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 :-).]

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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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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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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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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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