Please describe the story behind Charlie Monroe Software: What sparked the idea, and how has it evolved so far?
Charlie Monroe Software focuses on developing apps for macOS and iOS. I’ve started the company in 2013, right after I graduated from college (master’s degree in software engineering) – in the hope to make a living with it. I didn’t want to get an office job for several reasons.
Firstly, I am a creative person – I paint, I write poetry, I’ve played with carpentry for a while – so I wanted to create something – something that I could say is my product, something that people would enjoy using all around the world.
Secondly, I’ve worked on software projects during college and I’ve gotten a summer internship in Cambridge which was all very fun and a great learning experience, but I’ve lacked the sense of certainty that what I’m doing is something I want to do for the rest of my life.
The beginnings were truly hard – it’s hard to start from scratch, nobody knows you, you have no real connections – but you try. You try your best and the company grows. Slowly at best. There are many awesome stories about overnight success (e.g. if anyone still remembers the Flappy Bird sensation), but you don’t read too many stories about failed enterprises as no one likes to brag about failure. Yet failure is fairly common during the early stages and I did develop several apps that did not take off at all – resulting in frustration and mainly no income. I’ve actually worked as a lumberjack in the mornings (as I’ve moved into the country) to earn some extra money and I worked during the afternoons on new and existing apps.
Fortunately, I haven’t founded the company empty-handed – I’ve already had an app called UctoX, a simple invoicing app that I initially developed during my college years (the initial version was developed as part of the bachelor thesis). It’s a long story that began in high school when I developed a similar app, but as I was not a very experienced developer, it showed, so the app was rewritten once, then for the second time, and finally, during college, it entered a fairly mature state and has also seen its iOS counterpart.
Eventually, patience paid off – little by little, the company was able to support me financially in two or three years. During this period I’ve developed Downie – an app for downloading videos from the Internet (YouTube, Vimeo, Youku, Bilibili, QQ, …), which is the most successful app I’ve developed to this day. The inspiration behind it was very natural – in high school my classmates and I shot a few videos during our graduation year and posted them onto YouTube. During the turbulent college years, the original files got lost and I wanted to archive our videos so that I could show them during our reunion. So I researched existing apps that could download content from YouTube and found out that … well they didn’t meet my expectations. They were either ugly, hard to use, or very limited feature-wise. So I decided to write my own app and I decided to distinguish myself from the other apps in several ways:
- Do not limit myself to just YouTube. Many apps do so and they become very narrow-oriented.
- Provide the best support out there. My apps have a support button directly in the main UI that allows them to send reports from directly within the app. This allows users to report any issues with the matter of a few clicks and I strive to respond within the next 24 hours (and usually less).
This allowed Downie to grow feature-wise (I’ve received various requests that got implemented) as well as user-wise (as the audience grew).
This lead to an acquisition – I’ve purchased a set of apps from a company called Fuel Collective – they developed the initial Permute and Eon apps (as well as a few other minor ones). The apps haven’t been updated for years and I felt that I could take over these apps and give them a second life. And I did.
Permute is an app for media conversions – it allows you to convert videos, audio, images, PDFs, etc. into various different formats. The acquired app was fairly simple and it’s grown into Permute 3 which has been updated in the past few years with a plethora of new features, like converting text into audio files, PDF files into images, cropping videos, trimming videos, and so on – this is what distinguishes it from other video converters – its universality and additional tools that allow automated media conversions. It has grown into a loved tool by many users.
Eon is a time tracking app that integrates with many online services. The app installs a timer into your menu bar and allows you to post the time to various online services which are e.g. used for invoicing, team time tracking, etc. While there are other time tracking tools, a limited number of them integrate with so many online services – and as I’ve mentioned, I strive to provide the best support out there, so if there’s a request for a new service and the service allows 3rd party tool integrations, I will add support for it.
Rottenwood has been a hobby project of mine for maintaining a database of movies that I’ve seen with the ability to rate them, search through them, etc.
What does the support look like for someone who has downloaded one of these apps?
As the family of apps grew, I introduced various integrations between them (like Downie sending downloaded files to Permute, Eon sending time to UctoX) – I try to indeed make users of my apps feel like they are using a family of apps, rather than individual standalone apps. On the downside, the more users, the more reports, the more support is required to be provided.
As I did not want to skim on the support provided, I eventually had several family members help out on occasions with the less technical reports. Nevertheless, the direct contact with my customers is absolutely precious to me. Unlike other companies that have support staff that simply answers the questions, I try to learn from the reports. If you get several reports from customers about not being sure how to use a certain feature, there’s a good chance that it’s not obvious how to use that feature. And that’s a good moment to re-evaluate the UI and improve it. You eventually help everyone – the user for improving the workflow and making the app easier to use; and, of course, yourself by not needing to respond to that many reports. It’s a win-win situation that seems so simple and obvious, yet in many larger companies, these decisions need to bubble through several layers of bureaucracy (from support to product manager to designers to developers to testers) – and by the time they have a fix, the customer is long gone.
I would say that this is a huge difference in the approach to providing support between me and other companies – I get a report, create a fix and the next week, there’s an update with that fix. It’s usually that simple and quick.
What can we expect to see from Monroe Software in the next year?
I really hope to finally release CMPlayer, which is a planned audio/video player (and I’ve been planning it for years now). Yes, there are many players, like VLC, but I’ve discovered that they don’t really fit my needs – they’re unnecessarily complex, cumbersome, not very user-friendly, and heavy on memory. This is becoming more and more true of the Apple’s Music app provided with macOS as well. CMPlayer will be easy-to-use, minimalistic, with unique features like Quick-Open, automatic episode detection, etc.
I would also like to introduce UctoX 3 and Permute 4 at some point next year – both being major updates that will bring the apps to the next level. UctoX 3 will likely see a unified UI across macOS and iOS, improved invoice editing, improved synchronization across devices, various graphs for income, outcome, statistics, etc. Permute 4 will see improvements in various workflows and more editing features.