December 2014

In episode 206 of his podcast Developing Perspective, David Smith talks about the idea of the App Store being “full.” He makes the argument that with almost 1.5 million apps in the App Store, there are now enough apps to choose from and that all the good ideas have been taken; that for any basic type of app that you’re likely to think of, an app already exists to fill that need. I agree in large part with David’s observation that the App Store is now full, but the App Store being full is, I think, merely a side effect of something more important: The App Store has matured.

Yes, the shelves of the App Store are now fully stocked, but you’d expect to find that in Target or Tesco, or any mature market. What’s more significant is that the shelves of the App Store, more than ever before, are stocked with products from bigger players that compete at a higher level. These big players have more time, more money, better connections, and more collective talent than any single independent developer. They have the resources it takes to compete in the mass market that the App Store has become. These big players have money. They have reach. They can create mindshare and build valuable brands in a way that most indies just cannot afford to. The sad reality is that we indies generally can’t stand toe to toe with large corporate developers and hope to win. And so we shouldn’t try. Let the big guys duke it out over most of the market. We don’t need the whole pie. We just need a sliver. We need just enough to live our life, pay our bills, and maybe save a little bit too.

To get our sliver of the pie, though, we need to adjust our strategy. As David correctly points out, novelty is no longer a viable business plan. In an App Store that’s full, indies can’t depend on new ideas to attract the attention and the audience we need. Instead, we need to go where the big players aren’t. We need to compete in niches, where there isn’t enough opportunity to justify the attention of large corporate developers. Don’t try to create a new bookkeeping app – Intuit will eat you alive. Instead build a bookkeeping app that’s tailored specifically for veterinarians or, even more narrowly, for large animal veterinarians. Don’t build a general purpose word processor – Microsoft has that space all locked up. Instead, build a word processor that’s specialized for a particular field like academics or screenwriting. Each of these niches offer plenty of revenue opportunities for a single developer. The big players won’t be interested, though. After all, a niche with potential annual revenue of $250,000 might be an amazing opportunity for an indie, but for the big players, $250,000 won’t even cover their engineering costs.

By competing in niches where the big players don’t want to be, indies level the playing field. They avoid going head to head against large companies with massive resources. They avoid struggling against slick advertising campaigns for the competiton. They avoid having to compete with venture capital backed companies that give their products away for free. By competing in niches and avoiding match-ups that they can’t hope to win, indies reduce both the quantity and the quality of the competition that they face in the App Store. And that gives them a sort of freedom. The freedom to seek out only the most valuable customers. The freedom to charge sustainable prices for their work. The freedom to stay profitably small.

The real beauty of this strategy, though, is that it means, for indies, it doesn’t matter if the App Store is full. There’s always room for another niche product. Just as there’s always room for sand to squeeze into the gaps between large rocks, there will always be room for indies to enter markets that aren’t big enough – aren’t mass market enough – to support large companies with teams of developers. It’s in these gaps between mass markets where indies can make their living. It’s in these niches, within an already full App Store, where indies can find success.

Note: I expanded on this topic in a talk I gave at NSNorth this year. NSNorth has posted the video of that presentation online.

Posted on December 16, 2014

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