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What it Takes to Hit #1 in Various Mac App Stores

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In late January 2014 my little app Folderol climbed the charts of the Mac App Store. It hit #1 in the Netherlands and Spain. Think I'm about to retire on those earnings? Think again. Discover why top chart positions in the Mac App Store may disappoint on earnings.

In late January, I debuted my new app Folderol, introducing it at a $0.99 sale price. I wrote Folderol after OS X Mavericks dropped traditional full label tagging. 10.9 replaced these organizing essentials with tiny, almost unnoticeable dots. As you see in Figure 1, Folderol colorizes folders (as with the pink, yellow, and green items) or adds a picture-based icon.

Figure 1 Folderol styles range from simple colors to full patterns

Shortly after Folderol went live, it received a few nice mentions around the blogosphere. On the strengths of those write-ups, my little app rocketed to the top of the charts, reaching number one paid app in several countries around the world. Folderol didn’t just hit the top spot in the Utilities category; it dominated the entire app store in the Netherlands and Spain.

If you think I’m on the easy road to retirement à la that Flappy Bird guy, think again. Going to “#1” in the Mac App Store is a very different thing to iOS. A rank that depends on thousands of sales for iOS translates to just tens of sales with OS X, especially if you move your head outside the United States.

Take Spain, for example. Through much of the first week of February, Folderol dominated the store after online site Applesfera reviewed it. Figure 2 shows the sales for that week. The Spanish ranks appear in aqua, the corresponding U.S. ranks in red.

Figure 2 Folderol stayed at the number 1 sales spot in Spain for about a week. (Image courtesy of AppAnnie)

Spain was my best-selling market. Figure 3 details how those ranks corresponded to actual sales. On January 30th, my top day, I sold 272 copies of my app, which was set at an introductory Tier 1 price of approximately US$0.99. That same day I sold 180 units in the United States, taking me up to rank 5 in utilities, and 15th overall in the U.S. store.

Figure 3 My best day of sales around the world occurred on January 30th

All told, I earned $922 over my first month of sales. Those sales took me to number 1 in places as diverse as Chile and the Netherlands. I peaked at #2 in Belgium, Japan, and South Africa. In Bulgaria and Portugal, I topped out at #4 and in Canada at #23.

To get a sense of scale, several of my free iOS apps have been downloaded millions of time without receiving more than a passing yawn. Admittedly, it’s extremely hard to compare free with paid, but looking at these numbers I was a bit shocked at how little it takes to rank in Mac App Store and what that says about the Mac App Store ecosystem.

I don’t devote much time to OS X development in my work. Nearly everything I write is a tool for getting some job done. Legendary developer Andy Lee calls this kind of app a custom jig, "as in when Norm Abrams makes a custom jig to cut wood in a project-specific way." I build an app to fix a problem, and if the problem is universal enough to be useful to others, I’ll stick it up on the App Store.

As a comparison, I’m currently selling Color App, which automatically builds UIColor/NSColor categories with meaningful method names and Art Helper, which builds Xcassets folders for Xcode projects. Neither sells at a level above noise. An actual sale is generally a shock.

Mostly, I give away promo codes to friends and colleagues to help them with their workday. Folderol, in contrast, was my first paid OS X store offering targeted at general users outside the developer community. It was gratifying to see it earn an audience.

As Folderol gained traction, I took stock. Was the Mac App Store an earnings arena that I should be considering more carefully and devoting more time to? After looking at the numbers, I tend to think not.

As a rule, two things drive day-to-day sales for me over in iOS-world: word of mouth and in-store discoverability. Call these “secondary effects,” the things that keep working even after write-ups finish their influence.

My largest iOS market is families with small children. An app on an iPhone or iPad may generate new installs when seen and used at playdates or at the park. The iOS app store lends itself to this kind of sharing, especially as the platform is inherently mobile.

Discoverability matters, too. When customers use iTunes to play music, they’re well situated to start shopping and potentially find new apps. Any sales momentum I have earned helps new users find my apps and creates new download opportunities.

I worry those two channels don’t play enough of a role in the Mac App Store with its isolated user base and split-off shopping venue. A well-placed review will always drive sales regardless of the platform, but after seeing how my sales numbers match up to rankings, I’m concerned. I’m not convinced that the OS X App Store marketplace is big enough to keep a casual business going, especially in the current climate of iOS-style bottom tier pricing.

A colleague recently sent a message to a large hobbyist email list asking how often participants shopped at the Mac App Store. The overwhelming response was “never.” The developers I talked to while researching this write-up agreed. They told me that that the majority of their OS X sales – and profit – took place outside the store.

When an app can reach a #15 Top Paid rank in the biggest potential market in the entire world with just 180 sales, it paints an image about how big the Mac App Store market actually is.

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