15 Years Ago, I Went Indie and Didn’t Know It.
Ulysses is turning 15 these days. You read that right: fifteen freaking years. In computer terms that’s an eternity. And for me, now 31 years old, it certainly feels like one. This is my story.
So much has happened since that 1st of July, when we released version 1.0 of Ulysses. 2003 was the year of Finding Nemo, Kill Bill and Pirates of the Caribbean, the shipping release of Mac OS X was 10.2, and click-wheel iPods were the hottest thing around. Feeling old already? Well, it is a long time ago.
Since then, everything has changed in my life: I graduated from high school, started and finished university, started and quit a PhD, moved four times, made a lot of friends and lost some, traveled a couple of dozen of countries, got married and became father of three daughters. There are so many memories, moments and events … it’s overwhelming.
Ulysses has been with me all that time. No matter where I was, no matter what I was doing, I kept coming back to this project. What started as a hobby in my free time somehow turned into a proper company of 12 people.
When thinking back, what strikes me the most is how I never planned to become who I am now. I’d attribute most of my path to a privileged childhood, coincidence, timing, dedication, perseverance and a portion of luck. In hindsight, one could think that I carefully planned the consecutive steps towards a goal. But I never had that big a vision for what I wanted to become, where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do “later in life”. Instead, lazy as I am, life just played out step by step.
For example, as a child I wanted to become an inventor, not knowing what a programmer even was. I would draw trains in MiniCAD, the CAD software of my parents — landscape architects — and then ask them for ways to animate these trains. My uncle — a typesetter — would introduce me to Macromedia Director, sort-of a predecessor to Flash, which happened to be also scriptable. So I started making games for myself and my sister, and later created small tools like calculators with RealBasic. (Funny how all those apps and companies are no longer around or got submerged somewhere.)
I also never set out to build a text editor. I was not even aware that creative writing is a thing — I did not come to like literature in school. I just happened to be on a mailing list for Mac users, where one day one random guy would come around and look for someone to make an app for him. I was the only one getting back, just answering “well, maybe I could do it”. This random guy happened to be Marcus, my partner and friend ever since. We started making this menu bar note-taking app called “NoteX” … nobody will remember. One day he came around again, asking if I wanted to do another app with him, a tool for creative writers. It was more a “why not”, than a deliberate decision. I guess when you’re 16, you just make stuff, not much considering any potential outcomes. I estimated it would take us one month to make this app — and it took us nine.
Starting with this moment, Ulysses has been the most exciting project I could imagine. That’s probably due to its unique challenges and facets… The freedom of working on an independent project, the thrill of always aiming for the best possible solution, the direct impact we can have on people’s lives, the insane amount of feedback we’d get, paired with the technical and cultural challenges we had to deal with every day. Also, no app is ever done — especially not Ulysses. Someone just had to keep working on it…
When it was time to go to university (because that’s what you do at the age of 20), computer science was the evident choice. This was the field I knew and wanted to learn more about. So that went down its route, Ulysses always with me, financing my living, studies, hardware needs and occasional trips to San Francisco for WWDC. (Education is free in Germany, yay to that!) When I was offered a position as a PhD student, even before graduation, of course I accepted. The formal recognition of excellence, being called “Doctor” during police checks — it was just too tempting. (Yeah … I know.) It seemed like I might stop to work on Ulysses.
But then came January 2011. I was 24, and not only did I graduate university and become a father — that month also the Mac App Store launched. We took our good old Ulysses side-project, polished it up just a little and put it on there. To our complete surprise, we sold more copies within the first week than half the year before that! That was crazy. What used to be a side project for many years was suddenly making real money. We figured it might be just enough to get both of us new Macs, and to sustain our living for three or so months. Enough time to get started, finally in full-time, and to see where it would take us.
And so… we took the plunge. I quit my PhD, and we founded a company — The Soulmen. This was maybe the only deliberate, big decision about my entire career. I don’t regret it.
Fast-forward to today, we are still on it. We are still making a writing app, still aiming at creative writers (amongst others), still called Ulysses. Our original vision of making it easier for people to express themselves has not changed. And we still strive to be at the forefront of our field. Some things never change.
I am very proud that we managed to stay true to our principles. It was never about the money, but always about the product. Of course, we need to eat and drink and live. But if it were about the money, we would not have turned away quite a few investors trying to pitch us with their “support”. I firmly believe that on the path to a great product, there are no shortcuts. If you take shortcuts, it’s always the product that suffers. We managed to never really compromise on the app.
Still, it’s been hard work, and things were extremely difficult at times. We struggled, we failed, and we had to take steps back. We had to learn to deal with the very negative feedback we’d get at times. I would get sick from overworking. We even went almost bankrupt once. We had to grow as persons, as partners, and as a team. Indie life is tough. But we are still here. And we’re better than ever.
Looking back, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. We are here today because of all the people who kept trusting in us and supporting us. This is a big Thank You to our users — without you, all of this would make no sense. Our friends and our families — where do I begin? I feel so lucky for still being able to work on Ulysses, especially with this great team we are now. You are the best.
The biggest Thank You, though, goes to my friend and partner Marcus. I wouldn’t be who I am without your ideas and your creativity. You brought us here. That was a crazy ride, man. Thank you so much.
15 years ago we went indie. Here is to the next 15!