Swotting for success

Written by Dave Collins, SoftwarePromotions Ltd.

Not so long ago, I impressed the daylights out of a friend, by showing him his face on my PC’s screen. As I tapped away at the minus key, the picture slowly zoomed-out, revealing that it was a picture of the two of us, and it soon became clear where the picture was taken. As I continued to zoom out, more details came into view; the picture was actually a small part of a scanned photograph of the two of us sitting by my desk, watching the monitor. The photo was merely lying on the desk when the high-resolution picture was taken.

Aside from the fact that even just viewing this high-resolution picture took up obscene amounts of disk space and memory, and slowed down my PC to the speed of a Sinclair ZX-81, the story also serves as a fairly long-winded analogy to an important business concept. We constantly lose track of the big-picture; we forget what we’re trying to achieve, and get sidelined dealing with email enquiries, financial issues, bug-fixes, submitting our site to the search engines and other day to day tasks. All part of running a small web-based business. The bigger companies have staff to deal with the correspondence, answer the phone, market their products and spend day or weeks on getting their new logo just right. We do not.

But there’s a serious risk to this; not only is it incredibly easy to lose track of where you are and what you’re doing, chances are you won’t even see the threats and opportunities that may be passing you by without you even realising.

Which is why I love the SWOT analysis – one of the few genuinely useful tools that I picked up during my years at the Leeds Business School. SWOT stands for Strengths, Opportunities, Weaknesses and Threats – and offers a fast, simple and powerful tool for internal and external appraisal.

The idea that you as a company should play to your strengths and improve on your weaknesses is a simple and obvious one, but first of all you need to identify them. Ten minutes is all you need to give this a go… and you might well be surprised at just how useful it really is.

Your strengths
What are your strengths? What are you good at? Perhaps it’s an established name and reputation, or that of your software. Maybe you have something unique that people need and use, or maybe your current price is what really sets you apart from the competition. Don’t go for being modest here – what makes you good? And what makes your software so desirable? Distribution methods could be a strength – if you rely solely on internet distribution, then this is as hands free as its gets. Or maybe your manual that registered users receive is seen as the bees-knees of the PC world.

Chances are that drawing up the list of your strengths brought a few weaknesses to mind. Every potential strength has an equal chance of being a weakness; perhaps you’re relatively new to the software industry, and don’t yet have an established name. Maybe your software isn’t really that good, or maybe there’s no real demand for it – be honest here, or you’re wasting your time. Is there really anything that sets your software apart from the competition? Or are you just one of the many, who will get a certain percentage of the market sales by the simple statistics of random choice? If your sole distribution method is through the internet via downloading, is the file small enough to be a realistic download?

Now we’re getting onto the good stuff. Based on your listed strengths and weaknesses, a few possible opportunities must have presented themselves. Perhaps you should be adding your software to more download sites? Not just the big ones, but as many as possible. Think about it – how long does it take you to add your details to Boomer’s Shareware Shake-Down? Okay so the chances of someone finding your software there are low, but how many sales do you need to make those two or three minutes worthwhile? Better still, have someone do it for you. What about getting a write-up in a magazine? You don’t think the editors already have enough content do you? Take advantage of Al Harberg’s service, and get your name out there.

How about producing a CD version of your software, or putting together a printed manual? At the time of writing this article, we’re doing a review of an application named Windows Commander, and registered users get a single A4 page folded into a booklet. Know what? We love it! Simple instructions and shortcut key reference; it looks like it’s been printed on a decent laser printer and photocopied. And it’s as good-looking and professional as some of the printed manuals we receive.

How about different language versions? Perhaps not as difficult to implement as you might think. Don’t be constrained here – don’t think ideas through to the bitter end before rejecting them, just get them written down.

The nastier part of the process – chances are there are more dark clouds hanging over you than you realise. If one of the basic principles of warfare is to know your enemy, one of the pillars of good business should be to see your threats. Threats can come in many different forms; one of the most likely is competition. Have you had a look at what’s out there lately? Do you know who your competition is, what they sell, and how popular they are? Are they more popular than you? If so then why? Maybe new technology is going to pull out the carpet from under your feet, or for that matter new developments. If your software is an animated GIF maker, then you should be watching industry developments in this are very closely right now. Especially if you depend on it to make a living.

Example. At the time of writing this article, Enfish Tracker Pro was one of the most impressive applications that I had ever come across. It allowed me to track data throughout my PC, and does so crossing all boundaries – data type, application source, network, internet and so on. One of the main things that I initially used it for was searching through the many thousands of emails that I had collected over the past few years. At the time I used Eudora Pro, and no matter how carefully I structured sub-directories and groups, hunting for a particular letter can still be fairly time consuming. Enfish was my saviour in this particular arena, and would be still today, had it not been for the release of version 4.2 of Eudora. Among other things, the search features have been vastly improved, and allow me to search using any combination of subject, author, date and so much more. This feature of the Enfish software is now largely redundant.

Keep an eye on new technology – it can sneak up on you quicker than you think. And if your software enhances or improves other products, the next release might leave you stranded. The same principle applies if your software largely depends on the features of a particular operating system. Off the top of my head, I could name more than ten applications that will be totally redundant when Windows 2000 is finally released. You do already know about the new features of this “operating system of the future” don’t you?

The SWOT analysis won’t produce or create anything for you, it’s merely a tool. For many of us, it’s main purpose will be to prop open our eyes and force us to lift our heads and see the bigger picture. Focusing on what we’re good at and what needs improving is vital, and the importance of seeing the opportunities and threats that are out there can’t be overstated. Look at your software and business in general as a trophy. Wipe off the dust, polish the shiny bits, and maybe swing over the spotlight to show it off. Looks good, doesn’t it? You might also want to move the vase before it falls on it, oh and for god’s sake get that stand fixed before it collapses… Be seen, be sold.

Written by Dave Collins, SoftwarePromotions Ltd.