Tag Archives: subscriptions

Paying for web content

I subscribe to a lot of web applications for my indie business, from hosting to invoicing and reporting services. But I also pay for web content when it’s compelling enough. Here are some web sites with writing and art that I think are worth supporting directly:

New York Times. Still the best reporting on the 2016 presidential campaign. While I usually use RSS for news and blogs, I check the New York Times manually each morning to see what is happening in the world. $10/month.

ESPN Insider. Extra articles to supplement what I read during NBA season. Seemed easy to justify as an expense for my podcast Technical Foul with Ben Thompson. Also comes with the ESPN print magazine. $39/year.

Club MacStories. I’ve enjoyed reading MacStories for years, and the club subscription adds a bunch of great content in a weekly newsletter. You also get occasional book downloads such as for Federico Viticci’s new epic iOS 10 review. $5/month.

Six Colors. Jason Snell wasted no time after leaving Macworld. Seemingly overnight, Six Colors has become an important site for Apple fans. Jason and Dan Moren talk informally about current work, travel, writing, and tools on their secret podcast for subscribers. There’s also a monthly email magazine. $6/month.

Stratechery. Thoughtful analysis of current news and trends from Ben Thompson, delivered Monday through Thursday via email or RSS for subscribers. Great depth to stories about tech company business models and where the industry is going. Helps pay for his NBA League Pass subscription. $10/month.

Craft. An archive of sketches, rough animation, and preproduction artwork from animated films. It’s like an expanded version of behind-the-scenes DVD extras and art books. Initially subscribed for the rough animation for the beautiful film Song of the Sea. $6/month.

Before the web dominated all publishing, it was normal to pay for the newspaper and maybe a few print magazines. Then we entered a period where everything had to be free. Now, paying for content is useful again. The sites above have figured something out about building an audience and creating good content.

App maintenance and subscription rejections

Jason Snell closed his first take on App Store subscriptions with a question about iPhone app maintenance vs. web services maintenance:

Whether Apple would actually reject a subscription-based app that doesn’t offer any functionality outside of itself, I don’t know. It sure wouldn’t be the first time there was a baffling App Store rejection. But does Apple really want to take the position that ongoing maintenance of a web service has value, but ongoing maintenance and development of an app does not? I don’t think it does.

As I wrote about in my post yesterday, users can more easily see the hosting costs for a web service. They’ve been trained by a decade of paying for web subscriptions. Maintenance for the app itself has some differences.

Think about how costs scale if an app becomes popular. A web service becomes expensive to run, often thousands of dollars each month. You could say that a developer’s time for app maintenance is also thousands of dollars, but it’s essentially fixed. Outside of customer support costs, the incremental cost to a developer for an app doesn’t increase in the same way it does for scaling a backend service.

I hate that Apple has the power to reject our business model for a potential app. I’m now leaning more to the idea that Apple should approve nearly everything and let customers decide on the value. But there is a difference between maintenance of an app vs. a web service, and the services that are clearly appropriate for subscriptions will be the most successful apps using this new model.

Core Intuition 236 and app subscriptions

We published Core Intuition episode 236 today, discussing the recent App Store announcements and a listener question about offices. We wrap up with plans for WWDC.

There has been a lot of great blog posts and podcast episodes already on the App Store subscription change. I listened to Under the Radar 31 and the Release Notes special edition today and recommend both. The most confusion seems to be around what kind of apps are appropriate for subscriptions, where by “appropriate” I mean “what Apple will approve”.

John Gruber also follows up at Daring Fireball on this question:

Professional apps that require “a lot of maintenance of new features and versions” don’t fit either of those categories. Would Twitter clients like Tweetbot and Twitterrific qualify for subscription pricing? After talking to Schiller yesterday, I thought so. Now, I don’t know.

As I mention on Core Intuition, apps that have a backend service with obvious hosting and maintenance costs — a music streaming service, an invoicing web app, or a blogging platform, for example — are easier for users to understand as needing to be subscriptions. Twitter apps are an interesting example because some are pure clients to Twitter’s backend, but many increasingly have their own app-specific services like timeline syncing or push notifications.

For years Apple has allowed apps to use auto-renewing subscriptions. I had an iPhone app and companion web service that was approved by Apple for auto-renewing subscriptions, after I made the case for the service as a “cloud” archive. From section 11.15 of the App Store review guidelines:

Apps may only use auto-renewing subscriptions for periodicals (newspapers, magazines), business Apps (enterprise, productivity, professional creative, cloud storage), and media Apps (video, audio, voice), or the App will be rejected

From my experience and listening to other developers, I’ve had the impression for a while that Apple would essentially reject most auto-renewing app submissions by default. While we still don’t know what “all categories” means in the new announcement, I expect it means that there will no longer be a kind of blanket rejection. Apple will still reject many apps as poorly suited for subscriptions, though, and maybe that’s okay for now.

(I’m conflicted on this point. John Gruber’s suggestion to approve everything and let the market decide is compelling and fits better with my instinct that the control should be in developers’ hands.)

“Subscription fatigue” is a real thing that I’ll occasionally hear from customers about. No one wants to pay $1/month to 40 different apps and services; it feels like a burden in a way that paying the same total price to just two apps at $20/month does not. Nevertheless, subscriptions are very powerful. Everything I’ve done over the last few years is to position myself to eventually have a recurring-revenue success.

Two weeks notice: accounting

Bookkeepers, accountants, lawyers… I should get one of those at some point. Instead I seem to waste time moving from one accounting app to another — Xero, QuickBooks Online, Less Accounting — hoping that the next one will solve everything. Then I go back to tweaking monthly revenue summaries in Numbers because it turns out that spreadsheets are still pretty useful for this sort of thing.

This year I did sign up for what has turned out to be a game-changing app for my business: Baremetrics. I dragged my feet subscribing because it starts at $79/month, but it’s worth it. The way it breaks down which of your web subscriptions — in my case Searchpath, Watermark, and Tweet Marker — is the most profitable or has the highest customer churn or best average lifetime value… It was just eye-opening to me and led to finally taking some action to invest in the products that are doing well.

I still have a lot to figure out with this. The one thing I am doing right, on the advice of several folks over the years, is paying myself the same amount once a month from my business checking account, as if it was a normal salary. This helps in forecasting how much income I need in the near-term to keep enough padding in the bank to cover the slow months. It also makes sure I don’t spend everything too quickly.

We haven’t traditionally had the most strict budget. It’s easy to get lazy with finances at a regular job where you seemingly have a never-ending paycheck supply. The freelance or indie software world is quite different. I’m learning quickly.

Two weeks notice: final pull request

With just 5 days left at my regular job, it’s time to get serious about wrapping up my work. I have a small change mostly ready and tested locally, but need to push it up to GitHub and finish testing on the dev server. I have a couple open Jira tickets to look at after that.

Over the weekend I spent a lot of time with the Stripe API, trying to improve how I manage user subscriptions. Stripe has some new features since I first started using it. For example, options for sales tax and a quantity field. The latter is convenient if you have something like the ability to pay for multiple hosted web sites in a subscription, rather than deal with adding custom line items on an invoice.

Deadlines are an excellent way to push yourself to actually finish something. So this deadline of Friday is good, in a way, but unlike most of my other deadlines, I can’t miss it and keep working for another week. That finality is a little daunting right now, as I look at the week ahead and everything I want to get done.

Apple Music and free Beats 1

Apple Music launched today with iOS 8.4. Christina Warren has an early review for Mashable, in particular mentioning the value of For You:

“The real heart of Apple Music is the For You tab. This is basically your music homescreen. When you open the section for the first time, you’re asked to go through a discovery exercise. This was lifted directly from Beats Music and it’s one of the best discovery tools I’ve used over the years.”

If Apple Music can be thought of as Beats Music 2.0, then the Connect tab is probably a little like Ping 2.0, an update on Apple’s first attempt to build a music-only social network. As Daniel and I discussed on Core Intuition 187, any service that demonstrates a network effect — everything from eBay to Twitter — needs some critical mass of users to reach its potential. I was curious whether Apple could achieve this if the Connect feature was locked behind a paid subscription after the initial 3-month trial.

What I missed is that Connect and even Beats 1 will be free. From the Apple Music page:

“Even without a membership, you can listen to Beats 1 radio, see what artists are posting on Connect, and hear our ad‑supported stations.”

Beats 1 is one of the more interesting aspects of Apple Music to me. I just signed up for the trial and plan to continue at the $15/month family subscription.

Searchpath improvements

As part of a renewed commitment this year to work on my web app Searchpath, I’ve just rolled out a few improvements. A search engine like Searchpath needs frequent maintenance to keep running smoothly — minor bug fixes and behind-the-scenes work on queues and web crawling — but I also hope to catch up on new features that I’ve long planned for the product.

One marketing bullet I always had that wasn’t fully realized: “Also serves as a text backup for your site.” Searchpath now exposes links to download both the HTML for any stored page on your site as well as a text-only version of that page after Searchpath has attempted to trim out the navigation and other links. Hopefully this will help out any customers who might need to retrieve lost text from their site if their primary site backup failed (or doesn’t exist).

Searchpath is free to try and $8/month or $75/year. Setup is as simple as copy/pasting one line of JavaScript where you want a search box. You can learn more and get started here.

Announcing the Tweet Marker developer plan

I’m launching a new paid developer plan for Tweet Marker today. It’s $75/month and includes a new admin dashboard with stats on active users, hits, and more. I’ve also expanded the API to support syncing which direct messages have been read.

Why charge developers now, after keeping the service free for 2 years? In part it’s because of something I learned from publishing the Core Intuition podcast with Daniel Jalkut. Because for the first few years of Core Intuition, Daniel and I had trouble getting episodes out very regularly; there was always something more important to work on. Adding sponsors pushed us to stick to a weekly schedule, and it’s worked out even better than I expected.

I hope the same thing will happen for Tweet Marker. Although I’ve put countless hours into maintaining Tweet Marker (and plenty of money on hosting), I couldn’t justify the effort to create new APIs because it wasn’t a revenue-generating product. Now I can dedicate more time to it, even with a modest level of support from developers.

Of course, I’m sensitive to the difficulty of transitioning from a free to paid product. That’s why I’m doing two things to make it easier for everyone.

First, I won’t be turning off any existing developers’ access to the service. The last thing I’d want is to break third-party Twitter apps currently in use. But I do strongly encourage commercial app developers to subscribe if they have the means to.

Second, I’ve created a referral program for app developers to let their customers know about the $1/month user subscription. This is a great way for developers to show their support even if they can’t subscribe to the developer plan. But even better, for developers who do subscribe, their account will be credited for each paid user they refer. This can effectively make the new developer plan free or significantly discounted.

This is a big change for Tweet Marker, but an important one to make Tweet Marker strong. I’m excited to keep working on it, so that Twitter apps can work even better together. Sign in here to learn more about it.

Tweet Marker new subscriber plan

The original goal for Tweet Marker Plus was to help cover the hosting costs for Tweet Marker. It succeeded for a little while, but it also ended up evolving into a larger independent service: Watermark, with much higher hosting costs for archiving and search, and a bunch of new features like App.net support, Dropbox sync, saved collections, and more. I’m really excited about the future of Watermark.

I also hear from Tweet Marker users who don’t need Watermark. They still want to support Tweet Marker, though, to make sure it continues running and that it’s as fast as possible.

So today I’m introducing a separate, inexpensive subscription option for Tweet Marker. Just $1/month! You can subscribe from the new Tweet Marker home page. And as a bonus you’ll get the first official Safari extension for Tweet Marker, shown in this screenshot:

Tweet Marker extension

Favorites in Tweet Marker Plus

favorites sidebar I’ve written about saved filters in Tweet Marker Plus, and now I’m happy to announce the latest new feature: favorites. Tweet Marker Plus now grabs your favorites from Twitter so that they’re included in the searchable archive. The UI is better too, so you can tell at a glance what tweets have been favorited, and a new sidebar link can show just your recent favorites.

A few days ago was the 3-month anniversary of Tweet Marker Plus’s launch. This is a significant milestone for me because all the early subscriptions were only billed once every 3 months. For most subscribers, this week is the first time recurring billing will have kicked in. (New subscribers are on monthly billing, which is a lot simpler for customers to understand and for me to predict.)

I also rolled out some other fixes tonight, and improved performance for how background tasks run. Enjoy.

I hope iAd fails

I feel bad admitting it, because some of my friends are betting on iAd revenue to feed their family, but I’m just not on board with Apple running an advertising network. I don’t want to see ads in my apps, and I don’t want Apple to ever lose even a little of what it means to be a product-driven company.

We talk about this on Core Intuition. Nearly every chance I get I like to point out that all these free Google apps come at a cost. Take this tweet from last year:

“Google Voice is so awesome but I just think it’s dangerous to give Google this much power. Slippery slope, folks. You are not a customer.”

And this comment on MetaFilter:

“If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”

Some apps should absolutely be ad-suported (such as a search engine or social network), and many can be freemium (free versions supported by higher-priced subscriptions), but when given a choice I’d rather pay a fair price for a good service. When your customers are not your users, the product will suffer.

I know the world is full of ads already. We’re used to it — numb to it, maybe. But think about what the App Store has done: millions of people are paying real money for apps that complement ad-supported web sites. These same people would never pay a subscription fee to use the web site, but they’ll pay a few bucks for the same features in an iPhone app and it seems perfectly normal.

Do we really want to give that marketplace up? Because once it’s gone, and iAds are the norm, it will be an uphill battle to get anyone to pay for anything.