The Long Road to ‘Appiness

building appAs a technology teacher of 20 years at Hastingsbury College in Bedford, my profession has always kept me up to speed with the latest gadgets and trends. So when I stumbled across an idea for an app for students to help with revision and exams, you can imagine my excitement of not only designing a great product but the potential of making a substantial amount of money to allow me to leave my beloved profession or at least not work as hard.

So my journey began with the design and development of ‘Exam Pal’ in December 2011. Exam Pal was inspired by my time as an exams officer in my school and teaching GCSE and A Level groups. I was aware that exam boards issued official exam dates months in advance on the internet but only if you knew where to look, and that my students would only start thinking about revising when the school released their exam timetable on paper, 5-6 weeks before the exams. When I asked my students when their exams were they all held up a piece of paper. So Exam Pal was born enabling students to access some 4000 exam dates throughout the year before their school issues a timetable. This information can then be used to schedule exams within the app creating countdowns, seat, venue details, and personal alerts with the ability to sync to parental phones and devices. I quickly discovered that although I was a computer geek, app programming was beyond me. After several quotes from the ridiculous to reasonable, I designed and developed the app with a local company 4fx Design & Multi Media.

The excitement of designing a great product was inspiring and I spent several meetings discussing many issues such as the layout and functionality of the app, the icon design, the content and above all the price. The price was a difficult decision. With personal funding only and with app development costs into thousands, just for an IOS version, we were certain that this was not going to be free but at the same time we knew we were designing a quality product that was well worth the £1.99 we settled at. The price is a one off download that would stay with a student for many years.

So many months passed until finally the app was submitted through the gods at Apple, surprisingly quickly. Exam Pal entered the App Store on November 2012. My friends were more excited than I was; surely I was going to be a millionaire within months? I was more realistic. I had read my apple app marketing books and knew this was going to take time but maybe I hadn’t appreciated how much time. With a marketing budget of zero, my hard work began. Firstly the press release followed by numerous emails to app reviewers, the company set up and a web page. The testing of the app within my school gave us great feedback for those minor tweaks and 20 reviews in the App Store. The first major exam session was January 2013 and we had already entered the exams dates into the app. The app was growing, not only could it schedule exams but it also scheduled homework and timetables as well as revision tips and storing your exam results, it worked beautifully and the feedback was very positive.

So began my assault on social media and trying to attract every school kid in the country. Easier said than done. Going viral is a term that is used throughout social media but what was beginning to become clear was that many students wanted something for nothing. We tinkered with the price by adding a promotion before exam periods and sales increased. We contacted every gadget media show, newspaper, magazine we could think of with little progress.

A two page article in the Times Education Supplement raised our profile and along with a promotion slot on BBC click, the app sales began to climb. BBC click had had enough of me stalking them to the point where they just gave up and gave me a slot on the show. Persistence paid off. The App Store charts were checked every day and we climbed to the dizzy heights of number 7 in the educational charts. Now you would think that being number 7 in the educational iTunes Charts would mean sales in their thousands, sadly this is not the case. I have learnt very quickly that the iTunes Charts are very misleading and only apps in the top 3 are making significant sales on a regular basis. Yes, to this point, we had sold hundreds and not thousands and certainly not enough for me to leave teaching. One sale on the appstore chart can push you up as high as 30 places. The website App Annie helps us track our sales progress.

So our journey continued with a number of adverts in relevant magazines, websites and social media. Facebook seemed a good place to try advertising and we had some success but our target market of teenagers seems to be abandoning this social giant. Twitter on the other hand seems more popular and you can search for key words being discussed on the platform such as revision, timetable etc. You can target these people directly, but be warned, over targeting can get you banned for spamming – apparently. 500 followers later and we are still engaging. Our next target was Instagram according to my students the next big thing. Once again we needed to be careful of spamming but we can target our market by searching with hashtags such as #exams, #revision etc. You would be surprised at the number of students who photograph themselves revising or their revision environment, including of course the revision ‘selfie’ – which stops them from revising.

Our next target was to approach schools directly. Again it was very clear that most schools wanted to see the app on the android platform as well as the apple platform to stop discrimination against those who could only afford an iPhone – political madness.

So an android version of the app was commissioned by the design company 4fx Design & Multimedia again at a substantial personal cost but felt that if the app had any chance of going viral, multiple platforms were needed.

As the android version progressed nicely so did our target market. Exam dates could now be found for both US and New Zealand exam boards with the added feature of YouTube video user guides. The setup up of a YouTube channel, Tumblr, Pin interest, Google+ page followed. Keeping on top of this social media beast was massively time consuming and if you blinked you potentially lost a new customer. A visit to the Bett Education show in London to network and spread the word about my app was a real eye opener. Not only were there other small app ideas and companies like mine struggling to be seen amongst the glitz of Samsung and Google but it made me realise that I was a small fish in a huge industry moving at 100 miles an hour.

A few tweaks here and there, the construction of an internal program to make loading exam data easier followed by a change of icon for iOS 7 and we were flying. The change of icon would hopefully get us featured on the new and noteworthy section of the appstore which apparently can increase sales by 500 percent. Sadly this is yet to happen as I am yet to figure out the criteria for why certain apps are chosen. It looks like the editor has to like the look of the app even though it may be awful.

So here we are, 16 months after Exam Pal was first released and the app is growing steadily. Without a massive marketing budget of thousands of pounds this was always going to take time, but we are a slow burner. Success stories such as Nick D’Aloisio’s ‘Summly’ News App being picked up by huge companies such as Google are few and far between and many of these apps have huge financial backing from the outset. For me this is a personal quest that I will continue to pursue. Without doubt we have a great product that I can proudly say thousands of students are using on a daily basis that is beneficial and will raise the exam grades of many. I have enjoyed the journey from conception to the app store and Google play even though it may be at the cost of several family holidays with the wife and kids. I will continue to change the way students prepare for exams and plug away on the long road to appiness!

Andrew Buck

Lead Practitioner in Design at Hastingsbury School in Bedford and App Entrepreneur

©Exam Pal Ltd

Leave A Reply