Friday, August 1, 2014

Unread wasn't an indie failure, the business model was

There has been a lot of talk about indie success and failure this week, much of from Jared Sinclair's great post looking at his stats for Unread. I'd like to give my take on it.

I don't think Unread is a failure. The conclusion might be right, in that it is really hard to be an indie developer right now, but the reasoning is faulty in my opinion. It seems like mismatched expectations to me. He made $42,000 on a RSS reader app. What was the expectation? The app was featured by Apple, blogged about extensively, and did I mention it made $42,000? It's an RSS reader. They've been provided for free since the beginning of time. Why is this something that should make a million dollars?

I've made a little less than $200,000 on iPhone (and android) apps since I started my business 3 years ago. I've had over 1 million downloads, and I didn't have any free apps until last year. It hasn't been all roses, I've paid out a decent amount of money to designers, and I could easily make more than the ~60k I've been pulling in doing consulting, or getting a 9-to-5. That being said, I'd still consider my time as an indie dev a success.

I tend to work between 20-25 hours a week. I don't work for anyone but myself, I can take off for vacation or if I need to take care of sick family members whenever I want. Unfortunately my family seems to have more than our fair share of health problems so I take a lot of days off taking parents to doctors. There might be some 9-to-5's out there that are pretty understanding, but it would be hard for me to take nearly the amount of time off that I do now. All in all I'm pretty happy how things have gone.

Unread would rank as #1 in my top grossing list. My best selling app, with 3 years of sales, is at 30k. Fortunately for me, I didn't spend a year making it. It took about 2 weeks, along with updates of a week or two each year since. I've had other apps that I spent significantly longer on with less reward. The key though, is to have realistic expectations going in, and matching the effort required to the expectations. What are the expectations for a paid rss reader app? I certainly wouldn't expect it to do much better than Unread has done. You have to match effort to expectations.

The other thing to realize here is that apps continue to sell over time. If your plan is to make your entire development effort back on launch day I think you are doing it wrong. If that is your goal you should switch to consulting. The reason to make products is to continue making money on it each month after development is done (or at least reduced for maintenance and feature updates).

Personally, I would prefer that one app (or suite of apps) could support my development full time. I'd like to work towards that goal of really building a sustainable business instead of just building apps. I'm working towards that with my latest experiment of subscription IAP. That being said, I don't think rss reader is the thing I'd choose as 1 app to support a business. I just don't see it. Are there any other rss readers supporting entire business?

If Unread was one of several apps, and it was limited a bit more to take a bit less dev time, I think it could be considered a nice success. I suspect it will continue selling as Jared works on his next app, and over time it can be a part of a successful portfolio. I don't think it could ever be the only app supporting him though.

I hope if Jared reads this he doesn't take it the wrong way. I think Unread is a great app and he's done a fantastic job with it getting it featured everywhere he did. I just think all the talk about indies this week has been overblown. If want to start big sustainable businesses we need to think bigger. We need to have a plan for that ahead of time. A 1 time payment rss reader doesn't scream big business to me. If we want a nice lifestyle business, a portfolio of smaller apps can still work just fine.

So far I've gone for the portfolio of apps lifestyle business, but now I'm trying to think bigger and more long term. Patrick McKenzie (@patio11) said today many of his bootstrapping friends, including himself, derisk by making each successive business more ambitious. I think that's a good way to think about it. Try something small, get some money coming in, and then try something bigger. Here's to indies having bigger success in the future.


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  2. Interesting article. I agree with you these point that don't think Unread is a failure. The conclusion might be right, in that it is really hard to be an indie developer right now, but the reasoning is faulty in my opinion.
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