Category Archives: microISV

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.

Why have my sales dropped?

why have my sales dropped?If you spend as much time as I do hanging around forums for independent developers, you will often see questions of the form “I only made X sales today/this week/this month, has something gone wrong?”. There are two distinct possibilities:

  1. Something has changed (e.g. your website is broken); or
  2. It’s a statistical fluctuation.

Rather than guessing, we can use some stats to work out the probability that a drop in sales is just a random fluctuation.

The Poisson distribution gives us the probability of a given number of discrete events occurring in a fixed interval of time (or space), if these events occur with a known average rate and independently of each other. It can be used to investigate the accuracy of v1 flying bombs, the number of 19th century Prussian soldiers kicked to death by horses and the number of South Africans attacked by sharks. It can also be used to calculate the probability of getting <= n sales per day/week/month, if we average N sales per day/week/month.

Poisson distribution

A comparison between the number of PerfectTablePlan sales per day over 90 days (blue histogram) vs predicted by the Poisson distribution (red histogram). We would expect the prediction to become more accurate with more data, assuming nothing else changes. Obviously things do change over the lifetime of a software product, hence the relatively short time span chosen.

Using this online Poisson distribution calculator we can work out some example probabilities:

expected
number of sales
over period
Probability of drop in sales of: 5 10 50 100
>= 20% 44% 33.3% 8.6% 2.3%
>= 40% 26.5% 13% 0.2% 0%
>= 60% 12.5% 2.9% 0% 0%
 = 100% 0.7% 0% 0% 0%

(0% = too small for the calculator to display)

For example:

  • If we average 5 sales per week, the chance of a 40% or more drop in sales (i.e. a week with 3 or less sales) is 26.5%.
  • If we average 50 sales per week, the chance of a 40% or more drop in sales (i.e. a week with 30 or less sales) is 0.2%.

So the less sales we make (or the shorter the period we look at), the bigger the random fluctuations we can expect. If I was averaging 5 sales per week, I wouldn’t be too worried about a drop of 40% in sales for one week. In fact, I would expect it to happen approximately one week in every 4 (running a business that averages 5 big B2B sales a year, must be very stressful!). But if I was making 50 sales per week, a 40% drop in sales should only happen by chance approximately once every 10 years. I would definitely check for other causes.

Assuming it isn’t just a statistical blip, the most likely cause of non-random change is an issue with your website. Rather than waiting for a problem, I suggest you set up continuous monitoring that emails or SMSs you if a problem occurs. There are various services for this. I use free pingdom.com and siteuptime.com accounts. Using 2 different services protects you against one of them silently failing.

If your website is up, what else have you changed recently? Check your analytics for changes and your Google webmaster tools account for warnings. Has traffic dropped (perhaps you been slapped by Google)? Has the number of downloads/trials dropped while the traffic stayed the same (perhaps there is a problem with downloading/signing up)? If you have made a new release, double check there are no major bugs in the installer or software. “It works on my development machine” doesn’t cut it with customers, so check it on a non-development machine or a clean VM.

Don’t assume that random strangers on the Internet will email you to tell you that something is broken. Perhaps 1 in a hundred or a thousand will. The rest will just click the back button. You can improve your odds by having loyal and engaged customers and a clearly displayed email address and/or phone number. But still don’t depend on it. When is the last time you noticed an issue on a website and took the time to report it?

Also some seasonal variation in sales is likely. The pattern depends on your market. Many businesses see a drop in sales in the northern hemisphere summer. But my wedding table plan software sells better in the summer. Hopefully you will know the pattern for your product after a year or two.

Random fluctuations and the lack of visitors to report issues means that it is hardest to tell whether a drop in sales is real when you start out. This is  when you need the sales most, both financially and emotionally. It gets easier as your traffic and sales improves. No one said that life was fair.

Training course update

I ran my second ‘Start your own software business’ course over the weekend of 22/23 March. Here is what some of the attendees had to say:

“I thought I knew most things about setting up and running an ISV but Andy filled in all the gaps and taught me stuff I hadn’t even thought about! I would, without hesitation, recommend this course (which is great value) to anyone thinking of starting a small software company or even an existing company that wants to ensure they give their business the best chance for success. Well done Andy!”
Anonymous (gainfully employed)

Roger Pearson“PC Pro magazine (not easy to impress) gave PerfectTablePlan a glowing review. That gives you some idea of Andy’s talent for programming and marketing. His weekend training program allows the attendees to garner his expertise for themselves and their software projects. Andy knows his subject – his experience is extensive, practical and hard-earned. I have run 2 successful small software business in the past. By attending his course I wanted to find out from someone who was actually doing it today, how I could apply techniques and best practice to my next software project. Did I succeed? Without a doubt. Andy was meticulous in his planning of the event and thorough in his presentation. I couldn’t ask for more. Top marks. I recommend Andy’s course to anyone venturing into the world of running a small software business.”
Roger Pearson

Derek Ekins“I recently attended Andy Brice’s “Start your own software business” course. Andy teaches some very practical skills to evaluate your idea, find if there is a market and launch your product. Behind most of the topics Andy had a story of how this particular lesson was learnt and how he has successfully implemented it. I now feel I am equipped with some practical knowledge of how to launch a software product. Thanks Andy.”
Derek Ekins

I will be following all their progress with interest.

I hope to run the course again in 2014. If you are interested in attending, please fill in the form on the training page.

Twitter Demographics Are Bullshit

twitter demographicsI have been experimenting a bit with promoting my software using promoted tweets. You can target people based on their interests or the Twitter handles they follow. I have chosen the latter approach with the aim of getting people to a) click through to my website and b) retweet (in the hope of more click throughs).

The results haven’t been great, with only 25% of the ‘engagements’ I paid for resulting in clicks through to my website. Here is a direct comparison between traffic from AdWords and Twitter ads to my seating planner software website (data from Google Analytics).

AdWords search
campaign
Twitter sponsored
tweet
Bounce rate 43% 78%
Av. pages visited 3.10 1.48
Av. time on site 1:51 0:40

Ouch. Then factor in that the Twitter traffic cost me 2.5 times as much per click through as the AdWords traffic. Double ouch. But that’s fine. You have do lots of experiments to find out what works. Most of them won’t be successful. This experiment only cost me £150.

However I was a bit puzzled by the ‘interests’ report from Twitter. Here are the top 10 ‘interests’ of the people that were shown my sponsored tweet, as reported by Twitter ads.

twitter demographicsBear in mind that I was targeting various Twitter handles related to the events and wedding industry for Twitter users in the UK, USA and Canada. According to the report:

  • 72% of them are interested in ‘Politics’.
  • 69% of them are interested in ‘Hip hop and rap’.
  • 62% of them are interested in  ‘NFL football’.
  • ‘Weddings’ is way down the list at number 55 with 15%, between ‘Leadership’ and ‘Dogs’.

Hmm, something is a bit fishy here.

I ran some more campaigns to promote my UK training course for people who want to create commercial software products. The ticket price for my course is higher than for my seating planner software, so I thought it was worth persevering a bit more with Twitter ads. Here are the top 10 ‘interests’ for the 3 campaigns I ran.

twitter demographics twitter demographics twitter demographicsBear in mind that this time, I was targeting various Twitter handles related to software development, marketing and entrepreneurship for Twitter users in the UK. We love our comedy in the UK and most of us could stand to lose a few pounds. But I can confidently state that the vast majority of people in the UK know almost nothing about NFL (American) football and care even less. ‘Computer programming’ and ‘Startups’ were waaay down all 3 lists.

Twitters says:

We infer interest from a variety of signals, like the accounts users follow and the Tweets they engage with.

I emailed them to point out that the interests seemed to be highly suspect, but I didn’t a substantive reply.

I can only conclude that either Twitter isn’t doing a very good job of the targeting or (more likely) it really doesn’t understand the interests of its customers and is doing a very poor job at guessing. Consequently I would urge you to be very wary of paying for promoted tweets on the basis of ‘interests’.

The psychology of successful bootstrappers

the psychology of successful bootstrappersI am curious about how the people who bootstrap software businesses are different to the general population, and to each other. I investigated this using a standard (‘big 5′) personality test. I think the results make for interesting reading.

I asked a number of software company founders to complete an online personality test and send me their results. 18 of them did (19 including me). You have probably heard of some of them, however I promised anonymity. We are all founders of bootstrapped (i.e. not VC funded) software product companies and have been involved in programming a significant portion of our products. Most of us are solo founders. Some of us (including myself) are lifestyle programmers, others have employees. We are all successful to the extent that we make a living from our software product sales. None of us are billionaires (Bill Gates probably wouldn’t return my email).

The test measures personality across 5 major axes of personality identified by psychologists:

  • Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved) – how much you derive satisfaction from interacting with other people.
  • Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless) – how careful and orderly you are.
  • Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident) – how much you tend to experience negative emotions.
  • Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. analytical/detached) – how much you like and try to please others.
  • Openness (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious) – how much you seek out new experiences.

See Wikipedia for more details.

For each personality axis I have created a histogram of the results, showing how many founders fit in each 10% ‘bin’ compared to the general population. For example, for extraversion: 0 bootstrappers were in the 1-10 percentile (i.e. least extrovert 10%) of the general population, 1 founder was in the 11-20 percentile, 2 were in the 21-30 percentile etc.

extraversionconscientiousnessneuroticsmagreeablenessopenness

Extraversion Conscientiousness Neuroticism Agreeableness Openness
average (mean) 59.9 61.7 37.6 48.3 50.3
standard deviation 23.0 21.9 23.1 21.1 23.2

If bootstrappers were like the general population we would expect each bar to be the same height, with a bit of random variation, and the average score to be 50. Clearly this is not the case.

We are more extrovert on average than the general population. Although programming is stereotypically a profession for introverts and quite a few of us work alone, you need to get yourself noticed and interact with customers and partners to be a successful bootstrapper.

We are more conscientious on average than the general population. Shipping a software product requires a lot of attention to detail.

We are less neurotic on average than the general population. You need a some self belief and a thick skin to weather the ups and downs of being a bootstrapper.

We are about average for agreeableness. However the scores are not evenly distributed. Only 1 scored above the 70 percentile. Perhaps being too ready to please, rather than following your own vision, is a handicap for bootstrappers.

We are about average for openness. But the scores are clumped around the centre. Initially I was a bit surprised by this result. I expected bootstrappers to be inventive/ideas people and to score well above average. But perhaps the people who score very highly on openness are easily distracted (squirrel!), and never get anything finished.

The 5 personality traits are supposed to be orthogonal (not correlated). Picking some random pairs of traits and drawing scatter plots, that does indeed appear to be the case. For example extraversion doesn’t appear to be correlated with conscientiousness:

extroversions vs conscientiousnessI am aware that this survey suffers from some shortcomings:

  • The test is fairly simplistic. It doesn’t begin to capture what unique and precious little snowflakes we all are. However I don’t think I would have any results at all if I asked people to complete a massive survey. We are busy people.
  • Any survey suffers from selection bias. I am more likely to know other founders who are extroverts (the introverts probably go to less conferences). It is also likely that the people who responded were more conscientious and agreeable than those that didn’t!
  • 19 is a small sample size.

Correlation doesn’t imply causation. So these results don’t prove that high levels of conscientiousness and extraversion and low levels of neuroticism make you proportionally more likely to succeed at bootstrapping a software company. But, given that personality is considered fairly stable over time, it seems unlikely that the success caused the personality traits. However both could be correlated to some underlying factor, e.g. these traits could conceivably make you more likely to try starting a software business, but no more likely to succeed. Or the correlations could conceivably be a statistical fluke. I leave it as an exercise for an interested reader to work out the exact level of statistical significance of these results. It would be interesting to compare these results with those who tried to bootstrap business, but failed. However such data might not be easy to come by.

Given what I know about the trials of starting your own software business I think an above average level of conscientiousness and extraversion and a low level of neuroticism are a real asset. However it is also clear that the personalities of individual founders vary a lot. So don’t be disheartened if you don’t fit this profile. There are successful bootstrappers who don’t fit the profile. Personality is not destiny. And you can always partner with or employ someone who has complementary personality traits. But if you are a slap-dash, neurotic, who doesn’t like talking to other people, perhaps bootstrapping a software company isn’t for you. A career in government funded IT projects might be more suitable.

I sent a draft of this post to Dr Sherry Walling for feedback. Sherry is particularly well qualified to comment as she is both an adjunct Professor of Psychology and married to well know bootstrapper/micropreneur Rob Walling. Her response (paraphrased a bit) was:

“Your standard deviations are quite large which indicates that there is quite a lot of variability in your data. You would much rather have standard deviations between 0-10 when working with this kind of scale.

From my perspective, the only domain where I would expect significant difference is Conscientiousness. Conscientiousness is an essential bootstrapper trait. I am not sure how a solo founder could be successful if he/she is not naturally conscientious.

There are so many ways to be a successful bootstrapper. A neurotic person can fuel his sensitivity to negative emotions into hard work. A less neurotic person may not have enough anxiety to get up early and get to work. On the other hand too much neuroticism can be very debilitating. I don’t think there is a formula. The combination of factors could vary tremendously with each person, but conscientiousness is the one that seems essential.”

If you want to do your own analysis, the anonymised results are available to download as a CSV file here.

Many thanks to everyone who took part in the test.

You can do the test yourself. You don’t have to give your email address or answer the additional questions at the end. How do you compare?

Coding my way around 100 countries

Running a software company from a laptop while travelling the world sounds like a dream lifestyle. But what is it really like? Steve McLeod was kind enough to share his experiences as a nomadic software entrepreneur.

Running a one-person software company while travelling doesn’t work. And yet I’ve been doing it for years. I’m writing this in Patagonia, in a hotel lobby. There’s pop music playing too loud to fully concentrate. The Internet connection is sketchy; in fact I’m writing this now because the Internet is unavailable again. The chair is not good for my posture. The table is too high for comfortable typing. My productivity is abysmal.

I’m partway through adding a new feature to my software, and doing it in this environment is unproductive. There is a big glacier an hour’s drive from here that I’d rather be viewing. I know that tomorrow or the next day, when I see the glacier, I’ll come back to the hotel too exhausted to code or to deal with customer support.

What does this mean for my business? Low productivity and poorer-than-intended customer support response times, which lead to lower sales. My alternative to spending a decent part of each year travelling would be to stay in my home city, working better, selling more software and earning more money.

Here are some real problems I’ve faced working on the road:

  • In Ukraine my MacBook Pro’s screen stopped working. I didn’t intend to return home for another week. I had to choose between returning home earlier; trying to get the computer serviced promptly in a foreign country; supporting customers for my Mac software for the next week on Windows computer in Internet cafes; or buying a new computer and trying to get all my development tools on it.
  • In Turkey, YouTube was blocked. Which was mostly a good thing for productivity, but as my video demo was hosted on YouTube at the time, I couldn’t monitor it.
  • In Syria, Facebook was blocked. Okay, that was incontrovertibly good.
  • In Turkmenistan there was no Internet in my hotel. Or any hotel, just about, except on age-old computers in one hotel’s inaccurately-named “business centre”. No WiFi in cafes. For a few days my company was getting no attention.
  • Travelling in a shared taxi for hour after hour between obscure locations in Iraq (true story!) left me utterly spent. All I wanted to do after getting into a hotel is to relax. But that customer support backlog is nagging, nagging, nagging at me.
  • Skype is blocked in Qatar and in some other countries. This really ruins the conference call you had planned.
  • In Lebanon I needed to update my product with a critical fix. The Internet at the time in Beirut was so bad, it would take an hour to upload my 20 MB software. An hour! During which time I’m hoping not to get a network disruption, from one of Beirut’s daily 3-hour power outages. My 2-minute scripted solution for building and uploading updates, followed by a 5-minute smoke test turned into a 2-hour task, during which time I need to keep ordering coffees so as to keep the staff happy in the cafe supplying me with WiFi.
  • Coding while sipping a cocktail in a beach-side bar in the Caribbean is difficult. The brilliant midday sun makes the laptop screen hard to read. Actually that doesn’t sound too bad at all.

A very real risk includes getting my computer stolen, which, by some miracle, has not happened yet.

How do I make this running-a-one-person-company-while-travelling thing work? Here’s some things I do:

  • I keep everything in multiple online places. I use DropBox for documents and code. I use GitHub too. Without excuse, everything needs to be recoverable without drama if the computer breaks or gets stolen.
  • I set aside frequent rest periods where I can get through a backlog of harder customer support issues and work on new features or bug-fixes. It is actually nice sometimes to not climb Andean glaciers nor to see orang-utans in Borneo, and instead to do something prosaic like working for a day or two.
  • I try to be disciplined in keeping my customer support inbox empty. When I arrive at a new hotel after a long, dusty trip, before rewarding myself with an ice-cold beer, I’ll force myself to tackle the inbox.
  • In recent months I’ve been outsourcing customer support. I pay my support representative a monthly fee in return for which she deals with what she can handle herself each day. This helps so much.
  • I aim to spend my months in my home city in high-intensity bouts of feature-adding, taking advantage of having a good work environment.
  • I produce desktop software. Not SaaS, which would be terrible to support and monitor in these environments.
  • Moving source control from Subversion (which needs an Internet connection to be usable) to Git has helped a lot.
  • I concentrate on keeping my software as solid as I can, and the user experience as smooth as possible. These two things help reduce the customer support load.
  • I try to keep things in perspective. Yes, getting my computer stolen would be a minor catastrophe. Yes, a sketchy Internet connection is annoying. Yes, some customers might get irritated at the occasionally slow support. But here’s the other side: Three years ago the city I grew up in was destroyed by two earthquakes, killing hundreds and destroying a significant amount of the city. A year before that I suffered a terrible personal tragedy. Do other things matter so much that I should sit at home to keep customers as satisfied as possible?

Although my lifestyle might seem enviable, it can be lonely at times. You don’t realise how nice it is to be able to regularly catch up with the same friends for dinner or a drink until you can’t do this for long periods. Luckily, I often manage to find someone I know well to join me for part of each trip. Here in Patagonia and beyond, my girlfriend is travelling with me for two months or so. I’d not be travelling for so long anymore without companionship.

On the other hand, my one-person software company has enabled me to reach a goal I’ve long had: to travel to more than 100 different countries. I earn a decent income from my work and thousands of customers love my software. And that is enough for me.

Photos copyright Steve McLeod.

Steve McLeod runs Barbary Software, a one-person software company. Barbary Software’s main product is Poker Copilot, hand history analysis software for online poker players on Mac OS X.

Further reading:

Announcing a new date for my ‘Start your own software business’ course

AH111220CO-2000x1297I ran my first ‘Start your own software business’ course in November last year. It was a lot of work to write the course and organize the logistics. But I am very pleased with how it went. I have had a number of enquiries about the course since then, so I am announcing another date: 22/23 March 2014. As previously, the location will be Swindon, England. The course is limited to 10 people (first come, first served) and there is an ‘early bird’ discount if you book by  07-Feb-14. For more details (including comments by previous attendees) go to the training page.