It’s that time of year again, the end of that artificial construct we call a ‘calendar year’ that prompts so many of us to cast our minds back over the last 12 months. So, apart from rocketing helplessly through space at 107000 km/h, only to return to where we started (relatively speaking, ignoring where Sol and the Milky Way have moved since then), what’s up?
As I talked about in my review of 2010, my goal had been to simplify and take back more control in my professional life, revolving around making my own products and cutting down contracting to just single, more significant projects. To that end I’d created SourceTree – this surprised many people, who asked “Why would you go from making a 3D renderer to writing a source control system?? Isn’t that boring?”. Well, actually no – I like learning new things, and I like solving problems, particularly the ones that I have myself, and so SourceTree ticked those boxes, giving me the opportunity to do some native Mac development and scratch my itch for a DVCS tool that worked the way I wanted at the same time. It also made perfect sense from a business perspective, because it was self-contained, deliverable with my modest resources, and there was a proven market for selling independent Mac apps.
Another subconscious reason that I’m aware of more now was that I needed to prove to myself that I could do something unconnected to my (long!) history on Ogre and make it work. I was starting to wonder whether I was capable of repeating the (popular) success I had with Ogre elsewhere, and particularly with a commercial product – was being free & open source the only reason I’d managed to build such an audience? Could I compete when I’m asking people to pay, and without that previous backdrop where many people feel they owe me a beer for all the free code & help I’ve given them in the past? I kinda needed to know.
On the whole, it went a lot better than I expected. At the beginning of 2011 SourceTree was just starting to get noticed, and was slowly growing, with lots of really nice feedback from people (even when it was critical). It was still a very nervous time; numbers were still well below where they needed to be and success was far from certain, and I’d already invested a fair amount, so I took a contracting job for a few months in parallel to help replenish the coffers. This was actually a really cool project, a Mac app based on Ogre that simulating lighting rigs for music concerts for a UK company that ran the real things, and I loved doing it. But following the launch on the Mac App store, and with word of mouth recommendations building – I’m not very good at marketing, so I really appreciated my users helping me do that – within a few months SourceTree was self-funding, just in time for that contract to finish. I hadn’t expected to start breaking even until about the 18 month point, so this was a lovely surprise. Not wanting to get complacent though, I started planning other projects, with the intention of running one in parallel with SourceTree to make sure I wasn’t completely reliant on it.
Everything changed though when Atlassian approached me about acquiring SourceTree, which completed in October – I’ve already talked about this in detail so I won’t repeat here. So now, by a curious twist of fate, I’m in the unexpected position of developing a free product (at least for now) again! I’ve certainly enjoyed the spike in users that’s provoked, and I love being able to tell people they can just go grab it for nothing, but it’s also nice to know that people were willing to pay for it too, before those nice people at Atlassian subsidised it for everyone.
In summary, 2011 has been really good to me. I’ve had lots of new experiences and learned a hell of a lot, which alone I count as a very positive thing. Managing to build up a successful new product and to go through my first acquisition in 12 months was pretty demanding, but very satisfying and confidence building at the same time, something I’m sure I’ll benefit from in future.
Much of the tech media would have you believe that creating a technology business requires you to court VCs, move to Silicon Valley and do something ‘fashionable’ (which right now means having ‘social’ in the brief somewhere), but that’s simply not true. Sure, if you’re expecting to rake in millions of dollars in seed funding and expect to retire on a private yacht in your 30s then that might be the only way you can do it; assuming you’re happy with running that gauntlet with a chance you’ll become one of the many roadkill that the press don’t talk about. But if you just want to make a good living and prefer to do it working on projects of your own creation, it definitely is possible, even if you’re just one guy living on a rock in the ocean. 2011 reinforced that belief in me, and for that, above all, I’m very grateful.
I hope you had a good 2011 too Best wishes for the holiday season, and have a great New Year.