The 2 Week Open Source Live Stream App Experiment

I’ve just recently completed an interesting experiment: coding an iOS game in only 2 weeks, open sourcing 100% of the code, and doing 100% of the development on live stream. The result: Spare Parts – a silly 2D physics game where you can build crazy contraptions. The videos below might give you an idea for the app:

Why on earth would I do this?

Loose Leaf took me over 2 years to build, and the vast majority of that development was closed off from feedback – I didn’t start showing my work until well into the 2nd year of development. If I had it to do over again, this is the biggest thing I’d change – early feedback is incredibly important.

So I wanted to try something different and build an app extremely quickly: I gave myself just 2 weeks to build an app from scratch and submit it to the App Store. I also wanted to build the app completely in the open – a contrast to Loose Leaf’s closed process. I thought it’d be fun to have 100% of the code be open source from day 1, and to also have 100% of the code built on stream.

It could be fun for viewers to participate in feature decisions, and might serve as an interesting “This is what mobile development is really like” for developers thinking about working in mobile.

So how’d it go?

Surprisingly well! I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d be able to ship something respectable in just 2 weeks, but I think the v1.0 turned out well. Across the 17 streams, there was just 24 hours of development throughout the 2 weeks, and our version 1.0 was feature complete! The best part – all of the testers who’ve given feedback have really enjoyed the app – it’s the first game I’ve ever made, and I’m glad it turned out to be a fun one 🙂

The stream has also brought a fair amount of attention to the project. CNN Money recently wrote about – the site where I’ve streamed the development – and included some quotes and a photo from yours truly! ITWorld also wrote up an article about the project which was very fun to see. For such a short app experiment, it’s already brought in some considerable attention!

What did I learn?

When I started Loose Leaf development three years ago, I believed that the value was in the code I was writing. I’ve learned that’s very rarely the case – the real value is in the community you build around your project. During those 2 years of development, I missed the biggest opportunity, which was to build and bring a community with me during that dev process.

As I continue to work on Loose Leaf, Spare Parts, Remotely, and other apps – yes, I’ll be coding – but more importantly I’ll be focused on encouraging the community around each of these apps. I’ve been so used to coding in my own silo until everything is perfect – it’s been eye opening to learn how to include others in the development process, even when nothing is built, polished, or even decided.

What’s next?

I’m going to continue work on Spare Parts, including keeping 100% of the code open source and on stream. Feel free to follow along at the site or the YouTube channel or on Twitter.

I’m also going to find ways to continue to open up Loose Leaf’s development process and keep adding to its growing open source contributions.

100k Downloads in 1 Weekend!

Loose-Leaf-DownloadsAsk anyone, and they’ll tell you that launch day is the most important day of an app’s life, and if you miss it then you’ve lost.

I wrote earlier about the lackluster launch day for Loose Leaf, and over the past 3 months I’ve continued to push through a marketing strategy. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Today is an important mile marker: 3 days bringing nearly 100k downloads!

“So how do you get 100k downloads for your app?” you may ask. If you’d asked me three months ago, I’d have no idea. Arguably I still have no idea since we got just under 100k downloads this past weekend, but let’s round up for today – I’m celebrating!

The short story: do new things constantly.

Three Months

These past 3 days couldn’t have happened without the three months before them. After last November’s launch, I started reading Traction. The book outlines 19 different marketing channels that could work for any company, and it encourages brainstorming and prioritizing how every one of them could be used.

I took it to heart and started working my way through my own spreadsheet of ideas. At the time of writing, I still have 50+ ideas in the spreadsheet – it’s a system not a goal.

A few of the ideas that I’ve worked through:

  1. Regular bloggingThere have been quite a few posts that brought significant traffic
  2. Open sourcePerformanceBezier in particular has brought significant visibility to the app
  3. Coding Livestreams: It’s a fun way to open source some code, and has also resulted in some press mentioning Loose Leaf
  4. Lots more app videos: I started using Vine for frequent developer updates, and hand shadows for better demo videos
  5. Started working with Madalyn Sklar and then Steve Young: both of whom have been instrumental in teaching and helping me
  6. Interviewed on app podcasts
  7. Joined #startup to learn from other startup makers
  8. Start regularly attending and occasionally presenting at local meetups
  9. and many more ideas I won’t bother listing…

I discovered that these ideas are more than their sum. It’s a make-your-own-luck game, where the more places you push, the more often they push together. This podcast interview helped get Loose Leaf seen and posted to Product Hunt late last month, which ultimately helped our pitch this past weekend.

Three Days

When I started working with Steve in late February, one of the ideas he brought was to make Loose Leaf free for just 1 weekend. The goal for the weekend would be 20k to 40k free downloads tohelp prove traction for the app,  validate our target market, and jump start a community of users.

Steve’s strategy here is simple:

  1. It only makes sense for paid apps, the higher priced apps work even better
  2. It requires at least some traction already
  3. Plan to go free for just 1 weekend
  4. Pitch specific sites about the high price app going free

Dropping a paid app with some validation to free for a very limited time can be an effective pitch to high traffic app deal sites. For the free weekend, we pitched three different sites, and on Friday we got picked up by just one of them.

On Saturday morning, 1 day into the free weekend, Loose Leaf had barely over 4k downloads. Traffic grew throughout Saturday, and the related tweets got it picked up by AppAdvice, which brought even more traffic. We also started to rank in the App Store’s top free productivity apps, and all of the combined traffic brought in over 58k downloads that day! This continued into Sunday for an additional 33k downloads, totaling over 96k for the weekend!

It’s very safe to say this has been a wild success! We were able to get Loose Leaf in front of a large audience, measure conversion rates, A/B test the website, and jump start a strong community of users and start hearing their valuable feedback. The biggest take away was connecting with lots of new users and validating and tuning our target market.

Three Lessons

1. Small problems become big problems with lots of users

Before the weekend, I only knew of very rare and difficult to reproduce bugs in the app. With this many people using the app, even rare bugs becomes immediately obvious. Crashlytics has been invaluable for reporting problems in real time, and thankfully shows problems hit a small % of users.

2. Measure. Measure. Measure.

Going into the weekend, I was prepared to measure as much as I possible. Mix panel and Google Analytics were setup on the site to track demographics and conversions and A/B test different site layouts. Mixpanel was also integrated into the app to anonymously track average session duration, tool usage, and which tutorials pages were effective. This is a huge help both for which features to work on and where to focus our marketing energy.

3. Brainstorm and keep trying new things

This weekend happened because of the three months of brainstorming and work that led up to it. Today was that validation to keep pushing, keep moving, and keep running the marathon. I still have 50 ideas to push through on my Traction spreadsheet, and by the time I’m done I’m sure I’ll have thought of 50 more.

Let the next mile begin.

Programming Without a Computer

I think of this quote almost every day:

I was trying to understand why rockets were so expensive. Obviously the lowest cost you can make anything for is the spot value of the material constituents. And that’s if you had a magic wand and could rearrange the atoms. So there’s just a question of how efficient you can be about getting the atoms from raw material state to rocket shape.

– Elon Musk


Which I reworded and condensed to:

There exists an order of bits that’ll make the iPad do what I want, and my job as a programmer is to find that list of bits.

This fought against my competing idea:

Either what I’m trying to do is impossible, or I’m too dumb to figure out how to do it.

Every day was an exercise in motivation, and a balance between these two thoughts. A few features that gave me particular grief: scissors, gesturesperformance, OpenGL rendering, among others. Each took me weeks to figure out, and often a few weeks into their development I felt no closer than day one.

But then something fantastic happened: about halfway through Loose Leaf‘s development, I had some health problems that required me to dramatically change my diet and to start exercising. Health problems generally aren’t great news, but this one changed more than my diet.

As I walked about four miles each afternoon,  a wonderful thing happened that I didn’t expect: being away from my computer gave me time to think more completely about the problem I was working on. Since I obviously didn’t have my computer with my on my walk, I couldn’t dive straight into coding each half baked idea, which forced me to think deeper through each potential solution to prove that it’d work. When I finally got back to my computer later that afternoon, I’d have a well thought out plan of attack. This made the last half of the afternoon many times more productive than the entire afternoon ever would have been.

I honestly don’t think I could have built the scissors feature without taking that walk every afternoon. More than I could say has already been said about Deep Work and thinking without distractions, but this was it for me. Taking time away from technology – no computer, no phone, no iPod, no music – it let me find the solutions to difficult problems.

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