By Joshua Volz
Volz Software
Makers of Llama Carbon Copy
I’m a failure. And worse than that it took me a long time to figure it out. I’ve done almost everything wrong with my microISV. I don’t want anyone else to make the same mistakes I have made. Hence, I present a (probably incomplete) list of microISV anti-patterns. I’m working towards correcting my mistakes which will likely result in my expanding this list as I find new ways to fail. I am writing this article mostly for myself, just to put down on paper the things I’ve done wrong and that I should try to avoid in the future. I thought it might help you too.

1. Joining a fractured market with long existing players

Don’t do this. There is nothing more frustrating than finding your fractured market and thinking you have some kind of chance of breaking in, and then discovering that the long standing players in that market have sucked up every last keyword available in Adwords and already have all the endorsements of bloggers that you covet. You end up paying more for Adwords advertisements, yielding you still lower average ad positions and not making you any money. Those long standing products are also use to fighting amongst each other, a condition that has made them strong, lean and fully featured. Collectively those long standers are one big dominant player that is sort of fighting amongst itself, but not really. Because it is distributed among a bunch of companies, they are all fighting for keywords and trying to find new features. If you don’t have something else going for you, like that you are already famous from a previous MicroISV or you have a completely new take on solving the pain your customers are having, then just stop right now.

2. Differentiating on customer service or ease of use

I thought this would be enough. I have a really easy to use entry in the backup software space. I provide excellent customer service in responding to bugs, questions and emails in general. None of these things helps me get customers to come to my website. Since I only sell online, that’s not very useful. Yes, I sell to about 40% of the people who write to me with a question or suggestion, but there aren’t very many of those people because not very many people come to my website.
Customer service and ease of use can’t be the cornerstone of your marketing approach on the internet. Everyone says their product is easy to use. Everyone says they provide great customer service. The only way you can actually semi-prove these things is to have someone download your product (ease of use) and then have a question about it and write to you. If you don’t have a lot of people coming to your website the number of people who will do this is going to be very low.
If these are your differentiators then you might be in a commodity market. You don’t want to compete on price in a fractured market with long standing players (see #1) on price. That really only leaves customer service and ease of use. The question is do you really want to be in a commodity market? I say no.

3. Ugly product

I made this mistake for a year. I had an ugly product that turned people off. Eventually I got a lot of help from people on the Business of Software forum and I was able to come out with something that was a little more acceptable. Make sure your product meets the minimum standards for modern software looks. Make sure everything is aligned and properly spaced. If you can’t do it, get the Business of Software forum to rip it apart and then make the changes they suggest. Don’t waste your time with an ugly product.

4. Ugly website (including poor marketing, or not following the USP pattern)

Stop reading this and if you haven’t already then go and buy Bob’s new book (MicroISV Sites that Sell). If you aren’t doing what he is suggesting in the book start doing it. I am in the midst of this process right now and I am finding it very illuminating. I would even go so far as to suggest that you should do this exercise *BEFORE* you start writing your product. Seriously, stop reading and buy the book. It’s only $19, even if you pay full price. It’ll take you a long time to distill the pattern for marketing online by looking at other presumably successful websites. Just spend the money and let Bob do the footwork for you.

5. Not seeking personal or product fame

Paul Graham defines wealth loosely as “stuff people want.” People want to be famous or know someone who is famous, or even just to buy from someone who is famous (think celebrity endorsements). You have to try to make your product or yourself famous. This is no trivial task as far as I can tell. Obviously there is only so much room for famous people. I think a more manageable attack plan is to pick a group of people (your customers!) and determine how to make yourself famous to them and them alone. This topic obviously lends itself to more examination, which will likely happen in a future post. Here’s the quick version: You want fame, in order to get fame you have to do something remarkable or at the very minimum get people’s attention. Do or say something outlandish. Take a stand on a personal belief. Be a purple cow.

6. Not selling first

Don’t make a product you can’t sell. How do you know if you can sell a product before you make it? Easy, you sell it. In the world of developers we dislike what we refer to as “vaporware”. There is no honor in coming up with an idea for a piece of software, since we all know that making the software is roughly one billion times harder. It’s sort of like cheating because you are saying you can do something without doing it and getting some of the credit (even when you’ve done nothing). We hate posers. Here’s the problem: being a poser is a good business strategy for not wasting your programming resources. There are many ways to do this, far in excess of this article, but I am likely going to write about it in the future. Long story short, get out there and sell your vaporware. If it goes well, then make the product. I’m framing this as pushing “release early, release often” to its logical conclusion. Release before you have anything, and then start iterating from there. Go ahead, be a poser.

7. Not constantly improving something

Don’t sit on your hands. If you don’t make changes, then nothing changes. Your product is not going to reach a certain age and then magically turn into that $10k per month product you had wished for in the wee hours of the night. Change your website. Tweak your Adwords campaign. Add requested features to your program. Search out new markets for your product. Write ad copy. Write guest articles on other blogs. Write on your own blog. Make a companion product that you can give away for free. Just do something. Nike had it right all along: Just Do It.

Conclusion:

Don’t be like me. Learn from my mistakes. At least go out there and make new mistakes. Then write a post or email me so that we can put those on the list of things we shouldn’t do. Don’t make everyone reinvent the wheel because you are jealously guarding your secret success plan. What kind of developer are you making everyone reinvent the wheel? What an asshat you are. Stop it.
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I’m Joshua Volz. I make Llama Carbon Copy. It’s backup software and it’s easy to use.
If you own a small business and don’t want to deal with setting up backup software check it out at
http://www.llamacarboncopy.com.

11 Comments

  1. Hey, nice article. Just wanted to let you know that your link at the bottom for your product doesn’t work.

  2. I don’t understand no. 6. When you say, “sell your vaporware,” do you mean that literally? Like, accept money for a product you haven’t created?

  3. Of all the possible markets I would ever enter, back-up software would probably be the last. Even after developer tools and GTD apps. Better luck picking the competitors for your next product.

  4. @Andy Brice: I completely agree. I was partially blinded by already having the code. That might be something else you should look out for; don’t put out a product just because you have the code. There is so much more to it than having the code isn’t really a determining factor on whether the business is “easy” to make or will be successful.
    @Taylor: as to #6 and your question: Yes and No. When I was writing that I was thinking of a variety of different situations. The three I had in mind were:
    1. Talking to potential customers and telling them you have an idea. I mean this for consumer applications, talking to people from your target demographic and simply seeing what they say.
    2. I meant doing something like starting an Adwords campaign before you make the product to see what kind of response you get and what keywords are available. Tim Ferris from the 4 hour work week suggests putting up a web page with a “notify me when it’s ready link” or similar.
    3. Take your idea to a company that can use it (this assumes B2B type product). Introduce them to the idea and let them help you mold it into something useful, and in return they get either free or reduced pricing. Imagine this as selling them the idea (which is vaporware).
    For the consumer type applications, I don’t think it would be possible to get money (at least not enough) to fund your development with the product (from options #1, 2). I wouldn’t collect money, but that doesn’t mean you can’t sell it to them. It’s energizing when someone tells you they are eager to buy the software you are making or going to make.
    Option 3 is a possible source of money in that the company may want your product enough to help offset the costs of development. This is a commonly used tactic in businesses other than software. You collect from your customers as soon as possible and pay your suppliers as late as possible and on the float you can make your product. I admit that is risky and might not be ideal for every product or company. As a contractor I receive payment all the time for jobs that have no code written at all, most often on jobs that are fixed-bid style jobs. If you can negotiate the retention of some of the rights for the software you are making for a client, then they are effectively paying for your development, upfront and assuming you negotiated your rights well you can still make it a complete product. This scenario is actually what happened with Llama Carbon Copy. I was paid to write it, but retained rights. Admittedly, I completely rewrote it before it ever was available online but the concept is the same.
    So, Yes, take money for vaporware. Why use your money for development when you could use someone else’s? Make sure you back up your word. I mean it; I don’t want people blaming me for asshats selling vaporware and then doing nothing. Honor your word.

  5. >I guess I have to get started on some developer tools…..
    Then you can round off your product line with an RSS reader. ;0)

  6. Great post Joshua. Don’t be too hard on yourself though. I’m at a loss as to which soothing quotes to throw at you:
    “An expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject and how to avoid them.” – Heisenberg
    “The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything.” – Phelps
    “Success seems to be connected with action. Successful men keep moving. They make mistakes, but they don’t quit.” – Hilton
    The list goes on, but I will not :¬)

  7. I think I’m going to have to disagree about differentiating based on ease of use. I get what you’re saying and I agree you shouldn’t just say “we’re easy to use!” because you have a me-too menubar and a me-too toolbar with pretty blue gradients and you took time to make F1 brings up some me-too help. But there are so many bad, hard-to-use applications out there that I think there’s plenty of room for truly easy programs to flourish.
    It takes a _whole_ lot more to make an easy-to-use application that to just drop buttons on a GUI and make them line up nice. Sure it’s easy to click on your toolbar and organize stuff in folders. To make it really easy to use, come up with a design that doesn’t need a toolbar or doesn’t force you to stick stuff in a hierarchy.
    True ease of use requires a real understanding of the pain points and thinking hard about the solution. If you have a normal application you think and really really wish was easy to use, don’t market as easy to use because it won’t be any easier than any others. If you really do have something that is demonstrably easier to use, sell it!

  8. Bryan,
    I agree with your comments above, but I mean that ease of use (even in its best incarnation) is not enough to let people find your website. Google can’t determine whether you application is easy to use or not and then rank its search results based on that criteria. Being easy to use might get you some word of mouth, but you have to make it convenient for your customers to let other people know about the program. Ease of use is not a marketing plan, it’s a customer retention plan IMO. Once your customers find your website, then yes, ease of use becomes a huge factor.
    The problem is: how does that ease of use translate into them finding your website?

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