How I Jumpstarted Product Growth by Taking the Full-Time Plunge

Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?

Hello, my name is Paulo and I've been developing almost exclusively for Apple platforms for over 10 years now. I co-founded the company behind Survs (a web survey tool), developed iOS apps for a large Portuguese telecom, and contracted for Apple for a few years.

Currently I'm working on Secrets which is a modern password manager exclusive to MacOS and iOS that is carefully designed for ease of use and security. It has a beautifully simple interface and stores user data using state-of-the-art encryption.

After working on Secrets part-time for many years I finally made the jump to full-time about 10 months ago. At the time Secrets was already on the App Store but not making that much money — just around $300 a month. Since then I've been able to slowly but steadily increase the revenue to about $1.5K month and was even featured on the App Store.

Secrets homepage

What motivated you to get started with Secrets?

The idea for Secrets dates back to 2009. Having worked as a systems administrator while pursuing my Masters, I was familiar with many of the difficult aspects of information security. I realized that building a password manager would satisfy my desires to have my own business and build iOS and MacOS apps.

Just as I was finishing my Masters I had the opportunity to pair up with some colleagues and work on Survs. Eventually I switch my day job from systems administrator to iOS app developer.

In the meantime, though, I kept refining the idea for Secrets. The experience I had with Survs and as an iOS developer was invaluable for building Secrets.

Eventually Survs's growth stagnated and some team members left, prompting me to look at my notes and decide to finally start building this thing.

What went into building the initial product?

To build a client-side app such as Secrets, the greatest investment is time. I had the expertise to build such an app but doing it part-time meant working late nights or early morning for a long time.

My first commit was in January of 2011. It took me over five years of developing Secrets part-time to release it in 2016. I started by building a cryptography framework in Objective-C wrapping OpenSSL and implementing the OpenPGP standard. This alone was a massive undertaking but since I knew it would be one of the major pillars of the app, I didn't want to cut any corners.

Building for both Mac and iOS with a sync engine proved to be very time-consuming. Sometimes it felt like I was never going to get it on the App Store. I kept reducing the scope of my ideal MVP just so I could actually launch this thing. The initial release had the bare minimum of what a password manager should be. But it was out and that felt great.

I continued working on Secrets for another two years part-time until I had a "little push" to become a full-time indie in 2018.

At the time I was a contractor for Apple and making good money. There are a few legal constraints to contracting however, and eventually Apple needed to hire me. The problem with being an Apple employee is that you're not allowed to keep side projects on the App Store.

The dream was to have my own business, so with some cash set aside and with so many years invested in Secrets, I finally decided it was now or never. As you may have guessed, I chose "now" and quit Apple to work full-time on Secrets.

Feature Highlights

How have you attracted users and grown Secrets?

I didn't do much advertising for the initial version on purpose. I know this may sound strange but I did not have a large group of beta testers at the time and wanted to start slowly.

So I silently launched as a paid app first and got my first few users who found me by searching the App Store.

After gaining some confidence that the app was performing as it was supposed to in real-world scenarios, I launched version 2.0 a few months later as a Freemium app; free to use for up to 10 items with an in-app purchase to unlock unlimited items.

For the 2.0 launch I had sponsorships lined up on a few Apple-related blogs such as MacStories. I also published on Product Hunt and Hacker News and contacted a number of other journalists in the industry. The launch went fairly well but traffic and downloads quickly died down afterward.

I've played around with paid advertising, including Apple's Search Ads, but have seen underwhelming results.

Be efficient in all aspects of your business. Focus on creating features that bring the most value to your users.

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My current strategy is to grow organic traffic to the site as well as work on App Store optimization.

So far I have:

  • Started my own blog where I often link to Secrets. The blog already has some organic traffic and some of its articles have been linked on popular websites and newsletters such as iOS Dev Weekly.

  • I try to tweak the App Store keywords for every other release. But honestly I haven't had much success here — I feel the number of downloads, ratings, and revenue play a much bigger part in Apple's search ranking.

  • For each update, I cold email journalists (including journalists writing on any of the 10 languages the app already supports) about the new features. After one of these cold emails I was able to appear on the very popular French site MacGeneration. That alone was enough to crack the Top 10 Productivity chart on the French App Store that week.

  • I also contact Apple before every major update via their App Store promotion request page. Recently Apple noticed one of my contacts and actually featured Secrets. This was undoubtedly the best boost in downloads and sales I've had yet.

Features

What are your goals for the future?

Right now my goal is to reach 3K in monthly revenue. I've been slowly but steadily growing and hope to continue that trend.

Feature-wise, I plan to implement some differentiating features that could potentially appeal to a more security-focused audience.

What is your current pricing model, and how did you arrive at that price?

Currently Secrets is free to use with up to 10 items. Unlimited items can be unlocked with a $19.99 in-app purchase for each platform (Mac and iOS).

Initially I priced the Mac version at $19.99 and the iOS version at $9.99. I decided on these price points by looking at the competition and discounting around 30%. With established players in the market I knew I would have to compete on price to get started and build a user base.

At these price points both the Mac and iOS versions were bringing in pretty much the same revenue even though I had four times as many active users on iOS. But on Mac I was converting about 50% of users to the premium version whereas on iOS it was just around 10%.

With Secrets 3 I tried changing the iOS version to be priced the same as the Mac (basically doubling it) and the conversion rate only dropped around 2%. So overall this seems to have been a good move.

My next steps will be to increase the conversion rate with either some promotions or better calls to action inside the app.

Building a business is an iterative process. Launching your product is just the first iteration.

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What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

For sure my biggest issue is marketing. When I'm implementing features, planning the roadmap, or doing customer support, I feel like I know what I'm doing. But when it comes to advertising, SEO, ASO, etc., I still feel completely lost.

If I had to start over I'd probably try to go full time earlier. When I was working part time while working on Secrets I was solely working on the features, but starting a business is much more than that. You have to work on your website and App Store pages; you have to plan launches and milestones; you have to do press releases. And all this takes time. So the sooner you can start working on it full time, the better.

What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?

I actually did a talk on bootstrapping at an indie business a couple of months ago.

Here's are some key takeaways:

  • Have a long term vision: I've noticed that there's this tendency to focus on the product launch and work really hard at it; but when the launch falls short of expectations people don't really know what to do. Building a business is an iterative process. Launching your product is just the first iteration. If you have a long term vision it'll be a lot easier to iterate and stay focused.

  • Build something for yourself: There are a few reasons behind this. The more obvious is that if you're building something for yourself you're probably already aware of the problem domain and of potential competitors. But another not so obvious reason is that building up your business is very challenging. It's filled with ups and downs, and when you're down it's a lot easier to get back on your feet if you're passionate about what you're building and if it proves useful to you.

  • Efficiency is key: This is important in any business but especially for indies. More often than not you'll be competing with larger players, so you need to be efficient in all aspects of your business. For example, you should try to focus on creating features that bring the most value to your users. Avoid building features that require maintenance and automate everything you can.

  • Keep your costs in check: You should carefully consider where to invest your money, especially when looking at subscription services. It may be a long time until you're profitable and you definitely don't need the added pressure.

  • Stop waiting for the perfect moment: The sweet embrace of a comfortable job with a predictable income may be very hard to give up. I certainly took my time. And even then I was kind of "forced" into it. Looking back I definitely think I should have done it sooner.

Where can we go to learn more?

You can learn more about Secrets on the company website at outercorner.com or follow my blog or Twitter feed. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to ask in the comments!

Paulo Andrade , Founder of Secrets

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