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What's in It for Us After the Indiepocalypse is Over?

Indie businesses on the App Store have a rough time. The market is highly competitive, and it’s only getting harder to succeed in what was once thought to be a gold rush. At #Pragma 2015, Marin runs through the history of the App Store, and considers different ideas to succeed in the business: do what you love, team up or get hired, and consider changing platforms.

The Indiepocalypse (00:43)

The Indiepocalypse is upon us: the indies are going extinct in the Apple ecosystem (term first used by Tiago, from iOS Goodies).

Competition (03:39)

15,000 apps in the App Store: everybody thought they were going to make gold. In Berlin, I managed to install my provisioning profile, and run something on the device. After four rejections and an email from the Apple’s HQ in London, I felt everything was going to be great. But that is over.

The State of the App Store & App Review (03:55)

For indies it is not easy on the App Store (e.g. see last year’s newsletter issue). If we have a look at the top grossing (Microsoft, Spotify, Pandora, HBO, even Kim Kardashian!), indie business are not to be found. The worst is app review - what gets people off the App Store. There are some guidelines, but they wing it.

Doodle Doodle (04:27)

When last year custom keyboards were available on the App Store, my partner and our indie studio decided to make one. We wanted to use cutting iOS 8 tech; API was just introduced. It was a unique unique app on the App Store. We were exited: we produced a website and a development blog, created posts, shared code, and even produced a video ad. Based on all the effort, we expected a success. However, what actually happened was something else: Xcode 6.0 (60 source code crashes per second), Swift 1.0 (erase should not work), iOS 8 (we did not think this through). We overcome the technical hurdles but realized that Apple was making sure that we did not earn any money with it. There is a set of rules in the guidelines that forbid you to earn from keyboards:

  1. Keyboards cannot show ads (you cannot have ads income).
  2. Keyboards cannot have in-app purchases (you cannot sell it).
  3. Keyboards cannot link to their host app, where people can buy from an app.

The only way was to have a paid app. For any apps, that is difficult. We decided to release on the App Store, and learnt there were further restrictions (we got over this as well). Lastly, here is the process of installing a keyboard on your iPhone:

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  • Pay for the app
  • Download the app
  • Install the app
  • Run it once
  • Close the app
  • Go to Settings
  • Choose General
  • Go into Keyboards
  • Choose Add New Keyboard
  • Find the one that is just downloaded & tap on it
  • Choose Allow Full Access
    • When people tap this switch: “Full access allows the developer of this keyboard to transmit anything you type, including things you have previously typed with this keyboard. This could include sensitive information such as your credit card number or street address”. As a result, as you can imagine, we did not make much profit.

The year around the release of this app, I did some traveling. And whilst working in Berlin, with a couple of friends we started an indie business. We used to launch apps that could make good money, but not anymore. The indies are being exterminated.

The Telegraph Industry vs. the iPhone App industry (15:45)

I do not think indies will be out of the App Store. Everything changed for me when I took Developing Innovative Ideas for New Companies, a (free) coursera course by Dr. James Green. I learnt about the concept of “industry age”. Whenever industry is being born, it is in this infancy age and there is rules that govern this age of the industry. It gets into youth, adulthood, then dies naturally.

For example, the electrical telegraph. Before the electrical telegraph come, people had to send their mail with a mail coach. Delivery was not guaranteed and it was slow. In 1838, the first commercial telegraph services launched in the U.S. and U.K. This was when the industry was born, and from then on people could launch their own telegraphic services. But it was not that easy, not everyone knew about electricity even. In 1850, the first international call happened between the U.K. and Europe, and that convinced everyone that this is a viable market. Later on, 1901, first wireless telegraphic call happened over the Atlantic: it was obvious that the electrical period was going to go down. This is where the industry entered the adulthood. There was still money to be made, but less viable, less relevant. Now, we have Twitter, Facebook, What’sApp: nobody cares about this tech anymore.

Let’s make a quick parallel with the App Store. Before the iPhone, we had Gameboy, Nintendo, VHS cassettes. In 2007 the iPhone app industry was born. There was only one developer, Apple. They raised the esta; other people could jump on, but the entrance bearers were high. You had to write objective C, pre-arc. That was not easy; not many people could do it. We are now where the industry will, in my own calculation, enter youth. Everybody is sure there is money to be made. Eventually, sometime in the future, probably very soon, all of this is going to get wiped out.

Human Infancy & Youth vs. the App Store Infancy & Youth (19:20)

In the infancy age of humans, everybody is happy with you (five star reviews all the time). If we compare it to the human youths, the same products are not viable anymore. The conditions change as the industry matures; in different ages, not the same things work.

  1. It is unlikely that your first product will succeed. If we have a quick look at the App Store, the infancy of the App Store had a farting machine, and iBeer: now in the App Store those are just forbidden by the guidelines, nobody wants this anymore.

  2. It should be a high-quality app. Conditions change, products change. The same products do not work anymore (e.g. 2015 is not going to fly; RSiSify, we have a million of RSiS readers - it is difficult to launch a new one that will be relevant; TODO PRO 2015, not just Apple’s example app, also probably is very difficult to make being relevant). It should be a high-quality app.

  3. Team up or hire people!!! It is probably a good idea to team up or to hire people. In the infancy of the App Store, it was a viable idea to work on your own, but that is difficult right now; the bar is too high.

  4. Launch in a niche. Launching in a niche where people would be interested in your app is the only way.

  5. Apple didn’t promise you nuffin. They just wanted you to make apps and sell more iPhones. In fact, at a keynote Steve Jobs announced the deal: developer speaks the price, get 70 percent of the revenue, no credit card fees, no hosting fees, no marketing fees, paid monthly. The App Store is a delivery platform: it is up to you to have a business using this platform.

Real business means to have accounting, marketing, social media, experts in hiring people. Programming is the best valuable asset you have business wise. If you just focus on what are you good at, you can make a difference.

Focus on What You Are Good At (24:17)

I stumbled upon “The 4-Hour Workweek” book. You have to focus on what you are good at. For example, I focused on developing a fantastic app. I focused on doing a fantastic video course, 5,000 people took it and they were happy with it. I love programming, and I love writing: I teamed up with Ray Wenderlich and we did a fantastic line up of books. I also focused on Open Source, and have a newsletter. That takes us back to where we started: Doodle Doodle. Shortly after we launched on the App Store, a company wanted to license our source code. Focusing on what you love, makes difference. You have time for your loved ones, you have time for yourself, you have time to relax. Everything is good if you have the right attitude.

Then What? (27:22)

We thought 15,000 apps were more than anyone could need: now we have even more apps. There is still opportunity on the App Store for you to have a business. You could partner up and launch bigger scale projects. You could even change the iOS App Store for other platforms:

  • The Mac App Store: launch a viable as an indie (e.g. see Mono Draw app) and be successful.
  • The website (e.g. Chezaray).
  • Open Source: free (but not in the long haul: e.g. all of the Open Source libraries that I launched brought customers that offered me to do paid contract work for them).

Just Getting Into Youth Now: Technology, Platform, Experts (30:40)

These days, getting hired as an iOS developer is different. This industry is getting into youth now. We are experts, developing conceptually new solutions thanks to a groundbreaking technology in an industry in its infancy age. All you have to do is have persistance and be consistent.

Thank You! Questions? (31:03)

Q: Thank you for the great talk, it was inspiring. In retrospect, what do you think were the main mistakes that Doodle Doodle had?

Marin: What we probably should have done was to try to contact Apple before we launched, because they had something in mind they wanted people to do, but they did not say it. And, everybody that did something different than what they had in mind, had to wait a bit and get rejected a few times before Apple gets around what they had in mind. I spoke with other people who launched keyboards, which was exactly and did exactly what Apple wanted, and Apple wanted to copy what was there and not draw it. They did not want to have something different. And they did not realize it until people tried to do other things. Probably contacting them in advance, trying to get somebody to talk to, we have this idea, what do you think? Would have been much better, more communication.

Q: How simple is the contact?

Marin: You send them an email, you get a automatic reply, and hopefully in a few days maybe somebody will write you. This is not that difficult, to go get line out, get a hold of someone. Conferences are the best way to get a hold of someone. People are there, if you are sneaky enough you can look at all conferences on the internet in the world, find where somebody from Apple is speaking and be here in front, first row. They are also people, they will like help you in a few minutes, you can talk to them.

Q: Thanks for bearing your soul and letting us know how you developed. Now you had a success in the end with your story, and I was just wondering how you found somebody to do your design, to do your marketing. I am thinking you probably found somebody since you are saying, do what you love.

Marin: In our studio, I am the programmer, and my partner is the designer and graphical artist. He would produce all the graphics, including all the banners. We actually stayed away from doing small scale indie marketing. From our experience, any money put into indie marketing is going down the drain. You can have a nice vacation instead. You will have more benefit from it. Advertisement and marketing from my experience, works only in big scale. Spoke to game studios, and they usually say that, if you drop under a certain amount of money that you put everyday, daily usage drops instantly, and that was depending on the country and the target audience; that was about 10,000 a day, not our scale. We preferred to have good time and save this money and use them to coconuts and stuff.

Q: How about making the ad material that was your designer friend, he also does the ad material?

Marin: One day we were playing with video and was like, let’s just put it together, it looks easy. We did not launch on TV, that would have been stupid. This ad is only on our website, for fun.

Q: Thanks for great talk. I have two quick questions, the first one, how do you identify a niche market? And the second one is, if you have any good suggestion, or advice for people that want to quit the job and then get into the indie right now?

Marin: How do you identify a niche market? I think that is very important. The problem with the App Store or with any product, but specifically with the App Store is that, if you launch an app that is supposed to appeal to everyone. It is supposed to be a snap decision purchase for 99 cents, then your biggest value is that you are cheap. People do not respect you. There will be millions of people that get your app, or billions if it is free, but in that case, they will not feel connected with it. If it was a snap decision to buy it, it will be a snap decision to leave you a review, it does not do what I want it. If you are trying to appeal to everyone, then you cannot satisfy everyone. In a niche market, my biggest advice is target professionals. Professionals need tools, because they make their money like that. They make their money by being professionals and tools, you know, solve their pain. if you know somebody, e.g. one of your friends is a film director. Film directors need tools, these tools are analog tools. Some of these pains could be solved by proper software. This is an interesting niche market. If you target them, you can ask, hey, you have paid 12 million dollars for Brad Pitt, how about pitching in with 100 dollars for my software? They are probably going to say fine, as long as I can do my job easier, why not? When they pay you 100 dollars for the app they will be, that solved my pain, let me leave a 5 star review. That did not solve my pains, since I paid 100 dollars for it, let me contact the developer and ask them about it. Instead of just snap decision to leave 1 star review and go and try something else. This is my perspective on this niche thing: professionals, what they need, this is the most rewarding market. And the second one was something else, but I forgot. Of course, it is always like this with two-parted questions.

Q: If you have any advice for people that actually interested in being indie right now.

Marin: If you are independent, the most important thing is network. You have already done the first step, you are at this conference. You are building up your network, you are getting skills, that is awesome. But of course, as I showed, since the barriers are very low into launching a new business in the App Store right now, indies are bound to make less money, and indies are bound to, do not make it as often in the App Store. In the infancy age, anyone who jumps in with no matter what skills, could have been successful. Right now, we are on the edge. It is not so sure what’s going to happen if you jump on the indie train right now, you might make it, you might launch a few products and maybe one of them will be successful, but that is now very very difficult. And that is why you have act accordingly. Teaming up with people on a product, increases your chances of success immensely. Just sitting yourself, coding all night long, ignoring your wife and kids on the weekend to produce your own app, might not be a good idea, because you are just not acting accordingly to the present day. I guess my point was, build a network, make a team and be sure that you are knowing what you are doing. Just going wild randomly around, screaming around like a headless chicken will not do it anymore.

About the content

This talk was delivered live in October 2015 at #Pragma Conference. The video was transcribed by Realm and is published here with the permission of the conference organizers.

Marin Todorov

Marin Todorov is an independent iOS consultant and publisher. He’s co-author on the book “RxSwift: Reactive programming with Swift” the author of “iOS Animations by Tutorials”. He’s part of Realm and Besides crafting code, Marin also enjoys blogging, writing books, teaching, and speaking. He sometimes open sources his code. He walked the way to Santiago.

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