Windows optimize

When the right price for software is zero

Chip Camden recounts a situation in which he should have given a prospective client a code snippet for free because it could have led to more consulting work down the road.

 Consultants like to get paid for what we do. Sometimes it may seem to our clients that we're obsessed with that subject. But, after all, that is how we make our living.

Back when I was fairly new at consulting, a lot of developers in my niche market of Synergy/DE were just beginning to move their applications to the Microsoft Windows platform. It was a difficult migration for many of them, and it wasn't helped by the fact that we were still in the early days of Windows 95. These developers were used to powerful command-line development environments on Unix or OpenVMS, and Windows didn't provide any suitable development tools at that time (we could debate whether it does now). Translating their character-cell-oriented user interfaces into a GUI was an even more involved task. I took a lot of gigs helping developers port their applications and get them ready for prime time.

During this period, I attended a developer conference with the dual objectives of giving a presentation and finding new business. One of the attendees (who wasn't my client yet) approached me about how to do something fairly common in a Windows user interface: present a splash screen to the user while the application starts up. It seems like a trivial task, but at that time, it required a little C code to tie it in. I had solved this problem for several clients already, so I offered to provide the code for a minimal fee. I figured, after he sees how easily this slips in, he'll give me lots more work. Well, he wasn't in a position to approve a purchase at the conference, so he said he'd get back to me.

The next day another developer handed him a solution free of charge. I was bummed. He certainly would have become my client if it hadn't been for this other developer stepping in and underpricing me by 100%. To make matters worse, the developer was a friend of mine. I felt betrayed. What was he trying to do to my business by giving stuff away?

Later I realized that it wasn't his fault. First of all, he didn't know about my proposal. Also, it was my fault for losing the prospect. By putting a price tag on that little piece of code that I could write in my sleep, I erected a barrier to closing an engagement. I couldn't get my foot in the door until the potential client could get approval. I made it too hard for him to say "yes." I should have given him that little widget gratis -- then later when he had the inevitable and innumerable other questions about porting to Windows, he would have called on me again.

I had been trying to sell a product instead of a service. Guess what? Software doesn't sell for much on its own -- often it's free. What clients gladly pay for is not some package you've produced but rather the insight, wisdom, and direction you can provide. As often is the case when a sale falls through, my price was too high. The right price for that software was zero.

The other developer and I are still friends, though it took a lot of beer and billiards to get back to that point. And now, he's working as a consultant.

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About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

40 comments
reisen55
reisen55

In 1998 I was working as a technician for Computer City (remember?) in Manhattan. A goodly number of our clients were in the textile and garment district just around the corner from our office and our salesmen were making a good career selling Photoshop for their computers. I would make the product delivery and, as an add-on for good customer relationships, also give them the shareware version of Paint Shop Pro v. 3.1.1 (which is still a nice little thing by the way) for free as a tutorial-front end-learning tool for Photoshop and image manipulation. No good deed goes unrewarded. The customers promptly fell in love with the shareware version of PSP which met all of their needs, they bitched like hell about Photoshop (expensive) and the salesmen wanted to hang me out to dry on Bryant Park. Lesson learned.

OH Smeg
OH Smeg

What is Common Sense now I bet was a bitter lesson at the time. :D But it's exactly the same in all Business and Software Developing is no different to anything else being sold. When I worked for the only hardware provider of any note way before there where PC's this was a common thing to do but with Hardware rather than code that we wrote though this was also very common. Provided that we didn't lose too much money it was not only expected but it was a [b]Must Do[/b] to keep existing customers happy and the best advertising that we could do was to keep existing Customers ecstatic with our offerings was to allow them to do the work with as little down time as possible and any migrations as easy as we possibly could. Of course nothing ever when as expected or sold by the Sales Department but as we appeared to break out backs to help the customer or Potential Customer existing customers not only recommended out products but also asked for individual Techs by name. Once they got to trust one tech they wouldn't have anyone else at their place unless they came with the by them overworked guy to help out. That is something that I have carried on ever since as the [b]"Free"[/b] bit of help that you hand out has always be repaid a thousand times over in my very limited experience and it costs you much less than advertising your product to the stage where people ask for it by name. Of course when it reaches that stage others jump in on the bandwagon and say things like as Supplied by ......... to push their products. Example how many people actually use Bic Pens but even today years latter Ball Point Pens are all called Bic's. The big problem with Consulting is the need to get away from the idea of being a Developer and becoming a Sales Person as when it is all said and done you are not selling anything but yourself and if that comes across as Ideal for a Client you end up with a Job for as long as you want it and quite often much longer. :( Bit of a double edged sword there as I still have Mainframe Customers ask for me by name and they have not been using Mainframes for a very long time now. All these people are from Big Business or Government Offices when they first ran in to me and now that they are in the Private Sector they feel that the Tech that they used to have that fixed all of their problems quickly is the only guy to ask now. Not always a good thing but it happens. The funny thing is that what was then quick to them wasn't really that fast by todays standards but because we appeared to work hard to help them in their eyes we where worth every cent that was paid to us. Col

andrew.taylor
andrew.taylor

Oh please - it's "Could have LED to more work", not "lead".

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Do you give out freebies to attract business? How's that working for you?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... on Photoshop, if they didn't need all of its capabilities. The salespeople were to blame here for not accurately assessing users' needs.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Trust in you as a person -- that's what you really sold them. Most people would gladly pay double if it means the difference between knowing that the job is done right vs. having serious doubts.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

What "could have poisonous metal to more work" just doesn't work for you????? (Someone's obviously paying attention :> )

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Ahh, the eternal question of the loss leader/sale item. Give away something for less than cost in the hope of getting high margin sales in return. The problem of course being three fold: 1. When told they have to pay will the customer then balk because you've been giving away "but it's the same thing" for free? 2. Will the customer undervalue the rest of your work because you gave away something for free? 3. Will you get enough paid business from this to justify the cost of the free item? Didn't realize you were in retail did you?

apotheon
apotheon

Provide free (as in [b][url=http://copyfree.org]copyfree[/url][/b]) software, then offer a paid service that enhances the value a client gets from that software. I'm always looking for opportunities to do that sort of thing.

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

Both are good ideas when you have an end-goal in mind. 1)Shore up a resume: If my resume is weak in an area, or I haven't used the skill in a while, I'll give out a freebie or volunteer. That way I have something to point to for recent experience. 2)Making contacts/networking: Another good use for freebies is to make contacts and build good will out there. While it may not bring in business for the short-run, good will can be cashed in later. 3)Teasers and "look what I can do" items: If it's quick, clever and limited in scope, it's free. As you said Chip, it's a great door opener for the BIG BUCKS.

reisen55
reisen55

I am most careful of that myself. One of the worst aspects of sales in computers that the salesmen are under enormous revenue pressure to make even $0.10 on any sale and do not know enough technical aspects to talk reliably. My IBM experience with AS/400 taught me that if you can find software, retail on shelf, that hits about 80% of your needs, you are doing very well indeed. I like that little version of PSP by the way, it is small and quite fast.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Back in the days when I worked for Big Blue they wanted us to sell the Companies Service Side to the Customers. Even then we ended up selling ourselves tot he Customers and where the ones asked what was needed when new hardware was required of at problems what would we recommend to solve that particular issue. We ended up selling more new main frames that the sales department over time but we had to pass these sales onto the Sales Department so they looked better than they actually where. But at least the customers ended up with the right equipment for us to play with. Col

apotheon
apotheon

Is that the Google Chrome line-wrap I see?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... it ends up making more in the long run, but YMMV. Since I started Chip's Tips where I give away code examples, I've gained a several clients through that site alone.

marie-noelle.baechler
marie-noelle.baechler

It's also a deeper question for clients. Why are we asking for free services? What do we expect from them? What weill be the consequences? How are we going to use them? There is at least one case where a free service is the norm: when a company issues a call for formal offers, this one is done for free and it contains a lot of insights (on how a given company works and is going to solve a given problem). When we have a long term contract with a company (a support contract, for example), it is possible to ask for small "extras" that goes a bit beyond what the contract covers. It ma strengthten the long term relationship and it may be helpful, for example, to have more informations (or point of view) before making a decision. But a such service must be limited (usually, at most one day of work) and it can only be asked a limited number of times. There are cases whwre we want to test new compagnies and when this test happens outside a formal contract or call for offer. It is this sort of occasion where it may make sense to ask for a limited service, for example a presentation on a given topic during two hours (preparation not included).

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

It's called Sales not quite the same thing though very similar. Col

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Code: algorithms, tips, tricks, even whole modules aren't worth a lot on their own. It's knowing how to use them to your advantage that's the real value. Besides, selling code is a one-time transaction. Selling services (enhancements, maintenance, and "where do we go from here?") is ongoing.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, I spend time on #1 -- and blog it. It seems like I tend to blend #2 and #3, but there really are (at least) three distinct benefits, as you enumerated.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... have a history of buying great software from small companies, and then ruining it. The canonical case being Symantec acquiring Norton.

jck
jck

Yeah, that was a nice little program. I was using that back in about 1996. Proof positive that good apps come out of small business. Just finding and getting them shareware before the big business buys them out is the hard part! lol :^0

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

SWMBO seems pretty lenient ;) No network in the bathroom? That's where I get my best ideas! But I suppose your wireless reaches there.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

That I shouldn't make any mention of the rack of Netfinities 5000 that I have or the number of HDD's for them hey? :D I currently have one of the rack ones running Nix as a Gateway now all I have to figure out is a way to stop it sucking up dust. I have to shut down and clean out at least once a week to keep it running. It's developed a problem of not accepting a Boot Drive in a Holder so I've just pulled the Holder and slipped in the drive. It's currently growing Dust Bunnies like crazy. :D Lets see that rack is about 6 feet high and only 20 or so feet long came out of a ISP that was upgrading their gear and I got all of the Old stuff that I wanted. Well after all I owned it so what's the issue? Other than upgrading the CPU's to as fast as they can go and Max out the RAM they will keep going for years without a problem. I used to use Virtual Machines once but ran into space Problems on the HDD's so I now tend to keep one machine per Distro/Job and just let it do it's thing as required. And I keep a Dell here to remind me just how bad they can be Domestic Dell's and me just don't mix well I'm afraid. :( When we moved in here I said Great I can use all downstairs as a Lab and I do have 1 of the bedrooms upstairs as a Lab. The first thing was to run CAT Cable through the place from the Main Lab to downstairs, 2 other bedrooms and the Living Room. The Dell was going to go there as a DVD Player as that's about all it's good for and I'm way too lazy to pull the DVD Player and fit it to another unit while it's still working. Much easier to upgrade the sound to 7.1 Fit a decent Vid Card so I can feed a VCR the signal and the audio goes to the Surround Sound Amp and the M$ Remote works the unit great only requires a USB Port to work so changing the Sound & Vid cards inserting a HD Capture Card made a ideal DVD Player and HD Receiver and better still [b]SWMBO[/b] couldn't complain about a computer in the living room. :D However she refused to allow me to wire up the master Bedroom claimed I was taking over the entire house and leaving her out of what I was doing so I installed a WiFi Router as a Gateway Device well the ISP did actually and I've just locked it down a lot more than their Default Config. So now I can use a NB in bed and not offend her too much. Currently only the Bathroom, Toilet, Kitchen and Master Bedroom don't have Cable Connections as I don't need any of them there yet. :^0 This is what happens to you when you stop punching code out, you acquire Hardware like there is no tomorrow and use it a lot. Well I still write a bit of code but no where near as much as I used to now I've just got to fit a few more DVD Burners to all that I've got here and as I have a New 775 M'Board and Vid Card all I need now is to pickup some RAM and a Quad Core CPU and I'll have another system up and running. Will not be as good as my old Dual CPU P11 as it doesn't have On Board SCSI but it will fit nicely into it's case and I'll not have a problem with bringing home [b]Another Computer.[/b] ;) Now if I'm allowed to get a Metal Lathe I'll be happy and only need to buy the occasional new tool after I get all of the required Lathe bits and pieces. But I also need [want] a Milling Machine so that will come next. :D Not a good mix metal shavings, oil fumes and computers downstairs so I can move more of them upstairs and just have the Computer Controlled Lathe & Milling machine downstairs. :^0 If I dig up the right Lathe I can run a Token Ring downstairs just for the fun of it. :0 Col

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I had started collecting liveCD to run against a VM specific too the task but with every distro now including a liveCD that has become a moot point. Now, if my system rebuild goes well this weekend and my bridge chips stop overheating the system, I'll be getting back to VM'd clusters and LDAP/AD groupings. I can also add my groupware VM back into the standard boot process.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I've only got six bootable systems here -- I must be slipping. But I do use VMWare to test out a lot of different OS/software configs. So if you count all my VM's, I'm at about 30.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I personally miss the Netfinity 5000 that sat under my desk for a few years but I couldn't afford to replace the aging bits of hardware and for whatever reason, it stopped accepting OS install disks. Most recently, I was told in no uncertain terms that bringing home a decommissioned payphone would not be acceptable since it wasn?t a classic design; even if it did have working coin and card slots still. :( I once tried to tell the co-workers here why I needed more than three bootable machines in humble and common terms. I believe the rebuttal was a conversation on why they needed such large selections of various fashion accessories and bags while I only needed one well designed though less fashionable pack to lug my regular gear around (not to be sexist, I just happen to work in a mostly female office).

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

But [b]SWMBO[/b] insists that 99.999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999% of the community wouldn't even know what a real computer is let alone some of the fun stuff that I get to play with err I mean work on. :^0 Many years ago I tried to bring home a retired Main Frame but wasn't allowed to. :( I also tried to bring home a 21 foot bed Computer controlled Lathe a few years after that but I wasn't allowed to hire the required semi to transport it. On both occasions [b]SWMBO[/b] said something about not having enough room but I said I could make room even if the bed and all the furniture int he house ended up outside for a curb collection I could make room. Of course the new floor int he garage for that lathe would have been a bit expensive as it would have gone straight through the 3 inch concrete that was already there. But I've got a Dual Quad Core Xeon here well the M'Board, PS, CPU's and RAM well only 16 GIG of it, all the SCSI HDD that I can fit to the M'Board and so on and all of the required plug in cards all I'm waiting for is to sneak in a case to fit it to when [b]SWMBO[/b] isn't looking. It's amassing what we can accumulate when we are not looking. :0 Currently I'm on with drawl and only have 7 Computers running here with another 25 under the house awaiting room to be made for them to be setup and I use them all though most other people can not understand this I do need that many and more just to do my job. :D Well that's my story and I'm sticking to it. :^0 Col

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Oh Baud how I want a rack at home now after doing the reading for a recommendation to a client. Sadly, it takes so much to support my habit. Worse still, it's a completely legal habit of no interest to 90% of people. (edit): 3350, not 3355; posting before cofee

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Not so sure about it now though as they sell off big parts of their business way too often for my liking. But on the server side of things they do have a lovely 2000 CPU Blade unit with only 2 leads sticking out th back and one of those id a Power Lead. :D What they do do well is support SUSE on the Server as they guarantee to have a software fix for a problem within 48 hours I think that they do the same with Red Hat as well but I have no direct experience with that Distro on their hardware. What they find it impossible to do is Market any of their products and that drives me crazy. Really nice hardware really sloppy Marketing Department. :0 Col

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... definitely knew how to do some things right. Maybe they still do, I haven't had that much interaction with them.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

on TechRepublic, the problem seemed to be fixed. Lets see if this one wraps correctly... Nope. I wonder what happened that one time?

apotheon
apotheon

I have some hazy memory of WordPress stripping out newlines when there aren't two of them in a row, making it occasionally difficult to format things the way I'd like. It wouldn't likely be in WordPress code itself, though -- probably in some PHP function for translating plain text into HTML (something like nl2br(), perhaps). Of course, nl2br() doesn't actually do that, so it'd have to be some other function if that's the problem. Eh, I don't know. I'm just speculating.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

In the WordPress code that would strip out returns. I think, though, that Chrome should be posting the data without returns except where they were entered by the user. Windows edit controls can differentiate that.

apotheon
apotheon

Now I'm [b]really[/b] curious. I haven't checked recently. Does WordPress automatically eliminate newlines when there aren't two of them together? That would probably explain the difference in behavior between WordPress and Jive.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

It doesn't seem to be a problem on all sites (my blog, for instance, doesn't wrap) -- so I don't know what's going on with that.

apotheon
apotheon

Along with a couple other issues, the need for a fix or work-around for that line wrap quirk is one of the reasons Chrome couldn't be my primary browser right now -- even if there was a version of it for my favored platform (which there isn't, yet).

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I don't know why they would do so, even accidentally, but it's definitely the Chrome talking.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch At the very least, you're allowing a relationship to begin to develop. That relationship could become a dependency. Not that that's a bad thing, but something everyone should be aware of.

Jaqui
Jaqui

Open Source Business Model. :D software is free, support, enhancements etc are what is paid for, just like every open source company. [ Red Hat, Mandriva, openSSL / openBSD to name some. ] yes, openSSL used on all open source operating systems, and in commercial unix systems more often than not, is a division of the openBSD project / company.