How not to become an indie developer

The write-an-app-and-get-rich-quick meme has been circulating ever since the iPhone SDK was first announced.

As a long-term Mac developer, I took it all with a pinch of salt. Success certainly hadn’t come that easily for me: I started developing “shareware” for the Mac in 1994 and only went full-time indie in 2006; so after 12 years of part-time indie-doom.

Yet, the get-rich-quick meme was endemic for many years and it sure looked as if every high-school kid who wrote an app became a zillionaire overnight. Nobody (and I mean nobody), ever said “I’ve got a great app, but it’s not making that much money”.

The economics of the iOS app store were always a mystery to me: How can you make a steady income from 70% of $0.99, even forgetting about sales tax in much of the world? Can you really sell thousands of apps every day.. forever? In a marketplace that full? With such a huge bias for novelty and the “next big thing”? all the while competing with all the VC-backed “free” offerings?

It did not seem likely to me that there were a lot of people out there making the kind of money that allows you to pay back your mortgage and bring up your kids.

Intrigued nonetheless, I decided to make a small experiment  in the early days of the App Store: I used some of the existing stretching routines from my MacBreakZ product to create a small iPhone app, just to see what would happen. StretchZ sold a few copies here and there, but it was much as I had thought: you need a really good app to make “decent” money.. and even then the effort-to-revenue ratio is prohibitive.

About half a year ago, Brent Simmons finally dared to ask the question: “Where are all the successful Indie iOS App Store developers”?

This unleashed a flurry of opinion pieces resulting in some of the developers with more or less respectable success to post their sales figures online. Respect! I won’t publish my figures any time soon 🙂

The recent revelation that even indie rock star Marco Arment of, amongst other things, ATP podcasting fame, does not make much more than an average developer in industry, was sobering for many.

The discussion seems to have bifurcated into roughly two camps since:

  1. the Doom-and-Gloom camp
  2. the Forced-Optimism camp

The difference between both camps is largely down to what their expectations were.

The Doom-and-Gloom-ers are coming to realize that it is very though to make a living on the App Store even if you make top-notch apps.

The Forced-Optimism crowd tend to be excited hobbyists, who are delighted when they see that some day, they might actually be able to make a living from doing what they love!

On the one hand, I find some of Forced-Optimism crowd quite irritating because they bend over backwards to keep any blame for what is going on from Apple. On the other, the Doom-and-Gloom crowd often seems to blame only Apple and seem unwilling to take much responsibility for their perceived lack of success themselves.

These are of course sweeping generalizations and there’s not a single individual who fits in only one of those camps and many developers have a more much subtle and nuanced view. I’m overstating their positions to make a point: reality is more subtle.

I think that it is naive to believe that you can just go out there, develop an app that you would like to use yourself, put it on the app store and wait for the millions to come rolling in. Yet, that seems to be a fair description of the general approach taken by many developers and “idea people”.

Engaging in ridiculous oversimplifications such as “apps need to be beautiful”, “apps need to do one thing really well”, etc. is not enough to be successful in a competitive market.

Similarly, keeping any blame for the current situation from Apple is just as ridiculous.

Apple did not blunder into this situation by chance. Apple took a very deliberate choice to create a walled-garden App Store for iOS. You cannot install an app on your Apple devices without Apple’s consent and Apple has enforced its the role as gatekeeper. It is thus more than fair to hold Apple accountable for what happens in its store.

The aforementioned naive belief of many developers that just writing an app will make you rich does not come from nowhere. Apple has been at pains to present the App Store as an Eldorado for app developers. They never cease to announce the billions that they “share with app developers”, so perhaps app developers can be excused for having high expectations.. and Apple can be blamed for creating them.

Apple also creates the shape of the App Store through its own policies. Early on Apple seemed to simply have repurposed the iTunes music store implementation to now sell apps. In fact this is still the case.

Top 10 lists, featured sections, $0.99 price tags, no communication between content providers and content consumers, no trials, difficult returns, etc.. all this is the stuff of the Music industry and not that of the software industry.

Free trials, discounted upgrades, direct contact with customers, FAQs, Wikis. That is the stuff of software development.

You can call this “old fashioned”, but Apple has hardly “reinvented” the software industry. What it has done is turn software into a consumable piece of entertainment.

Is it it any wonder that professional grade software isn’t doing great on the App Store?

Why then is Apple so unwilling to change anything?

The answer is quite simply that it seems to be working very well for them. Change is always dangerous, especially if you don’t understand why you are successful in the first place. It is easy to talk yourself (and others) into believing that you are successful because you are doing things the way that you are. The more successful you are, the easier it is to convince yourself that you are doing everything right.

I’m fairly certain that Tim Cook isn’t losing any sleep worrying about how much money Indie developers are making.

What does all this mean for aspiring Indie developers?

Go in expecting nothing. Don’t give up your day job.

Don’t be naive and expect that you’ll be an overnight success. That, as they say takes 10 years.

Don’t rely on money you may never see. Write your first killer app for fun and a bit of pocket money.

Once you’ve got your app in the App Store, try to learn from what happens. What did you do right? What did you do wrong? How far are you from being able to go part-time? What is  your back-up plan?

Also avoid spending your own money on your killer app in anticipation of a large pay-off that may never come. Paying a designer tens of thousands of dollars makes the designer happy, but it is more likely to make you poorer than richer. Once you’ve established that there’s a market for your app, you can still invest in more professional help.

Indie software development can be an enormously satisfying experience. You can create something yourself and share it with the world.

It is also a very hard thing. It takes a lot of effort and energy. It is full of ups and downs. Having people use your stuff can be very rewarding, but you’ll also have plenty of negative feedback. If you have thin skin, now is the time to grow a thicker skin (still working on it personally).

Keep your expectations in check.. Don’t take crazy risks, and above everything else: Enjoy the experience.