Summary: Eric examines the world of micro-ISVs, which
are software companies that are comprised of only one person.
In most of my writings I am talking about a particular type of software
company, which I refer to as a "small ISV". I daresay most of my readers
know what I mean by this term, but I'd like to take a moment to define
The word "ISV" is an acronym that stands for Independent Software
Vendor. An ISV is a software company that creates and sells software
- Consulting shops are not ISVs, although an ISV may do consulting
- Value-added resellers are not ISVs, although an ISV may certainly
resell stuff from somebody else.
- In an ISV, you have to envision the product you want to build and
take a risk that somebody will still want to buy it by the time you get
- If you don't have a software product, you are not an ISV.
The adjective "small" carries some specific connotations. I'm thinking
of a company with less than 50 employees. The company is funded by its own
revenues and has not accepted investment from a venture capitalist. The
company was founded by a geek who tends to have his or her hands in lots
of different job functions.
But just how "small" can a small ISV be? It turns out that lots of
software products are created by companies made up of exactly one person.
Those tiny companies are the focus of this article. Some might call them
"indie" software developers. For now, I'm calling them "micro-ISVs".
A Force of One
I am fascinated by the notion of a software product company with just
one person in it. In part, this is because many small ISVs start out with
just one person and grow organically from there.
But lots of software endeavors never grow beyond their founder. We
might not think of these companies as successful, but in many cases we
should. I can name several examples of micro-ISVs whose accomplishments I
Bradbury is well-known to many as the author of Homesite, which he
sold to Allaire. Today he sells TopStyle, a CSS (cascading style sheet)
editor for Web geeks, and FeedDemon, an RSS (really simple syndication)
aggregator. I've heard lots of people express their respect for Nick. I
had the pleasure of meeting him at Gnomedex last year.
Ritcher sells Guiffy, a diff/merge tool for software developers.
Since Bill does business in the same general area as SourceGear, I've
enjoyed the opportunity to talk with him on several occasions. I've seen
plenty of indications that his product is quite successful.
Pavlina sells a variety of different games. I've never met him, but
he seems to be one of the more highly respected "indie" developers. His
Web site contains a number of excellent articles he has written on
topics relevant to small ISVs.
Thomas Warfield sells Pretty
Good Solitaire, a game that supports over 600 different variants of
single-person card games. As far as I can tell, his product is the most
successful of all the solitaire games out there. In a presentation from
a recent conference, Warfield hints that
his efforts have made him a millionaire. Strangely enough, I have never
met Thomas, even though he lives not far from me. Thomas, if you read
this article, I am hereby offering to come over to Springfield and buy
As far as I can tell, all of these guys are making a nice living for
themselves by selling software products in a company with (essentially)
one person. Many of us would not find it intuitive to aspire to be a
single-person software company. Still, companies like these are
fascinating to me. Some founders of micro-ISVs are making big bucks, even
as they maintain a lifestyle that allows them to lead a very balanced
In my study of single-person software companies, I keep bumping into
the word "shareware". I observe that there is a strong community of people
who use the word "shareware" to describe their products. This community is
alive and thriving. CNN even did an article
on shareware a few months ago. Nonetheless, I'm not sure everybody inside
the community agrees on a clear definition of the word "shareware", much
less those outside the community.
I first heard the word shareware perhaps fifteen years ago. Based on
those experiences, if you were to ask me to define what shareware means, I
would have said that shareware is freely distributable software for which
payment is voluntary.
I would also have said that nobody makes a living doing shareware
full-time. One person I remember from that era is Rich Siegel, the author
of BBEdit, who made the following remarks in a USENET posting in May
It's possible to achieve fame by releasing
shareware or freeware, but never fortune. Anything that shareware brings
in is strictly pocket change to me.
One of the shareware apps I recall from that era is a Macintosh text
editor called Alpha. I'm not
sure if Pete Keleher would remember me, but I do remember him. It is great
to see that Alpha is still available and is still shareware. However, as
far as I can tell, Alpha has never been a full-time job for Pete. Even if
his pile of "pocket change" is quite tall, Alpha is something he does on
the side, in addition to his primary vocation.
The world of shareware seems very different now. The shareware
community has a trade organization called the Association of Shareware
Professionals. They also have an annual gathering called the Shareware Industry Conference.
As I said, I'm not sure there is a truly clear definition of the word
shareware, but it does seem that the meaning of the word has evolved over
the years. For example, some products are described as shareware even
though payment is not voluntary. "Demo" versions with certain limitations
have replaced the past practices of relying solely on guilt and shame to
The Association of Shareware Professionals seems to define
shareware as "try-before-you-buy software". Given that virtually all
software companies now offer a downloadable demo, this definition would
seem to mean that all software is shareware. In essence, it appears that
the shareware community has chosen to define its boundaries very broadly,
allowing the community to welcome any software vendor that wants to join
Nonetheless, not all software vendors want to describe their products
using that word. Like it or not, for many people the word shareware
carries connotations of something that is "amateurish" or
"unprofessional". Even as some companies wear this word as a badge of
pride, others avoid it for fear that it will scare away corporate
I find it terribly ironic that while I was in the process of writing
this article, the postman showed up at SourceGear and delivered a trophy.
It turns out that on July 17th at the Shareware Industry Conference, the
2004 Shareware Industry Award winners were announced. Although we didn't
even realize that our product was nominated, SourceGear Vault (our source
control system) won the award for "Best Application Using .NET".
I'll confess that we had mixed reactions over this award. About seventy
percent of our reaction was very positive. We are grateful and flattered.
It is always nice to win. The people who voted for us obviously appreciate
the work we have done.
The other thirty percent of our reaction involves concern and
confusion. We don't consider Vault to be shareware. Like I said, some
people have negative impressions of what this word means. Will people who
are afraid of shareware be scared away from Vault simply because of this
A rose by any other name...
In the end, I have concluded that I don't care what the term
"shareware" means or what connotations it may have. Here at SourceGear, we
will continue to choose not to use the term to describe our products, but
I maintain my respect for the accomplishments of those who do. The fact is
that the shareware community contains a lot of micro-ISVs that are doing
some very impressive things.
For more information about the shareware community, I recommend the
The Association of Shareware Professionals has several interesting
pages, including a history
Among the excellent articles on Steve Pavlina's site, I really enjoyed
one on the difference between amateurs and professionals.
I learned a lot of interesting information about the shareware
community from an eBook entitled, Shareware
Business Blunders by Adam Stiles.
Getting back to the subject at hand, whether or not a company describes
its products as "shareware", I remain intrigued by the concept of
single-person software product companies.
However, the more I examine micro-ISVs, the more I realize that I just
don't understand them. I want to write about how to start and run a
micro-ISV, but I don't really have any experience from which I can speak.
I've never worked in a one-person software product company.
I have come to the conclusion that I will not really understand this
world until I spend some time in it.
Besides, I feel somewhat excluded from the party when my column is
compared to the others here on MSDN. All the other columns on MSDN are
technical, so naturally they have sample code. My column is on the
business of software, so what I need is not sample code, but rather, a
sample product. :-)
Introducing: Winnable Solitaire
Call me crazy, but I have decided to enter the market for desktop
solitaire games. I like to play the solitaire game that ships with
Windows, but I wish it would tell me whether or not each deal is winnable.
In fact, I don't think I've ever seen a solitaire game that has this
feature. I want to play traditional solitaire, but I want the luck removed
from the equation.
So I created a solitaire game that has the one feature I have always
wanted. Winnable Solitaire is very simple. It allows the user to play
traditional solitaire, often called Klondike, just like the sol.exe that
comes with Windows. My version has just one feature that makes it
different: Every deal is winnable. My app changes solitaire from a game of
luck to a game of skill.
I am primarily doing this product as an experiment, but the product is
still very real. I'm selling it to real people and I'm charging real money
for it. You can check out my
product Web site.
Like I said, this is an experiment. I want to gather some data. I'm
trying to learn about the kind of software products that can happen in a
Not only is this an experiment, it is an open one. I plan to disclose
all of my findings. In future postings on my weblog, I will share my sales
figures, my costs, and my stories.
As I write this, I really don't know how much money I will make on this
product. There are approximately 500 million computers on the planet. My
product could be a success if I sold it to a minuscule fraction of that
market. I am expecting the sales to start slow and grow slow.
The following sections contain guidelines for getting started with a
one-person company. These are things I believe to be true about micro-ISV
product development. If I were writing from experience, I would refer to
these items as advice. Instead, these are hypotheses that I hope to
Don't start too big
I like to dream up product ideas. Unfortunately, most of them seem like
things that would require 12-24 months of development before I see my
first dollar of revenue. That kind of plan is a lousy way to get started.
The risks of a new venture can be dramatically reduced if that problem can
In any software company, it's important to find a way to keep your 1.0
cycle as short as possible while still building a product which will
generate revenue. This is a delicate balancing act, I admit. If your 1.0
release is light on features, fewer people will buy it. If you build the
product that will appeal to the bulk of your market, it will take too
long. Where's the happy medium?
Most companies err on the side of putting too much into the 1.0
release. We just can't resist fighting a feature war with our competitor.
We convince ourselves that we have to beat the other guy on features or
nobody will buy our product.
Thomas Warfield's solitaire game has 600 different variants. If I
believed in feature wars I would be unable to ship my 1.0 release until I
had 601 variants. That's crazy. The purpose of 1.0 is to help pay for the
development of 2.0, and so on.
I started the development of Winnable Solitaire on June 16th. One month
later, on July 16th, the app was complete and of sufficient quality to be
shipped. The point here is not to brag about how fast I am as a coder,
although I'll confess I was feeling rather smug on the 16th of July. The
real point here is that I chose a 1.0 product with an extremely tight
Don't quit your day job yet
I wrote Winnable Solitaire during my spare time. I sometimes like to
write code late at night after my kids are in bed and the house is
During the day, I continued my usual responsibilities at SourceGear. In
fact, for the sake of reassuring the SourceGear customers who might be
reading this note, please understand that I am committed to my day job.
Winnable Solitaire is purely a side project. I wrote this app specifically
so that I could write articles like this one, to encourage software
entrepreneurs. This is neither a job change for me nor is it a strategy
change for SourceGear.
My point here is that it is possible to get a micro-ISV started while
keeping your day job. Here again, the key is keeping a very tight focus
for your 1.0 release.
By the way, you may want to be sure you don't accidentally find
yourself in a legal tussle with your employer. If you have an employment
agreement, read it carefully. Some employers hold the opinion that any
software you create while you are an employee is their property, even if
you do it off-hours and off-premises. Whether the employer is right or
not, you don't want to find yourself in a disagreement after the fact.
As it happens, this situation applies to me. My deal with SourceGear
says that the company owns any software I create while I am employed here,
regardless of the circumstances. So although Winnable Solitaire is
certainly not a SourceGear product, any revenues I receive will end up
getting turned over to SourceGear. Obviously that's okay with me, since I
am one of the owners of SourceGear anyway. However, I recommend you check
your situation and make sure you know what you are getting into.
Don't fake the plural
I don't think micro-ISVs should try to hide the fact that there is only
one person in the building. Conventional wisdom says that even a
one-person company should use the word "we", but I think it often ends up
This seems particularly true today in a world where weblogs have become
so popular. More than ever before, companies like to see a glimpse of the
person behind the product. The result is that a lot of one-person
companies are speaking in the first-person plural while a lot of larger
companies are speaking in the first-person singular. Doesn't this seem
kind of weird?
Don't forget the Law of Focus
Being careful to remind my readers that I do admire Thomas Warfield and
his accomplishments with Pretty Good Solitaire, I must disagree with him
says, "Marketing is the process of communicating with other people to
get them to give you their money in exchange for your product."
I admit that lots of people do define marketing that way.
Unfortunately, that definition is only half of what marketing really
Marketing has two
parts: strategy and communications. We pay more attention to marketing
communications (aka "marcomm") because it's more visible. It is also more
expensive. But it is not more effective.
Readers of my weblog know that I really like The
22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, by Al Ries and Jack Trout. One of the
more challenging chapters of that book, Law#5: The Law of
Focus, says that "the most powerful concept in marketing is owning a
word in the prospect's mind". The concept seems intuitive until you try to
narrow things down to just one word. When asked to tell someone how great
our product is, most of us want to say several things, not just one.
With Winnable Solitaire, I want to own the word "winnable" in the mind
of the market. That's the only attribute I'm seeking to own.
Don't underestimate the power of the Law of Focus. Your target market
has a very short attention span. You probably have time to say only one
thing. Choose that one thing very carefully.
Don't spend much on advertising
I have often claimed that small ISVs don't need to do much advertising.
For Winnable Solitaire, I'm going to stay true to my philosophy. My
advertising budget will be quite minimal, but not zero. I have placed an
AdWords ad on Google. For
now, that is basically my entire advertising strategy for this
If Winnable Solitaire ends up being a success, it will be due to the
power of differentiation. Obviously, my solitaire game is not "better"
than its competitors. I have only one differentiating feature. My only
customers will be those people who are willing to pay a few bucks for that
Don't hassle your users
For this one, I'm going out on a limb. I believe that customers today
are so tired of being annoyed by spam and sales guys that they will
appreciate a no-hassle purchase.
form allows customers to remain anonymous. I obviously do need their
credit card information, but I discard it immediately after the sale is
complete. I also ask for buyers to tell me the countries and states in
which they live, so that I can keep some simple statistics about where my
sales are happening.
I don't ask for an e-mail address, so my customers don't need to worry
about spam. I don't ask for any contact information at all, so my
customers don't need to worry about me trying to sell them more stuff. I
literally have no idea who is buying my product.
I am making a tradeoff here, and I am honestly not sure it is the right
one. Conventional wisdom says I should grab customer contact information
so that I can specifically target my customers with new products and
upgrades and newsletters and books and T-shirts and socks.
As part of my experiment, I've decided to trade that away. Customers
don't like being targeted. I want to see how much goodwill I can earn by
my customers be in charge.
I reserve the right to tweak my strategy and tactics over time. I plan
for this to be an ongoing, long-term experiment. Whether the product
succeeds or fails, I hope to learn something, and I hope the stories about
this journey are interesting enough to read.
Starting out, my micro-ISV is facing ridiculous odds:
- My product competes with something that is freely included with
every copy of Windows.
- I make no secret of the fact my company is just me, and I only work
on this during my spare time.
- My marcomm budget is minimal.
- I have consciously chosen not to build a customer list.
- The competing products in this market are well-known, mature, and
have far more features.
Common sense would say that my product is doomed. Stay tuned and we'll
The Business of Software
Eric Sink is the non-legendary founder of SourceGear, a developer tools ISV
located in Illinois. Eric hopes that his business partners don't find out
that he sometimes plays solitaire on the job. Eric's weblog is at http://software.ericsink.com/.
This article originally appeared on the MSDN website.