Tag Archives: product

Product ideas wanted

Joannes Vermorel’s guest post ‘3 Low-Competition Niches In Retail Software’ got quite a lot of interest. I also have various ideas for software-based products and services that I am never likely to develop due to a lack of time, money, skills or interest. I’m sure many of you reading this do as well. It seems a shame to leave all these ideas gathering dust when there is someone out there just about to waste a huge amount of energy writing the 2,133th Twitter app (and counting) due to lack of a better idea.

So I am inviting you to email in promising but neglected software-based product and service ideas so that I can publish the best ones here. Maybe it is a tool you would like to use or something that you think might be a good business but, either way, you are never going to implement it. They can be ideas for: enterprise SAAS, Windows programming libraries, iPad games, development tools  – anything with a significant software component. It doesn’t have to be a radically new idea, it could be just a significantly different take on an existing idea. Hopefully some budding entrepreneurs will pick up some of these ideas and run with them. Note: By sending me your idea you are giving me permission to put it into the public domain for anyone to see.

Please email them to me at andy at oryxdigital at com with the subject line “product idea” by 12-Sep-11. They should be in plain text and conform to the following basic template:

——————————————————————————

Title:
A one sentence description of product.

Description:
A longer description of the product. Ideally 1 or 2 paragraphs.

Customer:
Who you think the typical customer would be.

Price point:
What you think the software would sell for.

Platform:
Windows, Mac, iPad, iPhone, web etc.

Competitors:
Closest competitors (URLs ideally).

Differentiation:
How your idea is different to the competitors.

Challenges:
Any particular challenges in creating or marketing this product.

Commercial potential:
What commercial potential does this product have? How many people do you think it could sustain full time?

Why not you?:
If it is such as great idea, why haven’t you created it?

Market research:
How much market research you have done. ‘None’ is an acceptable answer.

Contact:
(optional) Your contact details, if anyone wants to discuss the idea further. Can be an email, hyperlink, twitter account etc. It is also fine if you want to use a pseudonym or be anonymous.

——————————————————————————

For example:

Title:
Qt GUI checker.

Description:
Every time I create a new Windows using the Qt application framework I have to manually check all the controls have:

  • tooltips
  • non-conflicting keyboard shortcuts
  • the correct left-right and top-to-bottom tab order
  • correctly capitalised text
  • etc

It is quite tedious when you do a lot of GUI development.

Customer:
Qt developers.

Price point:
I’d pay $30.

Platform:
Windows, Mac, Linux and other Qt platforms.

Competitors:
None that I know of.

Differentiation:
QtDesigner lets you do these tasks manually, but I don’t know of any software that can do this automatically.

Challenges:
I don’t think it would be that difficult. You just need to parse the XML in a .ui file and present the results in a legible form.

Commercial potential:
Limited. Only of interest to Qt developers. Many people are using Qt for free, and people using free tools generally don’t like to pay for add-ons. It might make a good student or open source project though.

Why not you?:
I’ve got too much else on my plate! Also I am not convinced about the commercial potential.

Market research:
No formal research, but I’ve been using Qt for over 10 years.

Contact:
http://www.successfulsoftware.net .

3 Low-Competition Niches In Retail Software

This is a guest post by Joannes Vermorel, founder of the Lokad Forecasting Service.

Software developers seem to be herd animals. They like to stay very close to each other. As a result, the marketplace ends up riddled with hundreds of ToDo lists while other segments are deserted, despite high financial stakes. During my routine browsing of software business forums, I have noticed that the most common answer to Why the heck are you producing yet another ToDo list? is the desperately annoying Because I can’t find a better idea.

This is desperately annoying because the world is full (saturated even) with problems so painful that people or companies would be very willing to pay to relieve the pain, even if only a little. A tiny fraction of these problems are addressed by the software industry (such as the need for ToDo lists), but most are just lacking any decent solution.

Hence, I detail below 3 low-competition software niches in retail. Indeed, after half a decade of running sales forecasting software company Lokad, I believe, despite the potential survivor bias, that I have acquired insights on a few B2B markets close to my own. Firstly I will address a few inevitable questions:

Q: If you have uncovered such profitable niches, why don’t you take over them yourself?
A: Mostly because running a growing business already takes about 100% of my management bandwidth.

Q: If these niches have little competition, entry barriers must be high?
A: Herding problems aside, I believe not.

Q: Now these niches have been disclosed, they will be swarmed over by competitors, right?
A: Odds are extremely low on that one. The herd instinct is just too strong.

Q. Do I have to pay you if I use one of your ideas?
A. No, I am releasing this into the public domain. I expect no payment if you get rich (unless you want to!) and accept no liability if you fail miserably. Execution is everything.  And don’t trust a random stranger on the Internet – do your own market research.

Before digging into the specifics of those niches, here are a couple of signs that I have noticed to be indicators of desperate lack of competition:

  • No one bothers about doing even basic SEO.
  • No prices on display.
  • No one offers self-signup – you have to go through a sales rep.
  • Little in the way of online documentation or screenshots are available.

However, lack of competition does not mean lack of competitors. It’s just not the sort of competition that keeps you up at night. Through private one-to-one discussions with clients of those solutions, here is the typical feedback I get:

  • Licenses are hideously expensive.
  • Setup takes months.
  • Upgrade takes months (and is hideously expensive).
  • Every single feature feels half-baked.

By way of anecdotal evidence – during a manufacturer integration with our forecasting technology a few months ago at Lokad, we discovered that the client had been charged $2,000 by its primary software provider in order to activate Remote Desktop on the Windows Server where the software was installed. Apparently, this was well within the norm of their usual fees for the inventory management system in place.

Granted, just being cheaper is usually not a good place to be in the market. Yet, when a competitor’s software is designed in such a way that it takes a small army of consultants to get it up and running, they can’t just lower their license fees to match yours – assuming that your design is not half-baked too. The competition would have to redesign their solution from scratch, and give up on their consultingware revenues. So you are in a great position to drive competition crazy.

With a market managing over two-thirds of the US gross domestic product, one would expected retail be saturated by fantastic software products. It turns out this is not the case. Not by a long shot – except eCommerce (e.g. online shopping carts) which attracts a zillion developers for no good reason.

Some salient aspects of the retail software market:

  1. Most retailers are already equipped in basic stuff such as point-of-sale, inventory management and order management systems. So you don’t have to deliver that yourself. On the contrary, you should rely on the assumption that such software is already in place.
  2. As far the Lokad experience goes with its online sales forecasting service, retailers are not unwilling to disclose their data to a 3rd party over the Internet. It takes trust and trust takes time. Interestingly enough, at Lokad we do sign NDAs, but rather infrequently. We are not unwilling, but most retailers (even top 100 worldwide ones) simply don’t even bother.
  3. Retailers have a LOT of data, and yet unlike banks, they have little talented manpower to deal with it. Many retail businesses are highly profitable though and could afford to pay for this kind of manpower, but as far I can tell, it’s just not part of the usual Western retail culture. Talents go to management, not to the trenches.

Niche 1: EOQ (Economic Order Quantity) calculator

Retailers know they need to keep their stocks as low as possible, while preserving their service levels (aka rate of non stock-outs), see this safety stock tutorial for more details. If the marginal ordering cost for replenishment was zero, then retailers would produce myriads of incremental replenishment orders, precisely matching their own sales. This is not the case. One century ago, F. W. Harris introduced the economic order quantity (EOQ) which represents the optimal quantity to be ordered at once by the retailer, when friction factors such as the shipping cost are taken into account. Obviously, the Wilson Formula (see Wikipedia for details) is an extremely early attempt at addressing the question. It’s not too hard to see that many factors are not accounted for, such as non-flat shipping costs, volume discounts, obsolescence risks …etc.

Picking the right quantity to order is obviously a fundamental question for each retailer performing an inventory replenishment operation. Yet, AFAIK, there is no satisfying solution available on the market. ERP systems just graciously let the retailer manually enter the EOQ along with other product settings. Naturally, this process is extremely tedious, firstly because of the sheer number of products, secondly because whenever a supply parameter is changing, the retailer has to go through all the relevant products all over again.

The EOQ calculator would typically come as multi-tenant web app. Main features being:

  • Product and supplier data import from any remotely reachable SQL database[1].
  • Web UI for entering / editing EOQ settings.
  • EOQ calculation engine.
  • Optional EOQ export back to the ERP.

Pricing guestimate: Charge by the number of products rather than by the number of users. I would suggest to start around $50/month for small shops and go up to $10k/month for large retail networks.

Gut feeling: EOQ seemingly involves a lot of expert knowledge (my take: acquiring this knowledge is a matter of months, not years). So there is an opportunity to position yourself as an expert here, which is a good place to be as it facilitates inbound marketing and PR with specialized press. Also, EOQ can be narrowed down to sub-verticals in retail (e.g. textiles) in case competition grows stronger.

Niche 2: Supplier scorecard manager

For a retailer, there are about 3 qualities that define a good supplier: lowest prices, shortest shipment delays, best availability levels (aka no items out-of-stock delaying the shipments). Better, sometime exclusive, suppliers give a strong competitive edge to a retailer. Setting aside payment terms and complicated discounts, comparing supplier prices is simple, yet, this is only the tip of the iceberg. If the cheapest supplier doesn’t deliver half of the time, “savings” will turn into very expensive lost sales. As far I can observe, beyond pricing, assessing quality of the suppliers is hard, and most retailers suffer an ongoing struggle with this issue.

An idea that frequently comes to the mind of retailers is to establish contracts with suppliers that involve financial penalties if delays or availability levels are not enforced. In practice, the idea is often impractical. Firstly, you need to be Walmart-strong to inflict any punitive damage on your suppliers without simply losing them. Secondly, shipping delays and availabilities needs to be accurately monitored, which is typically not the case.

A much better alternative, yet infrequently implemented outside the large retail networks, consists of establishing a supplier scorecard based on the precise measuring of both lead times (i.e. the duration between the initial order and the final delivery) and of the item availability. The scorecard is a synthetic, typically 1-page, document refreshed every week or every month that provides the overall performance of each supplier. The scorecard includes a synthetic score like A (10% best performing suppliers), B and C (10% worst performing suppliers). Scorecards are shared with the suppliers themselves.

Instead of punishing bad suppliers, the scorecard helps them in realizing there is a problem in the first place. Then, if the situation doesn’t improve after a couple of months, it helps the retailer itself to realize the need for switching to another supplier…

The scorecard manager web app would feature:

  • Import of both purchase orders and delivery receipts (this might be 2 distinct systems). [2]
  • Consolidation of per-supplier lead time and availability statistics.
  • One-page scorecard reports with 3rd party access offered to the suppliers.

Pricing guestimate: Charge based on the number of suppliers and the numbers of orders to be processed. Again, the number of users having access to the system might not be a reliable indicator. Starting at $50/month for small shops up to $10k/month for large retail networks.

Gut feeling: By positioning your company as intermediate between retailers and their suppliers, you benefit from a built-in viral marketing effect, which is rather unusual in B2B. On the other hand, there isn’t that much expert knowledge (real or assumed) in the software itself.

Niche 3: Dead simple sales analytics

Retail is a fast-paced business, and a retailer needs to keep a really close eye on its sales figures in order to stay clear of bankruptcy. Globally, the software market is swarming with hundreds of sales analytics tools, most of them being distant competitors of Business Objects acquired by SAP years ago. However, the business model of most retailers is extremely simple and straightforward, making all those Business Intelligence tools vast overkill for small and medium retail networks.

Concepts that matter in retail are: sales per product, product categories and points of sale. That’s about it. Hence, all it should take to have a powerful sales visualization tool setup for a retailer should be access to the 2 or 3 SQL tables of the ERP defining products and transactions; and the rest being hard-coded defaults.

Google Analytics would be an inspiring model. Indeed, Google does not offer to webmasters any flexibility whatsoever in the way the web traffic is reported; but in exchange, setting-up Google Analytics requires no more than merely cutting-and-pasting a block of JavaScript into your web page footer.

Naturally it would be a web app, with the main features being:

  • Product and sales data import from any remotely reachable SQL database.[2]
  • Aggregate sales per day/week/month.
  • Aggregate per product/product category/point-of-sales.
  • A Web UI ala Google Analytics, with a single time-series graph per page.

Pricing guestimate: Regular per-usage fee, a la Salesforce.com. Starting at $5/user/month basic features to $100/user/month for more fancy stuff.

Gut feeling: probably the weakest of the 3 niches, precisely because it has too much potential and is therefore doomed to attract significant attention later on. Also, achieving a wow effect on first contact with the product will probably be critical to turn prospects into clients.

Market entry points

Worldwide, there are plenty of competitors already for these niches. Yet, again, this does not mean much. Firstly because retail is so huge, secondly because it’s a heavily fragmented market anyway. First, there are big guys like SAP, JDA or RedPrairie, typically way too expensive for anything but large retail networks. Second, there are hundreds of mid-market ERPs, typically with a strong national (or even regional) focus. However, those ERPs don’t delve into fine-grained specifics of retail, as they are too busy already dealing with a myriad of feature requests for their +20 modules (accounting, billing, HR, payments, shipping … etc). Hence, there is a lot of space for razor-sharp web apps that focus on one, and only one, aspect of the retail business. Basically single-minded, uncompromising obsession with one thing, leaving aside all other stuff to either ERPs or other web apps.

In order to enter the market, the good news is that mid-size retailers are pretty much everywhere. So you can just use a tiny bit of networking to get in touch with a couple of neighbouring businesses, even if you don’t have that much of a network in the first place. Then, being razor-sharp in a market where very little online content is available, offers you a cheap opportunity at doing some basic SEO based on the very specific questions your software is addressing.

Q: I am interested, I have questions, can I ask you those questions?
A: Naturally, my rate is 200€/h (no just kidding). Yes, email me.

[1] Don’t even bother about providing a super-complicated setup wizard. Just offer a $2k to $5k setup package that includes the ad-hoc handful of SQL lines to match the existing data of the retailer. We are already using this approach at Lokad with Salescast. Alternatively, we also offer an intermediate SQL schema, if the retailer is willing to deal with the data formatting on its own.

[2] Again, I suggest an approach similar to the one of Salescast by Lokad: don’t even try to robotize data import, just design the software in such a way that adding a custom adapter is cheap.

Joannes Vermorel is the founder of Lokad, company motto “You send data, we return forecasts”. Lokad won the first Windows Azure award from Microsoft in 2010, out of 3000 companies applying worldwide. He has a personal blog that mostly deals with cloud computing matters.

Success is always one feature away

In my consulting and various other dealings with aspiring microISVs, I notice certain recurring patterns. One of the most common is the belief that it is just one missing feature that is holding back a product from the commercial success it deserves. As soon as that feature is coded the sales are going to come pouring in! When they don’t, then maybe it was that other missing feature that our competitor has. It is a horizon that keeps receding until you run out of money or enthusiasm. But, in my experience, poor sales are almost always due to insufficient marketing. A fact that is borne out by these 13 case studies. It doesn’t matter how great your software is if no-one know about it, or if you can’t persuade them to try it when they do find out about it.

It isn’t surprising that microISVs fixate on features. MicroISVs tend to come from a programming background and learn marketing  on the job (I have yet to meet a microISV who started off in marketing and taught themself programming). Features and coding are what we like to do best and it feels like ‘real work’. But all too often the warm embrace of an IDE is just an excuse to stay in our comfort zone. Of course, features are important. No features = no product. But, if you have got low traffic to your website and/or you are doing a lousy job of communicating with people that arrive at your site, then adding more features really isn’t going to help much. If you are in a hole, stop digging. Successful marketing is about being different from your competitors. You can even make a virtue of your lack of features. If you are competing against more feature-rich competitors, then emphasize the simplicity and ease-of-use of your product instead. It certainly seems to work for 37Signals.

Marketing can seem like a very alien discipline for someone from a programming background. But you can learn it like any other skill. There is loads of great information out there, for example Eric Sink’s marketing for geeks. Also, some elements of online marketing are actually quite technical with plenty of opportunites for number crunching. Analytics, A/B testing and Adwords will give you more data than you know what to do with. This can give programmers a considerable advantage over people from a more traditional marketing background, many of whom don’t seem to be able to handle anything more complicated than a 2×2 matrix. You don’t have to be a marketing genius, you just need to be better than your competitors (in the same way that you don’t need to be able to run faster than a lion to survive a lion attack, you just need to be able to run faster than the next guy). Given that your competitors are likely to be other programmers (who are probably also not doing enough marketing) or people from a marketing background (who don’t really understand software and are probably more interested in long lunches) that may not be as hard as you think.

Lessons learned from 13 failed software products

“No physician is really good before he has killed one or two patients.” – Proverb

Software entrepreneur culture is full of stories of the products that succeeded. But what about the products that failed? We rarely hear much about them. This can lead to a very skewed perspective on what works and what doesn’t (survivor bias). But I believe that failure can teach us as much as success. So I asked other software entrepreneurs to share their stories of failure in the hope that we might save others from making the same mistakes. To my surprise I got 12 excellent responses, which I include below along with one of my own. It is a small sample and biased by self selection, but I think it contains a lot of useful insights. It is an unashamedly a long post, as I didn’t want to lose any of these insights by editing it down.

Case #1: DRAMA

Contributor

Andy Brice.

The product

DRAMA (Design RAtionale MAnagement) was a commercialization of a University prototype for recording the decision-making process during the design of complex and long-lived artefacts, for example nuclear reactors and chemical plants. By recording it in a structured database this information would still be available long after the original engineers had forgotten it, retired or been run over by buses. This information was believed to be incredibly valuable to later maintainers of the system, engineers creating similar designs and industry regulators. The development was part funded by 4 big process engineering companies.

Why it was judged a commercial failure

Everyone told us what a great idea it was, but no-one bought it. despite some early funding from some big process engineering companies, none of them put it into use properly and we never sold any licences to anyone else.

What went wrong

  • Lack of support from the people who would actually have to use it. There are lots of social factors that work against engineers wanting to record their design rationale, including:
    • The person taking the time to record the rationale probably isn’t the person getting the benefit from it.
    • Extra work for people who are already under a lot of time pressure.
    • It might make it easier for others to question decisions and hold companies and engineers accountable for mistakes.
    • Engineers may see giving away this knowledge as undermining their job security.
  • Problems integrating with the other software tools that engineers spend most of their time in (e.g. CAD packages). This would probably be easier with modern web-based technology.
  • It is difficult to capture the subtleties of the design process in a structured form.
  • A bad hire. If you hire the wrong person, you should face up to it and get rid of them. Rather than keep moving them around in a vain attempt to find something they are good at.
  • We took a phased approach, starting with a single-user proof of concept and then creating a client-server version. In hindsight it should have been obvious that not enough people were actively using the single-user system and we should have killed it then.

Time/money invested

At least 3 man years of work went into this product, with me doing most of it. Thankfully I was a salaried employee. But the lack of success of this product contributed to the demise of the part of the company I was in.

Current product status

The product is long dead.

Any regrets?

It was a fairly painful experience. I would rather have spent all that money, time and energy on something that someone actually used. But at least I learnt some expensive lessons without using my own money.

Lessons learned

  • Creating a new market is difficult and risky.
  • Changing people’s working habits is hard.
  • Social factors can make or break a product. The end-users didn’t see anything in it for them.
  • If the end-users don’t like a product, they will find a way not to use it, even if their bosses appear to be enthusiastic about it.
  • Talk is cheap. Lots of people telling you how great your product is doesn’t mean much. You only really find out if your product is commercially viable when you start asking people to buy it.

Case #2: CleanChief

Contributor

Sam Howley.

The product

CleanChief was to be ‘The easy management solution for cleaning organisations’. Managing assets, employee schedules, ordering supplies, you name it CleanChief handled it. Essentially it was light weight accounting software for cleaning companies.

Why it was judged a commercial failure

A small number of copies were sold. No one is actively using it at present. Once I realised that it wasn’t a complete product and that additional development was required I moved on to other product ideas. I had basically run out of enthusiasm for the product.

What went wrong

  • I am not an accountant.
  • I have never run a cleaning company.
  • I developed it for more than two years without getting feedback from real cleaning companies. I was arrogant enough to think that I knew what they wanted (or could work it out on my own). Or maybe it was that I was just where I was most happy and comfortable – writing software. Talking to real users was new and to be honest a bit scary for me.
  • A successful cleaning company operator, a friend of a friend, offered to become involved for a 30% share. This was a gift from the heavens, exactly what I needed. I refused.
  • In a way, even though I spent so long on the product, I gave in too soon, I was just getting feedback from real users, just getting my first batch of sales when I decided to move on.
  • I developed the application in VB6 even though I knew it was outdated technology when I started the project.This meant there was no ‘cool factor’ when discussing it with other developers, I told myself it didn’t bother me, but it probably did.

Time/money invested

I worked on it at night and weekends for about 2 1/2 years. I paid for graphic design work, purchased stock icons and images. I probably spent a couple of thousand Australian dollars in total and an awful lot of time.

Current product status

I moved on to other products that have gone much better. My newer products were released in months rather than years and I looked for real feedback from real users from day one. they are:

I do occasionally ponder returning to CleanChief and trying to raise it from the ashes.

Any regrets?

No. Looking back I learned a few lessons from a huge amount of time and work, it was a very inefficient way to learn those lessons. But when you are new to something like starting a business or creating useful software being inefficient at learning lessons is the best you can do, it’s a thousand times better than not learning lessons at all.

I learned so much more in my two and a half years of trying to develop CleanChief than I did in the two and a half years prior to that, during which time I really wanted to start a software business but didn’t take any action.

Lessons learned

Hearing or reading some piece of advice is totally different to living it. Here are some of the ideas that I always agreed were true but didn’t fully understand the implications of until I had lived them out:

  • Force yourself to get out and talk to people. Ask their advice. Almost everyone will help if you ask them for feedback.
  • Force yourself to cold call a few businesses in your target market.
  • Create a plan of how to market your product.
  • Try and use your product as much as possible as you build it.
  • Get out of your comfort zone from day one
  • Do not have the mind set that the day you release version 1.0 is the finish line, it’s the starting line, so hurry up and get there.

Case #3: Chimsoft

Contributor

Phil Anderson.

The product

ChimSoft – Software for Chimney Sweeps.

Why it was judged a commercial failure

I believe this failed for two reasons:

  • Focusing on too small of a niche
  • Me not being able to work full time on it.

I don’t consider it a complete failure because I sold two copies when it retailed for $2k, and maybe 10-15 more copies when I lowered the price to $200. Those sales proved that I wasn’t completely off base in thinking there was a market for the software, but the cost of customer acquisition and the size of the market were too small. Customers wanted to have a bunch of phone calls, face-to-face etc… the type of stuff you only see with much more expensive software. The problem was that for a niche this small we had to charge a lot of money to make it worthwhile for us, but the customers were small businesses where this is a major investment, so the fit was never right. The other issue was the people that did buy it were not super tech savvy, so there was a high cost of support that made even a $200 product not worth it.

What went wrong

  • Having all partners who were not full-time, and had equal equity.  I ended up doing most of the work and this is the main reason I didn’t force success is I felt I was in it alone.
  • Focusing on too narrow of a niche.  The plan all along was to expand for all service industries, but it was much harder to make that move than we expected.
  • Not researching pricing more, we knew small businesses made major purchases for things that really helped their business, but I think it would have been better to have a cheaper product with wider appeal than an expensive product with narrow appeal.

Time/money invested

I invested maybe a year of time and $3k into the company. I did not take any huge risks on it, so there were no big negative outcomes.

Current product status

The company folded in 2007, I refocused my efforts on my existing companies (AUsedCar.com and BudgetSimple.com) and both have been doing well enough that I quit my day job.

Any regrets?

I don’t regret it entirely, I think I learned several valuable lessons about working with other people, small business sales, trade-shows and software development.

Lessons learned

  • Pick partners wisely. Don’t try to be even-steven with equity. Use restricted stock to ensure everyone does their part.
  • Know what your customers expect (24/7 phone support?) to determine if you can do this while working a day job.

Case #4: PC Desktop Cleaner

Contributor

Javier Rojas Goñi.

The product

PC Desktop Cleaner. Simple software that cleans your desktop and archives your files.

Why it was judged a commercial failure

My goal was to sell 10 units per month. I’ve sold less than 1 unit per month.

What went wrong

  • I think that the product concept is not useful enough. It’s not a thing that people would pay for.
  • The market exists (some people buy) but it’s too little or difficult to reach.
  • I didn’t do any market research. I just got in love with the idea and did it. Later, I’ve learnt to use “lazy instantiation marketing” and have trashed a lot of embryo projects. :-)

Time/money invested

I think I wasted near $500 in development tools and some freelancers. Not too much.

Current product status

I’m still selling it. I’ve thought about others products, but not really decided yet.

Any regrets?

No, it was a lot of fun and I learnt lot of things. In my “day job” I own a small firm that sells software for production scheduling. I’ve learn a lot of SEO and AdWords in the DesktopCleaner project that now I’m using with great results.

Lessons learned

Go for it, maybe you win, maybe you fail, but you will grow and get tons of useful knowledge on the way.

Case #5: Smart Diary Suite

Contributor

Dennis Volodomanov.

The product

Smart Diary Suite.

Why it was judged a commercial failure

It sells and the profits cover current investments in the product, but there is little left over on top of that.

What went wrong

If I had a chance to do anything differently:

  • Take it seriously from day one.
  • Never stop developing and supporting.
  • Invest as much as possible in marketing early on.
  • Don’t stop believing in your creation.

Time/money invested

Up to this point, I have spent 13 years on Smart Diary Suite and a lot of money went into buying hardware, software, hosting, marketing, etc… All of that money came from my day job, but at this point SDS has recovered all of that back and is now making a small profit. The actual amount is hard to calculate (over the 13 year span), but we would be talking in tens of thousands of US dollars.

Current product status

For a while it may have seemed like SDS is not going to be successful, but that’s probably my fault – I stopped believing for a little while. Now I am back, starting again and this time I’ll make sure it doesn’t fail.

Any regrets?

I do not regret doing it. I regret allowing myself to stop working on it, basically bailing out on it for a while – that is my biggest mistake.

Lessons learned

If you want a successful product – believe in it and let others know that you believe in it.

Case #6: Highlighter

Contributor

Mike Sutton.

The product

Highlighter. A utility to print neatly formatted, syntax highlighted source code listings.

Why it was judged a commercial failure

I earnt a grand total of £442.52 (about $700 in todays money) in just over two years, so I guess it paid for itself if you exclude my time.

What went wrong

Since it was my first product and I was very green about both marketing and product development. I would suggest the following would have made things better:

  • Get feedback from potential users about the product (eg from the ASP forums). Some parts of the program where probably too option heavy and geeky.
  • Diversify. If people didn’t want to print fancy listings, maybe they would have wanted them formatted in HTML.
  • Better marketing. I’m not sure this would have saved it, but all I knew in those days was uploading to shareware sites. I never even sent a press release.

I figure it failed simply because it was a product nobody wanted. Actually, more importantly than that,, it was a product *I* didn’t want to use, but it developed from a larger product I was working on, on the assumption I could earn some money on the side from part of the code.  Since then I’ve stuck to products which I’ve actually wanted to use myself. There’s a lot to be said for dogfooding, not just for debugging, but for knowing where the pain points are and what extra features could be added.

Time/money invested

I would guess a couple of months of evening/weekend development time. Financially there was little spent, except that I offered the option of a printed manual and CD for an extra charge. One customer took me up on the offer, so I had to get 100 manuals printed and 99 of them went in the bin.

Current product status

I moved on to another product which has sold over £50,000 and a third which has earnt even more than that. Not enough to retire on but considering I only do this part time it must work out at a great hourly rate. There’s a lot to be said for not giving up…

Any regrets?

Nope. I figure every failure in life teaches you valuable lessons. Of course if I’d made a large financial investment I may feel differently, but that’s one of the big advantages of software over physical product sales.

Lessons learned

Just to reiterate – develop something which you find useful, instead of second guessing others.

Case #7: R10Clean

Contributor

Steve Cholerton.

The product

R10Clean. A data cleaning and manipulation tool.

Why it was judged a commercial failure

In the 18 months or so it’s been on the market I have sold 6. It has been £199, £99 and £19 – with no effect on sales !

What went wrong

Not sure what I did wrong ?  The product is maybe too techie ?

Time/money invested

No effect financially as at the time I was in a strong financial position.

Current product status

I still have it for sale but do not market it at all. I have other products.

Any regrets?

I don’t regret it as it saved me a ton of time when I was working with legacy databases a lot, as a commercial product it has been raved about (once!) and received a good review from the Kleper report, but has failed totally.

Lessons learned

Advice to others ?  Just because you need it personally, don’t assume the rest of the world does too. :-)

Case #8: nBinder

Contributor

Boghiu Andrei.

The product

nBinder, packs multiple files into a stand alone executable with over 50 advanced output and file unpack options, conditional run and commands.

Why it was judged a commercial failure

It was the first product I began selling. It sold to 300+ customers in 4 years. But for about a year the sales began to go down and have finally stopped completely.

What went wrong

  • The biggest problem was that because it was a packer intended for people that wanted to pack their products (software or games) into a single package (compressed and encrypted) many have used it for creating malware by binding malware files to legit files and then distributing the output so it isn’t detected by antivrus software (although it would be detected at runtime). Because of this I had lots of problems with antivirus companies that flagged files create with nBinder as malware. This was of course affecting legit users as their files would be falsely marked as malware. I used virustotal.com to see which antivirus detected it and contacted the antivirus manufacturer as soon as I detected the problem. In most cases they would remove it from their definitions. But it was an uphill battle because it would appear again in a matter of weeks. Some small AV companies didn’t event bother to reply to my emails to fix the problem. Others were using heuristics to flag files create with my applications and AV developers were reluctant to whitelist files created with nBinder. You can imagine it that it was enough for an AV such as Kaspersky or Norton to pick my files as malware for a day and customers would be affected and not use my product any more, especially that it took about 3 days for AVs to remove the false positive.
  • Infrequent updates. Due to lack of time I only updated the product once or twice a year and this affected the product a lot.
  • No marketing. I decided that I didn’t want to invest money in marketing so, except for a short AdWords campaign, I invested no money in marketing.
  • My decision to develop 3 products instead of concentrating on one or two affected development time and quality. I have worked on 3 products simultaneously instead of concentrating on making a single good one. The reason I worked on 3 is because I enjoyed developing different software in different categories. I didn’t start this for money but for the fun of development.

Time/money invested

I invested almost no money (except for hosting costs). Time invested I can’t really say exactly, but not too much as I only worked on nBinder in short bursts like 6 hours a day for a week or so before releases.

Current product status

Still for sale. My other products are:

Any regrets?

It’s not a total failure as I did make some money out of it with no investment, so I don’t regret starting it, but it could have been much better.

Lessons learned

Words of advice for others trying to make money from software development:

  • Study the market and the current trends very well.
  • Before deciding to take on large competition make sure you have something better (at least from one point of view) than the competition ( for example you might not have the same features but you have a better GUI and general presentation).
  • Do not get scared of an overly populated market segment. For example with nBinder I picked a segment with very little competition but also few possible users and the results were not so great (I didn’t have many users). With nCleaner I went head-to-head with lots of already established products but also the market is very big. Although nCleaner is free it has had the most success because there are so many potential users (anyone with a PC actually), so it had over 2 millions downloads and I still receive lots of mails regarding it, even if the last update was in 2007. So it is possible to have success in a market with lots of competition with no investment but it’s hard to reach the level of more established products.

Case #9: Net-Herald

Contributor

Torsten Uhlmann.

The product

Net-Herald – a monitoring application for water supply companies. It was a complex client server application that would receive monitoring data from specialized hardware and store that data inside a SQL database.  The client displays that data in different graphs, provides printable reports or sends alarm messages via SMS if a monitored value is not within its specified limits.

I developed Net-Herald as a perfect fit for that specialized hardware that is provided by a local manufacturer. That way, so I hoped, I could profit from their sales leads and would find a smoother way into these water supply companies. The downside of course, was that my software would only work with their hardware.

Why it was judged a commercial failure

I sold a first license fairly soon after I had a sellable product, although it took the customer nearly a year until they finally bought. But since then I sold only one more license within the last 4 years or so.

What went wrong

  • I didn’t do my own marketing and the hardware guys weren’t really concerned with selling my software.
  • Water management companies have a terribly long sales cycle. Other vendors monitoring applications usually cost tens of thousands and are geared toward large suppliers. Whenever a supplier buys into such a product he is unlikely to change within the next decade or more. I tried to position my software towards small suppliers but even then most of them were already locked into another vendor’s solution.
  • My software only worked with a specific hardware. That narrowed the marked down substantially.
  • In the end the software became too complex for one poor mortal to maintain. Because the software didn’t produce any substantial income I had to stop adding new features which would make it attractive for more prospective clients.
  • This kind of software is not sold over the Internet. Rather it needs very active sales people that nurture clients over a rather long period of time.
  • All these facts indicate that software like this should not be developed by a one man show.

Time/money invested

The development time for the first sellable version was maybe about 9 months. I didn’t have a job income at that time, but got funding due to government support for small start-up businesses. So I didn’t drain our family’s personal finances. But I did of course invest a great deal of time and sweat.

Current product status

Now, I have drawn a line and stopped active development of Net-Herald. I still do some custom extensions for my first clients. But I no longer market the software. I have instead focused on my consulting services. I also try to learn developing and selling software with my cross-platform drag and drop product Simidude.

Any regrets?

I didn’t succeed yet selling my own software (which is still my goal) but I do not regret doing it. I developed Net-Herald using (Java) technologies that now give me leverage at my consulting gigs. All in all it was a heavy ride. But it was fun and I would do it again.

Lessons learned

  • My biggest mistake was the lack of market analysis. I trusted the word of the hardware manufacturer without verification.
  • I have written more about the above and some other failures on my blog.

Case #10: HabitShaper

Contributor

Adriano Ferrari.

The product

HabitShaper – set and track daily targets for your goals (weight loss, quit smoking, jogging, writing, etc…).

Why it was judged a commercial failure

I sold a few copies, but not enough to make back the time I invested in it and my conversion numbers and traffic are below average.

What went wrong

  • Did not do enough pre-production research (talking to customers, etc).
  • Did not do a large enough beta to make up for lack of initial research.
  • Ignored gut-feeling that my product is better suited to being web-based and multi-platform (incl. mobile).
  • Did EVERYTHING myself (logo, web design, video, software, AdWords, etc).

Time/money invested

I worked on it two years, part-time, while doing Masters/PhD in Physics. It had no impact on my finances (very little money invested) or circumstances.

Current product status

I am relaunching as a web-based product this summer.

Any regrets?

Not in the least! I learned about as much from making HabitShaper as I have from my MSc thesis and PhD work.

Lessons learned

  • Most important: PAPER prototypes, minimum viable product, and iterate.
  • Don’t be afraid to launch early.
  • Launch a little bigger than you’d expect (it’s harder to find those initial customers than you think).
  • Don’t be afraid to change directions, especially early on.
  • Doing things yourself is a great learning experience, but if you want to get your product out to customers as fast as possible, don’t be afraid to invest money and outsource your weaknesses.

Case #11: BPL

Contributor

Jim Lawless.

The product

BPL – Batch Programming Language Interpreter.

Why it was judged a commercial failure

I sold about 10 copies.

What went wrong

  • I didn’t really do enough research to find out if the target market was in existence. I was hoping that network admins and support staff members would find it easier to use than batch files and less complicated than any of the free scripting language options available. So, I just rushed to get the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) out the door.
  • I never did provide a compiler that would build a stand-alone EXE. I think that might have met with more success.
  • I didn’t do much as far as advertising the existence of the product.

Time/money invested

I only spent a few weeks coding and documenting it in my spare time. Support issues sometimes took a whole evening, but nothing major. It did not have any impact on my finances as I had invested nothing but my time.

Current product status

I will still address support issues with this product for registered users, but I don’t actively sell it. I’ve open-sourced the program and it still really isn’t seeing heavy use.

I was more successful with other products. I have a few retired products that saw some good bulk-purchase deals ( command-line DUN HangUp, command-line scheduler ) and I still sell the following (for Windows):

All of the above still bring in a modest passive income.

Any regrets?

Not at all. “Nothing ventured,…”.

Lessons learned

Had I not attempted to bring the BPL product to life, I might still be sitting here wondering “what if?” I think it was very beneficial for me to invest the time to try out this idea.

Case #12: Anonymous

Contributor

Anonymous.

The product

A time tracker.

Why it was judged a commercial failure

Because it is not my primary income. I have about 150 customers in one year.

What went wrong

  • No marketing.
  • No real thought into features.
  • I don’t spend any time on it.

In my defense, the reason I do not spend much time on it is that the market became saturated with ‘me toos’ right after I released, which was quite expected. In fact, as I was looking for users, I got an email from a competitor suggesting that I don’t enter the market because they are working on the same thing! I don’t know what I would do differently. Maybe spend more time on it? I think the law of diminishing returns applies quite early in this space so I am not sure.

Time/money invested

Since inception (Nov 2008), I’ve spent close to 250 hours total. Total cash outlay was something like $500.

Current product status

I never tried to make it succeed, to be honest. It was only a learning experience for me. What I probably need now is to go all in. Quite frankly, if I double the sales for this product, I can quit all consulting work. But I really do not think it is a good idea to work on this app full time as it is too simple.

Any regrets?

Definitely not.

Lessons learned

  • Do it!
  • Solve a problem people know they have.
  • Don’t invest too much time and money at the beginning.
  • Don’t be wedded to a particular idea.
  • Don’t only listen to your customers. Listen to yourself. After all, you created the idea which attracted the customers.
  • Never promise a feature for a sale. I’ve never done it but the pressure is really great. My stock response is always: “While such a feature may be available in the future, I recommend that you only use current features when deciding on your purchase.”
  • Do use Google to your advantage.

Case #13: ScreenRest

Contributor

Derek Pollard.

The product

ScreenRest – a consumer software product that reminds users to take regular rest breaks while using their computer.

Why it was judged a commercial failure

ScreenRest failed commercially because we built a product without having a clearly defined market.  This was compounded by it offering prevention, not a solution. ScreenRest continues to regularly sell a small number of licences but not in sufficient quantity to justify further enhancements.  The conversion rates are good, but there are simply not enough visitors to the website.

What went wrong

  • Not doing market research first.
  • Creating a prevention rather than solution product – people generally wait until they have a problem and then look for a solution.
  • Creating a product with medical associations – the SEO and PPC competition for related keywords is prohibitive for a product with a low purchase price.

Time/money invested

At least £2000 was spent on the project, including software licences and additional hardware.  The product and website were created over roughly 12 months by myself and my wife Lindsay, some during spare time, then part-time and finally full-time so it is difficult to determine the total number of hours.  Working part-time and then full-time on ScreenRest caused a significant impact on our finances.  Although right from the beginning we saw this as in investment for building a business.

Current product status

Once the product was complete and we started learning SEO it became all too apparent that organic search traffic for related keywords was going to be insufficient.  Research into PPC then revealed that the price point was too low to support purchasing medical terms. Planned features for ScreenRest have been put on hold and no further marketing is planned.  We continue to support new and existing ScreenRest customers and plan to do so for the foreseeable future. Rather than create another software product we chose to use what we had learned about marketing, copywriting and SEO to create a series of websites targeting a range of topics (often known as niche sites).  The most successful of these sites we are expanding in value and functionality to fill gaps not serviced by the competition.

Any regrets?

No.  ScreenRest succeeded in every way intended, other than commercially.  Creating it was a rewarding learning exercise that started us down a path to finding the intersection of our skills, experience and market opportunities.

Lessons learned

  • Start with market research – creating a high-quality product you believe in is not enough on its own.
  • Make sure you can identify a specific target market, that you can reach that market and that it is large enough to support your financial goals.

Conclusion

Analysing the above (admittedly small and self-selected sample) it is clear that by far the commonest cause of failure were:

  • lack of market research
  • lack of marketing

With the benefitof 20/20 hindsight it seems blindingly obvious that we should:

  • spend a few days researching if a product is commercially viable before we spend months or years creating it
  • put considerable effort into letting people know about the products we create

Yet, by my count, a whopping 6 out of 13 of us admitted to failing to do each of these adequately. Probably we were too busy obsessing over the features and technical issues so beloved of developers, which actually contributed to far fewer failures.

It is also noticeable that, despite the failure of these products, there are few regrets. Important lessons were learned and no-one lost their house. Many of us have gone on to develop successful products and the others will be in a much stronger position if they do decide to try again.

A big thank you to everyone who ate a large slice of humble pie and submitted the above. I hope we can prevent other budding software entrepreneurs making the same mistakes. Even if you don’t succeed, you will learn a lot.

Feel free to add your own hard-won lessons from failure in the comments below.

“No physician is really good before he has killed one or two patients.” – Hindu proverb

Social factors can make or break a product.

How to find a great software product name

A while back I exchanged a few ideas with Dennis Gurock about names for their new testing product. Choosing a name is difficult, but it is something every product developer has to do. So I asked Dennis to write a guest post about the process they went through before they ended up with ‘TestRail’.

Coming up with a great name for your new business, product or service is hard. I’m sure you already noticed that! But what is a good name anyway? Deciding if you like a name is, of course, pretty subjective. But there are some useful criteria that can help you find a great name.

Around a year ago we desperately needed a name for the new test management software we had been working on. We aren’t very good with names. In fact, we used a codename for the project until the very last minute, so that we didn’t have to come up with the product name earlier. Still, even with many months to think about a name, it was difficult to find one that we liked.

So what did we do to finally decide a name? We made a list, of course (we are programmers for a reason). A list of objective criteria that the new name should meet. This helped us quickly evaluate new names that we brainstormed. So I figured, if it helped us coming up with a name, why not share our tips with other fellow programmers? So here are the criteria that we used to find a name for our new product.

#1 The shorter, the better

A good, catchy name needs to be short. Do you think Google would be used as a verb today if it had six syllables? I don’t think so either. But even if you don’t plan to become the next Google, having a short name that can be used in everyday discussions is a powerful way to make your brand stick. “Have you seen the bug report in Jira?”, “Could you post your meeting notes to Basecamp?”, “What’s the project status in TestRail?”

#2 Make it easy to spell

Coming up with “creative” and “hip” ways to spell your new name is generally not a very good idea. I’m pretty sure Joel Spolsky has regretted more than once naming his bug tracker FogBugz. I once talked to a customer who kept calling it fog bug zed and I’m sure he is not alone. You don’t want a customer’s purchasing department not find your product on the web because they are unable to spell it correctly.

#3 Own the .com domain

Did you notice that a lot of companies don’t own the .com domain of their new brand names lately? There’s a good reason for it: most good .com domains are taken. If you have been trying to register a good domain name recently you know how frustrating that can be. Still, I don’t believe it’s a good idea to just own widgethq.com, or foobarapp.com. Invest the time and resources to come up with a name that you can  register or buy the .com domain for. You don’t want a competitor to purchase “your” .com domain from a domain squatter after you invested tens of thousands of dollars to promote your brand name.

#4 Trademarks, or: how not to get sued

This one is important. You really want to make sure that you are not infringing on someone else’s trademark. So make sure your new name is not already used or registered (at least in your industry) and that it’s not similar to an existing mark. Ideally you come up with a name that you can easily register with your country’s trademark office (and then do so when you actually use it). I’m not going to pretend that I know everything about trademarks and I’m not a lawyer. So make sure to either contact a lawyer or do your own research on this topic. I found Trademark: Legal Care for Your Business & Product Name from Nolo pretty helpful.

#5 Google is your friend

I’m sure Microsoft didn’t foresee how a simple name could impact developers’ life so negatively when they decided to name their new software platform .NET over ten years ago. It turned out that such a generic name (especially with a leading dot) made it really difficult for developers to find related resources online using a search engine. Don’t make the same mistake. Choose a name that is unique and can be easily found on Google. It can also help your search rankings if your product name contains relevant search terms. For example, our new product is related to software testing and having the term ‘test’ in the product name helped us considerably with this.

#6 Consult a native speaker

Are you not a native speaker of the language your primary market communicates in (e.g. English)? Have you found a great name that is unique, that no one uses, has no trademark registration and is available as a .com domain? Congratulations, you’ve probably found a name that is severely offensive to native speakers in one way or another! If it weren’t so embarrassing, this would now be the place where I told you a story about how I once almost named a product similar to a body part you don’t usually want to talk about in a business conversation. The moral of the story is that you should always discuss your name ideas with a native speaker before making a complete fool of yourself.

It can be a challenge to find a name that meets all these criteria perfectly. Some of the criteria are obviously more important than others, but I still recommend trying to come up with a name that meets most of them.

So how did we end up naming our new product? We called it TestRail. It’s not the best name in the world, but we are happy that we came up with a name we like. And most importantly, having finally found a name allowed us to concentrate on doing what we enjoy most: building great tools for software teams.

Dennis Gurock is the director and co-founder of Gurock Software, a company specialized in tools for software development teams and quality assurance departments. Gurock’s first product SmartInspect is a .NET, Java and Delphi logging tool. Gurock’s second product TestRail is comprehensive web-based test case management software to efficiently manage, track and organize software testing efforts. Dennis can also be found on Twitter as @dgurock.

It can also help your search rankings if your product name contains
relevant search terms. For example, our new product is related to
software testing and having the term 'test' in the product name helped
us considerably with this.

New links page

I have put together a page of categorised links to blog posts and articles that I think might be useful to developers and marketers of commercial software in general, and microISVs/indie developers in particular. I intend to add more links from time-to-time. My rules for inclusion are secret, arbitrary and capricious, so please don’t ask to have your link added.