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How Twin Brothers From Kentucky (And Tom Hanks) Launched A Hit App

By focusing on quality, diversity, and some well-known names, Hitcents has defied the odds of the app business.

How Twin Brothers From Kentucky (And Tom Hanks) Launched A Hit App
[Photo: Flickr user R. Nial Bradshaw]

Clinton and Chris Mills are fraternal twins from Bowling Green, Kentucky. At the age of 9, they taught themselves to code. When they were 17, in 1999, they started an online advertising company, Hitcents, and have worked side by side ever since. “Our wives want to kill us because we see each other way more than they do,” says Clinton.

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Having gone through a series of pivots, Hitcents currently focuses on developing websites and apps. But the company is still very much a homegrown operation. Ed Mills, Clinton and Chris’s dad, has been CFO ever since he retired from General Motors. And although the company has grown to 80 employees with offices in Shanghai and San Francisco, its HQ is still in downtown Bowling Green, where the million-dollar view is of a minor league baseball stadium called Hot Rod.

This modest Southern company has found success in the most improbable of app venues–Hollywood. Their latest project, Hanx Writer, developed with Tom Hanks, brought typewriters into the digital age. But their strategy isn’t simply to beg stars to lend their name to a product. The twin brothers focus on quality to a product that truly engages, and only then layering on celebrity star power–as opposed to the other way around.

A number of star-centric apps, after all, have come and gone, proving that names alone don’t guarantee a hit– J.Lo’s DancePad, anyone?

After all, long before Tom Hanks entered the picture, Hitcents had crafted a handful of, if not Angry Birds-level hits, then at least very solid apps. Its Harlem Shake app has been downloaded over 3 million times. And Draw A Stick Man Epic, in which you draw your away around the “endless obstacles the evil Zarp throws at you,” according to the Hitcents website, has received 5 million downloads.

It was titles like this that caught the attention of CAA agents, whom the Mills brothers met at the Webby Awards last year, where Draw A Stick Man garnered three wins. A relationship was formed over a round of drinks, and soon after CAA pitched the Mills Hanx Writer, an iPad app dreamed up by Tom Hanks that creates all those satisfying, nostalgia-inducing sounds that a typewriter makes. (Hanks is a CAA client.) As Hanks, a huge typewriter enthusiast and collector, has said, now when you type a message on your iPad, you get to hear “SHOOK SHOOK or FITT-FITT” instead of, well, nothing.

When Hanx Writer hit the iTunes store last month it immediately created a frenzy, knocking another hot app with celebrity cred–Kim Kardashian: Hollywood–off its No. 1 slot. Since that initial rush, Hanx Writer has slipped in the rankings, but its impact on Hitcents has been more lasting. Virtually overnight, the brothers-and-pop shop has been catapulted, quite literally, onto the A-list. It recently acquired Moonshark, the mobile game startup incubated by CAA and is setting up offices in L.A. where it is working on a slate of new celebrity apps. Clinton said he could not disclose which stars the company is working with.

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Besides more Hollywood IP, Hitcents’ relationship with CAA has meant “a lot of cool parties,” says Clinton, who’s 31 and married with kids.

“They let us meet some cool people. Upcoming musicians, bands, and stuff like that.”

The app business is a notoriously tough slog. Rovio famously produced 51 unsuccessful titles before coming up with Angry Birds. And lately even they’ve been struggling. Companies like Zynga and King Digital Entertainment, the maker of Candy Crush, have similarly suffered. Why? Discoverability is a challenge in an incredibly cluttered market–let’s face it, what isn’t there an app for?–and even with strong marketing, the art of making a “sticky” app that people come back to again and again is hard.

According to VisionMobile’s recent Developer Economics report, the vast majority of apps fall below the “app poverty line,” generating just $500 per app per month. Much like the economic breakdown of our country, only the top 1.6% of developers make over $500,000 a month per app.

“The app gold rush is not a phase, it’s a real trend that’s been sustained year after year, and will continue as long as people keep buying smartphones,” says Ouriel Ohayon, cofounder of AppsFire, a company that helps promote apps. “But the market is becoming more sophisticated, so the recipe to be successful or unsuccessful is different than it was a few years ago. Then all you had to do was make a good app and because you were among the first to market, that was nearly a guaranteed way to make serious money. That’s not the case anymore.”

So how has Hitcents managed to buck the trend?

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A Diversified Business Model

For one thing, the Mills brothers have always operated as a hybrid, never relying solely on apps to generate revenue. Even after having success with Draw a Stickman, a web game turned app franchise that was so popular when it launched in 2011 that it crashed Hitcents’ servers, the company continues to develop websites for clients. They also split their app business evenly into two categories: for-hire contracts, a more stable business with upfront fees; and in-house app development, a riskier bet with the potential for bigger payoffs.

This setup has allowed them to never have to rely on outside funding, as they simply re-invest the money from their for-hire contracts into internal projects.

“We always debate: If we could get good, strategic money in, could we grow quicker?” says Clinton. “Not having that has sometimes meant we’ve been more conservative. But I can tell you that in 14 years, our average growth year over year is 30%.”

A Focus On Quality

Beyond the star-power of an A-list actor, Hanx Writer has been praised for simply being a good app; i.e. an enjoyable experience for the user. It sounds so simple. It’s not. As one digital maven put it: “Think of how many versions of John Madden Football there are that are not John Madden.”

“Our core business, even as far back as 14 years ago, has been being creative and being innovative and really staying true to quality,” says Clinton. “We’re not a company that goes out and copies Candy Crush.”

“We’re not just looking for something that’s quick and easy to market and is really cheap and might catch on.”

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Clinton says the reason Hitcents wanted to work on Hanx Writer was because the idea “was very unique and something that was very new and innovative.”

Hitcents threw itself into the project, assigning over 20 engineers, developers, and designers to bring it to life. An added incentive for everyone: Hitcents is a back-end partner on Hanx Writer, meaning that it receives a cut of the app’s profits.

“We like to be partners because it gives us a lot of passion,” says Clinton. “Our strategy is, let us be your partner and we’ll help you in development dollars, we’ll give 110%. Not that we don’t normally give 110%, but every time you launch an app, you have to iterate, look at analytics, see how users are coming to it, so we can help with all those things.”

Big Names Help

Stars may not guarantee success, but they can certainly help, particularly in getting the word out about a product.

“Having Tom’s 8 million Twitter followers and huge Facebook presence, we knew a lot of media outlets would pick the app up, we knew it would generate a lot of attention,” says Clinton.

The built-in marketing of stars is one of the reasons Hitcents was interested in Moonshark. And it’s why the company opened an office in China last year, where it not only localizes its games for a Chinese audience, but serves as a middleman between Chinese game developers and American studios.

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“One of the things we realized about China was that, besides being a fast-growing mobile market, all the games making money there are Western-based, popular IP games. Temple Run, Angry Birds, Ice Age, Despicable Me. So one of the things we kept hearing from Chinese companies was, ‘Can you help us get some IP?’ So we started facilitating deals and being a bridge between East and West.

“My opinion is that IP is going to rule the app world. [Disney] just released a new Star Wars game that’s in the top 13 on the charts. In a year or two, all the top games” will be based on high-profile properties.

“Still,” he adds after a pause. “You’ve got to have a good app.”

About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety.

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