How do I sell a general-purpose tool?

This is part of an ongoing startup advice series where I answer (anonymized!) questions from readers, like a written version of Smart Bear Live. To get your question answered, email me at asmartbear -at- shortmail -dot- com.

Frustrated Builder writes:

I have a general-purpose reporting tool that automatically creates reports from certain kinds of data sources.

But although I have six very happy customers, I’m having trouble finding more.

How do I get unstuck? I know people need this tool!

I’ve had to solve this problem before.

At Smart Bear people were always asking for reports, but everyone wanted a different report. One customer wanted detailed usage metrics per employee. Another wanted a prediction of how many bugs likely remained in each source file. Another wanted to see which source files were most risky. Another wanted audit trials. And so on.

So I made what I thought was a smart move. Rather than chase this insatiable, growing list of reports, we built a fully-customizable reporting system. The user could select from 50 columns of data, apply 50 filters, sort, group, and even take reporting data directly into a database query or another custom reporting tool for further analysis.

“Just like,” I would say as the one-line spec. “They’ve shown the way.”

But in hindsight it was a failure, for the same reason that you’re hitting the wall. Which is:

People don’t want a custom reporting tool. They want a specific report, just like they were asking me for.

“But look,” I’d say in bewildering, frustrating support calls, “you can make that report! You just pick these seven columns, group by this thing, filter this out, and you’re 80% of the way there. If you really want to go all the way, use this feature to live-import into Microsoft Access and you can LITERALLY DO ANYTHING!”

It never worked. My brilliance was met with silence and then: “So….. can you build that report for us in Access?”

People don’t want a “tool.” They don’t want to “harness the power of a database with the simplicity of a blah blah blah.” They want an end result. People search for “saas business accounting model spreadsheet,” not “custom business intelligence analysis tool.”

Your tool is a means to an end, and you need to sell the end. The fact that it’s “fully customizable and flexible” is great because it means a customer can become more and more adept, and therefore more and more successful. Fabulous! But it’s not how you sell it.

So here’s what you do: Go through your existing six happy customers and pick out a single use-case in which you do an exceptionally good job and includes as many of those customers as possible, even if that number is “one.”

Then nail that sonofabitch. Make a landing page promising nothing but that one report. Split-test some prose and the call to action, put a great customer quote in there (by definition you have one!), get some traffic with paid search, then get some press around the customer’s story (not your story) where you drop your landing page as the way they solved the problem.

Don’t worry, this doesn’t define your company or your future. Well maybe it does — this might be repeatable! You might be able to build 10 or 100 of these over time, each a unique, independently optimize-able path to get customers, feeling out which niches and what marketing language works best. Sounds do-able!

Or maybe you will indeed end up like Crystal Reports or Microsoft Access or Business Objects or whatever, becoming known as a general-purpose tool after all.

It doesn’t matter (right now) how your future unfolds. For now you just need more customers, and this is a simple, direct path.

After all, if you can’t sell a table to someone who wants a table, you certainly can’t sell them a hammer, nails, and plywood without instructions!

Add your advice to the discussion section!

27 responses to “How do I sell a general-purpose tool?”

  1. Whew, after the opening question, I was afraid everything I’ve learned from a hundred or so software projects about “report builders” was going to get shattered.  Thankfully, it wasn’t.  A do-everything report builder will never be achieved (else, it would have been included in Access years ago)  I snickered when I re-read the question… “for certain types of data”.

    My philosphy has been that a hybrid works best: Make some canned reports around what he client wants, but add some filters too, to let them play around that base concept.

  2. This post doesn’t live up to its title.  “Don’t sell a general-purpose tool” isn’t how you sell a general-purpose tool.  There are millions of Linux users, lots of Arduino users, etc.  Someone sold them a general-purpose tool.  This isn’t how.

    • I didn’t say “don’t sell that tool.” In fact, I specifically say you can. But you don’t START by selling a general-purpose tool.
      Your examples prove my point, actually. Linux took years before it wasn’t specifically targeted at a small subset of the population. I know because I was one of those people. :-)

  3. No. You’re NOT a general purpose reporting tool. Don’t go to market that way. Read “Inside the Tornado”. Do the bowling pin strategy.  As such, you’ll be best to focus on a single vertical and get to know the “language” of that vertical. THEN you can charge 10X what Crystal Reports charges because you already have most of the meta-schema done.

    Now that you have your vertical expertise in place (e.g. HPPA, or FDIC reports, or whatever) you have a calling card. You have a target to focus your scarce marketing dollars. Those FDIC reports that took days will now take minutes with your new “FDIC reporting tool”.

    Got it? Good.


  4. Great stuff Jason. Seems like I heard this somewhere recently… ;-)

    Just curious – any examples of companies with more than +10 landing pages? (as in, really took that concept of targeted landing page for different types of customers and ran with it)

    • Yes, when we added 8 reports people liked them. Then they continued to ask for stuff, and we’d slowly put certain reports in place.
      Then we were able to push back by saying “Well of course we don’t have a fully-flexible custom reporting tool! So we make it easy to get data into other custom tools.” Usually there’d be some support actually getting that working for someone, but they didn’t push back on that concept.

  5. Jason, another great post.

    We’ve also learned recently that customers want information and insights and even further clear call-to-action over simply being able to manipulate raw data.
    It is often described also as the difference between a solution and a tool.

    For the customers who are advanced enough and want to go overboard, these days, APIs provide the most acceptable path.


    • Yup “solution not a tool” you hear a lot, and the root of it is true, but again customers don’t say “Gee I what I need is a *solution*!”
      Another word abused into oblivion…

      • True (I guess I’ve been spending a bit too much time with the Sand Hill Rd. folks recently ;)

        My main point is that customers have problems they are trying to solve – this is what we have to deliver to them. The mechanics should not get in the way.

  6. I make a reporting tool for the financial sector (essentially a data entry, financial analysis, and ratio analysis reporting tool). I also found that users would rather buy pre-built reports rather than their own sandbox, which is why I am working on several add-on ‘report packs’ users can buy to focus on a specific type of analysis (liquidity, credit worthiness of gas station owners, etc).

  7. I had the opposite reaction to an ad-hoc reporting system. However I disguised the raw columns and data joins from them. By understanding how the end user sees the data you can make a tool very friendly without the drudgery. Otherwise it’s just a SQL builder.

  8. A few years ago I built an open source software that is now useful for many people for solving a specific, business-related task. Now I was about to transform this tool into a general purpose software and make money out of it! Woaw! What a stupid move! Thank you so much for your episode. I’m still in the planning phase so you’ve probably just saved my ass!

    I think the root cause of this error is our engineering mindset. We love abstraction and generic, extensible solutions.

    • I’m not sure it’s a stupid move. You built something specific, it caught on, and now you want to expand its footprint.  I think that’s quite logical!

      There’s lots of ways you can approach it.  “Now the tool loved by thousands to do X can do Y.”  Or a brand new campaign “powered by X.”  Mathematica did that, for example, with Alpha.  (Plus new code obviously but still.)

      Only one word of caution: That you do this in such a way that it doesn’t confuse or sadden your existing market. Especially if the new direction doesn’t work.

  9. Depends on who are your customers. If they are developers or other solutions-builders-for-final-users, surely they prefer a general-purpose generic tool instead of a specific rigid one.

  10. This post spoke volumes to me, it’s a problem I come up across over and over providing technical service support and training for well, most anything you do in an online business, websites, mobiles, backup, etc. I’ve struggled for a year how to market myself, get targeted, “find my voice” … only in the last 6 months, not coincidentally making the most money I have online.

    I’ve started to “get retarded” as I described it about one problem and one solution for a few months at a time…building a specific landing page, make my homepage all about that thing, blog about that thing, offer a service, or build a training product (insanely easy today)…and would you know it…now all the sudden people pick up on who I am and what I can do…”IT Support” means nothing, but “WordPress Sidebar Training” means everything…I was just glad, validated to read your post. I will continue to iterate, build out those offerings, and like you’ve said…maybe I will just find a sweet spot with that “one report” … or because of going through all the specific creations, can hit a general saturation that is sustaining as I’d like it to be.

    Thanks again for the wisdom…

  11. Here’s an actionable checklist BEFORE you start selling your software tool:
    have a whitepaper written
    submit whitepaper to whitepaper libary sites
    make list of organic search traffic keywords, optimize your site for the same
    create landing page to capture lead details
    script for the initial follow-up phone call within 4 hours of someone downloading white paper
    have a brief company blurb written for the follow-up email
    have a product demo, walkthrough, video, etc. ready
    prepare a powerpoint to recap what is covered in the demo, to be sent with the follow-up email
    collect customer success stories
    check if your offering has a free trial

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