Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

Mac App Store Mania

It’s only been a few days since Apple announced the Mac App Store and there are already predictions of rampant software piracy, Apple locking down future version of OS X to only App Store sales, and price drops to 99 cents. Let’s calm down and take a step back people.

First of all, pirates will be pirates and if they want to crack your software, they will. Apple’s copy protection will be broken just like every other system out there. This does not mean that your sales will drop. The honest truth is that the dishonest people using pirated software wouldn’t be your customers anyway. I’ve lost track of how many illegal download sites display MoneyWell as one of their offerings, but I also don’t lose sleep over this problem.

As to Apple shutting down all sales outside the Mac App Store, can we give them time to get it up and running before we start blaming them for something they haven’t done yet? I’m willing to give Apple the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Now on to the topic that is a huge issue for me: discount pricing. I can’t stand the dollar store pricing on the iOS App Store and it shows because MoneyWell is at the $9.99 price point even though many of its competitors are lower. I think it’s worth even more than 10 bucks and the price is more likely go up instead of down as we add features down the road. Our Mac version currently sells for $49.99 and that price will go up when we ship our 2.0 release in early 2011. I’m also not planning to lower it when we start selling on the Mac App Store.

Why? Because our software is worth the price I charge. I also owe it to my customer base to make sure my company is well-funded and continues to provide excellent software and support in the future. The profit curve is not negatively affected by higher prices until you are significantly out of the range of your competition—and by competition, I mean software that matches your software in quality. I’ve seen too many companies go out of business because they try to compete on price.

I truly believe that the Mac App Store is going to increase sales for every quality Mac product on the market, but we don’t know by how much. Assuming that you can cut your price in half because your volume will increase by a factor of five or ten is insane. High volume sales are never guaranteed and you may need the cash reserves you make from an initial sales spike for long term development projects or an onslaught of support.

Just because software is made up of electronic bits doesn’t mean that it has any less value than computer hardware or or other electronics. There’s an argument that computers have gone down in price and software should do the same, but companies like Apple aren’t making less money on each computer sold. In fact, most of the time they work to increase their margins as manufacturing costs drop. Apple doesn’t have $51 billion in the bank because they cut their profits in half.

There’s an opposing argument which states we can charge a fair price for software because we provide lasting value. What do you pay for lunch or dinner? How about that trip to Starbucks? What’s your ROI for that meal or latte and how long does that “value” stay with you? Think about that for a minute. Got a visual? Good.

If I invest in a software tool, I expect it to hang around for more than a day or two and to continue to get a return on my investment of 12-18 months before spending more money on it. Will I pay $20, $40 or $60 for software I use several times a week throughout this timeframe? Definitely. It has real value. I don’t buy many games, so most of the software I invest in is either saving me time, improving my communications, or making me money. If I’m using it constantly, I want to use the highest quality software I can get. It should be well-crafted, rarely crash and never lose my data. I’m happy to pay for quality. Building excellent software is hard work and we deserve to get paid for our efforts.

Let’s stick to our guns and price our software fairly so we can prosper and continue to give great service to our customers. Let’s earn some profits and invest in training to improve our coding and business skills. Let’s build some company bank accounts so we can afford to expand our indie companies beyond simple solo acts. Who knows—if we stop tripping over each other to get to the bargain basement—we actually may end up with several hundred more indie developers who can afford to quit their day jobs.

Peace.

If Not You, Then Who?

Running an indie software company is an emotional roller coaster. Some days the code is flowing like water out of a fire hose and you’re breaking sales records while other days are filled with blank stares at a debugger and a strange fear that your website must be broken because no one’s buying your software. It can be a struggle to keep pushing forward in the face of bugs and support requests. You work your butt off to produce a product update only to be met with jeers and complaints, “You wrecked my software! It’s slow/crashing/ugly now” or, “You gave us features a, b and c but I asked for f and g almost two years ago. Why can’t you finish your software?”

Okay, it’s not like that very often, but if you’re like me, a hundred compliments are negated by one complaint. If you’re not like me, be happy you dodged a bullet.

MoneyWell is an especially tricky product when it comes to making people happy. Personal finance software is very… personal. Everyone has their own way of managing their finances and no single tool will satisfy every need. I built MoneyWell for one person: me. There were certain needs I had that weren’t being met by my current tool, Quicken, and no other software I tested was idiot-proof enough to help me control my spending. So like a good programmer, I wrote my own. When designing the feature set, I did consider if others would like certain abilities, but in the end I based all my decisions on what worked best for me. That may sound selfish, but I’ve been in companies where software was designed by committees and frankly, it always sucked.

When releasing version 1.0 of a product, flaws and missing features are often forgiven, “It’s a one-dot-oh release, I’m sure it will get better.” But as your customer base grows and your product matures, the slings and arrows come at a faster pace and hit closer to vital organs. You might start to doubt your vision or struggle to hear your internal voice over the din of the crowd. You might start to doubt your ability to succeed based on what you have planned or fall prey to feeling overwhelmed.

I’ve ridden the roller coaster plenty of times over the past four years. There were times when I wondered if my design was correct or if I even knew what the hell I was doing. I’m no financial genius so who am I to tell others how to run their books?

What struck me recently and inspired me to keep on the path was a simple question: if not you, then who? Are there any software products out today that I would use instead of my own? No, there are not. And why not? Why do I still like my finance software better than anything else?

There are millions of software developers in the world and many are better or smarter coders than me, but none are me. None of them have had the same financial failures I have had or experienced the same exact frustrations. No single person has gone through all the same life trials as I have. I’m the only one who has lived my life and that makes me unique. My blend of skills and experiences gives me an edge for the software I’m passionate about.

I’ll never write the next great word processor because I don’t have a burning desire to build it. I’ve struggled with debt and blown budgets, not page formatting issues. My software comes from my history. It is better because I care about it and how it can improve my life. My greatest desire is that what I create can also help millions of others as well.

You too have a history that gives you a unique perspective on a need. Your life experiences have molded you to see things that others would overlook. What could you contribute to a software design? What do you desire in a product? What are you passionate about?

In other words, don’t build what others have envisioned—create from within yourself. Your design process will be much more enjoyable and the final product will scream “you.” This will mean that you’ll have to endure complaints and say “no” more than you like to enhancement requests, but you will love your work because it feels organic. And even if it doesn’t make you rich, it might make you happy.

Here are the rules in summary:

  1. Seek knowledge from others, but make decisions from within — don’t let the noise drown out your thoughts
  2. Ignore the naysayers — haters are gonna hate and there’s nothing you can do about it
  3. Believe in yourself — trust that what you have to give to the world is unique and worthwhile
  4. Put passion before a paycheck — doing work you love trumps more money any day of the week and twice on Sunday

Every so often, I get lost and let the one or two negatives swallow up all the good creation happening in my life. It’s easy to feel discouraged because your software is in use by hundreds instead of thousands or thousands instead of millions. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed because you don’t have the time to see your vision in full bloom. It’s easy to give up and let someone else deal with creating the solution, but don’t do it. You’ll be cheating the world out of an experience only you can provide.

Peace.

Indie Multitasking

As much as we’d like to think that we are capable of multitasking, we are truly more like an iPad than an iMac. We may have a dozen or more things we have in our queue to do at the moment, but we can only focus on one task at a time. To multitask and actually get two tasks done at once, you need to be two people.

For an indie software company, this means taking a large step and hiring someone—either contract or full time.

This is by no means a trivial decision, but eventually one that has to be addressed. At some point the long days and late nights start to affect the quality of your work or destroy your personal life. And whether you believe it or not, sleep is critical to your health.

Adding staff is hard for several reasons:

  • It costs money
  • It requires trust and flexibility
  • It requires management
  • It requires collaboration tools and processes

Let’s take a look at each of these a little more.

Cash Flow

As an indie developer, you probably aren’t rolling in extra cash that you can just flash and get more staff. You have to be careful about raising your monthly burn rate. The flip side is that you may be hurting cash flow by doing tech support or marketing when you should be writing code and shipping for-fee updates—I consider myself somewhat of an expert in this type of mistake.

Be smart and take baby steps. Instead of hiring a full-time person, you can pay hourly for contract labor. Last year I contracted with Matt Long to help me with MoneyWell for iPhone development, and recently I hired Ash Ponders, who bills me for the hours he logs keeping our support queue well maintained.

The nice part about contract labor is that you can throttle your spending more with them than you could a salaried employee.

Trust and Flexibility

After I contracted with Matt, I began to think that the amount of code that needed to get written at No Thirst Software was much more than I could do in a timely manner and too expensive as contract work. There was a huge potential for revenue from an iPhone release and a paid upgrade for a 2.0 version of MoneyWell but the overhead of running this company was cutting into my coding time and my schedules were slipping badly. If I had a full-time developer besides myself, I could ship these new releases sooner, which would be a huge win for both the company and our customers.

I’ve hired developers many times before in my previous companies and I knew the pitfalls. Hiring a skilled developer is important, but even more important is hiring someone you trust and can work with. I’ve hired prima donnas that code well but are impossible to work with and nice guys that really can’t produce the code needed—neither hire is good.

I like to hire developers that I’ve already spent time with and have learned about how they code and think. That meant my list of potential employees was very short. To shorten my list even more: all of them had good jobs already and didn’t have a strong desire to jump ship.

The stars aligned for me and one of them became available at the perfect time. I hired Michael Fey (a/k/a the infamous MrRooni who started a rumor about spotting Steve Jobs at WWDC 2009) as my first full-time employee in January 2010.

Check this out: I first knew Michael as an early MoneyWell customer who was generous and helped out by answering questions on our support forum. I later found out he was a Mac developer and then was lucky enough to spend some time with him at WWDC and really get to know him. This is one more reason why you need to socialize and network. You never know if you are going to meet a future employee or employer. Needless to say, I’m thrilled to have someone who knows our products, is a skilled developer and is joy to work with on a daily basis.

Now, this is where the flexibility comes into play. When you bring in someone else to do the work you once did in your isolated “me” universe, you’ll find that they’ll do the same tasks a bit differently that you did. If you can’t deal with that fact, you can’t have employees and you can’t ever expand your company. You have to be flexible and accept that your way isn’t the only way to get something done. I’ve learned something from everyone I’ve ever worked with—without exception.

Managing People and Resources

The minute you add any person or service to your operation, you become a manager. It’s your job to steer the ship and control the future of your company. This doesn’t mean that you have all the answers, it just means you have to make the final decision. With employees comes payroll. With contract work comes more payables and tax paperwork. There is overhead to even adding one person.

There’s also mentoring and training. If you fail to properly mentor your new hire in the company processes or train your support technician in your software, you can’t expect that person to perform well. This is your primary job as a leader. and ignoring it is like planting a garden but failing to feed and water the plants. All your initial effort will wither on the vine.

Tools and Processes

Before you expand beyond a one-body shop, you have to invest some time in collaborative tools and processes. For an indie software company, the three biggies are support, bug/feature tracking and source code management.

Email-only support systems are incredibly hard to maintain with more than one person. Did that email get answered? Was there a response? Who’s checking for new emails? Has this customer had similar issues before?

We use Tender to manage our support because it gives us a way to coordinate and assign support. It also suggests Knowledge Base answers when customers post questions so some customer get immediate, automatic support. It also has custom queues that notify specific people in our company when help is needed. This way, our frontline person can get emails for all support issues and the rest of us only see what has been escalated. Additionally, the discussions can be public—the customer can choose to make it private—so other customers tend to jump in and help. I’ll take all the help I can get and often, our customers know better answers than we do because they have personal experience with the question.

For bug/feature tracking, we chose Lighthouse, which happens to work well with Tender because ENTP makes and runs both. What I needed most in issue tracking was a quick way to create requests when customers report bugs or asked for features. Because Lighthouse and Tender integrate perfectly, creating a ticket in Lighthouse requires only a couple of clicks upon reading the Tender discussion post.

There are many different needs for both these tasks and you may need a more intense issue tracking system. I like to avoid complexity as much as possible and that was a driving force in my choices.

Picking a source control management system is like choosing an operating system or development framework. You’re not going to convince a .NET guy that Cocoa is better any more than you can tell someone who loves Mercurial that Bazaar is better. It really doesn’t matter what you choose, but pick a distributed system that has a cloud presence. I used Subversion, then switched to Bazaar and finally ended up with Git.

The primary reason for going with git was Github. I had to collaborate with other developers and they were already using Github so I was flexible and adapted. Once I learned the (sometimes weird) ways of git, I was productive and happy. Moreover, my team was able to work together easily. I needed four developers in three different parts of the country to work out of the same repository and Github made that happen.

Galactic Headquarters

The Galactic Headquarters of No Thirst Software LLC are in my home office located in The Woodlands, Texas. My full-time developer is near Syracuse, New York, contract work is done from yet another state, graphic design is coming from Europe and Ash is doing support from who know’s where on the planet. I have to admit to a bit of envy towards my globe trotting support ninja.

My point is that the days of renting office space and hiring employees locally so that they can show up to work in a central location are long gone. It makes no sense financially and only offers a slight collaborative advantage over Skype and video conferencing. When you pick tools or decide on processes, make sure you think global.

We have office chatter over Twitter, share documents on Dropbox, manage projects on Lighthouse, review support issues on Tender, share source code on Github and hold meetings on Skype or iChat—our work day revolves around information stored on or shared over the internet. I’ve never run a company this efficiently with such a small amount of overhead. It’s a great time to grow your operation and expand beyond yourself.

Peace.