Today, my new company was officially born as a Michigan LLC. The name, which you’re likely to see here quite a bit more in the future, is Blazing Things LLC. Woo hoo!
I just finished listening to the audiobook of Seth Godin’s Free Prize Inside / Purple Cow. This dual audiobook is abridged. So, if you’re looking for the full deal or you’re not into audiobooks, check out Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable and Free Prize Inside!: The Next Big Marketing Idea.
I’m going to give away the central point of the book/audio book, but as with any good book, that won’t reduce the value of what you get by reading the whole thing. The main point that Godin drives home in both books is that advertising as a way to grow a business is a dead model. If you want to grow a business, you need a product that is remarkable, so that people will talk about it. A “Purple Cow” is something that stands out, and a “Free Prize” is an aspect to the offering that makes it stand out.
I tend to be a bit ahead of the curve on things. At this point, I watch very little TV and the TV I do watch is on a ReplayTV (mmm… commercial skip). I don’t get a newspaper. I read very few magazines. Almost all of my media input comes from movies, which are largely commercial free, and the Internet. My browser, Firefox, blocks advertising popups, so the most outrageous forms of advertising online don’t hit me. I do listen to radio when I’m in the car, which is probably where the largest quantity of advertising gets to me. I usually change channels when ads come on though. If the profile I just described becomes more typical in a few years, advertising is in for an even bigger problem than it already has.
Regardless of whether you agree with Godin’s basic premise, the fact is that if you’re starting your own software shop you probably can’t afford a big, splashy ad campaign. Starting our own businesses we have to find the free prize to create the purple cow. Otherwise, we’re sunk. When you’ve got a limited budget, you need to be sure to build that free prize in from the very beginning. I have some ideas that I’m hoping will get some attention for my product from the get-go, so I’m definitely taking this to heart.
These books are filled with all kinds of great examples, and a few counter-examples, to really illustrate the point and get you thinking about how your own products can become special. Free Prize Inside has a fairly large chunk on selling your organization on the change, which was interesting but not at all related to my situation. If you are in a large organization, that section will give you a good intro to selling your ideas and getting them done.
Purple Cow and Free Prize Inside are among the most important books you can read as you’re starting a new, bootstrapped business. They’ll get you thinking in terms of building the marketing into your product, which can boost your chances of having a successful product or service.
I’d also like to point out that Seth Godin’s Blog is frequently and generously updated with a continuous stream of thoughts and pointers that can help us geeks keep on eye on marketing.
What do you think about first when thinking about starting a new small software shop? If you’re like me, you think about the product first. You think about the cool idea and some of the nifty bells and whistles. You think about some interesting parts of the implementation. That’s all well and good, because a great software company needs to start with a good product. But, when you’re starting your own small software shop, there are two things that will end up being more important to your success: marketing and support. In this article, I’m going to write a bit about surviving your business’ support needs.
Time and money are both hugely constrained in your typical, home-grown business. (If you’re working with venture capital, go ahead and hire that team of support staff 🙂 When you’ve got only a small handful of people working with you, you need to optimize on time and money outlay. Each email or phone support request is going to take time, so you need to do what you can to avoid as many as possible.
Work on usability
I can’t afford a full-blown usability study of my application. What I can do, and I’m sure you can to, is find someone who fits a reasonable user profile for your application and just observe them using the software. Start them out from the very beginning (your website), and see how they do with downloading and installing the software. Then, watch how they actually use the software.
Are there things they did frequently that required more clicks than they should have? Was there something that they wanted to do, but got lost while doing it? For each time they turn to you either for reassurance or to ask a question, that could be a sign of support requests to come. Except those support requests could come from hundreds of customers all over the world, rather than just one person sitting in front of you.
Anything you can do to watch real people using your software (without assistance) will give you insight into making your software better. Usability Testing in Practice by Andrew Starling gives a quick overview of how the pros do it. Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research (Morgan Kaufmann Series in Interactive Technologies) by Mike Kuniavsky may provide some good tips (I haven’t read it, but it appears to be one of Amazon’s higher sellers and has four 5-star reviews).
Do sufficient testing
In the days of yesteryear (say 5 years back), it used to be the case the a QA group was responsible for all of the testing. A developer would write some code, fire up the program, test that one thing and proclaim it “done”. Well, it’s no longer yesteryear, and my tiny company doesn’t have a QA department.
From time to time, I see people write that “unit testing is not a silver bullet”. That’s true, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Test driven development can improve your designs and improve your ability to fix bugs quickly. If you want to have a low bug count on release, do your automated tests.
Since I don’t have a QA department, I need to have a good beta test program. In fact, I need a good alpha test program. The earlier in the process that you have more people involved, the fewer gotchas you’ll have later. Try to get people with different experience levels and computer setups so that you’ll catch more problems before release. All of the really weird stuff is going to come out of the woodwork after release, so you might as well get the easy ones out of the way earlier.
Public betas can be a double-edged sword. While they do allow you to get the broadest possible exposure and shake out more bugs, you may also attract some people who have release-software expectations for your beta and others who would just give up rather than reporting bugs. For a beta test to be useful, the testers need to know that the software is almost, but not quite, done and that you’re counting on them to provide bug reports.
One option to consider is to do private beta testing, but take your first “release candidate” and put it out there as a public beta. A release candidate is not like a traditional beta. With an RC, you believe that the software is ready to ship. By putting it out there as a public beta, that gives you a chance to broaden your testing exposure while still giving some of the impression that it’s not fully done. Once you’ve seen the response from the RC, then you know you’re safe to release.
Make sure the answers are there and accessible
Your website needs a search engine. It doesn’t matter how you do it (you can even use Google, if you wish), but just make sure that people can search. And people really need to be able to search the whole site in one go. If your site is a patchwork of HTML files, PHP forums and a Movable Type blog, you have an interesting integration problem (go with Google and save yourself the headache).
My plan for that, by the way, is to use Drupal for my site. Something like Plone is also a good choice. Both of these let you incorporate a variety of content with discussions and more, all of it under one always-up-to-date search engine. They’re also both free.
With a bit of clever packaging, you should be able to provide a lot of the same content in multiple forms: a manual, context-sensitive help, and a frequently asked questions list. Especially in this age of hyperlinks, many FAQs can be answered with a short response and a link to the appropriate part of the documentation. All of this content should be on your website.
If you write all of your docs in some kind of structured text format (HTML, XML, ReStructured Text) and you’re handy with a language like Perl, Python or Ruby, you should be able to put your content to work in many ways.
If you can afford one (which I can’t right now), hiring a professional documentation writer can be a very valuable thing. I can write reasonably well, but I know that a pro would be able to do the job more efficiently and will avoid common pitfalls.
Only answer a question once
While I’m writing about trying to save support costs, the idea is not to save the costs at the expense of providing good support. Word of mouth can be crucial to a small business, and there’s no better way to spoil it than bad support. So, the goal is to help the customers help themselves as much as possible, and then to respond quickly to anything that wasn’t caught by those efforts.
A web-based forum can be a powerful tool. Any questions that get asked there automatically become searchable. When you post an answer, you’ve automatically increased the chance that the next person who has that same question may find the answer in a search. If a question pops up more than once, or seems like something important, it definitely pays to get that into your main documentation right away.
The thing to keep in mind about a forum is that it’s public. If you try to squelch criticisms of your product, they will come back to bite you. It certainly pays to remove outright offensive forum postings. But, genuine criticisms, even if you disagree with them, should be taken seriously and responded to. As long as you handle things reasonably, your other customers will still see you as being responsive.
Some parting thoughts…
I’ve provided support in a variety of capacities for different kinds of products over the course of my career. The capabilities of modern computers and the internet have potentially greatly reduced the support burden of creating a software product. To get the benefit, though, you need to plan ahead and take advantage of the tools and techniques available today. The tools are free, you just need to put in the time. The more customers you end up with, the better leverage you get out of that time spent up front.
Don Shelkey, the author of Enforceability of EULA’s  is a lawyer (not providing legal advice, of course). This article provides a quick review of how the courts have viewed End User License Agreements. It appears that in many cases, a click-through license agreement is enforceable as a contract. Good to know if you’re either clicking through, or creating/choosing a EULA for your software.
This still leaves the GPL untested. Given that there’s no “consideration” for GPLed software, and that you generally don’t even clickthrough and many GPLed packages, the GPL will probably still have its day in court.
 [link goes to MirrorDot because the original seems to have gone off the air]
In a comment on A tale of a copycat site, Robert Renling asked me to elaborate on why I say there’s no viable model for open source consumer desktop software. I started adding a comment, but it seemed long enough to turn into a post.
Either there’s no viable model, or the people who have tried have not executed well.
I’m not aware of any successful business doing open source consumer-oriented software. There are some folks doing closed-source adware to make money while leaving the software free, but I don’t know how profitable it is and also think that much of the adware that gets installed is pretty sleazy stuff.
One could conceivably make money by having an open source component that attaches to a closed-source service. If they open sourced the code for the service, people would just get their own servers up and running.
The folks who are making money off of open source software are selling to businesses. Period. I’d be really interested in seeing a counter example, but I don’t think one exists.
Red Hat’s probably the best example. They’re the only one I can think of who even made a go of it. They had their nice boxed Linuxes available for years. As soon as broadband became widely used among geeks (the target market for Linux), the notion of ponying up $30 for a boxed Linux vs. just downloading it seemed pointless.
There are many, many examples of companies that effectively use and contribute to open source, but when it comes time to pay the bills, their products are closed source. Apple is a great example of this.
If someone can cite examples of people who are making a living on PayPal donations or t-shirt sales to support their open source product, I’d consider that a successful business. I don’t think anything even on that small scale has been shown to be sustainable.
It’s unclear to me what the future in consumer software really looks like. I know that, for myself, I’m not going to spend 2 hours to track down a crack for a $40 program (what’s your time worth?). That’s encouraging that there will continue to be a market for programs that provide a good value at a good price.
I can also envision an increase in the software that is provided as a service online. It’s easy to keep that closed-source (piracy is much less of a problem), plus some support headaches go away because you don’t generally have to worry about the bizarre software people have installed on their machines.
Some programs just work better on your desktop. Would you really want to keep all of your financial records on some company’s website (a la Quicken)? Quicken is one of those programs that seems like a reasonable value. And while there are open source competitors, they are no match in usability and features compared to Quicken.
The one thing I do know is that copy protection does not work. We’ll probably see an increase in stupid copy protection schemes that just annoy everyone while not stopping the pirates. I believe in taking some precautions, but not at the cost of serious customer inconvenience.
Found on Slashdot, here is one developer’s tale of bringing down a copycat site. It is very hard to protect intellectual property on the net. While I think that open source is great, I also think that no viable business model for open source consumer desktop software has yet appeared. Until we can figure out a good model, we have to deal with IP violations.
There’s an interesting set of blog entries by Steve Pavlina in which he talks about some transitions that he’s been making in his life. In Environmental Reinforcement of Your Goals, Steve talks about how he’s conciously moving his career to speaking and writing, and has severed ties that he had to previous communities. This includes the Association of Shareware Professionals, where Steve was President a few years back. That and sidelining the business that he has built over the past few years is a powerful statement about his convictions in his new direction.
Ironically, reading Steve’s articles led me to join the ASP. This article doesn’t make me want to leave the ASP, of course. In fact, in reinforces that the ASP is a good tie for me to have. I’ve already learned some valuable things that I will apply in my new business.
For almost any white collar worker, there are many things to do that can be considered important, but not urgent. Many things that seem time-sensititve may not be as important as things that are vital for the long-term of the business. It’s more than likely that many of those items should be delayed, until they’re really to the top of the queue.
Something that I consider important, but will never rise up to the level of urgent, is blogging. Blogging is important to me because it helps me crystallize my thoughts on a topic, remember how I felt about something at a given point in time, and possibly get feedback from others on the Net. There’s also the pleasant side effect that the more you write, the better your writing gets! It never hurts to improve one’s writing skill. In fact, the latest SD Magazine suggests that this is one step you can take to keep yourself from losting your job! All of those advantages are certainly worth at least a little time, right?
Collecting links of things that I find interesting is something I do regularly anyway. It’s very easy to click the “Post” button in my browser to create a new entry when I spot something cool. The blogging that I’m talking about making time for is writing more feature articles.
Starting today, I’m going to allocate 15 minutes out of a typical workday to writing articles. I have a backlog of things that I want to write about, so you’ll probably see a few longish articles here over the next few weeks. I’m no Paul Graham or Joel Spolsky, but I think these articles will be interesting for people in the software biz.
Back in the heady days of 1999, everyone (and their sisters, brothers, parents, cousins) was sending off business plans to venture capitalists. I was part of that group. By February of 2000, I had a business plan that I was happy with and a financial model that looked like it would be solidly profitable. By the summer of 2000, I found the flaw in my model. Nick Denton has created what my model should have been.
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