As far as iOS developers go, Igor Zhadanov can accurately be described as “old school.” He’s been developing apps for iOS since before the App Store was even announced — back when Steve Jobs tried to convince developers that web apps were the way to go on the original iPhone. But since 2007, Zhadanov, now 27, and his 28-person iOS developer team at Readdle have had a string of App Store hits, all created without outside funding.
Readdle could end up becoming the business-focused version of Rovio — inventor of the Angry Birds game franchise. But Readdle isn’t known for addictive mobile games. It is building business tools for the iPhone and iPad — PDF Expert, Readdle Remarks, Printer Pro, Scanner Pro, to name a few — for reading, scanning, editing, sharing, printing and organizing documents. These apps aren’t flashy, but most of them have spent time atop the App Store’s top business apps chart, resulting in 2 million paid downloads for apps that range in price from $4.99 to $9.99.
While young app developers are not uncommon, Zhadanov’s ability to remain focused, his business smarts and loyalty to his users are making him stand out and starting to win him big-name enterprise customers. As a result of the early success of PDF Expert Enterprise, which now counts 200 businesses as users, he’s about to expand his app hit-making factory to the U.S. The company is currently hunting for office space in San Francisco, and yes, they’re experiencing a bit of sticker shock at the prospect of hiring local developers. Zhadanov and his Odessa, Ukraine-based team of engineers is likely to stay put, and the SF office will be used for sales and marketing.
I caught up with him while we were both in San Francisco for WWDC to talk about the secrets of producing a string of successful independent apps, and the biggest changes and challenges that have emerged since the debut of Apple’s iOS App Store.
Q: You’ve been making iOS apps since the beginning, in 2008. What’s changed the most about standing out in the App Store in the last four years?
A: The whole ecosystem was small then. It was the case that if you built something good and people talked about it, more or less everyone was aware of [of your app]. For now, the information is 100 times [more dense] and it’s not easy for really good products to stand out. It’s definitely a problem for app companies starting now. Now you have to do something outstanding on the product side and do serious marketing.
What’s your approach to keep your apps visible?
When you build an app, we call it a product, and we maintain it through time with updates, which are sometimes just as much work [as the original product]. All of our successful products stay on the App Store charts for a long time. That’s not the case on the App Store, especially with games, which are hit based. For us, we build a product that has a strong performance through time. … You never see Scanner Pro near Angry Birds [on the top rankings] for sure.
We did side products, like the Shakespeare app and we have 1.5 million (free) downloads on that. Each time when you add value to your existing product with the same [customers] it grows. It wasn’t an overnight success, it’s slow and organic. It’s not just two spikes [of downloads], it’s a small uptick.
Explain why developers shouldn’t be afraid of building an app or trying a product where there are already other entrants in the category, and what you learned from this.
Scanner Pro came out at the same time as the iPhone 3GS, which had a 3 MP camera, which was way better than [the iPhone] 3G. … There were five or so similar apps on the App Store that were pretty much [the same idea]. Even if there’s a an app from a large company on the App Store, there’s still an opportunity to do something very different. Like Scanner Pro, all the apps [already available] were not easy to use. They were a proof of concept, but not a good experience.
Scanner Pro was the No. 1 business app for a year. We completely created the market. [It worked because] it’s the kind of product that changes your physical life, something that you deal with on a daily basis, like Uber. It’s real life. The same with an app that you can scan receipts for travel…it’s a real thing. This is something that inspires people. Successful products are all focusing on this today. The idea is you build something that’s not a thing in itself, but something broader.
What if the opposite happens, if a big company makes a product that moves in on your territory?
You don’t have to go out of business. Each time a large company does something, the core question is if they are focused enough and committed enough to do something really good. Google has all kinds of resources, but the thing is they create a service, but if it’s not something that they do to survive and sustain their business…they lose the quality. With small teams who are dedicated, you can easily make something better than large companies.
A great example is Apple’s “read later” feature. Instapaper didn’t go away, it boosted the market. More people are familiar with the market. You can switch from educating people to starting promoting your app.
What’s a good sign that a product is just not going to work? When’s a good time to walk away?
We tried to build an email client. But then we became picky and perfectionist … and the resources we spent on it tripled. We spent a year with our best developers on that, but it didn’t even make it to the App Store. It was an internal failure, it didn’t work out.
If it takes longer than you planned to build something, seriously reconsider if you’re going to continue. Each time when the initial version of a product takes more than three months for us, it fails. We use it for awhile internally, we adjust our expectations, but it should be live and we should be able to use it. We build something, we try it, we adjust or completely rebuild — we’ve never been successful in creating a huge plan, with specs and then building it. It never works.
If you’re going to ship something it should be great. Because of how we do business and the level of trust between our customers and our products, when you go for [a] hit-based approach, you move on to the next thing. But with our products we have people involved and using our products since day one on mobile Safari. We’re really trying to produce, to share things of value with these people.