Paul: Welcome to another episode of The App Guy Podcast. I am your host, it's Paul Kemp. This is the show where we speak to really interesting founders and ask them lots of questions about tips and tricks, and any kind of help that they can give us in our own journeys. It's really perfect for anyone who has side projects or anyone is founding their own companies, startups, and just to tap into this whole community.
Today I've got a really awesome, fun app, something that I have needed for quite some time. It gives me the ability to look at my friend's playlists for music. I'm a big music fan. I switched from Spotify to Apple Music recently, and I love finding new music, new songs. So let's introduce Chino Lex, he is the founder of tapTrax.co
Chino, welcome to The App Guy Podcast.
Chino: Hey, how's it going? Good to be here.
Paul: Great. Firstly, let's try to describe better than I've just done what you're doing with tapTrax.
Chino: Yes, tapTrax is a rapid music discovery app. Imagine Pandora on steroids: you type in a song and you get relevant, succinct song suggestions in six-second clips that you can like or pass. The liked songs become fully streamable in your playlists, which are public.
Paul: What I'm learning from you already, Chino, is that you've got a great tagline: "It's like Pandora on steroids." I think anyone else who's got their own product, they need to think of comparing it to something well-known like you've done - Pandora on steroids.
How did you get the idea?
Chino: I was actually in the car, in a radio experience with some friends, and do you know when you're in the car and you switch from station to station, you usually listen to the songs for like two to five seconds and decide you don't like and you switch stations? We all just wanted some new music, and then I plugged in my Pandora, and five skips later I was out of skips. I figured everything else we consume is bite-sized, like 140-character news updates, split-second date decisions with Tinder, five-second snaps - why not discover music this way?
Paul: It is an absolutely awesome idea. I'm almost like in that car with you, and the light bulbs come on. It must have been a great feeling to know that you've come across a pretty awesome. Now, 99% of people would have thought that was a great idea and then several years later it would have come out from someone else, and they would have done nothing about it. You did something about it; talks us through going from that idea to then making something that was actually a product.
Chino: Yes, what comes to mind is a quote - I'm probably butchering it, but "You don't rise to the level of your hopes, you fall to the level of your training." To contextualize it, I've published over 160 apps in my history, with over 5 million users. I've never started to run ads or marketing, so my kind of bread and butter is being able to grow apps and develop them.
So to the first point of the quote, I kind of fell to my history of making apps and being able to grow them, so I figured why not make this into reality? I know the steps, so I tried it out.
Paul: I'm actually writing that down, I love that: you don't rise to the level of your hopes, you reduce to the level of your training. That is just so awesome! Because I can imagine, if you hadn't had the experience of all the apps that you've built and all the downloads that you've had, then the initial reaction - I'm sure people listening to this have had this, the appster tribe - is you get really excited and you think, "Oh my god, the whole world is gonna want this right now", and you perhaps blitz a credit card, you pay a developer maybe, you launch the thing and you realize, "Oh dear, this is not working out the way I thought."
You've had a wonderful experience. Do you feel like that's a common mistake that a lot of people make, what I've just described?
Chino: Yes, I mean half of it is just mental and half of it is in practice. When you want to start something, there's like a level of novelty to your ideas that will get you really excited, and then you realize the reality of it, putting it into practice or letting it come into fruition is harder than you thought. You see some people quit, and the case most of the times is that people quit before they even start, or they think, "Oh, that's cool", and then they go about with their day.
Paul: Yes. Okay, so I just want to revisit something you've said, which is that you've built a lot of apps, and was it five million downloads?
Chino: Yes, more or less. [laughter]
Paul: That is a pretty impressive achievement. To be fair though, I've released apps, and some have reached a million, but I didn't make any money from the ones on Google, especially.
Chino: Yes, Google's tough.
Paul: So of the five million downloads, have you been able to crack the real secret, which is to source some income that would then give you a lifestyle as an app developer, as an app entrepreneur?
Chino: Yes, sure. First, for more context, in the last two years I've been to almost 30 cities, eight countries, so I've traveled quite a bit, and the lifestyle of an app entrepreneur I guess is either really good or terrible. There is two extreme ends of the app store - you've got your hits, and then you've got your long tail of apps. You've got your Facebooks, and then your thousand other social networking sites that didn't work out.
Paul: Yes. Okay, so you've traveled to around 30-odd cities. Where are we speaking to you right now?
Chino: I am currently in Montreal. I came back from Quebec a day and a half ago, and I'll be in New York City on Sunday, and then after that L.A.
Paul: That's just so awesome. You know, I was inspired quite a long time ago now, it was episode 97, my chat with Andreas Kambanis, and he was submitting his very successful at the time, Caveman Feast, from a bus in Columbia, and he was trying to get an internet connection.
Chino: That's so funny... [laughter]
Paul: Yes, so you must have some really similar stories where you're trying to do something, and there you are, traveling around. Has it been a good lifestyle for you?
Chino: Yes, I remember in school where you had a lot of work and you knew how to do it - for example some math homework - and you'd look outside, it's a sunny day, and you wanted to just focus on it, get it done, do it the right way so you get a good grade, and go outside. It's kind of the same thing - I have work to do, but I'm in a new city. So I wanna sit down in a coffee shop, focus on it, really nail it down, and then go and explore the city. It's kind of like that same recess kind of feeling where you know you can go play outside, but you've got some stuff to do. And that's okay, because you have to balance both, of course.
Paul: Yeah, absolutely. So anyone listening, the appster tribe, we love to learn about the different lifestyles from the entrepreneurs... So how on earth did you get attracted to becoming an app entrepreneur yourself, and actually traveling around to all these different cities? How did that come about?
Chino: I whittled down from being just a general entrepreneur... My parents immigrated when I was kid. I'm a first-generation American, so the pressure to go to college was definitely there, but me myself - I've always been an entrepreneur in the sense that I've always mowed my neighbor's lawns, shovel the driveways, traded Pokémon cards when I was a kid. So that's always just been there, because my parents were a good middle-class, they never had a lot to give me, and whenever I asked for something they told me, "Go mow a lawn, or something."
So I was an entrepreneur from the start, and then in terms of apps, that road was really interesting. I actually just read into this Yahoo! News article, the headline was, "18-year-old makes app empire from his laptop". So I click on the article... Now, he's actually my long-time friend, co-founder, also roommate.
Paul: Okay, let me just recap then... So you're reading something, and it's about an app entrepreneur who's only 18. You click on the article. Now he's a co-founder and long-time friend.
Chino: Yeah, yeah.
Paul: This is great, because this is all about my show - it's about networking, it's about reaching out, it's about helping, collaborating. So how did you actually get to know him that well?
Chino: Actually, it was really casual.
Paul: You mowed his lawn. [laughter]
Chino: No, no... So at the time I was in my hometown of Spokane, Washington and he was in Princeton, New Jersey. I clicked on the article, I read it and thought, "Well, if this kid can do it, I can freakin' do it." I've always had ideas back then, so I reached out to him, tweeted him and then got his email address and we started just talking back and forth on e-mail, and we added each other as friends on Facebook. He was just casually giving me tips here and there. We mostly connected over traveling, or food, or whatever. Then six to eight months later when I published my first app that actually made me money, I actually got up on my feet and started reinvesting that money back in the company and started publishing more apps. It went well, and then I could finally move out of my parent's house.
I was looking for a roommate, and I posted an ad on Craigslist, and there's just like this bunch of weirdoes. So I'm like, "Who's gonna move..." - because I wanted to move to Seattle, which is about four hours East of Spokane; it's like the bigger city, Seattle, Washington, of course... And I didn't know who else would be my roommate. I mean, all my friends were over in college, friends who had entry-level jobs couldn't get these places that I wanted to live in, so I just asked Spencer in a Facebook message, "Do you want to move to Seattle?" He said, "Sure."
Paul: That's just so awesome.
Chino: Well, it was great. But the funny things, I'm missing a lot of parts in the story... I kind of messed up, because before I was an app developer I wasn't just a student, I was a carpet cleaner. I actually got a job as a carpet cleaner, so cleaning up pee and poop from dirty carpets with machinery. That was my day job, and at night I'd work on apps.
It was kind of an interesting journey... It's just really random, and it all kind of worked out with a lot of curiosity and some Google searches.
Paul: I love this story, and it's why I do this podcast, to meet people like you. It's almost like there's a theme developing... My last episode, the guy sold his first company at the age of 15, and there's a real theme - there's something in you when you're young that you just know that this is the path to go down. You know, the establishments, the organizations, the corporations, they don't attract you; you just have this urge to be free and do your own thing. But you have to be, I guess, very self-motivated. Is that fair to say?
Chino: Yeah, I would say less motivated, more disciplined, because freedom without discipline is pretty much useless. But I'd say discipline is the main factor.
Paul: Yeah, because when you have this lifestyle, you can almost wake up and do anything you want to, in a way. I've chosen to have the discipline of getting a lot of episodes out of the podcast; you're episode 476, but I'm guessing everyone listening to this needs to think of discipline. Okay, let's get back to the story, because it's just so... So there you are, you're cleaning shit off the carpets and stuff like that, and then you move to Seattle. You've got Spencer, your friend who had a really massive win at the age of 18 with his app empire. Did you work then together to start building a lot of different apps?
Chino: No, I started my own company, he had his own company. We were just friends, it wasn't like a transactional thing, like "Hey, if you help me with this, I'll do this for you." It was just really two guys who... I think my first or second e-mail to him was like, "Hey, Spencer... I got into the University of Washington, which is the school I wanted to get into. It's number 13th in the world, right behind Princeton in terms of ranking." US News ranked all the colleges in the world, and it's at number 13, right after Princeton. It's a public school, best school in the state of Washington, definitely, I would say.
I'm missing parts to this story, I'm jumping all around because it's just all coming back to me now. So I actually went to college in high school, with this program called [unintelligible 00:17:43.27] It lets you take college classes in high school, at the community college level. So I had college credit, and then when I got into the University of Washington I actually went to orientation, and then dropped out the second day.
Chino: I can't make this shit up. So I went to orientation, and I was like, "I will not be happy here. I wanna continue working on my apps. I have college credit under my belt." My worst-case scenario is I'd spend another year or two at home, then I'd go back to college, right on track anyway.
So I kind of moved my chess pieces in a way that I didn't really have any risk. Of course, I was 18, I had some college credit under my belt, I had some money saved up, and then I wanted to do this apps thing... It was really all over the place.
Paul: Right, okay. So you then decided to focus solely on apps, and I'm guessing this is your biggest creative spell. Like me, did you just start creating apps that you thought would do well? Did you have a process in place?
Chino: Oh, I wanted to conquer the world. So my first app was a -- I didn't conquer the world. I mean, not conquer the world, conquer a world. The world of like sneakers, and stuff. In high school I was really into Jordans, so there were a lot of instances where I'd meet a seller for Jordans and they'd try to sell me fake shoes. So my first app ever - this is the only app. I'll have and keep forever, it was called NoMoFakes. It was a fake product catalog for fake Gucci bags, fake Ray-Bans, fake Jordan shoes, and it'd help you indicate whether or not the item you'd buy is fake or not. I thought it changed the world, but it made like two dollars a day.
Paul: Yeah, actually a lot of my apps have the word 'fake' in there as well... But the first way you monetized the app was what - just a paid app? Or did you do it through advertising.
Chino: It was a paid app, and then I made it free to get more traffic, but it didn't get more traffic.
Paul: This is great, actually, just to take stock because I think a lot of people have the same problem. They're attracted to the app store through PR press, these reports that you've read, like "18-year-old makes an app empire". You make your first app, you put it on the app store, go through weeks and weeks of negotiation with Apple because it's been rejected for whatever reason. You get it on there, and then nothing happens. I reckon there's millions of people who are disappointed with their first app... But what kept you going?
Chino: Honestly, I think that's the part of the story we need to zoom in on most. My accolades - they're great, but it's not the important part. The important part was the journey. I had a moment where I was in the shower, crying; sitting down in the shower, crying. Pathetic. To contextualize, I'd quit school, I was on Facebook, I'm seeing all my friends making new friends... I didn't feel like I was progressing. My app didn't do anything. Actually, my first 20 to 40 apps got rejected. They were all failures, they did nothing. So I had this moment, like a quarter life crisis, or a pre-quarter life crisis, where I was miserable. But I figured, "Okay, if I could stick this out a little longer, maybe some of them will hit off", and eventually they did. Do you know that game Candy Crush?
Paul: Yes, of course.
Chino: Well, I didn't make that - I'd be like on a yacht right now - but I made the first guide to that in the app store, and that did really well. I figured that people had to pay to keep playing the game if they couldn't get past a level, so I figured why not make a cheat guide to just show you how to save money and beat the game. That got up to the top 200 in the store, and that let me kind of reinvest in other projects as well
Paul: Yeah, I mean Candy Crush actually I'm sure was successful primarily because of Facebook, they were advertising all over the place, and their viral in-built mechanisms were amazing. But you managed to write a guide, I'm guessing it was a paid app... I almost get the feeling that the first 40-odd apps were training for this one idea, for your Candy Crush guide, and that ultimately then gave you the success you needed to validate all those hard decisions you took, and rejections. It made it all worth it.
Chino: It did, it did. I remember exactly where I was... I'd go to my gym every day and work out, and I was playing basketball on the gym basketball court, and Spencer texted me saying "Hey, congratulations! Some of your apps, they got to the top charts." I'm like, "What are you talking about?" because I didn't even check these. I thought they'd be rejected like the first 40 of them... And I checked it on my phone, I went to the US Store and I saw my app on the charts. It was like the heavens were singing, the good music comes on in your head... It felt good. It felt like that moment in The Pursuit of Happiness, the end where Will Smith has his hands in the air and he's clapping, he was about to cry - that stuff. It was good.
Paul: Any movie producers listening to this, we're getting the story here: there you were, in the shower, on your hands and knees crying, and then it goes to the moment where you first hit the top charts. Okay, so you've built the Candy Crush guide, it's giving you a big boost... Carrying on the story, I'd like to know what happened after you had that big sort of win.
Chino: I knew it was just the start. I figured out how to post the apps and how to position yourself in the app stores to get traffic, and I made valuable products for those niches in the app store, for example - quizz guides, game guides, quizz apps... Different apps that I knew niches needed to be filled for. And then that training - going back to training - prepared me for TapTrax now, because obviously the music space is highly competitive, I'm not naive to that, and of course the app space is ever growing. So that training helped me put together a foundation to build the product on top of, as well as grow the actual traffic in parallel.
So that training was very important. It prepared me for what I'm gonna do now, as well as prepared me and gave me the tools to say I'm confident and competent enough to make something like this.
Paul: It's so inspirational... I'm pretty sure now that for anyone - me included - who's been plugging away and finding the app store just so hard to have any success... It took you 30-40 apps until you had this hit, so anyone else who's going through -- I mean, I've spoken to a lot of people who have only got to 20-30 apps, not even that, and have stopped, and quit, and said it doesn't work. So it just shows that you've gotta keep moving forward, keep doing it, plugging away, and eventually you'll get something.
So Chino, let's talked about what you've learned to then market TapTrax. Are there any things you would say could help us with what you've learned in terms of how to get downloads and how to get up to the tops of the app store charts?
Chino: Yeah, I guess some things that you shouldn't do... I think what some people do is they -- for example, if I was making an Instagram competitor, they'll include Instagram in their keywords because they think that the traffic from Instagram searches will be relevant to their photo app. That's a bad idea, because Apple is smart and knows you're not Instagram, so they won't show you in no search results.
Something else you shouldn't do, don't include relevant brand names in your keywords or your app store descriptions or title, because it will actually hurt you in terms of searchability and discovery. That's one of them.
In terms of creatives - worry about your creatives last. I've seen lots of apps with ugly icons and ugly screenshots go up to the top charts, and that's pretty much just because they have good positioning on the app stores in terms of search results. That's similar to SEO, but it's a little different obviously, it's kind of a new feel, but it's art and science. There are tools out there, like SensorTower or - I think you mentioned them as one of your sponsors - Gummicube. But really it's moreso an art, because there are words and phrases that you can use in your metadata that are not necessarily competitive, but they are popular in terms of search volume.
Paul: That's great. What we're learn from this podcast series, Chino, is to have the problem first of all - completely try to focus on solving a problem, rather than emulating an app that's already successful and putting a different angle on it. So your problem, your overcoming is the difficulty in finding new songs, relying on Pandora and Apple Music curation. Were there some big technical hurdles that you had to overcome to get TapTrax on the app store?
Chino: I guess not that many, but to your first point, in terms of the problem we solve and how we're different, I would say we're rapid music discovery.
Classically, music has been discovered in three ways - Shazam, Pandora, and the big dog, the radio. All those solutions are what's called passive; you run into the song and you IT it with it Shazam, or you run into the song on your station on Pandora or the radio and you kind of put it in the playlist on Spotify. But with us, you're finding tens, possibly hundreds of songs in a short amount of time, as opposed to running into the songs one by one on the other medium.
For us, the problem we solve is - I'm just willing to bet there are people out there who are actively looking for music and who wouldn't want to just discover it by way of chance or serendipity.
Paul: Yeah, I'm pretty sure that we've had some past guests who are very relevant to you. There's the founder of Clammr... I would love you to maybe have on your next project a way of podcast discovery, so getting little clips in podcasts maybe in some kind of playlist and then realizing the ones you actually want to listen to; that would be pretty cool.
There's so much to learn from you, Chino. I feel like we could go on for some time. Before we close and before we say goodbye to you, are there any things that you know that we should be asking you? You know the audience... What have we missed, to tap into your knowledge? Is there anything we should have gone across to get the most out of you?
Chino: Yeah, definitely - just look at the app store like the rest of the internet. People say, "Don't make apps, because it's too competitive." Well, there are - what, 2 million apps? How many websites are there? There might be a billion websites and then two million apps. Which landscape do you wanna compete in? The one that's growing - mobile - or the one that's having less and less users go to it everyday, like desktop, web.
Actually the app store is a good platform in terms of digital experiences and value, but in terms what I -- I actually consult for startups as well for growth, because there are funnel dynamics to this in terms of growth. There's the top line, which is ASO, game discovery on the app store, activation signups, all that good stuff, and retention and invites. But I help companies too with growth for apps, just because it's my jungle.
The funny thing is that people try to invest time and effort into external channels for growth. For example they say, "Oh yeah, we have influencers with a total reach of a million followers who are gonna shout us out on Vine. An influencer has a blog of 20,000 followers", or whatever it is. But the thing is - and there's data on this, you can check my facts - that 65% of the apps get discovered on the app store. It's not gonna be on a newspaper, a billboard, a Vine, a Snapchat or whatever, because there's just too much friction from that channel of promotion to download the app.
So really what you need to be focusing on is your ASO - that's very, very important - as well as getting your users to each step of that funnel. To get them to be an actual user of your app, so that you can solve a problem for them.
There's a lot of nuance to the area of app growth, but it's not as hard as everybody thinks it is.
Paul: Yeah, in fact from my own experience, I've managed to get apps onto the top, number one in the category; I was working with the guy I mentioned earlier to get a number two app, just getting piped to number one post. But what I've learned is that the app store does command most of the downloads, and yet actually I've spent a lot of this podcast on the other ways of getting downloads, and you're absolutely right - that's one of the most valuable things I've learned; 65% of apps roughly are discovered on the app store itself, and that's where you need to really focus the attention.
Thanks for mentioning my sponsor as well, Gummicube; I'm sure they'll be happy, Dave Bell there. Chino, this has been a terrific chat. It's really, honestly been so great going through your story. People will want I guess to maybe hit you up for consulting on startups - how best can people reach out and connect with you?
Chino: Yes, so I'm on all the socials: @itschinolex, or you can reach out to me on Chino Lex, or my website is chinolex.com. Pretty simple.
Paul: Chinolex.com, great. Of course, there will be show notes on episode 476 of The App Guy Podcast. Chino, what a great, great, great episode, I love it. All the best with tapTrax.co. I'm going to be using it. We wish you all the best and look forward to the next 40-odd apps that maybe come out from your company.
Chino: Thanks you.
Paul: Thanks a lot.