Welcome to another installment of our Top App Dev Interview series!
Each interview in this series focuses on a successful mobile app or developer and the path they took to get where they are today. Today’s special guest is Luke Rogers.
Luke is the creator of the famous pixel art app Pixaki, which has been very successful over the years. Aside from this, you can spot Luke at many conferences speaking about his indie story.
Luke, you have been an indie iOS developer for some time now. Can you tell me how it all started?
I was at university studying Computer Science when the iPhone came out — it was a pretty exciting time to be starting out in the tech industry. I also realized while I was studying that I really wanted to do something entrepreneurial with my life.
However when I graduated, I got a job writing CSS and HTML for template websites — it was pretty soul destroying! I only lasted a few months before I quit and decided to go full-time indie. I had no plan and no savings but somehow managed to stumble through for 18 months before I had to get a “real job” again. That was round one of being self-employed.
The big problem for most developers wanting to go indie full time is making the leap. Can you tell me how you managed this?
I created the first version of Pixaki on evenings and weekends while working a full-time job. Initially, I thought it would only take a few months, but it actually took two years to get to version 1!
I was hoping that once the app was released it would generate enough money that I could quit my job and be a full-time indie, but while it was somewhat successful it wasn’t anywhere near enough to live on. I’ve since learned to always run the numbers and do an in-depth analysis before starting a new project, rather than just hoping for the best.
So I kept my job, but I kept working on Pixaki — version 2 turned into a complete rewrite and I moved the code from Objective-C to Swift. The real turning point was being made redundant, and I can honestly say it’s one of the best things that’s happened to me!
Rather than look for another full-time job, I decided to go back to freelancing. This time was very different though — I went with a much higher and more sustainable hourly rate, plus I had money saved from Pixaki sales and it was still generating money each month. This softened the blow of suddenly not having a regular monthly income, but it still felt like a big risk.
Being self-employed again has enabled me to spend so much more time on Pixaki, which has really changed everything. After the first few months, I released Pixaki 2, then I began working on Pixaki 3. Version 3 added a huge number of new features, it was the first paid upgrade, and I increased the price from $8.99 to $24.99.
Sales have been going really well, and now Pixaki accounts for about two-thirds of the income I need each month which means that I can be far less dependant on client work. It’s a great position to be in, and it’s all built on the foundations set when I started the project one evening over six years ago.
What’s your daily schedule like?
I work from home, but every morning I still “walk to work”. I walk the same route every day and I don’t listen to any music or podcasts, but I use the time to think about what I need to be working on today. I also like to think about the bigger picture and consider what my plans are for Pixaki in the months to come and what my next project will be.
After my walk, the day generally looks like this:
- 9:00-9:30: start working.
- 12:00-13:00: take an hour for lunch.
- 17:00-17:30: finish working for the day
I’ve tried working really long hours in the past, but it’s so draining that I think I’m actually more productive by not trying to work too hard. I don’t have much of a set daily routine, but I like to write out a to-do list each day and work my way through that.
In general, I’ll start with the less appealing tasks first, and then when I’m starting to flag I can switch to something more exciting.
Procrastination is a real problem for everyone, how do you fight the battle of distractions?
I work from home, so there’s definitely a constant battle to stay focused. I always have a timer running on my laptop that tells me when I’ve been idle for 5 minutes or more, so I can keep track of how many hours in the day I’m actually working. Closing apps and tabs in Safari helps too — I have Mail closed most of the time, and only open it a couple of times a day to check my emails.
The most dangerous type of distraction I find, though, is the desire to start a new project. Something like Twitter might steal a few minutes from your day, but ditching your current unfinished project to start something new that you also don’t finish can take away months. And because you’re still doing work, it’s much easier to tell yourself that you are being productive.
The first time I was a full-time indie developer, pretty much all I did was start something and then a few months later move onto the next project without finishing anything. I spent a year and a half doing this with very little to show at the end of it all. So now I’m very cautious about starting new projects; I have a process where I weigh up how viable the idea is, which I run through before I start anything.
I’ve decided that Pixaki will be my primary focus for the next couple of years at least, and while I’m considering what will come next, I’m in no hurry to make a start.
Can you list any tools you use that help with your indie development?
One of the best tools I have is a notebook and pencil. I use it for my to-do lists, but also designing and decision making; I think there’s a tremendous value in stepping away from technology when you can. I have a Leuchtturm1917 dotted notebook which is great for writing and designing, and a Pentel mechanical pencil.
In terms of software I use;-
- Xcode – For making Pixaki.
- Sketch – For doing any design resources.
- Tower – This is a git GUI.
- Harvest – The timer I mentioned earlier.
What is your ultimate advice for being an indie developer?
Think long-term and keep persevering. It took me a few years to realise that success is not going to happen suddenly, and I think that’s probably true for the vast majority of people. When Pixaki was seeing limited success, I considered giving up on it and moving on to a new project on many occasions, but I’m so glad I stuck with it. And I’m going to keep working on it to grow the product and see where I can take it.
I hope for Pixaki to still be around in ten or twenty years time, so everything I do is with that in mind. Often that means writing my own code that I know I’ll be able to maintain rather than using a third-party library. I also try to keep the app modern without getting too caught up in the latest fashions of app design; there are very little blur and vibrancy effects for example, and I think the app will age more gracefully because of things like that.
If you could change anything about being an indie iOS developer what would it be and why?
I think we’re incredibly fortunate to have a platform for iOS to develop for. It’s easy to find fault when it’s what you work with all day every day, but looking at it objectively it’s a fantastic platform.
The thing that makes me the most nervous about building a business around an iOS app, though, is how much control Apple has. Given that they own both the platform and the sole distribution channel for apps, any changes that they make in the future could have a massive impact on many businesses.
So far it’s been good though, and there have been some nice changes to the App Store recently, which is encouraging. I’d like to see them slow down how quickly iOS changes from year to year too, as just keeping up with the platform is a lot of work, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon!
Can you tell me the ultimate success story of Pixaki? How did it all start and how have you managed great success?
Success is an interesting term because it can be measured in so many ways and it’s always relative. There’s obviously a financial success, but also success in terms of influence within the pixel art community, and success in terms of equipping others to create amazing things. I struggle to think of the app as successful because I know where I want to take it and it feels like I’m just getting started, but looking at where I’ve come from I can see that it has achieved success in a lot of ways.
I started Pixaki because I wanted to make pixel art on my iPad but I didn’t really like the look of any of the other apps that were out there — I’m very fussy when it comes to apps! If I started a project like this now, I’d do a lot more market analysis first and take the time to run the numbers. I’ve learnt a lot about running a business in the last few years, and in hindsight, I don’t think I made life very easy for myself. But a combination of learning these business skills and sheer determination has led me to the point that I’m at now.
What’s the thought-process for building new features for Pixaki, is it ultimately user feedback or do you have a personal backlog of features to implement in the future?
User feedback is driving things a lot at the moment. I have a spreadsheet where I collate all of the requests that come in and order the requested features by popularity, which has become my backlog. There are also features that I’d like to add that maybe aren’t the most requested, but are important for the direction I want to take the product in.
This way of working means that I’m not that quick to implement the latest features in iOS because my customers aren’t requesting them, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing necessarily. I’ve released 3 major updates to Pixaki 3 so far, and I’ve got another 5 planned which should keep me busy for 2018!
For me, it’s all about the people. I love to attend conferences for making new connections and getting different perspectives on things. It’s nice to have people to talk to about the world of app development too.
What’s the process for releasing new features and how do you keep the quality control high on Pixaki?
I have a great group of beta testers. In the early days I was just recruiting anyone I knew with an iPad to help with testing, but over the years as the product has become more established, I’ve managed to recruit some of my most loyal users to help with testing. I’m very grateful for these people — they volunteer their time to help make the app better because they believe in the product and want to see me succeed. It’s really amazing, and they’ve played a huge part in making the app what it is today.
I really enjoy obsessing over details, which helps when trying to make a high-quality product. I don’t want to release anything that I think is only “good enough”, so I’ll happily iterate five or ten times on a particular aspect of the app until I’m happy with it.
I’ve found having long beta testing periods has been useful — Pixaki 3 was in beta for 9 months before release. There’s definitely more I’d like to do in terms of having a process for maintaining the quality, though.
Lots of folks would like to see Pixaki on the Mac, any signs of this happening in the future?
Yes! It’s currently in active development. There’s still quite a way to go, but I’m really excited about the product it’s turning into. I love the Mac, I do nearly all of my work on a Mac and I know a lot of other people do too, so I think it will be really great for people working on large projects and those who just prefer to work on a desktop. I am hoping to release at some point in 2018. (If anyone would like to help with beta testing, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Where To Go From Here?
And that concludes our Top App Dev Interview with Luke Rogers. Huge thanks to Luke for sharing his journey with the iOS community :]
I hope you enjoyed reading about Luke’s journey with Pixaki and is a clear example of our very few indie iOS developers in the community.
Remaining clear of any distractions is clearly key to Luke’s determination to make a successful product, Pixaki. I hope you can take away some tips and use in your workflow.
If you are an app developer with a hit app or game in the top 100 in the App store, we’d love to hear from you. Please drop us a line anytime. If you have a request for any particular developer you’d like to hear from, please join the discussion in the forum below!