Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi all, my name is Martin Morávek, and I’m the developer and founder of minimalist phone. This phone app allows people to prioritize their mental health by gently discouraging screen time. The app is currently available on Google Play for Android devices.
Our customers are people who spend too much time on social media and would like to improve their time-consuming patterns. It is especially for those who want to be more productive and eliminate social media/smartphone addiction.
The initial investment was only $100 for a Google Play developer license and $3,000 for a homepage, and from that, we now generate $20,000 monthly revenue on average – most of the earnings are spent again on paid advertising. We’re on track to reach 500,000 downloads on Google Play soon, which is a remarkable milestone.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
In 2020 when COVID-19 hit, people around the world dealt with unprecedented social distancing and isolation. The only way we could stay in touch with each other was through the internet. Unfortunately, this only accelerated an existing trend: many people overused social media, forming addictions to the quick dopamine hits their apps provided. Some of them felt frustrated as they internalized other people's images and their “perfect lives”. Others wrote negative comments. These habits led to users developing depression and other mental health issues.
I lost my freelancing job during the pandemic and became a regular employee while I searched for a new freelance opportunity.
Because I had so much newfound free time, I was on my smartphone constantly. I noticed that it is time-consuming – you can lose your focus very easily. Phones are essentially retraining our brains: chemicals (like dopamine) are released when you are “rewarded” by engagement (likes, comments, etc.), and mobile phones are affecting our perception, performance, and productivity. I eventually found a new job, but the experience shaped how I viewed the “dead time” I spent on my phone.
Being aware of all these issues with social media consumption, I decided that I wanted to solve this problem. I enjoy programming and I wanted to connect this passion with something useful something that could help society. And this is when the idea of minimalist phones was born.
It helps that my university background exposed me to psychology and machine learning. While studying software engineering, my focus on computer graphics led to research on how colorful imagery and filters can influence users and ultimately keep them on apps. Knowing this, I essentially reversed the experience and customized the UI of the minimalist phone to be monochrome black and white. It is not as eye-catching as color, so we are less motivated to spend time hitting icons and scrolling.
It is better to work in your free time outside of your regular 9 – 5 job so that you have that flexibility.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
First, we conducted pre-development user research. It consisted of questionnaires and in-person interviews to better understand users' needs. I was also taking into account previous academic research (for example in psychology) to build on scientific foundations.
Some of the questions that user research participants were asked were
- Imagine you need to choose a new home screen for your phone. Which one of these would you choose?
- Why did you choose this option?
- What do you like about it?
- Do you think you spend too much time on your phone?
- Do you think a home screen like this could help you to spend less time on your phone?
In these screenshots you can also see some alternative designs of the minimalist phone that never made it into production.
The initial version was ready in 8 weeks (very simple, all major additional features that the app has today were not present at that time). The lesson I have taken from this experience is: to focus on early MVP delivery. Your product does not have to be perfect, as many improvements happen after launching and using it for some time. We are fortunate enough to have a responsive audience. After launch, we received early customer feedback with a survey after 3 days of use, and we had satisfactory findings. (93% of people stated they had reduced the time spent on their smartphone by using minimalist phone.)
We also received a lot of feedback via email. It’s been more than two years since the initial launch, and we are still getting recommendations on how the app could be improved. Insights by our Reddit community are really helpful. So: improvements are not finite, and the process of improvement should be endless.
Thanks to user feedback we have accomplished a lot of changes, with improvements in visualization (default font and font size) being an example.
To not distract people from anything, the app is completely ad-free.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Firstly, a Soft launch was executed – the app was published on Google Play Store. Paid advertising started only months later and on a small scale at first.
It took two months to get the first paying customer. I was like: “Finally!” It was exactly that “wow” moment you were waiting for.
You know that feeling when you are slowly forgetting why you started? You start to feel lost and want to quit. And this was like a revival. It motivated me to continue.
It was necessary to have a professional website. Although I am a software engineer and web developer, I dedicated this task to professional designers from Ukraine. They have done great work! The price of the website project was roughly 3,000 USD.
I financed everything myself from the money I earned and saved. The initial investment included my previous programming experience, execution time, and small fees associated with using the Google play service.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We have incorporated many activities into the business model.
Immediately after downloading, the app explains how mobile use affects the human brain, and this helps people to better understand the product’s value. Originally the content of the onboarding tutorial was more focused on explaining how to use the app, but this one had much lower user retention and AB testing was used to test both versions of onboarding before we decided to switch everybody to the new one.
Another crucial tool is excellent customer service with short reply times (many users say that this was their best customer service experience). This is especially crucial for refund requests – there is a trial in the app and people can request a refund for their one-time purchase within the trial period. (Trials for subscriptions are handled by Google Play, not by us.) We are thankful for every single user trying out the app (even when they decide to stop using the app before the end of the trial) and we make sure to communicate that to them.
We also build communities on social media platforms, such as Reddit, Instagram, and Twitter, just to name a few. Reviews, testimonials, and votes on Google Play have served as valuable marketing tools. We have partnered and collaborated with influencers and YouTubers, using affiliate marketing, and creating our own content, press releases, etc.
We have given several interviews (including for Forbes Slovakia, and in this case, it wasn't paid promo). Apart from that, we have an article in Wikipedia, a free encyclopedia, as well.
The most effective way to reach new customers continues to be targeted PPC ads (untargeted campaigns don't work).
Experimenting with paid ads started cca 6 months after the launch of the app as at this stage we felt that the app is ready for an additional push. All campaigns were on Google Ads only, initially bringing people to the minimalist phone homepage - this was not the best idea, and later bringing people directly from the campaign to the Play Store listing - this worked much better than going to the homepage with a download button.
We were managing the campaigns for half a year by ourselves and the campaigns were running ok - slightly profitable, but they were not spending enough to make a significant difference. Over time we have realized that setting up and maintaining a campaign is a very complex topic where additional experience could make a big difference. The decision has been made to search for external ad campaign management and we have contracted ePPC Digital - an Estonian digital marketing agency. In 8 months Google Ads spending has increased 29x, and revenue has increased 15x with total ROAS (return on ad spend) hitting 200%
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We currently generate approximately 20,000 USD/per month, and we put about 65% of that back into paid advertising, for an average profit of about 6,500 USD per month. In recent months, month-over-month downloads have grown by 20 – 40% (total downloads – not necessarily paid users yet).
Right now the app has 50,000 monthly downloads and nearly 500k downloads in total.
Distribution is only via the Google Play store – it is highly dependent on Google search and Play Store discovery.
Currently, the team has 1 founder and developer (me) + 5 part-time externals (executing various marketing activities).
No other product is planned. I think this would distract us from discovering the full potential of this product. We are launching campaigns in new countries. Right now, we are mainly targeting North America and Europe.
The next step we want to accomplish is submitting our app on Product Hunt. We intend to run it on December 1, 2022. We would love it if readers would support us with that, as we will have only 24 hours to succeed. To do so, voters need to create a free account several weeks in advance to be active and engage with others, and then, upvote a certain post. If the post has high results and the best rating, the product is more exposed to the audience. It would push us to bigger accomplishments. So, if you want to support the idea of the mindful use of smartphones, show us your presence and support.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I have learned these two lessons:
For a startup, hire external experts instead of hiring full-time all-rounders (as it is typically recommended for startups) as an external expert has more in-depth knowledge and can bring instant value to the project.
But beforehand, educate yourself on the job before you hire an external expert to do it – otherwise, it’s hard to direct their work, or gauge their competency.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We are listed on the platform Google Play – it is a primary market where all in-app purchases happen.
The other tools we use are:
- Firebase (app performance measurement, reporting of crashes and app freezes);
- Impact Radius (for an affiliate program – trying to start an affiliate program was a huge mistake, the affiliate market is oversaturated and collaborations/potential partners always ask for a flat fee. These collaborations are never profitable);
- Google Workspace.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I could recommend books from the business environment, namely Startupland (Mikkel Svane), or The Lean Startup (Eric Ries). There are really good insights for anybody who wants to start a business. It outlines the fact that offering solutions to people's problems are crucial. I would also mention Fumio Sasaki’s book Goodbye, things. He is comparing life before and after becoming a minimalist. Last but not least, I highly recommend watching the documentary The Social Dilemma (2020), which deals with cyberbullying, echo chambers, and unhealthy body images.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
For bootstrapped projects, make sure that you have enough time to work on your idea and that your “window” to try it out is not too short. E.g. if you quit your job to work on your idea but only have 12 months of savings, it might end up that you will need more than 12 months to reach profitability. (For minimalist phones it took 24 months to turn profitable.) It is better to work in your free time outside of your regular 9 – 5 job so that you have that flexibility.
The same goes for fundraising - if the “window” that you have to develop the project (or turn it profitable) is too short, you may fail even though the project has good potential.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
In 2023 we would like to broaden our team. The intention is to hire marketing staff and customer support staff.
We also receive huge support from the community – either suggestions for new features or improvements to current features. We also have several community members that provide us with translations into their local language – this is a great help for us.
Where can we go to learn more?
Yellow highlighted are preferred.
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
Get our 5-minute email newsletter packed with business ideas and money-making opportunities, backed by real-life case studies.