A former community discussing the business of software, from the smallest shareware operation to Microsoft. A part of Joel on Software.
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Doug Nebeker ("Doug")
Here's the challenge, folks: if you've decided in your own mind that a service business is the most feasible choice for your own temperament and abilities, how do you decide what type of market, customer and solution to target? Especially if you are good at many things - so much so that relating your skills to a particular business need is elusive.
If I sound like someone else on this board, bear with it. It's not relevant. I just need to "break character".
I developed other company's software products successfully for over 10 years as the local and national market for this kind of work dwindled, to the point where I cut my last, really bothersome client loose, last spring. I had no exit strategy.
I then embraced the low end tech support angle: http://homepage.mac.com/monickels/techjob.html is representative of the mostly hollow propaganda I've seen and read.
The "problem" with this is that while I have gotten some work in this area, if I'm honest with myself I really can't muster any level of enthusiasm for dealing with consumers and grungy small businesses. In fact, if you really want to know, the home users, while profoundly ignorant, at least pay and have decent systems that they are willing to invest some money in. The smallest businesses take weeks to pay tiny invoices, own really shitty old systems they insist on not upgrading, and argue about everything you do for them.
I think the people who make a go of low end tech support to the extent that they can support themselves on it either live in really concentrated urban areas like NYC, or they have awesome "bar pal" skills and can strike up a conversation with virtually anyone on short notice. I'm much more taciturn.
At this point I know the following things:
I can learn pretty much anything placed in front of me. I have developed Windows applications in C, C++, Delphi, and VB. I also admin my own Linux VPS server; I can set up sendmail, Apache, set up network services, bla bla bla. As well as set up and admin a W2K or W2K3 server. I can tear down and/or build up a PC or server in a few hours.
I have scattered business domain experience: insurance, real estate, accounting for three top contenders, with varying degrees of depth in each. I can talk business when placed in that context. My biggest problem in this light is getting close to the decision makers and striking a rapport.
I like long term projects. I like projects with depth and meat and non technical investigative work to them. I thrive on pulling technical solutions to real problems out of thin air. I greatly prefer projects that have actual stakeholders. One death knell for my enthusiasm is a project where a budget is being burnt on an abstract need and nobody give a crap or understands what I'm doing for them. Another area that I "hate" is working for a techno-weenie who is pushing me to realize his latest fultile and impractical wet dream.
I am incorporated. I am willing to bear some reasonable performance risk for projects. I'm not willing to bow down to the "Manpower" level market for clerical level temp help... yet.
Also, I'm "old" by this industry's standards. And my experience is so "multifaceted" (read: I haven't spent 2 straight years in a dungeon learning C# or Oracle) that I am never called in for interviews. Recruiters can't put a "C++ expert" or "MSSQL DBA" tattoo on my head so they don't even pick up the phone.
Marketing, positioning, career ideas?
I think I'm aligned with just what business needs. The problem I've always had is how to find out specifics - what they specifically need and how to speak to businesses so they know that they are speaking to the right man.
No chinchilla farming, please. (And if you get that joke, you're as old as me.)
Are you talking about a service business as in ASP or system administration consulting or ???
If ASP, then I would suggest finding a friend with deep domain knowledge who is willing to pass it along to you.
If consulting, then I would suggest reading Spin Selling. What you need to do is learn how to pitch to a specific market, which will include learning how to communicate the specific value you can offer. Your post above was nice, but if I am going to hire you then I need you to tell me specifically how you can generate value for ME without having to figure it out myself.
A couple of points from someone who's been down this road.
1. I agree with you that small businesses can make miserly, cranky clients. Most times, they've been burned before.
2. I've done about 200 software applications in 20 years and NOT ONCE did I ever walk through the IT front door. I've always had good success with managers who can't get what they need from IT departments. Now admittedly, what I sell (database/spreadsheet/office-based apps) fits that market, but keep in mind what you need to do is focus on not just a market, (small corps pay their bills fast!), but within that market, a market.
3. An idea: there are a whole lot of small companies that would love to do the "high powered intranet thing" but can't because their 2 person IT department is barely keeping their AS400's alive. Put together a package deal of stuff (forums, workflow, vacation requests) and sell it as a service package to these people. Or do the same thing, with the internet. In either case find some small, but successful web site designers who do the art thing, but not the plumbing thing and cross trade clients.
4. Lastly, to be blunt, lose the anger. It does not serve you.
Monday, September 20, 2004
I think that you may be asking the wrong question.
I think you will not benefit from identifying a target customer base at this point, as you have so many interests. You can't know what you'll enjoy doing.
I suggest that you approach potential customers, ask what problems they're having, and offer a solution. Pick an area that seems interesting and find customers (or choose from people you know who could be customers).
Brent P. Newhall
Tuesday, September 21, 2004
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