Micro ISV Mistake #4

This is the fourth in a series of posts on common Micro ISV mistakes. I’ve been using the series as an opportunity to identify where I went wrong and figure out how to get back on track. I’m also hoping someone out there can learn from my mistakes and start out leaner, faster, and stronger.

Have you ever said “We”, when you meant “I”? Have you ever worried what would happen if a customer found out how few staff you actually have?

Mistake #4 is being “professional”.

I say “professional” rather than professional, because what I want to discourage here is the feeling that you have to keep up some kind of artificial image. I would never discourage a professional attitude towards your work and your business; you’re unlikely to get anywhere with a Micro ISV if you don’t really care about what you’re doing.

If I was writing a series of rules, rather than mistakes, this one could have been “be yourself”. It’s about changing your mindset, accepting your weaknesses, and about making use of your advantages.

Something very unfortunate happens when you believe you have to make people think you’re a big professional company to be taken seriously. Your text goes through artificial marketing committee meetings and legal department reviews and all your enthusiastic prose about your company and products turns into bland generic mush. You don’t fight this process because you’re convinced that if you sound big you’ll do better. If only it were that simple.

It’s time for a reality check: you are small. Your size brings advantages and disadvantages, but all you do when you cover it up is gloss over both. No matter how hard you try to look big you still can’t use the same advantages as Microsoft, all you’ve done is made it slightly harder for customers to spot your disadvantages, and made it much harder to benefit from the advantages you do have.

We vs. I

When you’re talking about your products and your company, if you’re lucky enough to be able to say “I”, why bother with the “We”? If you’re lucky enough to be the creative force behind your company, and be free from dealing with committees and legal departments, why not allow some passion and honesty on your pages? You might find that when you write as yourself, you win over as many customers as you turn off. The concept here is very similar to that of my Mistake #2, trying to be all things to all people. When you try to appeal to everyone, you usually end up appealing to no-one.

Have you ever changed a web page because you thought a certain type of customer wouldn’t respond to the message? Did you fix it by taking out the offending section and trying to give it a more general appeal? While this might be appropriate if your message isn’t appealing to anyone, if the page was working and you just got greedy, you made a big mistake. Similarly, you’re making a mistake if you start from scratch trying to target the widest possible audience. Visitors to your site will fall into one of three camps, the first will love you, the second will hate you, and the third camp, the “just blah” camp, won’t really care either way. The trick is in realising that it’s the third camp you have to worry about, not the second. You need to increase the percentages of people who are either turned off or won over by your message, “just blah” is as good as death for a Micro ISV. If you can get 25% of your visitors to love you, even if it means 25% hate you, you’ll be in a very strong position.

Going back to the web page that you altered, there is a better solution. If you know why your message isn’t appealing to certain customers, create another page that does. You can then send as many of those customers as possible to the new page, while leaving the rest to decide for themselves. The last thing you should do is risk reducing the size of the “love it” camp just to return some of your haters to the middle ground.

Being an “I” instead of a “We” is just one possible way to let your personality into your company and your products. While it’s probably not a good idea to do a wholesale find and replace on your web site, there will almost certainly be areas where you could step up into the spotlight. You might be afraid because you think your customers would disappear if they found out you were the only person behind the whole thing. You might even be right, I’m sure you know your market better than I do, but I think it would turn out to be an unfounded fear for most Micro ISVs.

When you take a sentence and replace your passion with “professionalism”, or when you say “We” or “Our” instead of “I” or “my”, you’re suppressing one of the biggest assets your Micro ISV will ever have: You.

Personal Branding

Paul talked about Personal Branding in his latest CodeSnipers post, and it’s another one of the ideas you need to get your head around to avoid making this mistake. Independent consultants have known for years that personal branding matters, they live or die on the brand they build around their name. Even if you haven’t been trying, or if you’ve been hiding behind a bland corporate site, every time you deal directly with your customers you’re exposing them to your personal brand.

The fact that you’re running a company at all, or that you’ve taken all this time to read this article, proves that you are passionate about your product. Why not show your customers a little of yourself, and let them see that passion? It’s true that some customers will always favour a larger company, but others will respond to your attitude and enthusiasm. Rather than pretending to be big and worrying about what will happen if the customers find out, have an appropriate image and sleep easily at night.

You need to find ways to bring your personal brand into your marketing, and a blog is a good start. Using the old analogy that your web site is your online shop front, your blog can be the friendly shopkeeper you can chat to about the weather. Extending the retail analogy, small independent retailers usually don’t survive by making their store look like a chain store, or by diluting their message for the masses. There’s an attitude to small one-off retail stores, a character and a personality all of their own, and that’s what keeps people going back. That’s why you sometimes pay over the odds for a pint of milk in the local store, or why you might drive 20 minutes out of your way to buy a CD you could have ordered for less from Amazon.

Micro ISVs can take advantage of that independent spirit, you just need to know your target market and focus on them, forget about everyone else. The internet amplifies your advantage because you aren’t limited to a geographical area, and the fact that you’re selling your own product amplifies it further. Unlike small traditional retailers, you don’t have to worry so much about how you’ll compete on price with the Mega-lo-mart.

To be honest, I don’t have much to suggest to you beyond a blog, a possible change of tone and a nice honest about page. Generally speaking, I think I made a bit of a mess of the web sites for my company and I’m just learning all this myself. At this point I’m a lot surer of the wrongness of bland generic “professionalism” than of the correctness of my suggested alternatives. The suggestions feel right, they all tally with what I see happening around me and with what I read, but I haven’t really tested them yet. Don’t worry though, you’ll find out if I’m wrong, because I’ll be updating you in future articles as I try to follow my own advice.

In summary, even though I’ve made suggestions, this post is really just about what not to do. Don’t suck all of the life out of your marketing, don’t be bland, don’t be generic, and don’t worry about turning people off. Focus on the customers who love you, see if you can win over more of the people who don’t care either way, but forget about the ones who really hate you. And, next time someone suggests how to make something “seem more professional”, tell them where to go....

Seems Right

I have to agree that this seems right. As a consumer, I'm attracted much more to information that doesn't have that fake quality. Blogs seem more real and lack that fakieness that marketing slicks have.

Thanks

Thanks for all the feedback so far. I use "We" a lot too, but I want to reduce it. Even though I have a partner, so technically "we" is appropriate, there should be no harm in taking more ownership and allowing more character to shine through. In theory we could be showing twice the personality, whereas the reality is that we're hardly showing any.

Collin: I'm sure you're right about the blog not generating you a lot of sales on it's own, it's more of a long term investment. Hopefully it will eventually improve your customer relationships and give you a little "stickiness". I think it's impact would be greater if you were selling developer or technical tools.