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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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.

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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.

Ready or Not, Here I Come

I don’t think I can beat the list of last week’s accomplishments so I won’t even try (but being the type-A entrepreneur that I am, I know I will soon enough).

I worked all Labor Day weekend finishing up the requirements so I could deliver them to the development team, which I did on Monday night. The document is 188 pages long and I’m sure it will take them a couple of days to absorb it all. In the meantime we’re working hard to design mockups to illustrate some of Grouvia’s more complicated features.

We’re continuing to get signups on the Grouvia site, even though I paused the AdWords campaign over the Labor Day weekend. I’m not sure where they’re coming from, but the signups continue to trickle in, at a rate of 1 or 2 a day.

Getting the word out about Grouvia is proving to be a challenge. I Facebook and Twitter every day, I comment on other blogs, I go to networking groups, I keep up with the LinkedIn discussions, I blog twice a week, I do the Google AdWords thing, we got some good media coverage, but the signups are a slow trickle.

I know you’re out there, future Grouvia users! How do I reach you???

The urgent goal now is to get an early alpha release up and running ASAP, get people to start playing with it, then solicit feedback. I’m not sure I agree with my developers’ prioritized list of deliverables; I know they want to do it the way that is most efficient from a system design and coding perspective, but I have to look at the business side.

For example, to me it makes the most sense to approach it like this:

  1. Start with as many of the member features as possible (early alpha),
  2. Build the group site features (alpha),
  3. Add events and group management features (beta).

We can do the mobile device support, advertising, and Grouvia Admin CMS stuff right the end, right before the 1.0 launch. What do you think?

The test is: Can we get that first iteration out by the end of this month? I hope so, and I may need to negotiate with them to get what I want.

I can be very tenacious when I want something… just ask my Mother. But I do think this approach makes the most sense from a business perspective.

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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 http://grouvia.com.

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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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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Twitter Schmitter (or “Tweeting Frenzy” for the non-New Yorkers)

I have to talk about Twitter. It’s everywhere and it’s driving me nuts.

Everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY is pushing me to get a Twitter account. Apparently my life will continue to have no purpose without it, my business will fail, my marriage will fall apart, Republicans will take over, and on and on.

Hogwash.

I have read lots of articles and blogs (but, happily, no tweets) on how great this little tool is. But I have yet to find a compelling argument for why I should spend my limited time “following” dozens (or hundreds) of people’s stream-of-consciousness rants about their pet peeves and kids’ poop schedules, and broken household items. Oh, I know there are useful bits of information being tweeted, but honestly folks, I’m trying to start a business here and I really do not have the time to sift through it all waiting for that pearl of wisdom to drop into my crackberry. I already spend several hours a week keeping up with LinkedIn, Facebook, and a dozen or so blogs I subscribe to. I’m sorry, I have better things to do with my time, and I have to prioritize. And yes dammit — I need at least 7 hours of sleep.

The only hope I have is that those who will be my ultimate competitors are spending half their days twittering and not getting important business-related tasks done. That will give me another edge over them.

I’m OK with that.

P.S. Here’s a salient interview with by Jakob Nielsen (one of my favorite authors) about the value of Twitter. Hear hear.

[Update: You might notice that I actually now have a twitter account (see nav links). As a startup, I’m trying to maximize exposure for grouvia and one reputable source says having a twitter account is crucial. So for the love of my business, I got one, but I have no idea what I’m going to do with it yet and I am still skeptical.]