Indies, Always Spreading Ourselves Too Thin and How One Negative Review Ruins It for Everyone

I've been frustrated for the last week or so, which I'll get to the details on, but it all boils down to this: Too many ideas, too little time and resources. Story of our lives as indie devs, right? It's one thing when it's personal time, but quite another when it's your livelihood. Independent developers have to do all the tasks to run a company. Not only do we have to code, but we also have to test, design the app and user interface, create graphics, create websites, market the app, answer customer service, plan and strategize the apps and updates to tackle, do the accounting, manage social networking, prepare taxes, and more.

The heavy work is the development work, and with our small shop of two, that would be my husband. I take on the rest, plus we also have three kids, so homework, grocery shopping, cooking/eating/dishes, along with other household duties, get in the mix. I once bragged that my husband did all the coding, and I did all the rest. My fellow female devs told me I got the short end of the stick, but to be honest, the coding is the bulk of the time when you're getting your apps out there. But are we spreading ourselves too thin? Do we even have a choice? We're one of the lucky ones as we have two of us to take up the slack. It can be even harder when it's one sole developer. A lot of good app intentions go by the wayside.

Indie Life

I'm not complaining—we do well. We have to shore up our sales with contract work, but we're slowly adding new apps and features so we can back off from the contracts and focus solely on our own stuff. And wow, what we could do if we were financially independent enough to do so! That is the goal of every indie, IMO. We want to write great apps and not worry about eating. It's a slow grinding process and a delicate balance. Work too many contract hours to pay the bills, then apps and updates suffer. Sometimes I've put together feature update roadmaps over a year before we are able to actually accomplish them. I KNOW what we need to do to jump ahead of our competition in feature set and app design. I've seen a competitor hit the target we've set too many times. We just don't always have the resources to do it ourselves. Frustrating. At best.

Consequences of Doing it All

Last year, we did very well. We have the confidence that we won't be living in our car anytime soon. We paid all our bills, we took a (working) vacation, we didn't skimp on the kids. But we mis-estimated our taxes. I dropped the ball in monitoring the accounting close enough (too many hats?), so we are now scrambling with extra contract hours to pay the government in a few months. (At least we have that option!) Because of this, I also missed out on a great sale (thanks anyhow John) on my favorite conference, 360iDev, but the cashflow just isn't there right now. We have to make choices. We're ahead of the make-money-for-taxes plan, so we have a few days to focus on a much needed update to our cooking app. It's about 90% done (and has been for months), so we're hoping to complete that final 10% in the next week or so.

Spreading Ourselves Too Thin

When do we work? I have two core hours a day when all the kids are at school. My husband has an office in our basement, so he gets more uninterrupted work time than I do. But he still gets that “Dad, my Minecraft server is down.” or “Dad, my brother broke my headphones, can you fix them?” or “Dad, can you add more music to my iPod?” so his IT services requests kick in. I fit in customer service responses in between interruptions, or at night, when everyone is in bed. Sometimes I even answer them while I sit and watch my kids doing their karate classes. (Love having mobile devices!) My desktop has GIMP open with the latest recipe card designs in process, Firefox open to monitor my social networks, a spreadsheet open with some market research I'm working on and a spreadsheet of our cashflow, so we know we can meet our bills. I've got remote desktop set up to the Mac so I can monitor our sales, reviews, and rankings via AppViz. I've got SeaMonkey open to do some website updates, and a stuffed folder of accounting to do on my desk. I've got Xcode open—I'm self-tutoring myself to learn Objective-C so we can minimize the coding bottleneck. In between, I pay bills, respond to email, and change the laundry whenever I get up for coffee.

Enter the Frustration

So, why have I been so especially frustrated lately? Bad review. Yep. One lousy bad review. I know our customers don't care that I'm spread thin getting my daughter ready for school camp, or we're out of milk, so I have to go grocery shopping during my 2 hours of core no-kids-around-they're-all-at-school time. They shelled out $5 for an app and it had better do more than we promised in our write up! And if we don't meet these expectations, rather than write to us (I always respond to EVERY email, often the same day), one person posts a review titled “Don't waste your time or money”.

apple picking

Recipe apps are very competitive, but luckily there is room in the market for many of them. Each one offers a different flavor, a different look, or a different feature mix. Many of them are equally excellent, but meet different customers' needs. This is good. But if there's a big sign saying “Don't buy this” is a potential customer even going to investigate your app? Probably not. They'll buy the apple from the next bin over.

Cause and Effect

Every app can use improvement—I'm first to agree to that. And I have TONS of ideas and positive feedback from customers to add tons of updates. And we are chipping away at them. So tell US. Don't spout out to the world in our review queue. Do you realize what happens when you do this? One customer affects thousands of our customers. When someone says, “Don't waste your money” do you think new customers are going to buy the product? They don't care that thousands of satisfied customers before them love the app. How would they know? They can see the rest of the mostly 5 star and 4 star reviews, but this one sticks out in your face. “Don't buy this.” So sales plummet, rankings plummet. We go from ranked in the top 10 to barely keeping in the top 100. There is a cascading effect, and it's quick (and painful).

rank tank

When ranks plummet, we are no longer found under search. Our app's foot traffic greatly decreases. So if 100 people see our app one day, and 80% buy, but then your “Do not buy” review comes up and only 20% buy, then the next day only 30 people see our app and only 20% take a chance, well, you see where our sales are going.

One Bad Misleading Review Does Not a Bad App Make

Ok, I get it, you didn't like the app. You thought you were getting something else. But it IS a good app. It does a lot of things very well. Lots of people love it. We weren't trying to scam you. Recipe Manager is a finalist for Best Cooking App in the BestAppEver awards, which is a people's choice award. In fact, while you were venting, a member of the iMums was just discussing the app at work and they are all planning to use Recipe Manager with Serving Sizer to compile a recipe book for their coworkers. Good stuff. We use the app every day when we cook (my husband is a bit of a foodie), so we “eat our own dogfood” — tho that's not a good phrase to use for a cooking app, I suppose. :)

The kicker is that the review is misleading. You CAN import recipe text from the internet or your computer. You use copy/paste or email/copy/paste. Is it optimum? No. (We're improving that.) But it is possible to do, which the review states otherwise. Can I respond to the review? No, only in my blog, but do all potential customers see this? No. The review also states that you are stuck with only the recipes that we provide (which is 5). These are our favs, but included as an example. They are not the reason to buy the app—it's a recipe organizer, for keeping your own recipes. Why would we make it hard to enter recipes? (We don't.) And the serving sizer is a complex algorithm—it's not just “simple math.” We're the ONLY recipe app that scales the recipe AND refactors it into manageable measurements. But the reviewer obviously didn't take the time to try that.

Don't get me wrong—if an app needs improvement, you have the right to say so in the reviews. Of course, writing to the dev is more effective, and hey, sometimes the truth hurts. But temper it—don't tell people they are throwing away their money. State the facts and let others decide. We can take it. Just make it constructive feedback.

Venting In the Reviews is Counterproductive

Venting in the reviews is counterproductive. Let me tell you why: Now we have NO time to improve the app. We have to stop the bleeding you caused. We could have started a two-way conversation with you on improvements you'd like to see, or to help you understand how to accomplish what you wanted to do with the app. Or even explained to you how to get a refund.

Instead, I have to drop everything and come up with some counter marketing to get people to see the app. We have to figure out how to get your review off the front page—which could mean a small update to the app, which takes time, and takes us away from the BIG update (which requires time to test and get it right). Or a plea to our satisfied customers to write a review (some have). So the thousands of our satisfied customers are cheated, too, by your review as the features they want are delayed. If sales go down really far, then we have to work more contract hours to make up for the deficit, again, leaving that feature work by the wayside.

Bottom line: One impulsive reviewer can make or break an app or an indie dev. They can ruin it for everyone else who bought the app and likes it, but who are excited for updates. Is this fair? No. Is life fair? No. But if by sharing the consequences of such a review helps nudge just one customer to write to us or to write to another dev about their app, instead of jumping off the handle and submitting a scathing and misleading review, then I've accomplished the goal of writing this post. If it causes any of our thousands of customers to take a moment and write a positive review, then I've accomplished the goal of this post. If it prompts a customer to read more reviews (not just the most recent), to see the balance, then I've accomplished the goal of this post.

I'm realistic, bad reviews happen. People have a bad day, the app isn't perfect (yet!). People don't care why you haven't updated. They are spending their hard earned money on the app. I get it. But if you want to affect a positive outcome and make a developer's day—write to the dev! Who wouldn't you want a personal reply and to start a productive conversation? Writing a review is a just temporary vent. The feeling of accomplishment dies fast. And then you are stuck with an app you don't like, that has less chance of improvement in the near future because the dev has had to drop everything to minimize the damage.

Help Out an Indie Dev Today

Contact your developer directly today! Write a positive review on an app you like! Thank you from all us, spread-too-thin, indie devs!!

P.S. Comments are broken right now (and I don't have time to fix them ;) ), so if you have one, please tweet me @justinepratt Thx!