Twitkitteh, Where Did It All Go Wrong? Part 2

I trust you have read the background to all this in Part 1. If not, go read it now. We’ll all wait.

Right, so where were we? Oh yes, I’d just submitted Twitkitteh to the app store nearly two weeks ago and was full of childlike hope and dreams. Would it be a success? Would cute animal Twitter clients be the future of the iPhone? Would I make enough money from it to pay for the domain name and the website?

Ok, full disclosure time.

Since Twitkitteh released about a week ago, we have sold exactly a hundred and one copies, at roughly 99c each. That makes it about £50 in terms of income at current exchange rates after Apple’s 30% cut. About 14 quid of that went on the domain name for a year, and about another 11 quid on hosting the domain on our existing server.

That leaves us £25 profit for three week’s work. Oh, and minus the 120 or so engineer-hours spent designing, writing, and promoting it that could have been spent on something else. So, depending on exactly how much you rate iPhone engineers at on an hourly basis, you can calculate exactly how much we lost on the whole project.

Not, as you will admit, the resounding success we were all hoping for. To be honest, when I went into it, I figured it would do absolutely nothing, or be the next big thing. Given that the reaction of most people to the idea was to ask when I was going to be retiring, I was kind of hoping it would tend towards the latter. My actual goal was to make enough extra money for a new laptop or two, but as it turns out, I don’t think I could afford a reconditioned 2nd generation iPod shuffle.

This is really the first thing I’ve written that’s not been a success, and is – if I’m honest with myself – really quite firmly in the failure camp. I’m not sure exactly how to deal with that. There’s a whole other post waiting to be written about the independent developer as artist, and how we view our creations as extensions of ourselves. If they don’t do well, we do take it personally. But that, as I said, is for another discussion.

So – and you should have really realised where we were going with this from the title of last week’s post – where did it all go wrong?

I think there are a lot of factors. I think the product – as it is written – is perfectly fine. It’s silly, and intentionally so, but those people who get it think it’s great. It does what it says. I don’t see it being any more silly or less worthwhile than some stuff on the app store which is selling thousands of copies a day, anyway.

I think, while I assumed I was aiming for something mass-market, I didn’t really. It’s a common fallacy to think that just because you take three things that are big and popular – cats, iPhones, and Twitter in this case, then a product that is the intersection of all three must be just plain huge. But as it turns out, a lot of people said “that’s great, but I don’t have an iPhone”. Or indeed, “that’s great, but I don’t have a cat”.

The initial sales weren’t helped by the fact that while I got the “Ready for sale” email from Apple to say Twitkitteh was on the store, it wasn’t actually listed anywhere. If you searched for it by name, it was there, but it wasn’t listed under the recently released applications, or the alphabetical section. In iTunes that was fixed in 24 hours, but on the phone it took much longer. Given that significant sales come from people just randomly finding your app in the store from it being at the top of the recent apps, that wasn’t a great start. Submitting an app just after a big update to the App Store software might not have been a clever move…

Also, while there was an impressive grassroots movement on Twitter to promote it, led by the iPhone Twitterati of  @atebits, @chockenberry, and @mattgemmell, very few places picked up on my press releases, with the notable exception of Rene Ritchie at The iPhone Blog. Lack of press being a common theme here during PCalc development of course, but I assumed there would be a lot more mainstream interest this time round.

I also hoped that the absurd nature of the app would at least get some reaction, one way or another. I submitted press releases – each with an iTunes promo code for a download, of course – to a much wider assortment of sites, outside of the traditional Mac folk I would normally market to. I worked solidly for about 2-3 days just trying to get a bite with my PR hook without success. Surely somebody like Engadget, or Gizmodo, or even The Register would pillory me. Apparently not.

Perhaps the Mac sites, who are still unsure about how to cover the sea of iPhone apps generally, were put off by the whole feline frivolousness, and the non-technical sites were put off by the iPhone / Twitter / Cat 2.0 side. Not everyone gets my sense of humour either it has to be said, and were taking things entirely seriously. Some people did though – Jason Snell of Macworld said:

This is like performance art via app. Or practical joke. It really works, though.

Rene Ritchie added:

We can’t tell if Twitkitteh is shrewd marketing or wicked satire at the state of the App Store and Twitter. We suspect it’s equal parts both, finished with a good shot of lulz.

I tried using Facebook, digg, reddit buttons on the website, but they only got a few clicks – mainly – after some investigation – by people who I know personally. I still think it’s a mainstream press story away from success, but that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen now. It very briefly made it to number 46 in the Social Networking category of the App Store, but dropped off quickly. Sales yesterday were a mere six, and the chatter on Twitter has dropped off markedly now.

So, yes, failure as a product. But also an interesting success in terms of learning a little more about the mysterious ways of the App Store.

Lesson 1 – You cannot manufacture a hit record.

I went into this deliberately trying to create something wildly populist, and ended up making something that’s sold significantly less than a scientific calculator. And I thought I was being pretty smart about it too.

Lesson 2 – It’s a lottery.

Any old nonsense put up on the App Store, priced at 99c, will not make you rich. Some people will get rich, but the odds are, it’s not going to be you. As more and more people come to the App Store gold deposit, thinking they are going to make a fortune, the less gold there is going to be to go round. Yes, writing a good product is important too, but it’s not a guarantee of success.

Oh well, I gave it a good shot. Worst case, I learned about a number of new iPhone technologies I hadn’t looked at before, so I’m in a better state for my third iPhone app. And that will be THE GREATEST IPHONE APP EVER.

Author: James Thomson

Indie iOS / Mac developer, maker of PCalc and DragThing. Occasional writer, conference speaker, and podcast pundit.

19 thoughts on “Twitkitteh, Where Did It All Go Wrong? Part 2”

  1. At least you released it. That’s a heck of a lot farther than I’ve gotten so far! Keep up the good work.

  2. My experience is very similar. I sell a whopping 1 copy a day of iDjembe, or many days it sells no copies. I was trying the same thing. The first version was quick & simple, because I thought music apps sell a lot and thought I could get something out there that would sell a lot.

    I put most of the effort into the sound samples, which I recorded myself at a friend’s studio, and then cut up and processed. Unfortunately it ended up sounding like crap on the iPhone’s speakers, which all of the reviews said.

    For the second major release I completely rewrote it to use OpenAL and improve the responsiveness. It still sells no more than 1 or 2 copies a day, usually none.

    1. PCalc is still is doing pretty well, so I’m lucky in that sense. I was just really surprised at how badly this did in comparison, for what everyone told me would be a more popular product.

  3. I have to admit, I love your conclusion. Keep trying, you’ll (hopefully!) find that App Store gold!

    In the meantime I do agree you’re not far off from a hit. The app does look brilliant for what it does, I think there’s really the one hangup that you identified: the intersection of twitter and cats, while hilarious, is not something “I” want to do (for most definitions of I). Rather, it’s something most people would get a big kick out of reading mostly, or playing with for a short time – maybe if Twitkitteh came with a bucket of cat accounts that anyone could post to it would be more of a toy? Rather than having to setup and maintain our own kitteh accounts?

    1. I don’t know that people would want preset accounts – the whole fun of it, at least to my mind, is having your own cat online. And I don’t think the Twitter APIs exist for remotely creating accounts from the client (for good reason), so it’s not something I could move into the app. But really, at this point, I don’t know that further development is warranted at the current sales rate…

  4. James,

    Had you consider that there are those who wouldn’t let a cat anywhere near our $300 iPhone that has to last through the duration of the two year contract?

    And then there were those of us who were like… “Oh Cool, a new iPhone app from James, this’ll be good.. … WTF?”

    1. You know, it wasn’t entirely a 100% serious product. It did actually work of course, but most cats don’t generally have a huge desire to use your $300 iPhone unless it’s covered in cat food. Of course, I was playing up the WTF aspect. I figured it would get it noticed. I realise I can’t cry wolf too many times though…

  5. Sadly, I’d guess your sales experience is what 99% of iPhone devs experience everyday. The nature of the store is that if you can’t get on a top 10 list you are doomed to obscurity, and there is no way to directly influence anything on the store.

  6. Oh hai on teh kitteh blog. Sum of us Twitter Kittehs iz not reel kittehs. We iz jus havn fun wif noo iPhone toy, Twitkitteh. Pls to leave it up on store anyways, so it can be slo burner hit. K thx bai. X

  7. I appreciate your sharing of the numbers, and honestly, it makes me feel better about the whole thing. Because it gets quite demoralizing when the “stupid” apps are the ones that are successful. Do you really want to live in a world where it’s better to make a Twitter client for cats than a scientific calculator?

    I put a good amount of time into an app, and while sales have been disappointing, at least I don’t have to live with knowing that a Twitter client for cats sold better. 🙂

    1. Well, that was really the test – or at least how it started out. And PCalc is doing pretty well, so I shouldn’t complain too much. But Twitkitteh has more charm and thought put into it than most of the throwaway apps on the store! It’s the good kind of stupid 🙂

  8. I have to agree with the let down after hearing you were coming out with a new app. I twitter (occasionally) and iPhone, but teh kitteh is not my bag.

    In the serious department, I wonder if the all-consuming pCalc isn’t consuming too much. The strategy I would expect might be the most likely to succeed, especially for someone smart and creative, is put out lots of apps, not perfect but good enough, and see which one catches. Spit and polish are nice, but you can’t make an Ok idea into a cultural-need idea with polish, it has to just strike the right note for people.

    And, don’t be so disheartened, these things happen “over night” only after they happen. It could take off next week, next month, next year… all is takes is the right, completely unknowable sequence of events.

    1. Yes, I think there is a lot of merit in the “numerous small useful apps” idea – the key is also to keep the various other plates spinning so they don’t fall off the poles. At the moment it’s mainly PCalc that is putting food on our table, so I don’t want to ignore it for too long doing other stuff.

  9. Yes, don’t get me wrong — it’s definitely the good kind of stupid. 🙂 I admit when I read about it, I was like, darnit, why am I unable to think of ideas like that?

  10. Have you considered making it free and putting advertising on it? I say this because most kitteh’s don’t have enough money to buy the iPhone app, and most are under the required age anyway (13+)… but if it were free, there would be no barrier to entry for them, and they could jump right in like my cat did to the sink the other day. She jumped right back out when she realised it was full of water though, but I don’t think your app is…

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