inessential by Brent Simmons

My App SpotLight

Back in the ’90s I shipped SpotLight, a search engine that ran on Macs running WebSTAR (http server), FileMaker Pro (database), and UserLand Frontier (scripting system).

It was the closest thing I had to success at the time, but it was still a failure. It sold just 10 copies.

But it was 10 copies at $99 each, and people paid with a check, so I made exactly $990. That didn’t pay for development, but it paid for the few hours of support I did — and of course I learned a lot, which made the whole thing very much worth it.

(To be clear: this app has nothing to do with Apple’s Spotlight. Or Spotlight the debugger.)

* * *

For years I’ve laughed at myself for that $990. It seems like such a small and cute amount of money. But it occurred to me just today to figure out how you’d get there on the iOS App Store.

Let’s assume a 99-cent app. My first thought is I’d have to sell 1,000 copies. But that’s not accurate, because of Apple’s cut. You’d have to sell 1,428 copies to make $989.60 (close enough).

Then let’s take inflation into account.

According to this inflation calculator, $990 in 1998 is $1427.52 in 2014. If my math is correct, then that means multiplying by 1.441, which means selling about 2,058 copies to make that same amount of money.

To put that number in some perspective, let’s subtract the number of units I sold of SpotLight. 2,058 - 10 = 2,048. Practically the same number.

* * *

Making money with a 99-cent app requires massive, effective marketing. With very much under-powered marketing in the ’90s, I was able to make the equivalent of 2,058 App Store sales by selling to just 10 people.

How many copies at 99 cents would you have to sell to make a good living? To make it easy, let’s say a good living is $100,000/year. To make that in revenue on a 99-cent app requires requires selling just over 144,000 copies per year.

This works out to about 394 copies every single day. Or 2,769 per week, or 12,000 per month.

To make a good living with SpotLight, I would have had to sell about 1,010 copies per year. Or 2.76 per day, or about 84 per month.

If I had sold 394 copies per day of SpotLight, I’d be over $100,000 some time on January 3.

* * *

SpotLight took me just a few weeks to develop.