There are three kinds of approaches when creating software-based products or services:

  • Create a product that sucks and bundle a consultant every time you ship it;
  • Create a product that sucks less and bundle an instruction manual with it;
  • Create an awesome product.

I think that in a way, a company's documentation strategy can reflect its business model.

Create a product that sucks and bundle consultants

Nowadays, everyone talks about UX, and seem to forget that creating a product and making money on services around that product, is a viable business model. The business model can be something like this:

  1. Build, sponsor, or buy a product;
  2. Don’t accept contributions from the community. At this point a fork is announced;
  3. Do the minimal necessary to rebrand the project. Sometimes this just means adding your company's logo to the project’s website;
  4. Add a ‘Services’ tab to the web site. You can sell training, certification, consulting, and support;
  5. You get extra points if you omit documentation on purpose to increase support requests, and charge for it.

This business model sees the product as a loss leader. The company does not make money on their first sell. In fact, they might even lose some money. The real money comes from services provided around the product.

Since the customer has already invested money and resources to buy the system, they will have a hard time letting go and building or acquiring a new one. Instead they will try to solve their problem by investing even more. This creates a loop: the customer invests because they already made an initial commitment. The more they spend, the more they can justify spending even more. After all “we have already invested 1M in this product, it would be a shame to see all that investment go to waste”.

Companies like Oracle and Lexmark are known for this business model. Did you notice that it's cheaper to buy a new Lexmark printer, than buying a toner for it? Lexmark loses money by selling the printer to you, but get their investment back by charging higher for toners.

Create a product that sucks less and bundle an instruction manual with it

This business model consists on building a product and making money out of it. In order to scale processes and avoid constantly interrupting the development team, companies tend to create a new team just to deal with customer questions. This team is usually known as product support.

Afterwards, when the product support team no longer scales with customer demand, people realize that they need to create documentation to address the most frequent customer questions. This creates a 3-part defense system that is able to balance customer questions, while keeping the product moving forward.

Companies such as Google and Microsoft follow this approach.

Create an awesome product

This is also a business model centered on developing a product However, while the previous approach focused on the product per se, this one sees the product as an enabler, or provider of an experience. This is why companies following this business model often focus on developing a single product, and go to great lengths to create an experience that goes well beyond the product.

Here are some of the aspects this business model takes into account:

  1. The first email you receive from the company;
  2. The process of choosing and customizing the product that you are buying;
  3. The experience of unboxing the product;
  4. Your first interaction with the support team.

Car manufactures, real estate agencies, and companies like Apple are examples of this business model.

Wrapping up

While in the first model you omit or obscure documentation in order to sell services, in the second, you produce documentation to try to offload your support team’s work. Finally, the third model focuses on creating experiences. This model cannot afford to ask their customers to read documentation, at least upfront.

Final thoughts

As always, keep in mind that I’m oversimplifying. I’m sure not all Oracle products follow the strategy I’ve described above.

Also, I’ve definitely oversimplified Google’s business model. Google’s main source of revenue, are targeted ads. This means that at a company level, they are focused on creating a platform that allows companies to place ads that lead to paying customers. However, to create such platform, they need to create meaningful products that people use everyday.