True Story

The Woman Who Bought Dowser

This story was originally published August 22, 2014, on the company blog of Plank, the agency I was working at when Dowser was created.

You’re having drinks one Friday night, and as often happens when the end of the work week collides with alcohol, great ideas are born. In this case, the concept actually revolves around alcohol, so it’s all the more brilliant. It’s a simple, elegant app for locating the nearest LCBO or Beer Store in Ontario. Yes, there are a number of options out there already for doing this, but you think your design will set it apart from the competition.

Your booze-fuelled five-minute conversation with colleagues concludes the research phase of the viability of the project, and you all pre-emptively toast this successful endeavour. You know there is much work ahead, but the dream of producing your first iPhone app has taken hold of you, and the rewards will be great — it simply must be done. “It’s brilliant,” someone says. “The absolute best way to do it,” says another. A guaranteed winner, you tell yourself.

And so you sketch, and you plan, and you code — hell, you learn a new programming language. You spend late nights debugging. You convince your boss to give colleagues hours on the job to help execute your beautiful vision (“It needs a remote database we can sync to! Design tweaks are essential!”). He is kind, and obliges. For you, it’s mostly a side project. You work on it sporadically, and many months go by, but eventually, the late nights and weekends add up and it’s ready. It’s time to share it with the world, so off to the app store it goes.

At some point down the line you’ll charge a buck for it, but for now, to generate interest, you’ll give it away for free. You need users, right? To spread the word. Once a few hundred people have installed it and are giving you five-star ratings, you’ll switch it to a paid app and watch the cash roll in. The hardest part is over. Let the dream become a reality.

Basking in the Glory of Your Irrelevance

But it stays free. It stays free for a long, long, time. Because hardly anyone downloads your app. Because no one’s ever heard of it (or you) and one measly blog post and a handful of tweets is not a marketing plan. You learn first-hand that “if you build it, no one gives a fat flying f—“… Whoa, you almost forgot… company blog.

Then, a trickle of hope. It’s been a while since you personally told anyone about it, and over a few days, a couple of downloads appear in your stats. You know this because you’ve checked your downloads every single day since you launched. For long periods, you wondered if maybe Apple’s charts were broken, since they appeared to register only zeroes. The chart’s line almost seemed content, resting happily in place at the very bottom. It is a sweet gig, you suppose, when you have nothing to do. “Yup,” you could hear them say, “we love working for you, Mr. Zero.”

Where were you? Oh yes: hope.

The downloads continue and for a stretch of about a month, you’re getting almost one a day. “Don’t laugh,” you tell your friends, “it’s measly, yes, but it’s a consistent measly.” Every day or so, one more person has downloaded your app. A stranger. Word of mouth. Organic growth. The dream is alive.

Until it slips into a deep, deep coma. Because suddenly this steady stream of new people enjoying the fruits of your labour stops. A few days, nothing. A week. Two weeks. Three weeks. What’s going on? How is this possible? Everything was going so well — what caused this horrible, unjust turn of events?

The answer comes as quite a surprise.

Your First Sale

Comfortably re-acquainted with your friends the Mr. Zero charts, you log in one day and see you finally scored another download. But not just any download, an entirely new kind of download: a paid one. This is very confusing to you because your app is free. Or… is it? Oh wait, hang on, that’s right, now you remember.

You’d set an arbitrary date far off in the future for it to become paid and completely forgot about it and now you know why no one’s downloaded your app in almost a month it’s because you’re an idiot and forgot about the auto-paid date change that’s come and gone which made your app a dollar and no one pays for apps they’ve never heard of and have no reviews and you yourself killed what little momentum you had going and maybe you’ve in fact killed your dream forever and ever and now live in a nightmare of your own creation.

Of course, there is one positive in this whole affair: someone did pay for your app. Maybe they saw it on a friend’s phone, maybe they stumbled on it in the App Store, but really, who cares how they found it. The point is a total stranger saw your app and said: “I’ll buy that for a dollar.” It fans the flames of hope. You think about writing a blog post to draw some attention to this purchase, because honestly, you feel kind of bad. No one else has paid for it so far, and it was still supposed to be free when they handed over their hard earned cash. Who is this person? If you could track them down, you would offer to buy them a six-pack at their local LCBO or Beer Store. Kind of a thematic thank you. Hell, call it marketing.

But you don’t write that blog post, you write a different one, because a few nights later you’re having dinner out, and you find yourself sitting directly across from the woman who bought Dowser.

You bought my app?”

“Mmhmm,” she confirms, sipping her wine. “I was at work the other day and needed to check which ones were open and so I bought it. I didn’t realize you’d started charging for it. It was totally worth a dollar, though — exactly what I needed. Worked perfectly.”

You have a mixed reaction to meeting the buyer. “But, you’re my wife.”

“Mmhmm,” she confirms.

You struggle to process the diverse range of emotions you’re experiencing. Sad that you’re in fact still looking for your first “true” sale. Touched that your wife would pay for it. Confused as to why she would pay for it (maybe I never explained coupon codes?). Even more confused (and uh, yeah, a little hurt) that she waited eight months to get it.

You ponder this last thought for a moment. Eight months. If it took that long, maybe it’s not so useful. You think about those late nights and weekends, the time and effort put in by colleagues, that original drunken evening that inspired the whole affair. Is it possible it was all a misguided effort that never should have been?

Nah, you think. It’s brilliant. The absolute best way to do it. A guaranteed winner.

Notes

After the original posting of this on the Plank site, I was asked on several occasions by my wife to clarify details surrounding her purchase of the app. As I don’t want to be responsible for the first erroneous or incomplete information ever posted on the internet, I offer the following amendments to the original story.

1. Regarding why she did not purchase the app for eight months.

In her defence, it should be made clear that while she has an iPhone, it’s a hand-me-down from me, and she has no data plan for it, so the app was not that useful to her (she added, rather pointedly, that she does have an Android phone from her work, but that I have not yet produced a version for Android).

2. Regarding the location of purchase.

This was, I believe, more of a comment just for me, but I found it amusing, so to the public record it goes. She was not at work when she bought the app, she was at home, in bed, and wanted to check whether the LCBO had already closed (we can conclude then, that the availability of alcohol is one of a limited number of solid motivations for abandoning a Netflix binge session).