When Luke told me that he wanted to start a blog about our experiences with Klinker Apps, I jumped at the opportunity for another avenue to connect with our users and knew exactly what my first post should be about - exactly how we got to where we are today.
I've been asked these types of questions hundreds of times: How did you get started with your own business? What tips do you have for me? I can't promise to answer all of your questions, but I'll do my best to hit on all of the most important parts of our journey to where we are today! If you've got any questions, just shout out in the comments and let me know what else you want more information on.
The Dorm Room Struggle
A lot of you may already know this, but I started working on my first app, Sliding Messaging, from my dorm room freshman year of college.
For those of you haven't heard of Sliding Messaging, that's probably for the best. Looking back at it, I'm not even sure how I managed to get it working at all... but that is one of the most important aspects of Klinker Apps! We've been learning as we go, for a long time now, and continuing to build on top of our ideas to refine them. You can't let the fear of not knowing how to do something stop you from trying. I started out with an idea, making a messaging app where you had easy, swipe-able access to all of your conversations, and just decided to go for it. No planning, I just dove right in and threw something together. It was new and challenging for me and that's what I liked best about it. From there, I was hooked.
The app itself had a distinctly holo design that was popular at the time, so that helped to find some initial users. When it was first released, it didn't even have a settings menu and I put it on the XDA forums for free looking for feedback. By being responsive, listening to people and implementing their ideas, I was able to get a few Android enthusiasts using it and my foot in the door.
After finally paying the $25 to put the app up onto the Play Store (I think it was actually called the Android Market at the time), I kept making improvements to the theme engine and adding things that normal users - not specifically the techies on XDA - would want, such as the emoji keyboard.
Up to this point however, I had neglected to add MMS support to the app, sticking to just SMS, because Google had not produced any APIs that allowed me to easily work with pictures in the same way that you could plain-text messages (they have them now, publishing them about three years after I first needed them!). This led me to my first open source contribution: a library for porting over the built-in messaging app's MMS functionality and making it easily accessible for any app that wanted to use it. It's still something that gets worked on from time-to-time today and is even used in our latest app, Pulse.
A quick aside: I'm a huge proponent of open source work and think that it should be a part of any developer's workflow. If you haven't already, create a GitHub account and start looking at other's projects. There is so much you can learn from it and, eventually, you can start contributing as well, to give back to those who have helped you. You can check out all of my open source stuff at https://github.com/klinker41, as well as Luke's at https://github.com/klinker24.
Have an idea how we can make our stuff better? Open up an issue or, better yet, send us a pull request!
I'm a huge proponent of open source work and think that it should be a part of any developer's workflow.
Around the time that I finally got MMS working, I was feeling very stressed between keeping up with my school work (I was a full-time college student after all!), building onto the app, and responding to all of the support requests I was receiving. Most days I felt like I couldn't get any work done because I was answering so many emails - that was extremely frustrating for me and I had a hard time keeping up with it. I lost my cool a few times and it definitely affected those people around me who cared about me most. I was a mess, so, luckly, I had a twin brother who was ready and willing to step up to the plate and start helping me out with everything. I've never been so grateful in my life and owe a ton to Luke for that. Klinker Apps had grown to a two person team!
Sliding Messaging just kept expanding because I was willing to put the time into it and eventually had about 100,000 downloads before Luke and I made the decision to retire it and put it up on GitHub for others to take advantage of if they wanted to. That was a tough decision for us since it was the app that gave us our start, but in the end it was definitely the right one since we just didn't have the manpower to keep maintaining all of that legacy code and we could focus on our newer, more robust projects.
Living That College Lifestyle
I mentioned it a few times already, but Luke and I both had a full class schedule that we had to keep up with. We've both been very lucky when it comes to school however - most subjects come extremely easy to us and we were able to work together on the homework to get it all done. We each graduated with distinction from the University of Iowa with computer engineering degrees after four years in the program. Go Hawks!
Alongside school, we played water polo and had a social life to attend to, like any college student does. Some of our best nights of work and ideas definitely came after a few (or more than a few) beers had been drank. The tech companies who stock a keg in their kitchens have it right, great ideas come from people sitting around, talking, and drinking!
Even while being busy, Klinker Apps work took a high priority for us and we spent too many long nights working on our brand. Since we didn't live in the same dorm building, I definitely found myself crashing on Luke's couch frequently. After our freshman year, we got an apartment together with a few other water polo friends and that made our collaboration sessions way easier. Through those sessions, a few of our most well-known and popular apps were born.
Going Mainstream and Making Serious Money
After working on Sliding Messaging for about a year straight, making commits (and usually pushing updates) every day, we had both gained a ton of valuable knowledge and experience about Android, as well as developing software.
Feeling inspired, I decided I was going to start a clean project that would eventually take the place of Sliding Messaging as a full rewrite. Since I was starting a new project, Luke also wanted to get going on something of his own so he started messing with Twitter's APIs to create Talon.
Both of these apps have seen major changes since their initial inspiration (especially for the messaging app, which would become known as EvolveSMS), some for the better and some not so well received, but it was around this time when we started to call ourselves a legitimate business, started worrying about taxes, and got a lawyer to help us with the legal side of things.
And it was a good thing we took the time to do those things, because after Evolve and Talon hit the Play Store, things exploded for us and we started seeing massive amounts of money, at least in a college student's eyes, coming in. It was extremely rewarding to see all of that hard work starting to pay off! With Sliding Messaging, we had made a few bucks, but it wasn't anything compared to what we were seeing now and it made us realize that this was something we could actually do for a living (if we wanted to).
That success didn't come all on its own though, we owe a lot to the Android community and various blogs for picking up our work and writing articles about it. I think the very first one I can remember was on droid life. Android Police picked up our work and Android Central has featured us in a few articles as well, just to name a few, so shout out to those guys and everyone else for helping small time developers start to make a name for themselves! Still today, every time I see our name or some of our artwork come up on my news feed, I feel a huge rush of pride.
Shout out to all of the tech blogs out there helping small time developers start to make a name for themselves!
Along with tech blogs picking up the apps, we also started working harder at having a presence on Google+ and interacting with users there. This was around the time that Google rolled out beta testing through communities and we took advantage of that to get feedback and test out new features we had been working on. If you're planning on starting a new project and want to get some feedback, there are always people in the Android communities looking to try it out, so definitely start there and build your way up.
The Feature Request Balancing Act
Right before we released Evolve and Talon out into the wild, I remember looking at Luke and saying "I can't think of anything else that we'll even need to add to these apps!" Wow, I've never been so wrong in my life! Android changes so quickly and so often that there are always new platform features to add, but that isn't the half of it. When you listen to your users, everyone has an idea about what they want to see in an app and as a developer, you want to try and make everyone happy (even if that isn't always possible).
I can't think of anything else that we'll even need to add to these apps!
The problem is, when you try and make all of your existing users happy, it makes the settings menu huge and much more difficult for new users to pick up and start playing with - especially normal users who don't want to customize every little option, just download an app and have it start working right away. Adding in all of those requests also makes Luke and I's job significantly harder, just because it is difficult to keep track of everything and some fixes end up just being flaky, temporary band-aids that are going to break even harder in the future.
So, while we tried to satisfy as many requests as possible in our earlier apps, we eventually had to move away from that model and start making some decisions about what we thought was best for the app and the majority of our users. That isn't to say we stopped listening to people though, because we're both firm believers that we can't think of everything people want and everyone else has good ideas as well! We just can't justify building every request now and adding hundreds of options to the settings menu.
Too Many Projects and Too Few People?
At this point, Luke and I were starting to spend a lot less time on school work (~2 hours a day or less) and a lot more time on our apps (~5-6 hours a day for both of us) and we loved it. We both had tons of new ideas floating around in our heads about what to build next and Luke was the first to get that going when he came up with the concept for Blur. At its core, Blur was a homescreen launcher just like the one that Google had open sourced and shipped with Nexus devices. However, Google didn't allow other launchers to swipe to the left for quick access to Google Now so this was something we wanted to build ourselves.
At its core, Blur was a homescreen launcher just like the one that Google had open sourced and shipped with Nexus devices.
Blur Pages were then born, allowing any app to create a homescreen page that you can swipe to and interact with. Evolve and Talon both had pages made where you could text friends or look through your timeline, and I was busy working on a new project that would also include a Page - a news reader known as Source.
Source was a bit of a different type of project for me, because it started working with HTML alongside Java code, which I didn't have any experience with (but it did pave the way for us to expand to other projects - more on this later!). It was basically an app that took links to articles, grabbed the article HTML and extracted text and images to show right in the app instead of on the web. It was really the first app that we released with the previously outlined philosophy of limiting the options for a simpler user experience and I think it worked out quite well. Even today, Source is by far my most used app.
Editor's note: Blur never really caught on as much as we would have liked, but it was something that both of us used for an extremely long time and still lives on as an open source project in case you're interesting in checking it out. Not all of our apps have been hits, but that's OK because we still enjoyed making them! I'd highly suggest that every developer takes this approach: even if your app does not catch on, you're still learning by making it and making yourself a better developer. Don't be discouraged! The two of us still argue today whether or not Source ever actually caught on as much as we would have liked it to, but the answer lately has been leaning towards no.
Between Talon, Evolve, Source and Blur, Klinker Apps had started to create quite the collection of wide reaching projects and there were still only two of us to maintain them. Once again, we were in for some long nights and early mornings keeping all of them up and running and didn't release any brand new apps for quite a while, but that's a story for another day!
For now, thanks for checking in and look forward to part 2 in the coming weeks. We've changed a lot even since the days of Source and Blur (which would have been the end of 2014) and that time deserves it's own part to be able to do it justice.
Let us know what you think, if you remember anything I've left out, or if you've got suggestions for what you'd like to read about in the future!