Why there's (rarely) such a thing as overnight app success

Editor's Corner
Shane Schick

We all know about the American dream and the aspirations it has fuelled across generations of people who have worked their way up from nothing to become successful. More recently, however, there's a variation on this theme that has begun to permeate the wider culture, and which may have a less positive effect. I call it the Appreneur dream.

The dream is best captured in a commercial produced by HSBC, which depicts a young man who narrates his seemingly easy transition from budding developer to overnight app store sensation. He has an idea for a game, called Sticky Weasel, which he creates in his spare time and later launches in the consumer market. It's a hit, with scores of people eager to download it to their smartphones and play it endlessly. Suddenly there is demand for Sticky Weasel merchandise, TV shows and other possible brand extensions. The young man can't believe his good fortune, which HSBC gently suggests at the end of the commercial could be further cemented by having an international bank account. Although it's still not clear if this kid is even old enough to drive a car yet, the viewer is left to assume that he lives happily and wealthily ever after.

It's not that this kind of thing hasn't actually happened to a few fortunate developers, but a growing body of research from Flurry, Distimo and others proves that such skyrocketing market penetration, particularly by one-man independent developers, is far more the exception rather than the rule. In a recent blog post, for example, a Flurry researcher notes how much of the top 10 list of the major app stores are dominated by a few key players. Part of the problem is that the kid who makes something like Stinky Weasel doesn't just have to make a great app, but he has to ensure it works across myriad devices, platforms and has the kind of marketing strategy that will ensure it is discovered and used:

QuoteThis fragmentation has the potential to change the app ecosystem by making it harder for small developers to compete since they are unlikely to have the resources to support the growing list of device models currently in use. They may also be disadvantaged in economies of scale in promotion (including word of mouth) if their apps are not available or do not work well on most device models. Scale is likely to be increasingly important when it comes to app development and that may lead to consolidation within the app development industry."

In other words, most of guys making the Sticky Weasels in the world are more likely to be acquired by a Rovio or a Zynga (NASDAQ:ZNGA) before they need to set up their HSBC bank account. Flurry suggests the best course of action is developing specifically for the most-used devices, but there's more to it than that. Independent developers can continue to make headway if they act more like real businesses than struggling actors hoping for a big break in a movie. Develop a workable business plan alongside your app idea before you begin programming. Consider crowdsourced funding vehicles like Kickstarter to give you the foundation for marketing and promotion you'll need. Strategically choose conferences, webinars and other resources that will help you better research your target audience, the devices they use and the in-app behaviors that will help deepen engagement and monetization possibilities.

The Appreneur dream could become a reality for more developers if they ignore the kind of get-rich-quick scenarios that these kind of videos and isolated real-life examples attempt to pass off as the norm. The overnight successes in the app world are, by and large, flukes. There will always be some who hope they too will have it that easy. I wouldn't bank on it.--Shane

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