What makes an app developer successful: Robleh Jama of Tiny Hearts

When news broke that one of the world’s most successful mobile games – Flappy Bird – was being shut down, it left other game developers and marketers collectively scratching their heads. Why? Well, according to a report by Forbes, Dong Nguyen’s game was raking in $50,000 in revenues from in-game advertising.

No matter how popular games like Flappy Birds and Angry Birds have become, hitting the mobile jackpot is an elusive dream for most mobile developers.

According to a report by Gartner Inc.: “Consumers are increasingly turning to recommendation engines, friends, social networking or advertising to discover mobile applications rather than sorting through the thousands of mobile apps available. As a consequence, Gartner Inc. predicts that through 2018, less than 0.01 percent of consumer mobile apps will be considered a financial success by their developers.”

So is it worth the time, money and effort needed to invest in building a mobile app, if chances are these mobile products will never result in a financial return?

I turned to independent mobile developer Tiny Hearts and its founder Robleh Jama for some insights. Tiny Hearts is an award-winning Toronto-based app development studio located in Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone. They recently launched Quick Fit, which is an exercise app based on the popular and scientifically-based 7 Minute Workout. Tiny Hearts first reached prominence when they launched the wildly successful Pocket Zoo app.

I sat down with Jama to try and understand his thought process. Here is an edited version of that conversation:

Talk to me about how the idea came up for developing your first app, Pocket Zoo. What did you see in your research and what was the story that this research and data were telling you?

Robleh Jama: “I spent about half a year just studying the App Store from both a product and market perspective. I downloaded a bunch of apps and noticed a popular live cam app near the end of 2009. It was number one on the App Store right before Angry Birds stormed up the charts. I was really impressed at the fact that you could watch all these live cams from all over the world right on your phone. My favourite live cams were the animal ones. That’s when the idea for Pocket Zoo hit me. I decided to create the best zoo app combining original animal illustrations and facts with some of the most popular curated animal content from around the web.”

Is this the same process you take in developing all your subsequent apps?

Jama: “A lot of the inspiration for the apps comes from a personal pain or need to scratch my own itch. We try to build products that we are passionate about while at the same time making sure there is a large group of people with a similar need or want.”

Quick Fit
Quick Fit

InstaMatch, Wake and Quick Fit are all very different from PocketZoo. Walk me through, if you can, what you saw in the marketplace that gave you insights into building these products?

Jama: “With Wake I wanted to create a simple and beautiful alarm that was powerful enough to wake me up. The shake to wake mode was made for me. But we also made it appeal to light sleepers with the slap to snooze and flip to turn off gestures. The inspiration for Quick Fit was a problem a lot of people have – lack of time to work out, which is why we’re currently building fitness apps for busy people based on well-known high-intensity interval training routines like the 7 Minute Workout and 4 Minute tabata routines. InstaMatch was one of those ideas that I didn’t do a good job of validating. It was unique and scratched my own itch but the idea of games around Instagram didn’t appeal to a broad enough audience. Pocket Zoo was my first education/kids app and was inspired by my first daughter. All the products I’ve created have a shared goal – to make people’s lives better in small and meaningful ways.”

How much time do you spend on PR?

Jama: “Fifty per cent of my marketing time and effort is spent on PR. PR is really important for apps. It’s one of the best ways to get the word out.”

How do you cultivate and grow these relationships?

Jama: “Building a relationship with a blogger is not that much different than building a relationship with a new friend. You find the things you have in common, genuinely reach out, start a conversation and add value. Maybe you interact with them on Twitter or send them useful tips. It’s a two-way street. If you add value to the relationship it will grow. And chances are, if you have a newsworthy product they will cover it.”

Why do so few developers make money on the App Store? We understand that billions have been paid to developers but according to reports, less than one per cent of apps are financially successful. What’s your secret to success? How do you find the right balance between developer and marketing costs, versus selling a $1.99 app in the App Store?

Jama: “As you know, the competition on the App Store is fierce. To be successful on the App Store you need to have a good understanding of business/market dynamics, technology and design. Fifty per cent of it is creating a great product and the other fifty per cent is knowing how to price, sell, and market it to the world. There is no secret to success. You need to keep learning – the longer you survive in the crazy world of App Stores,  the higher your chances of thriving.”

Karim Kanji
Karim Kanji
Karim Kanji is the Canadian Director of Social Media Strategy at iNvolved Media. iNvolved Media was purchased by Active International in 2015. Clients include popular food brands, technology brands and other CPG companies. Prior to joining iNvolved Media, Karim led the paid social media strategy for some of Canada's most popular CPG and confectionery brands for Catalyst/GroupM. Karim started in the social media space when he co-founded and was the President of THIRDOCEAN where he led the creation of digital content for companies including Scotiabank, Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan, Microsoft, Wild Water Kingdom, Palomino Systems Inc. and Techvibes. Karim has also been recognized as a pioneer in podcasting having interviewed people such as such as federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, former MLSE boss Richard Peddie, TVO's Steve Paikin, Canadian serial angel investor Dr. Boris Wertz, HootSuite founder Ryan Holmes, Mathew Ingram, Mitch Joel from Mirium and many, many others. As a demonstration of thought leadership, Karim led the development and execution of reports discussing how technology and digital media have impacted industries such as retail, education, health, gaming, sports and banking.

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