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Starting a Software Side Gig

Starting a Software Side Gig

Starting a Software Side Gig

I have been working on a structure loading software for the last 12 or 13 years. I say software but I hesitate to call it a software because it is really a set of interconnected excel sheets. It started off with just a quicker way to calculate the components and cladding loads, and it has steadily grown from a single 150KB sheet that dealt with ASCE 7-05 and through a series of frustrations with StruWare's CodeSearch to a workbook of about 10MB that handles just about every loading you can derive for a standard building up to 150 stories.
Recently my firm of the past nine years was bought out by another firm out of state. I had the presence of mind to discuss this with my firm's old owner before the merger/buyout. To my surprise, he was not only willing to document that this software was not subject to the sale of the firm (even though some improvement had happened on company time), but that his only condition for releasing it to me formally was that he would get right of first refusal to invest in any attempt to bring the software to market.
I have been mulling around trying to start a company to sell this, and his interest has got the wheels turning again. I am a bit overwhelmed by the spectre of starting the company, and I really don't know where to start. I took a couple of business courses a couple of decades ago in UG, but I am looking for resources that I can consult to try and make this a going concern. I feel a little crippled in the fact that I have never been involved in any startup nor have I been terribly involved in any of the more business aspects of an engineering business. Moreover, I am not a real programmer in the sense that I don't know a real standalone language.
A google search basically tries to funnel me into companies you pay to startup companies. I don't intent this to be a replacement for my current position as a practicing engineer. I would like to leverage my code knowledge and hard work to earn a little extra money and provide a product that I practicing engineer would find useful. I don't want to sink a load of money into just getting the shell formed.
So the long and short of it is, Does anyone have any recommendations for books, websites, etc. to start up a company like this? I would also be more than happy to take any tidbits of wisdom that you might share regarding startups, or just operating a business in general.

Robert Hale, PE, SE

RE: Starting a Software Side Gig

Talk to a lawyer for the following things
- Registering as a sole proprietor or LLC
- Drafting a disclaimer document
- best method to give the company starting capitol
- maybe discuss with them if insurance is warranted for something like this.

After discussion with the lawyer register your company with your state. Once registered create a bank account and fund it with the starting capitol. Use these funds to pay for any company specific expenses like website, etc.

Buy a domain name and get a website up to sell your product. Include the disclaimer document with all downloads and display on your site.

The above would give you the best liability protection you could skip all of it except the disclaimer document and just make a personal website and sell your stuff under your name directly. Each method comes with different tax filing process also, worth reading up on how to file as either personal income or as a company and maybe talk to an tax specialist if you find anything confusing.

For website side prepare for $20/yr for the domain name and $5-$15/month on the hosting.

I'm making a thing: www.thestructuraltoolbox.com
(It's no Kootware and it will probably break but it's alive!)

RE: Starting a Software Side Gig

I understand you posted this question asking for help on the business side (something I admit to not being able to contribute to the discussion), but I am more curious about the tool itself. Do you find it marketable, is it easy to use? If it's complex, does it have robust documentation to help a user to understand the ins-and-outs of how to properly use the tool?

Would you be willing to start a new thread in the general structural forum, and include a couple screenshots of the tool and discussion on its methods? That may help you to determine if there is interest for it's use?

Excel can be pretty unwieldy, so it may beneficial to see if you can get this tool packaged into another language or interface that is more portable.

RE: Starting a Software Side Gig

@Celt83: That is exactly the kind of information I was looking for. It seems from your signature line that you may have some experience with this. What type of lawyer should I look to engage? In my mind, I have this broken into several phases, 1) set up the business entity, 2) set up the infrastructure to sell it, and 3) Modify the software to control its licensing of it effectively. I suppose I am lucky in the fact the majority of what it does is already established.

@ChorasDen: I will look at pulling together screenshots and maybe a short compressed video of what it can do and how fast you can get design values for a simpler building. Excel has at times been unwieldy, but I originally made the decision to use it for several reasons. First, nearly every practicing engineer has access to Excel. Second, you can change parameters in real-time and see how the loads are affected. Third, I didn't know a real programming language, and since it grew out of design tools I created extemporaneously naturally it flowed into excel. It also allows the calculations to be relatively transparent. I mainly use it to generate loads for smaller projects (wood and cold-formed) where a whiz-bang RAM model isn't appropriate, but I also use it to verify the loads generated by RAM where I build a model. I also use it for other miscellaneous tasks like generating and tracking my area and line loads, calculating the scaling factors for modal analysis, calculating seismic torsional eccentricities, and of course, generating my components and cladding loads. I think it is marketable, I have released it to several people I work or used to work with, and they use it in varying forms. One guy I can count on to contact me as soon as the code cycles asking if I have incorporated the new codes. It is fairly easy to use. The most complex part of using it is deleting the unused levels when you are initially setting up the file. I have been playing around with some ways of trying to make this process more streamlined, but I haven't yet succeeded in those efforts. I have extensive user notes off the margins of the page (the thing is set up so you can print 8.5x11 sheets of the calculations for calc submittals). I have been working off and on a more robust Instruction document that gives a summary of what the sheet does and how it is intended to be used. The only drawback I have with the product as it exists is adding levels back into the sheets once they are deleted. The way it currently works, once the level is deleted, you can't get it back. It is mitigated somewhat by the fact that you can copy and paste between two workbooks, and regenerating from scratch is fairly quick. I just did a test, and for a fairly simple six-story building, I can have the roof and floor loads documented, rain loads generated, snow loads including drifts calculated, a flood load calculated, wind story shears generated, wind components and cladding generated, seismic base shear calculated, the vertical distribution of seismic shears calculated, and the seismic diaphragm forces calculated. It took me about 40 minutes to do that, another 10 minutes of clean-up and I was able to generate the attached calculations

Robert Hale, PE, SE

RE: Starting a Software Side Gig

I would start with some market research assuming this is to be a business that makes money. If this is a hobby, that is totally different. I would start a thread as ChorasDen suggests and test the market. Not to be rude, but you will need to improve your pitch from the explanation to ChorasDen. This is tough slog as I am sure you know. Lots of great ideas start, and die shortly after. Our IT guy is a programmer and has some graphics software for games. He has marketed it, and it has been downloaded something like 100000 times now. He is still working for us.

RE: Starting a Software Side Gig

@Brad805. Thanks for the honest feedback. I absolutely understand the post above isn't an effective "elevator pitch," or a great piece of marketing. I went way more into the way the sausage is made and why I started making sausage in the first place.
I am working on something more formal and polished to post to the General Structural Forum to gauge industry interest. Hopefully, you will think what I post is a little more succinct and presentable. The minimum goal would be for the thing to pay for itself in terms of operation. Of course, if it can put extra money in my pocket, I wouldn't say no. As it is something that is already developed to a large extent, I see no reason to avoid seeing how far it could go. I don't intend to quit practicing in order to be a software guy. That's not where my passion lies. I love building design, and having a direct impact on the built environment is high up in my Maslow's hierarchy. If something that came out of my mind can help other people in that endeavor so much the better.

- Robert Hale, PE, SE

RE: Starting a Software Side Gig

Curious what your issues is with the effects as it relates to designing a job and removing floor levels. I seem to recall having similar issues about 5 years ago when I was trying to write an excel spreadsheet to allow seismic force design of pre-installed custom steel 25ft storage racks in a warehouse without any anchorage.

However, I'll be honest, I try exceedingly hard not to use excel, as I don't enjoy it, for many of the reasons included above: hard to navigate, controls and instructions are easy to mess up and affect software performance or results, software is unwieldy and requires multiple tabs, references, and/or pages. But hey, maybe everyone else out there likes excel, and I'm the odd one out. Personally, I write all my structural analysis software in C#, but if you don't have programming experience, that may be a tough hill to climb just starting out.

RE: Starting a Software Side Gig

My situation is a little different as I'm not collecting any funds off of what I am providing, my disclaimer is part of my opensource license however I did run it past a lawyer friend and the advice above was from them if I ever intended to start retaining user information (login database) or collect any funds either directly or through advertising. Their advice was to consult with a general business lawyer.

Your Items 1 and 2 will be relatively simply to accomplish, in my state setting up an LLC consists of filing a form or two online and paying a onetime $200 fee. Item 3 you may reach some roadblocks Excel passwords are incredibly easy to bypass for both sheet and VBA passwords, so you may have to settle on a good faith relationship with the folks you sell to that they won't distribute your file.

I'm making a thing: www.thestructuraltoolbox.com
(It's no Kootware and it will probably break but it's alive!)

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