Making A Living (Barely) On The iPhone App Store (aka The Numbers Post)

The App Store is a very hit-driven environment. A few apps sell a large amount of units, and the great majority sell next to nothing. That’s somewhat similar to the music industry, except that the audience for music is much larger, so both the big hits and the small players get more sales. We’ve drooled over the numbers chart toppers sold, we’ve seen sales reports of very successful games, and we’ve also seen what happens when apps languish at the bottom.

I want to share the sales data for Flower Garden. Not just the raw data, but a bit of the story behind it, my thoughts, struggles, and why things happened the way they did.

The first thing that you’ll notice is that Flower Garden is a strange in-between app. It’s far from being very successful or being at the top of any chart, but at the same time it probably made more money than 99% of the apps on the App Store. It was also reelased on April 10th, so this represents 10 months of data, an age after which most apps are usually on drip support. So this should be an interesting new data point.

The Full Monty

I know that if I put it off, you’re just going to skip to the end to see the sales plot, so let’s get that out of the way. Here it is.

Full

The vertical axis is daily profit in US $ (after Apple’s 30% cut). Flower Garden generated a bit over $21,500 over a period of 10 months. I would hardly consider that an entry-level salary, much less in California, but it’s enough for someone without a family or mortgage to (barely) make a living. I supplemented that with some teaching, writing, contracting and consulting, so overall I managed do fine and even save a bit of money last year, all while being totally indie and having full creative control over what I did every day. I’m not getting rich, but it’s not a bad life, really.

How many hours of work does Flower Garden represent? It’s really hard to say. It was 6 solid months of work from conception to release, but then there was the fuzzy time spent on marketing, updates, support, new features, etc. I would estimate it was a total of 8 months of full time work, which, at 50 hours per week, makes it 1600 hours. So that’s a depressing $13.44/hour. At least it’s over minimum wage! :-) On the positive side, Flower Garden should continue to sell in the foreseeable future, so that amount will go up a bit over time.

There’s clearly a story behind that graph. It’s not the usual exponential drop off you expect from most (unsuccessful apps) and shows how an aging app can pick up steam on its own after many months on the store, without ever being featured by Apple.

Launch

Let’s start from the beginning. Release day!

Beginning2

After six hard months of work, I submitted Flower Garden to Apple sometime at the beginning of April, and on April 10th I was surprised to see it had been approved. It caught me a bit off guard without my marketing campaign in place, but I announced it high and wide on this blog, Twitter, Facebook, and I even spammed all my friends with an email. The results are the area marked as (A): About $50-$60 in revenue per day (so about 25-30 sales). Not bad considering that was mostly my friends taking pity on me and people randomly seeing it on the new releases list, but it was far from an auspicious start.

I also contacted all the media sites I knew with a press release and promo codes to entice them to write a review. I was lucky that many reviews appeared over the next couple of weeks, but unfortunately they were all spread out, minimizing the PR effect. The biggest effect was when Flower Garden was simultaneously covered on TouchArcade and MacRumors. That’s what caused the big sales spike (B). From there, it was a standard exponential drop off, until, on the last day of the month, just three weeks after launch, revenue dropped below $100/day again. If that was all there was to it, Flower Garden was a big flop and I should start dusting off my resume.

Mother’s Day

I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel yet. I had a couple cards up my sleeve that I was hoping would change things around. After all, May 5th is Mother’s Day in the US. What better time to do some promotion and get Flower Garden noticed?

I decided to run a contest and give away $100 in real flowers to the winner at the same time I put Flower Garden on sale for $1.99 for the week of Mother’s Day. The result? The revenue dip you see in (A).

Middle_long

Mother’s day is probably the small, second spike in that period, but overall, that week was a loss. Lesson learned: Don’t make a sale unless your app is in a visible position (on a top chart somewhere). Flower Garden was nowhere to be seen, so the sale had no effect other than to cut profits by 33%.

I released a couple updates and did the trick updating the release date to get on the new releases list (which no longer works) and I got a couple minor spikes with (B) and (C). Subsequent updates later that summer had almost no effect anymore on sales. The trend was worryingly clear as profits dipped as low as $10/day in mid June (I have no idea what happened that day, but it was the lowest day ever for Flower Garden).

App Treasures

In early June we launched App Treasures. App Treasures is a label for indie iPhone game developers with top-quality games, and one of the main tools we’re leveraging is some cross-promotion for our games, both through the web site, and from an in-game view liking to each other’s games. Initially there was no measurable effect, but then Harbor Master was released and shot all the way to the #2 position on the US store and held its position on the top 50 for a while. The results is the area under (D). It definitely brought in some sales to Flower Garden and reversed the downward trend.

Unfortunately all good things come to an end, and referrals from Harbor Master dropped off and its slipped down the charts, and Flower Garden sales continued sinking.

Facebook and Lite

At this point I had to face reality. Was it time to give up on Flower Garden and move on to another project? I was ready to do that, but every day I would get several emails from users saying how much they loved Flower Garden, how much happiness it was bringing to their lives, etc. Some of the stories were really touching.

At the same time, every time I would show the game to someone, they usually really liked it. Not liked-it-because-I’m-there, but really, genuinely liked it. Why weren’t more people buying it then? Two problems: First, screenshots were not conveying how cool growing, animated flowers you could touch were, and second, most people didn’t even know Flower Garden existed. It had never been featured by Apple on the App Store, and the audience I was trying to reach didn’t read TouchArcade or other iPhone review sites.

It was at this point that I decided to give it one more try. My goal wasn’t adding more features as I had done with the updates so far, but to make Flower Garden more visible. I wanted more people to know that Flower Garden existed.

The first thing I did was to add Facebook integration. Not only could you send bouquets through email, but you were able to send them directly to your Facebook friends. The advantage of that approach from my point of view is that all your friends also saw the flowers so for every bouquet sent on Facebook, hopefully dozens or hundreds of people were being exposed to Flower Garden. The result on sales: Not much. Maybe it made the early part of July a little higher than it would have been otherwise, but no noticeable difference.

The second approach was to release a lite version of Flower Garden in early September. I was confident that Flower Garden was a good app, and I was hoping that once people had a chance to try the lite version, they would purchase the full version. Fortunately I was right and the effect on sales was very noticeable, pretty much doubling sales (E), but it never really took off in any significant way, and sales slowly declined over time.

Second Wind

You’d think that I would give up at this point, wouldn’t you? And I don’t say that with pride. I mean, it probably would have been smarter to quit a long time ago. But somehow, every time I was ready to move on , something else would come up that would entice me to try something else with Flower Garden.

This time it was in-app purchases (IAP). Apple had announced IAP back in June. They seemed like a very natural fit for Flower Garden, but given how few units Flower Garden had sold, I would have a very limited audience for IAP. A small percentage of a small number is a tiny number! :-( However, in late October Apple announced that IAP were finally allowed from free apps as well. That encouraged me to give Flower Garden one… last… try…

To be totally honest, I wasn’t expecting very much. Even including all the units of the Lite version out there, there just weren’t that many units. Especially not that many people using it on a daily basis (I’m sure a lot of the free ones were downloaded and quickly forgotten). But I thought it would be a good experience and if I only spent a week on it and made $1,000 I could call it even.

End

The result was totally unexpected. The Flower Shop opened on December 6th and revenue immediately shot up (A). On December 21st I released a new IAP called Seeds of Winter with 8 new winter-themed flowers, and people loved it and immediately purchased it. Christmas day came and went with somewhat of an increase in sales (C) but nothing really spectacular. Finally, to wrap up the year, there was a big spike on New Year’s Eve (D) (do people send flowers on New Year’s Eve? Really?).

Afterwards revenue flattened out, but at a much higher amount than before. Before IAP, daily revenue was about $50/day. Now it’s more around $180/day. That’s totally beyond any of my expectations!

But hang on, where is the revenue coming from? There are three possible sources: You can purchase Flower Garden, you can make IAP in the full version, and you can also make purchases in the free version. Here’s the breakdown:

End_broken_down

It looks like sales for Flower Garden (blue) continue to be more or less the same, with a slight increase after Christmas. The IAP from the full version of Flower Garden (green) account for most of the extra revenue, especially at the beginning. But it’s very interesting that the purchases coming from Flower Garden Free (orange) are steadily increasing and, as of last week, they became almost as large as the ones from the full version.

That can be explained because more and more people are getting the free version and upgrading it instead of buying the full version (which is exactly what I was hoping for). What’s also really interesting is the downloads of Flower Garden Free.

fg_free

Flower Garden Free was never a big player. It had the usual big initial spike, but then it settled down at around 100-200 downloads per day (which is very few considering there were 50-60 purchases per day of Flower Garden Full during that period). But, as soon as the in-app Flower Shop was released, downloads started climbing, and on Christmas day they went through the roof (relatively speaking). So it’s no surprise that IAP from Flower Garden Free picked up in these last few weeks.

The Future

I have no idea what the future will hold for Flower Garden. This week Apple selected Flower Garden and featured it on the App Store as a Staff Favorite worldwide (that period is not show in the sales graphs). I’m also already preparing a new update and some more IAP for Valentine’s Day, so I’m sure there will be more ups and downs in the near future. I’d certainly like to continue supporting Flower Garden for as long as it’s profitable.

I’ll follow up this post in a couple of months with the aftermath of the App Store feature and Valentine’s Day. Also, stay tuned for another post with more details of the IAP, what’s successful, purchase patterns, and more.

  • http://bees4honey.com bees4honey

    great post with awesome data! thanks!

  • http://www.futuretap.com Ortwin Gentz

    Thanks for the insight, was an interesting read. Especially the IAP story is an interesting one. It’s in contrast to stories I hear from other devs who complained that the rating of such “freemium” apps is generally 1 star less than for the paid app. What was your experience on that?

    I shared the 2009 numbers for Where To? (POI finder app): http://futuretap.com/blog/one-year/
    You might remember, Where To? was one of the first apps sold to another developer. We acquired it a year ago from tap tap tap for $70,000.

  • http://www.flexicoder.com Paul

    Noel, thanks for sharing the figures. I went to the WWDC 09 and GDC Austin (great talk by you by the way) and after that I thought this is the platform for me, I started full time in August (before then I was a .Net developer) I have 3 apps in the store and I’ve not really made any money, my last app was a game, I thought I would do it for free and include AdMob in it, with dreams of Paper Toss $125,00 a month revenue, it was approved on Thursday and I’ve received just over 1,000 downloads, revenue from the ads is a dizzy $5.10 at the moment.

    I’m coming to the conclusion that unless you get Apple Love, or have a large number of apps in the store you are unlikely to earn a living. I really enjoy developing for the iPhone and it had been a long time dream of mine to be a “true” indie developer, but I think now its time to face the facts and go back to contracting and carry on doing the iPhone development as a hobby :(

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  • http://www.littleguygames.com Tom

    Awesome story and it’s great to see that you decided to stick to it and never gave up! Congrats! I think you are well on your way in turning Flower Garden into a nice little franchise with a steady revenue stream.

  • http://mx123mobile.wordpress.com/ chris janota

    Thank you for the insightful article. Goodluck with flowergarden!

  • http://www.independentcreator.com Matt

    Thanks for all the info!

    I’m curious: why did the Free version’s downloads spike when you launched IAP?

  • Eduardo

    This is a great post. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.markj.net Mark Johnson

    Great post Noel. It would be great if you could figure out a revenue frequency distribution (er, or whatever it would be called). Ie, using some analytics roll your own or Flurry or whatever, for each user, track how much IAP they do. Then you would know that 50% of your revenue comes from 5% of your users, or whatever the numbers are. Your IAP is virtual goods, and virtual goods allow you have have adaptive pricing – ie some people pay nothing, some people pay 99c, and people who really love sending the flowers and want to send lots right away are happy to buy the fertilizer, and end up spending … $10? Ie your price adapts to how much value users are getting from it.

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  • http://www.mainlyaboutgames.co.uk FreakyZoid

    Thanks very much for sharing all of this. The sales data is very interesting by itself, but with the context of what you were doing to change or promote Flower Garden at each point it becomes even more useful.

    Thanks again,

  • http://Paradeofrain.com Alex O

    Thanks a lot for sharing! I’m curious about your marketing approach, and if you did any ad campaigns with those media sites. And if so, were they worth the money?

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  • Chelsea

    This was really useful and excellent to hear about what did and didn’t work! Thank you for the information! Best of luck in future endeavors :D

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  • philhassey

    Hey – awesome post :) I really should think about doing some IAP myself!

  • http://aralbalkan.com Aral Balkan

    Thank you for sharing this, Noel. It was a very informative read. Just kicking off sales for my new app. Will share my experiences when I have some interesting data.

    G’luck! :)

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  • Brent Disbrow

    Great post, Noel (sorry for the late read :)
    Good to see that data, thanks for sharing – can’t wait for your next app!

    Cheers!

  • CCCdM

    Reading this post makes me want to buy the full version just to support you!  

  • Guest

    great story. very inspiring. thank you for sharing it

  • Nick Hart

    Just googled your app and this is what came up in the search result:

    “Rating: 4 – ‎1,602 votes – ‎£1.99 – ‎iOSDescription. Over 15 million bouquets sent! A top-5 app in over 15 countries! Plant seeds, care for the plants, watch the flowers bloom, and create bouquets to …”

    …so I think things worked out in the end, good for you! :)