We say a sad goodbye to Get Sign Off

Yesterday was a tough day. Yesterday we closed Get Sign Off. In this post I share why, and what lessons can be learnt from our journey.

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 Homepage

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.

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.

Photo of our project application that tracks what everybody is working on.

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.

Support

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.

Get Sign Off support

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.

Price

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.

Get Sign Off Pricing

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.

Update

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.

  • http://www.webcentric.co.za Marek | Webcentric

    Hey Guys, what will happen to SignOff now? Will you sell it.. Auction it off and donate to a Childrens charity? Look for investors? Sell licences for to companies…???

  • http://twitter.com/bkno Ben Knowles

    Interesting read Paul. There’s probably a lot more detail to explore in future blog posts. The issue of pricing in particular could make for an excellent podcast. To me the pricing seemed quite fair; maybe the average person is becoming overly accustomed to paying £0.59 for a life-long iPhone app? In which case, the agency price could probably have been higher.

    Rather than simply close Get Sign Off, why not put it up for sale, or offer it up to a team of outside developers while retaining a stake? That way it could live on and potentially become fully-realised.

  • http://www.afovea.com Anthony Faconti

    That’s a damn shame. I must say it’s been a while since I used it but it was a great app and sorry to see it go under.

    I do have to ask though (and maybe I missed this if it was covered) why close up at all? Why not sell it so it can live on? It’s clearly a great product with value.

  • Mike

    I’ve never used Get Signoff despite having looked at the offering. I just didn’t think it was a tool I needed in my workflow. Is there also a “solution looking for a problem” aspect to Get Signoff?

    nottryingtoberude

  • http://philmorrow.co.uk/ Phil Morrow

    I’m sorry that GetSignOff didn’t work out for you guys, for me the main turn off was the name – my opinion was that not a lot of clients would happily use an app with a name like that.

    Having said that… What an absolutely fantastic blog post! Such a brave choice to finish things this way, thanks for being brutally honest and sharing with us.

    Just one question, did you consider selling the site on? If you did, why have you chosen to close instead?

  • http://www.castus.co.uk Chris

    Hi Paul,

    Great article, thank you for being brave enough to share what you have learnt so openly.

    One learn that I would add to your list from my own past experiences is….
    “Just because I know it will be a HUGE success, doesn’t mean that the world will agree”.

    I remember the naivety I had on early personal projects, true Del Boy style “this time next year we’ll be millionaires”. One of the main problems with this is that you are only setting yourself up for disappointment.

    There is always the chance that it will be the next Flickr, Facebook, Myspace etc but that chance is very small. And motivation will dwindle when you don’t get the response you expected.

    Now I approach personal projects with much more realistic targets and take smaller steps, when something shows positive signs I allow more time to be invested if a return is likely.

  • http://jfciii.com/blog/ John F Croston III

    Sorry, to here you closed down Get Sign off.

    Was wondering if you are still running a version somewhere for yourselves to use?

    Not that I would like to get the code, but would you consider open sourcing the code for others to take and use?

    jfc iii

  • http://www.novolume.co.uk Dave Ellis

    Sorry to hear that Get Sign Off is no more and it’s an interesting insight to what happened and your honest feelings for what you thought went wrong. I have to say in all my years in the industry I’ve seen many web design agencies try and produce products and/or systems that they feel can become independent products in their own right – most I’ve seen really struggle to make a go of it. And that includes a number of agencies that had dedicated teams on the projects in question.

    I’m not entirely sure why that is, possibly it is the change in mentality needed but more often that not I often think it’s actually down not fully realising the amount of work it requires to successfully launch a product in it’s own right.

  • http://alstevens.co.uk Al Stevens

    Such a shame – have used it (in the unpaid version) with success. Great for teams in co-locations as well as the agency client relationship. Was it abandoned ultimately due to pure subscriber numbers or technical/ongoing maintenance costs?

  • Henrik

    This sounds so familiar. Making a brand new product needs so much attention, on all fronts.

    I hope some startups read this and keep concentrating on their original idea. Client work easily eats up all of your time.

  • Shayan

    Great article, too often we try to brush stuff like this off as “Well, we had a good idea and we gave it a go, but reality happened & it didn’t work.”

    Would there be any chance of you guys ever releasing the source?

  • http://twitter.com/wesleylynch Wesley Lynch

    We discovered the same problems with our internal projects. It is vital that the internal projects be spin out into its own organisation with it’s own people, processes and culture. If not it is doomed. I read a great book, that really help us with these problems. Check out the “The Innovator’s dilemma”

  • http://www.castus.co.uk Gary Hides

    I always had an issue with the name, that I aired early in its launch. I just wouldn’t have wanted a client being sent to a web site called Get Sign Off. Like it is meant to twist their arm in to saying, yeah go ahead with the build.

    Great that you have shared your experiences. Similar to ours in a sense, as Chris mentioned above.

    Looking forward to seeing the next pet project!

  • http://www.userflow.net Matt

    Very interesting post, I am currently trying to setup an import business and freelance at the same time. Both areas are getting busier so it’s going to be interesting to see how long I can make two things work.

    Would also be interested to hear what you are going to do with the product, as there is clearly value what you’ve done so far assuming you have proven the model by building a user base.

    Closing down even temporarily will reduce the value though, since you’ll loose your user base which provided the underlying revenue.

    Wonder why you decided to close it before selling it?

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • http://www.rachelandrew.co.uk Rachel Andrew

    Making a thing is definitely the easy bit – supporting, maintaining and promoting the thing takes way more time than you ever imagined – we know this from launching Perch (until then we were, like Headscape, a service providing business). The amount of time taken to offer great support, and then to act on issues where the support tickets have been raised due to a bug, or something complicated about the product cannot be underestimated.

    This is where pricing is really important. Products must be priced in order that you not only pay for dev time/marketing etc, but also for support time – if you have users of your product on any kind of free version or plan then you have to factor in supporting customers who won’t ever turn into paying ones.

    We’ve been fortunate in that some early decisions we made for Perch turned out to be really good ones, and we’ve been able to turn it into quite a success and balance it with client work. We’re also a much smaller company than Headscape which I think actually has worked in our favour as we have fewer overheads, set processes and practices, so can change how we do things very quickly.

  • Greg DeMaderios

    While I find this post interesting and beneficial, one thing it doesn’t address is whether or not you agonized over the clients that were using GetSignOff. This post doesn’t indicate that you took that into consideration at all. Did you consider closing the service, but continuing to maintain it for the people who were paying?

    As more and more services show up on more and more URLs, companies need to take into consideration their reliance on SaaS and the “cloud” infrastructure and what that can do to the foundation of their businesses if SaaS providers decide to pull the plug.

  • http://turnkeye.com Turnkeye.com

    Greg,

    If you are an existing customer you can still login and use the service until the 31st May 2011.

    http://goodbye.getsignoff.com/

  • http://zoinkbyzaptronic janko bosch

    Sorry to hear GetSignOff didn’t work out. Not surprised to hear though. What will happen with Ryan Taylor? Will he become part of the team?

  • AJ Kandy

    That’s a hard lesson to learn, Paul, and I’m sure it was a very hard decision to make. Thanks for sharing the story. I’m interested to know, if you care to share some more, what the revenue situation was…i.e. if it got some marketing love, could it have spun off into its own company?

    On that note, have you considered selling the GetSignOff assets? If I had a spare million pounds under my mattress I’d make an offer…

  • http://tombryan.co Tom Bryan

    Damn, I was just about to sign up!

    Brilliant, brave article though Paul – it gave me a lot to think about.

  • Johan

    It does not sound like you used GetSignOff with your own business with your clients.

    If you had it may shown early on if it was worth developing further.

  • http://[email protected] Colin

    Hi Paul,

    Possibly something that you wouldn’t want to give out, but it would be really interesting to hear, from a learning point of view, how many clients you managed to sign up to the service, and what percentage just opted for the basic package, as opposed to upgraded to the more expensive accounts.

    Probably not something you normally write about too but I’d also be fascinated in knowing what size/type of hosting you required to run the app based on the number of clients you had? I’m playing with VPSs at the moment with a view to building a few different web apps – would be great to learn from your experience.

    Cheers,
    Colin

  • Marc

    Just for feedback…

    We currently send PDF proofs to client who note them and return them. We looked at GetSignOff – and thought it was a bit too involved for our clients.

    But great article and well done for having the guts in the first place and to hold a public inquest.

  • http://www.speakitnow.com Scott Hoff

    Paul,

    You are in many ways my web design hero. I have listened to your podcast for years and I “feel like I know you well.”

    I’m sure this was a heartbreaking decision and I feel for you.

Headscape

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