Shaun Inman is in a great position right now. When his web stats app Mint took off four years ago, he was able to leave his career in client services behind.
Today his projects make enough money to sustain him financially, which is pretty rare, especially given that he usually starts out building things purely for his own interest.
His secret? People simply adore the stuff he comes up with.
The switch to producing apps happened accidentally – he was just tinkering in the early hours. In fact, Shaun says, everything he does revolves around tinkering:
"It was surprising when Mint took off and demanded enough of my time to allow me to turn down the client work. It was mostly just me scratching my own itch, then other people [began] finding the things I was giving away at the time. I built up a base of people who were interested in the same things as me and they went to support my decision."
Getting the Fever
Shaun's latest major project, self-hosted recommendation-engine-come-feed-reader Fever, followed the same model.
"I was dissatisfied with the available solutions out there and overwhelmed by the number of feeds I'd accumulated over the years by participating in the web standards community. I know I wanted to make a feed reader for myself in order to address the shortcomings [I'd experienced]."
Fever sold as many $30 licences in its first week as the original Mint had in a month. After just two months, more than 2,000 people were using it, 10 per cent of Mint's total user base.
The release was also accompanied by a largely favourable TechCrunch post, although it questioned the lack of a demo or trial version.
"It's for the same reason I don't offer a demo trial version of Mint," Shaun explains. "The apps are written in PHP and MySQL, so once you have the source code, anybody who is moderately familiar with PHP can go and rip out the activation. I could do a feature-limited version but then I have to maintain two code bases, and I probably wouldn't use a hosted version.
"There are plenty of free, hosted feed readers out there but none of them has ever appealed to me," Shaun continues.
"One of the main reasons is that I don't like a third party observing my behaviour and profiting off it by selling advertising and market analysis and all that junk. And also, I went to school as a graphic designer and I'm a self-taught programmer, so creating a scalable, multi-server MySQL database through an application doesn't really appeal to me. I don't have the technical background to pull it off. I like being able to touch all the bits myself and I'm not really interested in putting together a team to build something like that."
So, for now, Shaun will continue to support his customers personally. "If I paid somebody to do support, they wouldn't have that personal attachment, that personal stake in making sure the customer is happy. I'd have to educate them. As a developer it's better to have direct contact with your customers because you get first-hand experience of what problems they're having and which you need to take care of first."
That personal attachment is also the reason Shaun hasn't sold off any of his applications. "These projects are part of my personal brand," he says. "I've never set up a company name to operate under. I'm not sure I could part with that. It would be like selling off your child to another couple. I'm not motivated by money, and I'm not sure that retaining some sort of creative control would be enough or whether it would make it worse because I'd be stuck to maintaining it without having directorial control. Maybe you could try and pry them from my cold dead fingers …"