Brian Webster's a one-man-show, who's done everything right without maybe even intending to. What's his secret? He attributes his success to making a quality product and responding well to customer feedback.
Tell us about your company. How did you get started?
I'm currently a one-man software company, Fat Cat Software. I do programming for Mac OS X. I have three applications that I sell:
I wish I could say I had some grand plan like I'm going to start my own business, but it really just kinda happened...
iPhoto Library Manager originally started out as a programming project to teach myself Mac OS X programming. iPhoto had just come out when I graduated from college, and I hadn't found a job yet, so I had a lot of free time on my hands. I wrote this little program that would allow people to switch between libraries, because iPhoto only allows for one library. I did it as freeware and Apple updated a year later and I did an update and still remained free.
As time went along, I got email, and people asking to be able to do other things. Eventually, it was a combination of me getting enough of these emails and iPhoto expanding its capabilities. At that time I was working for a Mac development company for a couple years. My then girlfriend, now wife, was up in grad school, and I had plenty of free time in the evenings; basically I had no life. I'd go to my job and program all day, then I'd come home and work on my own programming. I was just kinda plunking away on it as a side project. Eventually I said, what the heck, I'll try charging $20 for it, and it just kinda took off. Lots of people needed it; lots of people liked it. Within about a year, I was making as much for that as I was from my current job. Once it got to that point, I decide to transition over and do that full time. And I've been doing it ever since.
Where did you get the idea from?
That's the irony of the whole thing; I'm not into photography at all. My wife is, but my own photo collection is not much, so she gathers test data for me to work on. Initially it was just a fun project to teach myself. But it's been a lot of fun and its turned into a useful, troubleshooting tool for people using iPhoto. Users keep me pretty aware of breaking iPhoto issues.
Once I had Library Manager out there a common question was do you have something for iTunes library management. So I allowed user feedback to influence the development of my next product. I wanted to diversify a little bit, since there's always the possibility with one product that Apple could add everything I do into their next release. It's always a possibility, but it's been nine years and it hasn't happened yet. I think they don't want to add too much to iPhoto because it would compete with their professional photo software, Aperture.
Did having one successful project under your belt help you with your next product launch?
Yes, both in terms of programming the app and marketing it. I was able to reuse the concepts and code from the previous app, as well as the whole process of putting up a website and offering it for sale in an online store. Plus I learned from all my previous mistakes.
How did you market your app?
I haven't done a whole lot of marketing in the traditional sense. For people with corrupted iPhoto libraries, I get a fair portion of my traffic that comes directly from Apple's own discussion forums, where there are users helping each other. There are 2-3 regular users who will help a lot of people with iPhoto stuff, and for a lot of common iPhoto problems, they say, "Go try iPhoto Library Manager."
I also have quite a few reviews, including a review for iPhoto Library Manager on MacWorld. Of course, it always helps when those reviews are positive, 4.5 mice or whatever rating scale they use.
Now, there's enough juice behind my product name that if you start to type iPhoto, Google will give you a suggestion for iPhoto Library Manager. It's a keyword that gets over 20,000 searches each month.
How did you transition to a paid model?
I was a little worried whether there would be backlash, so what I ended up doing was making sure everything you could do in the free version of the software you could still do for free in the updated version and it was just the new features you had to pay to access.
I go back and forth on the best way to do trial limitations for software, because you have to have something in there. PowerTunes is time-limited, so it's fully featured but after 30 days it locks down and you have to pay. Whereas with iPhoto Library Manager there's no time limit. It's just if you want to do X, Y or Z you have to pay. I'm not a huge fan of that model, but it seems to work pretty well.
How do you sell your app?
I started by selling everything through my own online store. For that I use Potion Store, an open source Ruby on Rails web store. It's on GitHub, and I'm not Rails expert, but I was able to learn enough to make the change and updates I need.
Why not sell through the Mac App Store?
When I first started, the app store didn't exist. And of course, the Mac app store has guidelines for what apps in the store are allowed to do. I fall outside of those guidelines. So I've never tried to sell there.
But the curve for the number of users for my app has gone up over time. Apple's selling more and more computers with people using iPhoto. As their user base grows, my customer base grows too. I'm in a really good situation.
How do you spend your day?
Writing code is a big part of the business, but replying to emails is the second largest chunk of time. In the beginning I did that myself, but then I hired a company to provide the first level of support. That's been nice since I don't have to spend as much time on emails. Apt Folk is the name of the company and they offer customer service management for developers.
I'm working on a big release for iPhoto Library manager. Then I think I'll definitely take a look at developing an app for the iPhone or iPad.
What advice would you share with other entrepreneurs, startups, and developers?
When you're doing software, there aren't a whole lot of upfront costs if you're a developer, so you don't necessarily have to raise tons and tons of money. You can usually start as one person, write an application and get it out there.
When you first start out, you'll probably be doing everything yourself, so start looking for opportunities to delegate stuff out, especially after you've gotten your product out there and have some income coming in. That way you're not running around doing absolutely everything yourself.
And ship early and ship often. By that, I mean, don't try to make everything perfect on the first launch, or try to stuff your app with features. Whittle it down to core features and get that out there. Make it good, but not perfect. Once you start getting feedback from people, then just iterate, iterate, iterate.