You Guys Are Millionaires Right?
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People often ask, “What’s it like to be an independent developer?”, “You guys are millionaires right?”, “Your job sounds awesome, tell me more!”. So let’s talk about what it’s like to be an independent developer. First things first, no we’re not millionaires, few indie devs are. Philip drives a Magna (the Australian equivalent of a Yugo/Lada), I drive a lease car, Matt doesn’t have a car. None of us own houses, though 2 of us have mortgages. I’d like to address some common mis-conceptions and answer some questions. Like a true politician I’ve seeded the question list myself, and I’ll be answering. For once though we’ll leave the comments open, so feel free to ask any questions you may have.
So you guys are rolling in money right?
No. In fact we’ve been losing money for the last 6 months. By losing money, I mean literally every month the amount of money in our bank account has been going down. Before we got featured by Google on the Android market place, we were about a month away from having no money whatsoever. I’ve talked to many indie developers in Australia, and they are universally in the same boat. Some have taken on client work to try and fill the gap, others are working from home trying to minimise every expense they have. And I’m talking about the successful ones, the companies with great apps that have done well.
So it’s tough being independent?
Yes. You put an enormous amount of effort (and yourself) into every product you make. Sometimes you find people deriding it, or dismissing it after spending 13.2 seconds using it. People tell you not to take that personally. Good luck with that. When you invest 6 months of your life, day and night, creating a product there’s no way in hell you can’t take other people’s comments personally. Reading App Store reviews can be as much fun as slapping yourself in the face with an ice cold trout on days where you manage to ship a bug with your product.
Your decisions are often constrained by practical matters like ‘what do I need to do today, to feed my family in 2 months time?’ and silly things like keeping your company in business. You have to deal with IAS, BAS, Superannuation Insurance and tax up the wazoo. You invent words like wazoo just to stay sane.
Then you see an app like ’101 sex positions’ or ’301 Fart Noises’ reach the lofty heights of App Store Success. They spent a week on a gimmick and made bank, you spent 6 months building an app of utility and are struggling. Let’s not even get into the long debates you get into with people about whether they should buy your $1.99 app. People will spend hours researching a $2 purchase, browsing reviews, emailing the developer, checking online forums. Then they will go to a coffee shop they’ve never been before and buy a $4 coffee. From the developer they expect unlimited support, unlimited free updates. From the coffee shop they expect nothing except mediocre coffee.
Finally it’s not a level playing field either. There are companies with millions of dollars behind them making apps, whole teams of people. At the other end of the spectrum there are young, keen enthusiasts working out of their parents basements. The former might crush you with the sheer size of their teams, and the level of features and integration they provide. The latter may kill you because they don’t care much for, or need to make money and can undercut you at every turn.
But there’s good bits too right?
Yes, of course. You get to do what you love, and nobody is your boss. You get to create great products that people love using. You get emails from people telling you how your apps have changed their lives, touched them (in strictly non-sexual) and awesome ways. The good really does outweigh the bad, no question at all. I wouldn’t trade this job for any other in the world, except maybe the one Richard Branson has…the idea of your own private islands does have a certain appeal…
It’s a problem, always has been in the software industry. As a kid I pirated all my software, because I felt like these were giant, faceless corporations that didn’t need my money, and I had no money to give them anyway. I pirated operating systems, I pirated apps, I pirated games. Then one day I got a job, and learnt just how hard it is to make good software, and a switch went off in my head. Now I pay for every piece of software I have, sometimes I buy apps I don’t even need, just because I appreciate the level of crafts(wo)manship and care that went into them. If it’s too expensive and I can’t afford it, I just don’t use it.
The real problem is that when you’re a company of 2.5 people, piracy really hurts. Every lost sale makes it harder to stay around and keep making (what are hopefully) great apps. You can argue all day about how these people wouldn’t have bought your app anyway, and piracy is good because more people get to try your apps, but that doesn’t change the fact that piracy costs us money. We spend money on server infrastructure that is used by paying customers and pirates alike. We answer emails and support from pirates (we know who you are by the way). You can’t stop piracy, people that want to steal your app badly will find a way. You can minimise it, but our feeling is every minute you spend fighting piracy you’ve wasted. It’s better served devoted to your paying customers. Up until now all we’ve done to our software is put in server & client code so we know who the pirates are, and who the paying customers are. We don’t do anything with that information, it’s just food for thought.
Speaking of food, I’ll leave you with this thought: every time you pirate a piece of software from an independent developer, we get closer to that developer never making another app, or updating their app, because they’ve gone off and got another job. It’s like breaking into your favourite corner store, do it enough times, and they’ll close their doors forever.
Shouldn’t all software be free? How can you live with yourself for charging for it?
No. Very few bits of software ever written were not funded by someone. People have to eat, they have to sleep somewhere and feed their families. Take Android for example: it’s free, and open-source, yet every Google engineer working on it is paid, likely far higher than you are. They are able to not charge you, because they make all their money in search & advertising. Notice that they don’t open-source any of their search code, for good reason: that’s their core business, Android isn’t. To me truly free, open-source software is a religious myth, in much the same way that [pick a religion you don’t agree with] is. It comes with it’s own proselytes, zealots and ideologies, but it’s ultimately a lie.
Further to the above, what’s so offensive about charging for software? When was the last time you walked into a shop, saw a great product you really needed, and just stole it? When was the last time you debated with a shop-keeper about how this product you wanted should really be free? Software costs money to make, real money. Charging for it is how that money is recovered. Don’t let all the VC funded startups that give out everything for free fool you, paid software is often how you get great software. Since great people are able to make great things, without having to worry about how they are going to feed and clothe themselves.
Developers seem greedy to me, especially the ones that charge for separate iPad apps or charge for upgrades!
Independent developers are rarely, very rarely driven by greed. We made Pocket Weather AU and Pocket Weather AU HD two separate apps because we wanted to start again, and because it was just far easier to do that with two apps. I respect developers who charge for major updates, even though we’ve yet to do that. Normally we’re talking about sums of money under $5. If it means they can fund themselves to keep giving me great features, then I’m all for it.
So would you recommend the life of an independent developer to others?
If you have the right personality, then sure, being an independent developer is a huge blast. Don’t come expecting millions of dollars to fall into your lap though, it’s damn hard work. Chances are you’ll make less than you would working for a giant, faceless corporation…but you’ll enjoy life so much more