Back in July, Brent Simmons asked “Who at the Table is an Indie iOS Developer?” I’d like to put my hand up.

I am an indie iOS developer…

… and I’m not making nearly enough money for myself or my family to live on.

Not yet, anyway.

I plunged into this at the beginning of July, with the hope that developing my app, SongSheet, full-time would bring it to the point where it was profitable and thriving. Of course, right when I do this, talk flares up about the state of indie iOS developers (how few there are, and how difficult it is) across the various blogs that I follow. Considering the timing, it’s quite a personal discussion for me. As you can imagine, I’ve had quite a few chats with friends and family about the topic. I thought it was about time that I bring my own thoughts on the discussion to the table as it were. Maybe it will help someone in a similar situation to myself.

For this post, however, I’m going to start with some backstory.

I’ve been largely working from home as an independent contractor for a bit over a decade. I mostly did desktop Java stuff, developing a number crunching application related to coal mine analysis and planning. But I also dabbled in mobile development before Apple made it cool (and fun). I developed for the failed Amiga Anywhere platform and then later for J2ME/MIDP devices and even C++ programming for Symbian. I was never good at promoting myself, though. Most of my work came from my small network of friends and acquaintances. I had busy periods, and… not so busy periods. At those times I often questioned why I had ever stopped working full-time in a “normal” job. It certainly would have been more financially lucrative for me to have followed the usual career path. But I would have had a lot less time with my family in that case.

Also, if you don’t actively work on keeping a network of peers going, you soon find yourself with fewer people to bounce ideas off and solve problems with, as well as fewer connections for funnelling in new work. In this situation it is very easy to lose motivation for doing the very thing you’ve loved doing since you were a kid in the 80s cutting his teeth learning to program on the Commodore 64…

A few years ago, my resourceful wife, an active part of the local homeschooling community, met another homeschooling mother whose husband was in a similar situation to myself: working independently, could do with some extra motivation. As loving wives do, they conspired to get us together.

We got together. We got on great. We were both keen on getting into iOS development in a bigger way. By this time I had already worked on a few small iOS projects. I had ideas, but they were all too big to tackle on my own. He had a few ideas, too, and one of them resonated with both of us: him, because it grew out of a personal need; me, because I could see its potential and I could also use an app like that.

And so, SongSheet was born.

We got together most Fridays. I would box up my 27” iMac, put it in the car, drive the 15 minutes to his place, set up and get to “work”. We chatted about “stuff” quite a lot. We ate pizza. We even wrote code! We had lots of ideas for the app, but we didn’t have a detailed design or plan. We knew that we needed a great lyrics and chords editor (which I set out to build using the Core Text framework) as well as good chord charts library management. We made a lot of false starts. Took a few breaks. Rewrote large sections of code when a new version of iOS came out. Development dragged on and we both wondered if we would ever get to a 1.0 release.

Then, in early November, 2012, we finally got to the point of saying, “This will do”. It wasn’t perfect. It was missing a lot of “essential” features that the competition had. But the core of our vision was there, and we were happy with it.

We submitted the app on iTunes Connect, threw up a website, and waited nervously for approval, excited as anything to finally get to this point. We were publishing! On our own terms! But both of us were clueless when it came to marketing, and so, with no fanfare, on the 28th November, 2012, SongSheet was approved by Apple and went live on the App Store.

This was the result:

Day one: Hmm… very few sales. A bit discouraging, but it was released near the end of the day, so not too surprising.
Day two: Ahhh, now that looks a little better. The ramp up has begun!
Day three: Another small increase.
Day four: Best day so far! Heading in the right direction.
Day five: Crash.

And… that was it. From day five onward, sales dropped to a trickle. The first time we had a day with zero sales (towards the end of the second week; yes, our sales were that low) was very disheartening. Over the coming months it continued to just trickle along. I’m reluctant to release the exact figures (except to say that they were low), but here’s a graph showing a moving 4 day average of revenue for the first 8 weeks:

First 8 week revenue, moving 4 day average

And, it pretty much stayed like that. We received some money from Apple each and every month, but it wasn’t very much, although it did more than cover the cost of the pizza we ate every Friday :) It was certainly far from justifying the hours we had put into developing the app. But, that was ok: we both had other paying work, and I know that my wife’s original goal of reigniting my motivation was somewhat accomplished. She commented on many occasions about how bright I was after coming home from a day of working on SongSheet.

But I kept thinking… if only we put in this feature, then it will take off. Or… I’ll just write to all these web sites and get them to review the app. Then when everyone knows about it, more people will buy it, and then we can afford to go full-time on this.

Boy was I naïve.

We had a few minor “bumps” in sales here and there. We lowered the price. We released updates. I pestered people for reviews (and one or two even wrote them!). Nothing seemed to make a lasting difference to revenue.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. This is the good bit: we started getting feedback from users who had bought our app. People who used it at gigs almost every night of the week and just loved how easy it was to write and edit chord charts. People who had tried most of the competing apps and settled on SongSheet because of the ease of use. SongSheet received four and five star reviews on the App Store (yes, a few one and two star reviews as well). Customers (as few as there were) seemed to love SongSheet. This is not something I had experienced before with other consulting/contracting work, nor when I worked full-time in a “normal” job.

To get such direct feedback that something you’ve built is making a positive difference for someone else is a thrill every time it happens. What I built matters. This is one of the reasons why I build software: to make the world a better place. But I also code to keep the family fed and a roof over our heads. And working on SongSheet had indirectly helped in this: I started landing more and more contracts / consulting positions writing iOS software for real money. So, in that sense, my launch into iOS development has been successful.

Late in 2013, I ended up with what should have been a dream full-time contract. I was back to working from home, but with a small team of developers around the world. We were working on some game titles we were taking cross-platform across iOS, Android, Windows and other platforms. I had a hand in overall architecture and design, as well as being the primary person for the iOS side of things. But, for various reasons, this didn’t work out well for me and I ended up without work again, and rapidly burning through what money we had left. I was left with one option: look for a “normal” full-time job.

By this time, my skill set (desktop Java, Symbian, iOS) was rather eclectic and not a good fit for what little development work there is in my home region, the Sunshine Coast, in south-east Queensland, Australia. So I widened my job search to Brisbane, which is a two hour commute each way by public transport. Still having difficulty finding work (probably due to the fact that there was plenty of talent local to Brisbane to hire ahead of someone who would be commuting two hours each way each day), our savings ran out.

Crunch time.

Sell the house time.

And it was at this stage that the two of us who had developed SongSheet independently came to the conclusion it would never be viable long-term with both of us owning 50%. The money just wasn’t there. My colleague, keenly aware of my financial situation, made an offer (an extremely generous one when you consider how little the app had made in the 18 months since it launched) to buy me out.

This would have solved so many problems for me. Any sane person (especially one with a family and a mortgage) would have said yes, taken the money, and moved on. In fact, I did say yes practically straight away. And then, immediately regretted my hasty acceptance of his proposal, and put the process on hold.

For, you see, I had been watching, learning. I had become more and more convinced that if SongSheet had some full-time love: a revamped/upgraded website, some actual marketing, fixing and adding the features most complained about by users, working on optimising SongSheet’s App Store presence, and so on, then it should be capable of earning a reasonable income for at least one of us. The market (I believe) was there. The signs were already there - a slow, but definite, upward trend in sales and revenue. And besides, I had no other viable alternative.

So, I did more figuring. I put together a plan. My wife was fully behind me. We asked family and friends for help. We received pledges of financial support. Enough to make a counter-offer to secure ownership of the app, and to allow me to work full-time on the app until the New Year, to give it its best shot at becoming a viable full-time business for me and my family. And if it fails… well, we’ll just sell the house then (something we were already at the point of, anyway), pay everyone back, and then figure out what to do with ourselves.

I made the counter-offer. It was accepted. Money changed hands. On 1 July of this year I officially became the sole owner of SongSheet. Fully responsible for its future, sink or swim.

Call me mad. Call me whatever you want :)

But I call myself an indie iOS developer.

Please stay tuned for the next part where I’ll go into more depth about why I believe I can succeed with SongSheet.

###Update September 6, 2014:

  • You can read part 2 here
  • (I also fixed the date at the top of this post - It should have been August, not July; I’d had a typo in the posts’ metadata)