One-Man Shows Don't Build Great Businesses

Posted by on Saturday 28th of May 5:16 PM
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It's 2016 and Conversational Commerce, bots, and automation is on everybody's mind. Automating the conversation between a human and a support answer box sounds like a godsend to small startup teams -- getting all the benefits of support without any spend on time and money on the real work. Everything is great. Except it's not. The customer experience has been going downward for at least a year now, especially with small solopreneurs.

My argument in this post would be that I think that small (startup) teams have a really hard time to keep up with the demand a big business has not so many problems to keep up with.

I see that, in the new are of mobile, a lot of praise goes towards small developer teams. Many times these praises go to this one person with that great idea who is able to make an app out of it.

The problem is that, while these folks are able to make an app, they don't make a business. (read: The E-Myth Enterprise or The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber) I repeated it many many times throughout the years:

It's better to keep your IDE closed for a couple of weeks and just work on the things that are left then.

The App Era

In the new mobile business, apps are often marketed as:

  • carefully crafted
  • automagically working
  • a bliss to use

And while these things are sometimes be true, the rest of the app, i.e. the "business", is not as carefully crafted, "magical", or even showing a glimpse of a bliss.

I have interviewed a handful of people in my surrounding what their experience is, and the feedback has been overwhelmingly consistent: Well, even if I send these folks an email about my problem, I usually don't get an answer. You can't talk with these people about their app, you can't get an insight what their thinking is, you can't ask what their strategy is for the next two or three years because… there is none.

Often times the customer experience is more than frustrating. Either the creator of an app doesn't answer at all, or doesn't respond to what has been asked. Many see support as a needless waste of their time.

At the same time business expert Dave Crenshaw argues that answering emails is a job that makes $1000 per hour! The reason is super simple. Answering emails is communication between one's business and other folks to potentially connect to. You can read Gerber and other startup resources for more information, the gist is always the same. Being responsive is part of your business. It's something that keeps the business in balance.

I'm sympathic to the engineers, because I'm an engineer myself (or at least I was an engineer 10 years ago). I can see the point. Working on engineery things is a hell lot of fun, but at the same time it's not business. I'll take Gerber again as example here. He thinks people are divided in three:

  • The technician
  • The entrepreneur
  • The manager

There's a certain psycho therapy technique doing the same thing, where a patient has different roles, thus different people with different needs, they need to fill, but I forgot how it's called. That gives Gerber's point a little more root, in terms of scientific views.

What I want to get at is that the economy of "no support" has led to changes how I approach these companies. The praised one-man-show, is a no-man-show for me, and a no-money-show, after the first conversation. It's led me to a strategy to deal with the problem, but I'm absolutely not happy about it. What I learned from many instances of bad customer experience, is that it works best to be pushy, emotional, and aggressive.

Hey, what's the status? Are you there still? Are you still working on this issue? Have you had time to look into the problem? Over, and over, and over again. It's super annoying and unnecessary. Man, if these folks just had a machine I could talk to… That would be super not awesome at all.

Most businesses I talk to try to find problems, rather than fixing them. I don't have to tell that it's not my problem to find the problem, I can see it right in front of me. Customers need it to get fixed, so that they can continue what they were doing.

Being what I consider "aggressive" is, from my experience, the strategy that gets me the result I want. Sometimes one-word answers yield much better results than lengthy details emails. Sometimes I just write:

Thank you for taking the time to respond but my time is more valuable than writing this email and getting the problem fixed.

People don't understand that taking just 5 minutes of a day out to get in touch with them is so precious. That's 5 minutes a human never gets back and decideds to ask about a problem instead. Why is not handled carefully?

After such an explanation these small companies are much more open to the conversation. They do get this explanation. It's just that they don't get it at first.

This post is not about what apps brought us. It's what the experience has come to be like as a customer. Small teams are not very responsive -- especially not in the app business. They just want to solve a technical problem. Do they even respond to emails? The overwhelming answer from a circle of acquaintances: no, they don't.

2Do had gotten a lot of praise in early 2016. It's a really cool app. However: one dude only is making the app. You can probably tell by now, how reassuring it is to invest money into such an app.

It's not that the app is not taken care of, it's that the business around the app is not taken care of.

What Started App Hell?

In the preparation for this post I had to think what started all this? Was it always this way? I found out is wasn't! In the 2000's until 2010, I'd say, the app phenomena started. On the Mac I can remember the very early bundles. MacHeist was a lot of fun. The Mac was known as a thing where a small individual can write an app to make their money. It was great! But also that thinking lead to its demise, on the mobile platforms later. The dream of making an app, just an app…

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Let's talk about good products though. It was true that small teams could build a great app, and we actually had some very good products. A couple of days ago I had to rip a DVD. (One I owned, by the way.) The only app I knew that does this job really well? RipIt by The Little App Factory. While the app has seen better days, the app always did a fantastic job. One thing that was phenomenal about their app was that they promised it would rip any DVD.

Where do I report a disc that won't rip?

If you have a disc that just doesn't want to be ripped, please contact us. We'll order the disc for testing just in case it contains some super sneaky protection.

I hope it becomes clear what I mean. This is a promise they made to the customer. Something that puts a lot more value into owning the product.

Building a Sustainable Healthy Company

Now, I don't mean that app developers should start to make "promises", because that doesn't go anywhere. "We'll respond in 24 hours or less." That's not the point. The point is that talking to an AI, or someone who finds problems, rather than fixing them, doesn't get the customer anywhere. I say AI because that what it feels like to talk to small companies. It's like there some sort of dummy taking care of the business. "Press 1 to report an issue with the product. Press 2… Press 3… Press 9 to talk to a human being." "Oh please let me press 9!"

I have seen this happening time and time again, and there are only a handful people I know who deliver a consistent customer experience througout. One of such companies is the OmniGroup. I'm a user of OmniFocus, OmniGraffle, and OmniPlan. While these apps are not at the pinnacle of technology. The team at Omni works on customer support, social media, business development, etc. They do work these things. They do realize these things are not a drag. These things build a healthy sustainable company.

Are you a small company who can't do these things? Challenge yourself.


The conclusion for this article would be that I do love these tiny apps built by one person who had a great idea, and actually were able to ship the product. But also that my, and others, view on these great ideas has changed. 5 years ago everything was great. Now customers are happy to even get a response to simple questions. The "value" of small businesses is greatly deminished, because small businesses don't work on things that put value into the business.

After reading all of this, what do you think is your app worth? Is a $20 app expensive? What about $5? $5 for a small app is a lot of money. What do you think your business is worth?