Oh shit, my weekend project turned into an App Store Best New App
On March 14, 2015, while reading the book Creative Confidence, I stumbled on a single sentence that seemed to encapsulate the essence of the book in a powerful way.
As a blogger and design-driven individual, I wanted to capture the quote in a captivating way that would allow me to share it quickly online.
An idea strikes.
I held my place in the book with one hand while thumbing through the app store on my phone in the other, unable to find an app that could accomplish what I was looking for. Then an idea suddenly struck me: I could easily create — or try to create — an app that allows me to highlight and share quotes from the books I’m reading. Or so I thought.
It just so happens that the line in the book at that very moment was the momentum I needed to at least try to build a simple enough solution:
The line resonated so well with me — particularly because I belong to the church of reason that says ideas are worthless until we get them out of our heads — that I ran over to my laptop and started working on mockups of what an app with this type of focus could look like.
Of course my initial instinct — of being able to quickly create a highlighting app that effortlessly produces a sharable image of a text quote — wasn’t entirely correct.
I ran into problems with device orientation and how to create a visual effect of a highlight without actually creating the highlight (for the nerds reading who are interested in technical details: I ended up creating two image views of the photo, one brightened and the other dimmed. When a user slides their finger over the dimmed view, we create a mask layer that lets the brightened view shine through).
All-in-all the project took me an hour to program and another few hours to generate screenshots for, icons, text for the App Store, and promotional material like this short video:
I used the app to create the quote image you see above, shared it on Facebook, and submitted the App Store, then called it a day.
You can download Snaplight here if you haven’t tried it yet.
In total Snaplight took less than 24 hours to conceptualize, design, program, create promotional material for, and submit to the app store. Which brings me to the reason I’m writing this…
Let me be clear: I think Snaplight is a pretty lame app.
Snaplight is terrible. It’s hardly useable today. That’s not to say it’s useless…it’s great for doing one simple thing well, but that’s where it stops.
There are a number of things wrong with Snaplight.
Photos are cropped strangely because of the limitations on the device. Highlights are one-size-fits-all (for now) because I didn’t want to add clutter to the interface and an algorithm to detect the size of text in a photograph wasn’t complete.
But the app did exactly what I wanted it to do: allow me to create sharable photos of highlighted passages from the books I’m reading.
Then, one morning a few days after Snaplight became available in the iPhone and iPad App Store, I noticed a slight uptick in downloads for it. A friend messaged me on Facebook to let me know the app was not only trending, it was being featured on the App Store homepage.
Within hours the app climbed to rest in the top 20 apps under the Lifestyle category, and reached the top 200 apps for all categories worldwide.
“Shit,” I thought to myself, “this is going to get some seriously bad reviews.”
Snaplight serves an extremely niche need: mine. But does that make it useless? No. I imagine someone at Apple who has been looking at my past work (Snaplight is my fifth creativity-oriented app in the store to-date), thought it was clever enough to promote to the homepage of the store.
After a few thousand downloads: I now am waiting for the negative, one-star reviews to roll in. And there is no doubt in my mind that they will, because Snaplight isn’t the type of product many people will find useful.
My own mother, after testing the app on launch day, simply said: “Like the app a lot. Hope you can improve it.”
Of course I have ideas for improving the app, but it’s likely to never become a #1 app or meet all of the needs of those who will try it out in the coming months.
And not all of the incoming reviews are negative. Jeff Byrnes of AppAdvice.com had a few kind words to say about Snaplight: “Whether you’re highlighting a quote from a book you’re reading now or loading up an old photo from your photo library, the app is easy to use for creating a picture of your highlighted passages.”
I’m ok with falling short in the eyes of those who don’t find Snaplight useful.
Instead of looking at this as a story of failure and missing an opportunity to potentially be a massively popular app, I want to instead focus on the reasons I built the app and how they’ve empowered me to not only reach hundreds of thousands of people time and time again, but helped me to be successful financially, in my career, and in my personal life.
Here’s what I think is more important than getting a 100% 5-star review rating on an app:
1. Scratch your own itch
Snaplight solves an exact need — or scratch — I had: being able to quickly capture a photo of a book I’m reading and create a sharable quote from it.
All of my work has followed this same pattern of scratching my own itch, and here’s why:
If the project fails, at least you have something that fulfills your need.
Even if Snaplight was never featured in the App Store, and even as it is certainly doomed to fall in the rankings due to low ratings, the app was a success in that it fulfilled my need.
There’s a bonus benefit to scratching your own itch in the work you do as well: you can adapt it to fit your needs as they change or grow, because you own it. If I ever have a problem with Snaplight or want to add new features, I’m completely empowered to make those changes happen, because it’s my product.
2. Start with MVP
Minimum viable product. Whatever it is you’re working on: it needs to do what you set out to make it do, and nothing more (at least initially).
You can always add more to a product, what’s tremendously more difficult is getting the damn thing built and out the door in the first place. If you have an idea, focus on whatever the minimum product can look like and build that. You can always adapt/grow/improve the product once it’s built, but until you have something you can actually see or play with in front of you: don’t worry about your growth strategy for it.
For Snaplight, I knew I wanted to be able to adjust the height of the highlighted area (something not present in version 1.0), I even began working on a text-height detecting algorithm that looks at a series of pixels in a photo and compares their contrasts in aggregate in order to return an ideal height for the highlight. But features like auto highlight sizing based on text size detection is candy compared to what I set out to build in the first place.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for money
Your work deserves a dollar, at the very least. If you want to succeed you’ll need to get comfortable asking for money.
If you’re willing to put in some work to do something (anything) you should be rewarded for your efforts, particularly if someone else is going to benefit from them.
As long as you believe the product offers someone value, they’ll pay a reasonable price for it. And because you’re scratching your own itch, there’s a bit of early proof that makes it clear:
Of course “someone” will get value from whatever it is you create: people like you.
In the end, I’m excited that Snaplight is getting a bit of additional exposure to those who will find it useful but otherwise wouldn’t have discovered the app in the first place.
For everyone else who tries it and finds it to be a useless piece of garbage: thanks for trying it and providing feedback, I hope you find what you’re looking for elsewhere.
But for those in the last category, if you aren’t finding the product that scratches your itch, might I make a suggestion? …
Learn how to build whatever it is you need, then go build it.
It’s been a pretty effective strategy for me so far.
Update: On September 1st, 2015, Starbucks selected Snaplight as their Pick of the Week, highlighting the app for more than a million people in the United States. Thanks Starbucks!
Update: As of March 2017, two years after launching Snaplight, it’s still going strong with about 10,000 downloads each week.
Update: On September 19, 2019 this article made it to the front page of Hacker News (👋 Hacker News readers). The app has fallen completely off the radar of the App Store charts and is now only getting around 40 downloads each week (though last week it did get 3,000). Over the lifetime of the app I only made about $4,000; I never had enough time to update the app as I wanted so made it free and have since stopped working on it.