Creator of Pixaki and Full-Time Indie iOS Dev: A Top Dev Interview With Luke Rogers

The indie developer behind the popular pixel art Pixaki shares his story, along with advice for other aspiring indie app developers. By Adam Rush.

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Creator of Pixaki and Full-Time Indie iOS Dev: A Top Dev Interview With Luke Rogers

15 mins

Welcome to another installment of our Top App Dev Interview series!

Each interview in this series focuses on a successful mobile app or developer and the path they took to get where they are today. Today’s special guest is Luke Rogers.

Luke is the creator of the famous pixel art app Pixaki, which has been very successful over the years. Aside from this, you can spot Luke at many conferences speaking about his indie story.

Indie Developer

Luke, you have been an indie iOS developer for some time now. Can you tell me how it all started?

I was at university studying Computer Science when the iPhone came out — it was a pretty exciting time to be starting out in the tech industry. I also realized while I was studying that I really wanted to do something entrepreneurial with my life.

However when I graduated, I got a job writing CSS and HTML for template websites — it was pretty soul destroying! I only lasted a few months before I quit and decided to go full-time indie. I had no plan and no savings but somehow managed to stumble through for 18 months before I had to get a “real job” again. That was round one of being self-employed.

The big problem for most developers wanting to go indie full time is making the leap. Can you tell me how you managed this?

I created the first version of Pixaki on evenings and weekends while working a full-time job. Initially, I thought it would only take a few months, but it actually took two years to get to version 1!

I was hoping that once the app was released it would generate enough money that I could quit my job and be a full-time indie, but while it was somewhat successful it wasn’t anywhere near enough to live on. I’ve since learned to always run the numbers and do an in-depth analysis before starting a new project, rather than just hoping for the best.

Version 2 was a complete Swift re-write!

So I kept my job, but I kept working on Pixaki — version 2 turned into a complete rewrite and I moved the code from Objective-C to Swift. The real turning point was being made redundant, and I can honestly say it’s one of the best things that’s happened to me!

Rather than look for another full-time job, I decided to go back to freelancing. This time was very different though — I went with a much higher and more sustainable hourly rate, plus I had money saved from Pixaki sales and it was still generating money each month. This softened the blow of suddenly not having a regular monthly income, but it still felt like a big risk.

Being self-employed again has enabled me to spend so much more time on Pixaki, which has really changed everything. After the first few months, I released Pixaki 2, then I began working on Pixaki 3. Version 3 added a huge number of new features, it was the first paid upgrade, and I increased the price from $8.99 to $24.99.

Sales have been going really well, and now Pixaki accounts for about two-thirds of the income I need each month which means that I can be far less dependant on client work. It’s a great position to be in, and it’s all built on the foundations set when I started the project one evening over six years ago.

Sales increasing with version 3 of Pixaki.

What’s your daily schedule like?

I work from home, but every morning I still “walk to work”. I walk the same route every day and I don’t listen to any music or podcasts, but I use the time to think about what I need to be working on today. I also like to think about the bigger picture and consider what my plans are for Pixaki in the months to come and what my next project will be.

After my walk, the day generally looks like this:

  • 9:00-9:30: start working.
  • 12:00-13:00: take an hour for lunch.
  • 17:00-17:30: finish working for the day

I’ve tried working really long hours in the past, but it’s so draining that I think I’m actually more productive by not trying to work too hard. I don’t have much of a set daily routine, but I like to write out a to-do list each day and work my way through that.

In general, I’ll start with the less appealing tasks first, and then when I’m starting to flag I can switch to something more exciting.

Work-Life Balance

Procrastination is a real problem for everyone, how do you fight the battle of distractions?

I work from home, so there’s definitely a constant battle to stay focused. I always have a timer running on my laptop that tells me when I’ve been idle for 5 minutes or more, so I can keep track of how many hours in the day I’m actually working. Closing apps and tabs in Safari helps too — I have Mail closed most of the time, and only open it a couple of times a day to check my emails.

Luke’s workspace at home.

The most dangerous type of distraction I find, though, is the desire to start a new project. Something like Twitter might steal a few minutes from your day, but ditching your current unfinished project to start something new that you also don’t finish can take away months. And because you’re still doing work, it’s much easier to tell yourself that you are being productive.

The first time I was a full-time indie developer, pretty much all I did was start something and then a few months later move onto the next project without finishing anything. I spent a year and a half doing this with very little to show at the end of it all. So now I’m very cautious about starting new projects; I have a process where I weigh up how viable the idea is, which I run through before I start anything.

I’ve decided that Pixaki will be my primary focus for the next couple of years at least, and while I’m considering what will come next, I’m in no hurry to make a start.

Can you list any tools you use that help with your indie development?

One of the best tools I have is a notebook and pencil. I use it for my to-do lists, but also designing and decision making; I think there’s a tremendous value in stepping away from technology when you can. I have a Leuchtturm1917 dotted notebook which is great for writing and designing, and a Pentel mechanical pencil.

In terms of software I use;-

  • Xcode – For making Pixaki.
  • Sketch – For doing any design resources.
  • Tower – This is a git GUI.
  • Harvest – The timer I mentioned earlier.

What is your ultimate advice for being an indie developer?

Think long-term and keep persevering. It took me a few years to realise that success is not going to happen suddenly, and I think that’s probably true for the vast majority of people. When Pixaki was seeing limited success, I considered giving up on it and moving on to a new project on many occasions, but I’m so glad I stuck with it. And I’m going to keep working on it to grow the product and see where I can take it.

I hope for Pixaki to still be around in ten or twenty years time, so everything I do is with that in mind. Often that means writing my own code that I know I’ll be able to maintain rather than using a third-party library. I also try to keep the app modern without getting too caught up in the latest fashions of app design; there are very little blur and vibrancy effects for example, and I think the app will age more gracefully because of things like that.

Luke’s vision to allow the app to age gracefully.

If you could change anything about being an indie iOS developer what would it be and why?

I think we’re incredibly fortunate to have a platform for iOS to develop for. It’s easy to find fault when it’s what you work with all day every day, but looking at it objectively it’s a fantastic platform.

The thing that makes me the most nervous about building a business around an iOS app, though, is how much control Apple has. Given that they own both the platform and the sole distribution channel for apps, any changes that they make in the future could have a massive impact on many businesses.

So far it’s been good though, and there have been some nice changes to the App Store recently, which is encouraging. I’d like to see them slow down how quickly iOS changes from year to year too, as just keeping up with the platform is a lot of work, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon!