Focus On Customers Before They're Customers

In which Angelo realizes it's better to start by building the thing his customers want to pay for.

A black and white photo of a white banner with "We Hear You." printed in large, capitalized, block letters.
Photo by Jon Tyson / Unsplash

I’m working on building a new app for the first time in a couple of years, and this time I’m starting a little differently than I usually do: I’m starting with figuring out if I should even build it at all.

How It Started

In the past, the apps I built were largely made to scratch an itch (and learn something in the process). Per, my price-per-unit calculator app, is a good example of this: it was something my wife mentioned would be really helpful, and I was looking for an opportunity to learn a new programming language Apple had just released, called Swift.

My first app, HoneyJar, was similar: I wanted a way to calculate the future value (or opportunity cost) of recurring payments, and also to learn how to build and ship an iOS app.

My latest app, Thought Detox, was based on a web app I created that let me write out thoughts I didn’t want to hold in my head any longer. I also wanted to learn how to build complex animations in SwiftUI, a new app framework from Apple.

In most cases, I’d build the app, share it with friends, and then hope it got popular.

It never did.

(To be fair, I did a bit more marketing around the launch of Thought Detox. I reached out to the press, promoted the app ahead of launch with discounted pre-order pricing, and launched on Product Hunt. The launch went better than previous apps, but it was still hardly what you might consider a successful app launch.)

How It’s Going

I’m building a new app right now: it’s a way to manage your Buttondown newsletters on iOS.

I started by exploring what I can do with Buttondown’s public API, which lets apps connect with their service, and sharing some quick-and-dirty prototyping on social media.

(Side note: I have a larger —but not like, _large_— following on my personal social media accounts than on the business side, so I tend to use the latter for announcements, and share my work and ask questions from my personal accounts. Managing this stuff is a headache.)

I played around with logo and design ideas a bit, and explored names. My social posts were picked up and shared by the folks at Buttondown, too!

And then I remembered how I tend to build apps that scratch my own itch, but don’t really end up resonating with customers.


So, on Saturday, I fired up Tally and created a survey to see the frequency with which folks use Buttondown, as well as what would be most valuable for them to manage on their phone. The results are still coming in, but I'm already glad I did this — I definitely would have prioritized features differently.

(If you use Buttondown and want to provide feedback, you can find the survey here!)

We're Halfway There

Halfway to determining the value of building the app, I mean. While I'm seeing some interest (super encouraging!), there are two criteria I want to figure out before really getting to work on this app:

  1. The Minimum Viable Product is determined ✔️
  2. The Minimum Viable Profit is determined ❓

This won't be a free app. But I've taken a quick look at the cash flow forecasts and want to be sure I get the pricing and business model for the app right.

In other words, I'm making sure that I build the app my customers want to buy, rather than just building something that seems fun and challenging.

This article is sponsored by Per, a free iPhone app by Dropped Bits.

Per for iPhone

Per is the easiest, fastest way to compare price while you shop. It makes shopping decisions easy with its built-in unit converter and calculator, quickly showing you how much you’re getting for your money.

Get Per on the App Store


I moved a few things forward in March.

I wrote two articles here:

As I mentioned above, I also started poking at the new app and set aside another one —the Mac app I was discussing in the Constraints article— for a later date.

And finally, I've decided to move Thought Detox to a patronage model. Instead of the app being paid, it's now free, and I'll be adding a tip jar and an optional "support the developer" subscription to the app in the next release.

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Jamie Larson