Ulysses created a top-notch iOS productivity tool, and here's how

How a decade-old web development company learned from success and failure, then pivoted to build one of the most successful productivity apps for iOS.

Image: Ulysses for iPhone

Starting a company is hard. Running a startup, then successfully pivoting is even harder.

Ulysses developer The Soulmen has been focused on building innovative productivity applications for more than a decade. The Soulmen started building desktop-centric alternatives to heavy, full-featured software suites like Microsoft Office. As mobile emerged as a primary productivity platform The Soulmen shifted to developing simple-but-robust tools for smartphones and tablets. Today, their composition application Ulysses is a go-to plain text composition tool for everyone from journalists, to novelists, to developers.

The journey from desktop company to mobile developer has taught founder Max Seelemann several lessons about how to build a company and product that super-serves a niche market (albeit, an enthusiastic one).

Image: Plain text in Ulysses for iPhone

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TechRepublic: What makes plain text and Markdown important and interesting?

Seelemann: Instead of being distracted by formatting or layout, the lack of such functions will automatically force you into concentrating on your text. If it ever took you longer to format a heading than to actually phrase it, you know why this is important.

Writing in plain text takes adjustments and it takes getting used to. But once you're over the hill, you will realize that it makes your work more focused and ultimately causes you write better text in shorter time.

No text is free from structure. As nice as "plain" or "pure" text is, you often need things like headings, emphasis or quotes. For that, plain text is extended by so-called markups. Put simply, markup changes the meaning of passages and creates structure in text. When developing the new Ulysses, it was clear we were to use Markdown as one possible markup. It is the most widespread, and certainly also one of the most intuitive markups. Choosing Markdown also kept the entry barrier low.

TechRepublic: Tell me about the history of the company. How did you start, and when did you pivot?

Seelemann: We started writing the app in the summer of 2002. At that time were only [writing] apps for developers and office workers. We wanted to do a program that was aimed at novelists and authors who needed to manage huge projects that consisted of many small parts. So when we first released Ulysses in July 2003, each document could have notes attached to it, and could be categorized with a status and a label.

Around 2008 though, sales were slowly going down, competition was picking up and we were too busy to keep up the development like we would have wanted. However, in January 2011 the Mac App Store launched, and things brightened up again. We put Ulysses on the store during the first or second week and it immediately got featured as "New & Noteworthy." The revenue we made during those two weeks was enough for us to take the chance and go full-time on app development.

Almost ten years had passed, much had changed but the original idea was still the same. An app to focus on writing, but no longer with the narrow "novelist" approach.

TechRepublic: After your pivot, what did the market want and what features did you focus on?

Seelemann: I think most attractive thing about Ulysses is it's unique combination of concepts, along with quality execution. [Writers need] apps that allow them to focus, stay organized, sync with multiple devices, export to common formats, and are beautifully and logically designed.

TechRepublic: What's next? Help us understand the immediate future of productivity, and of the app.

Seelemann: There are quite a few writing areas that we have not yet optimally covered. While novelists and journalists will find little to be missed from the app, there is are certain key features still missing for groups of users. Bloggers miss direct publishing to Wordpress and other systems. Academics miss citations, cross-references and table support for writing scientific papers. Developers want better code support for writing technical documentation. And there are other completely untouched markets like screenwriting that have their own set of languages and feature needs. Each of those user groups has it's own share of complications, so this will probably take a while.

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About Dan Patterson

Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.

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