How to be a successful indie developer*

* Not a guarantee

There has been a lot of words written lately about how hard it is to make a decent living as an independent software developer. While I agree that it has become harder every year to stay on top of things and keep making it in a crowded space, it is possible if you apply these rules:

  1. Find a real problem to solve
  2. Make sure that those that have that problem are willing to pay a fair price for your app in order to solve it
  3. Make a great app

That is what I did with Screens and I’m making a pretty good living out of it. Of course, the app was released back in 2010 when there weren’t as many apps out there and it was easier to get noticed but it is still a proof that a $19.99 iOS app ($29.99 on the Mac) is possible.

Yes, it takes a lot more time, money and personal investment nowadays to make it as an indie but that’s what we call doing business. This isn’t 2008 anymore and it is not enough to just release a $1.99 app out there and hope to make it. Solve a problem and ask good money for it and you’ll have more chances to become successful.

Back to the Mac

Brent Simmons, UXKit Again

I have no illusions that I can talk any iOS developers into Mac development. I will say that it’s fun, though, for a bunch of reasons. Your apps run on the same machine as your development environment. You have the freedom to distribute outside the app store. You have a chance to write something that all your peers — many of whom are also programmers — will run all day long on their Macs. (And you have a decent chance of making better money. Mac users tend to be loyal and supportive and awesome.)

I’m not kidding myself, Edovia wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Apple and its respective App Stores. However, I’ve had this urge lately to try to make it on my own, without Apple’s help. Of course, there’s no way out of the App Store for iOS apps but you can still hold the reins of your destiny on the Mac side.

Just a few weeks ago, Screens for Mac made more than 90% of its revenues on the Mac App Store. My goal is to increase the percentage of copies sold directly drastically by the year’s end.

It’s not only about the money. Of course, having FastSpring taking roughly 9% off every sale compared to the hefty 30% taken by Apple on each sale is nothing to sneeze at.

For me, the real gain is to be able to push bug fix releases in the matter of minutes, not days, and taking care of my users in a much less frustrating way. Direct customers also tend to be less of a pain compared to App Store customers and easier to work with.

As for UXKit, I don’t understand all the fuss. Yes, AppKit is sometimes frustrating compared to UIKit but seriously, just learn the damn thing.

I don’t know why but for me, shipping a Mac app has always been something special over an iOS app.

Trust

Peter Cohen, NSFW: Note to Apple: Innovation shouldn’t cost stability

But Yosemite and iOS 8 are fraught with enough difficulties for enough users that I feel like neither of them are fully baked.

There are so many reliability and stability issues with both OSes that at some point we cannot trust them anymore and that’s a shame because these new features are truly great.

Trust is hard to gain and even harder to re-gain once your users have been burned by your promises. This, coming from the same company that took 2 years to implement copy and paste in iOS.

Price Trolls

$4.99. This is the price you’ll have to pay for Pixelmator, a desktop-class photo editor. I don’t know if the ridiculously low price was set at Apple’s request (a $19.99 price tag at the end of a Keynote demo would have much less impact) but if this trend continues it may hurt the App Store on the long run.

Of course, the makers of Pixelmator can afford such a low price since they’ll get a ton of promotion and the download volume will make up for it but this is not the case for most developers.

It sends the message to consumers that they shouldn’t pay much for quality software and that developers asking for a fair price are greedy. Eventually, it will be no longer profitable to develop for the platform and we’ll start seeing less quality apps on the App Store.

Unavoidable

Jared Sinclair:

I conclude from all this that anyone who wants to make a satisfying living as an independent app developer should seriously consider only building apps based on sustainable revenue models. I suspect this means through consumable in-app purchases, like those in Candy Crush Saga or Clash of Clans, or through recurring subscription charges, like those in WhatsApp.

The marketplace has changed drastically over the past few years and I think we’re going to see more and more freemium apps, such as Arment’s Overcast. As for Edovia, it is quite possible that our next major releases will offer new features through In-App purchases.

I have always been against the race to the bottom and priced Screens accordingly. The freemium model (or at least the Charge-Less-For-Basic-Functionalities-And-Offer-In-App-Purchases-For-Pro-Features model) is now something to consider and perhaps, unavoidable on the long run.

Furthermore, I have grave doubts that any solo developer would have the capacity to ship and maintain either kind of business working alone. She would probably have to consolidate her business with other indie developers in the same position. The marketing budgets of the major competitors makes me doubt that even a consolidation strategy is tenable.

I’ve been pretty successful with Screens because I was able to hire excellent developers and designers. The app would not exist without them.

 

★☆☆☆☆

Last weekend, the City of Montreal introduced “La Place Shamrock”, a project my girlfriend created over the last months. Here is an article from The Gazette for those of you who don’t speak la langue de Molière.

The goal with this project was to create a link between the St. Laurent boulevard and the Jean Talon Market. I’m aware that I may have a large bias towards Noémie’s work but the place is truly great. You even have a custom made carousel, which got busy all day and attracted kids but adults as well.

There were hundreds of people that came by during the opening day and everyone responsible for the project got great feedback from the public and surrounding businesses. There were still many people enjoying the benches and swings well after the main event was over.

The event was covered in many Montreal publications and my girlfriend was pretty excited about it, until she started reading the comments on the article Radio-Canada published. The article is in french but believe me, you’re not missing much.

Most comments are negative. Sounds familiar? There were and will be far more people enjoying the Place Shamrock in the future than there will ever be people that complains about it but yet, you mostly read negative comments about it.

Being Nice Is Hard

The situation reminded me of a discussion I had with Mike Lee last May, regarding an incident I have unfortunately witnessed: a cat got ran over by a car, was obviously in pain and yet the driver never bothered to stop to deal with the situation. It is possible that this person never even realized what just happened but still, it got me very angry about the whole thing, especially since I was the only one around that would take care of that poor cat.

Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 8.28.00 AM

Still, I give this person ONE STAR.

The Internets Bring The Coward In All Of Us

It is easy to be negative on the web. We are not confronted to the person face to face and we feel the power to say whatever we feel like, even though we do not even have a good understanding of the whole situation or matter.

This brings me back to comments about my girlfriend’s work and about our apps:

It is much easier and rewarding for someone that is pissed about your app to leave a bad review than it is for a user that enjoys your app to disrupt his or her schedule and take the time to write a positive review.

That is just human nature, unfortunately. When pushing updates to the App Store, I and many fellow developers are sometimes asking users to take the time to write positive reviews. Some will actually do so because you are not disrupting them in the middle of something important; they are reading your What’s New In This Version notes and about to update your app. They are already in the App Store app so why not? I have had good success with that technique but it shows you what you need to do in order to get positive feedback: constantly remind people to be nice and do the right thing.

Last January, I had this ideal about The Rate Friday Initiative, which I am guilty of not respecting myself. Essentially, the goal is to give a good review to one app that you use and enjoy every Friday and tweet about this it. It has been over 6 months now and there are still people sticking to it, which is amazing. I will try to stop slacking off and get back in the movement this week.

At least, these gentlemen pretty much nailed it!

 

The Indie Life

Yesterday, I’ve tweeted this regarding Kevin Hoctor leaving NoThirst Software for a new position at Apple:

Screen Shot 2014-07-03 at 9.04.04 AM

Let it be clear to everyone, I wish Kevin all the best and I am convinced that his experience will be greatly beneficial for all the Mail and Notes users. And let’s face it, 99% of us dreamed at some point to work for Apple and would really have a hard time to turn down an offer if it came by.

However, it seems that more and more people I know are moving away from the indie life.

I will tell you this: I cannot blame them to do so and I find myself thinking about doing the same from time to time. Here’s why.

The Game Has Changed

Let’s face it, the app gold rush is well over. It is now much harder to make it into the market and it requires more planning, financial investment and time. On top of that, competition is fierce, your app may get sherlocked1 by Apple and become a part of the next OS release or may lose traction because a VC funded company is offering a free alternative and has near to unlimited funds for market it while they figure out how to monetize it.2

The App Store market is now mature and near 7 years old. Apple does bring a tonne of new potential customers every day but many from the current user base have found apps that suit their needs and may not be interested in your offering.

I have spoken with other successful developers and many told me the same: sales are generally down. They are still doing great but there are more and more competitors are also taking a slice of the same pie.

Media attention is also harder to get as they get overwhelmed with review requests and press releases.

Pretty much anyone will tell you that making a great app is a good start. I wholeheartedly agree but while this makes a lot of sense and is one of the best way to get noticed by the media and Apple, it is not a guarantee of success and riches.

Take Screens for Mac for example. It has been featured many times by Apple and recently even got a custom page on the Mac App Store

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You would think that the VNC app that Apple seems to prefer should be pretty successful, right? Well, yes and no.

How about Screens for iOS, which got featured in the iOS App Store Utilities section for months?

1504347_729857183720599_621917676_o

Sales are doing better than its Mac counterpart but not as much as you would imagine.3

To be quite honest, I can say that I am a successful independent app developer and making a pretty good living out of it. Unfortunately, it is far from being enough to hire a team, or at least one extra individual to work with. I do hire contractors from time to time and while I really appreciate their input and work, it is not the same as building a team.

Working With Great People

This is one aspect that I find frustrating about the (my) indie life. Of course, I feel very fortunate about being able to make a living out of apps I’ve developed. I also appreciate the liberty that my lifestyle brings.

However, I sometimes miss working with people. Being able to brainstorm with fellow developers, plan features with them and challenge each other is something that I often wish for.

Craig Hockenberry spoke about this at NSConference 2013. His talk, Independent, But Not Alone is available on Vimeo and I invite you to watch it. I should probably watch it again myself!

Outside of the social events, it is pretty easy to feel isolated from others when you are an independent software developer and I totally understand when someone gets fed up with the situation and chooses to go work for another larger company.

Another great talk to watch is from Rob Rhyne, delivered at the conference I happen to organize with some friends in Montreal.

While listening Rob’s talk, a slide really caught my attention:

Screen Shot 2014-07-03 at 1.38.51 PM

For an app such as Screens, this is quite true. Of course, if you’re working on a less complex app you can manage to do pretty well by yourself along with a graphic designer but for more complex projects, a team is something very valuable. A team will get more involved into the app on a daily basis than a contractor that is there only for a certain amount of time. The involvement level is (generally) not the same. A team is also composed of individuals that you get to know, hang around with and develop a complicity and a relationship.

I can also understand that someone would feel tired of a similar situation and would want to work with other talented people and decide to leave everything behind to pursue a new venture.

Other Aspects

Being your own boss is great but also brings some other challenges:

  • You need to stay away from daily distractions.
  • Finding your motivation can also be hard.
  • Financial instability. It is sometimes nerve racking to see your sales go down for no reason.
  • Dealing with boring paperwork and business responsibilities.

Luckily, I’ve managed to control most of these aspects from the experience of being self-employed for almost 8 years. I have hired a support person and an accountant (both part-time) for anything else I cannot/will not handle.

Getting paycheck every two weeks, working with a team of talented people and being a part of exciting new projects sure is tempting. Yes, you would lose some of the perks you would have as an indie developer but no situation is perfect and sometimes a drastic change is what is prescribed. Considering other opportunities, even if you do not commit to them, is sane.

The Future Of Independent Development

I believe that we will see a consolidation of the market at some point. This reminds me of the early 1990s, where any kid with a few thousands of dollars could start his own snowboard company. Eventually, the market got saturated and many of those companies disappeared, got acquired or merged together in order to gather forces, improve their products and be more competitive. This is the normal process for any mature market.

Another trend we should see in the future is more collaboration and joint ventures amongst indie developers. By doing so, you get to work as a team, share the work load, bear the risks together and create better apps. I feel this approach would be very interesting because it would bring the best of both worlds: the freedom and perks of the indie life with the pleasure and experience of working with a team on projects you could not achieve on our own.

Of the two, this is the most interesting solution to me.

Let’s Discuss

I’d love to hear what you think of this and how you see the future of independent software development. Thanks for reading.


1 Many people will say that this is actually a good thing if you can take advantage of the situation and offer something better over the default implementation.

2 This is why I tend to develop app for niche markets. Staying away from the mass market makes me sort of immune but of course there are some downsides.

3 Of course, the iOS App Store will outsell the Mac App Store any day so it is expected that sales will be better for iOS.