Software Developers for Straight Shot
Last Friday Volano participated in the second “pitch day” at Straight Shot, an Omaha-based accelerator for e-commerce and software as a service start-ups. Volano partners Don Stavneak and Rod Smith attended while Jordan Pascale of Silicon Prairie News, e-Creamery founder Abby Jordan and I sat on a panel to provide feedback for three of the seven companies, Quest, LocalLux and Kitchin on their seven minute presentations, geared toward potential investors. We had a lot of fun talking to the entrepreneurs, business community participants, DundeeVC staff and enjoyed local craft beer provided by Benson Brewery. But we have selfish reasons for wanting to see Omaha become a premiere hub for technology start-ups.
Rising Tide Lifts All Ships
Programs like DundeeVC’s “Straight Shot” help create a more attractive environment for entrepreneurs by supporting their development, getting them an audience of potential investors and helping them become more viable investment opportunities. They also draw dynamic members of the business community together. As an Omaha software developer, we benefit in the long term when more and more people come to understand how software can solve daily problems. In a business setting, creating software as a competitive advantage is also one of our goals. We are also a developer of software as a service, having launched Steelwool and Action Card, and we understand how significant the resource of intellectual capital is here in Omaha. We are constantly learning. Putting people together in a room who are early on in a software business or those who have had success in technology start-ups creates an environment where everyone can inform each other.
Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash paired up to do a VH1 Storytellers album years ago. In the banter between songs, they laughed about how the former members of super country group The Highwaymen used to joke about getting together to steal each other’s songs. In a sense, this is happening at Straight Shot. The companies get paired up with mentors whose areas of expertise range from legal and accounting to executive management and marketing. The owners, whose strengths and backgrounds vary in this year’s second accelerator class pair up with mentors who can help them in areas outside of their immediate comfort zone. Pitch Day is all about helping them learn how to articulate their company vision in front of a group and receive constructive feedback.
Community, Collaboration and Technology
The parallels between programs like Straight Shot and companies like Volano are stark. Our software development team work in an open, collaborative space and rely on each other’s knowledge to help them solve problems. Working directly with the clients for whom we build and sell software, we also realize that relationship development is a key component of writing custom code or developing mobile apps. It is on the strength of these client and community relationships that we land custom software business. We are also able to rely on many Nebraska-based peers for knowledge, introductions and feedback on our model and products. As benefactors of this environment, it is also important to proactively reach out and offer help where we can.
Software Developers Tackle Product Development and Sales
Like many businesses, Volano Solutions has worked hard to build our brand around helping clients solve problems with software. We’re historically a project-based software developer and our comfort zone is building custom software for organizations whose systems are failing their business process and thus, their customers and employees. We are proud of our work and the long term relationships we’ve built with customers. Like Harvey Keitel’s character in Pulp Fiction, Winston Wolf, we solve big problems. But like many businesses, we strive to diversify revenue streams and stay ahead of changes in the marketplace. Two years ago we decided to create Saas product or software as a service so that customers could subscribe to a web application and use our product to make their life easier. We have learned a lot in two years and have come to know a lot about product development and market fit, often through brutal experience.
Solve a Known Problem
The first thing you need to do if you’re interested in developing any product is determine whether or not your product solves a specific problem. If you think it does, you should assume that you are wrong and seek out the opinions of objective “experts” in the field to validate this assumption. Asking your family if you think your concept has legs is probably not scientifically rigorous. Look for people who would be potential customers. Not only will you gain perspective on the viability of your concept, you’ll pick up a lot of intelligence on features that would be essential, competitors, market share, ideas on other possible vertical markets and insight into the dynamics and politics of the industry your concept is geared toward. Ask yourself if your perception of the problem your product is going to solve holds up to scrutiny from people who live and work in this problem. Ask if this problem is real and if so, perhaps the greater question; is the pain caused by this issue greater than the inconvenience of leaving status quo for something new? If you’re the least bit unsure of this, go back to the drawing board. Good advertising convinces you of a need that doesn’t exist. Good products address specific needs.
Know Your Market: Vertical Vs. Horizontal
The next tip parallels the first. If you are solving a known problem, you should know who your customer is. Volano’s most recent application Action Card was originally built for the franchise vertical market. We invited many local franchisors to our headquarters to poke holes in our idea that a cloud-based compliance review tool could not only save time on franchise visits and inspections but could help drive revenue generating outcomes and needed corrective action. We knew exactly who would use the app and in what capacity. We also had years of experience working in the franchise space with valuable contacts and willing beta-testers. We researched our competition, knew our differentiation and crafted a pitch that would make Don Draper jealous. We also knew that we had a general concept that, on the heels of our success in franchising, would play well in various other vertical markets that are compliance driven. Knowing exactly who to build the app for helped us add relevant features and on a broader scope, architect a general marketing plan which included launching the app at the International Franchise Association Convention. If custom software development is all about creating clarity in roles and transparency in processes, knowing who to sell a product to helps drive more meaningful sales and marketing efforts. As they say, If you’re selling something to everyone you’re selling to no one. From past experience we learned that if you design a product that could work for a lot of people, it is hard to focus on one group to build a sales pipeline within and your product features won’t speak directly to a specific group. The first question prospects ask is, “who else uses this?” They want to know that it’s working for their peers.
Quantify the Cost Benefit of Your Product
Based on what you learn from your industry insiders and what you see early adopters and beta-testers doing, try and quantify the value your product offers users. We see Action Card as a revenue generator for our clients. Knowing how many hours saved per compliance inspection done on a tablet instead of on paper helps us frame the discussions in terms of cost-savings. The reporting that comes from the centralization and data aggregation from the app also helps drive more informed business decisions from the executive teams of our clients. So we can say with confidence, based on our clients’ experiences that there is a quantifiable cost savings on the simple utilization of our tool and we can speak to the increased job satisfaction we bring users (from their own account) by taking away tedious double data-entry and excel-based reporting. Knowing your value proposition also helps you determine a price point that is understandable to your customers and profitable for you.
Timing is Important
Another tough lesson learned in regard to the development of Action Card and our study on market fit occurred early on. Our overzealous sales team pushed to sign up beta-testers before the app was completely finished and tested internally. As a result, a few of our potential clients eager to get going on the app incurred some bugs early on and lost patience with a tool they needed. Though beta-testers are wonderful at helping you identify opportunities to enhance the product, fix bugs and make the user experience better, ultimately we learned that companies want a finished product. Their definition of beta-tester was different than ours. Had we waited a month from completion to launch the beta-test, we’d have retained a few more clients and saved time on re-selling a few that fell by the wayside. As we grow our client base, we continually learn about market fit by watching our customers use our app.
Don’t Give Away the Farm
I realize that the conventional wisdom in subscription software is to make it easy for people to get acquainted with your product before making a financial commitment. We discussed this quite a bit at Volano and determined, like many other Saas products, to offer a free 30 day trial to new customers. I believe that this is the right approach and we will continue to stick with it. However, our eagerness to get beta-testers lead us to offer 6 months of Action Card access for free. This offering undermined the integrity of the product and its value. It also created less urgency from our testers to spend time getting set up on the software. They didn’t have skin in the game. In retrospect that was a mistake. We pride Action Card on its value in facilitating relationships between reviewer and the person being reviewed. The interaction goes beyond the criteria being evaluated and into a more consultative coaching and mentoring discussion about unified goals. In that spirit we should have trusted that our eager beta-testers did not need “free” to build that relationship with Volano.
In Patrick Lencioni’s “The Three Signs of a Miserable Job: A Fable for Managers (And Their Employees), the author correlates job satisfaction with performance. He focuses specifically on three areas where employees begin to loathe their jobs; irrelevance, immeasurability, and anonymity. Lencioni offers actionable advice on diagnosing and addressing these issues. I could not help but think of job satisfaction in the context of systems, workflow management and what it is we do to help solve pain points for our customers.
The clients for whom we’ve build custom software usually have a few common problems that we see in a lot of different industries. Experts Exchange wrote about business transparency recently on a larger ethical scale. I think transparency in business starts on a micro-level with the business processes that make up your daily workflow. Typically clients feel like there is a lack of transparency in their work processes. This leads to having to continually check on the status of work, redundancy and a lack of awareness as to how things are getting done and who is getting them done. People like recognition and validation for their work. If their boss doesn’t know exactly what they do and lacks the visibility into their daily work, recognition falls by the wayside and it employees feel defensive about what they do and uncertain about how they are being evaluated. Not good. This lack of transparency or clarity goes well beyond process efficiency. Employees may feel that their work is perceiveds as irrelevent because nobody knows exactly what they do or how they’re doing it. Therefore they feel irrelevant.
Clarity and Definition
Businesses usually have defined workflow management processes, steps, teams and procedures. Challenges arise during the execution of tasks. This is usually a communication issue where the person responsible for task 5 did not realize that the person responsible for task 4 completed their work. Unnecessary delays in competition can occur when people don’t have clarity on when their work is ready to be completed. This lack of clarity can lead to a sense of anonymity. I like the quote “Success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan.” When work processes are not crystal clear, there is a shared sense of the whole and it is harder to feel and act accountable to a task if you’re not clear when you’re to begin, and nobody else sees it either. This sounds like an opportunity for employees to skate and cast blame on others for missing deadlines but in my experience, people like to achieve goals and they like it to be known that they were particularly instrumental in the swift and accurate completion of their responsibilities. This might be a stretch but as the son of a Catholic school teacher, I was a frequent alter-boy, serving mass in front of hundreds in our parish church. My tasks followed a very clear, predictable chronology and were dependent upon the completion of other tasks by my counter point and the priest. There was no uncertainty in who did what and the congregation saw it all. I felt a great sense of satisfaction for publicly keeping the wheels on the alter so to speak.
You can’t manage what you don’t measure. The custom software that we build for our clients helps collect and aggregate data so that they come away with the reporting and tools necessary to evaluate their work, their process and their people. Part of being a leader is helping your people make sense of their landscape. Providing them specific direction that will help them focus their efforts on tasks that will lead to measurable results is what it’s all about. When your systems are hard to track and you lack the tools to measure performance, people become disengaged and disincentivized to knock it out of the proverbial park. If nobody can clearly see the difference between you’re a players and your C players, why would you work so hard?
Friday one of Volano’s former developers dropped in to say ‘hi’ and play a couple of games of darts with the team. Doug Dawson was one of the first class of developers who helped Volano in its early days and it was great to have him back. Friday culminated a long week and our team worked hard. Inevitably cocktails began for some an hour or two before the usual 4-4:30 time frame. One cannot overstate the cathartic necessity of that Friday happy hour when you imbibe with your peers, play good music, tell jokes and play a unifying game of darts. Software developers seems to get unfairly categorized into a personality type, but it seems that the only thing our people have truly in common is a passion for their work and a good sense of humor. Doug blended in as if he had been gone for 3 days, not 3 years.
Benefits of Working for a Small Shop
Working in small, growing businesses can be exciting and challenging. In the larger organizations where I’ve worked, people naturally gravitated toward segmentation and silos, a problem that can dilute your company culture and also get in the way of workflow and efficiency. Volano Solutions has 14 (soon to be 15) employees and we all work in a collaborative space. Like many small businesses, we wear a lot of hats and look for people who are resourceful, creative and easy going. We share knowledge and subject matter expertise to help on client projects and advocate access and communication. By necessity many larger businesses need to be process-oriented to scale growth but this often creates an unavoidable level of bureaucracy that can intimidate and frustrate ideas and breed in-house politics. That dynamic simply does not exist here. Having Doug come back to visit us was validating. We are proud of our humble roots and excited about the future here as we continue to delight clients, land custom software development work and add clients to our mobile app product line Steelwool and Action Card.
One of the issues Volano Solutions faced this year when selling our mobile compliance review app Action Card was from a restaurant that expressed concern that they might be held liable for intellectual property patent infringement by using our software. We learned that there was a special breed of bottom feeder that “trolled” published patents, waiting for them to expire so that they could purchase the rights and hold others legally liable for “infringing” on their patent. This was commonly done with software and restaurant chains were targetted. It looks like that phenomenon known as “patent trolling” was dealt a blow by the Supreme Court last week. According to this post from The Verge in regard to the Supreme Court case that serves as precedent, Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank has been one of the most closely watched patent cases of the year. It takes on what patent reform advocates see as the unreasonably broad category of “software patents,” which cover a process implemented on a computer rather than a piece of design or a physical invention. Earlier, the case was said with some degree of hyperbole to spell the “death of software patents,” but this decision doesn’t necessarily stop people from patenting a software “idea,” as long as its technical steps are concrete improvements or new designs, not an aggregation of existing steps.
Some businesses were asking software providers to sign indemnification agreements to assume the liability from any patent troll who decided to file suit over the use of their intellectual property. This case basically states that you cannot simply patent a broad, abstract process, link it to software and hunt down anyone who might be using a specific software system that manages that process. This is good news for software developers that would not like to spend time and resources protecting themselves from the threat of frivolous lawsuits and should alleviate some of the anxieties businesses have about investing in process efficiency technology. As a bonus, it’s nice to see a Supreme Court ruling come down 9-0 and not 5-4.
Launching Saas Product
Launching and selling software product has been challenging and fun. When you’ve developed a nice tool that solves a specific problem for a defined group of people, getting clients up and running is a rush. Our mobile compliance app Action Card has been a great experience. We knew we had an innovative idea in mobile compliance reviews early on as we talked to our networks and some local franchises and multi-location companies. Throughout the development of Action Card, feedback we received from our beta-test group helped us immeasurably. We added features, fixed bugs and got better at talking about the app. Sales and marketing will always present challenges as we continue to study our client behavior and discuss how to scale growth and continue to make the app more user-friendly. However the next big test is upon us.
A recent blog by Open View Partners states the next big challenge in software as a service development perfectly. “Snagging new customers is one thing, ensuring that they become active, long-term users is another.” The writer notes that communication with the client is key, but goes a step beyond that. “However, to be truly effective, user adoption has to be a cross-departmental effort. Specifically, that means that a company’s product development, customer service, and marketing teams must partner to:
The prevalence of cloud-based software solutions and mobile app technology has created a wealth of options for businesses and consumers It has also challenged software developers to create easy to use applications that even the most technologically challenged can quickly use and incorporate into their daily habits. For businesses, the technology must make life notably easier for the user and even easier to learn. Often the best features to a software application are the ones left off.
What Does Success Look Like?
Interestingly, a growing number of businesses feel that Saas development and sales it is not all about client retention. Lincoln Murphy with Gainsight writes about a new metric, DDR or dollar revenue retention. DDR is revenue renewal values which is basically not a measure of clients gained versus clients lost but a look at up-sells, cross-sells and additional charges for expanded use of your app. When your product is tiered in pricing and service, it is possible to lose customers and increase Saas revenue. Therefore it is good to see who drops off, when and for what reasons and who is becoming more engaged with your product. Is DDR the better measurement for success in Saas sales? Not necessarily, however Murphy makes a valid point;
…If you’re losing customers (even if you’re growing revenue with the remaining customers), something is wrong.
It might be that you are:
Ultimately, losing clients is a bad thing. The importance of interacting with your customers and soliciting feedback from them will help you gut check your theory on the application’s value and utility. Successful mobile app sales will have low churn and high rates of user interaction.
Volano Solutions received honorable mention in the Silicon Prairie News among some esteemed technology-focused entrepreneurs. Read about Action Card here.
Story lines: Nebraska Ecosystem Builds Talent Muscle, Gets Moving
Volano has written about the disproportionate male to female ratio in software developers. We have also been in the trenches with our Omaha brethren when looking for technical talent when demand far exceeds supply. This is why we are encouraged by the advent of code schools and the increased awareness that ignoring this problem is tantamount to sending businesses elsewhere. Today we wanted to take a deeper look at who we’re talking about. Who are these elusive web application alchemists that are in such demand. How do we increase the talent pool in Omaha?
The Prototypical Software Developer
Software developers are a unique breed. For the sake of simplicity, it’s best to lump them into generic categories and convenient stereotypes. Javaworld and Web Designer Depot have done this well. I particularly like the “code poet,” “insecure evangelist” and “developer diva.” In all seriousness, true coders and scientists and artists. They tend to be literally minded, detail-oriented, intelligent, logical and in most of the developers I know, passionate about their craft. Statistically they tend to be in their mid to upper 30’s (the number has been dropping however), male with mortgages and kids and are, against conventional wisdom, much more extroverted than the caricature would suggest. I’ve worked with computer programmers in Omaha and in Silicon Valley and I can say with some certainly that I envy the way that the good ones seemed to have married their passion with their profession. They are cognizant of the labels that follow them in their profession which is a wonderful paradox, given the assumption that software people lack self-awareness.
I know many of these people who should have gotten into software development and did not. Factors such as the prohibitive cost of a 3-4 year computer science degree or the simply lack of exposure have undermined the talent pool. It appears this is changing slowly as coding is being recognized in some schools as an elective or core curriculum and it should be. Coding, like mathematics, helps develop logical thinking and problem solving skills. A friend of mine who consults with the faculty at a Midwestern college recently told me that he believes the higher education model is due for for a correction soon. Technology has fundamentally changed way we receive information and learn. Businesses are also realizing the need for people who have technical skill and business savvy. Working in groups, doing actual client software development work and total immersion have made it hard to justify paying tens of thousands to a traditional University for a 3 year degree. Hopefully these changes will continue.
How to Get More Females into Software Development
Increasing the talent pool of software developers in Omaha has to start with tapping into the other 50% of the community workforce; females. This week the New York Times blogger Nitasha Tiku brought a female perspective to this issue in her technology blog “How to Get Girls Into Coding.” She notes that less than 1% of girls entering college intend to major in computer science and that in 2013, women made up a paltry 14% of all computer science grads. Tiku offers a unique solution through gaming. Omaha Code School managed to solicit scholarship dollars from local companies such as GitHub for aspiring female developers as well. These efforts both increase the talent pool locally but also address the numbers. Though many professions are not gender proportionate, writing code for a living is a job that can be easy on the schedules of parents and are typically well-paying careers, especially as you gain experience.