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How To Create Hit Apps: Interview with Mike Lee, Co-founder, Tapulous

Ever wonder how a blockbuster app developer thinks? Recently, I caught up with Mike Lee, co-founder of Tapulous, to get his inside perspective on what is the recipe for a developer to create a blockbuster app. As virtually everyone knows, Tapulous is the developer that brought us the hit game Tap Tap Revenge, a series that has seen more than 25 million installations at the start of the year. In fact, Tapulous was so successful Disney came calling and acquired them for what was rumored to be $35 million according to TechCrunch. Nice job by the guys at Montgomery in working on the transaction. Many app developers have recently heard Mike’s keynotes at 360iDev and iPhone/iPad Dev Con. The following post represents my perspective on Mike, and what other developers can learn from Mike to increase their chances of creating a blockbuster. Some of my thoughts are based on direct quotes, some are my interpretations based on the discussion I had, and watching him present twice.

The Making of a Risk Taker

It is harder to create a hit without a cowboy mentality surrounding you.

Mike grew up in Hawaii before finding his way to Silicon Valley. Mike told me a story about one of his first entrepreneurial endeavors growing up as a kid in Hawaii. He got the supplies together to create a Macadamia nut jewelry business. To his dismay, his mother tossed out his supplies when she discovered his intentions. To this day, Hawaii’s culture of risk aversion hasn’t changed. Mike said a friend of his with a small business in Hawaii says the government there won’t help unless you have at least $5 million in investment. From my perspective, creating a tech company in Minnesota seems a lot like Hawaii. I’m part of a grass roots movement in the Midwest to try to change that.

Fail upwards.

As Mike puts it- “My life was a series of failures, but I always try to fail upwards.” After Mike decided to leave Tapulous prior to their successful sale to Disney, Mike took a job at Apple in developer relations. The Apple gig was much better than the options Mike had prior to Tapulous.

Don’t create a bigger footprint and get trapped in your own wealth.

Once you’ve made your millions of your first blockbuster, resist the temptation you change your lifestyle. You need to continue to focus on creating a company to change the world. You’ll get rich by doing this, not by creating a company to get rich.

Inside the Mind of a Hit Maker

It helps to be a little crazy,  a little delusional.

Don’t be afraid to pivot.

The original plan for Tapulous was to create a social network. As I have observed with the majority of top tech entrepreneurs, you need to adjust your ideas based on the markets response to your initial ideas.

Start with a lot of concepts, then start cutting.

This is actually a pattern I’ve observed with other hit makers. Rather than start building out the first concept for an app that comes to mind, it is best to define some upfront parameters, and then brainstorm a variety of concepts that meet those parameters. Tapulous actually had a portfolio of 34 apps, from which they initially selected 10 to work on, then they cut it down to 3 apps to launch with. Those three were Tap Tap Revenge, Twinkle, Friendbook.

Understand the human side of business.

Mike talked about how Tapulous couldn’t get their apps approved the day of the App Store launch. When he learned the app review team was extremely overwhelmed with submissions during the launch of the App Store, and working without sleep, he backed off. Personally, he said he was not pissed off once he understood the situation. Rather than calling to harass them, Mike dropped breakfast and coffee off for them.

Relentless focus on quality and creating apps that don’t suck.

As Mike puts it- “The crap market is saturated.” With over 300,000+ apps in the App Store, only the bold are going to stand out. What are some tactical things you can do to stand out? Focus on creating apps that don’t suck. Stop doing things that piss users off. A few examples-

  • Hurry up and wait- Eliminate splash screens
  • Surprise and delight- Add those little things that impress people. 
  • Implementation detail- Never let them see how you made it
  • Design for everyone- Bejeweled versus Grand Theft Auto
  • Don’t be a jerk- spam

If you focus on creating quality hits, you will have a more defensible business. It is much harder to copy something that is of high quality without a lot of effort.

Get Out There and Start Creating Blockbusters

Mike says- “There is money in ripples, but immortality in hits.” and that “Life is finite. Use your time to do something worth remembering.” I couldn’t agree more. The vast majority of all app developers are focusing on creating niche apps because they feel it is a safer bet to ensure they get a positive return on their efforts. I’ve heard this referred to as the “niche buster” strategy. Death to the niche busters. Get out there and start creating blockbusters.


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