Kevin Hoctor at WWDC: People Need a Great Money App; I Made One

Each year at WWDC, TMO interviews a few Apple developers who want to tell their story. The result is usually a number of serious insights into the state of mind of the developer community. In our sixth interview, Dave Hamilton chats with Kevin Hoctor, creator of MoneyWell for Mac and iOS.


Dave Hamilton: I’m here with Kevin Hoctor of No Thirst Software, the makers of MoneyWell. Kevin, thank you first for sitting down with us here at WWDC. I find it interesting to talk to developers like you that really focus on one thing. In fact, it probably means that you have to do lots and lots of different jobs because that’s how it works. But I’d love to hear the story of how MoneyWell came to be, how did the idea germinate, and then how did you go from there with the iOS versions?

Photo Credit: Michael Fey

Kevin Hoctor Well, I started out in 2006, and I hadn’t developed for the Mac as a professional shipping software platform since about 1987. I did shareware in ’86-’87-’88 around that range and shipped a couple of little products.

And then I went off and did the horrible world of DOS and Windows for a while. Had a couple of software companies that did vertical market stuff and other things. Then in 2006 I said, you know, I’m tired of developing Windows stuff. This world is getting worse and worse. My Mac is sitting at home, and all I do on it is my personal stuff. Let me see if I can start developing software for it. So I dove into Cocoa and Objective-C and I said yup this is fine, this is no problem.

And I built Debt Quencher. It took me about a month to bring this product together. But the reason I built that was to be basically a snowball app for credit cards. You’re trying to get your debt down to zero. So Debt Quencher was a replacement for a product that I was using that was really not very good, but the developer just disappeared off the map. The software company left the Internet. I couldn’t get ahold of them. So I said, it’s not that hard of an app, I’ll write it. So I wrote that app and I said, well let me see how it works selling on the Internet.

I put it out there and watched. It’s like the commercial where you sit there and you watch your website. Oooh, one sale. Oooh, two sales. We got perhaps four or five sales in a couple days. I thought, hey this works! We can actually sell software this way!

TMO: Sure.

KH: So then I said, well, this is a small market app. There’s only so many people with credit card debt. Too many, but still not enough that own a Mac in 2006 and that are going to pay more than $15. I’m not going to be able to make a living off of this. Let me figure out a better way of doing that. What else don’t I have, that I really want?

And I was using Quicken at the time. I was a beta tester for Quicken and one of my previous companies was almost bought by Quicken. I had a love/hate relationship with Intuit. And I said, you know, I just wish they would just fix these few things in Quicken because they drive me crazy. I said, well let me just see if I can use one of the other apps out there. There were at least six or seven other decent apps, and I tried them all and I felt that they just didn't do what I needed them to do.

My wife said, well why don’t you write one? And we kind of brainstormed the name MoneyWell and all the rest. And I just started writing it. I said, well, I’ll get a business loan, a small business loan, and I’ll target spring of 2007 as my release day. I missed it. I think I released at the end of August 2007.

TMO: That’s not too bad.

KH: No, that’s not too bad. But I had to release it because I ran out of money. It was good. It was a good experience, and I managed to bump into a few Apple people along the way. One of them was online at the Mac Small Business forum, actually the Mac GUI one was where I talked to him, he said “Can I see a few screenshots when you get further along? Or can I have a beta? I work for Apple and I do their downloads pages.” I said you can have the source code if you’d like. You work for Apple you can have whatever you’d like.

TMO: Yes, sir!

KH: So I sent him an early copy of it and didn’t hear back from him. And then I shipped MoneyWell and then three days later it showed up on Apple Downloads on the Business & Finance page and on the main page. So I shipped this 1.0 product which is barely usable as far as I was concerned.

TMO: Sure, you gotta get it out.

KH: And I had 20,000 downloads a day for a few days, 160,000 downloads the first month. And I thought: Wow! All these people are looking at a piece of crap. This is really annoying. All this free marketing. This is not the product I want them to see. But you know, it launched me.

TMO: Well, yeah.

Photo Credit: Michael Fey

KH: And I found right away that, wow, there’s a lot of people that need a finance app. They’re not happy with what’s out there. And that’s why. After that I said well this is a product that needs focus. This is something that I need to spend some time on and really evolve. As Apple evolved, we kept evolving the product. When Apple came out with an iPhone, we came out with an iPhone product. We’re in the process of an iPad version right now. That’s kept us busy. It’s a very big product as far as software goes.

TMO: Yes. You said "us." How many people are us?

KH: I have three other employees full-time, other than myself. And I have a part-time support person.

TMO: Okay. And the other employees are doing mostly development as well?

KH: I have a developer, a designer, and a person that runs my customer service.

TMO: A small business, but a real business. Back to the day job!

KH: There are certain incentives to get sales and keep them going because it’s not just me. I can’t just go back and say, well I’ll eat Ramen noodles for a little bit and I’ll be okay.

TMO: You can’t ask your employees to do that.

KH: No, they actually want paychecks.

TMO: That’s how it works. They like that. It’s good though. So you started, obviously, long before the Mac App Store existed. Did you have an iOS version out in the iOS App Store before the Mac App Store hit or not?

KH: Yes. We shipped MoneyWell for iPhone and then the next January, that’s when the Mac App Store appeared.

TMO: How has your experience with the App Store been?

KH: I love that there’s a central spot. Because Apple's downloads page was like this secret thing. Some people knew it, other people didn’t know it. So the Mac App Store that replaced it basically gave people this place: this is where you go to get your apps. And they called them apps, which helps because people get confused about software, program, whatever we used to call them. So this is great.

It was a good experience. One stop shopping, and I really liked it, and then I hit the wall of: we don’t get to talk to our customers. And that was really hard for us. Because we are a very customer service oriented company. Our software’s deep, so there’s a lot of things they can do with it. And Apple’s basically telling us “We’ll sell the software, and you have no clue.”

TMO: They’re Apple’s customers, not yours.

KH: They’re Apple’s customers and that made it really hard. I was struggling with that. And we also sold online still. Which Apple kind of was like… “Well you could just sell through the Mac App Store.” Yeah, well we could, but....

TMO: Do you still sell online?

KH: Sure.

TMO: Of course. Why not?

KH: Some people want to get it that way and we had already written a whole system for managing our licenses and everything, so we continued.

TMO: And it’s 30 percent [extra] for anybody that comes that way.

Photo Credit: Michael Fey

KH: Yeah, and the 30 percent isn’t as big an issue for me as it is making sure someone has an option. If they want to have it direct, if they want that money-back guarantee, because we offer a long money-back guarantee forever. We say it’s 120 days, but we’ve never refused anybody. And we like to be able to offer that. So we give them an option on our website. If you want the easy purchase of the Mac App Store, this is the way to that. If you want money-back guarantee and everything else that comes along with it, buy from us. Either way, we don’t care.

TMO: That’s good. Well, that’s the right thing, I mean, let the customer buy however they want to buy.

KH: I think it’s been a good thing for the community. I think it has a lot of potential to get better. And we’re just starting to get into the in-app purchase realm. Which is something that I think needs to happen for more apps than just games.

TMO: From what I’ve seen from Apple on the in-app purchase stuff, it’s clear to me that it was at least initially developed solely for games. And if you wanted to use it for other things too, fine, but the APIs and even just the way it works sort of is game oriented. Has that been a struggle as you’re trying to figure out how to do that, or is it better now?

KH: I don’t think it’s so much game oriented as it is that you have to decide how your app is going to be broken up. I sat down with Michael Jurewitz before we actually started doing the App Store. He was at Apple in Developer Relations, and he said well, what you could do is this. Or that. And we went back and forth with some ideas.

Basically I said the whole idea of an in-app purchase is to remove that barrier of a decision. It’s to say, I can get the app, try it out, like we do on our website with a download, and see if it’s something I want to use and then, if it’s something I want to use, I turn on a switch and now I have full control of it.

So with MoneyWell, since people are using bank accounts and information that’s for their finance, we could say that without an in-app purchase, you have one bank account accessible. And they could try the whole app out, do reports, everything else, do all their budgeting and see if they like it. And if they like it, it shows their list of accounts, and all of them are locked except one. If they tap on one of those, then it says “in-app purchase?” and we open up all their accounts and then they’re done. So, for us it’s easy. We don’t have any consumables, which are the best kind of in-app purchase.

TMO: Recurring revenue.

KH: Previously, we looked at transaction count, and that’s just rude. Say you’re shopping in a store, you’re trying to buy your coffee and it says “Oh! You’re out of transactions. Do you want to buy more transactions?” We didn't like that. That would just piss off the customers royally.

TMO: Yes.

KH: So we found a nice happy zone. And not all apps can do that, but we don’t have another option on iOS for any kind of demos. And I think it’s a horrible world out there where we had lite versions and HD versions and all the different variations. And you go there and think “What do I buy?” I have three options.

I think there’s nothing holding app developers back, except the thought process of how can we do this in a pleasant way for our customers without making them feel like they are getting ripped off. Because you don’t want to rip people off. You want to charge $40-50 for an app yet still allow them to evaluate it first.

TMO: That’s the trick.

KH: I don’t want to charge $3 for my [iOS] app. I can’t afford to charge $3 for my app. So, right now they’re paying $50 for MoneyWell on the Mac, and I come up with an iPad version. It’s going to be the same feature level as the Mac version, so it’s got to be on the same price level. And the only way to do that on iOS is with in-app purchase. And I think that’s going to work for us on the Mac side too because it’s just another way for people to go to the App Store, get the app, decide, and then pay.

TMO: Very cool. Any syncing that you’re doing between the three apps? Is iCloud what you’re using as your engine?

KH: No. We built our own. Actually, Tim Isted who now works for Apple, designed a sync system around Core Data. And then we took it over and we’re maintaining it.... All three of our apps work inside it. And right now we’re using Dropbox because the SDK is good, the APIs is really clean, it works well right now, so that’s what we primarily use. We really tried to use iCloud, and I saw too many of my developer buddies spend months on it and pull their hair out.

TMO: Well that’s the thing that makes me scratch my head, is that things like Tim's Core Data sync works, but iCloud Core Data sync doesn’t work. Well, maybe now that Tim’s at Apple it’ll work.

KH: Sync is hard. It took us iterations and generations of our own syncs. And we had a previous sync before that and it didn’t work as well as we wanted it to. And it couldn’t do anything but Wi-Fi sync. And after you spend a couple of years getting your sync to work better, you certainly just can’t jump because Apple says now it works.They've told me that before.

TMO: Right. But there’s a lot of smart people that work at Apple.

KH: There are.

TMO: They should be able to get this. And if they can’t get it, they shouldn’t tell us that they have.

KH: The problem is with iCloud sync is that they’re not eating their own dog food. There are no Apple apps that use the true Core Data sync.

TMO: They use file document or whatever it’s called.

KH: They’re using the file stuff, and they’re using the plist stuff. It’s the lightweight stuff that Apple’s using. And if they would use all of it, they’d certainly find out that this is painful. That there’s too many obscure sections of it that you can’t tell if it’s broke or not. Developers will gladly go in and fix something, but when you have a black box that you can’t even see inside, and you can’t fix it if something breaks. Then customer says “I can’t get to my data” and you say “Yeah, you can’t.” That’s not a good answer.

TMO: Not good at all.

KH: I have no solution for you. That’s just not a good enough answer. And until some app of Apple’s has to do database intensive stuff and use Core Data fully, we're not there. And that’s been the story of Core Data all along. It’s a great system. And I’ve used it since 2006 when it first came out with Tiger, but the problem is it’s under-utilized at Apple, so they’re always slow to improve things. And the Core Data team is very smart, but I don’t think they get the love at Apple because you don’t need Core Data with any of the office apps or any of the personal apps, they just don’t need it. So what’s Apple going to do? Pretend they have an app that actually uses it?

We filed our bug reports, but if Apple had to fix it for one of their own apps, you’d better believe that would get fixed.

Photo Credit: Michael Fey

TMO: Oh, it would be priority number one. Well, you’ve got an iPad app that you’re working on, anything else to talk about before we wrap up?

KH: No, the iPad app is our big one. It’s really what we’re focusing on right now and we promised customers that it would be coming out after MoneyWell 2 was released last year. And I’m excited about it because it’s what I want. I sit most of the time with my iPad, unless I’m developing software, I have my iPad in my hand. And the fact that I can’t use my own software on my iPad drives me crazy. I want to eat my own dog food. I really do. So there is that and the fact there are four to five times as many iPads out there as Macs just shows that we’re missing a huge market. And I don’t think that a lot of apps have cracked what the iPad platform is supposed to be.

TMO: So are you pushing this to be not just a companion to your Mac app, but it could stand alone if you want to?

KH: It’s a stand-alone app. MoneyWell Express, which is our app for the iPhone, is a companion app. We made it that way so we could make it faster and more functional for the thing you’re supposed to do, which is look at how much money you have to spend when you’re out buying or capture the purchase you just made.

TMO: Got it.

KH: The iPad app is designed to capture that audience that never bought a Mac. They keep asking us, “Do you have something for [platform] x, y, z?” “No we don’t. Do you have an iPad?” Answer: “Yes.” “Ok, well, then hang on.”

TMO: Yes, we will.

KH: That’s just a better platform to get to more people. It’s a great platform, but it’s under utilized for a lot of apps. I use so much software on the iPad, and I scratch my head thinking [about the developer] “Have you used this? Have you used your own software?” It could be so much better. It’s gotta flow. It’s gotta be touchable. It’s gotta be something that people can sit there and feel, as if I can do whatever I want without having to go over to my Mac and finish the job. I don’t want to have that feeling. So that’s our focus.

TMO: Wow.

KH: It’s to really focus that this is a first-class citizen same as the Mac version and they should be on par with each other.

TMO: And if you have both, they sync back and forth with each other?

KH: Yes. Even the Mac versions, they have to sync between Macs and we have a lot of customers that have multiple Macs.

TMO: Oh, right. Right.

KH: Spouses. They’ll just put MoneyWell on both Macs.

TMO: Cool. Well, thanks for taking the time. It’s been great. It’s been fun.

KH: Thanks Dave. I appreciate it.

TMO: Absolutely.


Interview by Dave Hamilton, transcription by Julie Kuehl, editing by John Martellaro.