By Joshua Volz
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.
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.
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