We all have days when we have to make tough decisions and today is one of those days. Closing Get Sign Off is one of the hardest things I have had to do since founding Headscape back in 2002.
There are a couple of ways we could have handled the process of shutting up shop. We could have quietly closed the doors by sending an email out to existing customers and said no more. Alternatively we could be up front about the experience and share our failures openly for others to learn from. As you have probably gathered, we have gone with the latter approach.
Get Sign Off was my pet project. We had the idea while at SXSW 2007 and the initial structure and functionality was literally planned on the back of a napkin. We dreamt about working on something other than client projects, and generating reoccurring income not limited by the number of man hours we could put in.
However, our initial excitement was soon dampened by the realities of business. Right from the start we encountered problems. It is those problems I want to examine here and ask how we could have done things differently.
Our problems started with resourcing.
It’s easy to say you are going to build a web app. It’s much harder to find the time, especially if you are a successful web design agency with a lot of existing clients. Client work continually pushed out work on Get Sign Off to the point it simply wasn’t progressing.
The project dragged to the point where a year had past and the thing was still not built.
We tried all kinds of things to get the project done, but in hindsight we should have formed a dedicated team that was entirely removed from client work so they could focus solely on this.
If you are considering building your own app I would make sure you have dedicated time that cannot be pushed out by client work. This might involve going offline for a few hours every week so clients cannot contact you. Alternatively simply blocking off sometime free from client work and make sure your clients know you won’t be available. Just don’t allow time to be stolen away. If you treat your web app like a side project it will never be anything more.
The wrong mentality
Although resourcing was a massive issue I don’t think it was the core problem. I think our biggest challenge was that everything at Headscape is focused on client work. We are a client service machine! Our project managers, developers and designers have been conditioned to think in terms of turning around defined projects for clients.
Building a web app required a different mentality that at the time we didn’t have. Part of the problem is that our project managers have targets to invoice each month. Because Get Sign Off wasn’t a paying client it was pushed down the priority list. It wasn’t going to help the project managers meet their targets.
We attempted to patch the problem by assigning an artificial budget to the project that could be set against targets. Although this helped it didn’t change the fact that we were ultimately an agency not a software development house. We just thought in the wrong way.
I don’t have any silver bullet to this problem. Really all I can offer is a word of warning. If you are used to working on client project the switch to working on your own web app is about more than finding the time. It’s a mental switch too.
No dedicated product evangelist
Probably the single biggest mistake we made was in not having a dedicated owner or evangelist for the project. Although it was my baby I was simply torn in too many directions to give Get Sign Off the attention it deserved.
Without an owner nobody was pushing the project and making sure it didn’t slip to the bottom of the list. The designer and developers working on the product felt isolated and directionless.
Eventually we resolved this problem by hiring Ryan Taylor who did an incredible job at giving Get Sign Off new direction and energy. Unfortunately this was too little, too late. By this stage a lot of the enthusiasm for the project had slipped away and too much time and money had been invested.
It is a shame because the work Ryan produced was fantastic.
An area where I think we were somewhat naive was customer support. This is strange considering Headscape prides itself on excellent customer service. That is why we have 3 full time project managers out of a team of 16. However, once again our processes are setup for dealing with clients, not the ongoing stream of bug fixes, feature requests and questions that come from a large customer base.
Support wasn’t any individuals designated job (until Ryan came along). Instead we all chipped in to spread the load. Unfortunately this led to some enquiries falling between the gaps. Also when a user identified a bug we struggled to find somebody to fix it between project work. It took us a long time to fix problems which became embarrassing at times.
Again we learnt from this mistake and hired a developer who was focused on fixing bugs and developing new features. Unfortunately combined with the costs associated with Ryan this ultimately proved prohibitive.
On the subject of money the last area we had problems with was pricing. Getting the price right proved massively challenging. I think this was largely because we didn’t do our research before hand. Rather than being properly considered and planned our pricing policy consisted of sticking a finger in the air and guessing.
When we did finally discover a price the market could bear, it just wasn’t enough to support the amount of development work and support the product needed.
If we had taken some more time to do market research upfront we would have quickly discovered that a slimmed down version of the product would have proved more profitable.
The moral of the story
Working on Get Sign Off has been an amazing experience and I wouldn’t change it for anything, even though ultimately it failed. We have produced some of the best technical and design work we have ever done and learnt loads about web applications along the way. However, in the end we discovered that we weren’t really configured as a company to work on our own products.
Does that mean we will give up. Absolutely not. Working on our own products has been massively beneficial to our client work and has informed much of the stuff we have done since. What is more working on our own projects has enabled us to experiment with stuff we don’t get to do that often on client work.
However, going forward we will focus on smaller projects designed primarily as a sandbox for experimenting and improve our offering to our clients. Ultimately we have learnt something about ourselves: we are exceptional at delivering outstanding solutions to our clients and that is where we will focus our efforts going forward.
People are asking me two reoccuring questions so I thought I would quickly address them here:
Why don’t you sell the application?
Selling a web application is not a simple business. It takes time and money to do. You have to find a buyer, provide them with all the information they need to make an informed decision, draw up contracts and so on.
Unfortunately we are simply too busy to invest the time into selling Get Sign Off. The same problem that prevented the application being a success is also the reason we cannot sell it :(
Why don’t we release it as an open source project?
We would love to release the code for others to develop. However, even that is not as straightforward as it sounds. The current application is integrated with a number of third party services that handle support, billing etc. We would need to uncouple the application from these services as well as do some serious documentation to allow anybody outside the organisation to make heads or tails of what we have done.
In short, once again we don’t have the time. In many ways Headscape is a victim of its own success. This is something we are actively working on.