Process and the mISV

By Starr Horne
theStartupLowdown

Every so often someone in the Business of Software forum asks about process.

For most mISVs, formal methodologies like extreme programming are extreme overkill. But there are a few “processes” that I’ve found essential to my business productivity.

Keep in mind – process is fundamentally different for a one-person company than for a large corporation:

  • IT is no longer a separate department: So you need to address business as well as technical issues.
  • You have the flexibility that larger companies would kill for. Process should structure your work, without sacrificing your ability to make quick decisions.
  • Process should be biased toward action, not documentation. (Those TPS reports can wait)

Using these criteria, I’ve come up with four practices that have boosted my productivity and helped me hold on to a little bit of my sanity.

Hold weekly business and technical reviews

When you’re starting a business on your own, it can be hard to see the big picture. Why not devote two hours a week to self-review? Sit down with a pad and a big cup of coffee and ask yourself: What have I done right? What have I done wrong? How do I do better?

Define clear end-points

One of the hardest things about development is knowing when to stop. But there’s a simple solution. Create a “bare minimum” requirements document. As soon as you code and test a feature, check it off and move on! Don’t optimize, beautify or abstract. It can take real discipline, but you’ll be amazed at how much you can get done.

Create a work schedule (and stick to it)

There are a million things you have to do to create a successful company. It can be especially overwhelming if, like so many of us, you’re working full time & creating your ISV on the side. So do yourself a favor and make a work schedule. It takes the pressure off to be able to say “Hey, it’s GUI Thursday, I don’t have to worry about PR.”

Keep a “Not Now” list

When you’re racing towards version 1, you don’t have any time to waste. Every time you sit down to code a new feature, ask yourself: “If I leave this out, will it break my product?” If the answer is no, it goes on the “Not Now” list. This will save time, sure. But more importantly, it will train you to constantly focus on your core values.

That’s it!

If you decide to implement any of these techniques, or if you’d like to share some of your own, let me know! I’d love to hear them.

===

Starr Horne is currently developing the StepLively Switchboard, a CRM system for e-commerce, which incorporates live chat, email and click-to-call. You can read more articles by Starr in his development blog, The Startup Lowdown, and in his e-commerce blog LetsTalkEcommerce.com.

[tags]47hats, development, StepLively[/tags]

A vision of students today.

Every so often something floats by in the river of news that disjoints you. One moment, you see the world this way – the next, you don’t.

Michael Wesch, a professor at Kansas State University is someone who keeps whacking my head in a totally thought-provoking way. First there was The Machine is Us/ing Us. Then Information R/evolution and now, A Vision of Students Today.

FirefoxScreenSnapz008

The thing about Prof. Wesch’s digital ethnography is how it both rings true and jars us out of our humdrum mindsets: technology changes everyone, including the technologists.

Jobs to Developers: please come back!

Posted 5 minutes ago at Apple hotnews by Steve Jobs:

Let me just say it: We want native third party applications on the iPhone, and we plan to have an SDK in developers’ hands in February. We are excited about creating a vibrant third party developer community around the iPhone and enabling hundreds of new applications for our users. With our revolutionary multi-touch interface, powerful hardware and advanced software architecture, we believe we have created the best mobile platform ever for developers.

So why the turnaround from just a few months ago? Why go from you can develop in Safari and that’s it to please, please develop native apps?

Two words: Customer Demand.

[tags]47hats, iPhone, Developers[/tags]

Colors matter

Starr Horne pointed me towards a very good post about what colors communicate over at Kidson Talks. Why does it matter to you? Because your web site’s colors communicates with your customers – whether you are aware of what you’re saying or not.

If you don’t have a good sense of what colors work together, cheat! ColorSchemer is a desktop (PC & Mac) application for generating color schemes. While there are other tools on the market, ColorSchemer’s Community has as of now 2996 color schemes you can download into their product and XOR with say your logo’s colors, or just start using.

Making it a one click experience for your users to share what they create online is an excellent way of building community around your product.

Read the post to get a sense of what colors communicate and then have a look at your site – are you sending trying to send one message but your colors send another? If so, or you just want to freshen up your site or blog, check out ColorSchemer.

[tags]47hats,ColorSchemer[/tags]

MicroISVs and climate change

Action 125X125
Today is Blog Action Day, and given that, this post is about the environment. Many other people today will be blogging about things you can do for the environment as an individual and those are good things; but being who I am, I want to concentrate on some of the opportunities I see in the looming climate crisis for microISVs.

But pay heed: it is a looming, real crisis: various climate models put the average temperature rise between 2.0 to 11.5 °F by the year 2100 [1] – if you want to argue the IPCC is wrong – go right ahead, just line up behind those who say cigarettes don’t kill people.

Personally, I think the scientific community is being way too cautious and optimistic: for example the percentage of perennial sea ice that melts in the Arctic each summer has gone from 6.4 to 7.8 each year in the 1970s [2] to 14% in 2002 [3] to 39% this year [4].

I don’t want to be the frog in the pot while the temperature is going up, do you?

That said – and it needs to be said – what can microISVs do about it? Maybe more than you think. Here’s a few ideas to kick around:

True Cost Accounting – We need to start taking into account the true cost of the things we buy, consume and do. What about an accounting app that tracks your money and your carbon footprint?

Lower your Bill – I pay between $500 and $600 a month for electricity to run my home/office (that’s a 2400 sq. ft. house in Northern California, and no, I’m not kidding); I have been over and over why my bills are outrageously high with my local utility no less than 3 times: write me an app that will get to the bottom of this and I will write that check today.

Efficiency Matters – This one is for all those b2b microISVs out there who sell specialized software to industries and companies you’ve never heard about because they don’t do retail. In industry segment after industry segment – transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, construction – efficiency in terms of initial and ongoing carbon emissions is going to be a market differentiator of growing importance.

Taking Public Policy Online – If you’re one of those IT people who avoid politics like the plague here’s the three things you need to know about politics (known as public policy in polite company): It’s all about who gets what from the pot, keeping the lid tight on the pot and most practicing political types wake up screaming at night when they think about Net.

Bricks and mortar politicians gibber in fear at what is to come – and that’s a good thing. So let’s join people like the Sunlight Foundation who are using the net to make our “public servants” more accountable and further ruin their day:

The Google Junket Map – How about a nice Open Source Web 2.0 mash up of where federal and state officeholders go “on official business”? How about an email service to service to remind them we are watching them?

Delphi Coricle – Take manifestos for change from ChangeThis and other sites, let people vote for them and even pledge money (ala Kiva and other microloan sites) from their nice desktop app written in… :) and then aggregate the results to a Digg-like leaderboard online.

Something Al Gore said Friday in a news conference upon winning the Nobel Peace Prize along with the IPCC has stuck in my mind: The climate crisis is “the most dangerous challenge we face but it is also the greatest opportunity we have ever had to make change.”

That sounds like an opportunity for microISVs to me!

[tags]47hats, BlogActionDay, environment[/tags]

links for 2007-10-15

Reviewing RoboSoft: The Long Arm of Submission

By Joshua Volz
Volz Software

[Ed. Note: From time to time I'm inviting various microISVs to come talk about the development of their products here at 47hats.com. Want to contribute a MicroISV Profile? Email me.]

Marketing. It’s the other half of having a software company. It’s the hard part for most of us who start our own microISV. It’s the hardest part for me. Writing the code is easy; I’m used to it. How do I market my code once I’ve made it? Can I produce a presentable website? How can I get my product uploaded to all the download sites?

RoboSoft is a program that automates the process of uploading your PAD file including your program information to the numerous download sites on the internet. Their database of sites includes more than 1,000 entries.

robosoft_intro_smaller

I heard about RoboSoft from Partick McKenzie’s blog. He had mentioned it as part of his marketing efforts for Bingo Card Creator. He had even said that he liked it enough to purchase the product ($99). Patrick is very thrifty, so I expected the product to be excellent.

I was right to expect excellence. I downloaded the installation and quickly had it installed. The installation was quick and painless. I didn’t know anything about PAD files, about the software, nor had I ever submitted a product to a download site. I was a complete novice, so if you are too, don’t worry about it.

I briefly looked through the help in the program, which got me going pretty quickly with the creation of company and product entries within the software. The product creation is basically filling in the information that is required for a PAD file. The PAD file support within RoboSoft is extensive. It appears to handle several special cases very easily. None of these PAD files add-ons applied to my product, but if they had it would have been simple to include them.

I entered my information. Most of it I already had from the creation of my website (file names, software descriptions, etc.). I was missing an online PAD file and a program icon. Once I had created the PAD file using the software (you can export a PAD file very easily) I uploaded it to my website and then added that link to the PAD file itself. The program icon did give me a bit of trouble because I didn’t know that it was required to not be an .ico file, and that it was required to be 32×32 or smaller. It should be a .png or .jpeg (I believe there are other options, but those are the main ones as far as I’m concerned).

Before fixing the PAD file and program icon issues, I tried to run an upload. The software has a nice wizard to walk you through all of the steps to setup an upload. It was similar to running a normal installation in that I just had to make my selection and click next. Not much thought was required on my part. Since I hadn’t fixed the issues yet I was only successful in uploading to about 50-60 sites. I thought this number was low, but it was late so I went to bed.

The next day I messed around with the PAD file and program icon and got them working (maybe 45 minutes of trial and error). I reran the upload and was able to upload to an additional 200+ websites. I was extremely pleased. I am going to buy this product for use with future releases of this and other software.

My initial upload (50-60 sites) was two weeks ago on September 23rd. The previous version of the program languished on the vine with very little real advertising. I had about 112 downloads of the software in a 12 month period. With this version, in 15 days, I’ve had 121 downloads and climbing. Yes, the improved user interface might have something to do with it, but I credit the majority of the exposure the product has gotten to the submissions to the download sites. I haven’t yet started my other advertising efforts, so all of my traffic is either organic or coming from those download sites.

I recommend this product and I think it is an absolute must for any microISV selling a software application.

—–
I’m Joshua Volz, owner of Volz Software. I make software I want to use. Lately I have been working on Llama Carbon Copy (a simple, automatic backup software for non-technical people) and Vizonware Organizer (a personal organizer and archive that is currently free to download and use).

[tags]microISV, Marketing, RoboSoft[/tags]

FogBugz puts an end to faith-based developing

Yesterday I got the word on Fog Creek’s new FogBugz 6.0 from the man himself, Joel Spolsky, from a microISV point of view.

I wanted to see for myself whether the new 6.0 had gained anything that would make it easier to use as my one person tech support app; what I got was a hell of a surprise.

The surprise is something Joel and Co. call evidence-based scheduling (ESB). I think this one exclusive feature is going to rock the development world and be a real boon for microISVs. Here’s why: estimating development tasks has been broken in our industry since day one and Fog Creek’s evidence-based scheduling is the first painless tool I’ve seen in 25 years that actually fixes this problem.

No more guesstimates. No more complicated Excel spreadsheets trying to divine whether the app will be done by the target date. No more endless deathmarches to nowhere. No more faith-based developing.

I’m not going to go into how EBS works here – Joel does a far better job here than I can do. I don’t care how it stops the bleeding, only that it does.

Here’s what an IT shop gets: with almost no overhead, a IT manager can see in one second flat which of their programmers needs the most “management” applied to them to improve their productivity and stop screwing up the ship date. They don’t have to rely on hope and prayer that their developers are estimating accurately – EBS factors that in.

They can see – really honestly see – just when a project or a major version is going to be done, regardless of whatever development methodology or lack thereof they are using, whether they’re developing an app for desktops or the web, regardless of programming language.

For a microISV with one or a few developers, EBS means you can play what-if with your feature set to win: Just move a slider up and down your priority hierarchy, and you can see what it does to your ship date.

fb61
I’ve been a using FogBugz since 4.0 for my own commercial product, but the fit always left something to be desired – too many features that didn’t make sense for a microISV with one programmer. Now, all those annoyances have been scrubbed out with Ajax, and I can fit FB to my workflow so that things like estimating features and tracking time spent on those features is nearly transparent.

This is just awesome. While there are some other really great help desk apps out there, notably Userscape’s HelpSpot, FogBugz 6 is just what I’m going to need to develop Project X (my Next Big Thing) and then support it with the minimum of effort.

If Joel’s World Tour is coming to a city near you by all means check it out – the 60 or so developers who shared a hotel conference room with me yesterday got more than their time was worth. Or you could check out this movie. And if you’re not in a position to run your FogBugz on your own server, FogBugz On Demand is a very good deal.

FB6.2

(Disclaimer: I’m the co-moderator of Joel’s Business of Software forum.)

[tags]microISV, FogBugz[/tags]

links for 2007-10-08

Doing micro things in a microISV

Tim Haughton over at The Agile Micro ISV Blog nailed it today: “Teams move boulders. The micro ISV fills his pockets with pebbles and runs back and forth.”

Too often microISVs fall into the trap of approaching work (programming, marketing, planning) as if they were still safely nestled in their old corporate jobs – big projects, big goals, big, big, big.

Small is beautiful. And it’s highly appropriate to microISVs, where my “team” consists of me, myself, I and Squeaky the Cat.

Maybe it’s time for you to stop trying to move boulders of big goals and start filling your pockets with valuable, doable pebbles of productivity.

(By the way, if you’ve never read E. F. Schumacher’ s “Small Is Beautiful”, add it to your reading list – you are in for a treat.)