Small Business

Selling Silly iPhone Apps in a Recession


Gene Marks says you can learn a lot about surviving the downturn from a serial entrepreneur who is cleaning up with bathroom humor

I've never had much luck with heroes. Back when I was an adolescent, I worshipped the Fonz. That was until I found out that in real life he was just another skinny Jewish guy—like me. I moved on to idolize Gene Simmons from the rock group KISS, only to reach the same conclusion. My hero worship continued to prove disappointing even as I grew older: Et tu, A-Rod?

But I have good news to report. As a 40-something small-business owner, I think I've found a hero I can keep. His name is Joel Comm. Has he swam the Atlantic Ocean? Saved millions of lives? Discovered a cure for the common cold? Nope. Comm's just making a ton of money selling a very unique product.

His iFart Mobile, a software application that emits the sound of flatulence on an iPhone, became one of the top downloads of all time on Apple's iPhone App Store this past December, selling more than 350,000 units at 99¢ a pop in less than one month. (More examples of wacky iPhone apps are here.)

BEING AN ENTREPRENEUR

Comm's been an entrepreneur all his life. In 1997, he sold a gaming site to Yahoo! (YHOO) that now exists as Yahoo! Games. The company he currently runs, InfoMedia, consists of dozens of Web sites offering shopping options, free stuff, Web site reviews, and books he's written. It seems he'll always be thinking up new things to sell. So when Apple (AAPL) launched its App Store, Comm decided to experiment with it as a way to make even more money. The recession didn't enter into his thinking. Why should it? He just did what business owners and entrepreneurs do all the time: He thought of something that would sell, and he decided to…let 'er rip.

I'm no Joel Comm, but we certainly have things in common. At my company, I'm coming up with new products to sell, more services to provide, more ways to serve our clients and create new revenue streams. But contrary to what most would think, neither Comm nor I are doing this because we're in a recession. We're doing this because when we see a potential need, we try to come up with a way to make money by servicing that need.

No recession is going to stop us from risking a few bucks if we see the opportunity to make a lot more. We're just making different decisions as to where we'll risk our money. The auto and financial services industries recently haven't been looking like great places to risk our capital. Health care, energy, and construction, given the government's spending plans, seem better bets. But these are all just guesses. And, though the choices change with the economic times, the basic return on investment decisions still remain the same. Granted, getting our hands on money during a recession is more challenging. But there are plenty of good investments to make.

THE FUNDAMENTALS

A recession doesn't change the fundamentals of buying low and selling high. Comm created a product with a couple of funny sounds and a few features that an application developer in high school could write. The cost to manufacture was minimal. It had to be. I mean, how much was someone going to pay for a fart sound, anyway?

Of course, even savvy entrepreneurs like Comm know that making a product is barely half the task. It has to be marketed and distributed. Do these business basics change because a recession is going on? Considering that he sold hundreds of thousands of his sounds in a month, I'm going to take a leap and say no.

I love how, now that there's a recession, all the experts are giving us advice on how to run a business. Like keeping overhead low is suddenly a new concept. Of course we know this—just look at the iFart model. It cost little to make and distribute and almost nothing to support. I can guarantee you these same factors would be in place whether Comm sold the iFart in 2009 or 1999.

Recessions come and go. Fortunes go up and down. Governments try to intervene. The media stokes the flames. And through it all, entrepreneurs like Joel Comm and business owners like myself try to carry on.

Gene Marks, CPA, is the owner of the Marks Group, which sells customer relationship, service, and financial management tools to small and midsize businesses. Marks is the author of four best-selling small business books and writes the popular "Penny Pincher's Almanac" syndicated column. He frequently speaks to business groups on penny-pinching topics. More penny-pinching advice from Marks can be found at www.quickerbetterwiser.com.

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