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  • Writer's pictureLydia Zhu

5 Things I Learned as a Full-time Indie App Developer

Updated: Oct 5, 2020

At the start of 2020, I was employed at The Weather Network. It was a comfortable life having a well-paid job and a great team to work, but I left a great job to pursue my dream of being my own boss. In the past, it had not felt like the right time to take the plunge into entrepreneurship because I was pulled back by financial fear and trust in my ability to complete the task. Thanks to years of effort in growing myself, I finally gained the courage to take action.


Fast forward to today, I built a cross-platform MVP. It is a journaling app with auto-renewal subscriptions called Flow Journal: Self-discovery. The app allows users to write, meditate, reflect and gain insights into their thoughts and who they are. I call myself an indie app developer as of now, because I am self-funded, working alone and operating in a more risk-averse manner. Being an indie app developer means, I am my product/project manager, designer, developer, sales manager, marketer and more. I am a one-person company, and hopefully, this will change with the right people. During my journey, I have learned a few things about building an MVP. Here are the five best lessons I've learned in no particular order:


1. Do not jump into partnerships too quickly, test-drive them first.  


If you are set to pursue entrepreneurship or building things full time without much previous experience, make sure you do not give away control too easily in the beginning. Working with people is a lot of fun, especially if you are an extrovert. It keeps you accountable and engaged. More importantly, you can bounce ideas off each other and provide feedback. It’s easy to get caught up with the excitement of “changing the world together” with someone. However, if you are going to do this full-time and partnering with someone that is not, it will create a sense of imbalance for both you and the partner.


Entering a partnership prematurely can create trust issues and doubts, if you have not test-driven the other person’s level of commitment, skills and values. Before I quit my full-time job, I was working on a different idea with a friend. We worked so well together, and she knew I was going to quit my full-time job from the very start. However, when I did, something immediately shifted and our partnership ended fast. Even though it was a mutual decision and we did it very respectfully, it had a huge impact on our friendship.


If you are passionate about an idea and taking on all the risks and commitment to do it, make sure you own it. Startup life is full of unknowns. When you own your idea, it gives you and the people you are bringing on board a sense of direction and stability. Test people out, until you find the right person to partner with. Unless you are sure, be aware of entering a partnership with a friend because it will affect your friendship.


2. Find advisors but do not make it official...yet. 


This piece of advice is similar to the last one. Since you are just figuring things out, things can change at any moment. Having an advisor is important, especially someone who has a specific industry experience that you do not have. However, a formal contract and a detailed equity agreement are not yet necessary. Have your regular meetings scheduled and have a basic agreement about how much equity and time you expect from your advisor for a given period (weekly, monthly, etc.).


When I first started, I had a Psychotherapist as an advisor to give me feedback and guidance on my product. We met almost every week for a month until I started to put all my focus on developing the app. Now, we still keep in touch, but I realize I need significantly less advisory time than I thought I did. Although I still want her as my advisor, it is clear that we need to revisit what we both need and how our advisory relationship works.


3. Feedback is so powerful that it should be mastered, contained and respected. 


I learned this lesson the hard way. The week before development started, I asked for feedback on the mockups. I wanted to get one more validation from a designer. After receiving her feedback, I went into a state of complete chaos where I lost sleep, spent all day and all night changing the whole product and the design last minute. I started doubting myself and feeling completely exhausted. Her feedback was very helpful, but the way I acted on it was not sustainable. I realized feedback is a powerful double-edged sword. Continuous feedback can help us to build products that customers want. Yet, if not done correctly, it could potentially harm my effectiveness, productivity, confidence and decision making.


The book Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan that Works, shows a graph of a continuous product/development cycle like below. It outlines different stages that go into the cycle, and each has its unique purpose and goal. They are compartmentalized and should be kept that way, especially as a one-person team. Some companies have a dedicated full-time customer success team to collect feedback, or a data team to master what best ways to measure and make sense of data. This allows those companies to be able to deal with feedback faster and in parallel with other stages of product development. Agile teams that have more resources still spend a lot of time strategizing on how to turn feedback into a backlog of actionable items before engaging developers. Make sure you time-box feedback. More is not always good for a small team or a solo developer.


Taken from "Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works"

4. Be confident in yourself and know what kind of feedback you need.


Receiving feedback is not always easy. If we are not confident in ourselves, we can get defensive, feel hurt, overwhelmed, and even feel like someone is patronizing us. It is important to remember feedback is just information to help us, but what we do with it is in our control.


“Feedback is like a box of chocolate, you never know what you are gonna get." — not Forrest Gump

It’s important to learn tools to minimize noise from feedback and find what is useful in the moment or months from now on.


To save you and other people’s time, be specific about what kind of feedback you want (there is a time and place for open feedback as well). Narrow it down to specific things you want people to comment on whether it is the performance of your app on a specific screen or functionality, or how accessible your colour palette is. Be very clear on what exactly you want to know. People do not have the entire context of your situation, such as which stage of development you are in, the limitation of your resources, or what you have tried. Knowing what kind of feedback you want and giving people the context they need, can help them to make better judgements and provide better feedback.


5. You are working alone but you are not alone.



Working alone can be hard for many of us because it requires a lot of passion and discipline to keep ourselves engaged and motivated. When I decided to pivot from the original idea and part ways with the partner I had, I was in a bit of a funk. I felt sad and unmotivated and wasted a lot of time doing things I wasn’t so proud of. Luckily, I have a very supportive and observant boyfriend to challenge and support me. After many days not being myself, he asked me, “You know you are not alone in this right?” His words made me realize I was isolating myself. I was overwhelmed and paralyzed because I felt alone. I started to engage him more with my ideas, asking him for feedback and help. This also helped me to look deep into my support system and found other help that I wasn't expecting such as my dad. The book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey mentions the importance of interdependence instead of being completely on your own or being independent. It’s not a sign of weakness, but a sign of emotional intelligence and the ability to be dependent on one another.


Find that person, whether it’s your significant other, a parent, a friend, an acquaintance or a random person on the internet. Spend the time to build a support network for yourself. Remember you may be working alone, but you are not alone in this world.


I hope you learned something here. If you are curious about what I built, here are the links to Flow Journal: Self-discovery on the App Store: https://apple.co/2RuDlNr and Google Play: https://bit.ly/2ZG2t8F. You can also become a subscriber on this website to receive updates on new features from our mobile app and blog posts.

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