I own a small roofing company that I started in 2003. Over the past few years, I've spent a lot of time and money creating a Web-based program for simplifying day-to-day administrative issues. I believe my program could be a huge benefit to other small contractors. I'm not sure, however, whether I should pursue the opportunity myself, sell my software to someone else, or forget about commercializing it and just use it in my own business. What's your advice?
Owner, Traditional Roofing
I tell all the people who come to me for advice that I will gladly share my thoughts and opinions, but they have to make their own decisions about what to do. Otherwise, they won't take responsibility if they fail. They will simply blame "bad advice." As a result, they will lose the opportunity to learn from failure, which is always the best teacher.
With Matt Behmer, I began by asking what he wanted to be doing for the next 10 or 15 years. He said he loved roofing. His goal was to become one of the biggest roofers in the southwestern United States. In that case, I said, he should forget about selling his software to other people. It gave him a competitive edge. He should keep it for himself and use it to help him achieve his goal.
Matt clearly found that advice hard to swallow. He saw the software as a great business opportunity. "I love my roofing business, but at the same time, I like being able to afford the finer things in life, too," he said. "I think I would kick myself for the rest of my life if I didn't at least try to do something with this product."
I told him, OK, he could pursue the opportunity if he wanted to, and he might make a lot of money with it, but he should be aware of the potential downside as well. If he made the software commercially available, his competitors might well buy it, and he would lose whatever advantage it gave him. More important, it would take time, money, and energy to build a separate business around the software. That would inevitably cause him to lose focus on his roofing business, which therefore wouldn't grow as fast as it would if he gave it his full attention. In the long run, he might make more money by using the software to build a great roofing company, which was what he wanted anyway.
But I emphasized that this was just my opinion. The decision had to be his. He said he would think about it and get back to me.
Please send all questions to AskNorm@inc.com. Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur. His co-author is editor-at-large Bo Burlingham. Their book, The Knack, is now available in paperback under the title Street Smarts: An All-Purpose Tool Kit for Entrepreneurs.