The future is bright for independent B2B developers

Nick Wade is director of the Atlassian Marketplace, which enables developers to sell add-ons for Atlassian business tools

Embarking on a career as an independent developer used to mean trawling freelance boards, constantly pitching projects, and thinking about the future only in the short-term. But today, new kinds of software marketplaces — specifically business-to-business (B2B) marketplaces — are making it possible for independent developers to start solid businesses with predictable growth.

When we launched the Atlassian Marketplace we bet that business software marketplaces could create the kinds of career opportunities for independent developers and small businesses that the Apple App Store had achieved.

We were right. Independent developers who are building add-ons for B2B applications are now looking at a rosier and more prosperous future. The dilemma for most Computer Science graduates is no longer whether or not to choose a career as an independent developer, but rather which platform to build for. Which one is likely to give developers the biggest returns? And what type of add-ons should they be developing?

Develop for business needs

Success in any marketplace is no accident. Winning add-ons in the Atlassian Marketplace clearly target a specific market segment and effectively address a business need.

Business add-ons cannot rely on Angry Birds-style viral growth. Instead, they must neatly extend the reach and impact of Atlassian products to take advantage of our 24,000-customer user base.

Successful add-ons add key functionality to the base product. In our case, the base product is either JIRA, an issues management software, or Confluence, team collaboration software. Great add-on examples include software project management tools for time tracking (Tempo) or test case management (Zephyr); or wiki styling (Zen Foundation), document transforms (Scroll Office) and simple team planning (Ad Hoc Canvas).

All the developers of these add-ons understand their problem domain intimately and craft a product that solves their customers’ problems by extending JIRA or Confluence. And these developers are small; our top-grossing add-on, Tempo, is crafted by a team of 12 people. Our second top-grossing vendor is a single individual. The key is that they all see their chosen path as a career and as a business.

Avoid the consumer trap

Along the path to B2B success lie many temptations. The well-documented success of Draw Something and Angry Birds can lure many developers towards consumer apps stores.

The harsh reality is that only a small number of developers build successful businesses at the big consumer app stores. It's extremely difficult to cross the chasm into the territory of top 10 apps: just 25 companies capture half of all App Store revenue. For a small company or an independent developer, traction in consumer app stores is harder to achieve than ever before.

Enterprise marketplaces, however, offer certainty and predictable growth. Examples of other good B2B market places include AppExchange from Salesforce and Microsoft's app store.

Communities of existing enterprise customers have long-term plans and needs, with customers who are deeply engaged, in contrast to the fickle needs of consumers flitting to the latest game. They also have licensing, marketing, contracts, and renewals tools to simplify business administration.

Live it large

Every time we approve a new add-on on the Atlassian Marketplace our team celebrates the success of helping launch the start of someone else’s business. We launched Atlassian Marketplace with 59 add-ons available. A couple of months later we approved our 100th add-on. It came from Bob Swift, an independent developer who previously had not considered commercialising his add-ons.

Since launching his business in July 2012, Bob's add-on sales grew beyond his wildest expectations. He quit his day job to focus on his apps full time, and now works from a comfortable home office beside his dog.

Another independent developer in the Czech Republic launched his sole add-on in June 2012 and has since paid off much of his mortgage; a life-changing move on four hours of sideline work weekly.

These success stories are the reason many are developing for B2B marketplaces. We are finding that more developers are thinking less about Angry Birds and more about how to follow Swift’s flight path to success.

Atlassian is currently running an app-building competition that has a total prize fund of $65,000