Tag Archives: micropreneur

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.

South West Bootstrappers meetup

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. Come along and talk shop with other aspiring and experienced bootstrappers. It doesn’t matter if you are developing for web, Windows, Mac or mobile.

The first meetup is on the evening of Tuesday 16th June 2015. You can find out more and RSVP at meetup.com/South-West-Bootstrappers/.

swindon meetup

10 years a microISV

I have been running my own one-man software company for 10 years today. Coincidentally it is also my 49th birthday, so it is perhaps a good time for a bit of reflection.

I did a physics degree and then worked full-time as an employee for nearly 20 years. I developed systems in FORTRAN, C and then C++ for operational research, satellite image processing, printed circuit board design, environmental modelling and distributed systems. I learnt a lot and met some great people, but I yearned to strike out on my own.

I set up my own company in January 2005. I was a techie and had very little experience on the business, sales and marketing side of things. It was quite scary.

I released v1 of my table planner software PerfectTablePlan at the end of February 2005. It was very rough and ready, but I sold my first licence in less than 24 hours. PerfectTablePlan has exceeded all my expectations and is still selling well. I have sold over 40,000 licences with revenue well into 7 figures (£) to date.

I started this blog in April 2007. It has had over 2 million hits to date and has been helpful for promoting my consulting. But mostly I do it because I like writing, when I can find the time.

I started offering a consulting service in January 2008. I have provided consulting to lots of other software businesses, mostly 1 day engagements concentrating on marketing. That has been very interesting and has added some variety to my work. It has also been helpful to find out what works and doesn’t in other businesses.

I ran a weekend face-to-face training course for people wanting to start their own software business in November 2013 and March 2014 in the UK. The course is 460 slides + various exercises. I enjoyed doing it and the feedback was very positive. But it was hard work to get enough people in one place at one time to make it viable. I could do it online, but I think it would lose a lot of the interactivity that made it work so well. I would like to run it again in 2015. Email me if you’re interested.

I released v1 of my AdWords keyword tool Keyword Funnel in March 2014. This was a commercial quality re-implementation of various tools I had written to help myself run my long tail AdWords campaign for PerfectTablePlan. The plan was to produce v1 within a couple of months, part-time. But it ended up taking nearer to 6 months. Feedback became more patchy and ambivalent as I got closer to v1. But, having got that far, I decided to push it out anyway. It didn’t sell well, for various reasons which I might go into in a future post. I also decided I didn’t want to spend all day thinking about AdWords. So I stopped selling it and took the site down. But it seems a shame to have wasted that work, so I may resurrect it later this year as a free product.

I am just about to release v1 of my visual planning software Hyper Plan. I have worked on this part time since September 2014. I am very pleased with how it has turned out. But I have no idea how successful it will be (as was the case with PerfectTablePlan and Keyword Funnel). I think a lot of people could benefit from it, but it is in a crowded market. Watch this space.

I have attended various conferences for small software businesses and spoken at MicroConf (Europe), ESWC and SIC. It is always great to meet other people in the business.

I am a moderator and regular contributor on the Business of Software and bootstrapped.fm forums.

All sorts of strange and wonderful things have happened, including:

  • PerfectTablePlan has been used for some very famous organizations for some very famous events (which I sadly don’t have permission to mention). It has seated royalty, celebrities and heads of state.
  • PerfectTablePlan was used as part of a demonstration of the (controversial) first commercial quantum computer by D-Wave.
  • A mock-up of PerfectTablePlan, including icons I did myself, was used without my permission by Sony in their ‘Big day’ TV comedy series.
  • I got to grapple with some interesting problems, including the mathematics of large combinatorial problems and elliptical tables. Some of my customers are now seating 4,000 guests and 4000! (4000x3999x3998 .. x 1) is a mind-bogglingly huge number.
  • A well known wedding magazine ran a promotion with a valid licence key clearly visible in a photograph of a PerfectTablePlan CD. I worked through the night to release a new version of PerfectTablePlan that didn’t work with this key.
  • I found out that CDs are edible.
  • An early article I wrote for the blog generated 56k hits in a day and got me a mention in the Guardian newspaper.

I employed my wife as bookkeeper a few years back. But decided I didn’t want to take on any other employees. I outsource a few things that I can’t do, but I still do most things myself.

It has been hard work and a bit of a roller coaster ride. But overall, it has been great! I wonder what the next 10 years will bring?

See also:

Lifestyle programming

Announcing a new date for my ‘Start your own software business’ course

AH111220CO-2000x1297I 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.

Lifestyle Programming

“A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.” ― Bob Dylan

I am a lifestyle programmer. I run a one-man software product business with the aim of providing myself with an interesting, rewarding, flexible and well paid job. I have no investors and no plans to take on employees, let alone become the next Google or Facebook. I don’t have my own jet and my face is unlikely to appear on the cover of Newsweek any time soon. I am ok with that.

“Lifestyle business” is often used as something of an insult by venture capitalists. They are looking for the “next big thing” that is going to return 10x or 100x their investment. They don’t care if the majority of their investments flame out spectacularly and messily, as long as a few make it really big. By investing in lots of high-risk start-ups they are able to reduce their overall risk to a comfortable level. The risk profile is completely different for the founders they invest in. As VC Paul Graham admits:

“There is probably at most one company in each [YCombinator] batch that will have a significant effect on our returns, and the rest are just a cost of doing business.”

Ouch. The odds of being the ‘next big thing’ are even slimmer (of the order of 0.07%). As a VC-backed start-up the chances are that you will work 80+ hours a week for peanuts for several years and end up with little more than experience at the end of it.

But high-risk, high-return ventures are sexy. They sell magazines and advertising space. Who can resist the heroic story of odd-couple Woz and Jobs creating the most valuable company in the world from their garage? So that is what the media gives us, and plenty of it. Quietly ignoring the thousands of other smart and driven people who swung for the fences and failed. Or perhaps succeeded, only to be pushed out by investors.

If you aren’t going to be satisfied with anything less than being a multi-millionaire living in a hollowed out volcano, then an all-or-nothing, VC-backed start-up crap shoot is probably your only option. And there are markets where you have very little chance of success without venture capital. But really, how much money do you need? Is money going to make you happy? How many meals can you eat in a day? How many cars can you drive? It doesn’t sound that great to me when you read accounts of what it is like to be rich. Plenty of studies have shown that happiness is only weakly correlated with wealth once you can afford the necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing). Hedonistic adaption ensures that no amount of luxury can keep us happy for long. Anyway, if you are reading this in English on a computer, you probably are already rich by global standards.

Creating a small software business that provides a good living for just yourself, or perhaps a few people, isn’t very newsworthy. But it is a lot more achievable. The barriers to entry have fallen. You no longer need thousands of dollars of hardware and software to start a software business. Just an idea, good development skills and plenty of time and willpower. Many lifestyle businesses start off with the founder creating the product over evenings and weekends, while doing a full-time job. I cut my expenses and lived off savings until my business started generating enough income for me to live on (about 6 months). I only spent a couple of thousand pounds of my own money before the business became profitable. There is really no need to max out your credit cards or take any big financial risks.

So how much money do lifestyle businesses make? Of course, it varies a lot. Many fail completely, often due to a lack of marketing. But I know quite a few other lifestyle programmers who have made it a successful full-time career. I believe many of them do very nicely financially. Personally, I have averaged a significantly higher income from selling my own software than I ever did from working for other people, and I made a good wage working as a senior software engineer. Here is a comparison of my income from my last full-time salaried employment vs what I have paid out in salary and dividends from my business over the last 7 years.

lifestyle business incomeBear in mind that the above would look even more favourable if it took into account business assets, the value of the business itself and the tax advantages of running a business vs earning a salary.

Sure, I could hire employees and leverage their efforts to potentially make more money. Creating jobs for other people is a worthy thing to do. Companies like FogCreek and 37Signals have been very successful without taking outside investment. But I value my lifestyle more than I value the benefits of having a bigger business and I struggle to think of what I would do with lots more money. I might end up having to talk to financial advisers (the horror). I would also end up managing other people, while they did all the stuff I like doing. I am much better at product development, marketing and support than I am being a manager.

If you can make enough money to pay the bills, being a lifestyle programmer is a great life. I can’t get fired. I make money while I sleep. I choose where to live. I don’t have to worry about making payroll for anyone other than myself. My commute is about 10 meters (to the end of the garden). I get to see my son every day before he goes to school and when he comes back home. I go to no meetings. I have no real deadlines. No-one can tell me where to put my curly braces or force me to push out crappy software just to meet some arbitrary ship date. When I’m not feeling very productive I go for a run or do some chores. I can’t remember the last time I set an alarm clock or wore a tie.

My little business isn’t going to fundamentally change the world in the way that a big company like Google or Facebook has. But it has bought me a lot of happiness and fulfilment and, judging by the emails I get, improved the life of a lot of my customers as well. And some of those really famous events you hear about in the news (which I don’t have permission to name-drop) plan their seating using PerfectTablePlan.

Of course, it isn’t all milk and money. The first year was very hard work for uncertain rewards. I recently happened across this post I made on a forum back in August 2005, a few months after I went full-time:

“I work a 60-70 hour week and pay myself £100 at the end of it (that’s less than $200). I could make 3x more working for minimum wage flipping burgers. But hopefully it won’t be like this forever…”

I still work hard. I’m not lying under a palm tree while someone else “offshore” does all the work. And I don’t get to spend all day programming. If you want to have any real chance of succeeding you need to spend plenty of time on marketing. Thankfully I have found I actually enjoy the challenge of marketing. But, because I don’t have employees, I have to do some of some of the crappy jobs that I wouldn’t choose to do otherwise, including: writing documentation, chasing invoices, tweaking the website and doing admin. And I answer customer support emails 364 days a year. I take my laptop on holiday, but it really isn’t that bad. Customer support is frustrating at times. But it is very rewarding to know that lots of people are using my software. Overall, it’s a great lifestyle. I don’t miss having a 9-5 job. I wouldn’t even swap my job for running a bigger, ‘more successful’ company.

Interested in starting your own lifestyle software business? Check out my ‘start your own software business’ training course.

Start Small, Stay Small: A Developer’s Guide To Launching a Startup

I recently read ‘Start small, stay small: A developer’s guide to launching a startup’ by Rob Walling. The preface states:

“This book is aimed at developers who want to launch their startup with no outside funding. It’s for companies started by real developers solving real pain points using desktop, web and mobile applications.”

Many of you are probably already familiar with Rob’s work, including: a blog, a podcast and the micropreneur academy. Rob’s approach has been to develop a portfolio of niche websites as a solo founder (for example ApprenticeLinemanJobs.com), funding it with his own capital and outsourcing work where appropriate. The intention being to have a business that produces a decent income, but allows the founder a flexible lifestyle. He uses the portmanteau ‘micropreneur’ to refer to this approach. It is not a term I care for, with its awkward shunting together of Greek and French. But I guess it is no worse than ‘microISV’. He develops on these themes in the book, with a particular emphasis on the early phases (as implied by the title).

The chapter headings are:

  1. The chasm between developer and entrepreneur
  2. Why niches are the name of the game
  3. Your product
  4. Bulding a killer sales website
  5. Startup marketing
  6. Virtual assistants and outsourcing
  7. Grow it or start over

As with Rob’s blog and podcast, there is plenty of insight and actionable information based on real experience. Some of the writing is taken straight from the blog, but I believe most of it is new. There are links to useful online tools, some of which I hadn’t come across before. It even includes some of that rarest of commodities – real data. He also dispells a few myths – for example: that creating a software product is a quick and easy way to riches and that Facebook and Twitter are all the marketing you need.

The book is particularly strong on market research – a subject I haven’t seen covered much in the context of small software companies. He includes a step-by-step methodology for measuring market size. It also covers other useful subjects such as: pricing, choosing web vs desktop vs mobile vs plug-in, website design, SEO, mailing lists and buying and selling websites. The paper version of the book is 202 pages long. There isn’t a lot of unecessary waffling or padding, so you are getting a fair amount of information for your money. An index might have been useful. Perhaps for the next edition?

While the book will have most benefit for those first starting out, I think even experienced software entrepreneurs will probably find some of it useful. The book is available in paper, electronic and audio formats from $19 at www.startupbook.net. Given its niche market, I think this is good value.

Full disclosure: I recieved a free (paper) copy of the book from the author.