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As I move around from one project management assignment to another, I repeatedly find myself involved with a new software vendor. What stands out each time is how obvious and visible their underlying values and principles are underneath their day-to-day behaviour.

It seems to me that there are some core repeating patterns: and just four of them. My metaphor is DNA: there seem to be four main “genes” in each software company which express themselves as how vendors operate with their customers.

And like real genes, each birth creates a new combination, with one or other being dominant. But no matter the combination, as I parse the behaviour I keep coming back to just four underlying drivers of the passions and appetites of these companies.

I see software companies that are primarily:

  1. In love with making money
  2. In love with writing and managing software products
  3. In love with solving customer problems; and
  4. In love with reach (number of “eyeballs” on the product)

On these four attributes, you can also overlay competence: just because a person (or company) is passionate about something doesn’t mean they are any good at it.

Let’s unpack those four “genes” and the attributes that they manifest.

1. Your vendor is in love with making money

There’s nothing wrong with making money; I want my vendors to be making good profits, sustainably over time.

If not, then my investment in their software has a risky future. Making money, or at least the prospect of being profitable according to some plan, is an indicator of a good business and potentially a long-term partner.

But in my interactions with them, I don’t want to feel like it’s the main purpose; I don’t want to be just a gatekeeper to a wallet.

Money being the obvious driver taints our relationship: how can I trust the advice or recommendations I’m being given if I have to endlessly parse everything for vendor gain?

And such vendors seem to be very transactional: each new sale or upgrade is not seen as building a relationship, but simply “clearing the air” to allow yet another sales campaign to begin.

Try this with your vendor (if you don’t already recognise this trait in yours): change every sentence uttered by them to “Give me more money”. If the semantic value of the conversation doesn’t change, then you’ll know that this is their dominant trait, and you probably have a problem.

2. Your vendor is in love with writing and managing software products

There’s nothing wrong with being competent and proud of your software development skills and capabilities, but it can be taken too far: way too far.

Vendors with this dominant “gene” will pepper your interactions with comments about their internal people (how many PhD’s we have), processes and tools.

Your whole interaction with them will be shaped into their software development engine, their manuals and their processes.

You’ll be told that some capability you need has to be reviewed by the Product Managers at “head office” before it is added to the backlog that feeds their product roadmap. You’ll be warned that very few “enhancement requests” are successful and that even then there’s no guarantee that roadmap features will ever appear in a product release or when.

And even if you are willing to pay for your enhancements, you may be told that customised features are frowned upon because they create chaos in the code base and are a nightmare to manage. You’ll be encouraged to modify your business processes to take advantage of the current feature set.

This gene is particularly strong when a product has a unique capability that unlocks significant value in the customer. This situation over-amplifies this “gene”.

On the one hand it’s wonderful to know that such serious professional gravitas is going into your product; but on the other hand it’s bloody irritating (and value-subtracting) that the things you need don’t excite your vendor.

3. Your vendor is in love with solving customer problems

Working with a vendor like this can be like the start of a love affair: everything seems to be right, and everyone seems to be on the same wavelength – you say something and they say “I was just thinking that” and vice versa.

No matter what comes up, the vendor will find a way to solve your problem. Of course it might cost you something (see “making money” above), but it also might not. The vendor will regularly say “hey, this is a great feature that will enhance our product so we’re just gonna make the investment”.

It’s wonderful, but often only for a while.

Whilst it is not inevitable that the initial rush won’t last, all too often it comes to an end. Let’s assume that the company has good funding and can scale resources in a managed, non-impacting way. Your positive interactions won’t simply stop due to collapse.

But over time, such vendors can become the victim of their own success, ending up with too many commitments and being pulled in too many directions.

Gone is the ability to service any love of solving your problems. Gone is the laser-like niche focus that made the solution sing, and (at best) it’s replaced by an “all things to all people” monster, full of capabilities that you just don’t need, but still have to navigate around.

And gone is any stability in the product you use every day as new releases follow fast one upon the other, bringing new features, new defects and new confusion alike.

4. Your vendor is in love with reach (eyeballs)

The previous three attributes have been around since software houses evolved in the mid-20th century. They probably have been around in vendors everywhere since forever.

But this fourth gene is likely a new mutation that has become obvious in these days of SaaS and public cloud providers: it is a 20th century plague.

With so many options to provision and scale resources of all types, it’s possible to get a software capability up and running orders of magnitude more cheaply and quickly than ever before.

These days there is a ready and growing audience in the world that is willing to try new stuff, especially if it becomes a “trend”.

We have seen the most massive user movements ever as new and (initially successful) products come online: hundreds of thousands or even millions of users can adopt your vendor’s product in a heartbeat. The barriers to switching are lower than ever and news travels faster than ever.

Equally quickly, users can drop your product if a new and more attractive option comes along.

For specialised software, the same is true, just with smaller numbers of companies/users.

The software vendors can find this to be heady stuff: total endorsement of their vision, and very very addictive. They can show beautify charts of user growth sliding up and to the right. Hockey-stick curves abound.

But the drive for reach can be an end “in and for itself” rather than a by-product of a great piece of software. It can become the drive just to “get more eyeballs on the product”.

If management makes decisions to drive growth and increased reach for that objective alone, are those decisions aligned with unlocking customer value? Of course it must at the beginning, but how long does it last?

And buried in this growth-focused management thinking is the germ of another Ponzi-scheme, where new users (or new investors) are needed all the time to keep paying to drive the engine of growth.

Whilst it isn’t a given that this will cause the software vendor and its users to diverge, it seems like this is a common story.

And when Ponzi schemes collapse they collapse fast; customer relationships and customer value are instantly forgotten and lost in the wreckage.

Conclusion

There’s no one hard and fast rule about what combination of these genes produces the best attributes in software vendors, from a customer perspective, it’s clear that having just one as dominant isn’t ideal for customers or the vendor.

Ideally, you’d want a bit of balance amongst them all: at least you want them to be profitable, and good software engineers, in love with solving your problems. Growth and reach, I’m not so sure, but if they feed the other three sustainably over time, I’m all for it.

But what tends to happen, in my experience, is that one of these becomes dominant and overrides the others.

Strangely, this is not automatically a driver of failure. There are plenty of examples of successful vendors in which just one of these “genes” is over-amplified. But it doesn’t make life easy or pleasant for their customers.

What genes does your software vendor express?

Do you think there are other genes out there?