Choosing My Million Dollar Development Team

This past week was spent collecting proposals for the grouvia.com project, in response to the RFP I sent out last week. I had about a dozen early candidates and two dropped because they didn’t feel they could respond within the very short timeframe I required.

I suppose if I had to do it again (you’d have to put a gun to my head) I’d change my RFP to request that each company put their proposal in a specific format. One of the biggest challenges I found was having to “re-frame” each proposal into a common format so I could put them into kind of a mental comparison matrix. I don’t know if I succeeded that well, and I think when it came down to it I went with my gut feeling about which proposals would ultimately rise to the top of the list. But I believe strongly that gut feelings are generally based in some fact. So after reading each proposal carefully, I had a good sense of what kind of company this was, and whether I felt strongly about them one way or the other.

The three that have made it to the short list are quite different from each other. They each suggested different technologies, they have different approaches, and different personalities. The longest proposal (of the three) is 40 pages long and came with 10 supplemental documents. Another one was seven pages long and I had to go back and ask for some missing information. How am I supposed to interpret that?

BTW I didn’t hold it against any of them for missing information. My turnaround time was very short and they did their best I’m sure. I merely asked for it and they gave it to me.

So here I am with a decision due tomorrow and feeling a little paralyzed by indecisiveness about three major factors:

  1. Drupal vs. Symfony (I know, I know, they’re not the same type of thing!)
  2. Eastern Europe vs. India
  3. Hourly vs. fixed price – there’s more to this but it’s too much to go into here.

Did I mention that none of the US companies I asked to participate responded? The overwhelming majority of the firms are from India. One was from Sweden (they dropped) and one from Ukraine. All their english skills are good, they all offer US based phone numbers, they all work late hours to compensate for the time zone issue. None of the offshore issues are really issues, to me at least. And the prices are all very close, and all within my budgeted range.

So I guess I’ll have to keep you in suspense until next week. If you have any thoughts or commments I’d love to hear them!

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Why do we think people know this stuff?

I’m overwhelmed right now trying to get the public site up and running so I can use my Google AdWords promotional credit by the end of the month. As a bootstrapper I can’t afford to miss out on $250 worth of free advertising can I ??? Hell, no!

Anyway, here’s my very brief post for this week…

I saw this incredible video the other day on the grokdotcom web site (love those guys).

http://www.grokdotcom.com/2009/08/07/im-not-an-idiot-but-i-play-one-on-online-and-so-should-you/

Watch it and be amazed. Then come back here and read the rest.

Did you watch it yet? Ok.

This was a real eye-opener for me. I thought I had a pretty good sense of what people generally do and don’t know about browsing the web, but this was just astonishing. I get that most people don’t pay attention to the details of HOW it works, just that it gets them what they need. Kind of like driving a car. I don’t particularly care HOW it works, but I do care that it gets me from Point A to Point B. But I know what a “dashboard” is and I know what a “steering wheel” is and I know what the “rearview mirrors” are. I mean, c’mon this is everyday stuff that everyone knows… right? Right?!?!

Essentially this just hammers home the fact that our strategy of keeping things very simple is ultra important. From the beginning we have been very careful to keep it as simple and straightforward as possible while still offering a feature-rich experience. We must be diligent to make sure nothing slips through the cracks here. It can be very tempting when developing software to let “feature creep” (aka “scope creep”) run amok.

Okay, sorry for the quickie, but I have to get back to the grind. BTW, I have received a few proposals from my RFP and they look encouraging. I look forward to sharing some results with you next week. Until then!

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A 5-Step Process for Creating an RFP When You Don’t Have a Clue

I’ve certainly responded to plenty of RFPs in my career, but I’ve never written one. Recently I’ve gained a new appreciation for people who can do this well.

In my quest to find a reliable and skilled development team to build the Grouvia back-end, I crafted an RFP. But I’ll admit, I did something any self-respecting entrepreneur would do, I copied someone else’s. Unfortunately the one I chose was from UConn (the University of my old home state) which had all sorts of blather in it about working with the government, etc., which I had to sift through and remove.

I couldn’t actually *read* this thing, and God help the poor souls who are trying to bid on it. Bidding on government contracts is a skill in and of itself and an advanced degree from a law school seems like a good prerequisite.

I scanned each section and deleted the stuff I was sure didn’t apply to me, and now I’m left with this icky shell of remaining sections that I have to read through and either (1) delete, (2) keep as is, (3) re-word, or (4) add a note to come back later. Unfortunately most of the sections are 4’s so far. And truth be told, it was giving me a headache to read it.

So at this point I decided to try a different tactic. I have to create an abstract out of my requirements to include in the RFP so the bidders have some clue about what their bidding on. I opened up my 150-page requirements document (technical writing is one of my strengths) and started by taking each section of the document and creating a high-level version of it.

This is not an easy task, as I essentially have to READ each section and decide what parts of this feature are worthy of being includedm then figure out how to abstract them. It’s not hard work but it’s incredibly time-consuming! In the meantime I have three development firms waiting for me to send this to them. No pressure there!

What I’ve boiled it all down to is six fundamental sections of an RFP:
1. Overview of the project and background of the company and founder.
2. Legal stuff about holding harmless and confidentiality and no warranties and all that.
3. My expectations about communications, deliverables, timelines and the like.
4. Overview of the scope, technology to be used, project phases and skills required.
5. The functional requirements abstract.
6. Instructions to the bidder on what I require in their response (such as samples of their work, explanations of their methodology, their support policies and mechanisms, references, etc.)

In addition, I’ve come up with a five-step process to orchestrate this whole proposal-gathering task, which I believe is going to work out well:

  1. Send out an open call to vendors that includes some basic marketing type of information about the project as well as links to the preliminary website and this blog. Ask them to review the information and links, decide if they want to bid and get back to me with some basic information about their company, past projects and a brief paragraph explaining to me why they believe they should bid on this project. This step should filter out the tire-kickers and the people who just collect RFPs for weird reasons. I sent this message to personal friends and family who probably know people in the business, posted it on a discussion board on one of my relevant LinkedIn groups, and hand-selected about a dozen development companies I found on Guru.com.
  2. Evaluate each respondent, take a quick look at their info, and make a gut decision about whether to include them. If yes, send them an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement). I’ve already told them in the first step that they’ll need to sign this in order to get the RFP.
  3. Upon receipt of the signed NDA, send the RFP. They all have until August 21st to get me their proposals. With any luck I will send out at least a dozen, in the hopes I’ll get 50% of them to actually bid.
  4. Receive and evaluate all proposals. This one scares me a little. I know this is going to be a big job. I have no idea yet what criteria I will use to evaluate them. The RFP I copied had a whole section that explained exactly how they intend to do this, using a point-based system thing. Blech. I prefer going by a gut feeling, but I know I have to somehow cull these all down to some logical set of criteria so I’m comparing kiwis to kiwis.
  5. Award the project! This will be the fun part. I hope to have someone on board by the end of August and started coding by mid-September if not earlier.

I just want to make some quick comments about my gut-feelings. I know when some of you read that you probably thought “Hey, you can’t make a decision like that!” Well, I beg to differ. I agree you can’t choose someone just because you like them, but you should certainly take that into consideration. If the best qualified candidate is a jerk, it might mean we just have bad chemistry, but still I wouldn’t hire him. Not ever. You can NOT work with someone you don’t like, no matter how good they are.

Another gut feeling that I don’t ignore is when the candidate says something that just doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe they tried to “pull one over” on me because they think I don’t know anything about programming or some technology or other. Many development companies make this assumption because the truth is most of their clients *don’t* actually know much about technology. But I have 25 years of experience in this business, so there’s not much I don’t know and nothing I can’t find out. Anyone who assumes otherwise is not going to get my business. I could go on and on about this, but you get my point. The gut-feeling criteria stays.

By next week I should have all the RFPs out and maybe I’ll even get some proposals back. In the meantime, I’m running an experiment by starting up a new vegetable-swapping club in my other blog, The Grouvia Groove. Check it out.

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How (Not) to Become a Business

Here in lower Northern Virginia, we live amidst a sea of chains and franchise businesses. Every once in a while a unique little place opens up and sometimes they stick. And sometimes they don’t.

Last year Don opened Blackstone Coffee, a delightful but tiny place in a good location, at a light, in a little strip mall across the street from a big strip mall. Don is a coffee roaster and he is very good at his job; his coffee blends are delicious. He also sells a small assortment of pastries, but people come there for the coffee. And people come to see Don.

Don *is* Blackstone Coffee. He’s not just the master roaster, he’s gregarious and happy and funny and remembers everyone’s name and what they like and how they like it. There are a couple of stools at the end of the counter, and they are always occupied. My only problem with Blackstone is that if I am in a hurry I won’t stop there because I know it will take at least 10 minutes to get my cuppa joe. When not in a hurry, this is a fun way to spend 10 minutes, as the place is so small you can’t help but feel intimate with every stranger in there with you. When two people are having a conversation, the whole place is involved.

Last Spring, it seemed that Don got really busy for a couple of weeks or so and couldn’t always be at his store any more. He hired a couple of nice college-age kids to work the counter for him when he was out. These kids could have been plucked right out of the Starbucks a mile down the road. Perky, pretty, chatty girls. One of them had a nice boyfriend who sat on one of the stools while she was working.

Can you guess what happened? Blackstone was completely, and I mean *completely* a different place. Suddenly the place was quiet, and people didn’t hang around any more. The girls were nice but they didn’t know anybody, or what they wanted or how they liked it. They were 19 or 20 years old and didn’t have the conversational skills to engage the 30- or 40-something customers. They weren’t Don.

So, within a week or so, the business seemed to sag. I’m sure Don knew (how could he not know?) although I never said anything. Eventually, after a few weeks or maybe a month or so, Don came back, the business came back, the crowds and conversations came back. I stopped in there this morning for my $2 cup of “Zimbabwe Blend” or whatever it was. It didn’t actually take 10 minutes, I think it only took eight. There were at least six customers inside (including two police officers — regulars) and two more customers sitting outside having a business meeting, paper coffee cups in hand. Everyone was lively and chatty and Don and his teenage son were working the crowd from behind the counter.

I love Blackstone Coffee, but I feel a little sad for Don, because his business can’t survive without him. The business is built around his personality, his friends, his personal brand. If he wanted to take some time off or even retire someday, how will he turn over his business to someone else? It couldn’t survive under different ownership, e.g. “non-Don” ownership.

In the meantime, Don loves his business and we, his customers, love him.

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Request for Help Falls (Mostly) on Deaf Ears

Earlier this week I posted a message on a couple of my LinkedIn discussion groups, asking for people’s advice on how to write an RFP. The question itself was fairly simple – I was asking if there is a good way to write an RFP without divulging the full set of requirements. I believe I have good reason for wanting to keep these details private at this early stage of the project.

Here is the measly set of responses I got:
1 – the person responded on topic, but did not address my question
2 – the person asked to be on the list of companies to bid on the RFP
3 – the person said it is not possible to bid on an RFP without the full set of requirements.

Hm.

Granted, I did get an acceptable answer from person #1 after I responded back saying thank you for your advice, but what about my question.

So here’s this supposedly great resource that LinkedIn offers in the way of support for people helping people, and out of maybe a couple thousand members in the groups I posted this to, I get three responses, none of which are helpful. So I feel like standing up and saying, HEY! where is everybody??? Is everyone just so absorbed by their own problems that they can’t spend a minute to reach out to help someone in need?

So anyway… the answer I gleaned from person-#1-round-2 and the here’s-why-it’s-impossible response was this — writing an RFP at an extracted level is probably fine, as long as I understand that the proposals I get will be estimates only and will need 10-20% of padding added to the final price. I’m fine with this.

Having never written an RFP before (although I’ve responded to many in my past), I went and found some examples of software development RFPs online. Unfortunately they’re from huge bureaucratic organizations (one is from the State of California) and filled with TONS of legal mumbo jumbo. But, you get what you pay for, so now I have to spend some time wading through the best one I can find and tearing it apart and revising it to work for Grouvia.

On the upside, the Grouvia design is done and the functional requirements are mostly done – yay! At least they’re done to the point where I feel confident about having enough information from which to create an RFP. Too bad knowing this doesn’t help me sleep better at night.

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Adult Content: It’s Just Business

Yesterday I went to visit some of my relatives up in DC. They’re a wonderful family — I love them to death and don’t see them often enough. We had a most delightful lunch and then sat around for a couple of hours yammering about the girls’ respective travel and college adventures. It was lots of fun.

At one point my Aunt asked me, “So Lisa tell us about your new project, what are you working on?” So I talked a bit about what Grouvia is and how excited I am about it, and how every day brings something new as we peel back the layers of the onion designing this site.

“For example,” I said. “Earlier this week a question came up about allowing adult content. You know, Grouvia will have private groups that will be hidden from the public group directory and can’t be found in search engines. As long as the private groups aren’t doing anything illegal, shouldn’t we allow them to do anything they want? You know, like X-Rated?”

Dead silence.

Well, I thought, that sure was a buzz-kill. Finally my 21-year-old cousin (who just returned from a year traveling in Asia) piped in, “Sure, why not?” and the moment passed, but we quickly moved on to another, safer topic.

I’m currently reading John Irving’s “A Widow For One Year.” Part of the book takes place in Amsterdam where prostitution is legal. A murder takes place in the red light district and the story has a certain amount of detail about how the prostitution business works. They treat it like any other business and, seediness aside, the whole thing is rather matter-of-fact. So I guess at the moment I’m slightly desensitized to it, but really — I would have expected my rather liberal forward-thinking family to be able to discuss the topic without any discomfort. But it did give me something to think about (not to mention the material for this week’s post).

On a side note, the Dutch have a long history of being a very practical and tolerant culture. For instance their support for Freedom of Religion turned it into a mainstream idea.

At any rate, whether people agree with it or not, adult content is HUGE business on the Internet, and therefore a potentially lucrative revenue channel for Grouvia. It’s not illegal to look at girlie pictures or watch pornographic videos, as long as it is done within certain legal parameters. Some people even collect it. Whether I personally have any interest in it or not is completely irrelevant. I also don’t have any interest in fly-fishing or poker or monster truck rallies or hang-gliding or beauty pageants (and on and on) but we’re not going to ban them from Grouvia because I personally find them uninteresting or even distasteful. However, there are clearly a handful of activities that are legally restricted (including gambling, smoking, alcohol, etc.) and therefore these topics should be considered “adult” topics and should be less visible, if not invisible, to the general public.

I’m ok with this. This is about business, not about personal beliefs and mores. As long as it’s legal, it will be allowed.

I welcome any comments you may have on this subject.

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