The brutal truth about marketing your software product

badwaterWe tend to hear a lot about software industry success stories. But most of us mere mortals have to fail a few times before we learn enough to succeed. In this guest post William Echlin talks about the hard lessons he has learned about creating and selling software products.

Probably, like you, I started developing my own software application a few years back. I had this dream of working for myself and becoming financially independent. The money side was a nice goal to have but ultimately I was looking for the fulfilment of working for myself. Sound familiar? Well, if it does, you may have learnt many of the lessons I’ve learnt. I don’t mind admitting now that I got carried away. I got carried away with building a test management application to the extent that I forget about many of the key things you need in place to build a successful business.

After a few years work I’d created the leading open source test management application (a product called QaTraq that’s still available on Source Forge but a little dormant). It had cost me time, money and effort. I’d achieved some success with building and marketing a free product. Next stop taking it commercial. This is where it gets brutal.

About a year into leaving a full time job I’m taking the last £1,000 out of the joint bank account. I’m making some sales but it’s damn tough. A few months later and I’m in the supermarket £15,000 in debt wondering if my credit card is about to be rejected for the families weekly shop. You read about this sort of thing in biographies on successful entrepreneurs. These guys take it to the limit and then succeed and make millions. Sounds so glamorous. When your wife, 3 year old son and 1 year old daughter depend on that credit card being accepted believe me it’s NOT glamorous.

Building a business has always been about balancing design, development, sales, marketing, support, testing, etc. When you’re a one man band that’s not easy. You try to do everything. You’re bloody brilliant at building the product. The trouble is, once you want to make a living out of it, that “building” is almost the least important bit. After I’d spent 5 years building my product I stumbled upon one very useful piece of advice. It was a little late for me but maybe it’ll help you….

“Learn how to market and sell before you build your product. Learn these crafts by picking a product that’s already been built and act as a reseller”.

That’s worth reading again (it’s counter intuitive). What’s being said here is that if you can’t market and sell a product (ANY product) then the odds of succeeding with your own product are slim. If you can’t “market and sell” what on earth is the point in wasting all that time, effort and money building your own product? If you’re never going to be able to market it, and sell it, why build it?

So find a product in a slightly different sector and sign up as a reseller. Save yourself the time and effort of building a product and practice marketing and sales with someone else’s product first. Create a web site, develop an ad words campaign and start promoting with social media. Sell the product! If you can’t get the hang of this why bother building your own? If you can get the hang of building your own marketing machine it won’t be wasted effort. If you’re clever and pick the right product / sector you just need to switch the product on your site a year or so down the road. Once you’ve built the marketing and sales engine switch it to sell the product you’re building.

I’m not saying that this is the only way to go about it. I’m just saying that if you don’t have the determination to learn, understand and be successful with marketing and sales early on, then it’s unlikely you’ll succeed with your own product. So why waste time building it. It’s a tough lesson to learn. One I learnt the hard way.

And the specific lessons I learnt the hard way? Well I’d do these things first if I was ever to do this again:

1. Create at least one lead generation channel as an affiliate for another product. That lead generation channel will probably be a web site and as part of that you’ll need to master things like:

  • Google Adwords
  • Social media
  • Email marketing
  • Blogging
  • Link building

All these things take a lot of time. Do you have the determination to learn and execute on all of this?

2. Spend some time in a sales related role. Initially I was working in a full time job whilst building my own product in my spare time. The best thing I did was offer to help the sales team with product demos. I learnt lots from working closely with sales people (I didn’t like them very much, but that’s a different matter) and clients. If you can’t do product demos to clients, or you can’t talk to clients confidently then you don’t stand a chance of selling anything. People buy from people and a product demo is THE place to show case YOU (and the product)

3. Spend time learning about re-marketing. A lot of money goes into getting that initial lead. Don’t waste it! Understand Google’s re-marketing campaigns. These allow you to follow the people that came to your site and continue serving them banner ads on other sites. Understand email marketing once you’ve captured an email address. Yes I hate most of this when I’m on the receiving end. The reality is that it works though. That’s why companies do it (and why Google make so much money). I’ll tell you now that your business won’t survive if you don’t master some of these techniques. And if your business doesn’t survive then every ounce of effort you’ve put into building that application is wasted!

4. Spend time learning about cross selling. A significant amount of revenue can come from cross selling other products. When was the last time you went to a restaurant and they didn’t try to sell you a bread roll? When was the last time you flew somewhere and they didn’t try to sell you priority boarding? For you this might be in the guise of selling your leads to other companies that have complementary products. It might be providing different editions of your application. There are many other ways to add additional revenue streams to your prime product sale. These streams are absolutely critical to the success of your business.

5. Don’t try to become a sales person. You don’t have to be a sales man/woman to sell. Some of the best sales people I’ve worked with are those that just go out of their way to HELP the customer. They understand their niche inside out and have the gift, not to sell, but to HELP. People that are looking to buy something want help. They want an itch scratched or a problem solved. If you can help them with a solution then you’re most of the way towards making the sale. Forget all this rubbish about psychology and techniques to influence people. The best thing you can do is enter the mind set of helping! Go out of your way to help.

I don’t have all of this right by any stretch. I know one thing though. Products don’t sell themselves. And if you’re not prepared to start learning about sales and marketing you won’t sell your product.

It was all a bit ironic for me though. I spent years building my own test management product to help software testers. It even started out as the leading open source solution in it’s market for many years. I mastered SEO and created a great lead generation process (the oxygen of any business). I created a version which I put a price on and sold to companies. I even sold to a number of significant companies. But I just couldn’t do all of it. I couldn’t balance the design, development, testing, marketing, sales, support, etc. It’s brutally painful when this dawns on you.

In the end what I’d really mastered was lead generation. I ended up with a web site that attracted my target audience but failed to sell much. When you realise that, you realise that it’s the product. Nothing wrong with the marketing and sales. It’s the product. There were better products out there. Kind of tough to swallow but as soon as I did, I moved on. These leads, or rather people (because leads are actually real people), were looking for help. I just needed to provide them with the right product and services. So I started reselling other products and providing consultancy around those products on my test management website.

In the end I had one of the toughest bits right. If you get the lead generation right you’ve built a marketing foundation that you can build any type of business around. For me I just wished I figured the marketing piece out before I’d built my product. Now I just work on my marketing. Oh, and I help companies with their software testing and test management. For me at least, it’s much easier this way.

William Echlin has spent 20 years in testing, working on everything from air traffic control systems to anti-virus engines. He had a bad experience in his early childhood trying to effectively manage test cases with vi (he’s still a huge fan of vi but recognises that text files make a lousy repository for test cases). In an attempt to deal with these childhood demons he became a consultant on all things related to test management.

25 thoughts on “The brutal truth about marketing your software product

  1. Kuba

    Wow, William. Your post scared a hell out of me. I was very successful with my previous product, but when the bubble popped I decided to switch my job to something more stable (I thought) – development of computer monitoring software.

    In your post you are blunt, but right. I also focused on development and didn’t research my market first, then I completely underestimated my competition (who’s been earning their names since 1998 even). I don’t know much about marketing my product and that’s what gets me now. I still have ideas and savings for the next few years, but you’ve just wrote down my worst nightmares.

    Haven’t you tried cooperating with other resellers or marketers before, so that you could focus on development only which you were good at? I know personally it’s very hard to find someone trustworthy who will help and not just take your money, but I was wondering if you tried.

    Other thing I thought about is that if you’re good at development why not try to focus on developing other simple freeware software to cross-promote with your main product? I’ve managed to create one already and it was just recently featured on Mashable, but does not blend well with my paid product. At least it gave me a huge boost in high-rank backlinks around the internet. Other thing of course is that you still have to know how to market your free product, but at least it’s a bit easier than spreading the word about commercial one.

    It’s extremely hard being a one man army these days, especially if marketing is not your dream job.

    Thanks for this great post.

    1. wechlin

      Kuba, it wasn’t meant to scare you. After all I did succeed. Just didn’t quite pan out as I’d expected too. I haven’t been in a dilbert cube for the past 2 years so that’s a reasonable indication of success. Will reply to your questions when I get some time later today. Hang in there though.

      1. Kuba

        Thank you, William.

        That’s heart-warming that you didn’t end up in dilbert cube and you ended up successful despite the odds. I think it is inevitable to fail few times and the best thing in self-development is the ability to draw conclusions from your failures.

        I’m also really interested how effective for you is guest-posting in gaining exposure on Google. How often do you tend to guest-blog?

        Truly yours,

  2. UI Architect (@UsableBytes)

    I couldn’t agree with you more on that. In addition to everything you mentioned, if as a product developers we talk to the target audience at a very early stage in an analytical manner and confirm the precise demand, it would allow to cut down the development focus to bare minimum critical things and more importantly minimise the business risk.

    1. aymeric

      Install Google Analytics and start using adwords. You can control how much to spend, and you can see direct effect.

      Work on increasing your CLV (customer lifetime value) and reducing your CPA (cost per acquisition). Once CLV > CPA, you win (it took me a year to reach that point)

  3. aymeric

    Excellent post.

    I have two advices:

    1. Don’t quit your job. Why do so many people fall for the glamourous “all in” scenario? I work three days a week as a freelancer, and the rest I spend on working on my products ( and Things might not move as quickly as if I was full time, but I don’t risk to jeopardize my family’s wellbeing and I can keep doing that forever.

    2. Outsource. Why try to do it all? Work on your business not in your business. I currently have an accountant, a bookkeeper, a web developer, a virtual assistant, a writer and an adwords expert working with me. They are not all working full time, I only pay them when I need them. I strongly suggest you train your outsourcing skills today to learn what can be outsourced, how to express what you need, and where to find the right talent. Get a virtual assistant today starting at $6/hour:

  4. contactsemionix

    I 100% agree with W’s assessment of how unglamorous reality is for most. I am 100% in his situation except my kids are 10 and 7 years old, and I worry most about 2 cars that we have been forced to drive into junk status whilst being out of money. Unlike W. being an American I must also fork out nearly $800/mn to pay for the world’s least comprehensive health care plan. It only kicks in if my wife or I were to be horribly broken apart in something like an auto accident. Otherwise it is cash upfront for the parents doctor visits. Medicare in the U.S., though, is pretty good at covering your destitute kids. So at least when you are going ever deeper into to debt hoping and praying to God that you get your break, you can get you daughter’s terrible tooth pain resolved.

    Where I disagree with W. is his conclusion. Only a partial disagreement – let’s say 50% because his points are good. What I regret is spending all my time building a totally new approach to market research. Something that we have absolutely proven to work via our work with one of the world’s largest consumer product companies. How’s that working for ya?

    For us, the greatest limiter is the fact that without deep personal connections, it is nearly impossible to get into a conversation in which one can develop a lead despite having something uniquely useful. Being somewhat misanthropic, I never wanted to have a big list of friends. I write decent code which makes me happy. Now, though, with a very effective base of code, I desperately need some contacts to initiate a sales conversation. What have I got?


    So, plan to write your code, study for your computer science degree. However, remember the utmost importance while in Uni, to go out every weekend and build deep friendships by buying rounds. Get the minimal passing scores if necessary. Your friends will be much more important than highest marks.

    1. jazzdog

      contactsemionix, you seem to be missing a good deal of the point the author was making: Website, Google Adwords, Social media, Email marketing,Blogging,Link building. If people are looking for your solution, you have a chance at them finding you. And as you find out how they find you, you refine your message, and more people find you. The internet scales better than buying beers for everyone you know.
      Good Luck!

  5. Eric Savina

    Great article! But you forgot another aspect of the hard life of the startup founder: administrative tasks and paperwork. Many developers tend to forget that developing and selling are just the “glory” side of the adventure…

    For my product, as I am more of the administrative guy, with knowledge in marketing, I choose a co-founder with a development background and a hint of design. I believe that it is a good combination and, hopefully, the recipe for a success.

  6. Robert Abela

    Hi William,

    What an inspiring true story!!

    I truly believe that keeping a balance of all tasks is important but marketing should be given a lot of priority in start ups.

    From my own experience I’ve learnt that if you have he best product in the world and bad or no marketing at all, people won’t get to know about you, they won’t buy your product so the business won’t succeed.

    On the other hand, if you have a “good enough” product but very strong marketing, the chances of your business succeeding is very high.

  7. Tom Evans

    Great thoughts. So many tech entrepreneurs that I meet have the expectation that:

    1 – I think my idea is brilliant, and so will everyone else.
    2 – Build it and they will come.

    When I do a workshop, part of my goal is teach them the right approach, but another part is to scare them away from wasting their time and money if they can’t execute on the basic marketing/sales aspects.

  8. Rafal Kochanowicz (@Lucky_Raf)

    Seems like you’ve done ok after all. But getting traffic is only one (very small) part of marketing puzzle. You said yourself that at one time you had been quiet successful with the open source (free) version. But you could not convert that traction into paid version. There are plenty people how can build quiet good traffic and then they are not able to convert it. That is because lead generation is a waste of time if you don’t know how to convert that traffic.
    Then trying to do it all on your own is very difficult in itself. You may be a brilliant web developer, but you will never be that good in business development or marketing for that reason. Simply because there is not enough time to do everything.
    I am marketer and I started to learn some code. Since I know I will never be a good web developer it may be a time wasted for me. But everybody nowadays gives this advice to business people: go and learn how to code.
    In the end both sides loose. Both sides waste the time. I mean business and code side.

  9. Ren

    Thank you for the great post William. I think Mark Cuban once said along the line that every entrepreneur should learn to sell as early as possible. Besides the reasons that you mentioned, being able to sell also helps attract great people, which is critical to build successful company.

    Thanks for sharing!

  10. Robert Walker

    Great article and something for a lot of people to think about. I like your idea of re-selling to see if you have what it takes. However sometimes if your product is good enough, investment will happen and then hiring a sales/marketing person to work with you isn’t un-realistic. If you plan on going alone for a while though then it is a great idea to see if you have what it takes.

    Have shared it around. Many thanks.

  11. John W. King

    Very true. I think most of us start out thinking that creating our product is 100% of the business, but we soon learn that it’s perhaps less than 10%.

    With good marketing people can even sell shoddy products (not saying you should but many large corporations do).

    Conversley the best product in the world with no marketing won’t sell because the people who would buy it can’t find it.

    Good idea about re-selling other people’s products. With so many good developers who aren’t good at marketing, there is probably no shortage of good products to promote if you can get the marketing thing nailed.

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