Our business, User Camp, has two goals:
- Make us a good living: ✅
- Don’t work too hard: ✅
These might seem contradictory. Luckily, we live in a golden age where you can replace a living, breathing human with a very small Zapier app, and thousands of dollars of hosted software is now dozens of dollars of venture-subsidized subscription fees.
A constellation of twenty-ish-dollar-a-month SaaS products, the miracle of free and cheap stuff on the Internet, and an allergy to perfectionism allow us to manage thirty-five apps and fifteen million users with just two founders, two remote contractors, zero stress, and no employees.
After being asked about the tools we use a few times, we thought it would be useful to share our app development and management ‘stack’ more broadly (including costs). But first, here’s a brief list of what we don’t use.
What We Don’t Use
- Employees. Maybe someday!
- Corporate offices. We’re remote-only.
- Work email on phones. No one is expected to be available by email outside of work hours, so there’s no need to have it on our smartphones.
- Phone or text alerts for backend downtime. The worst-case scenario when we have server downtime: our free users won’t see ads until we fix it. No complaints yet.
Boring back office stuff
Email: Our corporate email is handled by FastMail ($195 / yr). Our app catalog contains multiple brands (and therefore domains), and FastMail sends and receives from an unlimited number of aliases and custom domains without getting them mixed up.
(Google Apps’ insistence on sending emails as being from “email@example.com ON BEHALF OF firstname.lastname@example.org” is what finally made us abandon them.)
Information routing: Zapier ($165 / yr) is useful for posting Dev Center email alerts into Slack for everyone to see, and other automated workflows.
Cloud documents: Quip ($360 / yr) for group scratchpads; Google Drive ($0 / yr) for presentations and spreadsheets.
Shared files: We use Dropbox ($99 / yr × 2) for app assets, corporate documentation, receipts, bookkeeping, etc.
Invoicing: For the odd time we need to generate an invoice, we use Freshbooks ($240 / yr).
Total yearly spend on office and productivity: $1,158
Developing an app
For context: All of our apps are made exclusively for Windows. We want to be the biggest independent app publisher on the Microsoft Store.
Whenever we start a new release, we brainstorm and write a spec in Quip. Quip’s checklist feature is great for this. (It also has decent mobile apps, which helps in the odd time we meet in person and want to work at a coffee shop.)
Projects (new apps or updates) that are ready for production get a card on our rolling Trello ($0 / yr) board of apps slated for development.
The spec gets turned into tickets, and then milestones, in GitHub ($300 / yr).
(We make UWP apps, using Visual Studio ($0 / yr).)
Once the app is ready for a bigger audience, we use HockeyApp ($0 / yr) to distribute betas and track bugs.
Whenever we release a Store update, no matter how minor, we record it in Airtable ($0 / yr). Airtable is like Microsoft Access on steroids — I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s perfect for keeping track of stuff like this. Often, app submissions don’t touch source code (like when we update just the screenshots or icons), so we can’t rely on source control to provide this information.
Total yearly spend on development tools: $300 ($660 if you double-count Quip)
Making the Store listing
Unsplash gives you free “do whatever you want” stock photography. Definitely check it out before you take your own photos or pay for stock; you’ll be amazed at the quality.
Noun Project is crazy cheap for what it is: an endless supply of high-quality icons, in any color, as SVG or PNG. If you’re a Mac user, there’s a really nice desktop app that goes along with it for quickly saving and copying vectors.
We use the Adobe Creative Cloud ($600 / yr × 2) — which is the fancy name for ‘Photoshop, and also Illustrator when I need to copy a vector into Photoshop’ — to produce our app assets. It’s steep, but we were glad we had it when we had to start using Premiere to make video trailers for our apps.
Total yearly spend on design tools: $1,240
Measuring the app’s performance
As far as analytics go, the Dev Center ($0 / yr) itself gives us most of what we need. We dogfood our Zapier app Ombudsman (free, but $84 / yr in hosting) to bring app acquisition and ratings data out of our Store accounts and into our own data stores.
We use custom widgets in Geckoboard ($600 / yr) to give us a company-wide heads-up display on app downloads and monetization.
Total yearly spend on analytics: $684
Maintaining and supporting the app
We keep on top of HockeyApp ($0 / yr) and the Dev Center’s error reporting ($0 / yr) to fix bugs as our users find them.
We also use Ombudsman to watch for user reviews that need a response, and we take advantage of Windows’ Feedback Hub for apps that are suited for it.
Total yearly spend on app maintenance and support: $60 / yr ($339 / yr if you double-count Ombudsman’s hosting and FastMail)
It’s helpful to have a professional web presence for your app, especially if you think there’s a possibility you could license your app to an enterprise deployment or similar.
We use Squarespace ($144 / yr × 2) to make websites for our Store apps (to hold FAQs, tech support instructions, and privacy policies).
Buffer ($120 / yr) is very helpful for keeping our social streams alive — we use it to schedule content and flesh out our apps’ social media presences.
Whenever an app has a remote web component, we roll our own web application. We use Heroku (usage-based billing) for application serving. Web application exception reporting is handled by Rollbar ($0 / yr), and uptime monitoring is done by Wormly ($780 / yr).
Total yearly spend on our web presences: $1,248 plus usage-based billing from Heroku
We showed you ours…
That’s how we do it — your mileage may vary.
What awesome products and tools do you use to manage your app business? Where do you think we could do better? Let us know and we’ll publish your suggestions.