Nick Bradbury shares his experience gained from creating three successful shareware applications as well as some insights that many can use while on your own path to creating a successful shareware application.
Why did you decide to become a software entrepreneur?
I’ve wanted to work for myself for as long as I can remember, but I really just lucked into shareware. My original plan was to become a cartoonist, but HomeSite - which I created to help maintain my cartoon site - became far more popular than my comic strip, so I followed it into a career as a software developer.
Was Homesite the first application you sold as shareware?
Yes. Before I created HomeSite, I paid the bills as a client/server developer in the Washington, DC, area, hoping some day to ditch the day job and become a full-time cartoonist.
How long did it take you to code and release version 1 of Homesite? How long for TopStyle and FeedDemon?
I honestly don’t remember how long it took to write HomeSite. The very first version was coded using Visual Basic, but it was far too slow so I scrapped it and rewrote it using Delphi. This whole process took several months, but I was also working a full-time job. The first version of TopStyle 1.0 took a couple of months to develop, and unlike HomeSite, I designed it on paper before writing any code.
FeedDemon’s development was unusual, at least for me. I’d been wanting to write an RSS reader for quite a while, but didn’t think I’d be able to handle two programs at once. One day, though, I suddenly told my wife I was going to write a new program, and seeing that I was about to enter “mad scientist” mode, she took the kids to her mother’s for the weekend so that I could focus on coding. When I sat down to start developing FeedDemon, it was as though I already knew exactly how I wanted it to look and work, and by end of the weekend I had most of the UI done and had built a big chunk of the foundation. The next couple of months were spent refining FeedDemon based on feedback from early testers.
With your experience of creating three commercially successful applications, have you created a formula to follow when doing development?
The only real formula I follow is to make sure I keep the focus on usability and actually solving the needs of customers. There are a lot of great developers out there writing impressive code, but too few of them seem to consider how to make their stuff simple to use. I guess I approach development the same way that I used to approach my cartoons: I have a limited amount of space to work with, so how do I get the most important things across in the simplest way possible, so that the space isn’t overburdened by too many ideas? The tricky part for me isn’t developing the first version of a program, though - it’s developing subsequent versions without greatly increasing the program’s complexity (something I haven’t been completely successful with).
One thing I’ve done with all three programs is make sure I’ve kept in direct contact with my customers, which I believe is so important. This means handling support myself, which can be incredibly hard sometimes, but it’s the only way I really understand what’s needed. I’ve also done things like “feature votes” where customers rank feature requests, and I use the results to figure out what features are really needed.
What has been your most successful marketing strategy thus far?
I do very little of what’s considered “traditional” marketing, not because I think it’s useless, but really because I’m no good at it. Instead, I focus on developing what people need, and hope that I do so in such a way that it generates good word-of-mouth. I think it helps, too, that I have a Blog where people can see that I’m a real person, not just some faceless geek flinging code at the world.
All of the products you’ve created are in very competitive markets. What is the most important thing for a developer to know when entering a competitive market?
Be prepared to lose, and don’t think you have to be #1 to win. And also, take the time to really study your competition before you write any code. See what problems they’re most focused on, and figure out where they’re failing.
Why did you decide to create TopStyle and FeedDemon?
In both cases, they were programs I personally needed. I’ve had a lot of product ideas that I scrapped because I knew I wouldn’t actively use the completed software. If you’re using your own software every day (”eating your own dog food”), you’ve got a far better chance of building something solid.
What are the main benefits of being a single person software company?
In my case, being able to stay at home and have time with my kids. I put in more hours than I would at a “real” job, but the flexibility of those hours means that my kids see me several hours a day (whether they like it or not).
Based on your experiences of selling Homesite to Allaire, would you go through the process of selling one of your applications again?
I would, but it would have to be a helluva offer to get to give up my independence. And I don’t just mean dollars - I mean the position itself would have to be very interesting.
Is there a software package out there that you wish you had thought of or created?
Sure, lots of them. Right now the ones that come to mind are iPodder, Bittorrent and Skype (hmmm…combine those three, and now you’ve got something interesting…)
What are some of the mistakes you’ve made along the way that you’d like to share with other shareware developers?
Too many to list But here are the biggies:
- With HomeSite, starting off by providing only email support. I was quickly overwhelmed by email, so much so that getting help with support was a big reason I sold HomeSite.
- Under-pricing HomeSite when it was acquired. I didn’t understand its real value to another company. But I’m not complaining at all, since HomeSite basically paid for my house.
- Taking too much of a “not invented here” approach, leading me to devote time developing things that I could’ve outsourced. For example, until I moved my blog to TypePad, I relied on a blogging system I coded myself. I would’ve been better off using an existing blogging package instead of rolling my own.
- Being too eager to write code and not eager enough to actively market what I’ve written.
- Thinking that my customers are just like me.
- Adding new features when I should’ve been refining and simplifying existing ones.
Are blogs and forums the other support methods you should have used in the beginning?
Yes. Blogs are a great way to let all of your customers know about
something, and forums/newsgroups are far better than email for support since
everyone can read the answer (cutting down on multiple emails asking the
same question). I did add support forums not too long after HomeSite took
off, but by then so many people were used to emailing me that they kept
Nick adds the following bit of advice…
And I have to say this: I see a lot of shareware developers whose focus is on striking it rich, and that seems like such a mistake to me. That’s like getting into music because you want to be a rock star: sure, a few people do it, but it’s rarely about talent, and the stars usually burn out quickly. If you plan to do this for a living, focus on building tools that make people’s lives easier or more interesting, and chances are you’ll last longer and find your work more fulfilling.
Bradbury Software, LLC was founded in 1999 by Nick Bradbury. Nick is the creator of the HTML editor HomeSite, which was acquired by Allaire in 1996 and is now owned by Macromedia. After leaving Allaire in 1998, Nick continued his love of acronyms by creating the CSS/xHTML editor TopStyle and the RSS/Atom reader FeedDemon.
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