This past week has seen an explosion of writing and discussion about the business of making software for sale on the iOS App Store. Personally I love it when these little bubbles of discussion appear. If you’ve listened to me for any period of time you’ll know that one of the things I really like is being a student of the App Store. These discussions provide the opportunity and motivation for all sorts of anecdotes which help expand my view on where things stand.
I must confess I was a bit apprehensive in preparing for this week’s show. I have had a number of people reach out to me saying they can’t wait to hear me chime in. I’m right in the thick of this. I’m an “indie” developer who has been making my living off the App Store for nearly five years now, so I’m no stranger to the ups-and-downs it involves. If you are hoping that I have some grand unified model that might summarize our current situation, sadly I think I’ll have to disappoint. Business is complicated, dynamic and ever changing. You can do the same thing twice and have wildly different outcomes. Replicating someone else’s approach may not work, or may work shockingly better. Perhaps most importantly, we all have different goals, personal situations and backgrounds.
But here is my best effort, constructed as a series of semi-cohesive mini-rants.
Super, mega, high level overview.
It has never been easy to make a living (whatever that might mean to you) in the App Store. When the Store was young it may have been somewhat more straightforward to try something and see if it would hit. But it was never “easy”. Most of my failed apps were launched in the first 3 years of the Store. As the Store has matured it has also become a much more efficient marketplace (in the economics sense of market). The little tips and tricks that I used to be able to use to gain an ‘unfair’ advantage now are few and far between. The fundamentals of business competition still apply:
- You need more than a good idea.
- The market doesn’t care about the process it cares about the result.
- As supply goes up, prices will fall.
- Diversification of your product line is essential for stability.
- Most businesses will fail.
There are aspects of the App Store’s design that may have enhanced or hastened the emergence of some of these behaviors (and certainly a few unnecessary, undesirable ones) but most would be there no matter what.
One thing that also strikes me is how uniquely situated developers are as a profession. It is rather remarkable that we can even consider there to be a reasonable likelihood that if we do the thing that we love it will ultimately result in a sustainable living. I think of almost all other crafts where you can pursue your passion: art, design, acting, music, etc. In most cases you either pursue your passion as a hobby and are fine with that or pursue it while employed by someone else. Software and the current state of the tools at our disposal allow for a tremendous opportunity to have an alternative path. For you to create something, to enjoy the process of making it and for it to be reasonably possible for you to make a living from it. Let’s be careful to make sure we don’t forget just how fortunate a position that is.
Whenever we start to think and talk in terms of things like ‘making a living’ it is almost necessarily ambiguous for what that might mean. We all have different goals, lifestyles, standards of living. Perhaps, even more significantly live in different countries. Our individual definitions of success are likely wildly distinct. I know many developers for whom the ultimate goal was simply to ship, and while the fleeting notion that they could derive some renumeration for their work was fun to muse about over a beer was never really the goal. On the other hand I know people who dive in full steam and put their family livelihood on the back of their work. I remember working on one of my apps in the early days of the App Store and reading an article by my most direct competitor (who I knew was making a similar amount of income as I because of our relative ranks). He was based in eastern europe and talking about how he was able to support a team of developers on their income. I wasn’t even yet able to support myself on that apps income. It is all relative.
I will again state my most oft stated advice to anyone wanting to get into making apps. Define what success means for you, before you start building.
The word ‘Indie’ has taken on a somewhat mythical connotation within our community (whether conscious or unconsciously). It can take on the persona of this genius engineer, tirelessly toiling away on their work, sweating the details, making the hard decisions and then (after much noble blood, sweat and tears) emerging with a gleaming product. They then take this product out into the world and it begins to generate “passive income” sufficient for them to continue their artisanal craftsmanship. I must say I love this story. It sure does sound nice. It lets us elevate and aspire towards a rather delightful ideal. However, as someone for whom this title is oft ascribed I can say the reality is almost nothing like this.
Being an ‘Indie’ (if I take that definition to be a small [1-3 people] team of developers who make their core income directly from the software they create) is much less romantic. It is a lot of duct tape, cut corners, worried nights, ends-not-quite-meeting. All with the Specter of Failure’s chilled breath down your neck. Don’t get me wrong I love it, it appeals to my personality. But it isn’t for everyone, nor should it be.
As a community I think we tread into dangerous territory where we place undue elevation on this type of development and begin to (either directly or by implication) start to look down our proverbial noses at the many other much more sane ways to make a living. I have tremendous respect for people who support their families working hard within larger corporations (whether that be Apple or the OmniGroup or XYZ Corp). And for consultants who do the very hard work of consulting.
The nobility comes intrinsically from the effort, from the care and attention, from work in its own right. It doesn’t come from the context in which that work is done, it is the work itself.
There is a natural human reflex to look at the end result of someone’s long effort and want to arrive at the same endpoint, but without internalizing the time, energy and effort it took to get there. If you are foolish enough to begin down the path of creating and selling your own products the single most important thing to have as a character trait is patience, well maybe that and a thick skin. The path to a sustainable income is almost necessarily built upon a series of mistakes (whether they be public or private). I can think of very few counter examples to the notion that it will takes a time period measured in years to be able to support yourself from your work. I do truly believe that building quality products, being an adaptive student of the stores/markets into which they are sold and consistently improving your own skills provides a likely path to sustainable revenue, but it isn’t an easy, nor quick path.
Build. Ship. Repeat.
Here are a selection of the fantastic posts written on this topic recently. I commend them all to you as homework. If you have any interest in devoting your time or career into this arena you’ll be foolish to not put in the time to read them all. They are written by some seriously smart people, who I respect very much.
- Confessions of an ex-developer
- Who at the Table is an Indie iOS Developer? - Brent Simmons
- A Candid Look at Unread’s First Year - Jared Sinclair
- More on iOS Indies - Brent Simmons
- Jared Sinclair Discusses Unread’s Earnings - Benjamin Mayo
- The New Indie - Cezar Pereira
- A Candid Look at the Financial Side of Building Mac Apps on Your Own - Tyler Hall
- App Rot - Marco Arment
- Looking Up - Joe Cieplinski
- Unavoidable - Luc Vandal
- The Price of Great Software- Robert Myers
- Why I Left Indie Development - Nick Bradbury
- Being Indie in 2014 - Gus Mueller
- Hacker News on Jared’s Article
- On Promotion and Marketing - A Response to Critics of Yesterday’s Article about Unread - Jared Sinclair
- The market for paid apps, and the sum of all compromises - Rene Ritchie
- App Store Pricing Models - Stephen Johnson
- Developers cannot monetize continuous development of their products. - amber
- The iOS Indie That Could - Faruk Ateş