Growing Pains

I believe the two hardest periods of a new company are when you first start it and when you grow beyond being able to handle every task yourself.

When you give birth to a new business, you have to work hard to save pennies and handle as much of the operations yourself to survive financially. This is good because you get to design every part of your new venture and structure it to be mean and lean.

For a software start-up, this usually means automating as much as possible. As sales grew with No Thirst Software, I went from hand generating license files with AquaticPrime to PHP scripts that generated and emailed those type of files to a full database back end that simply emailed license codes and sent the license files directly to our software when it pinged the server.

This was easy automation to do because I’m a programmer; I write code and this was just code on a web server talking to code in my Mac software. No big deal.

Other roles are harder to automate. I have a CPA to file my tax paperwork and do the heavy lifting in accounting, but I still have to maintain the books, track expenses, and fill out paperwork (and I hate paperwork). The bookkeeping automation really needs a person, which means hiring and management duties. It’s not as comfortable a task as adding some PHP scripts. I’d love to have my wife, Judy, jump in here and tackle this role but she’s pulling in a steady paycheck with health insurance benefits for the family so that’s a tough call. Are we ready to completely depend on our little company for all our financial needs?

Another time sink is support. I love doing support because it helps me understand how our customers use our products and I find ways to improve them. MoneyWell would never have grown as fast as it has in the direction it has without me doing tech support. I have been toying with the idea of delegating some of this to a part-time person for a while but it was incredibly hard for me to let go for several reasons.

Fear and Workflow

The first was a concern that our support quality would drop. I worked hard to create a reputation for outstanding support and I didn’t want that to get lost.

The second concern was my time to train a support person. Handing off support is great if the person taking it can answer the questions asked. Delegation without education is like asking my CPA to finish my Objective-C code—both crazy and stupid.

The third concern was workflow. My workflow was impossible to scale up past two people and even then not really effective. I used IMAP services to file emails into various folders for resolved issues, those needing action, and those needing to be fixed via code changes.

This workflow issue was the biggest of the concerns by far. If I couldn’t automate the workflow more, I couldn’t hand off support. In the past when I had a larger company with a few dozen employees, I wrote my own customer service system. I liked it because I had control over it and could improve it whenever we needed new functionality. Today, I have plenty of software to write that could be making me money so the thought of spending my time writing an internal app was out.

I looked at other products I had used in the past but they didn’t fit my desired flow. I also looked at FogBugz, but the design felt too complicated and alien to the simple design of both MoneyWell and Debt Quencher. I really tried to like it but I knew that I’d never adopt it.

Then I started to use Lighthouse to track my bugs and features because there was a cool OS X front end for it, Lighthouse Keeper. Even without Martin Pilkington’s desktop interface, Lighthouse was really nice to use. It didn’t have every feature, but what it did have was implemented nicely.

I found out that Active Reload/ENTP was creating a customer support system to match up with Lighthouse. It was still in beta so I held off riding this bleeding edge of technology and pushed the task of delegating support onto the back burner.

The Wakeup Call

My wakeup call came in two parts. First I was asked to include MoneyWell in the MacUpdate MUPromo Spring 2009 Bundle. About 43,500 bundles later, I learned a lot about how well my sales and licensing automation was built and how little code I was writing when handling a minor avalanche of support. Halfway through this bundle, I left for San Francisco to attend Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC)1 where I fully woke up.

It was in a talk given by Wil Shipley at an overcrowded Cocoaheads meeting held at the SF Apple Store. Even as Wil talked about not doing support as a developer, I resisted. In my head I kept saying, “I need to stay connected to my customers. This has helped me improve my software.” He finished and I pretty much had blown him off. Then later that evening I started thinking about all the code that I was not writing and how I was cheating my customers of new versions. I wasn’t as worried about my competition as I was about not shipping the very best products because I was devoting my developer skills to support instead of new code. Late that night, I pulled up the Tender Support website and signed up.

Letting Go

While at WWDC, I talked to Judy about hiring a support technician. We tossed around a few ideas and I resolved to make sure it happened once I got back home. Four days after I landed at Houston Intercontinental Airport, I had a support person—my son Patch. He had worked with me before redesigning the No Thirst Software website so I knew what he could do when he put his mind to something, but I wasn’t going to push him into the business if he wanted to go a different direction. Thankfully, Judy had discussed this option with him while I was away and he came to me asking if he could help.

This made sharing the support role easier. It wasn’t going far, just to another room in our house, and I could pull Patch into my office to give him training whenever necessary. If he hadn’t stepped up, I would have advertised on our company user forum and this blog for a person to fill the role. After Patch, my preference would have been a MoneyWell user that didn’t need training on the operation of our flagship product.

Tender Support

It’s only been a week of working with Tender and a few days of having it live for our customers to use, but I’m thrilled with it. The discussion forum is much more structured than our old Google Groups forum—we can mark issues as open or resolved, assign priority queues to issues, and, best of all, support emails go to the forum so they can’t get lost in a cluttered inbox. It’s not as large and in charge as FogBugz, but that’s part of its appeal. We’re even more committed to offering timely and effective support as our customer base continues to grow, and Tender will help us stay on top of our game. My next blog post will talk more about this customer support tool and why it fits No Thirst Software so well.

1. If you’re a developer on the Mac or iPhone and you haven’t attended WWDC yet, put it on your calendar for 2010 and start saving money now.

13 thoughts on “Growing Pains

  1. Kyle

    Thanks for the kind words on Tender! Sounds like you hit the same reasons we ended up building Tender – support can get clumsy once you start adding more people, and at some point the forums + email approach just feels disconnected.

    – Kyle Neath (Tender Developer)

  2. Anonymous

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

    I’m using Google Groups for now, but I’m now open to using Tender.

    I have the following questions:

    1) Were you able to migrate your data from Google Group to Tender?

    2) Do they have features that are of particular interest to Mac developers?

    – Nick –

  3. Joe Golike

    Great call on using Tender. I just submitted a question on the forums, and I love that it provides me an RSS feed to track the discussion!

  4. Darren Cook

    Hi Kevin,
    I’ve been lurking, watching Moneywell and your sites, and particularly waiting for the iPhone app. I appreciate this post…it helps me understand where you are and I’d guess from the tone the iPhone app is slow in coming.

    My biggest need with financial software currently is mobile access including budgeting (we used Pocket Quicken on Palms for years), and so I went with iBank temporarily (pre-MoneyWell 1.4) because it had some of that for iPhone and because of the direct connect features. Now I am in great need of budgeting features and am considering Mint.com though I wish to keep my data more private and secure than that…I want Moneywell iPhone! 🙂 I was so hoping for it this summer.

    I am a programmer myself, and feeling led to get into developing iPhone apps…that is my intended project this summer. I have even considered volunteering my services to help you, though I have no idea how to convince you to let me, not to mention the myriad other issues that crowd my mind (and yours no doubt) at the thought.

    So there is only one thing left for me to do at present…I will start interceding for you through prayer, and I will present your needs at adoration and Mass. The favor of our Lord be upon you this summer! 🙂 May He bless us both in our endeavors.

  5. Evan

    The support vs. development line is a tough one to walk. I work at Amazon.com and almost all support of internal customers, as well as operations, is done by the developers of the software.

    It takes a lot of time away from development but it keeps us keenly aware of the impact of our decisions, good and bad. I think that short feedback loop is one of the things that has kept Amazon sharply focused on our customers.

    So I wouldn’t pull away entirely from support (not like you were going to). But of course spending time on the product is important too!

    Speaking of which… when is that 1.5 beta coming out? 🙂

  6. Kevin Hoctor

    Darren: Thanks. It would be difficult to let another developer in at this point. I might have to let go more in the future but not quite yet.

    Evan: Hopefully you’ll see a 1.5 beta out before the summer is over. I’m working on it now in conjunction with MoneyWell for iPhone.

  7. Anonymous

    Your writings are good reference for wannabes of Micro ISV like me.

    For me, your posting above is a shock because you mentioned that you still cannot depend on your company for all of your financial needs. I thought you were a successful case as a Micro ISV and probably were having enough income from your biz.

    This reminds me the question I have asked more than dozen times; Is Micro ISV a right and proper way to be financially independent?

  8. Kevin Hoctor

    “Successful” is a relative term. No Thirst Software is very successful by most standards and it has fully replaced my previous income but there is a bit more growth needed before my wife can leave her job and come over full time. We are just being cautious.

    It is very possible to survive and even thrive as an indie developer. Just create and ship great software. 😉

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