Befriending Apple

You’re writing an app that you hope will lead to fame and fortune or at least will pay the bills. If you have any hope of succeeding, you need to make friends with your platform manufacturer. For the iOS and OS X universe, this is Apple.

Like it or not, you will always have more success if people at Apple are rooting for you. They have influence over your App Store promotions, which is your best shot at free, effective marketing. This thought was brought to the forefront of my mind as I was listening to talks by Michael Jurewitz and sharing my own story with other attendees at NSConference 5.

Back before we called software “apps” and sold them through Apple’s central pipeline, we had to sell software via our own websites. It was hard to get people to notice your product so download sites were a valuable marketing resource. Apple Downloads was the biggest and the best of these.

In 2006, I built a product called Debt Quencher to help me eliminate my credit card debt using the snowball payments process. It was the software that launched No Thirst Software. I knew this $15 tool was not going to lead me to any fame or fortune and it barely paid my website hosting bills at first. It was my toe in the water so I could decide to jump into the deeper waters of bootstrapping my new company.

I filled lots of paperwork to acquire a $50,000 small business loan and dove into development of MoneyWell, a personal finance tool that would fix all the problems I was having with Quicken. While developing my flagship app, I needed help making sure I had the infrastructure to sell it—one that would withstand selling thousands of copies instead of the manually emailing licenses process I had for Debt Quencher. The best place to hang out was the MacSB group on Yahoo, so I was very active there.

At the same time, I wanted feedback on my app design and the sister group, MacGUI, was perfect place to get peer reviews. I started talking about my unique single-window design for MoneyWell and posted some screenshots of alpha versions. In addition to excellent advice from designers and developers, I was contacted by a guy from Apple. He said, “I am in charge of the Business and Finance section of Apple Downloads. Could I get more screenshots or see a beta version of MoneyWell?” I replied, “If you work for Apple, I’ll be happy to give you the source code if you want.”

In August of 2007, my government-backed loan had run out (actually, it ran out much earlier, but I did some creative financing and spending reductions) and I had to ship what I had completed as 1.0. Let’s just say it wasn’t the software I wanted to release, but it was the software I needed right now.

As promised, I had included my new best friend at Apple on beta versions. As best friends go, we didn’t talk a lot, or at all really, but I was sure that in his own quiet way he felt as much love for me as I did him (call me). I didn’t expect much from this relationship since I was a nobody in the Mac developer world. I was just covering my bases.

I released MoneyWell and submitted it to all the various download sites including Apple’s. I was thrilled to see it listed and getting healthy downloads—double digits each day! Two days later, I was shocked to see it featured as the main app on the Business and Finance section of Apple Downloads. Even better, it was also the featured app on the front page. I may have had to change my underwear, I’m not sure.

My website didn’t give me realtime statistics, but I was able to see them the following day. It said there were over 20,000 downloads. I recounted the digits in that number three times. I called my wife over to look at it to make sure I wasn’t having a dyslexic fit.

Twenty. Thousand. Downloads.

Holy unexpected server activity, Batman!

And this continued for the week that I was featured giving me a total of over 160,000 downloads in the first month. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the version I wanted everyone seeing. It was crap in my eyes. Features were missing. It lacked half what I had planned for it, but my funding ran dry and I had little choice.

My brain toggled between praising and damning Apple. But it honestly was a fantastic gift from the Fruit Company and proved that there was a huge market for Mac software no matter what the naysayers repeated throughout my development process. All this because I followed up with an opportunity to work more closely with Apple during my app development and release.

How much bigger is the potential win today? What size win can you have by cultivating your relationship? Say hello to your Apple Developer Relations team members. Talk to engineers at WWDC and show off your products. Be an active member of the Cocoa community and share what you are doing and have learned. You never know when someone with influence over App Store placement might be watching.

And I’m not saying you shouldn’t be critical of Apple, there is plenty of room for improvement. Just do it without being an asshat.