Developer contests can yield mixed results

There are lots of ways an app developer can feel like a winner: attracting tens of thousands of downloads, getting featured in a major app store or earning real money through advertising or in-app purchases. And if none of those things happen, you can always try to win a contest.

As mobile platform and tool providers continue to seek out ways of getting developers on board, there's no more common approach than ponying up a substantial amount of cash, free trials of a product, or mentorship opportunities and asking developers to submit an app to be judged. Some contests or developer challenges are run as part of major conferences or hackathons or independently as part of a corporate initiative. Some of these contests are open to almost any kind of app or mobile game, while others look at highly specific audiences and use cases, like an AT&T hackathon where developers will attempt to create something that relieves autism, or the World Bank's contest to create the best sanitation-related apps. The real challenge for many developers may be to decide whether or not it's worth their time, energy and expense to enter one of the many contests out there, and if so, how to choose the best ones.

Contests can be distractions
Gary Yentin, co-founder of an app marketing consulting firm called App Promo based in Toronto, said he's seen many contests come and go, with mixed results for the developers and companies involved. He suggested developers keep focused on their core mission and not be too distracted by the incentives being offered for contests.

"I think you have to look beyond the prizes and look at whether what you're doing is a viable business," he said. "They may offer $10,000 but it could cost $50,000 to develop the app. Is there enough runway in that market space to be successful with the app once the contest is over? I see (contests) as carrots. They have to have a sustainable business behind them."

One example of a contest that launched last week came from Kiip, a San Francisco-based startup founded in 2010 that offers a mobile rewards system for developers. Kiip launched its first contest last year and describes it as a "build fund," which offers $10,000 cash and $5,000 in service to 10 different winners. The winners will also be paired up with experienced developers from more than a dozen firms, including Urban Airship, Crittercism and HandyGames, among others. Entrants will need to use Kiip's product as part of their involvement, and the theme this year is "Create" – Kiip is asking developers to try and develop an entirely new app category. Pepsi's Propel brand will sponsor those entering health and lifestyle apps.

brian wong kiip


Brian Wong, one of Kiip's co-founders, said the Build Fund is a "passion project," though it also provides a way to identify the more forward-looking developers with which the company wants to do business.  

"As far as the money goes, for some it will mean nothing but for some it will change the dynamic. It's kind of an excuse to nudge them in the right direction," he said. "We know that those who are purely fixated on just iterating the same old models are probably going to look at the way they monetize in the way that's more traditional."

Most of the Build Fund winners from last year proudly display their gold icon on their web sites, according to Wong. The key is to take a victory and turn it into something that helps grow their business. "The recognition is interesting . . . In the U.S. we're very geared to talk about the accomplishments that we have but internationally, this dynamic where you have the opportunity to put yourself on a pedestal is not as common or usual. I think this is really an opportunity for developers to talk about the things they should be proud of."

Matching apps with contests
While some companies may use app contests as a recruiting tool, developers may choose a contest in part because it reflects the choices they made in creating an app. That was the case with Raul Reira, a developer based in Spain who was the second place winner in Appcelerator's MobileDev Challenge. Reira won for BattleSquare, a location-based strategy game that allows users to log in via Foursquare and conquer various neighborhoods in exchange for virtual rewards.

BattleSquare was built with Appcelerator's Titanium.

"The app was built using Appcelerator's Titanium, (so) I didn't think twice about entering," he said, referring to the Mountain View., Calif.-based company's mobile development environment. "That is the only one I have entered but like I said, what got me excited about it was the sponsor name and the prices, of course." Appcelerator gives out $32,000 in prizes through the challenge.

According to Yentin, the money will never be enough. "It's just the stimulus money," he said, recalling some bizarre contests that gave away things of even more questionable value, like concert tickets. "I think they should not just give them money but resources, education and learning. Teach them stuff they don't know. If you're in it as a developer, you're in it as a business. Think about tools that will help you build, grow and help your business over the long term."

If you did a before-and-after analysis of the apps that come of our developer contests, Yentin added, probably 90 percent of them no longer exists, which shows even overcoming considerable competition is just a start.

"Marketing is ongoing. If you get a push in the beginning it's a great start but you have to continue it afterwards," he said.

App Contests You Can Enter Right now

The fourth-annual NYC mobile app development contest features more than 350 new data from New York City agencies, commissions and business improvement districts. This includes federal and state government as well as the private sector firms such as, CareerBuilder, eBay, Etsy, Foursquare and Yelp. Eight prizes of $150,000.  

Moovweb is challenging web developers and designers to show off how they would redesign aspects of the website for mobile devices using its Moovweb SDK. the first prize winner will receive an all-expense paid three-day trip for two to San Francisco (or cash value equivalent of $3,000) and a GoPro Camera. Four runners up will receive a $500 cash prize.

Fast Company and Target Corp. have announced plans for the Co.Labs & Target Retail Accelerator, where developers will vie to create a new mobile experience for Target and claim a $75,000 grand prize.