If you build it they will come. Won’t they? This is the thinking behind a lot of modern web applications. Unfortunately it’s only really true for the applications that people get really excited about. Game-changers like Napster, Skype, YouTube, more recently Spotify. Applications that are revolutionary, exciting, viral, and impressive. Applications with mass appeal, that everyone hears about, whether they like it or not. Most web applications don’t fall into this category unfortunately, and that’s why you really need to work hard. After all, how often do you see someone truly excited about a project management application or an online word processor?
If you build it, congratulations, but don’t expect too much. If you build it, market it, support it, monitor its publicity, and keep improving it, then they will come, slowly, in fives and tens. Each new subscription is proof that you’re getting somewhere. The trick is ensuring constant growth, and that takes hard work.
Code is not a business
Finding the right price points, attracting your target market, writing a blog they read, speaking at events they attend, supporting your current customer-base 24/7, adding features as you see fit, all of this is hard work. It’s usually a lot harder than the programming challenges.
I have talked to talented developers who had a good idea and built a good solution, but they’re not happy. They believe that their application failed, because they weren’t on TechCrunch, they weren’t on digg, and they only have 70 users, mostly on the free plan. And this is after two whole months.
Learn to love slow, constant growth. It’s frustrating for the ambitious, but it’s very valuable. Think about it this way…
If your number of users is growing 10% each month, you’re doubling your user base every 7 months. So if you’ve only got 70 users, you just need 10 more this month, allowing for churn.
Focus on growing your customer base by a consistent number, and you’ll do well. You can stimulate growth through improving the application, and that will help, but code usually isn’t enough. A failing of many applications, is that they haven’t expanded beyond the limited reach of their Twitter followers, give or take the occasional re-tweet. It takes hard work to keep your current customers happy, while ensuring that you’re attracting new ones.
It is for precisely this reason that I dislike the idea of throwing something out there, and seeing what happens. This idea is fine for a disposable application with limited shelf life, a bit of fun, or even a publicity stunt, but it’s a crazy way to start any business, or project for that matter.
You have to assume that anything you’re putting out there will have some success. Success typically means a number of paying customers, who you must support and communicate with. It’s not just writing an app, it’s attracting a market, supporting customers, dealing with enquiries, writing blog posts, talking to technology news sites, partnering with complimentary applications, handling feature requests. All of that is hard, but you have to plan for it if you’re assuming success, and if you’re not assuming success then what are you doing?
It’s not cool to start a business and quit it only six months later because it’s too much hard work and you’re not a millionaire already. There is a name for people who do this on the web: Serial Entrepreneurs, I believe.
Businesses versus side projects
Ryan Carson recently suggested that 37Signals are outliers, anomalies whose success can’t be imitated no matter how many workshops you attend or books you read. I’m not convinced that this is true.
37 Signals had 2,000 readers when they launched Basecamp, and according to DHH it took one year before it was paying their wages. What did they do during that year? There was surely a time when Basecamp had only 70 users. Their sign-ups grew one-by-one, like everyone else’s. They didn’t lament their lack of success. They contributed code to Open Source Projects. That ensured popularity with one potential market. They spoke at a massive amount of events, that was another potential market. They maintained their popular design and business blog, and wrote articles attracting the exact type of reader (Designers, consultants, project managers, etc.) that would be interested in Basecamp. More than that, they provided world class customer support to their existing customer base, reducing their churn, and growing customer loyalty. Loyal customers market your app, they send you quality traffic, and they don’t cost as much as Adwords.
If 37Signals are guilty of anything, it’s that they make it seem easy. This is because they explain their approach in a well-worded, easy to digest manner. That is the purpose of explanation after all, to make things seem simple and obvious. Sure they don’t write posts saying Really depressed about how slow the take up for Campfire has been, or This sucks, I had to do about 70 hours of support this week. That doesn’t mean these things don’t happen, only that they don’t make for good blog posts.
Success requires not only the diligence to work hard and ensure slow growth, but also the patience to tolerate it when you’re surrounded by a world offering get rich quick schemes.
We launched Exceptional in October 2008, it’s nine months old now, and each month we’ve focussed on two things: growth and customer happiness, and it’s working out quite well for us. We started it as a side project, because we knew it wouldn’t explode. Growth for most applications takes a lot of time. Even “overnight success” takes years to achieve.
Success isn’t guaranteed for any application, but patience and hard work will always improve the odds.