Well I did and here’s why I think it was well worth it.
How to Generate Traffic to Your Website is written by Stephane Grenier, founder of LandlordMax Software Inc, a small software company (or microISV) that develops software to help investors and property managers, manage their property portfolios.
The book is based on Stephane’s experiences over the last few years of marketing and promoting his software company online. This makes the content highly relevant to myself, as I strive to improve the marketing of my own software product Text2Go. I found the examples and statistics quoted in the book fascinating.
The material would also be relevant to anyone starting a small online business, not just a software business. I’m sure the issues are the same. Limited time, little to no marketing budget and 100 tasks all competing for your attention.
Stephane covers an impression range of traffic generation techniques in his book, the highlights being SEO, content generation, freebies, blogging, Google Adwords, press releases and social networking.
I found each topic was covered to just the right level of detail. As you can imagine, separate books could easily be written about each of the above topics. However when running a small business you don’t have the time to become an expert on every possible online marketing strategy. Stephane provides enough information on each topic to get results. Each of the major topics also includes excellent references to more indepth sources of information.
Stephanes writing style is clear and easy to follow. The writing is illustrated with plenty of interesting graphs and screenshots.
One of the highlights of the book for me was the sense of balance and perspective that is shown. For example, it’s possible to endlessly tweak your Adwords campaigns or your onsite SEO. However, Stephane repeatly emphases the point that you need to look at the ROI of your time. I also think the fact that he’s not advocating a single traffic generation technique means that he’s not afraid of recommending you weigh up each technique when deciding on how to make your next improvement. One really useful tip he makes is to play to your strengths. For example if you write great content for your blog and you enjoy it, then do more of that rather than trying to become an expert in another technique such as Google Adwords.
The other highlight was an emphasis on persistence. It’s very easy to say that getting an article on the front page of Digg will generate a lot of traffic to your site (so much so that Stephane spends a fair bit of time on how best to prepare your server for the onslaught). However getting on the front page of Digg is not easy and won’t happen the first time you try. It was nice to hear Stephane candidly recount his own experiences, stressing that it takes time and persistence.
In conclusion, How to Generate Traffic to Your Website contains a wealth of really useful information that’s well organised and clearly presented. I can wholeheartedly recommend it to other small online software and non-software business owners. At $28.95 (or a couple of hundred Google PPCs) the ROI will be very quick.
Today I received an enquiry on how things were progressing and with very little signs of visible progress recently, I’d thought I’d write a quick piece on where things are at.
My current short-term goals are to
- Get a new version of the beta out.
- Release Text2Go onto the market.
The next version of the beta will work with a new set of high quality voices. I am currently working through the contractual arrangements with a voice provider and hope to have everything signed and sealed in about two weeks time. This has been a long and drawn out process and in hindsight I should have started this much earlier in the piece.
One of the benefits of the new voices is that they come with a custom dictionary editor. This allows users to provide guidance to the text to speech engine for any words that it may have trouble correctly pronouncing. This is great for any jargon laiden text that’s full of acronyms, abbreviations and concatenated words (e.g. microISV).
One of the design decisions I’ve been grappling with concerns the trial version of Text2Go. On the one hand I want to strongly encourage prospective users to try Text2Go with a high quality voice. Microsoft Sam, the built-in voice that ships with Windows XP just sounds terrible. However a high quality voice file can be rather large in size (e.g. 30-100Mb). Therefore if I include a high quality voice with the Text2Go trial, users could be faced with a very large download. This is likely to discourage a lot of people from even downloading it. The approach I’ve decided to take is to keep Text2Go as a standalone download which is just under 3Mb. When Text2Go starts up, it will pop up a prompt, recommending that they download a high quality voice for use with the trial. They will be given the option to download the voice, defer the download for another day or never download the voice. I hope this will turn out to be a reasonable compromise.
The other feature I want to include in the next version of the beta is support for Windows Vista. One of the exciting things about Windows Vista on the text to speech front is the inclusion of a new voice, Microsoft Anna. Anna is much better quality than Sam and is even starting to approach the quality of some of the commercial voices. This has a couple of benefits that I can see.
- It will give a lot more people easy access to decent text to speech technology and hopefully raise the profile of text to speech.
- It will put some pressure on the commerical text to speech providers to improve the quality of their desktop voice offerings.
The release of Text2Go onto the market will hopefully follow the beta version quite quickly. I’ve got most of the payment processing and licensing functionality ready to go. There is a bit of work to provide an optional CD shipment but I won’t delay the release if this is not quite set up.
Just over a month ago I posted the first Text2Go beta onto the betanews website. This proved quite successful and I had a number of beta sign ups before Text2Go slipped off the front page. I’ve received some really good feedback, ideas and encouragement. I’m hoping that when I release an updated beta version, I’ll get some more exposure and feedback.
One of the mundane but important tasks that I’ve set up is an offsite backup system for my source code and other resources. For awhile there I had a typical ad hoc process that consisted of burning CD’s, USB key chains and periodically sending a zip archive to my gmail account. I’ve replaced all this with Carbonite, a web based backup system. You just select the folders on your PC that you want to backup and it will automatically backup any changed files to their hosted data centre. The initial backup takes a while, several days in my case for about 1oGb but after that, everything remains backed up pretty much all the time. I like it’s simple design and the fact that all changed files get backed up automatically. It’s one less thing I need to remember to do and it provides great peace of mind.
Looking a bit further into the future, I’m really looking forward to getting started on version 1.1. There are a heap of ideas that I want to implement for the next version.
I’ve changed the name of the company behind Text2Go from MG IT Consulting Pty Ltd to Tumbywood Software. Or more accurately, I’ve registered Tumbywood Software as an additional trading name. I’ve never really liked MG IT Consulting as a name and it’s completely inappropriate for a company that is looking to produce its first software product.
How did I come up with Tumbywood Software? It’s not a clever play on words, it has nothing to do with computers, software or anything in the tech industry. Instead there’s a Tumbywood Rd that my wife and I drive past regularly. It struck me as an unusual but interesting sounding name and when I mentioned this to my wife she confessed that she’d also thought the same for a while. We both agreed that it would be a good name for a company.
I did a search on the web and found that there were only two distinct references to Tumbywood. Most were local planning documents or real estate ads that mentioned Tumbywood Rd. The other reference was to a Tumbywood hamlet in Lincolnshire, England, listed in an 1851 census document.
Photo courtesy of johnelamper
So, we secured the domain names, tumbywood.com and tumbywood.com.au and registered the trading name. From now on, Text2Go will be produced by Tumbywood Software.
However as most customers are more interested in the product rather than the company behind it, Tumbywood Software will rarely get a mention, featuring only in places such as the Text2Go copyright notice.
Get some sleep!
For those of us who haven’t been able to quit our day job yet, time is precious and we often find ourselves working late into the night after having already done a full day’s work.
However productivity will suffer if you keep it up too long. I know personally that after a good night’s sleep, a problem that seemed difficult the day before turns out not to be a problem at all. Not only that, your partner will appreciate it too.
With that, I’m turning in for the night.
I’ve made a couple of tweaks to the Text2Go website over the weekend. Both are what I consider to be useability improvements and are similar in nature.
The first involves the playing of text-to-speech samples. These are stored as mp3 files. When a visitor clicked on a sample, an audio player was displayed in the middle of a blank page and the sound was played. It worked but was a bit disconcerting and it did mean the visitor had to hit the ‘Back’ button to return to the current page.
I really wanted the sample to be played in place, so the visitor didn’t loose their context. A quick search of the web turned up a very handy script written by David Battino that did just what I wanted. It pops up a small window containing the audio controls over the top of the main page. The full article describing the script is Build a Better Web Audio Player.
The second tweak was to the Features page and the way screenshots are displayed. Previously when you clicked on a screenshot it was displayed in its own page. Once again, the visitor was forced to hit the ‘Back’ button to return to the Features page. Patrick McKenzie posted recently about a neat little script that displays screenshots using a lightbox. I’ve used his enhanced script which is based on Lokesh Dhakar’s original lighbox. Using the lightbox, clicking on a screenshot causes it to be displayed on top of the current page. To emphasize the screenshot, the main page is dimmed. The result is a not only cool but a more user-friendly experience I believe.
It seems hard to imagine a time when there was no Internet or world wide web. Back in the 80’s and early 90’s, the internet as we know it today didn’t exist. However this was the glorious age of the micro computer. It was the first time that the general public could afford to buy a computer. In the beginning there was the BBC Micro, the Sinclair ZX81 & Spectrum, the Commodore Vic-20 and 64, and the Apple II series of computers to name but a few. Later in that period, the Apple Mac , IBM-PC and Commodore Amiga computers appeared.
In the early days computer magazines would distribute software as source code listings within their magazines, either in BASIC or in machine code (e.g. 05 34 56 8F 9a C0 87 9A 3e). If you were lucky the machine code listing would include a checksum at the end of each line which could be used in conjunction with a machine code editor to verify that you’d entered each line correctly.
Eventually the magazines moved to cover disks, a floppy disk stuck to the magazine cover which contained public domain software and trial/demo versions of commercial software. Over time the number of cover disks increased, from 1 to 2 to 3 before CDs took over.
Instead of the Internet, people could buy a modem or an acoustic coupler and dial up a BBS or Bulletin Board System. These devices were incredibly expensive (e.g. $500) and very, very slow (e.g. 1024 bits per second). The BBS’s were all character-based but allowed you to chat with other computer users via forums, exchange public domain software and play online games. These bulletin boards were not linked together in any way. In fact many BBS’s only had a single modem, which meant that only one person could be online at any one time.
During this period a number of microISV’s began to appear. However the term microISV hadn’t been coined back then and instead independent software developers generally adopted a shareware model and referred to themselves as shareware authors. The basic concept of shareware software is that the software is free to distribute but if you find it useful and use it on a regular basis then you need to pay a small fee to the author. Often the freely distributable software has limited functionality (crippleware), or can only be used for a limited period of time (trialware/demoware). This is to encourage you to pay the fee to the author, at which point they will send you a fully functional application.
I wrote my first product back in 1989 while I was studying computer science at university. I owned an Amiga 1000 which I upgraded to an Amiga 3000 a few years later. At the time I was a member of the New Zealand Amiga Users Group which was based in Auckland. They had a monthly magazine called AMSMAG which was published monthly and distributed on a floppy disk to club members. I wrote an program called Magnetic Pages, which allowed you to create a disk based magazine that had a similar look and feel to a regular magazine. Each page was displayed on a single screen. An article could be made up of many pages, with Next/Prev/First/Last/Goto Page navigation functions. When you turned a page, the top page actually peeled back to reveal the page underneath, giving the impression of turning a physical page. Text could be flowed across multiple columns and around graphics. Hyperlinks were supported so that you could click on a block of text or a graphic to navigate to a new page. It supported playing sound effects and background music. You could have the text read to you using the Amiga’s build in speech synthesis libraries.
The page definitions were all simple text files that contained the text and ANSI formatting codes to specify text colours, styles, etc. I then added proprietary codes to specify things such as links to graphics, hyperlinks, etc, etc. It was similar in concept to HTML today, although not nearly as well designed.
I took over the editorship of AMSMAG and published the magazine for a number of years using Magnetic Pages. By eating my own dogfood each month so to speak, I was able to improve the usability of Magnetic Pages.
You may be wondering how you would distribute and market software without the Internet. In the case of the Amiga there was a large number of Public Domain libraries that would accept software, graphics, music, etc from authors, catalogue it and distribute it to other users. The end user would pay the library a small fee to cover the cost of the floppy disk, postage and handling charges. The PD libraries didn’t actually charge for the software, only the distribution of the software. Often the software you wanted shared a disk with a large number of other software, so the end user would actually receive a number of often unrelated software programs. The most famous of all the PD libraries was the Fred Fish collection. This library was of an excellent standard (not all submissions were published), well-catalogued with detailed descriptions of each item, frequently updated and rapidly distributed to a large number of Amiga user groups around the world.
This was one of my major sources of marketing. I submitted Magnetic Pages to the Fred Fish library and it quickly appeared a few weeks later on disk 372. I also submitted it to a number of UK based PD libraries, many of which would publish their listings in the Amiga computer magazines of the time.
The other marketing approach that I employed was to submit Magnetic Pages for review to some of the Amiga computer magazines. These magazines had a regular PD column in which they would review some of the newly released PD and shareware software. Magnetic Pages was reviewed by Amiga Format and Amiga Shopper magazines.
That was about it. I couldn’t afford to pay for any advertising. There was probably some indirect market that occurred due to the fact that AMSMAG was also distributed to a number of other user groups.
Magnetic Pages was a shareware product that cost US$25 to register. The software consisted of three separate programs, a Viewer that was used by readers of the magazine, an Editor that was used to create and layout articles and an Organizer that was used to organize the articles into a magazine. The Viewer and Editor programs were freely distributable. However the Organizer had the save function disabled. When you registered Magnetic Pages, I would send out a fully functional Organiser. The Organizer also had the name of the owner or user group hard coded into the application. This name would then be displayed in any magazine that was published using the Organizer, which was to discourage the illegal distribution of a fully functional Organizer. To my knowledge, no one ever illegally distributed the Organizer.
The registration process was incredibly slow and tedious by today’s standards. A prospective customer would have to print out a registration form (if they had a printer – some customers didn’t so they just wrote a letter containing the relevant information) and send off the equivalent of US$25 to myself in New Zealand. Most forms of international money transfer were incredibly expensive, so most people ended up sending cash in the mail. When I received an order, I would create a customized version of the Organizer for them and send them this, along with some sample magazines, tutorials and the latest versions of the Viewer and Editor on a set of 3 floppy disks. It would usually take 3-6 weeks from the time the customer sent their order to the time they received their disks in the mail.
Despite all this, over a period of about 4 years, I received over 100 orders for Magnetic Pages. It was never enough to make me rich or even gave me an income I could live off but it certainly made checking the mail box a lot more exciting. It was quite a thrill to receive a letter from someone on the other side of the world (yes I know if you live in NZ, just about everwhere is the other side of the world, except of course Australia which is a home away from home for a large percentage of Kiwis).
Note that this is the story of Magnetic Pages 1.3. There is also a Magnetic Pages 2.0 but that’s a tragic tale that deserves a post of its own.
Maybe it’s the blogs I’m reading these days but it seems a lot of people are starting microISV’s, small software companies run by a single person. It’s certainly never been easier, with every resource you need available over the net, the large majority of which are free or very inexpensive. There’s even an excellent step-by-step guide in the form of Bob Walsh’s book ‘Micro ISV: From Vision to Reality’. These factors all contribute to make the barrier to entry very low. Well, low for existing software developers who’ve spent years writing software for other companies.
One of the effects of this low barrier to entry is that there’s not a lot of risk in getting started. You don’t need to buy expensive equipment or rent office or floor space. You don’t even have to invest in expensive advertising. You don’t have to give up your day job, sacrificing a steady income or the lifestyle you’re accustomed to. The only major investment you need to make in your microISV is your time.
What this means is that it’s very easy to walk away from the business at any time. That’s great for your peace of mind. If your circumstances change and it doesn’t make sense to continue, you know you can close up shop very quickly, with very little financial loss.
The danger is that because it’s so easy to walk away, it’s also very easy to give up. It might not happen overnight. You probably won’t wake up one morning and think “Blow this microISV business for a game of soldiers! It’s taking too long. I want to spend more time with my family/down at the pub/ etc, etc.” Instead it’s likely to be more gradual. Perhaps an urgent short term project will come up that takes over for a few weeks, like building a garden fence, or perhaps you just start spending less and less time on your microISV until you get to the point where you can’t remember the last time you did work on it. At this point you can be honest with yourself and say you’ve given up on the project, or more likely, you say to yourself that you’re still working on it, you just haven’t been able to spend much time on it recently because “I’ve been busy at work/the new season of TV has kicked in/[insert your own excuse here]“.
One of the things that makes it so easy to give up is that you’ve really only invested your time and you can always justify it by saying it’s been a great learning experience. However this reasoning depends on how precious your time is. If you’ve got a family or partner, then your time becomes much more limited and hence much more precious. It also means that you’re not the only one with a stake in your microISV. All that time you’ve investing in your microISV could have been spent with your partner or family. They now have a rightful share of your microISV.
This is a great situation to be in. You’ve now got someone who wants you to succeed and see their investment come to fruition. When the going get tough, or just plain tedious, you’re much less likely to give up because you don’t want to let your partner down. Joel Spolsky, of joelonsoftware.com fame, stresses the importance of having at least one partner with which to start a microISV. I agree completely but also believe that partner need not play an active role in the business. As long as that partner has some form of investment in the business, they will provide the incentive you need to keep going. Even if that partner has no technical knowledge at all, they can still be a great sounding board for ideas and provide valuable input into business decisions. Often a non-technical perspective on a situation is more valuable than another technical perspective.
Now getting back to my original question of when you can say that you’ve created a real, live, microISV? At what point does it come into existence? No doubt different founders have different ideas on when their microISV became real to them. Some may have the confidence and belief in themselves to assert this after the first week or perhaps it’s the day they register their company. At some point along the path you reach a point where it’s easier to keep going than turn back or give up. You’ve made it over the pass and you know you’re going to do it. The finish line may still be a long way off but it’s an easy downhill from here.
I feel I’m currently at this stage now, well I hope I am. Text2Go is about to enter beta and I have a basic website that’s live. However I won’t believe that I’ve created a genuine microISV until I’ve got my first paying customer. At that point, I will know beyond a doubt that there’s at least one independent person who believes enough in Text2Go to pay money for it. It will also be the point at which my microISV takes on the added commitment of supporting customers. I’m still a little way off from this goal but it is in sight and I believe I’m going to get there.