All The Services and Tools I Use to Run My Software Business

Uncategorized Sep 09, 2014

When I started selling my first Mac app in 2007, there was no App Store. I don’t even think “app” was a word. And there certainly wasn’t any ready-made infrastructure for selling software online that you could simply plug into. That meant, like every other independent developer, I had to piece together my own solution for accepting payments, hosting downloads, activating license codes, and delivering app updates.

As I wrote about back then, I rolled my own web app called Shine to coordinate all the disparate services I use to run my business.

August 2014 was the seventh anniversary of my first product release, so I thought I’d take some time and describe what my current setup looks like and all the tools and services I’m using to keep my business humming along.

Shine – My Indie Control Panel

Shine still powers the core of my business. It’s the controller that connects all of my other web services together. You can read a more detailed description of the software here. But, in general, here’s a list of all the functions it handles…

  • Order processing
  • Validating upgrade eligibility
  • Manual order creation
  • Order history and lookup
  • Generating invoices and receipts
  • Generating coupons
  • Basic sales and business stats and charts
  • Generating serial numbers
  • Software activations
  • Collecting and storing user submitted feedback and support requests
  • Searching for, displaying, and archiving mentions of my company and products on social media
  • Coordinating new app version releases, which means accepting a zip file of the app, storing it in Amazon S3, and pushing the new update to users via Sparkle
  • Generating publicly viewable changelogs
  • Sending transactional emails
  • and many other little, but essential, tasks

I literally couldn’t run my business without Shine. Well, I couldn’t in 2007. Services like GumRoad, FastSpring, and Stripe could handle for me much of what Shine does. But I’m so invested in the software it’s hard to move on at this point. Also, I love the ability to control the code which means I can dictate features and business logic exactly as I see fit.

Payment Processing

I originally used PayPal to accept accept orders. Their IPN API would ping Shine whenever a new order came through, and Shine would generate a license code and email the customer. In 2009 I switched to FastSpring. You can read about my experience making the change from PayPal to FastSpring. tl;dr FastSpring is way better. They take over as the seller of record and handle all aspects of order processing. When an order comes through, FastSpring sends the order information to Shine for safe-keeping, and Shine returns a license code. FastSpring also handles emailing the customer a receipt and their license information. They’re also where I go whenever I need to process a refund. Twice monthly they deposit my sales into my bank account minus their commission.

For six months in 2013 I switched away from FastSpring and handled the entire order flow in-house on my website using Stripe. I really liked owning the entire solution – and especially liked Stripe’s much, much lower transaction fees. It also enabled me to use Stripe’s Objective-C API to build a store directly into my apps, so customers could enter their payment information without ever have to open a web page. Unfortunately, I saw a decrease in conversions. I also wasn’t able to calculate VAT and sales tax on my own, so I switched back to FastSpring.

Also worth noting, it’s super easy to integrate FastSpring’s checkout process with your Google Analytics account. The result is all of your sales data, products, and goal conversions nicely tracked and charted in your Analytics account.

Managing Mailing Lists

I’ve been a happy MailChimp customer for five years now. You can read more about how I use and manage my mailing list.

For the last month I switched over to using Drip for sending out my VirtualHostX welcome emails, and they were great. But better analytics, better email template designs, and higher conversion rates led me back to MailChimp.

Sending Transactional Emails

MailChimp is great for sending email blasts, but for transactional emails I use Postmark. Their pricing is affordable and their API is super simple to work with. Whenever an order comes through to Shine, I use Postmark to send out the customer’s order receipt and license information. They do a very good job of managing their outbound email servers’ reputations, so I’ve never had any problems with the emails I send getting flagged as spam.

While I’m 100% satisfied so far with Postmark, I am looking into switching to RackSpace’s Mailgun service so I can send delayed emails. I’d like to automatically send a followup email to customers asking if they have any questions a week after purchase, but I’d prefer not to handle the queueing logic myself. Mailgun’s API has a simple, optional parameter when sending email that allows you to specify a future date when the email will be sent. That’s very appealing to me. I’ll post my results if and when I make the switch.

Web Hosting

All of my servers are hosted at Linode. That includes my primary web server, which hosts all of my domains and the Shine web app, plus the proxy servers which handle VirtualHostX‘s Lift Off service.

I originally started out on SliceHost, and then migrated to RackSpace when they acquired Slice. RackSpace was great, although very expensive compared to AWS. Still, they treated me wonderfully (including a dedicated account manager), so I stuck around. Eventually though, I had to move away after years of them never getting around to supporting two-factor authentication. I just had so much of my livelihood hosted on RackSpace, I couldn’t afford the danger of getting compromised, even using a strong password. (So, if you’re reading this RackSpace, 2FA is the primary reason I left – and, yes, I’m aware of your 2FA beta program, but that came too late.) I’m now on Linode and very happy. Their all SSD machines build my Jekyll site in two seconds, compared to the 14 it took RackSpace’s spinning disks.

Source Code Hosting

I was a very happy paying GitHub customer since 2008, but switched to GitLab in 2013. The short reason for the switch is my GitHub monthly cost ballooned to $50. So, I spun up a $20/month DigitalOcean box, installed GitLab, and now host all of the private repositories I want. You can read a detailed account of why and how I switched from GitHub to GitLab.

My Website

As I noted above, my website is hosted on a Linode instance. It used to run on WordPress, but I found it much simpler to maintain by switching to Jekyll. Another huge consideration was the speed of serving static HTML files with Jekyll versus database backed WordPress pages. Here’s a Pingdom chart showing my site’s average response time before and after switching to Jekyll.


Content Delivery Network

All of my static website files and app downloads are stored in Amazon S3. My website serves those files over MaxCDN‘s content delivery network using my S3 bucket as a pull zone. Their bandwidth runs me about $100 a year and it’s lightning fast. I could use Amazon’s CloudFront as my CDN, but I find MaxCDN’s control panel for occasionally purging the cache much simpler to use.

Phone Support

I use Grasshopper for my phone support. It costs about $20/month for my own, dedicated 1-800 number. In practice, I rarely do phone support and let most of the incoming calls go to voicemail, but I’ve heard nothing but positive comments from customers who appreciate that there really is a dedicated toll-free number they can call if needed. It makes them feel like there’s a reputable company behind my software. (There is!) Even if you never answer the phone, I highly recommend getting at least a voicemail box where customers can get in touch.

Crash Reporting

All of my Mac and iPhone apps use the HockeyApp SDK for crash reporting. I’ve found their crash symbolication service to be top-notch. Because I already have my own infrastructure setup with Shine, I don’t need a lot of their other services, but the $10/month I pay for crash reporting is completely worth it.

Email Hosting

I use Gmail for all of my company email. You can’t beat their price, search capabilities, and keyboard shortcuts. But, as a backup precaution, I’ve had all of my personal and company email forwarding into two FastMail accounts for the past few years so I can immediately switch providers if it should come to that.

Domain Names

I moved all of my domain names from GoDaddy to I Want My Name four years ago. I knew I wanted off GoDaddy, and at the time, IWMN was the only reputable registrar I could find offering .io domain names.

All of their features and support are great. My only complaint is their dashboard is sloooooow – on the order of 5-7 seconds between page reloads.

SMS Messages

My Mac app Minion has a need to send text messages to users. Twilio was my first choice and they’ve served me well. Their API was a little confusing at first, but now that I’ve got it up and running it’s been rock solid. Their pricing is on par with every other provider I’ve looked into.

Personal Assistants

I recently started using the FancyHands virtual assistant service to offload some of the more mundane tasks of running my business. I’ll have them do research, book and cancel hotels, and whatever other small tasks I don’t want to deal with myself. I’m still testing the waters, but I hope they can become an integrated part of my workflow.

So, that’s it. Off the top of my head, those are all the major services and tools I use to run my indie software business. As I’ve grown up as a business person these last seven years, I’ve learned to delegate and pay money for services that can do a job well instead of trying to handle everything in-house myself.