The Indie Dev Diaries Presents The Early Access Retrospective

// Written by Jordan Morgan // Nov 18th, 2021 // Read it in about 10 minutes

As another year draws to a close, and the Best-in-Class book series nears the $100,000 in sales milestone, I figured now is as good as a time as any to do a little retrospective on the project. A little public journaling, if you will. The kinda thing I always enjoyed doing back in the before times, when I had an indie app of my own that I always loved talkin’ shop about.

What are things like now, indie wise? I traded an app for a sprawling five book series chronicling everything I’ve learned about iOS development. How’s that feeling?

So, let’s take a stroll through my sleep deprived, caffeine infused brain and take stock of how things have looked up to this point. How is it using side project time nearly exclusively for writing? What marketing tactics have worked? How does it all feel?

If you want the TL;DR, it feels both fantastic and stressful all at once. So, basically, just like it was having an indie app. Saved you a click 😉. If you the TL;RA1 version - here it is. The first part covers mindset topics and the second part under “Advertising” covers, well, that. Feel free to just read either if that’s your thing.

First Reactions

By far and away, the most common question I get in terms of this project is along the lines of “So how does it feel going with an early access approach?” After taking years to ship Spend Stack, I knew I didn’t want to go that route here. Something I’ve already talked about at length.

If I had to do it again for this particular project, I would. My stated goal of delivering the latest version of the series every two weeks keeps me honest, and on track. Plus, early access readers have voiced the opinion, on several occasions, that it’s nice to take the content bit by bit instead of being stampeded all at once with a 1,000 pages of stuff.

If I do another book project, would I employ the early access gameplan once more? Almost certainly not. You gotta give something to get something. And what I give with early access is a quicker cadence, and increased pace and deadline that I’ve got to deliver on. As well I should, over 1,000 people have paid me money for this - and I absolutely don’t want to let them down.

But, my life is also like being in college now - where there is a deadline for a paper constantly looming over my head. Instead of having shaggy hair and slamming Red Bulls to finish a paper, I have three kids and a big boy job that come first. So the pressure of a deadline helps and hinders. I have my name behind this, and I want people to get true and lasting value from the project. Though, sometimes I think the end product would be better if I wasn’t timeboxed.

let concatenatedThoughts = """

Then again, would it ever even ship if I didn't timebox myself? Maybe, maybe not. But with a healthy dash of a little more 'maybe not' than 'maybe' if we're being honest here.

"""

But I am doing what I enjoy, too. Writing over a topic that gets me excited and keeps me curious. I’ve found that the ironic bit is that when I did have an indie app, I waxed poetic about how much I truly missed writing. Spilling my guts and thoughts on these virtual pages is therapeutic and fun. I get to connect with other indies and anyone else who might read what I write in ways that you can’t with software.

And now, I’m doing a mountain of writing. All I do is write.

Like clockwork, now I find myself on the other end of the equation. I truly miss creating software! Life is funny like that. I long for the days of cracking open Xcode, solving some new problem only because I wanted to explore a different API and an indie app is a great way to do it. Plus, that the thrill of launching! That is a process I deeply treasure and get enjoyment from.

So then, what has this writing-intensive, less-software-making process taught me to this point? Primarily, balance - insofar as I’m not doing great job at achieving it in terms of the indie aspects of my life2. When it comes to the indie thing, there are three things I’ve identified that I enjoy doing:

Venn diagram of things I enjoy doing

But, if you look at what I’m actually doing - it looks like this:

Venn diagram of things I am actually doing.

Such a simple lesson that I too soon forget. Balance is important, and keeping it in check is paramount. As my heart leans more and more to wanting to explore being truly independent, I’ve come to realize that I would need to execute on a strategy that allows me to do all three of those things, but in a way that I can make money to provide for my family. Another post for a different day, perhaps.

But step one is finishing the book series, and the first book is nearly done. When I look back it, life is not so much different than shipping and tending to an indie app. It’s just that the places you go to do it, and the reasons why you are there, are just different. Instead of popping open App Store Connect and tapping in on downloads, you hop over to Gumroad and see how sales went. Since the feedback is instant, unlike with download and sales reporting from Apple, I moved the widget reporting sales to the Today view on iOS so I don’t feel tempted to check it constantly:

A sales widget from Gumroad on an iPhone.

The litany of parallels go on and on, each one making a increasingly stronger connection from discipline to discipline that feel eerily similar.

Got an app? Validate it with a market. You do the same with a book, or any product for that matter.

Need to find an audience? See where they are, find some beta testers - get the word out to potential customers. The same is true of a book. The context is the only switch.

As you may well be aware, if you’re working on apps - Twitter is excellent at finding beta testers and connecting with press. If you’ve got a book over how to make apps, then Twitter is still great, only now you are trying to build trust with other developers to market a book series too - and find new ones you’ve never connected with yet.

Which brings me to the second act of this post, advertising.

Advertising

Taking into account all of my experiences and trials from Spend Stack, I knew marketing was something I was going to take seriously. From the beginning, too. I still believe that there are truly amazing apps out there that stay stuck where they are (growth wise) because too many people don’t know about them. Simple as that. They need to be marketed.

Collating all I’ve come to learn about marketing is a different post (or perhaps another book3) but here’s what has worked for me:

  1. Figure out who would want the thing you are making.
    For the book series, iOS developers.

  2. Figure out where they are.
    They are entrenched in tech, Twitter primarily and other tech based sites.

  3. Figure out how to get your message out to those places, and to those people.
    Twitter ads, podcasts spots or similar routes.

Then, once I had that sorted out, I followed a relatively simple process. That dance looked a little bit like this:

Start with a small chunk of money and take a few bets on some form of advertising, make sure you can measure it and then bet more on the resulting winner. And, that’s exactly what I did. Suffice it to say, it’s worked out pretty well so far. It sells every day and typically profits anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000 a week. More than I could’ve asked for.

But, just like with software engineering, there is a trade off with every decision. Advertising is no different. Here’s a quick rundown on the two primary channels I’ve used.

Podcast Ads
Identifying a podcast to test this one out was easy - Under the Radar was, and continues to be, perfect. It’s a show exactly for my target audience. I’ve also ran a spot with MacStories, which was effective and worth the cost of entry as well.

Here’s a spot I purchased in this episode.

While I’m not sure I’m able to disclose the amount I paid for the spots (I haven’t read the T’s and C’s around that) what I can say is that, up to this point, they’ve paid for themselves within the first day or two, typically within 24 hours.

Plus, working with Relay.fm is a wonderful experience. The sales rep I work with, Kerry, is incredibly kind and great at what she does. And, you know that your money is going to good people too - the kind of folks who run fundraisers to help kids with cancer. That’s something I can get behind. I benefit, they benefit. That’s what I want out of any sales transaction.

Lo, far be it for me to forget about the talent behind the whole gig. Marco absolutely slays the ad reads. I simply supply a bullet point outline, he does the rest. As someone who has been on several podcasts, I can tell you what he is doing is not trivial. It takes a mountain of practice. He makes it look (or, sound, I guess) easy, but it’s not.

Integration is also a plus. I need to, obviously, attribute book sales from this. But I don’t really dig tracking, and when it comes to it - I want as much as needed but as little as possible. The answer for me? Simply hanging off a new URL listeners could be nudged towards. In this case, bestinclassiosapp.com/radar instead of the vanilla bestinclassiosapp.com link I usually share.

The pages themselves are identical - in Jekyll, they share the same page layout and everything. But that simple tweak lets me see how things are going down using privacy-first analytics solutions such as Plausible:

Plausible analytics.

One thing I don’t hear a lot about when it comes to podcast advertising is posterity. It’s a huge plus. A year from now, if someone wants to work their way through Under the Radar’s backlog - my ad will still be played, the listener could still decide the book series is something they’d like, I gain a new customer and I get to make things for them. Nice 🤝.

Though, there are still things to work around. For example, the information that’s relayed to those folks may not be wholly representative of where things are. For example, if the ad reads “X is done of the book series”, X is probably entirely inaccurate now. I’ve got a lot more done on the book series since that spot aired.

Most will probably pick up on this, but it’s worth mentioning and optimizing for as much as you can. Next up, let’s take a look at everyone’s favorite blue bird based social network, The Twitters.

Twitter Ads
This one, by far, is most interesting. Using Plausible and Twitter analytics, I found a unique correlation between two data points. The story goes like this…

If my profile visits were higher, my page visits to the book’s site were higher.

And when that happened, my sales were higher. Every. Single. Time.

Or, put into our terms:

private func calcWeeklyFutureSales(with profileVisits:Visits) -> Double {
    if profileVisits.weeklyVisits >= 1000 {
        return BookSales.shared.baseline + Double.random(in: 10..<30)
    } else {
        return BookSales.shared.baseline
    }
}

This made sense too, if we were to revisit my original assumptions - chief among them was that people who would want to buy the book likely hang out on Twitter.

let concatenatedThoughts = """

Personally, I've bought several things from folks who were tweeting about their latest offerings (i.e. TailwindUI, Marketing for Developers and a few others). If you look even a little bit, your Twitter feed might be a pantheon of incredible resources produced by folks from all walks of life, putting their best work forward. That part excites me, and it makes me glad that people can find a way to make money by sharing things they know.

"""

I’ve long used Twitter ads for Spend Stack, so I was no stranger to them. I started with ads whose goal were website clickthroughs (which still run). There are several you can spin up:

Twitter ad dashboard.

But, the far more interesting bit is that another ad type yielded far more results and were cheaper! And they were…

Follower ads!?

Yes, follower ads, of all things. As I alluded to above, when you create an ad in Twitter, you specify the end goal (app installs, web site visits, etc). My hypothesis was that follower ads would produce profile visits, which would mean more opportunities to win customers who see would either browse my tweets and become curious about the book series, but more importantly visit its website from the link in my bio.

Remember our super complex equation above:

If my profile visits were higher, my page visits to the book’s site were higher. And when that happened, my sales were higher. Every. Single. Time.

I wasn’t really looking for more followers, but I wondered if my hunch would prove true. And hey, I’ll try pretty much any form of advertising once. So I popped some money in one and instantly saw that my profile visits were shooting up, which in turn led to more website visits - which I was then thankfully able to gain as customers.

As for the followers part? Yeah, it seems to works pretty well for its stated purpose. But that’s not where the real value lies in my case. If there were a profile visits ad, I’d just use that. But the great thing here is this: you don’t pay anything for people who visit your profile from these.

No matter if they follow you, don’t follow you, think you have a big nose when looking at your profile picture, or wonder why the pretty lady in your profile pic married a dork face like you - and that makes them extremely affordable. Far more so than the website click based ads I’ve used.

However, these are also the most complicated ads. They carry a mountain of baggage I’d rather go without.

First, the every now and then D.M. of “F*** you pay for friends!!!”, or getting blocked from folks who just flat out hate ads (fair enough) and perhaps worst of all - what some people may conclude about you from them.

That you wanna be HaSHtAg F@Mous baby! Be an influencer$$! Make It BiG!

When in reality, I don’t want any of that. But the percetion of you is fait accompli in some cases, and who you are thought to be won’t match up with who you are off the screen.

I spend most of my days covered in Cheeto dust from my kids eating on my lap, all the while watching Blues Clues reruns. I play a lot of video games and binge Netflix. Being any sort of influencer, by its bonafide definition, does not seem appealing to me in the slightest. As I said (years ago now!) when it comes to social media, I’d rather make friends over fans - 100% of the time.

So with ads, no matter the medium, I just want to find customers who I can help with the things that I make. But, you’ll never get that nuance across to everyone. And as someone who is a big believer in being your authentic self online and being real about who you are and what you stand for - that’s tough for me to handle mentally.

I’ve got the scars and learned the way to share this with you all: To advertise on Twitter, no matter the ad goal type you utilize, you have to have thick skin.

And, well, I don’t. I have a lot of emotions, I cry during most Disney movies and my feelings get hurt when people say mean things to me 😅. I’ve learned it’s way more fun for me to just be an indie with a finance app on Twitter than it is as someone who is a “content creator” (I wish there was a better term here). But, I love creating content too. So for now, my indie life is as clear as Safari’s currently focused tab in Monterery 😉.

And so it is, if you had a machine where if you put a few bucks in, and got more out - how many times would you use a machine like that? Even if there were costs associated? The ads that work the best are the ones that I dislike using the most. Queue up the Pokemon meme…is this capitalism!?

And Finally, Marketing is Inherently Tricky…
For me, marketing is about you engineering a situation that is truly beneficial to both parties. I have something that could be of value to you, and you have money you’d pay for it. Practically speaking, the agreement is truly simplistic and without complications.

Socially speaking, it’s anything but.

Being authentic isn’t hard when trying to sell something. Showing, and getting someone else to believe that you are, is extremely hard, and I still haven’t figured out how to do it as well as I’d like. I feel like I get a smidge better with time, though. And if I crack that nut, you’ll be the first to know about it.

For me, it comes down to the person in the mirror. In the age of social media - people are inundated with pitches. That’s a blessing and a curse. A curse, well, because how do you show people you aren’t out for a quick buck, that you’re actually behind the thing that you’re making? A blessing because if you can do that, selling something is actually quite easy and all involved come out on top.

Quick Hitters

Let’s bring it home with some quick questions.

Russ, who makes the lovely Happy Scale app, asked:

Discord is nearly something I didn’t do, thinking it would be a huge commitment on my part. In reality, it’s not. It’s fun, and I’m glad I did it. There’s fun conversation in there, it’s low key and not busy all the time - ensuring we all get what we need out of it. A direct line to ask me questions, and just have a good time together. In the end, only about 20% of customers end up joining it.

Kristers Jurševskis asked:

This is a great question, because it demonstrates a common fallacy in would-be indies: “I need a base before I can do anything.” It’s simply not true. Experiment, don’t be afraid to try different things and much like I explained here today, you might stumble onto something that works. It’s all about going where you think you can reach new customers and building trust there.

My good friend Mr. Dark Noise asks:

Come on, is that even a question!?

Nobody asked, but I think is interesting:

How have I used the money? This is another post I’ve been kicking around, “How do you spend your side project money” that I want to get other willing indies on board with. But, in short:

  1. 10% nest egg fund.
  2. 30% retirement accounts and investing.
  3. 12% charitable giving.
  4. 10% advertising or putting it back into the book.
  5. 20% fun purchases
  6. 8% vacation saving.

Final Thoughts

It’s quite a trip to think I’ve been able to get as far as I have with the book series, and it’s not even close to being doing done yet. It’s something I hope I can help the industry at large with for years to come.

Overall - how could I be anything but thankful? And that’s what I am. With one book down, I hope to deliver the next four in due time and to produce something that devs will find helpful on their iOS journey for as long I’m still tickin’.

Until next time ✌️.

  1. Too long, reading anyways. 

  2. Which is, quite honestly, an important part of my life. 

  3. Kidding. I am kidding so hard. Or am I? Anyways, gotta finish my current series first. 

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