Creating your first web application

Drew Mclellan and Rachel Andrew share their experiences of launching their first app (Perch). They talk about their successes and failures focusing particularly on the business, marketing and customer support challenges.

Paul : Drew and Rachel so you you launched something called Perch.

Perch

Drew : Yes

Paul : It would be great to hear a little bit about what you guys do your background and a little bit about Perch and maybe some of the things you did right and wrong and the process of creating a webapp and all that kind of stuff. But before we get to that there is a question, I am going to ask two questions to every guest that comes on the show one at the beginning of their interview and one at the end OK? So you are the first to answer this question and I am going to pick on Drew first so Drew is going to have to go first. What the question is Drew is ..

Drew : Yes

Paul : In your history working as a web designer, if fact lets not keep it to just web design, in your life as a whole what is the biggest cock-up you have made.

Rachel:[laughs]

Drew : probably I could think of a couple

Rachel:Daily

Drew : Yes [all laugh] thank you. Probably the biggest was actually a sort of user interface design error

Paul : right

Drew : on my part, I was working a a design agency which probably ought to remain nameless and I was sought of the lead developer there and I was asked to build a machine to send out spam basically, newsletters to the subscribers of a site the agency ran as so I duly built this thing it was in classic ASP back in the day and it had a nice form on the front where you filled in the subject line put the content of your email then there was a option and I thought it would be really user friendly to enable the person who was sending the email [Marcus makes background noise with the boagworld iphone app]

Paul : Oh Marcus!

Marcus : I can’t turn the volume off

Paul : It is not that difficult

Drew : anyway I though it would be really great, as a really fantastic usability feature to enable the person who is writing the email to send a test email to themselves, before sending it out to the list so you know they can see what the email is going to look like

Paul : Yes

Drew : Fine so I did that and unfortunately I did not spend much time making the UI look really clear, we handed this over to the director of the company who’s name was Arthur and he though he would try this out and wrote his test email which said “Arthur smells” but unfortunately because of my UI design cock-up he managed to send that out to the entire list of customers [laughter from everyone] but what was really great about was the responses we got for months following asking how Arthur’s odour situation was and if he had learnt to take showers ?

Paul : Yes that is a pretty good one I will give you that, that is a good example. rachel can you top that this is the question.

Rachel:I have my example of my own stupidity which has nothing to do with the web. Before I started working in the web I was working backstage in the west end as stage crew and managed to stop an entire west end show with my maglite [laughs] We had sort of two enormous big spiral staircase truck things that trundled in from the wings and they were on a track on stage and had a big spade you had to haul out and I am looking down this hole with a big maglite in my mouth and let go it goes down the track under the stage floor and jams up the revolve and stops the show [laughs]

Paul : That is fairly impressive,

Rachel:how embarrassed was I

Paul : I am very impressed by that

Rachel:but as a girl on stage crew they are always looking for a chance to give you a slap anyway so

Paul : Definitely that is pretty severe, OK so let’s get onto important stuff tell us about EdgeofMySeat what you do there, how it came about Yes let’s start with that and then go from there.

Drew : Well that’s one for Rachel really she started everything up

Rachel:Yes I started the company in 2001, way back in the day I had been working for dot com companies and really thought I could probably do things better on my own

Paul : We all thought that

Rachel:It was just at the end of the dot com silliness and it wasn’t looking good my daughter was three and a half and it was looking increasingly unstable where I was and I thought hang on I can probably maker enough money to survive on my own, so that is what I did and have been ever since. We specialise in doing development work for design agencies, most of our work is for design agencies and we do the back end development and it is mainly PHP these days we used to do all sorts of things but it mainly is PHP these days.

Paul : So how did you get the point of deciding you wanted to build an app, because that is a big jump if you have come from the background of you know you have been building stuff for other people to then get to a you know right we are going to build a app. What happened there?

Drew : Part of that I think is because the web is what we do there is always just a little dissatisfaction in building things for other people you have always got the ambition to do something yourself so I think part of it was sort of a need to actually just to do something that was ours and putting effort into something that was actually belong to us not just belong to a client but the other thing is as a small company from a business point of view we charge out at an hourly rate whilst there are two of us there is sort of a limit to the number of hours we can work in a day we don’t want to spend you know seven days a week twenty four hours a day working and even if we did that we could not go to twenty five hours, we are putting a cap on the amount of business we can do. So part of it from a company point of view is this idea that we could develop a different sort of revenue stream. So something that rather than selling an hour to a client we actually sell a product to someone and we can sell that product to lots and lots of people without having to invest more time in each sale

Paul : yes, very sensible

Drew : So that was sort of the direction we were coming from with that

Paul : So when you were going through this process looking back now at the process, what you build and launching it and then what happened afterwards give us some stuff about what you felt you did right and stuff that you felt you did wrong in the process.

Drew : What do you think Rach, what did we do right

Rachel:[laughs] I think we knew the market very well, although perch is developed for different sites than we normally work on, we have a big CMS product really that we only sell with our services that we install it for people so it is a very similar market just smaller sites generally and sites that do not have as much stuff and as much content to manage whatever it is still that same sort of market and we knew the key things that people wanted to do. They are the same really as people who are using our big CMS want to be able to do, but also it was the time implication of being able to install something very very quickly that did not mean you had to build your entire site around it. So these were things we knew that would make things easier, make peoples life easier in fact our lives easier even though we tend to get these big projects we tend to get things for existing clients where they day ooh we just have this little site but they want to be able to edit this bit here

Paul : Yes, so you did the classic thing of you built something for yourselves basically

Rachel:Yes we kind of knew that we would need it but also talking to other people we though hang on this is something other people need and people were sort of hacking around WordPress or whatever which is not always ideal for the sort of thing we are talking about.

Drew : So yes we both built something that we needed for ourselves and also we stuck to what we know

Paul : Yes

Drew : you know we do a lot of CMS development and so what we have done is developed a small CMS, it is not a complete change from what we do it is not new ground for us it is stuff we are very very familiar with and that means we can do it really really well and really cost effectively

Paul : Yes that makes perfect sense so the question is what did you do wrong, what went wrong in the process that other people can maybe learn from?

Marcus : Nothing at all

Paul : it was perfect from beginning to end

Drew : from a development point of view there is a massive difference that we discovered from developing a site and being in control of how it is deployed you know what sort of server it goes onto and being the person you know you as the developer are the person that puts things live and makes sure it is all running and everything, that’s quite straight forward. There is a massive difference to developing some software and giving it to people for them to go and install on their own server

Paul : Yes

Drew : and you don’t know what that server might be, you know we don’t know what operating system it is going to be running it could be a mac it could be linux it could be some other sort of unix it could be windows, ermhh perch is written in php which is fairly portable but there are subtle differences and there are different configuration options
t’s a whole world of tiny tiny little changes which you can’t account for but which we probably could have accounted for a little bit better than we did with hindsight, the very first update we put out addressed a massive number of tiny tiny changes and we very quickly got onto track with that yes you know it is pretty straight forward on any server but we certainly learnt a few lessons about running PHP on windows in those early days.

Rachel:Oh yes we know al-sorts now about running PHP on windows now and I think as well just the reliability of people’s servers, we tend to work with decent hosts we know decent hosts, the big projects we do we put those on servers we know are absolutely fine and will run and there will not be any problems, you know people have the flakiest of flakiest hosting it is really unbelievable the sort of stuff people are deploying client sites onto.

Paul : Hmmm

Rachel:You know you cannot rely on the database being there at every request

Marcus : A bit like the boagworld site

Rachel:[laughs]

Marcus : up until recently

Paul : Up until two days ago

Rachel:you know there is a awful lot of stuff that you have yo build into something that you are going to send out to people just to cope with the fact that the hosting, you can’t rely on the hosting being decent the database actually being there, it’s like stuff you think you could rely on and yeah people do not want to be told they are going to have to change your host, one of the things we made a decision early on was that it was going to be PHP5 and we still get people even though php4 has been end of lifed, but I have to use php4 my host only supports php4 and in that we really just say, you know it has been end of lifed if you host can’t give you a PHP5 account at this point there is a problem you want change you host

Marcus : change your host

Rachel:you know but that is the sort of thing you are up against it is that people are running old phps and whatever.

Paul : I remember recording an interview with you at future of web design which we still haven’t released, we got so many interviews that day it is a bit overwhelming

Marcus : Probably all covering the same thing

Paul : Yes I think it is pretty much but that’s OK, One of the things that I remember saying to you in that interview is what, why were you at future of web design why have a stall there and you talked about making it clear that it wasn’t a side project it was something you we’re really committed to, why tell erhh why do you think that is so important I guess is the question because a lot of people work on side projects you know, the web design community is full with applications that have been released as something along side their main point of work.

Drew : Yes I think people do do that and for all the right reasons people will do a little side project and they may do something like take a week of from normal client work to do something or they might just take a couple of days and put something out and quite often those things, the point of those side projects is in the exercise of building it and trying out a new way of working as a team

Paul : sure

Drew : or trying out some new technology, and it is about the process of doing that side project and it is not always about

Paul : right

Drew : the end product, and that is the point of it, which is absolutely brilliant but we wanted to be clear that this is not that sort of project we haven’t just built perch as a exercise in making a little content management system and we are not that bothered about it it is actually something we are very serious about and so I think it is important that people get that you know get that impression and realise this is another branch of our business, it is a real thing it is supported and

Rachel:and it is going to be upgraded we are going to be adding to it and you know it is not something that we are just going to get fed up with I think that is really important and that people know if they buy a copy we are going to be able to support it and we are going to be there and we are not going to sort of decide one day, you know are no we have had enough of this, it is important and is very much a part of what we do.

Paul : So tell us a little bit about the marketing and promotion and how perch has you know been promoted I guess how have you got the word out there about it ?

Drew : Primarily so far it has been via twitter

Paul : Ok

Drew : That has really been the main, the main source of traffic initially and that is where, I would not say we have put a lot of effort in but we have been mentioning it on twitter and we set up an account for perch, which is grabaperch on twitter and we sort of tweet out little ideas occasionally, promo codes and link to people’s sites which they have built which is a good example and that sort of thing and so it has really just been we started of spreading word of mouth that way and then we were a sponsor at Dconstruct down in Brighton this year and so we had a little stall there and banners and badges to give away and really our idea with Dconstruct was perhaps the people attending it might not be our direct customers. I think the sort of audience for Dconstruct are probably a little bit you know more involved web designers perhaps a bit more experienced and the sort of people we are probably targeting with perch are more people doing very very small projects maybe not working in a big agency perhaps they are just working on their own doing little individual things or they are a freelancer, but we thought maybe the audience at Dconstruct were perhaps influencers to those people and we would sort of get the word out that way

Paul : Right

Drew : So that is one thing we have tried

Paul : Did it work

Drew : It is always really difficult to measure especially when we are going for that sort of approach of trying to get perch known to influencers, it is then very difficult to see how that trickles down to actual users is hard to define,

Paul : yes

Drew : but in terms of marketing have we got the word out I think we are certainly starting to

Paul : yeah

Drew : yeah I think [laughs]

Rachel:Yeah we’re web developers not marketers and we are not, our general services really we don’t have to advertise, we are fortunate enough and established enough that we get, our work comes via word of mouth which is wonderful but I think with a product you do actually have to market it and you do have to advertise it and so that is something we are having to learn has we have never been in that situation before.

Paul : and how has that, how has that gone because it is a difficult thing if you have never done it before you know and you would not consider yourselves natural marketers ? That’s a major problem when you are producing a product it is kind of getting that exposure

Rachel:I think that we are fairly lucky in you know we both write and we speak at things and so we have been able to use our own personal networks to some extent and also we are kind of excited about it we really like it so we are very happy to talk about it at things so that I think really helps being enthusiastic about your own stuff

Paul : What about all the other bits and pieces that go along side, so you have built this application that was the easy bit in someways, because that was the bit you knew I am guessing

Drew : yes

Rachel:hmm

Paul : and then you are faced with a whole plethora of additional problems like you know I have got to market this, I have to deal with refunds, I have got to deal with you know customer support all of those kind of stuff what kind of lessons have you learnt from doing that kind of thing

Drew : Yeah we deal with paypal, for support we use a webapp called Tender, which is a hosted support service

Tender

Rachel:It has been brilliant yes

Drew : and thats really great because one thing Tender does is it integrates with your sites login

Paul : ah right

Drew : so basically as long as you point like a subdomain of your site, so we use support.grabaperch.com and we point that at Tender’s servers because it is on grabaperch.com we ca set a cookie when a person logs into their account on our site which then automatically logs them onto the support site so we are not requiring customers to have one login to access their licenses and one login to access support it’s all integrated

Paul : and what was that called Tenderapp?

Drew : yes it is called Tender, so it it tenderapp.com I think

Paul : Ok we will have a look at that in just a second when I can bring up the url

Drew : Yes that is pretty good

Paul : So what is that, that er deals with all your support requests is that basically what is happening?

Drew : Yes it is basically a mix between a ticketing system and a forum in that it’s, so the tickets can be open so people can browse and find problems that people have had before and hopefully find, as time goes on they might find the answer to their problem already posted so they do not even have to ask it or if not they can ask and it has the option of making things private as well so if you need to ask something where you need to talk about the specifics of your server and you are not comfortable with that being public then you can make that private

Paul : oh OK that’s good

Rachel:it has been good, we have been really impressed with that it has been excellent as a service.

Drew : and the other thing that has been a big thing because normally as a agency we deal with invoicing clients we do that doing you know a few invoices a month because we tend to work on big projects so that’s fairly easy but when it comes to selling and potentially having to do multiple invoices every single day, you might be talking having to do you know hundreds over a month suddenly you have to think about that how do you deal with your accounts and fortunately before we did perch we had actually moved our accounting system out of, what were we using before quickbooks?

Rachel:I was using quickbooks yes

Drew : out of quickbooks onto

Rachel:[laughs]

Marcus : what were we using, I was using quickbooks

Rachel:yes, yeah I will tell you who does the accounting

Drew : yes er Rachel was using quickbooks and now rachel is using xero.com which is basically an online accounting package which is

Rachel:which is absolutely marvellous, even before the perch issue I don’t know how I would have dealt with it, we would have had to take someone on to deal with the data entry with perch if I had still been using quickbooks and we have an accountant but as a business owner i kind of like doing my own book keeping as I feel I keep an handle on things I like doing that, it doesn’t take me that long and I had moved into xero which is just fantastic it is so easy to do all the day to day stuff book keeping and there is bank feeds and things, the cool thing with perch is we then, erh xero have got an api

xero

Paul : ahhh

Drew : this is where I get really excited about accounting

Paul : [laughs]

Drew : our accounting system has a api

Rachel : so we can just sling those purchases the details, the customer details and all the VAT information crucially into xero and then I just need to go through and just check they are correct and approve them, which saves so much time

Drew : the other thing that xero does is then it links up with paypal dealing with that as if it was a normal bank account

Paul : oh nice

Drew : as we sell by paypal the invoices come in from our sales, oh I don’t know the accounting terms, one lot of things come in from paypal one lot of things come in from our website and rachel says yep they are the same they match

Paul : I can see know why you deal with the accounting Rachel

Rachel:yes

Paul : [laughs]

Rachel:yes it is one of my jobs [laughs] but I know , but xero if people are struggling with book keeping and accounting systems I would I really would recommend checking it out they have been fantastic

Paul : oh that is good, so oh You going to say something Marcus?

Marcus : No I was just going to say we have had similar issues, finance type issues with getsignoff and paypal, just awkwardness really

Paul : yes

Marcus : so I will pass on your thoughts to er

Paul : well this is really the guy we have to talk to as Ryan is now the man

Marcus : so true yes he is master of getsignoff

Paul : so getsignoff you have got to check to xero.com

Ryan : x – e – r – o .com ?

Paul : yes apparently it looks like it might be very useful, because we you know payment is a big thing, especially things like have you had to deal much with things like refunds, discounting and all those kind of things, because you talked about discount codes earlier

Drew : yes well one of the promotional things is we have printed out a load of moo cards and those moo cards have all got unique discount codes on them, which give people 20% off and we hand those out a conferences and what have you, so we had to building the shopping cart side of things was sort of that is what we do so being able to apply discount to an item before sending it through to paypal that was quite straight forward, it requires a little bit of thought to make sure you get that right but that in itself was quite straightforward

Paul : Yes OK fair enough

Rachel:the other thing to think about if anyone is thinking of selling products and things online is the VAT issue and I spent so much time on the phone to the revenue saying am I doing this right is this right, because you have got to deal with people in Europe who have not got VAT numbers so don’t need to pay VAT and people in the states who don’t pay VAT and people in the UK who have got VAT numbers but still pay VAT. You have got to deal with VAT correctly because if you don’t and get a long way down the line they are going to send you a very big bill at some point. So that is another issue of selling things like this is you do need to be careful of VAT and sort of local taxes and I imagine it is the same in the states with their tax issues

Paul : hmm I mean it is interesting isn’t it how much is involved in creating a web app you think you are just going to you know well I know how to code stuff I know how to build stuff, it opens up this whole realm of additional stuff afterwards that is the pain and misery.

Drew : yes you are right, writing the software was the easy bit [laughs] that did not take long at all and then I thought right I am ready to release this I had better make a website for it and then you start thinking about the fact you have got to have obviously all your product information so we had to start thinking about how do we describe what this is how do we show people, how do we put forward it’s good points all that sort of marketing and sales stuff

Marcus : Brand type stuff , I mean Perch has got a brand hasn’t it wether you like it or not, there are things that are associated with it you had to decide on, or at least recognise it I guess

Drew : Yes

Marcus : which then needs to be translated into the design etc etc

Drew : exactly then we had to figure out what the shopping basket type things user accounts what information do we need to collect what do we need for our accounting purposes what do we need in order to contact people ermh and then how do we let people manage their stuff so just the website in itself was a reasonable size project, which I sought of happened upon without really thinking about it

Rachel:[laughs]

Drew : so yes writing the code really is the easy bit

Paul : so what advice would you give to people who are in that same kind of situation where they are creating a web app, they come form a similar background to you they are web designers and developers, you know what’s the golden rule, what really are the things people need to focus on ?

Drew : I guess people need to decide whether it is something they decide they are going to turn into a business, as in do they actually want to make money from it, erm if they are going tot make money from it that takes, there are a whole load of extra complications which you have to account for, which will go away as soon as it is something you are just doing for fun

Paul : yes

Drew : and I would probably also say these days if you are thinking you are going to make money from it you need to plan how you are going to make money from it and kind of design that in so even if you are free when you launch to manage user expectations so people know it is free at the moment

Paul : for a limited time yeah

Drew : so I think that is really important to decide what are your aims is this something you actually want to turn into a bit of a business or is it just for fun and the experience of doing it

Paul : Sure

Drew : that would be the main one I don’t know

Paul : that’s fine that’s absolutely great, I mean this is all very relevant to us as we are in the process of turning Getsignoff from a side project into a business in it’s own right so all this stuff is brilliant and we have already talked about, well you and Ryan have talked about tenderapp and various other things and I think it is really useful and I think there are a lot of people who are out there basically considering doing the same thing, that they have an idea for an app and they want to do it and it shows it is not the quick easy solution that everyone thinks it is. I think there isa lot of people who thought I am fed up working with clients I want away from clients and have not really thought through the fact that they are replacing one set of problems for another set of problems and actually they are going from half a dozen clients to potentially thousands of little clients.

Rachel:and it is the amount, you have to account particularly if you are doing other client work as well as we are you then have to account in your schedule for a certain amount of dealing with support for instance and pre-sales queries and especially for a low price product if you spend you know what is not unusual an hour or two supporting a single customer which does actually happen that is a awful lot of your billable time used up in doing that. What we tend to find with perch is that people come back and buy repeat licenses and then of cause the support implication drops because they have already done it once.

Paul : right

Rachel:and they have worked out all the problems and they tend not to have to come back and ask more questions and of course there are a huge amount of people we never hear from at all, they get it they install it and it is absolutely fine. But for instance if someone is having, particularly in the early days someone is having problems with the server and something really weird is going on and we are trying to help them find out what is going on, because obviously it is going to be better for all our customers if we find out what the problem is and solve it in the software that can take up quite a lot of time and I think if you are really surviving on hour by hour client work you need to make sure you have got the time while you are building the customer base to afford to do that.

Paul : Yes OK well that was very interesting do you know we are a 12th of the way through the podcast everyone [cheers], which I feel is a major turning point.

Thanks goes to Shaun Hare for transcribing this segment.

  • http://grabaperch.com/ Drew McLellan

    If anyone’s interested in giving Perch a go, we’re running a special offer until the end of 1 March 2010. Use the code MARCHHARE for a 20% discount at checkout.

  • http://riageeks.com Chetan Sachdev

    Wow, very nice. I am building an app, and those suggestions gonna help me.

    Thanks

  • http://dezineidea.com dezineidea

    nice tips, but boagworld design is great love the look feel and color scheme.

  • Andy Wickes

    At the risk of sounding like an out and out sycophant, Perch really is a case study for thinking about application design from the outside in. I’m sure there are many systems out there that do everything Perch does and more – what makes Perch such a success in my eyes is that (a) they were able to advertise and then demonstrate it’s simplicity so well on their website (b) that it actually lives up to it’s hype in terms of its simplicity and (c) that it evolves based on plain old CSS and HTML rather than relying on coding languages / protocols that require specialist knowledge.

    It might be an unfashionable viewpoint, but I think there are a lot of people out there ( i was one ) who are really keen to look at CMS systems less in terms of something that you use to build your site, but more as something that can be easily integrated into a built site before launch.

    I hope Perch continues to grow and get better and better – the more apps like this on the market the better I’d say. Well done to Drew and Rachel!

  • http://markbakker.ca Mark Bakker

    Another great online accounting tool is Kashoo. They have all the features you could ask for, and FreshBooks integration. Rad product. Worth a look! It’s cheaper than xero!

  • http://trtrtrukfteftgvcsdfgv.com Kristina Eargle

    I’m still learning from you, as I’m trying to achieve my goals. I definitely love reading all that is written on your site.Keep the stories coming. I enjoyed it

  • Elrond Cheung

    I don’t know whether it is just me who think “Reminder Pro Regular” is too difficult to read.

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