Advice for struggling PC software vendors

Advice for struggling PC software vendors

Summary: If your business is struggling, more and more of the same ol', same ol' isn't going to suddenly give you a lift. You need to make a few changes — and, fortunately, they're not all that hard or costly — or the vicious cycle will continue.


Update and modernize your web site

If there's one universal thing I've noticed in this power tool search, it's the really sorry state of web sites run by PC software vendors. Oh. My. Gosh.

These sites often look like they haven't been updated since 2002 or 2003, like they made a big push to get a product out for XP, but haven't really done much since then. It's clear products have been updated, because the release notes constantly show improvements and point releases every few months, but often the last "news" item in the news section is from 2008.

Often, the online documentation doesn't match the latest version number. The manual says it's for version 11 of the product, but the release notes indicate that version 15 is now out.

If there are video tutorials, they were often created pre-YouTube and are downloadable, low-res files, rather than embedded YouTube videos.

It's terrible. Despite all the work you put in each day holding things together, and the quiet desperation you live with in the dark of the night, it looks to all the world like you don't care about your products and your business. New customers who visit your site will click away almost instantly, because your site looks like one of those old, untouched, ghost town sites that live all over the Internet.

So here's my advice: if you're going to sell software in the Internet-age, you must (must, must, must -- more than anything else -- must) modernize your Web site.

This isn't hard to do. There are thousands of quite fine WordPress templates, hosting providers who can do complete Web site installs for a click of a button, plans that won't cost you more than ten bucks a month, and so forth. If you don't have the graphics design skill, use one of the pre-made templates.

In fact, I'll help you here as well. Here are some of the vendors I've used:

I know this process could take a week or so you don't have, but trust me on this: if you don't do this soon, you'll have all the free weeks you want.

Deal with your forums

You know there's a problem when forums are populated with "Hello, is anyone here?" messages. It's particularly bad when the main web pages point customers to the forums for support, and the forums are populated with complaints that the company doesn't answer or brutal complaints about products, product strategy, updates, etc.

Here's a hint: if you can click into your forums and before you even scroll down, you can see a pile of "this company sucks" messages, you need to deal with your forums.

My advice (and this is my software company owner hat, not my transparency journalism hat) is to shut down those forums. Just kill them. I know there's a lot of knowledge trapped in there, but there's also a lot of bile you just don't want new customers to see.

Besides, your forum software probably also looks like it came from the days when Bill Clinton was President. It, too, probably needs a big face lift.

Many of the theme vendors I've suggested above also offer forum software, and there's also a ton of free downloads. Heck, phpBB might be annoying, but it's free and looks at least like it came from a year with a "2" in it.

My other forum tip is this: check over your forums at least once a week. If you can't scan your forums, find someone (even your kid, your mom, that annoying but very loyal customer ... someone) who can look over the site and let you know when strongly negative posts need to be dealt with.

If you can, solve the problem or make good, don't just sweep those problems under the carpet. But no matter what, if you want to keep selling software, you can't have that sort of activity on your forums. It's the kiss of death.

Scan for old dates

While we're talking about the kiss of death, another sure-fire way to scare away new, prospective customers before you even know they came-and-went is to have lots of old dates on your site.

Seriously, if most dates on your site show 2009 or earlier, you're in trouble. It's okay to have release notes that end in 2013 and start back in 1999, but other than that, you really should make sure no date on your site is older than 2012 -- especially if its your software product.

I found one product in my search for a good media asset manager that listed its last update as 2005. Given the importance (to me, anyway) of my project, I couldn't take a chance on something that hadn't been updated since before Vista.

Keep reading. Tough love is good for you...

Topics: Tech Industry, Software Development


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • How do you get around

    How do you get around the fact the OS folks (Apple, MS, Google) are doing everything possible to keep users from installing your software unless you give them 1/3 of the sale and only if it gains their blessing?
    • Have I got an OS for you

      I know you're not interested, but Linux still lets you install whatever software you want. And you don't have to compile your own kernel, unless you want to.
      John L. Ries
      • The problem on Linux

        Is three fold.

        Linux users by and large don't like to "buy" applications.

        They love to hack and post "keys" to software on P2P sites.

        It's such a tiny percentage of Desktops there just is very little market. Especially when you are targeting a small market to begin with.
        • Responses

          1. From the user's point of view, this is irrelevant. From the developer's point of view, I assure you that my employer sells enough proprietary software for Linux to keep me gainfully employed. It must be understood, though, that if you don't produce software that's significantly better than the available free stuff, you're not going to make anything (which is how the free software should work).

          2. I suspect this is a small minority. There are certainly plenty of Windows users who develop viruses and trojan horses for it, but that doesn't seem to deter many people from using it.

          3. It's a small market with a lot of software available for it (a small fraction translates to millions of actual users). You won't get many of the name brands you're used to, but I haven't been a regular Windows user, except on the job, since 1995 and don't miss it.
          John L. Ries
        • Linux is for freetards

          Indeed. In the late 1990s, FrameMaker users were looking forward to the next whole-number release. But before it arrived, Adobe announced that Linux would be left out because Linux users, by and large, didn't feel they should have to pay for software.
          • Maybe...

            Framemaker wasn't worth what its publisher was charging for it. There's a lot of free software available for Linux, with which proprietary developers have to compete if they want to make money.

            As noted in my response to NAG, this is a problem for developers, not users.
            John L. Ries
          • I agree...

            It's a problem for developers which explains why so few are willing to code for Linux on a "for profit" basis.
          • FrameMaker's demand was inelastic

            The only software that can edit a FrameMaker file is FrameMaker. And large documentation shops had adopted FrameMaker as their tech publishing platform. As Adobe saw it, a tech writer who needed to produce a document in FrameMaker had no choice but to use FrameMaker--on one platform or another. By cutting off FrameMaker for Linux, Adobe probably figured it would drive sales of FrameMaker for Windows, Mac, or commercial Unix. In any case, Adobe has always priced FrameMaker high, apparently figuring that employers would foot the bill and that even freelancers would use the software to make money, so cost was secondary. I use it noncommercially, and haven't upgraded my FrameMaker 7.1 license in more than 10 years.
        • Re: Linux users by and large don't like to "buy" applications.

          Simple answer, which I thought would have been covered in Economics 101, sometime in the first week or so:

          Sell the scarcity, nor the abundance. Digital bits are abundant, and effectively available at a price that is zero as near as dammit. Software is just digital bits, so selling software was always going to be a dead end--why do you think Microsoft and Adobe are now trying to push their customers onto a subscription model?

          What IS scarce is your brain: after all, it took brain power to come up with that software. So use the software as a promotional tool to advertise the power of your brain. THAT'S what you can sell.
        • No, I Don't Like To Buy

          software when there is perfectly fine software available for free that is easier to use than a $200+ piece of commercial software where the vendor has never been able to make a decision on how it should look, feel, or act.

          No, I don't post nor use illegal keys to software or operating systems.
    • You give 1/3 because ...

      ... you get easy access to a potential market of hundreds of millions of users. Robber baronry ... perhaps but there is no free lunch.
      • It's not robber barony at all

        It's actually quite generous. Or do you think You get full retail for your product at Best Buy? Or do you think that the blog author was advocating robber barony when he suggested you contract with another developer and only pay THEM 30% and keep 70% for yourself?

        It's called business. Apple is offering you a service that is a tremendous help to your attempt to sell software and are charging you a 30% royalty to sell your software for you.

        That 30% is actually quite reasonable.
        • Just not true

          Ask the thousands of developers that tossed their hat in the ring and got lost in the swamp of useless apps and didn't make a thing. There is NO REASON a user should not be able to come to my web site and DL and install something they want. Well, other than the big three don't like it and can't get their greedy paws on the money.
      • Useless exposure...

        As the article pointed out, most PC apps / utilities are targeting a very small and selective audience. Having exposure to millions of people looking for "angry birds" is a waste of time and effort.
    • You jump for joy because it's better than the 30-10-10

      discount you used to have to offer to get your stuff in a brick and mortar store.
      • I haven't seen anyone...

        Push applications in brick and mortar for years. They sell from their own web site making it cheaper for the end user.
  • Depends on your perspective

    There are two parts to that question: the 30% cut, and the "gains their blessing". Unless you distribute to customers directly, all distribution channels take their cut. Back in the days of software stores like Egghead, software vendors would only get about 30-40% of the selling price, because both the retailer and distributor needed to get their cut -- and that was back when we had cost of goods for the printing and packaging.

    Even now, selling through Amazon or other resellers involves someone getting a piece of the pie. In the app store model, the Apple/MS/Google folks are providing a distribution mechanism, a collections mechanism, and something of a marketing resource. Since COGS is pretty much zero, their piece of the pie isn't generally a bad thing.

    What IS a bad thing is the risk of whether -- after you do all the work -- that you'll be able to sell your software. That's a big part of why I only did silly iPhone products and not the server monitor program I'd originally set out to do. The "vetting" process is worrisome, and -- speaking personally -- I don't think I'd be willing to devote a ton of time making a product without know I could sell it to customers one way or another.
    David Gewirtz
    • Walled gardens are not free markets

      Under the traditional model, one has a choice of software distributors to patronize, and one can shop for the best deals (and one can often buy from the developer directly). Under the iOS-style walled garden approach there is a single distributor that all users and developers have to work through (ie. a monopoly) who can set whatever conditions they choose without having to worry about being undercut by a competitor. One can, of course, jailbreak his iOS device, but that's considered to be illegal in the U.S., and Apple reserves the right to brick such devices (maybe you thought that iPad was yours?).
      John L. Ries
      • Walled gardens are precisely free

        markets. No one is forcing you to write iOS software. No one is forcing you to JUST write for iOS. Apple is offering a service. You are free to use it or not. People buying phones are free to use it or not, by deciding to buy an iPhone or an Android device.

        Your ability to choose to NOT offer your product for iOS, but instead for Android is the PERFECT example of a free market at work.

        What is NOT a free market is somebody like you demanding the state FORCE Apple to conduct it's business in a way that satisfies YOU personally.
        • Bull...

          If all three big players are in collusion to CONTROL all coders then there is no free market.