I ran my first ‘Start your own software business’ course in November last year. It was a lot of work to write the course and organize the logistics. But I am very pleased with how it went. I have had a number of enquiries about the course since then, so I am announcing another date: 22/23 March 2014. As previously, the location will be Swindon, England. The course is limited to 10 people (first come, first served) and there is an ‘early bird’ discount if you book by 07-Feb-14. For more details (including comments by previous attendees) go to the training page.
I ran my first ‘Start your own software business’ course over the weekend of 23/24 November. It was tiring but enjoyable and, overall, I am very happy with how it went. I think the balance of presentation, questions, exercises and discussions was about right. Thankfully everything went smoothly with the logistics of room, meals, accommodation etc.
Here is what some of the attendees had to say:
“To run your own software business is an aspiration of every programming enthusiast and many professional programmers. Most of them fail without knowing “WHY?”. I’ve known Andy Brice for many years and have met him at several conferences and heard a lot about his product and working habits. When the information about this course appeared it was the easiest decision in my professional career to sign up. The course itself is delivered with passion and ease, yet the information content is incredibly rich. The course covers all aspects of Starting a software business and Andy continuously amends the presentation with elements of his own experience and available data from other people. None of the aspects of starting a software business is left uncovered. He definitively gives an answer to aspiring programmers “HOW?” to start and avoid the failure; or fail fast and learn quickly.”
Pavol Rovensky, www.hexner.co.uk
“Andy’s ability to imprint the wisdom he has gained through successfully starting and running his own software business is amazing. The course covered a lot of material very quickly and effectively with plenty of time to ask concrete questions, all of which Andy comfortably answered from his experience in the field. I feel I have a much better focus now on where I need to put my time and energy to build a successful software company. The course venue, facilities and overall organisation were also excellent, from booking through to ensuring we finished on time so I could catch my plane. I highly recommend this course if you plan to start your own software company.”
Kevin Horgan, www.balancedcode.com
“I’m a programmer and I’ve been an employee in other people’s software businesses all my working life. For some time I’ve wanted to create my own product to sell but I’ve found it difficult to evaluate the various ideas I’ve had and get started. Andy’s course is broad and covers all aspects of starting a software business, but the parts covering the early stages of product development were especially useful to me. Andy is a great communicator and I highly recommend this course.”
Anthony Hay, howtowriteaprogram.blogspot.com
“I was lucky enough to find out about Andy’s course in time, and wasn’t sure if it would help me figure out how to work for myself as an independent software vendor — I have the answer now — and it would be an understatement to say it pointed me in the right direction. I now see the possibilities, and the course has given me important insights into how I might go about the transition from ‘working for the man’ to starting my own micro ISV. If you get the chance, do go on the course. It’s well worth it.”
Jason Spashett, jason.spashett.com
“If you’re starting a software business, give yourself a big unfair advantage and sign up for Andy Brice’s course. Andy has spent eight years investigating numerous cul-de-sacs, all so that you don’t have to. Whether you’re working with desktop or web, selling to consumer, enterprise or developer markets, there are pearls of wisdom in there for everyone. Benefit from the advice of someone who’s been there in the trenches – it’s possibly the best investment in your fledging business you can make.”
I would like to say a big thank you to the attendees of v1.0 the course. I shall be following their progress with interest.
I hope to run the course again in 2014. If you are interested in attending, please fill in the form on the training page.
Too many software products fail because no-one bothered to do basic market research. This is a guest post from Edmundo López B. with some useful advice on finding a viable market niche before you start creating your product.
- choose some niche (with potential)
- find out the problems that you can solve in that niche
- create a product to solve the problem
- sell it
- enjoy life :-)
Here are three things you can look for when asking people about their problems.
Ask for the painful tasks that they do, not for the problem you can help with
The people I first talked to were persons that I already knew, so my pitch for them was: “Hello. As you know I’m a software engineer. I’m looking for problems to solve. I want to build software and sell it. And, if I solve a real problem, I’m sure people will pay for it. I was wondering if there is some problem in your business where you need some help. I could create some software, solve your problem and then sell it. I can help you with your problem and you will help me to find my problem.”
The first response was always positive however, everybody I talked to started to look at a problem they thought could be solved by a computer. The problem with that is that people’s vision of computers is very limited. First, some people limit the software I can build to desktop applications or some platform they know well. Second, they try to find problems to give you, and not the problems they really have. For example: one of my interviewees said to me that she needed some kind of tracking system for the expenses of her very small business (a small farm producing eggs). I told her: “Wow, that sounds like a problem I could solve, how are you solving that problem right now?.” She told me: “I’m not, I’m busy bootstrapping the whole business right now. But later I’d certainly like to have something for that.” Of course, if she is not solving that right now, then that is not a real problem. She sort of made that problem up to give an answer to my question.
People have real problems but sometimes they don’t even know they could tackle that problem with a computer. So, the lesson here is that you have to get them to tell you their real problems. Even the ones they don’t think that could be solved by a computer. You are the computer expert, not the people you interview, so you need to find out the real problem out there. Also it doesn’t have to be a problem from the future, it has to be an actual problem now. The question that I found works best is the following: Tell me about your day and what activities are the most tedious and boring to do, but do not add much value to your business. (I’m not the first to come up with this question, but I don’t remember the source, sorry.)
Look for their existing solution and ask what is wrong with it (the Excel spreadsheet)
From the people I interviewed, 2 of them had an Excel spreadsheet that solved their problem in a way that was not the best, but did the job. The third one had plans to solve her problem with an Excel spreadsheet in the future. Joel Spolsky talks about how Excel and other horizontal software are nothing more than glorified data structures. It is true, you can do almost anything involving simple mathematics and tables of data within Excel. Keeping track of costs, sales, etc. are a perfect match for it.
The common engineer will say: “If there is already a solution for that, why roll my own?” The entrepreneur will just ask what isn’t possible with the existing solution and think of ways of improving that. The existence of the Excel spreadsheet is a clear sign that there is a computing problem that can be solved in a better way. I can give you an example. Two of the persons I interviewed showed me their Excel spreadsheets (an architect and an event manager). A common problem was being able to slightly change some prices in a budget and immediately be able to show the old and the new price to the client. This kind of information is gold to the person creating an application. This is something they use, and if you can save them time using it, you can add value to their businesses.
If there is no Excel spreadsheet, I just try to find software on the net that does what they need. If there is something really good on the market, I don’t want to compete with them. If you are wondering why didn’t I let them do the search, the answer is simple: they do the search using the traditional channels, colleagues and networks of peers; I focus on the Google search. I’m a developer, I can Google for software in a much better way than they do. It took me an hour to do a research on software for architects. Then you can explain to them the pros and cons of the solutions, help them to sign up for a free trial and tell them if their set-up is supported. The golden rule is to be really helpful. It is true that you might end up finding a customer for someone else. But if there is not a good solution, you are finding a niche for yourself.
Do some simple mathematics to see if the problem is worth solving
My last tip is about the financial aspect. Let us say that you finally found a problem that you can solve. It is painful and there is no solution in the market that can solve it in the way people in that niche want. The question to ask now is: “What are people willing to pay for something like this?” I cannot give you an exact answer but I can tell you that it depends on the value you add to your client’s business.
What you want to know is:
- How much time does it take monthly to do the task you are solving?
- How much money could be earned in the same amount of time?
- How much faster would it be to do the same task with your solution?
The basic idea is to convert saved time to saved dollars. Of course, if your solution saves dollars monthly, it becomes an investment for the business. My limited experience showed me that saving people money and pain gets them really excited.
I can give you an example from my interview with the architect. Once again, the problem was something he was solving with an Excel spreadsheet. I asked him how much time did it take and he told me at least three days. Three days of architect’s time means a lot of money. So, if you can help him solve the problem in one day, you are not only saving his money but avoiding pain (because the problem was painful to solve, but it needed to be done).
Now it’s up to you. Try to put these in practice, and find a niche to build your first product. Please share your thoughts and remarks in the comments.
Edmundo López B. is a PhD student in computer science at the University of Geneva and an entrepreneur in the making. He loves building things, learning new stuff, and playing classical guitar. He decided to make the jump directly from school to entrepreneurship. He blogs at edmundo.lopezbobeda.net.
I was a guest on episode 21 of Bootstrapped.fm, the podcast of Andrey Butov and Ian Landsman. The discussion was very wide-ranging, touching on SAAS vs web, the Qt development environment, the royal wedding, A/B testing, capoeira, Adwords, the history of shareware, my new training course and lots more besides. I really enjoyed it. Boostrapped.fm also has a thriving discussion forum at discuss.bootstrapped.fm.
Some of the most useful nuggets of information I come across in blogs and podcasts are mentions of tools and services used by other people to better run their software businesses. So I have put together my own list of useful tools and services to run a software business.
Feel free to recommend your own favourites in the comments below. Please include your relationship to the tool/service (e.g. customer, user, employee or owner). You can also comment below about your experiences (positive or negative) with any of the tools and services listed. Anonymous comments will be treated with suspicion and may be deleted
Things have been a little quiet on this blog as I have been busy on some new projects as well as continuing to work on PerfectTablePlan. I am announcing one of those new projects today.
Start your own software business
A two day intensive training course on how to create a profitable business selling your own software product
22/23 November 2013
There is a lot more to running a software business than knowing how to program. The last 8 years of running my own software business have been a huge learning experience for me. In this course I am going share as much as I can to help others succeed with their businesses. This is the course I wish had been available when I started out. I am looking forward to getting out from behind my computer and meeting aspiring software entrepreneurs.
There is a £50 discount if you book before the end of September and the course is limited to just 10 attendees. If you have ever dreamed of escaping your cubicle and becoming your own boss, what are you waiting for?
I am just beginning to publicise the course and I would really appreciate a mention on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs, social news sites etc.
A builder recently dumped a couple of wheelbarrows full of rubble on the common land behind my house. He’s an asshole. But at least he is limited in how much of an asshole he can be by physical constraints, such as the amount of waste he can generate and dump in a day. With the right software, there is almost no limit to how big an asshole he could be.
Spammers send out millions of emails in the hope of getting a few hundred dollars in sales of Viagra, Ugg boots or whatever other dubious merchandise they might be pushing. According to one study the sending of 348 million pharmacy spam emails resulted in 83 million emails delivered and a grand total of 28 sales. That is a 0.0000081% conversion rate. Assuming that the 83 million emails delivered took an average of a second each for a human to scan and delete, that’s around 23 thousand hours wasted. For 28 sales, netting perhaps a few hundred dollars in profit. You have to be a massive asshole to waste so much of other people’s time just to make a few hundred dollars.
Spamming is just one of the more obvious and egregious examples of being an asshole at scale. But there are lots more. Article spinning for example. This is where assholes use software to generate lots of small variations on a (usually poor written or plagiarised) article in a desperate attempt to increase their SEO ‘footprint’. It might seem like a clever way to game the system and get one over on the all-powerful Google. But, if it works, the search results will fill up with poorly written garbage and the signal gets squeezed out by ever increasing noise. A tragedy of the commons in which we all lose in the long run.
Comment spam on forums and blogs is another area where assholes can use software to scale their activities. To date this blog has had a total of 77,811 spam comments, most of them undoubtedly generated automatically. Thankfully, the vast majority were caught by WordPress’s Akismet software. But I still waste a few minutes every week sifting through the spam for false positives. If you multiply that by millions of blog and forum owners, week after week, it adds up to a massive amount of wasted time. Again for marginal gains.
As software becomes increasingly pervasive and bandwidth becomes ever cheaper, new areas are becoming available for assholes to exploit. For example using software to algorithmically generate vast numbers of T-shirt slogans for Amazon without properly checking the results. Not only does this fill up Amazon search results with garbage (many of the slogans make no sense) but some of the slogans were deeply offensive.
The best defense against the assholes is more software, for example: spam filtering software and improved search algorithms. I guess that is good news for those of us that make a living writing software. But I worry that the assholes will win the arms race in the long run and the Internet, one of the greatest inventions in human history, will be reduced to the information equivalent of grey goo.
What can we do about it as software developers? Firstly don’t be an asshole. Consider the overall impact of your actions. Sure you could blast out thousands of poorly targeted emails to promote your product. But, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Secondly, consider whether there is a product you could write that could help combat the assholes. People and businesses (especially businesses) will pay good money for products that save them time.
Finally, don’t create software for assholes. Generally speaking, a tool is not inherently good or evil. You can use a knife to stab someone, or cut a sandwich. But if you are writing software specifically aimed at spamming, spinning or other asshole scaling activities, then you are the biggest asshole of all. With power comes responsibility.’If I didn’t do it someone else would’ is no defense. Of course, if you are a true asshole, you don’t (by definition) care what other people think. But, in the unlikely event that you are an asshole that has read this far, consider this – surely even you don’t want a customer base comprised entirely of assholes?
The ever-expanding Amazon empire is now offering their own Pay Per Click ads.
Amazon Product Ads is an advertising programme designed to provide Amazon.co.uk customers seamless access to products available on external Web sites. As a seller, you simply upload your catalogue of products you wish to advertise and set your cost-per-click bids and budget. Amazon will then display your ads to Amazon.co.uk customers when they shop for your product or related products. Customers who are interested in buying your product can click through to your Web site and purchase the product directly from you.
As with Google Adwords, you bid for clicks. Minimum bid prices depend on the category of goods you want your ad to appear in. On amazon.co.uk the categories and minimum bid prices are currently:
There doesn’t seem to be any restrictions on advertising downloadable software. So it might be worth trying if you software fits into any of the above categories and has a relatively high ticket price (given that typical conversion rates are 1% there is no point paying £0.10 per click for software that you sell for £10). For example, if your software is related to music, you could advertise it alongside musical instruments. I would consider advertising my table planner software alongside books or DVDs related to wedding or event planning. Unfortunately that isn’t an option at present.
I could try advertising my software in categories such as Kitchen&Home›wedding favours. But people looking for wedding favours aren’t explicitly searching for table planners, so the click to sale conversion ratio is likely to be well under 1%. Also the minimum bid price in this category is £0.15 and I am guessing that my ads wouldn’t even show if I bid the minimum. Paying >£0.15 per click with a <1% conversion rate for software priced at £19.95 doesn’t make sense. So I haven’t signed up.
It is inevitable that the bid price will inflate over time. So, if you want to try it, now is probably a good time. Amazon.co.uk are also offering £50 in free clicks if you sign up now. You can find out more on the Amazon Product Ads FAQ.
Have you tried Amazon PPC ads? If so, do you have to bid significantly above the minimum bid prices and how do the conversion rates compare with other PPC ads (such as Adwords)?
Google Adwords used to be a great way to get targeted traffic cheaply (if you knew what you were doing). I think those days are well and truly over.
I have been using Google Adwords to advertise my table plan software since 2005. The following graphs show some metrics from my Adwords campaigns over that 8 years. The graphs show 12-monthly cumulative figures (e.g. each point represents the value for that month plus the preceding 11 months). Using cumulative data hides some of the noise, including the seasonal variations that are inevitable in a business related to weddings (more people buy my software when it is summer in the northern hemisphere), and makes the overall trends clearer.
The trends are clear and it’s not a pretty picture. Less, more expensive clicks = less profit. I can either pay more and more per click to maintain the same number of sales. Or I can continue to pay the same per click and get less and less clicks. Either way, my profit goes down. It isn’t a trend I see changing direction any time soon.
I think these long-term trends are mostly due to increasing competition. As more and more companies bid on Adwords for a finite number of clicks, it inevitably drives up the cost of clicks (simple supply and demand). It also doesn’t help that a lot of Adwords users are not actively managing their campaigns or measuring their ROI, and are consequently bidding at unprofitably high levels. Google also does its best to drive up CPC values in various ways (suggesting ridiculously high default bids, goading you to bid more to get on page 1, not showing your ad at all if you bid too low – even if no other ads appear etc).
Of course, this is just my data for one product in one small market. But the law of shitty clickthrus predicts that all advertising mediums become less and less profitable over time. So I would be surprised if it isn’t a general trend. Are your Adwords campaigns becoming less profitable? Have you found another advertising medium that works better?
We tend to hear a lot about software industry success stories. But most of us mere mortals have to fail a few times before we learn enough to succeed. In this guest post William Echlin talks about the hard lessons he has learned about creating and selling software products.
Probably, like you, I started developing my own software application a few years back. I had this dream of working for myself and becoming financially independent. The money side was a nice goal to have but ultimately I was looking for the fulfilment of working for myself. Sound familiar? Well, if it does, you may have learnt many of the lessons I’ve learnt. I don’t mind admitting now that I got carried away. I got carried away with building a test management application to the extent that I forget about many of the key things you need in place to build a successful business.
After a few years work I’d created the leading open source test management application (a product called QaTraq that’s still available on Source Forge but a little dormant). It had cost me time, money and effort. I’d achieved some success with building and marketing a free product. Next stop taking it commercial. This is where it gets brutal.
About a year into leaving a full time job I’m taking the last £1,000 out of the joint bank account. I’m making some sales but it’s damn tough. A few months later and I’m in the supermarket £15,000 in debt wondering if my credit card is about to be rejected for the families weekly shop. You read about this sort of thing in biographies on successful entrepreneurs. These guys take it to the limit and then succeed and make millions. Sounds so glamorous. When your wife, 3 year old son and 1 year old daughter depend on that credit card being accepted believe me it’s NOT glamorous.
Building a business has always been about balancing design, development, sales, marketing, support, testing, etc. When you’re a one man band that’s not easy. You try to do everything. You’re bloody brilliant at building the product. The trouble is, once you want to make a living out of it, that “building” is almost the least important bit. After I’d spent 5 years building my product I stumbled upon one very useful piece of advice. It was a little late for me but maybe it’ll help you….
“Learn how to market and sell before you build your product. Learn these crafts by picking a product that’s already been built and act as a reseller”.
That’s worth reading again (it’s counter intuitive). What’s being said here is that if you can’t market and sell a product (ANY product) then the odds of succeeding with your own product are slim. If you can’t “market and sell” what on earth is the point in wasting all that time, effort and money building your own product? If you’re never going to be able to market it, and sell it, why build it?
So find a product in a slightly different sector and sign up as a reseller. Save yourself the time and effort of building a product and practice marketing and sales with someone else’s product first. Create a web site, develop an ad words campaign and start promoting with social media. Sell the product! If you can’t get the hang of this why bother building your own? If you can get the hang of building your own marketing machine it won’t be wasted effort. If you’re clever and pick the right product / sector you just need to switch the product on your site a year or so down the road. Once you’ve built the marketing and sales engine switch it to sell the product you’re building.
I’m not saying that this is the only way to go about it. I’m just saying that if you don’t have the determination to learn, understand and be successful with marketing and sales early on, then it’s unlikely you’ll succeed with your own product. So why waste time building it. It’s a tough lesson to learn. One I learnt the hard way.
And the specific lessons I learnt the hard way? Well I’d do these things first if I was ever to do this again:
1. Create at least one lead generation channel as an affiliate for another product. That lead generation channel will probably be a web site and as part of that you’ll need to master things like:
- Google Adwords
- Social media
- Email marketing
- Link building
All these things take a lot of time. Do you have the determination to learn and execute on all of this?
2. Spend some time in a sales related role. Initially I was working in a full time job whilst building my own product in my spare time. The best thing I did was offer to help the sales team with product demos. I learnt lots from working closely with sales people (I didn’t like them very much, but that’s a different matter) and clients. If you can’t do product demos to clients, or you can’t talk to clients confidently then you don’t stand a chance of selling anything. People buy from people and a product demo is THE place to show case YOU (and the product)
3. Spend time learning about re-marketing. A lot of money goes into getting that initial lead. Don’t waste it! Understand Google’s re-marketing campaigns. These allow you to follow the people that came to your site and continue serving them banner ads on other sites. Understand email marketing once you’ve captured an email address. Yes I hate most of this when I’m on the receiving end. The reality is that it works though. That’s why companies do it (and why Google make so much money). I’ll tell you now that your business won’t survive if you don’t master some of these techniques. And if your business doesn’t survive then every ounce of effort you’ve put into building that application is wasted!
4. Spend time learning about cross selling. A significant amount of revenue can come from cross selling other products. When was the last time you went to a restaurant and they didn’t try to sell you a bread roll? When was the last time you flew somewhere and they didn’t try to sell you priority boarding? For you this might be in the guise of selling your leads to other companies that have complementary products. It might be providing different editions of your application. There are many other ways to add additional revenue streams to your prime product sale. These streams are absolutely critical to the success of your business.
5. Don’t try to become a sales person. You don’t have to be a sales man/woman to sell. Some of the best sales people I’ve worked with are those that just go out of their way to HELP the customer. They understand their niche inside out and have the gift, not to sell, but to HELP. People that are looking to buy something want help. They want an itch scratched or a problem solved. If you can help them with a solution then you’re most of the way towards making the sale. Forget all this rubbish about psychology and techniques to influence people. The best thing you can do is enter the mind set of helping! Go out of your way to help.
I don’t have all of this right by any stretch. I know one thing though. Products don’t sell themselves. And if you’re not prepared to start learning about sales and marketing you won’t sell your product.
It was all a bit ironic for me though. I spent years building my own test management product to help software testers. It even started out as the leading open source solution in it’s market for many years. I mastered SEO and created a great lead generation process (the oxygen of any business). I created a version which I put a price on and sold to companies. I even sold to a number of significant companies. But I just couldn’t do all of it. I couldn’t balance the design, development, testing, marketing, sales, support, etc. It’s brutally painful when this dawns on you.
In the end what I’d really mastered was lead generation. I ended up with a web site that attracted my target audience but failed to sell much. When you realise that, you realise that it’s the product. Nothing wrong with the marketing and sales. It’s the product. There were better products out there. Kind of tough to swallow but as soon as I did, I moved on. These leads, or rather people (because leads are actually real people), were looking for help. I just needed to provide them with the right product and services. So I started reselling other products and providing consultancy around those products on my test management website.
In the end I had one of the toughest bits right. If you get the lead generation right you’ve built a marketing foundation that you can build any type of business around. For me I just wished I figured the marketing piece out before I’d built my product. Now I just work on my marketing. Oh, and I help companies with their software testing and test management. For me at least, it’s much easier this way.
William Echlin has spent 20 years in testing, working on everything from air traffic control systems to anti-virus engines. He had a bad experience in his early childhood trying to effectively manage test cases with vi (he’s still a huge fan of vi but recognises that text files make a lousy repository for test cases). In an attempt to deal with these childhood demons he became a consultant on all things related to test management.