Micro ISV Mistake #1

I’ve decided to kick off my regular posting here on CodeSnipers with a short series on common Micro ISV mistakes. In making my initial list, I’ve stuck to mistakes I’ve made myself in the last few years. I’m not ruling out the possibility of adding to the list as the series and discussion goes on, but if that does happen I might be relying on observations, I’m not promising to test drive every mistake for you.

Some of you may argue that not all of my “mistakes” are really mistakes, and you might have a good point, but I firmly believe that in my situation each was the wrong thing to do, so I don’t have any qualms about calling any of them mistakes. If you do have a different perspective, I hope you’ll stay and discuss it in the comments.

If you’re wondering why I’m so keen to own up to all these mistakes, it’s certainly not to establish a reputation as some kind of anti-Joel, and I have no desire to become the next Titanic blogger. What I do believe is that acknowledging and writing about them is a good step towards correcting them, and a good safe-guard against making them again. I’m also hoping to post some follow up articles as I try to overcome any problems I think I can attribute to them, and the thought of any reader becoming more successful by learning from my mistakes makes me very happy.

The first mistake is thinking your idea needs to be kept secret.

In other words, once you know what product you’re going to be working on, start telling people about it. You don’t need to have anything concrete, you don’t even need to have fixed a product name, just start putting your idea out there. Start writing a blog, mention your product everywhere you can, find appropriate forums for your target market and start talking to your potential customers. It takes time, not to mention a little luck, to generate a buzz for a product, so the sooner the world knows about it the better your chances.

I didn’t tell a soul about our products until they were ready. Outside our company, excluding friends, family, and the small number of potential customers we used for the base design, no-one knew what we were doing. Surely that’s a good thing, my voice echoes from the past, if no-one knows about the idea, they can’t steal it. We’ll launch a great product, everyone will want it, and all that hard work will have been worthwhile. That may not sound unreasonable, but it’s actually completely wrong. In the majority of cases, no-one wants or needs to steal your idea, other people have probably already had your idea, and may already be months if not years ahead of you. The idea in itself is not worth much, the value in your product is going to come from your implementation, and people aren’t going to want your software if they don’t know it exists. I’m not suggesting that you reveal all of your implementation details and revolutionary interface ideas, openness and transparency have to have boundaries, but you should at least be able to publish basic information about what problems your product will solve.

Whether you keep your idea secret or not, you’re going to have competition- if not, there’s probably no market for what you’re selling. Even if you really do have a brand new idea, as soon as you launch the product, if it’s a good idea, someone will copy it. If you haven’t been out there publicising it and working up a buzz, all you have is a product. The hearts and minds of your market are still there for the taking, and if the competition can create a better buzz than you, they’ll have the edge. Just because you have a working product while all the competition has is your idea, you’re probably not as far ahead as you think. They can also gain an advantage by learning from any mistakes in your implementation and making a better product. The potential customers who register their advance interest on your competition’s website won’t care that your product is already available, they won’t even know it exists, because the word on the web is that your competition are working on the next big thing. But there’s really no need for me to go on and on about theories of competition when Eric Sink has nailed them already.

It’s not just about the buzz, there are other benefits to being public from an early stage.

Firstly, to make your product great, you’re going to need customer feedback. You’re going to need it by the truckload, and it’s not as easy to get as you might think. Before I launched our first product, I thought that as soon as people started using it, they’d tell me all about its flaws and suggest all the features it lacked. Wrong again. Although feedback does come in, it does so on a much smaller scale than I would ever have imagined. It’s obvious when you think about it, when was the last time you honestly told someone why you didn’t want what they were selling? It certainly seems that feedback levels are higher prior to release and during beta trials, and even if it ends up no higher than normal, at least you have a few extra months worth of suggestions and comments. If you’re missing something, or there’s really no market for your product, you’ll save yourself a lot of pain if you catch it early.

Secondly, running a business is hard work, it’s easy to feel isolated and disconnected, especially if you’ve gambled on your idea full time. Writing a blog and participating in online communities helps you connect with your peers and potential customers, and I can’t overstate the impact this could have on your state of mind during difficult phases of the development period. I started blogging in April of this year (immediately after we launched our second product; did I forget to mention I made Mistake #1 twice?), and at around the same time became more active in forums and started posting more comments on the blogs I read. The resulting improvement in my mood, motivation and attitude towards my work has been massive. Without experiencing any significant change in my fortunes, I started to feel so much happier with what I’m doing and so much more excited about the future. If my experience is anything to go by, opening up will bring you new opportunities and release a pressure valve, and you’ll find there’s usually someone around to encourage you or challenge you when you need them.

In summary, tell everyone about your product as soon as you know what it’s going to be, competition is just a fact of life, if you’re out there you’ll get a bigger buzz and more feedback, and you’ll feel more connected and happier.

If you are secretly working on a product you think is going to change the world, please tell someone about it, at the very least make sure there really is someone out there who’s going to want it. Please don’t do what I did, I don’t doubt for a second that if I’d followed my own advice during my development phase, I would have launched sooner, to greater fanfare, and my first versions would have landed much closer to their targets.

Good one

Thanks Duane, that's a good exception that I hadn't really considered, in that situation it makes perfect sense to keep things under wraps. However, there may still be mileage in blogging about it and having an obscure teaser site to register interest. After all, with just that little comment you've got my attention and made me curious. If you ever tell me it's online you've already guaranteed yourself one visitor to the site.

Expecially applicable to early stage of unproven idea

May be the distinction is that you have a prototype or alpha version, a proof of concept, and you are going to negotiate some aspects of it now and the secrecy is part of that negotiating process. Where this article is dead on is in relation to that earlier more risky stage at which you are beginning to commit a lot of time and resources to an unproven idea. This is great advice for the introvert with illusions of grandeur. No one is scouting around looking to steal your idea. No really! No one. And even if they were, they would be too shallow to have the depth of passion to bring your idea to fruition.

An introvert writes

That's exactly what I was aiming for, thanks Ben.

to clarify

I'm not worried about the idea getting out as much I'm concerned about making sure the certain stake holders in the projects success are informed and involved properly.

If you're sure it's unique

Thanks for the feedback Chas, and you're right, you do have to be selective about your disclosure. I also agree that if you're launching something genuinely unique or on a really grand scale, then managing your PR could be crucial.

To steal Ben's words, however, "the introvert with illusions of granduer" probably doesn't have the budget for a PR or marketing agency, and may not have a genuinely unique idea. It's all going to live or die on their passion, execution, and marketing. I think many (myself included!) would benefit from looking for exposure earlier rather than worrying about keeping the secret.

That's it exactly. When I

That's it exactly.

When I was starting out, I didn't have particularly revolutionary product ideas under development, just a couple of things I wanted to do well. I don't really understand why I still felt that fear of the idea-stealing bogeyman.

I think a lot of Micro ISVs operate in similar territory, so if I can convince a couple to come out of the shadows, I'll be happy with this article.

Thumbs Up!

I found the topic very interesting. I am currently in the process of starting up a micro ISV, and up to now I was thinking that I should act in 'top secret' mode.
Thank God, I read this article at this early stage.
Now I am going to use all the publicity and scrutiny I can get, by posting the idea on a highly esteemed developers' forum here in Greece. The reactions to my idea will be a first crucial indicator of whether the idea is OK or plain and simple 'sucks'.
That's probably going to happen next week, so I am gonna keep you posted.

Good luck

Thanks Dimitris. Watch out though, unless those esteemed developers are your target market, the feedback you get might not be useful. The most important people to talk to about your idea are the people you think will eventually buy it. If there are people who you know will want it, you probably shouldn't pay too much attention to what other developers think.

Best of luck to you, I'll look forward to hearing how you get on.