How to Launch a $30k iOS App using Amazon Rankings as a Guide

If you’re familiar with AppSumo and its founder Noah Kagan you will know that one of the tricks Noah and his team use to come up with so many products and business ideas is that they look at what’s already popular, what’s already selling, as part of their research. One way to do this is to take a look at a site like Amazon and browse their rankings to see what people in your (or almost any) country are buying.

Due to the broad range of products Amazon sells you can really learn a lot about what is being bought and why (by checking the reviews). You can also learn what these top-selling products are not yet doing by reading the reviews and picking out the complaints. This formed part of Tim Ferriss’ research for The Four Hour Chef. Specifically he asked his followers what their all-time favourite cooking books were then he scoured the reviews for complaints and “if only’s” on what people wished the books covered, which is one of the reasons why BBQ and brisket are featured more prominently than you might expect.

I used a similar approach back in 2010 when I started developing my first iPhone app. The idea for the app itself came from “scratching an itch” as 37Signals would put it; I was solving a problem I had myself. The decision to build and release it however came from the research on Amazon that suggested the app would sell well with little or no marketing on my part.

The idea itself came when reading the book Buddha’s Brain which aims to be a neurophysiological explanation of what effects meditation has on your brain and why it produces the results that it does. The book contained around 50 short exercises, most of which you could do while waiting for traffic lights or on line somewhere. Only problem was remembering the details of how to do them, what to watch out for etc.—if an app version had existed at that moment with just the exercises I would have bought it so that I could make more use out of the material. No such app existed however so I considered the possibility of making it myself.

Some quick research on Amazon showed that the book had numerous 4 and 5 star reviews, was top of its category and in the top 10 in related categories. In short it was doing very well, particularly in its niche. It wasn’t a huge seller but it was on the more expensive side for a non-fiction paperback and was part of a family of products from the author which gave me confidence that it would sell enough to be worth pursuing.

I contacted the author, which then led to the publisher and an agreement regarding use of the content and how the revenue sharing would work. The app was launched in December 2011 just in time for Christmas and all those new iDevices being switched on. As the app contained almost as much content as the ebook but in a more convenient format we set the price at $4.99.

In the first month (up to the end of 2011) we had 837 sales and a number of 5 star reviews. After that sales flattened out into a steady trickle and with no updates to the app it sold 2,011 copies in 2012. In November 2012 I received an email from an ALS sufferer who told me that she wanted to use the app on her iPad but that she can only use apps that are iPad-compatible and work in landscape format. So, in early 2013 I released a new version which was reworked to support the new iPhone 5 screen size as well as both orientations on iPad. This boosted sales slightly (as it was now a more attractive purchase on iPad).

One of the most often-requested features in the app reviews and emails that would come in was for audio from the author to accompany the written practices. The author recorded some exclusive audio for the app and this was included in mid-2013 which resulted in a large spike in sales after he announced this update to his mailing list. Total number of sales up to September in 2013 is 3,294 units, giving an overall total of 6,142 units.

Plotted on a graph it looks like a decent rate of growth:

Sales 2011-2013

The sales graphs are in fact very spiky, with a large proportion of the sales coming from the author’s promotional efforts once or twice a year. The last such spike was just over a month ago as this graph suggests:

Trend as of 21-10-2013

Was it worth it?

While I would recommend looking to what is already selling for inspiration I might not necessarily suggest developing an app in this particular manner, i.e. on the iOS app store using licensed content. Reason being that from your sales revenue Apple will naturally take their 30% cut but that you may also then lose a sizeable chunk of the remaining revenue to the content licensing costs. It’s a double-edged sword: you’ve based your app on content that is popular and that will help drive sales of your app, but depending on the agreement you strike with the content producer you may not end up with the return you were after.

With that said, if you are just starting out with developing products then looking to what is selling today, and where the gaps are can give you some ideas where you can have some confidence that the market exists. After that you may have other problems such as reaching that market, and that is where partnerships such as the one described in this post can give you a head start.