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The Day the MicroISV Movement Died

Rest In Peace #1

I remember the day very clearly, although it was not apparent to me at the time. It was the day that the Micro-ISV movement died.

A Brief History

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the history of the Micro-ISV, I’ll provide it for you here. Eric Sink is widely credited with the creation of the term “MicroISV”. As far back as May 8, 2003,  Eric was talking about what he referred to as “Small ISV’s“. The concept is rather simple in nature. An “ISV” is an independent software vendor, a phrase which is derived primarily from the Microsoft ecosystem and refers to software companies that are not Microsoft. As for the “Small” part, they’re small companies with anywhere from 3-100 employees. It’s a pretty simple definition, but definitive as well.

In September of 2004, Eric Sink published this article on his blog, which had appeared on MSDN a little bit earlier. His intent was to focus on what he called the “MicroISV”. It seems to have occurred to Eric that companies of only one or two employees were out there, producing software and doing rather well for themselves as single founder companies. This thought intrigued Eric. So much, in fact, that as part of his MSDN series of articles he decided to undertake the process of building a MicroISV himself to provide him additional content and experience to draw new articles from.

So it was, that Eric Sink, CEO of Source Gear and self-proclaimed .NET Redneck undertook a 16 month journey in which he built a product in his spare time and sold it online. Over the course of those 16 months, he chronicled his progress on both his blog and in his MSDN column titled “The Business of Software“. Developers and geeks around the world rallied to the battle cry raised by Eric. Large numbers of new MicroISV’s were founded, forums were started, and journalists latched on to write books about the topic and ride the wave of popularity to success.

He can show us the way!” some thought.

He has unfair advantages like his MSDN column and a massive blog following. This isn’t going to show us anything!” said others.

How much money would he make? How do I follow in his footsteps? The world of Geeks held its collective breath and watched as Eric raced down the path laid before him. Behind him followed a crowd of geeks, waving flags and pom-poms, watching intently to see which way the story turned. So for 16 months, we followed Eric to see the conclusion of the story.

And Then Eric Killed the MicroISV

Abruptly, one day Eric announced that his journey had ended. He sold his MicroISV to Dennis Cronin for an undisclosed 4 figure sum, which implies a maximum sale price of $9,999. With sales reaching a mere $215 over the course of 16 months (including September of 2004), we can surmise that the actual amount was probably a lot closer to $1,000 due to the multiples at which products are typically acquired. The “profits” were donated to charity.

What did this mean for the MicroISV movement? A giant kick to the crotch. That’s what it meant. And it accomplished virtually the same thing.

I’ve seen the statistics for one such website that marketed directly at MicroISV’s starting in 2004. Website traffic has approximately halved every single year since Eric’s announcement. Websites are supposed to grow. You add content, you build out the site, more  visitors come, and website traffic grows. That hasn’t happened. In fact, the reverse has happened. Traffic for this particular site shows that the current traffic levels are a mere 6.25% of what they were at the end of 2005. That’s not just bad. That’s appalling. I did some in-depth research and found that traffic started dropping quickly immediately after Eric’s announcement, after showing month over month growth the prior year. Other sites have disappeared from the internet entirely.

Therefore, I submit to you that it was on December 26th, 2005 with not much more than a keyboard and a blog entry, that Eric Sink effectively killed the MicroISV movement.

This Is NOT Eric’s Fault. It’s Ours.

I’m going to be blunt here. Eric was not trying to start a movement, nor was he out to kill it once it started. He started his MicroISV for two reasons, and only two reasons: He was curious about what it took to run a MicroISV and he wanted to help generate content for his Business of Software column on MSDN’s website. That’s it. He didn’t do it for you, he didn’t do it for me, and he certainly didn’t do it to build a new revenue stream for himself. I’m fairly certain that he is well compensated as the CEO of SourceGear.

Far too many people are under the impression that if Eric Sink couldn’t make it work, then what chance do they have to make it work? This is the wrong way to look at it. Instead, as I’ve said in the past: “If at first, you’re not successful, take a good hard look at what went wrong.” Unfortunately nobody seems to have done that and when the appointed figurehead of a movement falls, people lose interest.

Everyone has honed in on the fact that Eric failed. Thank you, but I beg to differ. Let’s get one thing straight. Eric accomplished what he set out to do. He never intended for it to turn his MicroISV into something bigger. In fact, Eric intentionally stacked the deck against himself.

Eric’s (Self-Admitted) Mistakes

Lack of Motivation– Eric was simply not committed to building his MicroISV into a solid revenue stream. He built the product to write articles and once that had run its course, he had little use for the product or the MicroISV that was built from it. To quote him directly:

But I must admit that my situation is unusual. Most people start a micro-ISV because they are attracted to the idea of being an entrepreneur. A sense of dissatisfaction with their current job is a source of motivation.

I’ve been there, but right now I don’t have that particular set of problems. I am already an entrepreneur, and I am quite happy with my situation. Here at SourceGear we actually like building developer tools, and we’re having some very nice success doing it.

So with Winnable Solitaire confined to my copious spare time, it may proceed slowly. But I do have some ideas for what I want to do next with this project. I will close with a few remarks about my next iteration through the cycle that Pavlina describes.

Choosing the Game Industry – Speaking from experience, I can tell you that the game industry is brutal. Either you have a hit or you don’t. And if you don’t, you need to dedicate significant resources to finding out how to make it more appealing. Selling games is different than selling business software because you’re not solving a pain point. You’re providing entertainment, which although it is technically a pain point for the consumer, there are millions of competitors.

If you’re selling source control products, you have maybe 20 competitors tops. When you sell games, you’re competing not only with other games, but all other types of entertainment mediums, such as tv, movies, newspapers, comic strips, not to mention all of the other computer games out there. I’m not saying this is impossible, just a lot harder than selling business software that solves a definitive need. Eric basically admits that he would likely be more successful in a different market, almost from day one in his First MicroISV report.

Competing with Free Products – Solitaire is included with every copy of Windows. I’m not sure I see the point in competing against Microsoft in what is arguably the smallest niche market I’ve ever seen. ie: Solitaire games that are guaranteed to be winnable. Thomas Warfield seems to do pretty well in the broader Solitaire niche.

Ignoring Common Sense – Eric openly admits in the Bottom Line of his initial blog entry that “Common sense would say that my product is doomed.” This is putting it lightly in my opinion, but is true nonetheless.

The bottom line is that if you know the mistakes that you’re making before you’ve even started, you’re going to wind up flat on your back like Charlie Brown. Letting Lucy hold the ball doesn’t excuse you from being the source of blame anymore than Charlie Brown’s faith that, just this once, Lucy will let him kick the ball.

Wait… How Is This Our Fault?iStock_000010207268XSmall

Eric killed the MicroISV movement because we let him. Eric never asked to be the poster child for the MicroISV movement. Neither did Joel Spolsky for that matter. But they have been for nearly a decade because we appointed them to those positions. The MicroISV concept struck a chord with a lot of developers and micropreneurs who wanted to start their own companies and quit their day jobs. The expectations that were placed on Eric to do well with Winnable Solitaire were unrealistic and quite frankly, not in line with what Eric was trying to do.

When Eric’s product failed to produce anything remotely close to a full-time income, scores of developers abandoned their MicroISV’s and started looking for another way out of their 9-5’s. They found what they were looking for in Paul Graham’s Y Combinator program. Paul launched Y Combinator with in early 2005 and quickly produced success with companies like Reddit and Loopt. The dynamic quickly shifted and as the MicroISV movement slowly withered away, the future for micropreneur hopefuls shifted to startup companies which leverage Angel and VC funding.

Let me be honest for a minute. In no way, shape or form would I claim that starting your own software company is for everyone. But the Angel and VC funding route is a lot harder to swing for most of us and living in the geographically blessed startup hubs is merely one of those reasons. Back in 2006, I wrote an article called “Startups for the Rest Of Us” and posed the question: What about me?

At the time, I had mixed feelings about Eric’s “failed” experiment. On one hand, I felt like he didn’t really follow through with it the way he could have. On the other, I had recently left the fold of Pedestal Software which was acquired for $65 million and the lure of doing a startup and cashing out after two or three years for millions was pretty high. I knew I could build products, but didn’t feel like I had any ideas at the time which were worthy of millions of dollars of investment. I had been offered $50k as an initial investment, but ultimately turned it down. Instead,  I decided to take it slow and build my own company.

The Landscape Today

Amazingly enough, the landscape of building an internet business today is not much different than it was five years ago. All you need is a computer, an internet connection, and knowledge of how to develop software and you can crank out a product. There are thousands of resources available to help you get started. There are countless blogs, startup schools, online academies, free or reduced cost software packages for startups, and a host of other advantages that didn’t exist several years ago.

It doesn’t matter how old you are today, where you live, or what you do for your full time job. If you have a computer, an internet connection, know how to write software, and most importantly, the drive to succeed, then you can sell products on the internet and make money from them.

Eric didn’t make a lot of money with his MicroISV. Big deal. Does one failed attempt from an internet legend define a movement? I think not.

Besides, just because you start out small, doesn’t mean you have to stay small.

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Rob Walling November 20, 2009, 12:24 pm

    Great post; hit the nail on the head. I, for one, see the MicroISV/small bootstrapped software startup movement as very much alive, just not in the public eye like “sexy” VC-backed startups.

    VC-backed startups make great reality TV, MicroISVs and small bootstrapped startups make great businesses.

  • Dave Rodenbaugh November 20, 2009, 4:18 pm

    Awesome article. Now I know who to send the bouquet of black roses to. 🙂 No, seriously…it’s time to learn what it takes to make the MicroISV into something worth talking about, instead of something big-name bloggers just shaking their heads over.

  • Steve Wortham December 7, 2009, 5:52 pm

    Eric’s lack of success with his venture never phased me. Like you said, games are a tough market. You need a great idea and execution to be successful in that industry.

    To me the whole approach of a Micro-ISV is a little different. I guess I won’t speak for anyone else, but I have product ideas that I’m afraid of. In other words, one idea in particular has the potential to become very popular but I’m afraid that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the support demands. I base that off of the potential number of customers combined with the nature of the application. This isn’t a problem for a small or medium-size company who’s fully prepared and equipped to hire new people to keep up with demand.

    But I’m not set out to create the next Google or grow into a multi-billion dollar corporation, if you know what I mean. I just want to make a living. I’m sure there are other Micro-ISV owners who think the same way. So for me I tend to look for a small niche to fill that I’m passionate about, and then I do it the best I can. From what I’ve seen before, this type of approach can result in a tiny but sustainable software company that does one or two things extremely well. And there’s no reason this Micro-ISV lifestyle can’t continue to thrive.

  • Mike Taber December 7, 2009, 9:12 pm

    Steve, I understand what you’re saying but if you let fear of the popularity of your product get in the way, then by that logic you shouldn’t build anything except the stuff you know is going to fail.

    I think what you will find in reality is that people are going to tolerate anything that is halfway decent and solves their problem, whatever that might be. So long as you’re working on it, the users are going to understand. They might not like the fact that you’re only putting in 10 hours each week, but they don’t really have a choice, do they?

    My post was mostly aimed at those people who looked at the MicroISV and think that it’s a lost cause or that it can’t be done. If you look here, you’ll find that MicroISV’s can and do succeed. It’s just a matter of pursuing the dream. http://www.softwarebyrob.com/micropreneur-academy-product-showcase/

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