It’s All About Balance

Running a successful micro-ISV (a small independent software vendor) business is all about balance. I have to be very careful about not getting trapped in any one activity too long.

For example, I am working very hard to build a reputation as a responsive software company, so tech support emails are high on my list each day. I try to cycle in time to answer questions during my breaks from coding or design work. But I don’t want to be stupid and answer the same question over and over again, so I have been building tutorials for MoneyWell. But I can’t spend too much time immersed in these because there is code to write.

And, there are two products now for No Thirst Software, so I have to balance out my coding time between MoneyWell and Debt Quencher. The latter is the primary target for code right now because I owe those customers an update. There are some bug fixes, a few small features, and a revised look to match MoneyWell a bit more. On the right is a sneak peek at the new icon I designed for Debt Quencher.

Now I’m no graphic artist (as many of my developer pals remind me… often… sometimes too often) but I’m not organized enough to outsource this process yet (you have to know what to ask for) and the company isn’t producing enough cash flow to warrant hiring a person to spend quality time with me to dig ideas out of the scrambled egg, gray-matter that passes for my brain.

Oooo… cash flow! That’s a huge balancing act. My company (finally) paid the bills last month, but that’s no reason to get cocky and think that this will be the monthly norm from here on out. There was a lot of marketing splash last month with MoneyWell because of its top billing on Apple’s downloads website. I don’t have that prime real estate anymore so I have to assume that I will need to start building a war chest for the dry months. This company was inspired by the design of Delicious Monster, shortly after I finished listening to Wil Shipley’s now famous WWDC speech, and it has very little overhead, but there are still operational costs because this is not a part-time business. No Thirst Software is my only job and I have no desire to update my resume at this point. That’s why I have designed it to go the distance and weather any storm the computer market can throw at it; short of Apple going belly up, but let’s not even think about that.

Where was I? Oh yeah, balancing the multi-tasking. Many micro-ISVs are one or two people in size so many hats are worn every day. We have to manage marketing, track sales, handle returns (which are a huge opportunity to build future relationships), update your website, keep the books current (get a CPA for this or you’ll hurt yourself worse than a razor blade taste tester), take care of support issues, and maybe even write some software.

This last item is obviously the trickiest, but not for the reason you may think. It’s easy to write software—millions of people do it all the time. It’s harder to write great software and harder still to write great software that has a future. For software to be sustainable, it has to solve a problem in a market space with a significant number of consumers and have a good balance between features and interface. Why is the iPhone so revolutionary and successful? Not because of its feature list (just ask Nokia), but because of the interface used to expose its features. When I design software, I think of the task that needs to get done, prototype an interface, and then spend the rest of the time trying to remove as much of that interface as possible. It’s almost as hard as getting my teenage boys to clean their computer desks (almost).

In addition to working on new releases, I have to balance the effort spent on feature releases and patches. When a bug crops up in the wild and the tech support emails start piling up, an urgent patch may be necessary. This derails a feature release for a bit, but the only alternative is to write bug-free software and I don’t think that’s possible given the complexity of operating systems these days. It’s just best to plan time in your release schedule for a patch or two after the initial delivery and be fast with coding, testing, and shipping updates.

And, finally, this business balancing act comes third in my life. I was taught by a sales trainer, in one of my first jobs selling table appointments (china, crystal, tableware, and cookware), to always put faith and family before finance. He said, “My sales team can’t be miserable in their personal lives and then come to work and be successful. Go home and spend time with your family.” Coming from a guy that could sell carpeting to a tap dancer, I thought that was pretty generous advice and so I’ve held onto it—tightly.

I know I have my balance correct when I feel like I’ve fit a week’s worth of activities between sunrise and sundown and yet I’m not exhausted. Man, I love those kind of days!