Rob Caraway

I write about tech entrepreneurship, effective work & having fun.

How being lean can help you find success on the App Store

The long review cycles on the App Store are annoyingly anti-lean.  It’s probably the worst drawback of building Apps for Apple. My friend Dustin Mckay even chose to focus on the Google Play store so he could push new apps and new updates way more often.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t try to be lean.  I used lean practices to find success with my first app, GifShare, and have done my best to remain lean ever since. 

Here’s how I do it: 

Use the web

Last year when I was freelancing and looking for my first success,  I didn’t have much time.  My previous app, Valt, which I spent four months building, was a huge flop.  I didn’t want to do that again.

In attempt to use the least amount of energy to find a profitable product, I created a landing page for GifShare (which didn’t exist yet) to see if anyone would click to download.  I then posted GifShare’s landing page on various websites that were popping up on trending searches like “Instagram GIF”.  

I received a ton of email signups and click throughs, so I built it.  I validated further by testing if people would signup for beta access (which they did) and if they would actually pay for any in app purchases (which they did).  The web was a great low cost, fast way to find an idea worth building.

I often use Google keyword planner and google trends to see if there’s any traction for an idea I’m looking to build.  A landing page, which you can build in less than 10 minutes using is a great way to find some further validation for your idea.

But what about once you have a product?  How can you make lean iterations of what you think will improve conversions?

Use dynamic updating from the cloud

If you’re not familiar with what I mean, I mean using a service like as a backend which you can make changes to at any time which will cause instant changes to your app.

For example, I wanted to see which background image worked best for my In app purchase sales screen in converting users.  I added three I wanted to test to parse, and once the test finished I determined the one in the image was converting way better than the other two.  If I had tried this using app updates, this single test could’ve taken 20+ days… yikes.

There’s a variety of different ways to run split tests, but like I mentioned, I use Parse.  I gather data using Mixpanel, but you may also use a service like Flurry to measure which version of your tests is bringing your closer towards your conversion goals.  

Engage with users often

I’ll admit that sometimes I get lazy and I don’t do this. I always regret not doing it, and always come back to it.  

It’s important to have some way for your users to keep up with you.  I use Instagram, but you can use Facebook, Twitter, email, tumblr and others depending on how your users prefer to engage. Users will tell you what they want from your app, what they hate about it, and everything in between.  

You also get to see up close what your users look like.  Browse through their profiles and guaranteed you’ll start to see a trend of exactly what type of person you have on your app.

Another awesome benefit of building your audience is you can cross promote new apps to the users, and I even use it to test which kind of app I might build next.

When I follow these steps — things generally go well for me.  Not every experiment I run is a success, but it helps me fail way faster with much less effort.  The times I haven’t followed these lean practices have always led to a lot of wasted effort and struggle.  Don’t be like that version of me.  Be lean!

Making a Living on the App Store — What I’ve Learned

I figured that since I’ve recently started hitting around $100/day on avg, I could share the biggest lessons I’ve learned on the App Store.

1. The most important part of the funnel is the top. Finding your app is the most important part (via App Store search or web search). The top of the App Store is the Icon, the name, the screenshots, and the description. If these can’t be done well the app isn’t worth further development.

2. The first version should do what it needs to do and nothing more. The original version of GifShare beta — which converts GIFs to videos — did nothing other than that — I made the design usable, but it wasn’t pretty. The remaining features were easier to implement as users will complain about what the app needs to be better.

3. Measure whats important — If you aren’t measuring things, Mixpanel is free, and Flurry is free forever. If your serving ads, active daily users is good to know. I also track how many GIFs are converted daily for this. Don’t measure too much — data bloat will only serve to distract you.

4. Don’t change too many things at once — This is really hard because the review cycle is 7 days so sometimes you might be tempted to make a lot of “improvements” at once — don’t do this! I’ve made this mistake recently, and my revenue dropped massively — because I had made so many changes at once, I wasn’t sure what caused it. Fortunately, I was able to guess what it was on the next update, but you shouldn’t have to put yourself in that position.

5. Use a backend service to dynamically update your app — To overcome the long dev cycles of the App Store, I created a backend using which I could change data to my Upgrade screen and for which I could test different promotions for new apps without pushing a new update. I recently tested promotion screens for several different apps to see which one might be more worth my time building next.

6. Don’t fall in love with your app – “To have a great idea, have a lot of them.” Very much like Edison’s thoughts on ideas, the best way to find an app that works may just be to build a lot of them.

Before actor Ed Helms got “lucky” with winning an audition he gave for a correspondent with The Daily Show, he was making a living in New York as a voice for radio commercials. The nature of the business meant he was auditioning for new commercials every day, sometimes multiple times in one day.

When the Daily Show role came up, he auditioned for it, then he was done with it. Totally forgot about it. Not only did he get the role, but having gone through so many auditions taught him to audition really well. His emotionless state of auditioning actually worked to his advantage.

That’s almost how you have to be with your apps. Make your apps prove themselves to you as viable business opportunities before you start spending heaps of time on them. The first changes you make should be to the top — the app name, the keywords, and the icon mainly. If these don’t work then move on. Never attach yourself unless it begs for your attention.

Now it’s time to hit $200/day. Game time!

On Accountability

It’s funny: I finally find enough success as an entrepreneur to live off my profits and I get depressed. I lost my purpose. It’s like the opposite of what I felt would happen.

I let myself get seduced by the comfort of having passive income. I indulged in lots of shit that derailed my productivity. I thought it was okay if I limited the behavior, but that never worked in practice.

SO I’ve banned a lot of shit cold turkey out of my life. Watching sports, Esports, reddit — really anything that can serve as a major distraction to my mission (I have THREE website blockers that I have to disable to get to any sites I’d indulge in, not worth it). I’m waking up at 5am again. And hey IM BLOGGING AGAIN. I also help out other entrepreneurs daily on The Fastlane Forum.

Being uncomfortable is great! It helps when things get rough (like resetting my sleep to 5am) that I tell myself this discomfort is way more fun than giving into comfort and being sad about it. This seems weird to write because this wasn’t a problem for me until I had success but whatev.

I haven’t been valuing my time and in return my time has not been valuing me (hrrrrrr I’m so clever). But ya I’ve also put my yearly goals in a picture frame above my computer, and I write down Deadlines for ANYTHING I work on. I make life like a game and it become more fun to do the right things.

Hey but I’m also not taking life so seriously. Like I’m not even gonna edit this post more than one time over! This guy!

K see you next time peace

Random Human Kindness

Fuck. My immediate thoughts after my bike’s front tire gave out and I was miles away from home at Whole Foods. My mind started iterating through any possible next step I could take. I decided after only seconds I’d have to make the miserable trek back home on a flat.

“You don’t want to do that, your spokes will all blow out”. Like a fucking Batman outta nowhere, my bike broke down right in front of THE bike expert who happened to live two houses away from Whole Foods. We went to her house, pumped the tire and temporarily sealed the leak.

Her name is Alyssa, she appeared to be into Rock, was chill as fuck, and I may never see her again. But for that moment, she was one of the coolest people I knew.

She had no obligation to me but she saved my day. Maybe I’ll find a way to pay her back.

Thanks, Alyssa.

True startup pr…

True startup productivity is not just making more stuff, but systematically figuring out the right things to build.

Working Hard is Overrated

Do you think any boxers preparing for Muhammad Ali weren’t preparing like their life depended on it?  Of course they were. They still lost.  But not because they didn’t work hard.

Look no further than Silicon Valley if you need a today example.  So many startups fail year after year.  Yes, some of them could have worked harder.  But most failed startups didn’t fail because “they didn’t work hard enough”. 

I’m not advocating you become a success by sleeping all day and picking your nose.  Working hard is important, but working smart is far more important.  

The heavyweight boxers of Muhammad Ali’s time were winning titles by raw bruteforce.  The harder the punch, the more successful the boxer.  The most feared of the 60s was Sonny Liston.  He won the heavyweight title by knocking out the previous title-holder, Floyd Merriweather, in a single round. 

Liston was a monster. No one wanted to fight him.  Until an upstart Cassius Clay challenged and took him down in 6 rounds.

Ali wasn’t a hard hitter at all.  He talked a lot of shit.  He almost seemed “scrawny” for being a heavyweight boxer.  So how the fuck did he make Liston look like a amateur?

Ali moved too fast for heavy punches.  He conserved energy so he was always prepared to go 12+ rounds.  His own punches were fast and precise — eventually enough head blows would be game over for his opponent.

Defense wins championships.  And Ali’s agility and endurance gave him the best defense in the game. 

Ali fought smart.   

The definition…

The definition of a startup is a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.

50 Followers already?  Gosh. I used Tumblr for over a year longer than WordPress and still haven’t hit 50 there.  I’m definitely upgrading and switching my domain to here when I can.

I’m not so sure this is a fair trade off, but with a brand new app, my Valt needs any reviews he can get to stand out.  If you’ve enjoyed things I’ve posted, I’d really love it if you’d download it and give hime a nice 5 star review.  (It’ll help you store passwords and login anywhere faster, too).

Why we hate “Salesmen”

The funny thing about sales — we tend to associate the word “salesman” with people who fail at selling or trick us to buy. “Oh he was obviously just trying to get me to buy his product”.  I often rehearse my responses beforehand if I know I’m about to talk to someone whose going to try to upsell me.

The weird thing is when you’ve gained my trust, you’re not a salesman anymore — your a friend, a mentor, someone who has gone out of their way to find a pain point in my life to solve.  You helped bring value into my life.

The best selling doesn’t seem like selling at all.  That’s why word-of-mouth is so effective in helping a product grow — your best friends already have truckloads of your trust.  We’ll use a product they recommend without thinking twice about it.  And we certainly don’t accuse them of being salesman.

So, in the end, “salesman” means people either manipulating us to buy things we don’t want, or failing to convey why we would want it which is funny because that’s the opposite of what a good salesman actually is.


Get back to Your Life! 5 Apps that Protect Your Time

I have some sort of mental gauge that goes off every time an app wastes my energy with useless bullshit or confusing UI. Once this gauge fills up (which doesn’t take much), I delete the app and find something else. 

This sometimes means zero apps tolerably solve my problem. I still haven’t completely replaced a paper calendar. I keep a majority of my personal to-do in a notebook. 

If the problem is bad enough, I will use a solution but cry about it every time I’m exposed to its faults. 

Bottom line: I want apps that save me time and brain cycles while helping me accomplish meaningful things. I don’t want to think. This is mostly because I want to have time for other awesome things (but also a little because I’m very insecure about shipping bad software myself). 

Here’s our list:



1. Clear.

When the term “Gamification” gets thrown around, several bad ideas surface about how this should be applied to apps. Many try to reward you with trivial achievements or worse- unlocking features that should be available to you anyway. 

Some go as far to punish you for bad behavior. Yikes. 

Fuck meaningless rewards. Clear gets it right by rewarding me with encouraging sounds, sleek gestures and animations, inspiring quotes when I finish a list, and a few easter eggs, all while remaining dead simple. 

Now THAT’s gamification.



2. Fantastical 2

I admit my cheap ass waited far too long to throw down the $5 to buy this app. Probably because all the other calendar apps I tried were mostly bloated crap and I’d developed a kind of PTSD for calendar apps. 

But this app is great. Reading my calendar as an ascending list is remarkably intuitive. They chose the right features to implement to make it beyond useful without complicating the UI. I do wish adding events and reminders was even easier though (hint, hint).



3. Mailbox 

I could check and sort my inbox with Mailbox while juggling . I’ve tried to think of a better email solution for the iPhone but I’m not sure there is. I don’t really distinguish between deleted and archived but maybe others do.

Even watching the status bar message makes me happy. Empty inbox feels like a party. It doesn’t get any better than that.


4. Daily Routine

This app might be a wild-card pick in that it’s the interface is barely short of train-wreck status. It’s more about what the end result accomplishes: Daily Routine automates time blocking so I don’t have to think about what I’m suppose to be doing when. 

If you don’t time block, you should. Despite it’s UI feeling like a neverending maze, the finished result provides an unmatched experience for automating your routine. The notifications make it worth using over paper.


4.5 Valt (I originally labeled this plug as #6 but bitched out. I’m not THAT shameless though maybe I’d convert better if I was.)

I can sit here and bark all I want about how we all should create stronger, more secure passwords unique to every site, but let’s be real; we often don’t protect ourselves because it’s painful.  

The problem is even worse on a phone. Who wants to type a password like “fjdKLD3djSDAo39sJJ” every time they want to check their bank account?   

Valt securely remembers your important data and helps you autofill it on the web.  I wanted an app that I could access or create sensitive accounts in seconds — like in-between-traffic-light speed.  

There wasn’t anything available that had this light, fast, mobile-friendly interface I wanted so I built my own. I’ve actually trashed my bank and bill-paying apps because Valt moves faster.   


5. Mint

I wanted to be unique and hipster about my financial pick so that maybe I could introduce you to something new, but there’s still nothing that does easy finance tracking as well as Mint.  If finance apps require manual entry of my spending and budget, get that shit out of my face.

 Level comes so close to being better but simply didn’t allow enough control on how much of my income is considered “spendable”.  Mint focuses on the amount coming in vs the amount going out, and that really all we need.