Slopes Diaries #11: Selling Out

Slopes Diaries is my ongoing journey to turn my indie app into a more sustainable part of my business. First time reading? Catch up on the journey so far.

What is Slopes? Think Nike+, Runkeeper, Strava, MapMyRun, etc for skiers and snowboarders.

That email started an interesting two weeks of soul-searching. I wasn't under NDA and I wasn't asked to keep this under wraps, so I'm going to talk a bit about it as I think it's an interesting situation for an indie to be in.

(I will refer to them below as "they" or "the brand", just so I don't get keyword indexed on their brand name out of respect. Only the screenshot has the actual name. Sorry for the pronoun abuse that follows.)

Of course, initially: HOLYSHITOMGWTF. I caught the eye of a major brand.

Needless to say I scheduled a time to hop on the phone with their rep to hear 'em out. He was probably telling everyone this, but they love Slopes and I was the first they wanted to reach out to as they considered my app the most polished and the slickest. A smooth talker, for sure, but I'm sure he was playing the field and approaching other apps too.

What was the proposition? For a revenue split I'd have their marketing team advertising my app. This is a pretty big boost from my perspective: they are in pretty much every store and they sponsor many athletes and teams, including the US ski team. All of these people would be pimping my app for me.

They'd want more than revenue, though; Slopes would need to be rebranded to fit their branding and overall design, including the name. I'd still have feature and UI/UX control as it would remain my app, but I'd need to adhere to their branding requirements. From their end that makes sense -- if they are going to pimp an app, it needs to look like their app.

We ended the call with the ball in my court: high level impression of what this deal would look like, up to me to get back to them if I felt this was worth talking numbers and going further.

I was talking to someone in the community that is an expert in these kind of deals (he's negotiated big deals with Apple and Microsoft), and when I brought up my situation he provided a healthy perspective:

Why the fuck aren't they just building it themselves? They're hoping to get an easy win out of someone.

His experience negotiating with big businesses brought an invaluable perspective. As an indie I think on a much smaller scale than they do. $100k would be a large number for me but a drop in the bucket for them. So why not hire an engineer or two and own an app outright?

They don't want to put in the work. They just want to sell the rights to put their brand name on something so they can add a little more to their portfolio.

At the same time though, these kind of deals are how big business works a lot of the time. I couldn't let a sense of indie pride blind me. Not that pride in my work is bad, but if I want to grow I can't blindly run away from an offer just because it doesn't operate like I think. As I grow I'll need to operate differently.

And at the end of the day I had to be honest with myself: their marketing efforts would be a vast improvement compared to mine. I have very few connections within the ski industry and they have tons of those connections already. I'd have the freaking US ski team pimping my app. I'd love to have marketing experts in place so I could just focus on the app itself.

What it came down to was how I felt about the brand itself: "they're the US Ski Team, not the X Games" is how a friend and I ended up summing it up when chatting. They're the slightly expensive brand, sponsoring the sport at a global stage. When we think of them we don't think of a brand connected to the community, we think of a brand in the truest sense.

With that in mind I realized rebranding Slopes to be their app would likely alienate a large part of the community that feels the same way I do. Sure, I'd get more users, but did I want my app to be associated with a brand that feels less connected to the community? This disconnect is especially true for the younger community, which cares more about the X Games or the Dew Tour than the Olympics (a feeling I share, personally).

I felt like I'd be damaging my app's brand in doing this. I'm just a dude trying to build something cool, and that sense of independence is respected and often echoed within the community. This would be selling out. Some brands nurture that spirit of independence and would be a great fit for me, but not this one. I'm just something to put their logo on.

I politely declined.