Tag Archives: indie

Indie publishing is about control

Andy Baio redesigned his blog recently and argued that blogs still matter because of ownership and control. Of course, I agree. And though it may seem far off, there’s no guarantee that Twitter will outlast our own blogs. Andy writes:

Twitter, itself, may be acquired and changed in some terrible way. It’s not hard to imagine a post-Verizon Yahoo selling off Tumblr. Medium keeps pivoting, trying to find a successful revenue model. There’s no guarantee any of these platforms will be around in their current state in a year, let alone ten years from now.

Ben Brooks followed up:

Having my own site gives me complete control to do whatever I want, whenever I want, however I want. I don’t understand why people ever want it any other way.

Words are powerful. Especially right now, why let anyone else have control over the format of our words and how they spread? Having a blog is a statement: our writing exists apart from the whim of an algorithmic news feed.

Proving Marco’s 10-year plan

Erik Person wants to prove Marco Arment’s claim that indie success just requires working hard for 10 years:

Proving whether he is right or wrong is pretty hard to do. Maybe it’s all hard work. Maybe it’s pure luck. Hell, maybe it only takes five years of hard work, and Marco just kind of sucks at it. Either way, I’m going to try to prove it. And not by convincing you with some incredibly efficacious essay. Rather, I’m going to start my 10 years of hard work today.

In a follow-up post, 6 months later:

In the past six months, I’ve managed to change quite a few things. The biggest change was leaving my job at the end of May. After several months of trying to work on projects in the evenings and weekends, I decided it was necessary to go full-time on the projects if I wanted to see any real progress.

I’ve subscribed to Erik’s blog and look forward to following his progress. I hope he blogs more often about how it’s going. If you look at Marco’s blog even 5 years ago, he was usually blogging every day. (By the way, “blog more often” is my advice to nearly everyone, including myself.)

1 year indie

One year ago, I celebrated my first day without a boss. I had just written 2 weeks of daily blog posts about wrapping up work after 14 years at the same company. Today, I’m wearing the same Mac t-shirt and working from Whole Foods again to mark the anniversary.

So how has it gone, a full year as an independent developer? It depends who you ask. While I was leaving the best day job I’ll ever have, there’s still no substitute for the flexibility and freedom to work on my own projects. From that perspective, the last year has been amazing, with some great success on new revenue from Core Intuition and contracting too.

And I made a few decisions early on with how to manage the business that have proven useful to smooth over the bumps. For example, I pay myself a fixed salary on the 1st day of each month, and for 12 months straight I’ve always met that goal. This month, I gave myself a small raise.

On the other hand, I’m still bringing in less money than when I had a real job, and my wife might say that there’s a fine line between being self-employed and unemployed. We’ve let our credit card debt go unchecked. There’s been no slack in the high monthly expenses of the house, car payments, business costs like hosting, and everything else. My income from Riverfold has grown significantly, but not significantly enough.

Yet, I’m upbeat. I’m upbeat because of the potential for what I set out to do a year ago: ship Snippets.today and help revolutionize independent microblogging. That’s still the plan. That’s still why this experiment of working for myself is in its very early stages, even a year later.

Peace, indies, and the App Store

You’ve probably heard that Marco Arment has pulled his content-blocking app Peace from the App Store. The app was extremely successful:

“As I write this, Peace has been the number one paid app in the U.S. App Store for about 36 hours. It’s a massive achievement that should be the highlight of my professional career. If Overcast even broke the top 100, I’d be over the moon.”

I’ve seen some comments asking why he didn’t think to do this sooner, before he even shipped the app. But we are just now starting to understand the impact of ad blockers in iOS 9. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the web is different than it was a few days ago, and so our choices — and Marco’s — are different too. As I mentioned yesterday, content blockers are one facet of an overall shake-up for the web.

Brent Simmons writes that only indies can do what Marco did. Marco must have left a lot of money on the table with this decision. It will always look like the right call to me when someone goes with their gut feeling and not with profit.

Two weeks notice: it just works out

John Saddington, who develops the Mac blog editor Desk, pointed to one of my recent posts and wrote:

“It does make me ponder, once again, what I’m doing with my so-called ‘career’ and if it’s the ‘right’ one. Although, every single time I think about that I know that I won’t like the answer… yet it always just works. I can’t tell you why or how I found or discovered this cadence, but, to each his own.”

Which in turn makes me reflect on my own career. I’ve been extremely lucky. The right jobs just seemed to have presented themselves to me when I needed them. I hope that luck hasn’t led to overconfidence as I take these next steps to become more independent. It would be a glorious failure if my luck runs out just when I need it most.

So I’ll have to work harder. I’ll have to better manage my finances, better plan and execute on new products, and better support each app so they’ll form a sustainable business. As I type this, I’m actually a little nervous for the first time since I put in my notice. Lots to do.

Tonight’s challenge: finish integrating CodeMirror into my new app, to provide Markdown syntax highlighting. I had never heard of this JavaScript library before this week. It seems very capable — a big jump forward on a feature I didn’t even think I could provide for 1.0.

Two weeks notice: the first weekend

I have some big news to share, so obviously I’m going to write a bunch of blog posts about it. This is the first one.

For a while now I’ve been juggling working on my own projects, with my indie company Riverfold Software, and having a regular job at the education e-book software company VitalSource, where I’ve been for over 14 years. As much as I felt like this balance mostly worked, lately it has become clear that the “nights and weekends” approach to Riverfold just isn’t going to be enough time going forward. Last week I resigned from my job at VitalSource to focus on growing Riverfold and shipping new apps this year, some of the most ambitious products I’ve ever tackled.

I thought it would be fun to do a series of blog posts about the early part of this transition. For the next couple weeks, as I wind down one set of projects and ramp up new ones, I’m going to post here with the slightly-catchy title prefix “Two weeks notice”. It will be me thinking out loud about the transition, kind of in the informal spirit of Brent’s syncing diary, or like a more serialized version of the classic indie posts from Gus Mueller and Paul Kafasis.

But unlike the authors of those posts, I can’t claim to have found success yet. If you take Scotty’s definition from the iDeveloper podcast, in fact, I’m not “indie” at all; I expect some percentage of my time will have to be reserved for client projects to help pay the bills. While I used to find that idea distasteful — why give up a consistent salary if you’re not even going to call the shots? — I’ve come to realize that client work can be pretty interesting. The cycle of starting new projects and shipping them is a good way to learn new APIs and iterate on how to build an app from scratch.

While reading all these 2005-era indie blog posts, I was surprised to rediscover that Daniel Jalkut also mentioned mixing in consulting work:

“Consulting makes an excellent back-up plan. You’ve always got a job if you need it, and your destiny is very much in your own hands.”

Of course he wanted more than that: to build a great company based around his own apps. I’m sure Daniel and I will be talking about this on Core Intuition later this week.

So it is a little in the vein of “leap and the net will appear” that I’m moving on from a stable job, where I worked with great developers and friends, to something new that is a lot less certain. I thought that would make for a stressful week, but so far, everything seems okay.

There’s paperwork to do and code to write. There’s health insurance to figure out. But there are also some things that have already been wrapped up. My projects at work are in a good place, hopefully not needing constant maintenance. We just refinanced our house, so that’s a monthly savings, and something that I’m told is difficult without a “real” job.

Friday night I started catching up on some late business taxes (whoops). Saturday I finished editing the podcast (which we recorded over a week ago). The rest of the weekend I tried to relax with family (but I worked anyway). It’s Monday now and there’s a busy week ahead. Let’s see how this goes.

Luck being indie

When Gus Mueller recently linked to Paul Kim’s post on being indie, he called out the section on luck:

“One thing that I did learn is to have a healthy respect for randomness. Luck plays a huge role and you can’t always attribute one’s success or failure solely on their decisions and actions.”

Reminds me of the book Get Lucky by Lane Becker and Thor Muller. Like half the business books I’ve bought, I never finished reading the whole thing, but it’s in the stack on my bedside table and I pick it up every once in a while and read something new. I love the book’s premise and they’ve got some great stories.

Most of life is a series of random opportunities. Knowing which ones to skip and which to double-down on makes all the difference.

Omni gets Brent, and a SilverPine update

We are so lucky in the Mac and iOS developer community that there are a number of ways to be successful. The most common:

  • Work for someone else at their company.
  • Work for yourself as an indie developer.
  • Work for clients as a contractor or consultant.
  • Any mix of the above or all 3.

There’s no right answer. What works for one developer might be a poor choice for someone else. And throughout our careers, we may move between any of these different paths depending on what life and family require.

Today, Brent Simmons announced that he’s making one of those moves. He’s starting at Omni, and he’ll continue to work on Vesper as well:

“I love that I get to work on both Vesper and on Omni apps. Omni is one of the great Cocoa development companies, and they’ve grown slowly and steadily over many years. They write lovable productivity apps — not just great iOS apps but also great Mac apps.”

Also today, Jon Hays announced that his 6-month-old company SilverPine is doing great, and they’ve finished a bunch of client projects:

“To say that some days my hair feels like it’s on fire is an understatement. That being said, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. The work we do is creative, challenging, cutting edge and very rewarding.”

Congrats to both! Change is exciting. It’s great to see friends happy doing what they love.

Apple and the impression of being small

Jonathan “Wolf” Rentzsch at the C4 conference in 2007 defined indie as simply “non-large”. This covers not just the small, one- and two-person companies, but also the bigger software development shops like Realmac, Smile, Panic, and Omni that have 10-40 employees but still feel independent. They’re all part of the community. Panic may have a bunch of employees now but it appears from the outside like it’s not that much more complex of a company than if Cabel Sasser, Steven Frank, and their friends were building great apps out of someone’s apartment.

Small is personable, nimble, and bright. Small makes customers feel like a company is not that different than the rest of us.

One of the magic tricks that Apple has pulled off is somehow maintaining a similar feel even as they have grown to be the world’s largest tech company. They’re bigger in revenue than Microsoft, Google, Oracle, and a dozen other software companies that have a much more obvious over-sized, bureaucratic feel. But you walk into an Apple Store to chat with an employee at the Genius Bar, or browse apple.com looking for a product, and it’s almost as if nothing has changed in the last decade. The complexity of the supply chain, of too many products, of layers of management — it’s all hidden.

Why aren’t Apple employees allowed to blog? Part of it is secrecy, sure. But too many voices also creates noise, and noise makes simple things messy, confusing. Apple still gives the impression of being smaller than they really are because our view of them is heavily filtered. What we see is the beautiful tip of a massive iceberg.

And maybe that’s why pundits keep waiting for Apple to fail. Because the company doesn’t look that different, the doubters just can’t comprehend how big and unstoppable Apple has become under the surface.

Sparrow and the unlimited indies

Recently I found myself in rare disagreement with Matt Gemmell:

“Indie devs are an endlessly replenishable resource. Good indie devs are similarly replenishable. This acquisition has no effect whatsoever on the rest of us, except for further legitimising the practice of big companies buying us up. That cannot possibly be a bad thing.”

While the general argument that Matt makes is solid — that Sparrow customers should be happy for the developers being acquired by Google, and that paying $3 for an app doesn’t give anyone a right to complain or feel betrayed — there are a couple ways that this acquisition could be a bad thing for everyone else.

Good indie devs, especially successful ones, are a limited resource. There are very few indie companies able to make a client as polished as Sparrow was, and even fewer with commercial success.

And with Twitter’s latest anti-competitive moves, we may end up losing another market that was friendly to indie developers and rich with UI innovation.

My favorite take on the Sparrow acquisition and what it means for sustainable indie software came from Rian van der Merwe:

“We need to reframe this argument. The real issue is much deeper than this specific acquisition. The real issue is the sudden vulnerability we feel now that one of our theories about independent app development has failed.”

The Sparrow acquisition came as a surprise to most of us. One day, they look like a successful company, taking on a difficult market and winning against free competition. The next day, they’re gone. I wish them luck at Google, but it is a loss for the community of small Mac and iOS companies.

(Speaking of Matt Gemmell, he’s just released a new Mac app called Sticky Notifications for sticking reminders in Mountain Lion’s notification center.)

Direct download as a bargaining chip

In the closing paragraph of “my Mac App Store follow-up post”:http://www.manton.org/2011/06/mac_app_store_followup.html, I suggested that eventually most developers will exclusively distribute through the App Store. John Brayton, the developer of “CloudPull”:http://www.goldenhillsoftware.com/ for Google Docs backup, “called this out on Twitter”:http://twitter.com/johnbrayton/status/83214489025134592:

“Good post, but disagree that selling outside the MAS won’t be worthwhile. IMHO we should be using our own stores as bargaining chip.”

“In a thread to the MacSB mailing list”:http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/macsb/message/18381, John has a related version of this reasoning:

“Selling independently provides protection against Mac App Store policy decisions that could affect my app. If Apple decides tomorrow to kick me out of the Mac App Store, I would take a hit but I would still be able to sell my app.”

I couldn’t agree more, to both points. There may be some advantages to going App Store-only — less initial setup for checkout and licensing, no confusion about which version to buy, or where to upgrade — but indie Mac developers should be doing everything they can to control their own destiny. Having your own store is just good business sense.

Congratulations, you’re a manager

The sort of odd “best of both worlds” balance in my different projects at “VitalSource”:http://www.vitalsource.com/ and as a solo shop is that I love working with a team, and I also love working alone. I mean really alone, doing the planning and design and coding and marketing. I’ve resisted farming out any piece of my apps at “Riverfold”:http://www.riverfold.com/ (except the application icon) so that I can have complete control. It’s brutally hard sometimes, but it’s mine.

If you’re working by yourself and add another person to the project, a funny thing happens: you become a manager. Before, you could spend 100% of your time on the work. Now you can allocate 50-75%, because you’re getting the new programmer up to speed, answering questions, and setting priorities. If you’re lucky (and I usually am), the person you added is contributing so much that it easily makes up for your loss in productivity, and then some.

The trade-off is worth it. Exchange the previous low communication overhead for extra coding man-hours.

You can build something great with a team, something that would be impossible alone, if you surround yourself with people who are better at your job than you are. I love that first moment when a team doubles in size from 1 to 2, or 2 to 4.

But after the initial frenzy of coding and emails and new features, I usually get burned out again. The project doesn’t strictly need me anymore, and I’m ready to get back to starting an app from scratch, when the scope is so small that the whole thing still fits in my head.

STAPLE! in Austin today (year 4)

Like independent comics and art? “STAPLE! is in Austin today”:http://www.staple-austin.org/ at the Monarch Event Center, off I-35 and 2222. I’ve been on the STAPLE! planning committee for four years now and have enjoyed watching our little show grow from its humble beginnings, but it’s still a completely non-profit, volunteer-led endeavor and we need your support to make it a success. Come join us anytime between 11am and 7pm (or “check the schedule”:http://www.staple-austin.org/guests/ for our featured session times), and then come back downtown later tonight for the after-party and live-art show at Red’s Scoot Inn (“flyer”:http://www.staple-austin.org/promote/staple2008_afterparty.jpg).

Don’t give up, shipping takes time

I love the passion in “this comment from Wil Shipley”:http://theocacao.com/comment/5466:

“This app is all I’m working on. My entire reputation, my 25 years in the industry, my company is all riding on this release. I’m not going to just suddenly give up one day for no reason.”

I’m one of those people who will upgrade to “Delicious Library”:http://www.delicious-monster.com/ 2 on the first day and I know I won’t be disappointed. Although my indie app has a tiny fraction of the users Delicious has, I’m currently going through the same kind of delays.

After months of quick, focused “Wii Transfer”:http://www.riverfold.com/software/wiitransfer/ releases, I decided in November to skip a minor bug fix release and roll up all the outstanding issues into a bigger release with several important user interface improvements. You reach a point in this process where there is no turning back, and for every refinement to the product you see just how much more you could do. I think it’s that kind of constant, iterative polishing that Wil is going through now.

If you are curious about the business of software development, don’t miss his “talk from C4”:http://www.viddler.com/explore/rentzsch/videos/4/ last year. In many ways I’m glad it took so long for the videos to go up; I’ve already forgotten half of the content so it will be fun to review the sessions.

New and old posts about NetNewsWire

“NetNewsWire is free”:http://inessential.com/?comments=1&postid=3461 (congrats again Brent!) and reaction is coming in from other indie developers.

“Rory Prior”:http://www.thinkmac.co.uk/blog/2008/01/scorched-earth.html: “It’s hard to compete with a product that’s as well known and frankly as good as NNW, it’s damn near impossible to compete with it when it’s free.”

“Paul Kafasis”:http://www.rogueamoeba.com/utm/posts/Article/NNWFree-2008-01-09-19-00.html: “When something is given away for free, its perceived value is lowered. If software is treated as valueless, it becomes much, much harder to sell.”

Ultimately I don’t think it’s going to have a significant negative impact as far as devaluating other software (except of course other news readers) because most people paying attention should connect that it supports Newsgator’s core business model. But rather than debate the issue I searched my archives to see what else I had said about the product. It must be one of the most-blogged-about apps ever, right? I’m limiting it to 1 post per year.

2002: “Moving to NetNewsWire”:http://www.manton.org/2002/09/moving_to_netnewswire.html

2003: “NetNewsWire as a platform”:http://www.manton.org/2003/03/netnewswire_as_a.html

2004: “Google and the great apps to come”:http://www.manton.org/2004/12/google_and_the_great.html

2005: “Tabs are a hack”:http://www.manton.org/2005/05/tabs_are_a_hack.html

2006: “Time for thinking”:http://www.manton.org/2006/07/time_for.html

2007: “New software releases (plus screencast)”:http://www.manton.org/2007/06/new_software_releases.html

2008: “New and old posts about NetNewsWire”:http://www.manton.org/2008/01/new_and_old.html (you’re reading it!)