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What I learned from selling $5 apps...

If you talk to anyone that works with me... you'll quickly learn that I'm not motivated by money. I don't often invoice until near-demanded by the customer. You can imagine how this infuriates my wife (sorry, Shirl!)... but that's me.

I am motivated by problems... or more specifically, the call to arms for a solution to a problem.

So what does this have to do with me selling you a $5 IBM Lotus Notes Domino platform app?

I'll explain...

Walking the walk

There has been talk in our community for at least a year now regarding an IBM Lotus platform app store.

Most of that talk quickly devolves into a heated exchange between people who are pro-store and those who are anti-store.

The pro-store camp consists of a composite mashup of technology professionals who would actually sell product in such a store (small-shop ISVs or side-job professionals) and those individuals -- in my opinion -- that understand that for a platform to thrive, the users of that platform must have readily and easily-available solutions to their problems.

The anti-store camp consists of people who are worried that Joe from Accounting will purchase a CRM solution for his team, need a Domino server to host it, and now IT strategy and solutions are being pushed by the user community vs. the knowledgeable IT professionals... but it also consists of another group. I'll get to that other group later.

There was always one thing that troubled me about these exchanges between the pro-store and anti-store factions... after each exchange, nothing happened. It was all talk. No one took the initiative to actually put the idea into practice. To see if there was indeed a market for consumer-priced products for the IBM Lotus platforms.

So I reached out to a few people that I trust in this community with an idea.

I would create a series of $5 apps. I would attempt to carve out -- using only what's immediately available to me (and not creating a store of my own) -- a method of both delivering and marketing these solutions.

If the exercise was successful, I would write an article that was a call-to-arms for other developers to create their own consumer-priced apps. I would detail what I did both in the community and offline to succeed. It would be a rally cry for the community and showcase that it was indeed possible using the methods and technologies we have available to us today. It would also act to highlight the benefits of a potential vendor-driven store.

If the exercise was not successful, I would write an article that was a call-to-arms to IBM and the greater Lotus community. I would stress a very simple fact:

  • I am a published developerWorks author.
  • I am a prolific platform-specific blogger.
  • I am active in social networking platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, et al.
  • I am the 2009 PlanetLotus Blogger of the Year!

If I couldn't sell some $5 apps to a built-in audience, you might as well chalk any individual effort up to it ain't gonna happen.

So, I decided to create a suite of apps and give it a go.

The Apps

If you've been on my site in the past month, it's kind of hard not to see them. The garish banner ads that now adorn the 2nd-column of this site tell the tale.

Controller, my first app, was requested by near-everyone that attended my MVC architecture session of developer2010. There, I stated that a simple processing engine -- relying on user-maintained configuration vs. hard-coded logic -- could be used to create an MVC Controller engine. From there, it would be a simple matter of publishing CRUD operations through the Controller API.

I thought it was brilliant and that it would fly off the electronic shelves. In truth, I could count the purchases on two hands and have enough left over to grab for the kleenex.

A friend suggested that people want apps that solve problems, not apps that help you write apps. And he was absolutely right.

Remote Console was a variant, cleaned up, user-friendly version of my SOTU freeware app.

It was an actual app. Once installed, it would allow an Admin to easily submit pre-defined and Admin-maintained Server Console Commands to a given Domino server. It also allowed them to securely allow non-Admins to submit specific server console commands to Domino servers based on Reader-field access to individual Server and Command documents.

This app was much more successful, and I feared that I wouldn't get to publically berate IBM for not giving us the tools to be successful.

Junction Lite was quite frankly written based on my needs. I needed a simple yet customizable import utility that didn't carry the overhead of my current Junction app.

Where Junction handles SQL, Excel, Notes, and even CSV importing on-demand or on-schedule, Junction Lite simply allows you to define a target NotesDatabase and import Excel row:NotesDocument. I added the ability to create on-demand NotesItems in the target NotesDocument, which had an awesome side-effect.

I could define a NotesItem, let's say date_start, in my Excel spreadsheet. I could then create a NotesItem entry as part of the import for date_start that ran the following Formula at runtime:

@If(@IsError(@Date(@TextToTime(date_start))); date_start; @Date(@TextToTime(date_start)))

It allowed me to clean up the imported data during the import instead of having to run an import, then several clean up Agents.

It was here -- with two apps really selling well and a third on the way -- that I was approached with my first real issue.

A non-developer/non-admin had all but special-ordered my third app (I told you, I take requests...). The problem was... in order to run this particular app, they'd need to sign the app first.

So I created a simple little app -- which I priced at $1.99 -- named Tesla. While this ultimately didn't solve the problem (the user still needed to sign the NotesDatabase with their own ID... but we worked that one out), this one-line-of-code app allows you to pick a target NotesDatabase and sign it with your ID.

The requested app that caused the need for Tesla? Mailer allows you to create mass-mailing campaigns via contact data pulled from any NotesDatabase (from the Personal Address Book to a 3rd-party CRM solution) with Microsoft Mail Merge-like funtionality.

The result is a bunch of individual Hello <firstname>-style emails.

With 3 apps really selling well, I was sad that I couldn't write my scathing article about how IBM was holding us all back... but these apps selling is itself only half of the story.

The community reaction

The biggest problem I faced, and the one that really haunted me, was potentially alienating my readership and community connections by <gulp> marketing and selling through my website.

Again, I'm not motivated by money... but that's really only half of the story. I actually get uncomfortable selling.

Each purchase notification I receive via Paypal makes me happy dance, true, but it's not because of the $4.65 ($5 minus Paypal's commission) that's now in my account... but rather the feeling of succeeding; of delivering a solution that may ultimately address a need.

I knew that, for my article to be successful, I needed to not completely rely on my blog readership, my twitter flock, my LinkedIn connections, or my Facebook friends (and Fans). I needed to use tools that any Notes Developer (or new-to-the-platform app developer) would have immediate access to... so I started spreading the word beyond my small slice of the net.

Specifically, I posted product release notices to the LDD forums and the LinkedIn forums. I created an account on the site. I even submitted an application at to become a vendor (an attempt to go beyond the bubble).

(Note: doesn't accept a blog as a vendor website. Easy enough to remedy, but something I found out during this process.)

My LDD forum posts -- to put it mildly -- got mixed reactions. Ironically, negative feedback didn't come from users of the forums, but rather from my fellow bloggers and community members.

And while I get their point, I hope they now see mine: as a new developer to the IBM Lotus platform, that's the first place you'll go to post about your new app.

The good thing that came from that post was someone at IBM pointing that the the preferred direction for such product and service posting: IBM Lotus and WebSphere Portal Business Solutions Catalog.

Since I started posting in there...

  • The LDD page now links to the Catalog. It didn't before (but was on the collective to do list to remedy).
  • You can now post a Paypal URL for the Download target URL.

The LDD post - which I filed under Announcement, will be my last in the forums based on the reaction it received.

Mind you, my post here for Showtime wasn't flagged by those same community watchdogs... but I didn't point that out at the time for fear of sounding too tinfoil-hat-ish.

I also, as is the price for doing business, reached out to several subject matter experts and community personalities asking for a warts and all review of my apps (in the process giving away free versions of various apps).

Understanding schedules as much as the next person, I didn't press.

Okay... you remember my previous mention of the other anti-store group members?

I can not tell you how many established ISVs contacted me telling me that I was doing myself a disservice selling these apps for such a cheap price.

You're worth more than that!

They at least had the guts to talk to be directly, however.

I have apparently become the talk of the established ISVs.

... and while I'm not motivated by money, I can be motivated by cowardice and two-faced duality.

The future...

I recently picked up an iPhone 4 (business expense, I assure you, after implementing a Traveler environment for a customer... but that's a topic for another post).

The one thing that I find absolutely fascinating is the app model of the Apple store. Most lite apps offer minimal or feature-specific functionality for a low price (if not free), while the full version (still relatively cheap) can be purchased.

I want to do this... with a slight modification.

  1. When possible, a lite version of the app will be released to the catalog.
  2. A fully-functional release of the app will be released at a consumer-targeted pricing model. Think $5 on average, but priced to the feature functionality of the given app ($1.99 - $49.99, etc.)

I plan on leveraging the Solutions Catalog for publication of both my lite and full versions, but I will not hesitate to leverage the tools and technologies available to me to market and deliver the apps.

What I learned...

I learned a few things throughout this process. First and foremost, there is a demand.

Ed, you want to motivate existing platform developers and being new platform developers to the Lotus platform? Incentivize them via a smooth, vendor-supported and advertised app store, that allows consumers to purchase solutions to meet their specific needs.

To the anti-store members that are worried about their users making IT decisions... please understand that you are the consumer I'm targeting. The user will still come to you asking you for a solution to a given problem... the app store is about enabling you to more easily meet your customer demands.

To the anti-store members in the other camp... thanks for giving me all of the incentive I need.

About the author: Chris Toohey

Thought Leadership, Web & Mobile Application Development, Solutions Integration, Technical Writing & Mentoring

A published developer and webmaster of, Chris Toohey specializes in platform application development, solutions integration, and evangelism of platform capabilities and best practices.

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