How Paper developer FiftyThree inspired iPad productivity and conquered the App Store

April 4, 2012

FiftyThree is the company behind the extraordinarily successful ‘Paper’ app for iPad, which is currently the number one free app across 75 countries in the App Store. TabTimes spoke to FiftyThree’s Andrew Allen to talk about drawings on iPad, the benefits of in-app purchasing and the admiring glances the developer has received from Apple.

As with Zanther’s Tapose, FiftyThree owes its existence, in part, to the death on arrival (DOA) of the Microsoft Courier, an experimental tablet with two adjoining screens.

FiftyThree currently has five employees, but Allen says that a few members of the team, including himself, worked on the ill-fated Courier project before it was disbanded. A little while after this, Allen teamed up with another colleague and now partner, Georg Petschnigg, to form a creative company which would focus on, as Allen puts it, the "film before the last cut" or the "presentation before the PowerPoint slides." 

“All ideas start on something," he said. "Like napkins or sticky notes, but these get lost. We decided to create a company to solve this problem.”

Their subsequent creation hasn’t done badly considering the app developer only formed in June of last year and that, for the Allen and FiftyThree’s chief developer, this was their first effort at creating an app for iOS.

The app itself allows you to draw with a host of different tools (most of which are purchased in-app for $1.99), and your designs can then be pushed to the likes of Facebook and Twitter. Some may baulk at the idea of paying $8 for a handful of tools and colors, but the app is pretty responsive, and it's fun to use.

The story is the secret sauce?

So, what’s the success behind an app, which has a gathered a 3.5 star rating from 3,475 separate reviews?

“I think it’s down to two things. Every good business is built around a great product, but you also have to tell a great story, and illustrate why this product is going to change your life”, said Allen.

Truthfully, there appears to be more to it than that. Allen’s expertise with video (a sector he specialized in prior to the foundation of FiftyThree) helped create a promotional video, which to date has attracted 500,000 viewers in three days (it's now up to 661,000 on Vimeo). That's solid buzz for an upstart app.

There was also a helping hand in the form of ‘having the right media partners’, as Allen put it. Early on, Apple asked if it could feature the ‘Paper’ app. And, on the day of its release, Joshua Topolsky’s tech site The Verge also went hands-on with a glowing write-up of the app.

FiftyThree would seem to be one of more proactive developers when it comes to media relations, and it’s a point that resonates with Allen, who is eager to avoid the ‘throwaway lifestyle’ where apps have fallen off the App Store charts in just a few months. “We want to create a system and app experience that can keep evolving.”

Emerging business model?

From a business perspective, the developer has opted for an interesting business model as far as revenue is concerned. The app is free from the App Store, and offers a complimentary pen to try first. Should you wish to use more tools, they cost around $1.99 per tool.

All of these transactions are handled in the app itself, a method which Allen thinks marks the future of apps. “We see in-app purchasing as the future of app development. It gives people the ability to build rich apps that people want to live with. Also, we don’t want to throw hundreds of features at people. We want to allow these users to only buy what they need. If you don’t need a watercolour brush, you don’t buy a watercolour brush”.

What about the concern that , in using such a business strategy, developers risk alienating users who signed up to a supposedly free application? “I think people are willing to pay for a quality product. For sure, there’s always going to be disappointed people on the App Store, who wanted a free lunch. We could have charged up front, but we really believe in allowing people to try before they buy, so they can see what works for them.”

For now, the future of this small team seems secure, and with the firm thinking about adding new tools and working on "interesting projects", it would seem that this is one title that won't be slipping off the App Store front page for some time yet.


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