Sadly, Taking a Break

Unfortunately the Making of Grouvia Blog is going on hiatus.

Being the sole person trying to build this product, my time is at an extreme premium.  As much as I love writing this blog, sometimes you have to sacrifice things you love to get through a tough time.

Last month Joel Spolsky said goodbye to blogging.  He expressed sadness at leaving his readers.  While I have barely a fraction of the readers Joel had, I empathized with him.

I hope this is not permanent.  But it could be a while before I come back.

See ya ’round.

– Lisa

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Offshoring – A Cautionary Tale

I keep telling everyone how I’ve been outsourcing a lot of my work to offshore workers.  I usually paint a pretty rosy picture, but it has its ugly side.  This week I managed to learn something from it.

As you know if you’ve been following my blog, I’ve had some issues with my offshore development team.  I won’t go into those details again, except to say that it gets better for a while, and then gets worse for a while.  The fact is I could not have gotten the work done for the price I paid any other way.  The ups and downs come with the territory.

Working with non-technical VAs is a little different, and usually not as volatile.  One of my VAs was this awesome guy I hired last October.  Oddly enough he was from India and not the Philippines… I wonder if that was part of the problem…

He was so cheap I almost couldn’t believe my luck when I realized how good he was.  For a long time I had him doing research on clubs, compiling a list of as many clubs as he could find.  After some initial training he was pretty much on auto-pilot for 20 hours a week.

Then I felt that he was starting to lose interest, his work was still good but he wasn’t putting in the hours.  I figured he was bored and I needed some testing done so I put him on that (he had some experience testing).

The first week was great, he did all the regression testing, learned the Bugzilla interface and entered bugs and all seemed fine.  Then I put him on writing test cases.

And he disappeared.

I didn’t even notice.

I was so lulled by his previous competence I just believed he would continue to do what he was supposed to do and didn’t need babysitting.

WRONG.

Rule number 1.  Your offshore VAs always need babysitting.  ALWAYS!

Here’s the story in a nutshell… a week and a half after I put him on test cases, I happened to be on oDesk doing something unrelated, and I noticed his work log was emtpy.  It was halfway through the week and he had not logged any hours.  I looked at the previous week.  0:50 hours.  Huh?

So I shot off an email to him asking what was going on and he got back to me immediately and apologized and said he had personal issues that had nothing to do with work.

I was so mad I fired him on the spot and ended his assignment and gave him a lukewarm rating and UNshared him from all my Google Doc files he was using.

Now I’m a little upset with myself for letting my anger drive such a bad business decision.  It was my fault.  I never should have put him on a critical task.  If he had still been doing internet research on clubs I would have just let it pass and waited for his personal issues to sort themselves out.  Then he’d come back and pick up where he left off at his ultra cheap rate and all would be well again.

Damn.

So to recap the lessons learned…

  1. Don’t assign a part-time, low-level, offshore resource to any task you consider critical to your business.
  2. Check in with your VAs once a week at minimum.  If they are doing something important, check with them twice a week.  A 10-minute Skype chat works just fine.
  3. When a VA disappoints you, don’t do anything until you’ve given yourself 24 hours to cool off and figure out who’s fault it really was.

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My new site looks like it’s funded.

I recently decided to bite the bullet and commission a redesign of Grouvia.  The current design, although it’s nice, is too complicated and is causing problems with implementation.

I hired this awesome offshore contractor to do the design and I got a preliminary screenshot today.  I sent it to a colleague and we were talking about it, and to one of her comments I said, “yeah, it looks so much better, cleaner… like we’re funded.”

She laughed.

I can’t put my finger on what that really means, but I feel like it’s true.  The new design makes Grouvia look like the other Web 2.0 sites that have been professionally designed… and those designs probably costs tens of thousands of dollars.  This is costing me about $350.  Of course I have to implement it myself, but that’s ok.  If I wanted to I could probably get that done for a few hundred bucks also.

[Speaking of cheap labor, I said to my Dad the other day, “these people are my staff.”  By this I was referring to the subcontractors I’ve hired from the Phillipines, India, and now Belarus (where they heck is that anyway?).  I’m addicted to offshore staffing.  Need something done quickly for practically no money?  Hire a Filipino!]

Anyway, I’m totally thrilled with this new design – I can’t wait to get it up on the site.  It just feels right.  It feels… funded.

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Link Building – It’s a messy job but somebody’s gotta do it.

I can’t seem to get through the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for Dummies book on my own, so my friend who is an SEO expert agreed to do some barter work for me.

Link building is a key component of any good SEO strategy.  Or so she told me and I had to agree because I didn’t know any better.

Link building is an ongoing effort, she says.  You do it a little bit every week, for several weeks at a time, and then repeat that over and over.  In a nutshell, it requires 2-3 people posting comments, blog entries, forum replies, answers to questions, etc, on high ranking sites a whole bunch of times, all containing links back to your site.

At some point, you will see your site’s PR (page rank) improve enough that your SEO effort takes on a life of its own and you don’t need the manual link building any more (or much).  At least that’s the idea.

So now that I’ve done a little research into how this works, let me tell you something: it is not as simple as it sounds.  Let’s go over some of the finer points of link building:

  • First of all, this work is BORING and I certainly can’t spend hours and hours every week doing this.  So I decided to get some cheap VAs (virtual assistants) to help.  I posted a very simple job opening on oDesk and within 2 hours had close to 50 applicants.  Whoa horsey!!!  I shut that faucet off as soon as I could chat the help desk to ask them how.
  • My personal ethics will not allow me to use black hat methods.  If you don’t know what that is, look it up on wikipedia.  Trust me, it’s bad.  But what it means is that I have to filter out any candidates who I think might use these techniques, because the last thing I want is for Grouvia’s reputation to be tarnished before we’re even one lap into the race.
  • You have to hit all different kinds of sites, from ebay and craigslist to blogs, article comments, review sites, and answer sites.  You have to hit the ones that have high PR, you have to hit them at different times of the day, and you have to hit them from different IP addresses and different devices and browsers.
  • Here’s a critical piece:  the things you hit have to be RELEVANT to your subject matter.  You can’t just hit anything — you have to hit stuff that means something to your site and your site’s audience.  For Grouvia I could hit anything group-related.
  • Finally, the things you say in these posts have to be relevant and valuable.  You can’t just put a comment on a blog post that says “thanks for the great post, signed soandso at http://www.grouvia.com”.  That would be spam and I get that all the time on my blog.  I trash them, even if it’s the only comment.  Especially the ones that are written by a non-English speaker.  Please.

My friend (the same one I talked about earlier) does this for a living.  She started doing it with stock sites when she was a day-trader, and according to her it works like a charm.

The whole thing seems really scummy, but everyone does it.  Apparently if you don’t do it your site is destined for Internet purgatory forever because nobody will ever find it.  Either that or you’ll have to pay for search engine advertisements which, when you have no money, is not much of an option.

[I just found this hilarious post called 101 Ways to Build Link Popularity.  Maybe he’ll see my link and link back to me.]

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    How to Increase Adoption Rates

    I wrote the headline for this article hoping that it would inspire me somehow.

    The signups for Grouvia Beta have been slower than I had hoped.  If I sit down and think about all the reasons this could be, here’s the list I come up with.

    1. Hello?  It’s Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanzaa, and people are distracted by many other obligations.  How many times have you said “I’ll do that after the holidays” in the past two weeks?
    2. The month-long break I took from marketing to do design and programming was a bad move.
    3. People can’t see Grouvia’s value from reading the marketing materials or looking at the web site’s front pages.
    4. People don’t trust beta software.
    5. People are wary of brands they’ve never heard of.
    6. The SEO for the site is bad and we’re not getting in front of our target audience.

    This list is not in any particular order.  But it seems to logically break down into things I can (3, 5, & 6) and can’t (1, 2, & 4) do something about.  So let’s just ignore the latter ones and focus on the former.

    People can’t see Grouvia’s value.

    Starting next week I will review all of Grouvia’s marketing content that exists out on the Internet (or as much of it as I can find).

    I’ll look at everything from the Groove blog posts to the emails I send out and the status updates on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. I’ll make an attempt to look at it critically and take notes about anything that someone might not understand or care about.

    Also, I’ll try to find someone to sit down with me and just walk through the web site and help me figure out where the communications need improvement.

    People are wary of brands they don’t know.

    I’ve heard that people won’t recognize your brand name until they’ve seen it at least seven times.

    Someone told me recently that they advertised their product on Facebook and wrote the ad in such a way that people wouldn’t click on it.  When I first heard it I thought it was stupid.

    But the point here is that if nobody clicks on your ad you don’t pay anything.  So without much effort I could throw together a Facebook ad without a call to action, just to start getting the Grouvia brand some cheap exposure. OK, so maybe it’s not so stupid after all.

    The SEO is bad.

    I did some Google AdWords testing a couple months ago with decent results.  I wrote about it in a blog post at the time.  I decided after a few weeks to put it on hold because although people were clicking the ad they weren’t signing up.

    I decided back then that it was just too soon to advertise, because technically Grouvia didn’t even exist yet.  It’s possible that it’s still too soon to advertise.  I won’t know until I do another test.

    An alternative approach is to try to improve Grouvia’s organic search rankings.  I may need to pay somebody to do this.  I don’t have the knowledge and I think it will take a good deal of time for me to learn how to do it and then craft and execute a plan.

    So I think the bottom line is that both of these approaches (paid vs. organic search results) take either too much time or money.  The unfortunate result is that this particular item falls to the bottom of the list for now.

    I’ll do it after the holidays.

    * * *

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    Beta Success!

    Last week we launched the new beta site for Grouvia.com.

    It was a thrill and a relief. This is a major milestone for Grouvia and it was only a month late.

    There are 170 bugs in the application right now.  And that’s down from about 400 a month ago, so it’s actually not as bad as it sounds.  Only 19 of them are considered “major” and that’s just my personal assessment of their severity.  The vast majority of them are typos, layout issues, alignment problems, and missing “nice to have” features.

    So if you haven’t looked at grouvia lately (or at all), please go take a look.  I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

    I have made one huge sacrifice in the past month about which I am more than a little concerned.  I have completely let our marketing efforts go.  I have barely eked out these blog posts, and have done no posts to the Grouvia Groove blog.  I have stopped reading/commenting on other blogs, I have stopped reading/commenting on LinkedIn discussions, I have stopped all tweeting.  Basically the Grouvia marketing efforts are now in disaster mode.

    I’m not sure if I have made the right choices, but I do feel that the quality of Grouvia was too important to let slip.  So I have spent the last month testing, documenting bugs, retesting fixes, and doing my own light coding of the user interface.  I think these efforts have paid off, because Grouvia looks a thousand times better than it did last month, but at what cost I am not sure.  I may not know for a while, if ever, what price Grouvia will pay for this.

    I still have some cleanup work to do over the weekend, and then I can leave the developers alone for a while so they can implement the rest of the missing features.  They believe we can have the entire project wrapped up by the end of January.  I am cautiously optimistic but I’m not holding my breath.  There have been too many disappointments on this project so far to believe that sunny days will always shine on us.

    But today it’s sunny, and I intend to enjoy it.

    Development Issues Delay Launch

    I hate to say it but we missed our first launch deadline and won’t be launching for a couple more weeks.

    The issue has been development but – as much as I would like to – I can’t place 100% blame on the developers.

    Grouvia has a lot of bugs and I refuse to launch a sub-part product. I know I only get one chance with my target audience and the level of quality I want just isn’t there yet.

    Grouvia has a lot of bugs and the developers haven’t been able to fix them.  They’ll say it’s fixed, we retest… and it’s not fixed.  Worse, we retest these elusive bug fixes and we find more bugs.

    Granted, the vast majority of the bugs are minor.  The major bugs have been fixed, or fixed to the point where the remaining issue is tolerable enough to be downgraded.

    But there are still too many bugs for us to launch.

    I’ve concluded that the best explanation for the development problems are communications issues compounded by language.  I do believe these developers have the experience and skills to do the work.  However, many things point to communication issues as the main reason we are having the problems we’re having…

    • Often the implementation of a particular feature does not meet the requirements.  Actually it’s not often, it’s usually.
    • Details are missed.  A feature will be implemented but the nuances and logic details aren’t there.  For example, the private events were implemented without any way to invite participants.  It was in the requirements, but they didn’t put it in.  Details are not just nice-to-have.
    • The developers make assumptions instead of asking questions.  If they don’t fully understand something, they will make their own decision about how something should work, instead of asking for clarification.
    • The technology is driving the features.  If the developer finds that the technology does not support the feature properly, he will change the feature to match the technology.  For example, the messaging feature was changed to match the abilities of the standard Drupal messaging module. This isn’t what we wanted.

    I know that many developers work like this.  I have been in this field long enough to have seen this before, lots of times.  But I’ve always been in a corporate environment where I can call a 2-day-long meeting in a conference room somewhere with American-English speaking developers, analysts, testers, and team leaders and hash out the details.

    I don’t have that luxury now.  These developers are halfway across the world and our meetings take place over an unreliable Skype connection at 7:00 in the morning.  We have a daily 2-hour window to work together, sometimes a little more if they agree to work late or if I can get up earlier.

    But I’m also paying about a third (maybe less?) of what I would have paid for an American company to do the project.  You get what you pay for.  I knew that going in.

    Delaying the Beta launch was disappointing but it was the right thing to do and I know we will have a better product because of the delay. I’ll keep you posted.

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