Probabilities of Success

I’ve been making some changes to my life of late, bidding adieu to broad, take-em-all freelancing for the Web, and moving towards a state of steadier, longer-term relationships building for iOS. I’m reading these days as a fin de siècle, an end of one era, and the beginning of another.

It’s a period of transition. Right now I continue to provide service to a small number of clients; it’s a vanishing business. In this light, I’m looking ahead to what the future holds. And in one vision of that future, I see a glowing coal of possibility.

Ever since my first trip to Wolf Rentzsch’s C4 conference (that link is to my thoughts on the 2009 edition), I’ve been profoundly affected by Indie Fever — a need to strike out on my own, forge a new software product from the molecules in the air around me, and generate a good, solid living. Support my family with one or two really cool apps.

5136489193 418bf60daf zC4[3] Conference, 2009. Photo by Justin Miller

It’s called “living the dream”. I smile inside when I think of it.

I’ve been spending the intervening years building towards that vision. I’ve watched the market, and more than that, I’ve built the technical skills. I’ve put some apps out there, just to see if I could do it. I’ve had brief glimpses of success. I’ve also seen (and felt) real failure.

Anyone who’s been paying attention knows the challenges of trying to build a lifestyle business making apps. While Apple touts the billions paid out to developers, the truth on the ground suggests that money doesn’t go very far when there’s a million apps beside yours. So when it comes to deciding whether I can make a living from selling apps, I’m confronted by a terrible truth: probability suggests I will fail.

I’m not a numbers guy. But I’ve read all the blog entries and news reports, and listened to my fellow developers. While the iOS ecosystem serves hundreds of millions of people, by and large they don’t want to spend money on your app.

Developers have contrived clever mechanisms for circumventing that state of mind, culminating in the most devious, grotesque perversion imaginable: freemium apps. “Free to play”, and dinged at every turn, by in-app purchases and scammy ads.

I want nothing to do with that. A few years ago, Marco Arment wrote about two App Stores, where he proposed his belief in a space for quality apps. Apps so good that they gather their own success. With even a fraction of a percent of the people in the iOS ecosystem as customers, you can make a good living.

I light the flame of hope within me on that sentiment.

But that flame is weaker now than ever before. Too many people who don’t want to pay for software. Too many apps out there, drawing attention away from yours. While thinking about this, I put the question to my Twitter followers, who provided a range of answers — ultimately, they think it’s still possible, but it won’t just happen.

As an indie developer, I need vision, skill and perseverance to stand a chance of success.

A killer idea isn’t good enough. It needs terrific execution, which means great code, great design, and great thinking. It also needs great marketing, or nobody will know it exists. And it needs the right business plan, or either nobody will give you their money, or you won’t make enough.

It’s a dizzying set of skills, and I have them in uneven measure. So another part of the formula is knowing where and how to outsource those parts where I’m weakest. And being able to afford to do so.

So I’m standing here, on the nadir of a new phase in my life. Do I cling to the work I’ve been doing, or do I gather my nuts and make some wicked peanut butter?

Stay tuned.