Customer Support When Bootstrapped

*Note - I edited out the names of my applications I referenced for a couple of reasons. First, I don’t want anybody to think I’m being spammy. Second, I really don’t care for the search engines to suck these things up.

The first decent free and open source application I released was called [Product A], a free and open source invoicing system (now [Product B]). I was crazy excited that people became interested in [Product A] and began to use it - so I scrambled like mad to go out of my way to provide the best support I could because I got off on people using my software. Free support. For free software, mind you.

For the past 11 years or so, the work that pays the bills has revolved around providing various levels of support to various levels of people. I have become good at it. I enjoy it. No one can convince me that going above and beyond to provide excellent customer support is not the single most important asset to a company offering a product or a service. When I’m on the other side of the fence, I notice these things. I notice when somebody is just humming along, going through the motions with me because they have to, and I notice when somebody is happy with providing support and are great at doing it. It’s a huge difference, and it leaves a tremendously huge impression with me. It’s the same exact impression I want to leave with my customers (when I have them, hehe…)

Ok, so a little more to the point here… rewind back to [Product A] - I was excited people were using my free software so I was going out of my way to happily provide free support. Some issues arose and I had to rebrand everything, so at the same time I decided to start back at the ground level. I rewrote the entire app, rethought the overall strategy and figured out what my actual goals were, other than giving people free software.

Part of the new strategy for [Product B] involves leaving the mass of the free support for the free product to the community, and making “official” support a selling point for anybody who purchases the [Product B] “Pro” version when it’s ready. In terms of actual development and proper support, I’m a one man band here. I despise the fact that I am not providing the free support, yet I keep telling myself it’s going to be a selling point for people who want to throw their money at me when the “Pro” version is ready.

Is there anybody here who vehemently disagrees with this approach, or anybody who can attest to any actual value behind it?

I completely agree about the importance of support in the success of products. It’s been so important to us at Perch that I have an entire presentation just about how we go about supporting people. I’ve always felt quite strongly that we wouldn’t go down a paid support route as it seemed to create a conflict of interest. If we offer free support then it is in our interests to try and design out of the product support needs, making it better and making the docs better and so on.

However, we are in a different situation as there is no free version of Perch. We have no free users kicking the tyres, everyone who we are supporting has given us money.

I guess my concern with offering a free, community supported version is whether people will get a good enough experience using the product without official support that they will then be willing to pay for the enhanced version plus support. That possibly depends on the product, and the amount of support it requires. An alternate approach might be to offer non-private forum based support for free users, with no guarantee on response time, that you dip into when you are able. Then make the paid support offering ticket based and more official in terms of a SLA.

It’s a really interesting subject to discuss though, as I think people will have a wide variety of experiences with this.

One thing to consider is that businesses, especially if the product is used by ones larger than 1-2 person shops will almost always buy paid support if it’s available for a product they’re using. They don’t want to be left in the lurch without it. So you could in theory just provide support to everyone, but charge those who will pay and simply give them top priority.

Rachel’s idea of forum only support is also good and very commonly used as well.It has the upside of organizing your users into a free support/word of mouth community while you still also provide businesses that just want to pay the opportunity to do so.

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Right, that’s exactly my approach right now (I suppose I could have worded it more accurately in the OP). I actually read every single post in the forums, keeping an eye out for indications of bugs, taking the overall temperature of the community (for lack of better wording) and responding to things here and there. In terms of the paid version of the software, I do indeed plan to offer the private, personal, ticket-based support. At this point in time, I’m not yet convinced whether or not I should include the support as a default perk of the paid version, or if I should offer it as an add-on to the paid version. The point @ianlandsman makes about businesses almost always opting to buy paid support is interesting, although my target audience for this product are freelancers / microbusinesses, so individuals vs. larger companies.

I’d love to hear more thoughts on this subject from all the people here who are smarter than myself (which is all of you) :slight_smile:

I’m Really Close ™ to launching my product as well, and I’ve been thinking about a lot of the same things. My current thinking is that I won’t have any free version, and try to price the cheapest version so that I’m motivated to give good email support (20 questions for $5/mo? Hmmm…). Realistically, I’m not in a position to even offer phone support right now (timezones), so I don’t see myself tiering support just yet. I guess all customers will get the same (excellent) level of email support :smile:

My suggestion is to keep offering limited email support to everyone. Part of our app also involves invoicing and i think offering support to everyone was crucial to our growth.

It takes longer than you’d think to outgrow email support, and it dovetails as a way to learn more about your customers.

Also, priority support is a good pricing discriminant. If you’re using a tiered pricing model, the top tier gets a one-day support SLA or what have you. Early on, you’ll probably do that for everybody - but businesses will still happily pay more for the sure thing.