App Success: How Linkpack Got to the Front Page of Hacker News
Stelios Petrakis, an app maker from Thessaloniki, Greece, tells the incredible story of how Linkpack came to be.
Since starting out as a “scratch your own itch” app, their app has reached the front page of Hacker News, got a ton of upvotes on Product Hunt and was featured by several major media outlets.
Is that why Stelios and co-founder Petros jump out of bed in the morning, inspired to get to work? No.
Read on to find out what motivates the founders of Evil Window Dog to do what they do.
Note: Linkpack is an app to save web links for later. You can save, read and share your links with their iPhone app or the Chrome extension (and soon Safari). Saved links are stored right on your computer, and synced to your devices via Dropbox. Download and install Linkpack via the App Store.
How did you get started with Linkpack?
I was a really heavy Instapaper user; I was saving all the articles there. Just looking at the list of articles was quite overwhelming, so I struggled to organize them all.
So I started just drag-and-dropping URLs from my browser to my desktop. If you drag and drop a URL from your browser to you desktop, it creates a file. I organized those links into folders to keep them grouped into thematic categories.
Then, I wanted to access them anywhere, so I placed the folders in my Dropbox account. Soon I realized that there was no easy way of reading those links from my iPhone, and that’s how Linkpack came to be.
Back then, did you know any other people that worked like this?
Actually no, I thought I was the only one who was doing this weird url-into-files kind of thing. I initially created the Linkpack app for myself back in the summer of 2013. Its development was going slowly because we had another project in the works, Horizon, which we launched in 2014.
With Horizon’s launch, the Linkpack project was shelved so we could update and maintain Horizon. Last summer I started working on Linkpack again and we have decided to release it in January 2016.
Who is we? Do you work together with a team or co-founder?
Right now, we are a company of two people, me and my co-founder Petros Douvantzis, called Evil Window Dog, and we’ve already created four mobile apps. Our main focus is creating apps for ourselves that try to solve an every day need, like shooting always horizontal videos (Horizon), finding the anagrams (Anagramma) or organizing your links (Linkpack).
I want to add that for the Linkpack project we had a friend, Stavros Korokythakis, helping us with the server development.
Do you have any plans to monetize the Linkpack app?
Right now, the app uses the freemium model. You can download Linkpack for free and if you want pro functionality, like reading progress, narration and a few extra features, you can purchase a $1.99 upgrade to unlock this mode.
This doesn’t actually mean that this will remain the revenue model of the app in the future. We keep experimenting with things and based on the features we’ll add in the future, the revenue model might change.
Do you have a way to keep in touch with the users and the customers of your app?
Yes. The app features an email form that allows users to send us feedback. Most of the users actually used it in the beta to report features and improvements. We use those reports to create a backlog of things that we want to build for the next updates. There’s a lot of work to be done there, and we are really excited about what’s coming.
What kind of marketing effort did you do in recent months, to get downloads for the app?
I can’t say that we run an aggressive marketing to be honest. We had a beta running for quite some time, where users were able to apply via our website and we managed to get Linkpack featured on BetaList which drove a large number of users to our website, and resulted in a pretty significant number of users wanting to know when the app was released.
When the app was launched, we emailed a lot of journalists and issued a press release. The app got featured on LifeHacker and on some other international sites. Most of the traffic though came through Product Hunt and Hacker News.
What is the toughest problem you had to crack in terms of development, marketing and operations?
The toughest problem about Linkpack was working with the Dropbox SDK. Right now we are supporting one cloud provider and that’s Dropbox. Having this one cloud provider was well…weird, because at some point last year Dropbox announced that it would change a lot of APIs that we were using.
So although we had to make some sacrifices at some point, everything was working alright in the end.
Choosing to work with Dropbox was a really organic decision. As I have said it all started when I begun saving links on my computer as files. Moving those files to Dropbox let me access then from anywhere. But when I was on the move and wanted to read my saved articles, I couldn’t just use the Dropbox app for iPhone. So, I decided to make a prototype, and when that was working, I added more and more features like reading progress and Readability [distraction-free reading, ed.].
It organically grew into something that right now is Linkpack. It wasn’t like “Let’s do this project, with such and such features" kind of thing. The features were being organically discovered as the application grew.
A word of advice though: It is better not to base your whole company’s business logic on just one third party API, that might close down or change in the future. On most cases you can’t do anything about it. When Dropbox changes its API, or Facebook does the same thing, and you have developed an app based on those APIs, then as a developer you will find yourself in a really difficult position.
Speaking about Hacker News, how did you get on the front page of Hacker News?
I really don’t know what the algorithm is to get to the front page of Hacker News! It wasn’t my first post on Hacker News, I do post links from time to time, for personal projects or for news but it is really hard to predict when you’re getting to the front page. I don’t have a clue on why it was picked up, but it drove a lot of traffic.
A large number of users who read our post from Hacker News are also users that are willing to download and try new stuff, know how Dropbox works and they probably used a reader service in the past. The amount of conversions we had thanks to being featured was really high. Based on the statistics that Apple provides us, almost 50% of the people who viewed the App Store page downloaded the app, and that’s really great.
What’s your advice for aspiring app makers?
If you are a beginner app maker, I think, your focus must always be to ship something.
You may have the one billion dollar idea in your head, but unless you release it in the world and receive real feedback on what you have built, it’s not worth anything in my opinion.
Three things I keep in mind working on a project is build, ship and iterate. You build something, you ship it, you get feedback and then you go back to build and ship a new update, then build, ship and iterate again.
That doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to release mediocre quality products. Unfortunately, in the way App Store works, with reviews and a star-based rating system, it’s really easy for your app to fall behind if it doesn’t provide an acceptable user experience.
My advice would be to always also focus on user experience. Make it so simple, but so powerful, so the users can make sense of your UI without having to think twice about why certain elements exist or operate the way they do.
It’s easy to think, from an outside perspective, that app development is really cool and it’s probably easy money. The reality is that you have to work really hard and most of the time it isn’t so rewarding financially, because you can’t expect your app to be the next Instagram.
The way the press works is that they typically cover those successes and create the illusion that it’s really easy to take the first place on the App Store. It requires a lot of hard work.
App making doesn’t always mean creating apps for yourself. There are all these companies looking for contractors or creators to create apps for their needs. There’s money to be made there. If you have the willpower to create apps, and you know that people might use them daily and their lives might get affected by them, I think that’s something that you must do. That’s how I’m waking up every morning, because I think that apps might change the way people live and think.
It’s very rewarding to have built an app that is installed on the device of someone that’s across the globe, and he’s happy with it!
Hi, I'm Reinder.
I help developers play with code.
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