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2Inspire Interview Series
In the second issue of Avangate Digest, we had the pleasure to talk to Eric Sink, who coined the term micro-ISV, who he's been writing about the business of software on his blog for several years, and wrote a series of articles for MSDN . He has also published a successful book called "Eric Sink on the Business of Software."
He is also one of the hosts of The Business of Software, a discussion group which comes highly recommended for software startups. He led the group that created the Spyglass web browser, which later became known as 'Internet Explorer', he created the AbiWord open-source word processor, and now he's one of the principals at SourceGear, which is a leading vendor of version control tools.
Adriana Iordan: Can you tell us a little about yourself, your background and how you came to write "Business of Software" and found SourceGear?
Eric Sink: I live in Champaign, Illinois, just a couple of hours away from where I grew up. I came to college here at the University of Illinois. A couple years after graduation I ended up at Spyglass.
I didn't start blogging to benefit my business. I just wanted to write
My experience at Spyglass was very positive, but I reached a point where I felt like I was done there and ready to move on. The turning point was a men's pancake breakfast at my church. The speaker that morning told us: If you don't like your job, then you either need a new attitude or a new job. I tried to get a new attitude and failed. So I quit and started my own company. My only real goal in starting SourceGear was to create for myself a job that I liked.
I started blogging several years later. My blog articles became reasonably popular, so that's what led me to publish them as a book.
Adriana Iordan: How has becoming a published author affected your career? What are the benefits of publishing "Eric Sink on the Business of Software"?
Eric Sink: I got exactly what I wanted from publishing a book: increased credibility and a wider audience for my writings. People tend to overestimate the importance of a book. There's a certain mystique which comes with seeing my book on the shelf at a bookstore. In general, becoming a published author hasn't changed my life in any major ways, but I'm glad I spent the effort to make it happen.
Adriana Iordan: What about the blog, what was the impact on your business?
Nowadays any company without a website is hurting their credibility.
Eric Sink: The impact has been positive, although I consider that to be an accident. I didn't start blogging to benefit my business. I just wanted to write. I'll confess that my blog articles do seem to be an asset to our company's presence, and I'll further confess that this is now part of my motivation to blog. But it didn't start out that way, and if it had, I'm not sure I would have been successful. I think people want to read blogs which are written with a very genuine voice, and that voice is hard to find when your primary goal is money.
Adriana Iordan: Since you have been one of the creators of the Spyglass web browser, later known as Internet Explorer, can you tell us what the difference is between how the Internet was perceived 10 years ago and how it is now seen? Have your expectations been confirmed in regard to the impact of the Internet on the software business?
Eric Sink: It's an understatement to say that things have changed a lot. I remember the first few times we saw a real company put up a website. Nowadays any company without a website is hurting their credibility.
Have my expectations been confirmed? Certainly not. The Internet has far, far exceeded my expectations. I had no idea the web was going to be this big. When I worked in the browser wars, I was still quite young in my career. I didn't know how to see trends.
For most companies, releasing software as Open Source is going to be a bad strategy. Software is a high risk business.
Adriana Iordan: You've created AbiWord an open source word processor. How do you feel about Open Source software in general? Should the software vendors consider using open source as a revenue building strategy?
Eric Sink: I am generally a fan of Open Source. I use a fair amount of Open Source software every day. I also use a bunch of proprietary software every day. I'm a pragmatist. The religious and philosophical parts of the debate don't interest me much.
For most companies, releasing software as Open Source is going to be a bad strategy. Software is a high risk business. That's why the margins are so high. Releasing stuff as Open Source tends to reduce the margins without really reducing the risks. There are exceptions.
Adriana Iordan: Was there a moment you thought you should give up and close SourceGear? What did you do when you didn't have any clients?
Eric Sink: Good question. I'm not sure anyone has ever asked me if I was ever ready to just give up. The answer is "no". SourceGear has had many ups and downs. The downs have been very stressful. But I have never wanted to just shut it all down.
Adriana Iordan: What are the most important things, ISVs should do to improve their software sales (now would be a great time to share with us the secrets of your success you're hiding so well..)?
Eric Sink: I'm always reluctant to give short, pithy tips, but I'll do it anyway:
- Build something that people actually need, even if you'll have serious competition.
- Most companies worry too much about getting new customers and too little about keeping their current customers happy.
- Create a product that your customers will WANT to recommend to their friends.
Adriana Iordan: What "marketing outlets" did you find most useful in spreading awareness of your software products? Were there any outlets that you found to be a waste of time/money (do you still give print advertising magazines a chance?)
It's actually quite difficult to make a product which feels usable and friendly to multiple classes of users at the same time.
Eric Sink: We like trade shows. We still do some print advertising, and yes, I still complain about how expensive it is for what we get. But we still find it useful.
Adriana Iordan: What does usability mean to you as a developer, project manager, and writer?
Eric Sink: I often think the word "usability" is too broad to be useful. It's actually quite difficult to make a product which feels usable and friendly to multiple classes of users at the same time. Expert users have different needs from newbies. As an industry, we're still grappling with this very basic problem, and we're not doing very well. For example, I see Windows Vista as a product which was so thoroughly designed for newbies and normal people that software experts like me find it terribly annoying.
Adriana Iordan: What are the biggest mistakes you tend to run into with most software companies or products?
- When searching for a product idea, people try to find something completely new, something that will have no competition. Avoiding competition usually means avoiding customers.
- When choosing a product idea, most people aim too high. Instead of choosing a small well-defined niche, they go for a big, wide market. They think they are increasing their odds of success by increasing the number of potential customers. The result ends up being just the opposite.
- In their first or second growth spurt, companies tend to hire people in anticipation of needs. Instead, they should do the job themselves until the pain gets so high that they just can't do it anymore.
Adriana Iordan: Thank you for your time, Eric!