's a fun exercise: pull up the list of the Fortune 500 companies and see how many names you recognize. These are all huge businesses, but most people will not even recognize half of them. It gives you a sense that there is a big difference between being a famous business, and being a successful business.

I really like this comment but I tried the "fun exercise" and I recognize way too many of the companies. Maybe I'm just a product of effective advertising...

Yes, it is still possible to make money, even a lot of money, writing an app but that doesn't mean early adopters didn't have a big advantage. Market vacuums will always be filled and the later you arrive at the scene, the higher the probability you will have to rely on hard marketing work to be noticed and stand out in the overcrowded application markets.

The good news is that:

a) Persistence and hard work will usually pay off in the long run (assuming your product does indeed provide some sort of value)

b) There will always be new vacuums. If keep you a close watch on developing trends you might be able to climb on the tree when it's still young and sit back while it grows, instead of spending your resources building giant ladders...

People have been saying it's impossible to make money since they invented currency I'm sure. That's why everyone with an idea and some programming knowledge isn't a millionaire. It will always take passion, hard work, and business sense to be successful.

Thanks, this to me read like a pep-talk. Might be just what I needed to get me off my butt and start working on something. Better to fail than to not try at all. Now if only I could quit playing Destiny after work.

The problem is that the popularity of products in a networked economy follows the power law: http://www.aspeninstitute.org/policy-work/communications-soc...

You might recognize the power distribution curve, as it's the same as the graph of the long tail: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_law#mediaviewer/File:Long...

What happens is that you have a handful of people who make a LOT of money, a small few who do OK, and the vast, vast majority starve. Since our economy is increasingly becoming an online, globally networked one, these effects are becoming stronger, and are a contributor to economic inequality.

Power Law phenomenon on the net has been observed for ages. Here's a post from 2003 where Kottke notes the distribution in the popularity of blogs on Technorati: http://kottke.org/03/02/weblogs-and-power-laws

I imagine the curve fits similarly for things like app store rankings, Reddit and Hacker News post popularities, top Steam sellers, Amazon rankings, etc.

> The world still rewards value, even if it takes some time. The people clamoring that it doesn't are doing so because they want to believe that it isn't their fault they didn't succeed.

The funny thing is, this is not entirely true. Quality is only important up to a certain threshold, after which you're at the mercy of what are essentially chaotic network effects early in the lifecycle of your product.

Salgankik, Dodds, and Watts performed an experiment that begins to provide some empirical support for this intuition [359]. They created a music download site, populated with 48 obscure songs of varying quality written by actual performing groups.

Visitors to the site were presented with a list of the songs and given the opportunity to listen to them. Each visitor was also shown a table listing the current “download count” for each song — the number of times it had been downloaded from the site thus far. At the end of a session, the visitor was given the opportunity to download copies of the songs that he or she liked.

Now, unbeknownst to the visitors, upon arrival they were actually being assigned at random to one of eight “parallel” copies of the site. The parallel copies started out identically, with the same songs and with each song having a download count of zero. However, each parallel copy then evolved differently as users arrived. In a controlled, small-scale setting, then, this experiment provided a way to observe what happens to the popularities of 48 songs when you get to run history forward eight different times. And in fact, it was found that the “market share” of the different songs varied considerably across the different parallel copies, although the best songs never ended up at the bottom and the worst songs never ended up at the top.

Salganik et al. also used this approach to show that, overall, feedback produced greater inequality in outcomes. Specifically, they assigned some users to a ninth version of the site in which no feedback about download counts was provided at all. In this version of the site, there was no direct opportunity for users to contribute to rich-get-richer dynamics, and indeed, there was significantly less variation in the market share of different songs.

There are clear implications for popularity in less controlled environments, parallel to some of the conclusions we’ve drawn from our models — specifically, that the future success of a book, movie, celebrity, or Web site is strongly influenced by these types of feedback effects, and hence may to some extent be inherently unpredictable.


> world still rewards value, even if it takes some time

This is the takeaway for me - success takes time. In an age of 30s videos and short snippets of text, who has the attention span for success?

A simple comment but one of the best I've read on here

Thanks for writing this. It spoke so much truth I feel like I could have been the one writing this.

I think the app store has become much more about marketing now when you are entering with a new app. Most of the built in discovery tools are focused on apps with an existing reputation. Given the volume of apps this makes sense, and helps ensure that users are shown quality apps, however it also places a barrier to entry to newcomers until they can build a reputation that allows this virtuous cycle to take hold.

I would be interested in hearing from any app developers who have managed to break through this cycle recently and the marketing techniques they used.

I just wanted to share my experience that this isn't always the case. I launched a transit app in Toronto* about 3 years ago. (There were already plenty of them back then.) Over the years, daily downloads steadily grew without me doing any marketing. These days I get a few hundred downloads per day which, to me, is mind-boggling. I realize this is a bit of a special case since people now look for transit apps when they get a new phone.

* https://itunes.apple.com/ca/app/ttc-watch-for-toronto/id5052...

Your app is very simple and nice to use, though I do not take TTC. Nice to see its creator here.

That is very interesting. I always like to hear counter examples. Have you had any success in turning downloads into revenue? Does the ad model work for your app, or is most of the revenue from in app purchases as in the article?

The revenue from my apps have grown to be significant. Not enough for me to work on it full-time though.

Off the top of my head, I think 95% of my revenue is from ads. I have plans to work on improving IAP conversion since I don't like the fact that I show ads. This article got me thinking about what I can offer more than just "remove ads".

Cool article but I think things are very different now. If the author launched the same app today, I think he'd have a much harder time getting to that revenue, even in 6 years. The time when the App Store opened was great for the first developers there but things have changed.

Things have definitely changed over the years, and I've had to pivot many times along the way. I think it remains a good opportunity today. In fact, maybe even better because the market is much more stable and the right way to do it is more evident. I made mistakes along the way that probably cost me a lot of money.

Your use of metrics to track performance and ability/desire to experiment clearly had an impact as well. In these kinds of situations where you can get good quality metrics relatively easily, and experiment so quickly, it is still surprising to see folks not collecting those metrics.

Of course, it's not ALL about metrics, and in some ways I reject the line of thinking that you can't improve what you don't measure (qualitative research/understanding can go a long way). But with quantitative research/data so easily available... it only makes sense to make use of it.

Thanks for sharing your insight!

No doubt. That could be a whole article by itself.

I track a lot of metrics and keep a custom dashboard that I can look at any time to see how things are going long-term/short-term/real-time.

Can you elaborate on those mistakes? :)

A lot of it was just trying the wrong things to convert users to customers. Giving away too much for free or not enough, things like that. I can see the graph change directions when different strategies were at play.

Not jumping on the IAP train fast enough was probably the stand-out one. Over time, it seemed like people got used to buying via IAP and almost resisted doing anything else. Sometimes it was as simple as being afraid they'd have to start over with their data if they purchased a whole different app (they wouldn't).

I think its important to let people pay when they are ready with as little friction as possible. If you have the friction of returning to the App Store, you will lose a lot of them in the process.

I agree. In the old days there were tons of crap time tracker apps. I suspect that as they didn't make much money and as they had to pay the yearly fee, the dev shut them down. Now there are only about a dozen fairly good apps.

Congrats on your success. Have you launched any other apps in the app store, and if so are they performing similarly to how HoursTracker did at the same point in its life cycle?

HoursTracker was supposed to be app #1 of a shotgun approach to find something that stuck. Things worked out differently.

I have a similar app, onsite time tracker, and it makes way less. like a few hundred dollars per month.


I have always been curious how much Hours Tracker makes. It dominates the app store searches.

The article says free with IAP is making much more revenue. You'd probably be wise to try that with yours.

yeh i agree. will probably make the change soon.

one struggle i had was what to make free and what to charge for. i thought about making the app free and charge only to export data, but i felt like people might feel duped by not realizing and then be forced to pay when they thought it was free. the plan with limiting the # of entries makes way more sense.

When I'm considering tweaks to IAP strategy, any ideas that entrap the user's data are non-starters. The user owns that data, they should always be able to get out what they put in.

Supertop's Unread also has a great (similar) take on IAP: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/unread-rss-news-reader/id911...

I love the company name in the screenshot "Setec Astronomy" - it's a reference to the movie "Sneakers". It is an anagram for "too many secrets".

I was ecstatic to see this "Sneakers" reference.

When ever I use any type of voice recognition software it's a requirement to use the phrase " My voice is my passport. Verify Me.

It's also an anagram for Cootys Rat Semen!

"Too many secrets" (from Sneakers) is certainly the intent. Pretty much the whole screenshot is full of Sneakers references.

Oh I know. Cootys Rat Semen is also from Sneakers. It is the first decoding of the anagram that Bishop decoded while playing Scrabble. They quickly discarded that and found "Too Many Secrets" shortly thereafter.

It was the 3rd decoded that they didn't share with the group. The 1st two were "Montereys Coast" and "My Socrates Note".


In my experience, the early apps rank well and it's much harder to launch a new app and get downloads.

I think about this all of the time. My old partner and I released an app a few years back that made substantially more when it was spotlighted by Apple. Other apps that never made it "above the fold" so to speak, never made much more than $1 a day.

A single app store can’t keep up with exponential growth in the number of apps. It really needs to work more like Netflix, where there is no single top sellers list, but instead recommendations are made per user. Apple appears to be hesitant to innovate here and it’s understandable, since I imagine it takes a lot of resources to keep up with new apps and their updates. But the way they do it now is unsustainable, and was showing its limitations within a few months of the app store opening.

I’m thinking that the future of the app store is probably to act as a point of sale system. But the real action is going to take place outside of it on a site like Amazon, that better organizes and finds the sort of semantic relationships between software that people are interested in. Apple will probably make it as far as using their iTunes Radio algorithm in the app store, but I don’t expect them to really “get it” and build something revolutionary. Ironically this helps early apps rank well, which creates a feedback loop because Apple makes a cut of their sales and doesn’t want to disrupt that. I would so love to be wrong about this though.

I think the key is finding a unique niche with only a few competitors in the store. If not, you will get lost among a few hundred similar apps., even if yours is better. Marketing $$ might help overcome, though. I haven't tested trying to push up a bottom dweller.

So in business parlance, you're saying that it's easier to make money in a 'blue ocean', with little or no competition, than in a 'red ocean', with lots of competition.

The problem is that you often have to start in a puddle, in a hope (but without a guarantee) that it will grow to a size of an ocean.

The Blue/Red Ocean concept isn't about the size of the market, it's about the lack of competition in the market either by being first in a clearly new market, or by differentiating your offering from others to the extent that you're not competing for the same consumers. There's a book "Blue Ocean Strategy." It's worth a read for the explanation, and the case studies. There's worksheets and process too, but that didn't lend itself well to listening in the car.

Blue oceans are amazing if you can find them.

"Blue Ocean Strategy" was an interesting, if repetitive, book. I enjoyed the examples/case studies.

This is the best article I've read in years. This guy understands economics, design, copy-writing and apparently knows how to code.

What usually would need a whole team of highly educated professionals he seems to do all by himself ...

Wow, thanks for the amazingly kind words.

I love your iPhone app landing page. I mistook it for a page on apple.com


Simple, yet very beautifully designed.

Thanks! That is high praise.

Does the app track wherever you go? Such as, "iPhone was at this location from 2pm to 3:45pm"? Or do you have to manually add locations?

I have always wanted something that tracks my location that I can refer back to. I drive all over, and if I forget to make a note of when I arrive and leave, it becomes a CSI-style investigation, cross referencing text messages and emails and phone calls to try and determine when I arrived and left a client's office.

This is a compelling story. 6 years is a long time and I think that anything can happen in the app store in that timeframe. Too much talk that things have changed - always opp in the app store.

Got my money simply for using setec astronomy :)

This freemium approach is exactly the one I've chosen for my own iOS app Mindscope - if Apple would finally get their act together and natively support trial versions of apps, I would change to that in a heartbeat.

Until then, I offer an ad-free, functional app for free but then charge to unlock the complete functionality. It's worked quite well for me so far (but obviously nowhere near five figures a month) seeing as how about 15% of downloaders end up unlocking the full functionality which I think is a pretty good number.

Somehow reminds me of Stratechery's writeup about Pleco, a Chinese dictionary app: http://stratechery.com/2014/pleco-building-business-just-app.... There's something to identifying a problem and working relentlessly to solve it—and, of course, to being willing to experiment and find a business plan that works for your product.

Interesting read. I’ve been looking at Mac Apps for a while to make some extra steady income. There’s definitely less competition there and yields are usually higher. I recently launched my first Mac App to the App Store:


Good to see an article about an indie developer doing well in the age of funded startup hype. I too have been living off the success of my app Drum Kit since 2008. No longer making 5 figures a month, but it did for a few years :)

Would be interesting to see the numbers for the Android version.

About 15% of the iOS revenue.

It's a younger product with strong growth and lots of room for refinement. I'm satisfied with how it is going so far.

Android across the industry generates an order of magnitude less revenue than iOS apps so don't be surprised if you don't see as high figures.

Seems like a great app! Thanks for sharing

Nice work if you can get it!

Congrats to the developer, and I appreciate his taking the time to tell us about his journey. However, I find that the post offers little insight.

I have a special reason to seek this insight: I did nearly the same thing, and my app makes THREE figures per YEAR. I read this post hoping to gain some insights as to why. I was disappointed.

Actually, I didn't do what he did. If I did what he did, I would be making all that money. My complaint about the post is that it didn't help me discern the key differences.

In March 2010 I introduced Bill It [1], a time tracking app. I was motivated by my own need combined with a desire to get into the exciting world of mobile apps. Like the author, I was a .NET developer by day. As a contractor I wanted something for myself, and I figured I was not unique.

I want to be very clear that I am not surprised of my lackluster results or jealous of his success. (Well maybe a bit jealous.) I approached it as a build-it-and-maybe-someone-will-come-but-who-cares-because-its-fun-and-I-learned-something kind of thing. It hurts my head a little to think about it marketing, so I built it and threw it out there.

But so did he: "Surprised to see it getting some traction, I decided I should take HoursTracker a bit more seriously."

His app took off with no marketing at all. Mine did not. Had I been able to say this about Bill It, my whole story would have played differently. Had I seen the proverbial fishing pole starting to bend, I would have grabbed it and stared reeling, as he did. Is that a post hoc rationalization? Maybe, but I don't think so.

So what made the difference? Time-to-market? Features? Try-ability? Pricing?


As others have said, time-to-market is important because the app store keeps the winners at the top, and it's easier to get to the top early on. Maybe I was just too late to have a chance without serious marketing. Who knows?


My "killer feature" was supposed to be Quickbooks Integration. I was running my consulting business on Quickbooks, and I needed to get my hours input in order for billing to be linked to payments, deposits, revenue, etc. I created a very nice feature set to accomplish quite smoothly (if I say so myself). I decided not to add a timer. I explain the rationale in the product description. Perhaps this was a bad decision. Who knows?


Bill It launched shortly before in-app purchases were introduced. So I created a "lite" version and a full version. As soon as in-app purchases came out, I added a "full" purchase in the lite app. Did I "accidentally give too much away for free?" No. If anything, I erred on the opposite side. The Quickbooks integration took some setup work, so my main goal for the lite version was to allow the user to verify it before paying. I only allowed 5 time entries, which was plenty to see how the app works but not enough to actually use it. Maybe that was the problem. Who knows?


Just before Bill It came out, another time tracker featuring Quickbooks integration came out. Although I thought my integration feature was superior, their app seemed to have a few more features and a little more polish, so I tracked just below their price, ending up at $8.99 (about the same as the pro version of HoursTracker), which is still a high price as apps go. Maybe a different pricing strategy would have been better. Who knows?

I want to clarify another point. I don't expect the author the know what made him successful where I and others weren't. My real complaint is that the rest of us expect that of him. From the first word of his title, "How," we can see that he wants to meet this unrealistic expectation. The post would have been better titled "HoursTracker earns five figures a month on the App Store" but then no one would read it I guess. I told you, I'm bad at marketing.

[1] https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/bill-it-lite/id367603023

You make a valid point. My post does not talk about the product design, which seems to be mostly what your comment here is reflecting on. Some quick responses off-the-top-of-my-head:

* >70% of all time entries saved in HoursTracker are made via the timer. Having the timer is probably very important.

* QuickBooks integration would no doubt be a useful feature, but in 6 six years I've had maybe 10 emails asking for it. It's been on "the list" for almost the entire time, continually bumped.

* Once I started seeing some organic downloads/revenue, I found myself forced to address marketing.

My story is more about how I've had to adapt to the App Store changes over the years, primarily the rush to Freemium. That focus is mostly a response to the plentiful stories out there about how free apps are ruining it for everyone.

I could write about adapting to app store search changes, iOS 6 card results, ranking changes, etc. In fact, some longer drafts went into some of those things. But, I ended up trimming it to the most still-relevant things, for brevity and out of respect for the reader's time.

Thanks for the reply and original post. To be clear, my real objection is not with your post but with our (my) expectation that it's possible to gain decisive wisdom from post-hoc success stories. I knew better than to fall into this expectation and be disappointed, but I did anyway! It doesn't mean that accounts like yours aren't interesting and worthwhile.

I guess I knew that focussing on Quickbooks and lacking a timer would narrow my market from the start. But we're often told, narrow your focus, don't try to be all-things-to-all-people, do fewer things well, etc. Probably I needed to actively market from the start.

My guess is that time-to-market explains your initial lift, then a strong quality version 1.0 created a tail wind with good reviews, then you jumped on it and did all the right things. Kudos!

Have you paid attention to your customer reviews?

What does that mean, paying attention? I feel that you are holding back on some wisdom you want to share.

No my friend. I am not holding anything. Your users seem to be complaining about some issues that they are facing. I just visited your app page today.

In five years there've been bugs. Fixed them quickly for the first three years. Held many users hands who asked for support. I tried a little to fight some troll reviews. Apple won't help with that. I never put any effort into seeding with positive reviews. No I never put proper marketing efforts into managing reviews.

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