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Launching a top ten iPhone app: Gordon Whitten on Airport Remote

This is a guest post by Gordon Whitten, founder and CEO of Sojern, Inc., an innovator in the travel vertical, partnering with leading airlines and funded by Silicon Valley venture capital firms. Whitten’s earlier software startup was purchased by Intuit. He became a vice president there and founded three new products. Awards include Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in Technology for the region in 2003, and the Intuit CEO Leadership Award in 2007.



Lights are dim and shades drawn in the dev area at Sojern.

Did’ja set up the release build config yet?

Yep. Doing that now.

Installing the provisioning profile… OK.

Build and run…

A few keystrokes, and there it is. Bright crystal blue shining from the iPhone. AirportRemote, a newborn app! It’s beautiful. Looks brighter and better than it does in the airport. If I miss this plane, what is the next one going to San Diego? Scroll… Click. United. 35 minutes. Think I can make that. I need to pick up one of my VC’s at the airport. “Quick, check the app.” Nope. His plane is 45 minutes late. No need to rush.

AirportRemote is a Top Ten app in the travel category in the Apple App Store and has been since the day it launched. We’ve launched four apps at Sojern. Our three free ones are up to 200,000 downloads, and this one, AirportRemote, is a little higher priced than most, yet we are selling a surprising number at $3.99… so many that we are a top five grossing app in our category. After our launch, I had an opportunity to go to Cupertino, California and spend some time with the head of the app store for Apple. He told us that we’d done a lot of things right, and he gave us some of his advice as well.

Here are some success factors he and I discussed:

1. As with any game changing product, identify an important and unsolved problem for many people, and solve it well.

People talk about their adrenalin runs to the airport to make a plane, or meet one. “If I could just see the airport Arrivals & Departures screen right now…!” It’s an important problem, and many people share it. Two million people per day in the US can be found searching out an arrival/ departure monitor inside an airport, often in a suitcase-thumping rush. “AirportRemote” solves this problem, with no data entry required – a key differentiator from the myriad apps that track flight status, but only after you key in specific flight info.

Thousands of apps have been created that don’t solve an important enough problem shared by enough people, and therefore don’t sell. Beyond solving a single problem well, the next generation of apps will change from one dimensional apps solving a single problem (think iPhone flashlight), to multi-dimensional solutions that create multiple functional and emotional benefits. These will include social connections between users where Ownable Network Effect can be established. Foursquare has this. Leveraging and utilizing proprietary data and system information from big companies will also create home runs for entrepreneurs who can partner right. The Slingplayer App sells for $29.99, and nobody else can do it. These connected apps will flourish.

(Photo by zenobia_joy via Flickr)

2. Find a great developer and great designer (with out-of-the-box thinking).

Apps are one of several new, big growth areas at Sojern. Getting the talent to pursue these opportunities is vital for us and for anyone building a great app business. We have some of the best, and I personally engage with them on these projects. Our developers are great at delivering functional benefits, but emotional appeal often requires a different skill set. This is key for us and for anyone building an app as this whole mobile area explodes into what looks like an unlimited future. A mini-team that can make something great-looking, functional and appealing is essential for producing a Top Ten app.

(Screenshot from sojern.com)

3. Use alternative marketing strategies.

You might get lucky and get Apple to feature your new app, but that’s about a 1 in X-thousand hit. Odds are not in your favor. The App store leader told me that to be considered for a feature:

  • You must make something truly novel…has to stand out.
  • It must creatively leverage some Apple 4.0 features (multitasking, retina display, background threads, local notifications, SMS from App, event kit framework)
  • Remember Apple loves great visual appeal (he said Osmos for iPad rocks!)

But don’t count on Apple to do your marketing for you. Who will benefit from your app? Think creatively. Where are the people your product can help, and what can you do to get their attention? You need someone who is respected to recommend your product to thousands of people who are the ideal audience who can use it. Who in your extended network could do this for you? Is there a company you know that would promote your app to hundreds of thousands of employees in return for a favor from you? Don’t just email app the bloggers; they get inundated with requests. Think guerrilla marketing. We have an on-going marketing effort to drive traffic to our AirportRemote.com site every day. (I can’t give away all of our tactics, but we had a creative, no-holds-barred plan.) You get the picture.

And great PR doesn’t hurt. Our WOWT story (above) earlier this week was a big hit.

4. Get off to a fast start.

The first goal of your app marketing strategy needs to be speed. You want a flurry of downloads quickly, and you want plenty of buzz. The mantra in customer service is if you make one person happy, they will tell 10 others, and those ten will each tell 10 more. That’s what you’re after. Once you are sure your product is right, think speed, a blast, to start a cascade of downloads, chats, tweets and more. If you can orchestrate a flurry of downloads (and good ratings) at one time, you might rise to the top ten in the app store in your category. Once you are in the top ten, your success will multiply because everyone who casually browses the category will see you. You’ve got the flywheel going for you.

One more thing I didn’t happen to discuss with Apple, be prepared for hundreds of Droid version requests. I was surprised that from day one of our launch, we were flooded with Droid requests. We responded and immediately started building the Droid version. It is about to launch (get on the list at airportremote.com). Thankfully, we developed the original product so that building in Droid did not require starting from scratch. We were able to utilize the backend framework over again even though we had to rebuild the interface for Droid. Some experts say our sales will increase by 50% when Droid goes live. I hope so.

Hope this helps some of you. It was a lot of work, but it was a lot of fun. I guess I’d add – don’t give up on a great idea. There is always a way to do it.

Gordon Whitten can be reached at gordon.whitten (at) sojern.com, or find him on Twitter, @AceMan101.


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