Trying out indie dev on my pygmy pony

Apple / Business / Development / iOS

There’s a lot said about the troubles of being an indie iOS developer, with a recurrence doing the rounds at the moment. It’s fair to say that many consider it an ill-advised move, at least the ones who have not tried it or have tried and failed to make enough money. I remain convinced that to some degree the indies out there who have found profitable niches are not too eager to share this information, for obvious reasons.

After years of contracting, I’m still going to give it a try. I will surely end up with a mix of contracting and app revenue, and that would be fine by me, if not truly indie. It has already started this way because our first app had to be put on hold while I contracted on a BBC natural history app prototype.

The fact is that while being an older developer brings much experience, it does mean that you have to start looking at a broader range of options for income later in life. There is a degree of ageism inherent in the software industry. A 25 year old manager may not feel inclined to hire a 50 year old contractor for various reasons, even if he can drop down to assembly language to try to track obscure bugs, or warn effectively against hipster fads (hey, I’m nowhere near 50 yet, this is just an example). A lot of these can be very reasonable concerns from a business perspective, but perhaps not so much on a human level.

“Can this guy work as long hours as the rest of the team?”

“Will this older guy fit in socially with our team of 20-somethings?”

“These younger guys are much cheaper, let’s just get two of them instead of one experienced guy”

As someone who aims to work remotely to sustain a healthy family life, I feel that iOS/Mac dev has much more potential for me to make a living than my former market of Grails development. With that line of work the rates were great but decent contracts were few and far between. I’m not someone who is interested in the VC-funded startup “we’ll all be millionaires” scene, and there is one thing for sure in those situations; the outcome is not within your control at all.

It was not possible for me to be an indie with Grails web apps (we tried and failed with NoticeLocal) because web app products typically require complex infrastructure, a huge time investment from a relatively large team and are thus hard to fund and sustain. The risk of building a product that does not get traction is incredibly high. Plus, after many years of doing web apps I developed utter contempt for web UIs.

I have been relatively slow to realise that I have always had a strong need to create products and have a connection with my users. I used to have this long ago when I made some good money on the side selling shareware components for Delphi and C++ Builder. I also had this product/user relationship with my plethora of open source Grails plugins. With the latter however, nobody would pay for anything for various reasons; developers are rarely inclined or in a position to buy tools, open source is “free”, and the “contracting pays the bills while you spew out reams of code for free” model is not sustainable no matter what the Free Open Source jockeys like to tell you. I also grew up in a household where my father worked at home and ran his own software business, which was in fact my first employer, so none of this should come as a surprise.

I am going in to the App Store with my eyes wide open, fully aware of the difficulties and challenges around picking the right app to make, the right pricing model, doing the right PR, support and customer service etc. It won’t be easy but I enjoy it because I believe in our abilities and products. I’m hardly new to this as I have been doing it all my career for various projects.

I know that we produce work that is somewhere toward the high end of product development and design, which is half the battle. I share the product design and visual design process with a great designer, which is a game changer as there’s no way I could do this without a solid designer to collaborate with.

The other half… “the business end”, I think I have a pretty good handle on too. I have rules about what we will choose to build based on the perceived size of the addressable market, and what kind of features must be included to make it easier to promote the apps. We’re not interested in making any old app for which we have an itch, but we are only building apps that match our criteria above that we would also use ourselves. I like to think of it as well crafted pop music as opposed to a jazz odyssey.

With most people thinking you can’t make money selling apps, it really can seem like a fools errand at times. This was the inspiration behind the company name1, Montana Floss Co. Ltd. which will be used to release our apps. As I’m writing I just noticed that 25th August will be the anniversary of being registered, and it would be very nice if we can at least submit for review the first of our two apps in the pipeline, Soundproof on that day.

Soundproof App icon

While we’re talking anniversaries, last week was a year since I had an emergency operation to cut my neck open to remove a prolapsed disc from my spine. It was a very frightening time as the scarring on my spinal chord threatened to leave significant permanent damage.

Long story short: the operation worked pretty well, it made me reconsider a lot about life, and I was back to coding our first iOS app (which will be released after our second) two days later. I still play guitar and drums as badly as before, but at least now I can improve as my fingers and legs move when I want them to.

So, back to work! I have to ship Soundproof so that the market can decide whether all the cool features we have in the backlog get to be made, and so I can get on with finishing app #2 which will be part Swift and iOS 8 only.

If you’re interested in beta-testing or reviewing Soundproof, our app for people who need to listen to audio repeatedly to for learning, practice or review, or are just idly interested in when we launch, go here.

UPDATE: I forgot to add thanks to all the iOS/Mac developer community people who candidly share their experiences and thoughts on this stuff over the years I’ve been following so far. Especially Manton Reece & Daniel Jalkut of the excellent Core Intuition podcast, John Siracusa, Casey Liss and Marco Arment for the brilliant ATP podcast, Jared Sinclair, Brent Simmons, Bill Kunz, Justin Williams and his Cocoa Radio podcast, Scotty and the iDeveloper podcast, _David Smith and his Developing Perspective podcast, Michael Jurewitz, David Barnard, Marc Edwards and many, many more.

  1. I did not known until the time of writing that this track was released a few weeks after I was born in 1973. Also, that’s Tina Turner and the Ikettes you can hear on the insanely complicated backing vocals. 

The Author

Marc Palmer (Twitter, Mastodon) is a consultant and software engineer specialising in Apple platforms. He currently works on the iOS team of Concepts sketching app, as well as his own apps like video subtitle app Captionista. He created the Flint open source framework. He can also do a pretty good job of designing app products. Don't ask him to draw anything, because that's really embarrassing. You can find out more here.