App Store Realities

Six Years as an Indy Mobile App Developer

This is an App Store success story, although maybe not the kind you’ve heard before. I’m sitting in a small cafe in Ketchum, Idaho, sipping a coffee as I write this. The snow is falling softly outside. I’m warm, cozy, and content. I’m an independent iOS developer and I’m here with my family on a semi-vacation: to ski, to relax and (at least for me) to work. As I said, this isn’t your typical App Store success story— I’m not an App Store millionaire, or even, a hundred-thousand-aire, but I did buy this coffee (and a cinnamon roll too) entirely with yesterday’s App Store revenue.

For the past six years I’ve managed to maintain a sustainable app-centric business. And while things haven’t worked out exactly as I might have hoped, it’s been an incredible adventure so far, complete with euphoric highs, and discouraging lows. This is my story.

Like many corporate workers, I’d often dreamed of heading out on my own. However, I lacked determination. That all changed in March 2008 when Apple released the iPhone SDK for 3rd party developers. I was enamored with the iPhone since day one, and I knew immediately that the coming 3rd party app business was the chance to start fresh— the level playing field that may come only once in a career. And so, after working as a software developer for almost 15 years at several large companies, I quit my job with a vague plan to: “start a mobile app business.”

I had never written any desktop or consumer software— my experience was developing backend web applications, primarily using Microsoft technology. I had a Mac, but I had never done any Mac development. Regardless, I downloaded the iPhone SDK the moment it was available.

The more I read the Apple docs, the more confused I became: Objective-C and Cocoa were a whole new world, and I quickly realized that in order to actually learn this stuff, I needed a real project. Fortunately, I had an idea: I had been doing some software consulting on the side to pay the bills, and I’d been tracking my hours and billing clients with Microsoft Excel— I decided to build an app to do the same thing.

I started development on my “time-tracking app” in earnest, but it was painfully slow going— Interface Builder and Xcode seemed kludgy, the software design patterns, although familiar, were all new to me. It didn’t help that I was also doing web development contract work full-time. However, after a few weeks, things started to click and eventually I had something working: a crude interface (I’m no designer and I couldn’t find or afford one) that allowed the user to specify a client, enter some hours, and capture notes.

The App Store officially opened in July, 2008, but my app wasn’t near ready. With all the amazing apps in the store, I knew it was just a matter of time before someone launched a “time-tracking app” similar to, or better than, mine. So, I kicked development into high gear— devoting more and more nights and weekends to figuring out things as seemingly basic as animating a view above the keyboard or saving a record to a SQLite database. Finally, at the end of August, I had something ready to ship. I named the app “Timewerks”, and submitted it to Apple for review. The app went live Sept. 2008. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. It cost $9.99.

There were a few time-tracking and billing apps in the App Store at first, but Timewerks was the only one that allowed you to send an HTML invoice from your phone. Sales were slow but steady. I averaged around $50/day. Encouraged, I continued to tweak the look and feel of the app, and add a few new features based on user feedback.

Timewerks: Versions 1, 2 and 3

One day, in late 2008, I got a call from Apple: “Would I mind if they used Timewerks in some of their marketing materials?” Mind? No, I wouldn’t mind. I signed some release forms. Weeks passed. I heard nothing. Well, so much for that, I thought. Then, on a Sunday morning in late January 2009, a friend called and told me to look at the back page of The New York Times. There, in a full-page Apple iPhone ad, was my icon— Apple had featured my app in an ad promoting the iPhone as a business tool— the app I had built, from scratch, by myself. I was euphoric. Sales doubled. Over the next 6 months, Apple ran similar ads in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Times of London. Timewerks was featured in iTunes “New and Noteworthy” and “Staff Favorites”. Sales tripled. Apple even considered featuring Timewerks in a French TV commercial, but I didn’t have it localized for French at the time and so they moved on.

New York Times, January 25, 2009

For the first year, the app did well. I averaged over $100/day in revenue. I started dreaming of the potential: a product based business, with more and more new customers signing-up every day. I envisioned a companion website, with a subscription-based revenue stream. I considered the possibility of integration with other accounting software and expanding to other platforms and devices. The possibilities where endless!

But then, slowly, reality, set in: I was making pretty good money on the app, but nowhere near enough to support a wife and two kids. Conversely, I had been doing more and more consulting— now helping others build iPhone apps for their business where I was able to charge upwards of $100/hr. I had a choice: I could take a big risk, borrow some money, put all my eggs into the app basket and go for it. Or, take the “safer” route and continue consulting full-time. I chose the latter. At the time, it felt like the wrong decision. In hindsight, it may have been a little wise.

I continued to tinker with the app, again in my spare time. I did some “grassroots marketing”. I experimented with the price. The app continued to sell and receive positive feedback, but sales declined fairly rapidly, as more and more competitors entered the market with bigger budgets and more resources. When Steve Jobs stood on the stage in January 2010 and announced the magical iPad, I knew an iPad version of Timewerks could boost sales, especially if coupled with the new companion website I was working on. But, again, I lacked the time and resources. Really, it didn’t seem worth the development effort.

On the other hand, the consulting side of the business continued to grow. I had plenty of work: plenty of people wanted iPhone apps and iPad apps. I even hired a few subcontractors. I was making good money, and, most importantly, I was able to enjoy the flexibility I’d always dreamed of: we took to traveling: taking the kids on long trips to Europe, South America, Asia. I could attend that elementary school assembly, that weeknight Little League game. I could take off Friday at noon for a weekend camping trip and not worry if I made it back for work on Monday.

Nevertheless, I became quite discouraged when I realized my app wouldn’t turn into the be-all-end-all time-tracking and invoicing app I had dreamed it might. There were a few days with zero sales. Still, I worked on it regularly, and, over the years, I managed to add new features and keep up with iOS updates. I built the companion website. I added full-data synchronization and in-app purchases. Last summer, I finally released an iPad version, and this past Fall, a new iOS 7 app. Best of all, the app still produces around $20/day in revenue and people enjoy using it. It still makes my day when I receive positive feedback from a customer or read a positive review on a small business blog.

Timewerks App Store Revenue To Date

Which brings me back to now: To me sitting here in this coffee shop, in Idaho, some random week in February. Over time, I’ve begun to realize something: I was searching for the wrong thing. It wasn’t the app’s success that mattered, but the success that came in the journey building it. The app never turned my business into a product-based powerhouse with a hockey-stick growth chart. Instead, the app gave me the skills to build another sort of business: a business where I call all the shots, where I decide my own schedule, where I can be truly present, every day, as my boys grow up. And, I still get to create things and use my brain to solve real problems. I’ve even released a couple of other apps. But most of all, the business has let me live a rich, simple life. One that reminds me of my favorite Thoreau quote from my American Lit days:

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

So, yes, truly an App Store success story.