An Interview with Daniel Jalkut, Red Sweater Software

This interview with Daniel Jalkut of Red Sweater Software, is the sixth in a series of interviews I've held with indie software developers about marketing Mac software. Previous interviews: Rich Siegel, Oliver Breidenbach, Jacob Gorban, Jean MacDonald, and Kevin Hoctor.

Daniel Jalkut, Red Sweater SoftwareDaniel Jalkut is the founder and de facto CEO of Red Sweater Software, where he develops MarsEdit, a blog editing app, and several other products. On his company blog he writes about marketing, software development, and the general thrills and perils of being an indie Mac developer. When he's not painstakingly developing — and marketing! — his company's products, he enjoys playing guitar, running, and endlessly striving to perfect the home-baked pizza.

Red Sweater old logo(I've actually known Daniel — at least online — since before he became an indie developer, when he worked at Apple, probably around 2002.  Even back then, there was a red sweater!)

DW: Can you tell us some of the marketing activities you do?

DJ: I consider marketing to be a very soft art and try to market my products and business on as many fronts as possible, but in a fairly casual way. For some reason the phrase that pops into my head right now is a play on the title of that book you recommended about A/B testing.  “Always Be Marketing” sounds like a pretty good catch-phrase for the kind of attitude I try to keep in mind as I'm developing the relationship between me, my company, and the rest of the world.

What does it mean to always be marketing? It means to literally inject yourself into as much of the “going ons” in your target audience as possible. Let me dump a snapshot of activities and attitudes I am committed to, which to me count as “just having fun,” but are also great examples of casual marketing:

  • Having a sense of humor about my business and ambitions
  • Writing blog posts that inspire readers to share links and ideas
  • Blogging/podcasting/tweeting on many fronts with many linked personas
  • Monitoring mentions on blogs and following up in the comments
  • Engaging with other developers on mailing lists or forums
  • Attending conferences where customers or developers are present
  • Appearing on podcasts about development and/or the Apple platforms we love
  • Responding personally to anybody who types comments into the “Any Comments” field on my store
  • Helping other developers by sharing source code, solutions, or inspiration
  • Acknowledging competitors and encouraging customers to use them when appropriate (the Macy's policy from “Miracle on 34th Street”)
  • Generally trying to establish a reputation for the company as both fun and trustworthy

Now, with these sort of “always be marketing” activities in place, I am able to build upon the baseline marketing by essentially pulling stunts or participating in group activities that help to further get the word out about me and my company.  I don't mean stunt in a pejorative sense, but for example last year I pulled “One Finger Discount” out of thin air and without any planning. It turned out to be an effective marketing move and helped market the products of a lot of other developers as well. But it was sort of because of the baseline that I have the luxury to look for these opportunities and act on them when inspiration strikes.

DW: Based the list you made, I'd have to describe you as a “developer's developer.”  Does it feel like being well-known and well-respected by your fellow developers helps the bottom line, as far is bringing in new customers who don't know anything about this community?

DJ: I love getting to know other developers, especially from smaller or self-run companies, because we're all working towards similar goals. I do think it helps the bottom line, but in indirect ways. One benefit I've enjoyed is that the closer your relationship is with a developer, the more likely they are to share code and/or expertise with you. I got a big boost while developing MarsEdit 2, when Fraser Speirs of Connected Flow noticed my comments on Twitter about Flickr, and offered to give me access to his unpublicized Flickr API code.  The other thing to keep in mind is developers are constantly in communication with customers. People who could be your customers, too! Now if one of my friends hears a feature request for something right up my alley, they're more likely to send the customer my way because we're friends, and we help each other out.

DW: The One Finger Discount event was a lot of fun, and brought a lot of developers together similar to the MacSanta promotion a few years ago and the recent Indie+Relief charity drive.  Did you get a sense from other developers how that helped them, either in the short term or the long term, to participate in that?

DJ: I got a lot of really great anecdotal feedback from developers as the promotion was going on. People sent me notes with short thank-yous and comments like “We just had our best sales day ever!” That was really gratifying. It's the best feeling in business when you achieve something that is unabashedly lifting you up while bringing dozens or hundreds of others up with you.

Some time after the promotion was over, many participants let me know just how grateful they were to be part of it, by sending me a huge Amazon gift card. It was a really charming experience, over all.

DW: What do you mean by “linked personas” in the above list?

DJ: When I speak of separate but linked personas I mean participating in the web on different and levels and with different capacities. The simplest distinction is a company persona vs. a private persona. While many folks following me as danielpunkass on Twitter know that I'm associated with Red Sweater, they also recognize that it's my personal account.  I also run a separate account for Red Sweater and one for MarsEditmarsedit tweetThe MarsEdit one in particular is beloved, and fun for me as well, because MarsEdit's personality is that of the rock-star app sarcastically complaining about the shortcomings of its developer.

Aside from Twitter accounts, I participate in the community on other levels and with other personalities. For example my TwitPOP project lets me go nuts and record silly little songs based on other people's Twitter postings. Meanwhile on Core Intuition, the podcast I do with Manton Reece from Riverfold Software, I get to play the thoughtful industry pundit programmer. 

To the extent that marketing a self-run company is equivalent to marketing yourself, I think you can maximize your exposure by allowing your various personae to live somewhat independently of each other, yet still let it be known that they all add up to define who you are in the community. I think it's a sign of success if nobody can sum up who you are or what you do in a single breath.

DW: That's a really good perspective… it really shows that there is no great separation between you as the person that people get to know through your online presence, and Red Sweater, the company.  I can see that in your “danielpunkass” twitter handle and in your blog, which recently featured a very moving memorial to your dad, adjacent to a technical rant about HP printers.  Have you ever had any blowback from mixing personal and business, or is it all good?

DJ: It's been mostly positive, but there have been a few isolated incidents of outrage among a subset of my readers. For the most part I try to keep the blog fairly apolitical and technically oriented, but occasionally I have used it as a soapbox to express some personal belief that I wanted to share with my audience. The two big examples that come to mind are my public endorsement of Obama and a plea for action against climate change. In each of these instances, I received public comments that decried the mixing of business and polictics, and some harsher private emails declaring promises to never buy my products, etc.

I would say it's probably inappropriate to abuse a business persona in these ways, but on the other hand, there is so much of my personality in the business, and a certain degree of irreverence, that I am fairly comfortable with having gone astray, even if I do suffer some consequences.

DW: What would you say is different in how you approach marketing, compared to other small/indie Mac software companies out there?

DJ: I'm not sure I have a good sense about how other companies are generally approaching marketing. Actually, until your blog on the subject came along, I don't think people were talking too much about it. So it's really interesting to start getting a peek into the mindset of developers.

Honestly, I think that most indie Mac developers are not thinking about marketing much or at all. My hunch is that for most developers, marketing consists of “getting a hold of a coveted list of influential press and then spamming them about new product releases.” I only say this because I have heard other developers talk about “PR lists” as if they are the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

When I was just starting out I remember collecting these email addresses as well. And letting the press know about your accomplishments is a fine habit to get into, but can be pretty useless if the journalist has no context in which to put your random email.  What I have discovered as I get to know more of the Mac journalism community is they are “just like us,” minus the coding.  Like developers, they are anxious to see new products fill pressing needs, and for those products to be as good as they possibly can be. Their role is to raise the successes above the failures, and to write about topics that challenge developers to achieve new heights.

I guess along those lines, if I had to count one thing about my “marketing” as different from other developers, it would be that I have discovered there is little distinction between the value of getting to know the press vs. customers vs. other developers. They all play an important role in helping to spread the word about you and your company. Don't treat any of them as “black boxes” into which you throw information and expect a magical result.

DW: What are some ways you might suggest for other developers to get to know the people in the press, in the positive way you suggest?  Hopefully by now people have seen Adam Engst's “Hacking the Press” presentation that he's been giving over the years; any other thoughts?

DJ: What's great about most of the press in the Mac communities, is they are into the same kinds of events and online communities as the developers. You'll find them meandering around at conferences such as MacworldWWDC or C4. The process for “meeting the press” is no different from that of meeting other developers, or of meeting users. You just get out there are and start meeting people, and what do you know, some percentage of them turn out to be journalists!

The whole conundrum how do you meet people is not something I can answer with authority. So many times, even in recent years, I've been the guy quietly walking the halls, desperately hoping to run into somebody I know. I am not so good with cold-introductions. But the great thing is “who you know” snowballs from event to event and from year to year. Because the community is small enough, you can start out only knowing a couple people, then you meet a few more, and after several years you're almost guaranteed to run into somebody at any public community event.

DW: From your experience, which of these are the 'low hanging fruit' - in other words, that are fairly easy to do and are pretty effective, that other indies might want to try?

DJ: I think the low hanging fruit is really “participation.” Unless you are pathologically anti-social, it doesn't hurt to be a part of the community and to engage on some level with people on the web who are active in your field. Participation means noticing when somebody is talking about you, or when they have a problem that you can solve. It doesn't usually mean mentioning your product or aiming for a sale, it just means being part of the fabric so that when people do inevitably want to buy or recommend a product like yours, it's your name that pops into their head first.

DW: A great suggestion.  To be specific, I'm assuming you are talking about Twitter, at least to start — any other communities?  Any specific tools or techniques you can recommend for “noticing,” as you say, when somebody is talking about you or has a problem you can solve?

DJ: I mean it on all fronts and in all venues. Twitter, blogging, comments, forums, podcasts, etc. But yeah, Twitter is a big one.  Another one I know that you have tackled but which I haven't really gotten into yet is Facebook. I don't perceive there being much of a Mac community there, but this is again probably just me not being keyed in. I'm wandering the virtual halls of Facebook, looking for a friend.

There are lots of tools out there for staying on top of what people are saying about you on the web. I tend to subscribe to RSS feeds of search results from pertinent services. I subscribe to Google and Twitter search results for my name, my product names, company name, etc. There is a service called Backtype that will alert you when anybody mentions a search term in the comments of another blog. It's a little flakey but it sometimes digs up useful mentions.

The big one is to have some statistics package that allows you to monitor the new links that are pointing in to your site. I use Mint because it's real-time and I can subscribe via RSS to the new unique referrers. What this means in practice is that I can scan the new referrers for domains that look interesting, and then go visit the site and see what they're saying about me. If appropriate, e.g. they are complaining about me or praising me, I can chime in with a note of apology or gratitude.

The power of this personalized visit can not be overstated. Often the people who are talking about us and our products view themselves as in the audience, and us as up on stage. It's as though you're at a concert and the guitar player steps off stage, walks down the aisle, singles you out of the crowd, and thanks you for being at the show.

DW: So is there anything you are able to use to gauge how effective this strategy is?

DJ: I have not taken a very scientific approach to measuring the success of my marketing. I have been operating for years now on a “accumulate reputation wealth” strategy which essentially means I'm just trying to make sure that people are increasingly aware of me and increasingly fond of what I'm doing. Note that although I'm using “wealth” as a metaphor here, I'm not talking about money. My marketing efforts are mainly an attempt to earn reputation so that business success will follow automatically as long as I make the right decisions about developing my products. I just notice over time that more and more people have heard of me or my software. For now, that's good enough feedback for me.

DW: What marketing activities have you found were actually not that beneficial?

DJ: Many people equate advertising with marketing, but notice I haven't mentioned it once in this interview up until now.  I don't really do advertising, aside from occasional forays into targeted Google ads.  Effective advertising campaigns take a lot of money and a sustained effort, and I don't think most indie developers are rich enough or talented enough to make those campaigns work on their own.  As a small-time business getting started, it's much more effective to tap into word-of-mouth marketing, so I generally put advertising on the list of things to do “after I've made it big.”

DW: You didn't really mention your website in your list; having a website is pretty much the minimum marketing that somebody must do, and it's generally the best opportunity for a developer to present their products in the best light.  Can you tell me a bit about your home page and the main product pages, and why you made some of the decisions you made of what to include, how it's laid out, etc?

DJ: You've noticed what's probably a deficiency in my thinking: I do tend to overlook the web site as a marketing tool. The fact that I neglected to mention it in this interview probably reflects that I have neglected to think too much about it over the years. I'm not really too proud of it, and wouldn't hold it up a model for emulation, but I do think it does a few things right.

First of all, the home page is incredibly simple, inspired by sites like Apple that don't waste a lot of words trying to talk you into using the web site. It just shows large icons for the various products I sell, and a brief one-liner about what they do.

Red Sweater LogoSecond, I finally had a beautiful company logo designed last year, and the web site is automatically cleaner and more attractive because of it. I think this is a great investment for any company that wants to extend the power of every marketing move they do. You probably remember at WWDC last year I was handing out little sweater buttons. These things were incredibly simple but made everybody smile. Logo, for the win! Mike Rohde was the guy who pulled off this incredible design.

Finally, and I don't think I've perfected this, I try to apply the kind of personalization that lets customers know that this is not some crazy monolithic corporation. There is a tendency especially when small companies are starting out, to try to fake like you're some giant firm. You can even by things like tapes of office noise so that when people call you, it sounds like an incredibly hectic workplace. I have come to believe that such shenanigans are not only dishonest, but they don't work. Customers love to know that the person they're buying from is a real person, and that they've invested their passion into the work. Anything you can do on your web site to “cozy it up” without making it come off as outright unprofessional, is a good move.

DW: This is just so many good ideas to absorb. Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions — I think it will really be helpful for others to read!

DJ: Thanks, Dan! It was a really fun time chatting with you about this topic. I know it's near and dear to both of our hearts. Best of luck to you and the rest of Karelia.

Original photo for icon by @gruber.

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