The New Indie

I haven’t been part of the iOS development industry for long. I started dipping my toes in iOS development around the same time I bought my first Mac and iPhone, back in 2009. At the time, I was an Electrical Engineering student with a good job pretty much guaranteed when my graduation came, which happened 2 years later. So, I mostly pursued iOS development as a serious hobby, much like I do with the other stuff I enjoy.

Even though I didn’t commit professionally, I payed attention. I kept up to date as much as I could, managed to do a little freelance work and got two simple apps published, both of which faded out of existence as I mostly neglected them. More importantly, my experience in my full time job in a different (albeit related) field, combined with what I could get under my belt thanks to my on the side efforts were enough for me to get a job as an iOS developer once I decided it was time to go after it. And thankfully, I got a great one. I work from home, I enjoy what I do and I didn’t have to make any sacrifices to make the transition.

However, the holy grail for me is going indie. The issue is I obviously missed the gold rush. In fact, word is out on the street that The Majority Of Today’s App Businesses Are Not Sustainable[1]. From what many successful and experienced people in the industry have been noting for a while, that the times to come aren’t poised to be the best ever[2]. Maybe that should frighten me as a young and mostly inexperienced newcomer, as well as anyone who is thinking of going indie now or in the next couple of years. But, and maybe that’s just my young and careless self talking, it really doesn’t.

I believe the people who were best positioned to succeed in becoming independent during the first years of the iOS App Store were those with a pioneer mindset. The ones who could see the new opportunities first, get in quickly and reap the rewards fast. The bold and brave, if you will. Once they had their first success, they were able to deservedly build on top of it.

I think the new scenario — a more mature and stable market, with a lot more competition — favors a different mindset for those looking to get in, and it is time to shift gears accordingly. Most of the successful new indies in the coming cycle will be those who are able to keep at it by sheer perseverance and diversification, going slow and steady, and committing to the long term. Like in investments, the optimal strategy isn’t putting several eggs in one basket that looks like a great opportunity, and going all in on it.

Of course, this requires not only a different mindset, but also a different set of initial conditions. This approach won’t bring fast rewards. Much like wannabe indie bloggers have to put a few (many) years of work before actually being able to take the plunge, we developers must be willing to accept the same. This requires having the means to support ourselves in the meantime, while making significant sacrifices in other fronts.

There are many indie heroes[3] to look up to and draw lessons and inspiration from, who succeeded early in the App Store game — and continue to do so — or even who have been doing it far before App Stores were a thing. Among those, I think David Smith’s approach is the one which best suggests what the path to becoming an indie in the next cycle will look like. Quoting from his Five Years in the App Store post:

I think the single most significant attribute of my approach to the App Store that has allowed me to do this full time for so long is the number of failures I have. I have shipped somewhere around 80 unique app concepts over the last five years. With the exception of games, I’ve tried almost everything I can think of. With each attempt (in success or failure) I learned something new about what makes an app great.

That’s a lot of apps. So, while I believe the mythical indie is far from dead, I think the path to going indie is a lot less glamorous than what most have come to expect. A beautiful idea followed by a great execution doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. It will take a lot of scars to get to it. If we, however, start seeing numerous people willing to put in David Smith level of commitment and not being able to make it, maybe I’ll be ready to believe the future of indies is grim after all.

We, the aspiring indies, need to keep in mind that being independent is a great privilege. It is a largely unattainable goal for most careers. Software developers should be glad this path is even a possibility. It’s hard. It should be hard. The euphoria of the period behind us has led many to take this possibility for granted, so we feel like anyone who is great at what they do should be able to achieve it. We shouldn’t. Being great is no longer enough. More than anything, we need to be committed. And maybe, just maybe, we will be ready when the next big wave comes.

  1. There is a very obvious question that this piece fails to address. How many of the apps deemed “unsustainable businesses” from the criteria used in the article are actually businesses in the first place?  ↩

  2. Who at the Table is an Indie iOS Developer? and Confessions of an ex-developer are both great pieces that give insight on the matter.  ↩

  3. Brent Simmons, Daniel Jalkut, David Smith, Manton Reece and Marco Arment, just to name a few whose work and words influence me on a daily basis.  ↩