It’s the business model, stupid. How terrible programming can lead to big money.

The last few projects I’ve been working on have involved paging through lines of poorly programmed and utterly atrocious looking procedural code in PHP. I’ve mostly been mopping up for other consultants, some outsourced, some not. I’ve questioned on several occasions whether or not a 5 year old was responsible for the terrible programming decisions made.

And I’m not talking about the differences between using a switch/case statement instead of an if/else structure. I’m talking about creating 10,000 global variables and carrying them from page to page instead of populating arrays and objects as needed. Database normalizing? What’s that? We’ll just keep repeating the customer name and address for every line item of every order. This stuff should be Programming 101. Apparently these programmers were absent that semester.

Now, are you ready for the kicker? These terrible apps are all making boatloads of money for their respective companies. I’m talking millions… sometimes tens of millions of dollars a year… being sucked into the company coffers by a web application held together with the programming equivalents of toothpicks and dental floss. Shocked? I was. It’s taken me awhile to shake off the disbelief and get down to the factors at play.

The key here is that each of these projects has a really great business model. Each business model is sound and complete, providing for multiple revenue streams through a single core product. All the projects were pretty cool ideas too, coming from the “Why didn’t I think of that?” department. They aren’t web-based services for programmers, tech folks or companies. They are services for real everyday people. People that think aol IS the internet.

The common elements with these projects:

  • Great business idea.
  • Terrible system implementation.
  • Big money coming in, from common web surfers, regardless of the terrible system.

Sound like anything else you may have heard of? For me, it’s really revolutionized my thinking on a lot of items. People will come and pay for services they want, regardless of how difficult it may be to purchase them. And they will put up with a crappy business experience if the service provided is valuable enough to them. So you can code all you want, make all those objects perfectly encapsulated, make the database fly with tight queries, stamp out every bug you find -- that isn’t going to make you any money. Because it’s the business model, stupid.