Saturday, September 04, 2004

An interesting experiment

There's been a discussion of Micro-ISVs (Independent Software Vendors) kicked off by Eric Sink's latest Business of Software column. Eric already owns a successful software company but he appears to be starting a separate solo software business part time with a shareware solitaire game. He's claiming it's just an experiment done out of pure curiosity to learn more about how a Micro-ISV works. Perhaps he's growing bored with running an established company and is looking for the excitement of a new startup business. Maybe he's testing the waters to see if he could build a nice little retirement hobby business. It will be interesting to see both how his experiment pans out and what he does once it's concluded.

For anyone who finds my blog even mildly interesting I'd say straight away that Eric Sink's blog and Business of Software columns on MSDN are must reads. What I find particularly interesting is that I've found several instances in Eric's articles and blog archives where his advice directly contradicts the advice from other well known names in the software development/software business sphere. Someone who's made as many mistakes as Eric has must have learnt a thing or two along the way and so I carefully contrast his advice against that of others whenever I notice it going against the norm.

Eric's philosophy of learning how to do business seems to be very similar to my own. I believe you learn best by jumping into the deep end and then, after you've either succeeded or failed dismally, looking back at where you went wrong and what you would have changed. It's only by learning to recognise the mistakes in your past that you'll learn how to recognise the mistakes in your future.

Speaking of mistakes, I have to say I think his choice to develop and sell a solitaire game, may well prove to be another. I don't play the game myself but those who do I would think are either happy with a physical deck of cards or the bundled Windows version. For those few who are looking for something better, as Eric says Thomas Warfield's Pretty Good Solitaire has had that market well and truly sewn up for many years.

I also cannot see a market for a $7 product. As someone who buys the majority of their software online, I've never paid that little for software and I wouldn't even bother looking at something that cheap in the first place. I'm quite happy to be corrected on this but I suspect that pricing it at $7 places his game in the same basket as hundreds if not thousands of other shareware games that have a reputation for being cheap and nasty.

In his column Eric puts forwards several hypotheses on what he believes will make a successful Micro-ISV shareware company. He openly admits that these are hypotheses only and not based on any real experience in this area. True to form some of his hypotheses differ quite substantially from what I've read from others and from my own beliefs of what will make my own Micros-ISV company successful.

He advises not to put too many features into your first version, but instead to try to get it out the door in well under 12 months. This is good advice and is something that I'm wrestling with at the moment. I have plans for Sydney that could keep me busy for the next 3-4 years but it's going to be tight enough on a 12 month development cycle as it is. Exactly where I'm going to draw the line on my version 1 I'm not sure yet but I'd like to be releasing something early to mid next year at the latest.

I haven't played Eric's solitaire game yet (I don't think I even remember how to play) but according to his description it has just one feature more than the bundled Windows version. His game can always be won if the player is skilled enough. I'm not an experienced enough player to know if that's a significant improvement or not but on the surface it sounds too me like he hasn't really put enough into his version 1 to differentiate it from it's competitors.

I have to tip my hat to his accomplishment in getting his game out the door so quickly though. Eric wrote his solitaire game in a single month working in his spare time only. I can only imagine what it would be like if he'd spent two months on it and can only wish that I was as productive when writing code.

Don't quit your day job while writing your product is Eric's next bit of advice. Oops too late. For me there was never really any other option. The act of simply writing this software over the next 12 months is just as important to me as if it becomes a best selling product. Even if nobody ever buys a copy of Sydney, if I'm happy with what I've produced I'll count the endeavour as a success. I'll be disappointed that I'll have to move on to something else but I'll look back on this year as the time when I took a chance on something that I truly believed in.

That's all well and good if you're a single guy with no financial commitments whatsoever. Most people aren't in the same situation that I am. They have day jobs to feed their family and pay their mortgages. In those situations I'm certainly not going to take responsibility for telling you to quit your day job. Others have though. Steve Pavlina of Dexterity Software in his article Cultivating Burning Desire advises to "burn the ships" behind you so you basically have nothing left to go back to and no choice to do anything but succeed. Steve's all or nothing philosophy on this is something I want to talk about another time but it's yet another example of the healthy differences of opinion you get from reading Eric's material.

The question of whether you can successfully maintain a day job and a part time software business for an extended length of time will greatly depend on the individual. My experience for the 6 months that I combined the two (see here, here and here) was that it is very hard and very demanding. Aside from your day job and your part time business there is really no time for other pursuits. Indeed when I started a new personal relationship during that period I was forced to put my part time software business off to one side until I could leave my day job.

Don't pretend to be a bigger company than you is next on Eric's list. I hadn't thought about this before but I guess I'm living this one already through this blog. It does concern me though that a certain class of potential customer for Sydney won't even look at me because of the size of my operation and my unproven track record. Pretending to be a larger company might win me a few of these customers but I doubt that I could successfully fool more than just a few and I'd probably just damage my reputation by trying. I guess I just have to I probably just have to accept that it will take lots of hard work and time to win these larger customers over to Sydney.

Eric's next two hypotheses are on marketing and advertising. These are areas where I'll readily confess that I have a lot to learn and so I won't even try to critique Eric's advice here. I do note however that once again he differs in opinion from other industry figures as he himself acknowledges. I've made a note to myself contrast both his and Thomas Warfield's comments in this area at a future date once I have a better understanding of the subject area.

Eric's last planned action is the one that to me seems completely unnecessary and without any real discernible benefit. His plan to not maintain any customer information whatsoever after a sale seems almost shortsighted to me. As someone who purchases lots of software online I expect the vendor to know who I am and to have records of what I've purchased and when. I expect them to be able to contact me to inform me of upgrades, problems or special offers. I also expect them to stop contacting me if I ask them to. To date though I've never been so annoyed by a vendor whose products I own that I've requested them to take me off their lists. Sure people get annoyed by spam but I don't think people class this sort of thing as spam.

Eric writes that he hopes that his customers will appreciate not being targeted and marketed to and that they'll appreciate a hassle free purchase. Perhaps if he had more than one product this strategy might bring him some benefits as customers could return to purchase the additional products because of their hassle free experience. He doesn't have more than one product though so whether they have a hassle free experience or not there's no reason for them to return because he has nothing left to sell them. I don't think his hassle free experience will work as a marketing tool either since the customer won't know about it until after they've purchased his product.

I hope Eric changes his mind on this one. He acknowledges in his column that he's really not sure about it. Hopefully he'll go with people like Thomas Warfield who advises keeping records on all your customers and all the communications you have with them. My advice is that customers will expect a vendor to know who they are for support and upgrade reasons at the very least. If you want your customers to have a hassle free experience after they purchase then simply don't hassle them.

Though I'm as much a novice at this Micro-ISV thing as Eric is I am quite skeptical of parts of the path he's laid out for himself. Eric himself acknowledges that the odds are against him and that he does not know how this is going to turn out. I'll be honest and say I don't expect his experiment to work as it currently stands. Unless Eric's online celebrity factor kicks in and his existing loyal readership comes to his aid I think he'll have to make significant changes to make it a success.

I suspect that acknowledging mistakes and making changes are skills that Eric has well and truly under control though. I wish him well and I'll be watching his progress via his dedicated Winnable Solitaire blog keenly.


At 3:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there,

I'm new to your site, and like you am trying the micro-ISV business. Can't argue about your comments on Eric's post, but I'm worried about your business future if you don't know anything about marketing.

As a programmer, I know that it's easy to dream about a killer app, and apply all the efforts we have (our time/life) to make it real. We dream that after it's done, there will be a rampage of people knocking on our door with dollars in theid hands demanding our latest innovation. Hardly this is what happens in real life.

I suggest you apply more time on marketing instead of programming. It will avoid that you spend too much time and effort on a dead end. Best wishes on your endeavour!

News Media

At 7:02 AM, Blogger Lachlan said...

News Media,

I definitely do need to make sure I have a marketing plan before my software is ready to be released. It's quite some time between now and any release dates so I'll be learning as much as I can and preparing my marketing strategies. It's something I'll be talking about here soon.

I notice your product which I assume is an RSS aggregator doesn't mention RSS at all on it's website but instead draws attention to being able to read mainstream news sites. Is this is part of your marketing strategy, deliberately targeting not the techies but instead the regular readers of internet news sites?

At 4:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Yep, News Media is intended to be positioned as "a software to read news", users don't know nor care what a RSS feed is. Even the name was a careful choice, as it draws a million queries per month, according to overture suggestion tool -
I did the same as you some years ago, spent one whole year working on a dream program, and although I don't regret it completely because it was a great experience, I made big mistakes simply because I am a programmer, not a marketing whiz. Unfortunately i only woke up and smelled the coffee after the program was done, and no it did not change the world.
Talk to people, try to sell the idea. Talk to prospective customers, try to get funding. Sell it before you spend months working on it. My program had a gazillion features nobody wanted. Try to make it as simple as possible. Best of luck!

News Media

At 6:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I don't know Eric Sink, but based on his existing business, I would say it is foolish to even think, that "winning solitaire" plays any important role in his future. I would guess, it is just for curiosity, and for writing those MSDN articles. Don't take it too seriously!

At 3:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I was catching up on Eric's column today and somehow i stumbled over your blog. the whole discussion is of particular interest to me since I am too starting (or at least trying to) a small ISV.

I have to make a comment about this phrase though: "Unless Eric's online celebrity factor kicks in and his existing loyal readership comes to his aid I think he'll have to make significant changes to make it a success."

What i have to say is simply that I hope Eric will try to leverage this potential source of revenue throughout his experiment. It's about starting an ISV and if your "on-line celebrity" is an assest why not use it. To paraphrase he should take all the (unfair) advantage he can get! I believe that's one point of the exercise, how to best use your current assets to make your sale. His celebrity is definately an asset and could potentialy give him a chance to develop version two because of the increased revenue. I say capitalize on the advantage, don't let it slip!

I hope this makes sense. Cheers,
Matei A. Dorobantu

At 2:47 AM, Blogger said...

A few comments about your comments on Eric Sink's article:

1. I remember reading an article in a personal finance magazine a year or so ago about a programmer that had written a solitaire program, distributed it as shareware, and made a substantial amount of money. I don't remember the exact figure, but it was well over 1 million. I thought to myself, "who would pay for a solitaire program when one comes free with MS Windows?" Apparently, the key here was not programming or uniqueness, but marketing a game with some new features that appealed to THAT audience.

2. Your comment about paying $7 for software is ignorant of who the target market is for this product. As developers, we are used to spending a lot of money (well, company money) on software. But, if you are looking for a simple game and you can try it before you buy it, $7 is cheap (almost the price of a value meal). I have purchased image editing tools (Paintshop Pro - $80) and other software online that allowed me to test it out before commiting dollars. The reality is that cheaper, try-before-you-buy software is growing in every market.


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