Five lessons from selling products online as a solo-developer
Five years ago today, I sat in a converted dance studio in Chicago with some newly-made friends and colleagues, deciding that the Greyscalegorilla project that I was tasked with would be better suited as a reusable plugin rather than a custom chunk of code.
My original idea was to call the project Vimeology – a bad pun that reflected my process of learning how to integrate with Vimeo’s APIs and designing effective video portfolios and galleries. I bounced the name off of my buddy Jack, who kindly chuckled and said he “dug it,” unobjectively countering with an alternative option: Vimeography.
I bought the domain that morning and got to work, never thinking that five years later, I’d be answering customer support and writing about it in a casita in Tucson, AZ. It wasn’t until June 16 that I officially launched the plugin, and July 11, 2012 that I made my first $12 sale while on vacation in Glen Arbor, Michigan. However, I still look back at today as a big day in the history of this project.
With that, here are five things that I’ve learned along the way of running, growing, and fine-tuning an unexpected side project into my main revenue stream.
1. No more coding into corners
At a certain point, I had to come to terms with the fact that if I wanted to continue writing code that had the opportunity to be packaged and sold as a product, I needed to make sure that the code that I wrote worked for my own benefit instead of just a specific company.
It’s a hard lesson to learn, especially because building out your own ideas doesn’t always guarantee a paycheck. However, the only way to sell to a broader audience is to open up your scope.
2. Build stuff that you’ll use
You’ll have a much easier time updating features and performing maintenance on your product if it also affects your own day-to-day workflow.
I’ve talked a lot about what I think are the right projects to be working on. Generally, these projects should fall somewhere under these four statements:
- You like it. It’s easy to make progress when you enjoy the time you spend moving your project forward.
- You’re good at it. The fastest way to gain a competitive edge is to recognize your strengths and combine them with the other points to make yourself rare.
- There’s a market for it. You can’t sell to turtles.
- It’s important. Ensure you can associate a greater meaning to the project’s outcome. Does it help a market close to your heart? Is it of worldly importance?
3. Minimize support
Made your first software sale? Congrats, you’re now a support company. Every ticket you answer is another minute playing defense instead of making strides on offense. Minimize your support tickets by investing some time up front with better documentation, stupid-easy UIs, video tutorials, and detailed FAQs.
4. Increase customer value
Maintaining support on a customer that made a $12 purchase back in 2012 isn’t going to allow you to grow or keep you in business for long. Consider moving to subscriptions, selling bundles, or even just doubling your pricing structure – but be sure that the method you choose suits your industry and business model.
5. Don’t force it
Not feeling it? Go outside. Step away and come back strong. Regularly not feeling it? There’s a good indication that what you’re currently working on probably isn’t for you.