inessential by Brent Simmons

The First Go

Andy Finnell’s A Postmortem of Failed Products interested me. (Via Michael Tsai.)

It reminded me of my first go at being an indie developer.

I started in 1995. I wasn’t much of a programmer, and I had zero experience designing, shipping, promoting, and selling apps. I had some indie heroes at the time — Rich Siegel, Dave Winer, Chuck Shotton, Peter Lewis, Mark Aldritt, Jim Matthews, John Norstad — and I wanted to do what they were doing. Very badly.

I was working as a secretary at a manufacturer’s representative and I was in love with the web. I quit my job.

(The company — about a dozen people, mostly in the Portland branch — sold things like toothpaste, gift wrapping, hairbrushes, and so on to drug stores. Luckily I’ve forgotten everything I knew about the business, including the brand names. Most of my job was sending faxes. We had computers but no email.)

The apps I wrote all worked with WebSTAR (the Mac HTTP server). I shipped three: SpotLight, DenyAgent, and something. I forget what the third one was called.

Total revenue: $990

SpotLight cost $99 and I sold 10 copies. The other apps sold zero copies. Zeeeeeeeero.

Since those days I’ve never stopped shipping software.

What I Learned

I learned from that first go in the mid ’90s that I was a shipper, and nothing I’ve learned since has been more important. It’s the one necessary trait of an indie developer. For me it was like a fish being introduced to water — so this is what it’s like to breathe.

My apps were no good at all and I had no idea how to make money. None of that mattered.

From reading Andy Finnell’s piece it sounded like he did better on his first go than I did. And, most importantly, he’s learned that he’s a shipper. He can’t stop.

What I did next was to go work for UserLand Software (Dave Winer’s company), and I helped shipped a lot of software in those next six years, and I learned about the industry, about software, about how to treat people, about what works and doesn’t work. The experience I gained there is still paying off, and it’s what allowed my second go at being indie in the early ’00s — when I shipped NetNewsWire and MarsEdit — to be successful.

Note to Andy, and everyone else in a similar spot: take heart. You’re a shipper. Keep learning and trying and everything else will follow.