We've all heard stories about developers who built something and had it magically succeed.
One example is the story of a 29 year-old developer named Dong Nguyen. In May 2013, from his home in Vietnam, he quietly released a mobile game called Flappy Bird. It existed in obscurity for six months, registering only a handful of downloads.
Suddenly, on February 1, the game's popularity exploded. Flappy Bird was discovered and downloaded by millions of people. It climbed to the top of the iTunes and Google Play charts. It was rumored that Nguyen was earning more than $50,000 a day in advertising royalties.
He claimed multiple times that he hadn't done any paid acquisition to boost the game's rankings. If he became a success without marketing, why can't we?
Unicorns and outliers
First, we have to admit that Nguyen's success is unusual. Most top-charting apps are made by Apple, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Netflix and Pandora. These are companies with serious marketing muscle.
So while it's possible for an indie app to climb the charts to number 1, it's also very unlikely. Even harder? Making money. The analyst firm Gartner recently stressed that:
Less than 0.01 percent of consumer mobile apps will be considered a financial success by their developers. (Source)
My goal is to help more independent software developers get paid for the things they create. It's possible, but we're not going to get there by following unicorns. Instead, we need to follow marketing principles that have been tested, and are replicable.
Our tendency as humans to only focus on successful examples (while ignoring the hundreds, or thousands of failures) is called survivorship bias.
"The behaviors of winners are remembered and dissected far more thoroughly than those of losers, and given greater weight." -- Freakonomics
How many other developers submitted apps, and did not achieve Dong Nguyen's success? Likely thousands.
In fact, a French developer had published a very similar game to the Google Play store in 2011, called Piou Piou. The gameplay, graphics, and mechanics are almost identical and yet it did not meet Flappy Bird's fame.
The problem with our bias towards winners is that winners can't really teach us anything. Dong Nguyen himself doesn't know why Flappy Bird became a hit. What did Dong do right and the thousands of other developers do wrong? We don't know, and therefore can't extrapolate a winning formula from his experience.
"If you group successes together and look for what makes them similar, the only real answer will be luck." -- Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow
If it's all about luck, then why bother?
Because when you build something and tell people about it you increase your odds of success. That's what marketing is: amplifying your message so that your product has a better chance of being discovered.
Let's go back to Flappy Bird. While Nguyen may not have done a lot of traditional promotion, he was running an amazing guerrilla marketing campaign.
Most casual games start out easy, and get more difficult as you play. This allows new players to slowly build mastery over time. Flappy Bird was different, it was immediately hard. That screen you see above?
When you die in Flappy Bird, you can share your frustration on Twitter. The game's unexpected difficulty surprised people. It was unusual. Human beings are wired with the desire to share things that are unique. Nguyen gave them an easy outlet to do this: the "Share" button.
I first heard about the game when popular Vine personalities began featuring it in their videos. Soon after my friends started challenging me on Twitter to beat their score. It may have been unintentional, but Nguyen achieved the dream of every app developer: he got people talking about his game.
You too can increase your odds of success by following this simple checklist:
- Build something people want.
- Tell them about it.
How to use this course
The first section of this course is called Build Something People Want. While it's aimed at developers who are still looking for an idea, the principles apply to every marketing stage.
Developers who have built a product, but haven't yet launched, should start with the Lean Marketing Stack. After that, continue to the section entitled Before You Launch.
The biggest part of the course is called After You Launch. It contains numerous tactics you can try once your product is public, with the aim of helping you get your first 100 customers.