Micro ISV Mistake #3

This is the third in a series of posts documenting mistakes I made over the last few years as I started my company, developed our products and tried to sell them online. The previous posts are still available if you missed them: Mistake #1, challenge from Keith, Mistake #2.

Of all the mistakes I had on my list when I started this series, I was dreading writing about this one the most. It doesn’t really lend itself well to a hard and fast rule, has a lot to do with timing, prioritisation, and moderation, and involves discouraging something that is undeniably important. Despite this, it has to be on the list, over the years it’s sucked away a lot of my time and energy, and you might need someone to tell you that you can take it too far.

Mistake #3 is over-thinking design and branding.

Maybe you see my problem now, I can’t tell you not to think about the design of your product, I can’t tell you that it won’t matter if it looks terrible as long as it works, I can’t even use “execution is everything” here because your design will be an integral part of your execution. As I said in the introduction, this has nothing to do with a hard and fast “don’t do design and branding” rule, and everything to do with timing, prioritisation, and moderation.

For me, this problem caused the most disruption in the first year or two, and in the months before I started the company. When I met with my business partner, instead of talking about product ideas or how to find customers, we spent most of our time talking about the company name, our logo and web site, or our business cards and letterheads. We’re both programmers, but instead of writing code we were distracted by all of these things. We were convinced that this time spent on branding would pay off, but most of it was a waste of time.

Admittedly, when we started our company we didn’t plan to be an ISV. Creating software to sell online hadn’t occurred to us at that stage, so we probably wouldn’t have spent the time talking about product ideas. But, even though some of the things we spent our time on may be slightly more relevant to an in-the-flesh services company than they are to an online ISV, we could have spent that time trying to find customers.

Let’s take a look at some of the things we spent time on back in those days, starting with business cards. We spent valuable time designing them, yet I can’t remember the last time I handed out a business card. To add to the disappointment, the cards aren’t any good. There really isn’t a big difference between my worst business card design and my best. If I were a graphic designer, I’m sure I would pride myself on my business card. I would revise it regularly, and maybe it would pay dividends. However, as a programmer, I know I would have to pay someone else if I wanted an awesome design, so why waste all that time?

How about letterheads? On the rare occasions I send out headed paper, it’s usually an invoice heading to a customer’s accounts department. If you’re starting a Micro ISV, you can probably knock up a letterhead in 20 minutes that will do you for at least the first few years. Just put your logo and address on the page and be done with it.

That brings us neatly to the logo. I have two things to say about logos, firstly, I’ve got to go back to the “I’m a programmer, not a designer” stance; designers can add much more value to a logo than I ever could. When you need a logo, follow this example and get someone on Guru.com to design one for you, or think about buying a stock logo to get you started. The other thing I have to say about logos is that, generally speaking, logos are memorable because of the product or service they represent, not the other way around. You can have an effective Micro ISV logo for less than $200, so make sure you don’t spend too much of your own time worrying about it. If you’re looking for a logo for your company, rather than for one of your products, it’s even less important.

Then there’s your company name. I think this ate the most of my time... you have an idea, but you can’t match it with a logo, or the domain is taken, or the domain is free but the company name is taken. It goes on and on, twists and turns, but it’s really the biggest waste of time of all. Product names can be important, but your company name will probably blend into the background. Just pick something inoffensive, consider something based around your name(s), and even consider buying a company “off the shelf”. I only have one tip about naming in general, and that’s to make sure you do a speech test. Try calling a few people and saying “I’m calling from/about company/product name”, and make sure that you can say the name clearly and that they understand you. It helps if it’s phonetic, and it’s probably a bad idea if it clashes with your accent or speech patterns. I often have to spell out my surname, occasionally my first name too, so having to spell out the company and product name to every secretary I talk to wouldn’t be good for the phone bills, my confidence, or my productivity.

I also mentioned web design. I can’t deny that this is important for an online ISV, but make sure you monitor the time you spend on it, and think about alternatives. For example, don’t waste too much of your time designing a parent company site. If you only have one product you probably only need one site design. Just redirect your company domain to the product site and add an about page. If you release another product, link to your about page from both sites, or duplicate the information. You still don’t need a parent site, if anything, post a simple page to choose between your product sites. I can’t avoid mentioning the designer vs. programmer issue again here. If you’re spending a lot of time on the web design, but you know you aren’t really adding that much value, see if you can afford to get someone with design skills to help. I spent a few days just last month trying to come up with new designs for our sites, but made very little progress. When I added this mistake to my list I decided it was time I talked to a designer friend, and what came back as a quick first draft was already a huge step beyond anything I could have come up with.

It may seem like I’m trying to encourage a half-hearted approach to your business, or to discourage excellence, but that’s not my intention. All I want you to take from this is the idea that you can easily spend too much time on this stuff, and that you have more important things to focus on.

My summary is just to try to think about how you’re spending your time, to make sure you prioritise the things which are most important and where you can add the most value.

Thanks, you're right too,

Thanks, you're right too, all of these things make you lose momentum. When you're out on your own there are always a million things you could devote yourself to, if you want to keep your momentum you always have to be on guard.

I hope you don't come back in 6 months to tell me I derailed something you spent three years working on, but if you read John's latest, you could probably blame him instead...

Good Point!

That's another fine point to take into account.
I think that if your company\product is GOOD then the name doesn't matter much, provided it doesn't originate from Vogon poetry :) For example if your company is named Vtulksdurtnea and the product is Gtoislrabc, ok then you are in trouble.
If your company\product SUCKS then the coolest name won't be of much help.
In short I believe there is no association between success and the actual company\product name as of itself.

Balance matters

As I said in the article, it's not possible to be completely black and white about this issue, but you really have to think about how you're spending your time. The most important thing to remember is just to keep moving forward and not get too bogged down by this stuff early on, it can totally derail your momentum if you let it.

I do think your eventual product name matters (much more than your company name), a good name might get you a few more seconds to impress, whereas a bad name might turn some people off right away. But you can get a long way down the road before you have to choose the final name, and like you said, the coolest name in the world won't make up for a bad product.

Some great points

Thanks, Jon. I've got to say for the most part I agree with you. As I said in the article, design and branding are undeniably important, and I think you've done a fantastic job of explaining the how, where and why.

A few comments to ellaborate on what I meant by "for the most part" :). I was focusing on what (as you say) many people think of when they think of design and branding... largely aesthetic typical business communications. The point of the article was to encourage the Micro ISV founder to focus on their product or service, of which no doubt design and branding will be an integral part, and to avoid getting bogged down in all the peripheral distractions. It could be that a great business card will grab some extra attention, a really sloppy letterhead will turn someone off etc. It's just that, in the Micro ISV world especially, there's only so much time and resources to devote to all these things, and while you're doing them your product momentum is floundering. I see it as a huge question of balance and prioritisation.

I also think that making the kind of killer design and continuity between mediums that you talk of sound like a necessity from day one, may put too much pressure on the startup Micro ISV. Often the sole developer can have a full time job to go to, not to mention all the other things they have to manage just to start and run a business. If they have great design skills, then maybe this will be how they are going to differentiate their offering, and that will be a major focus, but if they're just hardcore coders with a great idea, they should focus as much of their time as possible on realising it. I think in these cases, it's impossible to say that a $200 logo will do more harm than good.

Mistakes in the kind of design I was talking about can almost always be fixed later, it's more important for a Micro ISV that they knuckle down and actually survive to launch their product.

Thanks again for the great comment.