Skedsheet Blog

Where we talk about the product, calendars, organization, and business

Archive for June 2009

Announcing intentions

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microphone by visual.dichotomy - http://www.flickr.com/photos/visual_dichotomy/3623619145/sizes/o/ A study by NYU psychologist Peter Gollwitzer recently showed that going public with your intentions to do something might be counterproductive. 

A group of law students who announced that they were going to read law journals periodically actually read less than those who kept their mouths shut.  This made the news…probably because it’s conventional wisdom that talking about your goals helps achieve them.

Uh oh.  Isn’t that what this blog is all about?  We intend to make a spreadsheet that ties into a calendar.  We intend for it to look pretty and be useful.  And, we intend to spread the word about skedsheet. 

So far, what do we have to show for it?  Bupkis.

Well, that’s not strictly true.  We’re actually working hard and the guy who’s doing most of the work hasn’t announced anything publicly.  The study has much more to do with individual performance than the productivity of  a team.

I think the biggest difference between our scenario and the study is that there’s a different level of consequences when you renege on intentions or promises as a company versus those of a student.  We’re going to keep talking about what we’re doing – including the trials and tribulations because it’s a vital part of keeping us focused, excited, and moving forward.

Thanks to Derek for the link to the study.

Written by Harry Hollander

June 25, 2009 at 6:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

How I stopped worrying and learned to love the bomb

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scratch golf ball rocket by jurvetson - http://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/231372270/Every time we’ve done something new in the past, one of the fears I’ve had is that we’ll be swept into the tornado of too much success at once.

Here’s the actual sound of that tornado: “pfffftt.”  Or, maybe just the sound of crickets chirping.

It turns out that an overnight boom of success isn’t what we need to worry about – and originally, I felt like a loser because of it.  Most business books talk about the exceptions – the runaway hits and the dramatic failures. And because I’ve never imagined our business being a failure, the obvious thing to shoot for was being a blockbuster.

Well, instead, we bombed…compared to the high expectations we set.  With JobTracker, that meant just a handful of customers the first year, and modest growth over time.  No feature opened the floodgates, no recommendation, ad, or key event fundamentally changed our business.  But the reason I stopped worrying is that the small successes added up.

So, for skedsheet, I expect the same.  It’d be really cool to be mentioned on TechCrunch, have a zillion people visit our site, start using a skedsheet and sharing it with everyone they know, and needing it enough to pay.  But the reality is that most businesses aren’t the ones that you read about, but can still bring enough value that people are willing to pay for your product or service.

So, I’m not worried about hearing silence when we release our first version, because I know it’s just the first of hundreds of small steps toward another great addition to our business.

Written by Harry Hollander

June 23, 2009 at 7:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Which questions should I ask to find the value?

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I spend way too much time thinking about our sales process, mostly because I keep trying to use my engineering experience and apply it to situations that rely on people – aka, situations that are pretty unpredictable. 

For JobTracker, the way we try to sell is by having conversations about “specific indicators”, which are the problems that drive our customers to buy.  If we were selling shovels, the questions would go something like:

Q: How are you digging holes in the ground now?
Q: What works about that?  What doesn’t?
Q: Are your fingernails getting really dirty and you can’t stand the taste of mud anymore?
Q: Do you think you could dig an extra hole every week if you had a sharp blade with more leverage?

It looks like a few of the scenarios we already use apply to skedsheet.  By definition (combine a spreadsheet and a calendar), we have a decent idea of the problems our leads are running into with the two tools they have today. 

If it was a conversation – and it will be as I start interviewing folks to ferret out some new markets – my dream conversation would look something like this:

Q: How are you scheduling now?
A: I’m using a spreadsheet with all of the details, and transferring over some of it to outlook to move things around and share the calendar.
Q: What works about that?
A: I like having access to the information on the computer more than hunting through file folders and a whiteboard.
Q: What doesn’t?
A: Every time I need to change the schedule, I have to put the details on the spreadsheet and the dates in outlook.
Q: Keeping up with documentation in 2 places seems mistake-prone.  Is that a problem for you?
A: Yes.
Q: What’s the $ impact every time you forget to update the date in one place?
A: One zillion dollars.
Q: How often would you say that you make mistakes because you need to remember to put the date in 2 places?…..

The important part about a conversation like this is having questions that uncover the pain (I need to update my schedule in 2 places) that we can actually solve.  Then, if someone starts using skedsheet they’re happy because they’re solving a problem.  Even better, we hope it’s a solution to a problem that they can quantify – either money or time is great. 

And, we’re happy because someone’s getting value out of what we do… and if there’s value, they’ll be willing to pay.

Written by Harry Hollander

June 18, 2009 at 8:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Pros and cons of the virtual office

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planet office by inacentaurdump -http://www.flickr.com/photos/inacentaurdump/2951669295/For the past six years, we’ve been working out of our individual houses, in our virtual office.  We have a centralized phone system, email, IM, and our own software to track sales and support conversations.  We use a few other tools to share information, but haven’t gone to the level of using webcams to communicate (yet).

Overall the positives about running this way far outweigh the negatives, but it wasn’t always clear how it would play out.  Here are a few pros and cons of what we’re doing.

Pros

  1. No time wasted commuting.  Like lots of people, I used to spend over an hour every day in the car.  Now, it’s like each one of us has extra time to work, spend time with our families, or do something else productive.  Commuting is stressful too, so as a bonus, we’ve gained extra productivity by feeling better at work, too.
  2. Office politics don’t exist.  This is partially a consequence of having a small company – there is no corporate ladder – but it’s also partially because playing long-distance office politics is impossible.  There’s no opportunity for cliques to form because we spend most of our time focused on the tasks at hand.
  3. When you’re in the groove, there are no interruptions.  Nobody comes by my office to chat, check on me, or pull me into a meeting.  Occasionally, I hear a kid screaming in the background, but with a noise-cancelling headset, even that’s not an issue.
  4. Low overhead.  Let’s face it, office space costs money.  And if we had offices in the bay area, it would mean lots of money.  Instead we can pay relatively high salaries which go much further in places like Portland, Reno, or Chattanooga.

Cons

  1. You really need to work at communication.  When we first started, it was really hard.  Finally, Ted and I realized that we need to be on the phone with each other almost every day to make sure we know what’s going on.  Getting together has value, too, so we try to meet up at least quarterly.  Part of the reason we go to trade shows is to have that bonding time.
  2. It’s not for everyone.  There are some people who thrive in this environment, but not everyone.  You’ve got to have a ton of self-discipline and motivation.  There are days where I miss going to lunch with my co-workers, and there are times when I find myself just looking out the window…I can imagine that some people would end up daydreaming most of the time.
  3. There’s no way to micro-manage.  Each person who works at Moraware is very self-motivated, but despite the high level of performance everyone needs a kick in the pants occasionally.  There’s no social pressure to even pretend to work, so keeping the intensity and motivation going can’t rely on “management by walking around”
  4. The size of our company is limited.  There’s no way that we can have a hierarchy, so there’s some limit to the number of employees here.  Hopefully, we’re just limited in the number of people we hire, not the number of customers or revenue.

In general, we’ve made some choices about our company that greatly enhance everyone’s lifestyle.  There are some obstacles that we’re constantly working on, but so far none have been insurmountable.

Written by Harry Hollander

June 16, 2009 at 7:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

How early is too early?

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house frame - from http://www.flickr.com/photos/leeco/219628698/I’m wondering at what point should we let anyone outside Moraware start trying out Skedsheet?

Conventional wisdom in the internet software/web 2.0 world says that you should release early & often.  I certainly agree with this concept, and I’ve even given that advice to others before. But when you’re trying to apply it to your own situation, things seem more complicated.

Skedsheet is in the very early stage of development. We’re not working on the beta yet. We don’t even have an alpha build. We’re currently working on the second prototype!

The first prototype from this winter was basically designed like this:
Ted (aka product manager): “It’s called Skedsheet. It’s a spreadsheet combined with a calendar. Go.”
Derek (aka developer): “Uhh…OK”
So it wasn’t my best management moment. But we got the first prototype done, and it still looked as interesting on the screen as we thought it would when we first dreamt it up.

We had to step away from it for a bit to finish up JobTracker v3.0. As we wrapped that up, it was time to take a second pass at Skedsheet. This time, Derek & I got together to hash out as many ambiguities as we could, and decide what we would do for the next milestone: the second prototype. This meant a lot of reworking how Skedsheet behaved, and making many decisions about what functionality we wanted to provide.

So now I’m looking at a half-finished second prototype on my screen, and it’s pretty cool. Much better usability than the first pass, but there’s tons of functionality yet to be done. And it’s butt-ugly.

There’s a reason I’m calling these prototypes, rather than alpha builds. I’m not yet convinced we have the right user-interaction or the right client-side technology choice. When building a brand new product, there are a daunting number of choices to be made, and picking just the right combination is quite a challenge. We may end up completely rewriting major portions of the application as we go through the development process.

So when should we let others try it out?

  • As soon as it does anything at all? (i.e. right now)
  • As soon it has a critical set of features completed? (what’s really critical?)
  • Only after we feel confident that it solves the problem well?

There are a few risks with releasing too early:

  1. It takes longer to do development because we have to worry about existing data and users that we don’t want to break.
  2. We put out something useless because it’s missing too many important features. So we lose the opportunity to get people interested the first time they try it.
  3. We are still actively working on JobTracker, so Skedsheet is not going to be moving forward quickly at all times. So anyone using it early may be stuck with problems for a while before we fix them.

Written by Ted Pitts

June 12, 2009 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

How to make sure your customers never come back

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no escapeAbout five years ago we started using WebEx for technical support and sales demos. They offered a 3-month trial to try it out, and the contract renewed automatically for an additional year if we didn’t cancel.

After using it for a bit, we were having trouble getting users on the other end of the phone to figure out how to click the right buttons to share their screen and keyboard with us. We found another service called GoToMeeting, which did what we wanted, was a little cheaper, and had big obvious buttons for “Show my screen” and “Give keyboard & mouse control” which makes life much simpler when you’re telling someone over the phone what to click.

So we canceled our WebEx contract 3 weeks before it expired, and immediately started using GoToMeeting.

A few weeks later we got a bill from WebEx for $5000 for the entire next year of service! It turns out they had some fine print in the contract that said you had to cancel 30 days before the contract expired. (So their 3-month trial was really a 2-month trial, but they didn’t call it that.) We told them that was ridiculous, and we weren’t going to pay. We had our lawyer review the contract, and he said they had no basis for charging us, and not to pay the bill.

Eventually WebEx handed the bill off to a collection agency, and we told him why we weren’t paying it. He understood and never called again.

The sad thing for WebEx is that we’re going to be paying for this type of screen sharing software for probably the next 20 years. (It’s been 5 years so far, and we use it every day.) They likely have already addressed the issues we had with the service, and are probably very competitive with GoToMeeting. But I’ll never know or care, because I don’t want to do business with them again. All because some sales manager they had five years ago thought trying to trick people into paying for an extra year of service was a good idea.

At Moraware we have always had a simple philosophy about this: if you’re using our service you should pay us, and if you’re not using it, don’t pay. That’s why we have a 90 day money back guarantee, and you can cancel any time without paying us anything more.

I understand the temptation to lock people into contracts: you want to recoup your sales and support costs as part of the initial contract. But if a customer signs up for your service then cancels quickly, who’s fault is it? You either screwed up the sales process by not ensuring you were a good fit for the customer’s needs, or you have problems with your product that makes your initial support costs too high. Either way, you need to fix your own process rather than trying to pass the problem off to your customers.

Written by Ted Pitts

June 11, 2009 at 5:03 am

Posted in Customer Service

Dancing around the competition

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We’ve got competition.  Depending on how you look at it, lots of software, from Outlook to Oracle, could be considered a competitor, and there’s a whole universe of calendars, whiteboards, and manila folders that are probably even bigger threats.

So how do we compete?  We try not to be like the other guys.  In a world of software that’s already confusing and loaded with almost infinite features, we try to stand out by concentrating on what we do well.red tango by nettaphoto - http://www.flickr.com/photos/nettaphoto/35172868/

I was surprised by Microsoft’s attempt to take Google head-on with their Bing search engine.  Although they’ve made a business of taking on competitors directly, then marketing their products like crazy, that would never work for us.

We probably go to the other extreme – find a problem that few people are trying to solve directly, and then focus on that tiny idea.  With JobTracker, we stumbled into a niche within a niche.  Even though it’s not glamorous making scheduling software for construction subcontractors, we provide value to our customers and do it profitably.

The plan for skedsheet is to take it to the next level.  In some ways, it’s even more specific: we’re not going to bring the “whole solution” for any particular type of business.  Instead we’re just focusing on replacing any place where you use a spreadsheet along with a calendar. 

I doubt that our niche competitors are willing to go there – most of them seem to be focused on extracting higher margins from a smaller set of customers.  And, the side-effects that we’re hoping for are that we can 1) have a large set of new, happy customers in our existing market and 2) branch out beyond our niche, even if it’s in a very modest way.

We’re not going to take on anyone mano a mano, but instead, we’ll keep defining what we do well, and let other folks try to catch up.

Written by Harry Hollander

June 10, 2009 at 5:33 am

Posted in Uncategorized