Saturday, July 04, 2009

From Orange to Apple

Maybe the title should have been “From an Orange Executive to an Apple Indie Developer”, or simply put “Learnings After One Year as Indie”. Basically, I wanted to explain how I came to make one of the biggest changes in my life, what the motivations were, and some of the things I did learn throughout the process.

My background

So, at 39, I was a reasonably successful executive at Orange, the French telecommunications company owned by France Telecom. At that time, France Telecom had more than 200,000 employees, more than 3,000 of them in Spain. I was one of them, one of those called “Top 100”; a director in charge of Web operations, leading a group of nearly 50 people. I had a nice salary and nice benefits too.

I worked for Orange during 8 years. Prior to that, I had been working for other multinational companies, always related to technology, which was, and still is, my passion. That is also the reason why I majored in computer science. However, soon after I started working, it became clear that I could not make a living creating software, at least not the software that I wanted to make. Soon after that, I got a masters degree in business administration, and began a managerial career that some years later took me to Orange.

During my time at Orange, I started Cocoa development, a bit as a hobby. I had been developing applications, mostly games, since I was 14. Being new to the Mac, I wanted to see what Cocoa was about. At the same time, Pedro, who also worked for the same employer, had this idea about making a universal binary stripper. So he went ahead and made the first implementation of his idea as simple shell script. It worked just fine. We had been working together several years, and we knew each other quite well. When he showed it to me, I told him that I wanted to make it more “Mac-like”. I, then, created a user interface that showed the application list and an icon for the architecture. Finally, Pedro integrated the guts of his script into Cocoa. It was the birth of Xslimmer. To our surprise, Xslimmer's popularity began to grow, and with it, so did its sales.

Months later, around August 2007, we created Sketches. Those were the jailbreak days for us, as there was no official support from Apple for third party applications. Interest for it skyrocketed, and for every new update there were hundreds of thousands of downloads. Some months later, Apple announced the SDK and the App Store. It was clear that there was an opportunity.

The change and its motivations

So, my day job, family and other responsibilities were taking most of my time. I felt stressed, and drank a lot of coffee. I had a gut feeling that the time was coming to make a change. As opposed to what was clear to me in the early 90‘s, Xslimmer had taught me that it was possible to make a living on selling software that I had created. And the App Store was coming.

At that same time, Orange was starting to feel the pounding from the world's financial and economical crisis, and had bad forecasts for the future. As it had happened in several occasions before, and in preparation for the crisis, there was a management reshuffle. I was offered the IT Project Management Direction. The job was for sure interesting, but my head was somewhere else. I needed to pursue my dream of creating my own software company, one that would make software I wanted, and I knew that the time was then.

I left Orange, on July 4th, 2008. Exactly one week before the App Store went life.

The learnings

After one year there are a few things I have learned, that might deserve sharing:

App Store success is temporary. I compare it to the music industry. While you are on the top chart, you sell; once you are out, your sales level is much, much lower. In our case, Sketches did great for a couple of weeks, reaching Top 12 in the US for a while.

Apple listens, but it takes them a while to react. During the iPhone SDK beta testing, we wrote several bug reports - it sometimes took several weeks, but they were all answered to, and most fixed. Once the App Store was live, I wrote an article a while back that included several suggestions for improving the App Store. Most of the things that I wanted changed are now changed. For example, allowing only users of the application to voice an opinion and rating about it.

On marketing, experiment and follow your instinct. During this year we tried different things that did not work out. From joining other developers to create an “Apps Gems” site, to purchasing online advertisement. We were new to those types of actions. However, simpler, and cheaper, tactics did work out quite well. Twittering, blogging or simple press releases did much more than any expensive advertisement. I obviously need to learn more on this.

Get help for your paperwork. Administrative stuff and taxes is unavoidable. You just have to do it. We have a small accounting company that takes care of filling up the necessary forms and that keeps the accounting information for us, but most of the work, you still have to do. You have to process those PayPal reports, you have to process those iTunes Connect Financial reports, you have to scan all the invoices you receive, and so on. But having help from a third party places some routine to it, and ensures that you will meet the necessary deadlines.

It is not all fun, but automation helps. You cannot start new products all the time. You have to take care and nurture your existing products, so that your customers realize you actually take them seriously and are committed to making them better and better. Your customer base demands time too. Customer support takes a good chunk of your time. The more products and the more sales, the higher the number of customer support requests. I would say that around 2% of sales translate into customer support requests. Most are very simple, but some are not. The solution is to try to automate things as much as possible. From self service (recover your license) to email templates, all helps.

Working at home is harder than I thought it would be. This is not because of a lack of discipline, but, in my case, the environment is really noisy and busy during the day. I found myself trying to work while being interrupted. Being used to code at night, this was really hard for me. We ended up renting a small office, just a few days ago.

There are more things in life than just work. For a couple of months, I believed Pedro had lost interest in our little software start-up. One day he explained to me that he was ending his 15-year-old marriage. It took a while for him to reorient his life, and, as a result, we deviated from our scheduled workplan, and part of our initial inertia was lost. However, now I try to spend more quality time with my family, while keeping a more flexible philosophy about how to spend my time. For example, last week I took the afternoon off and spent it having fun with my family. What's more, I did not feel guilty or time pressured about it.

You can do all those things that you never could. Now there is no excuse. It is just a question of organizing yourself. In my case, I wanted to lose weight. That is hard to do when you spend a lot of time traveling around, eating sandwiches at meetings or while preparing presentations at 2AM. But once you are the owner of your time, it is. I lost 20Kg (44 pounds) from September to December last year.

The dream

So, now what? Well, when I think of what I want to accomplish in the future, I do not think of creating a huge company with many employees, controlling the world’s software market. My objective at this point in time is to create a company similar to Panic or the Omnigroup. These companies keep the indie spirit, while having some specialization and some size, so they produce quality products while providing a quality service, as their employees can dedicate most of the time to what they do best.

So, for LateNiteSoft 2.0, and if our numbers allow for it, my intention is to hire an enthusiast support/webmaster/marketing person, as the first non-founder employee. Then, where we go from there remains to be seen, but I am sure it is going to be both interesting and fun.