What Matters as an Indie Developer

There’s lots of stories lately in the tech world about how hard it is as an indie iOS developer.

And it’s true: stories often discuss how much competition exists (true), how Apple needs to improve App Store discovery (true), or how prices are falling to practically zero (also true).

But I think those valid concerns obfuscate something more important, which is:

What can indie developers actually do?


What’s the difference between a terrible movie with amazing effects (see Transformers 4) and a cheaper classic like Good Will Hunting?

The story.

It’s the story that moves us, makes us laugh, makes us tell our friends.

The story is the thing people want.

It’s why people can love The Simpsons or Family Guy and be disappointed by the beautiful Cars 2.

The effects, props, location, editing, appearance, etc. might amplify a great story, but they can’t fix a poor one.


Craigslist is The Simpsons of Internet businesses.

It doesn’t look great, but people love it anyway because it solves their problems.

It works for the same reasons guys like Joel Grasmeyer and Michael Lovecan make a very good living (and then some) solving problems for specific niches.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there were many more iOS indie developers out there, quietly making a living solving the problems of some unsexy niche.


Tony Hsieh wrote in Delivering Happiness about entrepreneurial lessons he learned playing poker:

“Table selection is the most important decision you can make.”

Like the story in a movie or TV show, the problem your app solves is what matters most. And thankfully, it’s one of the few things over which developers have absolute control.

Talk to me more on Twitter

My Best App Email Marketing Tips

I’ll just get it out there: one of the most under utilized weapons of app creators is email marketing. It’s one of the most effective ways to boost sales, but because it’s just “boring email” it doesn’t get the same attention as, say, social media.

Email marketing has worked well for me. When I pitch a product my sales boost significantly, Somewhere between 50% and 75% for the day. This is how I do it.

1. Collect email address
Many make makers will bury their email signup in, say, the settings section of their app. But of course that only gets so many emails. The user has to dig deep and fine the signup form.

I collect addresses the very first time the user launches the app. It’s a really simple form (see below). First name and email, that’s is. The user can opt out, too. And it automatically never bugs them again.

With a free app getting thousands of downloads a day you can very quickly accumulate a large number of addresses. My app email list has more than 130,000 subscribers. I’ve talked to other develoers who have hundreds of thousands of emails. It’s one of the best ways to build an audience as an app creator.

2. Send personal welcome
As soon as I get their email I send a personal welcome (I’d show it to you but it’s in Spanish). Since I’m marketing to people who study the Bible in Spanish, the email basically goes like this:

“Hi [name],

Thanks for signing up. I wanted to introduce myself. I’m Trevor McKendrick, the founder of Salem Software.

I founded Salem Software to make great Bible study apps, only in Spanish. I’m lucky enough to speak Spanish because I lived in southern Mexico for a few years. I love the food, the culture, and everything Latino.

I hope you enjoy the app. Please let me know if you have questions or suggestions on how to improve it.

Thanks!
Trevor

PS — FYI you’re now signed up to receive a message from us once a week. You can always unsubscribe below.”

People really seem to like this. I made the reply-to address my personal email and I get emails all the time from people who really like the app or have questions/suggestions. It lets me start building a relationship with my customers. This is normally very hard to do in the App Store, since Apple prevents devs from collecting a lot of information about customers.

3. Send useful emails once a week
I hired some Christian writers to write ~750 word articles that I send out, once a week, to my subscriber list. This gives me “mindshare” so that when I do pitch them on something they remember who we are, what we do, etc.

These have to be sincere and useful. They need to help your audience.

4. Occasionally send offers
Once in a while I will send out a blast with an offer. The main offer is the IAP of our Bible audiobook at a 50% discount. We also offer sales on the other books we’ve licensed from publishers.

That’s it. We haven’t really even scratched the surface on the potential of email marketing, but the important part is that we started. We’re collecting the email addresses; if you don’t know what to do with them now, you can figure out that part later.

Why You Should Stop Worrying About Being Perfect

I sell some audiobooks through Audible (owned by Amazon). My first book went live last September, it makes about $300 a month, and I still have yet to receive a single payment from Amazon.

Why?

Because Amazon’s form to provide your banking info doesn’t work. Literally.

I entered my account number & my routing number, clicked saved, refreshed the page to double check and… it was all gone.

I did this about 3 times a month, every month, just to see if I had gone crazy or if it was a one-off error. Nope. Always broken.


The first version of my first app looked terrible. I wouldn’t show it to people in person because I was embarrased.

But I put it on the App Store, and the first month it made $1,500, or 3x what it cost to make.


Have you read Hatching Twitter? Fantastic book about the history of Twitter from formation until IPO. Not only is it well written, but it’s largely accurate, according to multiple Twitter investors.

The biggest takeway from the book is that behind the scenes, Twitter was a shitshow. But they absolutely nailed the product.

So much so that it’s largely unchanged from when it launched 8 years ago.


Why does any of this matter?
Amazon’s business did fine while this was broken. My app did fine when I launched, even though it hardly passed as a solid 1.0. And Twitter of course is one of the top 10 iconic technologies companies and isn’t even a decade old.

These examples of awfulness passed because they did nail the few things that mattered.

Amazon is great at selling my audiobooks.

My app made users happy because I was the first to pay attention to them.

And Twitter had a practically perfect product out the gate.

All that other stuff that we tend to think matters (e.g. how the product looks, getting coverage on HN or TC) doesn’t, as long as you get the most important things right.

Don’t worry about being perfect. Just do your thing, and do it well!

Say hi on Twitter!

Think About Your Life’s Default Settings

25% of iPhone owners use Apple Maps, even though Google Maps is widely considered a superior product.

Default choices are powerful.

It’s reasonable to assume this phenomenon occurs in other places in life.

Stop and think: what are the default choices in your life regarding:

  • Food
  • Work
  • Exercise
  • Building relationships

By changing those defaults, you make good choices opt OUT decisions instead of opt IN decisions.

Here’s how I change my defaults:

Exercise

  • Join a triathalon training team

Work Habits

  • Join a coworking space
  • Find smart, hard-working friends.

Positive relationships

  • Set recurring dinners and phone calls

Food

  • This is the hardest IMO. With Instacart, tons of local fast food, sugar drinks everywhere, it’s hard to opt out entirely.
  • Eat before you go to grocery store. Buy ONLY non-high caloric content food at grocery store
  • Make friends with people who eat healthier than you

My 2nd Year in the App Store

I released my first iOS app two years ago last week. It started as a small side project with the explicit goal of paying my rent.

My 1st year net revenue was $73, 034, after Apple’s cut.

My 2nd year net revenue increased to $100,134, again after Apple’s cut.

While nowhere close to TechCrunch success, I’m extremely proud of how well it’s turned out, and our customers seem to like it, too.

(Last year I wrote a post about the first year but here’s a quick summary since you’re busy: I made a Spanish Bible app for $500. It did $1,500 in revenue the first month and has grown ever since.)

Last week I tweeted asking what people wanted to hear about and some said they wanted detailed numbers, so here you go:

All numbers are after Apple’s 30%:

Best Month — Sales
January — $11,358.85

Worst Month — Sales
May — $5,743.03

Best Day — Sales
January 19 — $1,008.27

Worst Day — Sales
February 22 — $112.68

Best Day — Downloads
January 26–3,014

Worst Day — Downloads
July 4–652

Average Daily Revenue
$274.34

Median Daily Revenue
$237

Best Sales Day, every single week
Sunday

Worst Sales Day, every single week
Friday

Returns
122

Updates Downloaded
879,402

Peak Gross Ranking in the Books Category
8

“Current Version” Average Rating of our most popular app
5 Stars

“All Versions” Average Rating of our most popular app
4.5 Stars

Monthly Sales Chart

Number of days where I worry this will collapse at any moment
365

If you’re still reading, here are a few of my thoughts on the App Store, and a few highlights from the year:

Behold Apple Giveth and Apple Taketh Away; Blessed be the name of Apple
My #1 cause for worry is that Apple controls everything. They could change their search algorithm, or worse, decide to turn us off altogether.

This isn’t a diss though. There are pros and cons to playing on others’ platforms, and I accepted that when I launched our first app.

In the case of Apple, the deal is this:

They give me access to hundreds of millions of above-average income consumers and their credits cards.

I agree to play by their rules, that they own the relationship with the customer, and that they can decide to turn me away if they so choose.

That deal has worked out great for me, but it doesn’t mean I don’t worry about worst case scenarios.

Android is Awful
I’ll spare you the horror story, but I tried a port of our most popular app to Android this year. It did not go well. The developer was awful and required a ton of handholding. (He later sabbottaged our production database, too, but that’s a story for another time.)

Even when we finally did launch (albeit with fewer features than I originally wanted), downloads were terrible, and revenue was practically nonexistant.

This tends to surprise people given our target demographic of native Spanish speakers. It surprised me, too. I will not be trying Android again any time soon.

Don’t Be Romantic About How You Make Money
(AKA, Remember Google is an Advertising Company)

I don’t remember where I read that title, but it’s absolutely true.

Year 1 all revenue came from content I own 100%.

Year 2 my goal was to grow a library of licensed Spanish eBooks to sell as in-app purchases.

The hypothesis was that if we could become the #1 place to find Spanish Christian content it would boost downloads and sales.

So I began talking to publishers and we eventually licensed over 100 books from Harper Collins, LifeWay, Casa Promesa, and others in and outside the US. Not a huge amount, but enough to try this out.

The problem is that these licensing deals require a few things:

  1. A royalty that eats into our margins
  2. Attention to get the books ported into our library
  3. Attention to calculate and pay royalties, manage licensing manager relationships, etc.

The result?

Our revenue increased this year, but only because we launched a brand new version of our main app. With royalties cutting into our previously sky-high margins, I don’t think the ebook library hypothesis worked.

I don’t regret the experiment, but I got too far away from the real reason we make money: people like our Bible audiobook.

It sounds great, and people pay extra for audiobooks. That’s it. Don’t get romantic about how you make money

Highlights from the year

Making the Front Page of Hacker News 4 Weeks in a Row
I was pretty surprised by the response I got last year after writing my first post. It got linked to by Shawn Blanc, John Moltz, and Harry Marks.

When I was doing interviews for coding schools I even had a few of my interviewers recognize my name. That was a kick.

Attending the Flatiron School in NYC
I spent 3 months in New York learning Rails at the Flatiron School. I tried to teach myself to code on and off for years but could never stick to it. Committing full time for 3 months at the Flatiron School was exactly what I needed.

Coding schools have various reputations depending on who you talk to, but I can’t recommend the Flatiron School enough.

If you put in the time before and during school, you’ll likely be good enough to get a junior developer job when you graduate. (That wasn’t my goal but many of my friends now have jobs all over the country as developers.)

Bonus: Somehow I got the nickname “Biblia Jefe”, which means Bible boss. It was a fun 3 months.

Startups for the 99%

If you’re really big into the the startup and tech scene, you might read blogs like these:

avc.com
cdixon.org
bothsidesofthetable
feld.com
Hacker News

And on and on. You know the list of popular “startup” blogs. They’re awesome. (Also sidenote: how many investors can you name who don’t have an active blog? Behold the power of a well-written blog.)

But I laugh to myself whenever I see Fred announce a new investment for Union Square Ventures. I’m usually thinking: ”My business is nowhere close in scale to what they just invested in.”

And the natural second thought: “I would never get an investment from USV for my curent company.”

Not because I don’t like USV, but because it just doesn’t make sense for my business (or theirs). Our market will never be as big as what they want.

So what’s the rub?

This matters because in the tech world we all use the same word, “startup,” to describe two very different things.

One is the business type mentioned above that USV invests in. Paul Graham even wrote about that type of startup.

The other kine of “startup” is what everyone else is working on. E.g. indie iOS companies, design and development agencies, SMB SAAS companies like 37signals, etc.

95% of the startup advice we read online is geared towards the first type. Towards companies seriously looking to raise VC money.

But the vast majority of companies out there are never, ever going to raise VC. It would be incredibly stupid on both sides of the transaction.

The problem is that many people don’t realize what type of business they’re in. They start making $10k a month as a sole-founder and start feeling like they have an awesome startup. But then they start taking advice from VC’s like Mark Suster (who even warns them not to!) and, as he says, they get forked.

Mark and others like Chris Dixon have tried to say this before. They frame their posts as “do you really need to raise VC?” which is their nice way of saying “The vast majority of you do not need or want VC money.”

Knowing who you are is really important because it influences decsisions like:
– Should I raise money?
– Do I hire now to show a “growing company” to VC’s or wait until profitable?
– Can I plan to take money out of the company or rely on salary only?
– Is it worth growing users at the expense of profits?
– How focused should I be on cutting costs vs pure growth focus?

This all goes back to a bigger lesson: “Begin with the end in mind.” To plan the best route possible you have to know where you’re going. It doesn’t have to be 100% — you can stay flexible — but the end route differences between a VC business and, say, most iOS indie devs is as different as Florida is to Alaska.

It’s very hard to survive headed to one when you’re built for the other.

Product Roadmaps

I’m lucky in that once a week I get to sit down and hear founders pitch their companies and products. As I listen I’m asking myself two things:

  1. Why or why not might this work?
  2. How can I add value to this team? I want to talk about #2.

Generally, the people who add the most value in the pitch “post-mortem” are those who can see the future of the product.

Said another way: people who intuitively see where a product is headed in terms of features, partners, and distribution add immense value. Granted, many startups end up changing their idea altogether.

At the beginning founders probably won’t know what their product will morph into 2 years down the road. But there is value in seeing the next steps, and founders will appreciate hearing those ideas.

Ideas that fit the product road map, with suggestions about partners and distribution channels that compliment the product. It’s valuable enough that Paul Graham said “Sometimes I can see a path that’s not immediately obvious; that’s one of our specialties at YC.”

How to Attend a Conference

Conferences can be scary to attend. If you’re like me in a new industry, you might sometimes show up alone and without knowing a soul.

By way of example, in 2012 I attended Expolit, a conference focused on the Spanish Christian publishing industry. My goal was to get licensing rights to books to sell as in-app purchases inside our mobile apps.

It’s a tight-knit industry. While I do speak Spanish, I was completely new and didn’t know anyone when I arrived to Miami. I remember walking into the hotel lobby and hearing everyone chatting loudly in Spanish, like it was some big family reunion.

Know Exactly What You Want
Why are you at this conference? is a really important question! If you don’t have a solid answer, I’d think twice before shelling out all the money required to attend (hotel, flights, and conference tickets get expensive fast).

You need to have specific strategic goals for the conference.

For me at Expolit, I wanted to meet the digital rights managers of every publisher in attendance. They’re the people who could actually sign a contract to let me sell their books inside my apps.

Make Them Sell to You
On the first day I walked in and went straight to the publisher booths.

I energetically introduced myself and my app company, Salem Software. I told them our story, what we do (Spanish Bible apps), etc.

Some people were nice and opened up, but lots of others kind of just listened and then didn’t ask any questions of their own. It felt like a really bad date.

A little later once I was more tired I found myself slowly walking by booths and just perusing the displays, instead of walking directly up to the booth manager. Sometimes I’d pick up an example book and thumb through it.

This changed everything.

Suddenly the publisher’s employee was coming up to me and pitching me their products. “We just released a new book…” or “have you seen this…?” They were trying to convince me I should carry their books!

Of course I wanted to hear what they had to say, so I’d listen and ask questions. When they were done I’d ask if I could tell them about what we do and they’d happily agree.

And voilá, I had an audience.

This was the perfect introduction. Instead of me overenthusiatically approaching them and scaring them away I could start a small relationship by listening to them first.

Track Your Conversations
Anyone who has been to a conference knows you talk to hundreds of people and collect way too many business cards. By the end you look back at all those cards and can’t remember the person’s face, let alone all the details of your conversation.

So after every conversation I’d write down on the back of their card what we talked about and what the next steps were.

And at the end of every night at my hotel room I’d transfer all of this to Google Docs (or your CRM of choice). This is really important (see “Follow Up” below).

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Experiment With Your Message
My initial story when I approached publishers was something like:

“We’re Salem Software and we make Bible study software for mobile devices. We focus 100% on native Spanish speakers because we believe they’re a neglected demographic. This is natural since most companies do English first, then Spanish as an afterthought. We also sell other Christian books and content in our mobile app store.”

I got bored just rereading that.

Two sentences in and I’d lost them. I thought they would care that we focused on Spanish speakers but I was wrong.

So I started experimenting with the pitch and ultimately got it down to one line:

“We do digital distribution.”

With that one line they understood how I could help them.

Stand Out
As a rule, people won’t remember you. But if you’re not too overbearing, you can try something unique that will help people remember you.

I’ve seen people wear bright yellow tennis shoes or funny tshirts. It will depend a lot on your industry and your reputation within that industry.

If you’re new and try to stand out too much you’ll look naive and people might dismiss you.

The best example I saw at this particular conference was from a little booth in the corner. Every person the booth worker talked to, myself included, they’d take a picture together.

When she followed up with me via email she attached the picture, which of course immediately reminded me of her and our conversation.

Taking a picture with everyone might be weird in some settings. So again, you should try something that’s appropriate for your conference and industry.

Be Humble
I pride myself on speaking Spanish well. While I haven’t stayed as fluent as I’d like, I’m still quite good and like to practice as much as I can.

So when I arrived at the conference I really wanted to speak Spanish the entire time. Some conversations went really well, but others I struggled to effectively communicate. And on top of that, many of the digital licensing reps I spoke to were native bilingual anyway.

About halfway through I bit the bullet. Any person who I absolutely needed to get to know I’d speak to first in English. They understood me and Salem Software better, and I felt more confident.

This was hard because I love speaking Spanish. I love the reaction I get from native speakers when I use some slang. But ultimately I had to eat some humble pie and stick to English.

(That said, practically all of the Central and South American publishers I spoke to did not speak any English, so the Spanish thankfully still came in very handy.)

Break Bread
The two people I had dinner with at the conference are the two I still remember the most. There’s something about eating together outside of a typical “work” environment that helps loosen people up. You don’t even have to drink (we didn’t).

If you’re more experienced and already know a few people, another great strategy is to get a bunch of people (around 8–10) for dinner at a restaurant outside of the hotel. Pay for the check and be the host.

After the Conferenece
Once the conference is over there are other things to keep in mind:

Follow Up
As the small company doing the asking it of course falls upon us to do all the follow up.

I started emailing my new contacts 4 days after the conference (it ended on a Friday, so the following Tuesday). I don’t know if this was the perfect move vs emailing them right after the conference, but it ended up working well. Unbeknownst to me at the time, many people use the conference to take an extended vacation in Miami, so they weren’t checking their email immediately after the conference anyway.

Also, make sure to use the conversation details you wrote down on their business cards.

I like to mention who introduced us, where we met, which products we talked about, etc.

Since you can almost guarantee they will not be doing the same tracking, it’s really important you do all the work to jog their memory.

Don’t Panic if They’re Slow
After emailing folks I didn’t hear back from many of them and kind of started freaking out. What if the entire conference was a waste!

But, lo and behold, people at big organizations can be slow to respond.

For everyone that I hadn’t heard back from I sent another email a week later basically saying “Hey I wanted to check in since I hadn’t heard from you. I hope you’re recovering from Expolit.”

The next day I suddenly had a ton of emails waiting for me from all these big publishers. People’s answers all varied, between “I was still on vacation” to “I’ve still trying to get caught up from the conference.” Many even apologized!

The point is, don’t freak out if they don’t respond initially. And definitely don’t pester them with a bunch of emails asking what happened.

Just follow up consistently until you hear a yes or a no.

Track Your Emails
I used to track all of my conversations manually Google Docs. While that works at first, you’ll quickly want to get setup in a CRM.

Two of my favorites are Streak and RelateIQ. They’ll help automate a lot of the conversation tracking so you don’t have to reread entire email chains to remind yourself the status of a deal.

Stay in Touch
This should go without saying, but regardless of how the deals end up going make sure to stay in touch after the conference! When the next conference comes around you’ll know more people and be more confident. You’ll be better able to host a dinner and start to really build a brand in the industry.

Talk to me more on Twitter.

Get my conference strategy tracker sheet

Download the sheets I used in this exact conference to plan who I was going to see, how I tracked our conversations, and how I did follow up.

These are the real trackers from this conference

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