Oct 29 2013

Build a Business, Not Just an App: How We Built Roominant

Have you tried selling an app in Apple’s store? You’ll quickly find out that there’s a lot more to building a successful business than just technical development! As we launch the new version of Roominant, our conference room and meeting scheduling app, I want to share what we’ve learned along the way.

From the very beginning, our business plans sought to answer:

  • What problem are we solving?
  • How will people find the app?
  • How will we get paid?

What problem are we solving?

You know the problems with planning meetings: people often have to walk around to find an empty meeting room at work. If all the rooms are full, there isn’t a good way to find out when one will be available. For those companies that do use calendar resources, often only a few people actually know how to click all the right buttons to see the schedules. And meeting schedulers don’t work if only a few people in an office use them.

Roominant solves these problems by making it easy to schedule meetings. It’s simple to use, and there’s no more juggling multiple applications, several browser tabs and phone calls to get the right people in the right place, at the right time.

We first did a soft launch with Roominant 1.0, so that we could make sure the app stood up to real-world usage—something that can be hard to test for a business or productivity app. While we knew that some users wanted the ability to schedule repeating meetings, we weren’t convinced at first that it was an essential feature. However, in the soft launch, it became obvious that recurring meetings were necessary.

It took us some time to work out the simplest possible design, and to handle the many subtle complications of recurring calendar events. But we added that functionality, and users were happy that they didn’t need to keep booking the same meeting every week. The increased usage encouraged others to use the app as well.

How will people find the app?

Distribution strategy is critical to an app’s success. There’s been a lot of talk about whether in-app purchasing is best, or whether selling apps directly is sustainable. Much of the discussion lacks nuance (big surprise; it’s the internet!).

Indeed, there isn’t one cookie-cutter business strategy that works equally well for Roominant, a business productivity tool, and eClicker, our family of education apps for teachers and students.

Different categories can see very different levels of traffic and downloads. eClicker sees a lot more downloads in education than Roominant does in business. This isn’t due solely to chart position, either: eClicker benefits from teachers who recommend the app, while Roominant hasn’t yet benefited as much from word of mouth. To gain more attention for Roominant, we’ve been experimenting with online advertising and other ways to reach our target market. We also put together a marketing plan for the next few months, which includes this blog post (sneaky, I know!).

To help grab the attention of Apple and Apple users (and to prepare for the future), we added support for Apple’s latest OS release. We haven’t finished with fun iOS 7-related changes, but ditching the iOS 6 look is a good start.

How will we get paid?

We considered several business models for our products. For Roominant customers, an online subscription made the most sense. Businesses can more easily expense these than in-app-purchases. We also didn’t want to limit how many people can use the app, so instead, we started by charging $5/month, per room. After getting some advice from Apple’s helpful marketing and business teams at WWDC, and after debate and research, we switched to offering just a few plans. You can see the plan details at the bottom of roominant.com.

We made the change to our pricing plan for a few reasons. Our target market for this app is small- and medium-sized, fast-growing businesses. These companies don’t have a lot of time to spare, and they don’t want to feel nickel-and-dimed. To an engineer, a pay-per-room  setup seems fair and obvious. But for someone at a small business, that structure requires them to pay more attention to setting up the account than they are interested in. Bucket plans make it easy: pick from a couple of options, and you’re done.

What’s next?

With the core features solidly in place, and plenty of real-world usage, we’ve got a series of great improvements lined up for the next several months. Do you want to hear more about what we’re seeing in the marketplace? Let us know in the comments.

And if you’d like to know more about others’ app-building experiences, check out:

5 Comments

  1. MattA

    I’m not sure I follow. How did you “build a business” instead of just an app? Is it your figuring out “how will we get paid”? I’m not trying to criticize (well, maybe constructively I am), but I just don’t “get it”. The perception I have is this is still just a basic convenience app. I don’t look at it as a business. I would not pay a monthly fee to use this app, however I might pay $1.99 for the app. I’m suggesting that this is the way many people will look at this app. I’ve worked at companies big and small. Scheduling a meeting room has never been something I/we invested a lot of time in. It just wasn’t at the top of our Pain Points backlog. I really think you would be more successful just making this a paid app, but I hope you prove me wrong! Good luck!

    • Hi Matta,

      I appreciate the feedback. It sounds like we still have work to do in telling the story of this app. When you say “I don’t look at it as a business”, do you mean when you see the app? That’s certainly fine, it’s our job to build a business, not something our customers need to care about.
      But your perception that this is just a convenience app is fascinating. I haven’t heard that from anyone else yet, but it could be that a lot of downloaders share that perception. I’ll chew on this a bit. We’re certainly not done learning.

      Thanks for sharing your take!

    • I guess I should answer your core point/question as well. $1.99 per app wouldn’t likely be a sustainable model. It wouldn’t capture more value from customers who are benefiting more from Roominant. It would be dependent on getting high chart position and driving lots of initial downloads. But the app’s not terribly useful if you have to convince everyone in your company to pay $2 to download it first, and it’s also not fun to process a bunch of iTunes expenses for most companies. We did consider IAP for adding rooms, and that option isn’t off the table. But it would still likely be subscription rather than one-time. Why?
      The subscription model means our incentives match our customers. If they’re using the app and getting value from it, then they keep paying. Now we work to retain and improve the experience for those customers, instead of only being focused on initial downloads. It’s true that you may not want to pay for it as a user. The people we have to sell to here are office managers, who have lots of problems and (for growing companies) usually not enough time. So then the question is, do companies ever prioritize this pain point? That’s a valid question, and we made a bet based on the data we have that the answer is yes. There’s a decent chance we end up being wrong of course. Fortunately that’s a risk we’re willing to take right now, as we learn more about shipping products.

  2. Elaine

    RE: HOW WILL PEOPLE FIND THE APP? – I’d put a lot of work into choosing the right keywords if you haven’t already. Along with the right category, great icon & screenshots I’ve found keywords to be one of the best ways to drive downloads after the initial launch week. Elaine, http://www.thechocolatelabapps.com

    • Elaine, absolutely. I could probably talk about the marketing of apps for quite awhile. In our case, our initial screenshots were not nearly compelling enough. Apple has also changed their stance on what is acceptable in the screenshots, and we’ve updated so that our first image is much stronger. It’s important to keep in mind this comes up in search so it really needs to sell the app well.

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