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Book Review: Eric Sink on the Business of Software

The business of software usually gets tons of footage by the tech media covering its various facets: products, people, organizations, its economics, business models, technology trends and myriad other related things. So one would think that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to say something original. However, this collection of blog entries by noted blogger Eric Sink, founder of SourceGear, a vendor of source code control system, and developer of a Web browser at Spyglass that later came to become Internet Explorer, manages to do just that. He does so by focusing on workings of a lesser known niche in software business, that of privately held small ISVs, relating to his own personal experiences in a very engaging manner.

If you are like me and rely mostly on news reports, either in print or online, to track your industry then you mostly read about VC backed startups or large publicly traded companies. It is too easy to forget or not realize that software started as a cottage industry and there still are a lot of mature, privately held small companies building and selling profitable products literally from a cottage. Their workings, forces driving key decisions and a lot of other things differ from the younger VC backed startups or bigger publicly held ones in significant ways. Eric's essays talk about this difference and the realities, both good and bad, of being small.

If you are looking at starting your own software company or just interested in gaining deeper insight into this segment of the industry then go, buy this book. In fact you don't even have to do that -- most of the essays are freely available on Eric's blog. But I must mention that even though I had read some of the essays online, reading them in the book, away from the computer and thousands other exciting things just a click away on the net, was a a much more positive experience.

Although most of the essays are original, informative and highly readable, some stand out from the crowd: Whining By a Barrel of Rocks talks about opportunities for small ISVs with the analogy of a barrel filled with large stones (ie; big apps) but still capable of holding many more small pebbles; Starting Your Own Business contains nuggets of street-smart advice for wannabe software entrepreneurs; Make More Mistakes recounts Eric's decisions and actions in his career as an entrepreneur that didn't work out the way he had hoped; Great Hacker != Great Hire critiques the famous piece by Paul Graham points out the considerations of developing software and doing business in a real world.

Actually, there are more than the above four that stand out, but I will leave it here. In fact, one of the quotes that I like most appears in The Game is Afoot: "This issue is not a check box; it's a slider." Although the comment was made in context of being conservative or bold, I think it applies to most issues we encounter. Very few things in life are either black or white. They need careful deliberation within a given context and a balanced response. In fact, Eric manages to illustrate this very seemingly obvious but difficult to practice idea in the domain of small ISV with help of a number of analogies with popular games in The Game is Afoot essay.

As much I liked the book, this review will not be fair without a discussion of its shortcomings or boundaries, at least the way I see. Keep in mind that the book is a compilation of blog entries based on personal experience and beliefs, not a work of research. So do not expect official or industry analyst numbers or survey results to back up the claims. Want to know about the approximate number of small ISVs in US and total revenue generated by them have changed over last 5 years, 10 years?. No luck. In fact, the book doesn't even mention these numbers for any year.

Also, I found the essays to be too heavily leaning towards desktop software. Given the emergence of the Web, its potential to disrupt established players and its friendliness to individuals and smaller organizations, it is indeed surprising that Eric doesn't talk much about Web based software opportunities. In fact, lately there have been many success stories where services built and operated by single individuals or very small teams have become very popular and bought by bigger companies.

Another unescapable idea in the world of software that finds scant mention in these essays is open source software and the embodied development process. And I don't necessarily mean the launching a business based on open source software, but rather how to reconcile with the fact that open source software exists and all businesses have to survive and thrive in the same world. This is perhaps explained by author's own experience as recounted in Making More Mistakes essay. His lone effort to create an Open source software turned out to be a failure, at least from financial perspective. So much so that Eric listed this as one of the mistakes. Perhaps therein lies the true message!


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