Six Lessons We Learned the Hard Way
It’s pretty standard for at least a few third-party developers to get crushed during Apple’s annual press conference. At some point in the presentation, Apple will announce a new OS feature, while some developer watches in disbelief as Apple swindles their entire business.
It’s a phenomenon widely referred to as getting “sherlocked” (you can read more about how the term came to be here). It’s oddly flattering and intensely infuriating, and I know this first hand because it happened to the company I work for.
We’re Astropad — a small, nimble, bootstrapped startup with products for creative pros like Astropad Studio and Luna Display. In June 2019, Apple announced a new feature in macOS Catalina called Sidecar that closely copied our product lines. For our team of just 13 people, it was devastating news. Watching Apple present Sidecar to the world was like seeing years of hard work flash before your eyes while someone else takes credit for it.
After the initial shock wore off, we woke up the next day ready to make moves. But there’s no playbook to guide you through the aftermath of being sherlocked. In fact, most third-party developers are reluctant to even talk about it publicly for fear of Apple retaliating. Apple typically holds third-party developers in tight NDA chokeholds that make it difficult for them to talk about the experience of getting sherlocked.
But now that the Sidecar dust has settled, I want to share our experience with other players in the Apple ecosystem. My intent is two-fold: On a personal level, it’s therapeutic to reflect on how this has impacted our work. But more importantly, my hope is that by candidly sharing our story, I can pass along some of the painful insights we learned along the way — like how you can prevent getting sherlocked, and what to do if it happens to you.
Know your true competition
A big misconception is that your main competitors are the other companies creating similar products to yours. In our case, we viewed Astropad and Luna Display’s biggest competitors as other second display and graphics tablet creators.
But all along, we really should have been worried about our platform provider, Apple. There will always be infinite ways to differentiate yourself against other competitor companies via price, features, and target markets. But if your platform provider decides to step into your domain, it’s a tough battle to position your product against a free, native feature.
We admittedly got swept up in a false romance with Apple. Over the past few years, Apple routinely invited us to demo our products at their headquarters, and offered to help us out with whatever business and engineering challenges we faced. They also ordered thousands of dollars’ worth of our hardware, and we naively thought it was because they were interested in our product. It turns out that they were… just not in the way we were thinking.
Lesson #1: Think twice before cozying up to your platform provider (whether that’s Apple, Twitter, Facebook, or Google) because they’re the stealthiest and most powerful competitor.
Don’t wait to diversify
If Apple happens to threaten one of your products, it’s crucial to have other products to fall back on. In our case, Sidecar hit our hardware product, Luna Display, pretty significantly; but we’ve been able to stand on the other leg of our business, Astropad Studio, to keep us financially secure while we navigate what’s next. And it’s never too early to start thinking about diversification. We launched Luna on Kickstarter in 2017, but Luna had only been publicly available for eight months before Apple announced Sidecar.
Diversification seems like an obvious way to protect your business. But if you’re part of a small bootstrapped startup like us, you’ll understand how difficult it is to start thinking about your next product line when it still feels like you’re trying to get your first product off the ground. Even though there’s a constant voice in your head warning you “not to put all your eggs in one basket,” there’s always a more immediate fire to deal with that captures your attention.
It’s understandable how easy it is to end up in this situation. But if this sounds like your business, take this as a wake-up call to stop procrastinating because diversification will be the best buffer you have if Apple comes after you.
Lesson #2: The more legs you have to stand on, the less likely you are to fall if one of them gets knocked out.
Build a culture of experimentation
If you’re not sure how to strike a balance between maintaining existing products and expanding into new ones, a good place to start is with assembling the right team. When times get tough, you want an adaptable team that can change course quickly — not employees that dip out when the future is uncertain. For Astropad, we’ve stacked our little team with people that appreciate a culture of curiosity and experimentation.
In addition to maintaining our existing products, we always have a few side experiments running where we’re testing and researching new product ideas. We’ll frequently build prototypes and talk to customers about new product concepts. After some experimentation, we’ll decide to either kill the product idea, keep moving forward, or put it on hold until the time is right. For example, in the months before Sidecar, we had been doing R&D on a completely new hardware product. But when Sidecar was announced, we decided to quickly reprioritize and focus on different engineering initiatives.
Fostering this sort of creative and experimental mindset can only come from the top-down. Astropad’s founders, Matt Ronge and Giovanni Donelli, have always encouraged a trial and error approach. It all starts with being comfortable with a level of uncertainty and having the curiosity to explore new directions to take the company forward.
Lesson #3: Assemble an adaptable team that likes to experiment.
Go where your customers go
We always knew that we wanted to go cross-platform. For quite awhile, we’ve heard from creative professionals about an exodus from Mac to Windows. For these creatives, it all comes down to getting more bang for your buck — super powerful PCs at a lower price than Apple products. In fact, we’d often hear from people begging us to come to Windows. But even though we knew the market was waiting for us, we pushed off the Windows effort because it created a catch-22 situation of really tough engineering problems.
The foundational engineering for our products was tightly wrapped around the Apple ecosystem, with our code relying heavily on Apple APIs and Objective-C. The thought of unraveling ourselves from this ecosystem was hard to imagine, especially when we still felt like we had more room to grow in Apple’s market. It took something as catastrophic as Sidecar to scare us out of that mindset, and now expanding into the Windows market is our top priority.
Today, every member of our engineering team is learning the Rust programming language to bring our code cross-platform. And we’ve already seen the benefits of Rust, like faster code and more reliable performance. We learned the hard way that it’s no longer safe territory to be a single-platform developer, but we’re thrilled to be taking steps to meet our customers over in the Windows world. If you’re curious about our journey to Windows via Rust, you can follow along here.
Lesson #4: Start with a multi-platform-compatible foundation from the very beginning.
Seize the narrative
As soon as Sidecar was announced, a flurry of tech sites published articles about the new Catalina feature. The good news was that at least the press recognized that Sidecar was a close replica of our products. The bad news was that many articles claimed Luna was suddenly now obsolete.
After taking a few days to let the press quiet down, we decided to publish a candid “Message from our Founders.” We wanted to set a hopeful and optimistic tone, and to let our customers know that even though this was a disappointing setback, we still have big plans for the future.
The message was immediately well-received by our customers. We got many encouraging emails and messages from followers saying that they believe in us and are excited to follow our journey. The press was quick to pick up the story too, with new headlines like “Luna Display not giving up in the face of Apple’s Sidecar” and “Luna Display founders say the app isn’t going anywhere despite Apple’s Sidecar.”
At the same time as our founder message, we released an app update for both Astropad and Luna Display that improved performance and refreshed the UX. We wanted to reiterate the message that we’re committed to our customers and continuous product improvement. After so much negativity, it felt good to swap the “sherlocked” narrative with a more optimistic tone.
Lesson #5: Own your narrative and create a more positive story for the press by letting your customers know that you’re still devoted to them. Your customers are your best spin team.
When Apple goes wide — dive deep
If you’re unlucky enough to get sherlocked, take comfort in knowing that Apple’s move just validates your market space. Apple seeks to serve the masses — so if your product can capture just a sliver of Apple’s market, it’s absolutely possible to have a thriving business.
While the basic functionality of Apple’s Sidecar competes directly with our products, it doesn’t compete with all of the rich features and deep customization that we’ve built into Astropad Studio. We’ve grown our business by catering to creative professionals; it’s a market that has highly specific workspace needs, and they look for products like Astropad Studio that allow them to customize every aspect of their workflow. In other words, while Sidecar will be good enough for the average user, we’ve carved out a niche space for the pro users that need a more powerful tool.
In the months following the announcement of Sidecar, we’ve really leaned into what sets our products apart. We’ve featured unique use cases like this Mac mini setup more prominently on our Luna website, and we ran a marketing campaign to show off all of the rich features in Astropad Studio. And in addition to expanding into the Windows market, we’re also working on building new features into Luna Display, like Mac-to-Mac extended display functions.
Lesson #6: Lean into your competitive advantages by showing off what differentiates you from Apple.
When you take a birds-eye view, it’s the small startups and indie devs that are pushing innovation in the tech world. It’s an imperfect synergy, though: with too much power, big tech like Apple eventually swallows up the innovators. The more sherlocking that happens, the more careful we’ll be about dabbling in Apple’s playground. And the people that pay the ultimate price are the consumers.
But if you find yourself in our situation, don’t underestimate the power of your team, your brand, or your customers. Refocus your energy on your users by stopping to listen to what they’re asking for; harness your team’s agile spirit; lean in to your vulnerabilities; and double-down on what you do best.
There may always be a lingering bitterness towards Apple for throwing us such a curveball. But at the end of the day, I know that when we emerge from the other side, our team will be stronger than ever. We’re small, but mighty — a nimble and curious bunch, capable of throwing our own curveballs. 😉