Photo by Lee Woolcock
Interview: Duncan Campbell
I’ve been in Barcelona almost four years. Before I came, I worked as a programmer in a very well paid job in the City. Although it served me well, it was hard work with lots of pressure because of the huge amounts of money at stake. In the end it all got a bit too much, so I bailed out and went backpacking in Colombia for two months.
After that experience, I decided I wanted to move somewhere Spanish speaking. It was between Buenos Aires and Barcelona, and I chose Barcelona because it was closer to my mum.
I’ve done programming for 13 years. I studied geology at university and when I left, I started working at Bournemouth Council doing coastal research. They had a very primitive computer system, so in-between the research I was paid to do, I wrote little programs to analyse data and improve office communications. One day, someone in the office asked me if I’d ever thought about actually working with computers so I thought I should give it a go.
I got my first computer when I was eight. It was a Commodore 64. I read the manual in three days and then created a hot air balloon that floated across the screen.
I came here with the intention of just chilling out for a couple of months but quickly realised I was probably going to stay. I managed to get a year’s worth of work from my old company, saved some money and then quit that job to become an iPhone developer. For that, I needed four months of study at home; I programmed and programmed and programmed and wrote my first app.
That app was a game, something really fun for people and something free that they could share with their friends. I needed a fun antidote to all that financial work! I’ve made three apps myself and eight or nine for clients. Menú del Día is another one of mine. It translates menu items from Spanish or Catalan into English. If you type in something that doesn’t already exist, it tells me and I add it to the dictionary. I sell about 20 of that one a week.
My ideas usually come from a need to do something. I am currently working on a language app and it’s come about because the existing ones don’t do what I want them to do.
The third app I’ve launched is Enscrypted. This is the most popular one and to date we’ve had 130,000 downloads. It’s a word game where you have a famous movie quote and the name of the movie and the letters are switched. There are a million little tricks to work it out and there’s a new quote every day. You play on your own and compare your scores—it’s connected to Facebook and Twitter and a lot of people talk around it, helping each other out with clues. It’s really tough but very good fun. We have about 10,000 people playing every day. I love the way it’s going…
While I really admire people like Steve Jobs, I’m more in awe of the few independent developers who have managed to make some really successful apps. Andreas Illiger, for example, single-handedly created an app called Tiny Wings and did all the graphics and all the music himself. He launched it in 2011 and made over $10 million. I don’t respect him for making money, but I do respect him for making a damn good app.
I have a really broad range of clients in the US, the UK and Spain. I’ve made a game for a company in Spain, an app that creates documentary videos for kids in Catalan and I’ve also worked for an oil guy in Texas. I’m working 60 percent for clients and 40 percent on my own projects. The aim is to get that 40 percent up to 100 percent.
I’m pretty motivated so that is never a problem for me, but before I went freelance, I was pretty scared about being able to manage clients and money and time. I think the only freelancers who will make it work are the ones that can focus on those things and do it right.
There is nothing better in life than doing what you love. It changes your perspective on absolutely everything. You have to fight to get to that place, but it is so worth it.