Q&A with a self-taught developer turned app entrepreneur

Photo of Vitalii Zurian in front of a yellow background
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Vitalii Zurian is a self-taught developer who started building apps for Atlassian Marketplace as a side project in 2014. He is now a full-time app entrepreneur who has 10 apps listed on the Atlassian Marketplace under the company name Lizard Brain. His apps have been used by hundreds of thousands of users and have generated over $1.2 million in lifetime revenue. Vit shares his full story in the video below.

Here are some highlights from a recent Ask Me Anything session he hosted on the Atlassian Community:

Q: When did you realize you could take on app development full-time?

I started making apps as a side project with no intention of substituting income from my job. In fact, I initially listed my apps for free because I was scared of losing potential customers. While it might result in less customers at first, a paid app attracts high-quality users who believe in your features. Customers that are willing to purchase a license validate the need for your solution. Furthermore, charging for your app really motivates you to not disappoint your customers. This motivation, especially when I was just starting out, is what drove me to babysit my Atlassian apps for hours at night when I got home from work. When you receive feedback from a paying customer, it gives you an extra push to get the job done.

I ultimately took it full-time not out of necessity but because I saw an opportunity. As my Atlassian Marketplace apps experienced success, I envisioned becoming an independent developer with a business that was more lucrative than my day job. I set a revenue target of 20% above my salary, or about $10K monthly recurring revenue, and upon hitting that target I took the leap and committed myself full-time to app development.

Q: How did you come up with the name Lizard Brain?

I came up with the name Lizard Brain randomly, inspired by a book I was reading at the time, Seth Godin’s Linchpin. In it he talks about the concept of the “reptilian brain” that we humans have. There is no deep reasoning behind the name honestly, I just liked how it sounded (and it is also kind of funny when German authorities have to pronounce it within a serious setting, e.g. when discussing a tax declaration or some other legal aspects).

Q: How do you come up with ideas for apps?

The best apps solve real problems that customers face during their typical work week. One of the methods that I use to identify these user pain points is by reading through the Atlassian Community forum. If I encounter a question without a resolution, I brainstorm ways that an app could fix the underlying problem. I also look through existing apps for inspiration, and when I encounter negative reviews, I imagine ways to create a new app with better functionality. Also, I’m always on the lookout for popular apps and services that don’t currently have an integration with Atlassian products.

Q: What percentage of your time/focus is devoted to support?

We are an organization of two people and we have 10 apps listed on the Atlassian Marketplace. In my experience, customer support is closely related to app development, and I use customer feedback to fix and improve apps. Therefore, in many cases a support request turns into a feature request, which leads to the development of a feature and its subsequent release. With that in mind, I spend around 3/4 of my time maintaining existing apps and the rest on developing new ones. Naturally, the more apps you have the more time consuming it becomes to maintain them, so having my business partner – who’s a very talented developer himself – really helps. We actually use Jira Service Desk for support, so shout out to the JSD Widget team as I really like the JSD Widget user experience!

Q: The Atlassian landscape is changing with significant migration from server and data center to cloud. Will this impact your business?

We are a cloud-first vendor so server to cloud migrations are very welcome! However, we have some server/data center listings too which comprise about 10-15% to our revenue. Server apps normally require a lot more customer support, therefore if you are a fresh developer I would recommend starting with a cloud app, as cloud apps are technology agnostic. You don’t have to know Java (though it’s good if you do!) to make a cloud app. It could be done in JavaScript or PHP or Ruby or Python or even in bash for that matter!

Q: What are some lessons you would share with developers who want to follow in your footsteps and build a successful app?

Focus on the needs of the customer. As developers, we often obsess over picking the right technology and trying to perfect our solution, but it’s important to not overlook the most important variable in the equation — customer need. If you spend lots of time perfecting an app that is not needed or well received, then much of the time you invested has gone to waste.

Let’s say you’re building a Google calendar integration and you initially focus on putting together the code required for the integration, which simply creates a calendar time entry linking back to a Jira issue. In theory, you could spend an equal or greater amount of time polishing the app. There’s potential for numerous new features: changing the title, adding assignees, using react or angular so there’s no need for page reload, configurable reminders, etc. I suggest developing the essential features of a solution and then starting work on another app. When you receive customer feedback, you can implement new features as needed or requested.

Don’t get discouraged by negative reviews. People with negative feedback tend to be much more outspoken than people with positive feedback. If you receive a negative review, don’t take it personally and view it as an opportunity to improve your product. I really believe in communicating with my customers, being open to their suggestions, and implementing changes. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the person behind the review and talk to them about the issue. You can work together towards a solution to their problem, and the result will often be a loyal, satisfied customer who changes their negative review to a positive one!

Get help from Atlassian’s developer community. I’m a self-taught developer and I was building apps on Atlassian as a one-man team until recently, so I’m very comfortable walking through problems in my own head. That being said, I’ve always had support from Atlassian’s developer community through the online forum or in-person at Atlassian developer events (e.g. Atlas Camp, Developer Day, App Weeks). If you hit a wall when building an app, chances are that somebody else has overcome a similar problem. There’s a ton of really talented developers building apps on Atlassian’s platform that can help you along the way.