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Failure: Building a web app that makes $50/month

Have you ever thought of an idea, something quick and easy, that you could launch in an afternoon and start taking money straight away? This is what happened to me with InboxCleaner, and six months later, here’s how it’s going.

Creating a New Tool

After a bumper month of TweetingMachine sales, I decided to write another tool to see if I could repeat the minor success. My only problem was that I didn’t have the free time to write a full system like TweetingMachine, nor the money to afford a decent outsourcing effort. Not willing to give up, I sat down with the thoughtΒ Do one thing, and do it well running about in my head.

Twitter has a feature called Direct Messages. They’re how two users can send private messages between one another. Now, for reasons known only to Twitter’s engineers, there is no simple, quick or easy way to delete all of your Direct Messages; you must delete them one-by-one, which is both cumbersome and time consuming.

Realising that I could steal a lot of code from TweetingMachine, I bought the Constellation theme from ThemeForest and set to work. From beginning to end, this was about 6 hours work.

I spent another hour or so submitting to every Twitter tools directory I could find. I also contacted lots of people on Twitter and asked if they’d give my app a try. Happily for me, lots of people appeared to be interested.

Money? It’s Free!

To help spread the word about InboxCleaner, I decided to disable charging for the time being, and instead offer the tool for free. The response? Lots of very happy users.

I left it free for a couple of weeks, all the time reading lots of happy comments, before I started charging $4.99/year… and promptly had lots of very upset users.

My mistake quickly became obvious: I had built a tool for an audience that didn’t like to spend money.

What to Charge?

In an effort to entice users to part with their hard-earned money, I made InboxCleaner free for life – just as long as you don’t mind being limited to only 50 deletes per day.

The first month, I had zero sales. None, whatsoever. Then – aha! – a moment of excitement! Two signups on the same day! Maybe this will make me rich after all! Sadly, that wasn’t to be the case: one signup cancelled within a week; and no new users came along to pay until 3 weeks later.

I sat down and thought about it. Users were certainly willing to try the service. A couple pay for it as well! Maybe I need a rock-bottom price? So I tried $0.99/year.

No dice. Double the number of paid users. Definitely not worth the hassle.

I had one final experiment ready: up the price to $4.99/month.

The Future

A subscription to InboxCleaner has cost $4.99/month for the last few months, and I’m starting to see a pattern emerge: 4-6 people sign up per month, of which half cancel their subscription within a week or two, and the rest stay on. In June the tool earned was $50.

Given the high cancellation rate, users can’t be happy with the end product. My pet theory is that most want to empty their inbox once or twice a year, and not have to worry about it again. A monthly rate makes no sense for these users.

With this in mind, I’m contemplating charging a one-off lifetime fee of $19.99. I’m not sure if this will work, but given that some people appear to be willing to pay, I figure it’s worth a shot.

In total, the project has brought in around $200. I’ve watched my time on this (thankfully, support emails are close to zero), and with the 10 hours of work, it’s not an absolutely terribly hourly rate. Just one that’s taken a long time to pay out :)

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 consultancy’s website: Moo Unlimited. I’m confident I can help you.

Published inInboxCleanerWeb Apps


  1. Rob Rob

    Why not make it a single-use throwaway (self-removing) app for the annual deletion use case you mention? Then change the price each month, highest toward calendar year end or each change of season.

    • Tom Tom

      Not a bad idea, thanks!

  2. I wouldnt call this failure. You accomplished two of the hardest things for an entrepreneur to do: attract users and get someone to buy your product.

    Good Job!

    • Tom Tom

      Very kind of you to say, thanks! Although I understand your point – it could be a lot worse :-)

  3. Thanks for posting this. Its refreshing to see entrepreneur’s post insights like this, even if by financial metrics it could be called a “failure.”

  4. I just couldn’t see paying money to do that. I wouldn’t pay $20 for a tool to delete stuff on Twitter, much less anything for Twitter, Facebook, or any other social sites.

  5. Can I ask what you use to manage accepting payments and access? It’s awesome that you were able to test price elasticity so easily and am curious if you coded that part up or used a third-party service?

    • Tom Tom

      I use PayPal, and copied the code directly from TweetingMachine πŸ˜‰

  6. Why not try to charge per use? If people use it only a few times a year, charge them $1 or $3 per use. Also, if you do this, offer a discount if they prepay ($1 per use or 5 uses for $4). Save (and heavily encrypt) the user’s data so they don’t have to enter in their credit card every time.

    Also give the first use for free. :)

    • Except for the credit card part, which I don’t recommend you store, it’s exactly what I was going to suggest. Charge like $3-5 per use and market to people whose time is valuable.

    • Tom Tom

      Hehe, it’s a good point, my only concern is whether the target audience will be too confused by the prepay discount concept, putting them off altogether.

  7. Ben Ben

    I think a more valuable tool would be being able to delete other peoples’ direct messages, like ones you sent that you’d like to take back. haha.

    I don’t understand why people would want to delete their DMs, but clearly there are some people. I’d go with Rob’s suggestion and charge $5 or $2 or $1 as a one time fee. Make the app usable for 48 hours or something.

  8. jim jim

    You are lucky. I make $50/month, but it took me 2 years to perfect the app.

    Its called, “Back Seat Driver” on the Android Market.

    There is a competitor version on iPhone called aSafedrive. He makes real money off his. I would definitely go iPhone if I wanted to live-off-an-app.

    • Tom Tom

      You’re the second person to mention smartphone apps, and this is definitely something I’m going to look into. Have you played with any of the frameworks out there?

  9. Me Me

    I can’t imagine too many people will become paying users of this service at any price or payment plan. I personally see value in this app, and it looks like a good number of users see the value, too. But does this tool provide enough value for users to pull out their credit card (even for .99c)? Apparently not. I think you should consider monetizing the app through other means. Perhaps a combination of advertising and affiliate links?

    Another idea I have involves the freemium model. Maybe you could have a free version as-is, but then have a payed/premium add on that deletes messages automatically after they’re more than X months/days old. I have no idea how much extra time this feature would involve for you to set it up, or if your user base would find it valuable. But, it’s an idea.

    Good luck.

    • Tom Tom

      I like the concept of auto-delete – I think I’ll investigate further, thanks :)

  10. meunierc meunierc

    I do not use Twitter, nor do I need to clean my Inbox. But I’ll tell you how much it’s worth to me.

    I’ll give you $1 every time I need to clean my Inbox, as long as you keep it to a maximum of $5/year (or whatever reasonable reasonable amount). I’d be happy to pay this way. But force me into a subscription model, and I’ll liken you to the scammers that want to charge me monthly for .

    You’ve succeeded at something great: do a little something, and do it well.

    All the best,

  11. Your landing page for the app make it so I don’t even know what it does. I think if you updated the home page to have screen shots and explain the app better you would have more signups from people that will continue to use it.

    • Tom Tom

      You’re right; I definitely need to take another look at the homepage and explaining what the app achieves. If you have any suggestions for wording, I’d really appreciate it :)

  12. Really interesting. I wouldn’t call it a failure after seeing the time you invested, and the money in-return. The life-time payment doesn’t sound that good to me. Probably you should keep the pricing plans “cancel at any time” so that users will not worry buying the premium version. And yes, more users with less money is good that less users with high payment. So, all the best. May be I will also start something good like you. Can you direct me to some good links to begin building web apps?

    • Tom Tom

      Good links to building web apps? I don’t know of any to be honest; at some point you’ve just got to sit down and start coding. At the same time, coding’s the easy part; it’s marketing and getting users that’s difficult πŸ˜‰

  13. The same in :)D

    • Tom Tom

      Heh, nicely done, I hope the plug brings lots of users for you :)

  14. This doesn’t seem to be an ideal candidate for subscription billing. This isn’t a service, it’s a product.

    Try charging a one-time fee of $5 and see what happens.

  15. Jim Jim

    I definitely don’t see this as a failure. You’ve built a functional product that (at least some) people are willing to pay for. You just have to figure out the pricing structure and then start scaling.

    I would start by sending a survey out to all of the users you’ve had (existing and cancelled) and get their input. Give them 3-4 pricing models and ask them which they would be most likely to purchase. Then I would raise the price by 50% and see what happens. Most people will tell you a number far less than what they’re actually willing to pay for a service.

    • Tom Tom

      Ooh, great idea – I’m going to take that off you, and hopefully in a couple of months will have some results to show you :)

  16. Maybe delete is the wrong concept…? Maybe there is a different underlying user need… How about an archive/search functionality?

    • Tom Tom

      I’ve been contemplating offering a download of all tweets that are deleted, maybe there’s something in the idea? :-)

  17. joe joe

    hmmm … you built something that works, does somethign that people seem to want to pay for and then drop off the radar with marketing. maybe the problem is not the cost of the product … but your lack of marketing effort.

    • Tom Tom

      I agree that there’s definitely a lack of successful marketing going on here (and I’m all ears if you have any suggestions on that front), but at the same time my conversion rates are scandalously low, so I think it might require a bit of both.

    • Tom Tom

      Hrm, I hadn’t looked at in-app payments before, I’m going to investigate, thanks! :)

  18. Aaron Scruggs Aaron Scruggs

    Try presenting your users with a paid and viral choice. First oauth them with the promise of the service you are offering. Then present them with the value proposition: “You are about to save X minutes by automatically deleting Y DM’s”. Then offer them two choices to compensate you for that value: 1) Follow your twitter account & tweet an endorsement (which could be as simple as a variation on the value prop ) or 2) pay you $0.99 for a one time service.

    This will allow you to a) measure your funnel, b) advertise without spending any money, c) build an audience, d) use that audience to build a feedback loop and test other ideas, e) make money in a way that seems to align with your users usage habits.


    • Tom Tom

      I like the idea of viral promotion, the only thing that puts me off is asking “would I pay someone a dollar to send out this tweet?” At the same time… if there are thousands of people tweeting about how great my app is, that *must* be something I can monetize, right? Honestly – I’m conflicted :)

  19. “I’m contemplating charging a one-off lifetime fee of $19.99.”

    You should certainly test this out, but as a user when I see ‘lifetime fee’ it makes me think hard. I think ‘Lifetime…really? What if they shut down in a year or even a couple of years.’ I’d probably pay $19.99/year if I see value in the product (sorry, won’t pay for your app) but when I see the ‘lifetime’, it just gives me a feeling that I won’t be able to use the whole thing that I am paying for.

    • Tom Tom

      It’s a tricky one, and I’m thinking I might not use the word “lifetime” but simply call it “InboxCleaner Access” or something lame like that – basically try and imply it’s the same as buying an app for your iPhone.

  20. Jf Jf

    Add an option that will auto-delete the pm after atime defined by the user. Charge 1$/month or 10/years

    All cheaters will pay for ur service. πŸ˜‰

    • Tom Tom

      Hahaha, I can believe it πŸ˜‰ You’re the second person to mention this in these comments alone, I’m definitely going to have a think about it :)

  21. echoing james’ post, I don’t see much on the landing page. I don’t even consider DMs as an “inbox”. I don’t associate “inbox” with twitter at all. might make more sense as a name. And show some screenshots. is too good a name – could build a different service – something to let me mass manage multiple email accounts – delete everything with “foo” in it, etc.

  22. Charge once-off, tiered.

    Make users pay, say $1.99 to delete up to 300 DMs. Add a schpiel about how much an hour is worth to them, which is the equivalent of what it would take them to manually delete them.

    Charge $4.99 for up to 1000 DMs and $9.99 for anything above.

    This isn’t a loyalty product.

    Good luck.

    • Tom Tom

      I *love* the idea of tiered pricing, my only concern is that it will confuse “normal” users. At the same time, I could be misjudging my audience’s ability to work out things like this – any thoughts?

      • TDL TDL

        A good post. I would, however, urge you to not underestimate your customers & prospects. If your target audience is confused about pricing they will tell you (assuming you are making an effort in communicating with them.) Good luck.


  23. Thank you so much for this inspiring post! And I agree with MySocialVenture, do not consider this to be a failure – you’ve learned a lot during your experiments.

    • Tom Tom

      That’s really very kind of you to say – I have a couple of “proper” failures to write about soon, including one that I lost an (admittedly small) amount of money on πŸ˜‰

  24. Lucas Lucas

    I do not think this is a failure. $50/month for app which _only_ clean your twitter inbox is a success.

    As some of commenters wrote: reduce your payments to $1-5 – per use.

  25. Make it a low one-time usage charge and see if that improves your signups.

  26. Dan Dan

    My suggestion: offer packages of credits, with each credit being good for one use. Example: 1 full delete: $2.00, 5 full deletes: $5.00, 10 full deletes: $7.00, etc. Then, each time they want to use it, they don’t have to pull out the card, they are only using it as needed, and you are getting paid in advance. Win-win.

  27. bcullman bcullman

    $0.99 / One Time user
    $1.99 / Unlimited for one year
    $2.99 / Unlimited lifetime

    With that pricing model, its cheap enough to use once,**AND** many value conscious users will go for the up-sell.

  28. Scott Scott

    I think you are going about this wrong. Your tests prove it is not a money maker, but people do want to use it. No price change you have made has worked, and you have tried a bunch of different methods.

    However, you have also shown that free works, people like that, and use it. Support is low enough to not matter.

    Can you make money advertising? Maybe, not sure.

    First, start making it a rule that they have to follow an account to use the tool. If you have a twitter account that has 100K followers and your follow back count is zero, that account is valuable as a means of advertising. People will pay you to post ads on an infrequent basis.

    That may not work, but something to do anyway, which is build a twitter account base.

    Keep growing your market, never charging, but remember, you always have that market to leverage for using with a new product. Now you can do a 48 hour project, and have an audience to announce it to. Don’t try to monetize this one, use it as a tool to springboard another idea off of.

  29. […] this blog entry saved as draft for a month, and Tom Buck’s post earlier today titled “Failure: Building a $50/month web app” inspired me to post this. He remarks in his post “My mistake quickly became obvious: I […]

  30. PJ PJ

    If you plan on keeping a paid-app scheme, I think knowing why the users are canceling is also important. you could popup a message to the user upon cancelation with a question “i am canceling because:” and then 3-4 ready made answer buttons like “i hate it” , “cleared my inbox now i dont need it anymore”, “doest work” and whatever you feel will give you more insight into your ex-users behavior.

  31. Joe Joe

    I’d be interested to see how switching to a pay-what-you-want (donations) model would work out for you and this product. Have you considered it?

  32. Scott Scott

    @PJ I would bet they are cancelling for the reasons most people cancel memberships…

    Problem #1 Many sites do not get the message across as to exactly what the site offers. Users have to pay in order to learn what the features of the site are. This may or may not be the case for this site, but the publics perception of sites is that they all behave this way. If it is not abundantly clear what the full scope a the site is, a brave few will join knowing they can cancel if they don’t like it.

    Problem #2 is that it is not immediately clear if a site will re-bill on a repeating schedule. You usually learn this once you pay for the first billing period. Perhaps some are learning the site does re-bill on schedule, do not feel it is worth it, and cancel. Users are edgy when it comes to giving up a credit card. The early days of the internet charging a one time fee that turns out to be a re-occurring fee have made users skiddish.

    If I had to guess, I would say that the site is not clear as to what it offers as a full package. Perhaps the user feels it does what is advertised well enough, but that is not enough to justify paying. So they pay, with the assumption that payment will unlock additional features. Eventually they learn there are no additional features unlocked, they don’t want to remember to cancel in the future, so they do it proactively.

    Just guesses, hopefully the author will elaborate on some of the things brought up in the comments.

  33. $50 to delete PMs and considering the amount of time spent, I wouldn’t call it a failure. Lots of good ideas in the comments, I would say combination of paid plan + advertising for free plan would maximize your earnings.

  34. Norcross Norcross

    In addition to what others have said, some of the issue may be that there are other options out there that do the same thing for free. I’ve used it a handful of times (don’t have my computer in front of me, hence no link.)

    Also, this is something that would probably only appeal to power users. They tend to not want to pay for anything :)

  35. Tom Tom

    Hi Tom,

    Here’s my thought: people hate spending money month-by-month for software. They especially hate paying once per month for something they may use less than once per month.

    The big commercial retail software companies have given people the idea that you just “buy” software and keep on using it, just like when you buy a screwdriver at the stare, you buy it, take it home, use it when you need it.

    For small apps that perform only 1, or a few, functions, I think people won’t pay more than $20.

    But think about selling for $20. That’s the same as every new customer subscribing for 4 months. Probably better than the average monthy subscription retention.

    Also, maybe you should stand out from the crowd by charging $20 or $10, or whatever the right price ends up being. Reject the $19.99 that so many people find insulting!

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