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How I Browse the App Store - [Apple Turnover #5]

How I Browse the App Store - [Apple Turnover #5]
By Alexander Greene • Issue #5 • View online
Hello readers! Thanks for checking into the fifth issue of Apple Turnover.

Over the past week, as usual, I’ve been tracking the public marketplaces. Only one thing caught my eye:
Session, a beautifully designed pomodoro timer & distraction blocker for Mac / iOS. I’m not 100% certain it’s actually Session for sale, but I have a very strong hunch based on the MicroAcquire listing.
However, it’s priced at 14x revenue based on 6 months of data. I’m going to pass on analyzing that, and I hope you’ll look forward to an Acquisition Opportunity analysis in the next issue. Instead, this week I’m going to walk you through one of my favorite pasttimes: browsing the App Store.
Before I continue, I’d like to mention a fellow newsletter that might interest you. TechByte News provides curated tech articles with byte sized summaries. Browse their website to stay up to date, or sign onto their newsletter for a breakdown every Sunday.
Alright, now for the good stuff…
As I’ve mentioned before, I spend a lot of time browsing the app store. 
It started when I was in middle scool. Every time my mom would take my sister and I shopping for clothes at the mall, I would veer off to the Apple Store to explore the devices, and investigate what apps had been pre-installed on them for customers to experience. It was a well curated collection to show people what was possible. I was itching to explore further.
When I finally got my hands on my own iPod Touch, I could not be stopped. I downloaded everything I could. Checking the top charts and scrolling through to see what was new became a daily habit. It was also much easier to browse the top charts back then. If I remember correctly, that’s what the app store launched to.
Then something pivotal happened- it dawned on me that there were people on the other ends of these apps, whose jobs were to design and build them. 
I found communities where developers were searching for beta testers, and started communicating with them, helping them find bugs and making suggestions for how I thought their apps could be more appealing. Interacting with these creators fascinated me, and my perspective on the app store changed. I no longer saw it as a magazine, with trending topics and a CD Rom inserted in the center-fold. I saw it as a bustling city, where each app was a business. Some were the equivalent of flea-market vendors, others were there for the long haul, with storefronts. Whereas before I was browsing just to see what was new and cool, I was now browsing with intent. 
Here are some of the things I started to notice then, and still do, when I browse the app store:
The Developer
The developer is one of the first things I look at when I view an app profile. As a developer myself, I love to see an individual’s name rather than a company name. Besides being somewhat sentimental, it’s also quite meaningful. If you’re browsing a certain category, or search term, especially one that’s competitive, and you see an app with someone’s name listed on it, that tells you there’s opportunity. Even with big companies competing in that space, someone was able to build an app that went head to head with them. Then you dig further and ask yourself- why is that the case? What did this person do so much better that they’re beating out a much larger player in the space? Sometimes it’s design. Sometimes it’s functionality. Whatever it is, it’s a really fun question to ask while you’re browsing, and can signal a good area for a potential acquisition.
Expected success
Have you ever looked at the number of ratings for an app and been baffled by how many there are? This is something I notice a lot, and it happens one of two ways. The first is a well known brand/company that’s published an app, and you’d expect to have a shit ton of users, but you look at the number of ratings, and it’s comparatively small. The second is the reverse scenario. You find an app that looks mediocre, doesn’t have a big brand associated with it, and if it had 3 reviews, you wouldn’t be surprised. But then you see it’s got 3500 ratings, and your jaw drops. I love finding these, and theorizing what they did right or wrong, especially in the latter case, because it’s the App Store’s way of telling you “hey here’s an opportunity that’s larger than you expected!”.
And I don’t just mean to evaluate a potential app purchase. I read reviews for all sorts of apps, even in markets I have no interest in. Reviews can tell you about paint points that even the developers didn’t know they were solving. They’ll tell you about the customers themselves: their expectations, their use cases, how technically savvy they are, and a lot more. Often they’re just incredibly fun to read, and have formed a micro-community of their own. For a great example, check out the app reviews for HOODUBER
Always click on the link to the developer’s website. Your first signal is if they don’t have one. If there’s no easy way from the app store profile to some sort of website/landing page or social media profile, there’s a signal that they’re either just getting started and rushed to launch before they had some sort of web presence, or they’re not taking their app seriously and didn’t think investing in a website was worth it. There’s a third case, which is increasingly common, and that’s a company that doesn’t want people to find anything more about them, usually because of dark practices & shameful monetization. When you see a well crafted website, there’s a signal that the developer is willing to invest the time into making a great product. From an acquisition perspective, neither is objectively better than the other. You might have fantastic web design skills and think you can add a competitive advantage there, or you might want something pixel perfect and ready for a marketing boost.
How are developers making money from their apps? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I’m going to price the app I’m currently focused on building. So looking at how other apps are monetizing has been top of mind for me, and I’ve been really suprised at how developers are pricing their subscription apps. This topic merits its own issue of Apple Turnover, but in brief, when you see an app with 4+ stars, thousands of reviews, and priced at $40+ per year, it’s a clear signal that there’s money being made in that space.
If you’re curious about the actual routes I take when I’m exploring the iOS App Store, here’s some insight:
Most of the Today page is completely uninteresting, and I don’t browse it. Apple likes featuring apps that already have a large audience. These are apps you’ve probably already downloaded, or have already decided not to download. Occassionally there’s an indie developer featured, or an app that otherwise has not brand name/clout, but more often than not I’m hearing about their big feature on Twitter from the iOS dev community, rather than from the Today page. 
I used to be really interested in iOS games, but my downloading habits are heavily biased towards non-games. The games I do download, I hear about on Twitter or from friends (currently playing a lot of Bloons TD 6), and Apple rarely features anything that isn’t freemium and developed by a large company so I rarely visit the Games tab. If you scroll all the way to the bottom, the Editor’s Choice category is probably the only section worth browsing.
This is the heart and soul of the App Store.
This is the heart and soul of the App Store.
So where the heck do I explore on the App Store? Good question. The Apps tab is also extremely noisy and mostly uninteresting, but the first thing I do when I launch the App Store is to scroll down to “Top Paid Apps.” I’ve found that the categories Apple features below this one are more likely to be somewhat original. For example, right now the categories revolve around apps developed by women and/or Asian developers, apps relating to social distancing, Apps You Might’ve Missed- always worth a look, and Big Apps From Small Teams. I think this is the heart and soul of the App Store. I wish Apple’s curation efforts would focus more on innovative apps rather than re-featuring the same old same old. When it comes to scouting out acquisition opportunities, this is where you want to look. You’re more likely to find a market that can be tapped into by small innovative developers here than by looking at the top 10 social media apps.
That said, I love to browse the Top Charts. My browsing session might look something like this:
  • Choose a category, and start look the Top Paid Apps in that category. I like to use this as my starting point because it gives me a good idea of what people are paying for. Paid apps are on the downward trend. There’s so many opportunities for Free downloads, that if someone decides to pay up front for an app, I think that’s quite notable, even though the proportion of App Store revenue that comes from Paid apps is probably extremely small. If you compare the free apps and the paid apps in any given category, you’re much more likely to find poorly designed apps in the Paid category. I think that’s a great starting place for a developer/designer to come in and make something better. You also find some really interesting things when browsing the Paid apps: There are a huge number of supernatural/ghost hunting apps that rank quite highly in the Paid charts, and most of them are quite ugly.
  • I start scrolling through, and when I see something I think is subpar, I make a mental note that there’s an opportunity there to make something better.
  • Next I’ll start scrolling through the Top Free apps. I like to stick to categories that aren’t flooded with competition. For example, I’ll browse the Paid Health & Fitness apps, but the Free Health & Fitness category is incredibly crowded, and is very repetitive.
  • If I see an app that’s interesting, I’ll look at other apps by that developer. There’s a good chance some of their other apps are interesting too.
  • I might start searching. Since the App Store’s curation is so terrible, searching is sometimes the only way to find something you haven’t seen before. I’ll search a term that’s interesting to me, like “soundscapes.” I’ll scroll through the results and make observations about what shows up. Are the screenshots well manicured or look outdated? Why does this app with 10 ratings show up for this competitive keyword? Are the app icons beautiful or boring? 
That might’ve read like a bit of a ramble, but my App Store explorations are quite like that. I have a consistent mindset when I browse, but I never go into it with a specific path in mind. I follow whatever seems interesting, and sometimes I find something awesome! Whether you’re interested in acquiring apps or making your app store presence more notable, I hope some of what I’ve shared was helpful.
By the way, I did find something really interesting after searching “soundscapes.” I think I’m going to pursue it, and will follow up about what happens next in a future issue of Apple Turnover. Thanks for reading!
– Alex
Did you enjoy this issue?
Alexander Greene

Hello Readers, thanks for tuning into Apple Turnover. Are you an iOS/Mac app developer or entrepreneur interested in acquiring apps?
Each issue, I'll be reviewing a selection of app investment opportunities sourced from public marketplaces, and private conversations. I won't just be analyzing financials. As a developer & designer myself, I'll review strengths and weaknesses of each opportunity from technical and design perspectives.

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