Here is why I ask: for years, I’ve done pretty well on the app store with Tasting Notes and some other apps. In fact, Tasting Notes still sells copies every single day. Sales are not gangbusters but they are consistent.
However, while Tasting Notes sells it falls way short of what you would need to replace even one developer’s salary. A handful of sales a day usually nets something like $200 per month. Tasting Notes has been on sale since 2008. In 2008 and 2009 the app typically had sales in the realm of a few thousand dollars each month.
In 2009, it was common for me and many others to release simple apps. By the end of the year, I had a suite of 12 apps each of which made sales. Some sold better and some sold worse, but they all sold. My apps were featured two times by Apple. All of this from one person with little marketing and minimal design. In 2009, the dream of being an indy app publisher solo-preneur was real.
This past week I released a new app called BeerBro. BeerBro is essentially a re-release of a beer app that I had on sale in 2009 and 2010. The former app sold pretty well – in fact it had more sales than Tasting Notes has now. While I honestly didn’t expect a blockbuster hit here I was very surprised to see no sales coming in at all. The only hit on BeerBro’s analytics came from Cupertino where the App Store approval must have happened. To this day, I haven’t made one sale.
At the same time I ran across this article from the New York Times, As Boom Lures App Creators, Tough Part Is Making a Living. The gist of the article is that making on your own in the app store is hard. This article contains some heartbreaking stories like the Grimeses couple:
“The Grimeses’ quest cost them more than $200,000 in lost income and savings. So far this year, their eight apps have earned $4,964.”
This couple’s idea (like mine) was to release a new app each month. What they found is diminishing returns and basically had to work twice as hard to make half as much on each successive app. BTW: the $200,000 figure includes their 401K and house equity.
Even more heartbreaking, is the story of an app developer that I remember Mr. Nicholas. Mr. Nicholas is the creator of the iPhone game iShoot which took off early in the app store to the tune of 17,000 copies per day! Two months later this guy quit his job and soon after that he was a millionaire. All based on an game that took him 6 weeks to write in his spare time. In 2009 that was the dream for most of us and the reality for a few.
Mr. Nicholas invested everything back into a new company to make more games hoping for another 1 or 2 million along with a friend whose father took out a second mortgage. None of their games have sold like iShoot and $4 million has been invested. Today, they did a pivot and now make free apps for doctors. They have 14 employees but no revenue.
What was So Good About the Good Old Days?
For those of you who don’t know, here is why the early days of the app store were so great:
Before the app store and the iPhone, software products were complex entities that ran on desktop computers. These products required teams of people to develop and design the product. Software programs on desktops cost at least $49 and oftentimes were much higher. These things were distributed primarily through brick and mortar stores and required teams for marketing, sales and distribution. To have a shot at a successful program pre-2008 you needed to be a big company.
When the app store was announced in 2008, Apple not only removed the need for physical distribution but they offered instant access to a massive audience starved for mobile apps. In that keynote, part of the message was that the App Store “freed” developers from doing the stuff they hate: marketing, sales and distribution. An entire class of people, including myself, were able to start software businesses by themselves. This was *almost* impossible before.
NOTE I say *almost* because there has always been an Indy App culture on the Mac. These guys were distributed apps via their websites and did there own sales and marketing. Of course, this is a very small part of the overall software market and pales in comparison to what we see today on the app store.
In 2008 and 2009 the app store was a feeding frenzy. Apps that are barely good enough to be used as tutorials (like my very first app) could easily make $15,000. Some developers simply took Apple’s example apps, rebranded them and sold them. Even in 2010 and 2011 once the excesses settled down most developers could count on some revenue from new apps and decent sales from established apps.
What Does this Mean for the Solo-preneurs?
I’m talking about the dream here: living off of apps that you make by yourself doing little else but coding. In my opinion – it’s over. That’s that. The opportunities now are for consultants and developers working for big business. Alternatively, the big-idea apps are going to need more than one person and a coffee shop to succeed. The honeymoon is over.