I Built A Timer App That Generates $66K/Year In Profit
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello, I’m Philip, a designer, and developer based in Jakarta, Indonesia. I’m working on Session, an app that helps you to stay focused by blocking distracting web, apps, and Slack, and be more reflective of what you’ve worked on.
Session is designed for creative workers that need deep focus (like software engineer, designer, writer, video editor, etc). To my surprise, a lot of students and teachers also enjoyed using it. That’s a nice surprise.
As of last month (May 2021), Session made about $5.8K per month in revenue. The business model is freemium; basic functionalities are free, while real-time sync and additional features could be unlocked with a subscription. The only overheads I have are server costs and email sending costs—both at~$10 per month.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
After high school graduation, I wanted to become a designer. My dad doesn't let me because he thinks there's no future there. So I ended up in marketing college because it's the closest to the design domain in business school. After graduation, I decided that I want to make a tech agency—I can design, but can't code. So I spent a few weeks looking for developers that I can partner with. Sadly, I can't find one.
A friend of mine was starting a startup at the time and was looking for their first employee. I joined. At that startup, they outsourced the app development to an external party. Unfortunately, the cycle handoff from design to development is extremely slow. I grew frustrated and ended up learning front-end development to cut off the handoff part. We hired our first engineer at the same time and the development cycle is significantly faster.
Back in high school, I used to sell anime burned on DVD at a local online forum. At the time, the internet connection was extremely bad, so I had to "buy" the movie from another seller, copy it to my computer, and re-burn it into DVDs. I didn't know that was illegal (14/15 at the time)—but that's another story. That helped a lot as I can buy my own mobile device, a computer without my parents' allowance.
My first online product is Contextual. It's a task manager based on GTD. I ended up stopped working on it because my standard for the product is:
- it should provide real-time sync between devices, starting Session on your Mac should also start one on iPhone. That way, when you are on break and went to your kitchen (at home) or cafeteria (at the office), Session could remind you when the break ends. If you decide you don’t want to work again, you can end your Session from your phone. It also automatically ends your Session on Mac.
- it should work offline, it doesn’t make sense to have a “timer” that only works online. The downside is, the implementation (code-wise) is much more complex, but I feel it’s worth it for the best user experience.
- and it should be fast. Can you imagine waiting to stop or start your timer when your internet is slow? That would be very annoying.
At the time (3 years ago), I didn't have the technical capability to provide real-time sync and for the app to work offline. I also can't develop iOS/Android apps because my background is in web development. So I stopped working on it.
Second product is Session — it's a tool to help you stay focused. It was highly inspired by the Pomodoro app and the concept of time blocking—to schedule your time for specific tasks.
There are two reasons why I made Session: First, It’s to solve my own problem—I don’t have a boss (work as a contractor), so I have to motivate myself every day by eliminating distracting websites and I want to know how long I’ve worked on today. Second, I used to work on making web applications, wanted to learn and make a native application (Mac and iOS), so initially, it was a side project for me.
Fortunately, at this time, I have enough time to learn to code iOS apps and backend development (for storing data and sync). I also have successfully made the app work offline. So I have passed my 3 personal standards on how a product should be.
Session becoming a business is a happy accident for me.
Because it was initially a side project, I didn’t really do anything to validate the idea.
There’s no risk of trying to sell it, so I decided to make Session as a subscription model, charge it, and see if people would pay for it. People said one-time purchase products are 10x easier compared to subscriptions, so I don’t have much expectation in the first place.
Turns out people paid for it, which makes me quit my contract work to focus on it full time back in December.
I can afford to work on it full time because my overhead was low (still living with my parents) and I also have some war chest that kept me independent (even though I rent my own place) for > 1 year.
Take us through the process of building the app.
Despite its simplicity, Session took a long time to build, almost 9 months with 20 hours per week. It took a long time for me because I was learning new technology as I went. It’s the first time to:
- written in Swift (programming language)
- work on the mobile and native apps (both iOS and macOS)
- setting up and renting server (Digital Ocean)
- setting up email + newsletter (Amazon SES)
- setting up a database in production (Postgres)
- make things work offline with real-time sync
- first time setting up a “real” business
The MVP is basically just a timer. Then I released it to beta testers (got them from my followers on Twitter). Back then it’s called Focus Timer.
I shared my progress a lot back then! For example, here are my tweets from the early days. You can use a query like from :philipyoungg until:2020-05-01 since: 2020-01-01 on a Twitter search to see tweets from me between those dates. You can try to set the filter month by month to see the progress if you’re interested.
Ever since then, I just listened and iterated the app based on feedback.
There’s two personal rule though—I only consider to implement the feature if:
- At least 3 individual users have asked for it: if the user gives feedback, it means they care enough to reach you out. Remember, reaching out takes a lot of energy (they don’t have to). 1 user might mean it’s too niche and specialized for their use case (not worth your time), 3 users means probably the majority find it useful but are not invested enough to tell you directly. They might already delete your app and move to something else because they didn’t find what they are looking for.
- If I believe the feature would help users to be more focused or be more reflective. Again, you make the product. Feedbacks from users are important, but follow your intuition whether the feature makes sense and is within your vision.
So far, both have been very effective to increase adoption and retention.
Describe the process of launching your app.
I launched a Session on ProductHunt. I’m a pessimist—pretty sure nobody would be interested. Within minutes I got my first subscriber there. Right from that moment, my mind changed. I think this business could work :). I launched on PH without much fanfare, again I just tweeted it and my followers upvoted it, although not much. At the time I didn’t know this, but the algorithm seems to care about total upvotes, so you have to spend a lot of time on your screenshot, description, and icon (animation takes people's attention) to get that organically. Mine didn’t do all three. If I can do it all over again, I would invest in all three. Oh, contacting your friend one by one to check your PH out also helps you to get upvotes too.
I knew right away to charge Session with subscription as it’s the only business model that works sustainably (I talked a lot to other developers that switched from a one-time purchase to a subscription). Not even one of them regretted it.
I chose $4/mo and $30/y at the time because most productivity apps (like Evernote, Todoist, etc) are within the $5 ballpark.
A few months ago, I wanted to focus more on developer/business and market Session as “make your employees more productive”. I want to increase the price to $9/mo and $80/y.
Almost all developers and C-level users supported me, others did not and said that I went greedy.
I ended up just setting the price to $5/mo and $40/y. The reason? I actually feel bad for students (not my target market initially, but this segment is surprisingly the majority). I also found no decrease in revenue.
I still want to focus on the business segment. Probably as a separate app, or create another tier with more features.
Since launch, what has worked to grow the app?
The day after ProductHunt launch, I got an email from SetApp that basically invited Session to partner with them. SetApp is basically Netflix, but for Mac and iOS apps.
The best way to reach product-market fit and retain customers from my experience is to listen to them.
I immediately agreed as Setapp has tens of thousands of subscribers that can get exposed to Session every day. In addition to the App Store, those 2 distribution channels meant I could focus my time on improving the product instead of marketing.
From the App Store, the first few months were slow, I got about ~10 subscribers per month. It’s not until January 2021 that Session got promoted on the Mac App Store as the “app we love right now”. Ever since then, Session has gotten about ~100 new net subscribers per month. Why did I get promoted? I don’t know. It happened out of the blue.
That experience taught me that it’s just a number game. My impression got 10x-ed, and revenue got 10x-ed too. Following that logic, I can increase my impression to increase my revenue. And to increase my impression, I need to focus on localization, playing around with keywords, changing titles and images. All within the realms of App Store Optimization.
Because of those two distribution channels (SetApp and AppStore), I haven’t really focused on marketing at all.
Currently, Session monthly churn rate is about 20%—which is terrible. That’s why my main focus right now is to achieve product-market fit. Marketing would be pointless because I’ll be filling a bucket with a huge hole in it.
The best way to reach product-market fit and retain customers from my experience is to listen to them. Eliminate friction points, and try to make them understand how Session can help them to be the best version of themselves. To do that, I’ve been iterating on onboarding instead of features.
To measure the effectiveness, I take a look at Apple's built-in cohort numbers and compare the 1, 7, 21, and 30-day retention percentages compared to previous releases. What I learned is each feature and onboarding tweaks make the number slightly better every each release.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Session is profitable with $5.5K monthly revenue (50/50 App Store and Setapp). The only cost I have is $10/mo server and ~$1 for sending an email with AWS. Therefore, the net profit is roughly the same (assuming my labor is free).
Currently, Session has 600 active app store subscribers, 2K monthly active set app users, and gets about 100 new subscribers per month (since January).
Conversion from install to paid is about 2%, which for me is alright. That could be better, that’s why right now I’m focusing on achieving product-market fit and onboarding to bump up that number.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I have trouble sleeping forever. I always overthink. I usually have thousands of ideas in my head on how the product could be better. Those thoughts will linger and arise when I’m not distracted by devices (read: going to bed). That will guarantee me to have a bad night's sleep for days ahead. Lack of sleep will make me drowsy the next day, unable to work effectively. It’s a loop. It needs to stop.
What I learned is it doesn’t matter what I think if I don't take action. It always becomes “what if” in my head. The solution is to have a hypothesis (I think adding this feature would help…) and implement it as fast as possible.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
- Digital Ocean for hosting
- AWS for sending email
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
It’s a cliche: 4 hour work week - 7 a catalyst for me to take risks and live on my own terms.
As for individuals, Jon YongFook stories while building BannerBear after multiple failures.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Take action and less overthink. Without action, it all only becomes “what if’s”. The detail and plan don’t matter (and probably will never matter) unless you put yourself out there and do what you want to do.
Stupid simple but only a handful of people did it.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Nope! Even if I did, Session revenue wouldn’t be able to pay an engineering position at this moment.
Where can we go to learn more?
My websites are outdated but still have some relevant portfolios. Most active on Twitter!
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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