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Investing in Your Apps

John Saddington on the first 63 days of selling his blogging app Desk:

The bottom-line, though, is that it means that it is quite possible to “make it” as an indie developer and eek out an income that is substantive and worthwhile. I hope this report, if anything, gives some encouragement to all of those that are interested in seriously (or semi-seriously) pursuing an independent app that creates great value for users and customers.

You won’t get rich off of it (maybe, but… that’s pipe-dream stuff) but you can make a living and with a little creativity and a lot of luck you can make it work. It does work and now I know this first-hand in an intensely-personal way. I am so very, very blessed. The thought of making, on average, ~$500 a day via an app that I love is really stinkin’ cool.

But it doesn’t mean that I’ll be quitting my “day job” any time soon. This is because I really like the pace at which I’ve created for Desk and the very modest growth that I’m experienced is just the right amount of growth that I can personally handle and that I am interested in experiencing.

Desk generated $65,654.85 of revenue in 63 days. Many of us would be very happy with that level of success. Note, however, that he’s not not taking the app full-time, and he’s happy to continue with slow and steady growth.

Lest you think Apple featuring Desk as one of the Best Apps of 2014 led to all this revenue, read Saddington’s entire piece to see how he actually managed to make it happen. It’s a very active strategy that goes way beyond sitting back and waiting for Apple to do his work for him.

For instance, although the app made $65k, he spent $28k in ads and marketing materials. Let that sink in for a while. He invested almost half his revenue back into the product in the form of advertising dollars and other marketing efforts. How many of us are doing anything close to that?

One area in which I’m always ready to admit I’m weak is advertising. I’m basically clueless about this entire arena, especially when it comes to apps. But I’ve been taking notes from Saddington’s recent posts:[1]

  • He didn’t buy one ad. He placed several ads in various different places.[2]
  • He doesn’t need thousands of sales to make it worth the investment. Desk is a productivity tool, not a 99-cent casual app.[3]
  • He advertised with well-known bloggers. Makes sense, since he’s selling blogging software. I doubt a Daring Fireball ad would do Teleprompt+ as much good. But are there influential indie film blogs that would be effective for us? Probably.
  • Not all ads are created equal. The Daring Fireball ad cost him a lot more than the others, but it also had a much larger impact. Like any other product, you get what you pay for with advertising.
  • He didn’t take out an ad expecting to make his money back immediately. Ads have long-term effects you can’t measure with a simple equation. (This is what makes advertising difficult to stomach for engineers.) An ad you purchase today might get you a sale three months from now. You’re raising awareness. It’s not something you try once, decide it doesn’t work, and then drop.[4]

I’m not suggesting everyone needs to set aside a giant advertising budget to succeed. But it sure looks like it helps.

It’s too early to tell what the long-term picture is for Desk, but if you look at the sales charts, Desk doesn’t look like one of those apps that will make the bulk of its money at launch. Yes, there are spikes, but there’s also growth after the spikes. Putting some money back into advertising is already paying off and should continue to do so in the long run. I’m willing to bet Saddington’s marketing skill is going to help Desk settle into a nice steady monthly revenue over the next year. As momentum picks up and word of mouth starts taking off more, the percentage of revenue he needs to reinvest to keep the momentum going should be reduced. I hope he reports back in at the end of this year to let us know how it pans out.

It’s also worth noting that Desk gets a lot of marketing (at the cost of the creator’s time, rather than money) in addition to paid advertising. Saddington blogs frequently, has a regular email newsletter, and releases short videos quite often. All of which are full of great advice for indies. Highly recommended.

  1. Not just this Year in Review piece, but also his excellent Does Sponsoring Daring Fireball Actually Work? A must-read.  ↩
  2. Ever wonder why Squarespace advertises on so many podcasts at once? They know the same people listen to ATP and The Talk Show. But four people you trust recommending a product to you are far more effective than one.  ↩
  3. Some might look at that and say that ads aren’t a good idea for their cheap apps. I say it’s a good reason not to make cheap apps.  ↩
  4. Obviously, it’s not easy to risk large chunks of money this way. One ad for Daring Fireball cost Saddington $10k. That’s a lot of money to put into one spot for a small indie. The fact that Desk is a part-time business helps make these investments a little easier, I imagine. Which is why I think he’s keeping it that way for now. Try not to pay your bills with a new app’s revenue for as long as you can, in other words.  ↩