The inspiration for the Grades app comes from Olson's own experience after scoring poorly in a freshman statistics class. Olson says, "It was the first time I really had to think desperately about the question, okay, what do I need to do to still get an A? As I was doing the calculations on a piece of paper, I realized this could be done so much easier, faster, and funner as an app for the iPhone. "
The University of North Carolina at Charlotte student assembled a few mockups, showed some friends and "realized this could be really big." This realization motivated him to learn everything he needed to make it happen. He had a background in web development, but not iPhone programming and forked over the cash to join the iOS Developer Program (US$99/year).
With hardware and software in hand, he designed version one of the Grades app by scratch. "I worked on both the design and development in my spare time between classes, my part-time job, and everything else," says Olson. The first version launched March 2010, a full year after he had the idea for the app. With the help of his brother Josh, Version 2 launched one year later in April 2011.
Marketing of the app has been handled by the two-man team. "Making an amazing app" is the best marketing strategy, says Olson. Being featured in the New & Noteworthy or What's Hot section of the App Store also provides a big boost to sales, and both Grades 1 and Grades 2 have been featured by Apple in the past. As others have confirmed, there is no secret sauce to getting noticed by Apple.
To promote their app, the Olson brothers are active in the Apple online community and travel to conferences like SXSW to mix and mingle with the press and other tech enthusiasts. They post app information and daily college tips on their own blog to connect with the college community. Jeremy was also asked to contribute to an O'Reilly book, App Savvy by Ken Yarmosh, which helped to boost his street cred.
And for the question every independent developer wonders, is the Grades app making money? The brothers confirm they are pulling in some cash from iAds and in-app purchases, but the return is fairly low. "I can tell you one thing," Olson says "if you want to make any kind of money with the ad/in-app-purchase, you need a crazy amount of downloads."
To boost downloads, developers may want to change their pricing structure. Olson says, "we've found that Grades 2 gets about ten times more downloads than Grades 1 did because it is free."
Olson is also rethinking his strategy of using an in-app purchase to remove ads, "in our experience the ads apparently weren't quite enough of an annoyance for a lot of users to pay a dollar to remove them." Right now, the app has about 100,000 users, and Olson is looking at ways to offer in-app purchases for value-added features, not ad removal.
College is over, and Olson has a full summer of development ahead of him. Version 3 of the Grades App is his focus, and a feature-filled update may debut as soon as the fall semester. Sorry iPad owners -- Grades will remain an iPhone-only app as Olson doesn't want to just enlarge the app for the iPad. "If I were to build an iPad version, it would have to be completely rethought to be the best possible grades-related app on the iPad. That's a huge project."
The success of his app has been good for Olson and his development company, Tapity. Since the debut of Grades, Olson has been able to work on several projects for clients. Last summer, he also volunteered to build an app for a non-profit called Bibles for America, which he says "was an awesome experience as well!"