John Gruber of Daring Fireball posted an interesting piece on the difficulties of being an Indie Mac software developer versus working for "The Man" at a larger company, called "The Life."
As always, his stuff is a great read.
I guess you could say that I'm also living "The Life" as defined by Gruber. I'm doing Mac software development full time rather than working full time for someone else or doing work on a contract basis.
I think his "economics" of being an "Indie" are most or less correct:
The basic idea is that a developer comes up with an idea for an app, implements it, ships it, and starts selling software licenses for, typically, around $20-40 a pop. If he can sell 1,000 licenses in a year, that’s a nice hobby. Sell 2,000, and he’s getting close; at around 3,000 licenses per year, revenue is probably in the ballpark range of a full-time salary.
One thing he misses, however, is the cost of living. His numbers work for say, Boston, or Seattle, or possibly San Francisco and New York City. The numbers don't necessarily apply if the developer lives in or can move to a cheaper area. I recently did this myself. I moved from Boston, one the most expensive areas of the country to work, live and do business in, to Maine, which in many ways is far, far cheaper. This move allowed me to do Mac software development at a lower revenue number than would have been needed in Boston, and at a lower "salary." So I think the needed "full-time salary" will vary from place to place and from person to person. I don't think you need to make a 1 to 1 conversion from "working world" salary to "Indie" salary to make things work. Some people will be willing to give up some of what they made before, if need be, to have the lifestyle that goes with being your own boss, and creating your own products. It's hard to put a price tag on that.
He gets this point right on:
The hardest part about selling software is just getting noticed; if your app is only known by the sort of people who check VersionTracker and MacUpdate a few times a day, or even just the sort of people who know what VersionTracker and MacUpdate are, it’s unlikely that you’ll sell enough software to earn a living.
But once you get over that initial hump, subsequent sales become much easier. You start getting media coverage, and most importantly, assuming most of your users are happy, word-of-mouth advertising really starts to bloom.
Marketing is the hardest part of being an Indie. Getting the word out, getting noticed, getting coverage by magazines and Mac news sites, all of these are necessary to move the the next level, and all can be difficult. Media coverage for most of us though, isn't nearly as simple as he makes it sound. Getting media coverage is HARD, at least in my personal experience. While some developers and products get showered with news and magazine coverage, Delicious Library
comes to mind, for the rest of us, coverage can be very hit or miss, and hard to come by. I think one thing that definitely helps is having a product that appeals to the internet savvy. They read the Mac news sites, they visit the download sites, and they are comfortable buying software. The way to reach the masses though, I have yet to figure out. Apple is currently selling over 1 million Macs a quarter. Reaching even 1% of those Mac users can be very, very difficult right now, if it's even possible.
One thing I wonder about is Gruber's claim that Brent Simmons of NetNewsWire
fame is "selling out" because of the burden of supporting the software he's written.
But NewsWire’s continuing boom pushed things to the point where even with Sheila’s full-time help, Brent wasn’t getting to spend nearly as much time as he wanted writing code. Instead, he was spending time helping customers make use of the code he’d already written.
He's talked to Simmons, so maybe he knows something I don't, but based on my own experience, support isn't the worst or most time consuming thing that we have to do. If supporting your software becomes more work than developing it, something is really wrong. We get support email of course, but honestly, it doesn't usually include questions about using the software. The most common questions and comments are related to retrieving a lost serial number, and to bug reports. Questions, in general, are the same ones over and over, which is why we have product FAQ sections on our support discussion board. Over time we've also built a set of "canned" responses to common questions.
To me, the much, much bigger deterrent to staying "Indie" is the sales and marketing it requires. This includes press releases, updating VersionTracker
, Apple's download site
and any other Mac download sites, developing and updating the website, writing documentation... I could go on. I've used NetNewsWire, and really, it's very well designed and not hard to use. I find it hard to believe that Ranchero's support burden was so heavy that it's too much for both Simmons AND his wife to handle. Granted, it sounds like he has a lot more users than we currently do, but even taking the percentage of time we spend on support and extrapolating it to a larger user base, it shouldn't be that bad.
Finally, he mentions what I consider the "critical mass" of indie development. The point where what you have going on becomes too much for one or two people. He suggests two solutions:
When a solo developer reaches the point where an app becomes so popular he needs help, there are only several options. One is to hire help, to build a company around the products.
This is probably the most risky, as he mentions. One thing that might help would be having a large enough cash pile to handle salaries for a while. With additional people can often come more products, more effective development and more revenue, so a cash pile might get you over the hump. This assumes that you were able to build one up while there was only one or two people though. Difficult, to say the least.
Another option is just not to worry about keeping up with the flow of support issues. Tempting, for sure, but certainly not a good way to build up a reserve of goodwill from your users.
Yeah, he's got this right, not getting back to your users is suicide. We try to respond to EVERY issue personally, and sometimes surprise the user by our response speed. Sometimes things will slip through the cracks, but we try very hard to not let that happen.
One other possibility his misses though, is contract work. I think a lot of small developers have done what we've done from time to time: hire out for help, on a limited basis. Our icons have been done that way. We've taken advantage of icon packs
from The Iconfactory
. We've also paid for some web development. Things can be done without hiring a full time person. The Mac world is filled with enthusiastic people who are willing to help, and at a reasonable price.
To me the single biggest reason I'd go back to working for someone else is if I got tired of being the one in charge of running the business. Developing software isn't running the business. The business exists because of the development, but they aren't the same thing. My guess is that Simmons got tired of running a business and wanted to go back to just developing software, which all things considered, is a lot easier than doing everything yourself.