An Interview with Shawn Hickman, Developer of Sofa
Who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Shawn Hickman and I’m a designer/developer who makes the app Sofa. Sofa is an iOS app that helps you be more intentional with your downtime. You do this by creating lists of books, movies, tv shows, games and more that you want to enjoy later.
How did you get interested in that?
I’ve always been on the nerdier side, but I distinctly remember when the original iPhone was announced. I remember saying “I want to do that!” without having any idea what “that” was. I was overwhelmed with excitement about it. Since then it’s been a winding path to where I am today.
You mention in the About page that you started working on Sofa as a designer and then, later on, a developer (and now both!). What was the transition to developing like and how did you learn the necessary skills?
The transition was hard lol. There were certain technical concepts that took a long time to sink in. The hardest part was not knowing what questions to ask or what to search in Google.
YouTube was my best resource early on. I can’t even begin to emphasize how helpful it was to see someone using Xcode, creating new files, and writing code. That’s what made it all click over time. I am forever grateful to Mark Moeykens, Brian Advent, Let’s Build That App, and Sean Allen for creating amazing content and teaching me the basics.
The original developer of Sofa 1.0, Oliver Pfeffer, is a close friend and continues to be a patient teacher.
I wrote about this back in 2017 if people are interested in the full story:
How a Designer Built and Shipped an iOS App in 6 Months - Sofa: Downtime Organizer
What software, hardware, and other gear do you use?
16” MacBook Pro M1 Max with 64GB RAM and 2TB of storage
Studio Display with the nano texture screen
iPhone 14 Pro Max
12.9” M1 iPad Pro
Software for Building Sofa
Things - probably my favorite app of all time
Bear - I can’t wait for 2.0
Xcode - for building Sofa!
Tower Git Client
Notion - This is Sofa’s knowledge hub. It’s great for managing big releases too.
Google Sheets & Apple Numbers - If you haven’t learned the power of spreadsheets you are missing out. I love spreadsheets.
Software for Fun
What routines & habits help you get your work done?
The most useful thing I’ve done is institute work nights (my wife’s idea). Two nights per week are reserved for working on Sofa. The other days are reserved for personal time. I’ve been doing this for a few years, and it’s been working pretty well. I stick to this schedule around 80% of the time.
Other than that, it’s just persistence. If I keep showing up and doing work, progress will be made.
How did you organize your media before Sofa?
Like many people, I kept a list in Evernote and then later Apple Notes. It was a mess.
How do you think Sofa fits in with specialized trackers like Letterboxd for film, Trackt for TV, and Bookly for books?
I think Sofa is a nice compliment to those apps. Sofa’s main competition is things like Apple Notes and Reminders. Those are the default places that people use when making lists of movies and books.
What interested you in tracking & organizing media at all in the first place?
Honestly, it’s because I couldn’t remember any recommendations for books or movies that people would share. That’s when I started throwing them in my notes app.
As the sole person working on Sofa, you have to wear a lot of hats – design, dev, marketing, support, etc. How do you juggle all of this?
I try to make my systems and infrastructure as practical and reliable as I can. This is because I'm a team of one with limited time each day. I want the majority of my Sofa work time to be focused on evolving the product, not on triaging bugs, managing tasks, tracking finances, etc.
I use a combination of Notion and Google Sheets to manage 90% of Sofa's product, marketing, and business infrastructure. These tools are flexible, reliable, and available on any device.
What do you enjoy the most about working on Sofa? And the least?
What I enjoy the most
Seeing other people use the app is still amazing to me. It's pretty darn cool to see people get excited about something you've worked hard on.
What I enjoy the least
It can be really hard to take a break from the app. I'm always mentally working on it and there are times when I'd love to turn off that part of my brain and be more present. It's a blessing and a curse.
How do you decide & prioritize on features to add? Is it mostly a personal choice or what the users want (which, I imagine, can vary quite a bit).
I keep a list of things I want to work on and feature requests from customers. Before I start working on a new release, I revisit this list and plan what I'll be working on next. I try not to plan too far ahead because things change often.
It's common for something that once felt important to be not worth it after sitting with it for a few months. The stuff that's really important are the things that keep coming up in conversations, thoughts, and feedback from customers.
What can Apple do to make either the development or business side of things easier for devs?
Better documentation has to be my number one bit of feedback for Apple on the development side. It’s a disservice to all the hard work that Apple engineers put into the frameworks and APIs to not have equally great documentation. At Apple’s scale, there is literally no good excuse for not having great documentation.
On the business side, I’d like to see more flexibility with providing discounts, offers, and trials. It’s a tedious process and I can’t do simple things like make a 20% off coupon for all of Super Sofa. I have to make individual discounted offers for each price point and then track all those offer codes and urls. Like I said, it’s tedious.
Marketing is probably one of the hardest things for someone that creates a product. How do you get the word out about Sofa?
I've learned I’m always marketing. I used to think of marketing as specific events like sponsoring a podcast or buying Instagram ads, but it's every interaction I have with current and potential customers. This interview is marketing! Meta!
How I answer support emails, interact on social media, and write copy in the app are all marketing. This shift in mindset has made "marketing" a less daunting thing for me day-to-day.
That being said, I have been experimenting with paid advertising/marketing by sponsoring a few podcasts over the past few months. This is a good place for me to learn how to explain the product and position the brand to people who have never heard of Sofa before.
It's incredibly hard to get free attention these days so paying for attention is a necessary part of the business. Nothing wrong with that.
How do you relax or take a break? (Including, obviously, working through what you’ve saved in Sofa).
As you can imagine, I use Sofa quite a bit for figuring out which movies to watch, books to read, etc.
I also travel as much as possible, love hiking, and have gotten heavily into photography over the last few years. These all help me step away from my computer, phone, and work.
Whose work inspires or motivates you, or that you admire?
Bret Victor is someone whose work routinely hits a different level for me. He's an incredible thinker and practitioner, which is a rare combination to have. His talk "Stop Drawing Dead Fish" is one of my favorites.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks for reaching out to interview me. This was super fun!