Distributing and Selling Your Runtime Solution - File Maker

Once your solution is complete, it’s time to think about how to bring it to market. A discussion of these issues follows.

Beta Testing
You should always send any solution out for beta testing by regular users (not experts) before you start selling it. Why? For one, because beta testers often find simple problems that are completely overlooked by a developer who probably has had their nose too close to the software for too long to notice these things. Another reason is that beta testing gives you an opportunity to get general feedback as to the appeal, ease of use, and marketability of your product. If you get hundreds of similar comments back like “What good is a database that tracks used toothpicks? I use a toothpick and then throw it out,” you’ll begin to see the potential your software will have in the market and whether it’s worth your time and money to attempt to distribute it. Finally, if beta testers like your software, they will, consciously or not, be great “word of mouth” marketers of your work (“I tested this great lotto number picker software, Merle; you should try it out!”).

Design
FileMaker developers might be the best programmers, but they’re not always the best user interface designers. (The exception might be, perhaps, the people at Small Company or a few other select firms, who’ve cornered the market on intelligent, simple, wonderful database design.)

Even if your solution has awesome functionality and there’s a large market need for it, it may not have the best user interface or the best-written documentation that it could have. Therefore, you should consider getting a professional designer’s opinion on the interface and other design elements before bringing any software to market. And have an inexperienced user try your software to see if the user interface is usable even by them. Ask them to see the user’s guide first before asking you for help to see that it works, too. (This way you’ll know if your user’s guide is helpful or not!) After that, have your Aunt Ruby (a computer novice) and a C++ programming genius give the software a spin. Combine these two opinions (with a grain of salt) and make any changes to your interface as necessary.

Marketing
Sometimes the success or failure of a product turns on its marketing. So spend a fair amount of time going over who or what your product’s target market is. Use a professional marketing firm if possible. If you don’t have that kind of cash, at least try to advertise in one trade magazine that caters to the targeted industry. Don’t just advertise in FileMaker Advisor magazine whose readership is mostly database developers (unless your software is FileMaker developer related). Also, find some newsgroups or email lists to send announcements to, remembering to use proper email announcement “Netiquette” (starting the email subject with “[ANN]” and such).

Prior to the development phase you should have done some kind of market analysis, too, to see what’s already out there (if anything) that solves the problem you’re trying to solve. If so, you should have a list of everything your software does that the competition doesn’t or how yours does it better. Once you’re ready to start marketing the product, make sure to promote these differences and the “killer” features that make your software unique.

Retail Price
Look at other software that’s available to see what features they have. How much do these packages cost? Now take a look at how many hours and how much money you spent developing the software. Do some figuring and come up with a plan as to how much your software needs to cost and how many installations you would need to sell to make a profit off the software.

Come up with a realistic estimate and give your software a price that strikes a balance between being competitive with other products on the market and how quickly you would like to recoup your development costs.

Installation
You must think about how your solution will be installed on a user’s computer once the software gets to their home or office. Most of the time your solution will probably be simple enough to just “zip” or “stuff” the solution along with any PDF manuals, READMEs, or other files. To get started zipping and stuffing you can use Aladdin Systems’ StuffIt Deluxe or WinZip Computing’s WinZip. Both tools have free versions that allow you to stuff your software for easy distribution on the Web or via an FTP site.

If your solution is more robust or needs to install additional software like fonts, DLLs, or external applications and you require a custom installation application, your best bet is a more robust solution like MindVision’s Installer VISE, available for Mac and Windows, or InstallShield , which is Windows only. Anyone who uses a computer has seen an installation package created using one of these two tools; they are basically the industry standard and don’t cost that much.

In addition to creating neat little installation packages these tools let you show potential buyers a license agreement that you’ve created, enable automatic updates of your software, scan a user’s computer to make sure they meet your software’s system requirements, and quickly uninstall the software using the uninstall options that are installed when a user runs the installation package for your FileMaker-based software solution.

Distribution
Once your software’s ready to go, how will you distribute it to buyers? Certainly you could copy the solution onto a CD-ROM, put it in a glossy box, and try to get it listed in the Mac Warehouse catalog or on CDW.com, but this is probably the most costly way to go. You might consider distributing the software on a Web site as a download.

Simply set up a Web site and provide links to the downloads, either on your Web server or on some FTP server you administer.

Also consider submitting your software for review to magazines and to Web sites like Tucows.com, Download.com, and Shareware.com. If one of these sites picks up your software, you could start getting thousands of users to download the software and try it out in no time flat.

Documentation
You probably know this already, but make sure you think about how you’re going to provide help to potential users. You need to provide instructions for using your software, installing it, uninstalling it, getting more help, and so on.

Support
A very important aspect of creating a piece of software is standing behind it and supporting it should problems arise. Before you start trying to sell your software, think about how you might provide technical support, especially if your company has only one employee. Certainly phone support is impractical, even if you get only three calls a day. Email support is better, but still time-consuming. The least you should provide is a Web based forum and a FAQ Web page for commonly asked questions and common problems (and their solutions).

Sustainable Networks is good example of a small software company that handles support for its popular products quite well, even though there are only a few full-time employees working for the company.

Software Updates
The trick is to provide detailed instructions for how to get data out of the old databases into the new ones or to provide savvy scripting in the new databases that basically automates the whole upgrade process (something like the upgrade process described for “regular” database systems without any user intervention). The key to the upgrade routine that you build into any solution is that you’ve thoroughly tested it on many platforms and in any situations so that the user won’t lose any valuable data. (What happens if there’s a crash halfway through the upgrade, for instance?)

Also think abut how much you might charge for major upgrades to your software.


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