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There is a lot of discussion around the amount of money that is inside the tech industry. Although there is money to be made it is not without the trials and tribulations of selling software. This is my story of selling my first application and some of the lessons learnt. Although this was not my first built application, it was the first application that I built without request from clients.

How to start? In the summer of 2013 I (Technical Director) and my business partner (MD, Stephanie) were running my company. Whilst work was steady with a stream of regular paying clients and a few larger jobs every few months, it was by no means spectacular. I had enough down time (time not already allocated to clients) to develop other ideas. One of my main distractions was finding large datasets that I could push into Drupal to expose the data to the internet and make it easier to search.

I had already been working with Snowcarbon (finding snow-rail holidays), digesting and manipulating multiple data feeds to Drupal, and the theory works with just about anything. I also had discovered data.gov.uk, the UK government data portal, which had started exposing Government data sets. Most of the data they released was quite patchy, however, there were a few consistent data sets and one that caught my eye was the Bona Vacantia list.

For those that don't know (which I assume is most) the Bona Vacantia list is published daily and compiles people who have died without having a beneficiary of assets. The Government publishes the list and various companies attempt to find relatives of beneficiaries, for a fee. If you have seen the BBC show "Heir Hunters" it is exactly that.

Now back to the data. The data was a nice size (I think around 30,000 records) and was regularly updated. I did a quick Google around who was using it and there were a couple of companies, however, I did't think that they were using it particularly effectively. So, I hit upon the premise. I would read the feeds, make all of the data searchable, especially through Facets into enterprise search, geolocate all of the estates and also group them to make them more easily searchable. Because the data was regularly updated, I could post every single update to Twitter (remember this, it is important).

So, I set about building it. I have to repeat, that I wasn't really working on things that I hadn't already worked on. I knew how to digest data. I knew that I could write a script to get the location of the data, which frustratingly changed every day and I had seen a tutorial recently about geo-location which had been relatively easy to repeat. I already worked with Drupal and Apache Solr to deliver faceted search and the linking of an account to Twitter was all achievable.

I presume that about 90% of the application, at least the functional side, was completed in the first 3 days, 18-ish hours. Some parts took slightly longer, I had to work within Google's limits for using the free geo-location service, which was 2000 records a day. But it was pretty much complete.

Now what should it look like? I presumed that as it was using Government data it would be appropriate to use a style similar to the gov.uk. However, I thought that looking exactly the same could be contentious, so it looked kind of like a gov.uk property. It worked ok, it was responsive, all the searches worked fine. And I switched on the Twitter feed...

So, remember that I told you that the Twitter feed would be important? It turned out that it was. I guess that the application had been running for a few days, when a local newspaper picked up that there was news relevant to their area. The basics of the Twitter feed were:

  • "New estate: [Name] [Date-of-birth]-[Date-of-death]; [Location] [link-to-more-details-on-site]"

  • "New estate: Will Hall 01/01/1970-15/02/2018 Cambridge https://www.bona-vacantia.com/estate/will-hall-..."

I also added a bunch of more generic tweets linked to names and locations and scheduled them regularly with things like; "Unclaimed estates in Derby, Derbyshire? [link-to-search-facet]", "18 Unclaimed Estates for surname Hall [link-to-search-facet]". I realise that some of these seem pretty clickbait-y but they do have some value however nuanced.

Following that, I had a few DM inside Twitter about estates, to which I responded explaining that I was unable to provide any further assistance with finding more information, and a message asking more about who was running the application. Fast forward about 2 weeks and we were sitting in a London office of one of the biggest Genealogy agencies Finders International, discussing the sale of the application.

Now, it is always difficult trying to stay cool when you know that someone wants to buy something from you, especially as you didn’t know you were going to be selling it two weeks previously. I can’t state that my negotiation skills are particularly exceptional, but we reached a compromise to sell the application and support for 2 years to make sure that the service would stay operational. Suddenly, we were walking away with a new client and a sizeable chunk of income. Fantastic. After initially publishing, Danny Curran, MD at Finders International contacted me to put a small quote (Thanks Danny!) "we noticed Will’s work as being a creative use of data which may be useful to our core business. Whilst other firms remained confused about what Will had done, we saw this as a clever and useful tool that would help reunite heirs with their rightful inheritances”.

In summary, there are a few questions you need to ask yourself when selling things you have made. Firstly, do you actually want to keep it? Are you interested in the people behind the tech, because that is what it will become over time. In my case, I never wanted to run a Heir Hunter agency. Secondly, what would you do with the cash if you get it. Most people have ideas about what they would do with a cash injection to the business. Is it worth leaving the project and gaining an immediate cash injection or would it be more worthwhile to try to grow the application organically? Only you can answer this question, there is no right or wrong answer.

For me, the answer to both of these was that the sale would be far better. The cash was used, both to employ more employees, and to extend the offices so that we could have more staff (we probably bought a bottle of Champagne too). Overall, there are lots of lessons to learn. That value (in money) has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with others.  And that you never really know what is going to be a good or bad idea until you implement it.