There is never a perfect time to start your new software business

So you’ve got an idea for a software product. You think it could be a winner and you don’t want to work for someone else for the rest of your life. When is a good time to start your new venture?

Today.

Yesterday would have been better, but today is the next best thing.

You can always find an excuse to put it off. If you’ve got a well paid job – you don’t want to lose that income. If you’ve got a poorly paid job – you probably don’t have much savings. If you are young you don’t have that much experience. If you are older you probably have a lot more financial commitments.

In truth, there is never a perfect time. If you are waiting for some sort of auspicious planetary alignment before you start your business, you’ll never start it. Life is untidy, unpredictable and complex. I started my company while recovering from emergency eye surgery for a detached retina. That certainly wasn’t how I planned it.

You don’t have to take any big financial risks. It only cost me a couple of thousand pounds (and a lot of hard work) to launch Perfect Table Plan. I plan on launching my new product, Keyword Funnel, early in 2014 for a similar amount of money. There is no need to max out the credit card or risk your house. You just need a computer, some skills, determination and time. If you aren’t prepared to sacrifice a few hours of spare time every week, then you probably haven’t got the drive to succeed at creating a business.

So what are you waiting for?

A code pretty printer product idea

I use QtCreator for my C++ development IDE. It is very good. But it doesn’t always lay out my C++ code the way I want it to. In particular the refactoring operations mess up my white space. I want my code to look like:

void foo( int* x, int& y )

But it keeps changing it to:

void foo(int *x, int &y)

Grrrrrr.

So I am constantly battling with QtCreator to layout my code how I like it. There are plenty of C++ pretty printers around. I played with some of the leading ones using UniversalIndentGUI, but I couldn’t get any of them to layout my code quite how I wanted. Maybe they could have done it, but I got fed up with fiddling with the settings.

What I need is a code pretty printer that I can configure to layout my code exactly how I want without me having to tweak 100 settings.

Ideally I want a code pretty printer that I can train. So I just point it at a few files of my code that are laid out how I want and it works out all my preferences (where to put braces, how to indent case statements, where to put the * for a pointer declaration etc) and can then apply them to any other code. It wouldn’t need a GUI. Or perhaps just enough to select the training files and then preview the results on other files.

I have no idea if this is a viable product idea. But I would pay $100 for it, if it worked well. Perhaps bigger software companies would pay a lot more? Or maybe something like this already exists and I just don’t know about it?

Training course update

I ran my first ‘Start your own software business’ course over the weekend of 23/24 November. It was tiring but enjoyable and, overall, I am very happy with how it went. I think the balance of presentation, questions, exercises and discussions was about right. Thankfully everything went smoothly with the logistics of room, meals, accommodation etc.

Here is what some of the attendees had to say:

Pavol Rovensky“To run your own software business is an aspiration of every programming enthusiast and many professional programmers. Most of them fail without knowing “WHY?”. I’ve known Andy Brice for many years and have met him at several conferences and heard  a lot about his product and working habits. When the information about this course appeared it was the easiest decision in my professional career to sign up. The course itself is delivered with passion and ease, yet the information content is incredibly rich.  The course covers all aspects of Starting a software business and Andy continuously amends the presentation with elements of his own experience and available data from other people. None of the aspects of starting a software business is left uncovered. He definitively gives an answer to aspiring programmers “HOW?” to start and avoid the failure; or fail fast and learn quickly.”
Pavol Rovensky, www.hexner.co.uk

Kevin Horgan“Andy’s ability to imprint the wisdom he has gained through successfully starting and running his own software business is amazing. The course covered a lot of material very quickly and effectively with plenty of time to ask concrete questions, all of which Andy comfortably answered from his experience in the field. I feel I have a much better focus now on where I need to put my time and energy to build a successful software company. The course venue, facilities and overall organisation were also excellent, from booking through to ensuring we finished on time so I could catch my plane. I highly recommend this course if you plan to start your own software company.”
Kevin Horgan, www.balancedcode.com

Anthony Hay“I’m a programmer and I’ve been an employee in other people’s software businesses all my working life. For some time I’ve wanted to create my own product to sell but I’ve found it difficult to evaluate the various ideas I’ve had and get started. Andy’s course is broad and covers all aspects of starting a software business, but the parts covering the early stages of product development were especially useful to me. Andy is a great communicator and I highly recommend this course.”
Anthony Hay, howtowriteaprogram.blogspot.com

“I was lucky enough to find out about Andy’s course in time, and wasn’t sure if it would help me figure out how to work for myself as an independent software vendor — I have the answer now — and it would be an understatement to say it pointed me in the right direction. I now see the possibilities, and the course has given me important insights into how I might go about the transition from ‘working for the man’ to starting my own micro ISV. If you get the chance, do go on the course. It’s well worth it.”
Jason Spashett, jason.spashett.com

“If you’re starting a software business, give yourself a big unfair advantage and sign up for Andy Brice’s course. Andy has spent eight years investigating numerous cul-de-sacs, all so that you don’t have to. Whether you’re working with desktop or web, selling to consumer, enterprise or developer markets, there are pearls of wisdom in there for everyone. Benefit from the advice of someone who’s been there in the trenches – it’s possibly the best investment in your fledging business you can make.”
Justin Worrall

I would like to say a big thank you to the attendees of v1.0 the course. I shall be following 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.

Lifestyle Programming

“A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.” ― Bob Dylan

I am a lifestyle programmer. I run a one-man software product business with the aim of providing myself with an interesting, rewarding, flexible and well paid job. I have no investors and no plans to take on employees, let alone become the next Google or Facebook. I don’t have my own jet and my face is unlikely to appear on the cover of Newsweek any time soon. I am ok with that.

“Lifestyle business” is often used as something of an insult by venture capitalists. They are looking for the “next big thing” that is going to return 10x or 100x their investment. They don’t care if the majority of their investments flame out spectacularly and messily, as long as a few make it really big. By investing in lots of high-risk start-ups they are able to reduce their overall risk to a comfortable level. The risk profile is completely different for the founders they invest in. As VC Paul Graham admits:

“There is probably at most one company in each [YCombinator] batch that will have a significant effect on our returns, and the rest are just a cost of doing business.”

Ouch. The odds of being the ‘next big thing’ are even slimmer (of the order of 0.07%). As a VC-backed start-up the chances are that you will work 80+ hours a week for peanuts for several years and end up with little more than experience at the end of it.

But high-risk, high-return ventures are sexy. They sell magazines and advertising space. Who can resist the heroic story of odd-couple Woz and Jobs creating the most valuable company in the world from their garage? So that is what the media gives us, and plenty of it. Quietly ignoring the thousands of other smart and driven people who swung for the fences and failed. Or perhaps succeeded, only to be pushed out by investors.

If you aren’t going to be satisfied with anything less than being a multi-millionaire living in a hollowed out volcano, then an all-or-nothing, VC-backed start-up crap shoot is probably your only option. And there are markets where you have very little chance of success without venture capital. But really, how much money do you need? Is money going to make you happy? How many meals can you eat in a day? How many cars can you drive? It doesn’t sound that great to me when you read accounts of what it is like to be rich. Plenty of studies have shown that happiness is only weakly correlated with wealth once you can afford the necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing). Hedonistic adaption ensures that no amount of luxury can keep us happy for long. Anyway, if you are reading this in English on a computer, you probably are already rich by global standards.

Creating a small software business that provides a good living for just yourself, or perhaps a few people, isn’t very newsworthy. But it is a lot more achievable. The barriers to entry have fallen. You no longer need thousands of dollars of hardware and software to start a software business. Just an idea, good development skills and plenty of time and willpower. Many lifestyle businesses start off with the founder creating the product over evenings and weekends, while doing a full-time job. I cut my expenses and lived off savings until my business started generating enough income for me to live on (about 6 months). I only spent a couple of thousand pounds of my own money before the business became profitable. There is really no need to max out your credit cards or take any big financial risks.

So how much money do lifestyle businesses make? Of course, it varies a lot. Many fail completely, often due to a lack of marketing. But I know quite a few other lifestyle programmers who have made it a successful full-time career. I believe many of them do very nicely financially. Personally, I have averaged a significantly higher income from selling my own software than I ever did from working for other people, and I made a good wage working as a senior software engineer. Here is a comparison of my income from my last full-time salaried employment vs what I have paid out in salary and dividends from my business over the last 7 years.

lifestyle business incomeBear in mind that the above would look even more favourable if it took into account business assets, the value of the business itself and the tax advantages of running a business vs earning a salary.

Sure, I could hire employees and leverage their efforts to potentially make more money. Creating jobs for other people is a worthy thing to do. Companies like FogCreek and 37Signals have been very successful without taking outside investment. But I value my lifestyle more than I value the benefits of having a bigger business and I struggle to think of what I would do with lots more money. I might end up having to talk to financial advisers (the horror). I would also end up managing other people, while they did all the stuff I like doing. I am much better at product development, marketing and support than I am being a manager.

If you can make enough money to pay the bills, being a lifestyle programmer is a great life. I can’t get fired. I make money while I sleep. I choose where to live. I don’t have to worry about making payroll for anyone other than myself. My commute is about 10 meters (to the end of the garden). I get to see my son every day before he goes to school and when he comes back home. I go to no meetings. I have no real deadlines. No-one can tell me where to put my curly braces or force me to push out crappy software just to meet some arbitrary ship date. When I’m not feeling very productive I go for a run or do some chores. I can’t remember the last time I set an alarm clock or wore a tie.

My little business isn’t going to fundamentally change the world in the way that a big company like Google or Facebook has. But it has bought me a lot of happiness and fulfilment and, judging by the emails I get, improved the life of a lot of my customers as well. And some of those really famous events you hear about in the news (which I don’t have permission to name-drop) plan their seating using PerfectTablePlan.

Of course, it isn’t all milk and money. The first year was very hard work for uncertain rewards. I recently happened across this post I made on a forum back in August 2005, a few months after I went full-time:

“I work a 60-70 hour week and pay myself £100 at the end of it (that’s less than $200). I could make 3x more working for minimum wage flipping burgers. But hopefully it won’t be like this forever…”

I still work hard. I’m not lying under a palm tree while someone else “offshore” does all the work. And I don’t get to spend all day programming. If you want to have any real chance of succeeding you need to spend plenty of time on marketing. Thankfully I have found I actually enjoy the challenge of marketing. But, because I don’t have employees, I have to do some of some of the crappy jobs that I wouldn’t choose to do otherwise, including: writing documentation, chasing invoices, tweaking the website and doing admin. And I answer customer support emails 364 days a year. I take my laptop on holiday, but it really isn’t that bad. Customer support is frustrating at times. But it is very rewarding to know that lots of people are using my software. Overall, it’s a great lifestyle. I don’t miss having a 9-5 job. I wouldn’t even swap my job for running a bigger, ‘more successful’ company.

Interested in starting your own lifestyle software business? Check out my ‘start your own software business’ training course.

3 practical tips for finding software product ideas

software product ideasToo many software products fail because no-one bothered to do basic market research. This is a guest post from Edmundo López B. with some useful advice on finding a viable market niche before you start creating your product.

The process of building software for a niche market is more or less well documented online. The basic workflow I found is (for example here or here):

  • choose some niche (with potential)
  • find out the problems that you can solve in that niche
  • create a product to solve the problem
  • sell it
  • enjoy life :-)

Here are three things you can look for when asking people about their problems.

Ask for the painful tasks that they do, not for the problem you can help with

The people I first talked to were persons that I already knew, so my pitch for them was: “Hello. As you know I’m a software engineer. I’m looking for problems to solve. I want to build software and sell it. And, if I solve a real problem, I’m sure people will pay for it. I was wondering if there is some problem in your business where you need some help. I could create some software, solve your problem and then sell it. I can help you with your problem and you will help me to find my problem.”

The first response was always positive however, everybody I talked to started to look at a problem they thought could be solved by a computer. The problem with that is that people’s vision of computers is very limited. First, some people limit the software I can build to desktop applications or some platform they know well. Second, they try to find problems to give you, and not the problems they really have. For example: one of my interviewees said to me that she needed some kind of tracking system for the expenses of her very small business (a small farm producing eggs). I told her: “Wow, that sounds like a problem I could solve, how are you solving that problem right now?.” She told me: “I’m not, I’m busy bootstrapping the whole business right now. But later I’d certainly like to have something for that.” Of course, if she is not solving that right now, then that is not a real problem. She sort of made that problem up to give an answer to my question.

People have real problems but sometimes they don’t even know they could tackle that problem with a computer. So, the lesson here is that you have to get them to tell you their real problems. Even the ones they don’t think that could be solved by a computer. You are the computer expert, not the people you interview, so you need to find out the real problem out there. Also it doesn’t have to be a problem from the future, it has to be an actual problem now. The question that I found works best is the following: Tell me about your day and what activities are the most tedious and boring to do, but do not add much value to your business. (I’m not the first to come up with this question, but I don’t remember the source, sorry.)

Look for their existing solution and ask what is wrong with it (the Excel spreadsheet)

From the people I interviewed, 2 of them had an Excel spreadsheet that solved their problem in a way that was not the best, but did the job. The third one had plans to solve her problem with an Excel spreadsheet in the future. Joel Spolsky talks about how Excel and other horizontal software are nothing more than glorified data structures. It is true, you can do almost anything involving simple mathematics and tables of data within Excel. Keeping track of costs, sales, etc. are a perfect match for it.

The common engineer will say: “If there is already a solution for that, why roll my own?” The entrepreneur will just ask what isn’t possible with the existing solution and think of ways of improving that. The existence of the Excel spreadsheet is a clear sign that there is a computing problem that can be solved in a better way. I can give you an example. Two of the persons I interviewed showed me their Excel spreadsheets (an architect and an event manager). A common problem was being able to slightly change some prices in a budget and immediately be able to show the old and the new price to the client.  This kind of information is gold to the person creating an application. This is something they use, and if you can save them time using it, you can add value to their businesses.

If there is no Excel spreadsheet, I just try to find software on the net that does what they need. If there is something really good on the market, I don’t want to compete with them. If you are wondering why didn’t I let them do the search, the answer is simple: they do the search using the traditional channels, colleagues and networks of peers; I focus on the Google search. I’m a developer, I can Google for software in a much better way than they do. It took me an hour to do a research on software for architects. Then you can explain to them the pros and cons of the solutions, help them to sign up for a free trial and tell them if their set-up is supported. The golden rule is to be really helpful. It is true that you might end up finding a customer for someone else. But if there is not a good solution, you are finding a niche for yourself.

Do some simple mathematics to see if the problem is worth solving

My last tip is about the financial aspect. Let us say that you finally found a problem that you can solve. It is painful and there is no solution in the market that can solve it in the way people in that niche want. The question to ask now is: “What are people willing to pay for something like this?” I cannot give you an exact answer but I can tell you that it depends on the value you add to your client’s business.

What you want to know is:

  • How much time does it take monthly to do the task you are solving?
  • How much money could be earned in the same amount of time?
  • How much faster would it be to do the same task with your solution?

The basic idea is to convert saved time to saved dollars. Of course, if your solution saves dollars monthly, it becomes an investment for the business. My limited experience showed me that saving people money and pain gets them really excited.

I can give you an example from my interview with the architect. Once again, the problem was something he was solving with an Excel spreadsheet. I asked him how much time did it take and he told me at least three days. Three days of architect’s time means a lot of money. So, if you can help him solve the problem in one day, you are not only saving his money but avoiding pain (because the problem was painful to solve, but  it needed to be done).

Conclusion

Now it’s up to you. Try to put these in practice, and find a niche to build your first product. Please share your thoughts and remarks in the comments.

Edmundo López B. is a PhD student in computer science at the University of Geneva and an entrepreneur in the making. He loves building things, learning new stuff, and  playing classical guitar. He decided to make the jump directly from school to entrepreneurship and shares his journey in his phdsolopreneur.com blog.

Is desktop software dead?

desktop vs webIt’s rare that I chat to other software developers without someone asking me when I am going to do a web version of my seating planner software. Because the market for desktop is dead, right? SAAS apps is where all the action is!

I think the web is a great platform for some products, not so much for others. Let’s look at the advantages of web apps over desktop apps.

Web advantage 1: No installation

You can access a web app from any device that has a browser. No need to install. There is no doubt this is a major convenience. However most desktop utilities can be downloaded and installed in 1-2 minutes with a decent broadband connection. Also you don’t have to keep logging in to most desktop apps, once they are installed.

Web advantage 2: No upgrades

End-users are always using the latest version. This is definitely an advantage for technical support. But it does take away some choice from the user. Perhaps they weren’t ready to upgrade or preferred the old version?

Web advantage 3: Better user insights

You can analyse how users are using your software. This allows you to improve usability and send out tailored lifecycle emails. It is possible to gather similar information for desktop software, but it involves a lot of extra work.

Web advantage 4: Distributed architecture

If you are writing web apps, you get a distributed architecture for free. No need to do socket programming.

Web advantage 5: Less piracy

Cracks and keygens are a fact of life for desktop software vendors. It is easier to protect against piracy with a web app.

Web advantage 6: Cross platform

In theory web apps are cross-platform. Write them once and they can run on any device with a browser. But browser compatibility issues mean it isn’t that easy in practice, especially if you are still forced to support the dreaded IE6. Also there are solutions (such as Qt) that allow you to deploy to multiple desktop devices from a single code base.

Web advantage 7: Subscriptions

Web apps lend themselves to subscription based payment. This is great because you get a more predictable monthly income and potentially get more money from each customer over the lifetime of the product.

So what about the advantages of desktop apps over web apps?

Desktop advantage 1: Responsiveness

Native apps are more responsive than web apps, partly due to lower level access to the machine and partly due to not having to talk to a remote server. However this advantage is eroding as bandwidth and JavaScript performance improves and more work is carried out by the client in web apps (e.g. using Ajax).

Desktop advantage 2: Reduced hosting costs

The costs of hosting a website for a desktop app is minimal. Typically you just need to serve a few pages and a download file to each visitor. They then won’t need to come back until there is an upgrade. But hosting costs can be significant for a web app, particularly if the app requires large amounts of bandwidth or compute power.

Desktop advantage 3: Better access to hardware

Desktop apps can make better use of the hardware available. For example, you can generally do printing a lot better from a desktop app.

Desktop advantage 4: Better development tools

The old joke is that JavaScript is to Java as the Taj Mahal curry restaurant is to the Taj Mahal. As a C++ developer I am used to working with a fully fledged IDE, debugger, profiler, static analyser and runtime coverage analyser. I tried some JavaScript development recently. Ugh. The development tools seemed very primitive and  JavaScript is a language so hideous that surely even it’s mother couldn’t love it. No classes, no strong typing, no templates and broken scoping. However frameworks such as jQuery have made JavaScript much more accessible over recent years.

Desktop advantage 5: Psychological

Many people feel that anything web-based should be free. Psychologically customers seem more ready to pay for desktop software. Perhaps they feel a greater sense of ownership. This perception is gradually changing for B2B, but I think it is still prevalent for B2C.

Desktop advantage 6: Privacy

Many customers don’t feel confident storing important and confidential information on third-party servers.

Desktop advantage 7: Availability

You can’t use a web app unless the server is up and you have an Internet connection. A desktop app installed on your local machine is always available. You can continue to use it, even if the vendor goes out of business.

Desktop advantage 8: Up-front payment

Desktop apps lend themselves to a single, up-front payment. This is great because you get all the money straight away, improving your cash flow.

So I have come up with similar number of advantages for web apps and for desktop apps. Which is better? It depends, of course. For my particular application, I think a desktop app still has significant advantages:

  • My software can render and zoom in and out of large floor plans better than my web based competitors.
  • I use a genetic algorithm to assign guests to seats. It makes more sense to use under-utilised desktop CPUs for this, rather than me having to pay for a beefy compute server. The thought of writing a genetic algorithm in JavaScript is too awful to contemplate (although Atwood’s law dictates that someone will, if they haven’t already).
  • I can do printing better than my web-based competitors.
  • Most of my web-based competitors seem very feature-poor. I am sure that is at least partly due to poor tooling for web development compared to desktop development.
  • Most of my web-based competitors give their product away for free in the hope of making some money back on ads. I charge for mine.
  • Seating plans can contain sensitive information, particularly for events with celebrities, royalty and heads of state. Some of my customers don’t want this information transmitted to and stored on third-party servers.
  • If my server goes down then I lose sales. But my customers can continue to use my software. Imagine if they were dependent on my server and it went down (or I went out of business) the day before their big event. It brings me out in a cold sweat to think about it.

But other products are a better fit for the web. If I was writing a collaborative CRUD app, I would almost certainly do it as a web app. I have recently been working on a couple of new products. One is a web app and the other is a desktop app. Horses for courses.

A lot of the money I have spent on software over the last few years has been for desktop software. When I had to choose bookkeeping software, I chose a desktop package because I didn’t want to:

  • pay every month
  • store sensitive financial information on a third-party server
  • risk losing all my data if the vendor went out of business

If I look through the list of useful tools and services on this site I see that 51 of them are web-based and 35 are desktop based. Peldi of Balsamiq reported in 2009 that 77% of their revenue comes from the desktop versions of their software. I asked him if that had changed much and he was kind enough to send me the following graph (myBalsamiq is the web version). You can see that it is still nearly 70% 4 years later.

desktop vs web

The line between desktop and web apps is also becoming more blurred. Many desktop apps now use web protocols and embed web browsers. For example, the Qt toolkit allows you to easily create applications that are hybrids of desktop and web. It is also possible to sell a web app that companies host on their own servers. This adds some of the advantages and disadvantages of a desktop app compared to a web app installed on the vendor’s server (SAAS). Perhaps desktop and web apps will converge to the point where there the whole desktop vs web debate becomes meaningless.

So I think reports of the death of desktop software have been greatly exaggerated. There is no doubt that long-term trends ( e.g. increasing bandwidth and attitude to paying for web apps, for B2B at least) have been changing the balance in favour of web apps for some types of product. Particular those where collaboration is more important than graphics or computer power. But I think there will continue to be plenty of markets where a desktop app is a better choice than a web app for the foreseeable future. In the final analysis, customers care a lot more about how well your software solves their problem, than how it happens to be deployed (if they even understand the difference).

Fixing Qt 4 for Mac OS X 10.9

Mac OS X 10.9 (Mavericks) was released yesterday. And those nice people at Apple made it free, so you can be sure lots of people are downloading it. However Qt 4 apps look at bit strange on the new OS. Look at the text alignment in these buttons:

buttons1The text isn’t centre aligned. It doesn’t look like much of an issue out of context. But it looks wrong when you look at a whole UI. The good news is that there is a simple fix:

#ifdef Q_OS_MACX
    if ( QSysInfo::MacintoshVersion > QSysInfo::MV_10_8 )
    {
        // fix Mac OS X 10.9 (mavericks) font issue
        // https://bugreports.qt-project.org/browse/QTBUG-32789
        QFont::insertSubstitution(".Lucida Grande UI", "Lucida Grande");
    }
#endif

You need to place this code in your main() before creating your QApplication. For more details see this bug report.

With the fix the buttons look like this:

buttons2Much better! There are some console warnings:

CoreText performance note: Client called CTFontCreateWithName() using
name "Lucida Grande" and got font with PostScript name "LucidaGrande". 
For best performance, only use PostScript names when calling this API.

I am not sure how how significant these are.

I have also found that updating to Qt 4.8.5 fixes a printing crash bug in my table plan software. This crash happened when rotated pixmaps were printed from Mac OS X 10.8.

I have seen on forums that Qt 5 is completely broken on 10.9. But I don’t know if that is true.