From 1987 until 2000, TurtleSoft sold Excel templates for construction estimating and accounting. They were very profitable for about a decade. Demand was huge, because many construction businesses were just starting to computerize. Each template took a year or less to develop, so startup costs were minimal.
Unfortunately, templates also had problems. For one thing, Excel just isn’t designed to create easy-to-use apps. Users required almost four hours of phone support, on average, to get things running. Excel itself had a bug that sometimes zapped our code. Even worse, some things were just not possible to do in a spreadsheet. So, in 1993 we started writing a C++ app that later became Goldenseal.
Building desktop apps is hard. It took more than 10 programmer-years (and 7 real years) before Goldenseal 1.0 was ready to release. Template sales paid for the first 2/3, but the rest was financially scary. Between 2000 and 2015 we invested another 10 programmer-years in new features, bug fixes, and system updates. That got it up to the current version 4.96.
The hardest updates were for the Mac: moving from OS 9 to OS X, then from CodeWarrior to Xcode, then from PPC to Intel. Each transition took a few programmer-months. We hoped that the 64-bit update would be similar, but that was not to be. So far we’ve spent 4 or 5 programmer-years on the conversion. It’s in the home stretch, but Goldenseal Pro is still not finished.
As we inch towards completion, it’s time to think about how to price and distribute the new product.
For the past 32 years, TurtleSoft has used the same pricing model. You pay one up-front payment, and get a perpetual license, a printed manual, plus free lifetime support. Updates are optional, and not very expensive.
That worked fine when many companies were just starting to computerize. Unfortunately, the software industry has grown mature. New users are scarcer, so it’s harder to get a steady income from first-time sales. We found that out the hard way in 2007 to 2010, when construction collapsed.
These days, Microsoft, Adobe and Intuit have switched to online services as a way to keep income more steady. You pay them a monthly fee to use their software. Apple is also moving in that direction. It’s called SAAS (Software As A Service).
SAAS probably is not a good fit for Goldenseal Pro. For one thing, it takes time to set up. It also requires an Internet connection for users to retrieve data and/or the app. Our main audience is builders and remodelers. They often are mobile, or rural, or on jobsites without steady Internet.
SAAS also requires providers to run a server farm, and worry constantly about security. Based on past history, it seems almost guaranteed that there will be data breaches and/or outages. We would like to keep the free support going, because it provides good feedback for future product design. And we really don’t want hundreds or thousands of angry users to be calling. We are just not big enough to run a totally bulletproof set of servers. Nobody is.
I didn’t start this topic with a specific solution in mind. It’s a bit of a dilemma. Where should TurtleSoft go from here? Comments are welcome.