When to Call It Quits: How to Shut Down a Mobile App
by Tim Bornholdt · Published on September 18, 2018
Did your “million-dollar idea” only bring in a few thousand dollars? Was the app that everyone around the world would download only installed by a few hundred folks? Let me guess... advertising didn’t exactly make you an overnight billionaire?
Whatever your reasons, now you are searching the web for advice on taking your once-beloved workhorse of an iOS/Android app and putting it out to pasture.
I hope it's obvious that I'm being tongue-in-cheek here. Calling it quits on a business is never easy. When your business is also a piece of art that you’ve carefully molded, release after release, for years on end, it is even more difficult when the time comes to shut it down for good.
We’ve been in business long enough that we’ve had to pull the plug on our own mobile apps, and also help our customers figure out what to do with the software that just never became the success they thought it would be.
In this post, we’ll walk you through all the things you need to consider when shutting down a mobile app for good.
Step 0: Is it the right time?
You may still be in the phase of deciding whether or not to call it quits on your project. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself that can help make that decision:
Is the app process still enjoyable?
When you open up your laptop in the morning, do you do it with a smile on your face? Are you excited to talk to new customers about your app? Can you sleep well at night without having stress-induced nightmares?
Are you making any money?
Are you continually hitting sales projections, or are you continually missing the mark? Is the app bringing in more money than you are spending?
Are your customers happy?
Do you receive positive feedback from your customers? Are they receiving an app that helps them accomplish a job and makes them feel great?
Is your team happy?
Have you seen a mass exodus of your development team lately? Are you receiving unsolicited suggestions from your team on how to improve the product?
Have you been keeping the app up to date?
How long has it been since you've updated the app in the store? Is your technical team responding to any inquiries? Are you keeping up to date with new innovations from your competition?
Is the app keeping you from doing something else?
Is there another project in your life that you would rather be doing? Have you fallen into the trap of the sunk cost fallacy?
If you've decided that now is indeed the time to shut down your app, here are the steps you can take to ensure a smooth process:
Step 1: Take care of your customers
Even if you weren’t an overnight billionaire, your customers still took a chance on you and your software, and you owe it to them to make sure their experience ends on a positive note.
Give them enough time to find an alternative
Picking software can take a lot of time, especially if you are selling to businesses as opposed to consumers. Your customers chose you over your competition for a reason, and now, they are going to have to start that decision process all over again.
It’s not always feasible to give ample warning that your service is going away, but whenever possible, let your customers know as soon as possible so they have enough time to find another solution.
Give them the tools to export their data
Offer your customers the ability to easily export their data into a format which would allow them to import it into another tool.
Depending on the type of service you provide, there may already be industry-standard file formats to choose from. For example, if you run a podcast player, you can give them an OPML file. Whenever possible, use these industry-standards so your customers can switch more efficiently.
If there is no industry-standard for your specific use case, give them some way to dump their data into a generic format they can use. It can be as simple as a CSV or JSON file, or if there are forms of multimedia available, offer a compressed ZIP file with those assets in there.
Decide what you're going to do with their remaining data
No matter how much notice you give your customers, there will inevitably be one or two who do not get the message.
Once you pull the plug, you should keep their data for a short period of time. Keep your customer support channels operating for an extra week or so. If someone missed the memo and they find that your site is gone, they will find a way to reach out to you.
After a short grace period has passed, you should destroy the data in accordance with your terms of service and specific industry needs. Our rule of thumb is to trash everything as soon as we possibly can. Sometimes, legal requirements force us to hang onto customer data for a set period, but barring that, we would rather just not have any customer data if we can help it.
Be sure to destroy any backups of the data as well.
Step 2: Take care of your team
If the risk your customers took on your product was significant, then the risk your team took on working for you is incalculable. You should do everything you can to make sure they leave on the best possible terms as well.
Give your employees enough time to make other plans
If you have a full time team working on your product, they will need to find more work. Help them out as much as you can. Give them as much advanced notice for them to find a new job. Be a referral and tap your networks to help them find new employment.
If you have contractors working for your team, give them enough time to look for a new project. Tap your networks and see if anyone is looking for a talented developer or designer.
These steps aren't exactly mandatory, but your team members will certainly acknowledge anything you can do to help them during a tough period in their lives.
Notify your investors
Your investors will likely know before your employees, but make sure you keep them in the loop about the shutdown. At best, they might have ideas for staving off a shutdown, but if a shutdown is inevitable, give them enough time to figure out the impact on their finances.
Step 3: Figure out if there's anything valuable worth salvaging
Now that you’ve taken care of your users and team, you should focus on making sure you get as much value as you can out of your remaining business assets.
If you're shutting down your business instead of selling it outright, then the odds are likely that you don't have many truly valuable assets. Despite that, you may find value in the following pieces of intellectual property:
The beautiful thing about domain names is that they are relatively affordable (starting around $10/year) and can be worth a lot of money to the right person or company.
If you believe you have a valuable domain name, you may consider paying the small yearly fee just to see if anyone would pay a higher premium for it.
If you've read any of our previous posts, you'll know that we are a big fan of this axiom: "ideas without execution are worthless." If you also believe that to be true, then in all reality, any development work you've done on a failed app is not of much value to anyone.
However, if you developed some specific algorithms or business practices that may be worth something to the right person, you should consider saving that source code somewhere.
Patents are a funny thing: you need to spend a lot of money to get one, and even after you've obtained it, the only way you can enforce it is to spend even more money on litigation.
If you spent a bunch of money on a patent up front, then you could try to sell it to an interested party.
One route we would highly discourage is attempting to use your patent to extort money out of other businesses through the use of a licensing fee, which is what we would call a patent troll.
Step 4: Pull the plug
The day has finally come: you've given your customers and team ample warning and you've siphoned as much money as you can from the app. It's time to say goodbye to your mobile app.
The actual process of shutting down an app is relatively straight forward. Here are the steps we take when pulling down an app:
Make sure your developers have committed all recent changes to your source code repository of choice (usually either GitHub or Bitbucket).
Once the code is up to date, your next step depends on the likelihood of future development.
If you are likely to restart development in the future, you could continue to pay for your GitHub/Bitbucket repository in order to keep the history of the repo up to date.
If you are truly calling it quits, or if you don't care about having a running history of code commits, then you would be fine with getting a zip file of the most recent version of the code.
First and foremost, save a complete backup of all the data on your system as we discussed above.
Next, determine how you want your API to respond. The easiest route is to just shut off the server, but you may want to respond to incoming API requests with code 410 (Gone) for a few weeks to make sure all of your users are aware that the system is gone.
Finally, power down the remaining servers. If you're on a cloud-hosting service like Linode, you can simply de-provision the devices. If you own your own hardware, you might want to take the extra step of wiping the hard drives with a magnet and drilling a hole through the disk.
Pull down your latest bank statement for the past 6 months and look at all of your recurring expenses. These could include services like Pingdom, MaxCDN, Trello, Basecamp, Linode, Heroku, and so forth. Go through each integration and cancel your account.
If you are also closing down a business along with the app, you need to take care of the business side of things. The IRS has a handy checklist of actions to take that will help make sure you continue to stay compliant with federal regulations. You will want to consult your lawyer and accountant to make sure you didn't miss anything either.
Step 5: Post Mortem
After it is all said and done, one of the best things you can do after a business closes is to meet with your team one last time right after you've closed the app down (possibly over drinks) and discuss the project in detail.
A quick Google search yields many results for how to do a post mortem, but I personally like this post by Judy Mann where she boils down the post mortem to three basic questions:
- What worked that you'd absolutely do again without change?
- What didn't work that you would never do again?
- What worked but you would do again, but differently? How?
Write down your answers somewhere and keep that handy. If you decide to tackle a new mobile app project in the future, these notes will be critical for making sure your next attempt benefits from the lessons you've learned.
Pulling an app off the App Store is one of the toughest parts of running a mobile app agency, but as in life, all things come to an end.
What was your experience like shutting down a mobile app? If you think we missed a step, let us know on Twitter!