What are you working on?
My most successful product at the moment is SmartEdit, an editing tool for writers of fiction. It comes as a standalone version and an Office plugin. The plugin is the revenue generator.
How'd you get started with SmartEdit?
I've been building and releasing my own software products for the past 10 years — some free, some with a price tag, some a little successful, some not at all successful. Many of these products exist in the same space as SmartEdit (writing). SmartEdit actually began as a small feature set in another product of mine called PageFour. It didn't quite fit the user base of PageFour, so I spun it off as a free application of its own with half a dozen features.
A couple of years later that free version got picked up and mentioned on social media sites such as Reddit, and by news sites frequented by creative writers. On the back of this exposure, I built a fuller featured commercial version, followed a year later by the MS Word add in, which is now the more successful of the two.
How'd you find the time and funding to build SmartEdit?
I'm a solo developer and fully self-funded. I've been a developer for 16 years, starting out working on desktop applications in C++ in the UK, and then moving to C#/.NET enterprise web applications. I've been working as a contractor in Ireland for a number of years now, and this goes a long way to explaining how I find the time to build my own products.
Contracting in Europe is very different than contracting in the US. My feeling reading HN comments is that US contractors are what we might call freelancers over here — they find and manage their own clients. Here in Europe it's far more organised, usually via third part agencies. Contractors commit to short periods of work (6 months on average), and command daily rates 1.5 times or more than their permanent equivalents.
This allows me to easily work a six month contract, spend two or three months working on my own applications and projects, then pick up another 6 month contract, all without affecting or impacting my future career prospects.
Typical time to complete an MVP varies, usually from 3 weeks to 2 months or more, depending on the application and on how new the idea is. I'm happy to spend longer on an MVP where I'm confident of at least a starter market.
Examples: SmartEdit for Word, a spin off from the standalone SmartEdit, took me 2 weeks to complete and roll out the door, as it shared most of its libraries with the standalone version. TimeKeeper for Word, a new product I released in January that was a total flop, took me 3 weeks. A new app I'm planning to release in November has already taken 2 months of my time this year, and will need a further 3 weeks to complete a version 1 — I expect this product to have a good start from my existing customer base, hence the extra time.
How do you market your products?
Most of my products are in the same space (creative writing), which allows me to leverage existing mailing lists to get a start with a new product. It helps that my target users are prone to blogging, writing, and spreading the word in their own communities and among their own followers.
Advertising has never worked. Adwords has never worked — probably because it's not possible to target ads by operating system, which means ads get a lot of clicks from Mac and Android users, while my software is for Windows desktops.
All press and other traffic referrals have been organic. Writers talk about my software, and their readers or followers come and check it out, but all of my products get a kick start from my own growing mailing list of users.
Did you ever incorporate?
Yes, contracting in Europe requires the contractor to work through their own limited company, and my own software business is rolled into that.
What are your biggest obstacles going forward?
In terms of obstacles, the biggest issue I've had is in marketing and selling. It's a weakness of mine, but one I'm addressing this year and next. I have a big new application I'll be working on next year (b2b, large ticket price), and I'm laying the ground work now by improving my corporate marketing skills at a university in Dublin in the evenings. For this new product, the marketing will be coming first, development second — a new thing for me, and quite exciting.
What's your advice for aspiring indie hackers?
Three things I would highlight from my own experiences.
- Always have a vision for your software. You need to know what it is and what it's not, and you need to avoid getting side-tracked by strongly opinionated users (early adopters) into deviating from that vision. If you don't have a vision for what you're building, then why are you building it?
- Facebook and Instagram are lottery winners. If you want to win the lottery, buy a ticket. If you want to make money from your software, build commercial software to sell to people who have money. Forget free software, forget students who have no money — target users who will not hit you up for a discount when you ask for more than $50. Basically, build software for grown ups with jobs.
- The technology you use to build your app doesn't matter. It's as relevant as the car you drive to the office, or the fabric on your office chair. Use whatever you're comfortable with — your users don't even know what a programming language or SQL is.