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.