Giving it away

In The Coldest Call, Gerry Cullen gives us an pithy rule of sales:

If you can’t give it away for free,
you can’t sell it.

It sounds tautological at first, but it helps you create products that are easy to sell. Here’s how.

Because of Smart Bear and this blog, I hear new company ideas all the time. When I start asking about new products, the conversation invariably looks like this:

Me: Would you get customers if your software were free?

Confident Entrepreneur: Of course! Why not take it if it’s free?

Me: That’s what I’m asking — are there reasons people still wouldn’t take your software even if it were free?

Confident Entrapreneur: Free is free. Of course they’d take it.

Not so fast there, pardner.

Let’s say it’s 1998 and you’ve invented a corporate-wide spam filter. Great timing — the web is exploding, everyone has an email account, spam is choking in-boxes and wasting time. You’ve invented a box that sits in front of the mail server, tossing the garbage before it hits your server, much less your workstations and laptops.

So couldn’t you give away a free spam filter?

Well. What happens when the filter accidentally marks something as spam when in fact it’s a real email? Will we lose productivity as people get confused or spend time digging through a massive spam dumping ground looking for the message? Does email recovery require an administrator? Will he be drowned in requests? Will we have to hire a spam depository admin? Operating this system clearly costs time and money.

How much training is required to get people to use the new system? How many spam-filter-related questions will hit our internal help-desk? Support activities are expensive.

What if the spam filter box gets overloaded with too much mail? If there’s a bug, is it possible to loose an email completely? What happens if the spam filter box crashes — does email cease across the entire company? Losing email is unacceptable.

These concerns are so scary and costly that the spam filter might not be worth it, even for free. And if you’re ambivalent about taking it for free, you’re certainly not going to pay for it.

So how do you design a product that passes Gerry’s test? Ask yourself brutal questions to root out how your product might cause more pain than it solves. Here’s some to get you started:

If your product fails catastrophically, what’s the impact?
Good answers include:

  • Because the product is completely independent of any other system, in the worse case you’re back to how things were before you bought our product.
  • We’ll show you how to configure other systems to silently and automatically route around the failure. During the trial period you can test this yourself.
  • We have built-in support for switching back to the way you were doing it before.
  • Administrators are instantly alerted of the failure
  • You can use your existing monitoring/alerting system to detect failures
  • We support live-redundancy and continuous backup
Is it easy to rip this out if I don’t like it?
Good answers include:

  • Since this system is completely independent of all other systems, you can just turn it off.
  • All data in the system can be exported at any time in a standard, human-readable format (e.g. XML, CSV). (You can also use this for backup.)
  • Because we handle catastrophic failure gracefully, you can literally pull the plug and everything else continues to work.

How much training does this require?
Good answers include:

  • Our website has pre-recorded training presentations. We give you the source materials for free so you can customize for internal training classes.
  • We have tutorials and screenshots showing how to do common tasks.
  • We have excellent in-product help, as well as a printed manual.
  • Accomplishing typical tasks is obvious.

Can my end users inadvertently break the product or prevent other users from using the product?
Good answers include:

  • Each workstation is separate so it cannot break other people’s workstations.
  • The server has quotas, permissions, and other administrator-controlled limits to prevent excessive or improper use.
  • We support running inside a virtual server so our software failures are isolated.
  • We blast our software with load-testing, failure-case testing, and intrusion-testing, so we know that users can’t break it with normal use.

If your company goes out of business, what’s the impact on me?
Good answers include:

  • Because you own the software/hardware and you host it yourself, inside your firewall, you’re not affected.
  • Because your license code is good forever — only upgrades require you to give us more money — the software continues to work.
  • Although we charge a monthly fee, the license agreement states that if we go out of business you can continue using the software without charge.
  • We’ll put our software in escrow so if we cease support you have the ability to maintain the product yourself. (In this case it’s reasonable to require the customer to pay all escrow costs.)
  • Our software is open-source and licensed such that you can continue using it and changing it. (This works if you’re selling professional services.)

With these questions in mind, here’s some ideas for tweaking the corporate spam filter product:

  • The filter runs as a plug-in to your existing mail server. The email admin therefore has full control over when it runs, making it trivial to disable.
  • If the plug-in fails it makes a log in the mail system which can then be monitored by the same tool that already monitors the mail system.
  • Because it’s a plug-in, it scales as your mail server scales.
  • Users get one email per day summarizing the mail that was marked spam. They can glance over it looking for things that are not spam, and use a link next to each one to recover it, in which case it’s instantly delivered to their inbox. Thus they can help themselves most of the time without burdened email admins.
  • The summary email can is clear enough that most people will understand it without training classes.
  • Spam emails are stored in a special folder in the mail system, not in a proprietary format. Then data access and backup can be done with any email client, even if you uninstall the spam filter, even if the supplying company vanishes.

Does your product pass Gerry’s test? Want to brainstorm about it? Leave a comment and let me know.

  • http://sinergia.sourceforge.net gabo

    Does this product pass your test?

    http://sinergia.sourceforge.net

    Giving it away for free was one of the main reasons for going open source with it (which is not the same).

  • Jason

    It certainly looks good to me. I suppose I’d have to really try it and grill you to know, but from your home page it appears to satisfy the root questions.

    Am I locked into something proprietary? No, because you’ve made it open-source.

    Do I have to throw away all my existing stuff? No, because the point is to be a platform that integrates across existing stuff. You can stop using Sinergia and still have all your existing stuff.

    It also sounds like you’re not reinventing from scratch (i.e. leveraging existing Microsoft tech) and not trying to solve all problems at once (i.e. workflow/comm rather than individually implementing all the parts right out of the gate).

    So it looks good to me? Any customers yet?