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Hunting and Farming on the App Store

Why getting noticed isn’t enough for indie developers

My brother works in outside sales to businesses. In talking about his work, he frames his job as hunting and farming. Hunting is the work of generating leads to find new customers, what most of us think of when we think of marketing. Farming is the work of selling to your existing customers. Hunting is necessary for any business, but it’s hard work to both get the attention of strangers and to convince them to give you money. Farming, while still hard, is much less work. These are the people who already like and trust you enough to have given you money.

In the recent discussions of indie life on the iOS App Store, there’s been a lot of talk about hunting, but only some talk about farming. Most of the discussions about farming have been lamentations that Apple doesn’t allow upgrade pricing, the classic example of farming in the software business.

Farming on the App Store is difficult because Apple doesn’t allow upgrade pricing, but also because they do not provide any information about who purchased your app. Despite the difficulties, farming isn’t impossible.

The OmniGroup has done a great job with farming with their OmniFocus family of software. Before OmniFocus ever existed, many people were using OmniGroup’s OmniOutliner paired with a suite of AppleScripts to get GTD functionality. When OmniGroup built OmniFocus 1.0 for the Mac, they were able to farm these existing customers to build OmniFocus’s user base. Then when the App Store launched on the iPhone, OmniGroup released OmniFocus for the iPhone at $19.99, a fortune by App Store standards! They could launch and maintain this price because they were farming OmniFocus for the Mac’s install base.

Instapaper originally launched as a free web only service. When the App Store launched on the iPhone, Marco Arment was able to farm these existing users to sell Instapaper on iOS. He later farmed his customers again when he added subscriptions to Instapaper.

When Vesper launched, Q Branch was able to farm John Gruber’s Daring Fireball audience. Q Branch is planning on continuing to farm. They recently added sync to Vesper on the iPhone and they have a Mac client in the works.

King does a lot of hunting to get new users to play Candy Crush, but they make their profits farming their “whales”, the users who are willing to spend an inordinate amount of money on in-app purchases.

Apple cares a lot about bringing the iPhone to emerging markets like China, but they care equally as much about “customer sat” and improving the iPhone each year so that their existing customers will buy a new one.

In all of the above cases, the parties involved rely heavily on selling replacement products, complementary products, subscriptions, or consumable in-app purchases to existing customers. They all depend on farming for their businesses to be sustainable.

Because farming is difficult on the App Store, indie developers need to think about how they’ll farm while designing their product. Since Apple does not provide a direct way to reach existing customers, we all need to think of how to reach them while designing our apps. Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works, both for our customers, but also for our businesses. Unless you’re a telemarketer, hunting alone won’t sustain your business. You have to be a farmer.

Written by

Programmer, former attorney. I try to be funny and kind. If you have something nice to say, please email me at wittigjr@gmail.com.

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