Cash Cow Revisited - A deep dive into the Agenda business model three years in

Agenda’s three year anniversary is coming up soon, can’t believe how time flies. I’ve previously given you an insight into how Agenda came about and how excited we were about bringing a new take on notes. However, we were equally excited about the new sales model we introduced alongside Agenda.

About half-way the development of Agenda we started to think what the business model for Agenda should be. With my previous app Papers I had opted for the more traditional model of a 30-day trial in combination with major updates, and the same was true for @drewmccormack’s previous app, including Studies. While it had worked back well for us, this model was quickly becoming a no-go as trials were not an option in the ever-more popular App Store, and upfront paying for an app without a trial was certainly not going to fly.

The alternative that started to gain momentum would be a subscription model, a trend that has since continued only more strongly. I on purposely choose the word “momentum” here and not “popularity”, as at from the perspective of the end-user subscriptions aren’t very popular at all. Who likes to pay for dozens of different apps on a monthly basis? Where it’s easy to forget you’re slowly being bled, and where if you dare to stop, you loose everything you have paid for?! (small pet-peeve of mine: that’s not actually subscription at all, that’s rental, but that aside).

Yes, from a developer perspective subscriptions are great. A stable, recurring income means sustainability, and also prevents having to delay updates and features to become part of major version releases that you can charge upgrade fees for. Plus, Apple loves them in their stores.

The problem we saw was that we were building Agenda in large part for ourselves, we were both developer and users of this app. And importantly, we didn’t like subscriptions either, for the exact same reasons mentioned above. Which meant having a big dilemma, were we going for a business model that we wouldn’t like having to use ourselves, or were we going to think of something else?

Well, you know the answer by now. In January 2017 Drew and I had decided to attend the dotSwift conference in Paris, the hometown of @cparnot, and when after the talks the bar opened, we had found ourselves the perfect discussion topic for the night. We all agreed that subscription wasn’t the way to go, while we did quite like the direction in which Sketch had gone. The nice thing about their model was that, when you paid for a year, you got to keep using the most recent download of the app until the time would run out, at which point you would stay with the version you were on at that point. What we didn’t like however was that it would still leave users behind on older versions, and as such the idea was born to not focus on paying for updates, but rather paying for features. Features that once bought you would always keep, just like a magazine subscription where if you quit your subscription you keep all the issues you had received by mail up to that point (see, no rental!). And so our “cash cow” model was born. Charles and I were immediately excited, but initially had a hard time convince @drewmccormack as it would involve investing quite a significant amount of time and effort in building the infrastructure to make it all work. And given we were barely halfway with the 1.0, he certainly had a point.

After the conference I stayed a bit longer at Charles’ place where we continued the discussion, thinking about possible solutions for some of the rough edges we had identified, coming up with ideas for the user interface, how to implement it all on the server, checking for things we might have overlooked etc. And as it all started to grow into a solid model, we now managed to also convince Drew that it was worth spending all the effort on. Not entirely unimportant, as he was the one who had to build the infrastructure after all :rofl:

A year after the conference Agenda 1.0 shipped with its fancy new business model. The initial reactions were very positive. Users liked it as it didn’t force them into a subscription, and we as developers liked it as it could potentially give us the benefits of a subscription model without the need for our users to subscribe. But of course, the real test was only to come. With a model that’s all carrot, but no stick, would it be possible to be sustainable?

Three years later we can now tell. I’ll let @drewmccormack give you the answer:


That was quite am interesting read. I am glad to hear that using this price model seams to be working well for you according to your data and statistics. I am quite satisfied with the pricing model you all chose. It seems to be quite fair and a win, win, for the developers and customers. I have left several subscription based apps, due to disappointments of that price structure and being forced to stay a subscriber, or or lose all service, so to speak.

I do miss the days when I would purchase upgrades for Photoshop. There is a lot of good photo editing software out there, but with many, many years of using Photoshop it has become my home and still is, all be it, yes, a paid subscription. I am using several that are buy once and upgrade when need be and I suppose in time, I may feel more at home there and eventually ditch the dreaded subscription model.

Thanks for everything you all do and by the way you have a very nice and friendly community her too.



Have any other developers followed your [excellent] lead? I haven’t seen any, which is a shame. Good piece by @drewmccormack. Thanks!

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Thank you for your nice comments both!

Have any other developers followed your [excellent] lead?

There are indeed a number of app developers that have followed similar paths, coincidentally triggered by Drew’s post, David Sinclair wrote up his experience as well:

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Very good of you to share all that. I actually think your model helps to sell Agenda, that the work needed for that was perhaps as valuable as the app itself (not selling Agenda short). No doubt many of us are here at least in part because of the model. Funny how it isn’t a huge actual difference in spending, but it is huge knowing you don’t have to. Congrats for year three. Love the cow. Makes me want to lay down in the field too. Do you know where the photo is? Reminds me of the mountains of Asuries.


Hi, thanks for sharing this. I’d like to see your thoughts about the traditional in-app purchase model for features compared to the cash cow model. After all, keep up the good work.

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The photo was a random selection from Google images. Seems to be Switzerland.

From our perspective as developers, the standard IAP model doesn’t work as well for prosumer level apps like ours. You don’t really generate recurring income from it, so you need to have a very large customer based — which Mac apps don’t really have — or you need to keep adding new features that can be bought. I think people get annoyed by having to purchase lots of individual features continually from a long list.

For smaller apps, traditional IAP works fine I think. But when you are trying to build up something bigger like Agenda, you need a way to collect a recurring fee in a way that doesn’t annoy the customers. For us, the Agenda model works well for this.


Thanks for sharing that info. Love the scene though doesn’t look like a cash cow to me :wink:


New user here. So far I really like the app and am yet to purchase it. This post actually makes me even more willing to buy now. But I also have a suggestion. If charging for features, can you offer certain aspects so users can choose what they want. Free version is really cool and so far, the only thing I would need to feel “complete” would be ability to have inline images and to add drawings from my iPad. It is a tough sell to pay for all the features I don’t care about. Here is quick list for example:

  • Additional formatting options - Don’t care
  • Archiving - Would pay instantly
  • Making into template - Don’t care (I could create a note as a template and copy/paste)
  • Images - Yes please
  • Sharing - Would consider
  • Calendar integration - Would consider if it supports Outlook
  • Sub-categories - Yes but not essential
  • Other stuff - haven’t been using the app for that long to form the opinion.

In general, I support the concept but wondering what it would look like 2-3 years from now…

Glad you like Agenda and it’s business model. We’re not a big fan of such a pick-and-choose model, as @drewmccormack mentions above we think it will annoy users if they are continuously asked to pay again and again, even if small amounts, every time we introduce a new premium feature they like.

We feel the cash-cow model is a nice balance between not feeling you are being milked all the time (pun-intended), but also not being blackmailed into having to pay up year after year not to lose everything (classic subscription), while still providing us developers with some form of recurring revenue through which we can keep on supporting and developing Agenda.


It is still not very clear to me what would the situation look like a year from now. Let’s say I buy the license today and enjoy all the features released in the next 12 months. What happens after, will there be upgrade path for current users? Buying new features? Complete new version? And what about iPad iPhone apps, how would that work? While I like the model now, there is a potential for a very messy situation and many unhappy users in the future. Cheers…

It’s a flat fee and every year you pay for 12 months of updates. After those 12 months are over, you can decide if it is still worth your money and get another 12 months of updates. If you don’t want to pay anymore, you keep all your features until that point. If you decide to pay again, you get all features from the beginning of time.

The idea is that the steady addition of features is worth keeping subscribed to the app constantly. And I think it is. It already works for many years for Agenda, and it includes an iPhone, iPad and Mac app.

  • None of us can predict the future, but if the past is any indicator the future is bright for Agenda.
  • To reiterate, once you buy-in, you get all the premium features, including any released within the next year, and you get to keep those “forever” AND any bug fixes. When it’s worth it to you to buy any new premium features, you pay the same price again. For some that may seem unfair, but the price is so reasonable to begin with, and the model is incredibly reasonable. It’s like you get to pay rent for an apartment for a year, and then you get to stay there as long as you want, only paying again if you want to utilize all the upgrades that the landlord has made available to you. Then you just pay for another year, ad infinitum… quite a deal.
  • Mac iPad and iPhone apps are all included in the single price, if you choose the Mac option. Just iPad and iPhone if you choose the lesser option.
  • No doubt we all could be disappointed; not much anyone can do about that. But the pricing model is about the best there is.
  • So just go for it. It’s not that expensive and you are not renting it; you get to keep it.

I shared some of your same concerns but this is about as good as it gets. And these guys (I think they’re all guys) are incredibly responsive. Not only is the pricing model incredible, so is the support. This Community is a great testament.


Geez, I’m going to post separately in a minute about time-tracking (after searching), but I want to add that those of us (you :wink:) who use Agenda and are wondering if you should pay for the Premium features, just do it. This is a great model. Agenda free is a great app all by itself, and even if you don’t think you need or want the features of Premium, this model (thus these folks) deserve support, so just pay once, to support them and the pricing model.

Full disclosure: I get nothing for saying this, as it should be.


Pretty sure the Halide developers use the same model starting with their new release.

I appreciate your pricing model as it works for both developers and users. Rentals are an abomination the industry has happily gravitated towards, happily fooling and fleecing customers by calling rentals as subscriptions, whereas Momenta and a few others are companies that stick out for their consumer-centric approach with true subscriptions.

Giving a lot of functionality for free is not an easy decision, you probably make it to let customers realise for themselves how valuable your software can be to them in their lives and make an upgrade to Premium. Then, if in the next year you come up with something users want for them, they can pay an amount again for another year. This is how subscriptions work. Cannot appreciate you enough for implementing this.

I’d say you consider charging a smaller one-time payment aside from the well-thought pricing model you have in place, to bolster revenue. Your software is worth it and I am sure people who see the value in your software (those are the ones who would stick with the software, anyway) would appreciate paying something to use your apps on all their devices.


From day one I have been a huge fan of the feature gate / cash cow approach. It makes me want to use this app. Currently I believe I am out of band because the features I need to really work it into my flow are still in the future. I did pay once when I tried to bend to fit. That said, I long for the day when I can get rid of a subscription based model and move to Agenda. I want to support innovative models such as this even if the cost is the same or slightly higher than a similar subscription model might be.

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