A Short Indie App Story

Context: I spent some time this morning answering someone’s question randomly online about “side projects”. I shared this epic blurb about my story of Desk App and I thought I’d capture the entire thing here.

The question was:

How many of you have developed a software project which is giving you decent passive income? In other words, what projects (that you did in spare time) have taken off and giving you a good monthly income?

Here’s my answer… enjoy.

I have a small, native macOS indie app that has done very well for me considering that I do not spend a whole lot of time on it. Perhaps a few hours a day (and that’s a bit liberal, tbh). Like many of you, there are days where I’ll “sprint” and jam on it for a bit (like on weekends) and there are days where I won’t touch it. That’s just because I have other more pressing needs and full-time work that needs attending too.

I built my app out of my own need(s), which is where you should always start (i.e. “solve your own problems first”). It was a project a literal decade in the making. Short story, I concepted it in 2002 and took 11 years to actually write the first line of code. This might not be that encouraging, but, that’s how some of the more important projects get started… a long, annoying itch that eventually forces you to do something about it. The right timing, the right skills and experiences gained over the years manifested in me eventually solving it.

It’s not glamorous. It’s not sexy. It solves my needs and it apparently solves a lot of other people’s needs as well. Short micro lesson here… if you solve your own itch then there will be a ton of other people who will also have the same itch. The world is much bigger than you imagine.

Desk Brand Icon

Desk Brand Icon

A few interesting tidbits and mile-markers:

  1. May, 2002: I came up with the idea. Even blogged about it. Took 11 years to actually start building.
  2. November, 2013: Started blogging the process and journey. My “Hello World” post.
  3. October, 2014: Over a year later, I launched. It took a year to build this super-niche, small (yet functional) desktop writing and blogging app. Small “side projects” can take a lot of time to get out the door and that’s okay. In a world that loves the “quick, fast, get it done MVP” there are also times where it’s just fine to meander your way toward completion.
  4. December, 2014: Apple awards it “Best Apps of 2014”. Humbled. Unreal.
  5. January, 2015: I share an important retrospective on product marketing and how serious investment, when done well, can have massive returns for the small indie developer. TL;DR – An investment of $10,000 returned a net profit of ~ $32,000! Read more about this here.
  6. December, 2015: Continued to hack, update, triage bugs, and release version 2.0. This next iteration won “Best Apps of 2015” via Apple… again. Humbled. A serious (and happy) WTF moment.
  7. Feb, 2016: I announce that I’m taking a back-seat on development. In short, family commitments, a cross-country move, and new lines of work gave me zero time to invest in the project. For those that have had to make these types of decisions, this was both hard and easy, at the exact same time.
  8. July, 2016: I can’t help myself (and couldn’t stay away). I started secretly working on version 3.0.

And the story continues to… well, continue. I don’t have an “end game” and I’m not doing this for the money. It sells copies daily, which is nice, but it honestly hasn’t caught up to the amount of the real investment that I’ve made, which is my time.

A few quick top-of-mind, takeaways (maybe):

  1. Not every problem that you have today can be solved today. Some times the only missing ingredient is time.
  2. If money is your motivator then a side project will never satisfy. And, you’ll never be able to make the most important decisions around the side project, like when to start, stop, and continue. When to take a break for the right reasons and when to wind it down completely. You’ll also never be able to return to it, at will, with a full heart and mind.
  3. Solve your own problems first. It’s the only way that you’ll be able to grind on it over time without giving up.
  4. Enjoy the process, if you can. It’s tough in the moment but in retrospect it makes it all the more satisfying.
  5. Blog your story, if you can (or find some other public outlet to share it. People will gladly join you in your journey because everyone loves a good story.

Now, to answer your question directly (and specifically)… is this a “decent” amount of income? The answer is actually an easy “No” but that doesn’t bother me. What’s more important is that I’m enjoying it, immensely, and that I haven’t given up on it and that I still very much enjoy the challenge of making it better.

Could it ever balloon and grow into something “decent” if I really wanted it to? Maybe. But, honestly, probably not. And again, that’s okay. I’m really happy with it.

Oh. One final thought: If you build a “side project” with the secret hopes that it’ll become a “full-time project” then you’re probably going to end up disappointed. I know that might sting a bit for a lot of people since a lot of people are explicitly trying to convert side projects into full-time incomes and the like, but, that’s just not how most of those things work.

If you’re lucky (and that’s the right word) then awesome, congrats. You’ve done it. If it never snowballs into full-time employment then you’re doing just fine.