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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Another Milestone Moment

This week we had our 6th release of Grouvia Beta.  This release marked another major milestone for us – all the 1.0 features are implemented.

That’s not to say they are all implemented perfectly, or even completely.  We still have some missing pieces and a few hundred bugs.

But I’m just sayin’…

For the next two and a half weeks we have to focus very clearly on launching http://www.  This means we will…

  1. FIX BUGS.
  2. Work on the SEO strategy.
  3. Fix more bugs.
  4. Post as many free ads and links as possible.
  5. Test bug fixes.
  6. Improve the site’s marketing copy and landing pages.
  7. Fix more bugs.
  8. Convert the static  marketing pages to Drupal content.
  9. Fix… etc.
  10. Build demos and how-to articles.
  11. LAUNCH.

I’m torn between having one more bug fix release to beta before the production launch.  But honestly I just want this thing in production.

I mean, Facebook has tons of bugs, and people keep using it!

I’m really excited.  We’re turning a corner.  And getting to the next phase is always fun.

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Usability is Still King

As I mentioned in my last post, I have come up for air and started picking up the marketing tasks I abandoned last month.  I decided to take a look at Grouvia’s Google Analytics numbers, and I noticed we are getting a high bounce rate on some of the marketing pages.

The marketing copy was originally developed based on what we were trying to deliver with Grouvia.  The initial surveys we did back in the beginning gave us insight into what people are looking for, and our initial feature set was based on that.  So the development of the marketing copy was based on feature-needs, not necessarily real-life needs.

There’s a lot more behind this of course, but I don’t have the time or desire to write a novel-length blog post, nor would you have time to read it, so you’ll have to trust me that a lot of thought and planning went into all this.  But there’s only so much you can do without a huge pile of money to do market research.

In an effort to root out what was causing the high bounce-rate, I asked a colleague unfamiliar with Grouvia to spend an hour with me so I could virtually observe her as she went through the web site.  We started on the home page while she pretended she was a user looking for a place to manage her neighborhood homeowners association (HOA), of which she is President.

We talked through each of the pages she thought she might visit during her evaluation, and she told me everything that came to mind, both good and bad, without reservation or bias.  She was great at this, I could not have chosen a better person to do this with me at this point.

The exercise both opened my eyes and confirmed what I thought — it’s time to re-write the copy.

Now for an interesting twist:  last week I posted a job opening on oDesk for candidates with SEO/SEM expertise to help me improve the search engine rankings of Grouvia.  (I mentioned I was going to do in last week’s post.)

One candidate wrote to me saying she would not be able to apply for the position because she was booked until February, but she was nice enough to spend some time looking at the Grouvia site, and giving me her opinion of the content, as well as some tips on how to find a good SEO person to hire.

I was very impressed by, and grateful for, this gift.  What she said resonated with me, especially one thing in particular:  “Your sites [sic] content is currently on a very advanced reader understanding level and unless you are only trying to appeal to the college graduate, you may want to tone that down some.”

Well knock me over with a feather.  So.  Like.  Duh.

Fast forward to the pseudo-usability test with my colleague (who just so happens to be a Ph.D and probably in a  stratospheric reading comprehension level.)  I mentioned the candidate’s comments and she said she’d heard that you should always write your copy for an eighth-grader.

Oh sure.  Like I know how to talk to an eighth grader, much less write marketing copy for one.

I think I’ll need to delay my SEO tasks until I rewrite the web site copy.  Or maybe I need an SEO expert who can also write at an eighth grade level and then we will accomplish two things at once.

Either way, I’m rediscovering that marketing is still way more fun than programming.

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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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Countdown to Public Exposure

Next Tuesday is the public beta launch of Grouvia 1.0, and the anxiety is building in a big way.

Development is behind, and I am pushing them really hard.  I made the decision to descope some of the features temporarily, because I really want to make this date.  What that means is that the “official” beta launch will still be November 17th, but we will follow it with a 2nd beta release a few weeks later to implement the final features.

I’m concerned about bugs.  They’re bad.  They’re everywhere.  They’re multiplying.  I hate bugs.  Where the hell is my flyswatter?

No seriously.  There are a LOT of bugs.  The new project manager (oh, did I mention that my development team got a new project manager this week?  sheesh, what bad timing.) has assured me that all the major bugs will be fixed by Friday.

Now that would be a miracle.

I’m also getting my hands into the code now.  I am a stickler for things that look nice and organized and line up properly and are symmetrical.  So every day after the developers leave for the day (mid-morning here on the East coast) I go into the code and start fixing things.  I fix images, line up form fields, and correct unbalanced drop shadows.  I test things and put in bug reports for stuff I can’t fix.  I correct typos and fix paragraph alignments and line spacing.  It’s tedious and it’s fun.

It helps my stress level.

On a more positive note, I have two groups who are literally waiting for Grouvia to come out so they can get their sites up.  One is a small local girl scout troop and the other is my weekly networking group.  Actually the latter is one I’m pushing to happen, and I’ll be giving the group a demo of it a few weeks after launch.

Still… I’m just sayin’.

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Begging for Users

A few weeks ago I got a connection with the director of an historical society in the town where my sister lives.  According to their home page they were looking for someone to build their new web site.

Aha!  I thought.  Grouvia is a solution they might want to look at, given that it’s specifically built for these types of groups.

So I sent them an email with an overview of how I could help.  Given my background I could easily build them a nice web site for a good price if that’s what they wanted.  So I offered this options as well.

The director emailed me and we set up a conference call.  The day of the call he canceled.  We set up another one, and he canceled that one.  We rescheduled again.  He just canceled that one also and we’ve rescheduled it for next week.

So far I have already put about 2 hours of my time into trying to get this customer and I haven’t even spoken to him yet.  What I really would like is to understand what their goals are for their site, and determine if Grouvia would be a good fit.  Building a custom web site for them wouldn’t be bad.  It’s not our core business, but we’re a startup, it’s income, and I know he’d ultimately be happy with our work.

Eventually Grouvia will sell itself.  However, I am starting to think that this Begging Process Begging Process is one of the things we will need to do to get early adopter groups to put their sites on Grouvia.  I know this really is marketing – a combination of digital public relations, outreach, blogging, micro-blogging, networking in the physical world and getting the word out there in as many different venues as is possible.  But sometimes I just feel like I’m begging.

These early groups are the ones who will give us the best feedback on Grouvia’s features, help weed out the leftover bugs, and most importantly, provide us with testimonials,  references and case studies.  That is why spending all this time trying to get these early customers is worth it.  Each rescheduled meeting helps me develop my patience, gives me additional time to revise what I want to say, and brings us closer to an actual launch date after which there will *really* be something to sell.

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