Monday, July 28, 2014

A Candid Look at Unread’s First Year

Jared Sinclair:

After a huge spike in sales the first day, sales dropped in what is (to my knowledge) a typical launch week curve for iPhone apps. The week after launch, Unread was featured on the main page of the App Store. This feature did not lead to a spike in sales. Rather, it kept sales from dropping any further for that week, then tapered off. I conclude from this that an App Store feature may not be as helpful as positive, prominent reviews from influential writers.


Half of the lifetime sales of Unread were generated in the first five days1. It would take another 170 days (24 weeks) to generate that same amount again.


Despite all of these circumstances, Unread still only earned $42K in sales ($21K after taxes and expenses) and is on a course that doesn’t promise much growth. I conclude from all this that anyone who wants to make a satisfying living as an independent app developer should seriously consider only building apps based on sustainable revenue models. I suspect this means through consumable in-app purchases, like those in Candy Crush Saga or Clash of Clans, or through recurring subscription charges, like those in WhatsApp.

My iPhone and iPad are great places to read articles that I’ve saved, but I prefer to process the RSS feeds from the Mac.

Update (2014-07-28): Tyler Hall:

And that leads me to another difference between developing for iOS and Mac. On the App Store, the price for apps has bottomed out. There are countless stories of developers, Jared included, failing to gain traction by setting an upfront paid price. Apps can require thousands of hours of work and yet can’t command a price of even $0.99. The only apps making money that I’m aware of are littered with scummy in-app purchases. For developers who take pride in what they build and don’t want to lower themselves to that level, there doesn’t seem to be a route to profitability.

With VirtualHostX [a Mac app], the opposite is true. In 2007, I priced the app at $7. Over time I raised the price to $9, $12, $14, $19, $24, $29, $34, $39, and, now, $49. With each price increase my total sales and revenue have only gone up. And, as an extra bonus, the quality of my customers has increased as well. I never received as many angry emails from customers as I did when the app was priced cheaply. Now that VirtualHostX costs “real money”, I weed out those users who aren’t willing to make a financial commitment to the app and my company.

Update (2014-07-28): Brent Simmons:

But with how prices have fallen — how people are now accustomed to not paying anything until they’re hopelessly addicted and need the $4.99 packet of imaginary things that will get them to the next level — I can’t recommend to anybody that they quit their job to just write their own iOS apps.

Update (2014-07-29): Gus Mueller:

My basic strategy is to make a useful quality product, and sell it at a fair and sustainable price. If your app is quality, it will find customers. And then those customers will tell their friends, and the news sites will notice it. And since you’re charging a fair price a virtuous circle will form.

If you are just starting out, this might take years (maybe even exactly 1,068 days). It’s a long road of hard work, pain, joy, and just showing up every day. Eventually you will get lucky and gain some traction—but it’s not luck alone that is the key to success. You need to recognize opportunities as they come along and grab them. And just as equally important—you need to recognize time sinks and stupid ideas that come along as well. There will be more of the latter.

Update (2014-07-31): Jared Sinclair:

Since posting yesterday’s article about the numbers behind Unread’s first year on the App Store, several people have asked me why I didn’t do any promotion for Unread. The answer is that, in fact, I scrounged up as much promotion as I could afford. I did not just naively dump my app on the App Store and expect the bucks to start spilling through the mail slot.

Here’s a list of the promotional activities supporting Unread (both iPhone and iPad), either directly by me or through good fortune[…]

Faruk Ateş:

There is an overlooked element to the saying, “a jack of all trades, master of none” which is that there is hard-to-measure value in knowing how different skills complement and offset one another. There is value in understanding database architectures even if you’re an app designer; there is value in understanding interaction design even if you’re a copywriter. But when it comes to today’s world of apps, this value of the generalist does not overcome the challenges you face when trying to compete in a market with dozens, maybe even hundreds of competitors (or hundreds of thousands, if you’re making a game).

Update (2014-09-03): Paul Kim:

I’ve been doing Hazel for over seven years and I think it’s fairly safe to say that I’ve been successful doing it. I’m making more money than I did employed at other companies and I’m much happier with my job.

But it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t overnight.

2 Comments RSS · Twitter

Curious. Your comment is the exact opposite of what I find.

I find that my iPhone is a great place to triage RSS. I go through and anything that looks interesting I will star, and later I will read it. Most frequently in Safari, because I can just fire an article to a background tab and read it there.

The main reason for me is that the vast majority of articles I find via RSS are truncated feeds. Ars Technica, Macworld, Wired, and all sorts of other "media" sites publish a truncated RSS feed. Which means you can't read the article in an RSS reader without "clicking through" to get to the actual content which is rendered in a browser. And with many of them, they now slap an interstitial in your face that you must click through to read the content. If I do a background tab in a browser, this doesn't happen and I can read it at my leisure.

Which brings me to the problem with Unread: It largely assumes that you will be reading full-text feeds, and has an interface optimized for that. Maybe you must limit yourself to the _right_ feeds, but for truncated feeds the drop-through to the browser is slower than it is with Reeder, and using Unread for triage is noticeably slower and requires more work (swipes or long presses to star articles) than does Reeder.

I really like the aesthetic of Unread, but I think the assumptions it makes about how RSS can work for most people is just misaligned with how many of us use it.

That's one reason I like the NewsBlur app: it has a 'TEXT' button you can tap to get the non-truncated version of most feeds (by running the page through a mobilizer filter).

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