Thoughts on the Patronage Model Debate

Thursday, 15 October 2015

This afternoon I was horrified when I opened up Twitter and saw this:


That’s a Twitter conversation between two people I deeply respect. Marco Arment, one of my favorite podcasters, developers, and writers, and Samantha Bielefeld, one of my favorite new writers on the scene, whose writing I’ve talked about in the past.

The debate seems to be about Marco’s new pricing model for Overcast 2, which offers its excellent features for absolutely free, with an optional patronage model for people who want to support Overcast’s development. Some people have spoken out, saying that the patronage model would only be sustainable for Marco, because he’s a millionaire, countering Marco’s own point (emphasis mine):

Similar reasoning as last year guided me on this year’s model:
I’m not doing anything that other developers can’t do.
• Nobody is entitled to keep their market share, including me. It’s a constant battle to get and keep customers in a crowded market, and I need to ensure that I don’t fall behind.
• My previous headlining features are being implemented by more competitors, and this will only increase over time.
Yesterday, Samantha Bielefeld took this further with her own piece, the cleverly-titled “The Elephant in the Room”, in which she makes some astute points, some of which I agree with, some of which I don’t.

Without diving into the politics of the situation too much, I think Marco disagrees with her piece because he thinks it attacks the work he had to do to get where he is, while Samantha doesn’t agree with how Marco thinks the patronage model is possible for any independent developer. What I don’t understand, though, is why Marco decided to respond negatively to people who just wanted to voice their opinion without doing it in a harmful way. Regardless, onto my own thoughts on the issue at hand.

I find it very harsh to say that only Marco can do it because he is a millionaire. To me, that kind of statement misses the point, and almost devalues the work he’s done until now. His 80,000 followers or influence didn’t just happen because he’s Marco, it’s because he built that up over the years by providing good value, whether it’s through his apps, projects, writing, or podcasting. When he says that the patronage model is something that other developers can do too, he’s not saying they’ll make all the money back overnight. It’s taken Marco years to build up money to the point where he’s at, and his point is that anyone can do it, it’ll just take longer.

Going free is still a pretty big gamble for independent developers, and I still believe that Bielefeld’s main point is true: Marco enjoys some advantage, but it’s because he’s put work into building a brand and worked hard to get where he’s at to become so respected.

On the whole, I think independent developers who are just starting out shouldn’t be experimenting with things like this anyway. I don’t think Marco enjoys a privilege — he’s built his own brand and business over the years to the point that he can afford to do this. I’m pretty sure other larger independent developers who have done this — Tapbots, Flexibits, and yes, even Supertop and Shifty Jelly can still get similar results from their fans — Shifty Jelly has diehard Android supporters, and Supertop has many fans, including me.

But at the end of the day, I think Bielefeld is somewhat correct, in that, Marco’s thoughts on the patronage model isn’t a realistic choice for the majority of indie developers out there who either make a niche app, or have apps that aren’t as celebrated by their respective platforms.

UPDATE: @BuildingTwenty has pointed out to me that Supertop aren’t doing as well as I thought with tips in Unread. I still stand by my original thoughts that patronage isn’t for most independent developers, but rather for established ones who have experience and the fanbase who are willing to support them. Granted, one of Overcast’s main competition probably isn’t up to it…yet.

UPDATE 2: (11/26/15) This week’s events have made me very disappointed in ‘Bielefeld’. I realize that even though this person’s criticisms are fair, I can’t continue to stand behind this person who has violated the trust of so many of their readers. This post no longer represents my views today, but I’m keeping this around in the archive for honesty’s sake.


Also published on Medium.

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