Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Marketing

I am crap at marketing. In a perfect world, I'd never have to sell anything. I'd just be. But the world is not perfect. And why waste time creating computer software if you can't sell it?

One of the reasons I began the quest to learn Java was that the version of my software written in VB6 is sitting on 600 CD's, which now gather dust in my living room. I spent a year writing to, calling and visiting schools, but the revenue generated was barely compensation for the installation time, let alone marketing, let alone development.

Out of 221 schools on the target list (essentially primary schools in the metropolitan area of Perth, Western Australia), 61 agreed to a meeting and a trial on at least one computer, and 16 actually paid for a full site license. The official price was $660, but I let some have it for half that, and I always threw in a day's worth of installation and training. I didn't charge for the two or three presale visits, and for the three to six month evaluation and decision making period, I had no income. After a year of this, and a negative income after operating costs, I pulled up stumps and let the software rot.

Was the product crap? Of course I am biased, but I don't think so. A group of schools in the remote Pilbara region used Federal Government grants to fly me out to install the software and train staff. A number of schools paid me to address "PD" staff training sessions. Two regional radio stations interviewed me on the software and what it was trying to do.

What went wrong? Essentially, I ran out of steam. For one person to develop, market, and support a product is to much to ask.

Successful "education" software is mainly produced by games companies, who have an existing marketing and support infrastructure. Even the software is produced mainly by games developers, and the curriculum content is traditionally minimal.

Latterly, some software has begun to appear on the web, with a slightly higher quality content. Mathletics is one. My daughters use it at school, and for a while they were keen to use it for homework. But their interest waned after a few weeks. Now they use my software at home just as often, perhaps to please me.

The bottom line is that designing software, which covers the curriculum, records progress, and is sufficiently interesting to captivate the attention of children for more than a few hours, is a task so enormous, so difficult, and so expensive, that neither the public nor the private sector has yet attempted to do it properly.

I freely admit that both my CD software and my web-based software only scratches at the surface of the primary school math curriculum. But I'm not going to sit at home and dedicate the rest of my life to reinventing the wheel if I can't get people to use what I have done already.

Selling my web-based software really shouldn't be that hard. It's free! But so far, offering it to just two schools to try out has been like trying to push shit up hill.

The first was the local school in the country town, where I now live. I have lived here, repairing computers, for five years, I have four children, and I sit on the local Council, so getting an appointment was not a problem. And the meeting went very well. I had been told that the new deputy principals, a husband and wife team, were dead keen on computers, and on their application in education. And sure enough, they understood what I was saying and were enthusiastic about what they saw. They said they would address the next staff meeting on the subject and get back to me.

Silence followed.

Many weeks later the same team were invited into a Council function. A few days before the function, I put in a phone call to ask what had happened, but the call was not returned. At the function itself, where I was in the role of host, rather than salesman, I sought them out again to ask what had happened. Unable to run away, or avoid me, I sensed awkwardness, even fear. After much vacillation and skirting around the subject, all I got out of them was that I would need to talk to the principal. So far I have not bothered. The application is not permanently hosted yet, and it would be premature to make a fuss. I called on them, because I had been told they would be interested. They were, but some invisible barrier rose up and prevented further progress.

The second was my daughters' primary school. Again, as a parent, I had easy access to an audience with the school principal, and just as with the first school, she purported to like what she saw. She even later wrote a polite note extolling the virtues of the software, but enclosed the CD, which she was returning to me. So I tried the guy who emails the school newsletter, and he passed me to the lady who runs the computers. I got the CD back to her, but after a couple of failed attempts to meet (my contact with the girls is infrequent and erratic), she was also wanting to return the CD, saying the school had access to "plenty of resources". I'll remember that the next time they write to parents asking for money.

Prior to contacting these schools, I had assumed they would be friendly, and suitable candidates for a pre-release trial of the software, tolerant of glitches, and willing to try subsequent editions. They have made it clear that they are not. And while ten years have passed since I was last knocking on doors, and awareness of technology has improved, teachers are as conservative as ever, entrenched in their daily routine, and deeply suspicious of anything unfamiliar.

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