This is the first in series of posts that chronicles our efforts to transition Binary Formations from something we do on the side as a hobby to a viable business.
Burning Out Can Lead to Smaller and Better Things
I started Binary Formations almost five years ago as an outlet for me to develop software for the Mac. As a longtime Windows developer, I had become frustrated and bored with the platform. The pace of innovation was slow at best and Microsoft’s insistence on including software activation in Windows left a bad taste in my mouth (I did not appreciate being viewed as a would-be-criminal when I had already forked over my hard earned money for their crappy product).
At the time I was seriously considering leaving software development for another profession, so when my aging Dell laptop started acting flakey, I replaced it with a PowerBook G4. It didn’t take long before I was hooked. Though I had owned Macs before (back in the days of System 6 and 7, and again with the first release of OS X), they never really clicked with me. This time was different and I wanted to write something for it.
I decided to develop a home inventory application because I could not find one for the Mac that worked the way I wanted. Work on the app came in fits and starts as I slowly came out of my software development malaise and learned my way around Objective C and the Cocoa framework. Coding a few hours here and there in my spare time, Stockpile, as it was called at the time, slowly but surely inched toward completion. The first version was completed and released as a shareware application in late October 2005 where it went on to put up sales numbers so abysmally low, it would have left even the most pessimistic of pessimists disappointed. No doubt you are wondering just how low those numbers were. How does five copies through the end of the year sound? And one of those I bought myself to test the purchasing system.
I didn’t have a clue about marketing software back then (still don’t, truth be told), so my promotional activities were limited to building a VERY simple website and listing it on MacUpdate and VersionTracker. I wasn’t expecting to sell a lot of copies, but I certainly thought I would shift more than five in just over two months. It was disappointing and probably would have been the end of Binary Formations if it weren’t for the feature request emails I received from my tiny user base.
Good Customer Service is its Own Reward
My mother used to head up the customer service division of a printing company. She was serious about her work and believed (still does, actually) that if you are going to offer a product or service for sale, then your customers should get their money’s worth. Period. No Excuses. No Exceptions. She instilled those same values in me, which is why there was no way I could ignore those emails even though it would have been easy to say, “Hey, this thing is shareware. You got to try it before you bought it, so you knew what you were paying for.”
The features that were requested were relatively simple to implement and, truth be told, should have been in the product from the get go. They probably would have been in there if I had bothered to give enough thought to what other people might want out of a home inventory app. I added the features as quickly as I could and provided one off builds to a couple of users who didn’t want to wait for the update to be formally tested and released. This was customer service like Mom used to make. And it paid off.
Slowly but surely, my user base started to grow as that first handful of happy customers began telling others about Stockpile. I still wasn’t selling a lot of copies, but I liked talking with people who used my software and finding out what they liked and didn’t like, what they thought was missing, and how they used it in ways I had never thought of.
Unlike my day job, where I write software that runs in the data centers of some of the biggest companies in the world, developing and selling my little home inventory app was a much more intimate and satisfying experience. Finally I was writing software that I actually had a need for myself and I had this direct, unfiltered dialog going with many of the users who were all genuinely interested in helping me make the product better. Even though I wasn’t making much money from it, I was hooked.