The Art of Time Well-spent

Business Opinion

Today I'm going to talk about how we have been able to grow the products arm of our business without sacrificing our core Client Services business. This is the art of time well-spent.

We all seem to have too much on our plates – how are we expected to progress and innovate if we are overwhelmed by the day-to-day stuff that needs doing?  We think it’s by understanding how to use ‘downtime’ productively. Here we’ll discuss some of the tips and tricks that have enabled us to launch two new products in the past 18 months, with a third in private beta expected to launch later this year.

Let’s roll back a little

We speak to our clients all the time. Our background is in developing tools to help businesses achieve their goals. As our business has matured we have found a healthy niche in building tools for web publishers. Many of these are traditional print publications who are successfully transforming into strong digital brands pushing out content across multiple channels.

Custom software development is hard, expensive, and time-consuming. In the current climate, there is a lot of pressure on organisations to save costs. Oftentimes, the smaller the budget or the tighter the deadline, the greater the risk. Now, the risk might be to the scope, the budget, or the timescale, but it’s usually there, lurking in the shadows like an unwanted guest. Our director, Dave, has written about this problem a number of times (see How much will your project cost?, What Used to be Hard, Becomes Easy, and How Much Does Code Cost?). Another thing that is hard, expensive, and time-consuming, is building a viable business. In any industry.

We’ve lived through an unprecedented period of ‘free’ content. Some organisations have carved out successful businesses through ad-supported content, subscriptions, premium content models, and all manner of things in between. Some haven’t.

Having investors with deep pockets can afford you time to build, invest, develop, and market your business, but what if you don’t have or want that?

What can we do about it?

As I have already mentioned, we have spent a large portion of our personal and professional lives involved in publishing through one form or another so, we have a fairly unique perspective for an innovative tech company. There are great opportunities where our tech experience aligns nicely with our clients’ goals. So we thought, how can we zoom out for a minute and use our insights in the publishing industry to better service our clients and help contribute to the sustainability of the industry as a whole?

Tell me more

We decided to take a more holistic approach to our software development: What were the common themes? What had we done already that we could leverage? What could we do to use our limited spare time effectively?

I’ve written about the importance of our discovery process before, and with that in mind, we decided to spend an afternoon running a discovery workshop for ourselves.

We kept the problem focussed but the solutions open-ended: How can we make life easier for publishers?

We set a timer for 5 minutes and each member of the team quickly wrote as many ideas as they could on separate post-it notes. We then used affinity sorting to group similar ideas together and we quickly had about 25 actionable ideas of ways we could answer our initial question of how to help publishers.

We took this away and produced an initial Feature Backlog, which is basically a list of everything we agreed could be viable features for the product. We then used the Kano model to assess Impact vs. Effort for each of these features, so we could focus our efforts and get the most bang for our buck.

  1. Quick wins (low effort, high impact)
  2. Must-haves (high effort, high impact)
  3. Do, if time (low effort, low impact)
  4. Avoid, if possible (high effort, low impact)

This helps us to prioritise and guide our development.

We’re a small team of very capable people, but we have a lot of work to do, so we ask ourselves one simple question: What can we do this month?

Bearing in mind our current schedule and client work; what can we reasonably expect to have achieved by this time next month, using the pockets of time we actually have available?

Sometimes it’s a lot, sometimes it’s not much at all, but the one thing it is, is real, practical, cost-effective progress. We have a direction and whatever we’re able to achieve is a step along that path. Once a month we have a review and then we set our actions for the next month. And we continue.

To recap:

  1. We identified a problem-space
  2. We used our Discovery process to bring together a team of enthusiastic people to communicate and investigate the problem further
  3. We ran a post-it notes session to collaborate quickly and openly on what we could do (direction, solutions, qualities, characteristics)
  4. We grouped, sorted, and prioritised possible solutions by affinity mapping, then we used the Kano model to categorise and prioritise this further into a Feature Backlog
  5. We set ourselves realistic goals and realistic timeframes (e.g. What can we do this month?)

Where are we now?

We launched Standfirst for Kindle as our first step into this world, dramatically reducing the amount of time our clients spend on their Kindle production workflow. The plan worked well — we successfully launched a product without harming the client side of our business. Great!

Then we did something bigger. Standfirst Cloud is our cloud-hosted platform for web publishers. It offers the familiarity of a web-based content management system, but with a whole host of tools and features specifically designed for the publishing industry. As a cloud-based service you don’t need to worry about the hardware, the infrastructure, the maintenance, or the software updates. If you need more resources, we just fire them up. Sorted.

AND.

Off the back of that, we offer Standfirst Enterprise with custom development and infrastructure.

So what next?

I’m glad you asked. We’re currently beta testing, Hadrian, our paywall and datawall solution. Publishers have been crying out for this and we’re happy to say that we’re almost ready to launch it publicly. If you’d like to know more or to join our private beta programme, get in touch!

Chris McInerney

Chris McInerney

Chris joined us as project manager in June 2014, bringing experience in branding, print and web projects, over a career spanning twenty years. He has been key in delivering new websites for Catholic Herald, Worktech and NATS. When he's not involved with client work, he's part of the team looking after our marketing and branding. Outside work, Chris can usually be found running around in the name of keep fit. Often it's just him chasing after his pet dog, Charlie. Chris is also an avid watcher of Liverpool FC, mostly from his armchair, although he tells us he occasionally makes the trip to Anfield.

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