Business of Software Helpinator

Why I like what I created and hopefully you will like it too :) (Part 1).

Helpinator grew naturally out of my own frustration. I was a team lead of a medium sized team and as such I was the one that was responsible for maintaining the project documentation and user manuals. Of course there should be a technical writer for this, but the project was not that large, with a limited budget, and historically team leads were the only ones who knew all the business process inside out and how they were implemented in the system.

Technical writing is hard by itself, especially if you are a programmer by nature. All paperwork and no play make you a dull boy… And then you have to update what was already written and this is when all hell breaks loose. A little change is UI required a massive update of screenshots, that were scattered all over the docs, a time-consuming and exhausting work, that has to be done just to be redone next month all over.

Docs consisted of two parts – context-sensitive help of the CRM/ERP app itself and user manual in PDF. To further complicate things, my predecessor used an unorthodox toolchain of MS Word/MS HTML Help Compiler and some obscure PDF printer. Compiling docs was really time-consuming. He was from the old school soviet “workers” that were raised with soviet corporate culture where you have to be busy all the time to show that you actually earn your paycheck. Optimisations were redundant and people who tried to make things better were called “rationalizers” with negative connotation.

One day I decided that I just can’t carry this weight anymore. This is when Helpinator was born some 11 years ago. It was obvious that I needed another tool and quick search found some help authoring tools that were all cool but didn’t improve anything over doc update process. Over a weekend I put together a simple word-like editor that had a killer feature for me – “Image library” of reusable images and built-in annotation tool for screenshots. In this way all project screenshots were in the library, I also designed a naming system that allowed me to quickly identify images that were about to be updated when something changes in the UI. No more scanning through the topics! My workload reduced by something 50%.

The next moment of enlightment came very soon. A lot of screenshots were duplicates with only callouts differing. This is where I can also save time updating and “cloned images” feature was born. Instead of having a dozen of identical screenshots with defferent callouts explaining different tasks you can have one “donor” image and a dozen of “clones” that inhirit donor screenshot and have their own callouts. And you only need to update one image!

Then I needed code snippets with syntax highlighting and added them to Helpinator pretty in the same way as image library.

One day I was talking to a our ERP/CRM system user of high profile explaining to him how to generate the report that he needed (we had a versatile report generator also created by me). At one moment he stopped me and told me quietly: “I know that your report generator is super cool and feature-rich, but just give me a step-by-step instruction how to get what I want from it”. It struck me like a bolt of lightning. Why waste time writing about features and how one can construct a solution to almost any problem from them, when people in our company are too busy to get accustomed to it, they need solutions. I added “step-by-step guides” feature to Helpinator probably the next day, and the number of tasks explained in a step-by-step manner started to increase exponentially.

That was the moment when midlife crisis came into my life. I got divorced and grew consistently unsatisfied with my job. At that time I wasn’t keen on working remotely (I am now), and there were no interesting job openings in Arkhangelsk (there are still none). I was reading Patrick McKenzie and Peldi from Balsamiq blogs for a while and I think it was them who led me to the business of software. I quit my job and started Helpinator as my primary project.

I can’t say that my life became easy then, it was a tough journey, both in business and personal terms, but this post is already too long, and this story is for the next time.

In case you are still interested, there’s a list of recommended Helpinator blog posts to read:

Business of Software

7 Countries My Most Notable Customers Come From

A long time ago (in a galaxy far far away) I started my own microISV business selling user manual writing tool named Helpinator. Initially I thought that doing business online was quite easy, but it proved to be wrong for many reasons. One of them is that culturual differences affect your business communications. I am a cosmopolite, but with time I started to divide customers into “good”, “bad” or “neutral” depending on the country of origin. I know I can’t call myself cosmopolite while doing it, but it is what it is 🙂

Here they are, 7 to 1, worst to best. Of course my experience is not limited to just 7 countries, these are the most notable ones.

7. China

Surprisingly chinese customers are demanding as hell. Every time I get a support or presales question from China I always feel like that order made me a slave. No matter it was with a serious discount. At some point I even thought to block all sales from China. I’m not very familiar with Chinese culture but I belive there must be some explanation to this. For example, the size of population is so tremendous that support lines of pure Chinese products are overloaded and to get your request fullfield you need to be offensive right from the start or the person on the other end of the line would just ignore you.

Well, it’s not all that completely bad. Once there was a funny case. Bugtracker reported that there were 100+ bug reports overnight. I was surprised, Helpinator was in stable condition by then, there were no serious updates. All reports were from one person, from China. He got a cracked version that was cracked improperly and caused an error after new project was created. And he clicked “Report” every funking time he got that error!!!

6. India

Customers from India are clearly polarized. They are extremely intelligent or extremely dull. Nothing in between. And there are no chances to know who you deal with beforehand 🙂 Thanks to “extremely dull” clients India holds it’s 6th place, I’ve had a really hard time with them, but extremely intelligent ones were a REAL pleasure to deal with. I belive it has something to do with Indian caste system, that severly affects cultural and educational level of a person, though I’m not sure about it.

5. Brazil

Brazilians do not bring in much money but they find bugs that no one can find. Sometimes they use Helpinator in such bizarre ways I could not even think of. But somehow it makes me feel related to them 🙂 And they almost always write me in Portuguese! I like this language (for example “developer” is “desenvolvedor”, sounds like a conquistador wielding a disintegrator gun :), but Google Translate sometimes fail at it miserably.

4. USA

Nothing personal, just business. We need this and that, we will pay N. No trickery or fakes, but nothing warm as well. Do what you have to do, or get out. It’s not that I dislike this approach, but certainly it’s not my favorite.
And also there’s one interesting notion about customers from USA – they are completely sure that the whole planet lives by american rules. No, without any aggression, like “Do what I told you to do”, no. Just because they truly believe, from the depth of the heart, that american way is the best possible choice. But from here I will slide into politics, and I don’t want to do that.

3. Canada

When I was a schoolboy, our Russian textbooks treated USA and Canada as it was the same country, geographically and socially. But in business terms USA and Canada are COMPLETELY different. It’s like to compare a small family restaurant to McDonalds. In a family restaurant you are treated like a family member, at a personal level, while McDonalds is faceless and cold, even if they meet you with a faked smile. That makes a huge difference to me, customers from Canada treat me like I own a family restaurant in their neighbourhood, and they visit me every Sunday, not to just eat but also to talk things over. Maybe that’s why Canadians prefer to deal with what they believe to be a small business (which I have), while Americans prefer large corporations.

2. Netherlands

When it comes to business, customers from Netherlands break all movie stereotypes associated with this contry. At times I even think “the business” itself was invented in Netherlands 🙂 (historically it’s not really untrue). Calm, focused people with clear tasks and plans. No rush, no worry, just steady progress. Thank you, guys, for being pillars of my business.

1. Australia and New Zealand

Oh my god, I LOVE Australians and New Zealanders!!! (or should I say Kiwis?). Always polite and gentle, with really smart and thoughtful suggestions, always ready to help. Never pinch me if a bug requires a long time to fix. And not a single offensive word, even if I funk things up.
Their sense of humour is just perfect, minimalistic and polished. A good joke always makes things much simpler 🙂
With each day I think more and more about relocating to New Zealand. It seems to me that the day for this is close, as Russia keeps on turning into North Korea.

Well, this list is just my personal point of view, I do not pretend to be The Great Source of Online Business Wisdom 🙂
May be your experience is different?