Clean Shaven Apps is an indie app company made up of Singaporeans Lin Junjie and Muh Hon Cheng (who also runs buUuk, an app development company). They’ve made apps like Dispatch for email, Clips for clipboard management, but at WWDC 2017 it was Elk, their new currency converter app, which won them a prestigious Apple Design Award.
I’d previously spoken to the duo in 2012 about Dispatch, and we caught up again to chat about how Elk came to be, what’s it like to be an indie developer today, and their advice for aspiring devs.
First up, the two curious names. Why ‘Clean Shaven Apps’ for a company and why ‘Elk’ for a currency converter?
JJ: John Gruber wrote something about my first app, Due. He described the app as frictionless, so I saw that as a guiding principle — our apps should strive to be frictionless. We thought, what other words could describe something that’s polished, clean, and we decided on the name ‘Clean Shaven Apps.’
It’s not in reference to …
JJ: (Laughs) No, I still had hair then.
Junjie confesses that they were at a loss when it came to naming their new currency converter app. They knew that any name with the word ‘currency’ in it would likely be buried among the search results with more established apps, and that’s when they wondered if they could use things that highlighted a characteristic of their app.
JJ: One of the things about currency converters out there is that they’re not optimized for traveling. One app shows you four to five currencies at once, but when you’re traveling what you really want to see is the currency there compared with my home currency. That’s the problem we wanted to solve. So we had the idea — why not look for animals that have migratory patterns.
No kidding. They named a currency converter app ‘Elk’ because it was optimized for travel, and elks travel. Everybody at the table was chuckling at this point — fair enough, there’s a link, even if it’s not an obvious one.
JJ: Plus the elk has two horns that are symmetrical, kind of like the iPhone app’s design. So, Elk (laughs).
Junjie actually came up with the idea for Elk while traveling in Hong Kong. He loves cafes, so he was visiting one when he saw a precision scale that he wanted to buy. While paying, the cashier asked him if he also wanted coffee, so why not? After all, he thought, how much could coffee cost?
JJ: The currency in Hong Kong really threw me off. I started thinking about it, my scale was around HK$100, but my coffee was around HK$80. Then I really calculated it and, oh my goodness, I just paid S$14 for a cup of black coffee! I couldn’t bring myself to drink coffee anymore in Hong Kong after that.
That was also the first trip Junjie had taken with the Apple Watch. And he got to wondering; what if he had been able to do a really quick conversion in that cafe, right from the Watch itself? After he came back from Singapore, Junjie sent a mock-up of the idea to Hon Cheng, who also liked the idea.
When I asked the duo about Elk’s unique design, Hon Cheng showed me a wallpaper Junjie made for his iPhone, which showed a simple table of converted currency — very similar to the way Elk looks. And that was the inspiration for the iPhone app.
JJ: I figured we only needed something approximate, not exact. I found that the wallpaper worked really well, I didn’t need to unlock my phone or anything like that. But any figures more than the ones I had, I had to convert again.
What did they think was special about Elk that helped them win an Apple Design Award?
HC: They mentioned that they were looking for a good Watch app. There was a talk at WWDC on designing for the Apple Watch, and they used Elk as an example. So I guessed the features they pointed out were the reasons why we won, like keeping the app very focused and doing everything on a single page without navigating away.
We started chatting about the absence of “killer apps” for the Apple Watch, and they cited how the first generation Watch’s slowness, plus the earlier incarnations of watchOS where Apple hadn’t yet nailed the UI, might have soured developers off the platform. Then Junjie brought up another interesting point.
JJ: Developers weren’t thinking of how to make Watch apps, they were thinking of how to make their existing apps work on the Watch. The idea of a currency converter that you can glance at just by raising your wrist sounds natural and fast. But an Amazon Watch app doesn’t — would you shop with your Watch? So I think a better approach would be to think of apps that would work well within this very short interaction.
With all the talk these days about how people should learn how to code, I asked Hon Cheng and Junjie for advice on how to start. Hon Cheng’s reply was counterintuitive but makes good sense.
HC: I’d say don’t worry so much about the technical part. Find a problem you want to solve. That’s how I got into iOS development, there was a real need to make something on my iPhone. When you have a project to work on, it’s easier to learn something.
JJ: There are a lot more resources now, compared to when we first started out. It’s instructive that neither of us had computing backgrounds. He studied biology, I did communications.
HC: You just have to lock yourself in your room for a few days — maybe weeks (laughs).
I started asking the duo about making a living as indie developers and was surprised to hear both of them talk about their struggles. I mean, Clean Shaven Apps doesn’t make Clash of Clans, but Dispatch is well known in the productivity space, as is Junjie’s personal app, Due.
I brought back 2012, the year I first met the two to chat about Dispatch, and they told me that it had been tough then already. And today?
HC: It’s super tough (laughs)!
JJ: It’s just so crowded with apps. We’re struggling. There may be recognition for the work that we’ve done but in terms of financial sustainability … it’s still a struggle.
When I brought up glory stories of app developers making millions, Junjie brought up a 2015 blog post by developer Charles Perry, which extrapolated that the top 0.07% of apps in the App Store gross over 40% of the revenue (to be fair, that analysis has been criticized).
JJ: You know, Apple recently announced that developer earnings from the App Store reached US$70 billion, right? Can you imagine the bulk of that goes to just a very few players? It sounds like a terrible scenario, but Marco Arment (iOS developer) mentioned that if you look at the curve, you don’t have to be at the top — you can be slightly past it and you could make a comfortable living. But it’s still a very small percentage. I guess for at least 90% of developers, it’s going to be very tough. We’re still in the 90% trying to make our way to somewhere sustainable.
Games and in-app purchases came up as one avenue where a lot of money is made; we traded stories we’ve heard, like people buying thousands of dollars for in-game loot.
JJ: So can you imagine — we sell an app for a few bucks, and people are complaining. And then they spend a few thousand a month to play games? It’s something we’re struggling with — people’s perception of paying for software versus paying for power-ups.
HC: There’s intense competition for app developers, so it’s a good time to be a developer if you’re working for someone else. But if you want to have freedom, to work from home …
JJ: Don’t quit your job (both chuckle). Work on it in your free time.
It was disheartening to hear that Elk has underperformed their already low expectations. Before its release, the duo already knew that it was going to be a pretty niche app, and thought that Elk wouldn’t perform that well even if it received massive publicity — which it did with the Apple Design Award. But there was one piece of encouraging news.
JJ: The award helped, but it wasn’t that substantial. Although we were surprised that on one day, Singapore was actually number one in sales by country. Above the US! Wow! How did this happen (all laughed)!
Note: This article was first published on 2nd July 2017.