On Releasing Early

Jason Cohen guest-posted in December 2009 on the great blog On Startups, disputing the startup cliche that it’s always good to release your product early. He makes a good case to the contrary, although like some commenters I don’t think the iPod is a fantastic counterexample. (I mean come on. It’s Apple. They can get away with wild new design ideas, it’s what they do.)

My attention was grabbed by one of the comments in particular, from Trevor Lohrbeer. He says, in part:

Selling the product before release can also have the advantage of financing the development while at the same time focusing on the customers who are willing to put their money where their mouth is. It gets rid of the biggest problem of eliciting feedback, getting feedback from people who will never buy your product anyway (or may never buy at a price you can make money at).

Which, it should not surprise you to know, reminds me of a story.

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Perfection is the enemy

Right now I’m finishing an infoproduct. It’s a handbook, with audio and flowchart, for software-dependent startup entrepreneurs who don’t have a grip on the “buy vs. build” decision. In short, I’m creating this thing to help you figure out whether you should buy (or download!) some pre-existing software to support your business, or whether you’ll be better off doing a software development project even if you personally can’t get past “Hello World.”

It’s going to be a series, naturally, and the next segments will show you how to get started with that development project if you’ve decided it’s really necessary.

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“Just Ship It.”

In my experience, most software-dependent startups fail because they never actually finish the software. It’s really that simple.

I’m trying to figure out how I feel about Jeff Atwood’s recent proclamation: “Version 1 Sucks, But Ship It Anyway.” As a connoisseur of Software Projects That Suck, I get Atwood’s point: you don’t really know what’s wrong with Version 1.0 until some real customers get to play with it and let you know what they think. I’ve often spent days or weeks perfecting a feature that nobody cared about! Why not save that time by getting feedback first?

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Small isn’t the new Big; that’s okay.

A while back, I was led to Jason Cohen’s blog post on not trying to look like a big company when you’re not. Jason makes a good point, that when Lockheed Martin is ready to order 1000 copies of new software they probably won’t buy it from a small company anyway. That’s often true. But I think there’s a more important reason to knock off the high-falutin’ corporate image thing.

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The Power of Dumb Ideas II

Recently I wrote about some of the Really Big Cool Commercial Things people tried to do on the Internet when it was still kind of a fad. These Big Things tended not to work out either because they didn’t make sense to begin with, or because their perpetrators could never settle for something that actually worked and delivered value.

I think (and said then) that this is probably because people often enter into business for reasons other than doing stuff that works and delivers value. If, on the other hand, you *cough* do stuff that works and delivers value it’s a lot more likely your business will do well. Notably, it doesn’t have to have an amazing idea behind it.

My favorite example of this is those nifty little PC-based cash registers. I’m a bit out of date on who has what these days, but back in the early and middle 1990s it seemed like one out of four mall stores had something from Systems for Today’s Retailer, which went by STR most of the time when I worked there.

STR started a little like this. Scott and Chuck what I call a dumb idea: to mimic those $10,000 intelligent cash registers that know how much everything costs, calculate discounts, print time cards, keep inventory up to date, and send sales data back to the corporate offices. Except they would do it for around $3,000 on an industry-standard PC.

That’s all. That was the big idea.

I’m sorry, there just isn’t very much to it.

It hit big. Everyone wanted this. They made their first sale to a small chain of jewelry stores headquartered in California. Then there were a couple of local Ohio customers. A place that sold swimming pool supplies, stuff like that. There was a chain of pet supply stores. And a nascent chain of computer superstores. None of these were gigantic wins, but they were mostly solid customers who paid a fair price for a good product.

Hey, there were a lot of problems with the software. By the time I showed up as the fifth employee, Scott’s office contained a clear box of 5.25″ floppy diskettes, generally three for the uniquely copied source code for each client’s custom applications. “Source control” was pulling things out of the box and putting them back.

What we considered the “base” application was about 160,000 lines of Clipper code, largely cut and paste from previous versions. In fact, one of my first really big refactorings involved merging eleven slightly different versions of the main item entry function into one, with just a little branching to distinguish the eleven kinds of transactions. It wasn’t the best code base to work with.

But it didn’t matter, not then, not really.

The key thing Scott and Chuck did, and this was seriously brilliant, was to figure out what people wanted to pay money for and making it work well enough to use. (Well, that and hiring me.) In a few years, STR had become fairly stable and rather profitable. We had matching 401(k) plans and good health insurance. It was a good place to work, and the software itself got quite a bit better as we improved our code and project management practices.

I started working with those guys almost twenty years ago now, and I still keep thinking… wow, it’s just a cash register with a regular computer in it. That’s all.

What’s the difference between a Great Idea and a Great Business?

One is fun to think about. The other is a lot of hard work.

And what do you know, tonight begins Startup Weekend Cleveland. In about five hours, I’m going to join about seventy other business and technical people to talk about ideas, pick a subset that the group will develop into products, and personally contribute to one of those. Which ones will be most successful? I’m betting on the ideas that make people say “I need that!” not “Oh cool!” In other words, the stuff that works and creates value.

The Saga of Lou

Sometimes projects are made to suck because people are cussed and they just won’t listen.

There was this time in late 1988. It was my first job out of college, with my freshly minted B.A. in Mathematics (!) and a lot of enthusiasm. It was a little financial services company just off East 9th and Euclid.

One of the first things they asked me to do was… kind of a drudge job. See, there was this database on our IBM System/38 mini. It had a file that included (among a lot of other fields) customer identifying information, balance due, and last activity date.

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Programmer optimism, and the “Death March”

I’m tired of hearing lines like “programmers are such optimists,” said in a disparaging way, by people who should know better. It’s a common refrain in corporate offices, usually when a software project is running late. Often the blame is placed on the programmers who are working for free on nights and weekends to make stuff work.

The project isn’t late because developers are braggarts. It’s because management has assigned them too much to do, which, as Peter Kretzman warns is the best way to not get what you want from your I.T. organization.

The “optimist” accusation is a cheap shot, and here’s why.

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