August 3, 2014

The Indie Dev Debate

There have been a lot of blog posts and discussions about being an Indie dev and where App Store development might be headed, recently. I certainly don’t belong in the Indie dev category – at least according to Brent Simmons’ definition. But since opinion is free, I thought I’d add my two cents to the discussion 🙂

Since others are discussing their revenue figures, I thought I’d also offer a look at what I’ve made in developing for the Apple App Store. But before I do that, some background might be in order.

I started as a developer close to 25 years ago. I did a lot of work originally on databases and then moved to Windows development around ’98 or ’99. I wasn’t very interested in making money at first and released several apps as freeware. In fact, one of my first apps was a blogging application which allowed you to blog from your desktop and this was back in the days when Blogger and Greymatter were first starting out, in the very early days of blogging.

Time passed and I continued to develop my freeware applications. I moved from the US, where I’d been when I originally started doing my freeware, back to my native Sri Lanka. I eventually thought about charging for my apps, but back then it was impossible to do so from Sri Lanka. In fact, I don’t think you still can do that easily from Sri Lanka, but I don’t know for sure since I’m no longer in Sri Lanka.

Then, while I was still in Sri Lanka, I read about the Apple App Store and how people were earning thousands of dollars a month in revenue on the App Store. I had used Macs before but my main development platform had been Windows up to that point. I decided to try my luck on the App Store and after some discussions with my wife, went out and bought a MacBook, downloaded Xcode and started development. I have not looked back on Windows since then 🙂

I think my first app was submitted to the App Store sometime back in March of 2009. It was a basic nursery rhyme app to keep little kids entertained. It didn’t have good artwork or music since I was relying on what was available in the public domain – I was doing an experiment after all. I believe I coded the app in around two weeks and submitted it.

Of course, I wasn’t expecting to be rolling in money 🙂 In fact, I had no huge expectations at all. I simply wanted to see how things would work out. But I wasn’t going to twiddle my thumbs and wait to see the fate of my first app – I was already working on my second app. However, I wasn’t relying on the income from my apps at all – I was doing other consulting work (not iOS development related) too. The App Store revenue, if any came at all, was supposed to pay for the MacBook and for the Apple developer license. That was it.

Over the course of the next two years or so, I developed around 20 more apps. Most of them developed in about two weeks time or so. Some did well, some sank without a trace 🙂 I provided support when necessary, fixed bugs, updated some of the apps, and continued to work on new ideas and to develop new apps.

But while I did a huge number of apps in my first year and a fair number in my second year, my development pace slowed as my portfolio of iOS apps grew and I started getting consulting jobs from around the globe. Incidentally, I never did any substantial iOS projects in Sri Lanka, where I was still at that time. I think I did one app for an outsourcing company, but they complained about my rates and promised me that I would have more work if I would reduce my rates. I didn’t agree and that was that 🙂

Even then, I believed that where you were didn’t matter – you had to charge what you thought you were worth. But most of the people I talked to about work didn’t seem to believe that 🙂 Even though I delivered most projects in half (or even a quarter, in one case) of the time that it took others, I was still expected to quote the same hourly rate as others from India or Eastern Europe. So my projects were few and far between, but when I did find good clients who appreciated good work, the relationship was a long one. So I wasn’t actually doing badly.

In fact, I was steadily doing more and more contracting work and so work on my personal apps slowed. I probably did about 10 apps in the last few years and while I’m still working on a couple of apps even today, they are personal projects that I want developed for my own use. I’ll probably release them at some point when I feel they are polished enough, but I’m not rushing to release apps as I once used to.

But on to more important matters, if you are reading to find out about the money I’ve made, that is. How much have I made in around five years of App Store presence and over 25 apps submitted? The figure might surprise you (or maybe it won’t) – I only made around $8,000 in that time 🙂 (Yes, I made far more in consulting, but we’re discussing App Store revenue here.)

Here’s a chart showing the breakdown from March ’09 to April ’14. (We had to switch companies in 2014 due to us switching countries – so the revenue since then is under a different company account.)

App Store Sales 2009 - 2014

App Store Sales 2009 – 2014

As the chart above shows, in five years’ time we had over 666,000 downloads but made only about $7,800 from around 25 apps 🙂

Now I must mentions that the above figures aren’t quite accurate. Some of the apps shown above are free apps with advertising and the advertising revenue is not included here since that revenue came from AdMob. I don’t know what the figures there are but if anybody is interested, I can certainly do another post about the ad revenue figures.

But from the App Store itself, we haven’t made a lot of money. Sure, we did meet our original goal of paying for the MacBook and the Apple Developer license (and I think we paid for a few other iDevices we bought along the way too …) but that’s about it.

And the figures look even worse after we moved everything to the new company – over the past three months or so, we’ve made about $55 😀

But I’m not complaining. For one thing, the iOS apps I’ve developed have helped me create a portfolio that initially helped me in getting contract work. As others have also mentioned, each app that I’ve developed has also helped me understand more about iOS development, the App Store, and about developing and working with users in general. And can you really put a price on that kind of experience? I’m not sure you can.

So is being an Indie hard? Yes. Is it impossible? It might be if you narrow the definition of Indie to mean somebody who makes a living by just App Store sales. But even then, it probably isn’t impossible. You just have to figure out your approach, your pricing, and your strategy carefully. And create an app that you really believe in – instead of simply working on something in the hopes of sipping drinks on the beach of your own island that you’d buy with your App Store profits 🙂

But if being an Indie simply means being somebody who works for themselves, who makes their own hours and relies on the money they make from development, whether it is App Store sales or contracting work, instead of relying on a monthly salary, then it becomes much easier 🙂 You still have to work hard, but the road isn’t that difficult. At least, from where I’m standing.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s not all doom and gloom. The App Store has always been a competitive place. Sure the competition is tougher now, but that just means that your app has to be that much better. And if you are determined, I believe you can make it as an Indie whether you start today, or you started in the supposed heyday of the App Store gold rush 🙂

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Tags: Coding, Opinion
Posted by Fahim at 7:21 am   Comments (0)