I’ve posted two articles on what you need to think about if you’ve decided to develop a business software package. You might have a fantastically good idea, but developing, marketing, selling and supporting a package isn’t as easy as you might suppose. There’s far more to worry about than logical design.
- Have you thought about quality?
If you’re building parameterized software then it’s going to be capable of millions upon millions of permutations. Have you any idea how you’re going to test a sufficient number of these? Or even the most commonly used ones? The more that your package can do, the more ways it can go wrong. The quality level that you aim for is a matter of choice. Perfection is impossible, and near-perfection possibly unaffordable.
- Have you thought about documentation?
You’ll need help text (and the capability of multi language help text), reference manuals, installation manuals, user manuals, training manuals, demonstration manuals, and so on. Your customers and resellers expect this (though don’t bother printing them). Electronic versions that can be accessed through a browser will do quite well enough.
- How much of the product should you finish before you market it?
Your vision must be complete before you start, with an outline design for everything you intend to develop. You’ll want to sell your package as soon as you can, to make back your investment, but If you sell too soon, you’ll get diverted from your vision, and most dangerously, you’ll find yourself in obscure alleyways of customer-specific code. But if you sell too late, you’ll have used up all your money.
- And have you thought of how you’re going to take your package to the market?
If you’re not yourself in possession of an international company, then if you’re going to sell beyond your domestic market you’re going to need distributors and resellers. You’ve got to see things through their eyes. How can they make money from your product? What will be their upfront investment, and their ongoing cost of sales? Is the balance between service revenues and licence fees the right one for them? Can they learn enough about the product quickly enough to be able to present the product and then implement it?
You need to think of the marketing material they’ll need, the return on investment arguments they’ll use, the contracts, the multi-lingual support service, the case studies, the training, the guidelines you’ll give on implementation duration and costs, and so on. If they can’t make money, then there’s no way you will.
And your pricing model has to be one that can, in theory, and even after discounts, return a profit.
But whatever you do, don’t try to set up a reseller network until you’ve won some deals yourself. When recruiting resellers, just as when selling to customers, references are everything.
- How are you going to win your first customers?
Whether your first customer is your own or a reseller’s be aware you’re not going to make any money from the first few deals. Your first customers won’t buy your package, however unique, unless you give them a special deal and extraordinary service. It’s hard to sell without references. You have to ‘buy’ the first deals.
- And have you thought about how you’re going to keep your development team happy during the long development period?
If you do lose a developer, is his code sufficiently well documented that another can take his place and maintain his code?
- Have you designed a feedback mechanism so that your customers’ wishes are reflected in subsequent versions of your package?
If you don’t listen to your customers’ needs, they’ll soon stop paying for maintenance.
- Have you made a prudent investment plan to take you from concept to sales?
If you can’t afford the long-term investment that package software requires – the employment, travel, technical and marketing costs that will take you to your goal – then don’t even think of beginning.
My company, systems@work, set out to develop software for professional services (and expense and forms management) more than a decade ago. Did we ask ourselves all these questions when we began?
Some of them, certainly, but by no means all. time@work is a ‘best of breed’ package for services organizations from accountants, engineers and lawyers, to architects, consultants and charity workers. It’s now used by more than 250 companies from Tokyo to Sydney, from London to New York.
If we’d known there were so many questions, we might never have started. During the first few years there were certainly times when we were close to giving up. But if there are two questions we certainly should have asked ourselves more aggressively, they are ‘How are you going to win your first customers?’, and ‘How are you going to take your package to the market?’
We’re securely profitable now, and my anxieties, if any, are operational ones rather than existential ones.
So, if you have a dream and you can answer these questions positively, and if you’ve got nerves of steel, then good luck. After all, someone has to write these packages.