About three years ago at a company meeting in San Francisco, we began thinking about selling our software on a subscription basis. During the first meeting, I remember a remark by one of our esteemed co-workers, Rob Ramirez, who observed, “I don’t have any friends who could afford to buy Max.”
While I generally think of our product as a serious and deep tool that for a fairly specialized audience, and while the retail price of Max 7 is now less than half of Max 5, this comment stuck with me. We are passionate about what we do and we want to share our work with our friends. Rob went on to tell us that subscription pricing meant he would truly feel comfortable telling his friends about the product he works on, because suddenly $10 a month felt like something his friends could afford.
In all of these discussions, subscription pricing was always a going to be an option, not a replacement for selling a permanent license. We want to give our customers a choice based on their needs and interests, and just as an outright purchase can be off-limits due to the affordability issue, a subscription can be equally unattractive for its own reasons. One of the primary drawbacks of a subscription for many people (and one often mentioned in conjunction with Adobe’s Creative Cloud plan) is that when you do creative work in software, paying a monthly or yearly bill to access that work feels a little uncomfortable. (With Max, the subscription enables you to save new versions of your patches, but you can always view, edit, and run them without a license.) Secondly, we have loyal customers who’ve used Max for more than a decade, so we know you may end up using our software for a long time. Over the long term, you’re usually better off buying, just as you are with most things (cars, housing, and so on). But as we all know, it’s a rare person who can pay for a house in cash.
The primary reason I wanted to experiment with subscriptions has to with how it changes the dynamic for a user encountering Max for the first time. I ask myself, how is that user going to turn into one of our loyal long-term customers? Well, the most essential prerequisite is that they learn Max! In my view, the issue is not motivation, it’s ability. Ability is not just whether programming is a cinch for you. It’s how much time and money you have, as well as your access to other resources for learning. (It’s even your English proficiency, something we’ll be focusing on intently in the coming year with new localization tools.)
Consider the situation before Max 7 and our subscription pricing: a typical retail customer would have 30 days and then has to decide whether to pay hundreds of dollars to buy the software. What if that’s just not enough time to be able to make that kind of commitment? We’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t accept that Max has a learning curve, and not everyone can drop everything else for 30 consecutive days to ascend it.
What if after after your trial was over, you didn’t need to make a huge financial commitment to continue? Instead you could keep learning at your own pace, and pay a minimal amount only when you have time to spend working with the software? This puts the burden on us to make sure you are learning to express yourself creatively with Max — in short, to make sure you are getting real value from the product. If you’re not, you’ll cancel.
I hear from customers regularly about how learning Max has been a transformative experience in their creative lives, so I am happy to accept this burden. In Max 7, we didn’t just implement subscription pricing and then tell new users good luck figuring out the software. We’ve also built innovative new self-learning features including tours and lessons, and we thoroughly revised the presentation and content of our documentation. We’ve also refined and expanded our high-level patching tools including BEAP and Vizzie, our modular audio and video libraries. These tools are essential to our self-learning strategy, but they’re also just plain fun to use. And we’re not above using fun to influence the perception of value. As my co-worker Andrew Benson, who has been teaching Max for many years, would say, “The goal is to avoid having the student drop the class.” For our friends who teach Max, we think our new learning tools, all of which will be open and available for authoring new content, will dramatically enhance what happens in the classroom.
Enabling more people to do a challenging thing successfully is a hard problem, but it is the key challenge of what we do as an organization. Subscription pricing, a simpler user interface, and our new learning tools are some of our first steps in this direction. We do these things not because we are trying to make a dumbed-down Max. We do them because we want to make a smartened-up world. Did I just say that? You know what I mean…