Now that the iPhone apps I built are out there in Apple’s App Store, I get a kick out of what is now a daily ritual: counting the number of units I sold the previous day. I have been trying hard to get the attention of the talk show producers because even just a mention during their shows would certainly cause my sales to spike. However, the talk shows are also businesses and are run strictly as such. When I met Michael Medved personally, I showed him the app named after him (see logo below). Although he seemed to like it and said it’s a great idea, I still have to hear him even just mention it in his show. I got in touch with the person in charge of his podcast production, who convinced me to support at least one of the other shows serviced by his download site. But I’ve never received any free advertising.
The other day I got a threatening email from a lawyer of the producer of the Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity shows. It turns out I am not allowed to use "Limbaugh" and "Hannity" as product names (see app logos below). I called the lawyer and then went ahead and changed the names to "Majarashi" and "Great American" (which the App Store allowed me to do very easily). In return I asked the lawyer to communicate my desire to make a development deal with the producer. I propose to build apps that they can then provide for free to every Limbaugh and Hannity fan who carry an iPhone. The lawyer says he has forwarded my message to the powers that be, but until now I am not even in first base with the production company. Hello. Anybody in there?
Now I am glad that even without advertising, the apps are selling well enough for me to survive. (But hiring somebody to help me, even in Cebu, is still unsustainable. I will have to burn some of my personal capital to develop the apps further.)
The reason I am glad about the low level of sales I am getting is that several users have commented that the app they bought didn’t work for them, and these users have rated those apps one (five being the best rating). It would have been really embarrassing if thousands of users downloaded the apps only to fail for a large percentage of them. That would also have been the end of this business. So far I only have hundreds of users, but these are the kind of users who can tolerate big imperfections. One of these users was gracious enough to help me characterize the problem (in a forum conversation). It took me a couple of days to even reproduce the erratic behavior.
I could not have discovered the problem during my testing because it did not occur to me to test the apps while in a WiFi public hotspot. I accidentally discovered it only because I now have acquired the habit of pulling the iPhone from my pocket whenever I am in a queue waiting for something. While waiting for my order at a McDonald’s, I launched the Medved app and, sure enough, the problem finally exhibited itself to me. WiFi hotspots require user registration prior to use, and because all the talk show apps assume a usable WiFi when available, the registration pages sent by the hotspot routers were causing the apps to display a series of unintellible messages. It’s a fatal flaw (but only about as bad as the behavior of other iPhone apps such as YouTube when launched in the same wireless environment). I pulled an all-nighter to get it fixed. I had to drive to a couple of McDonald’s the following day to test.
It’s a good thing Apple’s App Store ecosystem allows the app developer to communicate directly with the users. My business exists in that ecosystem, but otherwise it is independent of Apple. (It is a good example of a subject-ruler ecosystem in which the governing class is not benevolent and the rules are simple but strictly followed.) Incidentally, other major suppliers of cellphone systems (Blackberry, Palm, Google, and Microsoft) have announced that they are following Apple’s lead in this. My plan is to participate in all these upcoming ecosystems also.
The fatal flaw experienced by a number of initial users has convinced me that it is best to build the business slowly. (This is the kind of business that none of the angels, much less venture capitalists and big corporations, would be interested in.) The initial users, by their comments, reviews, and suggestions, are helping me to improve the products. This would not have been possible if the growth trajectory were steep. I am learning as I go, and the slow growth trajectory is helping the business to eventually succeed.
Of course, I have to keep on guard and watch out for any competitor that may come along. I expect the talk show producers themselves to attempt to provide the same app to their podcast listeners. When they do, this business would slow down quite a bit, unless I can provide features and innovations that users really need. This niche exists only because the wildly popular Really Simple Syndication (RSS) protocol completely ignores proprietary content. In RSS, there’s no mechanism for selling content that’s easy for users to deal with. There is an abundance of RSS readers and almost every browser and email client supports the standard. However, all of these tools only deal with free content. It requires some technical sophistication to use these tools for proprietary content such as talk show MP3 files.
The business strategy is to provide customized authentication code for every talk show web site out there. I expect big producers like those for Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity to build their own smartphone apps soon, but it will take time for the small producers (and there are a number of them) to do the same. Those are the ones I will focus on later.
And yet this is not the business that my corporation, Centerus, is really after, eventually. The iPhone and other smartphones are equipped with mini-GPUs. I salivate whenever I think about this. Think of the all the possibilities! My main interest is in GPU-based image processing, but even in this "narrow" field, the possibilities of the modern smart phones are endless.
At the end of the day, the talk show apps are really a bootstrap to the real business that I am after. It allows me to have some cash flow going even as a startup. I know that I must be doing the right thing financially when even my wife Eureka gets excited. Also, with our meager income from the iPhone apps, she is starting to appreciate the decision to move to Cebu.
(To the right is the Ingraham app logo.)