Photo by mpclemens
The following is a guest article by Dave Rodenbaugh of Lessons of Failure.
Shortly after the Millennium dawned, I was itching for something new to sink my teeth into. Software development wasn’t giving me the satisfaction I craved from working, and I had recently been part of a startup that was now a smoking crater after the Dot Com crash.
While attending a local art show, I walked along perusing all the photography booths, as nature and landscape photography has always been a passion of mine. Most of the photographers had similar kinds of work but there was one guy whose booth stood out from the others. I stopped in and started up a conversation with him about his photos. They weren’t just beautiful, they were striking. To the point where people would audibly gasp walking by, “Oh wow, look at THAT”. Knowing a little about the subject, I probed him a bit for his secrets.
The trick, as he related to me very candidly, was to use large format photography. Large format was very old-fashioned (think Ansel Adams kind of cameras) but created huge negatives from which you could create extremely large prints without losing details. Creating these kinds of pictures was fairly difficult to learn, let alone master. He had spent a good decade working in the medium and his work showed it.
The details, the color, the sheer size of his prints–they were monstrous! 30″x40″ was a common size in his display and they looked awesome. The other photographers would take their 35mm and medium format prints (both creating much smaller negatives) and try to enlarge them to similar sizes. The results were just not comparable. To top it off, this guy charged a huge margin over other photographers at the show just because he had such high quality large prints. There were few other guys that could work in this medium and he was making some fat cash doing it. Large format photography captured my interest immediately.
At the time (2001), digital cameras were very much maligned by “real photographers”, and certainly by the general public. Moreover, the output of digital cameras was barely cracking the single-digit megapixel range and no one was taking them super-seriously outside of perhaps the wedding photographer business, which needed the fast turnaround these cameras could deliver. I felt like I had a good niche to work in (large format landscape photography), that was lucrative (making $5,000 in a weekend was not out of the question, if you had the right show and weather). I was hooked.
I ended up befriending this large-format photographer and learning the ropes. Within a year, I had a large format camera of my own, a growing portfolio, and a long list of tricks he taught me from his years in the art show business. I felt like I had a shot at a decent side-business and so I took up the mantle. By 2003, I entered my first show and in 2004 I had a full-fledged business running. I was finding the right shows and hitting my stride. I loved this product.
The Curse of Love
Rogue Wave Software loved their product too.
If you ever coded in C++ during the 90s, there’s a good chance you used their core product: Tools.h++. It was integrated with almost every major UNIX C++ vendor as the core string and collection library.
Their products were second-to-none. The implementations were practically bullet-proof and hundreds of C++ programs relied on this library to handle their most basic functionality without having to reinvent the wheel. While you could get the basics for free, their extended libraries gave you vast amounts of power without having to write it yourself. Their license fees were reasonable for the time, but certainly lucrative for the company. In short, people loved their product and Rogue Wave prospered accordingly.
The problem was, Rogue Wave loved their product too much.
Rogue Wave’s fall began during Java’s rise to power in 1997-8. When everyone took notice of Java and abandoned C++ in droves, Rogue Wave’s revenues plummeted. They tried to push their products higher in the food chain: enterprise software, large company site licenses, and even a few failed attempts at replicating their products in the Java space. One such disaster tried to recreate their successful DBTools.h++, a C++ object/relational mapper that acted like Hibernate does today, using JDBC. It sold miserably.
Their product love blinded them to the fundamental shift in the market: Java was free. Java’s libraries were rich and powerful. Developers didn’t have to buy expensive add-ons to create client-server applications like they did only a year or two before. Developers were interested in the shiny new language that offered so many things at such a great price.
Rogue Wave was too in love with their product to see any of that. They remembered the droves of developers who gave them high praise in trade rags and word of mouth recommendations. They still saw their license revenue coming in, albeit a little lower each quarter. They didn’t want to use their Professional Services Group to create new Java applications, only C++ ones, because those projects drove product revenue. Their smart engineering team hunted for C++ products to build and market.
As a result, Rogue Wave’s revenues continued to decline. Layoffs happened several times. They were eventually sold off to a company that had heavily invested in Rogue Wave’s technology. A few years later that same company spun Rogue Wave back out on their own. Today, Rogue Wave is a shell of its former self.
Same Trap, Different Day
I fell for the same trap with my photography business.
As digital camera quality improved, professional photographers took notice and started using them in earnest. More people started to take digital photography seriously as a medium and suddenly there was a huge amount of competition at the shows for nature photography. When I first started, nature photographers would represent about 5-7% of the total number of artists at the show. Suddenly, photographers were 20% of the artists at the show. Competition was brutal.
At first, my niche served me well. Large format was a great selling hook and I could easily take on other competitors at the shows and win sales. But that didn’t last for long. Sensor improvements meant the digital guys started making shots as big as mine, but charged much less for their work. They completely undercut what used to be a premium market.
Within 2 years, the flood of competition dried up that premium market and the art show consumer’s tastes had changed radically. They expected good AND cheap, not just good at any price.
Stubbornly, I continued to market my work in the same way I did in the past. If it was good enough for 2001, it was good enough for 2007. I touted the superiority of large format over and over. I pointed out the great details in my prints. The customers nodded and smiled, agreeing with me, but walked on to spend their money elsewhere. My sales continued to slide as I watched my competitors produce cheaper work via digital negatives.
My last year as an art show attendee was 2008, when my sales barely covered my hard costs. Profits were gone and the amount of physical labor required was far beyond what I thought was worth it. I decided to hang up the business.
Had I paid closer attention to the market and what the consumer really wanted, I might not have missed out on the change and could still be selling photos today. Digital photography revolutionized the business because it eliminated many fixed upfront costs (like film, developing) and by creating a digital file, they eliminated a step from my workflow (scanning the negative, which was either laborious or expensive, depending on which way you did it). They were able to take more pictures, produce them more quickly, and satisfy the consumers with a less expensive product that looked “nearly as good” as what I offered.
The lesson learned is that whatever your product is, don’t love it too much.
Rogue Wave’s stubborn attachment to Tools.h++ left them blind to the tide of Java. My own love of large format made me ignore the digital revolution.
Pay attention to what your customers want, and more importantly, watch the competition closely. If the market experiences some fundamental shift and you ignore it because you think your product is superior, your company and products will wind up collecting dust in the storage room, like my pictures do now.
About the Author
Dave Rodenbaugh is a serial entrepreneur dating back to his high school days when he started a lawn service business. He writes enterprise Java software for a living but loves the thrill of starting and managing new businesses. His software development blog has insights on project management and software development from two decades of work in the field. And maybe some bad humor too. He lives and works in Denver, Colorado.