Micro ISV Mistake #5

This is the fifth and final instalment of my series on Micro ISV mistakes. If you missed any of my earlier mistakes, they are all still available here on CodeSnipers: #1, #2, #3, and #4.

Starting a business on your own or with a small number of people will be a delicate balancing act. It’s very difficult to stay focused on the things that matter, avoid the plentiful unnecessary distractions, and maintain your momentum. It gets even harder when you realise that it’s not obvious what matters and what can wait.

Mistake #5 is worrying about success.

For me, this was always inevitable. I’m a worrier; I’m always inclined to worry about anything I can possibly worry about. I’m convinced it’s partly genetic, so you might not need to watch out for this particular mistake. But, if you are a worrier, you need to be on guard.

The way this mistake might go is that you’ll have a great idea, or an opportunity will present itself, which in your mind will bring fantastic success. Overwhelmed by this imaginary success, you start to wonder how you’re ever going to cope with the demand. Or, you have a simple recurring 5 minute task that comes up once every few weeks and your programmer instincts tell you not to repeatedly do anything by hand if it could be automated. Imagine how you’ll cope when you have to do that same task every day, maybe you could write some code to automate it. You might even have a product or website ready to launch, but start to wonder how you’re going to cope with all those phone calls and emails.

Worrying about any of these things when you’re just starting out is a bad idea.

When you have good ideas and great opportunities, you should be completely Gung-ho about them. If the response is overwhelming, the worst case scenario is that you’ll need to turn customers away, or apologise for some volume related issue. That might sound bad, but it is not the worst possible outcome, or the most likely. You will feel much worse if you don’t fully exploit an opportunity, or miss out on it altogether, and you might end up with no responses at all. It’s also much more likely, no matter how committed you are and how great the potential may seem, that the volume of actual responses will be entirely manageable.

When you’re just starting out, a 5 minute task that comes up every few weeks is probably not worth automating. Even if the code only takes an hour to write, it’s going to be almost a year before you’ve saved any time. That’s assuming that the task stays the same for the whole year, and that you don’t have to rework your automation as the requirements change. For sure, in six months you might be doing this 5 minute task every day… it might even have evolved into a 20 minute task, but I still wouldn’t recommend automating it from day one. Once you set the precedent of trying to automate everything, you will never run out of 5 minute tasks to eliminate. The big problem is that there’s no real way of knowing in the early days which 5 minute task is going to become the biggest burden, just like there’s no way of knowing what form, if any, your success is going to take. Trying to predict it and neutralise the extra workload before it arrives is just a big waste of time, and it’s going to suck away your energy, ideas, and momentum. If you’re like me and the idea of doing anything repetitive goes against your nature, the best thing to do is to deal with it and keep your eyes on the prize. You’re trying to start a business here, it’s not all going to be fun, there are always going to be little jobs you don’t like.

Similarly, worrying about the volume of phone calls and emails that your new venture is going to generate is a poor use of your time. Firstly, no-one calls. That’s an exaggeration, but I’m sure any forecasts you have will exaggerate just as much in the opposite direction. If you’re lucky enough to get potential customers wanting to talk to you in the early days of your Micro ISV, listen to them, talk to them, and be thankful for them. The last thing you should do is worry about “handling” them. Secondly, dealing with email support probably won’t be as hard as you think. You will have very busy days, and very quiet days, but even the worst days are unlikely to overwhelm you at first. Just sit down each day and respond to any emails that come in, you can worry about the volume when it looks like it’s becoming consistently higher than you can manage. Your best ideas and opportunities are going to come from direct contact with your customers, so the more of it you can handle personally the better. Worrying about getting too much is a little like worrying about how winning the lottery could ruin your life. Always bear in mind that each step you take to reduce your involvement with customers is a step back from a valuable resource.

The only problem with this advice is that all of these things are absolutely vital. You need to plan for the impact of major promotions or releases. You need to automate some of the little jobs you hate, or you’ll drown in them. You need to make sure your customer support is responsive, available, and effective, and that it doesn’t consume all of your time. But, these are all problems of success, nice problems that you should be looking forward to having, not trying to solve already.

To summarise, don’t worry about success until you have it, and try not to waste time and energy trying to solve problems you might never have. I can’t tell you when you’ll have to start worrying about success, but I think you’ll realise for yourself when the time comes. I also think you’ll be happy about it, even if you have to work harder for a while.

Good work Gavin

Can you imagine starting a MicroISV and saying I need to co-locate my website server so I can handle immense traffic and figure out how I am going to handle huge sales volumes? If this is your passion, why not try a start-up that is focused on setting up websites and sales infrastructures instead of the original idea you *think* is so hot. But judging from the questions posted on JoS, it seems MicroISV is like a fad with everyone and their mom wanting to get into it and focusing more on the accessories of the venture than their core idea. These articles you did all spoke directly to me. Thanks!

Yes, a matter of focus

I must just think the same way as Gavin. You are basically in agreement and yet wanting to do exactly what he warned against anyway. Sure, Gavin pointed out the same thing; there is always a reason to look into these other things "a little" and I guess the difference is whether in the meantime your original idea loses steam. I believe MicroISV is a new thing enabled by the Internet. In the past there was no opportunity to reach so many potential customers with so few resources.

perhaps, but...

Thanks for the comments, Collin. I'm sure you're on target when you say that this is more of a problem for me because I tend to worry too much, and this was primarily aimed at people like me! However, I do think it's important to bear in mind just how fragile any quantitive estimates of Micro ISV success could be. There could be a lot of little jobs to evaluate, and the potential impact of each could vary dramatically based on the type of success you acheive.

I've also known people who reach for their coding hat each time something comes up that they don't really want to do. Those are really the people I was talking to with that point... they spend so much time trying to save time in the future that they never get anything important done.

The basic point was that it's too easy to get carried away building the infrastructure for your business, way way before you need to think about such things.

As for whether you can be both Micro ISV and successful, I think the term applies equally well to small teams, and I think of it more as a state of mind or attitude than a term for something that is easily measured. How you measure success is also important, if I can generate a salary from a venture for everyone involved and a little cream on top, I would consider it a success. If you wouldn't call it a success without an IPO, big name buy-out, or massive profits, you're probably right when you say that you're unlikely to be classed as a Micro ISV by that stage.

Thanks Ben

Thanks Ben, I'm glad you liked them. The reasoning behind this one was similar to what you say, people focus too much on the accessories. There's always way too many distractions, and usually all that matters at that stage is getting on with it.