From apps to riches: making it big as a small developer

August 25, 2016

Tags: 2016, Publishers

Julia Martin
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Here at MoPub, we have the privilege of helping app developers of all sizes build successful monetization strategies. We work with many of the largest publishers in the business — but we also work with indie developers and get to see their journey from behind the scenes. Developers who are somewhat new to the space can sometimes feel like the odds are against them, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make it big with the right strategy. Here we profile two stories illustrating how great ideas can turn into apps that are not only extremely popular, but also generate material revenue for their creators.

Squad Social apps | Josiah Jenkins

The concept: When Josiah Jenkins , a 21-year-old Vine influencer from Atlanta, started getting into the app space, he didn’t have much app development experience.  He did, however, have his finger on the pulse of what’s hot and what’s going to trend in pop culture.

josiah jenkins

Photo courtesy of Josiah Jenkins

In the last year, Josiah’s company Squad Social has released several simple games based on viral phenomena, including the “Damn, Daniel” video, Donald Trump, the popularity of the Golden State Warriors, and “dabbing.”

With Damn Daniel, he had an inkling early on that the video was going to be huge, and he knew he had to act quickly. Despite not having much app development experience, he thought that if he could release a simple game around the Damn Daniel concept, it could capitalize on the video’s popularity. He also knew that his connections in the social media space could help him market the game at little to no cost.

The execution: Josiah would design simple games like Damn Daniel or Can You Dab? in a very short amount of time, and worked with a trusted developer to build them out. In just a few days he would have the finished versions. Importantly, the apps all had monetization baked in, generally in the form of an interstitial or a banner ad unit at the bottom of the screen.

can you dab app with ad image
One of Josiah’s apps, with a banner ad for monetization

When it came to finding an audience for his games, Josiah’s social media savvy would come into play. We’ve talked before about how Twitter can drive major impact for mobile apps ; Josiah put this to the test. He utilizes Twitter, Vine, Instagram, and Facebook to spread the word about his new games. Some of his fellow Vine and Instagram influencers agree to cross-promote, and Josiah himself has challenged his followers to beat his scores. As a result, his apps have seen surges in popularity; the app based on “Damn, Daniel” even landed at #1 on the App Store for free apps.

The results: The average high traffic lifespan of Josiah’s apps is only about three weeks. So the fact that the apps have advertising built into them from the beginning is key: he is able to profit right away. Viral gaming apps like Josiah’s typically have a huge usage spike at the beginning and then trail off as the novelty and buzz die down; if Josiah had waited until after the app was already popular to integrate ads, he would have missed out on a huge chunk of revenue. In other words, for apps like Josiah’s, a clever idea is important, but so is the foresight to add monetization strategies early, before your app becomes a hit. It’s also key to play to your strengths and take advantage of your social networks. Josiah is now a self-made millionaire, and he’s replicating his success with other games.

“Sworkit” by Nexercise Apps | Ryan Hanna, Ben Young, Gregory Coleman

The concept: Sworkit was the brainchild of Ryan Hanna, an avid fitness enthusiast who saw the need for a simple and customizable way for users to get in a good workout.  He started off simply, filming workout videos in his bedroom, but then got the chance to partner with Ben Young and Gregory Coleman. Ben and Greg had met at Wharton Business School and, understanding the importance of keeping fit, started a company called Nexercise. Together the three partners transformed Ryan’s idea into Sworkit , a free, ad-supported workout app (with a really slick UI!) that’s adaptable to the user’s needs and goals.

sworkit team

Photo courtesy of Ryan Hanna

The execution: Up until early this year, its creators were having a tough time elevating Sworkit to a breakthrough level of brand awareness and exposure. That is, until they got a unique opportunity to pitch the app on the TV show “Shark Tank.” Not only did that get Sworkit great exposure, but Mark Cuban decided to invest $1.5 million in the app — and he also requested $1.5 million worth of their ad inventory.

Why? It’s a great way for Mark Cuban to promote his other fitness investments, like Surfset. Because Sworkit was already set up to run direct ads, they were able to quickly and easily offer traffic to Mark’s campaigns (without lengthy additional integration work).

The result: The Sworkit team is now doing better than ever; they’re also continuously thinking about ways to increase monetization and further grow their business. Of course, not many publishers will have the opportunity to go on a major TV show to promote their app — but Sworkit’s journey still has widely applicable lessons. First, thinking about monetization from Day One can impact your long-term outcome: Sworkit was an attractive investment partly due to the fact that they were already on their way to profitability. Second, it’s important to keep your options open and implement a solution that allows you to work with advertisers in more than one way. Ad networks and exchanges may be a great way for you to monetize initially, but having the ability to serve ads from direct advertisers could become a major opportunity if and when your app takes off.

ryan hanna quote


Josiah Jenkins and the Sworkit team had two very different paths to success — but they were able to create big hits without enormous marketing or user acquisition budgets. At the end of the day, having a great idea and building an app that people want is key. But just as important is having the foresight to think strategically about monetization before your app takes off.

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