August 23, 2017

Learning from Ulysses' Struggles With the Switch to a Subscription Model

Ulysses and I. A Dysfunctional Relationship.

I have been an user of Ulysses since version 1 of the app. That is a long long time ago.

It hasn't been a loyal relationship. Ulysses III managed to piss me off enough that I developed a strange love-hate relationship with it.

I dislike the way it handles Markdown. I make periodic attempts to move all my writing to it. I give up after a few days. My established rituals for writing Markdown will have to be discarded when I write in Ulysses. I use Zettt/km-markdown-library: Markdown library for Keyboard Maestro, for writing Markdown, most of them do not work in Ulysses. Every link needs to be entered using it's pop-up dialog boxes and I get frustrated and move away from it.

The environment is beautiful. The implementation of typewriter scrolling is the best in the marketplace. Ulysses provides enough control over the look and feel of the editing screen to not be overwhelming and just perfect. I love writing in it for while and then the frustration kicks in with its half-baked support of Markdown. I get the feeling that Ulysses was not sure whether it wanted to be a Markdown based text editor or just a text editor. I write in Markdown and Ulysses always leaves me with the feeling of wearing a t-shirt several sizes too small.

So, I have it installed on my machine, but it doesn't get used much.

If you are a writer who has to have web-links in their writing, Ulysses is not an ideal solution. On the other hand, if you use headings, bold, italic, and the occasional lists either numbered or not, Ulysses is a great solution. Ulysses does a great job of supporting formatting elements of Markdown but doesn't do links or images all that well. It doesn't yet do tables. Four years after the product has been released it still hasn't implemented tables. If tables are a necessity for you, I wouldn't hold my breath for tables from Ulysses.

You can write blog posts in Ulysses if you manage to adapt your workflow to the nuances of Ulysses. I had trouble doing that. So, Ulysses was not the solution for me.

I have moved on to writing in Bear - Notes for iPhone, iPad and Mac and editing in Full Focus on Writing – iA.

Ulysses and Subscriptions

Ulysses announced that it was moving to a subscription system along with an attempt to communicate with its users through Ulysses Switches to Subscription | Ulysses Blog and Why we’re switching Ulysses to Subscription – Building Ulysses – Medium.

It was the same version that they were selling yesterday for $44.99 for the macOS version and $24.99 for the iOS version. No changes were made except that the product is now sold as a subscription service. $39.99 a year will give you both the macOS version and iOS versions. You can buy a monthly subscription for $4.99 a month. For existing users there was a deal. "50% off the monthly subscription" except that this needed to be paid for the year, or it was $29.99 for the year. In other words, it was only 25% off the yearly subscription rate.

Oh, I've made a mistake. It wasn't exactly the same version. It now has a slightly tweaked version of the old icon. This is the only change.

Predictably Twitter had a typically bi-polar reaction. One group of people were eager to tell us how quickly they signed up for the subscription, and how this switch in pricing was absolutely the right thing to do. How Ulysses was the ultimate text editor in the marketplace and the developers needed to make a fair living.

Examples of this train of thought were the following:

Ulysses Announces Move to Subscription Pricing – MacStories

The new Ulysses subscription pricing model – The Sweet Setup

Subscriptions: Ulysses joins the growing band of drip-feeders — macfilos

Ulysses Switches to Subscriptions | Infinite Diaries — Technology, Photography & Travel

The amazing Ulysses has gone subscription only – BirchTree

The new Ulysses subscription plan is a wonderful idea – David Hewson

Daring Fireball: Ulysses Is Switching to Subscription Pricing

This last one gave me pause. Gruber is not an Ulysses user. He is a Bare Bones Software | BBEdit 11 guy. Why is he opining on this change? This is what he had to say:

This is a really thoughtful article, and I fully support their decision. I think subscription pricing is an excellent option for truly professional apps like Ulysses, particularly ones that are cross platform (Mac and iOS).

The usually articulate Gruber has two sentences of pablum? He has no idea of the specific circumstances of this switch for Ulysses and he has an opinion? "Truly professional app?" "Subscription pricing is an excellent option?" Really? Why? More importantly why is this system better than the one Gruber is intimately familiar with: The BBEdit example of churning out periodic updates of a mature product, and charging for them?

All of us are guilty of sometimes speaking out unformed thoughts and maybe Gruber was having a bad day. That is why he didn't give us his usual articulate, well reasoned arguments. Or maybe, pablum is all he had. It gave me pause.

Along with the happy there was of course a fair number of people who were not. This is a smattering of contrary opinions:

Stop the BS behind paid-subscription apps! – Olivier Simard-Casanova – Medium

To subscribe or not to subscribe | Welcome to Sherwood

Taking note: Ulysses Has Lost its Way

Taking note: Ulysses, One More Time

Ulysses Subscription Model – Benjamin Metzler – Medium

Ulysses becomes a subscription-based app |

I love writing apps, but now I hate Ulysses

I liked Dr. Drang's take the best:

Subscriptions - All this

He laid out some of the advantages of a subscription service and provided the reader with some new ways of looking at the scenario.

Like Dr. Drang, I don't have a dog in this fight. I loved the app, but have moved away from it. I don't have anything against subscriptions. After all, I paid for an annual subscription to Bear. I must admit I don't like them all that much but if the product is one which is integral to my workflow, I am willing to pay a subscription fee.

My decision to dump Ulysses from my workflow happened before this subscription move, so it didn't have any effect on my decision.

Issues Relevant to a Move to Subscriptions

This move by Ulysses generated a ton of negative reactions from users. Vocal, loud condemnations filled the Twitter timeline for a product which was loved by its users. So, what could developers do better?

  1. Time it better. Introduce a new version and change the pricing structure. Don't take the same product you had yesterday, change the damn icon and charge a different price for it today.
  2. Be exact in your communications. $10 off $40 is not 50% off. Try comparing apples to apples. Just because the marketing person thinks this is a good idea doesn't make it so. Your consumers are not stupid.
  3. Hire people with guts. I am sure that there was someone in the 12 employees you have who thought that "50% off" was deceptive. Create an environment where the contrary voice can be heard. If there were no contrary voices available you need to look at your management style. You have surrounded yourself with sycophants.
  4. Be prepared for the fallout. Twitter is not the right place for this debate. In fact, avoid a debate. Decide on a communication strategy and stick to it. "Sorry to lose your business, but we think this is the best way to ensure the future of our business." Something like this should have been the official mantra repeated ad nauseam. Instead you engaged in debate, you are not going to win.
  5. A focal point in responses. One person. One message. Again and again. Instead Ulysses had two people or more in various stages of sleep deprivation. Bad move.
  6. This is not a debate. This is damage control. Learn how to say "sorry." Specially when you are not sorry. Hey this is your business. You get to decide how or what you are going to charge the consumer for your product. They don't like it, they can go pound sand. You are just trying to limit the damage done to your brand. Say "sorry."

Implications of the Pricing Change

Any given market for a product like Ulysses has two segments:

  1. Pro-Users
  2. Amateurs

Breakup of UsersBreakup of Users

Pro-users are people who use your product to generate income. They are successful at it and they are price insensitive when it comes to your product. David Hewson should be signing up for the subscription immediately. That cannot be news.

The news is that the break up between pro-users and amateur users is always lop-sided in favor of amateurs. If software has to depend only on pro-users for their survival, it has to charge a lot more. Look at Tinderbox: The Tool For Notes as an example. For a writing app like Ulysses, the amateurs are the ones who pay the bills, the pro-users provide the validation. I would argue then that there are no "professional apps" in this category. Even Literature and Latte - Scrivener Writing Software | macOS | Windows | iOS which is the closest competitor has the same kind of numbers to deal with: a small section of pro-users and a mass of amateurs.

Amateurs are the difficult group. They bring various levels of commitment to your product. The ones who live in Ulysses are going to subscribe immediately. Those who are less committed are going to take time over the decision. It is in your interest to push them along that path to subscription. Make it easy for them to jump on the bandwagon. Try not to do things which encourage the undecided to look for alternate solutions.

Converting to the Subscription ModelConverting to the Subscription Model

The numbers, of course, are made-up in my example, but the principal is the relevant one. Convert the amateurs into subscribing customers. Remember that these amateurs are also your paying customers. They have already paid. They have a foot in the door. It should be easy to transition them over to subscribing customers.

  1. Don't piss them off. "50% off the monthly subscription" is guaranteed to piss them off.
  2. Don't start a debate with them.
  3. The ones debating are lost to you. Remember the ones who are not engaged in the debate but reading the debate. That is your audience. Don't piss them off.
  4. Make it as easy as possible to transition to the subscription system. Ulysses achieved this well. The transition is smooth and flawless.
  5. Don't nag the users who are still using the old version and haven't moved on to the subscription model. Remember they are people who paid you already. Show some respect and gratitude.

The problem is that each situation is unique and learning from them is a function of looking at the mistakes and trying to avoid repeating them. I think subscription systems are here to stay, but they are limited by their nature. A consumer is a lot more willing to part with $40 as a one time payment than she is in signing up for a commitment of $30/yearly. Only a few kinds of programs lend themselves to a subscription system. They have to be integral to the regular workflow of the consumer. The value-proposition has to be clear and defined. I suspect that developers in an effort to justify the subscription system are also going to introduce bloat into their product. We shall monitor how this goes.

macosxguru at the gmail thingie

Ulysses Writing macOS iOS Subscriptions

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