The following is a reworked transcription of a talk I gave a couple of weeks ago where I was asked to give some tips on implementing web projects. Instead of focusing on technical or design details, however, I went with a broader, more business orientated viewpoint.
1. Be flexible
My first tip is flexibility, something I believe that’s important in both businesses and web projects. Not only is the landscape of the Internet a very different place now compared to even just five years ago, but the way people interact with web sites has also changed dramatically. You only need to think about a few terms like e-commerce, social media, cloud storage, video streaming, and, of course, tablet and mobile use to realise just how fast things are evolving and how much user expectations are changing.
So, personally, I think that any business with a web component needs to not only be open to change, particularly when investing in a large scale project, but also needs be able to easily adapt to other on-going changes over the years. In the software industry, we call this being agile and it’s a philosophy that Primate has tried to embrace wholeheartedly.
To give you a real life example, a few months ago we were commissioned to build a system for a new startup called Findr. Created and run by professional photographers, it’s a geographical listing of photographer profiles around the world and its purpose it is allow newspapers, magazines, businesses, organisations and the general public to easily find and source local photographers.
Now the original idea to monetise the business was to charge an annual subscription and, whilst will likely still happen, throughout the development the project we realised that in order to succeed at gaining any sort of critical mass, we had to launch a free beta and start gathering users without a paywall to put people off. Also, soon afterwards, when Findr started to grow it’s user base and engage more with its potential customers, we discovered that one of the things these organisations really wanted was the ability to have their own in-house, secured and branded version of the platform.
This small example is great demonstration of how being flexible in both your business model and your functionality can be very advantageous because, simply put, you don’t know how your product is going to develop until people start getting their hands on it.
2. Create for your audience
I think a mistake that people often make when creating any sort of site or web app is that they forget – or simple don’t research – who they’re actually building it for. Often, projects can end up with product owners building only what they personally want to use or middle managers working to please their boss, not the end user. Truth is, you really should research and think carefully about your end audience.
Take, for instance, Harviestoun Brewery. They’re a local Scottish brewery that produces award winning craft beer and about 18 months ago we started working with them on a new e-commerce web site. I’m happy to say that the site has been a huge success and, aside from winning several awards, it’s had a tangible impact on their business by quadrupling their online sales revenue and boosting their customer engagement and brand awareness.
The success of the Harviestoun site is due to a lot of different factors but one aspect that I personally think helped contribute was the time that we invested at the start of the project researching their customer base. I won’t go into detail about this process but, essentially, by identifying user personas and having a clear view of who we were targeting with the site, we were able to create content and features that would appeal directly to the end user. This meant when the new site launched, we were able to appeal directly to real Harviestoun customers, serve their needs and give them a reason to time spend with the brand… the end resulting being they engaged more with the site and ultimately spent more money.
3. Keep it simple
There are two terms in software which I think sum up my entire feeling about this tip and they’re great phrases that just sound as awful as issues they describe.
They are “bloatware” and “feature stuffing”.
Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s better to do a few things well than to do lot of things poorly and that the more features you add, the harder any application becomes to use. I’m not saying that you can’t have a lot great features but you just need to be aware that the more you pile on, the more complex you’re making things, the more decisions you’re giving the user to make, and the more user interface elements you need to consider. This latter point is especially important when building a responsive web site that needs to work on a tablet or mobile phone.
Equally, you’re almost always working against budget and time constraints and, even if you’re not, do you really want your web system hanging around in perpetual limbo whilst you try and tackle every imaginable user journey or feature. There’s a software term for this too, it’s called “vaporware”.
Personally, I think it’s more important to focus on producing good quality features and release them as soon as you can in order to get start getting hands on feedback from real users. Ultimately, this results in having to prioritise features in your project and make difficult decisions about what’s important to your audience and your business. This process is really worthwhile though because it forces you to think and engage with what you’re trying to achieve online, something I think is great to do.
I’m not going to discuss this point too much because I think it’s rather self-explanatory. However, I’ve included in my list of tips because I think it’s something that’s often, strangely, neglected as part of web projects. Whether it’s an e-commerce site or a web app, it’s hugely important to actually market your product and increase awareness of whatever it is you’re doing. I mean, you could launch the greatest site in the world but, at the end of the day, if no one knows about it, it’s never going to get any traction or make any money.
Now, Primate is not a marketing company but we do create a lot of digital tools to facilitate marketing and we often recommend foregoing other less important features in favour of marketing ones. For instance, instead of building another feature on a site that no one’s going to use, why not spend that time and money enhancing your social media integration or creating newsletter templates, or Facebook competitions or voucher code systems.
Sites like Harviestoun Brewery have been successfully not solely because of their technical implementation or their content or, as mentioned before, being targeted in their audience, but also because it was backed up a comprehensive marketing plan. Bringing all of these aspects together harmoniously was the key to success and it wouldn’t have worked as well had the marketing aspect of the site been neglected.
5. Get a lot of money
My final tip: get a lot of money! Of course, I am being facetious here, but the point I’m trying to convey is that things tend to cost a lot more than people often think it does.
“The lack of money is the root of all evil.”
When it comes to the web, particularly online startups, we often have this romanticised notion that all of these multi-billion dollar products are developed in someone’s bedroom and then explode virally overnight to turn into a giant unending funnel of cash. Now, whilst this does happen and can happen, it’s not common and the reality is that pretty much all of the major online sites that we’ve heard of have had a huge amount money pumped into them at very early stages of their business.
Facebook, for instance, whilst depicted as being a rather off-the-cuff startup, not only had thousands of dollars put into it by Eduardo Saverin at the start but, in June 2004, only a mere four months after it all started, they received $500k investment from Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal.
In the years that have followed, Facebook has received a staggering total investment of $2.336 billion.
Some other examples:
Twitter picked up between $1 – $5 million in secretive funding way back in 2007 before anyone had even heard of tweeting.
Eric Lefkofsky gave Groupon a $1 million in 2007 just to ‘develop the idea’.
Quora received $11 million in its first round of funding. And then another $50 million in 2012 through our favourite guy again, Peter Thiel.
Instagram, which a lot of people actually think of being a cooky bedroom startup that somehow managed to overcome the odds and be purchased by Facebook for a $1 billion in 2012, did, in fact, receive a modest $500k seed funding just to get it up and running. And then a total of $57 million dollars investment thereafter.
Yo app, an iPhone and Android app that texts the word “Yo” to people received $1.5 million dollars of investment in July this year. And this was after it had $250k of seed funding a few months previously to build and launch it.
And if you’re wondering about Amazon, well, they actually seem very modest in comparison to all of the others. Jeff Bezos borrowed his parents life savings (tens of thousands of dollars) to start the company in 1994 and then received its first investment of $8 million in 1995, six years before it turned any profit.
Now, I’m not saying any of this to discourage you and I certainly don’t think you need anywhere near this sort of money for your average web site or project. In fact, I really believe in bootstrapping projects and starting slowly and growing organically and, to date, Primate has never taken a single penny in external loans or investment.
However, I give you these examples just to try and put things in perspective and demonstrate the scope and scale of that some of these digital companies operate at. Things cost money and take time and if your ambition is to be the next Instagram or Yo app, well, you’re probably going to need a good chunk of cash to make it happen.
So, that’s the end of my five tips. I hope some of them have proved useful or least interesting. Thanks very much for listening (reading).