Building A Popular App - An Interview With Ivan Iliev

Post by 
Viktor Dessov
Published 
January 19, 2021

1. Can you please introduce yourself and what you do?

I am Ivan from Bulgaria, I’m the founder & CEO of a mobile & web development company, called Eden Tech Labs. Also, I am an active CTO of the US-based company PlantSnap, which is behind a plant identification application that has more than 700 thousand plants in its database.

2. Is PlantSnap the most noteworthy project you've worked on this far?

It depends on your point of view but in terms of global reach and number of downloads (more than 42 million as of today), it definitely is. I started working on PlantSnap in 2017, writing the first versions of the iOS app and its backend myself. Later on, as the app started growing I built a team around that growth and essentially we moved from a project-based commitment with the company to, basically, an outsourced team, located in Bulgaria.


3. What are the types of issues that scale-up apps face?

image photo of businessman Ivan Iliev

I think most businesses, regardless of the phase they’re at, face a very common problem - a lack of knowledge in many different aspects. They don’t know how to get more clients, how to grow their team, how to get funding… When it comes to scale-ups it’s even more difficult because there is much more pressure since your business is already growing, so you don’t want to slow down. I’d say the biggest challenge is not knowing what you need.

4. Who did you turn to for advice in that case?

We didn’t seek information from consultants or mentors actively - which was one of our mistakes. It was exactly the opposite of the way I built my own business... When I had to scale up my software development company as an entrepreneur, I was asking a lot of experienced people for advice. Although I was actively looking for guidance, I was very keen on not losing my own flavor in the process. When it comes to PlantSnap, in order to make the app better we were listening to the users. We didn’t always give them what they were asking for, but we were trying to align the direction in which the project was going with their desires. We also used outside help, utilizing consultants for paid advertising, marketing, monetization.

5. PlantSnap eventually became one of the App Store's top mobile applications. What does it take to achieve that?

In the case of PlantSnap, we started off with only a paid version of the app - which is why the app was making good money (nowadays there is also a free version of it). When people like your app and leave a lot of positive reviews, you also get organic traffic. So for every user that was coming from the paid advertising, there was also one user coming organically. Because more and more people were downloading the paid version, it was being pushed up in the charts. There are other factors besides the number of downloads that define one’s position in the App Store’s charts - such as how much an app is making, how much time people are spending in the app.

And to achieve all of this, it is important to do something innovative in my opinion. PlantSnap was actually pretty novel at the time - now there are 50 other apps doing the same thing. When we launched, there were other apps identifying plants as well, but they were using a very different approach. PlantSnap was the first one to try to do it 100% automatically. The moral of the story is that it’s better to have less competition and to try to find the least-resistance path to getting someone to actually use your product and give you money for it - and listen to everything they say about it. The users are the actual people with the problem, looking for a solution, so they are the experts. 

image photo, 600 x 600 pixels, of businessman Ivan Iliev


6. PlantSnap’s management is from (and in) the US. What can the Bulgarian software development ecosystem offer potential clients based in Western Europe and the US?

That’s a good question. A lot of the Western types of clients turn towards Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and the other ones in the region due to the lower labor costs. A good salary of a software developer in Bulgaria is about 50-60 thousand dollars annually - while in the US it is about 150 thousand dollars per year.

I’d also say that companies in Bulgaria have a unique value proposition - a very well-prepared talent pool and good quality services at a fair price, which I think, is the dream of every client out there. I try to advise my colleagues in Bulgaria to stay away from the notion that they are just cheap labor and not necessarily charge the lowest price just to get the project. Naturally, this also doesn’t mean that we need to be greedy, we need to be aware of the fact that we are in Bulgaria and not in the US or the UK.

Another thing that we can bring to the table, compared to India, Indonesia, or other types of cheaper labor software development countries is that we are in a more preferable time zone. I know it may sound silly, but it is a big factor for a lot of customers. Furthermore, a lot of people in Bulgaria speak good English - or at least good enough to communicate adequately.

image photo, 600 x 600 pixels, of businessman Ivan Iliev

7. How and why did you decide to become a part of the BattlePass team?

I was introduced to the BattlePass idea by one of the co-founders - Peter Lozanov. It immediately resonated with me because I had a similar idea in the past. Back then, however, I didn’t have the time, nor the resources to bring it to life. In my opinion, there are a lot of ideas floating around people’s heads, online, etc. Maybe some of them are good - but we’ll never know, cause they will never see the light of day.

I think the BattlePass Studio is a great solution, helping turn ideas into a minimum viable product that people can start using as soon as possible - followed by feedback about it, and validating whether the idea is something that the world needs or not. There are a lot of ideas that get presented to boardrooms of VCs that don’t find the idea appealing for whatever reason and sometimes that’s when the idea gets killed - which is sometimes a mistake. Just because a VC doesn’t like an idea, it doesn’t mean that it is bad. When BattlePass team engages with a startup, they want it to succeed and they take ownership of its problems.

With a VC, you wouldn’t get too much support because that’s not what a VC does - they might introduce you to people or open up doors to new markets and new niches but they are not there to really help you do the stuff that you don’t know how to do - and I think that this is where the BattlePass model really kicks in. A consultant or an outsourcing company would not view a startup they work with as their own - while a startup studio would most definitely do so.

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