This past March my company Xtras, Inc. had its ten (10) year birthday. We’ve come to a crossroads of sorts and I thought it would be a good time to document those past ten years, and provide a glimpse of our future. I’ll do my best to describe things as I remember them, but I’ll leave out details that are too complicated or that I’m contractually obligated not to disclose.
I’m a developer, always have been, and always will be. Prior to Xtras for almost ten years I taught developers to program in a tool called Clipper which was a dBase compiler running on DOS. When Clipper training started dying, I became interested in Visual Basic but realized I couldn’t replicate my training business so instead I founded VBxtras which was based on a simple idea: To create a "complete reference guide" catalog of components and tools for Visual Basic developers (I later changed the company name to Xtras.) As a developer trainer I always liked to provide my students with information about 3rd party tools, so this was a natural segue.
I started VBxtras with no capital besides my AMEX card, and was lucky enough to hire a great team (with the exception of the finance area) and we grew like a weed in the shadow of our public company competitor. We filled the vacuum of demand for VBX and later OCX components for Visual Basic that our competitor ignored, and became the "best friend" for both developers and vendors. Unfortunately we also took on a lot of debt while we grew.
The dotcom years brought people with more money than sense who funded companies run by those whose main goal was to get rich off an IPO, and during 1999 through 2001 we were treading water as we tried to survive against well-capitalized competitors, both public and private. Millions of dollars were used to drive a wedge between us and our vendors with whom we once had only great relationships. I’m sure our competitor’s first priority is to make lots of money off developers for their shareholders, not necessarily to improve the lot of the developer. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it is capitalism at its finest, but I believe developers deserve better.
That period of my life was especially excruciating not just because of the financial strain but also because I wasn’t building anything. My goals have always been to build things that can provide benefits for both me and lots of others. We built the complete reference guide of 3rd party tools for Visual Basic developers (VBxtras) and I know for a fact it helped hundreds of thousands of VB developers find the best tools available. Building things is what makes me happiest.
In 2002 we stumbled across something that actually made us extra profit which allowed us to pay towards our debt. We found Microsoft-centric developers were fascinated by the XBOX, and we could get them to buy a Microsoft MSDN Universal subscription if we bundled. It is difficult for a reseller to make a lot of profit margin when selling Microsoft products but since MSDN Universal costs $2000 or more we found we could make enough to pay for an XBOX plus keep a little for ourselves.
Also in 2002 we started working on an Xtras.Net printed catalog. However we found the world had changed in eight years. Vendors preferred online advertising to print advertising so most were unwilling to advertise in a printed catalog. Though we did produce an Xtras.Net issue #1 printed catalog, it was a huge disappointment to me.
For .NET, our Xtras.Net printed catalog was not a "complete reference guide" like the VBxtras catalog had been for VB3 as there were many .NET products not included in our catalog. Also I had questioned my own intuition and I had hired a marketing consultant to design the catalog instead of designing it in house and, quite frankly, many customers told me the Xtras.Net printed catalog didn’t have the soul found in the original VBxtras catalog. I decided if vendors and developers weren’t passionate about our catalog, I didn’t want to publish it (though we do plan to continue publishing it, albeit in a different form; more on that in future posts.)
So in 2002 and throughout 2003 we focused a lot of our attention on our MSDN+XBOX promotions because they generated the revenue we needed to cover overhead and pay off our painful debt. Sometimes my marketing manager promoted so heavily I cringed at how spammer-like we were becoming. But the MSDN+XBOX promotions allowed us to survive and, allowed us to pay off over half of our old debt. Still I hated that period because we were not on a mission, we were not building anything; we were just moving boxes.
Even though I was unable to pursue "construction" of anything new, different, and valuable for developers during 1999 through 2003, it didn’t keep me from dreaming. I had literally hundreds of ideas, most of them not worth remembering, but a few were really standouts. And a handful, if pursued, would significantly improve the lot of the .NET developer while giving my company a new mission and renewed vigor. Alas we were unable to pursue any of them during that period for financial reasons.
In late 2003 after getting our financial house in better order it became viable to pursue some of my dormant ideas. As we discussed them internally, they began to gel into a cohesive plan and strategy, and that strategy had a clear mission:
To Empower Serious .NET Developers
While that might sound a bit obtuse right now, you might recognize that phrase as the tagline for our The Xtras.Net Developer Network.
The launch of XDN in January 2004 was the first initiative launched that is part of Xtras’ future strategy. Today XDN is a membership program with two levels: Basic and Professional. XDN Basic membership is free and gives access to download demos from our websites; in the future XDN Basic will give access to a whole lot more. XDN Professional offers members (at least) one free commercial .NET developer component or tool per month, and three of our best sellers at ½ off our normal price.
In the future we will still operate our existing core business, but our vision extends way beyond what we are doing today.
So to wrap up the past ten years in a nutshell, we created an icon in the industry but they we went through hell, but came out the other side as survivor. As for our next ten years and beyond, I can say the following with almost 100% certainty, if you are a .NET developer and we are able to execute our strategy, you will be very glad we did.