Information Technology Dark Side

Struggles of a Self-Taught Coder

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Slow Growth is a Competitive Advantage

May 7th, 2010 · 7 Comments

You don’t believe me
Go ahead. Say it. WTH. Yeah, I know you probably said WTF, but I don’t use the F word. But if you want to, do it. I don’t care.

This is crazy – how can slow growth be good?

I don’t blame you
When I started TroopTrack I thought I’d have $100k in revenue within a year, easy. We were gonna build web-based copy of TroopMaster, launch it, and watch the scouting market, starving for a solution that didn’t suck, flock to us.

That didn’t happen. Twenty-three months later over 300 troops have tried TroopTrack and only about 40 of them have purchased it. That’s about $1300 in revenue. The guys who started TroopTrack with me, disappointed by our slow takeoff, have quit and gone back to their normal lives. But I keep plugging along, perhaps delusional, refining the application for the 40 troops that care and the 3 new troops that click the buy button every month.

At this rate I’ll have $100k in revenue in 78 years or so. So how can this be a good thing?

In the early stages LEARNING is more valuable than a lot of users

When you start a business, you don’t KNOW jack about what will be successful. You have hopes, plans, strategies, concepts, ideas, but little knowledge. Replacing theories with KNOWLEDGE is a big freakin’ deal. You’ve gotta do it.

The thing is, you don’t need 100,000 users to turn your theories into knowledge. You may not even need a thousand. Heck, if your product is something you and your colleagues will use for yourselves you may only need 10. What you really need is an engaged user base that will tell you when you really screw up, will generate good ideas, and will be tolerant of the mistakes you make along the way.

Learn what users want

You start a company because you think you know what some group of people want, even if they don’t know they want it. The first year of TroopTrack taught me that I didn’t have a clue what users want, and the systems we had in place didn’t help me learn the truth. I didn’t have much more than a horrible conversion rate to tell me that my product sucked. I needed more information.

Things started to turn around when I added a real help desk, not the POS we rolled our selves that was nothing more than an issues table. I signed up for ZenDesk ($9/month), integrated it with TroopTrack in about 15 minutes, and voila, I had a first class help desk and a pretty decent user forum solution.

Once I had a good solution for keeping track of all the things users had asked for I started to learn things. I started to see TroopTrack from the users point of view and it stung a little.

TroopTrack sucked. It was little more than a really buggy web-based version of the POS desktop software that most troops already use. The interface was clunky and difficult to use. Many of the features didn’t work or were incomplete. The first-time user experience was totally lame and unconvincing.

It was pathetic and disheartening, but I just kept going, attacking each support request as they came in. Every now and then, users would go out of their way to encourage me. One even called me to tell me how awesome the application was becoming. Feedback became gold to me – what the users want was the thing I really needed to learn.

Incremental improvements add up over time
TroopTrack still has a long way to go. I try to do something good for TroopTrack every day, even if it’s just a small change or answering a user question. Most days I spend about two hours working on some part of the app, more on weekends if I can get away with it.

For a long time I was focused on adding new features like troop wikis, document libraries, etc. But things have changed lately. I’ve been focused on making the interface better, a little bit at a time. I’m slowly moving away from the traditional slow web page approach (fill out a form, save it, reload the page) to something more Web 2.0-ish.

I started with a simple, but frustrating, part of the application that had traditional index, show, new, and edit pages and converted it over to an AJAX driven interface that only had an index page that never did a fill reload. It’s fast, intuitive, and my users really seem to like it. They asked me to make the whole app work that way, a good sign that I had found at least a part of the path to awesome.

Since then I’ve converted more parts of the app, typically bits on the fringe that I can work on without tackling the huge core bits. I wanted to learn how to do it right before I attacked the core functionality and it’s been very educational (just an aside, if you know how to do AJAX right with rails it’s really pretty easy).

Yesterday I started on one of the core features – user profiles. I’m stoked and unafraid, because I’ve learned a lot and am prepared.

Learn how to make a buck
Entrepreneurs are searching for a business model that will make them successful. My business model boils down to two simple metrics:
– Percentage of troops who try TroopTrack and decide to buy it (conversion rate)
– Percentage of troops who buy TroopTrack and decide to renew their annual subscription (renewal rate)

These two things tell me how awesome my product is or isn’t and whether my efforts are paying off. In the last year, my conversion rate has gone from less than 1% to just over 10%. That’s pretty good, but it’s not good enough. I don’t want to go through 10 potential customers to get 1. I could live with 4, and until I get there I don’t see any point in aggressively marketing TroopTrack.

I’ve learned something interesting about the 9 customers who don’t buy. They usually only log in once. Their first experience somehow doesn’t create a compelling experience. This is something I’ve gotta fix. Hopefully it will drive the conversion rate up. If it does, I’ll be happy. If it doesn’t, then I’ll keep experimenting until I crack that nut.

I don’t know what my renewal rate is. My first paying customer’s subscription expires in the next month. Cross yer fingers.

That’s my simple plan for figuring out how to make a buck: two simple metrics and experiments to make them better.

One experiment my users have suggested is to raise the price. A few of them have told me I’m too cheap. That’s feedback I didn’t expect.

You must have AMAZING product support
My user base is pretty tolerant of mistakes I make. Sometimes I introduce bugs into the application, breaking things that used to work, but they put up with it. Why? Because we have a sense of knowing each other.

I can tell you the names of my ten most active troop leaders off the top of my head. I have interacted with them by email, IM, phone, and mail. Our interactions aren’t formal or unfriendly – they are casual and pleasant. They have become vested proponents of TroopTrack and what used to be just my goal – to create a troop management solution for the 21st century – has become our goal.

ZenDesk has a lot to do with this. It makes it easier to manage my support requests and keep my users informed. It’s also priced appropriately for my little enterprise, but still supported really brilliantly.

Attitude is also important here. The support I provide has changed dramatically since I began to really appreciate its value.

You can’t do all this with a huge user base
So, this is a pretty long windup to the pitch, but here it is:

I couldn’t do all this stuff if I had 100,000 users. That many users would bury me.

Someday I’d like to have that many users. But not yet, not when I don’t know that my product is awesome. Not when I have to churn through 10 customers to get 1. Not when I look at parts of my interface and want to punch the screen. No way.

Persistent Patience
That’s my theme. Persist. Patiently. Do something good every day. Keep at it, knocking the rough edges off as I find them, looking at my product through the eyes of users until it shines.

Do it. Do it. Do it.

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