Indie Developers are Stronger Together / Sharing Our Numbers

After publishing my Mac app financials last month, I received mostly positive comments. But a few people did share with me, over Twitter and email, their displeasure for what I wrote. They seemed to think that I was only writing to jump on Jared’s bandwagon, to grab some cheap, easy traffic, or to show off. One person even gave me the old Gruber fist-eggplant.

I completely understand why some people might think that. My post did generate a lot of traffic thanks to Hacker News – 30,000 unique visitors to be exact. And for folks who aren’t as profitable with their own apps, it may seem like showing off. (Although compared to some other indie developers I’ve spoken with, my revenue is far, far below theirs.)

So, I’d like to take this opportunity to explain why I wrote the post and what I was hoping to accomplish.

My first goal was to offer a realistic financial data point for what other developers might expect when selling their own software. Every minuscule financial detail of publicly traded companies is available online for inspection, but there’s very little data available for independent software vendors. For folks just beginning or considering starting a software business, it can be maddening not knowing what sort of success (if any) one could expect to achieve after six months, a year, or longer.

I realize my own situation may be unique. I’m primarily a Mac developer while most new businesses focus on iOS. I also have a head start as I’ve been doing this since 2007 – even before the App Store. But, as I wrote about in this post, for developers who are targeting a niche audience, I wanted to offer my situation up as a possible example of how things can play out. I wanted my story to serve as encouragement just as much as it is a warning.

Taking that rationale a step further, I’ve always felt that it would be beneficial to the indie developer community as a whole if we were more transparent about our business dealings. But first, a story.

Back in 2007, when I was first learning how to sell my software online, I created an open-source dashboard called Shine that essentially runs my business. It handles everything from orders, to Sparkle updates, to user demographics, to coupon codes, license activations, and everything in between. I made it open-source because I thought other developers could benefit from my work. The project gained a little traction. I heard from less than a hundred developers who were using it.

In 2010, as my time at Yahoo! was winding down, I came up with the great idea of building a more robust version of Shine and offering it as a software as a service – a product other developers could pay a monthly fee for and I would handle all of the hosting details. I successfully built the new-and-improved version, switched myself and a few other developers over to the new version, and even secured nine months of runway from two angel investors. I’m sad to say that they subsequently pulled out in fear when Apple launched the Mac App Store. My fledgling business venture died.

I don’t tell that story to get pity. It was a great idea. And I was said to see it fail. But I bring it up to say that one of my other end goals – after successfully signing up lots of independent software developers – was to produce and begin blogging aggregated, anonymous financial stats that only someone with access to everyone’s sales figures could know. There was no evil plan to sell this data. I truly wanted to use the data to infer what business strategies were working and then publish my findings so that the community as a whole could benefit from them.

There’s a misattributed quote to JFK that says “a rising tide lifts all boats.” I’ve always really felt that if we as a developer community pulled together and shared more openly our business strategies, the entire developer ecosystem could rise up, earn more money, and produce even more, high quality software.

We’ve already begun to do that to a limited extent. More and more developers are opening up and sharing their experiences on the App Store and their luck with up-front pricing, in-app purchases, freemium models, etc. Other developers are talking about how they’re encouraging users to write reviews – the lifeblood of any app.

All of these stories are great! They all add to our collective knowledge. By sharing my own story, I simply hope to add to what I see as yet another missing piece in determining the overall health and status of our little ecosystem. It’s why I’ve been consciously trying to write about “Indie Business” so much these last few weeks. Not only to add to the conversation, but, more importantly, to encourage others to do so as well.