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your product is free because youre lazy and scared

March 9, 2009

David over at 37signals had a nice post today about why startups seem to have abandoned charging customers for goods and services: "How did the web lose faith in charging for stuff?.

Of course, I agree with charging people for a quality product. I make my living doing it. However, I think there's a point he's missing in there. It's a point that people often put aside as not the primary reason, but I think it's a much more prominent factor than people think. What's changed in the past few years is that many startups are founded by programmers and programmers are inherently lazy.

In most cases, this is a good trait for a programmer. It leads to wanting to do things more efficiently, maximize speed, and can even lead to better quality IMHO. However, when it comes to running a business this attribute has some negative consequences. In my work the one I most often see is the total disregard for customer service.

Customer service is almost always viewed as a necessary evil. Annoying customers always poking around looking for answers to things which are right in front of them and causing us to take time out of programming to help them.

So this leads into the great cop-out. Make it beta and hey, make it free. Those 2 tags let the programmer get out of so much. Customer has a problem? Screw off, it's free. Can't find a phone number or email address to contact us by? Screw off, it's free.

It's so much easier to think that Google's going to buy you and that's how you'll get paid or that throwing up a Google ad will make you so much money that you can safely ignore the ad clicking drones users.

Things that are outside your comfort zone are always scary and I think that's the case here. Programming focused startups fear customer service. They'd much rather have a half hidden link to a forum they occasionally check (only after a 36 hour Mountain Dew fueled coding session) than a prominent email address which they answer promptly.

In some ways of course they're not wrong. It does take an incredible amount of time to answer all those emails. On the other hand, if you have more emails than you can handle that's probably a good sign. Also, those people who take the time to email in often end up being your best customers and biggest spokespeople. They have more than just time invested, they have hard cash invested and that's a big difference. They want you to succeed, they're loyal and they are in many ways a new companies biggest asset.

David obviously has a business focused mind and 37 started out as a customer focused company, which is why it seems logical to them to charge for things you create. I think this is very much the exception these days so it'll be interesting to see if David is correct and this starts to swing the other way.

On the upside, us profitable money charging companies can just keep tooling along :-)

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