Tag Archives: market

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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.

15 criteria for evaluating software product ideas

Choosing the right product to develop is crucial. Great execution is also very important. But if you develop a product that no-one wants or no-one is prepared to pay for, then you are going to fail, no matter how well you execute it. You can often tweak a product or its marketing to make it more successful based on market feedback (‘pivot’) .  But the less pivoting you have to do, the better. Below I list some of the criteria I think are important for evaluating the potential of new commercial software products.

1. Are you solving a real problem?

Has your customer got a ‘bleeding neck’? Is your software solving a problem compelling enough that someone is going to download it, install it, evaluate it, buy it and then learn to use it, with the accompanying risks of credit card fraud and malware? It is hard to change people’s habits. They are going to keep doing what they are doing now (e.g. pen and paper or Excel) unless you can convince them your software offers them very significant advantages.

2. How much will people pay for this product?

This is a complex question and depends on many factors. You should be able to get a rough idea by looking at your closest potential competitors. But there are some types of software that people don’t expect to pay for, no matter how difficult or expensive it is to develop – for example web browsers and media players. There are some users who can’t pay – for example children and people in some developing countries. And there are some people who won’t pay – for example many Linux users. So good luck selling a media player aimed at teenage Linux users in China.

3. Is the market big enough?

Is the market big enough for you to make a living? How many people are looking for solutions to this sort of problem? This is less of a problem than most people think. Given the huge number of people with Internet access and credit cards it is possible for a small company to make a decent living from a market that appears very narrow. Narrowing your market also allows you to be much more focussed in your marketing.

4. Can you promote it cost effectively?

How are you going to reach customers: Adwords, SEO, partners, magazine ads, direct mail, social media, affiliates, resellers or other methods? Can you do it cost effectively? How much is each sale from Adwords going to cost you assuming a 1% conversion rate? If it costs you $31 in advertising for each sale of a $30 product, you aren’t going to be in business long. But if you can cross-sell it to customers you already have a relationship with, that is a huge plus.

5. How much competition is there?

If there are lots of established competitors, you may have a hard time getting noticed. Personally I wouldn’t want to go into any market where I didn’t have a reasonable shot of getting to the first page on Google for at least some of the important search terms. For example, I think it would be incredibly tough to succeed with yet another Twitter, RSS, todo list or backup application. Conversely, if there are no competitors, that means that there may be no market. Creating a new market is tough, especially for a small company. Ideally you want a market where there are competitors making a decent living, but you think you can do a better job than them, or at least be different to them in some important way.

6. How is your product different?

Many vendors try very hard to reach feature parity with their competitors. But successful marketing means being different to your competitors. How is your product going to be different? What is your positioning? Note that just being cheaper than your competitors is not enough.

7. How high is the barrier to entry?

How long will it take you to create a minimum sellable product? If the barrier to entry is too high, you may never have the time, cashflow and energy to reach v1.0. As a self-funded microISV I wouldn’t want to work on any product where I couldn’t deliver something sellable (a minimum viable product) within 6 months. Conversely if the barrier to entry is too low, then it will be easy for others to copy your idea if it is successful.

8. Can you reach critical mass?

Some types of applications need a certain number of users before they can take off (network effect). For example, a massively multi-player game, dating site or auction site isn’t going to be very interesting until the number of users reaches a certain threshold. Do you have the contacts and financial resources to reach this threshold?

9. Do you have the technical skills and domain knowledge to create this product?

If not, how long will it take to learn them? Different technologies suit different types of problems. Using an inappropriate technology, just because it is one you have experience in, is unlikely to end well.

10. Are you scratching your own itch?

If you can be your own customer, then this can be very helpful in coming up with a good solution. But be wary about assuming that your needs are the same as everyone elses.

11. What is the lifetime of the product?

Is the technology is going to be obsolete or will the market disappear within a couple of years?  Are customers likely to buy upgrades to new versions? The longer you can sell a product for, the more profitable it is likely to be.

12. Is a good domain available?

Can you get a good domain for your product? Domains that contain keywords that people are likely to search on will help with SEO.

13. What are the risk factors?

Every dependency is a risk factor. If the platform your products runs on dies, then your product dies.  If you are writing an add-on for another product, then you can be put out of business pretty much overnight if the core product dies or if the functionality of your add-on is incorporated into the core product. Can you get source code for third party libraries?

14. Is the passion there?

Good software takes a lot of time and effort. Don’t believe the hype about 4 hour work weeks. Is it going to be interesting and fun? Do you have the passion and commitment to still be working on this product in 10 years time?

15. Will it make the world a better place?

Software products can be an enormous force for good in the world, increasing productivity and allowing people to do things they couldn’t do otherwise. You don’t have to be the next Google to be doing something worthwhile. But creating a “me too” clone of an existing software package or a product that encourages anti-social behaviour (e.g. spamming) isn’t going to make the world a better place.

Making a decision

You need to look at all these criteria before you make a decision. For example, a short lifespan or a small market might be compensated for by a high ticket price. If you are evaluating several products, create a simple table with a row for each criteria and a column for each product and compare them side by side.

Did I miss any important criteria?