Ulysses and the Art of User Subscriptions

or how to really piss off your existing users.

EDIT 2017/08/23: This article has been modified since first publication to be more factually accurate.

Recently I produced an episode of my podcast, The Write Shift, where in I discussed the different writing applications I’ve used over the years.

Top of this list was Ulysses.

When I found Ulysses I thought I’d hit the holy grail of perfect writing app that blends the plaintext writing environments I love so much, with my need to exert a level of control over the software.

Ulysses is truly an excellent piece of software, using modern interface methods to make the art of writing a joy. Often I’d find myself setting goals, looking at the nature of my writing projects, pontificating on the importance of choosing an act structure… etc etc.

Ulysses is however an expensive app, especially for a writer starting out in the industry. Sure, I have a day job, and yes, I can afford to purchase apps when I feel I have a strong need for them. But that doesn’t mean I don’t also seek value for money.

To put it into context, Ulysses currently costs around $60 AUD (depending on the exchange rate of course), and thats for the macOS application only. Sure, that doesn’t sound like a hell of a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, but add it to the additional approx. $30 AUD that the iOS companion app costs and you can see its fairly expensive for a glorified text editor.

It’s nearest competitors like iA Writer by comparison are significantly cheaper.

Yes you can argue that Ulysses is more feature rich (it’s true, it is) but by that same token, it is still, ostensibly, a plain text editor.

When I purchased Ulysses I first bought macOS and then the iOS version within a few days. The AUD/USD exchange rate at that stage wasn’t the healthiest so the total cost was around $110 AUD.

The reasons I switched over to Ulysses from other writing apps were numerous and plentiful, but the two standout features for me were the library management, and the rich export options. Both of these features I still find excellent in Ulysses.

But this article isn’t about how good the software is, far from it, I still think Ulysses is a fantastic application to create and manage near any kind of text document you can imagine.

Instead, this article is about the responsibility developers have to their user base when short-sighted monetisation of a product fails to yield enough money to continue development, and the accountability developers have to continue to do right by their existing customers and not attempt to over-capitalise (i.e. gouge) loyal users when business doesn’t follow the intended path of exponential growth.

See, for the developers of Ulysses there was a glaring fault in their monetisation plan. Once a customer purchased their software, they could no longer make money from that customer. This meant that, like any developer, they needed to continue to innovate features for their application to attract new customers, while also listening to their existing customers and respond to issues.

Typically in this scenario it is through careful marketing and personal recommendations that you make the bulk of your real money, rather than through the intravenous-like churn that a software subscription model provides.

But when you’re a team of people that need to eat, pay your mortgage/rent, generally live and also have need to change and update your application to attract new customers, then you’re constantly looking at overheads and the bottom line which takes its toll.

In a world that is ‘app happy’, the subscription model has become almost the de-facto standard in which to charge the end user for continued operation, and services rendered over time.

Mostly, users are accepting of a subscription model as it reduces the overall up-front purchase costs meaning they can test solutions and integrate a piece of software into their workflow with minimal initial outlay.

For the developer a subscription model provides a steady stream of money that is easily calculable, you’re no longer running your company on the width of your bottom line after overheads have been paid. You can accept an amount of fluctuation in your monthly baseline and afford to actually pay your staff.

But when you’ve ignored a subscription offering from the get-go and decided that one-time-payments are your standard and now it’s failing to provide sustainable income, how do you successfully move to a subscription model without disrupting the goodwill you’ve already generated in your existing user base?


Lets look at some recent history.

Evernote. An application that innovated right out of the gate. Web clipping, organisational, cloud storage software that took the research and note-taking worlds by storm that became the go to application of choice for students, business professionals, scientists, governments and more.

The Evernote team had ongoing costs to their service that they needed to continue to pay for, so the subscription model was the best way for them to continue to keep the lights on. For Evernote it was about tuning their subscription model to ensure the customer was treated fairly and they could continue to live and create new worth in their offerings.

Until it wasn’t about that at all.

The goodwill that the Evernote team had built over they years was wiped out overnight by choices that hurt their users and communities that relied on their otherwise inexpensive and powerful software.

How did they do this? By tarring all users with the same brush.

When we all woke on the morning of Jun 28 2016, tech feeds were bristling with articles about how Evernote had raised their prices by $20 per-year, per-user and also had chosen to reduce the usability of its free tier and limit its Basic free service to two devices.

They’d done their research, the majority of their heaviest users clearly would use more than three devices between home, work and travel. Their usage statistics would have indicated that their basic-tier users would most likely have a similar usage pattern.

So how do you convert a customer from free-tier to a paid-tier? Gouge them at the turnstile, raise the price and reduce the feature stack.

If anyone is still wondering at this point what the reaction the users, even the paid-tier users had to this news was then here is a post from the Reddit.com/r/Evernote community that sums it up quite well.

It’s safe to say, Evernote was about to have a bad time.

But history is history right? Developers have learned from this kind of user treatment and chosen to take care of their existing users yes?

Well… no, clearly not. Example? The Ulysses Team.

This week Ulysses have announced they have changed their pricing model over to a subscription base. Ulysses will now cost you $4.99 a month or $39.99 a year USD. That’s $6.99 a month or $54.99 AUD in my country. This price is also platform agnostic, once price, all devices.

Fine by me, I understand that they need to continue to pay for things as I mentioned much earlier in this article, and for new customers it lowers the barrier for people wanting to adopt Ulysses into their workflow.

Great.

But wait a minute, we’re forgetting something… oh… the existing users who’ve already spent a large amount of money purchasing Ulysses when it was a one-time-payment.

Shit.

So now, like myself, the Ulysses community is in a bind. Having outlaid a large sum (for an app of this calibre) for cross-platform features, only to have the Ulysses team decide to pull the expensive rug out from under your feet and demand additional yearly outlay. Not cool Ulysses team, not cool.

There isn’t a singular community on Reddit that centers on Ulysses, however it has an incredibly strong community of writers. The community feel of these groups on Reddit eerily mimic that of the above Evernote discussion.

So what now?

The piecemeal (and paltry) offering that the Ulysses Team have provided existing users is to calculate the amount of time from an arbitrary (read: unreleased) date that they’ll allow an existing user to use their software under the new subscription model based on the date of purchase from the Mac/iOS App Stores.

They’ve also indicated a that an existing user can purchase into the subscription model with a 50% ‘life-long’ discount as mentioned in the press release email sent to all users who’d previously purchased the app on the 11th of August 2017.

A section from the second page of the Ulysses press release emailed to users on the 11th of August 2017

However, on opening the new version of Ulysses it clearly states that this ‘life-long’ discount is only 25% not 50%…

Subscription selection dialog box from Ulysses Version 11.1 (35486)

Not only is the 50% ‘life-long’ discount confusing, the reality of a 25% discount on a yearly subscription is insulting to existing loyal customers.

The more astute among you may realise that the 50% has been calculated on the deviation between the monthly subscription and the yearly fee. So where the above image shows $6.99 as the monthly price, the 50% is that of the yearly cost (when calculated per month) is slightly less than half of the monthly cost.

The cost in AUD yearly is $54.99. If purchased monthly the cost is $6.99 a month. When you multiply the monthly cost ($6.99) by 12 months of a year, you get $83.88.

50% of that of course is $41.94.

The price listed in Ulysses for a yearly subscription (as above) is $40.99 AUD.

Yes, technically this is a 50% discount, and as stated in their press release it is off the monthly subscription. Even though it would be much fairer to existing users for the discount to be applied to the price of a yearly subscription.

I believed in Ulysses, and yet now those who have purchased the software outright are disadvantaged by the activity of people who brought it to life in the first place.

So just like the Evernote debacle, I find myself a digital refugee once more. For now, I’ve reverted to iA Writer as my primary plain text editor, and I’m not leaving anytime soon.

I’ve said it on Twitter most succinctly:

“I’m not willing to support devs that don’t support their user base. We deserve better.”

As customers we do deserve better, we deserve developers who create communities around excellent software to be conscious of the responsibility they hold for the people who’ve invested in their developed software, and of the accountability they have for the changes they make to products through features and pricing that effects their existing user base.

Remember: Without loyal users of your software, you don’t eat.


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