Monthly Archives: March 2011

Success is always one feature away

In my consulting and various other dealings with aspiring microISVs, I notice certain recurring patterns. One of the most common is the belief that it is just one missing feature that is holding back a product from the commercial success it deserves. As soon as that feature is coded the sales are going to come pouring in! When they don’t, then maybe it was that other missing feature that our competitor has. It is a horizon that keeps receding until you run out of money or enthusiasm. But, in my experience, poor sales are almost always due to insufficient marketing. A fact that is borne out by these 13 case studies. It doesn’t matter how great your software is if no-one know about it, or if you can’t persuade them to try it when they do find out about it.

It isn’t surprising that microISVs fixate on features. MicroISVs tend to come from a programming background and learn marketing  on the job (I have yet to meet a microISV who started off in marketing and taught themself programming). Features and coding are what we like to do best and it feels like ‘real work’. But all too often the warm embrace of an IDE is just an excuse to stay in our comfort zone. Of course, features are important. No features = no product. But, if you have got low traffic to your website and/or you are doing a lousy job of communicating with people that arrive at your site, then adding more features really isn’t going to help much. If you are in a hole, stop digging. Successful marketing is about being different from your competitors. You can even make a virtue of your lack of features. If you are competing against more feature-rich competitors, then emphasize the simplicity and ease-of-use of your product instead. It certainly seems to work for 37Signals.

Marketing can seem like a very alien discipline for someone from a programming background. But you can learn it like any other skill. There is loads of great information out there, for example Eric Sink’s marketing for geeks. Also, some elements of online marketing are actually quite technical with plenty of opportunites for number crunching. Analytics, A/B testing and Adwords will give you more data than you know what to do with. This can give programmers a considerable advantage over people from a more traditional marketing background, many of whom don’t seem to be able to handle anything more complicated than a 2×2 matrix. You don’t have to be a marketing genius, you just need to be better than your competitors (in the same way that you don’t need to be able to run faster than a lion to survive a lion attack, you just need to be able to run faster than the next guy). Given that your competitors are likely to be other programmers (who are probably also not doing enough marketing) or people from a marketing background (who don’t really understand software and are probably more interested in long lunches) that may not be as hard as you think.

ESWC 2011 registration is now open

Registration is now open for the European Software Conference 2011. It is on 19th-20th November in London, with informal drinks the evening before. This is the top European event for microISVs and other small software businesses. It is always good to meet up with other microISVs and London is a great city to visit, even if only to remind yourself how glad you are you don’t live in a big city. The early bird rates are just 55 Euros (with no meals) and 155 Euros (including 2 networking dinners). The schedule is still being fleshed out. I will be doing a talk, provisionally titled “Promoting your software”. Watch this space for more details. There are still some spare speaking slots. It would be nice to see some new faces doing talks, so why not volunteer?

Sadly there might not be a Software Industry Conference this year. But if you are based in the USA you might want to consider MicroConf 2011 in Vegas 6th-7th June. There is also Business of Software 2011 in Boston 24th-26th October, but I think this is aimed more at larger software companies (or those that want to be larger software companies).

Is it possible to run a successful software business with a 4 hour work week?

Tim Ferriss’ ‘Four Hour Work Week’ is a thought provoking, but controversial, book. One of the central ideas he promotes is that you should be able to use outsourcing to create a money making business (‘muse’) that you can run in only a few hours per week. Leaving you with enough free time and income to travel the world, learn to tango or otherwise amuse yourself. But I am highly sceptical that anyone can sustain, let alone grow, a software business long term, working only 4 hours per week. I have run my own business working less than 10 hours week for a month or two at a time while travelling or doing house renovations. But it only gave me enough time to keep things ticking over. I wasn’t able to improve my product or marketing. I am sure my business would decline in the face of technological changes and hungrier competitors if I kept this up for too long. I have spoken to other owners of small software businesses and they were of a similar opinion.

So I was interested to see a case study on the Four Hour Work Week blog from someone running a software business. Brandon Pearce owns musicsteachershelper.com, a slick-looking web based app for music teachers.

He says that after 5 years he is making $25k in sales per month with $10-12k in expenses per month[1] and no employees[2]. So that is a net profit of around $168k per year. That’s not too shabby, especially when you consider that he lives in Costa Rica and says he works just 5 hours per week. That’s nearly $650 per hour!

But he doesn’t say how many hours per week he worked to build the business. He also says in the case study:

With a complex web application, you can’t write it once and be done; you need to continue making enhancements and listen to user feedback in order to have a successful product.

I couldn’t see how this squared with working only 5 hours per week. Even if you are outsourcing everything you still need to manage the outsourcing, which can be time consuming in itself. I emailed him for some clarification and he was kind enough to give some more details:

It’s hard to give an average time worked over the past five years, since it’s changed so much. The first two years I was also working full-time as a programmer, but spent most of my free time working on the site – probably 10-20 hours per week. Once I quit my job (years 3-4) I worked probably 40 hours per week on the site. The past year or two, it varies from week to week. Some weeks I’ll only work 2 hours on it, some I’ll work more like 15, if I’m preparing for a new feature, special offer, or doing a big launch of some kind. But these days I’m averaging about 5 hours per week, and it’s been that way for well over a year.

Yes, I can definitely sustain and improve profit levels at this number of hours. The business is a well-oiled machine, and I have teams that are working to help continue to improve and grow the business in various ways, largely without my constant supervision. The business continues to grow every month, regardless of how much I work.

What do I spend these 5 hours doing? Mainly reviewing the new features or bug fixes the programmers have been working on, the requests from customers that the support team has submitted, and determining which items I want the programmers working on next. I also spend a little time handling some of the more difficult support or billing issues, paying my workers, managing a few PPC campaigns, answering e-mails, and checking stats. Recently, I’ve also been writing the scripts for some new video tutorials, and finding people to help produce the videos, too.

So, pretty much everything I do at this point could also be outsourced, allowing me to work even less, but at this point, I still enjoy this work, and it allows me to keep some important aspect of control on the business. Some day I may decide to work even less, but I’m pretty happy with 5 hours at the moment. :)

So, unsurprisingly, it took a lot more than 5 hours per week to reach this point. And only time will tell whether he can continue to maintain (let alone grow) this business with such minimal input. It will be an impressive achievement if he can. But I think Brandon is the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps he is particularly talented or lucky. Very few of the successful software business owners I know work short hours for extended periods. Also I have no way to verify Brandon’s numbers. So I would recommend viewing Brandon’s case study as something to aspire to, rather than a likely outcome.

Brandon has a blog and is writing a book about his experiences creating MusicTeachersHelper.com “in the hopes that it will help others who want to do something similar”. It should be an interesting read. Given all the spare time he has it shouldn’t take him long to finish it!

Further reading:

http://brandonpearce.com/2009/02/i-lived-a-4-hour-work-week/

http://brandonpearce.com/2009/04/how-i-spend-my-time/

[1] He mentions the expenses in the comments.

[2] He does use several contractors, some of whom work full time.