Making a living as an independent developer is a romantic notion. It’s also really hard. Some individuals have built a tidy existence by creating and distributing their own apps, while others simply fall flat after their first launch. Here’s what to consider before trying to be an indie developer.
But first things first: there’s no one true formula; if there were, every tech pro who goes indie would be happy and wealthy. Even those with insanely popular apps once benefitted from a bit of luck, sometimes more than once. They may even be projecting more success to the world than they’ve actually earned.
Speaking of earning, it’s hard to tell how much indie developers are actually making every year. According to the 2019 Dice Salary Survey, contractors who work directly for an employer (i.e., without an agency as an intermediary) pull down an average of $94,011; those who source their work through an agency pull down $98,079. While that’s higher than full-time employees (who make an average of $93,013), ‘contractor’ doesn’t align cleanly with indie developers who try to make the bulk of their money off the apps they create.
And the sad truth is, many apps don’t make much money for their creators, and vendors such as Apple seem determined to take as big a cut as possible. Although Apple likes to claim it “created” jobs via the iOS app industry that popped up around the iPhone, former Apple engineer Matt Gemmell once pointed out that the company is often less-than-friendly to indie developers. He cites the company’s 30 percent cut of all App Store revenue, and its insistence on universal apps and legacy support, as reasons the app industry is a losing proposition for the self-employed.
He also says the ‘race to the bottom’ with app pricing is hurting business:
One measure of the value of a person’s creative output is what another person is willing to pay for it. Low prices actively court those who place less value on work. That’s not an admonishment; it’s just a simple fact. And no, you can’t balance the price-point and the sales figures to achieve the same income: there are far, far more people who will only buy at $1 (or free, if you’re trying to sell in-app purchases). If you sell at $3 instead, your number of sales will go down by much more than the factor of three that you increased the price by.
If your goal is just to make money temporarily (which is up to you), then the race to the bottom — with all its attendant risks, and its environmentally corrosive effect — is probably your best bet. You also need to acknowledge that you’ve marked your work as being essentially worthless, and that it’ll be discarded just as quickly. Your most vocal supporters will turn on you the minute you ask for more money (remember the extra levels for Monument Valley?). They simply won’t value you enough to even consider paying again, because you’ve already taught them that your work isn’t worth it.
It’s a dim view of a profession so many have chosen, but not unique to Apple. Google’s Play Store does the same things (and the race to the bottom there is arguably worse, if consumer spending is an indication). Meanwhile, shareware has been around since the dawn of personal computers. We never really wanted to pay for software, but we always want the latest and greatest.
— Paul Haddad (@tapbot_paul) May 4, 2017
A Remedy for the Indie Developer
Size Five Games takes a sober approach to being an independent developer. More than anything, it cautions to spend wisely, work hard and not assume initial success will bring continued cash flow. It also smartly suggests avoiding developer events (it specifically names the Game Developers Conference) if you can’t afford them:
You know it, it’s a big piss-up jolly fun time and it’s not really benefiting your project beyond ‘inspiration’ and maaaaybe some facetime with some journos. Absolutely brilliant to go if you can afford it, and do definitely go if you can, but don’t spend £2000 flying to GDC under the proviso of it being ‘good for business’ because it isn’t, it’s good for blowing off steam and having a jolly. Could that £2000 be better spent on a composer or an artist? Spend it on a composer or an artist, then. GDC-and-the-like are for when you have money.
The company’s blog post also makes another great point: don’t quit your day job. It’s easy to believe that a fun side project could become your ticket to working from home (which is probably possible at your job, anyway), but don’t give up a salary until it’s clear you have to. Once an app, or series of apps, is bringing in enough revenue and has enough of an audience that you feel comfortable relying on your LLC (you did create an LLC for your side projects, right?) for income, you can make that uneasy leap to self-sufficiency.
It’s also not a binary experience. Just as you might have launched apps while working a 9-to-5 gig, be open to freelance opportunities while holding down a job. Supplementing your income during slow periods doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Really, more indie devs should probably go that route.
As a recent study pointed out, once an app has been downloaded, users are likely to stop using it almost entirely within 30 days. After 90 days, the retention rate is next to nil. Budgeting is an important skill to have, as is a healthy pipeline of updates and new apps. This is also a good reason to examine your current or potential business model; ads and subscriptions may bring a steadier cash flow.
It’s important to know the market, too. Many desktop developers are seeing success away from the Mac App Store. Even when sales remain somewhat stagnant, eliminating Apple’s 30 percent cut from the equation might help your revenue stream. Similarly, democratized distribution services such as Setapp are gaining momentum. (We’re holding our judgement on Setapp until we start seeing real-world reports from developers.)
Like any venture, independent developers want to make money. It’s not easy, and being an independent developer typically means income variances. It also means you’ll have a lifestyle more attuned to the lean times.
If anything might save indie developers, it’s the industry drift toward subscriptions as opposed to one-off app downloads. If a developer can create an app with a sustainable business model (i.e., a cluster of users paying a few bucks per year for your app), they can focus on that one app rather than publishing multiple new concepts, some of which will surely fail.
Moreover, companies seem to want developers to build subscription-based apps. For example, to sweeten its subscription deal, Apple reduces its 30 percent cut to 15 percent for any subscription lasting over 12 months.
So subscriptions are great from a revenue perspective, but it doesn’t spare indie developers from their central challenge: Creating a great app that thousands (or maybe even millions!) of users want to utilize on a regular basis. But at least if developers create something compelling, they have a route toward more sustainable revenue.
If you need one takeaway, it’s this: be honest. Not only to your users, but with yourself. Becoming a truly independent developer is a perfect storm that strikes often enough, but it may not suit you. Can you withstand a wobbly income? Can you afford your own health insurance? Will not working for a company really make you happy? Is your product popular enough to keep you afloat? Do you have other ideas that will (hopefully) be just as exciting for users? Are you comfortable being self-promotional and the face of your company? Can you emotionally handle defeat if it happens?
Your answers to those questions are critical. Nobody can answer them except you, and there are no right or wrong answers. Money is key, but so is happiness. If you think you’ll be happy going solo, give it a shot. If it doesn’t work out, some company will always be here for you.