There's been a discussion of Micro-ISVs (Independent Software Vendors) kicked off by Eric
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
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,
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
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.