How GoToMyPC Kicked pcAnywhere’s A$$

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A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.

Noted American architect Frank Lloyd Wright famously cautioned his design disciples that form should not compromise function. However, for many online startups, form should drive the design process.

I hesitate to write about design, as I have never considered myself to be a “color or font” person. Steve Jobs might have felt that an improper level of font worship was grounds for termination, but I usually erred on the side of utility. Good thing I was never entrusted with product design.

At Expertcity (acquired by Citrix), I have had the pleasure of working with two executives who shared astounding aesthetic sensibilities: Klaus Schauser and Brian Donahoo. This dynamic duo, who now head up AppFolio, led the design and development of GoToMyPC and GoToMeeting. Their focus on ease-of-use form over function resulted in a series of products that defeated stalwart incumbents, including marketing-leader Symantec.

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Introduced in 1986, Symantec’s pcAnywhere was the dominant remote access software solution at the time of GoToMyPC’s release, with a market share of,“76 percent of the retail remote control market” according to PC Data’s 1999 Retail Share report. Like most legacy software solutions, 15-years after its release, Symantec’s pcAnywhere had become bloated with features most users never accessed.

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Despite pcAnywhere’s prodigious functionality, the primary value proposition of GoToMyPC and pcAnywhere was the same – remote access to a geographically distant computer.

Unlike pcAnywhere, GoToMyPC required no technical expertise. Even the most unsophisticated user could access their PC remotely in a matter of minutes. In fact, the product’s tagline, “Fast, Easy, Secure,” was an overt rebuke of Symantec’s cumbersome solution.

Proper Expectations Make For Beautiful Form

Because of  its denuded feature set, the most significant challenge we faced when launching GoToMyPC was properly setting the market’s expectations. We knew that if our product was compared to pcAnywhere on a feature-by-feature basis, we were doomed to fail.

Greg Alwang, a contributing editor at PC Magazine, was a beta user of GoToMyPC. Brian and his team worked closely with Mr. Alwang to ensure that our elegantly designed, yet rudimentary solution, was not maligned for its lack of features.

In conjunction with GoToMyPC’s launch, Mr. Alwang wrote a glowing review, which confirmed that Brian had done an excellent job of properly positioning form over function.

Although Mr. Alwang noted that our file transfer features were, “basic compared with pcAnywhere,” he also highlighted our solution’s ease of use. In fact, we used the concluding sentence of his review in our marketing materials for several years: “GoToMyPC is revolutionary, and pcAnywhere is evolutionary.” By 2013, GoToMyPC was ranked by IDC as the leading remote access solution for the fifth straight year. Most tellingly, pcAnywhere wasn’t even mentioned in IDC’s report.

Clearly, a rabid focus on form without regard to function is an assured path to failure. However, in the early stages of a product’s rollout, a keen focus on form can increase your sales velocity and thus accelerate your startup’s quest to reaching positive cash flows. Thus, sometimes form over function is the right choice, especially when you are confronting a bloated, function rich incumbent.

Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never Tweet about design-challenged people or that killer burrito I just ate. 

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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  • dwanguard

    This story illustrates what a huge shift happened in recent years.

    Legacy design approaches are not efficient because they where established for completely different set of needs.

    In the meantime tech market expanded and users needs changed.

    On one hand there are low motivated users that decide to use only if they don’t have to put much effort, while highly motivated users are overwhelmed with tasks and also need highly efficient products.

    “Easy to use” I like to define as “care-free use”. Closer the offering is to care-free use, it has bigger global potential.

    If brain surgery would require push of one button, everybody would do it.

    Form can be mistaken as separate from function, while it is, especially in software, part of complete experience. When evaluating it can be observed as separate, but when creating it should be approached as synergy.

    A plain button, if approached only as form or function will have very limited experience. By solving all of it’s aspect and even incorporating branding nuances it will transform overall experience to a whole new level.

    “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like, design is how it works.” – Steve Jobs.

  • Andreas Bur

    The next revolution could be the codec DeskRT from anydesk – watch the benchmark: http://anydesk.com/benchmark/anydesk-benchmark.pdf – startup from Germany

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