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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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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Same as Markus, Only Better

About a year ago I read an article about a man from Vancouver named Markus Frind.  Chances are you’ve heard of him.

His story struck a major chord with me that I will never forget.  Markus is one of the reasons I am doing what I am doing today.

To be fair, there are many entrepreneurs and marketing geniuses who have inspired me, but Markus’s story is unique in terms of what I got from it.

Markus Frind created a dating web site called plentyoffish.com.

Apparently he was a jobless slacker and decided to learn ASP to help get a job.  To learn ASP he needed a project to work on, so he created plentyoffish.com.  In three weeks.  All by himself.

He thought it was good so he published it, and as he tells it, the money pretty much started rolling in.  (I’m skipping over all sorts of details here, but keep in mind I read this a year ago and this is how I remember it.)

But the thing I remember most was something Markus said that gave me some insight into the way his arrogant mind works.  After the site had been up and running for a while, his customers started complaining about the site’s functionality.  They said it was ugly, the photos were distorted, and they wanted new features.

So, while Markus romped around with his girlfriend, raking in the dough and working only an hour a day, he completely ignored his users.

The most interesting point here is that he was doing it on purpose.  He had no intention of changing the site, fixing the distorted photos, or adding new features.

His reasoning?  The site was making him lots of money so why change it and possibly put that at risk.  In other words, his income was more important than his stupid users.

O.   M.   G.

I am almost embarrassed to say that I was inspired by his ability to jump into something new, build it by himself, publish it, market it, and manage its growth.  However, I utterly detest his complete disregard for quality at the expense of his customers.  It makes the hairs of my professional ethics stand up on end.

Yet here I am a year later, still thinking about Markus Frind.  Now I’m even talking about him.

The point of this post is that sometimes you get your inspiration from the most unlikely places.  Take it from wherever you can get it, and then take massive action and do what you think is right.

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Grouvia Alpha 1 Is Here!

I’m so excited, today is the launch of the first release of Grouvia.com. My small team and I have been working on this site for seven months now, and I am thrilled that this day has come at last. This is the first step in what I’m certain will be a long and successful series of great releases for Grouvia.com.

The past several months have seen many long days, sleepless nights, and seven-day workweeks. The Internet changes at lightning speed and for an Internet application such as Grouvia to succeed we have to keep up the pace. Working on a tight budget has not hampered us, it has honed our efforts to almost razor sharp precision. Our focus is tight and our tactics are relentless.

The Social Media PR campaign is starting to show some great results, as Grouvia is seen more and more in the online universe. Thank you to Grouvia’s amazing PR man, Karl Schmieder at MessagingLab, who has also become my friend and marketing mentor.

The developers have done a nice job of implementing Grouvia’s preliminary set of features. And it’s no surprise because they have a very thorough and clear set of requirements to work with, thanks to the incredible talents of Regina Rubeo, an IT consultant and great friend who has tenaciously stuck with me through the ups and downs of the last six months. Regina, I could not have made it this far without you and I am oh so grateful for your help and strong shoulders.

Dad, Mom, Brenda, Karamjit, Deepak, Tajinder, Vishal, David, Vicki, Pie, Johnny, Patty, thank you all for the various roles you’ve played in making this day happen, whether that was offering time, understanding, support, friendship, great work, or helping to spread the word.

And while I’m at it I might as well thank David Meerman Scott, Norm Brodsky, Joel Spolsky, Timothy Ferriss, Guy Kawasaki, Robert Kiyosaki, Jacob Nielsen, Steve Krug, Michael Gerber, Dan Kennedy, and Markus Frind for sharing your knowledge and stories in the form of books, blogs, articles, and even personal assistance in some cases. The knowledge I have gained from these materials has been incredible.

And most important of all — I have to thank my loving husband Gus, who has supported me like a rock through it all. You’re the best, baby.

See you all next week!

[BTW, if you haven’t signed up to be on Grouvia’s mailing list, you should do that now :-).]

The Grouvia Signup Drive

My brother’s father-in-law passed away on Monday morning. That put me in a funk, as I had to weigh hopping in the car and driving seven hours to Connecticut to be with family, or staying home to focus on business. I admit I do tend to be impulsive, and driving under pressure and exhausting myself would not have helped anyone so I’m glad I didn’t do it.

Jacque was a great guy, and we’ll miss him at family gatherings. So Jacque, this blog post is for you.

I’m behind on everything this week. My blog posts are late, I can’t keep up with my email much less my daily reading. My To Do list is getting longer instead of shorter. I think I might be at a saturation point where every task seems daunting, if not overwhelming.

I wake up in the middle of the night and think about where I am with Grouvia and how much further we still have to go before we’ll see results.

Why is it that everything seems more scary and uncertain at 3 am?

I much prefer broad daylight. I tell you this so you understand that this is my state of mind as I write this. I’m generally an optimistic confident person.

My big challenge at the moment is this: How to drive Grouvia signups.

There are several ways to tackle this. You know by now how much I love making lists, so here’s my list for Ways to Drive Grouvia Signups.

  1. Google AdWords: We did some testing with different keywords, ads, and landing pages and while the ads got a respectable click-through rate (see my Sept. 3rd post about this test) the actual sign up rate was not great. The presumption here is that the landing pages failed to get people to take action. So, we’re learning from this experience and working on improving the landing pages.
  2. Direct Selling: This is a lot of effort for very few signups. However, the signups we do get are of very good quality. I am currently trying to get the Yahoo group moderator for my networking group to move at least part of the group’s site to Grouvia.

    A side benefit of this exercise is that I’m finding out what messages work and don’t work. For example, no matter how many times I say “Grouvia is a free tool…” people always ask “How much does it cost?”

  3. Social Networking: While I do post blurbs and links to my blog posts on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, I have not asked people to sign up yet using these venues. I think it’s still early and I want to have something more concrete to show with the application before pushing into these channels.
  4. Email Sales: This is a bit dicey because some people might think this crosses the Spam line. Personally I don’t think it does and I am very intolerant of Spam. The concept here is that we search for people who run clubs or organizations and send them an email about Grouvia. There’s a lot more to this than what I’m describing, and I’ll probably write a post specifically about this topic at some point.

    At any rate, the process of finding these group organizers is tedious, but we’ve got a pretty long list compiled already. Did you ever notice how many organized groups there are? It’s probably in the seven figures. (Incidentally, *that* is the main reason I believe so strongly in Grouvia’s ultimate success.)

    (By the way I want to state unequivocally and for the record that Grouvia does not practice Spam techniques, and we are very careful to comply with the CAN-SPAM act of 2003.)

  5. Create Listings: Here’s another dicey one and there are certain risks involved. The idea is to create directory listings of clubs that we find are active online. This is a basic group listing consisting of the group’s name, topic, location, email link, phone number, and maybe a short description — whatever is available online. Then we email the organizer, tell them we’ve created this listing for them, and ask them to log into their account and create a password so they can enhance their listing and start adding their members.

    Honestly I’m not sure about this one, I think we’ll do a test and see what happens. If there is a negative reaction we’ll can it. The risk I mentioned is about creating stale content. The listings that don’t get validated somehow by the group’s owner would have to expire to make sure they don’t create a bunch of stale content.

So there you have it – the five ways we are trying to get sign ups. Are you using any of these approaches? Are you using any other methods that you want to share? Please let us know, so we can all benefit from each other’s experiences.

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Sometimes Great People Will Work For Free

The headline is not a ruse just to get you to read this post. It’s really true, there are excellent people out there who will help you for nothing, or next to nothing, just for the benefit of being able to build their portfolio or resume or even just to keep up their skills.

In a deep recession, people do a lot of things they wouldn’t normally do, and if you’re smart and a little lucky you can leverage that.

I currently have no less than FOUR people working on Grouvia for free (if you count me it’s five), and I’d like to introduce them to you.

  • DK – 50-some odd years in sales and marketing. He’s helping me because he’s a family member and he loves me and wants to help me succeed.
  • RR – Consultant. 20+ years in IT, from programming to system analysis to user interface design. Smart, excellent communicator, highly organized and a super-nice person. She’s doing it because I ran out of cash to pay her and she wants to see it through and is not otherwise employed (but continues to seek a paying gig).
  • CT – young hungry self-taught graphic designer I met through LinkedIn. Needs to build her portfolio and add to her client list and willing to work pro-bono to get references.
  • DR – Marketing and Communications professional with 15+ years of experience in arts and non-profit sector. Currently not working and heard about the Grouvia project through a friend, and wants to help out as well as learn new skills related to the technology sector.

If and when Grouvia makes it to the big time I will give something back to all of these people. In the meantime, not a day goes by that I don’t realize how truly lucky I am that these wonderful talented people have seen enough potential value in Grouvia to give their time to help it succeed.

We should all be looking for every opportunity to utilize an untapped resource, with an eye toward giving back wherever and whenever possible.

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Do you enjoy reading these posts? Why not sign-up to receive Grouvia’s e-newsletter? You’ll get the latest news delivered to your inbox and you can participate in the Grouvia development process. It’s free. Sign up at www.grouvia.com.

Release 0.01 – Four Things Grouvia Just Did

We had four really big accomplishments this past week.

1. Grouvia Has a New Development Team

Yup, I pulled the trigger. I hired what I thought was the best development team of the bunch and now I can’t look back. I have to trust that I did the right thing and plunge onwards. I did choose a company from India, in a small industrial town near Utter Pradesh. The company’s name is “SmartData Enterprises” and I found them on oDesk.com. I had also invited a handful of firms via guru.com, but I do like the oDesk development features better. I won’t write about those details here, you can check out the sites if you’re interested. (And if you’re doing that don’t forget to look at elance.com as well.)

Hopefully we will sign the contract this week, so I can engage the developers and walk through the requirements with them. The functional requirements are very good, but they’re not super-tight. I could tweak these requirements until kingdom come and still not be happy with them. So now that the train is on the tracks and moving out of the station, I have little time to dicker around with the documentation, and hope the developers will ask the right questions to get it done the way I envision it.

There is something very satisfying as well as terrifying about this. It’s satisfying because we are taking a major step forward (and I’m a big believer in getting things done quickly). It’s terrifying, well… just being in business for yourself can be terrifying so it comes with the territory.

2. Got the Public Web Site (Mostly) Up and Running
This is not a big deal really, but it was time consuming. Fortunately I have HTML/CSS skills and was able to code it myself. Could I have used my time better? Sure, but I also could be $500 poorer if I got someone else to do it, besides not being certain it would be good code and then not having time or inclination to go fix it. At least now I know it’s good, and I practically did it in my sleep.

Having the web site up allowed me to get the next two items accomplished as well…

3. The Users Are Starting to Gather ‘Round
Another cool thing I did this week was to create a Google AdWords campaign. I developed three different ad groups for different personas: 1) Outdoors Types with an existing club; 2) people who are looking for tips on How to Start a Club; and 3) people who just want a new Club Web Site for Free. (The links go to the different landing pages.)

After four days of watching results, my ads in the #2 group are outpacing the others by a mile. Funny thing is I have no idea why. My “Entrepreneur Magazine’s Ultimate Guide to Google AdWords” book states that you should do “split testing” where you always have two ads up at the same time. Whichever one doesn’t do well gets dropped, then you replace the dropped one with a new one and repeat the process over and over. It sounds a little tedious but I can now see why they say that – because you have no idea what people will respond to, you can only guess and test. I am now a believer in the importance of testing your advertising.

Another thing that’s interesting in all this is the signups. We have received 13 signups so far and need to figure out if that’s a good conversion rate or not. Here are the early numbers:

  • 5,210 Impressions
  • 211 Click-Throughs
  • 13 Signups

That’s an overall CTR (Click Through Rate) of 4.05% and a Conversion rate of 6.2%. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? The bill so far is about $64 so it’s costing about $5 per signup. It doesn’t sound so great when you put it that way. It’s actually not even that good because I know some of the signups did not come from the ads. On the other hand, I also know that the CTR is getting better as I continue to tweak the ads. For example the current best performing ad is averaging a respectable CTR of 4.59%. What this tells me is that I need to improve my conversions by re-writing my landing pages. Test and tweak.

4. Grouvia Issued its First Press Release and Got Its First Article
Last week, we issued a press release announcing the pre-release alpha site. We also reached out to a number of reporters to start to develop relationships as we move forward. Bill Freehling, a reporter at the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, liked the story and contacted me. He even wrote an article, which was in Tuesday’s edition of the paper and can be seen on the paper’s web site at fredericksburg.com.

There are signup numbers associated with the press release and the article, but I’ll report on those next week.

I said it was a busy week, didn’t I? And that doesn’t even cover the 349 other little things I was working on.

Happy Labor Day!

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