passive income

Software products are *not* passive income

Some people dream of creating a ‘passive’ income that generates money on auto-pilot while they go and learn tango in Argentina, or whatever their chosen path to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy is. In my experience, a software product is a long way from being a passive income. I know lots of people who own software product businesses. I don’t think any of them regard it as a passive income either.

While on holiday I’ve run my own business from a laptop in less than an hour per day. But the business would start to suffer if I did this for more than a few months. Even if you are not adding new features, software products require significant effort to maintain. Sales queries need answering, customers need support and bugs need fixing. New operating systems will often break things in otherwise stable products (particularly on Mac OS X). And there is always admin stuff to do: tax, accounts and a hundred other things. Marketing also requires ongoing effort, whether it be in the form of A/B testing, newsletters, SEO, PPC or blogging. If you aren’t continually improving your product and marketing, then harder working competitors are soon going to start eating your lunch. You can hire people to do the work for you. But then you have to train and manage those people. And the most capable people have a habit of going off to start their own companies.

There may be some products that can generate passive incomes. Perhaps ebooks, training videos and mobile apps. But I expect they still need significant amounts of ongoing marketing effort if they are going to earn more than pocket money. Remember – if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is…

iPhone 057

How to build a gym in your garden

Human physiology has evolved for a challenging existence on the African savannah. It doesn’t cope well with sitting in front of a computer all day, with high energy foods constantly within easy reach. But going to the gym is a hassle: get your gear together, drive to the gym, get changed, do your workout, have a shower, get changed back, drive home. Even just going for a run means 2 changes of clothes and a shower. I wanted something high intensity that I could do in a few minutes every day. I work from home, so I built a gym in my garden, right outside my office. I posted some pictures of it on social media and a few people asked for details of how I made it. So I thought I would write it up here, in case anyone else was interested.

Construction materials:

  • 3.0m x 0.1m x 0.1m fence posts (2 of)
  • 1.8m x 0.1m x 0.1m fence posts (3 of)
  • 1.2m outdoor pull-up bars with fixings (coach bolts and washers) (3 of)
  • 20kg bags of Postcrete (19 of)
  • 20kg bags of gravel (2 of)

The total cost of all the above was about £240, including delivery of the fence posts and pull-up bars.

You should be able to get the fence posts from any fencing supplier. Make sure they are pressure treated, so they don’t rot away in a few years. Anything narrower than 0.1m x 0.1m might not be strong enough. Anything bigger is going to be pretty unwieldy to work with.

You can buy outdoor pull-up bars from various sources. I got mine here. Make sure the bars and their fixings are either galvanized or powder coated, so they don’t rust. I choose bars long enough that I have the option to do wide-grip pull-ups.

Postcrete is a special form of concrete for fence posts (I think it might be called Quickcrete is some countries). You just add water and it sets solid in minutes. Leave it to ‘cure’ for 24 hours before putting any weight on it. I used 5 bags of Postcrete for each of the 3.0m pull-up posts and 3 bags of Postcrete for each of the 1.8m dips posts. You could probably get away with less, but I preferred to ‘over-engineer’ it. I also threw some old bricks and hardcore into the holes for extra bulk. You can  use standard cement, which is cheaper, but not as convenient.

scan013.jpg

You need to dig your post holes according to the height and spacing you want for the bars, which will depend on your height. The pull-up bar should be roughly the same height as your knuckles with your arms full outstretched above your head. The dips bars should be slightly more than shoulder width apart and level with your lower ribs. If you are very tall, you might need longer posts than I did. The holes should be approximately 3 times the width of the fence posts. Put approximately 0.1m of gravel in the bottom of each hole for drainage. The gravel also helps with getting the posts at the same level.

Digging a 1.0m deep by 0.1m x 0.1m across hole is difficult using a spade. I recommend you use a post hole digging tool. I bought one from building supplier Wickes for £25. The bolts were a bit loose, but once I had tightened them up it was fine. You can also rent them, but 3 days rental was as expensive as buying one new.post hole digging toolDigging the holes is hard work! I did 30 minutes of digging every now and then. Usually when I got fed up with whatever I was working on. Tip: Cover the loose dirt from the hole with something waterproof as it is much harder to move later if it gets wet.

Attaching the bars before you set the posts isn’t practical. Setting all the posts before attaching any bars is asking for trouble. So we alternated setting the posts and attaching the bars.

Setting the posts and attaching the bars is definitely not a one-person job, so I conscripted the family to help. We used rubber bands to hold 2 spirit levels onto 2 adjacent sides of a post, to make sure it was completely vertical (you can also buy specialist post levellers). One person then held the post while the other one added the Postcrete and water. To attach the bars just drill 4 pilot holes into a post and then use a socket and ratchet to tighten the coach bolts onto the washers.

iPhone 040.jpg

I also bought a heavy duty rubber mat and post caps to finish things off.

Normally I only create digital things (software, websites, documentation, blog posts etc) so it was really nice to make something physical for a change. Given my modest DIY skills, I am very pleased with how it turned out. It feels very solid and everything is pretty straight and level. Not bad for a software engineer!

Pull-ups, dips and leg raises cover a lot of the major muscle groups between them. Currently I am trying to do pull-ups and dips on alternate days. I usually do 3 sets of as many as I can, with at least a few minutes rest in between. I also do some negative reps. A negative pull-up is where you jump up and then lower yourself as slooooooowly as you can. This sort of eccentric training is very good for building strength (and also useful if you aren’t yet strong enough to do a pull-up). Just hanging from the bar is good for stretching your back muscles.

Because my gym is right outside my office and only takes a minute or so per set, there is no excuse. I also have a reminder set up in the Balanced app on my iPhone. In a few weeks I have gone from 3 pull-ups to 8 pull-ups (with good form). Once I have improved my strength futher and reached a plateau on those exercises, I may try some more exotic exercises. I hope eventually to be able to do a ‘muscle up’!

Muscle-up

software entrepreneur

Confessions of a bad software entrepreneur

If you read blogs and forums and go to conferences you will soon pick up that there are a number of recommended ‘best practices’ for being a successful software entrepreneur. I don’t conform to many of them:

SaaS product

No. Both my products are desktop based.

B2B market

Not really. Most of my customers are consumers.

Funded

No. I bootstrapped the business from my own savings.

Subscription model

No. My licences are a one-time fee.

Beautifully designed responsive website

No! www.perfecttableplan.com converts well, but it is certainly not beautiful or responsive (a new website is on the way though).

Co-founder

No. Just me.

Delegation

No. I have delegated bookkeeping to my lovely and talented wife (who also proof reads this blog) but I don’t have any employees or virtual assistant and do the vast majority of things myself, including all the marketing, sales, programming, documentation and customer support.

Drip email campaign

No. One day perhaps.

Focus

Not really. I like variety. I have 2 products under active development and also do some consulting and training.

Social media campaign

No. I have long since given up on Twitter and Facebook as marketing channels.

Mastermind group

No. I do talk with my peers in forums, at meetups and conferences, but not in any structured way.

Started young

No. I was pushing 40 when I started my entrepreneurial career.

Endless growth

No. I can’t really grow the business much more without taking on staff or becoming a workaholic. But I am happy just to maintain the current level of sales. [1]

Exit plan

No. I haven’t given it any real thought. I am quite happy doing what I’m doing.

But…

My one-man software business has made me a nice living doing a job I enjoy for more than 10 years. So I guess I must be doing something right. There is no ‘one true way’ to be an entrepreneur. If you have a good product with good support and good marketing, most other things are optional.

[1] Added after suggestion by Tom Reader.

estes-helicat-rocket

Rocket Science

My son, my wife and I have been messing around with model rockets. They seem to be a big thing in the USA, but are a lot less common here in the UK. They are a lot of fun.

I bought the above rocket + launch pad + launch controller kit from a local model shop, with some recovery wadding and 3 class C rocket motors with igniters:

rocket kit amazon.co.uk link

rocket kit amazon.com link

The total cost was £30.

Making the rocket involved a bit of glueing and assembly, but was fairly straightforward. Then we inserted some wadding (to protect the internals from the hot gas of the rocket motor), the recovery parachute and the nose cone with rotors. When it was finished we took it to a big open space, inserted a rocket motor and igniter, put it on the launch pad and used the 9v battery operated remote control to launch it.

We had a few non-launches because the crocodile clips (connecting the launch control to the igniter) touched, causing a short-circuit, or fell off. Not a great design. Once we had sorted that out we successfully launched and the rocket went well over 100 metres in the air. Cool!

In theory the motor should burn for a couple of seconds and then a little explosive charge fires to separate the nose cone from the main body. The main body then floats down on the parachute while the nose cone deploys spring-loaded rotors and auto-rotates down. In theory.  However, in our inexperience, we put in too much wadding and packed it too tightly. Consequently the rocket blew itself apart in mid-air and the parachute and rotors didn’t deploy. We managed to recover all the bits. The parachute was ok, but the rotor blades were too damaged to use again.

A video of our first launch

So we cut off the damaged section and added the nose cone back on to make a new, shorter rocket and did 2 more launches. Being lighter with the same motor it went a lot higher. Possibly over 200 metres!

We made a new rocket from the nose cone and tail of the kit, plus a long cardboard tube and lots of duct tape. We did another 3 launches using C class rocket motors. Even managing to get one successful parachute deployment. However as the new rocket was  heavier it got noticeablely less height, probably less than 100 metres.

A few things we learnt along the way:

  • Don’t force the parachute and nose cone in too hard or use too much wadding.
  • If the parachute doesn’t deploy the rocket can survive hitting the ground at speed surprisingly well. But they make quite a hole in the ground, so you REALLY don’t want to get in the way.
  • Even in light wind the rockets can land a fair distance away. Especially if the parachute deploys successfully. So pick a still day for the launch. You can also cut some extra vents in the parachute to make it fall faster.
  • You need a BIG open space, free from other people, animals and trees. Preferably at least 200 metres across, if you want to stand a good chance of recovering your rocket for another launch.
  • The maximum height of your rocket depends critically on the thrust to weight ratio.

Hopefully it goes without saying that pyrotechnics and objects travelling at high speed are potentially dangerous and require common sense and adult supervision.

Being a software geek with a physics background I couldn’t resist doing a few calculations. Here is a little Python script I wrote to calculate the maximum height and flight time based on the mass of the rocket and the thrust and duration of the motor. It applies a simple time-step approach to F=ma. Just modify the mass, thrust and duration variables.

rocket science codeIt assumes the rocket goes straight up and doesn’t allow for air resistance. But the values it calculates seem fairly plausible based on my observations. You can get the code via this link:

Python rocket calculation code

For example with a thrust of 6N for 1.6s I calculate a maximum height of:

Mass (Kg) Max height (Metres)
0.1 388
0.15 156
0.2 78
0.25 43

So you can see how critically important thrust to weight ratio is to maximum height.

Presumably it is possible to derive an analytic solution as well. I leave that as an exercise for the interested reader. ;0)

I think we will try a D-class motor next time (each step up the alphabet doubles the impulse). This seems to be the biggest that you can get hold of in the UK without a license. Watch out passing aircraft.

To infinity and beyond!

Technical Debt

Software products tend to build up ‘technical debt’ over time. Every bad decision, kludge and shortcut made to ‘just get it working’ makes the product more brittle and harder to change in the long run. Technical debt is very hard to avoid unless you know exactly what direction your product will take in the future (unlikely) and you can guarantee that the platform and libraries you build it on won’t change (even less likely). Like real debt, the longer you leave it, the worse it gets. Every so often you need to repay the debt if you want to keep your product healthy. Otherwise it will gradually degenerate into a Big Ball Of Mud.

My seating plan software has been developed continually for over 10 years now. I have done regular refactoring over that time to keep technical debt to a manageable level. For example, early versions of PerfectTablePlan were a bit lax about how memory was managed in the genetic algorithm. This shortcut wasn’t a big deal when the genetic algorithm was solving seat assignments for a few hundred people. But it became a performance issue when it was solving seat assignments for thousands of people. So I had to do a significant rewrite of the genetic algorithm. For PerfectTablePlan v6 I am going to have to rewrite all the remaining code that uses Qt3 classes, so that I can switch the codebase fully to Qt5. Oh joy! Thank goodness for the strong typing in C++. If I can keep the technical debt in check, perhaps people will still be buying PerfectTablePlan in another 10 years.

Technical debt is an inevitable consequence of the fact that software products are a ‘work in progress’ (including the software you are building on top of). The fact that software is never really ‘done’ can be frustrating, but it has its upsides. I was recently in the French mediaeval city of Laon, looking at their beautiful cathedral. I noticed that there were four and a half windows at one end of the transept. Four and a half? On further inspection it was clear that the builders had changed their mind part way through the build and then tried to cover up their mistake. It is still visible some 700 years later. At least we get the opportunity to correct our mistakes and our customers usually never know…

technical debt

South West Bootstrappers meetup No. 2

I am organizing a regular meetup in Swindon (UK) for people who are running (or are interested in running) their own bootstrapped (i.e. not VC funded) software product business for web, Windows, Mac or mobile. Come along and talk shop with other aspiring and experienced bootstrappers.

The next meetup is on the evening of Tuesday 25th August 2015. So far there are 14 of us signed up. You can find out more and RSVP at meetup.com/South-West-Bootstrappers/.South West Bootstrappers Meetup