Advice for struggling PC software vendors

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...

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...

Update your installers

Another easy thing to do is update your installers. Even if the software you're installing is pretty much the same as you've been selling and updating for years, that installer that is sized for eight-character file names and likes to stick things in the root C:\ directory is going to seem completely anachronistic.

There are some great, free installers out there. I know it's another weekend's worth of work, but you do want to keep your company, don't you?

Update your system requirements specs

If the last OS listed in your system requirements is Vista, you have a problem. If you list NT in your system requirements, you have a bigger problem.

Test your product against Windows 7 and Windows 8, and then update your system requirements to explicitly call out that the product works on Windows 8. Don't worry about the idiotic "Metro" interface, but if you say you support the Windows 8 desktop (and you do), then your prospective customers won't think you've been in suspended animation since the Bush administration.

Post a frickin' phone number

Yeah, I know we're moving to a world where all interaction is online. But customers who want to buy stuff sometimes want to call and get an answer to a question right now.

I also know that posting a phone number is an invitation to your current customers to call, bitch you out, and ask you questions you can't answer, but that dialog is good, too. It'll reinforce to your customers that you're still there. Plus, you never know. That really loyal (if cranky customer) might just have a way to save your bacon -- simply because he needs your product as much as you do.

Acquire some other products

Most of the software tools vendors I've seen are one-trick ponies. They have their one product, and that's it. That means if you make a sale to a customer, you're done. There's no more money to be mined from that hole until you release a major update.

One great way to augment your income (and help maximize utilization of the business infrastructure you already have) is to acquire publishing rights for other programs. This isn't quite as easily done now as the days when distribution meant brick-and-mortar and manufacturing meant paying for packaging, but there are still a lot of talented programmers out there who don't want to do the administrivia.

Don't contract out to have something built. Instead, scour the Internet for great programs with poor descriptions, support, or web sites. Offer to publish those products, update the manual, sell them, and provide a royalty back of 15-30 percent after your cost.

You'll probably need a contract to do this, but don't go running to a lawyer. First, most lawyers don't know squat about the software business, and you'll wind up paying more for the contract than you'll make selling software. Instead, find another software vendor who isn't a direct competitor and ask them if they've got a publishing contract they don't mind you using.

Make friends with other software vendors. These sorts of mutual-support contacts are very helpful.

I know you may not think you can afford to acquire a product, but trust me, it can be done. In fact, I wrote two chapters on this phenomenon in two of my books. Read the first chapter in The Flexible Enterprise and read "Luck is a skill" in How To Save Jobs. Both are free downloads, so there's no excuse not to.

An even easier approach (although a little less profitable) is to resell other existing products on your web store and in mailings to your existing customers. Find complementary (or even competing products) that would appeal to your class of customer, do a deal with the software vendor to resell it (you'll usually get 40 to 60 percent of the selling price).

Do yourself a favor and start this process now. An extra five or ten SKUs will do wonders for your incremental income.

Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em

Finally, we're at the tough love stage of our discussion. Sometimes, it's just time.

Look, if your product really hasn't been updated since 2005, if you can only run on 32-bit XP, and you crash constantly on 64-bit systems or anything running Windows 7 or later, it may be time to throw in the towel. This dog won't hunt anymore.

There are lots of ways to get out of this hole, but all of them involve a change in business strategy. Again, I'll point you to some great reading. Read the third section of How To Save Jobs. It will show you how to evaluate your assets and reinvent your business from the inside out.

Live long and prosper

I sometimes get the urge to go out and build another software product. I love to code and I actually love the entire chain of activity that is product marketing. But after more than two decades of running my own software and then publishing company, I also needed to get a life.

I was fortunate in that I was able to sell off my software assets back in the day, and have managed to transform my career so that I get to talk to you here on ZDNet, lecture, advise, and teach. I'm having more fun in my work life than I've ever had before, I get to spend time with my wife, enjoy my car, lift weights, and sometimes work on my house and hobbies.

The point is that there is life after software. While my advice here is intended to keep you in business, if that time comes, you should know that there is life after software entrepreneurship.

Good luck. Live long. And prosper.

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