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Andrey Butov Posts

Software Time Trials

Every once in a while, one of the forums dedicated to the business of software spits up a question regarding the proper duration for a time trial. It has become somewhat commonplace to expect a 30-day duration from a trial version. Some software shops package that up with functional limitations, some don’t, but the time trial has proven to be the goto guy for use in a demo release.

But the question remains — how long should the time trial be? Is 30 days something that is used because it has a proven track record, because it’s what customers expect, or because developers, after focusing for months or years on building the actual product, simply decide to stick with the norm without giving the business side of their business a second thought?

I’m tempted to say the last one would pull the most weight. Such as the case with user interfaces, payment processing, pricing structure (don’t get me started), and even customer support, thought given to the time trial seems to take a back seat…especially with shops releasing their first application.

The naive way of looking at this would be: give users enough time to fully evaluate your product. But this is just the tip of the iceberg — it’s what you’d say to a someone asking what a time trial is in a nutshell.

The point of a time trial is not to let the user evaluate your software. It simply isn’t. You may fool yourself into thinking that the ethics of the business of software dictate a well-defined clause which deems this to be true, but unless someone out there has published a well-defined, well-respected, and more importantly, well-enforced document outlining a software customer’s bill of rights that I’m not aware of, you are releasing your time trials to convert them into sales of licenses.

That is the entire point. You are running a business, not a charity foundation.

If you think that the above statement gives you the right to misrepresent the software through a variant of functionality in your time trial which does not actually exist in the full-version of your product, you are missing the entire point. Or perhaps, you simply don’t have the proper outlook on what a software sale actually is. A conversion of a time trial into a purchased license is not a one-off transaction. The single downloaded time trial does not map one and only once into a single purchased license. And your business does not become successful through isolated sale conversions.

Your time trial represents your line of products — all of them. The single conversion doesn’t map once and only once into a single sale — it maps to all the subsequent sales — of that version, of futures versions, and of all the software you will release in the future. If you cheat your customer by misrepresenting your software with a time trial which doesn’t accurately portray your full-application, you are not going to stay in business for much longer.

On a bit of a tangent: sometimes, developers who are just starting out don’t grasp this fully. They see a moderately successful uISV owner on the message boards complain that he only made 50 sales this month, and the first thing that comes to their heads is “50 sales! I wish I had just 1 sale!”. This was me. I defined success for Antair as getting 1 sale. I told myself that if I ever make 1 sale, that’s validation enough for me to continue doing what I’m doing. This is a bit naive. Eventually, you will realize that 1 sale, or 100 sales, or 1000 sales don’t make a lick of difference if they come about as sporadic events — perhaps because of a promotional event. Selling consistently, month after month, with a steady revenue stream is what you’re after. Even if it’s 10 sales a month, a consistent (perhaps recurring) revenue stream brings much more of a balance and potential for growth for your company than 100 sporadic sales that you can’t track or duplicate.

Anyway, back to the time trial.

I’m sure that 30-days started off for good reason. I don’t know what that reason was — perhaps something having to do with expected duration for physical purchase orders for certain customers — perhaps because of the way accounts payable departments work.  What I do know, is that most small software shops do not peddle their wares to firms that expect to be given on-site sale pitches, followed by physical contract signing, and payment based on a 30-day invoice. Most trials for software products are 30-days, because most prior trials were 30-days, and no-one bothers giving it a second thought.

If you stop and give it some thought, you’ll find that many uISV owners who are considered to be ‘successful’ offer something different than a standard 30-day trial. Before you begin thinking about the duration of your next time trial release, go walk your dog, take a nap, or do anything else unrelated to the product. Afterwards, forget all your emotional connections to your software, and start thinking like a potential customer.

If your product is a non-essential utility, a utility with a low price point (~ $10-$15), or something that is used as a one-off in order to satisfy an immediate, and short-term need, going with a 30-day trial will not give you the leverage you need to convert the trial into a sale. Instead, either implement a much shorter time trial, or remove the time limitation and implement functional restrictions instead. For utilities like format converters and other things which offer a “generator” like functionality, remove the save and load facility. Your customers can still evaluate all of your features, and the trial will still be there for evaluation 2 months later after the customer has evaluated all other similar packages and found that they were all crap.

Printer Friendly was initially released with a 30-day trial. I can’t say that I’ve put much thought into this at the time. Honestly, I can’t say that I put any thought into the time trial at the time. Conversions were low. From the customer’s perspective, here’s why. Printer Friendly is a long-term use, non-essential, one-off need application. The trial is installed, and the person tries it out once. If she hates it, she uninstalls it and you never see the sale — probably your fault — she hates it for a reason. If she loves it, does she purchase it on the spot? No. Stop that thinking right now. Think like a user of the software. If you download a piece of software that converts your .GIF files into .JPG files (for whatever reason), or takes a screenshot of your desktop, you are downloading it because of an immediate need. If you only need to use it once, you will never pay for it. It doesn’t matter how long the time trial is. It will never be converted to a sale. I used it, it did the job (after all, the save and export functionality is there for me to use), and I forget about it. Perhaps 7 months later I’ll get around to uninstalling it if I’m browsing through my application list.

I dropped Printer Friendly to a 14 day trial, after which sales increased. Then I remove the time limitation entirely, and implemented functional restrictions. Now it’s selling steadily. The customer thought process remains the same…only my trial version strategy changed. From the customer’s perspective: it’s not an essential utility, and I may use it once or twice a month. The third time I get around to clicking on that icon, if it shows me an expiration dialog, I’m going to say ‘screw it’, and print the page as is. But if Printer Friendly is always there…if it is always available, and every time I get around to using it, even a year after I installed the trial, it works, but keeps reminding me that the full-version has more features, or a better printing algorithm, or some other optimization, I will finally get around to spending that $15 bucks. I mean, why not? I used the thing 40 times over the past year. It has worked every time. I know I saved money using it, I will purchase it to get those extra features and enhanced functionality. Even if I have no time to buy it right now, I can forget about it, and it will still remind me 2 months later to purchase it, when I do have the time to do so.

At the other end of the spectrum, are long-term, essential need, constant use, applications. For products like databases, helpdesk applications, bug trackers, and anything else which ‘holds’ data of some kind (including calendar or scheduling data), a longer time trial clearly serves best. After 45 days, that trial version of the helpdesk application I downloaded has over 100 support tickets. After 60 days, my trial version of a bug-tracker has 200 bug reports — all prioritized and cross-referenced to external documentation. The application works well, there are no obvious bugs, and it already holds all that data for the company or the project. Now it’s showing me a dialog box informing me that it’s about to expire. Why would I not buy a license? It would be more trouble for me to evaluate or purchase another product and start transferring all my data out.

I believe that game developers made the most headway into using unique time trial implementations. For games, a time trial doesn’t make any sense at all. In a game demo, the demo should end immediately before the customer reaches the red line of boredom. This line exists in every game. Even if it’s the best game out there, you have to stop playing at some point. Many game development shops release a demo version which is entirely different from the first level of the full-game. This is because the first-level of the full game would not serve well as a trial version for the game — it’s too boring. Perhaps it’s even just a tutorial level. What the demo needs is a custom level which makes the player salivate. It doesn’t matter if the demo is 10 minutes long, or 5 hours long, as long as at the end of it, the player must know what’s behind that door, and the door only opens up in the full-version of the game. It’s the same cliffhanger strategy that television shows have used for decades.

Not to be too hypocritical, but I set a 30-day trial with my most recent release — the Antair BlackBerry Spam Filter — with no functional limitations. A spam filter is closer to a helpdesk application than it is to a one-off utility. What it does, at every instance of functionality, is a one-off piece of work, but the effect on the customer is cumulative — no spam for 30 days…then…boom – an inflow of spam again, and a message box stating that the spam filter has expired — please pick up a license. In this case, I went with 30 days, but the important thing to note is that the duration itself is almost irrelevant. It wouldn’t matter if the trial was 10 days or 60 days — the effect of filtered spam vs. non-filtered spam is noticeable, and that is what brings the sales — not the duration of the trial.

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Antair – Next Product in Development

I’ve recently announced that I am teaming up with V4 Solutions to build Temple of Osiris as well as another game as a cooperative effort. I’ve also noted that both Gavin and I are still going to be working on non-gaming product independently.

I have already begun working on the next non-gaming product for Antair, and since the requirements have now been hashed out and committed, and development has entered the coding stage (as of very, very late last night), I feel good about announcing it today.

The next Antair product will be a Bayesian spam filter for the RIM Blackberry platform.

The Initial Idea

I had absolutely no intention of writing a spam filter (or anything else for that matter) for the Blackberry. I’ve been receiving close to 1000 spam messages a day on my Blackberry for months, and all attempts to find a solution, in the form of existing software, proved futile. Of course, there are hacky suggestions galore, including modifying the registry to delay mail relay so that server based spam filters can capture spam before it is delivered to the handheld, modifying certain settings in Outlook, and signing up for a proxy service through which email is routed and filtered before sending it on to your account — but none of these things were what I was looking for. My server captures about 40% of incoming spam, with Outlook successfully hunting down another 15 percent of the leftovers, but because of the way Blackberry mail routing is configured for personal (and some corporate) accounts, the handheld is blasted with almost all incoming spam messages. I could not find a client-side spam filter for the Blackberry … so I am going to write one myself.

The Motivation

I wasn’t going to release the spam filter to the public. It was certainly not going to be an Antair product. But after speaking to a few colleagues who own the handhelds (including those working with corporate units on Wall Street), it became evident that the problem is rather widespread — and everyone seemed to be just putting up with it.

Out of the two dozen or so people with whom I’ve spoken to concerning the idea of building a client-side spam filter for the Blackberry, every single one asked me to immediately let them know when it will be available for purchase so that they can pick one up. A few even requested to be sent the earliest working beta version as soon as it becomes ready. During a recent night out for drinks, John put a lot of thought into it as well, and confirmed that it sounded like a good opportunity to pursue from a Micro-ISV perspective.

Doing a bit of research, I’ve found the Blackberry user forums to be full of people asking for solutions to the spam problem, with nothing but the previously mentioned hacky workarounds given as advice. I think a good market exists for a solid client-side spam filter for the Blackberry.

The Implementation

Of course, no-one can go two minutes into researching spam filters without coming across Paul Graham. I was aware of Graham’s work on the subject for years, and have built Bayesian classification systems before, so I knew that if I was going to build a spam filter for the Blackberry, it was going to use the Bayesian approach. However, while the approach to the problem will follow the basic outline set in Graham’s essay, because of certain system limitations on the Blackberry platform (mainly memory constraints), Antair’s spam filter for the Blackberry will have to take a few turns off the beaten path of a typical Bayesean filter.

Thoughts on Developing for the Blackberry Platform

There are costs involved in developing for the Blackberry. In order to use certain parts of the Blackberry API, a code signature must be purchased from RIM. Of course, Murphy’s Law dictates that all of the API functions I need for this project fall into this category.

In addition, the facilities provided by the Blackberry API are rather limiting — which probably explains both the lack of an existing client side spam filter for that platform, and the overall sparseness of software for the Blackberry. One day into development, I’ve already come across a serious issue with the API which forces me to make some sacrifices with the project. Suffice it to say, I’ve already had words with the API developers at RIM. I’m *sure* that with the amount of weight Antair carries in the world, they took my suggestions very seriously and will begin work on building a custom API for me and me alone. :)

In the process, a technological barrier may turn up which will make the creation of this thing impossible. But for now, we’re rolling.

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Antair teams up with V4 Solutions

After some discussion of mutual interests, Gavin and I have decided to partake in a joint venture between V4 Solutions and Antair. Antair’s current game in development, Temple of Osiris, as well as the next game (yet un-announced) will be developed and marketed cooperatively between the two companies. We will still be working independently on our current and upcoming non-gaming software.

It should be fun…stay tuned.

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Printer Friendly 1.4 Released

Ten minutes ago, I released Printer Friendly 1.4

From the customer perspective, there aren’t any new features, but the main algorithm has been optimized and streamlined. Customers should see better Printer Friendly results on ‘weird’ pages. It’s getting harder and harder to optimize this algorithm — web design is getting more and more complicated, and the only thing the algorithm gets is the raw HTML source of the page…YOU try figuring out what to toss aside and what to keep without any contextual data.

From the MicroISV perspective, I upgraded the price to $15. It’s absolutely impossible to even break even at the old price of $12.95. I also added the “BUY” button into the application itself to make it super-easy for users to pick up the full version. And, to appease certain concerns, all those who pick up a copy of Printer Friendly 1.4 will receive free upgrades until 2008.

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Best Day to Send Marketing E-Mail

The following is a bit of info from the latest issue of Entrepreneur magazine.

Changing the day of the week when you send out marketing email to your customers can raise recipients’ response.

According to an eROI study of approximately 100 million email messages sent over the early part of this year, the messages received on Tuesday had the highest open rate (26.4%). The second best is Sunday (25.9%), and the worst day (statistically) to send out marketing email is Saturday (24.1%).

These are just stats for an email message being noticed, not clicked.

As far as clicking rates, Monday is the worst day (4.5%), Sunday is the best (6.6%), and Saturday is the second best (6.2%).

The magazine article is quick to point out that these statistics completely disregard your target audience. For example, if your customer base consists of professionals who spend most of their time in the office, consider sending the email on Tuesday instead of Sunday.

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Hate Your Job?

MSN Messenger was kind enough to poop a piece of pseudo-spam this morning consisting of an article written for CareerBuilder.com. The article outlines 10 ways you can cope with a job you hate. I’m not posting the link here (partly because the URL is very long, and partly because you can read generic, life-advice lists like this everywhere on the web), but here are the major points:

Set weekly goals for yourself
Do one thing each day to help you reach your goals.
Give yourself “me time” before work.
Create a diversion for yourself in the office.
Use your time to develop your skills.
Blow off some steam
Treat yourself
Maintain your performance.
Keep your bridges intact.
Realize that this too shall pass.

There you go, a large smelly load of generic life-advice on how you can cope with a job you hate.

How about changing your status as a corporate whore, quitting that job, and starting your own business?

Now, I understand that this is CareerBuilder.com, and I understand that they make their dough by finding corporate jobs for people, and I understand that the article writer specializes in job search strategy, but I sincerely hope that she was given a large sum of money for writing this, because I cannot see how the best ideas of an open-minded person writing on this subject can consist of things like:

“Keep your chin up… Search internal postings for new positions. Start your search for a new job externally.”

“…find little ways of treating yourself…shop for a new interview suit.”

“Pick up a management development book and read it at lunch.”

Excuse me for a second … I’m feeling a bit sick…

… OK. I’m back.

If you are of a certain type, none of these pieces of advice will help you in the long run. For you, changing jobs is not the solution, because the job you are in right now is not the problem. The problem is working for someone else who you believe with all your heart is a schmuck of the highest order. The problem is the bureaucracy coming from people who read these management books during their lunch hours. The problem is that you are whoring away 14 hours a day and essentially allowing strangers to dictate when and where the money for your next meal is coming from.

Tell your boss to ^$#% off, and take the following ten points:

Set weekly goals for yourself – in order to build your own business, and become a self-sustaining human being.

Do one thing each day to help you reach your goals – of being completely liberated from the corporate environment.

Give yourself “me time” before work – or during work, or anytime your heart desires.

Create a diversion for yourself in the office – by playing catch with your dog, or watching a day-time soap opera, or blasting the stereo, or just leaving – what is now your home office – and playing with the kids during the day.

Use your time to develop your skills – and not the skills dictated by the corporate ladder.

Blow off some stream – by finally realizing that you never have to attend a meeting about a meeting again.

Treat yourself – by living a life you always wanted to live.

Maintain your performance – by running a competitive, exciting business of your own.

Keep your bridges intact – by actually spending time with friends.

Realize that this too shall pass – and the sooner you let this corporate world pass by without you. The sooner you’ll finally be happy.

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