Building an app business is hard

Eight app founders share the raw truths of building an app business — from adaptation to innovation.

Building an app business is hard
Peter Meinertzhagen

Peter Meinertzhagen


Building an app business is hard. But you knew that, right?

As much as we can learn from other apps’ success stories, oftentimes we learn more from their trials. Behind every over-night success are weeks and months of challenges, setbacks, and hard-earned lessons.

To uncover these stories, I’ve spoken to eight different app founders about the realities of building an app business from the ground up.

In this blog, we’ll be hearing from:

Alex Ross, Greg 🪴

Our growth strategy (mobile ads) fell apart after Apple’s IDFA changes. The reality is this can happen with any growth strategy: Google algorithm updates change SEO, a new competitor takes the wind out of your sales and referrals/word-of-mouth growth slows, the world changes (Covid affecting in-person businesses, the return to normal affecting remote businesses like screen sharing). Almost any marketing strategy except strong brand development is actually a 2-5 year strategy at best, because the world is constantly changing. So I think learning to adapt to these changes is the most important underlying skill.

Our growth strategy (mobile ads) fell apart after Apple’s IDFA changes

It took us almost two years to adapt, and I think we’re finally on the right track. We had to cut costs and go into survival mode to give ourselves time to figure out a viable model for growth. But by making those hard decisions early, and by focusing on long-term points of leverage, rather than trend-chasing, we’ve been able to reposition ourselves and come out stronger.

Olivier Bernal, Currency Converter

The biggest challenge is getting visibility on the App Store, as paid acquisition is not an option for me.

To overcome this, I implement App Store Optimization strategies. With time and small updates and tweaks, I managed to improve my keyword rankings, adding new keywords, and replacing others. I use Appfigures to monitor all of this.

My key takeaway: Don’t rush it. Stay focused and have faith.

Lewis Dackam, Kupenda

We built Kupenda from the ground up (a team of two), and it gained momentum recently, reaching almost 2000 Daily Active Users (DAU) from a starting point of zero. However, building an app business is no walk in the park, and our journey had its share of challenges, particularly the absence of funding. Opting for a bootstrapped approach, we strategically chose to enter the market with minimal resources, allowing us to learn from mistakes before venturing into a larger market. Our initial focus on Colombia, though more challenging than anticipated, proved to be a valuable learning experience.

Despite the initial hurdles, we spent quality time with our customers, adapting the app to align with their perspectives. An amusing example of this was our campaign with flyers that humorously asked, “Are you tired of eating eggs?” (¿Estás cansado de comer huevos?) — a phrase unrelated to dating but resonated with locals who commonly consume eggs daily. This quirky approach helped us garner 20K users in just two months, achieving impressive metrics:

  • Zero to more than 20K downloads in November & December.
  • 4.6 stars on the Play Store within two months.
  • D7, D8 retention exceeding 38%.
  • Over 60% completion of onboarding & photo uploads.
  • Average session length of 13 minutes.
  • Attracting attention from a game publisher.

Remarkably, these achievements were without even delving into Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok marketing.

Despite the initial success, we faced more challenges, as the dating app landscape in Colombia became less favorable. This shift, combined with the need for sustainable revenue, prompts us to reevaluate the direction of Kupenda. While the early numbers were promising, the reality of building a financially viable app business in a dynamic market demands continuous adaptation and strategic reconsideration.

“We believe in the power of people helping people, and that ethos is at the core of Kupenda” , we will continue pivoting and adapting with that in mind.

📚 Further reading: Weigh up the pros and cons of bootstrapping vs. venture capital in our guide to funding for mobile apps.

Stuart Hall, WordBoard & 7 Minute Workout

The biggest challenge: Time! They are side projects.

Overcoming the challenge: I haven’t yet 🙂

Key takeaway: Charge more than you think!

David Barnard, Weather Up

Getting sustainable organic attention is brutally hard. For a couple years after Weather Up launched in late 2017, it did fairly well with organic downloads from featured placement and search traffic, but over time that dropped as more and more weather apps surpassed it in search results and Apple stopped featuring the app. Even though the app was ranked 4.5 stars with almost 10k reviews, organic downloads dropped to single digits daily.

Getting sustainable organic attention is brutally hard

I assumed that a big, innovative update with some press attention would help boost organic downloads back to those 2018 levels, but after ~10k new downloads in a single week, organic traffic dropped right back down to low double digits. And Apple hasn’t featured the app despite innovative use of new iOS APIs and a full-featured, watchOS 10 optimized Apple Watch app.

The story is still being written here, so check back in a few months, but next on the docket is trying to make Apple Search Ads and affiliate marketing (with influencers and other apps) work.

My advice to fellow app developers is to have a plan for how your app is going to get attention. And then have a back up plan in case that first plan doesn’t work out as you’d hoped.

Ania Wysocka, Rootd – Panic Attack Relief

One of the biggest challenges I faced while building and growing my app Rootd was gaining attention on a bootstrapped budget.

Rootd is an app for anxiety and panic attack relief. It was inspired by my personal experience, and all its development and growth has been bootstrapped all the way. I created the resource I wished I’d had, and I believed it would resonate with others too, but didn’t have any budget for advertising.

The way I overcame this challenge was through consistent and persistent storytelling. Millions of people struggle with anxiety and panic attacks. Most suffer in silence. But almost everyone can relate to and resonate with how difficult anxiety can be (and how inspiring it can be to overcome, and succeed in spite of), either personally, or through witnessing the experience of a loved one.

Find ways to connect your app’s unique story with events and ideas around the world

My tactic was to take out a calendar, and plan a story for every month of the year. World Mental Health Day is October 10th, so I’d create a story around that. Athletes struggle with anxiety during the Olympics, so I’d create a story around that. And so on. Then every month I’d write the planned story, and translate it into a press release, into an app store feature submission, into my app store listings, and more.

These stores resonated with people organically, and along Rootd’s bootstrapped journey to millions of users we’ve had amazing press coverage, countless app store features, and much more, thanks to the power of story.

My advice to fellow app founders is to find ways to connect your app’s unique story with events and ideas around the world.

📚 Further reading: We share more tips on how to tell your story with our PR for subscription apps guide.

Adam Allore, Wavve Boating

If you’re building an app business, you are probably building something “new” that will ideally be used by thousands/millions of people. Working through your product and growth strategy with relatively low comparables is extremely challenging.

Finding people, especially in the early days, who can not only survive in this murkiness of uncertainty, but thrive, can be life or death of your app business in my experience. I’ve made the mistake of keeping someone on our team for too long, in a variety of departments — development/marketing/business development, that would be excellent at a B2B SaaS company, but is struggling in our B2C subscription space.

The right people make the difference, and all technical problems can be overcome from there

I think you need people who are naturally curious and absolutely relentless at removing unknowns and reducing entropy. I’ve found when you get that person in the right seat, it’s absolutely game changing. I hate how cliche this is, but ya, the right people make the difference, and all technical problems can be overcome from there.

How to get the right people…now that is something I am a constant student of. I believe in working/hiring people based on values and how those align to what you want to achieve with your app business (obviously they need to have the base skills to do the job). Also, if possible, it’s great to work with people first before you bring them on full-time/contract them etc to de-risk your decision.

Emmanuel Crouvisier, CardPointers

One of the challenges I have faced with CardPointers is when subscriber growth plateaus, which it has done a few times since I started the company five years ago.

Initially I found it hugely discouraging, but then I focused on turning that into an opportunity, motivating me to find new ways to find new users which I hadn’t explored before. Every time I go through this now it leads to discovering new channels to find users, establishing new partnerships with content creators in new spaces, and increasing the velocity of subscriber growth.

Struggling isn’t always a bad thing as it often leads to motivation to break out of any slump.

Key takeaways

What have we learnt about building an app business as a founder?

  • Adaptability is crucial: Nearly all developers emphasize the importance of being able to pivot and adapt to changes in the market, technology, and user behavior. For instance, the IDFA changes significantly impacted Alex Ross’s mobile ads strategy, underlining the transient nature of most growth strategies.
  • Focus on brand development: Instead of solely relying on fleeting marketing trends, building a strong brand is highlighted as a long-term strategy that can weather changes in the marketplace.
  • App Store Optimization (ASO) is key for visibility: Olivier Bernal’s experience with Currency Converter underscores the necessity of ASO for improving app visibility in a crowded marketplace.
  • The value of bootstrapping and learning from early mistakes: Lewis Dackam’s journey with Kupenda illustrates the merits of starting small, learning quickly from early feedback, and then scaling thoughtfully.
  • Innovative engagement strategies can pay off: The success of quirky marketing campaigns, such as Kupenda’s humorous flyers, demonstrates the effectiveness of creative engagement strategies in attracting users.
  • The importance of having a clear growth and attention strategy: David Barnard’s experience with Weather Up stresses the need for a well-thought-out plan to garner and sustain user attention.
  • Storytelling and connecting with users on a personal level: Ania Wysocka’s approach with Rootd highlights the power of storytelling and connecting your app’s unique value to users’ experiences and broader events.
  • The right team is critical: Adam Allore emphasizes the importance of having a team that’s not just skilled but also adaptable and aligned with the app’s vision and values.
  • Turn challenges into opportunities: Emmanuel Crouvisier’s experience with CardPointers shows that plateaus and challenges can be springboards for innovation and growth.
  • Time management and prioritization: Stuart Hall points out the challenge of balancing development time with other commitments, suggesting the need to effectively prioritize tasks and possibly to charge more for your app’s offerings.

Thank you to all of our contributors.

All of these app founders hang out in the Sub Club community, a place where we discuss the ins and outs of running an app business. Join the community if you’re not already a member. And if you’re interested in contributing to the RevenueCat blog, too, get in touch with me on the community.

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