Mac software impressario Phill Ryu brought his controversial MacHeist bundle back for another round recently, this time with one of its former critics in the fold, which means that the old debates about its legitimacy and value have been raging once again. I’ll admit I’ve been a critic of MacHeist in the past, and one way to think about it is definitely as either a sign of or cause of a troubling devaluation of indie software. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why software products and services succeed or fail, though, and I’ve started to feel that, whatever you think of them, we indie developers can learn a lot from MacHeist.
I had several epiphanies about this awhile back in Chicago, during a trip to the C4 Mac developer conference. The first was as a result of Wil Shipley’s excellent talk about marketing for indie developers, which, frankly, I was ready to scoff at since I used to think of Shipley’s approach the same way people think of Ryu’s—full of bluster and emphasizing style over substance. Over the course of the talk, though, I came to appreciate just how much the early success of indie Mac apps (and, really, most web-based social software products) hinge on peoples’ focus on a figurehead developer. As I thought about this, it occurred to me that things like MacHeist are essentially providing exactly that sort of “cult of personality” marketing for apps whose creators lack the PT Barnum-esque flair to do it themselves.
The second epiphany I had on that trip to Chicago came when I paid a visit to the T-Shirt Deli, a clever shop in the city’s Bucktown neighborhood (edit: changed “Wicker Park” to “Bucktown”). The T-Shirt Deli is basically your garden variety iron-on t-shirt store—you look through a big book of decals and they can make you a shirt with one, or you can just spell out a message with iron-on letters. There are shops like it all over (I used to live near one called “Bang On” in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury neighborhood), and, while their products do have a certain retro cool, they’re a far cry from the quality of a real screenprinted shirt.
I was well aware of this, yet I still I paid quite a premium for the shirt I had made while I was there. Why? Because buying it was a fun experience! You see, the entire place is set up to look like a real deli, with big deli cases containing t-shirt samples and a big, backlit menu displaying prices.
The best part comes when you actually get your shirt: instead of just handing it to you, they wrap it up like a sandwich, stick a price label on it, and cover it with stickers saying things like “USDA Choice Beef” and “Hot Italian.” They even include a bag of potato chips with it in the bag they give you on your way out.
I think MacHeist is a bit like the T-Shirt Deli, in that it makes the act of buying software more than just a mundane transaction. It makes it a game, an experience—almost a product in itself. Getting more adept at doing that kind of marketing is something I’ve been thinking about ever since that trip to Chicago. I don’t know how well the developers are doing in the MacHeist equation, but whatever they’re losing, they’re buying the services of a master marketer.