Community and Independent Developers

This morning, I posted an article that was highly critical of Matthew Drayton’s management of the Interarchy file transfer application since he, as Nolobe, purchased it from the original developer. Specifically, I was frustrated with the lack of communication and shutting of communication channels between the big 9.0 release and the much-needed 9.01 bug fix which just came out.

Only a few hours after I posted this article, Matthew contacted me to apologize for the release and also to explain the circumstances which made a timely release of 9.01 impossible. As my criticism was both public and unjustified, I’ll apologize here, publicly, for this criticism. I have also unpublished that article.

However, beyond the specific criticism, it does demonstrate the importance of maintaining open communication with your customers. While most customers respond favorably to open communication, I think it’s especially important for small and independent companies, including independent software developers. This is probably even more important for independent developers who sell exclusively online, since their customers are much more likely to be part of the blogging/forum posting/twittering crowd.

People who purchase from independent developers act like grass roots supporters of a political campaign. Whether or not it’s justified, they feel that they are on a first-name basis with their favorite software’s developer, and they tend to especially watch new products from the same company.

This relationship is based on trust and communication. Those developers who actively maintain blogs, participate in forums, or who simply email quickly and responsively to requests can generate very passionate users. (Even if their software isn’t terribly high quality!)

Of course, those supporting customers come to count on this open communication. If it breaks down, it can leave customers feeling abandoned, and make them lose faith in the developer and their software. It can cause them to cease upgrading or even to defect to other programs. And, of course, there’s the beatings that an unresponsive developer can face on forums such as VersionTracker and MacUpdate.

What some developers overlook (and, again, I am not picking on Matthew here) is that this intimacy is a two way street. Just as the open communication helps users learn to use their software better, it is also a fantastic tool for priming the market for new updates and new products. And, perhaps even more importantly, it creates opportunities for the developer to get their users’ aid when they need it. Whether that’s a request for patience on an overdue update, advice on where to move web hosting to, or to gather a group of volunteer beta testers or even contributors. (documentation wiki, anyone?)

When Nolobe went “dark,” and stopped posting to blogs and pulled its forums, I lost confidence in the company and the software. I hadn’t upgraded to Interarchy 9 and was still using 8 until a less buggy version was available. Even though the developer was doing his utmost to get that 9.01 update out the door, it took a few months.

In the grand scheme of things, that isn’t much.

On the other hand, I’ve been using Interarchy (well, Anarchie and then Interarchy) for more than ten years. Seeing it change owners and then become unreliable on the next update is something else entirely.

Should Matthew have posted, at a minimum, a blog entry saying “It’ll come out later, please be patient?” It couldn’t have hurt. When a favorite restaurant is closed, you at least expect a sign saying when they’ll be open again – whether that’s tomorrow morning and you just caught them outside of business hours, or if it’s in a few weeks while they renovate.

Sometimes a person doesn’t even have the time or energy to even do that much. But for the users, the faithful supporters of a business, that note can mean everything.

Want proof? I just purchased the Interarchy 9 upgrade I’d been holding off on.

I didn’t buy it by way of apology for my undue critique. I bought it for two reasons: It fixed the bugs that made me hold off on the upgrade in the first place; and Matthew’s prompt and charitable email, even after my harsh criticism of Matthew himself – not just his software or his company. This email restored my faith in Matthew and Nolobe as stewards of one my mainstay programs. After all, what could be more personal and intimate than that personal email?

Twitter, Facebook

Written on April 15, 2008