Community Spotlight

On Building Alexa Skills Worth Paying For. Meet Nate Munk

Nate Munk is a software engineer from Detroit who is turning his hobby of creating voice apps into a business making over $1,000 a month. Hear his journey of how he discovered Alexa Skills and what he went through until successfully finding a niche.

Name: Nate Munk

Location: Detroit, USA

What I Do: Software Engineer

What's your background, how did you get started in voice and what are you currently working on?

Right now I'm a software engineer at Ford Motor Company. I got my degree in Information Systems from Brigham Young University and I didn't have a lot of programming experience in school. I focused more on the business process aspect. During my last year at school, I had the opportunity to be in a mobile app competition that the school was hosting, and I asked them if I could make an Alexa skill. That was almost four years ago, and something that I hadn't even really looked into before, but I was interested in learning more about it. So, I created a game called Escape Jurassic Island. I've since redone it a couple of times and it's in Voiceflow now but I originally just coded it out and ended up taking second place in the competition and won a couple thousand bucks which was nice. It was enough of an incentive and made me feel like maybe I could even make a little bit of money doing this while enjoying the experience. That was kind of how I initially got started.

Fast forward to today and I have almost 40 skills that are live. A majority of these are white noise skills, and that's where my attention has mostly been recently. I started building a bunch of different games and it was difficult to monetize those, so I started looking at other options and I believe it was in October when I started building some white noise skills.

It looks like your Jurassic Island skill is pretty popular. Has that been difficult to monetize too or is there something that you did differently with it that made it easier?

That one has been pretty difficult to monetize. I'll get maybe a couple of sales with in-skill purchasing (ISP) every month. It's just a few bucks here and there. I was in the weekly Amazon email newsletter in July or August which helped that skill get pushed out to a ton of people all at once and I was able to make a couple hundred bucks from the Developer Rewards Program based on the engagement my skill got and I also made a few sales. But since then it's been pretty slow. And then with most of my other game skills I get a fair amount of usage but not a lot of purchases right now.

For your white noise skills what goes into making them? Do you record the audio yourself?

I've done a mix of recording my own audio just with my mic that I have at home and then spending a lot of time in audacity making some minor tweaks to it. I edit it and generate a really long file that doesn't have anything that sounds bad. It should sound like it's one continuous audio file. And then some audio is just creative commons zero (CC0) which is free audio that can be used commercially. When using that approach I spend a bit of time searching for what I want, make tweaks to it, and then create the different audio files. Right now I'm hosting a lot of them on SoundCloud and then some in S3. Both allow me to generate URLs to the audio that I can point to in my skills.

What's been the most challenging part of building skills that you've had to overcome?

I'd say this applies more towards the white noise skills, but the changing landscape for monetization was a pretty big hurdle. I created all of my skills and was initially trying to monetize them through usage (Alexa Developer Rewards). I made all of my skills provide longer audio files so they run longer before they need to loop in my free version which was more than what you could get with other skills’ paid versions. I was just trying to build something that was better than existing skills and that was free with the hope it would start to attract enough users for Amazon to pay me for usage. But over the last several months they've been paying out a lot less than before and I'm not sure exactly what the criteria is that goes into that.

I learned pretty quickly that relying solely on developer rewards wasn't going to be a very good way to monetize my skills. I had to do a pivot where I had these skills that were playing five hour plus audio files while the other guys had four hour files but you're paying $2 a month for that. And so I had to find a way to make my skills enticing enough where I didn't have to change my free version and I could provide enough value on a paid version for people to want to make that jump. That ended up being a big challenge. It’s something that took a little while to figure out, but I started offering 12 hour audio files. With 12 hours it’s basically guaranteed to play through the whole night without having to go in and out and disrupt your sleep. Then I added a new feature that I have on almost all of my white noise skills that will play your chosen white noise sound but then it will transition into a more peaceful sound. So when it's time to wake up it'll be like birds chirping or something that's just nice to wake up to.

Since getting those two features added for my paid content, I'm getting close to about 3% of people that sign up for a free trial which is pretty good. At least I assume it's pretty good. I've gotten a pretty good number of users. I think I've had maybe 800-900 people total who have signed up for free trials and a number of them drop off, but I’m still retaining a good number of people. So it's been growing each month and I've been able to make more than the previous month fairly significantly.

How do you promote your Alexa Skills and help them get discovered? Is there anything that you've found to be helpful In particular?

That is probably actually the most difficult part because I have no idea how to really market my skills effectively. I had a little bit of a lucky break with one of my skills because it just organically was getting traffic. It had a good invocation name that people were able to say easily and remember and that started driving a lot of traffic. It ended up being sustained for quite awhile but that particular skill has started to slow down. However, I think the increased traffic and reviews and different things that I obtained helped to elevate my ranking for the skills that came after it.

So, I haven't done any marketing. I haven't spent any money to try to get my skills out there. I just recently created a website. I threw together a splash page that gives a little bit of information and it has links to my skills and I'm looking at different ways to drive traffic like reaching out to bloggers. But overall, my marketing plan has mostly been relying on a little bit of luck and it's been working okay so far.

What's been the most useful resource or tool for you in learning about creating voice apps and making them successful?

I like to read articles to stay caught up on new developments and learn from what other people are doing. I think the biggest thing that I've learned, and it's been kind of a frustrating thing to learn, is I just made mistakes over and over again. A lot of them get caught before they're public or released because Amazon catches a lot of them when I try to push out things that are not quite up to snuff but every once in a while it slips through and I hear back from a user. I feel like that's been the best way to learn for me - just getting feedback on things that I could do better. Learning and knowing the best practices going into it helps but I think knowing your user and their expectations of your skills has been the area where I've been able to succeed. Always remember to create something that gives the user what they want and provides the value that they're looking for.

“I think the biggest thing that I've learned, and it's been kind of a frustrating thing to learn, is I just made mistakes over and over again.”

What are your goals for 2020?

I have a pretty extensive spreadsheet of goals around the number of new users, new signups for subscriptions, the amount of money that I want to make, retention, etc. But the underlying factor with those is just seeing a steady increase in the number of people that I am able to reach and the number of users who think it's worth it to upgrade and be willing to pay for my skills. So from a numbers perspective, those are the things that I'm looking for. From a qualitative approach, I love hearing back from my users. Whether it's a review or an email or they just reach out to me and say, “the skill has worked really well. It's helped me to sleep better and it's helped my kid to sleep better.” It's harder to quantify but knowing that the skills that I'm creating are making a difference and making people's lives better..that's something that's impactful. It's hard to get passionate about white noise but that makes it a lot easier to continue focusing on it and to improve the skills that I have as well as work towards creating new ones.

“It's harder to quantify but knowing that the skills that I'm creating are making a difference and making people's lives better...that's something that's impactful.”

Do you have any advice for someone who's new and just getting started?

I would say the biggest thing is - don't be afraid to fail. I've been doing this for about four years and have only really started to monetize my apps well over the last six months. It's something that takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of effort. But when you really put yourself out there and try to do things that are outside of your comfort zone you're probably gonna fail quite a few times before you're successful. That's just part of the process of getting to where you want to be. It was hard for me to push through to get to this point but it's definitely worth it, especially if it's something that you're passionate about.

The questions that have been posted here on Voice Devs that have been driving community engagement are really good. I love hearing other people's perspectives on things and seeing that we've got a lot of people who may have pretty similar backgrounds and experience, but they think about things differently. They attack problems differently. And that helps me to keep my mind a little bit more open and not pigeonhole myself. So, I think having those good questions that drive a lot of community engagement are really helpful as well.

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Jonathan Porter
Community Manager @ Voice Devs
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