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Building a Web Application that makes $500 a Month – Part I

This is the first part (Part II here) in a series of posts about the first web app I wrote for myself, TweetingMachine. I’ll cover every aspect of its creation and development, starting at how the idea came to me, the many, many mistakes I made, and how eventually I improved the tool so much that it now brings in $500 a month, a figure that increases with each month. I realise that this isn’t a huge amount of money, but it’s a nice present.

December 2009: The Idea

At the time, I was getting freelance work from vWorker, and I started to see a lot of requests asking for coders to work on various Twitter-based applications. Some people wanted to create sites that let users schedule tweets; others wanted to be able to automatically follow people back; and some shady characters wanted full-on spam engines. I was looking for an excuse to learn Twitter’s API, and the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I could write a web app in my free time with lots of great features, that would be easy to use, and in no time it would become the number one Twitter tool! Not only that – I could charge to access it… and people would sign up, and use it, and love it, and inside 90 days I’d be making tens of thousands each and every month!

Well, a guy can dream.

January 2010: The Execution

I had my great idea, time to get cracking on what would turn out to be the easy bit: writing the code. I’m a web developer – have been for a decade – and I know how to write web apps. Find a cheap VPS (prgmr.com – incidentally, highly recommended and have far exceeded my expectations), sketch out some database and object designs, choose a framework, and that was me up and running, coding like a demon for a good few weeks.

The important fact here is that I’m very much a developer; I have all the design skills of a dead fish. So I took a look at a few sites out there, and attempted to make something similar. This is going to be embarrassing, but here we go anyway:

First try
Let's try that again
And again...

As you can see, TweetingMachine was not a pretty sight; I was still naively optimistic that my poor design skills would be ignored by the legions of customers that would be overawed by TweetingMachine’s features and ease of use. I launched the site, submitted it to the likes of FeedMyApp, KillerStartups and so on. This was right before…

February 2010: The Big Pause

My girlfriend and I (along with her sister, for that matter) had decided to escape Poland’s chilly winter, and spend three weeks in India instead. A fantastic time was had by all, and I occasionally managed to stop thinking about the millions of dollars that MUST be waiting in my PayPal account.

March 2010: Crashing back down to reality

Arrive back home. Check emails. Zero sales. Check server. Apache has been crashing. Cron jobs not running. Sit down. Cry. Fix up the code. Go work on something else.

April 2010: First Sale!

I should stop here to explain what I originally thought my pricing plans would look like: I was offering tiered pricing – if you wanted to use multiple Twitter accounts, it’d cost you more… and if you wanted to send more messages, that would cost you as well. Enjoying taking rash decisions, I decided to scrap the tiered pricing, and stick to a single price: $9.99/month, with a week’s free trial beforehand.

Surprisingly, within a week, I had my first sale. With $9.99 in my PayPal account, I was halfway to breaking even on my monthly hosting costs, a small triumph! That said, I was starting to notice a rather nasty trend: my visitor numbers were dropping, sharply. If this carried on, I would have maybe a single visitor per day in the next month. Not having any marketing skills, I was starting to wonder what I should do.

May 2010: Internet Marketing for Dummies

I was at a loss, and started to read every basic guide out there for how to market your web app. All of them made it seem so simple: find relevant websites and blogs; contact authors and owners; ask for a review or if they’d let you publish something; and then sit back and watch the targeted visitors pour in.

Sadly with TweetingMachine that didn’t happen. I started to realise that its design could really be holding the tool back… but I don’t have the money to pay a designer, so what else can I do? Failing elsewhere, I added a page to the site – “Bloggers” – that offered a free year’s subscription to TweetingMachine in return for a review on their blog.

Just in case you ever go down this route, you will not believe the cheek of some people. I still regularly receive emails from people demanding free subscriptions, and sending me a link to a copy of a review by someone else. Funnily enough though, in a couple of cases this has led to purchases after I got into an argument – “It’s only $19.99, why don’t you just buy it?!” – with the person originally trying to cheat a subscription out of me.

June 2010: Second Sale, and Desperation Kicks In

Suddenly, my second sale arrived: I was now breaking even on my monthly hosting costs! I decided to ignore the design problem: with enough features, SEO and gimmicks, surely I’d start to make enough money to pay for a designer? So, in my free time I worked on these three aspects:

1) As mentioned, adding more features. Otherwise known as reading my competitor’s websites, and working out how to do what they’re doing, but do it better.

2) SEO. I started reading every SEO guide out there after realising how many basic mistakes I was making (such as having Β a title tag consisting of the word TweetingMachine alone)

3) Gimmicks. Another embarrassing confession, but honestly – this is how desperate I was. I made TweetingMachine translation-friendly, and then set about adding Google Translate versions of every language I could find. I later realised quite how terrible and irritating the translations were when the visitor logs showed non-English visitors repeatedly choosing the English version of the site, usually after viewing a single page in their native tongue.

July 2010 – September 2010: Close to Giving Up

The pattern of low usage and sales continued over the next few months. I gained 10 subscribers, over half of whom cancelled after a month’s usage… and honestly, I lost interest in the project, now hating the design, and the feature set.

One evening though, I got in contact with a friend I hadn’t spoken to in ages. He mentioned a website that was paying his rent, and I expressed my frustration about TweetingMachine’s lack of income. I think at this point, total monthly revenue was $30.

Have you ever felt really, really stupid? I excel in stupidity, missing common sense and so on, and as the conversation progressed, the familiar feeling swept over me once again. My friend told me “Yup, honestly your site’s design sucks. Why don’t you go on ThemeForest, buy this theme for the front-end, this theme for the tool itself, and hey – you only need a couple of subscribers for a couple of months, and the themes will have paid for themselves.”

Well knock my down with a feather; decent designs are available for not much money at all! My friend had made a great argument. I paid the $50, and got to work.

Coming up in part II: turning things around.

Written by Tom

Are you looking for web development or just someone who will work with your business needs and not against them? Get in touch with me here, or take a look at my business website. I’m confident I can help you.

Published inTweetingMachineWeb Apps

100 Comments

  1. When will you write next part of this story?

    P.S. I know how you’ll like to know that someone commented on your blog post :).

    • tom tom

      Hi Vahe,

      I’ll be writing up the next part over the next few days, so most likely early next week. Would you like me to send you a mail when it’s up? :-)

      PS And thanks for commenting, you were right πŸ˜€

      • Don’t waste your time sending me email, I’ll check your blog time to time πŸ˜‰

      • A Nehzat A Nehzat

        Please email me when the next section is up.

        Good luck!
        A,

    • Candice Candice

      …that’s easy, he’ll be writing the next part as soon as this blog post attracts enough attention to breach the $500/mo threshold.

      /jk but I am looking forward to the rest of the story (where your persistence pays off)

  2. Rory Rory

    Great story – keep it going!!

  3. karthik Ramachandran karthik Ramachandran

    Nice, curious to read the rest

  4. what an anticlimatic ending..

    alas, it was a good read. but please don’t split it!

  5. bubba bubba

    You implemented before you had the idea … wow (ie. should the idea date be December 2009 instead of December 2010)

    • Tom Tom

      Thanks, now changed πŸ˜‰

  6. This are the type of stories i want to hear for motivation not the loads of unrealistic blog posts i see around about running an online business, especially marketing an app.

    Waitng for part 2..

  7. Very interesting read, look forward to the next post!

    Definitely hit me with an email when it’s posted

  8. Excited for Part II

    “I made TweetingMachine translation-friendly, and then set about adding Google Translate versions of every language I could find. I later realised quite how terrible and irritating the translations were when the visitor logs showed non-English visitors repeatedly choosing the English version of the site, usually after viewing a single page in their native tongue.”

    >> awesome insight

  9. Win Win

    Can’t wait for the next installment – compelling stuff.

  10. ian ian

    Great write up! Similar experience here, but it didn’t end so well.

    >December 2010: The Idea

    I think you mean 2009?

    • Tom Tom

      Yup, now fixed, thanks :)

  11. John John

    Good post. Looking forward to the next one. You probably had the idea in December 2009 unless you time traveled though πŸ˜‰

    • Tom Tom

      Hehe, and this is why I need to split up the posts, otherwise they’d be littered with mindfarts like these πŸ˜‰

  12. Withakay Withakay

    I love his sort of thing, really looking forward to the next installment. I am not a massive twitter user but I hope your write up gets you more subs. (which I guess is your hope in publishing this, not that I think that is a bad thing!)

  13. Angelo Angelo

    Thanks for sharing this.

    Would you also share the technologies you used in developing the web application? I have this idea which I wanted to start but I feel stumped on where and how to start my idea.

    – Development platform / languages
    – Server side technologies
    – Database / Data repositories

    Thanks.

    • Tom Tom

      Yeah sure – I don’t want these posts to get too bogged down with the technical side of things, but I could definitely do a section about what technology I use and why :)

  14. Prakhar Prakhar

    Hey Thomas

    Lovely article. Thank you so much for sharing this. Eagerly waiting for the next one. If its possible can you please drop me mail so that I can check it. I’m not much of a feed reader and I would hate to miss your following posts.

    Thanks a lot

    • Tom Tom

      Sure, not a problem, I’ll drop you a line :)

  15. Rex Rex

    Looking forward to part 2. Good idea to buy a cheap theme, I too lack even the most basic design sense/skills, but I hadn’t considered paying for a cheap theme.

    • Tom Tom

      Hehe, isn’t it annoying how the idea only appears after someone tells you about it? :)

  16. Joe Joe

    Thanks for writing this. You now have me waiting for part two.

    If you don’t mind me asking, were you able to purchase the regular license for the admin backend theme, or did you need to get the expensive, extended license?

    • Tom Tom

      Thanks! I’m really enjoying the feedback I’m getting from this post, pretty much well my first attempt at writing something like this, so it’s really enjoyable πŸ˜€

      I use the regular license – as far as I’m aware, you only need the expensive extended license if you’re distributing the theme yourself. For using it on a website you should be fine, but if you created an app that people could buy and download all the source files, then you’d need the extended license.

      • Joe Joe

        Ah, I see. Thanks for clearing that up for me.

  17. Akoshodi Akoshodi

    I’m really looking forward to the second part of the article. I just started learning android application programming and would like to earn money from it one day. Insights from articles like yours will definitely help in avoiding mis bles along the way. Thanks.

  18. Tom Tom

    If I might ask, what framework did you use, and why?

    • Tom Tom

      Sure – I’m planning on writing a fuller post about what technologies I use and why, but in short I use Kohana as it’s small and very easy to get up running :)

  19. Avi Avi

    Thanks for sharing

  20. Ivo Ivo

    More more, please … :-)

  21. pav pav

    Eagerly waiting for the next part! :)

    Not nitpicking, but there is a typo in this line:
    “One evening though, I got in contact with a friend I hadn’t spoken *two* in ages. “

    • Tom Tom

      No no, please *do* point out typos – especially when they’re as embarrassing as that one :) I love how my brain works sometimes πŸ˜‰

  22. awesome post… Really looking forward to the next installment!!

  23. Great post Tom! I’m really looking forward to part 2.

  24. Radek Radek

    Nice story, I’d like read the second part becouse it seems you cut the story at the most interesing point :). And send me an e-mail when it’s done (if it’s not a problem :))

    btw. I am Polish and that’s nice to see any non-Polish people in Poland (actually working and living) :)

    • Tom Tom

      Email – not a problem. I’ve also just added a mailing list widget as well :)

      Hehe, thanks – and to be fair, Poland and the Polish people have been nothing but welcoming to me, so I’m having an awesome time living here – in fact, getting married next month! πŸ˜€

  25. You are giving me hope to not give up at all. I am from Pakistan. Though we don’t have facility of PayPal here and I am thinking to set up my account with some payment system for my online earnings. Any advice will be highly appreciated.

    Desparately waiting for 2nd part.

  26. rch rch

    Nice post. After the next installment about your site, you’ll have to write another one describing any material HN effects. :)

  27. erik erik

    Interested to hear the rest !

  28. Hey,

    This is really an interesting post. I’m eager to read the rest.
    Keep up the good work !!

    And thanks for sharing :)

  29. Eagerly waiting for your next post just like the other commenters

  30. Great post. Thanks for sharing.

  31. jsz jsz

    I demand part II πŸ˜‰

  32. John John

    Great read. please send me an email when PARTII is up as well.

  33. The world need smore heros like you to tell the truth!

    Good stuff

    Scott

  34. Thanks for posting – I’m looking forward to your next post!

    This sounds a lot like what I’m going through with my web app. I just reached the break even point this month. My day job is taking up all my time now, but I think I can really ramp up sales this summer.

  35. denysonique denysonique

    I like your design more than the one from ThemeForest. You could have spent a little bit more time on it, and it would look totally fine.

    • Tom Tom

      Wait until part II – I have a graph that will show the difference :-)

  36. Nick Nick

    Awesome post. It reminds me to think long term instead of wondering why success is taking so long.

    Also, I really like themeforest. You should consider putting in an affiliate link. I would be more than happy to give you credit when I join.

    • Tom Tom

      Thanks Nick, and that’s a good idea about the affiliate link I think I might just do that shortly :-)

  37. James James

    Great :)

    by the way theme on themeforest for SaaS project is the extended version! That site is 1000$ for these types of projects!

      • James James

        mmmmh… I sware they changed the wording :) had a few SaaS projects and really wanted to use a couple of those templates.

        I’m kind of confused now :) Well I think I might have been wrong

        waiting for part 2!

  38. Very inspirational, congrats on your success so far. I’m in the same boat as you, I’m a developer with no design skills. I hacked up a theme I found on TF and wedged my site, http://www.socialdeal.net, to use it so it lost a lot of it’s cohesion. I’m also clinging to the hope that enough revenue can be generated soon to get a better design done.

    Looking forward to Part II

  39. Riyad Kalla Riyad Kalla

    Loved the writeup, please keep going. Finding it very inspiring to read someone with similar tendencies and thoughts go through this adventure ahead of me.

  40. I love your intro. Every single web project I start winds up being “tens of thousands a month” in my head too :) I’m so happy to hear I’m not the only one.

    What’s even better, is that unlike all my *previous* attempts, this next one that I’m working on right now is going to be that very app that turns into a $10/k per month residual income stream.

    πŸ˜‰

  41. feng feng

    Great post . Waiting for your part II

  42. Dade Dade

    FYI – theme forest is the developers best friend. Easily modified themes, great designs and really inexpensive. I’m constantly surprised at how many of my great developer friends have never heard of it.

    Great article by the way, love the honesty and pointing out a lot of the pitfalls you went through. It helps us all who are thinking about doing something like this, to not give up hope.

  43. Shawn Shawn

    Nice article, can’t wait to read the rest of it. I looked at tweetingmachine.com and the design looks nice. Much better than the initial design, good work!

  44. Tom, nice article. I’m waiting for the second part. And yes an overview of the technologies you use would be great. Thanks and keep rocking.

  45. Simon Robb Simon Robb

    Thanks for sharing Tom, you write very well. Woul love to learn more from your experiences, looking forward to the next installment!

  46. chester chester

    Nice story! The story abruptly stopped at the most interesting part. I love to read the 2nd part. drop me an email when part II is done if it not too much trouble.

    I have started many small projects and never finish them. I am curious to see how you keep it going and market the app to make it viable revenue generator.

  47. Hi,
    I also like the story a lot, it makes me dreaming again about how I will make thousands a month too πŸ˜€
    Nevertheless, the story is awesome, you have a way with words! If you run out of income, you could probably do well writting those articles they post on freelancer sites πŸ˜€
    Anyway. Add my email addy to your subscription base too, if it’s not too much hassle. And maybe add a subscribe-me-to-this-series box? I’m off to retweet wherever I found the link to here.

  48. Rafael Rafael

    On translation: you can get quick, affordable human-made translation on myGengo (http://www.mygengo.com). I don’t work there, though sometimes I do translation jobs there. You can also try oDesk or some other translation site, though there you’ll have to spend more time to find and select a translator.

  49. Hi,

    Thanks for a great insight into a web apps beginnings!

    It does seems to show that the design of a site is as important if not more so than the actual features.

    Looking forward to part 2!

    Cheers,

    James

  50. Don Don

    Great article! Looking forward to part 2…let me know when it’s up if you don’t mind.

  51. Kevin Kevin

    You really know how to create a page- turner, huh? “Tune in next time, folks.” I’ll look for the rest of it.

  52. Like everyone else, I’m looking forward to part 2. On the net, very few things take off overnight.

  53. Way to plunge through despair. Looking forward to how you redesigned with themes, and began earning.

  54. Tha fuz Tha fuz

    Can’t wait for the second part! Post it already :)

  55. I’m really looking forward to the second part, awesome post

  56. Interesting post, looking forward to reading the other parts of it. Like the others have asked, please email me when those are ready. I appreciate how you shared the mistakes made, not just the parts that worked right away.

    Thanks
    Vasudev

  57. Nice! Like everyone else here, I’m waiting to hear about how things turned out.

    Also, if you need further help with design, I’d be glad to lend a hand :)

    – Felix

  58. Man, I bookmarked this a few days ago and part 2 still isn’t here! Enjoyed this post, thanks for sharing. :)

  59. wei wei

    Curious, what framework do you end up using?

  60. nick nick

    a month by month story, nice, but you was not stuck during a month?
    for example : between the idea and the execution?

  61. KB KB

    Can’t wait for part II!!!

  62. Very interesting to hear the behind the scenes stuff.. would it not be great to hear this kind of success sharing tips from other successful guys too.. Please do finish the article….

  63. john gibfried john gibfried

    I had no idea about ThemeForest, totally worth a look.

  64. Spyros Spyros

    Wow. I really loved this post. I’ve been working on a site similar to this (when I say similar I mean it has nothing to do with twitter but is a membership site like yours) and loved this post. I’m also using two themes both from themeforest just like you!
    I’m planning on releasing it soon but as I’m only 16, and I’m new to coding, has taken me quite a few months of work (8 months of on and off work).
    I’ve bookmarked this post and who knows, when I’m done (hopefully after exams – this summer) I might return!

    I’m off to read part 2. Thanks for this wonderful post :)

  65. Is it hard to build, market and maintain a web app that makes at least $1000 a month?…

    How difficult this will be is all relative, of course, but it is definitely possible. Being a developer already should remove the biggest barrier. I would break this up into a few different stages. Ideate a Profitable Product It’s easy to come up with…

  66. Yeah one must dream, how will your paypal/bank account swell if you cant dream. Looks like you were describing my current situation. Waiting for part II

  67. Tom,

    Thanks so much for sharing this (parts I and II). It’s great to hear some “real world” advice and experience from someone building and marketing apps.

    Regards,
    Paul

  68. Nice write-up. It is encouraging to see your effort start paying off. Good luck in your endeavor!

  69. Good post, you’ve got a good writing style.

    Looking forward to the next part!

    Rick

  70. quoted
    “sketch out some database and object designs, choose a framework”

    Thin PHP Framework is a good start for startup projects
    http://thinphp.com

  71. Very nice article gives clear information who wants develop their own application.

  72. […] times a week, somebody comes along and asks me about developing a successful web app. Given that my biggest success so far is an app earning $500/month, I’m as surprised as you are. That said, I’m learning, and I want to spread the word […]

  73. Adi Adi

    First and the last rule of all successful startups never give up !!

  74. Guilherme Guilherme

    The true and harsh reality.

    Thank you for sharing Tom.

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