Josh
25 Oct 2016
By Josh

Making it: HabitChamp developer Matthias Meilicke

Matthias

As part of my work looking for apps to integrate with Exist, our personal analytics platform, I came across HabitChamp. HabitChamp is almost certainly the best habit-tracking app for Windows Phone. As part of our "Making it" series talking to small startups and indie devs, I reached out to Matthias, creator of HabitChamp, to find out a bit more about his app and his journey towards making it big.

Hey Matthias! Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.

I'm a software developer from Germany with 25+ years of professional experience. At my day job I'm currently working on web-based products. In my free time I'm developing mobile apps. My latest app is called HabitChamp. It's an app for forming positive habits.

You've been programming for a long time. I hear you started by publishing Amiga games as a teen.

Spinworld was a futuristic shoot'em up released for the Amiga. A friend of mine and I developed it in a timespan of about two years on the original Amiga 1000. Spinworld was completely written in Motorola 68000 assembly language. It was released under the reLine label in 1988 and sold worldwide. When we started I was about 19 years old.

I find that really impressive, it seems like a much bigger deal than putting an app on the app store. So then what sort of thing did you do at your first real programming job?

My first professional job after university was UI programming in C for X Window and OSF/Motif on different unix flavours like HP-UX, DEC Ultrix and IBM AIX.

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever used a real Unix. So how did you get started with making HabitChamp? What prompted you to take an interest in indie development again?

Several years ago I switched from coffee to tea due to some stomach problems. After testing and preparing various teas I noticed that I needed to somehow simplify the tea preparing process. Because I didn't want to invest much time I thought it would be easy to code a tea-timer with tools I already knew and so I used Visual Studio and C# targeting Windows Phone. I called the app Earl's TeaTime. After using it for several weeks it began to dawn on me that it probably would be interesting to release it to the store and see what happens. I released it as freemium, added some advertisements at the bottom of the main page and uploaded it to the store. Some people liked it and requested an ad-free version. Because at this time in-app purchases were not supported in the store I had to release a paid version without ads.

At the same time I was a bit into habit building but I could not find a decent habit app on Windows Phone. So I thought it would be really nice to start all over again with a new app and a list of things I learned from my previous app. This time I downloaded all habit related apps with good reviews for Android and Windows Phone and made a list of features and UI screenshots worth implementing. Then I built the absolutely essential features.

One other goal was to make it super simple to use from the beginning. Most of the apps I tested were to complicated to start with. I made HabitChamp a freemium product with an IAP to remove the advertisement.

In hindsight you could say I got reinterested in indie development because I couldn't find the apps I needed for my purposes.

How much development time have you put into HabitChamp so far?

I started HabitChamp in October of 2013. I mostly worked on the app one or two days per week in the evening and at least one afternoon at the weekend. When you only have small slices of time to do your stuff it's important to get really fast into the groove. At least for me I need about half an hour to get productive. Lately I'm using "Music To Code By" with good results.

What approaches have you taken to marketing HabitChamp? How did that go?

My goal was to see how far I can get with a very small marketing budget. I tried to use multiple different channels as described in the Traction book. I built a landing page at HabitChamp.com, created @habitchamp on Twitter and tweeted habit-related stuff every other day. I also tweeted about eating my own dogfood showing the status of several of my own habits. The current status of two of my top habits are: "Morning workout - 1020 days in a row" and "Walk at least 10000 steps per day - 563 days in a row". I integrated a cross-promotion network for Windows Phone and Windows apps called AdDuplex. For every 10 ads displayed in your app you get 8 impressions of your ad.

To increase the electronic word-of-mouth effect I posted on discussion forums like Reddit. Interestingly this has quite a nice conversion rate. I also got several reviews on app sites and on podcasts.

Inside the app I added a nagging screen for reviewing/rating the app in the app store when using the freemium version. In the beginning I thought this would be a bit sleazy, but the technique really worked. It quintupled the reviews in the app store.

I added a "Pay what you want" feature as an IAP product. You could remove the ads by paying 0.99€ or 1.29€ or 2.99€. Whatever you choose, it just removes the ads. Interestingly about 20% of the purchases are selecting one of the higher prices. This is not directly related to marketing but it shows an interesting way to get more money out of a conversion.

Do you see any parallels between the indie game scene of the late 80s/early 90s and the indie app development scene these days?

You can see the indie game scene of the 80s and the indie app development scene these days a bit like a goldrush. There was a rare chance to hit a jackpot if you were able to release something the people love.

But from a technology standpoint it was completely different. You had no internet, no e-mail, no Twitter and no GitHub. When working on a team you had to do all code integration manually. On top you needed a publisher to sell your stuff in the stores. Today you can easily reach much more visibility and you don't need a publisher at all (besides the app store).

That sounds terrible! And impressive. Given all you had to deal with back then, what's been harder than you expected this time around?

Creating the artwork for the app store and finding a suitable app logo was really hard for me. I also had no idea how digital marketing works and how to use it.

Then I got swamped with support requests. I never thought this would be a problem. In the beginning reproducing user problems wasn't that easy. After I added a backup feature in the app the user could backup their data and send it to me. This really helped me a lot to resolve issues.

Would you say you're successful? At what point can you say "I've made it"?

Money-wise it did not yet work out. The problem is that a habit app on Windows Phone is a niche market inside a niche market. But when I'm taking the current downloads numbers and see it in relation to the Windows Phone market share it looks quite ok.

I find the concept of "Thousand True Fans" really interesting:

To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as an app maker you need only thousands of true fans.

Another idea worth evaluating could be "The Long Tail". Every app finds an audience, even if it’s just a few people a month, somewhere in the world. So a viable plan could be to release a collection of small useful apps. And this could mean that you probably don't need a hit to make a living.

From the psychological standpoint I probably have already made it. I'm happy with what I've reached so far and I really love what I'm doing. The next step would be to improve the financial side.

That's great to hear! So what are your future plans for HabitChamp, and apps in general?

In general I would like to expand my market share by porting HabitChamp to all relevant mobile platforms. At the moment I'm testing this approach with a new small app to see how complicated it is to get it to work on all major platforms and how much stuff I can reuse or have to reimplement. A web version would be nice, but I don't see how can get it to work with my limited time.

In addition I am planning to develop a collection of simple and useful apps. I've already activated the domain BeBetterThanYesterday.com. Maybe I could get a combination of "Thousand True Fans" on one side and "The Long Tail" on the other side working. At the least it's a thrilling experiment.

We wish you all the best! Thanks Matthias!

If you would like to contact me you can say "Hello" on Twitter @matt24x7.