Okay, fine, that's a clickbaitish title, but I don't think people are comparing apples to oranges. Jared Sinclair posts A Candid Look at Unread's First Year, and its critics are not, I don't think, understanding his point. He did everything according to the Go Independent Dream Cookbook, which, in itself, isn't an easy task.
He spent eight months building what, as he rightfully says, "is objectively a really nice app."
He's attacking a pretty well-used niche, all things considered.
200k subscribers for Daring Fireball. If he gets 5% -- not insane -- that's $50k right there.
He's had, "an appropriate amount of press", which, honestly, it one of the things that scares me the most about trying to go indie.
And the take home is that now, after six months of being on the market, with three months for the iPad, he's "only" grossed $42,000.
First, I'd say that's a roaring success. I know Sinclair is unhappy, and he's probably right that he either didn't charge enough or should have used a different model. But let's face it, after the initial sunk cost of the six months it took to write the original, he's got a fairly sustainable business. Three months to write Unread for iPad bagged him $10k of that 42. Sounds like, if he can keep the ideas coming, he's got nearly $10k of one-time revenue per quarter, plus residuals for each app he can put out.
That's awesome. I'd take that in a heartbeat. It's a not even a third of what you could make doing this for someone else to start, but in five years? He could have a pretty nice business based solely on apps.
What Sinclair has done is this: For those of us making market wages now, we can stop dreaming about making a lateral move to writing apps for ourselves. Sinclair is raining on our romanticism. That's an resonate message.
But the criticism he's gotten. Wow. The first I read was from Benjamin Mayo, who basically says that Sinclair wrote the wrong sort of app. Ultimately, that's good, practical advice. Get a decent idea for something everyone can use, not just 500k RSS users, that takes a few days to write. Then sell it for 99¢.
Let's face it, you can write a lot of apps in six months if you shoot for apps that'll take you two days (so, say, a week).
But Mayo also commits the sin I see so may critics level against Sinclair -- n = 1, and n was a success for me. It's a weird translation of the, "Works on my machine," syndrome.
I made Writing Aid in under a month, on and off. Thankfully, it sold well and produced a fantastic sales to hours ratio.
I mean, Mayo tries to envision go all Marty McFly and try to envision a different past.
Imagine a scenario where it didn’t do that well. I would have essentially wasted a month of work … but that is a hell of a lot better than wasting a year of work. You hedge your bets by moving fast and moving on. [Emph mine]
But it did do well, man, it did. What if you absolutely strike out six times writing app-a-months? Glad app-a-month worked for Mayo, though he's only advertising two apps right now.
And that's the problem. For every Mayo who hits sustainable app gold the first time, how many others flopped three or four times and stopped?
But even that's not Sinclair's point. Sinclair isn't an idiot. He was all over the place when Unread came out -- and since. He did everything right. Sinclair's not even making six figures. That's his message. Not that he failed. But if you do want to scratch a serious itch and go indie, this is what an awesome first year looks like. Be prepared.
I was going to write more on this, but my build up to these two quotes is already too long. Let's just say that these are two more instances of folks completely missing the Unread message. (Unread, Carol.)
"Jared Sinclair spoke of pricing strategies, and I think Marco Arment’s latest app, Overcast (a podcast player), is a good example of a general-purpose productivity/entertainment app that does it well: give limited demos of the paid-for functionality but make the app available to try for free, and use IAP to unlock those features, not a separate “Pro” version of the app. But that’s hard to pull off as well, and Marco has a lot of experience."
Ben Thompson, usually absolutely spot on, painfully does the same thing in, "Pleco: Building a business, not an app". Here, we have an app that's been around, beating the odds, staying viable since the Palm days, used as a counterexample.
Sinclair’s results are not a “solid piece of evidence” of anything. They are an anecdote. And as long as we’re drawing grand conclusions from single data points, I thought it might be useful to look at someone on the other side of the spectrum. So I called up another friend of mine, Mike Love.
Why? Why? No, really, why? Why not call up Mark Cuban and ask him about Dairy Queen? Seriously, all that's the same is that they both create apps. Painful, and he knows he's being painful.
(Which is really an inexcusable rhetorical move. "This kind of anecdotal argument doesn't work, and since I'm admitting that I know it doesn't work, you're going to assume I'm now sheep's clothing the trope of anecdotal argument to argue metaphorically, suggesting that I have real data that I'm basing my argument on. I mean, I wouldn't argue on the merits of anecdote, so when I use an anecdote, I must be doing something more nuanced. Right?")
There are some interesting tidbits, like...
What stands out to me about Love’s approach was that from day one his differentiation was not based on design, ease-of-use, or some other attribute we usually glorify in developers. Rather, he focused on decidedly less sexy things like licensing. Sure, licensing is particularly pertinent to a dictionary app, but the broader point is that Love’s sustainable differentiation was not about his own code. Sustainable differentiation never is. [Emph mine]
But ultimately, it's just a random example of a guy who got lucky the first time in a completely different market circumstance who has maintained his advantages and relationships as that market changed. That doesn't substantially help anyone decide what the economic landscape looks like for going indie -- starting from scratch tomorrow. Give me an example of app store success from 2013+ where this sustainable differentiation works, and then explain to me how Joe and Jane Programmer have a leg up to do that. Good coders code well, and Sinclair's Unread is close to what that ceiling looks like.
Sheesh, folks. Sinclair isn't asking for instant gratification. He's putting a more realistic ceiling on the potential of the app store. That's insanely interesting, and it's awfully generous for Sinclair to share it all with us.