Tough Love

Brent Simmons had a great post yesterday over on his blog, Love. His post is largely a collection of thoughts on how the mobile App Store hasn't played out how we thought it might (should?), and how it is instead a marketplace with very harsh odds stacked against us indies.

Brent ends with an outlook of a bleak-yet-hopeful future where we might find our way back to the golden age of Mac indie software.

I've long felt that we as a community let our enthusiasm for building something we love and stories of days past blind us to a simple fact that other industries realized long ago: being independent is hard and many of us that try will not succeed.

Our community will not be an exception to that rule.

And in the end thats OK.

Memories of a Golden Age

Many of us hear people talking about the "good old days" of indie Mac development before the App Store: premium priced software and customers willing to spend money.

What we don't always consider is that the customers looking to buy software for Mac were already paying a premium for hardware (remember when the Apple Tax was a real thing?), so we had a self-selected audience of customers willing to pay for premium goods. Mac devs didn't yet have to appeal to the mass-market cost-obsessed Dell users.

They were willing to pay a premium for hardware because it came with the promise of every detail being obsessed over, and that appealed to those kinds of people. Customers hence expected the same attention to detail from their software. Back then they weren't overwhelmed with choice, so new apps with this focus on quality were something to talk about.

Developers on the platform were spoiled with a near ideal customer base.

Even with an ideal customer base, during this golden age we didn't have a proportionally large group of indie developers making a living off of Mac software. You weren't guaranteed success. Maybe the failures of that era are less remembered because the barrier to entry prevented many from even trying, so there aren't as many to cite?

It wasn't a hyper-competitive market filled with a dozen apps addressing the same idea coming out daily.

Not yet...

Opportunity Knocked

The mobile app market was the first time developers en masse really felt they had the opportunity to build a business on their own. We're a bright bunch of folks with more ideas than we know what to do with, but we didn't have an easy-to-market outlet for those ideas until iOS SDK 2.0. [1]

The opportunity didn't just knock for existing developers. When the App Store was released with such a low barrier to entry everyone and their sister went out and made an app. The early days of the App Store are filled with stories of people who learned programming for the first time going on to make a pretty penny off their app.

Fueled by the stories of early success and tales from the Mac developers we adopted an "if you build it they will come" mentality. All we needed was a useful app idea and a good design, and boy did we have those. With 'em in hand we expected to succeed.

It was a gold rush fueled by our unrealistic expectations.

Slowly the reality of our situation hit. Our new cost-conscious audience didn't like spending money on apps, even when set at the low price of a coffee. In response we lowered our app prices. Soon after we learned the promise of millions of potential iOS users doesn't equate to actual potential customers, and volume won't make up for our now priced-too-low $0.99 apps.

Already punched in the gut, reality hit again. We assumed that much like the Mac era the pool of available software would be small enough that reaching customers would be easy. App Store search and getting featured were enough in the early days, but that didn't last. It took us years to realize marketing our goods is a thing that we, not Apple, are responsible for.

Over the short life of the App Store we as a community have had to learn a lot of harsh lessons about business in a short time frame. We thought ideas plus the reach of the App store were enough to start businesses, but they aren't. Recently we've started to look around our community and ask why there aren't many people making a living on making apps.

Instead of looking inwards at a lack of success I think we would be better served looking outside our community. If we look externally we'll see that the App Store isn't full of doom-and-gloom bad for indies, but rather markets at large are stacked against indies.

Looking Outside

Artists, musicians, and authors are parallels I love to draw to our industry. When they try to turn their passion into something they can make a living on they often end up working for a company that needs their talents; something only tangentially related to what they dream of doing. Usually they have to settle but still dream of being independent: their own band, being featured in galleries, or publishing their own novels.

They'll keep trying to turn their passion into an independent living in their spare time. They'll spend years hustling between low-paying gigs in the evenings hoping to catch their break, submitting their drafts to yet another publisher just to be rejected. It's a labor of love. Many give up eventually, never succeeding. A rare few break through to make it big enough to sustain themselves on their passion without working for anyone.

(This pattern repeats itself in many other industries: bakers, chefs, researchers. Look at the people in your life, most of 'em are employees.)

"Starving artist" is a half-joke in our culture (our parents want us to get real jobs that can pay the bills). We as a culture know it's hard to really make it as an artist.

It's just as hard to make it as a programmer independently.

The Starving Programmer

I agree with Brent: lots of us will have to work for other companies while dreaming of going independent. We'll hack on our passions of love on nights and weekends. It'll be a tough road going independent where we'll give up steady incomes to follow our dream.

Sometimes our hard work will pay off on its own merits, sometimes it'll be a right-time-right-place kinda luck.

More often than not it won't work out at all. True leave-your-job successes making your own apps will be very rare as an indie. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try, we have to try! I sure as hell am.

But in everything we do we need to set realistic expectations, and our community needs to reinforce those expectations publicly. We're more likely to fail or have mild success than anything else, and we need to plan around that if we choose to go out on our own.

There's nothing about our industry that entitles us to a greater chance of success as an indie than any other, and we need to stop acting otherwise.

  1. Yep the web existed before the mobile market, and some good customer-facing products existed, but the barrier to getting in the customer's hands was much higher (server costs, discovery, etc) so not as many people wanted to jump in. Plus customers just largely didn't use web site like they'd come to use apps. ↩︎