Hyper Plan v1 launched

Hyper PlanI quietly launched Hyper Plan v1 yesterday. I thought I would write a bit about the approach I have taken, as it might be of interest to others planning product launches. It is also a good way for me to gather my thoughts for later reference.

Validation

I like the idea of validating a product without actually creating it first. I did that for my start your own software business training course, waiting until I had enough deposits before I actually sat down and wrote the course (all 460 slides of it + exercises). But I didn’t know how to do that with Hyper Plan. Validating software is harder.

No-one was telling me that they needed a better visual planning tool. It was just an idea for a piece of software that I wanted. I could see that a lot of people spend a lot of time sticking Post-It notes to walls. But I couldn’t see any other software quite like what I had in mind. And I had no idea if other people would buy the product I had in mind. So it is quite risky. It would be much less risky to make a variation on an existing successful product. But I just can’t get excited about that. Also I have a steady income from PerfectTablePlan, so I can afford to take some risks.

I talked to various people I knew about my idea. But it was difficult to get far without having some software to show them. Also I didn’t want to ask friends for money, so this limited the value of the feedback. I could have phoned up some businesses and told them “It’s like a planning board, but in software” and asked for some money. But I didn’t really see that getting me far either.

I could have started an AdWords campaign and put up a landing page. But it was hard to describe exactly what the product was going to be. Partly because it was different to anything else I had seen. But also I didn’t know myself! I had lots of ideas and design scribbles, but I didn’t really know what the end product was going to look like in detail without creating it first.

So I decided to build something quickly, iterate on feedback and see what happened when I asked for money (the only true validation). Even if it failed, at least I get to do some programming!

Beta

I started coding on 08-Sep-14. By mid October I had thrown up a website with the first beta version for Windows and Mac. I allowed people to download the beta in return for giving their email address. The beta put up a warning that it would expire on 17-Jan-15. This meant I didn’t initially have to write any trial/licensing code. I made it clear that the plan was to have a commercial version for sale before then. I emailed the list each time there was a new release and encouraged them to send feedback.

I put out a number of beta releases and got some very useful feedback. A lot of the feedback was from fellow mISVs giving me a hard time about the shortcomings of the early UI, but that was still very welcome. The first release was very rough and ready. But it improved significantly in terms of UI and features with each release. I put out 5 beta releases over October, November and December. The world didn’t beat a path to my door, but the feedback was encouraging enough that I kept going.

Building v1

Hyper Plan is written in C++ and Qt and compiles into Windows and Mac binaries. I have written about why I decided to develop it as a desktop tool elsewhere. It is around 20k lines of C++ code. About 100 lines of that code are platform specific, mostly to try to improve the look and feel on Mac OS X.

I also planned the marketing, wrote a quick start guide, created the website and built installers for Windows and Mac. Not bad for 18 weeks, part-time around various other commitments (mostly PerfectTablePlan and a little bit of consulting)! It helps that I was using technology and tools that I have used extensively before.

I have tried to follow my own advice and cut some corners:

  • I did the Hyper Plan logo myself. It isn’t great.
  • The website is fairly basic. I’m not a web designer.
  • I did the website video+voiceover myself. It isn’t great.
  • The software doesn’t have all the features I would like it to have.
  • The software UI could be more polished.
  • There is minimal documentation (just a quick start guide).

I can improve on all of these later. However the software seems very solid, with only 1 crash reported in third party testing (now fixed).

I would have liked to have got to v1 even quicker, but (inevitably) quite a few shortcomings in my original ideas had to be addressed during the beta to make it a useful product. Also, I couldn’t resist a bit of gold plating (animations with easing curves, oh yeah!).

Trial

I decided to go for a fully functional, time limited trial for Hyper Plan on the grounds that the more invested in it people become, the more likely they are to buy it (see this article for a discussion of the merits of different trial models). I didn’t want the standard 30 consecutive days trial, as I know many people install software, forget about it for 30+ days and then can’t continue with the trial. So I went with 7 days of non-consecutive use. I may A/B test longer trial lengths in future.

Pricing

I am a big fan of multiple price points. But I don’t yet know enough to segment the market for this product. So I decided to go with a single price point. I can always split the product into multiple price points later on (e.g. add a more expensive ‘professional edition’), as I did for PerfectTablePlan.

The product is positioned (in my mind at least) as a better alternative to sticking Post-It notes to the wall and a cheaper and simpler alternative to fully fledged project management tools. This rather limits what I can charge for it. I wasn’t sure whether to price the product at $30 (for an impulse buy) or $50 to try to send a signal that it is aimed more at serious users. So I split the difference and went for $40. Also that gives me some room to experiment with discounts. I may experiment with different prices in future.

Ecommerce

Avangate has been doing the payment processing for PerfectTablePlan for some years now and I have been generally very happy with their service. Also they protect me from the horrors of the new EU VAT legislation. So it was a no-brainer to use them as the payment processor for Hyper Plan. They set me up with a separate account/control panel for Hyper Plan.

Expenditure

I haven’t added it all up yet. But the total expenditure to date for Hyper Plan is a few hundred dollars. This was mostly third party testing by testlab2.com, the cost of the hyperplan.com domain (which I have been sitting on for a few years) and fees for sending out email newsletters. I already had icons, a hosting account and a web template from previous projects, so there was no additional cost there. Obviously the opportunity cost of my time is a lot more.

Marketing

Initially I plan to concentrate on:

  • cross-selling to my PerfectTablePlan customers
  • SEO (content + back links)
  • AdWords

Some of the keywords I would like to get traffic on have an estimated top of page 1 bid price of £23 in AdWords. Yikes. But I have a lot of experience with AdWords. Hopefully I can pick up some well targeted and much cheaper clicks with a long tail strategy (using the Keyword Funnel software I developed). Only time will tell.

I have quite a few other ideas that I can try. But I am still very much validating if this product has a market and, if so, what I have to do to get the elusive ‘product-market fit’.  I don’t plan to spend much effort and money on marketing until I have that better figured out.

Version 1 launch

292 people had given their email address to download the beta by yesterday. Most of the sign-ups came from mentions of Hyper Plan in my PerfectTablePlan newsletter, on this blog and on a couple of forums. I didn’t do any paid advertising and, as yet, there is very little organic traffic to the Hyper Plan website.

There was no big launch. No press release. No party. Not even a tweet. I just announced v1 to my mailing list of 292 people yesterday morning. I offered a discount to anyone who purchased a license in the next 7 days. I had absolutely no idea how many sales I would get.

I got 12 sales and a couple of enquiries about organizational licenses yesterday. That is better than I expected for day 1. So I am quietly encouraged that there may be a market for this product. But it is very early days yet. Thankfully I have PerfectTablePlan paying all the bills, so there is no pressure to hit any revenue targets.

Always Be Selling

Obviously I am not going to miss the chance to try to flog you a license, dear reader. Are you interested in visual planning software? Do you know someone that might be? Hyper Plan is very versatile. I have used it for planning Hyper Plan development and marketing, my daily TO DO list and tracking Xmas present purchases. It is also highly suitable for agile/Kanban/Scrum type planning. You can find out more here and download the free trial here.

If you buy a license by the end of 22-Jan-15 you can get 20% off (feel the marketing!). Use the coupon SSWBLOG in the shopping cart to get the discount.
discount

Feedback

If you have any comments on the product or website, I would be happy to hear them.

10 years a microISV

I have been running my own one-man software company for 10 years today. Coincidentally it is also my 49th birthday, so it is perhaps a good time for a bit of reflection.

I did a physics degree and then worked full-time as an employee for nearly 20 years. I developed systems in FORTRAN, C and then C++ for operational research, satellite image processing, printed circuit board design, environmental modelling and distributed systems. I learnt a lot and met some great people, but I yearned to strike out on my own.

I set up my own company in January 2005. I was a techie and had very little experience on the business, sales and marketing side of things. It was quite scary.

I released v1 of my table planner software PerfectTablePlan at the end of February 2005. It was very rough and ready, but I sold my first licence in less than 24 hours. PerfectTablePlan has exceeded all my expectations and is still selling well. I have sold over 40,000 licences with revenue well into 7 figures (£) to date.

I started this blog in April 2007. It has had over 2 million hits to date and has been helpful for promoting my consulting. But mostly I do it because I like writing, when I can find the time.

I started offering a consulting service in January 2008. I have provided consulting to lots of other software businesses, mostly 1 day engagements concentrating on marketing. That has been very interesting and has added some variety to my work. It has also been helpful to find out what works and doesn’t in other businesses.

I ran a weekend face-to-face training course for people wanting to start their own software business in November 2013 and March 2014 in the UK. The course is 460 slides + various exercises. I enjoyed doing it and the feedback was very positive. But it was hard work to get enough people in one place at one time to make it viable. I could do it online, but I think it would lose a lot of the interactivity that made it work so well. I would like to run it again in 2015. Email me if you’re interested.

I released v1 of my AdWords keyword tool Keyword Funnel in March 2014. This was a commercial quality re-implementation of various tools I had written to help myself run my long tail AdWords campaign for PerfectTablePlan. The plan was to produce v1 within a couple of months, part-time. But it ended up taking nearer to 6 months. Feedback became more patchy and ambivalent as I got closer to v1. But, having got that far, I decided to push it out anyway. It didn’t sell well, for various reasons which I might go into in a future post. I also decided I didn’t want to spend all day thinking about AdWords. So I stopped selling it and took the site down. But it seems a shame to have wasted that work, so I may resurrect it later this year as a free product.

I am just about to release v1 of my visual planning software Hyper Plan. I have worked on this part time since September 2014. I am very pleased with how it has turned out. But I have no idea how successful it will be (as was the case with PerfectTablePlan and Keyword Funnel). I think a lot of people could benefit from it, but it is in a crowded market. Watch this space.

I have attended various conferences for small software businesses and spoken at MicroConf (Europe), ESWC and SIC. It is always great to meet other people in the business.

I am a moderator and regular contributor on the Business of Software and bootstrapped.fm forums.

All sorts of strange and wonderful things have happened, including:

  • PerfectTablePlan has been used for some very famous organizations for some very famous events (which I sadly don’t have permission to mention). It has seated royalty, celebrities and heads of state.
  • PerfectTablePlan was used as part of a demonstration of the (controversial) first commercial quantum computer by D-Wave.
  • A mock-up of PerfectTablePlan, including icons I did myself, was used without my permission by Sony in their ‘Big day’ TV comedy series.
  • I got to grapple with some interesting problems, including the mathematics of large combinatorial problems and elliptical tables. Some of my customers are now seating 4,000 guests and 4000! (4000x3999x3998 .. x 1) is a mind-bogglingly huge number.
  • A well known wedding magazine ran a promotion with a valid licence key clearly visible in a photograph of a PerfectTablePlan CD. I worked through the night to release a new version of PerfectTablePlan that didn’t work with this key.
  • I found out that CDs are edible.
  • An early article I wrote for the blog generated 56k hits in a day and got me a mention in the Guardian newspaper.

I employed my wife as bookkeeper a few years back. But decided I didn’t want to take on any other employees. I outsource a few things that I can’t do, but I still do most things myself.

It has been hard work and a bit of a roller coaster ride. But overall, it has been great! I wonder what the next 10 years will bring?

See also:

Lifestyle programming

AdWords Rot

Adwords RotAn AdWords account that starts off making a worthwhile profit for the owner is often neglected and, within a year or two, is losing money. Potentially a lot of money. I have seen it happen again and again. If you are running a Google AdWords campaign, you have to at least monitor it. Better still, actively maintain it. Otherwise the rot will soon set in.

Here is an example of an AdWords campaign that was professionally set up and then left to coast, unmanaged. You can see that the cost per converted click (blue) rose, while the number of conversions (orange) fell a little. The average cost per conversion (trial) rose by a factor of 3 in just 4 years. What was once a profitable account was now wasting a lot of money. Ouch.

adwords conversion graph 2

The main reason for the rot is that Google are continually changing AdWords, and they may opt you in to new features without asking you. For example they automatically opted display advertisers into showing ads in free-to-play AppStore games. B2B business owners were paying thousands of dollars for clicks made by bored children in Flappy Bird and the like. I have seen accounts where thousands of dollars have been spent on these worthless clicks. And these were  small companies. Other reasons include:

  • Your display ads might start showing on a new website where they convert badly.
  • Poor targeting. Perhaps a new product, film or band has appeared with a name similar to your product.
  • Increased competition and bid price inflation can reduce a healthy amount of traffic to a trickle, reducing profitability.
  • Click fraud.

So you really need to keep an eye on your AdWords account. At an absolute minimum you should monitor the number of conversions and the cost per conversion and investigate any unfavourable changes. To keep your account in good shape over time you need to actively maintain it, e.g.:

  • Delete any keywords with poor click through rates (typically I delete keywords with a CTR of 0.5% or less after 200 or more impressions).
  • Delete any keywords with poor quality scores (typically I delete keywords with a QS of 3 or less).
  • Delete any keywords or ads with poor conversion rates.
  • Examine the dimensions>search terms report for negative keywords to add.

You can easily set up filters and get automated reports sent to you to make this fairly painless. These checks should be done perhaps once a week for a new or high budget campaign and perhaps once a month for a mature or low budget campaign. You can also make your life easier by setting up AdWords so that Google is doing most of the heavy lifting for you. For example you can use CPA bidding and you can set the ad rotation setting to Optimize for conversions: Show ads expected to provide more conversions.

A mature account that has been well set-up and has a budget of around $1k per month, probably only needs an hour a month to maintain. Alternatively, if you can’t spare an hour or two a month to manage your AdWords campaign, do yourself a favour and shut it down. Now.

A Business Idea : Individualized Mandelbrot Shirts

Mandelbrot

I have more ideas for business and products than I have the time, energy or skills to pursue. I am throwing this one out there in the hope that someone else might run with it. You’re welcome.

Idea

1. You zoom into a region of the Mandelbrot set you like the look of. You have an the option to customize the colours.

2. You are shown a visualization of what this would look like on a shirt (front and rear).

3. If you like what you see, you click a button to order the shirt, choose your size and pay. It is then shipped to you.

Pricing

The fact you can design your own shirt and there is a vanishly small probability that anyone else will have the same design, means you can charge a big premium. Perhaps £50/$80 for a long sleeve shirt?

Feasibility

The software side of this business is fairly straightforward. After all the Madelbrot set is based on just z=z^2+c and you wouldn’t have to generate a high resolution image for the preview. But I know nothing about the clothing industry. I have no idea what it would cost to individually print a shirt or what printing technology you would use. Perhaps there are good economic reasons why no-one is already doing this (if they are, they aren’t very good at SEO).

I will be your first customer!

Image from Wikipedia by Wolfgang Beyer

Remarketing – does it work?

remarketingIf you go to Amazon and browse watches, you will suddenly notice a preponderance of watch ads everywhere you go on the Internet. This is ‘remarketing’ (also known as ‘retargeting’ or, more colloquially, ‘cyber stalking’). Wikipedia defines it as:

a form of online targeted advertising by which online advertising is targeted to consumers based on their previous Internet actions, in situations where these actions did not result in a sale or conversion.

Given that:

a) It is hard work to get potential purchasers to visit your website

b) some 99% of visitors to a typical website leave without buying anything

It seems to make sense to spend some time and money reminding non-purchasers to come back to your website in the hope that they will eventually purchase.

The basic mechanics of remarketing are:

  1. Sign up with a remarketing publisher such as Google, Perfect Audience or Adroll.
  2. Upload some graphical ads.
  3. Bid to show these ads on other sites.
  4. Add a script on your site which cookies visitors for remarketing.
  5. When your visitor leaves your site and goes to another site in the remarketing publisher’s network, the remarketing cookie is read and an ad is shown (or not, depending on how much you and other advertisers are bidding per impression).
  6. Hopefully people will see your ad, click through and buy your product. Or they may just be reminded to continue the trial, without clicking the ad.

A number of people I have spoken to told me it was very cost-effective. But when I asked how they knew that these remarketing conversions wouldn’t have purchased anyway, I didn’t get a satisfactory answer. It seems straightforward enough to test this: run an A/B test, showing remarketing ads to 50% of your visitors and see what difference it makes to conversions. But an online search and some asking around turned up very little data. The one decent study I found quoted an 18% increase in conversions (yes please!), but was for an ‘e-commerce website’. So, dear reader, I have done the experiment using Perfect Audience for remarketing, Visual Website Optimizer for A/B testing and my table planner software as the subject. Here are my results:

visits sales conversion
rate
Control (No
remarketing )
10,539 162 1.54% (±0.15)
Remarketing 11,137 174 1.56% (±0.15)

So the remarketing showed an increase in sales of 1.6% over 21,676 visits and 336 sales. However it is noticeable that the 95 percentile error bars are rather large compared with the conversion rates. I am only 95% sure that the conversion rates are in the range 1.69% to 1.39% (control) and 1.71% to 1.41% (remarketing). Which means the change in conversion rate could be anything from +23% to -19% (but given normal distribution curves, most likely somewhere in the middle). According to Visual Website Optimizer, we can only be 56% sure that the increase in conversions is a real effect, and not just a statistical anomaly. The graph below shows the convergence of the conversion rates over time (blue is the control, orange is with remarketing).

remarketing experimentIt gets worse when you factor in the cost of the remarketing. I know the value of the sales and the cost of the ads over the period of the experiment. So I can work out that for every $1 I spent on remarketing I was getting around $0.95 back in extra sales. It isn’t looking like a winner for me, especially when you factor in the time taken to set-up and administer it.

Some points to note:

  • Remarketing resulted in 1.8% less installs than the control. This is probably just a statistical anomaly (67% chance of being statistically significant).
  • I choose Perfect Audience based on the recommendation of Rob Walling, who has experimented with Google, Adroll, remarketer.com and Perfect Audience. Unlike Google, Perfect Audience allows remarketing across a wide range of platforms and websites, including Facebook and Twitter. I found their system to be relatively flexible and easy to set-up. But being billed weekly is a bit tedious for my bookkeeper.
  • I showed my ads on Facebook and various websites. I didn’t show them on Twitter as my previous experiences with advertising on Twitter haven’t been great.
  • With remarketing you pay per impression, not per click. I set my CPM (cost per thousand impressions) relatively low. I ended up averaging $1.55 for web ads and $1.14 for Facebook ads.
  • Click through rates were miserable, averaging just 0.051% for both web and Facebook ads.
  • The average cost per click was $2.58. This is a lot more than I pay per click on Adwords.
  • I remarketed to people that arrived on my home page. I stopped targeting them after 30 days or after they had purchased.
  • I didn’t remarket to visitors from developing countries, as they very rarely buy my software. Had I remarketed to visitors from every country the remarketing conversion rate would probably have been slightly higher, but the ad costs would have been significantly higher.
  • I didn’t get any complaints from customers about being ‘stalked’.
  • I just knocked up some ad graphics myself (examples below). I got the idea for an attention-grabbing ugly ad here. It didn’t perform well though.

buy_image_ad_300x250

ugly handwriting 300x250 3I probably could probably improve the ROI on remarketing with some experimentation. E.g.:

  • Trying professionally designed ads.
  • Trying different bids.
  • Experimenting with only showing ads to people who have installed the trial vs only showing ads to people who haven’t installed the trial.

But it doesn’t really seem worth the opportunity cost given the results to date.

Of course, my experiment is just one data point. Remarketing might work better for you if you have a higher average lifetime value for a customer (many of my customers buy the $30 version of PerfectTablePlan for their wedding and never purchase from me again). If you have a B2B product with an average lifetime value in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, it is probably worth a try. You will have to run your own A/B test to find out. If you do, please let me know what the results are.

Hyper Plan update

I have been working hard on Hyper Plan, my new visual planning software. I have put out several releases since my last blog post.

Hyper Plan v0.7

Improvements include:

  • better user interface
  • undo/redo
  • sortable columns in the table view
  • full support for dates
  • export to CSV/PDF/PNG/JPG
  • printing
  • open recent files
  • auto save
  • bug fixes

Many of the improvements have been based on user feedback (thanks!).

Hyper Plan can be used for a wide range of planning/scheduling/tracking/visualization tasks, including:

  • event planning
  • project management
  • software release planning
  • kanban/scrum/agile planning
  • staff/resource allocation
  • todo list

It runs natively on Windows and Mac OS X. If you need to distribute your plan across multiple machines, you can use DropBox.com or similar.

I am planning to release a paid version in 2015. Until then you can use the beta version completely free and unrestricted. Please give it a try and let me know what you think.

Try Hyper Plan now!

My new product : Hyper Plan

scrum kanbanI have just launched a new product. First some back story. A few years ago, my wife and I were renovating the house we live in now. Trying to schedule and track all the different tasks, tradesmen and quotes was a real pain. We stuck Post-it® notes onto a whiteboard to try to keep on top of it all. The Post-it notes represented the various jobs that need doing. We placed them in columns (representing what stage they were at: needs quote, accepted quote, scheduled, doing, done) and rows (representing the various trades: plumbing, roofing, electrical etc). It worked, but it was far from ideal:

  • I wanted to see status vs trade, status vs room and room vs trade. But changing the layout was a pain, so I had to pick one layout and stick with it.
  • Colours were useful for extra information. But we were limited to just the few colours that Post-it notes come in.
  • There was only limited space to write on the note.
  • My wife couldn’t read my handwriting.
  • We had to use a separate spreadsheet to track the budget.
  • Post-it notes would fall off and get lost after being moved a few times.
  • I ran out of Post-it notes.

That is when the idea of Hyper Plan first occurred to me. It has been burning a hole in my brain for the last 5 years. Now I have finally got around to implementing it.

Hyper Plan is Post-it note style planning, implemented in software. In software you are no-longer limited by the number of Post-it notes you can afford, the amount of wall space you have or the number of colours Post-it notes come in. You can even change the layout and colours with a mouse click. All with animation and easing curve loveliness.

The sorts of planning you can use it for include:

  • project planning
  • planning what is going into your next software release
  • event planning
  • Kanban / Scrum / Agile
  • planning a holiday
  • to do list (I know!)

Anything where you have discrete tasks that you want to be able to categorize (e.g. by person, status or type), schedule or track in a visual form.

Here is a 2:42 minute overview in video form (with audio):

Hyper Plan videoCan’t see the video? Try this mp4 version (10.7 MB).

Hyper Plan is quite different to anything else I have seen. That could be a good thing or bad thing. I am putting out an early beta to try to find out.

Hyper Plan is not currently for sale. I don’t want to take the time to set up all the payment processing and licensing until I am confident someone might actually buy it. The current beta version will run completely unrestricted until 17-Jan-2015. There are Windows and Mac versions. Hopefully a commercial version will be available for sale by the time the beta expires. If not, I will release another free version.

Currently it is very much an MVP (minimum viable product).

  • The UI is a bit rough around the edges.
  • The logo was done in 5 minutes in Word.
  • The documentation is just a quick start guide.
  • Some important features are not implemented yet (e.g. printing, exporting and undo).

But I have tried to follow my own advice and resist foul urges to spend months polishing it (which is hard!). What is there is pretty robust though, and I think it demonstrates the concepts. Hopefully I will know in a few weeks whether it is worth taking the time to polish it to commercial levels.

I would love to know what you think. Particularly how useful you find it for ‘real’ planning tasks. Even responses of the form “I wouldn’t use this because…” are helpful. Please also email a link to anyone else you think might be interested. Particularly if you have ever seen them sticking Post-it notes to a wall or swearing at Microsoft Project! My contact details are here.

buttonFAQ

Q: Why is it desktop, rather than SaaS/mobile?

A. I think stories of the death of desktop software are exaggerated. Also:

  • I can build a minimum viable product much quicker for desktop.
  • Differentiation. Some people prefer desktop apps, e.g. because they don’t have reliable Internet or don’t want to store their data on third party servers.
  • Less competition. Everyone else seems to be doing SaaS/mobile.

I might add SaaS and/or mobile versions later, if there is enough demand. Note that DropBox (or the Google, Microsoft or Apple equivalents) allow you to easily sync a Hyper Plan file across multiple computers.

Q: So it’s Trello for desktop?

A. Not really. I had the basic idea before I ever saw Trello. And I’m not stupid enough to compete with a free tool from the great Joel Spolsky! Trello is great at what it does. But Hyper Plan is different in quite a few ways. In Trello the emphasis is on collaboration and workflow. In Hyper Plan the emphasis is on visualization and planning. Hyper Plan allows you to present your information in lots of different ways with a few mouse clicks. It also has a built in ‘pivot table’ type feature that is much easier to use than Excel pivot tables. This is really useful for totalling effort and expenditure by different categories.

Post-it is a registered trademark of 3M.

The scrum photo is licensed under creative common by Logan Ingalls.