Catch22's of Running a Successful Mobile Software Development Company

Being a mobile developer is not all it's cracked up to be, but it's manageable, and possible to be successful. Despite all the thoughts of millions of downloads, not everyone gets those. Probably relatively few. But we do survive, but only if we spread out our risk. It's somewhat like how people invest. If you spread out your investments over various types of items, if one area tanks, another will thrive. In the end, you have an even amount of return on your investment and a good balance. In this post, I'll explore some of the Catch22's of running a successful mobile software development company. I hope you will find some thoughts that will help with yours, or give you a better understanding of what you are getting into if you are just starting, or to help you better insight of our company, Creative Algorithms.

Let's face it, few of us are existing on sales alone, especially the small mom and pop devs that make up a big chunk of the developer community. We strive to write solid software and hope for the best that we get a hit. We market as best we can. (I have a few past articles that really get to the bottom of what you really can do to affect your sales—check out my archive.) But at the end of the day, word of mouth and discoverablity are key.

Contract Work

In order to keep away from having that {shudder} day job, most of us pick up contract work. We write apps for others, which can be dicey as most people expect an app to cost $10k, when it's actually closer to $100k to develop. So we quote and quote and quote and get some jobs that way. Then there are those long term contract jobs where you write in every language but the kitchen sink, and you are able to shore up your sales with some good steady income. That's where we are.

Cashflow is King

The hardest part of all of this is cash flow. In order to make sure we have enough to cover our outrageous property tax increase, or to replace a suddenly broken HVAC system, we have to manage our cash. Income is up and income is down. The November/December holidays are fantastic for all our apps, (Can you say Gift Cards?) especially Recipe Manager with Serving Sizer, and the summer is good for our Trip Boss travel apps (even tho they are great for year round business travel too). Date Wheel is a mainstay, which helps keep the water level steady, plus we manage to get some extra income on our webapp version.

But I digress: cashflow is king. I've covered in past posts how we manage our cash peaks and valleys (HELOC, etc.). Recently we've been hit with some unexpected valleys, as our property taxes skyrocketed this year with a 9% increase. And we only had 30 days to come up with the first half of the increase. Since I also run the financial side of our business and our personal finances, it's a distinct challenge for me to find a way to secure cash to cover things that are due days before reciept of our Apple monthly payment, which we always hope would come a few days earlier. But alas, no such luck.

Another Catch22 is that, to find extra cash, we can put in more contract hours, but then our apps suffer because it takes away from spending time on those. Currently we are a one-programmer shop. I'm working hard at coming up to speed to do some development work, in addition to my other hats: UI and graphics designer, accountant, and marketing specialist, among other things. I used to program "back in the day", but object-oriented is a new concept to me, so a tad bit of a learning curve. Development work is really our bottleneck. And IT. IT suffers too.

Bottlenecks and Balancing Priorities

Speaking of IT, we put off many of those maintenance items as well. I dabble in IT, but I'm definitely not a command line expert. I finally got a chance to upgrade my blog software yesterday and was lucky enough to find my old notes on how to update Drupal. Our webserver had been bombarded with so much spam over the years (even tho I had turned off comments) and failed CAPTCHAs. We really needed to clean out our database, especially the logs, which was no simple task, unfortunately. But we cleared nearly 2GB off our system by deleting logs that should have been pared down every so many months automatically. (My goal is to figure out how to configure my cron to do this better!) But I could figure out cron maintenance or I could learn to program. Which is more value added? Of course the latter, but when our webserver was “full” we were no longer getting our email. Customer service would fail miserably. I had no choice but to finally put out the fires, after five years of neglect. Luckily it only took a day to make things right.

Prioitizing tasks best to work on is a daily challenge. I would love to update our website to make it look all sparkly, but how much will that affect our actual sales? Based on traffic info, most of our sales still come thru the AppStore. As long as our website is functional, people can find help or contact info, and there is a landing page for any marketing product, then it works for us. For now.

I've also spent a ton of time doing competitive analyses. I know what we need to do, to update our apps, but again, there's that coding bottleneck. We have been working on a huge update to our Recipe Manager app for months that is going to be awesome. But the debug part of it has been gruesome and very time consuming. Plus those contract hours come into play. We work on the update, then need extra cash, so do more contract work, so the app update sits and gets stale. It takes that much longer to really get back into where we left off, the ramp up period. I'm sure all developers can relate to that!

Reviews and Things Out of Your Control

Reviews are an area that also affect our sales. The number, but also which ones float to the top. We have 110 five-star reviews on our Recipe Manager app, for example. Out of 181. 84% of our reviews are five or four-stars. However, Apple recently changed (or broke) the way they are displayed. They used to list “Most Recent” as the default. This was frustrating because one customer who decided to go the review route to complain, rather than the customer service route, where we could fix his issue, could really stymie sales until a new review popped up. (I covered this in detail in an earlier post.)

Then Apple changed the reviews to “Most Helpful” to come to the top. This worked pretty well because it was an upvote type of trend. Unfortunately, it most likely got abused as competition could upvote bad reviews and developers could upvote good ones. But despite this, it did seem to have a balance. Reviews showing on the front page have the biggest affect on potential buyers, so developers are concerned when things change. Currently what is displayed has no rhyme or reason. A large majority of one-star reviews sits at the top of our queue, even tho those are in the minority of total reviews (only 8%). And one that promotes a competitor sits in the worst spot! The “x out of y people found this helpful” tagline at the bottom of the review shows on some of these, but for the most part, it's completely random. And unfortunately for us, the randomness has not worked in our favor. So here I waste time trying to figure out what I can do to get this fixed (fell on deaf ears at Apple), or try for some counter marketing, instead of learning to code. One of the most frustrating things about running a mobile software business is spending time on things we cannot control.

In the End, Survival

But on a positive note, as I covered in a more recent post, we are surviving. We pay our bills, we pay down our debt, we spend time with our kids. We enjoy our life. We wouldn't have it any other way. But we do appreciate your patience as we try to bring updates and new features. And I have SO many great app ideas in my head. We will roll them out to you. Soon. But if you want to do us a favor—tell someone about our app, or post a positive review on the AppStore. The more positive reviews, the better chance that the misleading or competitor-promoting reviews filter to the bottom. The more sales we have, the more time we can spend on improving old and adding new apps. This is a win-win for all of us. Thanks for your support!

Note: I've eliminated comments--WAY too much spam. Please feel free to tweet me your comments @justinepratt or post on our Creative Algorithms' Facebook page. Thanks!