No Such Thing as a Free Sprout

About a year ago, I tried Sprout Builder. A sprout, in this context, is a Flash widget. SB cost nothing to try, and there was quite the buzz about it at the time. Two days ago, those of us with Sprout accounts got an email from Carnet Williams, the CEO.

Like many technology companies, we offered our service for free while we worked on our products, spoke with customers and developed our go-to-market strategy. Now that we have developed a solution worthy of creative professionals at the best agencies in the world, it is time for us to monetize. Starting in early February, we will begin charging for our service.

My reaction was one of surprise and interest, given the widespread use of the freemium model. I would have expected a very limited free version, with steps up from there in terms of price and service. Instead, as ReadWrite Marshall puts it: “Users will need to pay a minimum of $140 for a year of uptime for three widget projects.” He considers the lack of a free version a bad and sad thing, as do most of those who commented on his post.

Mashable Adam takes a more neutral tone. He quotes the SproutMail in full, and, based on a conversation with Carnet, “notes that the company will continue to offer free accounts to non-profits and academic institutions.” Again, comments on the post are mainly negative, with some feeling that they have been taken in by a bait and switch, with the year of free beta sprouts as the bait, and the recent email as the switch.

“The Case of the Charging Sprout” raises several questions, such as:

  • What is the deal for edu/nonprofit customers of SB? One of the quotes earlier in this post indicates that SB will be free for such customers, while the pricing FAQ states that “educators, design students and non-profits can use Sprout Builder at a discounted rate.”
  • Did SB give sufficient warning that the free sprout honeymoon would end?
  • WW37SD? What would 37signals do? 37s has done an impressive job with the freemium model, making the free version interesting enough and the $ versions premium enough. It’s interesting to compare the Basecamp pricing chart with the Sprout Builder chart. The former shows that there is a free version, the latter that there isn’t. Now, project management is certainly different from widget building, but I think that similar pricing considerations might apply.
  • How will SB’s decision work out? I don’t think that it will work well. A free version, however limited, encourages people to get started. While SB offers a 30-day free trial, that’s not the same thing as being able to maintain a sandbox over a period of time, so that one can, as time allows, keep going back to SB, assessing its fit for different projects that come up, and comparing it with competitors.

I’ll send a couple of emails soliciting answers to the first and third of these questions. But I hereby solicit your take on them, and comments are open…

Music Pricing and Channels

Selling recorded music presents some interesting decisions, many of them related to pricing and distribution channels. Well, interesting enough for me to follow a trail of recent posts. The trail led me to LA, and to an LA Times blog.

Warner Music Group raised eyebrows last month when it yanked a promising downloadable single and album from new U.K. chanteuse Estelle off iTunes in a bid to … boost sales? The move certainly helped two obscure cover bands, which quickly filled the void on iTunes with their own versions of Estelle’s “American Boy.”

The trail started at Reddit or some such site, and got to LA via Penny Distribution and Coolfer. It includes arguments that the price of a single should be more than the standard track price.

I don’t think that the music industry is going to solve its problems by making music more difficult or expensive to obtain. To return to the opening example, artificial scarcity isn’t going to help in an era of abundant (if not always legal) content and bandwidth.