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On Life In The Mac App Store

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Back in September 2014 I released John’s Background Switcher to the Mac App Store. The idea behind the Mac App Store is that you pay £60 / year to Apple so that you can sign and distribute software for the Mac and submit apps for sale there. Apple host it, handle shipping updates to customers via the standard software update mechanism and your app appears on the App Store application bundled with OS X. Oh, and Apple take a 30% cut of every sale you make.

John's Background Switcher on the Mac App Store

It sounds great. The App Store is built into every Mac. That’s potentially millions of customers wanting to buy your software! And unlike the iOS app store there isn’t an expectation that apps are priced unrealistically at $0.99 where there is no hope of ever covering the development costs, never mind making any money. However I had more modest goals than becoming rich and giving up my day job. I just wanted to cover the bare cost of building JBS. So I figured I’d break it down and detail how it’s panned out over the last 9 months.

The Costs Of Building An App

But first, development costs. I already mentioned the £60 / year to Apple. In addition JBS is built using Xamarin.Mac which for the cheapest Indie license costs $300 / year (call it £200). The website you’re looking at here costs £60 / year to host on WordPress.com and Amazon S3 hosting (not all directly related but a cost I’d want to cover) is maybe another £30 per year. I also support Interfacelift (a lovely photo site that has a paid-for API) and that costs me £19 / month or £228 / year. So that’s £578 per year recurring fixed costs.

Next is time. JBS for Mac took me 4 months of evenings and weekends (often very late into the night) to build. I’d conservatively estimate (knowing it was higher) an average of 4 hours, 4 nights per week and 8 hours at the weekend, which is a total of 384 hours work. Apparently an average hourly rate for a developer is £37.50, so let’s say to hire someone to build it for me would have cost around £14,400 (or $22,000 USD). Plus I’d have still had to spend my time managing, testing, designing, etc. Fortunately I could re-use a good portion of code from the Windows version of JBS, otherwise those numbers would have been a lot higher. However I had no expectation of ever making a dent in those costs – JBS is something I’ve loved building for years so it’s never been about the money. Instead my goal was to cover the fixed annual costs of £578 (around $880 USD). If I could make that I’d be happy.

I decided to take the same marketing approach I did with JBS for Windows which is to not advertise it, chase reviews, hound techie sites for kudos or such like. I’d leave it to grow organically, which meant I could iron out bugs while the number of users is small and if it ever gets successful then it’ll be a lot more stable and solid. In short, this is what happens when you build an app for the Mac App Store and are too lazy to do any marketing or advertising – the “build it and they will come” philosophy. (My brother works in marketing so will likely cringe at this approach). If you put in any marketing effort then expect to do better than me – this is like a baseline case study.

The Numbers

So come on John, how much did you make? Are you rich? The answers are “Ok…” and “no”. After some tinkering I decided to set the price at £6.99 / $8.99 as it felt about right compared to other apps out there. And without further ado, here are my sales from launch mid-September 2014 to June 1st 2015:

JBS Sales Figures

I average around a sale of JBS per day and over the past 9 months I’ve earned $1840, or £1200. Knock off tax at 40% (worst case scenario) and that’s £720. So that pays the development costs for a year with enough for a couple of meals out – yay! Although if I never write another line of code again for JBS it would take me 15 years to recoup the initial development costs alone. Clearly I won’t be quitting my day job any time soon! It’s fortunate that JBS is a passion project rather than a source of income. When you look at numbers like this and understand the amount of work that goes into building what seems a pretty simple app, it can be particularly galling to read reviews like this:

A 2 star review of JBS

Which leads me nicely onto…

Why The Mac App Store Kinda Sucks

Ah yes. So 30% cut aside, there are a lot of downsides to selling on the Mac App Store. The first of which is the review time. It varies, but on average it’s taken around 7 days from submitting my “ready to go” app to Apple before it’s actually reviewed. And if it’s rejected (which it can be for a vast array of subtle reasons) you go to the back of the queue and have to wait another 7 days for the next one. This has happened many times with me and their rejection explanations can be so vague that it takes several go-rounds before you get to the bottom of it. Here’s the process for the next version (it’s currently June 3rd as I write this):

JBS Review Stages

So if you’re used to being able to ship updates quickly, you’ll find the Mac App Store infuriating.

Update: As of January 2017 the review time is around 1-2 days which means rapid releases can be achieved through the Mac App Store – certainly a good thing in my book. However…

The next problem is that the App Store app itself is truly awful. It’s difficult to discover applications, the search is next to useless and it highly favours apps that have been “Featured” by Apple. I’ve no idea what gets an app “Featured” and that’s part of another problem – it’s a black box. If you’re not featured you have no control at all over your app page – and since the app pages make finding the support link difficult you often end up with app reviews like the one above. If you sell direct you get an angry email you can actually reply to and help the person out. And with no option for people trialling your app, if it turns out someone bought it thinking it was something else, all you’ll get is a 1 star review for your troubles. For a company that prides itself on attention to detail, Apple have done a really shoddy job with the Mac App Store.

But I guess investment goes where the money is. As Sam Soffes wrote, it doesn’t take a lot of sales to get to the top of the charts which shows that despite shipping on every Mac, the percentage of people who actually buy on the Mac App Store must be very small indeed. You can see the app store charting for JBS here.

Time To Sell Outside The Mac App Store

Having no control at all over the presentation and sales process, not to mention glacial release times and no direct contact with users who’ve bought the app, I felt I really should explore selling outside the Mac App Store. So I’ve set up a shop with FastSpring who do this sort of thing for loads of other app vendors. While their commission is lower than Apple (which let me drop the price a bit), my primary motivation is to provide the best service to users of JBS.

To do that I need them to get a personal email when they buy a copy that gives them a point of contact should it not meet their expectation. If they hate it, I want to see if I can help them by making JBS better and if not give them a refund, no worries. I don’t want to be seen as some faceless corporation which is partly why the app store mentality can kick in with perfectly reasonable people who end up leaving reviews like the one above. I also need to be responsive by fixing issues and adding new features quickly. Having to wait weeks to release an update in the 21st century is just unacceptable, so by using Sparkle I can push out updates whenever they’re ready to go.

I’m leaving JBS for sale both in and out of the Mac App Store. I wouldn’t want any of the 285 people who’ve bought it to miss out on updates, it’s just they won’t be shipped to them as quickly as for people who buy direct. Of course if anyone bought it from Apple and want a non-sandboxed copy I’ll happily sort out the license for them since happy users is my primary motivation, not making sales. And being outside the Mac App Store gives me more flexibility to make that happen.

I’m planning on adding trial functionality so you can try out JBS for free and if you like it you can then buy it, but that’ll take a little time to implement. However at least it’s now an option outside the Apple walled garden.

Next Steps

Firstly I’ll see how sales go outside the app store and if being more responsive helps spread JBS by word of mouth in the same way the Windows version has. But it does show that it is possible to sell an app without doing any marketing at all, just not necessarily to make a decent amount out of it. I’d be foolish not to look at marketing JBS to see what impact that has, so any suggestions welcome. 🙂

Further Reading

If you fancy filling your Mac desktop with beautiful photo montages then you can now either buy it on the Mac App Store or directly from my store. You’ll find the latter is a bit cheaper, you’ll get updates faster and… Wait, if you’re here you’ve read all of the above so no need to repeat it! And if you want to read a bit more about JBS and what it does in general, here’s the product page.

Posted by

Scotsman, footballer, software developer, bounty hunter, photographer, dog owner, risk taker, heart breaker, nice guy. Some of those are lies.

5 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. I’ve enjoyed your Windows version for some time now. Great product. Thanks for creating it. And thanks for making it free on Windows. I don’t think I’ve ever paid for an app from any app store. Not even $0.99.

    Reply

  2. Hi John,

    thanks for the Background Switcher. I used to enjoy the Windows version quite some time ago. Then I switched to Macbooks and … forgot. Now I switched to a Windows notebook and … remembered. Unfortunately my Windows notebook is broken right now and back to HP for repair. So I thought I would look for a background switcher using my old Mac.

    Although I will use my Windows notebook again in a not to distant future I thought buying your Background Switcher for Mac would be a good idea at the time. Just to say thank you.

    Cheers,
    Frank

    Reply

  3. Hi John,

    This is a great product me and kids were enjoying a lot when I was on Windows. Just got Mac recently and my kids are asking me why the image with mountains are still the same and doesn’t change. 🙂 So, JBS is the first app I bought for Mac, not from Appstore thought. I wish you good sales. This app costs every penny!

    Cheers,
    Eugene.

    Reply

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