Ship It!

When developing software, there is always more you can do, more features you can add, more bugs you can fix, more improvements to existing tools.

This can quickly spiral into a situation where you want to do “just one more thing..” before you release.

This is a slippery slope and one the requires discipline to avoid.

Don’t get me wrong, no one wants to release low-quality bug-filled software, but it comes down to focus and prioritisation as with everything.

There is always an endless supply of ideas when it comes to new features and improvements, but again you can fall in the trap of releasing features customers don’t want.

This is what “shipping” is a critical part of the development process. Regularly releasing software is a habit and forces you to push features out to users sometimes earlier then you want.

Shipping regularly is hard but worthwhile.

The pay-back though through the user feedback loop is a critical part of the development process. User feedback is a key input for prioritisation.

Shipping regularly forces you to bite of small pieces of functionality and gain insights – pulling you back on track where necessary and avoiding wasted effort.

Shipping is a very rewarding activity. While things aren’t always perfect – and someone crashed your app within hours of release – the great thing about regularly shipping is your ability to make the required fixes and get them out into the market quickly with the next release.

While we always strive for perfection and to be better, it is refreshing to know the next release is only a matter of weeks, not months, away, which also reduces pressure on testing.

We shipped another version yesterday – and it feels good!

Focus

In my mind focus is a key attribute unpinning success in all walks of life including from a business perspective.

Throughout my time with Cadimage there were multiple times where focus was critical.

During the GFC, we needed an intense focus on the costs of running our business and making sure every dollar was spent wisely to ensure we would come out the other side. We also needed to focus on business strategies that had a higher chance of success during a very difficult sales period.

In the development side of our business following two acquisitions (spread 8 years apart) we found ourselves with a large collection of ArchiCAD Tools. When we did the maths simply maintaining all the Tools required more time then we had available. We had to be ruthless and we also had to take actions that at least in the short term would potentially upset customers – sunsetting a number of products.

This was a painful experience and while the maths showed us which Tools had fewest users it didn’t mean it was easy for those specific users who enjoyed use of a discontinued Tool.

In order to try to avoid actions like this it is critical to learn to say no – often.

It is too easy to say yes and begin things that start spreading resources too thin. Our acquisitions brought both great products and great people, and by discontinuing some of these products the team were more able to focus on our key products which ultimately led to increased customer satisfaction. 1

Learning to say no is hard, but ultimately leads to greater focus.

Building a start-up as I am currently doing requires immense focus. I have a huge range of ideas and see great opportunities dotted throughout the architecture design process. However, we are focused at this stage on a single opportunity, and even within this opportunity we need to focus on the really big issues and plan our development carefully.

In addition running a start-up requires constant attention to costs. While we are raising capital to fund the building of our business we have a commitment to our investors to spend the money wisely. Sometimes having less money helps provide additional pressure to really focus on meaningful spending. There are many stories of over funded start-ups that utlimately fold as they didn’t have the discipline of focus as a core attribute in their business.

Footnote:

This interesting article popped into my inbox today talking exactly about the Upsides to Unshipping: The Art of Removing Features and Products

Spaces – Conceptual Design for Architects

In August 2020 following six months of research, development and prototyping I founded Cerulean Labs with the aim of reinventing conceptual design for architects. This is a lofty goal and one that will take a number of years to see come to fruition.

However, today marks a major milestone in our early journey with the release of our first public beta.

As a team we are proud of what we have created to date but equally appreciate we are only just starting to scratch the surface what we plan to develop.

Spaces combines ideas from a huge range of people and investigations that have helped shape this first beta. Now we are excited to get a broader group of users signed up and using the software so they too can help shape this tool.

Spaces fills a void in the marketplace and we are focused on making it simple and easy to use.

As previously posts have highlighted creating a new venture is a rollercoaster of emotions and a constant juggling act. We could have taken a slightly ‘easier’ road and spent a few more months developing our first version before engaging with users but creating a tool that no-one uses is not our plan and we are excited to get our app into your hands and gather feedback, both positive and negative, and work hard to deliver regular updates and enhancements over the coming months.

If you’re an architect with an iPad and Pencil Sign up now for our Early access programme

Start-up Juggling Act

However, this time instead of joining a well established and profitable business we’re starting from zero.

A brief look back

I wrote the above at the end of my 2020 review and posted it to a number of different channels.

I got great feedback and many suggested that we weren’t actually starting from zero as with over 20 years in business we all have experience and an extensive network of contacts – which is completely correct and helps provide confidence when starting out.

We first began the business in August and have been primarily focused on the development of an iPad based design app. My two co-founders and I, along with some additional part time developers have put long hours into the core of our app with a view to releasing an MVP in late November.

We missed the target date but two weeks later we had a substantial release ready for Apple Approval and subsequently for our first close group of testers. This group of testers are all part of the networks I have built up during my career and they provide a great early (and friendly) test bed for our product.

However, suddenly we were now getting feedback and while we could keep our heads down for the first five months we now had a product release and we had to start juggling a number of tasks that support a product led company. The product still wasn’t (isn’t) commercialised so while we had some new pressure we didn’t have the pressure of paying customers (though I can’t wait for that!)

And this is where my comment regarding starting from zero really came into play. All of a sudden in addition to product development we needed to start thinking about websites, social media, branding, marketing, customer support. None of these things existed, and for obvious reasons nothing we had produced in previous companies could be used directly in our new business – we had a clean sheet of paper to create a branding and marketing strategy, we had no office systems.

And so began the juggling act that virtually all start up founders go through at some point. We are running a very lean development focused business until we raise external capital and to that end my role has now seen me swapping hats on a daily basis – sometimes many times a day.

While we had nothing, again previous experience allowed me to quickly start pulling things together. I have a strength in office system implementation – I have seen how integrated systems allow business to focus on their core activities – so over the last month I have implemented the core of our commercial-side business systems that are all integrated and will allow us to scale over time (you have to love cloud applications):

  • Hubspot – CRM & Marketing (Advertising, Email, Social Media, Lead Capture)
  • Zendesk – Customer Support and Knowledge base
  • Webflow – Website Design

I have longterm experience with Zendesk having used them at Cadimage over 10 years ago, but the other systems were completely new to me but they all work well together.

Aside from office systems, we’ve been busy building a brand (I’ll post on that soon), added a new director to the board to help with capital raising, started a series of lean marketing activities to start broaden our testing community and begun building a social media presence.

On the development front we’ve knocked off one major product release already and have some smaller releases coming soon.

All in all its good fun, a constant juggling act of reprioritising and trying to move each piece forward in a logical order.

I knew from the outset 2021 was going to be busy, looking back (we’re almost 20% done with the year) I can already see we’ve taken some big steps forward, I can’t wait to see how the rest of the year progresses with an official beta launch and (fingers crossed) our commercial debut!

A fresh approach to development

Developing a brand new Product from scratch can be [or is] a daunting task. Especially when you have a big vision that you know is going to take significant time to develop but you need to get something to market quickly to ensure your idea has potential.

Nearly every development decision is a catch 22, where you know you can either do things the right way or the quick way but not both. You constantly need to juggle building good foundations while also delivering features that advance the product. No one likes to know they will need to rebuild things in the future but sometimes that is the trade off that needs to be made.

When you try to couple all of these requirements to a development approach there is no single perfect approach and what works for some won’t work for others.

It was therefore refreshing to read Shape Up – Stop Running in Circles and 
Ship Work that Matters by Ryan Singer

Anyone who has followed Basecamp will know that the founders are quite opinionated and always challenging the status quo. For example the following is an excerpt from the forward of the book:

For one, we’re not into waterfall or agile or scrum. For two, we don’t line walls with Post-it notes. For three, we don’t do daily stand ups, design sprints, development sprints, or anything remotely tied to a metaphor that includes being tired and worn out at the end. No backlogs, no Kanban, no velocity tracking, none of that.

Shape Up Forward by Jason Fried

The book makes some bold statements and a lot of their ideas can be challenged but overall it was very thought provoking and has a very constructive approach to product development. Based on the success of Basecamp the approach has certainly worked for them.

The approach won’t suit everyone and we for one have adapted some of their concepts and will continue to do so as we get a feel for how the process works.

One of the big things for me is that it empowers the developers and demoralises a lot of the decisions. At the same time giving them “uninterrupted time” and “longer cycles” means they have time to research, investigate and weigh the benefits of how to implement intended features. If they feel that solid foundations are required that’s up to them, but they are also clear on the deliverable expectations in ‘exchange’ for this freedom.

Time will tell how well it works for us, buts many of the concepts resonated with my personal experience and the start of a new year is a great time to try something new.

Four digital strategy tips for SMEs

I first came across Peter Thomson when he was a Brand Strategist with Brian Richards. We worked together for around 18months or so as we redeveloped the Cadimage Brand and then more Umbrella Bradning for the entire Cadimage Group.

Peter and I always had some very interesting conversations around all sorts of topics from marketing to pricing to charging for disbursements! Since initially meeting we have kept in touch and met up around the world when we could.

Since starting Cerulean Labs I have reconnected with Peter and he has provided early advice around Lean Marketing and how to get started.

Peter discussed his approach and more recently the following four tips were published along with a profile of Peter who is currently Head of Technology at the Ice House.

Start a newsletter: Email is an under-appreciated channel for building ongoing customer relationships. No matter what your industry, starting a company newsletter will give you a chance to speak more directly with your customers

Blog the journey: Share honest stories of the highs and lows so your audience can get to know your business better

Do things that don’t scale: Don’t rush to automate everything too early. Sometimes it’s worth the effort to personally provide a service to your early customers so you get to know them better

Sweat the small stuff: Details matter with product experience. Make sure you put time into touch points like user onboarding, login pages, the password reset process and your eCommerce checkout

Peter Thomson

These four points are all very useful, number four resonates especially for me as customer focus and customer experience are both critical to business success.

2020 – Beginning a new challenge

2020 has been an enormous challenge for all humanity and while I could write a Covid-focused post and focus on the New Year as a way to put 2020 behind us that is not the focus of this post. The challenge I refer to in the title is the new business that had the seeds planted a few years ago when I sold Cadimage Group and embarked on the next step of my life journey here in Hungary.

From my point of view life and business are both journeys and each run through various cycles of ups and downs, joy and pain. 2020 – while unprecedented in my lifetime – can be seen as another one of these cycles which brought change to all our lives in a number of ways.

At the start of the year I was very much in the frame of mind to build a new business. I’d always expected that at some point I would give it a crack and had always been searching for ideas.

January saw me, along with a couple of others, exploring a BIG idea, in fact it was probably a little too big! While having big goals is important, the main trouble we saw with our idea was it was very difficult to start with a small piece and add to it over time. For our solution to be accepted by the market it really needed to be close to 100%. I realise this simplifies things and could be seen as running from a challenge but being bold also requires confidence and whichever way we looked at things it was hard to be totally confident about the idea. (We still keep it in mind though 🙂 )

Confidence is a core value I have always felt strongly about in business. Confidence sets businesses apart and confidence builds confidence. If you project confidence to your customers, they become confident in working with you and your product.

Anyway, Covid came along and I saw my consulting business dry up so I started focussing more and more on ideas and opportunities. Prior to air travel being restricted I attended a conference which was very stimulating. Covid obviously saw a huge move to working from home, however even before Covid I knew any new business I would create would be based on a remote team.

As have many people, I used the opportunity to learn new things and taught myself the basics of iOS, Swift and SwiftUI. I started building some prototypes and exploring ideas and further refining them.

I continued to engage with my co-founders and the idea started to crystallise and we started to put the foundations in place for a new business. We established the business and set about building the first version of our product. We put in a small amount of money to help us get things moving and within a couple of months had made sufficient progress to do a very early pre-seed round to give us some runway to double down on our development. In parallel with development I started some Lean Marketing.

Building a business can be viewed like building a house, with the ground work and foundations being the first part and critical to creating a strong platform on which the rest is built. To a large extent this applies, however the actual process is probably more like building an entire town of houses. As a startup we build foundations for what we need to achieve, doing just enough of some things in order to keep going. In some cases we know what we build today, we need to rebuild (or replace entirely) down the track.

I have been involved with owning and managing businesses for almost 20 years. I’ve been involved in all aspects across building and growing businesses, developing, selling and supporting software and all the marketing, service and admin that surrounds these activities. However, this time instead of joining a well established and profitable business we’re starting from zero.

This is a new, exciting and at times scary challenge. I am confident in the abilities and experience of my team and while a huge challenge lies ahead by the end of 2020 we have begun our journey and have enough pieces in place to start 2021 with confidence.

Experimenting is essential for learning

When it comes to business, as with most things, you know less than you don’t know. So how can we shift this balance? how can we learn? how can we improve?

My approach is to learn by doing. This will also involve making mistakes, which should also provide us a chance to learn.

However, simply doing, isn’t quite enough. You need to come up with an idea of what you think the answer to the question is and then test that theory. And then test and test and test some more.

While at Cadimage we introduced a [paid] student version of Archicad and over a number of pricing experiments we ended up providing the student version for free and finally reached the point where student usage took off.

At the time we did this, it wasn’t necessarily as formal an approach as designed experimentation, but early results were a failure so we tweaked and tweaked until it worked.

In hindsight the answer is as clear as daylight and ultimately providing free student versions, free training for staff and students, and then sponsoring the NZIA Student Design Awards was seen as way of building the commercial side of our business – why we tried to sell something to students is beyond me but the point is the 3-4 years of trial and error led to the answer and not only solved its own situation but had a far broader impact on our business. In my opinion we could never have foreseen this outcome as our focus was very narrow.

Technology has come a long way since we did these early experiments, and there is a huge range of software to support conducting and analysing experiments and the data they generate.

Our Student pricing can be viewed as a fairly simple experiment, but equally I think that is also key to being able to learn. Don’t try to test everything at once. Focus on pieces that will appear to have the biggest impact.

When experiments became automated via technology they began as A/B Testing – ie testing two options. Software allows many more options to be tested simultaneously but I think A/B testing truly encapsulates the approach to take.

Obviously you can experiment with everything from pricing to email subject lines and contents. But stay focused – especially if you are a small team – and don’t experiment with everything just because you can. You simply won’t have the bandwidth to assess the results.

Keep it Simple

Yes, this is a pretty straight forward statement, however, as a business you need to be extremely disciplined in order to constantly keep things simple.

Personally I like to equate simplicity with perfection and the following quote sums up my general thinking with regards to simplicity.

Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I have spent my career building product based businesses and it is all too easy when you have a team of talented product managers and developers to come up with all manner of features that they feel customers need.

Once a feature has been suggested – and in some cases even partially/fully developed – it is very difficult to imagine the product without it.

The problem can quickly escape when you start talking to customers. In general teams I have found that the customers who love to provide feedback and ideas are at the “power user” end of the scale, and therefore they amplify and reinforce the feeling regarding the need for a feature.

The problem lies in the fact that these power-users (and your own staff basically fall in the same category) represent the absolute minority of users. Catering to their every need, wish and whim means that very quickly you have a complex product. Yes it may be extremely powerful, but it has now become difficult for new and less power users to use.

The real art of keep things simple doesn’t have to mean reducing these power user features, but can also be dealt with in different way from creating a very well crafted UI that only exposes complex functions when needed through to creating different versions of the same product with different (extended) feature sets.

Keeping it simple doesn’t only apply to products and features but is important in all aspects of business.

In this article I outlined the changes to our pricing that changed the adoption rate of ARCHICADselect from around 15% to virtually 100%. By looking at our pricing model and adjusting it to make it more easily understood we found we were able to present the price to new and existing customers in an easily understood manner which led to a massive improvement to our business.

Some people love to come up with Complex Pricing Schemes in order to cater for every option with a sense that by doing so they will maximise their margin. However, if an internal sales person can’t understand a pricing matrix then it is a big clue that your potential customers won’t, or they will look for the easiest option that satisfies their needs.

In the same way when we launched Cadimage Tools on Subscription we could have provided a whole host of options to allow customers to pick and choose. However, we decided even with 7 individual tools that packaging them in three plans made the most sense. Some would argue we left money on the table, but I believe we attracted most customers at a higher price point then we would have had we given them infinite options. It can be counter-intuitive, but sometimes sacrificing apparent margin in order to keep things simple actually ends up being far more profitable.

As I said at the start, it requires discipline to always keep things simple and its all to easy to get carried away internally with grand (complex) ideas. Remember to ask yourself:

Is there anything I can remove from this without materially affecting it

And bring a sense of simplicity to all aspects of your business.

B2B SaaS Pricing

It is great to see this recently released report by Chart Mogul following their research in to over 600 SaaS Pricing Pages.

The whole report is worth reviewing if you are in the B2B SaaS business. Some of the key things I was interested to review include:

Optimal Number of Plans

I’ve always had a gut feeling that 3 was the ideal number of plans. I’m not quite sure where it came from but maybe it was from browsing a number of payment pages when I first looked into offering Subscription.

Anyway this report confirmed that 3 is the most popular number of plans on offer – whether or not that is actually optimal is harder to judge but maybe it is a fair assumption.

Incidentally, when we launched the Cadimage Tools on Subscription we opted for 3 plans!

Free Trials

Free Trials definitely appear the way to go with over 80% of companies offering some sort of free trail.

I was surprised however, that over 60% of free trials request card details up front. This is always an interesting debate as to whether asking for details up front presents another hurdle, however, in a sense it also most likely leads to higher conversion so there are different trade offs to measure.

Freemium

I wrote the other day about my thoughts on Freemium so it was interesting to see that less then 30% offered a Free Plan.

That said, Freemium is used extensively to grow ARR in the $100m – $1B range [ nice range 😉 ]

The reference to this article regarding “Monetizing backwards” still reinforced my thinking though.

Annual vrs Monthly

This one was more surprising especially with regards to the over 40% who don’t offer annual plans. I’m a firm believer that having annual and monthly payment plans help create a natural balance of lowest cost of entry, versus longer term customers.

Though that said, my own experience when introducing ArchiCAD Subscription was that I felt monthly was sufficient. Mainly because the entire exercise was to reduce the barrier to entry, and an annual pan would have been still too costly for the part of the market I was targeting at that stage.