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Two-and-a-half years in
Four apps later, treating indie as a business and not just a fun side project
If I had to summarise my indie journey so far in three words, I’d pick fun, insightful, and fulfilling.
I’ve learnt quite a bit about myself, what really interests me, and my desire to solve my own problems.
As an app developer of nearly 10 years (where has the time gone 🤯), mostly spending it working alongside startups and small businesses, creating apps to scratch itches is naturally my go-to.
Although my indie journey began more recently in March 2020, when COVID first hit, I feel like it was the missing piece of the puzzle for me in hindsight.
It’s taught me to take risks, what it takes to earn sustainable income from your creations, systematically reach my goals, and most importantly, how to think like an indie.
The thrill of the chase is just that much more fun, than if I were to take a job. But lets rewind the clock first to add context on how I reached today in one piece.
1️⃣ My First App
Focused Work was my first indie app, and my biggest regret was that I spent too long building it.
Started in March 2020, launched September 2020. Six months. A whole half-year!
It was my first proper app that I designed and developed, not related to my freelancing work. It taught me plenty about UIKit, SwiftUI, CoreData, Mac Catalyst, and also how to market, price, and launch an app.
But I spent six months on it because I went down a rabbit hole experimenting with too many fun-to-have features, where I should’ve launched a more simple version and gather feedback.
If I had my time again I’d spent four weeks - tops - getting it out and focusing on things that drive success.
But that’s okay, you live and learn.
However, one thing I did get right was my intention to #buildinpublic from Day 1.
Creating a Twitter account, discovering the iOS community, frequently engaging with people, and sharing my progress was instrumental in building hype and momentum.
More than two years on I still have a strong connection with many people in the community from my early days, and it has been awesome to watch them become successful in their own right. I’m also very fortunate to have an open line if I need advice.
I’d repeat this step in a heartbeat if I started over.
Make the effort to grow your following and be genuine/yourself. You’ll make friends with interesting people, form great connections with others, and its benefits will compound as time passes.
2️⃣ My Second App
Enter app number two; Ochi.
This was a two-part project (iOS and Mac apps) that I started in November 2021 and launched in February 2022. Thankfully I only spent three months this time, carrying across my learnings from Focused Work.
I built it as a separate utility from Focused Work’s app & website blocking capabilities, to block distracting apps & websites at any time, and also to teach myself how to build a native SwiftUI Mac app (rather than use Mac Catalyst like with FW).
Once again I was guilty of spending too much time playing with the tools, however I can’t undervalue the knowledge gained from creating a proper Mac app.
But I was determined to further streamline my process...
3️⃣ My Third App
For app number three; I created Go To Sleep to help me avoid falling into bad sleep-patterns/routines, which I launched in March 2022.
I wanted to see whether I could design, code, and launch an app in the space of a week. iPhone-only, with a widget that tells me when I’ll wake up the next day if I go to bed now, according to a bunch of parameters.
And I certainly hit that goal, and it felt great to experience what it was like to get something out the door with a self-imposed deadline. ✅
Across the three apps I reduced my process from 26 weeks, to 4 weeks, to 1 week, and knew this should be my rough baseline going forward.
It will help me prioritise and avoid wasting time on unimportant things, but more importantly, let me experiment with more ideas and improve the likelihood one of them will strike gold, as opposed to putting all my eggs in one (or two) baskets.
🏃🏻 Applying the new approach
With this baseline in mind I applied it to the Focused Work 3 update during June/July 2022.
It was almost big enough to treat it like a new app as it involved significant changes/redesigns, but I was able to stay on-track and market all the new features.
It also helped me break the $1k MRR barrier which was a significant milestone for me.
I also taught myself how to create a professional-looking promo video!
Again, I applied the same technique for Focused Work 4 with the launch of iOS 16 in September 2022, and was able to punch through the $1.5k MRR barrier.
Another awesome win, with another lovely promo-video to boot. 🥾
4️⃣ My Fourth App
Leading up to the launch of iOS 16.1 in October 2022, I spent three weeks on my fourth app Shelf.
Less productivity, more general purpose, where you pin Text, Photos, and Actions to your Lock Screen. (and was also my first subscription-only app)
It was out the door on Day 1 and reached 10,000 downloads in the first week, an incredible milestone given it took me 2 years to reach 30,000 downloads for Focused Work, and I was filled with enthusiasm.
However, something seemed off given there was only a moderate boost to MRR with that amount of downloads.
After creating some dashboards to figure out why, I noticed the Onboarding → Paywall was ~90% but then dropped to ~2% for Paywall → Trial Start.
I felt that if I improve the paywall then that metric will improve, but I was more concerned that I had been using the same paywall for Focused Work and Ochi the past couple years, and hadn’t been paying attention to this metric.
After creating some dashboards for those apps, indeed the trial start rate was similar. 🚨⚠️🚨⚠️🚨
I knew I had to fix this leaky bucket sooner than later for these apps, because improving it will earn me more capital to reinvest back into them.
💼 Treating indie like a business
This experience led to an important shift in my thinking.
I had spent the past 2.5 years going with the flow, building apps for the fun of it while thinking that adding features would attract the masses. But ultimately, this only afforded me a lengthy grind that nearly sent me broke and towards burn out.
If I wanted to truly live independently off of my own work, I needed to start treating it as a business rather than just a fun project.
It is still important to have fun (otherwise why would you spend your time on it), but going forward I had to make better decisions and pay more attention to product growth, because both will influence long-term success.
I dropped everything I was working on and spent the next week mapping out my shortcomings as a creator and maker, so I could figure out what I really needed to learn and improve upon.
While doing this I randomly stumbled upon the following 4-year-old video on Youtube by Pieter Levels, which radically shifted my perspective on what it means to be an indie maker.
A couple days later I bought his book MAKE and read it during the weekend, not seeking a golden ticket to the Promised Land, but to compare against how I approach my own indie work, and acknowledge ideas I hadn’t previously considered.
I kinda know how successful he is these days, but I don’t pay too much attention. I find it more intriguing to observe the period before somebody was successful, their mindset/attitudes that led them to that point, and how they made it all work.
Everybody walks their own path, but it’s important to be open to trying new things so you can grow into the best version of yourself. I believe that’s where it starts, and it naturally flows into your work.
I also recommend watching the below video, which further hit home for me, after watching/reading the above.
🍻 Cheers to a big year ahead
I’ve analysed my shortcomings lined up all my ducks 🦆 in the form of a simple checklist that will grow my apps and myself as a creator.
I’m always keen to experiment with new ideas, and of course build more apps, but only after I’ve patched the leaky holes in my current portfolio.
Hopefully it will encourage you, the reader, to perhaps follow a similar path with your own products, and avoid spending half a year building out an idea like I did. 😈
My motivation and ambition has never been this high and I’m confident I’ll find a way to make this work. I would especially love to be able to make it to WWDC.
I’m damn excited for 2023, and I hope yours will be just as great! 🚀
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