Normally, I write and talk about software development skills that you can take to your job, apply to your hobby or put to work in your own business. Mobile app software development is something that will help you in many areas. But, many people that I talk to are interested in the garage startup style so-called indie app businesses that are out there.
What are Indie App Businesses?
This is a tradition that has been with Windows in the Shareware market and Mac with lone wolf software developers who sell their products directly to customers. The term “Indie” means that these developers create, market and support their own software on their own separately from big box traditional software vendors like Microsoft or Inuit.
For many, this is the dream: to have complete control over one Indie product that does well enough to support a family.
Many Indie app businesses are just one person and they do pretty well. For instance, Daniel Jalkut, the well known owner of Red Sweater Software that has the app MarsEdit has been working on this own business since he left Apple. Daniel has been working with his own suite of Mac apps since before the iPhone and iOS dramatically expanded the Mac and iOS universe.
With the advent of the Apple App Store and its cousins over at Android and Windows, we have seen an upsurge of Indie app developers on mobile platforms. Marco Arment of Instapaper, Rubicon Mobile of “Great Big War Game” and F5 Games of “Pocket Heroes” are just a few of the outfits doing this.
Myself, I spent the first two years of my post-job life as an entrepreneur working exclusively on apps and was indeed able to make it work. So, I can say from a lot of different sources that the Indie developer phenomenon is not a myth. What I can say this that being an Indie developer is:
Basically, as the list above suggests being an Indie app developer can pay the bills but it may be more difficult than you think and definitely more difficult than most day jobs. Notice that I put the adjective Freeing with an asterisk because for me that was the real reason I did it – as an Indie developer your free to pursue your own projects, you can manage your own time and basically its easier to be your own person.
Did you notice what’s not in the list above? many people think that going out on your own is “risky”, but yet that didn’t make my list. IMHO this is not risky at all. In reality, if you totally fail as an Indie developer then you may walk away embarrassed (Oh no!). You’ll also walk away with skills to help your run businesses and work as a software developer where people routinely get $150,000 job offers and $200/hour consulting work. That’s my kind of risk…
Ok, let’s move on to talk about the kinds of business models Indie developers seem to pursue. These fall into two categories that I call the Niche App Suite and the Monolithic App.
The Monolithic App
MarsEdit is an example of this – the idea is that you focus all your energy on making the best possible app that targets a very specific problem or niche. MarsEdit is a desktop program for blogging and Daniel spends all his time making MarsEdit the best possible Mac blogging app.
The hope here is that you in fact succeed in actually becoming the best possible app (and maybe pick up an Apple design award while you’re at it) and that customers see this and you become hugely successful. In fact, the hope is that you are so in-tune to your customers, are obscenely responsive and have a parkour-like nimbleness that it becomes impossible for the “big guys” to compete; even though you’re only one person.
Note I realize that the above statement sounds like absolute madness when written down like that. But, that is the mentality of a successful Indie developer.
Your Monolithic App may literally be one app on one platform or it could be a suite of apps across related platforms. For instance, it makes a whole lot of sense to have an iPhone app first and then a iPad and finally Mac version of an app. Having an Android app can’t hurt either.
Here are some things that you are going to need to follow the Monolithic App model:
- Solid Idea
You’ll probably need more but I want to talk about two in particular: Persistence and Runway. It may be a while before you app is ready to be released to the public and probably a while after that until your app starts to sell. That’s why you’ll need persistence and expect to stick to your app idea for a while without sales while continuing to work on it. Even in the app world, few things are overnight successes and you’ll likely need to actively develop, market and promote your app for a while before you get rewarded or even noticed.
The consequence of this is that you’ll need a “runway”. The term runway means basically how long can you survive on on what you have before you run out of money. While Indie app business don’t require much cash to start you still have to pay your own bills so you do have to make sure you can do that with savings. You can try to balance a job (difficult) or consulting (better, but not much) to extend your runway but you’ll quickly find that Indie development is at least one full-time job.
Niche App Suite
These apps are less charitably know as Ringtone apps. Basically, the idea is to produce as many simple (sometimes one-off) mobile apps as possible in the hope that the overall revenue will be enough to support you and your team. On the surface, this is the opposite of the Monolithic App model presented above even though the particulars may be the same in terms of lifestyle and workload.
These types of apps are often free and supported by ads. They may be gag apps that let kids pretend to turn red lights green, flash app derivatives and you can probably name tons of these apps. You know them when you see them. I’ve seen case studies where solo-preneurs have published up to 26 apps per year with the help of elance outsourcing.
In many ways, my own strategy was like this in the beginning – basically, I had a monolithic app that I copied 8 times instead of improving. The strategy worked to a point, but the issue for me was that those were not really “ringtone” apps with “ringtone” app expectations and so supporting all those apps become difficult. If possible, make ringtone apps that don’t need constant updating.
Here’s what you’ll need to pursue this strategy:
- Thick Skin
- Quick Judgement
- Ability to Let Go
- Tight Process
Above, I say that you need a thick skin because you have to be willing to “be that guy” at least sometimes. At some point, you may ask yourself a question along the lines of “do I spam the app store with a 100 ringtone apps”. You may think that your “doing it wrong”, but if the numbers work out it just may be a business. You also need to be able quickly turn around apps and that means cutting corners and/or outsourcing.
The bottom line is that this approach is about churning out apps and making money with less emphasis on “craft”. This approach will see cash-flow sooner with the quick turn around times.