The Story of Long Tail Pro: How I Built a $100,000 Software Business from My Own Needs
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Its time to tell the story of Long Tail Pro.
As the creator of Long Tail Pro, I've discussed some of the ups and downs of owning a software business, but I've never divulged all of the details that have made this side of my business what it is today.
Some of what I discuss below, were some of the hardest decisions I've ever made. Now with “20/20” hindsight, I'm able to see what I did wrong and what decisions I made that were absolutely right.
I can't promise you that reading this will lead to your own six figure software business, but I think there are some valuable lessons hear that any entrepreneur could learn.
However, the results for me have been huge. I was able to find a problem I had, built a software product that met my own needs, sell it to others, and generate over six figures during its very first year. (I have big plans for the future as well as you will see from reading below).
How I Found My Big Idea
I've been an avid keyword researcher since about early 2009. Before that time, I did a little bit of keyword research, but nothing significant. In late 2009, I decided to build lots of small niche sites (seeing some success from my early experiments).
However, in the process of doing keyword research for all these niche sites, I quickly realized something. I was spending TONS of time (hours each day) researching keywords. I was primarily using Market Samurai and the SEO for Firefox plugin to generate keywords and analyze the competition. What a tedious and slow process!
Now, don't get me wrong, Market Samurai has some great things going on, but speed is not one of them. Here's how the process worked back then (and still does) with Market Samurai:
- Input ONE seed keyword.
- Hit “Generate Keywords”.
- Wait 3 to 4 minutes while the data is pulled in.
- This only generates the search volume data. If you want more you have to hit “Analyze Keywords” to get the CPC data.
- Wait a couple of minutes to get CPC data (or other data as well).
- Then input filters to narrow down the keyword list to what you actually want to see.
- Export keywords and paste into a bulk domain checker to see if Exact Match Domains are available.
- Analyze the top 10 competition if the domain is available.
- If none of these keywords fit, start the entire process over with on ONE more additional seed keyword.
This process easily took 20 minutes of more just to look at one seed keyword. I usually had to go through a half a dozen or more seed keywords to find one good keyword. So, it was entirely possible for me to spend 2 full hours of intense keyword research before I found anything worth going after.
To say the least, the process was painful! (And I'm not trying to make Market Samurai look bad, this is essentially how ALL keyword tools worked – and they just happen to be the one I was using at the time. Overall, I think Market Samurai is a good keyword tool). I list out all these steps to help you understand the pain I was going through as I tried to complete my keyword research.
You also have to realize that I was doing this late at night or early in the morning after working a full-time job…I didn't have time to mess around!
To see a timed comparison of Long Tail Pro vs. Market Samurai, check out my video here.
Well, after over a year of doing keyword research this way, I decided to look into what it would take to build my own keyword research tool that met my needs. (By this time I was doing pretty well with Google Adsense and was just about to quit my full time job. So I had money saved up.)
This was about October 2010 that I started looking into developing my own tool. So, out of my own frustration with how painfully long keyword research took, I decided to build Long Tail Pro.
From Idea to Product
I should make very clear that I am NOT a programmer of any kind. My background is in banking and finance. I couldn't build the tool myself, so I hired someone.
I actually went to a few different “freelance” websites and posted a job for what I was looking for. The range of cost in various programmers was significant. I decided to go with one of the cheapest programmers, which turned out to be my first mistake.
I figured well, this programmer is promising to finish the project in a couple of months for $x,xxx dollars, and I'm not required to pay unless I'm satisfied with the work…right? So, I hired someone outside that US that spoke very little English…but he was CHEAP!
To get the product created, I detailed exactly what I was looking for and showed him some other keyword research tools that had similar functions for him to reference. Overall, this first programmer actually did a pretty good job and got me a completed product pretty quickly!
I figured, that the hard part was over! I have the product, now I just need to sell it. The on-going maintenance of the software was an after-thought. Boy was I naive!
From Product to Sales
With completed product (or so I thought) in hand, I began selling that first version around January 2011. My process of selling was pretty basic. I had a blog, so I essentially sent an email to my blog readers and made a post telling everyone that it was available.
I also ran a WSO (Warrior Special Offer) on the Warrior Forum. Both of these generated enough sales for me to make my money back pretty quickly. Although, that's not saying a whole lot since this first version cost me less than $4k to develop.
I was receiving great reviews on the speed and overall concept. People LOVED the fact that you could finally search for multiple seed keywords at once AND automatically search for exact match domains! The product basically sold itself…because I didn't have a huge list or do much marketing. I was making a few thousand dollars a month for the first couple of months…sweet!
Here is one of the early box shots from the Long Tail Pro (pretty ugly, huh?).
However, after only a couple of weeks, the software stopped working! What the!?! How is it possible that a piece of code could stop doing what it was programmed to do? It was in a for a rude awakening called “software maintenance” and also learned about my big mistake and several others that I had made.
My BIG Mistake (and several small ones)
Well, I contacted my original programmer telling him that the software stopped working! He then informed me what was going on. Essentially, in order to pull data from Google, check exact match domains, and the MANY other resources we were querying could affect software performance. It wasn't that the Long Tail Pro code had stopped working, it was that perhaps Google had tweaked ever so slightly how they were displaying search results, or something else had changed from the dozens of places we were looking at. Any small change would cause the software to stop functioning properly.
This programmer was gracious and fixed the first couple of issues to get Long Tail Pro back up and running. But I was beginning to find it difficult to work with someone that didn't speak English well and was in a different time zone. I decided I wanted to take the software code and hire a different programmer that I could work with better.
This is when my programmer stopped co-operating. He refused to hand over the source code.
This is a big deal, because without the source code, I was 100% reliant on this programmer and could never hire someone else.
Now, when I went through the freelance website and posted my original job, I assumed that the source code was part of the deal. However, this programmer refused because I hadn't explicitly laid it out in the original job description. This was my BIG mistake! Yes, I probably could have contacted the freelance site and submitted a dispute. However, this was likely to take a very long time, and I needed to have my software maintained.
So, I asked the programmer how much he would sell the source code to me for (which I thought I had already paid for). He said it would cost $15,000! Ouch! You have to realize that this was about 5 times what I had already paid him. So, while I thought I had already put forth my big one-time cost to get it programmed (about $3k or so), now I was smacked with the reality that I was going to have to pay WAY more to keep selling Long Tail Pro.
So, if you ever start a software business – make sure you own the source code! The other small mistakes I made was not understanding the ongoing costs of software maintenance. Finally, I leaned that a “cheap” programmer is probably not a smart move.
Close Shop or Change Course?
So, here I was only 2 months after I started selling Long Tail Pro with a major decision to make. I could either shell out another $15k to get my hands on the source code or I could just shut down the business altogether. Well, in the end, I decided on a third option: Start from scratch and hire someone AWESOME!
You see, with this “cheap” first version I was able to test the market. I knew there was a hungry market for a faster and more effective keyword research tool. I really saw the upside potential. However, I had severely underestimated the cost and time commitment it would take.
So, rather than pay $15k to get the original code and then hire someone else (additional costs) to “fix” the original code, I decided to hire someone and let them start from scratch. This time I decided to hire the absolute best I could find, regardless of price. I wanted to invest in the quality and longevity of Long Tail Pro.
I was lucky to find an EXCELLENT programmer based in the US that was very willing to work with me…and was just fine giving me access to the source code :). I really felt more like I was taking on a partner at that point. I won't say exactly how much getting that second version of Long Tail Pro cost – but it was more than the $15k I would have spent to get the original code.
This was about March 2011 – right when I was quitting my job. I had saved up quite a bit over the previous 2 years, so I felt like this was a good investment in my business (and it was).
Getting this second version of Long Tail Pro took a few months to get up and running in beta form. In the meantime, I worked with my first programmer to constantly maintain the first version of Long Tail Pro. I didn't tell him that I had hired someone else to create a second version. Maintaining that first version was very difficult, and I admit there was a lot of downtime for those original purchasers of the software. However, I was doing my best to put out something to replace it.
So, it wasn't until about June of 2011 that I finally released the beta version of the Long Tail Pro that you see today. I immediately gave all existing users of the original Long Tail Pro free lifetime access to this new version of Long Tail Pro. I also started selling it to others at a discounted price for those willing to get in at the beta level.
The difference between these 2 version was night and day! The old version looked like an excel spreadsheet (ugly), the new version is beautiful, has a nice workflow, and best of all…it works better! And now I can work with my programmer much easier, he's more responsive, and overall, is highly effective.
However, the real validation came with the sales. I sold the “beta” version from June until October 2011. Then in October I launched the standard version. By this time, I had a bigger following on my blog, and had a few affiliates behind the product.
Again, I didn't have any major “launch” events other than what I did here on my blog, email list, and on forums. With the bit of marketing I did, and an exceptional product, I was able to make all my investment back and then some by the end of the year!
My decision to fire my old programmer and hire a new one (even though he is much more expensive) has been validated. Its been about a year since I officially launched Long Tail Pro in Oct. 2011, and the software has made over $100,000 in revenue since that time.
The Future of Long Tail Pro?
So what's does the future hold for Long Tail Pro? Well, as I've posted recently, I've added some new “Platinum” features that are currently being beta tested by users.
I am continuing my vision to make Long Tail Pro the most effective and fastest way to do keyword research. One of the new features is the ability to analyze the top 10 results in Google much quicker. Now, the software gives you an overall “keyword competiveness” number based on the search results in Google. The lower the number, the easier it is for you to rank.
It really is that simple. If you want to check out the keyword competitiveness in action, watch this video.
Other new “platinum” features include: saving favorite keywords, importing up to 10k keywords at once, and more.
This Platinum version of Long Tail Pro is launching on Dec. 11th (next Tuesday). Don't worry existing Long Tail Pro users, you will always have access to the great features that you love about Long Tail Pro without any requirement to upgrade. Long Tail Pro will always be updated and maintained as it always has. If you decide you want the new Platinum features, you'll have the chance to upgrade in less than a week.
Overall, the story of Long Tail Pro is one that I felt like I needed to share. I can definitely say that its been a big part of my business; and although I've had my ups and downs with it, overall its been a great investment. In addition, when I had my Google Adsense Account banned in April, knowing that I still had income coming in was nice. (I got a new Adsense account in June, and its been active ever since).
If you are considering getting into the software business, I recommend it…with caution. The process can be long and difficult and also very expensive; but, if you create a great product and market well, there is a lot of upside potential. I'm far from the most successful software entrepreneur, but I've had a taste with Long Tail Pro.
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