By Nathan Ridley, Co-Owner of ERSYS Group
[Ed. Note: Nathan originally posted this this week at the Business of Software forum; it was so good I asked him if I could repost it here. ERSYS, a micro-ISV, makes Prospector, a tool that lets you connect and chat with visitors to your web site while they are visiting it – perfect for rescuing sales, pre-sales questions and more.]
Having launched Prospector (http://www.websiteprospector.com) about four days ago, we’re only *just* starting to get a sense of how this might grow and what sort of things to expect based on our limited observations so far. I thought I might share some of these with you guys as part of my interest in writing about our growth.
1) Bugs
I think that trying to get all of the bugs out of your initial software is important, but within reason. There are some minor things that aren’t really going to bother anyone or particularly detract from the software that you can leave to post-launch. ANYTHING that is annoying or disruptive though should absolutely be resolved before launch. First impressions are important.
You can’t technically release bug-free though because other people with other configurations are going to find bugs you simply didn’t notice. The important thing though is to fix them as soon as you can. We took extra care to resolve as many bugs as we could find before launch though, even to the point that we launched nearly two weeks after our original intended deadline for launch. The resultant polish though, I think is worth it.
2) Front website
What I think is a good look and feel is not necessarily a bad thing, but the design I came up with, while I believe it is intuitive and extremely unambiguous, is lacking in some areas. It’s probably important to realise that your website will change multitudes of times, probably at least once or twice close after launch, as you realise its deficiencies and move to correct them. It’s also interesting to note that it doesn’t matter how great you think your design is, it’s not going to appeal to everybody (you can’t please everyone) and other people are going to pick up issues that you either didn’t think of or that you didn’t even think would be a problem. Just be willing to objectively consider the criticism, no matter how much it brings out a defensive reaction in you. Don’t just blindly accept all advice straight away though, as some people will give advice which, whilst relevant to them, is generally not relevant to the vast majority of viewers.
Something else worth noting is the forum we put up for customer support. We have a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here. Nobody wants to post because nobody is posting. On top of that, there are other possible considerations, such as how many people really even remember (or know in the first place) that it exists. We’ll have to implement some strategies to increase likelihood of people posting there. So I guess you can’t just drop a forum into your site and expect people to use it. Some proactive effort will be required to get the ball rolling.
3) Speaking with early adopters
I made a point of contacting the first few people who signed up and asking them about their experience in getting it up and running. It’s interesting what you discover that you never thought of. Little things such as allowing people to put in a URL to a custom graphic and not accounting for the fact that people will leave off the http prefix, thus resulting in a broken or missing image for no reason that they can determine. Or not thinking that people might put a chat button on a page that hasn’t got the traffic monitoring script in place, thus resulting in a javascript error when they click the chat button, and the confusion resulting from this.
Turns out people often don’t read the instructions in the registration email, or anywhere else you put it. This is a great motivator for looking for every last little thing you can do to make your software as intuitive as possible, thus removing the need for instructions altogether. So make a point of asking for feedback from the people who are actually using the software for real and not just testing it to help you out.
4) Advertising and spreading the word
This is a tricky one because you learn a lot as you go. I think you can read all the information in the world about this and whilst it will certainly help you avoid a lot of pitfalls, you won’t really get a true understanding of the ins and outs of the various forms of advertising until you actual do them yourself. It’s easy to do market research and make assumptions about signup rates, usage habits, the likely size of your target market etc, but only once your marketing starts to produce some results (positive or negative) are you going to be able to really understand what’s most effective for your business/product.
We’ve discovered some side effects of our keywords, one of which is “live chat”. It’s interesting how many people come to our site in search of content of dubious moral value. As a result we’re having to be strategic with the negative keywords we use and keep a constant eye on the type of traffic we’re getting. It is also an eye opener that yes, we are going to have to spend a decent amount of money over time before the paid subscriptions outweight the monthly costs, then replenish what we’ve personally funded, thus breaking even and becoming profitable. But that’s ok, because the analytical data and the patterns we’re seeing from signups and click-throughs so far seem to indicate that the growth potential for this product is definitely there. Patience is a virtue when your budget is limited.
5) Conversions
We seem to have about a 1.5% conversion ratio from contextual advertising at the moment. We define a conversion as someone signing up on any account. Everyone so far has signed up using the free account, which is absolutely fine by me, as I would expect most people want to take a new product for a spin and get used to it before committing funds to it. As we expected, the people who have adopted it so far have been no bigger than very small businesses as far as I can tell, which is another reason why it’s important to have the low end plans.
Information from other sources seems to indicate that less than 15% of customers will provide more than 50% of the revenue, but it’s important to consider that many of those 15% are probably people who will have found the software via referrals from the buttons on the other 85% of sites, and via the search engines as a result of the pagerank that will be created by having linkbacks from the 85% of basic (or free) plan customers.
So whilst you may feel like the majority of people paying you not much money are a burden, consider if there are side benefits of having those customers We’ve had about 20-25 conversions (signups) so far, about 6-8 of whom are actually using the system. Some have signed up to take a look and presumably haven’t done anything after that for any of multitudes of possible reasons.
What’s next?
Well, we are under no illusion that you can build a complex web-based product, stick it on the market and then ignore it until it makes you money. There’s plenty of work to do, and this is what we have planned for the immediate future:

  • Redesign the front website to take into account the feedback we’ve received so far and to make the site significantly more flexible for dropping in content and facilitating addition of forums and a blog within the design and navigation style of the site.
  • Fix the bugs we’ve found and that have been reported to us since we launched.
  • Start implementing some of the ideas on the to-do list in an effort to working towards the goal of making Prospector the best product on the market in its class.
  • Rethink the video demo so that it’s not a complete pain to update it every time we add a new feature. Also re-record the audio, as the amateur equipment used could potentially lose us customers. First impressions are very important.
  • Start an effort to get the forum happening, by posting useful information there and taking some of the questions and comments from early adopters and posting them there as fake posts in order to provide the illusion of activity and thus overcome the initial chicken-and-egg problem, but also to provide useful information for those who care to look. Also reskin the forum into the new site design.
  • Start a blog. This post should be on the blog! [Ed. note: now it is!] Blog posts help foster an air of trust and openness with customers and potential customers.
  • Send out a newsletter to everyone who has signed up, to keep them thinking about Prospector, remind them that we’re here to help if they have had any trouble, to give them some tips to maximize the benefit they get from the product and to basically show that we’re active and that we care about our customers.

I will continue to post updates as we build this business.
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ERSYS Group is Nathan Ridley and Nicholas and Gabrielle Edwards. Nathan does everything Web and Design, Nicholas does everything database-related, and Gabrielle helps with customer service and behind-the-scenes details. Prospector can be found at http://www.websiteprospector.com.
[tags]micro-ISV, Chat,Prospector[/tags]

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