The Long and Winding Road

There have been a bunch of posts lately about the feasibility of being an indie dev in the Apple world. Brent Simmons has been doing a good job of linking them all so I suggest checking out his blog.

I’ve been doing Hazel for over seven years and I think it’s fairly safe to say that I’ve been successful doing it. I’m making more money than I did employed at other companies and I’m much happier with my job.

But it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t overnight. A common sentiment I see among a lot of new devs is that if they aren’t living full-time off their app in the first year, it’s a failure. I know when starting out there is the hope that your app will be an immediate success. It’s fine to hope that; after all, its our dreams that drive us to succeed. But you shouldn’t expect it. I would say it took about three years before I could be comfortable living off of it full-time. Yes, I did quit my job to do Hazel full-time from the get-go but I was living off of substantial savings in the beginning. 

During that initial period where you are struggling to get your app recognized, you try all sorts of things. You keep coming up with that one thing that you think will cause your app to break through. Maybe it’s some killer feature. Or lowering the price. Or maybe some promotion. Those things may or may not help but in reality, there’s no panacea. Things did explode for me after my version 3 but there was no one thing that did it, but instead it was a culmination of all the hard work that went into the product up to that point.

One thing that I did learn is to have a healthy respect for randomness. Luck plays a huge role and you can’t always attribute one’s success or failure solely on their decisions and actions. I highly recommend reading Leonard Mlodinow’s book, The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. I won’t recap the points therein but I consider it pretty mind-blowing as it debunks many notions of the correlation between success and performance. The point is that a good deal of your app’s success depends on luck. That doesn’t mean you sit back and just let fate decide; you still need to work to improve your chances. Just realize that there’s a big chunk you can’t control and that on some level, you need to be ok with that.

And speaking of sitting back and waiting, don’t rely on the App Store. Many devs I talk to seem to think that their job is done once they submit their app. I did a talk at NSConference earlier this year about the Mac App Store and I think a particular point from that is relevant here: Apple is not your marketer. I’m not the best person to speak about marketing and whole books can be written on the subject but, in short, you need to do your own. Looking at the top grossing apps in the Mac App Store, most of the third party apps there I first heard about about outside the App Store. Many of them were even big before the App Store and I’d say they’d still be successful without the App Store. Why? Because they marketed their product and built up the userbase themselves.

In the end, realize it’s a marathon and not a sprint. It’s a long, hard road and not everyone makes it. But whether the journey takes you to the promised land or not, value it for what it is. For me, I’ve learned a ton and am still having fun working on my app. Some day, I will stop developing it but until then, I am enjoying the ride.

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