No Time, No Money: iLarious!

“STEVE FROM APPLE CALLING.” 

True story: There was a guy on Apple’s App Development team who really liked the apps I was turning out for my new company, iLarious. His name was Steve. He’d leave voicemail messages that began “This is Steve from Apple calling.” He told me that he had the single best call-return rate of anyone in the developer support team! (What I wonder is why EVERYONE on that team didn’t just say they were “Steve from Apple.”… Or maybe they did?) 

If I’m going to tell you success stories, I have to tell you about the flops, as well. iLarious was a flop.  I left MTV networks at the end of 2008, right before the market crashed. Bad timing. But the iPhone App Store was just beginning to take off and I thought I saw my opportunity.  The idea was to use all of my comedy connections and the software developers I knew to create really funny apps. Sell them for 99 cents. People would love having these fun throwaway digital gadgets. 

The first app we built was called “This Just In.” It featured a daily roundup of topical jokes, written by the same writers who were cranking out jokes for Letterman, Kimmel, Fallon, SNL, etc. The deal was that once these talk show hosts rejected jokes from the writers, they’d send them to me. The app laid them out in “newspaper” format, with images and links to the stories that inspired the jokes. It was really good.

The second was called iGression!  It was VERY popular in Japan. It used the phone’s accelerometer to turn the phone into a sound effects machine. You could “whip” the phone and it would sound like a bullwhip. Thrust it quickly forward and it punched. And then there was the crowd-pleasing fart noise (put on a timer so you could leave your phone near someone). I made $10,000 in one week from this because, for two weeks, it was very popular in Japan. 

Steve from Apple liked our stuff. So did the editors of the App Store home page. Several of our apps were featured there.  None of our apps were big sellers. The sound effects app sold well for two weeks in Japan. For about 6 months’ work, I made about $10,000. I pulled the plug.

The best thing I got out of the entire experience was this phrase:

Launching an app without big a big brand or promotion behind you is like putting an index card up in Times Square. 

Here are the lessons I learned:

  • Have partners! I was going it alone here. What I didn’t see was that my real assets were the software developers and writers. I should have started developing for other companies. 
  • Give yourself enough time! I was pretty burnt on this 6 months in. 
  • It’s great being first to market… but understand that means you don’t exactly know what the market will be. I didn’t have a business plan for this because … who knew? It was 2009. Who knew what an app might make? 

I was underfunded, under-resourced, without enough time or money. Truly “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” (Apologies to the angel of David Foster Wallace.)