How I Got Into App Development With No Experience

I launched my first app when I was 19 before I knew how to code. I was a full-time student, trying to build something to support myself financially. I knew mobile was the future, and I saw the opportunity to take part in its growth, so I did.

I spent countless hours learning about people who were making money with mobile apps and how they did it. Watched hours of tutorials on how to program in Swift. I made progress with a lot of trial and error, with very little understanding of why my code worked or what it was really even doing.

But within 2 weeks of deciding to try app development, I launched my first app.

I wasn't focused on monetizing anything at the beginning, it was more of an experiment to see if this would be a venture worth pursuing. But I bought my developer's license, which set me back $99, so I started displaying ads to try and recoup that.

Surprisingly, my first app that was hastily finished in two weeks almost immediately started making money.

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Not great money, but from that moment on, almost every single month, Apple has paid me some amount of money. That's passive income. And I was able to build this asset very quickly with no experience.

So then I built another app…

I thought due to my first app instantly generating revenue even though I was so new to this, as I get better at this and learn to build better apps I can probably expect better returns.

And so I built another app and… it took off as well! 

Now for perspective, these were not viral apps by any means. When I say it took off, what I mean is it made money. It was profitable and would be a small but reliable stream of passive income for years to come. 

The first app taught users how to solve a Rubik's cube. The second was a game, simply a concept I thought would be interesting and would occasionally play myself.

Nothing game-changing, but ideas I had put a lot of thought and planning into. I focused on creating the best apps I could and since I was new I was aware that my apps would probably not be great, so I compensated by spending a lot of time doing everything I could to enhance the quality.

And the monetization from both of these apps? I was making roughly $50/month profit from ads. I covered my developer's license in 2 months and ended the year roughly $500 richer. 

Not a crazy amount, but again I didn't know much about programming and these are now streams of completely passive income. These were also just my first 2 apps, and I spent less than 2 weeks developing each app.

Even today many years later I'm still making money from these apps.

Why doesn't everyone build apps?

App development is not easy. Relative to other platforms like web development, there are a lot of advantages and disadvantages, but I believe you can generally launch and succeed on mobile with a much simpler project.

I was fortunate to build two useful apps right off the bat. I was making money, now I wanted to scale. I tried to put out as many apps as I could and then things changed. I was currently at a 100% success rate, but I only had two data points… I quickly learned that not all apps are created equal.

In my efforts to scale and build more apps as quickly as possible, I sacrificed quality for quantity. I built even simpler apps like random number generators, random decision-makers, REALLY simple apps. And the result? Almost no downloads, maybe 10 a day total which made just a few pennies a month in ad revenue. These would NOT even come close to covering my developer's license. 

If someone else had started developing apps and had an experience like this with their first app, it might leave them thinking they'll need to build so many more apps just to break even with the developer license. That $99 annual cost for iOS and $25 for Android. This scenario might drain your motivation to keep building quality apps. It definitely took its toll on mine.

But I learned a valuable lesson from this too. 

The value your app provides is critical to its success. If it provides value, as my first two did, then people are more likely to want to download it and use it. Sort of common sense when you think about it.

Cash Hacker, the first game that I built, is a simple app but you can play it passively and you get to unlock things over time which makes it fun and slightly addictive. It got a ton of 5-star reviews which helped boost its ranking in the App Store too. Speed Cube Solving is similar. It teaches you how to solve a Rubik's Cube fast. That's a pretty niche topic that provides value by educating people, so it also received great reviews and has gotten thousands of downloads.

The number generators that I developed would maybe be used once a week when people needed a random number generated for some reason, but otherwise, why would anyone use it? It got very few downloads and very poor ad engagement. The same goes for the decision-maker app, which basically would generate a yes/no answer for you. Even if it got a lot of downloads, users wouldn't need it open for more than a few seconds. So also little to no ad engagement and near-zero revenue.

How to Succeed in the App Store

I learned from experience, that you can't spam a bunch of low-quality apps hoping for more downloads just because you'll be covering more search terms. If you want to get more downloads, you have to scale with quality instead of quantity. Build fewer great apps rather than a vast amount of mediocre apps. 

App Store optimization is also huge, but it directly relates to the quality of your app. If your app gets good reviews it will rank well and be shown to more people. Once you know you have a good app, then it's worth optimizing keywords, titles, and graphics, in my opinion. Don't waste time optimizing an app that isn't capable of getting consistent 5-star reviews.

When you build a quality app, it's certainly a larger investment in the beginning but it pays for itself when it provides more value and actually gets downloads. You can't monetize an app unless people actually download it!

In 2016, roughly a year after releasing my first apps I was looking for ways to improve my monetization. I put little effort into marketing didn't know how to get my downloads any higher to continue scaling horizontally, so I focused on scaling vertically. I started to focus on how I could make more money per download. Ad revenues were a strong source of passive income for the first year, but these apps were still free. So I turned them into paid apps and charged a few dollars too.

I made the switch around July 2016, and made over $650 in sales! This more than doubled what I was making from ads alone. And, I made ad revenues on top of this too. Agreed, this isn't a ton of money, but this was revenue from two apps I built over a year ago in very little time.

The next year had a strong performance too, making almost $1,000 in sales. Again the majority of these results come from the first two apps that I build in college with little programming experience, and they are still making sales years later. I didn't have to spend time on these apps this year, and my developer's license renews on its own. No maintenance, no bugs to fix, no updates needed because the apps weren't complex. 

And to really hammer in the point of quality over quantity once again too. You can see even as I released the other low-quality apps, my sales didn't go up. They made maybe $30 a year, but compared to the quality apps, you can't see any considerable increase in sales in the above charts.

Again these aren't huge numbers, but this is all income from a couple of apps I built in college before I really knew how to code. 

Why didn't I keep building apps?

Unfortunately, being a full-time student, I had other obligations. Classes started taking up more time and I slowly pivoted and expanded my knowledge of web-related software development as I prepared for my career post-college.

I started learning other languages and fell in love with the lack of limitations on the web. No "app review" process. No "developer license" required. Freedom. 

But, over time I've grown to miss the App Store. 

I've realized a few key advantages that it provides, especially to new developers. If you are interested in getting into software, the money you can make with apps may not be as much, but I think it can be easier for those starting out.

The App Store gives app developers a huge advantage over web developers, and that is attention. You put an app in the App Store, and you are guaranteed to get impressions. My first few web apps, which were harder to build, needed a backend, frontend, domain, and got zero impressions organically. It's much easier to rank in the App Store than it is to rank on Google. 

Even when I spent the effort marketing these projects myself, the landing pages had terrible conversion rates. Web development has freedom, but it's hard. App development has limitations, but it's easy.

I regret stepping away from app development for as long as I did, but I learned many valuable lessons because of it.

Those few mobile apps I built continued making money throughout the whole process. They still make money today.

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Hey, I'm Nick Dill.

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