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.

11 thoughts on “Success is always one feature away

  1. Software Candy

    Excellent article, as usual, and very true. Success, in the financial sense, is a function of proper marketing.

    Our experience, however, shows that a product that wasn’t very successful immediately from the start, can become very successful after implementing features requested by customers.

    So, sometimes success *is* one feature (or more) away. :)

  2. Hristo - X3MSoftware

    Andy,

    experience taught me the exact same thing. I’ve gone through cycles of trying to improve the product, trying to improve the site, the documentation, but the only results came from marketing.

    I neglected SEO completely for a few years and sales went down. Went from ranking in the top 3, to page 2 for most keywords. Big mistake that I am now trying to correct.

    Now, I am focusing back 99% of my time into marketing (SEO, building new content sites). PPC has become brutally difficult for me, though.

  3. Chuck Brooks

    The best training was trying to learn how to sell face to face without any sales aids other than an order form. A very close second was manning the support desk for an extended period of time. Certainly humbling, byproducts include more openness to consider other viewpoints, listening, keeping things under 25 words and not talking past the sale.

  4. Jiri Novotny

    My experience differs a bit.

    If you are adding features requested by multiple(!) customers or would-be customers, it’s almost a sure bet that it WILL increase sales. You need to use your intuition to know which features to implement and which not, yes. It’s a bit of an art.

    But if you are doing “Why uninstall?” surveys, and 1 user in 10 says that the program is missing feature X, guess what? You are missing probably 30% of sales. (Not just 10%, as majority of people won’t tell you what is missing. Behind every customer that talks to you stands 100 another customers that don’t.)

    Our new major release of Swift To-Do List 7 has more than doubled our sales. But it had more than 100 new features, all of them requested by users in the previous 2 years :) It was a complete rewrite. Cool thing is that once the upgrade sales dropped, new sales kicked in to balance that.

    And by the way, Joel Spolsky says:
    “With six years of experience running my own software company I can tell you that nothing we have ever done at Fog Creek has increased our revenue more than releasing a new version with more features. Nothing.” ( Original post: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/items/2006/12/09.html )

    1. Andy Brice Post author

      Joel and his company are very high profile in his market (developers). He’s doing *lots* of marketing! Also I am mainly talking in this article about products that aren’t selling. If your product is selling ok and you are doing ok with marketing it, then you should probably also be adding features.

  5. Manoj Shinde

    Great article !

    My product Crave World Clock is doing well since last 8 months.

    As far as marketing goes, I learned it on the way. One of thing I did was giveaway. I gave away free licenses to individuals who do not want to pay for the license or do not have money. So it spread the word really well (over 8 months period) and simultaneously gave me a lot of feedback.

    I have made many little changes and tweaks based on the feedback and the result was astonishing. It improved the sales up to to level which I could not imagine earlier.

  6. Samantha

    I am a marketer who learned programming. :) But decided not to dig in to it too much, as my experience and skills are more on the business side. Not in microISV business, though :).

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