Sustainable Indie Apps

Yesterday Brent Simmons wrote about how unsustainable it is to be an indie iOS developer:

Yes, there are strategies for making a living, and nobody’s entitled to anything. But it’s also true that the economics of a thing may be generally favorable or generally unfavorable — and the iOS App Store is, to understate the case, generally unfavorable. Indies don’t have a fighting chance.

And that we might be better off doing indie iOS as a labour of love instead of a sustainable business:

Write the apps you want to write in your free time and out of love for the platform and for those specific apps. Take risks. Make those apps interesting and different. Don’t play it safe. If you’re not expecting money, you have nothing to lose.

He suggests one reason for the unsustainability in the App Store is the fact that it’s crowded, that it’s too easy to make apps:

You might think that development needs to get easier in order to make writing apps economically viable. The problem is that we’ve seen what happens when development gets easier — we get a million apps on the iOS App Store. The easier development gets, the more apps we see.

Allen Pike, responding to Brent’s article brings up a similar sentiment (which Brent later quoted):

However, when expressing frustration with the current economics of the App Store, we need to consider the effect of this mass supply of enthusiastic, creative developers. As it gets ever easier to write apps, and we’re more able to express our creativity by building apps, the market suffers more from the economic problems of other creative fields.

I think this argument misses the problem and misses it in a big way. It has little to do with how many people are making apps (in business, this is known as “competition” and it’s an OK thing!). The problem is that people aren’t paying for apps because people don’t value apps, generally speaking (I’ve written about this before, too).

You might ask, “why don’t they value apps?” but I think if you turn the question around to “why aren’t apps valuable to people?” it becomes a little easier to see the problem. Is it really so unbelievable the app you’re trying to sell for 99 cents doesn’t provide that much value to your customers? Your customers don’t care about making things up in volume, they don’t care about the reach of the app store, they only care about the value of your software.

(Brief interlude to say that of course, “value” is not the only (or even necessarily, the most important) factor when it comes to a capitalist market. We’re taught that customers decide solely based on value, but they are obviously continuously manipulated by many factors, including advertising, social pressures and structures, etc. But I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt that you actually care about creating value for people and run with that assumption).

I want to be clear I’m not suggesting price determines value (it may influence perceived value, but it doesn’t determine it entirely), but I’m saying if you’re pricing your app at 99 cents, you’re probably doing so because your app doesn’t provide very much value. Taking a 99 cent app and pricing it at 20$ probably isn’t going to significantly increase its value in the eyes of your customers.

What I am saying is if you want a sustainable business, you’ve got to provide value for people. Your app needs to be worth people paying enough money that you can keep your lights on. Omni can get away with charging 50$ for their iPhone apps because people who use it think it’s worth that price. Something like OmniFocus isn’t comparable to a 99 cent app — it’s much more sophisticated and simply does more than most apps.

Value doesn’t have to come from having loads of features, but they might help get you there. Most people probably wouldn’t say “Github is worth paying for because it has a ton of features” but they might say “Github is worth paying for because I couldn’t imagine writing software without it.”

These aren’t new ideas. My friend Joe has been writing and talking about this for a long time (he’s even running a conference about it!), for example.

As Curtis Herbert points out, it’s probably never going to be easy to run your own indie iOS shop. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It just means you’ve got to build a business along the way.

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