This post is one of the hardest things I've ever sat down to write. If it seems pained, or stilted, or just plain embarrassing... That's because I'm "sitting down at a typewriter and opening a vein" (Red Smith said it so well).
Two years ago I began to work on starting a new business. Two years ago! At a time when businesses go from napkin drawing to users in months. What has held me back? Why aren't I shipping?
Well, the biggest mountain I've been climbing is the fact that business is very personal for me. I admit, I could use some detachment at times, some uninvested third-party perspective. But not too much! As I just read today:
All good businesses are personal. The best businesses are very personal.
My first idea for this business was, I think, a reasonable business concept. I think there was a good chance of making money. It might even have been fundable, had we gone that route. But I held back. For quite a while I wondered if I was 'afraid of success.'
In the end, I decided that there was something bothering me about the business plan. There was something I didn't quite like, something... I'll be blunt. I thought there was something that sucked about that plan. Today, I can put my finger on what it was.
If you want to do something that's going to change the world, build software that people want to use instead of software that managers want to buy.
That plan was top-down. It was all about creating a tool managers would buy and dictate to development teams. This kind of businesses has made rather a lot of money for rather a lot of people. All you do is grab any old product and flog it to death.
But even though I still feel it's achievable, that plan just doesn't seem like fun to me. I had trouble admitting that to myself for the first year or so.
It's not that I don't like selling. I've spent a good portion of my career in sales, and I'm still proud of repeatedly being top salesperson and also being successful sales trainer. But looking back, one of the reasons I was successful was that I sold something I absolutely loved. I had a passion for my customers. It was the 1980s, and microcomputers were changing the world. What's not to like?
For example, I had some clients who were Investment Bankers. We set them up with Macintoshes, accelerated CPUs, as much memory as we could stuff in a system (eight megabytes!), and big screens. They rocked and rolled and got stuff done faster than their competitors. They loved it. I loved it.
And they were happy to pay a premium. I helped them make money, they were happy to pay for tools and services that helped them make more. Win win.
Ah, happy memories. I'm smiling while I write these words. And you know what? That story pretty much describes what I want out of a business.
- We have to sell something people love. Specifically, the people who use it must love it.
- We have to make money and lots of it. Money isn't the game, but it's how we keep score. More on this in a moment.
- We have to provide a premium solution. We should provide a high-quality niche product. We are Ferarri, we are Macintosh, we are Single Malt, we are Aeron, we are the Monte Cristo #2, we are RIM.
About the money: I'm not venal. But perhaps I can describe it another way: we can't not make money. Not making money is a kind of cop-out, saying "this isn't for real." I think in software it's a way of avoiding the crucial moment when you have to look someone in the eye and say "How about it? Is that worth $10 a month?"
Trying to make money with software means facing rejection. Without money, you can brag about how many downloads you get per month. With money, you are forced to talk about conversion: how many people who tried it ponied up the bucks?
My first plan was a little heavy on the money and light on developing software people will actually use. So guess what? I ditched the plan and I started somewhat afresh. Why settle for less than 100% passion for my business?
The new business plan has some basic principles to live by:
- We're selling bottom up. We sell to people who use our software. If it's good enough, if it solves their problem, they'll pay for it and they'll sell it upstairs to their manager. If it's just another ho hum, me too, people won't pay and they won't put their credibility on the line to evangelize it. That puts the pressure on us.
- We charge from day one. There's no plan to get 1,000,000 copies into the world and then try to charge for version 2.0. That doesn't mean there won't be ways to try it for free, or use it for free under certain circumstances (such as the fashionable 'free if your product is free, pay if your use is commercial' approach). But it does mean that on the very first day I demonstrate it, I will ask people for money.
- We make the best product possible. That means we can't make the best possible product. It means having fewer features than more, having features that fit together to work for our customers instead of having features that were cool or fun to program. It means a product with fewer checkboxes for the manager but more enthusiasm from the user.
So where am I with this? (I use the "Royal We" for principles but the "Singular Personal Pronoun" when there's work to be done).
- I'm churning out user stories. The second best way to find flaws in a product design is to write a story from end to end where a persona solves a problem with the product (the best way is to ship the product and ask for feedback).
- I've written several prototypes and proofs of concept. The best way to find flaws in a technical design is to implement it.
What's next? That's easy. I need to finish the user stories and circulate them to actual users. I may even publish them here. And then I need to start coding again, this time on version 1.0.
When I write these words now, it's starkly apparent how much work I have to do. That hurts! But at least I'm now working on something I love. I hope you feel the same way when you have a setback: it's a mighty burden, but it's your
burden, you're building your
I'm back on track again. Pax.update