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How to Market Your Software Business: A Guide for Developers

You've built your software product. Now sell it, by marketing your expertise to your chosen market segment.

We technologists are always looking for a better way to do things. We love the "best" solution. Technologists also tend to be skeptical of marketing pitches, which are geared more toward attracting customers rather than promoting a solution solely on its technical quality. In general, we technologists are wary of marketing. But in the real world, to get customers to notice your service, you need to offer more than the best solution. You also need the right marketing approach to promote your expertise.

Related: The Business of Development: Guidance for Professional Software Developers

If you want your software development enterprise to make money for you, then you'll need to overcome your resistance to marketing and get comfortable with marketing yourself—that is, marketing your expertise. I'll tell you how I learned to market my expertise as a software developer and how you can do the same. We'll also take a look at client market segments and why you should focus on a particular segment when marketing your services.

The Benefits of Marketing Yourself

My father is a great marketer. He can talk anyone into submission. One of the basic lessons that my father learned when he went through Certified Commercial Investment Member (CCIM) training back in the early 1980s, and I've heard ad nauseam ever since, is that "More is better than less." This truism implies the basic human need for continual improvement. (Interestingly, it was one of the few lessons that I learned from my father that I didn't chafe from, but that's for a different discussion.) One of the many areas where "more is better than less" seems to hold true is in compensation. Now, compensation can be measured in many ways: It can mean more money, more free time, more responsibility, a job promotion, more visibility at the office, or any number of other desirable characteristics. We all want these things. The problem becomes how to apply "more is better than less" in practical ways that increase our compensation.

Unfortunately, I didn't heed my father's marketing wisdom early in my career. Before 2000, I had worked at The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, at a successful startup, and on a successful project to automate manufacturing at Lucent Technologies' plant in Omaha, Nebraska. I had big-company experience, had worked on projects that brought in major money, and had saved major clients untold millions of dollars. That work meant precisely nothing to any other potential client. Why? I was inept at marketing these facts, the lessons that I learned from these encounters, and how my experience would benefit a potential client.

Technologists have an overriding problem: They are unskilled communicators. The cult-movie classic Office Space, a favorite of technologists, offers some valuable insights into communication issues and the usefulness of self-marketing skills. (When I find the movie on TV somewhere, I always watch it no matter what else is on.) Let's look more closely at the communication styles of the movie's characters—Peter, Michael, Samir, "the Bobs," and even Milton.

Milton is the classic technologist. As the Bobs say, he mumbles a lot and can't really communicate well with others. How is he going to communicate his value to the Bobs? He can't. Michael and Samir are developers, who, like Milton, also don't communicate well. For example, Michael knuckles under to the Bobs in the discussion about his name, Michael Bolton. Peter's interview with the Bobs, however, is entirely different. Peter is comfortable enough with himself to talk to the Bobs about his specific job, the cover page for TPS reports, and his role in the business. Peter shows us that understanding your role in a business, executing on that role, and communicating in regard to that role are very important. The Bobs are also great communicators. They are able to communicate positives and negatives to management about the business as well as make suggestions about personnel decisions.

Peter and the Bobs demonstrate the essential first step in marketing: to be a good communicator—or, at least, to not be a bad communicator. Becoming a good communicator is easier than most people think. To help someone improve communication skills, I typically recommend that the person get started in public speaking, such as by speaking at a local users' group meeting. Speaking before a group of people typically gets easier the older you are, so don't worry: You will only get better at public speaking.

Another crucial aspect of successfully marketing yourself is to understand how you contribute to the business's success. The basics of any business are that more money has to come in than goes out, or as my father says, "income minus expenses must be greater than zero." How does your job at a business help to either create income or reduce expenses? In retrospect, with the benefit of time, I can now communicate what the benefit of my work in the 1990s was. However, it was not until 2005 that I learned how to communicate what I had done and the benefit that my experience brought to clients. I highly recommend that you understand the benefit that you provide the business before proceeding to the next step.

What Will You Market?

As I was maturing in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, I was always searching for some concept to market, something that I could use to tell a client "I can solve that problem"—in short, something that a client needed. I started off by saying that I could "build apps right." Unfortunately, that is a nebulous concept that clients can't see, feel, touch, or necessarily understand. Clients don't typically understand what building an application correctly means. They understand that they have identified a need in their business and are trying to fill that need. At the very least, clients want to know that they can trust you to build a solution. To that end, you have to provide them with something that they can see and that demonstrates how your expertise can solve their problem.

My second attempt at marketing was around the message of "scalability and databases." I tried to use the messaging that my apps could scale higher than anyone else's because I had a great understanding of database concepts, tables, referential integrity, indexes, foreign keys, and such. This was an adequate message. Sometimes clients had needs in that area, and I worked well with them. I used this message for a while. Unfortunately, I was conveying this message before "big data" became a familiar concept, and it was difficult for some clients to grasp this idea.

By the mid-2000s, I realized that clients needed to be able to see what I was trying to convince them of in a concrete way. I needed both a specific concept to market to clients and a way to present that concept in a tangible manner that clients would "get." Around 2005, the concept of AJAX took off, and I was "all in." AJAX solved several problems for me and was a good horse to ride for several reasons:

  • AJAX, and the type of interactivity that it brought to the table, offered functionality that users want.
  • Because AJAX did not involve full-page reposts to the server, it helped in the area of performance and scalability. I could keep my interest in performance and scalability.
  • It was easier to get clients on board with AJAX because they could easily see it. I could load a web page and easily demo to the user the benefits of AJAX.

It made so much sense, but there was also a problem with marketing my AJAX expertise that I didn't realize at that time. I had plenty of competition in the AJAX arena, which meant that to get and keep customers in this intensely competitive market, I had to limit the price that I could charge for providing my services as a consultant.

What Should You Promote?

After you've decide what you will market, you need to determine the area of expertise that you'll promote and the type of market segment you should go after. Clearly, if your business is the likes of an IBM, an Accenture, or a consulting company with an extensive market presence, the answer is whatever market segment you feel can be profitable. This usually means the largest market segments around.

However, you are not the only fisherman in the sea. You have some hurdles to overcome in establishing your presence in the market:

  • Basically, anyone can say he or she is a software developer. There is no legal requirement for certification of development skills. This is different from other professional service areas. If someone claims to be a professional engineer, lawyer, or doctor and is not, there can be serious legal consequences for those actions. Software development has no similar requirements.
  • The fact that software development is associated with a keyboard leads many management types to conclude that there is little difference between the "typing pool" of the 1950s and software developers today. The result is low wages paid to developers, or worse, outsourcing and offshoring to the lowest-priced bidder. Although IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and many other large organizations have the facilities and resources to make offshoring work, and work well, smaller companies have very little hope in getting outsourcing/offshoring to work. You must be able to communicate the value of your skills to a potential client's business; otherwise, it will be hard to sell management or "the Bobs" on your value to the organization.

Now, back to the question of what area developers should target for their expertise. Going after the largest market segment can actually be difficult because of the intense competition in a segment. As I mentioned, intense competition has a tendency to drive down prices. That's great if you are a client, but not so great if you're looking at the return on investment of learning a new technology as a consultant.

A better solution might be to go after a smaller market segment. My colleague, Julie Lerman, whom I respect immensely, provides an excellent example of a consultant who has found success in a niche market segment—in her case, Entity Framework (EF). When Microsoft developer professionals think of EF consultants, they likely think of Julie Lerman first. Julie has written multiple books and articles on EF and speaks frequently on the topic. She can take her expertise in that area and use that to sell her consulting services. EF is not necessarily the biggest technology topic, but Julie is top of mind when EF is discussed. The lesson learned is that being in a large market segment of technology, such as ASP.NET or Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), might not be the best idea. You need to narrow down your area of expertise to encompass a smaller scope.

So now you've determined a technology area that you want to dig into and become an expert in. You've delved into the relevant technologies, you understand how they benefit you as a developer, and you understand how the technology benefits your client/company. What do you do now? Now comes the hardest part for a developer. You actually have to go and market your expertise in that area. How do you do that? It's a two-step process:

  • You, the developer, must create the content that demonstrates your expertise. This undertaking includes but is not limited to writing books, writing magazine articles, doing webinars, speaking at groups/conferences, writing blog posts, and, essentially, doing anything and everything to get your message out to as many people as possible.
  • Once the material is created, your next task is to make sure that people know about this content. "Marketing the content" is the last step in the process, but the one that I see most people drop the ball on. Take a book, for example. Who is responsible for marketing a technology book? 99 percent of developers say it is the publisher's responsibility. WRONG! It is everyone in the chain's responsibility: the publisher, the author, the tech editor, and anyone else who has been involved with the book. What can a technologist do to market this content? Post blogs, tweets on Twitter, and Facebook and LinkedIn updates, as well as continually mention your content on any of many other online resources. Ask your friends for help. Don't be afraid to tell your coworkers about the content you've published. Let everyone know what you have done. You're proud of yourself; show it off!

What Client Market Segments Should You Pursue?

The issue of what market segments to target for offering your services is particularly relevant to consultants. To narrow down your chosen client market segment(s), you need to consider several factors:

  • Geographic. Is the market segment you're interested in associated with a certain geographic area? For example, Washington, D.C. is dominated by federal government agencies, Houston is dominated by energy companies, and so on. If your chosen market segment is focused in a particular locale, you might have to decide whether you're willing to travel. Another key consideration is whether you have subject matter expert skills relevant to the market segment.
  • Market segment popularity. If your locality is not dominated by one industry (e.g., government, defense, agriculture) and includes a mix of companies in an area, you might want to consider focusing on one of the smaller or lesser-known market segments. For example, real estate is a large company type nationally in the United States and because of this is targeted by many technology firms and consultants. (Ironically, as a result of this intense focus, real estate professionals have become jaded about most technology products except for multiple listing services and, more recently, real estate advertisement networks, such as Zillow.)
  • Whom you're selling to. Before you go out and market your expertise, you should understand who you will pitch your services to. For example, if you are a consultant, your best chance of success will typically be pitching your solution to a business leader in the organization. Trying to sell to the IT department might not be the best idea. An IT professional might view a developer with suspicion and see you a possible threat to his or her job. Selling to an IT department is not impossible though; it really depends on your relationship with them—especially if you have a "friend in court" in a company's IT organization.

Keep at It

One final thought in regard to marketing your expertise is that you must persevere. Making sales is not an easy thing. When you look at the percentage of sales that are made compared to the number of client contacts made, it is actually relatively low. It's important to stay in touch with a client. You don't necessarily need to contact the client daily, or even weekly, but a contact every so often can lead to results. The contact can be as simple as an email. The salient point to remember is that the key to success for promotion, marketing, and sales is to keep at it.

Also understand that you don't have to be a marketing expert, nor do you need a marketing degree to successfully market your expertise. You do need to understand some basics about human behavior and the area that you are working in. Ultimately, you will need to find the marketing approach that works best for you given your situation, the marketplace that you compete in, your business, and the clients, potential clients, and colleagues that you interact with.

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