Tag Archives: competition

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.


Centurion tankA couple of years ago I got to drive a Centurian tank. 50 tons of clanking, smoke belching, killing machine. I can only imagine how terrifying it must be for an infantry man up against one of these heavily armed and armoured monsters. But, quite unexpectedly, I felt very vulnerable in the tank. My top lip was exactly level with a big spike of metal that formed part of the drivers hatch – if we had stopped suddenly I would probably have lost teeth. I could hardly move without bashing a knee or elbow on something hard. It was so noisy I could barely hear the shouting of the instructor, perched on the front of the tank only a few feet away. And, with my eyes only a few inches above the hatch, the visibility was poor. The tank was also very hard to drive, requiring an odd mix of finesse and brute strength. Just changing gear is quite an accomplishment for the inexperienced. I also got to sit inside some Russian tanks of more recent vintage and their ergonomics were even more nightmarish. Being inside one of these things on a battlefield, full of fuel and ammunition, a prime target for every enemy tank, aircraft and gun, must have been terrifying. It was a lesson that, what appears as invincible strength from the outside might feel very different from the inside.

  • Your competitor has more staff than you? That means that they have got to make more sales to turn a profit and they spend a lot more time in meetings.
  • Your competitor is better funded than you? That means they are spending more of their precious time and energy dealing with investors.
  • Your competitor’s product has more features than yours? Their product is probably more complex to use than yours.
  • Your competitor is using trendier technology than you? That probably also means they have a lot more third party bugs and issues to deal with.
  • Your competitor is based in a trendy location with better access to talent? That probably means they have to pay higher salaries and office rental and are more likely to get their staff poached.

Strength and weakness can be just two sides of the same coin.

I keep a vague eye on competition to my own table planning software. Over time I have built up a list of over 100 other products whose functionality competes directly with mine or overlaps significantly. New competitors appear fairly regularly. I notice that their website might look a bit more “web 2.0” than mine or their price is cheaper and my heart sinks a little. But, so far, it has never made a noticeable impact on my sales and I quickly forget about them. In fact my sales have gone up every year in the 7 years since I first released PerfectTablePlan. I just keep improving the product, marketing and support, day after day, year after year. While many of these competitors have since fallen by the wayside, with products and websites not updated for several years. Some of them are giving away their products free in the hope of making a few pennies from advertising. Some of them never even launched. Those that are still active are targeting rather different niches to my software.

Many companies respond to competition by trying to copy their competitors feature for feature. This is almost certainly a mistake. You will always be at least one step behind them. It is much better to listen to your customers and innovate. It is certainly a lot more interesting and rewarding. It is also much easier to market a product that is different[1].

There are cases where competitors can be a big problem, for example:

  • markets where there is a strong network effect (I wouldn’t want to compete head on with Ebay or Facebook)
  • markets where you might have to compete with the company that owns the platform (for example a Microsoft Office add-on isn’t likely to last long if Microsoft releases a new version of Office incorporating this feature)

So it is probably better to avoid these types of market, unless you are happy to accept that level of risk. But there are vast numbers of markets big enough to support multiple products. There are some 2 billion people with access to the Internet and they all have different requirements. Even a niche within a niche can provide a decent living for a small software business.

Competition can actually help you. The main competition for my table planning software is Excel and Post-It notes, not other table planning software. My competitors are helping to raise awareness of the fact that there is such a thing as software for table planning. Some of the people whose awareness they raise, are going to search for other software solutions and find and buy my software (thanks!).

So next time you find out about a new competitor, don’t panic. It is natural to focus on their strengths and your weaknesses, rather than your strengths and their weaknesses[2]. But they are probably doing the same, and they may be more afraid of you than you are of them.

In truth your biggest fear should be having no competition. If there is a no-one else doing what you are doing then either you are genius who has found an untapped market or the market doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, it is almost certainly the latter.

Further reading:

‘Choose your competition’ by Eric Sink

[1]This is why adverts for commodity products such as instant coffee and soap powders are so consistently awful.

[2] Microsoft should take note before they ruin a product with 90% of the highly lucrative desktop operating system market in their panic to compete with Apple in the tablet market.

Photo by Alistair Joseph.

Does the world *really* need yet another Twitter client, RSS reader, ToDo list or backup application?

My heart sinks every time I hear a would-be-entrepreneur announcing they have written yet another Twitter client, RSS reader, ToDo list or backup application. Haven’t we got enough of those already? There are more than 1,900 Twitter apps already (possibly a lot more). Somebody probably released another one while I was writing this post. We have passed the Twitter app event horizon, where it is probably quicker to write your own custom app than it is to try and work out if any of the existing apps fulfils your requirements.

Even if you have done something radically new, interesting and different in one of these markets, how are you ever going to get noticed amongst thousands of more established competitors? Wouldn’t it be better to find a market that is currently under-served by software? It may be less fashionable than writing software for other techies, but it will probably contribute more to the sum of human happiness and be a lot more profitable.

There must be thousands of niches where there is a real need for software, but limited competition. You just need to open your eyes to the bigger world around you. It may mean having to learn about an unfamiliar domain. But it is generally much easier for a software developer to learn some domain knowledge about, say, butterfly collecting, than it is for the average butterfly collector to learn to create a software product. Next time you are talking to a non-techie about their job or hobbies, just ask them “Do you use software for that?” and “Is it any good?”. The ideal answers you are looking for are “Yes” (if there are existing software packages, there is probably a market) and “No” (maybe you can do better).