When Apple introduced iOS 14, one of the most unexpectedly popular new features was the ability to add widgets and configure your iPhone Home Screen. In addition to adding widgets from the apps already on your device, Widgetsmith was an app that allowed you to create custom widgets with different colors and fonts to display things like your calendar, or the weather, or the phases of the moon.
It even allowed you to add timed widgets, which change throughout the day based on what information you want to display. Those features made it an instant hit for people who wanted to customize their Home Screen. It just so happens that a lot of people fall into that category–and many of them are on TikTok. When videos of people showing off their configurations went viral, so did the app.
As a result, Widgetsmith suddenly became the number one most popular free app in the iOS App Store, where it remained for more than two weeks. That, in and of itself is pretty extraordinary, considering it was competing with apps like Zoom, YouTube, and, well, TikTok.
I spoke with David Smith, the independent developer behind Widgetsmith, about the story behind its fast and extraordinary success. Make no mistake, however, the story of Widgetsmith didn’t happen overnight.
Smith had about six weeks to build the app between the time he settled on the idea near the end of July, and the time Apple released iOS 14 in September. That still seems like a remarkably short amount of time to build something new, but the path of success for Widgetsmith really started long before that.
Smith has been developing apps since the App Store launched to third-party developers in 2008. That’s more than 12 years. Over that time, he says he’s created 59 apps, most of them you’ve never heard of. His most successful project prior to Widgetsmith is an app called Pedometer++, which was released with the iPhone 5s, and took advantage of the step counter feature.
That app, however, pales in comparison to Widgetsmith, which was downloaded more than 50 million times since its launch last September. In fact, Smith told me that Widgetsmith had more downloads in a single day than Pedometer++ has had in the entire time since it launched in 2013.
It would be easy to think that Widgetsmith is the classic example of a completely unexpected overnight success–an app that was in the exact right place at the exact right time. In one sense, that’s exactly the case.
The thing is, almost nothing that looks like an overnight success actually is. Instead, it’s almost always the result of lots of hard work, usually over the course of weeks and months and years. It’s just that you never see anything that comes before the “success” part.
“Part of my thing is that I have launched a lot of apps, which means that, in some ways, I failed a lot of times,” said Smith. “But moreover, it’s the sense that I’ve, I know how to make an app very well now.”
It turns out that repetition of building apps over and over was a big part in influencing all of the little decisions along the way that led Smith to build probably the most popular independent app in the world last year.
“All of those other apps that I built in the past helped,” Smith said. “I need to, for example, get the user’s current calendar events so that I can put it in a widget. I know how to get calendar events and pull them into a widget. I’ve done this in another app before.”
That kind of motor memory also turned out to be very important in this particular case since Apple only gave developers 24 hours from the time it announced iOS 14 would be available to the public and the time it was released.
“I had about a 12-hour window, I would say, where I needed to get my app packaged up submitted to Apple and ready to go, in order to be there on day one,” Smith told me. “I think knowing that process meant that I was able to be in there from day one because I knew how to do that from my past experience.”
Often, the simplest form of success is what happens when a stroke of good fortune meets years of hard work and preparation. Plenty of people work hard their whole lives but never come across the kind of luck associated with having your app go viral on TikTok. At the same time, plenty of viral social media stories flame out immediately. They never put in the work or preparation that would allow them to capitalize on the moment.
That’s exactly what Widgetsmith was able to do. “I put myself in a position to be able to capitalize on an opportunity, but the fact that the opportunity ended up taking off was largely out of my hands,” Smith said.
“I thought I was building something that was a very niche tool for a kind of like power user–someone who’s very fiddly and like particular about what they want on their phone,” he told me.
“And it turned out that everybody is that power user who was very fiddly about what they want their Home Screen to look like. I just completely misjudged the size of the market that I was addressing. I thought I was targeting a very specific group of people. And it turned out that that very specific group of people was like everyone.”
The result was that he had an app that met a need no one really even knew existed, at the very moment it took off in ways no one could have anticipated. Just don’t call it an overnight success.