Today, we wrap up our series The Download on New Hampshire’s App Economy with the profile of an independent developer. In some ways, it’s a classic story: he left his full-time job to work on his program at home in Derry. But he’s anything but a stereotypical computer geek.
Alan Ellis has a respectable gun collection. And I know, because he’s laid out on the kitchen table—all 13-firearms. And he shows off his favorite with some pride. It's a long rifle with a heavy wooden stock.
“This one here is a 91/30, which is a Russian WWII bolt-action rifle," Ellis says. "I always wanted one, ever since I saw the movie ‘Enemy at the Gates.’ And I went in, I was going to order one. And I got my curios and relics license, which is a license for collectors to be able to buy and sell old firearms, 50 years and older.”
When you have a Curios and Relics license, the federal government requires you to keep a written record of gun information. Model, serial number, seller, and buyer.
“And they can inspect it," Ellis says. "And I’m a computer geek, and I’ve got terrible handwriting…and I’m going to have to write this down and keep it? What if I spill my soda on it? What do I do? You know, what kind of penalties would I pay if I got inspected? And I started looking for software.”
He couldn’t find anything for a regular gun collector that met federal requirements. So while he was still working as a support technician at DYN in Manchester, he built his own program. It’s called MyGunDB. That’s short for “My Gun Database”--and put it up for free online. He was surprised at how fast his user base grew. And how loyal they were. Take Rebecca Larsen, in Idaho Falls, Idaho.
“It’s an expensive hobby," she says with a chuckle. "I need to know which guns I put the most money into, and I have antique guns dating back to the early 1900s, and they require a lot of maintenance and upkeep to keep them working right.”
But his users were also demanding, when it came to tweaking the program. DYN CEO Jeremy Hitchcock says he could see Ellis’s passion for the program when he came to work every week.
“When you talk about what you did over the weekend, instead of 'Hey, I hung out at home,' or 'Went for a hike,' or 'I did something like that,' he’d say, 'Oh, I worked on my program.'”
Ellis started taking MyGunDB more and more seriously. He’d put in a full day at work, then work overnight on his program.
“I mean, the software was built on like 95 percent user feedback. They gave me the ideas, and I just kind of
put it together," Ellis says. "And so by like week two, they were like 'Hey, I like this, I want to help you, you know, with continuing development of it, and I’d like to see it grow. Here’s $50, here’s $75, here’s $5, $20, $5, $50.' And I was like, 'It’s free, what are you doing?!'”
As the months rolled on, Ellis realized he didn’t have a hobby--he had a business. It took him about a year-and-a-half to transition out of DYN and toward his own startup. Once he finally left last year, his income promptly went down by two-thirds. And looking back, in some ways… his timing could’ve been better.
“And the day after I left DYN, I proposed to my fiancé," he says with a chuckle. "And so, the next day, at the party, I had to explain to her family how I thought that was a really good idea to leave this company of nine years and all my benefits and the good pay to start a company that I didn’t know if I was going to be able to succeed at. And she has a really big family, so I had to have that conversation a lot of times. It was it was an interesting weekend, you know?”
Now, he says on average, he’s earning $5,000 to $6,000 a month in take-home pay.
“The fact that I am able to pay my bills right now, that’s a win,” Ellis says.
That money mostly comes from the original version of MyGunDB, which is an old school program that you download directly onto your PC. But lately, Ellis says he’s seen market demand for a mobile app. So he taught himself how to program for smartphones and rolled out an app version of the database. And he quickly found out, he read the market right.
“I average probably about 50 to 75 percent additional sales through mobile apps each day than I do from my daily sales from the desktop app, give or take,” he says.
That actually creates a tricky business situation for the future. The app only costs four bucks. But PC versions go from $25 up to $45. Of course, Ellis still has his free users from the program's earliest days. And complicating matters, his new mobile customers expect him to provide a bare bones, free version to try.
Which begs the question: "How many users do you have now?"
He quickly responds, "Now...there's over 100,000."
"And how many of them are paid?" I ask.
"Give or take, 26 percent," Ellis answers.
But that’s not his only challenge. A number of customers have told Ellis they worry about having a traceable, internet-based record of their collections. So charging a subscription fee to make up the difference between mobile and desktop earnings is out of the question.
And a lot of gun owners are traditionalists rather than techies. Not everyone wants to a fancy database. Take Bob Lee. He owns Lee’s Gun Shop in Hudson. Like many dealers, he’s also a Curios and Relics licensee. Sure, he keeps a computer backup, but he likes to keep his records simple.
“This is my receipt of disposition bound book. So what happens is, every time a gun comes through the door, I write down the manufacturer, the model number, the serial number, whether it’s a pistol, revolver, rifle, shotgun, whatever, the caliber, the date I received it, and who I received it from," Lee explains. "You know, your cable goes down, you lose your electricity, nothing works. Paper and pen works. All the time.”
So Ellis has taken another approach. Add on special features existing customers can pay extra for. And expand his user base by changing the theme of the program. He now sells database apps for other purposes—home inventory, knife collecting, stamp collecting.
Unlike many app developers, though, Ellis doesn’t want to sell any part of his business—or his control. He’s actively avoiding the venture capitalists in Boston. But being an at-home app developer in New Hampshire isn’t perfect. During the interview, we were interrupted several times by a wide variety of outdoor noises.
“This is what I deal with all day. Trucks and birds and dogs, people. Whew!" Ellis says with a chuckle. "My neighbors behind us have a goat. I’d just be working, then you’d hear BAAAAAAA. What the heck was that? And then I'd remember where it was coming from. Goats. Welcome to New Hampshire.”