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Guide: Make money building Shopify micro-SaaS apps

July 25, 2020

Starting your first business can be a daunting task. There’s so many variables involved - which ones to solve for, which ones to figure out?

Typically as software engineers and product people, building the product and writing code is not where we falter.

Where we get stuck is with existential questions like:

  • Does anybody want this app?
  • How will I get users?

And from my little experience in entrepreneurship, I find these questions to be more important than actually designing and building the app. Trust me when I say this.

Since I’ve been answering questions on email and Twitter DMs around these topics already, writing a guide came as the natural next step.

Who this guide is for

  • You are starting your first micro-SaaS business
  • You want to earn extra outside your job, or you want to eventually replace your job income with a business
  • You can design apps with a baseline level of UX, and you can write code. Or, you have a business partner who can do these
  • You have 10+ hours to allocate every week (initially, more is better) and are in it for the long haul (say 3-6 months before you start seeing significant income from the business)
  • You want to serve customer’s needs

Who this guide is NOT for

  • You want to become a millionaire quickly
  • You are in it for the short term gain but you don’t see building businesses as your long-term path
  • You don’t know the A of design or coding, and neither have a business partner who does
  • You don’t have the patience to struggle for 3-6 months when the results might be 0, before things suddenly start to work in your favour

If this guide is for you, read on. I’ve laid out the index of topics covered in the post.

Depending on the stage of your journey, feel free to skip to the sections that are most relevant to you.

Topics covered in this post

  1. Make money building Shopify apps
  2. Discover problems, niches, and Shopify app ideas
  3. Standing out from competition
  4. Shopify App Store optimisation basics
  5. Find your #1 keyword
  6. How to build a Shopify app
  7. Getting customers to review your Shopify app (by delivering great customer support)
  8. Getting the first customers for your Shopify app
  9. Finding early users and beta testers for your Shopify app outside the App Store
  10. Getting listed under the right categories & collections, and getting featured on the Shopify App Store
  11. The right pricing model for your Shopify app
  12. Optimising for trials
  13. Long term game plan in the Shopify App Store




Make money building Shopify apps

Shopify isn’t the only choice when it comes to picking an apps marketplace. There’s

All these marketplaces are valid options for you to start. I would lean on a marketplace where there’s a combination of 2 factors

  1. Familiarity with problems - You know what the core product is about, you understand or can empathise with its users maybe from using the tool at your previous workplace, you have an idea on the different kind of problems that exist in the ecosystem and don’t find it too boring to solve them
  2. Skillset to execute - If you don’t know how to build Android, iOS, or Mac apps, perhaps steer clear of it. Your goal is not to take on a hard challenge, it’s to take on a challenge where you have some advantage from skill and insight. The goal is to win.

Why you should pick the Shopify app marketplace:

  • Huge distribution: Marketing is often a big reason for a business’s failure, the App Store takes care of it. Shopify has 1mn+ merchants and tons of new signups every month who go to the app store browsing for solutions.
    Shopify promotes apps within its product and has made it an integral part of its user journey. A new app is able to gain traction fairly easily in the app marketplace, which makes it friendly to newcomers.
    Marketing is often a big reason for a business’s failure, the App Store takes care of it.
  • Tons of app opportunities: E-commerce store owners have 101+ problems to be taken care of, and you can address any one and do a great job at it to build a sustainable business. It’s not hard (relative standards) to gain 200 paying customers paying you $10/mo to earn $2000/mo ($1600 after Shopify’s 20%)
  • Ease of development: Shopify’s documentation and APIs are first-class, they get out of the way allowing you to build fast. Additionally, Shopify’s Polaris UI framework makes building app interfaces a piece of cake. It’s based on React and comes with a Sketch/Figma file to help you design and prototype solutions fast.
  • Billing taken care of: Heads up, Shopify takes a 20% commission on all earnings. So if your app’s monthly subscription fees is $10, you get $8. In return, Shopify takes care of billing end to end.
    You can charge monthly, annually, charge per activity, provide app credit, and issue refunds with very little effort. You don’t need to worry about failed payments, Shopify takes care of it. You don’t even need to generate an invoice, app bills are included in the merchant’s monthly Shopify invoice.
  • Familiarity with ecommerce: If you’re someone who can jump into an industry and learn all about it, great. If not, you would want some familiarity with how an ecommerce store works, what are the typical problems faced by a merchant.
    You can do this by creating a Shopify store and trying to sell your own products. Or you could have conversations with 10 different store owners and absorb from their experience. You could also find someone who works at an e-commerce agency for valuable insights. It’s not that hard.

Why you shouldn’t pick the Shopify app marketplace:

  • Copycat galore: You’re likely to copy an existing app and make a slight improvement in terms of product, pricing, or both. Guess what, the next smart person with the same idea can do the same to you. If you’re dependent on getting all or majority of your customers from the app store, be ready for stiff competition from copycats.
    This doesn’t mean you cannot grow your app to $1k or $10k MRR. SaaS is not a winner take all market. It just means that it gets harder to grow as you grow. If this is something you are not mentally prepared for, steer clear.
    There’s ways you can grow out of this by taking a long term strategy, either by taking a brand-centric approach (brand is not your name, but the experience that customers remember you by for which they’ll choose you over a copycat).
    Or you can go upmarket and target large volume and Plus merchants, where ticket sizes are $200/mo or higher and switching does not happen often.
  • Low-end, high-maintenance customers: Majority of Shopify merchants are people who don’t want to pay beyond $10-$15/mo and yet they expect world-class customer service. Some will ask for phone support or to jump on a video call.
    You can tackle this by solving problems where the ticket sizes are higher, in the range of $50-$100/mo, but also expect it to be significantly harder to rank and fight existing competitors in such problem spaces. Example - page builders, product review apps.
    You can mitigate this by going in with the mindset that you’ll be serving $15/mo customers, so your app better be self-serve ready, have a dead simple UX and sufficient documentation or walkthrough videos. You can also aim to be the cost-leader of a segment, example - Judge.me


Discover problems, niches, and Shopify app ideas

I’ve previously written about uncovering opportunities on Shopify and I also shared all my research in my big Shopify app ideas spreadsheet. Let me reiterate on the advice shared there in a more structured manner that will hopefully better answer questions like:

  • “How do you find niches in the app store in the first place?”
  • “How to find a problem worth solving within shopify? (worth solving=stressful enough for merchants & competition not too tough)”

There have been people who have asked me what kind of problems to solve, or what are the underserved niches. The thing is - if there's an obviously underserved niche and people have taken the time to research about it, they are probably busy solving it. If it's being posted in any blog post, know that it's no longer an underserved or hidden niche, because clearly anyone could find it.

Ultimately, only you can find an idea that you find worthy enough to pursue, whose various pros and cons are justified in your mind. And therefore, I can only provide a directional framework towards evaluating ideas. I can't list out ideas.

The best use of a directional framework is to

  1. First - cast a wide net, get to know what's out there
  2. Second - narrow down your search based on parameters you have decided

This first section of the article will help you with casting a wide net.

As you go further along the article, I've shared ideas and techniques which you can use to narrow down your search.

1- Browse the entire App Store

I recommend this as the starting point for anyone new to the Shopify ecosystem. Start by browsing all the categories & sub-categories of apps on the app store. You can do the same on SASI.

The purpose of browsing this way is to familiarise yourself with the different types of problems faced by merchants and being solved by apps. Ideally, you want to note down some interesting apps that you come across during your browsing adventure to investigate later on.

2- Go through every letter in search autocomplete

Okay, this is a step I took when I was browsing the app store. I would type in "aa", "ab", "ac"... ... ... "zz" on the search bar, note the autocomplete terms and check the results of ones I found to be interesting.

Turns out, Shopify has since updated their algorithm. Autocomplete suggestions only show up after you type 3 letters now. So you can't recreate what I did with autocomplete and go through every letter. It's not feasible anymore.

Not to worry, it's still useful.

Plug in keywords of shortlisted apps into the search bar

From step 1, all the apps (hopefully at least a dozen) that you shortlisted for being interesting, extract the keywords used in the app's title or description.

Now, enter those keywords in search to find whether they are apart of autocomplete, which gives you an indication as to whether there's significant searches for that keyword.

More importantly, you discover all the other apps (and therefore competitors) that you would have to compete with should you choose to build an app targeting the same keyword.

3- Is there enough demand?

  • is the problem being solved a "keyword" in Shopify's search autocomplete? that is an indication of volume for the keyword
  • are the existing apps for that keyword getting new reviews? New reviews are a signal that new users are searching, installing, using, and liking the app enough to write a review.

4- How are the competitors doing?

  • what is the average rating and #reviews that my competitor has? are the top 3 results for an app all 4.9 or 5.0 star and have 1000+ reviews? If yes, what can you do differently to beat them or target a subset of customers so you don't have to compete with them
  • how are their recent reviews? many a times, older apps start losing their focus and recent reviews show whether they have slipped

5- What is the business model of competitors?

  • are they charging a very high amount (say >$50-100/mo)? if so, is it because of costs, or can I build the same product and price it 5x cheaper at $10-20/mo?
  • is the app free/freemium? if it's free, then what is lacking in their app that customers would pay for.
  • what features are competitors charging for? can I make those features available for free and find a way to monetise with something else

6- What keywords, categories, and sub-categories do they rank for?

  • what are the keywords for which the competitors rank #1 or rank high? Can I beat them in any of those keywords and steal their traffic?

You can find out which categories a competitor is listed for and their rankings for those from their SASI index page.

Example app

Are you with me so far? Below I’ve written in greater detail about finding out the installs and revenue of competitor apps, and various broad approaches to build differentiation.


Guesstimating installs and revenue of a Shopify app

How to estimate keyword search volume on the app store?

Some people have tried using the Google Keyword Planner, with no success. I have a method that works pretty well. It doesn’t give you exact 100% accurate numbers, but my method will help you get directionally relevant answers.

Better than explaining the theory, let’s jump right into a practical exercise.

Whatsapp

Phase 1 of guesstimating - How to find install numbers for an app

After talking to different app developers, I’ve found that the app installs-to-reviews rate can be anywhere between 3% to 15%. Let’s use this information to find out how many people might have installed the this WhatsApp app.

You can find review trends for any app by going to SASI App Store Index. Here’s the link for the app being discussed.

Based on the review trend, the app got ~350 reviews in the past 30 days.

Next, I installed the app to get a sense of how well they might be converting installs-to-reviews. Some apps have aggressive review widget popups (which are technically against the App Store rules but it’s a popular practice anyway).

Whereas other apps have proactive customer support which starts a conversation with customers even before they might need assistance. I give such behaviours a higher review rate of 10%. And otherwise, you can assume it’s close to 5%.

The app being discussed has an aggressive review widget popup, so let’s assume 10%. Which means the app got close to 350/10% = 3500 installs in 30 days, or roughly ~117 installs per day.

In this case, I can verify that the WhatsApp keyword indeed has such high volume, as my app also gets similar install numbers.

This app is completely free, so there’s no revenue to guesstimate. Let’s try that with another app.

Page builder

Let’s look at the #2 ranked app for this keyword, and here is the SASI index link. They have added ~107 reviews in 30 days (I’m taking one week’s number, dividing by 7 and multiplying by 30).

After installing the app, I can tell that they don’t aggressively push for reviews. Let’s assume 5% install to review rate. Based on the number of reviews, the app must have got 107/5% = 2140 installs in the last 30 days.

The next few paras involve basic math and numbers. Get ready.

Phase 2 of guesstimating - How to arrive at number of paying customers and revenue

Taking my app, we get about 5% installs to paying customers. You can estimate a range based on how many features of the app are free, competition and competitor’s pricing (if a lot of competitors are free, lower the install to paying customers rate). In some cases this number can be as high as 20%, especially for apps that don’t have a free plan or are operating in niche use cases.

At 5%, I think we are at the lower end of the spectrum.

For your guesstimates, assign a value between 2%-20% depending on the app you are evaluating.

The app being discussed has a free plan, but it’s quite restrictive. If anyone goes beyond 3 pages and likes the app’s core functionality, they are likely to upgrade. Let’s say 8% of installs become paying customers.

Great, so the app added 8% of 2140 = 171 paying customers in the last 30 days.

Phase 3 of guesstimating - How to arrive at the ARPU (average revenue per user)

The app being discussed has 3 pricing plans, $14.99, $29.99, and $59.99. Looking at how the functionality and usage limits have been set, my guess is 50% of paying users are on the base plan, 30% on the second plan, and 20% on the top plan. Which gives us a blended ARPU of $28.49.

Awesome, that means the app added 171 * $28.49 = $4871 MRR in the last 30 days.

Now, these estimates aren’t 100% accurate and they never will be. That’s why it’s a guesstimate.

But what you’re looking for is a binary answer. Even if my numbers are off by 50%, you still have a good enough estimate to make a decision.

Thanks for this wall of text, where's my calculator

Glad you asked. I know me thought dumping isn't always the best way to share information, especially when it comes to numbers.

So, I've built a neat calculator into which you can plug in your guesses and the calculator will guesstimate for you installs, paying customers, and new MRR for an app.

You can find the calculator in the Guesstimate tab of the spreadsheet. You can clone the sheet and start using it.

“Does this app have the potential to make money and meet my goals?”

Based on this guesstimate, what is the answer to the question above? The answer in this case is an obvious YES.

Also keep in mind that higher MRR potential doesn’t necessarily mean an app idea should be your top choice. If an app idea has a high money making potential, chances are you’ll face stiff competition from more apps and app developers competing for a piece of the same pie.

Keep in mind your ambitions and your income goals and pick a niche where you’ll be comfortable playing. You don’t want to start a game whose difficulty is too hard.

Your purpose is to win, not to have a hard time.

Note that I have ignored all other factors like churn, existing users upgrading to higher plans, etc. A guesstimate is hard enough, but remember that what you’re looking for is a directional answer, not a full-blown report.


Differentiating your app from competition

“How do you decide if you can complete with what's out?”

You’ve narrowed down on a couple of ideas but there’s competition. You want to find something that sets you apart from competition.

On a basic note, one can always do a better job in the core aspects of a business.

  • Optimal app UX - Shopify merchants are non-technical folks, they want something that’s obvious and straightforward. Don’t use any technical jargon that your uncle wouldn’t understand, and you’ll be fine.
  • Easier to setup - Most merchants are looking for a solution that they can setup and go, carry on with their busy lives of running their business where they already have enough operational problems to tackle everyday. If there’s any way you can make the setup of your app faster, by offering pre-configured options, or templates that a merchant can pick and apply in a minute, those will go a long way.
  • Superior customer support - Treat customers like you would want to be treated if you were a VIP at a store. If someone’s facing a problem due to your error (a bug in your app), then fix it within the hour if possible and get back to them.

These are core pillars on which a better business can and always will be built. If your competitors are lacking in these aspects, that’s opportunity for you to do a better job.

Some other ways to differentiate from competitors

  • Go narrow. If there’s a specific problem that people need solved but other apps aren’t solving, go solve that first and get those users. An example of this is - someone built a WhatsApp app which collects reviews. This is a feature that’s been missing in our app and customers have asked us for it too, and someone decided to build a separate app for it as their entry point.
  • Address negative reviews about competitor apps. Shopify allows you to filter out reviews based on number of stars. This makes it easy for you to find all the reasons why customers dislike a particular app. It could be slow customer support, it could be poor stability of the app, or features that are lacking for a subset of customers. Reading reviews gives you insights on these, so don’t skip this step even though it might be boring and time consuming.
  • Business model. Analyse the way competitors make money, there might be an opportunity there.
    For example - if your competitor charges higher amounts based on usage, but you’ve figured out how to keep your costs fixed, you can take the cost leader approach with a fixed price for unlimited use.
    Another is, if your competitors are charging for a certain feature which you think should be basic and available to all, make that feature a part of your free plan and group other features into the paid plan.
    Finally, if you’re from a developing country like India or somewhere in South East Asia, pricing is always an advantage you can play to. If your competitors charge $100, you can afford to charge $20 for the same thing and get away with it.
    Mind you, this isn’t a long-term strategy. You want to use the pricing advantage to gain traction early on, but eventually you want to raise prices to gain better customers and increase your revenues and profits, which allows you to reinvest in the app.
  • Demographic play. Certain apps narrow down their focus based on a demographic. For example - Here’s a Cash on Delivery app for Saudi Arabia, and here’s an SMS app for Pakistan.
    The idea here is, if you can focus on one market and offer a better solution (features, pricing) to them than the alternatives, it’s a great way to gain entry into a niche.

The best way to create long-term differentiation is to talk to your own customers, find unique insights from them, and solve their problem in the best possible way that only someone with a unique insight can solve. That’s hard to copy.


Shopify App Store optimisation basics

In terms of optimisation for ranking on the app store, you have to understand that merchants when hunting for an app to solve their problem are on a mission. They are browsing, they don’t have much time, they need the best solution for their problems, quickly!

Here are a few quick pointers to stand out:

  • Have the #1 keyword in your title (more on this in the next section)
  • Place the keyword closer to the beginning of the title. Example - if “WhatsApp” is your target keyword, then make the app title “WhatsApp Abandoned Carts” and not “Abandoned Carts WhatsApp”. See what I mean?
  • Use the 62 character description text to stand out. Since app titles can end up looking the same for an undifferentiated idea, you can stand out by using a description text that sets you apart. Example “Completely no code, setup in 30 seconds”
  • Use the app logo to stand out. When people are browsing the App Store, apart from the app title, the most noticeable element in the results page is the logo. Use bright colours over dull ones, intentionally pick a colour for your app logo that stands out from competition due to high contrast. In our case, we choose a bright green when competition was using a dull blue. Made us instantly stand out.
  • Optimise the first paragraph of your description text. Most people browsing are not going to read though the entire description, they might not even expand the section.
  • Make sure your screenshots stand out. You want to showcase app elements that serve as visual candy and let the merchant make a quick “this looks good, let’s try it” decision
  • Reviews - I’ll get to that in a later section

Don’t forget to go through Shopify’s App Store guidelines which provide useful tips on making a good listing page.


Find your #1 keyword

This is quite self-explanatory, and yet I see a lot of people making mistakes here. A majority of the installs for your app will come from the primary keyword that you target.

Examples of #1 keywords:

  • “Sales pop”
  • “Product reviews”
  • “Whatsapp”
  • “Page builder”
  • “Web push” or “Push notifications”

There will be secondary keywords that are common for many apps, such as “abandoned cart”. But remember, you want to primarily target the keyword that’s most relevant to your app. You can find that by answering this question - “What will my ideal customer type in the search box if they are looking for my app?”

In case of PushOwl, their #1 keyword may be “Web Push” or “Push Notification”. Good on them, they managed to fit both keywords into the title of the app which is limited to 30 characters. If that works for you, great. If not, you will have to pick one.

Check out this awesome tool by Markus where you can plug in a competitor's app store listing and find the keywords being used in their listing page.

How to build a Shopify app

I won't go into great detail in this section, but Shopify has an excellent frontend framework and UI kit called Polaris which you should definitely use. It will greatly speed up app development.

There are already excellent guides on the internet by Shopify and others on how to build the app. I recommend you refer to those.


Getting customers to review your Shopify app (by delivering great customer support)

If the Shopify App Store will be your primary way to acquire new customers, then ranking becomes the most important factor in terms of gaining new installs. You could try cold emails, partnerships etc. but according to me, if you don’t nail your primary channel of acquiring customers (the App Store) right, then you’re in for trouble.

Exceptions to this are

  1. You use App Store Ads to acquire all your customers, profitably
  2. You are an Enterprise / Shopify Plus focused product and therefore cold emails and outbound sales make sense for your price point.

More on the second point in a later section.

Getting reviews for your Shopify can happen in several ways:

  • You set up a review widget inside the app and good customers (0.1%) will leave a review on their own if they are happy with the app
  • You set up triggers based on which you prompt the customer for a review, or send an automated email asking for a review. These triggers should be events that indicate that the customer has had a good experience using the app.
    In our case, we send an email after a customer has recovered more than 20 abandoned carts, because we assume that by then they have experienced the value and ROI that the app provides.
    Here's all the automated emails that are currently live in our app. I hope it serves as a template for you.
  • Customers reach out to you regarding a technical issue or bug that they are facing, and you fix the issue quickly (in a few hours) and get back to them. Customer is amazed at the service, and you prompt them to share their happiness by writing a review.
  • Customers reach out to you asking for help on how app or certain functionality in the app works. You provide a detailed guide either through chat, email, video, or call after which the customer is fully set up to use your app. They’re really happy about the service, and you prompt them to share their happiness by writing a review.
  • You proactively reach out to customers who install your app with in-app messages, like a live chat prompt, and offer to answer their questions or book a call with them to give them a guided tour of the app. Customers book calls, you provide a great one-on-one onboarding, and you prompt them to share their happiness by writing a review.

What will work for your app will be different for what worked for mine.

Early on, you need to experiment and find the right actions and prompts, the right kind of conversations that lead to reviews, and then create a process around it that you follow religiously for several months.

If your process is able to generate 2 reviews a day on average, then in 6 months you can be at 300 reviews, which is super!


Getting the first customers for your Shopify app

Now that you know about your #1 keyword and the secret behind generating reviews, let’s get you traction.

Reviews are great, but where this starts to benefit your app is when your reviews and average rating is high enough that you start ranking in the top 3 for your #1 keyword.

Sometimes you might achieve this in a month (that happened with us, but we were lucky that the top 2 apps were rated 4.7 only).

But you need to be realistic and estimate how soon you could reach the top 3 spots for your for your #1 keyword.

Let’s take the example of “sms marketing

The top app has a 5.0 star rating and 534 reviews. Second app is 5.0 rated and 53 reviews. Third app is also 5.0 rated and 31 reviews. Now, SMS is a very competitive keyword, but based on this, you can estimate that if you are able to find a process that generates 2 reviews a day, it would take you at roughly 2 months and a stellar 5.0 average rating to reach the #2 spot. Hard, but not impossible.

Let’s take another example of “upsell

This app which is currently ranked #2 for the keyword did a stellar job where they came in from nowhere and grew to an enviable ranking within 6 months.

Here’s how they did it:

  • Focused on #1 keyword “upsell” by including it in their name
  • They also researched and added secondary keywords in their description, namely “cart upsell” and “post purchase upsell”
  • Beautiful and catchy logo, and the app description page including the video and screenshots look very catchy
  • For the first 2-3 months, they kept the app completely FREE and focused heavily on driving installs and generating reviews. It worked, they generated 123 reviews while maintaining an average 5.0 star rating. That’s basically 1 review/day on average, which is not a difficult target at all.
  • During this time, their team must have been hard at work incorporating customer feedback, fixing bugs, and adding new functionality that made the app better, more useful, and easier to use.
  • After reaching a good enough ranking, they added paid plans ($49.99, $99.99, $149.99 /mo) to the mix and I assume their business is growing smoothly.

This right here ^^ is a very viable strategy that you can adopt for your app.

The point where you switch from completely free to having paid plans might come in 1 month, or 6. That depends heavily on the keyword you are targeting and how strong the competition is for that keyword.

A lot of people who reached out asking for help with growing their app essentially launched it sometime this or last year, and have not consistently hustled to get reviews and gain ranking. And it shows.

If you are expecting building, launching, and running the app is the complete job description, you’re mistaken. A continuous commitment to improving your ranking (which translates to marketing/distribution in the context of the App Store) is required for long-term success.

“Apart from getting featured on the Shopify app store, did you do any marketing, promotions such as cold emailing, social media/Shopify ads, partnering with Shopify developers to grow your app? If yes, how was your experience with these?”

100% of the installs for my app came from organic Shopify App Store searches. We never tried Shopify ads, or cold emailing or even partnering with other developers. However, if your pricing model permits (meaning, you are not a fixed $10/mo app), I highly recommend setting aside some budget to experiment with

  • Shopify Ads - target your #1 and/or top 3 keywords and get the conversation started with customers
  • Facebook/Instagram Ads - Shopify merchants are hanging out on both these platforms. I’m not good with social media ads, but if you are, find a way to target them directly on these platforms
  • Reddit Ads - ReConvert has very successfully used Reddit ads to drive customers to their app for nearly a year. If you can find the right creative that resonates with the Reddit audience, you might have a profitable ad

But what if you don’t have a budget or money to spend on ads? In that case, you use your technical and marketing chops to create assets that would attract Shopify merchants. Here’s a few examples

  • Build a website/resource that captures screenshots beautifully designed stores that serve as inspiration for other merchants
  • Research and write about hot dropshipping products backed up by Google trends or other data

These are simply examples, but you get the general drift right? Create websites or content that a Shopify merchant might already be searching for.

The biggest drawback to this approach is - that it make take a while for traction. And even after that, the traction you get might not be from a merchant base that’s interested in your app.


Finding early users and beta testers for your Shopify app outside the App Store

“How to find Shopify stores who will be interested in trying out my app's MVP”

If launching on the App Store didn’t do the trick for you (it should if your keyword targeting is right, if you’ve found at least one way to differentiate from competition, and if your App Store listing does the requisite minimum), don’t worry, all hope is not lost.

You can post your app on online communities such as the Shopify Entrepreneurs Facebook Group and the Shopify Subreddit on Reddit and find early users.

The right way to approach this is to give your app away for 3-6 months in return for merchants to beta test your app, give you early traction, feedback, and reviews that will kick things off for you.


Getting listed under the right categories & collections, and getting featured on the Shopify App Store

Right after you submit your app, you want to make sure that it is listed under the right categories and therefore giving your app the exposure it deserves. My app qualifies for marketing, customer support, and sales and conversion optimisation.

Initially, my app was only listed under customer support, so I applied to get listed by filling this Google form and giving Shopify ample reason that my app deserves to be listed under the requested categories. You can read more about app categories and Shopify’s criteria for deciding which categories an app belongs to over here.

Shopify's Useful apps for India collection

Later, I also applied for collections such as “Useful apps for India”, which was easy to prove since a large chunk (the largest) of my app’s users were from India. However, I applied for collections only after the app had already crossed 100+ reviews while maintaining the 5.0 star rating. That makes it that much easier to convince Shopify staff that you are a high-quality app with a proven track record of giving great experience and service to merchants. Exactly the kind of apps that Shopify wants to promote.

Finally, many people have asked me how to get featured on the App Store. Let me tell you straight up - you can’t apply or fill a form to be featured.

The good news is, Shopify staff is continuously looking for good apps to feature. They WANT to feature good apps, so be a good app and prove you are a good candidate.

You can do this by following all their App Store requirements, having great looking creatives and banners for the listing, and providing excellent customer support to merchants, which is reflected by your #reviews and average rating.


The right pricing model for your Shopify app

The right pricing will help you grow revenues 2x faster than the wrong model. Figuring out pricing is therefore a crucial step, and you should try to get it directionally right in the early days.

Let’s take a look at different pricing models:

1- Judge.me - Fixed price, cost leader

This app has 2 plans - Free, and $15/mo. Other “product review” apps have tiered pricing that usually start out free for few orders or few review requests, and the pricing scales as the value metric grows.

In a sea of competition, Judge.me figured out a way to differentiate with their fixed $15/mo plan for unlimited use. This also implies that the app developers found a way to keep costs fixed even as usage scales, otherwise they would be losing money from large customers.

I love the fixed price, cost leader approach because it resonates with the large SMB merchant base on Shopify that wants to use an affordable tool where the costs are predictable (meaning, it doesn’t vary every month based on store activity).

It’s not all rosy too. Like everything in life, it has its pros and cons. The cons being - you won’t have large customers who would want to pay you $100/mo or higher. Conversely, large customers may not sign up for your app, or you may not prioritise their requirements, and therefore you won’t attract large customers later on as well. If this is a tradeoff you’re willing to accept, cost leader is a viable option.

2- ReConvert - Pricing that scales with value metric

My favourite pricing model is a scalable pricing that grows with a key value metric. This value metric should correlate with customers gaining increasing value from your app.

ReConvert has done a fantastic job here. Their page builder can add any time of widgets on the thank you page, and instead of charging for number of upsells, number of widgets or something like that, they have assumed that everyone will add some kind of widget to the thank you page. And that every person visiting a store would visit the thank you page when they place an order. Hence, a valid value metric is number of orders received by a store every month.

ReConvert’s pricing starts at Free for 50 orders/mo, which lowers the barrier for any merchant to install the app and give it a whirl. Pricing starts at $7.99/mo for 100 orders/mo and scales all the way to $349.99/mo for 50,000+ orders/mo. Obviously they won’t have hundreds of customers at the top tier, but even getting 3 of those adds a cool $1k MRR to their app!

3- Junip - Feature gated pricing

The founders of Junip took an interesting approach where they gated features based on the plan.

I presume that after working with merchants in the industry, they figured what small, mid-sized, and large merchants care about. And they created 3 pricing plans based on those.

The base $14/mo plan caters to the small merchant, and therefore it also has support for only 1 user.

The mid $54/mo plan is for slightly larger stores that have a few team members and want to do advanced stuff like integrating reviews to another app and set up automatic flows.

And the top $179/mo plan is targeted at big stores with staff of 10+, presumably doing $1mn+ in yearly revenue who want dedicated onboarding, dedicated support and lots more customisation to the look and feel of the app.

I have to say, coming up with such an elaborate pricing model isn’t easy. Junip founders must have a lot of industry experience prior to starting this app, or they conducted a lot of user interviews to arrive at these insights.

Of course, this also means that you can also do the same. It will take time, is all, which shouldn’t be a problem if you’re in it for the long haul.

4- COD Confirmation - Usage based pricing

If your app caters to an audience that is extremely sensitive to pricing and doesn’t like paying subscription fees, your last option is a purely usage based pricing. An example of this is - if you’re an SMS marketing app, and you charge for nothing else but per SMS.

I recommend against this pricing model, simply because it forgoes subscription fees, which is almost 100% profit for you. It’s profit you can reinvest into your business.

Usage based pricing means you would incur some cost to give that incremental service. Let’s say you sell $10,000 worth of SMS in a month from 200 customers and your profit margin is 10%, so you made $1000. Now let’s say you charged a $10/mo subscription fees from 200 customers, that’s $2000 right there!

This doesn’t mean usage pricing is all bad. What I do recommend is to use it smartly in a way that benefits you in the long run.

For example - if you are building an app that you cannot give away for free for the first few months, forgo the subscription fees and have a usage based pricing. This will help with adoption while ensuring that you aren’t running into losses huge losses.

Introduce a subscription fee after a few months when your app has matured in terms of features and stability, and when you’ve gathered enough reviews to rank well in the App Store.


Optimising for trials

I’ve found that Shopify merchants are well versed with the concept of paying for an app. And therefore I recommend from the day you introduce paid plans to have a screen shown after install where the customer is asked to select a plan, whether the Free plan or the Paid one.

However, no advice is one size fits all, so if your trial numbers aren’t good with this approach, good being somewhere like 10-30% installs starting a paid trial, then maybe you want to try a different approach to paid trials.

The approach we tried earlier was to directly land new installs to the chat button settings page, and then add a mention beside features inside the app that are part of a paid plan. Maybe that works better for you.

Trial period is important. But longer trials aren't necessarily better. Your trial period length should be decided by how long it takes for a new user to derive value out of your app and decide whether to keep using the app. If that time period is 4-5 days, then set a 7-day trial period. If it’s 15-20 days, then set a 30-day trial period.

The caveat to longer trial periods is that it takes that much longer to test changes. With a short trial period (say 7 days) you can make a change to your onboarding flow and look at the install-to-trial conversion data on the 8th day. Therefore you can make decisions faster, or more decisions in the same time frame as opposed to a long trial period (say 30 days).


Long term game plan in the Shopify App Store

Alex emailed me saying “I can't help but think that many of the apps have been a race-to-the-bottom. The apps that seem to have built some moat are based off of specific domain knowledge.” Alex is right, certain niches within the App Store are a clear race-to-the-bottom. But here’s the thing, if your goal is to make between $1k-$5k/mo, it’s still okay to be part of that race.

However, if you have larger ambitions, you want to be mindful of your long-term game plan. Let me highlight a few:

1- Dozens of commodity apps

You won’t be the first, or the last one to attempt this model. There’s Elfsight, Webkul, Omega, HulkApps, Softpulse Infotech, Hextom, BoosterApps, and you can find more here.

What’s the strategy here?

It’s to have several apps, some of which are completely free and act as lead generation for the other apps. Secondly, you build 10 apps that make $1k each, you’re at $10k/mo. Although the actual distribution would be 6 apps free, 2 apps making $1k/mo and 2 apps making $4k/mo.

But one way or another, you can reach a high income level using this approach.

Pros

  • Lets you hedge your bets. Important when you’re building commodity apps that can be cloned by the next motivated person in a matter of weeks.
  • Lets you cross-sell between apps.
  • Opens you up to a large user base, to whom you can now provide services and act like an agency (a lot of these developers are actually agencies, so it fits well into their model)

Cons

  • Hard or impossible to do as a small team of 1 or 2 people. You’ll need to grow and scale your team, especially to manage customer support.
  • Not the most optimal path for you if you don’t plan on providing services and being an agency. Because that’s where you’ll be making large ticket sales using the free apps as lead gen

2- Multiple quality apps

“Well, instead of building 10 commoditised apps, why not build 5 high-quality ones.” Easier said than done. In my time observing other players in the App Store, only one team has pulled this off really well - Conversion Bear. And they have a team of 4-6 people without which executing this would not have been possible.

Pros

  • Higher-quality apps with better design, reviews, average rating, are slightly harder to displace than the average commodity app
  • Cross-sell between apps is still possible if some of your apps are free

Cons

  • Hard to pull off if you're a team of 1, requires 2-3 people. Otherwise it will take you years to get to 5 quality-apps with each having 100s of reviews. More likely than not, something will go wrong in that years-long timespan. Don’t plan for it.

3- One high-quality app with a recognised brand name

My recommended strategy to people who are truly playing the long-game, aim to build an app and business like PushOwl. Other notable names are Flits, Plobal, Firepush.

Pros

  • Building a high-quality app that is recognised as a brand means copycats can’t harm you as much by simply cloning you
  • Long-term potential to continue doubling down on the app as you get more customers and your brand name becomes more recognised
  • You can do this as a 1 or 2 person team

Cons

  • It’s hard to build a business like this without true long-term focus, obsession with providing amazing customer support, obsession with the customer’s problems, and with the Ecommerce and Shopify community. This is not a side thing you build as an Indiehacker. You build a business like this by being completely immersed and totally committed, as Shashank has been while running PushOwl

4- One high-quality app focused on enterprise / Shopify Plus merchants

Charging customers $500-$2000/mo sounds awesome right? That’s possible if you build an app that’s targeted at the Shopify Plus enterprise merchants.

However, I don’t think this is a viable strategy for indiehackers or fits into the general description of micro-SaaS. If you want to learn more about this path, look at how apps like Yotpo and Gorgias approached the Shopify market.

5- Don’t care about all this, just build a simple app and get started

The last game plan is the one where you’re not obsessively thinking about the future and trying to carefully plan an outcome.

But instead, you follow your heart and focus on the inputs.

  • Find a good enough problem to solve
  • Build a solution
  • Do your best to gain reviews / market it
  • Make some money, however little or much
  • See where life takes you from there

That’s the approach Sankalp and I went with when we started our journey. It’s quite stress-free, I assure you :)

Closing thoughts

Lots of first time entrepreneurs go wrong by trying to take on too big a challenge. I've done that in the past and failed, until I realised that instead of trying to hit a home run on my first attempt, I should look at the career of building businesses the same way I would a career as a software developer, or product manager, etc.

Treat your first business as a stepping stone into building more businesses in your life.

In your journey, you will discover new problems, gain unique insights that generate new ideas, learn about the market in ways that cannot be captured and written about. All that will propel you into your next business :)

All the best ✌️

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