When Montreal's Budge Studios decided to get into the app development business, the marketplace looked a lot different than it does today. It was the fall of 2009, and the iPad had not yet taken the world by storm.
"We saw an opportunity to jump into the business of creating high quality interactive products for kids," says Budge Studios co-founder and co-CEO, David Lipes. "The market was just starting to explode, no one knew what the iPad would mean to the kid space and no one was doing it yet for the iPhone."
Though they were new to app development, Mr. Lipes and his co-founders Noémie Dupuy and Michael Elman had been running a top audio production house for the videogame industry since 2001, working with global toy companies like Fisher-Price and LeapFrog. This experience as a B2B company, combined with prescient timing, helped them make the leap to developing children's apps for companies such as Walt Disney and Nickelodeon.
"When we were transitioning to becoming app developers, we were in a position to knock on doors at a time when people were answering doors," Mr. Lipes says.
Now, Budge Studios develops and publishes their own children's apps, selling in 150 countries. Since 2012, they have published a roster of more than 25 apps that have garnered 80 million downloads worldwide. "At this point in the kids' category… we're right up there with Disney, competing with the big players," Mr. Lipes says.
At face value, getting an app to a global audience seems deceptively easy.
"The beauty of today's app marketplace is being able to distribute your product around the world with the click of a button," Mr. Lipes says.
As well, app developers also don't typically face the challenges that come with other types of international trade. "We don't have any inventory, we don't have to ship anything, we never have too much or too little product in stock," Mr. Lipes says.
But with hundreds – even thousands – of new products hitting app stores daily, the real challenge is capturing the attention of global consumers in a highly competitive marketplace, and keeping your app from fading into obscurity.
"What makes app development incredibly challenging is the speed of which the environment moves and flows," says Mitch Joel, president of Mirum, a global digital marketing agency based in Montreal. "You can release an app and if there's no heat in the first couple of days, it's very rare that it sort of picks up six months later."
Because the app marketplace is so crowded, one of the most challenging aspects of the industry is "discoverability," Mr. Lipes says.
Budge Studios's strategy from the beginning has been to acquire licensing rights for some of the most popular children's brands in the world, such as Thomas and Friends, Hello Kitty, Caillou, Chuggington, Barbie and Strawberry Shortcake. By working with "the biggest and best licences in the business," says Mr. Lipes, you get both discoverability and a catalogue that will continue to sell over the long term.
Because their apps sell in many jurisdictions abroad, an important investment was bringing on in-house legal counsel, Mr. Lipes says.
"We do need to be very aware and in tune with the legalities of doing business in various countries," he says. "We're in the kid space, and it's a very delicate space. This is a market that's in its young adolescence, if you will, so things change, and we need to keep up with rules and regulations about online privacy and safety. Our products are all COPPA [U.S. Children's Online Privacy Protection Act] compliant."
Mr. Joel says he thinks Budge Studios' strategy of partnering with established children's brands is a good one.
"If the brand is of good quality, it can be an amazing thing," he says. "If you're a parent of young children and you trust Caillou because it's so innocent and nice, you're going to trust that the app is going to deliver on the same morals and values that the show does."
As well, Mr. Joel says that partnering with big brands is a great way to introduce new brands and not get lost in the shuffle. "If people are familiar with your company, … they might be more inclined to trust you as a publisher."
In addition to producing more licensed apps, Mr. Lipes says Budge Studios is also committed to launching its own original brands. Last year, they launched an original app called Miss Hollywood, about a beauty pageant for stray cats and dogs. The app garnered nearly two million downloads, and they have plans to build on that brand in future.
Whether a company is working with an established brand or introducing a new one, a solid marketing plan is essential for competing on a global scale, Mr. Joel says, and the most successful developers are marketing with a combination of earned and paid strategies. The "earned" part is about finding key influencers in the subject area (such as journalists and bloggers), and getting them interested in the product, he says.
"Sometimes it's early releases, sometimes it's inviting them in, sometimes it's junkets and access," Mr. Joel says. "It's about being present in the marketplace, being a part of the community. If the product is good and it's something worth talking about, then more often than not, individuals like that are more than happy to be a part of it."
Dev Basu is the founder of Toronto-based Powered by Search, a digital marketing agency that helps app developers employ paid strategies to get their product noticed.
One important way to get your app noticed is through app-store optimization, or ASO, Mr. Basu says.
"You want to optimize your mobile app so it has a higher ranking or visibility in app-store search results," he says. "That's important because over half of all apps are discovered through their specific app stores, like Google Play or the iTunes store for Apple. If you don't have an optimized app-store listing, it's like having a disorganized storefront: You won't be able to get customers or user adoption that way."
On the actual app detail page, Mr. Basu says developers often neglect to put in well-designed, high-contrast screen shots of their app that will capture the eye and entice customers to download.
"If you're going to be marketing in other countries, one thing I see developers miss a lot is localizing the screen shots and descriptions," he says. "If you're marketing to Asia and your app is predominantly an English-based app, you should make sure to localize that content before you offer it up to a non-English-speaking app store."
Mr. Lipes says that careful, long-term strategy has been a key part of their success in the global app market. While it may seem easy to jump into app development, longevity requires something more.
"You have to have a plan of attack," Mr. Lipes says. "It's easy to think you can put something to market and make a million dollars. The barrier to entry is $99 to the Apple App Store and you're a developer. As long as it meets a certain standard, you can put your app to market.
"But for it to really do something special, it's like anything else, you need to have a marketing plan, a relationship to distribution, if you're working with licences you have to establish those relationships. You need to know what you want to do and then build."