Is Twitter the Spawn of the Devil?

If you judged by the reaction of some microISVs, absolutely. But Twitter is neither the Spawn of the Devil or a magic wand once waved producing millions of dollars. It’s a new communication medium, and like blogging did it will take some time before the naysayers stop grumbling and the spam artists move on.

That said, we live in a society being hugely changed by each major new innovation on the net. Anyone care to argue that Google, e-commerce or blogging is a waste of time and productivity?

New medium – new opportunities; probably more opportunities to do it wrong than right. But that applies to everything.

The point I’ve made repeatedly – and will keep making – is that Twitter used right will help your startup or microISV engage directly with more current and prospective customers. This is A Good Thing. For all the issues Twitter has (it’s down as I write this), it’s still the early days for this medium; a good time for nimble businessowners (that’s you) to get going with it before the broad mainstream does.

I and Kristen Nicole wrote The Twitter Survival Guide because in our judgment a little solid information, perspective and insight makes all the difference when making room in your business operations for a new tool. I certainly would not mind if you bought and read it, but if you sell software, it is time to get on this one way or another.

Here’s a few pointers – especially for existing microISVs  – about adopting Twitter.

  • Start with three accounts. Three? Yes, three: one is your personal non-customer facing account where you chat, interact, flirt, rail against and generally converse with other people. The second is your CEO twitter account (whether your company has 1 employee or 100). Use this account to respond to customer complaints, provide tech support, help people who have the problem your product solves. Lastly, you product has a twitter account, and tweets about new releases, bug fixes, blog posts of interest, etc., and is mainly a RSS+ feed if you will.
  • Twitter Search is your friend. It will find the people who are talking about your product, concerned with the problem domain it addresses (whether that’s running an agricultural co-op or improving worker satisfaction or any other imaginable thing), people who just might do business with you if they knew you existed. Define and save and regularly revisit your Twitter searches, or find a service that will do this for you.
  • Birds sing in the morning. Unless you want to drive yourself crazy, you already have regular times in the day when you check and process voicemail and email. Adding Twitter to those same periods works surprisingly well because you’re already in “communication mode” and squeezing in a few DMs and RTs (direct messages and retweeting tweets of value) is easy while on hold returning a call.
  • Find a Twitter client that works for you, but watch for new tools. I now use Tweetie for the Mac and iPhone – they work great for me. But new Twitter tools, services and products are coming out daily: once a month do a “best Twitter client +[your OS] search just to stay in the loop.
  • Find the right mix of Twitter topics to tweet, retweet and follow for your online brand. In the same way you should be focusing your company’s blog, focus your company’s micro-blog. This is particularly important once you hit the Dunbar Limit of people you follow: there’s no way to comfortably absorb all the tweets that will appear in your personal Twitter timeline. You need to focus.
  • Don’t market at people, talk with people. Whether it’s pointing out a good movie (personal), steering a prospective customer to the right tool for what they want – be it yours or a competitor’s, add value to the conversation. By all means share with them about the things you’re passionate about, but listen to what they’re saying too.

Dismissing Twitter as a waste of time, useless and something you as a microISV can safely ignore is the easy way out: like most things, it all depends on how you go about it.

The MicroISV Digest

The MicroISV Digest for the week ending August 3rd, 2009.

(If you have an announcement of interest to your fellow microISV, indies or startups, please email me at bob.walsh@47hats.com with the word digest in the subject.)

News and Announcements

  • Jake Liddell, FourPDF, has launched his URL to PDF service. I ran this site’s home page through it and was amazed at how accurate the rendered PDF looked. Instant brochure! Jake is looking for feedback on his site and his business model. (via BOS)
  • Steve Cholerton, Arten Science, have released Version 3 of R10Cipher, of their cross-platform, comprehensive file and text encryption product. Version 3 adds numerous enhancements, key management and 384 bit encryption. Available for Mac, Windows and Linux. (via email)
  • Thomas Kjeldahl Nilsson, Climbing Mind Ltd., has launched Version 1 of ThoughtMuse, an online mindmapping tool. Thomas is looking for feedback on his site and service. (via email and BOS)
  • Alex, Jitbit Software, has released a new version of Jitbit CRM, a lightweight, cost-effective ASP.NET-based CRM. (via email)
  • In show #31 of the Startup Success Podcast I talk to Jay Cincotta and Kendall Miller about their launch of Gibraltar Software. Jay and Kendall explain how they came to decide to do a startup, how their using Twitter to publicize it, finding companies to partner with and more.

Relevant Blog Posts, Videos and Articles

Further (mostly relevant) Reading

  • Here’s an interesting statistic: Of the 30 entrepreneurs profiled for the 2008 Inc Top 30 Under 30, 18 have personal or business Twitter accounts and 19 host personal or corporate blogs. Check out Greg Rollett’s post, How Gen-Y Startups Use Social Media to Shatter the Status Quo. If you’re still not convinced that Gen-Y’s approach to the net is different from that of those of us who can still remember a pre-Internet world, give a listen to the BBC’s Peter Day’s World of Business podcast this week on how Gen Y is driving corporate training towards Social Media: Learning Curve.

The juggling act: Building an ISV on top of a client business

By Ka Wai Cheung,
We Are Mammoth

I work at a small web shop. We do work for clients. Six guys in a wide-open room building microsites, web sites, and rich applications for big agencies and startup clients.

We’re also a small ISV. We’ve built two web products for public release: a data-modeling platform for Flash and Flex developers called X2O (www.x2oframework.com), and a web-based issue tracking tool called DoneDone (www.getdonedone.com).

Since launching both of these apps in the past year, we’ve had to do some in-house juggling – support our grassroots ISV business while maintaining our client work. In the meantime, we’ve stumbled upon some great lessons and observations from the trenches.

Here’s how we got our own products out the door and started making money while our client business thrives more now than ever.

Build products that’ll help your business right now

It’s hard to justify building apps that might not actually make a dime for months and months when there are clients willing to pay for your services right now. So, hedge your bets. Build products that help your business now. That’s reason enough to build a product anyways. Looking at it in reverse, if you’re already building internal apps for your own business, why can’t you turn it into a product?

We built X2O to get rid of the tedious nuances of building database-driven Flash and Flex applications for our clients. Instead of building database schemas, SQL queries, server-side code, web services, and client-side data parsers by hand for every client project, we wrote code generators to handle that for us. After a few months using it internally, we decided to wrap all of those generators up and built a web client on top of it, and – voila! A product was made. X2O was a product we needed anyway. The months we spent on it were helping us build apps for clients much faster.

The same thing was true for DoneDone. We paid $120 a month for a web-based issue tracking tool that flat out sucked. A horrible UI, too many dropdown boxes and filters, and not enough direction. We searched for other tools and they all did too much. So, I started to write my own, with our own rules and unique focus. In three months, we were using it to track our own bugs. Two months later, we threw a billing component behind it and started selling subscriptions to other similarly-jaded companies.

Building apps you’ll use anyways takes the pressure off. I worked on DoneDone for weeks at a time while the other five focused on client projects. If DoneDone weren’t something we could use right away, the pressure would really be on. If this app doesn’t succeed, what’s to become of me???

Avoid the “pet project” syndrome

Client projects are rarely completed on-time. But pet projects are never completed…period. If you’re serious about building a microISV, better treat your product as part of a client project and not just a pet project. There’s a chance in hell that it might actually get out the door. If you build tools that you need anyways, make them a natural part of your client work.

It also helps maintain momentum. Deadlines don’t have to be arbitrary. With X2O, we added big features (like a CMS generator) and small tweaks (like support for non-western languages) when we needed them for our clients. The due dates for X2O fell in line with due dates for other client deliverables.

Bonus? Your testing infrastructure is already set up. There’s something tangible to test your product against. The hypothetical get answered right away. If we were actually using this bug tracker…wait, we are actually using the bug tracker!

Pet projects don’t have the same sense of urgency that client projects do. Make your products as much a part of your client work and you’ll notice a huge difference.

Be the good client to your own products

There’s an interesting psychological switch that happens when you start building your own products after years of building products for someone else. You’re thrust into the role of being your own client. When should we launch? Can we launch without A, B, and C? Can we just add this one little piece? It can’t be that hard, can’t it? Suddenly, you become that client – the one that keeps you awake at night is now staring you directly in the mirror.

Be the good client. Don’t get caught up in the weedy details and focus on what makes the app better, not what makes everyone in your room happy. Do it to get your product up and running faster. It may just be a refreshing new way to work as well.

Decisions in groups of three

We don’t have big roundtable discussions for our apps. We don’t need a dozen opinions. If one of us wants to add email-to-ticket support to DoneDone, or RSS feeds for our issues, we decide what to do right now.

We found that decisions should be made in a group of three. We debate for 20 minutes and take a vote. Majority wins. Usually, we’re unanimous by the end of a debate. And, if three people think it’s a good idea, it’s likely that four, or five, or six people will to.

We have to make decisions quickly because there’s other work to do.

Let your apps rest

You should always rest a steak when it comes off the grill. Cut it open too quickly and all the juices flow out. Once it gets tough there’s no going back.

The same is true for your product once you’ve launched. Early on with DoneDone, we kept tweaking it. Slightly new iterations would pop up on an almost-daily basis. There’s a tendency to finagle too much with your own products because, well, they’re yours. Stop working on your app constantly. When you’ve gone live, making constant iterations (especially interface tweaks and functional additions) can hurt the user experience. Even if a new version is better, it’s unnerving to have things change so soon. Let users get used to what’s there before you adjust it again. It’ll give them a chance to tell you what really needs to be fixed.

As an added reason, there’s other client work to keep us occupied – work that’s generating revenue right now. If products were the only thing we worked on, then we probably would feel the itch to add new features to them constantly. In a way, having client work still be the focus of our business makes our products mature better.

So, if you’ve been thinking about dabbling into products, it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. In fact, it very well may enhance your client business, not hamper it.

Now, what happens as your product grows its customer base and you need to start adding support? Price it just right and the amount of effort you expend on it will be worth the increased time you need to devote to it. It just becomes a bigger client of yours.

Oh, and how do you price software just right? I’ll leave that question to someone else.

————-

My name is Ka Wai Cheung. I’m a partner at We Are Mammoth in Chicago. We build rich data-driven web apps for clients of all flavors. I’m also a designer/programmer, avid blogger, and co-author of the book Flash Application Design Solutions.

Allow me to introduce myself…

It’s been a while since I’ve explained who I (Bob Walsh) am and what I do regarding microISVs and startups and it seems this blog has picked up a lot more readers recently, so here goes. Please feel free to skip this post!

1. You’re reading my blog 47hats where you’ll find hundreds of posts on topics that concern microISVs and startups by myself and others. If your startup/MicroISV is launching, releasing a major update or making a special offer, please let me know by emailing me at bob.walsh@47hats.com and I’ll probably include it in next week’s MicroISV Digest.

2. Have a listen to the Startup Success Podcast – interviews with successful startups and companies doing interesting things for startups. Please contact me if your startup relates to others or you’d like to help other startups by talking with myself and my cohost, Pat Foley about your startup’s experience to date.

3. The Web Startup Success Guide just came out – just about everything an aspiring web software company founder needs to know. What you’ll learn:
• How to define the value your web app will deliver to its users
• Evangelizing your startup via social media—from Twitter to Facebook, from YouTube to your own social network
• Which web app pricing strategies work, and which don’t
• What alternatives to traditional business structures will let you launch and run your startup without all the legal mumbo–jumbo
• What services and web apps exist today to help your startup succeed
• How to get meaningful online press for your web app

Plus, interviews with David Allen (Getting Things Done), Rafe Needleman (CNET), Marshall Kirkpatrick (ReadWriteWeb), Guy Kawasaki (Garage Technology Ventures), Dharmesh Shah (OnStartups, HubSpot), Joel Spolsky (Fog Creek Software), Eric Sink (SourceGear), Pamela Slim (Escape from Cubicle Nation), and 40 other people who can help your startup succeed.

4. If you’re microISV is built around a desktop application, you might want to read my book, Micro-ISV: From Vision to Reality. While it’s a few years old it’s still the best single source of information for the aspiring MicroISV desktop software founder.

5. Join the conversation of your peers at the Joel On Software Business of Software forum. I and my fellow co-moderators work make sure you have a spam-free, high-quality forum to discuss the gambit of issues facing small and not so small software companies.

6. Purchase and read my ebook ($19) on what microISVs need to know to improve their web sites, MicroISV Sites that Sell!.

7. Want to know more about getting started with Twitter for your microISV or startup or yourself? Check out The Twitter Survival Guide. Tools, interviews, insight and more by myself and leading news blogger Kristen Nicole.

8. If you don’t have a blog for your microISV or startup, my book, Clear Blogging: How People Blogging Are Changing the World and How You Can Join Them will show you the value and get you started.

9. I provide consulting services to startups and microISVs including web site copywriting, market positioning, social media and product strategies. See http://www.47hats.com/consulting-services/ for details.

10. In August StartupToDo.com (a training/productivity community for startups and microISVs) will launch. Be Successful Faster.

The MicroISV Digest

The MicroISV Digest for the week ending July 27th, 2009.

(If you have an announcement of interest to your fellow microISV, indies or startups, please email me at bob.walsh@47hats.com with the word digest in the subject.)

News and Announcements

Relevant Blog Posts, Videos and Articles

Further (mostly relevant) Reading

What’s in the book, Bob?

A lot – if you’re an experienced developer ready to stop working for other people and start working for yourself. Below is a PDF of the Table of Contents to give you a more specific idea of what’s in The Web Startup Success Guide:

(If you don’t see a PDF above this line, please let me know!)

Joel Spolsky on The Web Startup Success Guide

twssg(Note: Joel Spolsky, CEO of Fog Creek Software, Joel on Software and the Joel on Software Business of Software forum and co-Founder of Stack Overflow was kind enough to write the foreward for The Web Startup Success Guide.)

Last summer, Paul Graham invited me to stop by his place in Cambridge for an intimate dinner. Just him, his wife, and the founders of three dozen extremely young startups in the Y Combinator program, a bootcamp/incubator/angel investment thingy.

“Would you be willing to speak to these founders about, I don’t know, maybe pricing?” Paul asked me.

“Sure!” I said, and he whistled loudly to get everyone to quiet down.

I didn’t really have a speech prepared. There was no PowerPoint outline I could use as a crutch.

The room was jam packed. All eyes were on me. I didn’t know what I was going to say.

I thought I’d try a gambit.

“So…” I said. “Any questions?”

Ten hands shot up.

“Go ahead,” I said, pointing to a kid in the front row who, I imagine, had just gotten his braces off the week before.

And for almost two hours straight, these poor kids asked me the most basic questions imaginable about the business of startups. Pricing. Features. Marketing. Invoicing. They had so many questions.

I gave them as good a brain dump as I could on each topic. They sat raptly and asked intelligent follow up questions.

These were smart kids, mind you: usually top Computer Science graduates and plenty of experienced programmers. But for all their coding skills, they didn’t really know the first thing about make a business successful.

Which is OK. They’ll learn. It’s not that hard. The hardest part is realizing that even though you’re making an Internet company, writing the code and getting it to work is only a small part of the effort, and not necessarily the most critical one. The business side is just as crucial.

There’s a lot you’re going to need to learn to make your startup awesome. And this book that you hold in your hands, this very book, is a splendid introduction to the topic. Heck, I’ve been running Fog Creek for nine years now; I think I know a thing or two about a thing or two, and I learned something new on every page.

Every single page.

Yes, even that page with the interview of me.

This book is a fantastic resource for anyone doing a web startup or a software startup. Bob Walsh will teach you how to make your startup successful. Buy it, read it, put it under your pillow. Then buy copies for your cofounders. And go out there and nail it with a killer startup that makes the world a better place.

Joel Spolsky
CEO, Fog Creek Software

It’s shipped! And, an interview with David Allen

It’s always fun to be able to say the words, “It’s shipped!” , especially if you don’t actually have to do the shipping. Yesterday, paper copies of The Web Startup Success Guide started arriving at customer’s doors; I got my 20 author copies in the middle of an interview for a future Startup Success Podcast episode. Also, Apress is now selling the PDF version: very handy given the number of URLs in it. (Update (7/24/09 7pm PST: Apress is working to make this PDF Kindle-ready. It’s not as of now.)

This book would not have been possible without the cooperation and help of a great many people. Today though, I’d like to point out one of my personal heroes that writing this book gave me the opportunity to interview: David Allen, creator of the Getting Things Done productivity methodology and best-selling author.

David was kind enough to give me an extensive interview on the intersection between GTD and a range of topics: building a startup, working online, using Twitter and more. It’s a long interview – 6,000+ words – so I’ve made it the GTD page of 47hats.

If you know about GTD, and you are building a startup or microISV, this is the interview you’ve been waiting for. If you’re building a startup or microISV and don’t know about GTD, you need to read this interview. Seriously.

Optimizing Search Engine Rankings with Microsites

A Guest Post by Dennis Gurock
Gurock Software Co-Founder

We here at Gurock Software recently started a SEO microsite experiment that we believe is very relevant to other MicroISVs. That’s why I would like to share the results of the experiment here on Bob’s blog and explain how it helped us improve our search engine rankings. But let’s recap the experiment for a minute. The idea was to launch a few microsites for certain topics related to our logging and tracing tool SmartInspect. The goal was to provide a useful starting point to developers new to logging tools and to get the sites ranked well for specific keywords (especially keywords we had trouble getting the SmartInspect website to rank well for). One of the questions we wanted to answer with this experiment was how important it is to have the actual keywords in the domain name. To test this, we launched the two microsites .NET logging and Java logging, hoping the keywords in the domain name would boost their search engine rankings.

Promoting the Sites

Before I share the actual results, let me first explain what we did to promote the sites. We needed to get at least a few inbound links to get Google & co. notice and index the new sites. Inbound links with relevant anchor texts are also important to get the sites ranked well. The first source of links came from reactions to our original posting with other blogs linking to our new sites. The next step was to include links to the microsites on some of our other websites, such as our blog and DelphiFeeds.com. We also announced the new sites on relevant forums, newsgroups and community sites, resulting in some additional links with useful anchor texts. We also added the sites to link directories and contacted some webmasters of Java and .NET link lists to include our sites.

We have also improved and extended the content since we launched the sites. We have, for example, split the single page we started with into multiple pages and added new Java logging comparison and .NET logging comparison pages to the site. We have also been adding additional links to tools and articles to both sites from time to time to keep the content fresh and up-to-date. We plan to do this regularly, as search engines love fresh and updated content. The main goal of promoting the sites was to build a few inbound links to get the sites indexed and ranked by search engines, and it worked surprisingly well.

The Rankings

So how did it work out? At the time of writing this posting, both microsites rank (far) better than our main SmartInspect website for many keywords, including important keywords such as .NET logging and Java logging. This is especially surprising considering how many more links the SmartInspect websites has compared to the new microsites (the quality of the links to the SmartInspect website is also a lot better, with links coming from domains such as microsoft.com and other relevant websites). Another thing that surprised us was how quickly the new sites ranked well. Just a week after launching the sites they got to the first page of the Google results for the main keywords. Although the Java site dropped from Google’s search results a few weeks after it launched, it’s back online and is working itself up in the results again. In fact, it’s ranked #4 for Java logging at the moment, ahead of popular logging tools such as log4j. The .NET microsite ranks #1 for .NET logging as of today, 7 ranks better than the SmartInspect site itself which enjoyed years of link building and buzz.

Although we are surprised by the very good rankings that the sites received so quickly, we also believe the new sites deserve good search engine rankings, as the content is useful and relevant to developers interested in the topic.

The Results

The traffic has been steadily increasing and because of the promotions and banners that we placed on the microsites, we also receive a good chunk of that traffic on the SmartInspect website. Most of the traffic comes from search engines, but we also get visitors from links and social websites (especially StumbleUpon).

The feedback from site visitors is very positive and we receive suggestions for improvements and additional links to new tools and articles from time to time. We are also able to convert site visitors to SmartInspect customers regularly, but the exact numbers are hard to tell, as SmartInspect sales are difficult to track (the developers who find and try SmartInspect usually do not place the orders directly, their managers or purchasing departments do).

Overall the microsites are a great success for us [full size screenshot of Google ranking :)] and are an impressive testament to how important keywords in the domain name really are for Google. We already plan to launch additional microsites for SmartInspect and for our upcoming test management software TestRail.
===
Dennis Gurock is a director and co-founder at Gurock Software, a company specialized in software quality tools and makers of SmartInspect and test management. Dennis regularly blogs about Gurock’s products, the business of software and software quality on the Gurock Software blog and on NoBugLeftBehind.com. Dennis also twitters.

The MicroISV Digest

signappnowThe MicroISV Digest for the week ending July 20th, 2009.

(If you have an announcement of interest to your fellow microISV, indies or startups, please email me at bob.walsh@47hats.com with the word digest in the subject.)

News and Announcements

  • Milo Felipe, milObjects Software, has released SignApp Now, a simple and easy way to create online sign up sheets. (via email)
  • Rob Walling, The Micropreneur Academy, is opening its doors to new enrollments soon. The Micropreneur Academy is an online learning environment for solo software entrepreneurs. Many current members have launched or are launching their own product/web app in the first few months. I recommended the Academy in the The Web Startup Success Guide. (via email)
  • Dennis Gurock, Gurock Software, has launched their second product – TestRail – and redesigned their site. TestRail is Test Case Management Software for QA and Development Teams. (via email)
  • “TN”, Cogitek Inc., is looking for feedback on their site redesign for version 3.0 RiaTest, an automated testing tool for Adobe Flex applications. (via BOS)
  • The Web Startup Success Guide will start shipping this week from Amazon; you can get Chapter 6, Social Media and your Startup from Apress for free now. You’ll find a new excerpt on Startup Incubators over at Sramada Mitra’s blog, and two of 16 Startup Tools reviewed here.
  • In show #30 of the Startup Success Podcast Bob and Pat talk with Julien Codorniou who heads up Microsoft BizSpark about this program for startups. If your startup is less than 3 years old and makes less than $1 million a year, BizSpark gives you free development and production licensing and access for 3 years to all of Microsoft’s technology.

Relevant Blog Posts, Videos and Articles

Further (mostly relevant) Reading