Not all software companies are in the software business

Many people have the misconception that a software business is purely about developing software i.e. that as long as code is being written that is valuable to someone else, then money can be made. This may be partly true, but it is a very narrow sort of view on what it takes to generate revenues.

The question of “what are we selling and when should we request payment?” determines the type of software business you are working for and/or managing. There are three main types of software businesses:

  1. Software as a means to an end: there are many businesses that dedicate the majority of their resources (money, people, time) to developing software but they do not directly generate money from the the software itself. Instead the software they develop is nothing more than a means to an end to support and/or automate their primary business, which may be anything from marketing/advertising, to selling physical products or perhaps managing logistics. The quality of the software produced by these companies has less impact on their profits than the primary service/products that they provide. Here’s a few examples of large corporations already doing this:
    1. Google may for example develop software as part of their business strategy, but they are primarily just an advertising agency and they just happened to have found a way to reach a wider audience by developing a search engine. More recently they have started making money on Google Apps but it pales in comparison to their revenues on advertising through their search engine. They have indeed developed Android, the most successful mobile OS (Operating System) in the world, but as far I know they make a minimal amount of profit on it, while Microsoft gain the majority of the profits which Google have to pay out to them for royalties. Customers that advertise on Google care less about the features Google provides than the ROI (Return On Investment) they get from advertising on their search engine. On the flip side, the people using the Google search engine do care about the quality of the search results, but those people are not paying to use the software.
    2. Facebook too is nothing more than an advertising agency that have just happened to find a different way of reaching a wider world wide audience. They do this by attracting people to a social networking website, keeping them engaged and gathering information about their interests (likes). Once again, the paying customers don’t care so much about the features available on the software, as long as their advertisements are reaching the target audience. Facebook is not exactly in the business of developing software as it is in the business of connecting people and feeding them targeted advertisements.
    3. Amazon for the most part is nothing more than a shop/store that happens to be online and they have thereby managed to automate the process of selling products to a wider world wide market. Only as of more recently have they started selling software products and services such as AWS (Amazon Web Services), but this is not their core business. Again, the features provided by the Amazon website have little to do with their customer satisfaction; their customers care about the products available on the website and how quickly those products can be delivered to them. Therefore Amazon is not so much  in the business of selling software as it is in the business of selling and delivering physical products.
    4. Uber is simply a company that acts as a middleman managing taxis. They may as well be a personal assistant that helps you coordinate the travelling via a taxi: contacting the taxi driver, telling you where to meet, keeping track of distances travelled and of course keeping track of the costs. They just happened to find a way of automating this whole administration head ache by developing software. The customers using Uber once again don’t care so much about the features on the software, as long as they get a taxi to take from the A to B at an affordable price.
    5. Apple: is in fact a hardware company that just happens to have developed their own operating systems and developer tools as a strategic way of improving and controlling the performance of their hardware and keeping their users within their ecosystem. The same applies to every other OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer): they may have internal software engineers, but they are not on the frontline of what keeps the company going.
  2. Software Consulting: a consulting business charges for services rendered, meaning that you’re not selling software but rather your time, skills and effort. The consulting business is very much like prostitution: a salesperson (pimp) sells the services of software developers (prostitutes) to customers and theses services are billed by the hour. A software consulting business is not purely in the business of developing software, but rather in the business of providing services and adding value to customers.
  3. Product Development: traditionally software was regarded as any other engineering endeavour: we create a product, we sell as many units of it as we possibly can and make lots of money. Microsoft is a great example and the original company to have implemented this strategy.  These kinds of companies are the only companies that exist purely for the purpose of developing software. The challenge these companies have is that they will not be making any money until the first product is finished and ready to be shipped off. Therefore it requires massive funding and involves great amount of risk. With this approach, customers are purchasing the software products for no other reason than for the software itself and the features it provides. Therefore in order for such a company to survive it needs to provide finished software products that are of the highest quality and offer the largest amount of features.

The moral of the story is that the activities of a company do not always have a direct impact on the bottom line, and thus do not necessarily dictate the the kind of business that a company is in i.e. employees can be spending 90% of their time developing an advertising platform, but if the money is made from selling advertisements, then the company is not in the business of writing software, but in the business of selling advertisements.

The kind of work needed to make money in the tech industry

The fundamental difference between poor people and rich people is that poor people believe that the harder they work the more money they will make, while the rich know that they have to rely on leverage to to make the big money. Leverage means either relying on others to do the work for you or earning interest on investments or earning commission.

  1. Other people’s work: if you’re at the beginning of your career it will take you years to get to top managerial positions where you get to leverage off of other people’s work. Not to mention that not everybody is capable of getting to that level – you have to be the best of the best.
  2. Investments: many makes money, so if you don’t already have a lot of it to invest it will take you years before you earn that kind of money on interest/dividends.
  3. Commission: this leaves you with the last option; start selling IT solutions if that’s what turns you on. If you’re a passionate technologist, then your first obstacle will be suppressing and overcoming your passion for technology (or whatever else you love), meaning that you will have to prioritise money over everything else. It’s easier to do that if you’re not particularly good at what you you’re currently doing. That is typically why they say that to become a salesman you have to fail at everything else first. That’s not to say that sales isn’t interesting or challenging, it is, but you have to have a certain aptitude for it: you have to be a risk taker, good with people and an exceptional strategist to make the really big bucks i.e. that’s the difference between a guy selling sun glasses on the side of the road and a successful corporate salesman. Examples:
    1. Steve Jobs is a prime example of such a man that wasn’t that good as an engineer but he was a genius at sales and marketing. He managed to get others to build solutions for him and he would sell it on to the world.
    2. Ideally you should be both an exceptional engineer and salesman, but that’s very rare. Bill Gates is such an example and because of it he and Microsoft had an almost complete monopoly in the software industry, across the world, while he was in charge.
    3. Linus Torvalds on the other hand was the exact opposite of Steve Jobs; he’s probably the best coder that’s ever lived but he’s never cared about money and is not much of a people person, hence he has not made a fraction of the money that either Steve Jobs or Bill Gates made … but he’s made enough from what I’ve heard.
    4. Mark Zuckerberg is a bit of an anomaly which has made him a hero to pure technologists around the world: he’s an exceptional coder but not a salesman (if The Social Network movie is anything to go by). However he was at the right time at the right place, has a passion for connecting people and very smart to leverage off of exceptional salesman like Sean Parker, Peter Thiel etc. without letting them get the upper hand.

Moral of the story: get into sales if you want to make the big bucks, but if you love technology more than money you probably won’t make that much of it in your life … which isn’t necessarily a terrible thing as long as you enjoy what you’re doing.

Product vs Customer vs Profit

My personal philosophy is that in the software business there are three things that need to be focused on and their priority should be as follows:

Product and its source code: the features of the product and its quality determine how happy you make your customers. If your customer is happy he will purchase the product, which in turn means you have a profitable business. So one should always listen to the customer’s needs. Conversely, the product being yours means you as the founder know more about the product than anybody else, meaning you’re the boss of your own product. Therefore if a customer submits a feature request, it is just that, a “feature request” – not a direct order by the customer i.e. it is up to you as the founder of the product to decide whether the feature will be implemented or not and when it will be implemented because that feature or your prioritization of the feature could negatively impact another customer. That is why I believe the product should be prioritized ahead of the customer, which in the grand scheme of things will prove to be beneficial for both you and all the end customers even if you upset one or two customers along the way.

Customer: always prioritize the customer’s needs over making a quick buck by ripping them off: Many amateur sales people do a “hit & run” with a customer. However I feel that the best sales people have empathy for customers providing them with good deals… but not too much empathy that one gives things away for free or too cheaply.

Profit: personally I believe that money is just a by-product of one’s work and success. Focus on the work; do the work for the work itself because you enjoy it and you have a vision. This in turn will result in the money being made. If you’re going to run the comrades marathon, there is no way you are going to run all those kilometers if your only goal is to win the race so you can get a prize. With that mentality you will quit as soon as you realize you’re not in the lead. Instead if you run for the sake of running because you enjoy it, then you will finish the race and you will feel satisfied with yourself … that’s intrinsic motivation.