Part three of a history about how AppDeploy came to be…

AppDeploy was still largely a discussion board until mid-2002 when I came up with the idea for the Package Knowledge Base. I was very excited about the idea, but was a bit discouraged that nobody I shared it with could see it’s potential. The concept was that the site would host a custom page for each major version of any software and on that page I (and hopefully others) would share any command line parameters, tips or tricks they may have learned concerning the deployment of that software. There had been plenty of discussions taking place at AppDeploy and elsewhere on the topic of how to deploy this and that, but the idea here was to have a page dedicated to each version of each product with nothing but shared facts– no questions or long discussions to scroll through, just useful tips. I’ve moderated every post since then and today I just approved tip number 7,071 so I’m calling it a success.

Even better, this turned into search engine gold. Soon if you typed any product name with the word deployment, install, automate, etc. you were pretty likely to see AppDeploy as one of the top results. That drove more and more awareness. More and more frequently you could find it referenced as a source for the answer to deployment questions all over the Internet, even in books. Plus most every deployment vendor I would speak to at conferences would tell me regularly, “oh, AppDeploy, I love that site, we refer clients to it all the time”.

By 2006 banner advertising was on its way out and the site was taking lots of my time and generating very little revenue. If I was to make this my profession, I had to do something. I had a couple of ideas from automating a way to print the software knowledge base as a book, to offering paid reviews, to giving people an option to purchase a paid account for the site. I executed the latter two concepts.

First up: paid reviews. I knew credibility was important here so I made a few things clear to advertisers who were interested:

  • Each review would contain both positive and negative comments. After all no product is perfect.
  • The review would be honest, not an editorial and only technical edits would be considered.
  • The client could read the review first and then choose if the review would be published or not published on AppDeploy.
I wrote about 20 paid product reviews and only two were so unhappy with my review that they would not allow them published. Each review was honest and when I would point out flaws or deficiencies, most companies were not hearing something they had not heard before and most would ultimately decide that the positive outweighed the negative enough to let it be published. At least for me, the couple that did not allow the reviews published reenforced my feeling that I was remaining true and was not selling out.

Next I implemented a paid/premium membership account for the site: for $40 I would put a specified user account in a group specially coded to hide the ads on the site and also provide access to a new video area I was developing. While the option existed, over 350 people supported the site though purchase of this “premium account” status. As a low-cost option, I was very grateful too hear many people were paying for it out of their own pocket to show support and I found that to be very encouraging. Incidentally, while the videos are free now, those that paid for the premium membership still see no ads on the site to this day.

I was putting a lot of time into the development of videos on deployment related topics. While I enjoyed doing it, between my full time job, a long commute, efforts to both moderate the site and generate this premium content on top of the increasing number of writing projects I was taking on, I was getting burned out and it was difficult to argue when people would tell me it didn’t seem worth it. That was when I came up with the AppDeploy Library.

I was using Microsoft TechNet in my work as a government consultant. I leveraged the DVD archive of knowledge base articles regularly because the secure environments I supported never allowed for easy access to the Internet. I decided I could provide a similar offering by generating an offline indexed, searchable, browsable copy of AppDeploy content that would feature exclusive video content. I invested in the development of the custom software and processes that would allow me to produce the searchable offline index, had special leather DVD cases made, purchased packing/shipping supplies, writable silkscreened DVDs and a DVD burning robot. I offered it as a one-off purchase or as a six or twelve month subscription. As it was something often expensed as part of one’s job, many were purchasing the six or twelve month subscriptions and in the first year I generated more revenue with the AppDeploy Library subscriptions than I made in advertising.

I had a process to create them, pack them and ship them but as much as I automated, there was still quite a lot to do and it took a lot of time to pull it off. Every month I would generate a new image, burn the disks, check the subscriptions, pack them and create all the needed mailing labels before carting it all down to the post office for shipping. It certainly was not a scalable solution, but I told myself that if it got too much for me to handle, then that would mean it reached a point where it could sustain me and I could quit my day job to work on AppDeploy full time.

About a year later in 2006 start-up by the name of KACE approached me about somehow licensing some of the site’s data for use in their product. I had reviewed their appliance based solutions in the past and they were a regular advertiser on the site so I knew them and thought highly of what they had created. Eventually the conversation evolved toward acquisition and when I flew out and met the KACE team I was won over. Not only did they seem like a very sharp group of people focused in an area I’d been watching for years, but they didn’t want to change AppDeploy at all. I believed that they understood the value of the site being independent and not tied to a product and that not handling it correctly could mean killing what had been built. I’m happy to say that was correct: I was provided some resources to re-skin the site and give it a more modern look, but I continued reviews, advertising and the branding was minimal.

However, as a growing startup I wasn’t going to have the luxury of focusing only on the community. Everyone seemed to be pulling the weight equal to that of a handful of people and I’d be no exception. I started out mostly focused on the site, doing some writing, adding some features and delivering webinars but eventually took on other Product Management roles until my work on AppDeploy became equal to that of the time I spent on it back when I had a separate full time consulting job. The AppDeploy Library was first to go seeing as how it took so much time to do. We refunded all outstanding subscriptions and I used the time to take on more and more projects like managing the development of the AppDeploy Repackager.

I enjoyed Product Management and have learned a lot during my last few years in that role. And just about the time I was starting to resent the shrinking amount of time I was able to spend on AppDeploy, Dell came along and acquired KACE. I’m happy to report that in the second year since that acquisition I’ve finally reached the point where (at least for a majority of my time) I’m able to focus on the community as my primary task.

The Dell acquisition was a second time that seemed precarious for AppDeploy. Many asked if it would be taken over or shut down. I’m happy to say the answer is not just no, but very no. But if I’m spending so much time on the community you might wonder where are all the new enhancements to the site!?! I had been planning for a migration from my custom ASP code to a managed framework like Drupal, but I’ve been able to do much better than that. Right now, my primary day to day is as the Product Manager for a new community to which AppDeploy will be evolved. Everything will be migrated and everything about AppDeploy will be better from how it looks, to how easy it is to use. Some great new technologies exist today that just didn’t when AppDeploy was put together and I’m very excited to take the community to a whole new level. We’ve got a great development team cranking away at a list of requirements a mile long and we are on track to offer up the results of this effort by the end of the 2011!