The more I read from people I respect who have made a living in this industry, the more I realize that those who have succeeded at our thing are by and large the people who were patient, who didn’t take the easy way out, who built great products but also realized that wasn’t all there is to it, and who, most importantly, bothered to learn a lesson or two about business along the way.
I still have a long way to go.
If you spend 100% of your time just focused on the product, that isn’t going to cut it. A lot of developers have learned to make a kick-ass product over the past few years. That’s a great start, but that’s all it is at this point. A start. Congratulations. You’re now amongst thousands of others who bothered to do the product part well. Now what?
You need to be willing to accept that those people you hated back in your corporate days, the sales people, the marketers, the PR people, actually had an important job that brought value to the company where you worked. Hating them doesn’t take away from the fact that they were providing a service that your new indie shop now sorely lacks. Dropping an app on the Store that’s beautifully designed and superbly implemented is hard, and it takes a massive amount of effort to make that happen.
But it can’t end there.
Your product needs to get in front of customers. You think that’s going to happen because you got a mention on iMore or MacStories? Journalists provide an extremely valuable service, and their mentions can give you a great boost. But that buys you a few days, maybe a week at most. What I always ask myself is: What did you do after that to keep the momentum going? What did you do with that opportunity given to you by the press? What’s the long-term plan?
Most of us put the focus right back on the product. If it just had this feature or that feature. If this were just implemented a bit better. If I just work a little harder at getting the details right. Version 1.2 will be huge.
This makes sense. The product is where you’re comfortable, right? Me, too. I’d rather spend a week agonizing over a font than spend an hour writing an email to a potential ally in a related industry, asking to collaborate on a PR event. The thing is, product stuff is important, but focusing all your energy there is avoiding a larger issue: that you’re doing little to help people discover your existence.
People can’t buy what they can’t see. New features aren’t going to make you less invisible.
And Apple isn’t going to help you there, either.
The App Store is what it is. The competition is fierce. No special placement you happen to get temporarily is going to trump word of mouth generated outside the Store.
Either people come to the App Store already having heard of you and searching for your app specifically, or you’ve already lost. Discovery on the Store itself has for a long time been a fool’s errand. The VC-funded companies own the top shelf space now and will for the foreseeable future. Because they have people dedicated full time to this stuff.
The battle will always be won by the better marketer, the better business mind. The one who plays the long game. Not necessarily the better product. That’s a hard truth to swallow, but it’s been true since the dawn of commerce. Nothing about any of this is new or surprising.
By all means, keep making an awesome product. The product will need to be at least awesome to get you going. But then give it the marketing and sales strategy it deserves. I’ve failed on this front many times over, but I’m nowhere near ready to throw in the towel. There’s still so much to learn. I’ve been at it for years, and I’m doing better now than I was last year. And I plan to be doing better next year.
It’s always a hard time to be an indie. Because indie life is hard. If it weren’t, there’d be even more of us fools trying to make a go at this thing. (There’s a reason why steady jobs get to own you for forty hours or more every week.) Some times are harder than others, opportunities come and go, but the game is always the game.
And I plan to keep playing as long as possible.