Published in the Business Journal in June, 2016

If you are an entrepreneur with a great software product idea, you already know you’ve got plenty of challenges getting your product to market. Jumping one hurdle just brings you up against the next one. Financing, sales, marketing – it can make your head spin!

With the abundance of software development firms, you might think that getting your product developed on a commercial scale is one of the easier hurdles. But how you manage this step will determine the success or failure of your product. Having been involved in the development of hundreds of successful software products over 25 years, I’ve created the following tips for the intrepid and intractable who dare to dream this big!

The Intrepid Entrepreneur’s Invaluable Software Development Tips

Know what is most important to you as you seek a software development partner. Every option has its advantages and disadvantages, and you will have to weigh these against your priorities. The project management triangle is a good place to start analyzing this.

Ask yourself what are your top priorities. For example:

  • Can you reduce the scope of the product and still achieve the kind of product you envisioned?
  • Do you have the capability of increasing your budget, or is it non-negotiable?
  • Is your timeline strict, or can you extend it to increase features or quality, or save money?

Quality is at the core of the project management triangle – and your project. No cost savings, increased time to market, or number of features will make up for a poor quality product. This is the one thing you cannot compromise. Your product has to perform its function consistently and well, whether it is designed for work or play.

Develop an MVP version. Rather than building an all-encompassing product, focus on building a minimally viable product (MVP). Fortunately, with software products, MVP versions are accepted and even welcomed.  But you must be clear with users that what you are releasing is an MVP version – and price it accordingly. Use your MVP version to gather customer feedback and improve your product.

Use a free version to garner financing. I have seen several companies with enterprise product concepts start by successfully using free direct-to-consumer (DTC) versions of their products as proofs of concept for investors, who come onboard to fund the enterprise version more willingly (and sometimes with fewer strings) when they can gauge the product’s market appeal from a trial release “in the wild.”

Educate yourself on onshore versus offshore development. There are advantages to both, with corresponding disadvantages. This is a much bigger topic than I can cover in this blog. Here are a few resources that can help.

Look for shared company characteristics and premium customer service. Some key items to consider are:

  • Philosophy and culture – do they deliver on their processes and do what they say they’ll do?
  • Excellent communication skills – do they ask clarifying questions when there’s ambiguity? Do they offer their opinions as partners or are they merely silent order takers?
  • Ready access to team members – can you work directly with the team or are their layers of bureaucracy to navigate
  • Quick turnaround – do they treat your schedule as their own showing urgency to get your product out the door?
  • Appropriate responses to changes or disruptions – are they focused on solutions rather than posturing?

Look for customer-facing, software product expertise. There are thousands of software developers from whom you could choose a partner. Many of these have created excellent enterprise applications, but nothing that was sold as a product. This is a game-changing difference. Software products are different than custom business applications. These differences include:

  • Developing a software product is a high-risk venture. Products are your bread and butter, and they define you in the marketplace. A successful product can generate a positive image and presumed competency for your company, while a poor product can reverse that image overnight.
  • Stringent standards. Products are developed to meet a market need and as such must adhere to standards set by the market. Software developers familiar with products have learned to work within these constraints.
  • User orientation and marketability. Unlike an internal business application, a software product does not have ready-made users who are required to learn and accept it. A product has to engage and gain user acceptance. Far more than back-office applications, software products need to provide familiar, intuitive interfaces. While business products, in particular, might require training, customers
    expect limited investment in this. If your product is cumbersome and difficult, customers can simply move on to the next vendor for another solution.
  • When bringing a new software product to market, time is of the essence. If a competitor beats you to market, your investment can be for naught. A software product development partner will understand and be prepared for the late nights and extra effort required to meet unmovable deadlines, as well as the constraints of a budget set by inflexible investors.

Find a partner who adds value. You have the vision. You understand your audience and the need. Your software development partner needs to understand how to make that vision a reality. They should have expertise in a wide variety of technologies, platforms, and application types. They should bring the latest in new technologies to you, and challenge you to think deeper and more broadly. They should speak up and suggest options, not just take orders.

Of course, these tips are just a start. If you are new to software product development, you should seek out as many successful software product entrepreneurs as you can, as well as immerse yourself in articles and research on the topic. The more prepared you are as you go into this process, the more likely you will have a successful outcome.