Bret W. Lester

The Churn Days of Winter

Number of subscribers over the last 90 days for WebOutLoud (one app in my portfolio).

This is the first time since going indy that I will have a down month in terms of subscriber growth. My main app which has been successful for a long time has been getting fewer downloads. Its conversion & retention rates have remained relatively constant but impressions and downloads are slumping. I do almost zero marketing or paid advertising, so I think the reason for the decline has been increased competition in the category. Seems like every time I pull up the app store I find a new competitor chipping away at my market share. There are some macroeconomic factors at play here as well. You can see it in the number of customers in the "billing retry" status. I think that roughly equates to maxed-out credit cards. There are more people with maxed-out credit cards these days.

Surprisingly I'm not *very* concerned. Don't get me wrong, I fucking hate it and growth feels great. But, due in no small part to a little blind faith in my own abilities, I remain as optimistic and inspired as ever. I've worked places where these types of growth metrics would lead to all kinds of stress and half-baked schemes on "what to do about it" and all types of other make-work which I'll loosely call "interventionism." I don't really engage in interventionism. It hurts my soul.

Interventionism can move the needle but not by much. When it's your job to keep something growing by any amount over quarterly time periods then yea, I guess you should put all of your energy into that. But my situation is different. Not only do I find that type of work pretty mind-numbing, I think it has some pretty shitty ROI. As a side note, I think there is a correlation between ROI and how good something "feels" to work on (another topic).

I've described my Evolutionary Apps theory, and I'm hoping it applies here. Roughly speaking, as long as an app is stable and operating in its niche, it will remain viable over surprisingly long periods of time with minimal intervention. Periods of negative growth are not necessarily a bad thing as long as the fundamentals are strong--as long as there is a strong core of users using the app regularly. Which, in this case, there still is. And when something breaks they let me know. This is healthy.

I've said this before but I'll say it again. It's much better for an independent developer to put his energy and creativity into something new than to engage in interventionism with something that's underperforming. Pouring your energy into interventionism (that is, attempting to course-correct an existing app) will result in incremental improvements at best while the best-case scenario for creating something new is a stratospheric viral hit. I still haven't achieved the latter, so I want to keep trying.

Anyway, I'm only showing you part of the picture here, so I don't want to leave you with the impression that my overall business is declining. I have apps that are growing too--even in the churn days of winter. This is why it's good to have a diversified portfolio of products. You know what they say... something about eggs and baskets.

I realize most people won't read this far and the takeaway will be something like "Bret's app business is failing and he's fucking panicking." After all, people read what they want to read rather than what's actually printed in front of them. This would sound hopelessly cynical if it wasn't so funny. This has something to do with why I don't really post my losses on Twitter. Although it's important for anyone trying to build a business to understand that there will be rocky times, and it's best to learn about them, people only seem to care about the upside. My best performing Tweets are mostly graphs showing some metric going from the lower left to the upper right. As my wife says, "people love that shit."


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