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Shareware Business
Volume Number:11
Issue Number:7
Column Tag:The Business Of Software

How to Make $1,000 Per Week
Stuffing (Virtual) Envelopes

Helpful hints and tips for the aspiring shareware author.

By Bill Modesitt, Maui Software, Maui

Have you developed a killer application, and want to sell it on your own? Have you thought about trying to make a living from writing shareware? Are you ready to quit your job and work for yourself? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then read on.

Having sold the copyrights to my main product, I was wondering what to do next. I was offered a job as a contract programmer, and initially accepted the offer. Prior to doing any work, I searched for a shareware program to accurately track my time while programming. I couldn’t find anything useful, so I wrote my own shareware program, and called it TimeTracker. Well, the job fell through (I really didn’t want to work for someone else anyway), so I posted a shareware demo of TimeTracker to several bulletin boards to see if anyone else liked it. Within a week I started receiving checks in the mail. I knew I was on to something. Approximately 10 months later, I’m receiving close to $1,000 per week in sales from TimeTracker. This article tells some of the things that helped me achieve this volume.

Develop a Program

Developing a program is the relatively easy part - the hard part is getting people to learn about your program and pay for it. If you haven’t written any saleable program yet, keep these things in mind: Keep it simple, small, useful, and as bug-free as possible.

Create a Shareware Demo of Your Program

Even though I call TimeTracker shareware, I post a shareware demo or unregistered version to bulletin boards. While a few people don’t like the concept of a “shareware demo,” the majority of people don’t mind. The Association of Shareware Professionals has “ a policy on no crippled software”. While this idealism sounds good, it doesn’t pay the rent. From what I’ve read, only about 1%-2% of shareware user’s actually send in their fee. For TimeTracker, it’s probably very close to 100%. Very few people have complained about TimeTracker not being “pure shareware,” in fact, most understand the reasoning behind this.

However, your demo should not be so limiting that it frustrates the user into immediately trashing your program. Ideally it should have annoyances instead of being limiting. TimeTracker does two things in the demo version. When it starts up, an annoying alert displays telling the user that this is an unregistered version of TimeTracker. To continue, the user must click on one of three buttons. Secondly, the demo has a time-recording limitation on each document. The user can effectively use the demo version by continually creating new documents, but this is a hassle, and combined with the annoying startup alert, the user eventually realizes it’s easier just to send in the money than work around the limitations.

Distribute Your Program as Shareware

People (and some magazine editors) tend to give shareware authors more of a helping hand than they would a commercial company. They will give copies of your demo to their friends and co-workers, and post it to their local BBS. This gives your product maximum exposure at no cost to you. Be sure to state in your documentation that it’s OK to upload the demo to other BBSes.

Make it Quick and Easy to Purchase

TimeTracker has a built-in order form that’s easy to fill out. When the user starts the demo version, the default button on the startup window is “Fill out order form.” This brings the user to another window where they enter all their information, and method of payment. The order form also computes the total amount for them. Registering the program should be as easy as possible for the user. After the order form is filled out, they can print it and/or save it to a file that contains the information. This file can then be faxed, mailed, or emailed for processing.

Sometimes a demo product can be frustrating to the user because they like the product so much, they want the full-featured version immediately. Upon processing the order, I send the user a “registration code” that matches their name. This number is from a random number generator, using the user’s name as a seed. The user starts the TimeTracker demo, and clicks on the “Register Now” button that is on the startup window. When they enter their name and correct registration number, TimeTracker immediately turns into a full-working version. No disk has to shipped - this keeps overhead way down, and the user receives instant gratification.

Have a Reasonable License Agreement

Surprisingly, a license agreement is overlooked by some shareware authors. The TimeTracker license states that copies may be on more than one machine, provided that only one copy at one time is running. If more than one copy is running at one time, then additional copies must be purchased. Or put more simply, one copy per user. I’m sure many users buy one copy and distribute it for their entire office, but other people abide by the license agreement. It can make a difference.

Post to the World

I have accounts on the Internet, eWorld, AppleLink, CompuServe, and America Online. I have found that AOL generates the most sales, followed closely by CompuServe, with AppleLink dead last. Except for my Internet account, I use the other accounts almost exclusively for posting demo copies only. The more copies posted, the more exposure the product receives. This may seem like a lot of money, having so many on-line services, but if I sell one copy as a result of a posting, it more than pays for one month’s service fee.

To make email correspondence simple, I tell people to use only my Internet account for sending and receiving email, and that I use my other accounts only once a month or so to post new versions. That way I only have to log into my Internet account to check my email.

And don’t forget press releases. While I’ve had limited success with them, it doesn’t take too much time to put one together and send out.

Get a Merchant Account

Getting a merchant account is not always easy, but it’s well worth the trouble. Probably 80% of my sales are from VISA or MasterCard sales. The best place for a merchant account is your bank. Some banks don’t offer this service, so you may have to look around. The type of bank that offers merchant accounts is easy to find - they’re the ones that don’t offer interest on your checking account and have a fee for everything.

I have a merchant account set up at my local bank, and aside from the approximately 4% transaction fee, it’s only $1 per month to maintain. You can get a merchant account at other institutions, but they may charge $60 or more per month, and require you to lease all types of unnecessary equipment. Many banks don’t like to give out merchant accounts for businesses that do mail orders, so it may take some convincing. I told my bank I don’t sell products to just anyone, I only sell to professionals (I assumed anyone who owns a Mac is a professional).

Keep the Price Reasonable

TimeTracker sells for $25 per copy, which seems to be in line with other shareware programs. I have seen some shareware programs for $40 or more that do much less than TimeTracker, and I can’t imagine too many people sending in their fees for it. While some people have told me I could sell TimeTracker for more, especially since it saves them a lot of money, I still prefer volume to an increased price. Also, some company may want to purchase the copyrights to TimeTracker. I can then say, “ and with this product, you’ll receive the database with thousands of users. Think of all the upgrade sales.”

Keep Overhead Low

While I work out of my home/office, I have two separate lines - one for my business and one for my fax. This may seem like an unnecessary cost, but having separate numbers lends the appearance of a more stable, larger company. Since I always encourage communication via email, I rarely get calls. Additionally, a business phone number is almost always requested for a press releases.

Convert Your Program to Other Languages

About 20% of my sales come from Europe, and there’s always the request for a version of TimeTracker in a language other than English. Usually I tell the requestor that if they do the translation for me, I will include a “Read Me” file that credits them for the translation, plus any other information they may want to include, such as an advertisement for their business. If the requestor knows ResEdit, the job is even easier for you. So far I have French, German, Norwegian, and Swedish language versions of TimeTracker.


Working for yourself can be financially risky, and if you already have a job, I don’t recommend quitting right away. It doesn’t take too much time posting your program to various bulletin boards to see how much interest it generates. If you don’t have an account on any bulletin boards, you might find a friend who does and will post your program for you. So go ahead, develop that killer shareware program, and post a demo of it to a few places. You never know what will happen until you try!


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