Image from Ryanne Bradshaw
I’ve seen 2 attitudes towards planning. Plan before you start, follow the plan and continually update it. OR, plan a little before you start, start doing real business and adapt on the fly as things change. The argument is that plans are theoretical and a good start but often something to archive and ignore later on as you need to do more business/work and less planning when things are up and running. My perspective is that both schools of thought are relevant but that most startups lose direction and therefore focus without an attractive, loveable plan and vision.
As a freelancer, I often come into a project after the planning is done and the direction is set. I am therefore often exposed to the absence of planning and lack of direction or vision that a business requires. It occurs to me that very few actually know what is important in a business plan, why it’s important (lack of motivation) and actually follow through with a strategy rather than just reacting as things happen.
When I start work on a new project my first thoughts are on:
- Audience (and user competency)
- How do they sell (word of mouth, google organic search etc.)
- Who has a say, who’s really in charge and do they know about web development
- Do they use SCRUM or Agile development methodologies (love transparency? do they empower the team?)
Note that their technology and product is of little interest. I want to know how they are running a business and what makes them tick. I want to see why they are passionate about what they’re doing and how they involve everyone in their vision.
Warning signs for lack of planning
Most of the above points never come into conversation unless I prod. The company already has A and it wants B and you are the tool to get them there. Questions about their motives and rationale are not to be asked. It is ‘decreed’ by the overlord (director) that these things need doing. This mindset often fails. Other directors I’ve worked with say: “We have A and want to get towards B and C so that in 6 months time D will be in reach if B or C pay off”. This kind of forward thinking and planning are the necessary groundwork for success. There is direction and there is vision. There is a plan to get past B and to assess if D is viable once B and C are done. This might sound like simple common sense planning but it in my experience that forward planning gets itself killed once the stressful powers that be kick in. The point where those controlling the money flow start kicking around instead of using their head is usually fairly obvious.
One of the biggest warning signs for me when assessing a project is whether or not the team is exposed to the vision. I don’t mean to get rich or sell 1000 products. I mean “what is the point”? With Vidza I wanted to solve a problem that pissed me off. I wanted to help people decide on a good movie to watch. That was and still remains the vision of vidza. Vidza isn’t a massively popular tool, but I am happy with the outcome. Three years after development and it still performs well and solves my problems. Sometimes it even helps others decide what movies to watch.
WARNING: A mission statement is not a vision. A vision is what you want to be. A mission statement is what you are striving to achieve. Mission statements usually sound very wanky in my honest opinion. They are long, boring and forgetful statements that sound like they’ve been written by a tax accountant. No one can remember a mission statement but everyone can believe in a vision.
Mission and vision statement examples
“Your mission is what you do best every day, and your vision is what the future looks like because you do that mission so exceedingly well.”
– Rosa Say on What’s the difference between Mission and Vision?
Here are some I came up with for myself as DynamicDan.
M: Provide technical solutions to the common business owner and therefore improve their profit potential.
V: Make all digital content easy to use and fast, one client at a time.
V: Be in demand for new projects and be loved by those needing support.
V: Love what my clients are doing so that I can love what I’m doing for them.
M: Provide the human side that other web developers and programmers can’t in order to have a higher quality end product and user satisfaction.
M: Become a key player in providing enterprise level human solutions to technical computer or web problems.
Others I’ve found:
M: Microsoft: “A computer on every desk and in every home, all running Microsoft software.”
(Note that they don’t mention why which should be understood from their vision)
M: Amazon Kindle: “Every book ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds.”
How to get back on track
It’s not easy for a business or its team members to find the time to rethink through everything. I also don’t believe that everything needs to change in order to improve planning. The first thing to do is to simply take your nose out of the machine and start talking to your end users and the potential customers. Talk to real people and check that you are going to be able to offer them something they will love to use and will benefit their well being.
Find a vision
Ask yourself if what you’re striving towards actually makes sense. What would make it all worth while? What can one be proud of? What do other colleagues hope to achieve by working with you? How would you explain the ultimate goal of the business to a stranger in a completely different industry? Make sure you have something really simple and straight forward. Avoid buzz words and acronyms. Don’t talk about market share. It has to be something you and anyone else involved can believe in!
Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
There are plenty of ways you can check the health of your business or venture right now. Most are probably ‘maybe stats’. Assumptions and statistics that could mean something. I’m thinking about visitor traffic statistics for example. If visitors are high does that mean we’re doing well? If time on site increases are we more attractive? There are heaps of maybe stats in business and it’s very easy to make assumptions on them. Here’s some examples of more solid stats that you might be of use:
- Increase in affiliate and referral traffic time on site
Note that this does not include direct or search engine based traffic because these types tend to confuse the overall data set (Eg 10 second visits from google searches). Traffic from affiliates is also usually your most valuable traffic
- $$$ (products sold, etc. the obvious stuff)
Note that it may save your business to sell products but knowing how many customers after a purchase recommend your product will make you successful.
- Work to value ratio
Are there areas of high risk and long development time? Most projects suffer from this problem because they don’t know how to progressively enhance their business and roll out smaller features over time. Content creation can be a risk when there are simply too many resources/time/people involved for a minor audience.
- Happy colleagues
Is everyone stressed out or are they feeling happy about the work they are doing? When you’re employees or co-workers are having short lunch breaks, staying late and looking a little zombiesh, your product or service will suffer. Surely they wouldn’t be this way if everything was working well right? Happy, stress free colleagues can think clearly and find better solutions to problems.
I hope that this post inspires you to think more about purpose and what the point of your business is. I believe understanding ones vision and having a plan on how to achieve that vision are the most important steps needed in motivating the team and providing end user satisfaction.
Some additional articles that inspired me can be found here:
Getting Real by 37 Signals – common sense, best practice for startups
Rework by 37 Signals – the follow up to Getting Real.