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Rob Jonson is a self-taught programmer who has been releasing apps under the Hobbyist name for 10 years.
The press loves an “app millionaire” — entrepreneurs that make big money as their products attract venture capital, or the assimilating hands and deep pockets of a technology giant like Apple or Google.
Most developers will never live in that world.
The majority will make their living as contractors or employees working on other people’s apps, but some make a living writing their own apps and releasing them in the various stores. I have been living off my own apps for a decade now. From the Treo 600, through the iPhone revolution and on to the growing popularity of Android.
At the risk of sounding like a hoary old man of the hills, I’ve seen a lot of changes and been astonished at the ways in which the market has developed. But some things have remained true throughout the 10 years I’ve been running Hobbyist Software, and I expect they’ll go on being true long after I’ve hung up my keyboard. So here are a handful of tips and observations for the solo developer.
Satisfy your own needs
My most popular apps are ones that I’ve developed for myself to satisfy my own needs with devices that excite me. If you want a capability on your device, chances are there are other people thinking the same thing. Having a problem you want to solve for yourself means that you are more committed to it and actually understand it. It’s also a lot more fun.
Take feedback and act on it
Without exception it has been feedback from highly engaged users which has allowed my apps to keep developing over the years, to improve and stay fresh. I respond to most customer emails myself and aim to do so quickly. This seems to have a lasting halo effect as customers recommend my apps to their friends. Many people are surprised and very pleased to get an email from the real developer rather than a support minion.
Keep it simple – but not too simple
You’ll typically get most feedback from the highly technical users who want lots of complicated features and options. These guys are great, they have some killer ideas, but they are not the majority of your users. In order to keep the broader base happy, you need to keep things simple. Palm OS used to talk about ‘the zen of Palm.’ They obsessed about letting users act in as few taps as possible. Apple has embraced this desire for simplicity — though, with Apple, making things beautiful can sometimes get in the way of achieving the goal.
When I started developing, apps were called applications, and we cared more about what they did than how they looked. Times have changed. For your app to be a success, it needs to look good. Spend that bit of extra time (and maybe money, if graphic skills aren’t your thing) to give it a bit of polish.
You can’t predict success
Apps are like pop songs. You write the app, you polish it and you release it. You don’t know whether it will be a hit or flop. That is true even after your first successful app. Most pop bands are one-hit-wonders, and most developers will struggle to follow initial success. I had low expectations for the app that would become my most successful project, and others that I was super-excited about disappeared without a trace. You do your best, release your app, then move on if you need to.
Small is good
I have been accused of lacking ambition, but I like my small, low-risk approach. I don’t have employees, I have never spent more than a few thousand pounds to develop, design, and launch an app. Many developers are working towards a big launch on borrowed money, hiring an expensive team of rock star developers and publicists, hoping and hanging on for that ever elusive venture capital or big tech buy-out. I look at most of those app ideas and wonder why they didn’t just build their app in the evenings, launch it, and see what happens. Most will disappear without a trace, but a good idea that fulfills a need will gradually find a market. And probably has as much chance of hitting it big as any other decent app, with a lot less risk.
Rob Jonson is a self-taught programmer who has been releasing apps under the Hobbyist name for 10 years. Rob makes his living selling apps (including the best selling VLC Remote and VLC Streamer) direct to customers via app stores. Rob made his first app, Butler (a no.1 best seller), on Palm OS for the Treo600 (arguably the first smart phone). Rob managed to make the transition to iOS with the best selling VLC Remote, released in 2008, the earliest days of the App Store. Along the way, he’s released apps for Palm OS, Web OS, Android, Windows Phone, iOS, Mac, and Windows. One of his early cult Palm OS apps even influenced the key ‘Just type’ feature of Web OS. You can find out more about his apps and Hobbyist Software.