Why Did Sparrow Sell Out?

I know that a lot has been written about Sparrow getting acquired by Google. There have been some really good points made by both Marco Arment and Matt Gemmel already. But there are a few things that I would like to say, and you’re free to read them or not.

First, I think that Marco’s take on this is the one I would recommend you use to color your thinking about the Sparrow acquisition. I know Marco to a degree and I can attest to the fact that he spends an enormous amount of time thinking about how to build a sustainable software product and how each decision he makes affects his customers. Not every piece of software out there is built to endure and bloom like Instapaper has, and not every team is out to do the same with their company. But those who do have a unique perspective on the topic of ‘selling out’ and it’s worth listening to.

I don’t know Dom Leca as well, though I have had some nice conversations with him over dinner and in interviews. I won’t presume to speak to his motives, as many have been doing, but I can tell you that any of the members of the Sparrow team that I’ve had the fortune of meeting have always left me with the impression of people who are just as intensely passionate about getting things right as any developers and designers I’ve met. I’ve never asked Dom, for instance, about a detail of the way that Sparrow works and not been presented with the reasons why it is the way it is, as well as a sense of curiosity about whether I think it works…and the feeling that he’s always looking for ways to make it better.

I speak to a lot of developers, designers and directors of apps in my work, and I can tell you that these guys are among the most talented I know of.

I can also tell you that I never, ever, got a twinge that the Sparrow team was building a product that was intended to be sold or acquired. I love Instagram, and the gents behind it are just as talented, but you always got a certain sense about the way they were building their business. I never got that from the Sparrow folks.

So, why did they ‘sell out’ to Google?

First, I’m telling you honestly that neither Dom nor anyone else on the team has given me any inside information about this, so this is completely my conjecture.

That being said, I believe that the Sparrow team was building the best product possible in Sparrow for Mac, but not making nearly as much money as they needed to keep the business sustainable. A productivity app that saves time is worth its weight in gold, and the few dollars that they were charging for Sparrow were more than worth it. But the Mail app for OS X is easily the best that ships with any desktop operating system, and that provides a huge barrier to those who might otherwise purchase it.

If you don’t know anything about software development, you might not be aware that building an email app is hard work. It has to work just so because people are so used to certain paradigms of operation when it comes to email, but you have to bring new ideas to the table and sell people on those ideas in a way that feels ‘better’ than something they’ve grown accustomed to for years.

Sparrow had to do this with a small team of 5 people, figuring it out as they went.

As much as people cried about wanting various versions of Sparrow for the Mac, iPad and iPhone, there was nothing that could be done about getting them out any faster. They simply had a limited set of resources with which to tackle these projects. When they released the iPhone version, they had to decide what do do next and they decided on a new version of Sparrow for Mac, versus splitting time to the iPad.

The small team and limited resources is also why Sparrow for iPhone never got push.

Apple rejected Sparrow’s initial use of the VoIP backgrounding system to continuously watch for new mail. This meant that the team had to either roll their own solution or contract with a third party to provide for it. Handling the security and infrastructure of a push server that deals with people’s personal email is far from trivial. That’s why most people let another company that does these things specifically handle it. That goes double for a team with limited man-hours to dedicate to it, like Sparrow.

Sparrow had been looking for push providers and, to my understanding, had located one before they were acquired. I don’t know why they didn’t release the feature, but, once again, my feeling is that it had to do with limited resources available. Sparrow for Mac had to be prepped for Retina, which slowed down the ongoing work on Sparrow for iPhone.

If I had to conjecture, and this is just a guess not based on any inside information, Sparrow for iPhone was selling well, but not nearly as well as the team wanted it to. The company was making money, but it may have limited their ability to pay for push, for expansion of the team or to accomplish things that they wanted to do.

But, since that’s just a guess, maybe it was selling like gangbusters, I don’t know. But I can say that the same challenges that an alternative mail client faces on the Mac are amplified on the iPhone, where Apple does not allow third-party clients to take over the default actions like clicking on an email address to send a new email and such. This puts clients like Sparrow and browsers like Chrome at a disadvantage.

I have a feeling that this acquisition offer and deal went through fairly quickly. The Sparrow team saw the challenges of making a business based on an alternative mail client sustainable, and they were made a handsome offer by Google. One that would allow them to make choices based on their desire to build good things, rather than the need to pay the bills, in the future. And they took it.

Sparrow was never a project whose goal was to build a user base then sell out, period. That’s just the way it happened.

As a user of the app that enjoys it very much, I can completely understand the dismay at Google’s acquisition of the team. But, as a person who has started two companies of my own and who has made a sincere effort to make them sustainable, I understand the challenges therein, and I wish the team all the best in the future, and so should you.

The best thing about the guys moving on to work on projects elsewhere? That passion, the anguish over making things great; that goes with them and hopefully informs projects at Google and beyond. Just as with engineers and managers at Apple go on to make things great wherever they are.

Still, you might want to start looking for another email client.


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