The Business of Software
Fournova and Tower
A few weeks ago, I got in touch with Tobias Günther, CEO of Fournova. Fournova is best known for Tower, one of the best Git clients for macOS and Windows. The company has been around for more than a decade and it seems to be doing well. I wanted to ask Tobias a few questions about running a software business in today's economy.
Mentioned in the Interview
Bart I don't think I ever asked you about the origins of Fournova. For people not familiar with Fournova and Tower, could you talk a little bit about the origins of Fournova and when you decided to focus on Tower?
Tobias Originally, 13 years back, I think it’s 13 years back, it was an internet agency. We made websites for corporates, for companies. I think around 2009, around that time, we discovered Git, Git version control system, and started working with it. It might be 2008 or 2009. We’ve always been a technical company, even back in those days, with the internet agency business, but we knew we wanted to do something different, too. We wanted to try our own product.
When Git came along, and there was no graphical user interface, we thought maybe that’s our first product, maybe that’s worthy of our time, and we really started working on a graphical user interface, without knowing the platform, actually. We came from the web. We had a great deal of experience with web technologies, but not with Mac desktop technologies. So, we turned the business around, from client work to product work, the product that it is, around seven years into the business now.
Bart Transitioning from client work to product development may seem easy on paper, but it's challenging. How did you make that transition? How did Fournova transition from an agency to a product company?
Tobias It was a conscious transition, actually, but a hard one, actually. We had been eight people in the agency business, and we slowly started shrinking, because we knew we had to focus on one thing or the other, and started again, let’s say, with three people. It was a hard time, because we had to split ourselves, 50% doing client work, because we had to pay the bills, of course. No rich aunts and uncles that gave us money. And the other 50% was doing the product work, developing the product. Those were an intense one or two years, and it took us some time and energy, of course.
Bart Yes. I can imagine it took many nights and weekends. How long did it take to develop the first version of Tower? And what were some of the struggles and hurdles you faced along the road to that first version? I've shipped a few products myself and there's always something you can improve, but you need to draw a line in the sand. You need to release your product at some point.
Tobias We hustled like crazy, I like to say. It took us about, let’s think about that, 15 months, around that. The first couple of months, as I said, we had to split. We had to still do the consulting business. So, let’s say around a year of full-time development for two people, two developers. We started with two developers and a marketer, that already prepared, even a year before our market launch, prepared that launch.
The biggest problems, really, were not being able to focus completely on that work. That was really difficult. The technology was completely new to us, so we were really newbies, not only on the Mac desktop, but also in Objective-C. We had done a couple of smaller iPhone projects, but that’s a whole different story than making a full-blown Mac desktop application.
And, of course, learning how the business part worked, because doing client work, doing consultancy, is a totally different thing than building your own product, and marketing your own product. Looking for people that want this product, and how to market that. So, we had an intense year. Well, it’s ongoing learning, still today, of course. We don’t think we know everything yet. There is a lot to learn.
And, of course, time to market in that period, because we were really sure that other people were working on something like that, too. And, of course, we were right. Had we come out maybe half a year later, things would look totally different. Timing is really important.
And with the 1.0, you have to make compromises, of course. Back then, the Mac 1.0 was a totally different story than our 2.0, or we just released the Windows version 1.0 of Tower, and those were both totally different stories. The original 1.0, oh boy, it had holes and issues, and glitches, and bugs, and everything. But if you wait too long, you’re overtaken by someone else.
Bart Well, they sometimes say that you should feel a little embarrassed about the first version you ship.
Tobias We did. We sure did.
Bart That’s a good sign, I think, that you didn’t wait too long. Whenever I mention Tower to colleagues and friends, I always feel I need to justify myself for spending money on a Git client. You know, there are several free alternatives available. How do you explain the success of Tower considering that it's a developer tool, and developers are usually very picky about the tools they use. Why do you think Tower is doing so well today and why do people love it so much?
Tobias That’s a good question. I think one of the biggest reasons is we go all the way. By that, I mean we do a whole lot of design work. We do a whole lot of usability and interface and workflow stuff, so we really, really think hard about how things should work, and how they could be easier in an interface. So, all of these things. Documentation, I think we have one of the most extensive documentation for an application our size, or for a team our size.
We have great and fast and competent customer support, and we have a good feature set. We have a conflict wizard, dealing more easily with merge conflicts. We have a services integration, so you can very easily clone and create repositories on your GitHub and GitLab and Visual Studio accounts. So, I think the big picture is what makes us really good.
We don’t have a big weakness in design, or in interface, in usability. I think, especially being good in interface, in workflows, in usability, really thinking things through, how they should work. Our mission is to make our users’ lives easier. As simple as that sounds, you really have to go all the way, to do that. I think that’s something that people really value, and people see that.
Our customers tend to be, of course, mostly professionals, because yes, we charge money for what we do. We have to pay our bills. I think that that shows, so people that really have a professional goal, and a professional attitude in their work, they really value that we go the last ten miles further than any of our competition.
Bart Yeah. It really shows. I've been using Tower for many years and it's been interesting to see it evolve over the years. And the last major release ticked off all the boxes for me. Of course, everyone has different needs. But it now does everything I need it to do. And, as you mentioned, whenever I file a bug, a minor bug for example, I always receive a response very quickly, usually that same day. It's really nice.
Apple has received a fair bit of flak over the past months, or even longer, especially with regards to the Mac ecosystem. This is, of course, in part because their focus has been primarily on iOS. But how do you feel about the current state of the Mac ecosystem? And do you feel an impact on your business?
Tobias Let’s say that Apple doesn’t do a lot to help us. Let’s say it like that. I mean, of course they have their priorities, and their priorities are first, consumers, not professionals. That’s sad, but it is that way. And iOS, and not the Mac, of course. So, the priorities are really different, and not in our favor.
With the Mac App Store, hmm, that’s been in debate for quite a while, and it doesn’t get really better. So yeah, let’s say it like that. Apple doesn’t help a lot. I think that the ecosystem itself is in great shape. I mean, macOS is in perfect shape. It’s very good software. It’s still great to use it every day. But from a professional side, it’s not easy making your living as a desktop Mac developer. I think that’s really hard, partly because it’s always been a small market, so you don’t have a lot of professional users that really spend money on things on the Mac. Most of the applications, you get for free. You have a mail program, you have the office suite almost for free.
So, it’s still a small market, and it’s a good thing and a bad thing. The market has become a lot more professional, in recent years. A good thing, of course, for everybody that uses software, but it’s hard for indie developers, let’s say. Indie developers, I think, I don’t know, I feel it’s a dying profession, because you have to be so good at so many things. You have to excel at marketing, at design, at customer support, at technology, of course, at shipping your apps, at writing release notes, at having a good product page. All of this has become so professional, and people expect this level of professionalism.
So, you can’t under-deliver anymore. You can’t be a two-person shop, and just deliver your app, don’t care about customer support, don’t care about marketing. That doesn’t work anymore. It used to work maybe ten years from now, or five years. It doesn’t anymore. So, with that level of professionalism, you really have to see how you can achieve that, and that’s not easy.
Bart Yeah. That makes a lot of sense and it sounds familiar. Earlier you mentioned Tower for Windows. You learned a lot from your experience developing for the Mac, but I assume that there's even more competition on Windows. Why did you decide to bring Tower to Windows and how important is the Windows client for Fournova?
Tobias Well, to transfer that way, we have to take a step back. I already said our mission, or what we feel is our mission, is to help developers become more productive, to work more easily with Git, with version control, and have a better workflow, have more opportunity in their work. We were always wondering why the hell do we only do that on the Mac? There’s no reason why we shouldn’t go full circle, and conquer the Windows market, as well. So, we really didn’t want to exclude the other half. Well, the other third; let’s not forget Linux, I’m sorry.
We wanted to really extend our reach and our mission to both platforms, to Mac and Windows. So, that was one reason. The other is, of course, we have a great customer base on the Mac, and as I said, of course, mostly in companies and smaller teams, but always in professional teams. A lot of those people have workmates, teammates, that work on Windows. So, we always felt that this is a great opportunity to help a complete team work on the same technology, with the same user interface, with the same helpful documentation and everything. So, that was a reason why we did that.
Now, we’re really happy to see how the app evolves. As I already said, the Mac 1.0 was a real 1.0. We’re proud of that, but the Windows 1.0 is a totally different story. It’s a lot more mature. We’ve taken a lot more time to develop it. It’s also completely native technology, so almost no code sharing, that’s the bad part, but the good part is, its stability and performance are really native.
And we’re already quite far along for a 1.0. Stability is getting better and better, performance is already good, and the feature set is far along. Of course, there are a lot of things to do, and that will never change, I think, but for a 1.0, we’re really happy, and we’re still working on it full steam.
Bart Let's shift gears for a moment. I know that someone on your team is primarily focused on marketing. What type of marketing do you do mostly? The reason for asking is. I don't see a lot of advertising for Tower. What type of marketing do you invest in? What works for you?
Tobias One type of marketing is, of course, word of mouth, but that’s nothing to invest in. We trust people. If we’re delivering a good application, word of mouth happens, happy customers. And what I already said, inside of the team, of course, this has the biggest impact and the biggest chances.
I think we do a lot of content marketing. We have a full-blown 160-page ebook, and a free online version of that ebook, just about learning Git from the beginning. That’s free on our website. We have cheat sheets, and a 24-part video course about Git, so a lot of learning material, actually. That's our specialty, I would say. And we already started to go beyond Git, even. Just a couple of weeks ago, we published a book on website optimization. We really want to continue helping developers with their work.
Of course, our main concern is Git, so a lot of learning material is in that area; video course, online book, but even in other contexts and other topics. What you said is true; you don’t see a lot of Tower advertisements or something like that. We tried that, too, of course, but for a small company like us, the return on investment is really difficult in these mediums, I would say. So, we also do that. We have a little bit of AdWords, but if I told you the number, you would probably laugh and fall off your chair, so not much.
Most of our investment really goes to educating users, helping users learn stuff, learn technologies. Mostly Git, other stuff, too. That’s about it. You might have seen that we started a little merchandise shop three or four months ago, where we sell posters and t-shirts. We don’t make a lot of money with that, honestly, but it’s cool stuff. We just made a poster about developers. The main claim is "Coding is an Art." - The Developer Manifesto. That really went around the world. People love it, and that's good for us. So, a lot of content marketing like that, for learning opportunities.
Bart Yeah. I’m a big fan of content marketing. It takes a while before it pays off, but once you have that flywheel running, it can really go a long way. What you do today can result in sales years from now without any additional investment.
I also noticed that your team has grown quite a bit and, the last time we spoke, I think most of you were located in Stuttgart. Is that correct?
Tobias Exactly. Yeah.
Bart But that’s no longer the case. Some people are working remotely now. How do you like that? Why did you make that decision and is it working as you expected?
Tobias Yes, that’s true. We started that transition, I think, two years ago, and we’re now a fully remote company, even. So, there is no single office anymore. We used to have one in Berlin, and one in tiny Stuttgart, in the south of Germany. But that’s long ago past, and I think teammates couldn’t imagine working that way any longer, so we’re all really happy with the transition.
We’re eight people at the moment; four in the middle of Germany, it’s me in the south and three in northern Germany. It’s full of advantages, actually. For our personal lives, it brings a lot of flexibility. We have a lot of young fathers, so if a kid gets sick, and the mother has to go to work, the classic way, they can stay home and care for the kids, and work in the evenings, when mom is back. All of these things are really, really good for our personal lives.
Professionally, it’s also good, because you can really take time for yourself, for deep thinking. I mean, we’re developing, marketing a complex product. You often need those times, those silent times, and that’s perfect in a remote environment, if you don’t work from the kitchen table. Of course, that’s a requirement.
On the other side, of course, it has its - I wouldn’t call it disadvantages; I would call it challenges. You have to write a lot more things down than you would have, if you were in the same office. Things travel through the air in an office, but not so much in a remote environment, so writing things down. Creating processes, I think, is more of a task that we have now. And you have to make culture explicit. You don’t have those water cooler discussions, anymore. That’s, of course, that's a disadvantage. You have to counter-balance that by other things.
So, we still see each other three times, sometimes four times a year, in person, as a complete team. We meet in Frankfurt, for example. That’s the geographical middle, I think. We rent a complete house for a weekend, and have a very long barbecue, a three-day barbecue, actually. I still do a lot of traveling. I try to see people, so I travel to Berlin, which is quite far, or to Frankfurt, to stay in touch with people.
And we’re a value-driven company, so we talk a lot about trust and responsibility. It’s not just on our website, but we really act on those things. I think you have to have a value-based culture, because if you don’t, it doesn’t fall from the sky. You really have to work for that, and even more so in a remote culture, because there is no space for culture. It doesn’t get created by chance. You have to do something for that. So, that’s a little bit of explicit work you have to do, but in the end, I think it’s positive. It’s good that we have to do that.
As I said, I think every one of us is really happy to be working remotely. Julian and I, my colleague in Berlin, you mentioned him, the CMO, we spent a month in Thailand just this January. That's a great possibility, to be able to escape the cold in Germany, in January, for a couple of weeks, and I think we really did some good work there. So, more possibilities, if you know how to handle it. I think that's a short summary.
Bart Yeah. I think it also requires a certain maturity from the team, because people are still expected to do the work, even though they don’t have to commute. But it’s great to hear that your experience is very positive.
While I was preparing for this interview, I came across a blog post of yours from a few years ago that really resonated with me. In that blog post, you write about how you initially thought Tower was going to take, you know, about twelve months of development and then we're going to move on to the next product.
Tobias Sorry, I have to laugh. Yeah, that was me. Oh, my God, yeah.
Bart I think blog posts like that, or presentations like that, I enjoy them because they are so honest, and because they say things that are usually not talked about. I think it’s very valuable to share this. If you now look back to where you come from, as you mentioned already, seven or eight years ago, that you actually shipped Tower, what is your take on that concept of building something, shipping it, and then focusing on the next thing? Is that still an option?
Do you still see Fournova developing new products? Because now, of course, you’re heavily invested in Tower for Windows. Is there something in the pipeline? I’m not talking about anything specific, unless you want to share that, of course, but is there still the urge, the itch to focus on that new product, that shiny new thing?
Tobias That’s a wonderful question. As you said, right now we’re really focusing on Tower for Windows. That’s our main and 100% focus. That’s the end of the story. But as I said, it really evolves quickly and well, so we’re really positive that we soon have the capacity to look at other things again. Of course, we have our ideas in the bottom drawer of our desks; new ideas for developer tools. Well, it’s really hard. As you mentioned that blog post, what we learned was it’s not only about the product. If it only were about the product, things were a lot easier.
But we have sales, we have marketing, we have support, we have documentation, we have customer care. We do crazy things like, every day, each and every day, we send a hand-written postcard out to one of the new customers. We send out t-shirts. We do a lot of design work. We have to be careful with what we release, with update quality, with how we release it. We have a great ecosystem, systems for licensing and activating the software, for shipping updates, for revoking updates, if anything went wrong.
So, all of this makes it really hard to just hop off and do something else. It’s not about just the product. And of course, the product itself wants to be improved and maintained, too. When we started, we hadn’t seen that. We hadn’t understood that, to be honest, so that was really completely new for us. We had known it, we had read about it, but we hadn’t felt it.
To be completely honest, we had already started working on something else a couple of years ago, three, four, five years ago, and it didn’t work out, because we didn’t have the focus for something new. We would have risked, to produce something mediocre, with a new product, or to abandon Tower, and none of the options were really good for us. I think if you really want to do that, start a second product, you really have to be aware of what it means, what costs it brings, and you have to create structure for that. You have to have a damn good plan how you can create focus time, and enough focus time, for something new, without letting the old thing go.
I think that it’s perfectly do-able. Other companies show that it’s do-able, of course. But I think it's a thing that most people underestimate, and that can be really dangerous. So yes, we have a couple of ideas ready, and I wouldn't rule out that something will be coming in the next year or two years, but no decision, so far.
Bart Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. It's clear that Tower for Windows is now your priority. That’s understandable. I’m out of questions. Thank you so much for your time. It was great talking to you again and I'm glad to hear the company is doing very well. There should be more companies like yours.
Tobias Thanks so much for having us.
Bart Thank you for your time, Tobias.
Tobias Thank you, Bart.
Bart I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Tobias Günther of Fournova. Don't forget to give Tower a try at git-tower.com. You can follow Tobias Günther on Twitter at @gntr and you can learn more about Fournova at fournova.com. And I would like to thank you for listening.