Skedsheet Blog

Where we talk about the product, calendars, organization, and business

Archive for February 2009

Going Downmarket

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Harry pointed out some of the reasons we think taking the risk on a new product makes sense, but there are a couple other points that I think are worth noting. Skedsheet is intended to reach customers who are:

  • Downmarket from the JobTracker target market
  • Spread across new vertical industries

The Innovator’s Solution explained well the concept of how companies over time tend to keep moving upmarket to capture higher-end customers. But this naturally leaves the bottom end open to competitors. We’ve been doing the same thing: every time we put out a new release of JobTracker, the product keeps getting better. To address this issue we have been releasing new editions of JobTracker to reach out to smaller customers. First we released Standard Edition in 2006, and in 2008 we released Basic Edition. Each of these was targeted at either smaller customers who wouldn’t spend as much money, or who didn’t need all the features of Enterprise Edition.

Another approach we take is selling to markets other than our core countertop fabricator customers. We’ve had moderate success in a few other vertical markets, and we have some customers who are spread around a number of other industries who have not been the direct target of our marketing. (Thanks Google!)

So I look at Skedsheet as a way to expand our reach, leaving us a few ways it could pay off:

  • Skedsheet is a profitable product on its own
  • Some users of Skedsheet eventually upgrade to JobTracker
  • Skedsheet as a marketing tool leads more people to learn about and purchase JobTracker

Hopefully, all three will be true.

Written by Ted Pitts

February 27, 2009 at 6:05 am

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Developing a product is a big deal

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By working on skedsheet, we’re taking some of the development time that we could be spending on JobTracker and investing it in something completely unknown and unproven.

In the past we’ve built big new features based on our customers feedback, and at least we’ve had confidence that our time will pay off, even if it’s in a very modest way.  But this time, we’re doing something different.  Now, part of the reason we think this is okay:

  • We’ve wasted as much time on things that we thought would work out, but got thrown away.
  • It’s fun to work on new things, so we make more progress.
  • We can learn some new tools, techniques, and ideas by starting from scratch.
  • By taking a new approach, we can make JobTracker better, too.
  • We’re building something we don’t want to compete against.

Now, I don’t know why this is a big deal – I think the hardest part for me to swallow is the very intentional choice to be working on something that only has a small chance of panning out.  One of my buddies is a product-development management consultant and his claim is that only 20% of new products succeed.  I think that’s a generous percentage, but I guess it depends on what you mean by success.

Written by Harry Hollander

February 26, 2009 at 11:51 am

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How not to schedule semiconductor chip development

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plm_1_powerline_modem_asic

In my previous life, I worked as a chip designer.  Building chips (ASICs in my case – application specific integrated circuits) is a lot like writing software, but much less forgiving – each time you want to write new code (the chip) it costs a million dollars, and if you make a critical mistake you lose it all.

In that business, the people who succeed are the ones who can plot out all of the critical milestones, anticipate the possible problems, make a schedule that’s realistic so that employees are motivated.  Oh yeah, and as you do it you’re constantly fighting the urge to change direction, add features, and fight the competition.

And that doesn’t even guarantee that you’re building the right thing.  Because building a new chip from scratch takes a year or more and technology changes so quickly (Moore’s Law) making a new integrated circuit is an incredibly risky venture.  It’s always tense, but the worst I’ve seen went something like this…

  1. Write a functional specification of the design.
  2. Ask engineers and project lead to estimate development schedules based on the spec.
  3. Double the estimate + add 10% to make sure that it’s reasonable.  The engineers already did this, but they were probably optimistic.
  4. Draw out a detailed plan, showing critical paths, staffing, and milestones.  Microsoft project works pretty well.
  5. Attend a business/product meeting to review, get staff and funding.
  6. Get extra features added to specification, and remove 50% of time allocated to project.
  7. Re-iterate that you can’t cut corners on development or testing without huge consequences.
  8. Start project with new, unrealistic schedule.
  9. Get a special bonus pool to as an incentive for employees to meet unachievable milestones.
  10. Have your staff to work to the point that several burn out and quit, putting development further behind.
  11. Hire junior engineers to replace headcount quickly.
  12. Have your project lead quit.  Find another who can be bullied into releasing untested designs.
  13. Wait a month for prototypes while testing finds critical mistakes that can’t be fixed in firmware.
  14. Start working another revision of the design.  Spend more time on testing, but not quite enough.
  15. Release 2nd design.
  16. Wait again…uncover many minor bugs that can be fixed with firmware, and some that can’t.
  17. 3rd design.
  18. Yay, it works!  Only over budget by 200% and 1 month later than original schedule by engineers.

Even with the best technology available, scheduling and planning depend on making good choices, having managers who understand what’s going on, and giving authority to the same people who have responsibility for the consequences.

Written by Harry Hollander

February 25, 2009 at 6:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Getting fancy with the Outlook calendar

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I went to visit a local company that was interested in looking at JobTracker, because they had built their own custom add-on to Outlook and it wasn’t working out.

The idea was great – very much like what we are doing with skedsheet – have a spreadsheet that talks to a calendar.  And it worked okay, but they had some very real problems that were forcing them to look at other options.

  1. They were building their own custom software. Building software is incredibly expensive, time consuming, and hard.  Even though the tools keep getting better and cheaper, it’s usually better to buy software than to try to build it yourself.  We know the cost of building software pretty well, and we expect to throw away a large percentage of the code we write.  But, because we can spread the cost over many customers, it’s not a huge penalty.
  2. They’re not technical folks. If you don’t have experience writing software, you’re at the mercy of the programmers you hire.  Most of the time you have very little control over the quality of the final product – if you ever get one.  When you’re presented with technical options, usually the only way you learn the “right way” to do something is by having experience messing it up before.  Luckily, they had a product that did some of what they wanted, but it had bugs and never was “quite right”.
  3. They didn’t imagine using the web. Because they had been using Outlook before, the way they specified the task to the programmer they hired was “build us a spreadsheet that can plug into Outlook”.  Since they were paying the guy hourly, they wanted the quick & dirty solution.  Because it wasn’t on the web, they couldn’t easily get to the schedules outside of the office and it was almost impossible to share with other people.  Basically, it could only be used by the office manager.

So, what ended up happening?  They paid someone tens of thousands of dollars for a database that functions like a very inflexible spreadsheet – all of the fields were set up by the programmer, and any new fields cost big bucks to add in.  After they would enter information about a customer into the spreadsheet/database, they pushed a button and this transferred the data to outlook.  Once in outlook, it never went back to the spreadsheet.  It was supposed to, but machines would crash if they tried to make it work the other way.

That’s when they gave up, and started looking at other options.  As a small manufacturing company, they learned the lesson the hard way – it’s much better for them to concentrate on what they do well.  Building their own software was an expensive diversion.

Written by Harry Hollander

February 24, 2009 at 6:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Very cool calendar art

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This calendar is functional, but also very artistic.

shredder_solo

In general, conceptual art like this is lost on me, but I have a strong connection to the idea that time is precious.  A shredding calendar like this would be a fun addition to the office, but I don’t know if the tree-hugging part of me could deal with using that much paper.

Here’s the link to the artist’s website: http://www.susannahertrich.com/html/chrono_shredder.html

Written by Harry Hollander

February 20, 2009 at 2:45 pm

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So, how did we get here?

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Here’s my timeline leading to why we’re starting skedsheet.  It’s all based on trying to simplify – something we’ve been thinking about for years.

Feb 2003 – In one of the first emails from Ted to me about JobTracker:  “This app will need to be EXTREMELY easy to use to be successful.”  We know that most of our customers won’t be geeks, so on every feature we agonize about whether it’s easy enough to use.

Dec 2003 – by now, we got some JobTracker customers.  It turns out there’s a painful time between buying and being happy.  After 3 months, customers who work through the getting started process are super-happy and their businesses are transformed.

October 2006 – We created “JobTracker Standard Edition” to make it easier to get started, but there’s still a hurdle in implementation – everyone in the office needs to be on board for the whole company to benefit in  big way.

June 2008 – We met with a different Ted about business strategy – he really got us thinking about where we’re going.  We had the conclusion that we need to radically improve success of new customers, and create a new product.

November 2008 – something about this particular Seth Godin video hit in a new way.  “Let’s build a product that we wouldn’t want to see a competitor build”. Maybe it’s the tie.

So, here we are.  Skedsheet is a new approach to what we do well, but pared-down – a spreadsheet that ties to a schedule.  We’re concentrating on making it simple to start using, and easy to share with your friends or co-workers.

Written by Harry Hollander

February 19, 2009 at 2:14 pm

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Where does the name skedsheet come from?

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As we were trying to come up with a name for our new product, we had a lot of ideas.  Not all of them good, of course.  While we were brainstorming we had a few concepts we wanted to incorporate – spreadsheet, calendar, whiteboard, scheduling.  Trying to mash those words into a catchy name wasn’t quite as easy as you would think.

Trying foreign words seemed like a good way to go – that way you could have something that sounds catchy, has  a relationship to what you’re trying to say, but you’re not limited to the words that I listed above.  And, you have a credible story when people ask about the name.

  • Work (Trabajo) + schedule = Trabadule
  • Work (Travail) + Calendar = Travailendar

But, the 12-year-old part of me got way too amused by the fact that when you translate “blackboard” to Catalan, you get pissarra (pizarra in Spanish), so it was back to English.

  • Scheduling + Whiteboard = Shiteboard
  • Scheduling + Day Minder = Schedminder
  • Scheduling + Spreadsheet = Schedsheet… or Skedsheet

After searching the web a little, it turns out that the word skedsheet is sometimes used in boating to describe the schedule for a race or group outing.  Didn’t seem like there’d be too much confusion, and the boating concept of a schedule sheet is pretty close to what we’re doing.  Skedsheet seemed the most catchy and the domain wasn’t taken,  so we went with it.

Written by Harry Hollander

February 18, 2009 at 2:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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