Our SaaS business focuses on a project management solution we rent to a global userbase (servers in the USA, the business is remotely run from NZ). No matter how hard we drive home the ‘Value & ROI’ message, there’s always a large number of ‘Price driven’ customers as we all know. The way to a price driven customers’ heart is education, not price cutting!

Price driven SaaS customers these days need to understand that SaaS software pricing does have real overheads behind it. The Simplicity of a SaaS business to a customer is a facade that actually hides the complexity of systems, material and resources needed to create a simple front end user experience… To explain further…

The shift to SaaS: Interestingly enough, in the old days (5-10yrs+ ago) the customer side (web and application development) of business would be a complex procedure for a one-off project, with sites often built by a business with a simple resource/skill base (designer+developer) and they’d charge heaps.

ie: Customer (Complexity) + Web Business (Simplicity)
= Revenue (High, one-off fees)
= Fast income, non scalable/sustainable model

Nowadays, we offer the clients a simpler tool and user/sales experience. However, as we have to charge less through market pricing shifts, the real money is made on margin and scale. Automation and infrastructure solves these, however comes with a cost of behind the scenes complexity and technology costs.

So the equation now looks like this:

ie: Customer (Simplicity) + Web Business (Complexity behind)
= Revenue (Slow, recurring fees)
= Slow income, scalable/sustainable model

To show this in a real world example, find out below what goes into our SaaS based project management software company’s latest V6 ProWorkflow software release!

Disclaimer: Firstly, I should just point out that when not blogging for diversity.net.nz, I’m also CEO of ProWorkflow.com (ProActive Software ) and do understand that all software companies manage software releases differently. This is simply an example of how ProActive Software handles releases.

We’ve been working away on a new version 6.0 release of our flagship product www.proworkflow.com. This isn’t just a few updates, it’s a fairly solid new release with over 100 updates and pieces of functionality added. The main focus is on improving usability, speed and customer ROI. One of the mistakes we made was telling the user base there was a new release on the way! Now every day we get “When’s it coming? Is it late? Can you include this and that? or another common comment… “Why is it taking so long? It’s only an update?”

It was these type of comments that prompted me to write this post so I could show people the amount of work that goes into a release 🙂 The following is a glimpse into ’some’ of the thinking and effort needing consideration just to “Roll out V6″.

Customer Feedback

Throughout the year, customer feedback relating to functionality and usability is collected through various means. Emails, forms, calls, testimonials, sales calls etc. We file away the comments of interest in a document, categorised by the sections in the ProWorkflow application. When we do a minor release, we pick a few items of the list.

For a major release we pick the top 50-100 requests that are frequently requested. There are many hundreds of requests that either get dismissed or scheduled to a later release. We make sure no requests are contradictory and that they make sense to add to the core application. We aim to add generic features where possible.

Planning the Functionality

What goes in V6.0, 6.1, 6.1 etc? We always prioritise urgent needs of the masses first, then other needs, throw in a few ‘nice to haves’ and try to hold back on minor functionality for smaller updates later. Major releases (ie: V3, V4, V5 etc)  are ‘database releases’ so we add any new tables to the database needed in this release rather than the smaller regular updates.

When we have the desired list, developers give us estimated times per task and these are entered into our personal version of www.proworkflow.com to manage the project. Our core product ProWorkflow is web based project management software, so we may as well use it for ourselves! Also, this way we’re testing the solution at the same time as we’re working in it! Cunning way to test usability too…

Planning Development Timeframes

We take a development list, which has been itemised and times assigned. When this has been put into ProWorkflow, the developers start working through it all. The most important aspect of keeping to the development timeframe is keeping tight communication with the developers. Every day or two we talk with the developers, see what’s been completed and look forward to the deadline to make sure there’s enough resource and hours to meet it.

In this industry, it’s always difficult to meet deadlines as unexpected complexities can arise when working on a complex application, however, through tight communication with developers and daily checking of the development plan we’re able to keep on track. The direct and real time visibility of progress through ProWorkflow makes this easy.

Development

When working on the ProWorkflow application, we prefer to use small tight teams. We do not want large teams of developers working over the top of each other causing errors or programming with different methodologies. Our lead developer and CTO Alan Barlow is the guru behind the ProWorkflow code base. Alan determines what he’ll work on personally and what others do (staff or contractors).

Testing

As we use the ProWorkflow solution for our own internal projects, the team are always testing in a live environment. In addition we have a small group of heavy usage customers that enjoy being early adopter test monkeys. Between the select group of 10 customers there are approximately 100+ users. These users create a combined few hundred projects and few thousand tasks and time records a week. So if there are any issues or bugs, we’ll know about them pretty fast. One of the great perks and opportunities with SAAS (Software as a Service) is that issues spotted can be easily and quickly fixed, applied to a live account, and then rolled over other accounts in a maintenance update. No need to notify the user, just apply the patch. Often we apply a patch live that fixes an issue a customer has never seen or improves a feature’s usability. It’s seamless ongoing development!

Pricing

With every major release (typically annually), the solutions’ pricing is reviewed For the past 3 years we’ve kept pricing as is – we’re currently reviewing pricing again pre V6. As much as we want to keep the pricing affordable, we also have to keep in mind that businesses don’t run on good intentions. In addition the tool provides great ROI to the companies using it so should have a relative value. So… the factors we consider when pricing ProWorkflow are:

  • Value/ROI to the customer
  • Technical Infrastructure (Servers, networks, comms etc)
  • Support Infrastructure
  • Research, development and ongoing development
  • Scalability/Sustainability
  • Competitor pricing and feature sets

Support

When the V6 upgrade is released, there will be some new functionality. Even though this will be documented in the Knowledgebase, we’ll still receive calls and emails about the upgrade at a higher rate than normal. This puts extra pressure on support staff so we need to be prepared with quick answers and help docs.

Website Content Changes

The ProWorkflow website has a fair number of pages needing updating when the V6 product is launched. The following will need to be updated: Features, benefits, FAQ’s, packages, overview, all screenshots, version numbers, upgrade pages etc…

Update Knowledgebase (Online help guide)

A huge job, but an important one. There are 100+ tweaks to the ProWorkflow product. When you consider that 1 tweak may be referenced in 5-10 places in the knowledgebase, you start to understand that it’s a sizeable task. The knowledgebase is a strategic asset as the better it’s written, the less email and phone support we’ll receive. Self help means quicker support for the customer and less support infrastructure required at our end.

Whitepapers

We have a couple of whitepapers  that give a brief overview of the solution. These will need to be read through and modified as needed.

Trial Account Master Code

When companies sign up for a Free trial account, the system sets this up from a master code package. This code package needs updating with the latest V6 code. The demo system then needs re-testing.

Subscription Account Master Code

When companies sign up for a Subscription account, the system sets this up from a master code package. This code package needs updating with the latest V6 code also. We have quite a few servers so the master code will need to be updated across all the servers.

Upgrade Packages & Downloads

In addition to Subscription accounts, the ProWorkflow software is also available as a code download to install on a local server. The master packages will need to be updated and the upgrade packages will need to include a new script to add the new V6 tables to the database when installed.

Update All Billing Systems

Depending on pricing or product options, the billing system may need to be tweaked. This would affect the Signup form, payment pages and account and billing pages in the Client Area.

Upgrade Current Subscription Accounts

When a new major upgrade is ready to deploy, we do this in a phased rollout over the customer base. The reason is simple – if there are any bugs we’ve missed, we’ll pick them up early, fix them and roll out further. In addition, we do the phased rollout to stop any new release from having a heavy support load over the initial week. The beauty of a SAAS model is that we can update customer accounts quickly. The downside is that if you rollout an error quickly you can easily affect a large number of customers. So planning a phased upgrade rollout is definitely the safe way to go.

Marketing

  • Newsletters
    A few newsletters will be emailed out to the mailing list talking about the V6 release and new functionality.
  • Press Releases
    We’ll write a handful of releases about the new product. These will be sent or syndicated to both local and global news sources.

Project Management

Someone has to manage all this! Easy, We use our own http://www.proworkflow.com/ solution for our project management of new releases. See a screen shot (below) showing the huge project task list and timeline. There’s about 100+ tasks on the V6 development alone, and keep in mind this can increase if any of the new update code affects other parts of the application.  So effective project management is a key part of getting a release out…

Here’s the ProWorkflow Project screenshot for the V6 release  😉

ProWorkflow - Project Management Software screenshot

Author: Julian Stone – http://www.julian101.com/

Julian Stone

Julian Stone here, CEO of www.proactivesoftware.com, developers of www.proworkflow.com (Project management software). I’m a chronic serial creative thinker and have a passion for creativity, business and entrepreneurship. Since the early days at school til the current adult days I’ve been involved with many businesses, in many forms, but the real passion I have is designing ideas from scratch and seeing them through to completion. I love startup businesses and their associated challenges; the fact that the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know! Every day is an opportunity to meet a new person, learn a new skill, tackle a new challenge! My personal background is 15yrs in graphic design, ad agencies, 3d animation, video editing, multimedia, print, prepress and other creative persuits. About 1999 I was made redundant, mostly due to a failing internet company I was working for at the time. It was also about the time of many ‘.com boms’ where many startups failed due to a distinct lack of any real business plans, paths to revenue or just crazy and unrealistic business ideas. I saw from the inside out, what happens when a company collapses. It was messy, complicated and a lot of people were hurt, both emotionally and financially. However, amidst all this came a blessing! I met my wife, Sarah, who was was also working for the company. Out on the street at age 25 and not many jobs available, it was ’sink or swim’. I chose to ’swim’, and started contracting initially, then business, and haven’t looked back. There have been hard years, and I’ve learned a lot, but heading down the business path rather than employee path was the best decision I’ve made career-wise. I’ve surrounded myself with many like-minded friends and look forward to an exciting ride ahead! This blog is designed to discuss my thoughts on matters (yes, I’m very opinionated) and to share lessons I’ve learned from people, books, experience or the school of life. ;-)

2 Comments
  • Falafulu Fisi |

    Ben,

    The following freely downloadable documents might be useful to your product development. I’ve never done any project management development before, however I am familiar with the CBR (Case-based reasoning) concepts covered in the publications:

    #1) Experience-based decision support for project management with Case-Based Reasoning

    #2) CaBMA: Case-Based Project Management Assistant

    Publication #1) , the fonts is corrupted (I am not sure whether it is my system or not), so you might copy the text into a word doc, so that you can read it.

    You can use CBR for general knowledge base systems. I noted that ProWorkFlow has a knowledge based systems.

    There is a small sub-package available in the WEKA Java machine learning open source project from University of Waikato, which contain the algorithms which are foundation for building a CBR engine if you need to build one for your application.

    Dr. Ian Watson from University of Auckland is a world expert in CBR technology, and he does consult on the subject. He has written 2 books (see below) on the subject, if you go to this website and click the link that says publications on the left hand side.

    – “Applying Case-Based Reasoning: Techniques for Enterprise Systems”

    – “Applying Knowledge Management: techniques for building corporate memories”

  • Very interesting post! Maybe you can write an elaborate version of your project management process and release it to the public (yes, I think we always need more project management processes until we reach perfection). I would be more than happy to publish it on PM Hut.

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