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The VistaDB Story

I think that a lot of developers working for someone else think about working for themselves either as an independent consultant (like me, for instance) or as the owner/vendor of a killer software product (I tried that once, too). Over the last few blogs I've talked about the history of a developer (Jason Short) who bought a software product in 2007 (VistaDB, reviewed here), significantly improved it, and started marketing it. You can read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of the blog series.

In July of 2010, Jason decided to call it quits as the owner of the company. He described the problem in his e-mail announcing his withdrawal from the company:

I may hold on to VistaDB, but it will be relegated to a nights and weekends type of activity. There will be no more full time work on VistaDB from me.... I am planning to spend my free time on a more advanced engine.

This sums up the problem for many developers who consider marketing a product that they've created. Initially this is a hobby: something they can work on nights and weekends. After marketing the product for three years, that hobby phase is starting to look attractive to Jason again.

In the hobby stage, as Jason notes, the developer has a lot of flexibility,

Items that don't interest me... will be dropped like a hot rock.... [I] know I could improve performance probably 10x over what it is today, but not without massive design changes. If this is a hobby/research project then I will make those changes... but without a way to make money on it there is little point in developing it as a commercial product.

But Jason also points out what changes when you become a commercial product vendor. As a product vendor Jason says he has to be "worried about backward compatibility... all the crazy upgrade paths." And that doesn't include customer support, advertising, maintaining the customer forums, and all the other requirements of being a real company.

This is the dilemma: developers start building a product as a hobby but when they move to selling it, the effort required by the product increases exponentially. Becoming a commercial product requires committing to at level of work moves the product out of the hobby, "nights and weekends" mode. The product now requires a fulltime commitment. And, if the developer doesn't make that time commitment, the product won't be able to keep its customers. But that commitment means the product has to produce enough revenue to support the developer... and any additional staff that the product now requires. As VistaDB's story demonstrates, it's an unusual combination of product and developer that will be able to make the leap from hobby to commercial product.

It's too bad, because VistaDB remains, I think, a great product. Hopefully, some smart company will buy it and continue its story.

Posted by Peter Vogel on 07/26/2010 at 1:16 PM

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