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.

Despite all the headlines where teenage app makers sell their barely pubescent products for millions, being an independent software vendor — especially in the old-school PC world — is not an easy gig.

I'm talking especially about the makers of specialty PC software, particularly those who make what we used to call "utilities" or "power tools." In a world where PC sales drop precipitously , and our operating system makers seem to be dumbing everything down to an Angry Birds least common denominator, makers of deep, rich power tools are having some dog days.

These are the makers of the incredibly feature-rich text editor, developers of the screen capture program with 400 feature, authors of the thumbnail viewer that's really a full digital asset manager, creators of the file copy program that has more features buried in its graphical UI than the Linux shell has in all its arcane commands, and coders of the development environment that can do the craziest sorts of cross-platform live debugging.

Many of these vendors have been in business for a decade or more. They've been making money on one main piece of software and have continued to refine it, improve it, add customer-requested features, and chugged along, providing a unique value to a select set of customers with unique needs.

You get the idea. Power tool software for power users.

These companies don't sell their products to everyone. Here's an analogy. Most homeowners own a power drill. It might not get used much, but once in a while you might break it out. But few of us homeowners own a full drill press. After all, that's more like something you'd see in a shop rather than the typical home.

But some homeowners have home shops, and use drill presses, milling machines, and all sorts of customized tools. There's a market for these power tools. It's not just the same market that sells Hello Kitty-powered screwdrivers.

Over the past month or so, I've been working on a big image workflow project, and so I've been looking at and discarding an entire array of power tool software. I go through these phases when I put on my power user hat, and try to optimize a solution for some sort of unique work problem or process.

During these phases, I often sift through a couple of dozen tools, looking at the problem from a wide variety of angles, and get to see some very slick, deep, special-purpose software.

The PC software industry also goes through its phases. It's had its ups and downs for decades now. There are times when there seems to be no end of opportunity and times (like now) when things seem particularly bleak and sales are down.

When the market is down, being a software company owner can be a rough, rough gig. There are often not quite enough new customers to support the workload, so something has to give. Often, it's the support staff that's the first to go, followed by good nights' sleep, and perspective.

If you're an owner/developer, you're struggling with trying to balance development time with support time with the time you devote to any other forms of income that are being used to prop up the business and pay bills.

If you're an owner, but reliant on a developer either as a partner or a contractor, things get even more worrisome, because somehow you have to keep the developer in pizza and caffeine, and keep him or her happy enough (and paid enough) so you can continue to keep your product evolving and on the market.

I know. I've been there. I ran a company that made and sold specialty software (in my case, plugins and embedded database technology) for over a decade, before I finally sold off my flagship product. I then wrote The Flexible Enterprise (free PDF download), about how to transform a business model and create an agile business.

Before then, I was Symantec's director of product marketing. I've been on the board of the Software Entrepreneur's Forum (now SDForum), and in my subsequent decade as a publisher of online technology magazines, worked with hundreds of other software vendors. I even wrote 40 rather silly iPhone apps and made a few bucks off that experience.

In other words: been there, done that. I think I'm reasonably qualified to give advice to the struggling PC software vendors out there. Now, I'm fully aware your situation is different: you have a plan, you know what you're doing, you don't have time, you know you should, but... look, I've given all those excuses. Like I said, been there, done that.

But the bottom line is simple. 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.

Roll up your sleeves. Let's get started...

Topics: Tech Industry, Developer


In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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