Peter Kafka

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Meet the App Store Millionaires: The Brothers Behind Doodle Jump

Developers are eager to use the iPad as a chance to sell more expensive apps. But you can do just fine selling software at 99 cents a pop. Just ask Igor and Marko Pusenjak.

In the last year, the two brothers have sold 3.5 million copies of Doodle Jump, a simple and addictive game, via Apple’s iTunes store. That accomplishment may make them the world’s most successful iPhone and iPod touch developers.

It has certainly made them a lot of money.

The Pusenjaks’ company, Lima Sky, is a two-man operation they run out of their homes in New York and Croatia. A part-time illustrator helps them out, and they’ve recently started contracting with some freelancers for help with tasks like business development. But that’s about it for expenses.

So after Apple (AAPL) takes its 30 percent, the Pusenjaks have cleared more than $1 million a piece, before taxes.

How’d they do it?

A good game helps a lot. And Doodle Jump is a bunch of fun. But iTunes has more than 140,000 apps competing for users’ time and wallets, so breaking through the clutter is just as important.

I sat down with Igor Pusenjak last week to talk about his success, and you can see the interview at the bottom of this post. It’s a long clip, because I really like hearing Igor talk. But if you’re rushing to crank out new apps for the iPad, you may be time-pressed. So here are some key takeaways:

Developing a great app is the first part of a developer’s job. Marketing it is the second. Igor politely but repeatedly approached any and all blogs that wrote about iPhones, iPods and/or games, and used a story at one site to gin up interest from another. Landing a mention in Gawker Media’s Gizmodo was particularly helpful. The brothers recently started working with a PR firm, but until then, they did all the marketing themselves.

Work the system. In the early days of the iTunes app store, developers who updated their software would move to the top of the store’s “most recent” chart. So the Pusenjaks pushed out lots of free updates. Apple put that kibosh on that gambit last year, but the Pusenjaks have figured out a new promotional technique: Marketing tie-ins with other small developers, like Bolt Creative, which makes Pocket God. The Pusenjaks feature characters from Bolt’s game in theirs, and vice versa, and the two companies send customers back and forth.

Ask for help. The Pusenjaks knew that the best way to get attention would be from Apple employees who decide what apps to feature at iTunes–unlike other retail outlets, big players like Electronic Arts (ERTS) can’t simply buy preferred placement in the store. The brothers didn’t know anyone at Apple, but a friend of a friend did, and gave them an email address. Igor sent a note introducing himself over the transom, and a couple of weeks later, Doodle Jump got a feature slot.

Please your customers. Though Apple doesn’t reward developers for frequent updates, the Pusenjaks’ customers do. It turns out that free updates–new backgrounds, new characters, etc.–correlate to sales spikes, so the brothers continue to do them every few weeks. The brothers aren’t exactly sure why updates equal sales, but they have a hunch: An update gives Doodle Jump users another reason to play the game, which translates into another chance to tell friends how much they like it.

Focus: The brothers would like to work on a new game, and they’d like to port Doodle Jump to other platforms, like Google’s (GOOG) Android mobile operating system and Microsoft’s (MSFT) and Sony’s (SNE) game consoles. But they haven’t done any of that yet because they spend all their time tweaking the existing game and pushing out new updates. As long as Doodle Jump is selling–and it has been downloaded more than two million times so far in 2010, Igor notes–they can’t justify moving on to something new.

Get lucky: An endorsement from the Jonas Brothers doesn’t hurt. Even if you don’t know who the Jonas Brothers are. Igor explains in the video below.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald