16 Feb 2012

More than one sanctimonious acquaintance has tried to jolly me through a tough moment in life with the quote that “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. It never helps. When Jawad and I first sat down to start Valletta Ventures, a variant aphorism we did believe in was that “if life gives you fingers, use them to code”. This post is the story so far for Valletta Ventures - how we have turned pub bravado about being entrepreneurs into rent, or a “ramen profitable” business as the lingo says - and the useful lessons we learnt along the way. However, as much as I hate to admit it, a better title for this post may well have been “learning to make lemonade”.

Our first intended product was Texpad, a LaTeX editor and compiler for the iPad, but as I detailed in an earlier post this turned out to be impossible, and we gave up. Next on the list was an intelligent property website, but when a competing product robbed us of our USP we moved on to begin developing a live Nightclub booking site, a project that died a death when we studied the revenue model more closely. At this point we decided to write a clean, efficient LaTeX editor for desktop OS X. We dusted off the code (and name) from our earlier iPad effort and released Texpad 1.0, the sales of which have been paying the bills while we bootstrap.

If there is any moral to be taken from the story so far it is not to become overly attached to a project. Most of your ideas will be bad, and even the best ideas are often unworkable, so move on without hesitation, and when you do, try not to think of it as effort lost. These failures are the only way to gain knowledge and experience, and even the code will often be useful later. Our second product, RailSide, was also conceived like this. The unsuccessful websites were both written in Ruby on Rails, and for people used to the attractive and snappy interface of Xcode, the java based IDEs available just didn’t cut it. Scratching this itch led to us write RailSide, a native OS X IDE for Rails, a product that is still very much under development.

Using our fingers to code has given us products to sell, and these are the foundation of our business, but until we learnt to generate publicity, we barely sold those products. After months of intense work polishing a product, coding is a tough habit to break. At first we spent maybe an evening a week working on sales - emailing review sites, tweeting, writing blog posts - but when we saw the results of these sales drives it became a regular weekly occurrence, then twice weekly, and so on to our current position where these sales activities are beginning to affect our product development, but if anything, we need to spend even more time selling.

Given that we are not yet a multimillion company, I can’t say for sure what one should and shouldn’t do, but on one point I can categorically say I am right. Look after your customers. If you do, they will look after you by transferring you their money. One of our motivations for starting a business was to work for ourselves and avoid ingratiating ourselves to superiors we didn’t respect. However our rent isn’t paid by one man now, it is paid by thousands of customers, and it is important to address the concerns of every one of those customers just as keenly as you would the concerns of your boss. It is a full time occupation reading emails, replying to them, fixing bugs and extracting the best features from the variety of suggestions, but it is worth it. The dialogue with our users has contributed to every decision on product development, and without it I don’t know how we would know that we are developing our software into a more desirable product rather cramming it with features as worthless as speed stripes on a car.

So in six months time when I feel the urge to write another “state of the union” blogpost, what do I hope to put in there? First and foremost I hope we are still here - blogging, coding and selling. If we do still exist it will because we’ve learnt how to both sustain and increase sales, and the only way we will do that is by developing our software into leading products. For this reason I hope to write that we have found investment. Feedback from users has been highly encouraging, but in order to compete against other IDEs, we need to fill out the featureset, and for this we need the money to hire an employee. With current sales supporting us we need not be beholden to an investor and forced into a bad deal, but I believe another pair of hands would be worth the equity surrendered. That said, if we keep in contact with our customers, continue to turn around misfortunes, and push forward with our products I believe we will be doing just fine.

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