AltDevConf: Intro to Producing for Mobile

*02/12/12: Updated with notes from today's repeat of the session.

Intro to Producing for Mobile: How to "Go Indie," Actually Ship an App, and Not Die
by Evangeline Marzec

What's the Point?

  • Make money. You are a company, not just a game/app. In order to keep making new apps, you need to have a sustainable business. You are now an entrepreneur. 
  • You will go through 100 good ideas before you find a great idea (so it's a good idea to be sustainable while you are working towards that great idea). 
  • Define success
  • Define failure
  • You will need a Plan B. Also C through F. 
    • Two strategies. 
      • Sink all of your time and money into one big idea (high risk)
      • Make a lot of smaller, lower risk apps
    • Think about how much risk you are able to take on
What Do You Have?

  • Make your constraints work for you
    • Work to your team's strengths. If you have a great writer and a great artist, don't make a finance management app - make an interactive children's book.
  • Work within your effective capacity. 
    • Don't expand your capacity to fit your idea - constrain your ideas to fit within your capacity
      • Once you're profitable, you can start growing your company to tackle bigger ideas
    • If you have 4 months of money left in the bank, you need to ship something in 1-2 weeks. It takes time to start seeing money from an app (app approval takes time, getting money out from it takes time)
    • Plan for 30 hours a week of time for each person working at your company. Realize that unexpected things come up. 
    • Effective capacity is different than maximum capacity! Your goal should not be to constantly work at maximum capacity, you will not work well. 
    • You can do less than you think you can. 
Pick a Product

  • Great ideas only.
  • Toolset will define your product. 
    • Example: Started out using Unity, but it constrains you to working on 3D games only - which are more expensive. Ended up switching to Titanium. 
  • Assume everything will take 2X as long and cost 2X more than you think it will
  • Money is a finite resource
  • You can work a maximum of 50 hours a week before you start making mistakes
  • Assume that someone else has had the same idea for an app as you. Search the app store for similar products. 
    • If you find something similar to what you're planning and it's good but not making money, come up with a different idea. 
  • iOS is the best market - users spend more money. Kindle users come in 2nd, Android users spend a lot less. 
  • Concentrate on one platform at a time. If you are successful in one market, then you can port it to another - but don't waste time porting it until you have proven its success. 
  • Kindle is a very different demographic than Android and iOS. 
What Do You Need?

  • Money
    • It's about $2k to make a phone app, and $7k to make a tablet app
    • Consider hardware costs
    • Consider opportunity costs (the amount your team members could have been making if they hadn't quit their day jobs to work with you). You need to consider this number to decide if something is actually profitable. 
  • Tools
    • Get off the shelf tools wherever possible
    • Don't make tools unless you are planning on selling them
    • Get things for free where you can!
      • There is a lot of free analytics software
    • Look for new tools every 6 months or so. Look for low prices, and tools that have good support
  • People
    • You need someone that knows how to code
    • Outsourcing isn't cheap or easy - you will spend a lot of time managing outsourcers
      • $20-30/hr for a good experienced outsourcer - better if you can find someone near you that maybe has less experience, but is willing & able to learn
    • If your business has breaks built into it (2-3 months off between products) consider using contractors. Be careful about labor laws
    • If someone is critical, put them on payroll
    • Get a bookkeeper. It's a bad idea to do this yourself unless you have experience with it. Budget $200/mo for this
    • Consider getting a good talent agent - a single point of contact you can turn to if you need temporary support (an audio engineer or marketing person). 
    • Pay people immediately - not at the end of the pay period. It will help keep them on your side when things inevitably go wrong.
    • It's helpful to have a lawyer, but don't spend more than $500 on one. 
      • Unless you are licensing IP, in which case you need a good lawyer

  • Use agile. Or some sort of structured production methodology. It will help  you stay on top of things, stay on track, and prevent feature creep. 
    • Pivotal Tracker is a good free tool
  • Keep on top of what everyone is doing
    • *Note: Sound effects: http://www.soundsnap.com/ ($249/yr for unlimited sound downloads)
    • Usually takes 15min per person per day to keep on top of things
  • If you can afford to hire someone for marketing, do it - if not, make it everyone's job!
    • Market your company 1st, and your app 2nd. Your message can get lost if each press release is highlighting a completely different name. 
  • Keep records
    • Data backups! Dropbox, external harddrives, DVDs
    • Security? As an indie startup, you don't need to worry about this as much as you should worry about keeping data backups. 
When Success Happens 
  • Assume it's short term. Usually apps have about a 2 week spike, and then drop off shortly
  • In this case, the first app was the best selling. It made about $1k in the first month, then $200-$300 each month after for the 2 years after. It took $15,000 to make, so it will take until 2015 to be profitable. The next 2 apps they made barely made any money at all in their first months. Cannot assume that all apps will bring in the same amount of money.  
  • Use caution when going to friends and family for monetary support, because they instantly become business partners who will expect to have a say in your business. Choose them wisely. 
When Shit Happens
  • It's important to set up failure conditions in advance
  • On a project level, have a set amount of time and money you don't want to exceed. If you start going over one or the other, you have failed. It doesn't matter if you've already put in 60% of your money, you need to pull the plug.
  • Reconsider your business strategy every 6 month or so
  • Come up with win/lose conditions for company success. 
    • "Out of money" is a bad lose condition. Don't quit when you're under, quit before that.
    • Examples of lose conditions
      • When your balance is at a certain amount of money
      • If you haven't met your success criteria in 3 years
    • "Quitting" can mean different things. It could mean completely stopping, or turning app making into a hobby. In this case, one person works outside of the company full time to help support it.
If Nothing Else:
  • Pay yourself. Give yourself enough to live on - but also to afford small luxuries. (e.g., not buying socks for 3 months, but being allowed to buy whatever groceries you want). It's important to be able to keep your stress level down.  
  • Invest wisely. Go through 100 good ideas first, throw them out. It takes time to make a knockoff as well as an original idea, so make sure what you're making is worth it. 
  • Get a mentor. Someone that can help you with the business side of it, but also just to help provide a sense of perspective. 
  • Do what you're good at. "You can't out Amazon Amazon." Use your unique perspective to your advantage. 

Q: Doesn't pursuing a "small bets" model (small safe projects as opposed to one big gamble) go contrary to what most game developers are trying to do? 
A: It depends on your purpose in being a developer. Small bets are more sustainable. Know that 1-3% of apps are "hits," which generally means that you make enough off of them to stay in business. 

Q: Elaborate on the $2k as a minimum cost it takes to ship an app. 
A: It takes between 3 days to 2 weeks to make an app - which is time that you are not getting paid. Lots of small costs, ($70 Washington state business license, $99/yr Apple developers fee, etc). Consider the cost of hardware, even if you already own it (so factor in the cost of you iPhone, even if you already owned it, would have bought it anyway). 

Q: How do you juggle 1.5 jobs?
A: No social life! It's helpful to choose a day job that you don't hate (doesn't drain you, and you can keep using some of your brainpower thinking about your company). Gatekeep your time. Learn how to delegate tasks (for example, if there isn't time to approve the storyboards, just trust your teammates.)

Q: How do you start marketing on a small budget?
A: Facebook, Twitter, Blogging, Press releases. Can use talent agencies to help with writing press releases. In this case, found it helpful to meet with agency for one hour a week. Make updates to your blog/Twitter/etc PART of your job, and make sure that everyone is a part of it. Twitter wasn't as helpful, since there wasn't time to Tweet 10x a day. Do what you're good at. If you're an artist, post art. If you're great at writing, write press releases and blog posts. Press releases should come out when an app is released, updated, or featured. 

Q: How do you test to see which ideas are worth pursuing?
A: User testing. Find your audience, and get the app to them for feedback. (In this case, went to local libraries, got librarians' input, got it into the hands of 4 year olds, etc.) One suggestion is http://www.usertesting.com/ - About $85 to have 5 people look at your app and give feedback. Useful for people outside of Seattle or Silicon Valley in places where it's harder to have user testing. 

Q: What do you think about using equity stakes as a means of paying employees?
A: You're going to have a really hard time finding an experienced developer that will work for equity stakes! It's a valuable way to get people working for you to feel  involved, and potentially get better work from them. Use if for culture and retention, but do not use it as a means of payment. When you offer it, acknowledge the fact that it is currently worthless, but that it is intended as a way of making them feel involved.

Q: Are there times when it's better to release apps?
A: Have seen bumps in sales around November & August - but also increased competition. Also think about if your app is seasonal or not. The Jabberwocky app did very well around Halloween, and the soccer app did very well around the World Cup.

Q: How do you get money when you're starting out on your own?
A: Kickstarter can be very good. Having a day job is helpful, or doing stuff on the side to make money. In general, start with the cheapest, simplest app first and prove that you can execute. Then people will have confidence in your ability to follow through, and will be willing to invest in you.

Q: What would you suggest for a beginner who is looking for team members?
A: Prove that you can do the work - show that you can follow through on something. You will probably need to have a specialization (art, programming, etc), so make impressive things in your area of expertise. This will impress people into wanting to work with you, and they will also want to impress you too.

Q: Is it a good idea to target a specific audience? For example, "color" vs. "colour"?
A: Piccolo saw success by targeting other markets than the US. Most indie devs target the US, so doing this is a way to set yourself apart from them. If the European market sees that you are targeting them, they are more likely to buy your app.

Q: Is it possible to get success through press releases when your app has been out for a few weeks?
A: If you're making a press release after your game is already out, it's not really enough to say "we released this app." You need to be creative and tell a story with it, that will catch a journalist's eye. Make their job easy for them - if you can show that there is a story there, they will be more inclined to print it. 

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