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30 tips for creating great software releases

If a film director is only as good as their last film, then I guess a software developer is only as good as their last software release. In more than 30 years of writing software professionally I have shipped my fair share of releases. For the last 13 years I have been shipping software as a solo developer. Here are a few things I have learned along the way. Some of them are specific to downloadable software, but some of them apply equally to SaaS products.

Use a version control system

I occasionally hear about software developers who don’t use a version control system. Instead they usually create some sort of janky system using dated copies of source folders or zip files. This send shivers down my spine. Don’t be that guy. A version control system should be an essential part of every professional software developer’s tool kit. It matters less which version control system you use. All the cool kids now use distributed version control systems, such as git. But I find that Subversion is fine for my requirements.

Tag each release in version control

This makes it easy to go back and compare any two releases. A bug appeared in the printing between v1.1.1 and v1.1.2? Go back and diff the source files related to printing and review all the changes.

Store your release binaries in version control

I store every binary I ship to customers in my version control system. Many people will tell you that you should only store the source in version control. Then you can use this to regenerate the binaries if you need to. This was sound advice back in the day when harddisks were small, networks were slow, version control systems were clunky (SourceSafe!) and developer environments didn’t change very frequently. But I don’t think it is valid advice now. Harddisks are as cheap as chips, networks are much faster and online updates mean your SDK, compiler or some other element of your toolchain is likely to be updated between your releases, making it impossible for you to recreate an identical release binary later on.

‘Test what you ship, ship what you test’

In an analog system (such as a bridge) a tiny change in the system will usually only cause a small change in the behaviour. In a discrete system (such as software) a change to a single bit can make the difference between a solid release and a showstopper bug. The Mariner I rocket was destroyed by a single missing hyphen in the code. So test the binaries that you plan to ship to the customer. And if you change a single bit in the release, re-test it. You probably don’t need to run all the tests again. But you certainly can’t assume that a small change won’t cause a big problem.

This issue often manifests itself when the developers test the debug version of their executable and then ship the release version. They then find that the two have  different behaviour, e.g. due to a compiler optimization, different memory layout or code inside an ASSERT.

Make each executable individually identifiable

As a corollary of the above, you need to be able to uniquely identify each executable. I do this by having a timestamp visible in the ‘About’ box (you can use __DATE__ and __TIME__ macros in C++ for this) and ensure that I rebuild this source file for every release.

Diff your release with the previous one

Do a quick diff of your new release files versus the previous ones. Have any of the files changed unexpectedly? Are any files missing?

Be more cautious as you get nearer the release

Try not to make major changes to your code or toolchain near a release. It is too risky and it means lots of extra testing. Sometimes it is better to ship a release with a minor bug than fix it near the release and risk causing a much worse problem that might not get detected in testing.

Test your release on a clean machine

Most of us have probably sent out a release that didn’t work on a customer’s machine due to a missing dynamic library. Oops. Make sure you test your release on a non-development machine. VMs are useful for this. Don’t expect customers to be very impressed when you tell them ‘It works on my machine‘.

Test on a representative range of platforms

At least run a smoke test on the oldest and most recent version of each operating system you support.

Automate the testing where you can

Use unit tests and test harnesses to automate testing where practical. For example I can build a command line version of the seating optimization engine for my table plan software and run it on hundreds of sample seating plans overnight, to test changes haven’t broken anything.

If you set up a continuous integration server you can build a release and test it daily or even every commit. You can then quickly spot issues as soon as they appear. This makes bug fixing a lot easier than trying to work out what went wrong weeks down the line.

But still do manual testing

Automated test won’t pick up everything, especially with graphical user interface issues. So you still need to do manual testing. I find it is very useful to see real-time path coverage data during testing, for which I use Coverage Validator.

Use third parties

You can’t properly test your own software or proof read your own documentation any more than you can tickle yourself. So try to get other people involved. I have found that it is sometimes useful to pay testing companies to do additional testing. But I always do this in addition to (not instead of) my own testing.

Your documentation is an important part of the release. So make sure you get it proof read by someone different to the person that wrote it.

Use your customers

Even two computers with the same hardware specifications and operating system can be set up with an almost infinite range of user options (e.g. screen resolutions, mouse and language settings) and third party software (e.g. anti-virus). Getting customers involved in beta testing means you can cover a much wider range of setups.

When I am putting out a major new release I invite customers to join a beta mailing list and email them each time there is a new version they can test. In the past I have offered free upgrades to the customers who found the most bugs.

Don’t rely only on testing

I believe in a defence in depth approach to QA. Testing is just one element.

Automate the release process as much as you can

Typically a release process involves quite a few steps: building the executable, copying files, building the installer, adding a digital signature etc. Write a script to automate as much of this as possible. This saves time and reduces the likelihood of errors.

Use a checklist for everything else

There are typically lots of tasks that can’t be automated, such as writing release notes, updating the online FAQ, writing a newsletter etc. Create a comprehensive checklist that covers all these tasks and go through it every release. Whenever you make a mistake, add an item to the checklist to catch it next time. Here is a delightfully meta checklist for checklists.

Write release notes

Customers are entitled to know what changes are in a release before they decide whether to install it. So write some release notes describing the changes. Use screen captures and/or videos, where appropriate, to break up the text. Release notes can also be very useful for yourself later on.

Email customers whose issues you have fixed

Whenever I record a customer bug report or a feature request, I also record the email of the customer. I then email them when there is a release with a fix. It seems only polite when they have taken the effort to contact me. But it also encourages them to report bugs and suggest features in future. I will also let them access the release before I make it public, so they can let me know if there are any problems with the fix that I might not have spotted.

Don’t force people to upgrade

Don’t force customers to upgrade if I don’t want to. And don’t nag them every day if they don’t. A case in point is Skype. It has (predictably) turned from a great piece of software into a piece of crap now that Microsoft have purchased it. Every release is worst than the last. And, to add insult to injury, it just keeps bleating at me to upgrade and there doesn’t seem to be any way to turn off the notifications.

Don’t promise ship dates

If you promise a ship date and you get your estimate wrong (which you will) then either:

  • You have ship software that isn’t finished; or
  • You miss your ship date

Neither are good. So don’t promise ship dates. I never do and it makes my life a lot less stressful.  It’s ready when it’s ready. I realize that some companies with investors, business partners and large marketing departments don’t have that luxury. I’m just glad that I am not them.

Inform existing customers of the release

There isn’t much point in putting out releases if no-one knows about them. By default my software checks an XML file on my server weekly and informs the customer if a new update is available. I also send out a newsletter with each software release. I generally get a spike in upgrades after each newsletter.

Don’t release too often

Creating a stable release is a lot of work, even if you manage to automate some of it. The more releases you do, the higher percentage of your time you will spend testing, proof reading and updating your website.

Adobe Acrobat seems to go through phases of nagging at me almost daily for updates. Do I think “Wow, I am so happy that those Adobe engineers keep putting out releases of their useful free software”? No. I hate them for it. If you have an early stage product with early-adopters, they may be ok with an update every few days. But most mainstream customers won’t thank you for it.

Don’t release too infrequently

Fixing a bug or usability issue doesn’t help the customer until you ship it. Also a product with very infrequent updates looks dead. The appropriate release frequency will vary with the type of product and how complex and mature it is.

Digitally sign your releases

Digital certificates are a rip-off. But unsigned software makes you look like an an amateur. I am wary of downloading any software that isn’t digitally signed. Apple now prevents you downloading unsigned software by default.  Signing is just an extra line in your build script. It is a bit tedious getting a digital certificate though, so get one that lasts several years.

Check your binaries against major anti-virus software

Over zealous anti-virus software can be a real headache for developers of downloadable software. So it is worth checking if your release is likely to get flagged. You can do this using free online resource virustotal.com. If you are flagged, contact the vendor and ask them to whitelist you.

‘The perfect is the enemy of the good’

Beware second system effect. If you wait for perfection, then you will never ship anything. As long as this release is a significant improvement on the last release, then it is good enough to ship.

Pace yourself

Creating a release is exhausting. Even maths, physics and software prodigy Stephen Wolfram of Mathematica says so:

I’ve led a few dozen major software releases in my life. And one might think that by now I’d have got to the point where doing a software release would just be a calm and straightforward process. But it never is. Perhaps it’s because we’re always trying to do majorly new and innovative things. Or perhaps it’s just the nature of such projects. But I’ve found that to get the project done to the quality level I want always requires a remarkable degree of personal intensity. Yes, at least in the case of our company, there are always extremely talented people working on the project. But somehow there are always things to do that nobody expected, and it takes a lot of energy, focus and pushing to get them all together.

So look after yourself. Make sure you get enough sleep, exercise and eat healthily. Also things may be at their most intense straight after the release with promotion, support, bug fixing etc. So it may be a good idea to take a day or two off before you send the release out.

Don’t release anything just before you go away

There is always a chance a new release is going to mess things up. If you are a one-man band like me, you really don’t want to make a software release just before you go away on holiday or to a conference. Wait until you get back!

Fix screwups ASAP

We all make mistakes from time to time. I recently put out a release of my card planning software, Hyper Plan, that crashed on start-up on some older versions of macOS. Oops. But I got out a release with a fix as soon as I could.

Treat yourself after a release

Releases are hard work. A successful release deserves a treat!


Anything I missed?

 

 

Tracking your sales pipeline

The purpose of marketing is to generate prospects. People who are interested in your product and might buy it. The purpose of sales is to try to convert these prospects into customers. The key difference between these activities is that marketing is one-to-many and sales is one-to-one. Each sales prospect is going to have different questions depending on their requirements, timescales and budgets.

For low cost products there is generally very little selling. You simply can’t afford to spend significant amounts of time engaging with someone who may or may not buy a product with a $30 lifetime value. But for higher price products (typically B2B), sales becomes more important. Sales activities might take the form of answering questions by email or phone, video conferences, quotes, online demonstrations and perhaps even site visits.

Many of my customers purchase from my website without any active selling. But organizations who wish to buy more expensive licences typically have questions about licensing, pricing, functionality, upgrading etc before purchasing. I characterise the stages of selling to these companies as:

  • Enquiry – Someone has expressed an interest in one of my products and typically has questions about functionality, licensing and/or pricing. Initial contact is usually by email.
  • Qualification – I answer the prospect’s questions. If my product isn’t a good fit for their requirements I let them know, as I don’t want to waste my time or theirs or end up with unhappy customers.
  • Quoted – If the prospect looks like a good fit and is still interested I send them a quote.
  • Verbal agreement – The prospect expresses an interest in buying the product. There may be some negotiation over number of licenses, discounts, payment methods, tax etc.
  • Won/Lost/Cold – I either win or lose the sale, or the prospect stops responding (goes cold).

This step-by-step process is known as a ‘sales pipeline’ or ‘sales funnel’.  Different companies use different terminology and a high-value enterprise sale would probably have more stages. But the process is the same in principal – your marketing (SEO, PPC, word of mouth etc) feeds people into the pipeline at one end and a certain proportion will drop out at each stage. Some will end up as customers.

You can take a very ‘hands-off’ approach to sales and only respond to communications that the prospect initiates. But this is not going to get you the best conversion rate from prospect to customer. People are busy and have lots of conflicting demands on their time. One of your response emails might get lost. Their initial contact might leave the company. It seems a pity to let a prospect slip away, just because you can’t be bothered to send a few follow-up emails.

I don’t really want to do a 30 minute online demo if I think I am only going to sell $50 of software (unless I think the feedback might be particularly valuable). But the more a sale is likely to be worth, the more effort I am prepared to put into it. I have found that I can make a pretty good guess at how much a sale is likely to be worth based on the organization they belong to and the initial questions they ask. And these guesses becomes more accurate as they travel along the pipeline.

Note that I am not trying to cajole or pressure the prospect into buying. I am simply trying to provide them with the information they need so they can make the right choice. If I don’t hear anything for a while I will email them something along the lines of:

Did you make a decision regarding purchasing ? Please let us know if you need any further information. We would be happy to call if you would prefer to discuss it on the phone.

If they reply that they aren’t interested or don’t reply after 2 or 3 emails from me, then I stop chasing them. No need to be an asshole about it.

I’m confident that I could increase my conversion rate by following up prospects by phone, instead of emailing them (most B2B prospects include contact details in their sig or are easy enough to Google). But that isn’t something I can summon up enthusiasm for, so I don’t do it. If I was less secure financially, I would be on the phone a lot more.

The issue is then, how to track the various sales prospects so you can follow them up as appropriate? Initially I just tracked sales by having a ‘prospects’ folder in my email client. I would put email from prospects in this folder. Occasionally I would go through the folder and email prospects who hadn’t replied in the last few weeks. If they didn’t reply to a few emails I would move them out of the ‘prospects’ folder. It wasn’t very efficient and there were all sorts of questions I couldn’t easily get answers to, including:

  • What stage was each prospect at?
  • How long was it since I last contacted a prospect?
  • Was there anyone I needed to follow up today?
  • How many prospects were there at each stage in the pipeline? What did I think those prospects might be worth?
  • How were the sales divided into industry sectors (e.g. businesses vs charities vs government)?
  • What proportion of sales was I winning and losing?
  • How did the sales breakdown between new customers and upgrades? Direct sales and resellers?

But it just so happens that my own Hyper Plan product is excellent as sales pipeline software.

I now add a card into Hyper Plan for each prospect that I think might realistically purchase $200 of software or more.

sales pipeline software crm

Store any data about your prospects in custom fields.

I can then very easily slice and dice the data in any number of different ways. For example:

sales pipeline software

Active prospects are automatically arranged by sales pipeline stage and coloured by estimated value. Won/Lost/Cold cards are hidden by a filter. The card with the red highlight is overdue a follow-up call.

sales pipeline visualization

Active prospects are automatically arranged by when we last contacted them (column), when they last responded (row) and coloured by sales pipeline stage.

sales pipeline chart software

Charting the number of prospects at each stage of the sales pipeline.

Sales pipeline statistics software

Charting the number of prospects at each stage of the pipeline, by sector.

This has given me a lot more insight into how I am doing at sales and made me a lot more organized at following up prospects.

A few random things I have learnt about sales over 13 years of running my own software business:

  • Some organizations will buy on the same day they first contact you. Other may take years. Generally the bigger and more famous the organization and the bigger the order, the longer it takes.
  • Organizations sometimes ask for changes to my licensing agreement. I always refuse as it just isn’t worth the expense and stress of getting a lawyer involved. They usually buy anyway.
  • Don’t give additional discounts to ‘value subtracted resellers’. It almost certainly won’t make any difference to whether they purchase or not.
  • Sometimes it is quicker and more effective to talk on the phone, rather than sending lots of emails. But I will generally ask if it is ok by email, before calling.
  • Trying to get video conferencing to work so you can demo your product can be a real headache. Every organization seems to have a different preferred video conferencing solution.
  • Once you are confident your product is the right one for a prospect ask for the sale (‘close’). ‘Would you like to talk about licensing?’ is a not-to-pushy way to move the conversation onto money.
  • You don’t have to be dishonest or pushy. Just give prospects the information so they can make the right decision.
  • Prospects generally won’t tell you that they aren’t interested. They just stop replying to emails.

Hyper Plan is available for Windows and Mac. The Home edition, which has everything you need for sales pipeline tracking, is just $40. Download the free trial and start tracking your sales pipeline.

Deciding what features to implement

This is a guest post from roving software entrepreneur, Steve McLeod.

Each feature you add to your software product takes time to implement, adds ongoing complexity, and is hard to get rid of later. So you need to choose wisely when adding new features.

Here are some tips on choosing which features to implement.

Does your product really need new features?

This question might be surprising, but it is an important one to ask yourself. A software product is never completely finished. There is always scope for improvement. This makes it hard to know when to stop working on it.

If your product is mature and has stable revenue, there might not be much opportunity to increase sales. Adding new features would please some customers, but would not be a good use of your time.

Products that should be considered “done” can still have a large backlog. Don’t be fooled into thinking that your product will only be done once all existing feature requests are done.

Your product might have great potential to grow, but not by adding new features. Perhaps you need to improve your sales and marketing efforts. Don’t use your feature request backlog as an excuse to neglect the other important parts of running your product.

It’s okay to ignore your backlog

Feature request backlogs seem to never shrink. Implementing improvements leads to even more feature requests.

Looking at your backlog can be overwhelming. You’ll see feature requests that are years old. There are others that you intended to implement, but never did. It is okay to ignore these.

Don’t feel that the entire backlog consists of promises that must be kept. Some requests are no longer relevant. Some are from customers who no longer need your product. Some are simply not worth the substantial effort.

Keep your grand vision in mind

Prefer to implement highly requested features. But before you do, make sure each feature fits your long-term plans. Ask yourself:

  • who is your ideal customer? Is the feature relevant to them? For example, your enterprise customers might be asking for “single sign-on”, whereas you are more interested in working with small businesses.
  • will this be an ongoing cost- and time-sink? For example, a particular feature could require HIPAA (a US health industry regulation) compliance, while you have no interest in the extra workload and costs of HIPAA compliance.
  • does this proposed feature agree with your marketing angle?

Each new feature has ongoing costs

Remember that each additional feature comes with ongoing costs in support and complexity. Each new feature is an additional place for bugs to hide, adding to your future workload. Take these future costs into account when deciding if a feature should be added.

Features interact with each other, sometimes in unexpected ways. Even one additional checkbox in a settings panel can lead to ongoing confusion.

Be wary in particular of features that require integration with third party products. For example, many a product owner was burned when Twitter turned off some parts of their public API. Another example is my own experience adding support for connecting to customers’ email inboxes. I then found myself supporting not just my own product’s problems, but those caused by customers’ email service provider.

Sales-blockers are high priority

Not all feature requests are equal. Requests for feature A might come only from long time customers of your product, while feature B is requested only by your trial customers. It sounds ruthless, but you should prioritise the feature requested by trial customers.

When running a business, you do need to care for financial concerns. Take into consideration that:

  • A trial customer is likely to report a showstopper (for them). When you implement features requested by several trial customers, you are likely to increase revenue.
  • An existing customer is likely to report an inconvenience. You probably won’t lose the customer by delaying the improvement they asked for.
  • You need new customers to keep your business healthy.

It is important, of course, to care for existing customers. Don’t take this as an argument to ignore existing customers altogether in favour of potential customers.

Identifying and fixing sales blockers as a matter of priority is especially important for new products. It takes time to find the right balance of features a new product needs to meet the demands of the market.

Prefer the easy things, but not always

Let’s say you are deciding which of two features to implement next. Both feature A and feature B have been requested dozens of times. Feature A will take a week’s worth of work, and feature B will take a month’s work. Which one do you do?

Feature A, right? Maybe not.

Feature A is usually the correct choice. But you’ll be repeating this scenario over and over. Your product will gradually gain many relatively trivial features, while never getting the important features you need to create a compelling product.

Sometimes you need to do the hard work to add the features that are difficult to implement.

Listen to your customers…

Your customers are a great source of ideas for improvements to your product. As they use your product they discover what’s missing and what’s poorly implemented.

Therefore make it exceedingly easy for your customers to get suggestions to you. Consider adding a “Suggest an Improvement” link to your support page and to your help menu, if applicable. This makes it clear to your customers that you are actively seeking suggestions. My experience has been that customers notice these links and use them.

A “Suggest an Improvement” link can be as simple as a “mailto” link. A basic dialog or web form also works well. If you are seeking inspiration on how to do this, look at the “Report an Issue” form linked from the Google Chrome’s Help menu.

Another way to get customer suggestions is by asking them via a survey. This is okay, but it requires people to imagine back to when they last used your product. Us humans tend to be pretty poor at recalling things. It is much better to encourage customers to send suggestions as they encounter difficulties, while it is foremost in their mind.

I found collecting and organizing feedback for my own product, Poker Copilot, to be a pain. So I launched a new product to help manage feature requests. It allows your customers to suggest and upvote improvements for your product.

…and not your competitors

You’ve probably already heard that you should “listen to your customers, not your competitors.” I’m repeating it, because forgetting this can be deadly to your business.

Feature-envy leads us to believe we have to add every feature our competitors offer. Like regular envy, it is best to ignore it.

When your competitor announces a new feature, it can be demoralising. You feel you are falling behind and unable to compete. If the feature looks impressive, you’ll be tempted to add it to your product as soon as you can.

But wait. Have any of your customers actually requested this feature that your competitor added? If not, it is probably because it is not all that useful to your customers.

Your competitor might eventually regret adding that feature, as it turns out that only a small but demanding percentage of their customers use it. By not adding it, you could be giving yourself an advantage.

I’ve discovered that customers often learn about the good features my competitors have. They then tell me that they want these features. Only then do I start considering adding them.

Small tweaks versus major features

I just recommended listening to customers. But be careful of only using customer requests as a source for improvements.

Your customers tend to ask for incremental improvements. Customers are more likely to ask for an additional option in a drop-down menu than they are for a innovative new way to view their data.

If you rely on customer suggestions alone, you’ll never get the innovative new features that can make your product something much grander.

Make sure you balance your customer-contributed requests with your own innovative improvements.

Beware of preferring “pet” features

I just argued in favour of choosing innovative improvements. However this comes with a warning. Innovation can be used to justify poor choices. When you are in charge of decisions for your product, you are in danger of choosing improvements that you find interesting instead of those that have a strong business case.

Be careful. You could spend months working on a feature that is not very helpful to your business.

This is the type of feature that only one customer requested, but because it sounds more interesting to you than anything else in your massive backlog of feature requests, you immediately start working on it.

My own experience with this: I added scripting to a product even though no-one had asked for it and my target customer was not the type of person who would be interested in custom scripting. When I announced the scripting feature, not a single person seemed to use it. I eventually got rid of it.

How do you decide?

The tips I’ve offered you in this article come from my own experience. Do you have tips of your own for deciding which features to implement? If so, please add them in the comments below. I’d love to read them!

Steve McLeod runs a small software company in Barcelona, Spain. His products are Poker Copilot, a desktop analytics app for online poker players, and Feature Upvote, a web app that allows your customers to openly suggest and upvote features they want to see in your product.

How much code can a coder code?

Lines of code (LOC) is a simple way to measure programmer productivity. Admittedly it is a flawed metric. As Bill Gates famously said “Measuring programming progress by lines of code is like measuring aircraft building progress by weight”. But it is at least easy to measure.

So how much code do programmers average per day?

  • Fred Brooks claimed in ‘The Mythical Man-Month’ that programmers working on the OS/360 operating system averaged around 10 LOC per day.
  • Capers Jones measured productivity of around 16 to 38 LOC per day across a range of projects.
  • McConnell measured productivity of 20 to 125 LOC per day for small projects (10,000 LOC) through to 1.5 to 25 LOC per day for large projects (10,000,000 LOC).

It doesn’t sound a lot, does it? I’m sure I’ve written hundreds of lines of code on some days. I wondered how my productivity compared. So I did some digging through my own code. In the last 12 years I have written somewhere between 90,000 and 150,000 C++ LOC (depending on how you measure LOC) for my products: PerfectTablePlan, Hyper Plan and Keyword Funnel. This is an average of round 50 lines of code per working day. Not so different from the data above.

I also looked at how PerfectTablePlan LOC increased over time. I was expecting it to show a marked downward trend in productivity as the code base got bigger, as predicted by McConnell’s data. I was surprised to see that this was not the case, with LOC per day remaining pretty constant as the code base increased in size from 25k to 125k.

loc

Some qualifications:

  • I give a range for LOC because ‘line of code’ isn’t very well defined. Do you count only executable statements, or any lines of source that aren’t blank?
  • My data is based on the current sizes of the code bases. It doesn’t include all the code I have written and then deleted in the last 12 years. I have just spent several months rewriting large parts of PerfectTablePlan to work with the latest version of Qt, which involved deleting large swathes of code.
  • It doesn’t include automatically generated code (e.g. code generated by the Qt framework for user interfaces and signals/slots code).
  • I only counted code in products shipped to the user. I didn’t count code I wrote for licence generation, testing etc.
  • All the code is cross-platform for Windows and Mac, which makes it more time consuming to write, test and document.
  • Programming is only one of the things I do. As a one-man-band I also do marketing, sales, QA, support, documentation, newsletters, admin and nearly everything else. I have also done some consulting and training not directly related to my products in the last 12 years.

Given that I probably spend less than half my time developing (I have never measured the ratio), my productivity seems fairly good. I think a lot of this may be the fact that, as a solo developer, I don’t have to waste time with meetings, corporate bullshit and trying to understand other people’s code. Also writing desktop Windows/Mac applications in C++ is a lot easier than writing an new operating system with 1970s tools.

50 lines of code per day doesn’t sound like a lot. But the evidence is that you are unlikely to do much better on a substantial project over an extended period. Bear that in mind next time you estimate how long something is going to take.

If you have data on LOC per day for sizeable projects worked on over an extended period, please post it in the comments. It will only take you a few minutes to get the stats using Source Monitor (which is free).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choosing a market for your software

The efficient market hypothesis states that “asset prices fully reflect all available information”. If the efficient market hypothesis is true, then you would expect actively managed funds (where fund managers pick the stocks) to do no better than index funds. That does seem to be the case:

“Numerous studies have shown that index funds, with their low costs and ability to closely mimic the returns of markets both broad and narrow, steadily outperform the returns of most actively managed funds.” Wall Street Journal

Unless you have some sort of insider knowledge (which it might be illegal to exploit), you might as well invest in index funds or get your cat to pick your stocks as pay someone else to do it.

But I am interested in a different sort of market efficiency. If you have to pick a vertical market to start a software business in, does it matter which vertical market you pick? If the market is perfectly efficient for businesses, then each vertical will have a level of competition proportional to the size of the market. In that case you should have an equal chance of success whether you decide to write a game, a developer tool, an anti-virus product or a CRM system.

From lots of reading and talking to other software business owners I have come to the conclusion that the market is highly inefficient for businesses. The market vertical you pick has a big effect on your chances of success. It seems to me that the three worst verticals are: games, developer tools and consumer mobile apps.

Games are fun! Writing a game sounds like a blast. Much more exciting than writing software for boring businesses. It has also been getting easier to write games due to the ever improving tools. Consequently, the market for games is totally saturated. The outlook for independent games developers looks grim. Today on the Steam platform there are 12,971 games listed. Even some of the big and famous games developers only seem to survive by forcing their staff to work vast amounts of unpaid overtime.

Pretty much every software entrepreneur has considered creating a software development tool at some point. I know I have. It is a market that we all understand (or think we do). But consequently it is saturated. Software developers are also pretty horrible customers. They are used to using lots of free software. And that tool you spent years developing? They think they can write something better over a weekend.

“Thousands of people used RethinkDB, often in business contexts, but most were willing to pay less for the lifetime of usage than the price of a single Starbucks coffee (which is to say, they weren’t willing to pay anything at all). … Developers love building developer tools, often for free. So while there is massive demand, the supply vastly outstrips it. This drives the number of alternatives up, and the prices down to zero.” Why RethinkDB failed

I wrote back in 2010 what a horrible market the iPhone app store is for developers. Since then the number of apps has increased tenfold to 2.2 million, the average paid app price is a measly $1.01 ($0.48 for games) and some 90%+ of apps are free or freemium.

You should be wary of markets with no competition. But the really high levels of competition in these three markets drives down prices and makes it very hard to get noticed. Obviously not everyone in these 3 markets is failing. It is possible to create a product in one of these markets and be wildly successful (Indie game developer Notch of Minecraft fame springs to mind). But I think the odds are very much stacked against you.

So what market should you pick to maximize your chances of commercial success? Aside from the obvious factors (e.g. something you are interested in and knowledgeable about, something that solves a real problem etc) I suggest avoiding anything considered ‘sexy’ by other developers.

Here is a radical idea – create a software product aimed at women. The vast majority of software is written by men and consequently it tends to cater for men. 50% of the world’s population are women and they buy software too!

Just because a product is not in a ‘sexy’ market doesn’t mean that it has to be boring to create. I have found plenty of interesting usability, optimization and visualization problems to solve while developing my own seating planning and visual planning software products.

Here is a thought experiment. Imagine you are talking to another software guy at a conference and explaining what you product does. If your imaginary software guy says “that sounds cool”, then it’s probably a tough market to create a commercial product in. But if they look a bit surprised or their eyes glaze over, then you might be on to something.

Giving a shit

Sturgeon’s law states that “90% of everything is crap”. He was probably an optimist. Here are some recent examples of the sort of crap I come across day to day:

The school selection website

My wife and I had to select which secondary school we want out son to go to, an important decision for our family. We had to do this via a website created on behalf of Swindon council. I won’t bore you with all the painful details, but only an impressive combination of incompetence and apathy could have produced something so egregiously awful. At the end of the process we got an error message and the promised confirmation email never arrived. We were left feeling confused and angry. Every other parent we spoke to had a similar experience.

The ATM

Feast your eyes on my local ATM:

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Yes, that’s right, the buttons aren’t correctly aligned with the screen, so they have added some shonky visual cues in a feeble attempt to compensate for it. They failed – I have pressed the wrong button more than once. If they couldn’t move the buttons, why didn’t they just change the text positions in the software? I would like to know what sort of horrific set of bad decisions and sloppy planning led to this laughably bad design.

The in-flight meal

Check out this British Airways in-flight meal I was served:

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Behold, the cutlery is in a sealed plastic bag in the pasta. To get at your cutlery you have to open a slippery plastic bag covered in sauce with your fingers, which are now also covered in sauce. Who could have possibly have thought this was a good experience? You might as well just eat the pasta with your fingers. Or stick your face in the plate. Maybe the subliminal message is: if you won’t pay for business class we are going to make you eat like an animal.


You don’t have to look very hard to find crappy design. Badly designed parking buildings, confusing ticket machines, painful to use Sat Navs, packaging that is almost impossible to open, web forms that won’t let you use a space or a dash in a telephone number. I could go on, but I’m sure you could come up with plenty of examples from your own life. The most frustrating thing is that these issues could have been avoided with a little bit of thought and care. I doubt it would have added more than an extra 1% more effort or cost to get them right.

Crappy products and services make everyone’s life worse. Hold yourself to a higher standard. Take pride in your work. Do usability tests. Get feedback from your users. Fix things that are broken. Keep improving. Above all, give a shit.

How to make difficult decisions

When you run a business (even a small business like mine) you have to make a lot of decisions. Many of these decisions are complicated and have to be taken with incomplete information. But you can’t take too long over them, or you will never get anything done. Here are 3 techniques I use to help with difficult decisions.

Break it down

This is a very simple method for breaking a difficult decision down into smaller parts using a spreadsheet.

  • Decide the criteria that are important for the decision. Add a row for each.
  • Add a weighting column. Assign each criteria a weighting in the range 1 to 10, depending on its relative importance to you.
  • Add a column for each option you are considering.
  • Set each criterion/option cell a value in the range 0 to 10, depending on the extent to which the choice for that column fulfils the criteria for that row.
  • Calculate the weighted sum for each column.
  • Choose the outcome with the highest weighted sum.

Here is an example for choosing between 3 different types of hosting:

making difficult decisions

It’s not particularly scientific, but it does force you to systematically break down the problem into smaller parts and justify your decision.

Take the long view

It sometimes helps to stand back and look at the bigger picture. I can think of no better way to do that than to ask a hypothetical (hopefully elderly) future me, lying on my deathbed, which option they approve of. For example, given the choice between adding an innovative new feature to my product or improving the conversion funnel by a few percent, I think future me would be happier that I chose to add the innovative new feature. It is also a useful reminder that many decisions probably aren’t all that important in the grand scheme of things.

Flip a coin

Sometimes you need to make a decision, but you don’t have enough information or the time taken to get that information is going to cost you more than making the wrong decision. In that case, don’t agonise over it. Just roll a dice or flip a coin and move on.