The Long Road to Overnight Success with an iPhone App

iTunesWatching our new iPhone app climb the charts in Apple’s ratings feels like watching election returns when your side is winning. On September 10, we launched the Start Your Own Company application from Starter Cards (the division of our ad agency that develops content and tools for entrepreneurs) and have spent the last ten days tracking its move through Apple’s rankings. After four days, it broke into the Top 100, debuting at 92 in paid business apps. The next day, it moved up to 66. Over the weekend, we broke into the Top 50, squeaking in at 47 and crawling up to 45 by Sunday afternoon. Today, we were ecstatic to see the app nicely positioned in the Top 25, holding steady at number 20, and by the time we all left the office at 5 o’clock it was sitting pretty at number 17. It’s starting to feel like we might be onto something here.

Anyone who runs a small business knows that there are plenty of days and months and even sometimes years when you wonder if your big idea is going to work. You have to train yourself to keep the faith, despite setbacks and quagmires and plenty of heavy slogging uphill. Some days that can be damn hard.

Then one day, everything in the universe lines up just so, and you have a major win. Suddenly, it all looks easy. It feels easy. You experience what I call the moving sidewalk effect, where you’re just strolling along yet propelled ahead at a satisfying clip.

But what makes one effort a win and another a dud? Why does one particular idea pop, while others fizzle out? I wish there were an app for that. I don’t know the answer, but this is what I think helps:

1. Sending out a lot of ships, as my old friend Chellie Campbell would say. To switch metaphors, the more irons you have in the fire, the more of a chance you have of one becoming really, really hot. Also, it helps cushion disappointment to have your hopes pinned on more than one good idea.

2. Surrounding yourself with talent. One thing you learn early on in the ad industry is that a great concept is only as good as its execution. If you have a brilliant idea for a commercial and turn it over to a lackluster director, your spot is not going to become the talk of the town. (At least not in a good way.) You want the best people you can get to bring your ideas to life.

3. Any flame begins as a tiny ember. This one comes from my old business partner B.A. Albert, now president of Grey Atlanta. Great ideas and big opportunities rarely present themselves as roaring fires. You have to recognize them when they’re  nothing more than a little glow. You blow on that ember, feed it tiny pieces of kindling, then larger sticks, finally logs. Steady as she goes, you follow one step with another with another.

4. Hope for a lucky break. In this case, our big break was Alissa Walker deciding the story of our iPhone app would be a great fit for Fast Company, successfully pitching it to her editor, and then writing a fantastic piece. That one article on Fast Company’s website is the most likely cause of the Start Your Own Company app’s amazing momentum in the Apple rankings.

5. Set the stage for lucky breaks. We had heard that the first week after launching an app was critical, and so we mobilized to maximize the moment. Before launch day, we had prepped to submit the application to reviewers, post a YouTube demo video, launch a Facebook fan page, mention it on LinkedIn and tweet about it on Twitter. We prepared a press release and jpegs to send to a core group of reporters, most of whom we’ve built relationships with over months or years. (In fact, I’ve known Alissa since she was an intern in my ad agency in the late 90’s, and have watched her blossoming career from afar.) Sometimes luck just happens, but it happens more often if you prepare the ground for it to take root.

That’s all I know. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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