Your First Success is a Trap

Uncategorized Aug 04, 2014

My good friend Mike and I have been discussing a theory about indie developers. I call it The Trap of Your First Success. Our idea is that while it’s incredibly hard to build a successful indie product, it’s even harder to repeat that success because of a trap indie developers often fall into. Let me explain.

As I wrote about last week, while I’m not going to retire any time soon, I consider my indie business a success. For a few years it was my only job. And now that my wife isn’t working, it’s serving in place of the income she would normally bring in. Mike is even more successful. His company, Divergent Media, has been supporting him full time as long as I’ve known him.

We both happened upon our success by working hard and, perhaps most importantly, by identifying a niche market we could hammer away at until our products were the default choice. I built VirtualHostX, which is the number one (and currently only) way for Mac users wanting to create virtual hosts on their local machine. Mike built ClipWrap, which is the best choice for rewrapping video files into QuickTime movies.

We’ve both had tremendous success with these apps. But they never would have happened if we hadn’t spent years working in the industry they serve. We identified a market for our products because we had a need for them in our day to day work prior to being Mac developers.

That’s the key point I want to emphasize. We both identified a niche problem in our industry and built and sold a solution. Jared Sinclair hammers the point home in the five lessons he learned from building Unread. He writes

Building a sustainable software business means spotting a niche before your competitors have noticed it, then doing everything you can to “own” it. Your app and your company need to become a household name for people who care about that niche. Aim to be the 1Password of _______.

It all sounds simple, right? Identify a niche problem. Build a solution. Iterate on your product until it becomes the best solution. Profit.

But there’s a catch. A trap really.

Over the course of building your product, if it becomes a successful and sustaining piece of your income, there’s a very real chance you’ll lose touch with your original industry. I saw it happen with my own development habits. As VirtualHostX became more and more successful, I became more and more involved with the Mac and iOS developer communities and lost touch with my web developer roots. Mike followed a similar path when he moved away from video editing and into professional development. I’d wager most full-time indies are the same way. We’ve all fallen out of the industry that gave us our first, successful idea.

And that’s the problem. That’s the trap of your first success. It disconnects you from the source of your best ideas. Without remaining a part of your original industry, how do you come up with a second successful idea?

Mike and I started looking around our community of indie developers and couldn’t come up with anyone who has had a second, major success. Brent had NetNewsWire. Gus had a couple products, but is now full-time on Acorn. In last week’s episode of Core Intuition, Daniel admits that MarsEdit is his only big time seller.

Is there anyone with a second product equally successful as their first? If there is, I’d love to know about it over Twitter or email.

So, if it’s so difficult to find success a second time, how do you correct the problem? I honestly don’t know, and I would love to see a discussion about this spring up like last week’s App Store discussion did. Mike and I joked that since we’re both firmly entrenched in the indie software business, maybe it’s time we begin building Mac and iOS developer tools instead. It certainly worked the first time around.

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