Table XI Blog

Product Strategy

Knowing the value of project management and UX helps us build better teams and products

TXI knows the value of project management and UX

Judith (left) and Aly (right), happy to finally be somewhere that values both project management and UX.

As a UX developer (Aly) and a project manager (Judith), we’ve both had jobs where the value of project management and UX wasn't recognized. We were written off as “overhead” or a “nice-to-have” instead of being treated like necessary functions that improve the final product.

Table XI could not be more different.

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Why our project kickoff meeting is two days — with homework

You can trace most problems in software projects all the way back to the start. Maybe there was a large PDF of needs and requirements. A project kickoff meeting or call that had everyone nodding, but no one asking any questions. A set of goals for the project, but no understanding of how they support the goals of the business.

It’s no wonder things go off the rails — and yes, as a Rails development shop, we endorse that pun.

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How I project manage remotely — tools, tips and a few lessons learned

Project Manage Remotely

When my husband and I decided to move to Seattle from Chicago, we were looking for a change. We thought we’d move somewhere with better weather, where we already had friends and family. And we thought we’d move somewhere with an active tech community, because we figured we’d need to get new jobs.

It didn’t work out that way.

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How our strategy inception found a future for The Wabash Lights

The Wabash Lights

As engineers and problem solvers, we like good ideas, but we like good ideas implemented even better. To help somebody coalesce their vision into something that's actionable — that’s a process that’s rewarding for us. Doing a strategy Inception gives us an opportunity to interact with people who are just ridiculously smart in their domain and to add tons of value by forming an actionable plan around their expertise.

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How to write an RFP — don’t

We get asked about the RFP process and how to write an RFP all the time by companies that are just starting to think about building or redesigning a product. They want to know what to include and how they can attract a star development shop to submit a response.

Easy: Nothing, and you can’t. If you want to find the right development shop, an RFP won’t help you. In fact, writing an RFP could cripple your project before it gets started. Here’s how, and what you should use instead of an RFP ...

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7 reasons you should never write an RFP

The RFP process — three little letters that can equal a world of hurt. Unless you’re required to do so by law, we beg you not to write a request for proposal for your next development project. You'll end up wasting your own time, and worse, you'll likely end up hurting your final product.

By focusing on the timeline instead of the outcome, the RFP process creates misaligned incentives at the outset. That’s why so many projects that start out with a typical RFP process either suffer or fail outright. We’ve picked up a number of clients over the years who came to us to clean up the messes created by other firms that were “rigorously vetted” through a standard RFP process. After years of winning RFPs at Table XI, we’ve decided to never respond to one again. Here are seven reasons why you should skip the step of writing an RFP:

1. The RFP process helps you find a commodity fulfillment engine — not a strategic partner

When you're creating an RFP, you're looking for vendor who can help you think through the big picture business issues as well as the nitty-gritty technical details. Advising on strategy is the greatest value a a good consultant can bring to the table. One of the biggest disadvantages of the RFP process is that it skips this step altogether. The RFP requirements lay out the what and how, skipping the why.  When you follow a request for proposal process instead of starting with a project kickoff meeting to help your vendor understand your business, you’re missing out on half the value of a good service provider.

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2. Your RFP template won’t have enough detail

Despite your best efforts, you will never be able to create a detailed enough RFP to provide actionable information to a potential vendor. A single document can’t effectively communicate organizational context and business rationale, requirements and priorities, integration points, and all the other particulars necessary to successfully scope and build software. Unexpected events are always going to creep in. We've seen countless RFP examples, and we haven't seen one successfully account for every need and function. That's where you need a vendor's expertise. We've done these projects dozens of times, so know where the potential pitfalls are. An open RFP process cuts our knowledge out of the process, making it harder on both of us to build great products.

3. Evaluating proposals will be like comparing apples to rutabagas

When you can’t convey sufficient details in your RFP, you’ll get proposals that are all over the map. At best, you’ll see price tags ranging from $X to $5X, but we’ve participated in RFP processes that yielded project estimates ranging from $X to $20X. These budgets are neither useful nor actionable, and you shouldn’t be evaluating vendors solely on budget in the first place. You want to know who’s going to solve your problems with the least risk, not whose imaginary number looks the most reasonable.

Nothing we can do to talk you out of writing an RFP? Learn how to write an RFP that will get you better results.

4. The RFP format wastes a ton of time while adding limited value to the process

Table XI Call To Action Banner Responding to RFPs takes time and money from the vendor, and you can guess who ends up paying for it. Since the RFP process yields stacks of mostly useless proposals, a good vendor often won’t bother to participate. The purpose of an RFP is to find you the best vendor. But if a service provider is already in-demand, why battle it out with the hordes? As a result, you often end up with a lot of proposals from shops who need the work — not the best teams.

Furthermore, every RFP sample we’ve ever seen sets out unrealistic timelines that aren’t met. Two weeks simply isn’t enough time for your prospective vendors to turn around detailed responses to an RFP, because too many specifics are left vague or uncertain. Here are the more likely RFP process steps from beginning to end: two weeks to write the RFP + two weeks to get internal review and approval + four weeks to get responses + two weeks to realize that you didn’t receive a single useful proposal = 10 weeks of wasted time

A handful of pencils in a box

5. The RFP process will never be transparent

Proponents claim that by definition the RFP process is more fair and transparent. This honesty is supposed to be one of the greatest benefits of an RFP process. The truth, however, is that incumbent vendors often help write RFPs and tailor them so they'll win the business. Proposal scoring is rarely, if ever, made public. Nope, the RFP process is just as hidden from scrutiny as the alternative approaches, save for the one initial document — the RFP itself.

6. An RFP can’t yield an agile process

RFPs lay out the entire scope of the project — including timetables and budgets — before anybody ever has a chance to start analyzing the work. The result is a waterfall process, where everything is determined at the top, then dumped into action as quickly as possible. That’s great, if you want exactly what you asked for a year ago. But if you want a product that reflects the current industry best practices and your current business goals, you need an agile process. By working in agile, your vendor can constantly assess the landscape and respond to changes, reducing risk. The RFP structure, with all its predetermined ideas, can’t give you that.

People playing with lego blocks

7. Pointing to your RFP preparation won’t save you after a failed project

If a project goes south, an RFP can't shield you. The executive team will look for someone to blame, and it won’t matter if you were just following the RFP process. If you picked the cheapest vendor but they failed to deliver the project, you’ll still get hit with the consequences. In fact, following the steps in an RFP process can add to the harm, since you’ll have a document saying how much it was supposed to cost and how much time it was supposed to take — even though those numbers weren’t based on a full understanding of the project.

So what should you do instead? We have a whole list of RFP alternatives that are actually designed to help you find the right dev shop, including RFIs, RFQs and risk-based models. And because we know sometimes it’s inevitable, we included a few tips in there to make the RFP process less painful. Even though we still don’t think you should write one in the first place.

Want to learn more about how Table XI gets started with new partners? Check out our services.

Want to start visualizing your project risks?  Download our free Software Risk Management template

Social Media and the Tangled Web

Social media logos in a spiderweb.This week we were joined by clients from Strange Cargo, The Spice House,  Chicago Dryer, Facing Disability and new friends including IC Stars to discuss launching, maintaining and measuring social media programs. And the only thing more fun than getting a room full of smart people together is brainstorming over Ellen's delicious lasagna.

Are you interested in social media but not sure where to get started? Download this Table XI social media checklist to kickstart your thinking, and tell us how it goes. Already have a social media program in place? We want to hear from you. What was one thing you wished you knew before you got started?

Stay tuned for a schedule of upcoming Lunch n’ Learns. Next time, we hope you’ll join us at the Table.

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Flying Cart’s Rishi Shah Talks SaaS Pricing

While attending Social Dev Camp last month, I sat in on Rishi Shah’s talk about pricing for Software as a Service (SaaS). Rishi is the CEO of Flying Cart, a service that helps people set up and host their own online stores, and a company that he founded in Chicago before moving it out to San Francisco. In his session, Rishi discussed what's worked best for him, as well as what he's learned by studying several SaaS companies like Chicago-based 37signals, which has been the leader in SaaS pricing using a tiered subscription model. Having made the jump to becoming a fulltime entrepreneur (and also as the voice behind the appropriately titled business blog, Rishi is a great role model for anyone looking to start an online business. He was gracious enough to answer some of my questions after the conference.

Who is a good target client for Flying Cart, and why would they use your service? 

Flying Cart is the easiest way to create an online store. Our target client is someone on Etsy or eBay who wants to branch out and start their own brand. The customers that do the best have products ready to sell and are vocal about it on the blogosphere.

Personally, my favorite customers are the super niche stores. They really dominate because e-tailers like Amazon aren't selling their products, and they show up #1 on Google right after they start a store—sometimes in minutes!

I wrote a blog post about how to win with an online store here.

On the topic of SaaS pricing, what insights have you learned from testing? Has testing and iteration been an important part of your success?

I wouldn't consider myself a success at this point. We are still a very small team. Unfortunately we do very little testing, not because we don't want to, but we just don't have the bandwidth right now. Currently all the testing we do goes to helping customers sell more products.

Here are a few things we have learned about our own pricing model:

  1. Launch with a free model. This way you can iterate on your current product.
  2. If you don't have a free plan, offer a 30-day free trial.
  3. A $12 package will work better than a $14.99 package.
  4. An $11.99 package will work better than a $12 package.
  5. A $9.99 package will work better than an $11.99 package.
  6. Put your highest package on the left so the customer sees it first. By comparison your cheapest package will look even cheaper.

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I’m on Facebook…Now What?

Facebook displayed on a monitor next to a giant calendar with the number 5 on itFacebook is now home to more than 750 million active users, and each month those users share more than 30 billion pieces of content, including web links, news stories, blog posts, notes, and photo albums. But while most brands understand the value in establishing a presence on Facebook, the question we hear more and more is, “I know I need to be there, but now that I am, what do I say?”

In honor of Social Media Week, which starts today, here are five guiding principles for developing a Facebook editorial calendar aimed at building your fan base and increasing engagement:

  1. Invite your fans to participate in something bigger than themselves. Provide your fans with insider access and help them feel like they’re a part of something special. Ask their opinions, poll them, and use their responses to inform a business decision. For example, if you’re a retail company, ask for help naming a new product. If you’re a nonprofit, use Facebook to mobilize fundraising.
  2. Provide exclusive content that fans can't find on your site. Strengthen your personal connection to your fans by giving them “behind the scenes” photos, videos, or updates that aren’t available elsewhere.
  3. Feature your community and fans. Give members bragging rights. Do your fans or followers write about you? Syndicate one of their articles and thank them publicly. If you’re a retailer, choose a "customer of the week," or invite fans to take pictures with your products and add them to a community photo gallery.
  4. Shill sparingly, but give Facebook fans the inside scoop on new shipments, contests, or coupons. Your fans should be the first to know about new arrivals and deals. Provide photos when possible, and always include the related direct link to your site.
  5. Offer relevant and seasonal news updates. Set up a Google Reader so you can keep track of related industry or local news, then use Facebook to talk about it. If your company hosts a function, participates in a speaking event, or is covered in the news, be sure to post links and photos.

Just remember—once your brand is on Facebook, commit to it. Post frequently so fans know what they can expect, and establish a consistent tone and point of view that closely align with your brand identity.

Want to learn more? We’d like to invite you to get social with us. Table XI will be hosting a free “Social Media Best Practices” lunch-and-learn next month, where we’ll discuss best practices, moderation, and measurement of social media. If you’re interested in joining us at the Table, please Contact us, so we can send you details.

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Talking Social Media to French People

If you happened to run into any French tourists this week, they may have been part of a group of delegates from several French Chambers of Commerce. These delegates are currently visiting our city to investigate business practices in Chicago. Naturally, they sought out the expertise of our very own Greg Baugues.

This past Wednesday, at an event hosted by the French American Chamber of Commerce in Chicago, Greg gave a presentation titled "How American Companies Are Using Social Media." His talk focused on ways American businesses employ social media to attract and retain customers. Among other things, he touched on:

  • The importance of social media in establishing a company’s online identity
  • Ways companies use LinkedIn to get introductions to prospects
  • The state of brands on Facebook, featured in this infographic
  • How companies use Facebook to attract and vet new hires
  • The recent additions of Facebook Places, Facebook Deals, and how the trend of merging the online and physical worlds is affecting small businesses
  • Successful Twitter strategies that provide information to potential customers and, in the case of Old Spice, begin one-on-one conversations with customers (read more about this here)

The conference also featured Fred Hoch, president of the Illinois Technology Association, who gave a presentation on the state of tech companies in Chicago. Additionally, Michael Cournoyer from Technomedia, a French technology firm operating in Chicago, discussed the differences between doing business here and in France, and the changes French companies need to make to sell to the finicky American consumer. Americans want to cut through all the touchy-feely stuff, he said, and know what a product or service does and how much it costs.

Greg's not a big fan of using text in slide shows, but for what it's worth, here are his slides:

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