Brad Wardell's site for talking about the customization of Windows.

This article was originally written in 2001 as Stardock was nearing it’s 10th anniversary but it is as true now as it was then.

Companies often give lip service on customer support.  But in my experience, few companies really understand that supporting customers isn’t just a moral issue, it’s also good business.

The New NEW Technology Economy: The Customer Is God

If one good thing is going to come out of this recession, it’s that the dot-com’s will not just have simply died, but their roots will have been destroyed as well. Most people had their own reasons to despise the whole dot-com thing, but there was one universally bad trait about them that has not been discussed until now: dot-com’s were bad for consumers in the long run.

Why? Because most of their strategies involved building the largest customer base possible, with far less emphasis put on treating those customers well. And if that ploy had succeeded, it would have been very bad indeed for consumers.

Consumers. What a terrible name. I’ve used it three times in this article already. What a belittling term. Yet we take it for granted now. Each of these so-called consumers are individuals who work hard to earn the money they spend on a given product or service. And yet technology companies seem to forget that.

Our company, Stardock, was lucky. It was lucky because it nearly went out of business in 1998. How is that lucky? Because we discovered a secret. A vital secret:

Treating customers as gods matters.

You see, back in 1994 our company was an OS/2 Independent Software Vendor, or ISV. We made software for IBM’s OS/2 operating system. None of us had business backgrounds. We were engineers and techies. We brought our own attitudes and opinions to the company, and one of those attitudes was that we hated the way many tech companies treated us. And so when we set out on OS/2, we wanted to make sure we treated our customers as more than just customers, but as part of the team.

Our customers are our friends in a very literal sense. When we blew a beta date on one of our games, we sent our pre-paying beta testers a free copy of another game as a surprise, and then a few weeks later we released the beta. There was no PR calculation, no scientific thought put into it. We just felt bad and wanted to send them something so that they had a new game to play for Christmas. These were the kinds of things we did. We made sure our customers understood that we cared about them.

And then in 1997 the OS/2 market collapsed. Windows NT 4.0 happened, and the exodus from OS/2 was massive. With a year our revenue from OS/2 software dwindled to almost nothing.

This was actually the best thing that ever happened to us, because we discovered a business reality that apparently escaped the dot-com’s—that customer loyalty is just as important as customer quantity.

You see, in 1998 we had to switch gears and move into the Windows market. But we couldn’t get any venture capital. We couldn’t even get bank loans. We were finished. It was over. We were getting our resumes out. What’s more, we knew that once we jumped into the Windows market with Object Desktop for Windows, our desktop enhancements could very well fall prey to Microsoft when it developed new versions of Windows. That is, the ideas we would come up with and implement for Object Desktop for Windows might end up as “features” in future Windows editions.

So we decided to do something new—sell our product as a subscription. For $50, users would be able to buy a one-year subscription for Object Desktop that included all current features, plus everything we made for it in the following year. And they could keep the product even if they didn’t re-subscribe (something I’ll talk more about later).

Now there’s a little drawback to this. The first year Object Desktop for Windows was on the market, we had zip. Object Desktop was just a bunch of promises and partially functioning code in a lab. It required users to pay $50 for a bunch of software sight unseen. And it would require a lot of them to do it, because creating all this software was going to be expensive and time consuming.

But our customers, formerly on OS/2 but now on Windows, purchased it by the thousands. They remembered us and how we treated them. They trusted us. They thought of us in the same way we thought of them—as friends. Stardock wasn’t just another software company to them; we were friends, and if we said we were going to create these things, then they accepted the fact that we would.

And we did. By the end of 1999, we had produced ControlCenter, WindowBlinds, Tab LaunchPad, ObjectEdit, and a bunch of other things. Their trust paid off. We were able to create a product without any venture capital.

Customer loyalty really matters. If you treat people fairly, with respect, as individuals instead of “consumers,” you will earn their respect and trust in return.

Which brings us back to those dot-com’s. They really screwed things up. They often treated their customers with contempt. What we learned isn’t that the customer is always right—they’re not, and I have argued plenty of times online with them when I felt they were wrong. But we always treated them as individuals whose voices needed to be listened to if not agreed with.

The dot-com’s, on the other hand, came in and wanted to show results fast, and that meant grabbing as many bodies as possible without a care as to how they’d be treated. Even worse, the dot-com’s came up with get-rich-quick schemes that have since required an extraordinary amount of damage control by the rest of us.

Take subscription software, for example. In 1998, we were doing this electronically. Arguably, we were the first ones to provide such an electronic .NET mechanism. (In fact in 1999 we launched Stardock.NET – a year before Microsoft’s .NET initiative.) But the dot-com’s, not wanting to earn their customers’ loyalty but instead to simply tie their hands, came up with subscription systems that would require ongoing patronage or else their software or service would be useless.

If magazines worked under their system, Newsweek would take all your existing issues back if you didn’t renew your subscription. That’s BS. You paid for those magazines. They’re yours. If a magazine wants you to re-subscribe, then it better treat you well. That means it better keep providing value. It means the people who work there better listen to you. Put simply, they better earn your loyalty.

Unfortunately for the dot-com’s, they didn’t learn that in time. I can think of one remaining dot-com which has done a good job retaining customers: Amazon.com. But they’re an exception to the rule for the most part. The successful dot-com’s caught on that individual customers matter. Ten thousand very loyal customers are better than 100,000 indifferent customers, because the loyal ones will be there for you at crunch time. And many a dead company mistakenly believed they’d never experience a crunch time.

Probably the worst thing dot-com’s did was to make customers cynical. Many a new Stardock customer is quite wary of the things we do at first, because they think it’s a marketing or PR ploy. The dot-com’s really did a job on “consumers.” Think about it—when your barber or hair stylist asks how your wife or husband is doing, you don’t think it’s a ploy. That’s because the barbers and hair stylists of the world know something that the dot-com execs never learned—that people are individuals, not “consumers” to be harvested.

I predict that the NEW new economy will be built on the premise that, while the customer isn’t always right, he or she is an individual who always deserves respect. Customers should be treated as good friends, not simply as passing acquaintances. If they have a problem, find out what it is. Talk to them. It doesn’t mean kissing up to them; respect is a two way street, and you can’t build loyalty and friendship without respect. But if you want respect, you have to give it. That means treating those people with high regard, not as cattle.

The successful technology companies have always learned to treat customers as individuals, as lifelong partners. This means looking at the long term. It means building a long-term relationship with them and earning their trust and respect.

The NEW new economy won’t be good for “consumers.” But it’ll be great for people.

Brad Wardell

Brad Wardell is the President and CEO of Stardock (www.stardock.com). He’s known to hang out on Usenet and various on-line communities talking directly to customers to find out what they want improved.


Comments
on Mar 23, 2018

on Mar 23, 2018

I have subscribed to Object Desktop for almost a decade (it will be precisely 10 years if I don't renew anymore). I don't really use OD anymore but I used it every day until I stopped using Windows 7. After that my use of Windows has been sporadic. I like to support a good cause and the last renewal was so cheap I didn't think twice about renewing.

I think there always was something special about Stardock/Wincustomize, a feeling that it was more driven by passion than money.

The customer isn't always right, but service to others will always come back one way or the other. My only complaint would be that Stardock seems reluctant to provide users with outdated versions of software, even nagging them to update. I think users should be allowed to run outdated software, even insecure software if it works better for them. They just need to understand that old versions are unsupported and that they are on their own when doing this.

I hope Stardock can continue being a successful company. I know nothing about the gaming side. The skinning side; there will always be new users, but from a technical perspective it's going to get more and more difficult I think. Microsoft has made no secret of wanting to lock down the platform to Store/UWP apps and also the constant changes to the platform don't benefit skinning.

Skinning could be revitalized by new form factors such as mobile. Unfortunately, these mobile platforms don't seem to allow skinning, not even vanilla Android. I'm waiting for the next thing. It's not AR/VR, at least not for me. I'm hoping I will find the same excitement again that I felt 10 years ago. Back then it seemed software was destined for a golden era. Now it seems skinning is in a post-apocalyptic world. Only gaming is making steady progress.

on Mar 24, 2018

What’s more, we knew that once we jumped into the Windows market with Object Desktop for Windows, our desktop enhancements could very well fall prey to Microsoft when it developed new versions of Windows. That is, the ideas we would come up with and implement for Object Desktop for Windows might end up as “features” in future Windows editions.

And that nearly happened with XP.

At the time WindowBlinds was Stardock's 'cash cow' (that place has now been taken over by Fences) and it had virtually no competitors: some tried but they all failed due to how technically difficult it was to pull something like it.

I wasn't on the inside so this is just my opinion, but it seemed to me at the time that Stardock started working a lot closer to Microsoft right after Windows 2000.  Getting in bed with Microsoft is always a very dangerous move. When Windows XP finally came out, it featured <shock! horror!> Microsoft's native UXTheme skinning engine. This allowed XP do to pretty much everything WindowBlinds did: skin the Windows User Interface and 3rd party applications.

But in a strange move, Microsoft decided at the last minute to close the format, digitally signing the themes and thus preventing new user-created UXTheme themes from being used - unless UXTheme.DLL was patched first, which was the equivalent of using a 'cracked' version of Windows, and so frowned upon by many.

I would say Microsoft's last minute decision to close the UXTheme format saved Stardock - or at least WindowBlinds.

What you have to understand is that Microsoft did not close the format because they are 'good guys' and didn't want to hurt Stardock - they closed the format because, and I am quoting a post by a Microsoft engineer at DeviantArt from memory, "a badly made theme could crash the OS or render it inoperable, and that was not a risk Microsoft was willing to take because users would then blame Windows instead of the bad theme'.

The inclusion of the UXTheme engine in XP still ended up hurting Stardock though, marking the beginning of the WindowBlinds vs StyleXP wars.

This was very unfair to Stardock, because StyleXP had ZERO technical merit - all it did was patch Windows UXTheme DLL so you could use unsigned UXTheme themes with Windows.

Ultimately Stardock won that war (which was only fair!) but mostly because new Window updates would regularly break the UXTheme patch and many people did not want to run - or felt uncomfortable doing so - 'modified' copies of Windows XP.

The fact that StyleXP was a 'hack' also prevented it from being distributed by OEM vendors in the retail channel - nobody was willing to risk Microsoft's wrath, or even their own user's wrath when a new Windows update broke the patch.

So we decided to do something new—sell our product as a subscription. For $50, users would be able to buy a one-year subscription for Object Desktop that included all current features, plus everything we made for it in the following year. And they could keep the product even if they didn’t re-subscribe.

I realize it may seem difficult to understand this now unless you are an old timer, but back in 1998/1999 this was a GENIUS - and also VERY RISKY - idea.

At the time virtually ALL shareware applications were sold using the 'free upgrades for life' model. Anything out of that model was frowned upon by most users, SaS (Software as a Service, were you keep paying a monthly fee to use the software) was unheard of at the time - and would have been rejected BY ALL - and any application that 'phoned home' resulted in users rioting with pickets and forks.

How far we are from those times! Anyway...

The 'yearly upgrade subscription' business model pioneered by Stardock is actually the business model that works BEST for everyone, benefiting users and developers alike. Developers are kept on their feet (no new worthwhile features, existing users will not renew their subscriptions) which is good for the users, and at the same time developers also benefit by getting paid for their continued work.

Winstep recognized this by adopting the same model when Winstep Xtreme was first released.

The fact is: most other companies of the time that did not adopt this business model are now gone, and Stardock and Winstep are still here. 'Free upgrades for life' has little to no meaning if the developer is no longer around to keep churning out those updates. Like physical stores, software companies can only survive if they can rely on a mix of new and repeated business.

Another natural consequence of this business model, as Brad so eloquently stated, is that you have to treat your customers right - or they won't be back.

Again, this does not mean that 'the customer is always right'. I, for one (and I know Brad is the same) do not usually put up with arrogant or extremely disrespectful customers (which, thank God, only pop up once every blue moon). I do not believe in rewarding bad behavior and I have very strong views on that (the perks of running your own business). On the other hand, I will also very often go out of my way to help customers that truly need help.

anotherside
My only complaint would be that Stardock seems reluctant to provide users with outdated versions of software, even nagging them to update. I think users should be allowed to run outdated software, even insecure software if it works better for them. They just need to understand that old versions are unsupported and that they are on their own when doing this.

I can only speak from my point of view - and I am with Winstep and not Stardock - but I fully understand this reluctance, which has two main components:

One is the commercial side, a business wants to make money, because, just like you need money to eat, companies also need money to survive. In return they give you something that is also useful to you, an improved version of the software.

The second is an emotional component which is also the most important one (to me at least): no developer or software company wants users to run outdated versions of their software. They have poured their sweat, blood and tears into improving it, and they truly want other people to enjoy the result of all that work: 'hey, guys, look at all it can do now!' Most developers and software companies truly take pride in what they do.

This also benefits the user, not only because of the new features - some of which you won't even know you needed UNTIL you try them for the first time - but also because usually there are also a lot of unreported fixes and improvements 'under-the-hood'.

This is especially true these days, with Microsoft continuously breaking stuff with their forced Windows 10 updates.

on Mar 24, 2018

Former Stardock OS/2 user here, and I still buy Stardock software. (Though, not quite as much as when I actually used Windows.)

on Mar 24, 2018

The first pgph has got it backwards, customer support was never a moral issue. Business is the art of hot scamming. We choose to think of it as win-win because why not if you can support that claim? I mean you aren't being forced to be a consumer, yet you consume. As do we all. So it sounds an awful lot like win all around. But I'm savvy to what the underliers actually are. My decision-making doesn't always go by existing relationship. There's times we all had our closest friend tell us something seriously and had to go say to them "no! you're crazy!" In fact I'd say it's better for a company not to get over-friendly. Not to bring in the moral side to it, again--! But cause a more reserved image has more credibility, or perhaps just less emotional overhead. This ain't meant to refute all that has been said, but rather as a case-study.