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8: Lessons Learned While Releasing Our Own App

Published March 2, 2018
Run time: 00:17:21
Listen to this episode with one of these apps:

Even though we get paid to release apps for our clients, it has been a while since we've built and released one of our own. In this episode, Tim and Rob discuss the recent release of mncraft.beer, a new Minnesota brewery tracking app.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • Why we are app developers and not product namers
  • How "free" work will always cost you something
  • Making money isn't necessarily the only source of revenue
  • That three years leaves a lot of time for self-improvement

This episode is brought to you by The Jed Mahonis Group, who builds mobile software solutions for the on-demand economy. Learn more at http://jmg.mn.

Recorded February 1, 2018
Edited by Jordan Daoust

Show Notes:

Episode Transcript:

Tim Bornholdt 0:00
Welcome to Constant Variables, a podcast where we take a non-technical look at mobile app development. I'm Tim Bornholdt.

Rob Bentley 0:06
And I'm Rob Bentley. Let's get nerdy.

Tim Bornholdt 0:23
So what are we talking about today, Rob?

Rob Bentley 0:24
We built an app.

Believe it or not, our company did build an app. It's our first app that we've built for ourselves, probably in years. And it's called the Minnesota Craft Brewery Tracker, which you can download today. If you go to MNcraft.beer, or if you go to our website, you can see a link on there as well in our projects. And we're very proud of it.

Yeah, it's relevant if you live in Minnesota, but probably not if you don't.

Tim Bornholdt 0:51
Right. If you're interested in Minnesota beer, I guess it'd probably be relevant for you. But the gist of the app is it's a list of all the breweries in the state with taprooms that you can visit. And you can open up the app and just check out all the different information about an individual brewery: their address, their phone number, their Twitter. You can also sign in with Untappd, which is a popular beer social network. And you can see all the beers that they have on tap, which ones you've had and have not had, and check into it just right through the app. So it's kind of a convenient tool to try to see if you can visit all hundred and some breweries that are in the state.

Rob Bentley 1:27
Are you pretty close?

Tim Bornholdt 1:28
No. No, I was at one point, like my wife and I were trying to get to every one in the Twin Cities. And at that point, there was probably 25 or 30, maybe 40. And now in the Twin Cities alone, I would guess there's probably 80 or 90, and then statewide, there's 142, I think, in our app.

Rob Bentley 1:47
Wow, that many.

Tim Bornholdt 1:48
Yeah. And I think this year, I know of at least seven breweries that are opening. So it's really booming. It's a crazy industry. And there are people that have the app that have visited all of them. So that's nuts to me.

Rob Bentley 2:03
Like they've checked into them, all of them through our app already?

Tim Bornholdt 2:06

Rob Bentley 2:07

Tim Bornholdt 2:08
Yeah. There's a couple people that have had like blogs and stuff where they visited every single one, took pictures and documented it and everything. And they're like, "Why wasn't this app around three years ago?" Well, we tried.

Rob Bentley 2:18
Yeah, we started it three years ago,

Tim Bornholdt 2:20
w=We did. So with this app, now that it's live, we thought it'd be a cool podcast episode to talk through some of the lessons we learned. Because I think as we've been going through this experience, even though we build apps everyday for clients, when you go through it yourself as a customer, I suppose it's nice to have some reflection and see, you know, where can we change in our processes. What have we learned that would be valuable for other people that are going through this process as well. So we got, I think about six different things we can cover here. So let's jump right into it with the name. So, Rob, what are the names of some of our other products that we've released?

Rob Bentley 2:58
Well, there's the Random Celebrity Generator, which generates random celebrities at the push of a button. We also have the Half Staff app that tells you when the flag is supposed to be at half staff.

Tim Bornholdt 3:09
We also have a cleverly named app called the FTP Camera, which uses your camera to upload pictures to an FTP server. So you kind of see the theme here; our products are not very cleverly named. They're very literal. And I thought we were cool because we bought the domain MNCraft.beer. And so I was like, "Oh, that's a sweet name for an apple. Just call it that." Well, one, how do you say it? Like min craft dot beer? M-N craft dot beer? Minnesota craft dot beer? Like it's very ambiguous. And then second, which I didn't realize until we were like three years down the road when we launched in the App Store, but mncraft is two letters away from a very popular game called Minecraft, trademark. And believe it or not, there's a lot of results for that when you search in the App Store. So searching for mn craft, it's hard to find us.

Rob Bentley 3:58
It's an SEO nightmare.

Tim Bornholdt 4:00
It is, and an ASO nightmare.

Rob Bentley 4:02

Tim Bornholdt 4:02
Your app store optimization. So that's one thing we learned and we continue to try to figure out is, we are not very good with names at all. We've very literally named products, but it gets the job done. But it's important when you're coming up with the name of your product that it's something that people can actually find. And it's easy to pronounce. If you're going on, say, a podcast, or you're trying to tell someone else to verbally go and download the app, you've got to have a good name that's easy to find.

Rob Bentley 4:28
And just unique enough to find it right away in the App Store too.

Tim Bornholdt 4:32
Right. Because yeah, we have another one of our products, Mimi, which is a babysitter app. It has probably the most unique name of any of the companies we've ever started but that one, Mimi, which is M-i-m-i, is very close to m-e-m-e, meme. Which, of course, looking in the App Store, there's thousands of meme-generating apps out there, so Mimi is really hard to find if you just type it in a search.

Rob Bentley 4:56
Yeah, the App Store just thinks, "Oh, you meant meme, silly. Here you go."

Tim Bornholdt 5:00
And even if you did mean Mimi, there's also other apps out there that are already named Mimi. So, yeah, the name of an app is very important, something you need to consider. And not a lot of people put a lot of thought into it. At least we don't put a lot of thought into it but we probably should.

Rob Bentley 5:14
That's the lesson we've learned.

Tim Bornholdt 5:16
Exactly. The next lesson we learned is how fast you can get a project done usually correlates to how much you're willing to spend on it. So we take on a lot of equity projects, not as much as we used to, because we've learned this over the years: if you just do something for free on an equity basis, that becomes a much less priority than when somebody is putting cash in your face and getting things done. So we learned pretty quickly with this project. We started this, what, three years ago?

Rob Bentley 5:44
Yeah, it's been around since 2015.

Tim Bornholdt 5:47
Yeah, I think the first time I checked in code for the app was like January 2015. And our concept of it came even further before that. So we've been working on this app for a long time, and the reason it didn't get out as fast as as we would have liked to is because we just weren't paying anyone to do it and doing it ourselves. We have a lot of client work that needs to get done. So it just kind of fell along the wayside.

Rob Bentley 6:12
We tried hiring some interns that were just looking for experience. And that just kind of didn't work out. We then hired a paid intern and then things sped up dramatically.

Tim Bornholdt 6:23
Yeah, shout out to Jeremy. If we didn't have him on Android, our Android app would be pretty terrible right now. So he's done a phenomenal job, and as soon as we put money in someone's pocket, it's amazing, things get done.

Rob Bentley 6:36
Yeah. Things move. So money definitely helps put fuel on the fire.

Tim Bornholdt 6:41
Exactly. And just expecting to go cheap on that route, it bit us. It took us a lot longer to get this out the door. So we learned that now real quick that if you want things to get done, you gotta pay for them or do them yourself. And if you're busy like we are, we don't have time for it, so it takes three years to launch an app. gotta pay the troll,

Rob Bentley 7:02
Gotta pay the troll toll. God. Don't put that in.

Tim Bornholdt 7:07
You got to keep that in. The third lesson we learned while building this app is: marketing is crucial to the success of an app. On our side, we really focus on the tech part of it. But marketing, if you're not a technical person, that could be the big thing that you focus on is where you're going to market and how you're going to market the app.

Rob Bentley 7:31
Yeah, definitely. If you're wanting to start an app-related business, but you don't know how to code yourself, pour all you can into marketing it. Find someone to develop it because both are equally as important to a successful product.

Tim Bornholdt 7:43
Yeah, you can't just have a cool product that no one downloads. You've got to make it useful. And I think what really gave us a lot of motivation to actually release the app was when I was talking to somebody that I met in line at a brewery and he introduced me to this Facebook Group called Beer People. And it's literally just 12,000 people from Minnesota that like beer. And that's it. It's every day, people are just posting pictures of what beer they're drinking, and they're getting hundreds of likes on their pictures, because believe it or not, people really like beer around here. So I posted one post on that group and said, "Hey, I'm looking for some beta testers." And I had, I think, 250 people reach out to me and want to do beta testing on it. It was an insane reaction. Ugh, I should silence my phone.

Rob Bentley 8:32
I did. I turned my vibrate on. Keep that in.

Tim Bornholdt 8:37
Yeah, well, I guess we'll keep that in. Lesson seven we learned here is: you need to silence your phone when you're doing a podcast. Anyway, what were we talking about? We were talking about marketing and getting people in. So finding the right group of people to market to is very important and making sure that you get them in and using the app early and testing it and iterating on it and taking their ideas and improving what you've got is very, very important to seeing any sort of success in your app. I think most of what we've gotten from traction in the app has been those beta testers telling their friends who have told their friends and the whole social effect. It's spreading like a virus. Shout out to Dan Evans. The fourth lesson that we learned was regarding the revenue model.

Rob Bentley 9:23
Yeah, we went into this without a revenue model. Basically, it was just an app Tim wanted for himself. And we weren't really going into it with the idea of like, "Oh, we're gonna make a ton of cash off of this." We just kind of wanted it to exist.

Tim Bornholdt 9:37
And actually the genesis of the app was from when we both wanted an app that was kind of for a different reason. That's actually one of our other upcoming lessons that we'll talk about here. But in terms of the revenue model, yeah, we had no idea how it was going to make money and we really, frankly, don't care. It's not a money-making venture. It's very affordable for us to run it and maintain it. So it's something that I wanted to see in the world. And I think a lot of my friends and a lot of people I've met want to see this in the world as well. So it's nice to... when you start building an app, you need to at least go in with your eyes open, and know that you're not going to make money. Because I think what happens is a lot of people think "I'll just put some ads in there," or "We'll just put it up for free and get a lot of users" and that works to a certain degree if you have millions of users, but it's very, very, very hard to get there without a big pile of cash supporting it to get marketing out the door.

Rob Bentley 10:35
Yeah. We'll see where it goes. Obviously, we still haven't really thought of a revenue model for it yet, but you know, there might be an opportunity.

Tim Bornholdt 10:45
Yeah. I'm not opposed to making money on this app. 'm very happy finding some way for to generate revenue, but at this point, I'm also happy that we've been making a lot of connections in the space and helping out a lot of people and I think there's something to be said about that value of generating goodwill and helping people with something that they want. I've found time and time again, with this business, the more you give to people and help them out along the way without expecting things in return, it always comes back to help you in the end one way or another.

Rob Bentley 11:16
And it's just great to make connections with people you might not have otherwise made a connection with.

Tim Bornholdt 11:21
Exactly. Might not ever work together or do something, but its good to just help people all around. So that's one of the big reasons this app exists.

Rob Bentley 11:29
Well, what's the actual beginning of it? Why does it exist?

Tim Bornholdt 11:34
So that leads into our fifth point of: the original idea for this app was, I guess you could call it, not as cool. Rob and I, we are super into a restaurant in the Twin Cities called Leeann Chin; it's a chain. There's probably 30 or 40 of them around the state. Rob is drinking out of a Leeann Chin cup right now. And we had a goal. We used to go to business meetings together all day the time because we had time.

Rob Bentley 12:02
Now, we don't.

Tim Bornholdt 12:03
But back in the day, we would go and take lunch meetings at differently Leeann Chin locations. And so we were like, "We should try to get to every single one in the state." So we printed out a map on a piece of paper, and actually, like drew X's where all the Leeann Chin locations were. And as we visited them, we'd you know, cross them off the list and, and we tried to hit every single one that way. Well, halfway through it, you know, locations open, locations, close. Keeping a map up to date that you print out on your own is pretty lame, especially in 2018. I guess at that time it was like 2014.

Rob Bentley 12:35
Especially if you're running your own app development company.

Tim Bornholdt 12:38
So we figured we should be able to turn this into an app. So I spent a day and I whipped up a quick prototype of a server and an app. I showed it to you; you were like, "This is the coolest thing." And we were so excited about it. And I showed it to my wife. She's like, "This is the dumbest thing I've ever seen in my life." And I was like, "Okay, well, that's fine." And she goes, "Why don't you make something useful, like tracking all the breweries?" Because we were trying to do that. My wife and I were trying to get to all of them ourselves. So starting an idea out that was dumb, admittedly, and spinning it off into something that actually is useful, that's one thing we learned from building this app is: even if your core concept is dumb, you can always pivot into something that is not dumb and actually useful and potentially revenue generating.

Rob Bentley 13:24
Now the app works almost the exact same way. It's just

Tim Bornholdt 13:28

Rob Bentley 13:29
Yeah, prettier and it is something more people care about, not just us.

Tim Bornholdt 13:34
Right. Yeah, I'm sure there are other Chin-heads like us that really want to visit every single Leeann Chin.

Rob Bentley 13:41
Yeah, and if we get bombarded with emails for it, we can always resurrect it.

Tim Bornholdt 13:46
Right and not get sued into oblivion.

Rob Bentley 13:48
Yeah. It's worth it.

Tim Bornholdt 13:51
Yeah, absolutely. Finally, the last thing we learned while working on this app is just how much things have changed in our personal and professional lives. A lot of changes over the course of three years; right, Rob?

Rob Bentley 14:03
Yeah, definitely. Like I was just remembering going and fixing some of the bugs right before we launched and looking at the code I wrote and just wondering "Why?"

Tim Bornholdt 14:13
And they say, in this space, if you look at code that you wrote a year ago, and you're pleased with it and impressed with it, then you probably haven't grown much as a developer in that time. Things change so fast. And your strategies change so quickly. And even though we've been doing this now for, what, seven years? Six, seven years? We're still new to the space and there's always things to learn in software. And so having these kind of projects helps us keep our technology chops up to date.

Rob Bentley 14:45
Well, yeah, it's not like an ancient art either. It's something that's consistently changing and so you have to consistently change with it.

Tim Bornholdt 14:52
Exactly. That's software in a nutshell. So final thoughts. What's your final thought on this project, Rob?

Rob Bentley 15:00
I'm more just happy that we actually got it released and it's in the App Store. People can use it and download it; we can talk about it.

Tim Bornholdt 15:07
I agree.

Rob Bentley 15:08
It was a long road. But I'm happy it's out there now. And we did it.

Tim Bornholdt 15:13
Yeah. And it is really hard to launch an app. I think for Rob and I that we launch several apps a month and release updates to apps all the time, you kind of lose the appreciation that you have for releasing an app and going through the whole process yourself and seeing how it starts, how it matures. And everything from start to end. It's really useful to go through that exercise every once in a while if you happen to own a software development company, not really the target market for this podcast, but if you're building an app for yourself, you know, going with a company or a team that has built apps and shipped them before and especially apps that they're vested in and really truly care about that, that's gonna really help when you're building out your apps to know that you have a team that knows all these little things and can help guide you through it.

Rob Bentley 16:04
Yeah, the learning from it's been valuable. Definitely.

Tim Bornholdt 16:08
Yeah, I agree. And I'm just so happy I can go to breweries now and check in, and people looking over your shoulder, they're like, "What is that?" And getting to explain it to them. It's kind of like when we released Great Clips for the first time. And people are like, "Oh, what is that?" And you're like, "Oh, it's Great Clips." And like, I built that, and they're like, "What!?" And kind of getting that same feeling with releasing this podcast, if people are like "You made this? This is actually really cool." Yeah, it is actually really cool. Show notes for this episode can be found at constantvariables. co. You can get in touch with us by emailing Hello@constantvariables.co. I'm @TimBornholdt on Twitter. Rob is @ScottMahonis. Today's episode was edited by the powerful Jordan Daoust. This episode was brought to you by The Jed Mahonis Group, who builds mobile software solutions for the ondemand economy. Learn more at JMG.mn.