We swear, with how fast the tech world moves, it seems entrepreneurs are getting younger… every month.
When Michael Sayman was 12-years-old, he taught himself to code through tutorials he found on Google. At age 13, he created his first app, priced at one dollar, which made him tens of thousands of dollars- money he used to help support his parents mortgage when the economy hit them hard. Now Michael is 17, coming fresh off of Facebook’s f8 developer’s conference last April where he was featured along with other app developers at the personal request of Mark Zuckerberg. Ahead of him lies the developing success of his most popular app, 4 Snaps, and a summer internship at Facebook.
With Facebook’s recent news allowing up to $30,000 in free services to qualifying app developers through Parse, which is how Facebook initially found Sayman, his experience in app development is now something to take a few notes from.
How did a self-taught app developer find such success when his family needed it most and gain the attention of a tech-industry billionaire? We had the pleasure of catching up with Michael over email where he shared what his busy life is like as a teen entrepreneur, why a career in app development can be more important than college, and we uncover just how he found success in marketing his apps.
Michael’s journey into app development started with a website. His favorite game at the time was Disney’s Club Penguin, a multiplayer virtual winter wonderland full of penguin avatars, and as a middle schooler he built a tutorial website using WordPress. His website did well, but Michael figured that he’d increase traffic if he went mobile.
After teaching himself iOS app development simply by Googling it, Michael created a mobile app version of his website. Remember, the app market wasn’t as saturated in 2010 as it is today, and using Club Penguin’s fanbase, his $1 tutorial app exploded onto the scene- the money started coming in everyday and soon he was making more money than his parents. Michael’s second app was a Club Penguin themed game, which did even better than his first app. Clearly, his strength here was the brand marketing.
It was also at this time that Michael’s family went through some tough times, downscaling their home and moving to an apartment as the recession made it difficult for his parents to support the family and pay the mortgage. Michael used the money he made from developing apps to help his parents, who stayed supportive of his ventures.
“My parents have been the best! Although we haven’t had the best economic situations in the recent past, I can honestly say that they fully support me and let me grow in what I love to do!”
As a young entrepreneur, Michael naturally decided to branch out into something new, however his new games, which had no previous fan base, didn’t do so well. But every successful entrepreneur faces failure at some point and all it takes is one good idea to really take off. Enter 4 Snaps.
“I came up with 4 Snaps after watching my sister take pictures and send them to her friends, asking them to guess what it was she was taking pictures of. As soon as I saw this, I knew that I had to make an app about it!”
Michael had the skill to develop a simple and fun picture sharing app, but when it came to marketing, he developed some clever tricks of his own.
“I think there are multiple factors to consider in marketing a successful app. With every app, one of the most important things to consider is the target audience that the app has. For example, in 4 Snaps and trying to market the app, I’ve always thought about teenagers and what they want to see, how they want to play the game. If I can get people to share the app on social media sites with their friends, then the marketing can boost itself!”
To market 4 Snaps, Michael created some native advertisements of the app and used popular fashion Instagram accounts to spread the brand. The beauty of this strategy was that because it was a native advertisement, the Instagram posts made the user look like they were playing the game while viewers weren’t put off by blatant and annoying advertisements. As 4 Snaps involves multiple people to play along, the game spread quickly amongst friends. With the success of his strategy, Michael explained to us, “The success with 4 Snaps has been amazing and so unprecedented! I had a feeling it could get popular, but never so quickly and at this scale!”
“My goal is to try and make some kind of difference in the world with what I love to do. It sounds super cheesy, but it’s my favorite part about working on 4 Snaps. When I go on Instagram and see the over 54,000 pictures about my app that people have shared, I get so happy to see that even the smallest and most insignificant change that I’ve made in someone’s life!”
The success of 4 Snaps, which by then had a user base in the six digits, soon attracted the attention of Facebook, who owns Parse, and Mark Zuckerburg. Michael was recently a featured guest developer at Facebook’s f8 developer’s conference. Having met Zuckerburg, Michael’s future may lead him somewhere in the social network’s publicized push for mobile app development.
“Mark is great. At Facebook’s f8 conference, watching him speak was pretty awesome! I can definitely see myself working with Facebook in the future. There is so much talent and just being around so many smart people kind of makes me nervous to think about, but it’s really a great opportunity nonetheless!”
At 17 with such a bright future ahead of him, we asked Michael what his plans for college are.
“Plans for college are always scary, mainly because I don’t know what will happen! So much has changed in the last few months, and I know that things will continue to change even more so that makes “planning” things kind of funny. One of my choices for undergraduate is University of Rochester. It’s a great school and I think their motto says a lot about their mentality there too.”
But on the same note, for someone as brilliant as a self taught app developer, perhaps college isn’t the best place to really grow his strengths.
“I definitely think that going straight to working for a company like Facebook is a viable option. People go to college to learn and I feel like one of the best places to learn and advance in the field of technology is at a company like Facebook, doesn’t have to be a college.”
As one could imagine, being an entrepreneur at such a young age while trying to balance school doesn’t leave Michael a lot of time to be a kid, but in the true spirit of an entrepreneur, the grind never stops and neither does his passion.
“I’m still a teenager! So being locked in front of my laptop on my parents kitchen counter isn’t exactly what I want to do all the time. My favorite thing to do for fun is go to the movies. I’ve seen almost every single movie out right now in theaters and I’ve seen some twice! But when I’m working on my apps, I’m also having fun doing it so I guess that also counts as something I do to have fun.”
Lastly, throughout the wild journey he’s been on so far in his young life, we asked Michael what the greatest lesson he has learned so far was.
“One of the most important things about business that I’ve learned so far is that the path isn’t a straight line. It’s more like a bunch of scribbled lines going all of the place. I realize this to be the case because it’s never just up or down. I think so many people that I’ve seen accomplish huge things like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg have shown me that this is the case no matter how successful something appears to be. It’s never perfect, but the journey is what it’s all about.”
Check out Michael’s app 4 Snaps here.