10 Critical Lessons From Our First Software Product Launch

Earlier this year, an opportunity arose to form a partnership between my service business (McMillian & Associates) and a national payroll company. They wanted to know if we had a software solution that could help them expedite the new-hire tax-credit process for their clients. Typical of a CEO, I said, “Not a problem,” which ultimately lead to the launch of VORTAX, an automated Federal Tax Credit software.   

01 Vortax Logo PrimaryMy team is very talented, but with no software development experience, we had a lot to learn. But, we did it! In only nine months, we launched a cloud-based tax-credit software. Not only that, the product became a success, and we have grown rapidly.
We learned 10 valuable lessons about launching a software product. I would like to share them with you:

Lesson One—Double that budget

Be aware, development takes twice as long and costs twice as much than you think.  Beyond development costs are the security and privacy abilities of the product itself. If a customer does not feel your product is safe, or if you handle their data irresponsibly, they’ll leave forever. Prepare your best budget and best timeline. Then, double it.

Lesson Two—Prioritize

Knowing lesson one, take the time to intentionally map out the mission-critical core features that provide clients the most value.  Identify the items that solve the market problem. Develop those first.  Be humble enough to put some of your likes aside for the needs that matter most to the end user.

Lesson Three—Launch early

Guy Kawasaki said “if you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your software, you’ve launched too late.” While I would not say I’m embarrassed by our first version, I know it’s not perfect visually and not developed enough.  That’s okay; I know it will happen in time.

Lesson Four—Break the system

The only thing that can help temper your fear of launching your product is to test, retest, and test some more. There will be bugs, so try to break the system before it gets launched.  Do everything wrong.  What can go wrong, will go wrong.  Your clients will do things wrong, they will enter data incorrectly, and do things they shouldn’t. Be prepared.

Lesson Five—Be flexible and pivot

One of things I think we’ve gotten right in this venture is that we were flexible and moved as needed with development.  You must be willing to re-evaluate what’s in development, what’s next, and what’s the best item / feature at any given moment for the customer.  Not only should you be establishing what has the most impact, but you should also be measuring the development effort involved, moving items up and down the list.  For example, two weeks ago we had a client agree to move forward if we had a particular feature in our system.  This client represented over a 150% growth, but the development feature was at the bottom of the priority list. That changed within a hour of that client meeting.

Lesson Six—Engagement is priority number one

The biggest failure we’ve had as a startup is focusing too much on just signing new clients.  I can tell you with authority: this is a direction that comes from any leadership.  If we had focused on nailing client engagement from the start, our numbers would be 50%-100% bigger.  Don’t overlook how clients are using, or not using, your system.

Lesson Seven—Select a great partner

If you aren’t developing your software internally, you need to choose the right partner. We found a great partner, Codesmith, and it made all the difference. Make no mistake, the wrong partner can sink your project. Choose a partner that is committed to you, honest, and has the capabilities to take your product where you ultimately want to go.

When selecting a partner, make sure you:

  • Like them as people. This is long-term relationship and you’ll be working with them a great deal.
  • Accurately assess their capabilities.
  • Select a vendor that is honest and will advocate for your success. Are they saying they are experts at everything? That’s a red flag. Are they willing to turn down your business if you aren’t a good fit? If no, another red flag.

Lesson Eight—Create Wins

This is a long process with many challenges. Celebrate often. When you and your team overcome the challenges, pause and enjoy the milestone. Relationships matter and they need to be nurtured. Don’t undermine your foundation, which is your people. This includes your vendors! Stay on their good side and reap the long-term benefits.

Lesson Nine—The first shall be last

At the beginning of this journey, I built up in my mind that software integrations with national partners was the achievement I wanted to claim. It was sexy and fun to talk about. The numbers were game-changing and I was excited about innovating.
But the deals weren’t closing.

I had to make a decision. Is this about my aspirations or serving customers and setting my team up for success?

So, instead of going from the top down, we went from the bottom up.  We focused on people that can sell our tool without a legal department or corporate bureaucracy in the way. Then, we reallocated time to focus on customer service, on-boarding, and engagement.

Go figure, it worked.  In the last 30 days, we’ve added 500% more customers.

Lesson Ten—Choose the right market

Launching a startup is already difficult, so don’t enter a crowded market. We are very blessed to operate in a market with virtually no innovation occurring. Nearly a year after our launch, we are still the only player offering software. By entering the right market, we gained two advantages:
We gained a first mover advantage. As we continue to iterate and improve, it will be very difficult for the competition to catch up.
It gave us the time we needed to make mistakes that were inevitable given our lack of software experience.
Conclusion

Software is powerful. It is already transforming our business. With a few integrations, the software segment of our business can be 2-10X our service business revenue in only 12-24 months! Think about that. It is allowing us to scale in ways we would have never imagined while maintaining the excellent service we pride ourselves on.

What risks should you be taking? What idea should you try to execute that can have significant impact.

Every Leader Should Use Evernote: Here is Why

As leaders, we have two primary jobs. The first is to determine the right ideas to invest in. The second is executing on those ideas.  The heavy responsibility of turning ideas into reality falls squarely on our shoulders. It is our responsibility to deliver the products and services that provide the value required to consistently meet payroll. If you are a leader who has too little time and is completely overwhelmed, I can relate. It is an undeniable truth that the pace of business is increasing daily. However, with the right tools, you can stay ahead of the curve. In this post, I’ll show you how I keep pace using Evernote and how you can do the same.

evernote

Capturing ideas and executing on them go hand in hand. While most tools separate these concepts, Evernote does not, making it a mission critical tool for leaders. Evernote allows me to combine ideation and execution into a single tool.

I use Evernote in three ways: capture ideas and information, organize this information, and execute.

[Read more…]

Guest Post – Mark Miller’s “The Secret”

I HAVE MORE TO CONTRIBUTE…

Have you ever had a feeling you could do more? Accomplish more? Congratulations, leaders are supposed to have that feeling. I’ll address the “problem” you face when you actually do have untapped leadership capacity.

I’ll start by saying congratulations again. You have more leadership horsepower to invest in the world! This is a very good problem to have. Many leaders find themselves unable to execute on the demands and expectations already placed on them. If you can do that, you’re way ahead of the game.

If you’re wrestling with the issue of excess leadership capacity, I have four suggestions.

Execute your current responsibilities with excellence. How was your last performance review? Are you consistently receiving the highest possible ratings? If not, you may have work to do before you begin to expand your reach beyond your current role. If you’re not receiving performance reviews, or you want additional perspective, conduct your own 360 survey. I’ve been doing them for about 30 years.

Proactively look for ways to add value beyond your role. If you’re nailing your current assignment, look around. Where in your organization could you lend a hand? Perhaps a cross-functional team, or maybe there’s a special project you could volunteer to help deliver. Or, maybe you could mentor young leaders. The list of options before you is long. Start looking around.

Consider additional education. I know this answer is not for everyone, and some of you have  many years of graduate and post-graduate education. However, for some leaders an MBA or even an MFA makes a lot of sense. (If the idea of an MFA sounds strange, I recommend you read the first four chapters of Dan Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind.) Or, maybe you can prepare yourself for opportunities in an area in which you don’t currently have the educational background required.

Look outside your organization for places to use your extra capacity.This last suggestion may be what you’ve been looking for. Assuming you’re crushing it within your organization, and you still have untapped capacity, look outside. Several times during my career I’ve suggested this with great effect. Perhaps you should serve on a non-profit board, or volunteer for a local charity. I know one leader who led a global ministry with the excess leadership capacity his organization didn’t need!

If you find yourself struggling with the issue of excess leadership capacity at some point in your career, you are asking the right question. Our leadership is really an issue of stewardship. I believe we’re accountable for how we use it.

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Mark Miller, Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness for Chick-fil-A, believes that leadership is not something that’s exclusive; within the grasp of an elite few, but beyond the reach of everyone else.  In the tenth anniversary edition of The Secret, Miller reminds readers of a seemingly contradictory concept: to lead is to serve. With more than 600,000 books in print, Mark has been surprised by the response and delighted to serve leaders through his writing.

The 10th anniversary edition of The Secret will be released September 2, 2014.

 

My Virtual Assistant Success Story

As a busy professional or leader, you are likely overwhelmed with the amount of work you need to get done. Often, we find ourselves plateauing in our businesses and careers, because there are only 24 hours in one day.

too busy

Do you ever feel like this guy?

I found myself in this position about a year ago albeit with a full head of hair.  With a baby on the way (here now!), a growing business that I needed to scale, a family I want to spend more time with, and a recently purchased home, I had to find a way to get more done in 24 hours.  [Read more…]

Defining your story and refining your heart: the two keys to intentional leadership

“The choices we make today define the story we tell tomorrow.”

I’ve thought and reflected about making decisions, legacy, and the future over the last 10 years in my journey in leadership.  The above quote has greatly affected the trajectory of my life. My question for you is this: are you authoring your own story?

roadThis blog is where I want to share my story, because I want to help others with their own story and to clarify the catalysts and lessons of my own story. Whether it was at home or work, falling in love, or attending @catalystleader, at some point in the last year I’ve come to to the conclusion that being present in the moment requires being intentional about the choices we make every day.

[Read more…]