Let me start in a rather odd way. I don’t have all the answers about developing products. Frankly, I probably have only the slightest sliver of understanding of what is needed to develop products. Having been stuck at the phase where I have completed products that I haven’t been able to release to the market – I’m focused on thinking about the problem and trying to find solutions.
My son is at the stage where he likes dot-to-dot puzzles. He connects each dot not knowing what the end result will be. He carefully connects one dot and then the next and then the next and doesn’t take the time to step back until he’s completed.
It strikes me that this isn’t much different than the process of creating a product. I realize that there are lots of dots – most of which need to be connected – to make the complete picture – the product. I’m sure (because I’ve not managed to make my product sales what I would call successful) that I’m missing a few, but I wanted to share what I’ve figured out thus far.
Developing the Product
Perhaps the easiest part of the process for me is developing the solution. I’ve spent the last 15 years of my professional career creating solutions for clients. Writing the program and understanding how to make it reusable isn’t something I really struggle with any more. If you look in my source control system you’ll find dozens of testing harnesses and tools designed to perform reusable operations – and that doesn’t even include the things that I’ve packaged to be products.
Also in the easy category for me is writing. I’ve spent the last several years writing articles and books. Writing isn’t something I dread (very often). It’s just another thing to do. Once I have working and tested code, it’s off to write some documentation that will help people understand how to use it. The trick here, if there is one, is writing the documentation to spark the user’s creativity on how the tool can solve problems other than the one it was intended to solve.
Ouch. This one hurts. Every experience I have had making anything but the most trivial installation package has ended in disaster. However, a good solution to the need to get the software installed is an essential part of the overall solution. I bias strongly towards programs that require little or no installation – but that’s honestly because my experience with installers has been so bad.
Somewhere in this process you have to integrate a licensing engine. As much as I hate to say it software piracy runs rampant in the world. People don’t quite understand the intellectual property which is wrapped up in the software and the need to compensate the author for that intellectual property. I like to ignore this but I’m painfully reminded by my friends and colleagues that I cannot.
I learned that in the publishing world there’s not a lot that matters other than shelf space. Good authors, good books, and good ideas have died a slow death because they were never provided the shelf space in the book stores that they required. A product is the same way. The product needs a home. It needs a place for people to come to find it. It needs a place that describes it and explains how it works, what the values are, and the cost. Without this place no one will know the product exists – or they won’t be able to find it if they do know it exists – and you won’t get any sales.
By the way, this is the point where I’m stuck. I, in part, build commercial grade eCommerce solutions for large organizations. My threshold for the system to deliver my products is really, really high. That means that some of the traditional options for Micro-ISVs just don’t just make me feel comfortable presenting my solutions there. I haven’t yet invested the time to get my platform up and running personally… so I am stuck.
Once you have a store front and people have a way to know that they want to buy the solution, it’s important that you have a way to take their money. Honestly, this part has become much simpler over the last few years. With credit card processors owned by large banks now supporting web service calls to authorize transactions, and the services offered by PayPal, there are real options for conducting commerce over the web. Credit Cards are not quite universal; however, they are pervasive enough that they are an effective payment mechanism. The real challenges here are managing fraud and dealing with “returns.”
Supporting a product once it’s in the market is critical to long term success, but how does a small software vendor cope with the time that supporting customers requires? Support is one part about preparing – so you can track defects, customer satisfaction, etc., but more than anything else it is about creating and preserving timely communications with the users trying to use the product. Not an easy task for most organizations. Perhaps this is why so many software companies struggle with support today.
Build it and they will come doesn’t work. You need to let people know that your product exists. For most folks this means buying advertising. It is money out of your pocket to get people to look at, think about, and perhaps even evaluate your product. The folks that I know who are successful at selling products all talk about how their advertising relates to product sales. They don’t see a one-to-one relationship – but they definitely see an impact on sales. So your product (and perhaps your company) needs some sort of a marketing strategy.
The final part of developing a product is developing a lifecycle for the product. What will the next version of the product do? When will you make the investment in the next version of the product? Planning for the next revision is as much a part of the total solution as any other part of the process.
I don’t know what all of these dots make when connected. I’m pretty sure it’s not a bunny rabbit, but beyond that I haven’t a clue what to expect. When you’re looking at putting together a product ask yourself if you can connect all of these dots – or not.