Building a sustainable app business flying solo

Most articles written about the App Store paint a pretty gloomy picture for indie developers. It is true — building a sustainable app businesses is really hard. There are, however, indies who are silently making a good living on the App Store. I am always encouraging indies who have had some success to share their story so we all can learn from both their mistakes and their triumphs so that we can continue to discover as a community how to build healthy, sustainable businesses on the App Store together.

So today I want to introduce you to Brendan Duddridge. Brendan has been building an organizer app called Tap Forms for six years and has made a full-time living from the app for the last four. I first met Brendan a couple months ago when he reached out about (and actually became the first customer for) for Tapity Rocket — our service to help market apps. We have been helping him launch Tap Forms 5, which arrived just today!

As Brendan and I talked about his business, I thought he had a really interesting story so I decided to interview him for the benefit of all those aspiring indies out there.

Tap Forms is the digital filing cabinet for your life — version 5 just came out today.

Hey Brendan, to kick this off can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into the app business?

My interest in programming goes way back to my junior high school days when I joined the lunch time computer club. That was actually in 1981 would you believe! Our school had a room full of Radio Shack TRS-80 computers and we used to get to load them up with software installed from cassette tapes and play the games. The problem is that by the time you got the game or whatever program loaded, lunch time was over. The cassettes were very unreliable. If it didn’t load the first time you were basically screwed because you’d run out of time.

During one lunchtime session I watched my teacher program something on the computer and I remember thinking that it was amazing that what he was typing made absolutely no sense to me since I had never seen a programming language before. I believe it was the BASIC programming language he was typing. That’s the first language that I ever learned to program. I learned by copying lines of code from magazines. Those were the days!

Meet Brendan

Fast forward to 1992 and I earned a Bachelors degree in Computer Science from the University of Manitoba, Canada. So I do have some qualifications as a programmer. At least I like to think I do. In all those years I had learned to program in quite a number of different languages. Even APL, which silly enough stands for “A Programming Language”. Look it up in Wikipedia and you’ll see what a crazy language that is!

The main reason I decided to get into the iOS app world was because I had always wanted to write a Mac application. It didn’t matter what. I just wanted to write one. When the iPhone was released and I saw how simple and to the point mobile apps were, I thought it would be a great entry point to helping me to learn the language of the Mac, which of course was Objective-C.

At the time I started working on Tap Forms I was still doing WebObjects development full time for a company that I was a partner in. I was actually the CTO of that company managing a team of developers and designers, plus also doing development myself. I never wanted to be one of those developers who eventually got into management and never programmed again. So I just kept on programming… and managing.

But I knew that I really wanted to get an iOS app built so I began working on Tap Forms in the evenings and weekends. It pretty much became a full time job outside of my full time job. But that was fine with me because not only was programming my career, it was also my hobby. So I didn’t mind doing double-duty like that. It was fun and exciting to create something new from scratch that never existed before on this new mobile platform.

Tap Forms for Mac

So you juggled your Tap Forms business and your full-time job — what were the challenges with that and how did you overcome them?

I think when you love doing something so much and you have an idea of what you want to build, putting in all those extra hours in the evenings and weekends just feels like it’s something you have to do. I was basically compelled to keep working on it by my own mind. Plus also hearing the early success stories of the beginning days of the App Store was also a motivating factor. Mind you, I wasn’t too far off the initial grand opening of the store. I believe that opened in July of 2008 and Tap Forms went on sale at the end of September of that year. So just managing to complete version 1.0 was a huge accomplishment for me.

I remember sitting around the dinner table one day discussing Tap Forms with my family telling them that it would be super amazing if I could earn $50 per day from Tap Forms. I had no idea at the time that Tap Forms would ever be successful enough to do full time. I was just hoping to earn a little extra pocket money for my family and have some fun doing it at the same time.

But then I got featured on the home page of iTunes by Apple in February of 2009. Everything changed then. I suddenly found myself earning more money from Tap Forms than I was earning from my day job. But then as always happens on the App Store, the feature disappears and sales eventually slow down. Although I didn’t make more than my day job after no longer being featured, it was definitely more than the $50 per day I had hoped for in the beginning.

Eventually though, things with my business partners became difficult because I was spending so much time outside of my day job working on Tap Forms and not working on stuff for the company. I think that bothered them a lot. Eventually things broke down and I decided to leave. But fortunately at the time another friend of mine had just created an iOS app development company called Robots & Pencils here in Calgary. He needed some help working on some apps and so he hired me to do some development work on contract. So there I was again, doing work for someone else in the day and doing Tap Forms in the evenings and weekends. But this time it was different. This time I was doing iOS development work and everything I learned about it in the day could be used to help me make Tap Forms a better, more feature rich product in the evenings and weekends. I’m very grateful to my friend Michael Sikorsky for having given me the chance to refine my iOS app development skills for him at his company Robots & Pencils. Without that, I may not have made it to the next level.

When you were first starting out, how did you get your first customers?

Well, I didn’t do a whole lot actually. I was just super thrilled to have an app on the App Store. What more could I ask for? I do remember running to a friend’s house down the street though and showing him that I had Tap Forms up on the App Store. It was a great day for sure. I think some of my friends did purchase it in the initial days. But since I was there near the beginning of the App Store, there wasn’t a whole lot of apps to choose from, so I didn’t do too bad. I do remember when Tap Forms was first listed in the Business category, there were only 63 apps there at the time. Imagine that! But somehow I managed to earn $11,800 CAD that first year though! Not bad for 3 months working in the evenings and weekends.

Tap Forms for iOS

What were the factors that led you to decide to build Tap Forms full time?

It all started with a tweet from a friend.

I woke up one morning to read a tweet from my friend who congratulated me that FileMaker had just announced that Bento was being discontinued. Even though Bento was still to be supported for another year, Tap Forms sales tripled the next day. That was it. I guess you could call that luck, but I rather think of it as having the right product at the right time. Tap Forms had grown up to be a complete suite with Mac, iPhone, and iPad versions so it became a much more useful product than simply having one iPhone app.

Getting customers for a launch is one thing but building a sustainable business where the curve continues to go in the right direction, is completely different.

What were the factors that you think contributed the most to the growth of your sales in the long term?

After the announcement that Bento was being discontinued, I received a lot of emails from customers asking if Tap Forms could import their data from Bento. It could as long as you first exported your data as a CSV file from Bento. However, that didn’t bring along images with the data. So you had to dig into Bento’s data structures, get all the media out of the Bento file and then get those into Tap Forms. It was a real pain to have to do that.

So the best thing that I believe caused my sales to be sustainable in the long term was to write a Bento template importer that made the whole process a simple two-step process.
The late Bento

Just export your data from Bento as a Bento Template file. Then use the Import Bento Template command in Tap Forms to import the data. Everything comes along with it including media, file attachments, related libraries, etc.

Note from Jeremy: while Bento being discontinued may seem like luck, we can learn a lot from it. The fall of Bento left a vacuum in the marketplace. When evaluating your app idea, it is always good to look for vacuums — quality vacuums, design vacuums, or even something like this where a big competitor left the space.

There is one other important thing which I feel has been a huge contributor to the success of Tap Forms. That’s customer support. A product that is as fully featured as Tap Forms is bound to have support requests from customers needing help with this or that aspect of the app.

I’ve worked hard to be known for someone who provides excellent and timely support to all my customers’ questions. I answer every email, every forum post, and every blog comment almost as quickly as I receive them.

The only thing that might cause a delayed response is if I’m out of town or sleeping. And by delayed response, I generally mean longer than 1 day. Pretty much most of the time I answer emails within minutes of receiving them during the day time hours. When I wake up in the morning, answering emails is the first thing I do. I am a bit of a night owl though, so even though I live in Calgary, Canada, it’s not unheard of me to answer an email from someone at 3:00 in the morning who’s in some far off time zone like the UK, Australia, or Japan. I get a kick out of how surprised they are to have received a response so quickly.

And even when I’m away from my computer if the replies don’t need to be that long, I will happily answer them on my iPhone when I’m out and about.

I think great customer service goes a long way to improving sales. Word of mouth is a powerful advertising medium and its best to do whatever you can to keep your customers engaged and happy not only with your product, but with you as a developer.

Lots of people try to build app businesses. Very few end up being sustainable in the long term. What are the pitfalls that you often see when developers are trying to build their app businesses?

Unfortunately I don’t know very many developers who have tried to make a go out of writing an app for themselves for the App Store. Most of them are writing apps for other people. I have tried to convince a few of them they should use their intelligence and app development experience to build their own apps, but they’ve never given it a serious go.

What I did see was a lot of reluctance to even begin just because of the sheer magnitude of the number of apps that are already there. They feel like everything has been done already. What’s really funny and a bit frustrating about that is they’ve been saying that since the first year the App Store opened its doors.

Sure there were dozens of calculator apps in the store and tons of twitter clients, but that didn’t stop Tapbots from one-upping them all and making a better product that will delight their customers AND earn them a decent living.

So I say, who cares about the pitfalls of building an app business. Just do it and get your idea onto the store. It doesn’t matter if it’s been done before. Each time you do it you learn a little more about the entire process and about what makes a great app. Go on, you can do it! I know you can!

If Phill Schiller told you he would grant you one wish for the App Store, what would it be?

Hehe.. That’s an easy one. Upgrades for iOS and Mac apps. Tap Forms 5 will be the first upgrade that I’ve charged for in over 8 years since I first launched Tap Forms on the App Store in September of 2008. Unfortunately the way things are now, it’s quite complicated to provide an upgrade path for customers who have purchased from either App Store. But I guess Apple really wants developers to work towards the new subscription model service they announced just before this year’s WWDC so I don’t think we’ll see app upgrades any time soon. It sure would make our lives easier though. Apple has the ability to check to see if an app has already been purchased by a customer and give them a discount on an upgrade. We would just need a new interface in iTunes Connect for that. We wouldn’t even need to modify our apps to support it since it would be a server side check. Just let me connect Product A to Product B and if Product A was purchased within a certain time frame, let the customer buy Product B at a specified discount.

Big thanks to Brendan for sharing his story with us. His new version of Tap Forms just launched today — I would encourage you to check it out!

Full disclosure: Brendan was our first Tapity Rocket customer so we have been helping him market his latest version of Tap Forms, which I am happy to see is climbing the charts. As of this writing it is #1 business and #4 overall on the Mac App Store. To be clear, this article was not part of the services Brendan paid us for and we have no interest in Tap Forms.

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