Author Archives: kevinhoctor

Community Inspiration

This past week was an incredible experience—I attended NSConference 5 in Leicester, UK (don’t feel bad if you didn’t read that city name as LESS-ter; two years ago while visiting London, I spent a week thinking I was walking through Lee-eye-cess-ter Square). If you’re not familiar with this conference, it was started by Steve “Scotty” Scott a few years ago to build more community among Apple developers.

My buddy, Scotty, has an amazing team that cares deeply about the whole experience of attending a conference. They know how precious our time is and they don’t waste any of it. The venue is well thought out, the food is delicious, and every detail is polished, including down to making sure there are three wines to match each course of dinner.

NSConference always has great speakers, but this year felt exceptionally high quality. Slides were professional, talks well rehearsed, content relevant, interesting, and entertaining—it could have been an Apple event. But that’s not why the three days were so successful. The difference is Scotty’s insistence that we spend time as a community and share experiences and ideas with each other.

More than half of the nearly 300 attendees were first-timers and I was able to talk with 20 to 30 of them due to the structure of this event. We switched tables at breaks, we talked at the parties and meals, and we were given a goal of meeting three new people. It worked. If you didn’t come away knowing many more people than when you arrived, you have no one to blame but yourself.

This conference reminded me that we have some incredibly smart people in this community who are talented and diverse. I was delighted by the creativity streaming though the participants. Attendees shared software designs, hardware hobbies, business strategies, life experiences and much more. It was inspiring.

So inspiring that I wrote three blog entries on the flight home to Houston, which is more than I published in all of 2012.

As an added bonus, I got to spend time with Michael Fey, my friend and one of the reasons our company has cool products to sell like MoneyWell Express. Any time I get to spend with my Number One is priceless.

While WWDC fills your need for a technical conference and allows you to talk to Apple engineers and get introduced to the latest tools from Apple, NSConference feeds your emotional and spiritual needs. Writing software in isolation may produce technically solid apps, but connections with your community drive innovation and inspiration. We all need to recharge and reenergize so we can be at our most brilliant—this is a great place to do just that.

If you get a chance to go next year, I highly recommend you set aside a portion of your budget for NSConference. Just don’t try to steal my ticket because I’ll fight you for it. If you didn’t make it this year, buy the videos (when they’re posted). At least you’ll get a small idea of how much you missed.

Peace.

Spicy with Beans

Given the choice of choosing something that is known versus unknown, people tend to avoid the mystery item and go with the known.

Case in point: We had our annual neighborhood Halloween party and a few of us provided food (hot dogs and chili) and snacks. My wife cooked a very tasty chili, but it was quite spicy so I wanted to let people who had sensitive palates know that. I made a very simple sign that read “Spicy Chili (beef and bean).” I also included the two primary ingredients in case we had Texas purists at the party who insist real chili has no beans in it.

I like beans in my chili. Screw the rules. I was raised in Buffalo, New York anyway, so I don’t get hung up on that “Real Texan” crap. But I digress, let’s get back to the anecdote.

There were three slow cookers on the table containing chili and ours was the only one with the paper sign sticking out from under it stating what it was. Now all of these had glass tops and all were right next to each other. There was no doubt that each contained chili and none was harder to dig into than the others, but an hour later, one was nearly empty—ours.

The chili to the left was partially eaten and the one to the right barely touched, but our chili in the middle was down to the Crock in the Pot. Instead of scaring people off with the “spicy” alert, my sign gave them a feeling of confidence that they were going to get chili with beef and beans in it and a bit of a kick.

Obviously the beans didn’t scare people off, which means there are plenty of fake Texans in our neighborhood as well.

My experience tells me that this goes for most things in life—including the products or services sold by software companies. Given the choice of buying software that is a mystery or one that the website makes obvious what it contains, people choose the known most every time. That’s why many of us tend to frequent the same restaurants or watch movies we’ve seen before. It’s safer going with what we know.

So look at your website and advertising to make sure you’re being clear about what it is people are purchasing. Warning people that your software is very spicy and has beans might just be what makes them click the “Buy Now” button.

Peace.

The Elephant in the Room

My apologies for the blog coma, but I’m coming out of it and will be posting on a much more frequent basis starting today.

My vegetative state started in late 2010 when I was swamped with MoneyWell 2.0 design and coding. I could have snapped out of it sooner if it weren’t for the elephant in the room giving me the stink eye.

MoneyWell 2.0 was an ambitious project and one that I didn’t control and execute well. Writing about mistakes and failures is part of this blog, but I wasn’t comfortable doing a postmortem on it as it neared the end of development or even after it shipped. All I wanted to do was fix any mistakes I had made.

I guess I could have blogged about other things, but I wasn’t inspired to write about general company activity while there was this huge beast in the office that needed to be discussed. Pretending it wasn’t there simply didn’t work for me.

We have passed a milestone though and MoneyWell 2.1 is awaiting approval by Apple so we can ship it. We also have redesigned our support, tutorials, and help pages on our website to include proper tutorial videos and instructional information about MoneyWell 2.1. Hopefully this will heal some wounds that we caused by shipping 2.0 without the proper training materials.

We also have some new projects started, which are moving very quickly thanks to our new, full-time designer, Dan Hauk. I can’t wait to show you what we’re building, but I also can’t talk about any of it either because pre-announcing products and features was one of my many MoneyWell 2.0 mistakes.

Stay tuned for future blog posts. I’ll push through my personal embarrassment and give you the scoop on all that has happened during that project. My hope is that any developers reading this will avoid the same mistakes and save themselves some pain.

Peace.

He Was Too Young To Die

It was 1967 and I was a five year old boy in a hospital room watching my family break down after hearing the news that my brother was dead. This reality was too hard for me to face at such a young age, so I chose to believe that my brother really wasn’t dead. In my favorite cartoon at the time, Racer X was Speed Racer’s brother, Rex, who was thought to be dead. I imagined Bobby also was just hidden from me.

By the age of twelve, I finally had a good cry about my loss when it struck me that 19 was too young of an age to die. My big brother had so much more to give and his passing left a huge void in my life. I was inspired to be a better son and try to fill the void for my parents.

In December of 1980, I was stunned by the news that John Lennon had been shot. I wanted to be a rock star, but my weak guitar skills and weaker singing voice forced me to choose a different path. I had just made the decision to go to college after a semester break. Graduating high school, the last thing I wanted was four years of college followed by a boring 9-to-5 job. My heroes were musicians and I wanted to inspire people like they had inspired me. The death of Lennon ripped a huge void in my life. He was who I wanted to be—unconventional, a person who changed the world. He was back in the studio recording music and had so much more to give us. John was too young to die. I was inspired to find a way to change the world in my own way even if it wasn’t on a stage.

In March of 1984, my father died. I was 21, newly married, and ready to show my personal hero what I could do when he left me. This void was cavernous. He was 60 years old and too young to die. My dad’s scope of influence was much smaller than Lennon’s, but to me he was just as inspiring. He challenged me to be smarter, stronger, and to take risks in life. I lived to make him proud of me.

His funeral was followed by a proper Irish wake, which meant dozens of family and friends raising a glass to Fran Hoctor and telling stories of his life—I was too angry to join in much of it. Later that day, I got a call that my Macintosh had arrived and I should come pick it up. It felt wrong to be excited, but I couldn’t help it. I had spent the last three months waiting for this and had become fascinated by the story of Steve Jobs and his pirate group at Apple who created this computer.

When Jobs stepped down from his CEO role, I knew he didn’t have too much longer to live, but I thought we would get a year or two more from him. When I heard the news of his death yesterday, a new void ripped open for me. Steve had inspired me to create better software, to be a better leader, to inspire a team to create something that could change the world. He made me want to make a positive dent in the universe. And like the others, he had more to give us and was too young to die.

Steve was not a perfect man, but then neither were my other heroes. Inspiration doesn’t come from perfection. Instead, it comes from the impact that someone makes in your life. Each of these men that died impacted my life deep enough to change my direction. They all inspired me and for that I owe each of them. My repayment will continue to be how I live my life.

Thanks to my brother and my dad, I have a deep love of family, the understanding that moments spent together are precious, and to not assume I will have time later to apologize. Thanks to John, I have a deep love of music and an understanding of how words and notes can move people to action. Thanks to Steve, I have a software company to run today. I will do what I can to honor his vision and create something great—maybe something that can change the world.

Peace.

Thank You Steve!

In the early 80’s I learned to write computer software. I really enjoyed writing software. Then in January of 1984, I touched a mouse on a Macintosh and my world changed. I fell in love with the idea of creating amazing software—code that could change the world.

I ordered my Mac 128K as soon as I could qualify for an Apple credit card.

What Steve Jobs has now—and has always had—is the ability to see potential where so many of us cannot. He wasn’t afraid to fly in the face of convention and build something that no one asked for. There was no market demand for an appliance computer. The original Mac was as disruptive as the iPad is today, only the scope of technology was much smaller.

I’ve probably read too much about Steve Jobs and spent too much time thinking about what he did right and wrong—especially in the early days of Apple—but his tenures as CEO of Apple, NeXT and Pixar have forever changed my world. I have learned from his flaws as well as his successes.

Would I have fallen in love with designing software if I spent years writing command line driven apps? What would the graphical revolution have looked if it was built by people who weren’t visionaries? How many years later would Apple-driven leaps in technology have taken?

I honestly don’t want to know.

Thank you Steve being brave enough to say no to “good enough” and the vision to show us what’s possible. Thank you for making computers fun and exciting. Thank you for putting a huge dent in my universe. May you win the battle over your illness and live to see many generations of breath-taking products built on your vision.

Peace.

A Familiar Place

I have been here before. This place is familiar to me. Here is where the journey becomes steep, rocky and overgrown with vegetation. To my right is a well-worn path leading gently downhill. The smooth and packed soil looks easy on my legs, but I also know the destination. It’s a place of sorrow and regret that saps energy from my soul.

After a moment of weakness, my gaze returns forward as I square my shoulders and seek a foothold. The first few steps cause the most strain, but this decision eases the pain and with every step my energy and confidence grows.

I have been here before and understand its temptations. It lies and deceives by offering a “better” choice but, at least this day, I will not fall for its trickery.

I have been here before and will be here again.

Peace.

Delayed

I love the Black Hockey Jesus blog post ‘He’s Not My Character to Write Anymore’ not just because it’s a touching tribute to his 13-year old son, but because he writes about the struggle of writing. I have too many posts that rot and die in my MarsEdit Drafts folder because I don’t like them enough to publish them or I let writer’s block prevent me from spending time on a post until it stops being current. I delay them and they die.

The months of silence on this blog also fills me with guilt. I started Entrepreneurial Seduction to help others build their businesses. I wanted it to be more interactive—more raw. It was supposed to a stream of consciousness, as if someone were reading a diary. Unfortunately, I’m a bit of a perfectionist and a harsh self-critic so I hold back my writing looking for the right words or that amazing sentence that everyone will quote. It’s a damn shame, too, because so much has happened in the last six months that would benefit fellow entrepreneurs. Delays in writing are a sure sign of rigor mortis settling in.

Typically, the dead zones in this blog align with periods of heavy software development. Let’s blame this latest on MoneyWell 2.0, which has been chatted up by me for so long that it was compared to vaporware products TextMate 2 and Duke Nukem Forever. I even allowed the code name MoneyNukem to be bantered about until Duke Nukem Forever actually shipped—and sucked. Then I wanted nothing to do with it.

So what happened to delay MoneyWell 2.0 for so long? To be honest, the 2.0 release shipped two-and-a half years ago—it was just called MoneyWell 1.4 at the time. And then I shipped 3.0 fourteen months later, but called it 1.5. What we are working on now could legitimately be called MoneyWell 4.0. The problem is that I promised too much in 1.0 and felt guilty charging for an update. I delayed incrementing the major version number, which I consider to be a major business mistake.

No matter what we call it, the new version of MoneyWell is late. Why? Because we started it late. The finish wasn’t delayed, the start was. Coding on 2.0 didn’t begin until October 2010 due to delays caused by our syncing issues and MoneyWell for iPhone, and our current team wasn’t coding 100 percent on 2.0 until December. The complete design-development-ship cycle should stay under one year—not too bad for what has amounted to a massive rewrite of my original code. I’m not trying to minimize or excuse the fact that MoneyWell 2.0 has taken too long to deliver. I allowed too many other activities get in the way of building 2.0, which resulted in the release being delayed.

So I need to thank John Gruber and his Daring Fireball post that led me to read the Black Hockey Jesus post, which allowed me to write another blog entry on my own site without a delay. Once MoneyWell 2.0 ships—and it will ship—I’ll try to avoid any delays in writing a postmortem blog entry on the project cycle. I think there are lessons to be learned from my mistakes and that is why I started this blog.

Peace.

Making Money Is Not My Focus

I was incredibly inspired by reading Pixar’s Brad Bird on Fostering Innovation (tip of the hat to Wil Shipley). There’s so much packed into these nine simple rules, but the final one really struck a chord with me: Making Money Can’t Be Your Focus.

I truly believe that rule and try to live by it every day. My little software company was created to make a significant difference in people’s lives. For the past 30 years, I have made a decent living writing software, but this time around I wanted to make an impact as well. I do get frustrated when sales are low or when we haven’t finished the new major release that will bring in higher revenues, but not because I’m dying to buy a yacht and retire: I want, no, I need to fund more cool software development. It’s part of my DNA now.

What we create at No Thirst Software should be seen by our customers as amazing software and no matter how good it is today, I don’t feel it’s anywhere near amazing. There is so much we can do and so much potential to give people tools that can change their financial future that I physically ache for progress some days. This is why I’ve reinvested so much of our profits to grow this company even though the risk factor is high. I know that by myself I will never get everything accomplished that I have planned.

We have three major software releases scheduled for 2011 and years of ideas beyond those swimming around in my head. The day I start doing this for the money is the day I need to hand the company over to someone who still has passion for the product. Luckily, I can’t imagine that day right now.

Peace.

Mac App Store – Month One

I’ve waited to blog about the Mac App Store because I didn’t want to jump to conclusions based on just a few days of sales. We’re now at the end of the first fiscal month for Apple’s newest software store and I’m ready to reveal my findings. Let’s start with a graph, because everyone likes a good graphic.

MoneyWell Jan 2011 MAS.png

Above is a chart of unit sales for MoneyWell from AppFigures.com, a resource that I highly recommend for tracking your sales. The bar chart shows unit sales and the line charts show ranking. The labels aren’t perfect, so I’ll explain them. The red line is Top Paid Overall (units), the green line is Top Grossing Overall (profit), the violet and blue lines are Top Paid and Top Grossing in the Finance category, respectively.

For the tl;dr crowd, my overall opinion of the Mac App Store is positive. I think it’s already a great resource for increased sales and it will only become better as more Mac users migrate to 10.6.6 and are trained to use it exclusively when OS X Lion ships.

MAS or No MAS

My biggest concern selling my apps on the Mac App Store had to do with cash flow. I recently expanded my development team and we are shoulder deep in MoneyWell 2.0 development, so overhead is up. With a new major release comes a need for newer, prettier pixels, so I’ve also had to set aside cash to pay a graphic artist. I couldn’t afford to have my normal direct sales bank deposits, which occur four times a month, to turn into a 60-day wait for income. I won’t receive a dime from Apple on the sales you see in the above chart until the end of February. That’s just way too long to go without any revenue when employees and contractors haven’t signed up for the same two-month delay.

Besides losing cash flow, I also wanted to be able to compare direct and app store sales. Running both throughout the month of January was very revealing. My direct sales are right on target with my projections for January based on MoneyWell sales in the previous two years. Unit sales from the Apple store are three to four times our direct sales. The two stores seem to be capturing customers independent of each other. Selling my apps through the Mac App Store has almost tripled my overall revenue. I’m not complaining at all.

What’s more remarkable is that these sales are all without any significant promotion. I sent one mass mailing to my customer base announcing that we were in the Mac App Store and explained how upgrades and migrations would work, but I did no outside sales promotions. MoneyWell was picked as a Staff Favorite, which lasted for about a week, but the spikes in sales towards the middle and end of the month were strictly from more people finding us in the store.

The biggest boost appears to have come from reviews. MoneyWell received half a dozen 4- and 5-star reviews right before the first spike and doubled those reviews by the second spike. I have not adjusted the price at all; it still sells for $49.99 on and off the Mac App Store. There was a Debt Quencher sale, but that doesn’t appear to have a direction relation to the MoneyWell spikes.

Debt Quencher Jan 2011 MAS.png

It’s pretty easy to spot when I offered a limited $4.99 sale price of Debt Quencher on the chart above. What’s harder to spot is the next transition from $14.99 back to $4.99. The last three bars show the new price point, which will probably become the new retail price. You can see that there is growth, but without a promotion that has a deadline for that discount, there was no spike. Here’s a chart showing Debt Quencher profit.

Debt Quencher Profit Jan 2011 MAS.png

I’m currently earning less money selling Debt Quencher at the discounted price but I’m confident that sales will continue to rise at this lower price point. Even with the additional sales from the Mac App Store, this will probably never be a product that will cover the company overhead. Later this year, we plan to give Debt Quencher a revised UI and additional features to see if we can push this lower-priced product higher on the Top Paid chart. The goal is to use this impulse purchase product to lead people to our more profitable MoneyWell software.

Topping the Charts

What’s most exciting to me is MoneyWell’s rank in the overall top grossing list. We’ve been staying in the top 40 apps and have hit 20 as our peak. This means we get just a bit more visibility when people are looking around the store—the top 30 or 40 show without even scrolling down the page. I think we have an advantage over apps like games because the Finance category fits all its apps on a single page without needing further breakdown or navigation.

The magic number for visibility on the Top Charts page seems to be twelve, which is the number of apps that show before you have to click See All > and navigate deeper. My guess is that those apps are seeing higher sales by a factor of ten—or the square of that if Pixelmator is representative of the high-end revenue. Let’s just say that my goal with our 2.0 release is to break into the dirty dozen.

Going Forward

My strategy is to continue to sell direct as well as on the Mac App Store. I see no reason to give up an extra 25% of my profit just to steer customers to the Apple solution. My direct sales through my FastSpring store are highly automated and don’t require my intervention to process them. I can also run promotions and bundles on my site that can’t be done through the Mac App Store. If my customers prefer to get their software updates from Apple, I certainly won’t discourage them from using the other store.

It’s really the best of both worlds: My existing sales are staying at projected levels and Mac App Store sales are even higher with an upward trend. If at some point my direct sales drop to near zero levels because everyone prefers shopping in Apple’s house, I’ll think about turning off my back end. Until then, I’ll offer the same upgrades for my products no matter where my customers shop.

Peace.

Building a Bigger Indie

No Thirst Software LLC has hired its third full-time employee: As of November 22, 2010, Danny Greg joins Michael Fey on my development team. Danny is best know for his work at Realmac Software creating Little Snapper. Here at No Thirst, Danny will be joining us in developing MoneyWell 2.0, which will keep us all very busy for the next few months. After that, our team will shift to development of our MoneyWell iPad release. Now you know one reason I’ve added two developers this year.

It doesn’t matter what kind of company you are running, it’s always hard to manage growth. The decision to bring on staff is never trivial and should always be done carefully. My previous company, a dot.com in the late 90’s, grew quickly to over ten employees and my company before that expanded to a staff of over 30 people. The latter is still around and doing well and the former popped along with the bubble in 2000. I learned a lot from both of these experiences.

The most important lesson was to take my time picking new additions to a team. The actual phrase I was taught was slow to hire, quick to fire. It means that you should really get to know who you are bringing into a company before you extend a job offer and you should let someone go the instant you know they are not working out. That may sound harsh, but if you made a mistake hiring someone, you’re hurting your company by keeping that person around. You’re also cheating your new hire from finding a job that fits him or her more perfectly. Don’t compound one mistake with another. Being in charge means making the tough choices.

If you have a small company with limited resources, a single interview is not enough to make an important decision like this. In fact, I don’t think any company—no matter how big its bank account—should treat hiring casually. Before finalizing your decision, you have to find out how this person ticks and what motivates performance. In my case, I need developers who have a passion for the products I am creating. I refuse to micromanage my teammates, so they need to know how to work autonomously. My job is to inspire, not to babysit. I also want people who won’t back down from a fight if they think I’m doing it wrong. I learned a long time ago that I am no where near perfect and I make plenty of stupid mistakes. It’s best if I surround myself with people who inspire me to continue to learn and grow.

Before hiring both Michael and Danny, I spent time getting to know each of them. Michael was an early MoneyWell customer that also turned out to be a developer. We talked a bit about development during a small sideline project he was coding and then I was able to spend time with him at a developer conference, WWDC ’09, and really get to know him. I discovered what motivates him and why he loves creating software. I also watched him as he designed and released a fairly complex iPhone app for his previous employer. In late 2009, Michael was in the middle of a job change and I was able to bring him on board in January of this year.

Danny and I were introduced when he wrote a review of MoneyWell about three years ago. He and I later chatted during a podcast were were both on hosted by Steve “Scotty” Scott, now the producer of iDTV, which later lead to us starting our own podcast called cocoaFusion:. I paid attention to the projects he managed and the products he released and we talked about development outside of our podcast. Danny was never shy about telling me when he thought some code of mine could use improving or if a product was in serious need of better pixel dressing. I actually tried to coax him away from Realmac Software around the time I hired Michael, but the work environment there is fantastic and he could not be swayed. This time, I threw in a healthy dose of guilt with my offer to get him on board.

The bottom line: I knew who I was getting. There was no doubt about intelligence, work ethic, communication skills, or motivation with these two.

I applied this same process when I hired Tamara Crowe as our contract support person. She was a MoneyWell customer who did an amazing job of sharing and helping on our help center discussions. Tamara had better answers than me some of the time and came across as friendly and knowledgable in her posts. I chatted with her several times before offering her a position and knew by that time that I was not making a mistake.

It was a bit harder when I hired Kevin Kalle to do contract design work for us because I didn’t have much time to get to know him. He was referred to me by designers I respected and we began by working together on a trial basis. I explained up front that I wanted him to be strong and opinionated and made sure that he was comfortable with some friction in our working relationship.

For me, the give and take is critical. The best solutions come out of a blending of ideas mixed via a friendly struggle. I hire people smarter than me with different skill sets to offset my weaknesses. I never assume that I have all the answers or can see from every perspective and I listen to everyone’s opinions. Conversely, my team knows that I have a very definite vision for what this company is creating and I won’t compromise that vision. They also understand that the final decisions need to be mine.

I’m incredibly excited about the team I’ve assembled and can’t wait to show everyone what we are creating. As great as 2010 was for my little indie group, 2011 is going to be even better.

Peace.

P.S.: Stay tuned for my follow-up posts where I’ll discuss the financial and logistic concerns of adding employees.