Distribution is King

by breeve 21. August 2010 13:03

If I had to pick one flaw in the geek culture, it’s the lack of respect for the effort it takes to get people to use your software. Take any geek, point them at a successful product with lots of users like Facebook and they will talk about its limitations and how they could code up a better product over the weekend. It is not the technology that makes products like Facebook a success but rather the endless effort to get people to use them. Even if they could code up a better Facebook over the weekend, who would use it?

When business people talk about distribution they are referring to not only how many stores the product is in but, as in the case of software, how many users are actually using the product. The greater the distribution the more valuable the business. Make no mistake, try to sell a business that has no distribution and there will be surprisingly little interest.

And much to the frustration of the software purest, most products with distribution tend to be technically inferior. A widely cited example among the tech community is Microsoft Windows—which is generally seen as technically inferior to Linux. Although this can be debated, what everyone can agree on is Windows has distribution and Linux doesn‘t.

Ever stand behind some rental car place and peer over the counter to take a peak at the software only to be greeted by a blue screen running some DOS app and while the poor employee struggles to enter your information into line 64, your mind starts thinking about how you could create an awesome WPF application and make millions selling it to these poor technology illiterate people. Surely they wouldn’t say no.

But then they say no.

Recently, I tried a little experiment. I noticed the forum software my Home Owners Association was using was lacking. I explored other HOA forums and noticed that not only did my HOA forum need help but other neighborhoods as well. They were using software that looked years outdated like FUDForum and the notorious phpBB and like the rental car DOS app experience above, I thought I could do better and over a couple months in my spare time I coded one up in ASP.NET MVC. It included features like an HOA corner where HOA members could post events, topic and response voting, a hot section that ranked active topics, and a snappy design.

I had confidence my neighborhood would adopt it so I fired off an email to the HOA members with a link to the demo site. Not known for their promptness, I wasn’t initially worried by the long delayed response but when the response finally came I became concerned. There in front of my eyes was a response I was not anticipating. It simply stated that the HOA had a forum already—as if I didn’t know—and they hadn’t received any complaints about it. They closed by thanking me for the thought and as quickly as the email began it was over.

Not completely dejected—and still thinking someone out there must want to use it—I tried other local neighborhoods. If my own HOA response was unexpected the others proved to be also. No interest even though it was free.

What I had failed to anticipate was not the failure of adoption due to lack of features but rather the total lack of interest. No one would even try the thing out and as I began to think about why that was, I began to see that my software failed to solve any real problems the HOA was having. What I thought were problems turned out to be non issues. It was as if I was trying to sell pay-off-your-debt software to multi billionaires.

And the more I thought about the lack of adoption the more I came to the conclusion that I didn’t even know what HOA organizations did. I just saw some issues I thought were problems and coded some software that solved those problems and then expected everyone to jump on board.

It turns out, the real secret to getting adoption and hence distribution is to find real business problems that can be solved by software. As I have demonstrated above and the number of failed startups can attest to, finding a problem and solving it well enough that someone desperate enough for a solution will take a change on your unknown software and try it out is extremely hard.

It is better to be a person that knows of a problem that can be solved by software than a software engineer with skills to create a program that solves no problems.

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About Me

I am a Principal Engineer with 13 years experience developing and releasing software products. I started developing in C/C++ then moved into .NET and C# and have tech lead multiple projects. I have developed products in Windows Forms, ASP.NET/MVC, Silverlight, and WPF. I currently reside in Austin, Texas.

Own Projects

Pickaxe - An easy to use web page scraper. If you know a little SQL and how basic CSS selectors work, no web scraping product will be easier to use.

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Created ASP.NET MVC forum originally targeting home owner associations but now in use by an investor group.

http://vtss.brockreeve.com

A language for querying PGATour golf strokes.

http://pga.brockreeve.com/

Real time bidder for car ads demo

http://cargawk.com/

Simple front end tic tac toe

http://tictac.brockreeve.com/

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