On Being Your Own Boss...and Everything Else
Bob Walsh writes up rules for setting yourself up as a micro-ISV in his book, "Micro-ISV: From Vision To Reality."
Small things have a way of overmastering the great.
— Sonya Levien, Russian screenwriter
Levien was discussing the invention of the printing press, but the same sentiment might apply to the personal computer. Certainly these little boxes (and their somewhat sexier looking laptop offspring) have enabled a number of small enterprises to get off the ground in ways that were previously impossible. Bob Walsh’s book, Micro-ISV: From Vision To Reality (Apress, 2006) is a manual for starting and growing one particular type of small enterprise: the tiny independent software vendor, or ISV.
"Micro-ISV" is a term that's only come into vogue in the past couple of years. It describes a software company -- an "Independent Software Vendor" -- that is so small that it has only a few employees. Iin many cases, it has only one. The rise of PCs and, more recently, the Internet, has made it easier for micro-ISVs to compete on a level footing with larger companies, and there are lots of them out there that are quite successful. Indeed, looking down the Start menu on my development computer I find a number of products that come from micro-ISVs, alongside the output of behemoths such as Microsoft. It's entirely possible for an outfit with just a few developers to successfully produce world-class software that fits my needs as a developer at least as well as the stuff that comes out of Redmond these days.
Some folks, of course, have been experimenting with little companies and small product start-ups for years, in software and elsewhere. You can go back all the way to the start of the PC revolution, to tales of building hardware in garages, long before the term "micro-ISV" was even invented (we used to be called "entrepreneurs"). But now that we’ve all more or less recovered from the debris of the dot-com bust, the time is ripe for someone to take a look at how the Internet can help a micro-ISV get started, and Bob Walsh (who runs Safari Software, itself a micro-ISV) has provided an excellent manual for those who are getting ready to take the plunge.
Getting the Ball Rolling
The book starts off with a brief history of the software industry and the rise of micro-ISVs, and then discusses how to come up with an idea for your own product. I'm not sure how useful that section will be -- if you've got the bug, you probably already have more ideas than you can pursue -- but it can't hurt. Then comes an excellent chapter on some of the development issues that are peculiar to very small companies trying to launch shrinkwrap products. This is where the meat of the book really starts for me.
Walsh first covers the basics of designing an application. If you’re at all familiar with the literature on use cases and prototyping, you probably won’t learn a lot here, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded. Next, he pounds on the need for a decent development infrastructure. You might think a one-man ship could skimp on this, but my experience has been -- and he apparently agrees -- that having the right tools is even more critical when you don’t have extra manpower to cover your tail. In particular, he calls out the necessity of source-code control and virtualization, topics I’ve addressed here in the past. After a few pages on quality (you can’t live without it, especially when you’re trying to break into a market), there’s a great section on organizing your own beta program. That's something not taught in schools (at least, not in the CS program I went through) that you’ll definitely need.
Development underway, you can proceed to the chapter on setting up your Web presence (critically important when you don't have a "real" office) and the one on doing business (the joyous gunk of dealing with lawyers and governments). These chapters are pretty thoroughly packed with useful advice, from where to find good icons to picking a decent domain name to writing EULAs to setting up your own e-commerce infrastructure. Some of these tasks might strike you as tedious, but they’re all necessary steppingstones on the way to actually making a living from writing and selling software.
Customers, Competitors, and Partners
Chapter 5 focuses on your customers. Yes, you need customers, and that means marketing. I’m afraid the thought of marketing always brings the word "slime" to my mind, but if you’re going to live and die by product sales, you’ve got to get past that attitude -- or stay poor, one or the other. Walsh has some good ideas on how to market over the Internet, make some impact and not be too slimy in the bargain.
He also covers the other ways in which you’ll need to interface with your customers: technical support, discussion boards, and even where to put your software for download. Again, there’s a bunch of hard-earned knowledge here that you might not even know you need to know (like, how do you evaluate the different services CNET Download.com and TUCOWS offer?).
Chapter 6 is also packed with useful information, this time looking to the rest of the industry. To a large extent, this means dealing with the 800-pound gorilla that is Microsoft. For an ISV, Microsoft can actually be a bonanza of useful resources, from cut-rate software to marketing assistance, if only you know how to work the system; you’ll find the answers here (though, sadly, this part of the book is likely to be quickly outdated). You’ll also learn about groups like the Association of Shareware Professionals and the Association of Independent Software Industry Professionals.
The final chapter is a series of interviews with folks from existing micro-ISVs. This (and other interviews scattered throughout the book) is some of the most fascinating material here; it's good to get a sense of how other people are approaching some of the same problems you're likely to face as you try to launch your own little software business.
Probably 95 percent of the little nuggets of information in this book you could figure out for yourself, given sufficient research. Things like finding high-quality icons, determining the best credit card processors, figuring out how to do e-mail marketing campaigns, signing up for Microsoft's "buddy" programs -- these are all solved problems. But why on earth would you spend the hundreds of hours to do all that research yourself, when you could just spend the thirty bucks to take advantage of Walsh's hard-earned experience?
Like any other Web-heavy book, this one will age over time as links rot and new players enter the market. Fortunately, the story doesn’t end in print: Walsh is also maintaining My Micro-ISV http://www.mymicroisv.com/, a blog and community resources site, devoted to the same topics as the book. Read the book as an introduction to the field, subscribe to the site’s RSS feed, and you will save a bundle of time if you want to launch a new product on a small-scale budget.
Want to read more of Mike’s work? Visit his Larkware site for daily updates at www.larkware.com.
Mike Gunderloy, MCSE, MCSD, MCDBA, is a former MCP columnist and the author of numerous development books.