With Over 50 Million Downloads, Widgetsmith Grew to become an In a single day Success 12 Years within the Making

When Apple introduced iOS 14, one of the unexpectedly popular new features was the ability to add widgets and configure the iPhone home screen. Not only did Widgetsmith add widgets from the apps already on your device, but it was also an app that allowed you to create custom widgets with different colors and fonts to show things like your calendar, weather, or moon phases.

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You could even add timed widgets that change throughout the day depending on what information you want to display. These features made it an instant hit for people who wanted to customize their home screen. It just so happens that a lot of people fall into that category – and a lot of them are on TikTok. When videos of people showing their configurations went viral, the app went viral too.

As a result, Widgetsmith suddenly became the number one most popular free app on the iOS App Store, where it stayed for more than two weeks. That’s pretty extraordinary in and of itself, considering it competes with apps like Zoom, YouTube, and TikTok.

I spoke to David Smith, the independent developer behind Widgetsmith, about the story behind its quick and extraordinary success. Make no mistake, however, the story of Widgetsmith didn’t happen overnight.

Smith had about six weeks to build the app, between being decided in late July and Apple releasing iOS 14 in September. That still seems like a remarkably short time to build something new, but the road to success for Widgetsmith started really long before that.

Smith has been developing apps for third-party developers since the App Store launched in 2008. That’s more than 12 years. During that time, he created 59 apps, most of which had never been heard of. His most successful project before Widgetsmith is an app called Pedometer ++ that was released with the iPhone 5s and used the pedometer function.

However, this app pales in comparison to Widgetsmith, which has been downloaded more than 50 million times since it launched last September. In fact, Smith told me that Widgetsmith had more downloads in a single day than Pedometer ++ in all of its time since it was launched in 2013.

It’s easy to believe that Widgetsmith is the classic example of a completely unexpected overnight success – an app that was in the right place at exactly the right time. In a way, that’s exactly the case.

The thing is, almost nothing that looks like an overnight success actually is. Instead, it is almost always the result of hard work, usually over weeks, months, and years. It’s just that you never see anything that comes before the “success” part.

“Part of my job is that I started a lot of apps, which means that in some ways I have failed many times,” said Smith. “But I also have the feeling that I now know very well how to make an app.”

It turns out that repetitive app creation was a big part of influencing all of the little decisions along the way that led Smith to create what is probably the most popular independent app in the world last year.

“All of the other apps I’ve built in the past have helped,” said Smith. “For example, I need to get the user’s current calendar events so I can put them in a widget. I know how to get calendar events and drag them into a widget. I’ve done this in another app.”

This type of motor memory turned out to be very important in this particular case too, as Apple only made it available to developers for 24 hours from the time it was announced that iOS 14 would be available to the public and the time it was released.

“I had about a 12-hour window of submitting my app to Apple and getting it up and running to be there the first day,” said Smith. “I think knowing this process meant that I could be there from day one because I knew from experience how to do it.”

Often the simplest form of success is what happens when a stroke of luck meets years of hard work and preparation. Many people work hard their entire lives but are never lucky enough to have their app go viral on TikTok. At the same time, many viral social media stories immediately flare up. They have never put in the work or preparation that would enable them to capitalize on the moment.

Widgetsmith could do just that. “I put myself in a position to seize an opportunity, but the fact that the opportunity was ultimately seized was largely out of my hands,” said Smith.

“I thought I was building something that is a very niche tool for some kind of power user – someone who is very fiddly and knows exactly what they want on their phone,” he told me.

“And it turns out everyone is one of those power users who was very fiddly about what their home screen should look like. I just got the size of the market I was addressing completely wrong. I thought I was aiming for one very specific group of people. And it turned out that this very specific group of people was like everyone. “

The result was that he had an app that met a need that no one really knew existed. Just don’t call it an overnight success.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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