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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Product is Just the Beginning

So as I mentioned in the first post, I'm currently working on a new project. I cannot get into the specific details just yet, but lets just say the goal is to gather a bunch of data from one group (Group A) into one place and allow another group (Group B) to have quick, structured access to this information set. The Group A data is typically not easily accessible nor organized, and Group B would be very interested in this data. Nothing new or ground breaking here in the overall model. Google does this with data on the internet, UGResearch does this with undergraduate research.

Well, for all this magical stuff to happen I figured I needed to get to building the web-service ... after all, if you build it, they will come. So I set about furiously learning version control systems, the command line and all its geeky glory, design patterns, etc. I now know how to git commit, I can alter mysql tables via ssh on a remote machine, I can grep, I can sed, and I can traverse the DOM. After a bit of coding in PHP (yes, should have been RoR ... next time!), XHTML, JQuery, and CSS I have a web service that is about 85% complete.

Lately I've been obsessing over how the site works, how it looks, how it is set up. One of the main things I've been noodling about recently is if my class objects are "decoupled" enough (which I've learned is one of the best practices when it comes to OOP ... along with cohesion). To get more insight I rang my friend (not Bad Dinosaur) who knows much more about this stuff than I do. I was in for a big surprise.

Instead of discussing techno-mumbo-jumbo, he immediately pointed out that this was a minor detail - important, yes - but minor in the grand scheme of trying to get this service up and running. I was then asked a series of questions: how was I planning on rolling this out and gathering the data from Group A? Why did I think Group A would be interested in giving this data up? How was I going to make Group B aware of this service? Did I have numerical estimates on how many from Group B might use this new service? Did I have revenue projections? Cost projects? A business plan?

And then it hit me, all that I had been doing on this project and all I had been worried about was just the product. It was only a small part of the overall project. I had basically built a really cool toy, but had not even started to think about "is this what people want to play with?" or "how do I get people to play with it?"

When looking at this project or any other project, this realization I had may seem rather obvious: you need to have a product and a plan surrounding that product. Until very recently I was constantly focusing on just the product and not thinking at all about these other fundamental questions that needed to be visited in order for this venture to have a chance at success.

I was wracking my brain as to why I had left this side of the equation untouched and unappreciated ... I can build revenue models in Excel (with VBA, if need be!), I am comfortable calling people and pitching a service or conducting an interview, and I actually like thinking about what existing businesses should do to improve their offerings. I guess my issue is I've always felt that projected revenue models or strategy documents for marketing seemed a bit forced and amorphous ... there are so many unknowns when trying to predict what a product that does not even exist yet will accomplish or how best to make others know about it. It is a bit overwhelming, frustrating even, for me to try and logically document what could happen.

I realize this is not the way to think about it though. Business and strategy plans are important keys to success. You need to have an idea of how to accomplish your goals and if you have to do course re-corrections along the way, so be it. What is a better way to look at this side of this, or any, project? How do you avoid the overwhelming feeling of putting something down on paper and not having the slightest idea if it is going to work or if this is just a shot in the dark? What is the best way to document your vision and how do you effectively convey this message to potential members and/or investors?

I leave you with those questions, please comment below or rise questions I have not yet thought about that are important. I'm very interested to hear your thoughts ... right now, I'm off to start my business plan!


Geoffrey Vitt said...

This is great stuff (reading back from most recent post) and I wish you luck with the business plan stuff. The best wisdom I've seen on business plans is to get the broad strokes (id the market, and how you'll capture opportunity) and then start cracking on it because the customers will tell you want and then you'll end up scrapping stuff anyway.

Good Dinosaur said...

Completely agree - I've become an adopter of Steve Blank's concept of "customer development" ... finding those that like your product *and* will pay for it is the key to success. Appreciate the good luck wishes Mr. Vitt!

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