Campfire Apps: app development more a hobby than full-time gig - Technical.ly Baltimore

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Campfire Apps: app development more a hobby than full-time gig

The team behind Campfire Apps, Shawn and Steph Grimes, are neither living in squalor nor diving into the dumpsters of local colleges rummaging for leftover Ramen noodles. Their app development company is hobby, not full-time job, and that suits them just fine.

Shawn and Steph Grimes inside the Digital Harbor Tech Center in Federal Hill.

Fear not, world, for Shawn and Steph Grimes are neither living in squalor nor diving into the dumpsters of local colleges rummaging for leftover Ramen noodles.

The Grimeses got in touch with Technically Baltimore in late 2012 after we linked to a New York Times article about the husband-wife team behind Campfire Apps. In the article, it was reported that the Grimeses’ attempt to build an app development company cost them “$200,000 in lost income and savings” while earning them just $4,964 in return. After the article was published, worrisome family members called them both, panicked at what seemed like their sudden reversal of fortune.

Shawn and Steph Grimes, however, are fine, living in White Marsh, not subsisting on Ramen and very much gainfully employed as the full-time technical managers in charge of STEM Engine—the Digital Harbor Foundation’s web design and development program for Baltimore city school students—a position they’ve held since December 2012.

Granted, the reason for the profile in a New York Times piece in the first place was Campfire Apps, the Grimeses’ storefront for educational apps targeted toward families and children. Mobile app development, while appealing and, in general, easy to jump into, doesn’t often pay high returns, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported. Developers compete against almost 800,000 apps in both the Apple iTunes and Google Play stores. The economics are uncertain, and pay is unsteady, as nearly half the apps in the iTunes store are free.

If the Grimeses have learned anything, it’s this:

  • There is money to be made in app development, but that money will probably come from contract work with bigger companies.
  • Becoming licensed developers for the Barnes and Noble Nook has paid off more than developing iOS apps. After all, when the Grimeses published their first app for the Nook in December 2011, they said, there were fewer than 1,000 apps for Nook users to choose from. 

“One app on the Nook did better than two paid apps in the iTunes store,” Steph, a former kindergarten teacher, told Technically Baltimore on a weekday morning last December.

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Since starting Campfire Apps, the Grimeses estimate they’ve made enough money for a “nice, overseas vacation,” complete with a stay at a five-star hotel, but definitely less than the cost of a brand new Honda Civic. It’s side income, money made from a hobby they enjoy, and they’re OK with that.

Of course, the difficulty of making serious money as app developers didn’t dissuade the Grimeses from launching Campfire Apps in June 2011, months after Shawn was told Legg Mason was shuttering its IT division, where he had worked for five years prior, effective January 2012.

Although making apps was no simple mission. From October 2011 through January 2012, the Grimeses tried to develop one app per month. Living off of dwindling savings, by February 2012 Shawn had begun doing freelance development work to supplement the little money he and his wife were pulling in through Campfire. By the late spring of 2012, Shawn had taken another full-time job, a telecommuting position for Burnside Digital based in Oregon.

“We weren’t naïve. We didn’t expect to make a lot of money,” said Steph last December.

But once Shawn knew he would lose his job at Legg Mason—he said the company gave all the IT staffers 18 months’ notice—he and Steph both decided there would be no better time to try to make inroads as app developers.

“I had plenty of opportunities and job offers,” Shawn told Technically Baltimore. “I just wanted to try [building apps] and see what happened.”

As they’ll both attest, the full-time employment is what pays bills. But they continue to work on their own apps for Campfire “because we love it,” Steph said.

And lest anyone think the Digital Harbor Foundation bailed them out of a financial jam: Shawn had been working from home full-time for about seven months when DHF offered the STEM Engine position to them.

“We mulled it over for a while—I wasn’t sure if I was ready to give up working from home full-time—but in the end, the idea of working with talented students was just too appealing,” said Shawn in an e-mail this month.

Indeed, it was something both Steph and Shawn had been doing for some time through the APPlied Club, an after-school program they started first at Patapsco High School in Dundalk in 2011, for students to learn mobile app development and the requisite programming languages: Xcode, Objective C and Corona. The club has now spread to Perry Hall High School and Western School of Technology in Baltimore County.

It might be incongruous to teach high school students mobile app and game development when trying to turn development into profits isn’t guaranteed. But the Grimeses emphasize it’s more about teaching students coding skills and giving them the opportunity to build something on their own.

If students make enough money to afford a used Honda Civic, well, as Steph Grimes will tell you, that’s “just icing.”

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