Implementing a CRM… its easy right?

You know you’re not a start-up anymore when you spend most of your time managing systems and process!

At Learning Pool we’ve always said we’re a start-up and we try to build that ethos into the decisions we make for all the right reasons – agility, quick turnaround, bravery and appetite for risk taking. Famously a few years ago when someone suggested we were becoming a mature business I quickly retorted that no matter how old the company got, it’d never be mature as long as I was around!

PlanningSo the last couple of months have been a bit of a journey because for perhaps the first time we’ve started to really pay close and serious attention to processes and the infrastructure that supports them. The entrepreneur in me is screaming a wee bit as a result of this but even I can see that its already paying dividends in terms of giving us the information we need to make better decisions and I like to think that our customers are starting to see the benefits too in terms of reduced turnaround times, better quality and improved communication.

The lessons though, have been fairly stark and enough to get me back blogging to be honest. The biggest project we’ve undertaken has been to replace our CRM system and oh my has it been a journey! As with many journeys this one started with a few key questions:

What do you want from this investment?

For us this was about getting a 360o view of our customers so that we can continuously improve the services we offer. We also wanted something that could reduce some of the roadblocks for our remote team and join up the whole business from SEO, marketing, sales, fulfillment, technology, customer care, community management, invoicing and contracts.

Open source or proprietary?

As big proponents of open source technology this was a logical place for us to start. We looked in depth at lots of open source solutions in general and VTiger in particular and eventually ruled these out on the basis that although having access to the code base meant we could tinker and improve, the opportunity cost of doing this would hurt our business elsewhere and so we decided early on to go for a proprietary system which I think was the right call. At some stage you have to decide what you don’t do as a business and there are plenty of businesses out there who toil over this stuff for hours so you shouldn’t do it too.

On premises or hosted

This decision took about 30 seconds… on premises is a relic of the last century and hosted solutions work, scale and are affordable.. we went hosted!

Premium or mid range

This one was a bigger call! The issue we found in the CRM market was that the premium providers are ridiculously expensive but the mid range solutions falter really quickly when it comes to the kind of feature richness you need if you have any more than about 5 people.  Systems like Zoho were quite attractive but ultimately this market (at this moment) is about 2 providers – Salesforce and Dynamics from Microsoft. I think the reasons these providers stand out is because of 1) the sophistication of their products, 2) the ability to integrate with other stuff, 3) the roadmap of enhancements and 4) the marketplace and ability to extend functionality from the base product.

After a bit of discussion we decided to go with one of the premium products.

Self implemented or implemented with a partner

So this one goes something like this…. you pick a software stack and cost it up. You then get back on your chair after the heart attack you’ve just had and then realise that this software isn’t actually going to work very well without plugging a ton of time into it to make it work for your business. At this point you switch off your laptop and go to the pub… next day however the issue is still there are you are left with a number of options:
1 – Go alone and run the risk of making a mess of the implementation or of it taking months to get it right
2 – implement with a partner and reduce (but not eliminate) the risk of making an implementation mess. You’ll also double your year 1 costs (at least) and if you’re lucky you’ll get up and running pretty quick.

We went for the less risky option 2.

Good partner or cowboy?

This one wasn’t so much of a decision as a lesson learned. The partner market is really interesting because you have a bunch of quite small companies effectively selling software on the back of giant American organisations. I’m glad that’s not the business we’re in but notwithstanding that, its hard to separate the wood from the chaff on this. I’ll write another blog about how to navigate through this minefield but for now, remember that there are cowboys out there and you really need to stay away from them.

Next up…. Salesforce versus Dynamics – let battle commence!

2 heads are better than 1… even if the experts say otherwise

Paul and Mary at No.10

I’ve always been a strong advocate of having a business partner and I practice what I preach by having a great relationship with Mary who’s been my business partner for over 7 years and 2 companies. I recently wrote about meeting John Teeling and one of his mantras is that if you are an entrepreneur you are on your own.. I agree with a lot of what John says but we’re on different sides of this one.. .here’s why: My honest view is that if Learning Pool had been led by Mary or I, rather than Mary and I there would be no Learning Pool today. This is because:

1. When things were really hard (and they were) in the early days there were times when one of us wanted to give up, change direction in a random way, or run away! On those days having someone to be the voice of reason or supply a kick where it was required saved the business more than once;

2. We’re more ambitious. I think the temptation as a one man band would have been to accept a certain level of success and not rock the boat. being a double act means that you have more confidence to stretch and that can mean your business grows further, faster or better;

3. 2 heads are always better than one and this leads to better decision making, fewer mistakes (regrettably not few enough) and more balanced thinking. Often the exercise of simply verbalising a problem gets you closer to the answer but if you don’t have a peer to share with, who do you talk to?;

4. It’s more craic!… we’ve had hours of fun making our team guess which one was good cop and which was bad cop… and you can’t do that on your own!

In the end I think businesses today are just the same as businesses of 20 years ago in every respect except one. The pace of business today is incomparable – things change so quickly and its impossible to keep up and keep your eye on the things that matter if you are on your own. Maybe this is because of how we use technology and maybe its because most start-ups are in technology. Indeed, maybe it doesn’t matter but I think it is a fact!

So if this is so important how do you go about finding the business partner who can share the biggest risk of your life with? The cynic would say that in a partnership you get 100% of the bad stuff and 50% of the good so choosing the right business partner could be the biggest decision of all. Regrettably there’s no magic answer to this one, but I do think there are some general principles to stick to:

1. Find someone with complementary skills to you;

2. It needs to be a partnership so it must be equal;

3. Ask yourself whether you can disagree with this person and not have a massive and unhelpful row every 5 minutes;

4. Don’t compromise on commitment – if you aren’t both equally committed to the project it’ll fail and it’ll be messy so be honest about what you want, what you are prepared to commit and what you expect. If you don’t hear the same its not going to work;

5. Work out a system where communication is effective and you both stay on the same page. This is increasingly important when you get a team because if you and your partner are on different sides, the team will smell it and it’ll be bad;

6. You don’t have to live in your partner’s pocket but you do have to get on.. whatever happens next its going to be intense from time to time so find someone you wouldn’t mind being stuck in an airport for 36 hours with.

Now if only there was a place to go to find great business partners we’d all be grand!

Sometimes meeting your heroes is OK!

I had the pleasure of meeting someone I’ve admired for a lifetime last weekend. I first ‘met’ John Teeling while I was studying in UCD and he came to talk to my post graduate class about entrepreneurship. He was captivating then and lots of what he said stayed with me. He’s since gone on to exit one of his companies, a whiskey distillery in Ireland that he sold to a US giant last year and has generally become one of Ireland’s seminal entrepreneurs. When I met him on Saturday I was a little nervous since it was a long time ago and the world has moved on… I need not have worried.

A number of things struck me about John:

John Teeling at #borderbizcamp

  1. He was remarkably down to earth and friendly, chatting comfortably with the event organisers and generally getting involved;
  2. His passion for business is probably greater now than when I seen him 15 years ago. I was left wondering what I’ll be doing (and looking like!) when I’m old enough to get on the bus for free!
  3. He was incredibly direct – it took him about 4 questions to get to the “are you profitable?” one… thank God I could give him the right answer on that!
  4. He is a true entrepreneur… who knows how he survived for so long as an academic! Pretty refreshing in a world increasing populated by plastic start-up guys.

His talk at #borderbizcamp was predictably well attended and entertaining. He talked about some fundamental stuff around being and entrepreneur and the crowd where on the edge of their seats. For John, the essentials of being an entrepreneur are:

  1. To have an idea and be the person who drives that idea with a single minded determination and focus;
  2. Having the resources to make it happen. He made some great comments about how entrepreneurs don’t often have the resources they need (especially money!) but can go about getting hold of them through fair means or foul!;
  3. Having the ability to deal with uncertainty – you often hear people talking about this but John articulates this quality better than most. This is not really about risk – plenty of entrepreneurs hate risk and regardless, we all do our best to manage or mitigate it. Its really about there being stuff (often bad stuff) out there that you don’t know and the fact that you don’t know it doesn’t make you panic. Regrettably of course this doesn’t mean you aren’t awake at 4am worrying about the shite you do know about!;
  4. Enthusiasm, drive and dedication. Plenty of the talks at #borderbizcamp reflected this and interestingly most of the speakers I listened to had similar stories about picking their business up after an initial ‘honeymoon’ period and forcing it to kick onto the next level. John’s point was pretty simple – if you don’t have this… just forget about the whole thing!

So all in all a great day and a nice way to checkpoint where I am. #borderbizcamp was held in the town where I grew up which was weird in itself but nice to see a few friendly faces. It was also the day where I learned that there a lot of similarities between e-learning and forklift trucks… but that’s for another blog!

Sell first, build later… Otherwise known as validate your market

When I talk to start-ups I often talk about the idea of sell first, build later. When I look back at the Learning Pool story, adopting this strategy was a key ingredient of our survival in the very early days and I have no doubt that ability to execute in this way has stood us in good stead as we’ve grown. Before explaining why I think this is good idea for early stage companies, a few health warnings:

  1. You can really only do this as an early stage company. When you get bigger the stakes and the expectations are higher and the risk around doing this becomes intolerable;
  2. Its easier in a business to business sale than in a business to consumer environment although you can do elements of this in a b2c setup;
  3. This is not a strategy really. It’s more a tactic to get into the market and get in front (virtually or physically) of a customer. You shouldn’t forget this bit because it’s maybe the most important element and you have to be ready to grow away from this approach;
  4. You simply must execute the build bit… otherwise your credibility, and with it your business will disappear down the toilet!

All that said, I think there are compelling reasons for adopting this approach, namely;

  1. Its all you can afford when you are a very early stage company with no cash and a window of opportunity that’s closing fast;
  2. it’s a great way to validate your market and best of all, you get to see, and if your lucky even talk to your customers to find out what they like, what they need and what they might want in the future;
  3. You find out whether you really can build this thing and identify the holes in your delivery machine that must be fixed;
  4. You get track record and proof, or otherwise that your concept is viable;
  5. You get to change direction and focus on the things that make the biggest impact for your customers based on real data and honest feedback. You also get to tweak the business model, pricing or pitch if you need to;
  6. It gives you working capital to get the rest of the product built.

One of my best memories of this in the Learning Pool story is when we’d sold a product to a large organisation before it was completely built. We were totally up front with them about it and immediately got to work on building the product so that we delivered on what we promised. A couple of months later we went to see the customer on a sunny day and sat outside their office meeting our contact and celebrate a successful project. She started the meeting by giving us a cheque for more money than the company had ever billed up until that point. When we got back in the car I asked Mary if she remembered anything of the meeting after seeing that cheque… Nope.. me neither! It was a great laugh nonetheless!

Saying goodbye to features can be a good thing!

We’ve been doing a ton of cool stuff at Learning Pool recently including replacing a lot of our core technology with more up to date, more flexible and more usable solutions for our customers. This is always an interesting conversation because there’s always a tendency to continuously build on top of what went before and one of the things I’ve discussed with the team on at least 6 occasions in the last month or so is about the argument that we should somehow recreate something that used to be there and then build the new thing on top of that.

Here are my reasons for thinking this is a bad idea:

  1. It assumes that the thing we currently have works and is great. This is not always the case and whatever it was, it was probably built in a hurry or with limited technology. Having time and better technology does not make the case to maintain anything;
  2. If you keep building on the same platform, nothing ever changes…. not really.  That means that customers don’t get the opportunity to benefit from innovation, creativity and smarter thinking;
  3. It assumes that customers like what is already there. While that is sometimes the case its not always true so shouldn’t we just ask them?;
  4. It takes ages…  and even for a post start up business like Learning Pool, time is at a complete premium

GarageMy starting point in these conversations is always to think of this like my garage. My garage is a complete and unholy mess. It’s full of kids toys, gardening stuff (who knows why), kites and wedding presents that didn’t make the grade. Honestly, there’s some awful  stuff in there. About once a year I finally relent and reorganise the garage. It takes a few hours but gives me a sense of unusual satisfaction when it’s done.

Here’s how I approach it:

  1. I take everything outside into the rain so I can see the whole floor;
  2. I clean out the remaining shell, invariably finding some stuff that I’d been looking for for ages;
  3. I start to put things back in in a way that makes sense and will be easy to get that stuff back out – the kites go in first (sad face) and the kids bikes go in last. The lawnmower goes somewhere in the middle
  4. I look at what’s left and ‘organise’ it into the bin

It’s a fool proof system and one that I’m ‘convincing’ the team to put in place. If you’re reading this and your a Learning Pool customer you can blame this if something’s just gone missing. Hopefully though you’ll like what we’ve done with the place along the way!

Oh, and if anyone wants some carriage clocks… I have plenty!