You write a great app, put it on iOS App Store and/or Android Market, err Google Play, quickly mature to a pay app, sit back and enjoy your steady stream of secondary income.
The majority of cases don't turn out this way. So what happens when your idea doesn't work?
This isn't a post about talent acquisitions or well poisoning. Nor do I have enough experience to comment on pivoting startups or apps/sites that are not free. It's scoped specifically to individuals who independently offer free apps or web sites that, ahem, don't work out. I've got a little experience in this area, having published a free Android time management app which stores user data remotely. It didn't take off but I have some active users who seem to like it enough.
If your product is a standalone widget and you want to kill it off, sundowning immediately shouldn't be too controversial. However if you've actively sought users who have entrusted you with their data, the answer isn't so clear. Not only have they invested time to learn your app, they've actually uploaded their data and expect to be able to access it.
Let's look at the options:
- Immediately shut down and get out of Dodge: At best this is rude and at worst you've really screwed your former users as they've lost their data forever. Not a valid option for responsible developers.
- Hang a going out of business sign: Even if everything else is free, there is an opportunity cost is keeping a 'failed' idea going (discussed more in #3). It's perfectly reasonable for someone to want to move on. The crucial ingredients here are sufficient notice and data reclamation options.
- Build in at least one month of lead time before services get shut off. Two or three months would be more considerate.
- Stop accepting new users (unpublish for apps, no more signups for web sites).
- Notify users via email and/or web site banner.
- If you have an app, consider publishing a final version that includes a conspicuous popup every time the app is launched informing them of the impending shutdown. Drive the point home any way you can.
- In the last couple weeks, review your logs/database for people still uploading data and send them a friendly reminder.
- Give users lots of options for downloading their data to convenient formats (CSV, etc). Even if you didn't have this feature before, you're going to need to build it to shutdown gracefully.
- Remain available even after shutdown for stragglers.
Additionally, there should be an expectation that someone is minding the store. Developers who go this route can never completely disconnect. Consider not accepting new users and being up front about your intent to stop iterating.
Failed ideas don't have to be all bad - just be responsible and considerate to your users.