Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Don't panic

Apologies for leaving you all hanging after my last post. I wasn't thinking clearly about the issues so I decided to take a few days break from Sydney to try to regain some perspective. Many thanks to everyone who discussed the issues, and gave me suggestions or words of encouragement, you certainly helped me to see the forest for the trees.

My fears that there would be a copy of New York on every server and desktop within 12 months weren't particularly rational and as some of you pointed out this could actually be beneficial for me. The more interest there is in this type of product, the larger the market will become for both the high and low end products. I somewhat arrogantly assumed that high priced systems like New York were my competitors. Of course anyone in the market for a product like New York wouldn't even consider looking at a low end product like Sydney and vice-versa.

So as long as New York stays a high end product I don't believe it's a threat to my business.

Will New York stay a high end product though?

The new owners do sell software for as little as $1000 so they're used to selling software to the little guys as well as the big guys.

On the other hand the new owners aren't suddenly going to drop it's price by an order of magnitude or two when they're currently making $350 000 sales to US government departments. I also imagine it would take quite a bit of work to re-engineer a system like that to make a low end version.

There's not much I can do about it either way though so I'm not going to lose any more sleep over it. Instead I've found something else much more troubling to lose sleep over...

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

What's left for the little guy?

Here's a bedtime story that is bound to give me nightmares tonight. I've changed the names to protect my now possibly worthless secrets.

A moderate sized company, let's call them company Alpha has been selling an enterprise class version of Sydney (with a price tag to match) for a number of years now. I'll call their product New York. I wasn't previously aware of Alpha or New York although I was aware of other companies and products like them.

This moderate sized company has just been swallowed by an enormous company, let's call them company Beta. Company Beta sells software to just about every other decent sized company in the world and the products of company Beta and company Alpha compliment each other nicely.

So now company Beta can sell New York to its millions of customers worldwide. Over the next few years this new market which both Sydney and New York are part of will expand rapidly as company Beta aggressively pushes New York, its new product.

So where will that leave Sydney? A vapourware product that won't be ready until at least early next year up against New York, a mature enterprise product now with the backing of one of the largest software companies in the world.

I honestly don't know. Ever since I read company Beta's press release late this afternoon I've had knots in my stomach. When I got home from visiting clients I just couldn't face an evening of reading more about a deal that could very well signify the end of Sydney before it really even gets started. I tried to find some friends who live nearby but none of them were home. The anxiety and frustration levels were climbing fast so I went to the gym to try and work out some of the tension.

It's amazing what you can do with little fear induced adrenaline. I must have been there for more than two hours and I lifted an extra 10 to 20 pounds on just about every exercise. Finally I ran for 20 minutes on my not quite recovered sprained ankle to satisfy my self-destructive urges. I tried to think what I would do instead if I cancelled Sydney and questioned how I could be so arrogant as to think that I could simply quit my job and produce a world-class product that people would want to buy. I didn't find an answer to either question, instead just increasing the swelling around my ankle.

I'm back home now and the anxiety has been largely replaced by exhaustion. I'm sure in the morning it won't be as bad as it seems right now. I need to sit down and properly analyse the situation with a cool head. Maybe there are opportunities here I can't see right now or perhaps it will simply force me to cut my losses sooner rather than later. I'll just have to wait and see how the situation develops.

Friday, September 10, 2004

For a rainy day

Back in early July I spoke about my business finances. At the time I said I had enough cash reserves to last until early September which was approximately nine weeks away at the time. That was nine weeks if I received no income whatsoever. Although I've stopped working for my major client (the day job) I have a small number of clients from whom I get about 2-5 hours work a week which is just enough to cover my overheads. In addition I've been starting up my home computer troubleshooting business which will should start to supplement that income in the near future.

So it's now early September and I guess I should report on how the business finances are looking once again. Well I'm pleased to say that as of today my business has enough cash reserves to meet its financial commitments until mid-December approximately 14 weeks away. That's really much better than I expected and perhaps it means that I should spend more time working on my longer term goals i.e. Sydney and less time working to meet immediate financial needs.

The fatal flaw in my plan

Up until recently I'd envisaged that my business's cash reserves would be gradually depleted over the next 12 months by my regular business overheads. I thought I'd be releasing Sydney with those reserves either completely exhausted or very close to it.

I've come to realise that that scenario is probably somewhat naive. Should I finish development of Sydney but in the process spend every last dollar I have I'll have no money to devote to the launch of the product. Exactly what it costs to launch a product I don't know but in the past few days I've thought of a few potential expenses that I really should be setting aside money for.

The first thing on my list is a product website. At present my web design skills are atrocious. You only have to look at my trouble with your computer website to see that I have only a rudimentary understanding of web design. Yes it wouldn't be too hard to improve my skills and certainly they will improve over the development of Sydney. When the time comes to create a product website though I'll most likely be occupied with adding the finishing touches to Sydney.

The next expense I'll likely have to cover pre-launch is for some specialist graphic design work to pretty up the user interface of Sydney. Unless I come up with a better business model Sydney is likely to be a shareware product and I know from my own experience in buying shareware that I'm more likely to register a product that has a professional and attractive looking user interface. I'm not saying it's the primary factor but I do believe it is a very important one for many people.

The last expense I've thought of is that I may wish to engage the services of a copywriter with experience in writing advertisements for software products to work in tandem with whoever designs the Sydney product website. Perhaps I'm being a little extravagant with this one but I will definitely need some sort of help with this. I'm sure you've noticed that my own writing style is probably just a teensy bit too verbose for good advertising copy.

What have I missed?

So there's two possibly three expenses that I'll likely need to cover late in the development cycle. If I can think of those offhand there's bound to be more that I haven't thought of.

I'd appreciate if anyone reading this who's launched a shareware product before could add to my list any late cycle expenses that they incurred as part of their product launch.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Kill your television

Those who have been visiting this site for a while know that I've occasionally been having problems with motivation. The adjustment in going from working for others to working for myself has introduced a new range of challenges to my sense of self-discipline.

I've tried to meet these challenges through several means. I engaged a business coach to both advise me and monitor my progress. I started writing this blog to increase the pressure on myself to keep the project moving forward. And lastly I tried to remove all potential distractions from my work environment.

The biggest distraction would had to have been the television. It's hypnotic glow and inane droning soundtrack consumed hours of my time each day and gave me almost nothing of worth in return. I didn't actually own a TV set but instead had a TV card inside my PC. This was probably worse than having a separate TV set. I could have the TV showing in a small window in the bottom right of my screen and kid myself that I was working at the same time.

My saving grace was that I moved into a flat that didn't have TV reception. It wasn't bad reception, it was no reception at all. The connection to the building aerial appeared to be broken somewhere, or perhaps was never connected. I reported it to the landlord who of course did absolutely nothing. I tried to make do with a cheap set top antenna but I spent more time adjusting it than I did watching the TV.

I was about to get on the landlord's case again about the aerial when I realised that I really wasn't missing TV all that much. I hadn't had decent reception in about 3 months and adjusting the set top antenna had just become too much of a chore to even bother for all but the best programs. So I didn't bother with hassling the landlord and after I managed to accidentally break the set top antenna, I decided not to spend the $12 to replace it.

So now I have no television reception at all. I have a video and a DVD player and I occasionally rent a movie but I never did find out if the Starship Voyager made it back to Earth, or if the President on 24 survived being poisoned. Up until this moment though I didn't really care. Now I'm curious, can someone please tell me? Don't say too much, I might buy the DVDs one day.

So what's it like not having a television at all?

Surprisingly it's fine actually. As long as you can find something else to occupy your time you really don't miss it. I used to watch far too much TV and though I hated that fact I would never have thought I could go without it cold turkey.

It's not all good though. You can't keep asking people to record things for you so you do miss out on quite a few good programs. You also occasionally miss out on participating in conversations about TV. When that happens I just make a joke with the person how I'm the biggest luddite in IT and that I spend the evenings listening to my wireless (that's wireless as in radio, not 802.11x).

There's been some other changes that I didn't really expect. There have been some horrific news stories of late and somehow when you're not being bombarded by violent imagery every night (both real and fictional) the stories you hear on radio or read in the paper seem to affect you much more strongly. Perhaps it's because you're not as desensitized towards violence as you once were, maybe it's because you have to create the image in your mind yourself. Whatever it is, after the news of the last few days, it's certainly been a mixed blessing.

But I like watching TV, do I really have to give it up?

I don't think so. If circumstances hadn't dictated my current situation I probably wouldn't have stopped watching TV completely either.

My backup plan, if I had managed to acquire decent TV reception again, was to stop watching live television and instead record everything and watch it the next day. That would have worked quite well also I think. You wouldn't bother setting the video for anything but the best programs and you could fast forward through all the commercials. From what I understand TIVO recorders are good for this too but they aren't commonly available here in Australia.

So has giving up TV worked for you?

On the whole yes it has. It hasn't been a magic bullet, I can still find plenty of ways to procrastinate, but the biggest and easiest source of procrastination has been eliminated from my day. As to whether I'll start watching TV again when I've made my fortune I'm not sure. I probably will but I don't think I'll ever become such a slave to the idiot box again.

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.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Do search engines lie?

I checked my blog referral logs this morning and noticed something of interest in the search terms people used to find this site. I've been chuckling about it all morning.

Go to google and search on the words, I am lazy.

As of right now, I come up at number 1 out of over a million matches with this post from back in July.

If google tells you you're the laziest person in the world does that mean it's true?

I should put that on my business card.