(Almost) A failure to launch

A  journey to deliver a new social website for women

1     Introduction

Hello dear readers

This is a “warts and all” story (to a point) of an entrepreneur whom we will call Orphise Rodriguez (because that is her name) with a vision to launch a new social website and platform for likeminded female entrepreneurs, business leaders, change makers and humanitarian organizations to connect.

The story starts in the 1980’s when…no just kidding, the story will start in 2014 when Orphise had the original idea for Women of the Five Continents.

The first part of this article highlights the journey from initial idea, through to launch.  The second part will be a summary of the lessons learned and ideas/tips that you (as the reader) can take on board, ignore, adapt and change or use as your own personal golden rule.

1.1     Disclaimers and General Comments

Irrespective of the technology used, this article is meant to be a journal about failure and success, and hopefully to provide some inspiration.  In addition, if by reading this you can avoid making the mistakes we made, or benefit from what we did then even better.  One point we must make clear, this isn’t about the merits of one type of technology over another.

This is based on the experiences of WO5C and is not meant to be dogma for initiating a start-up.  Where possible we have tried to protect the individual person from criticism and acknowledge those have helped.

This article is written in 3rd person as both Orphise and Gareth contributed, so it was just easier.

1.2     About the authors

1.2.1    Orphise Rodriguez

Orphise is a young entrepreneur with a vision to see women collaborate around the world.  She wants to connect with leaders, business people, and change makers to bring out new initiatives through this platform. Women of the Five Continents is a pathway for networking.  She loves working with people from different occupations and all walks of life.

Orphise is inspired by leaders such as Sheryl Sandberg and Michelle Obama.  These women are not only leaders, they also have a big heart for people.

1.2.2    Gareth Kelsey

Gareth defines himself as a person able to deliver effective IT services through management, vision, engagement, communication, and change.  He is a person who is not only an entrepreneurial and visionary leader that will pioneer ideas for service improvements.  But one that recognizes this requires him to be a decisive and expressive complex decision maker where communication and systemic thinking is the key to his success.  As a manager, he believes he works for his team and not the other way around.

Gareth credits his views to books by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and David Burkus and the recently Sally Hogshead – all of which helped transform, validate, or convey ideas.

2     The journey to launch

2.1     Idea Development

The idea developed over time.  Orphise wanted to collaborate with more women in the workplace.  This started with networking, attending conferences or events organized for women and overtime Orphise realized that there was something missing in the digital world to address the needs of female entrepreneurs.

2.2     A website is not difficult…

We drafted the website on a word document and contacted designers in Paris to implement the idea in a formal web design.  Laurie Boilleaut helped us define our graphic identity and Cyrielle Teisson worked on the web design.

Marlan’s Group (one of the WO5C sponsors) needed to hire a web developer for its various projects and engaged with a contractor to develop the website.  In turn, this contractor was asked if he could develop the WO5C project.  The contractor replied that he could.  Unfortunately, 6 months later he reported that he was unable to finish the work due to complexity and commitments.  However, he knew a company that could and recommended one called V.

2.3     We Need Help…

2.3.1    COMPANY V.

With the failure to progress the website, Orphise felt she needed a more capable company to develop the concept. So, based on the recommendation of a contractor Orphise got in touch with company V. and (subject to paperwork being signed) shared the WO5C concept with them and in turn, they produced a proposal.

The proposal stated that the project would be delivered within 8 weeks.  Even assuming some delay (hey it is an IT development project) the project should have been finished by the end of September 2015.

2.3.2    Delivery…

Around December 2015 Orphise realized she needed help, the project was still not delivered and communication from company V. was less than acceptable.

Looking through her contacts she remembered meeting Gareth Kelsey at an Internations event Lausanne.  Gareth was an experienced IT Manager, “fresh off the boat” into Switzerland (CH), and he had offered to provide any help/advice if she needed it.

A phone call to Gareth and he was quickly on board, a follow-up meeting (with coffee, we are not barbarians) occurred and a Skype meeting was scheduled with the developers

Immediately Gareth took an active role.

Unfortunately, the suppliers seemed to struggle with some of the basic project governance concepts, and accuracy in reporting was rarely at an acceptable level (e.g. late, with errors, and/or incomplete).

Due to continuous coding errors and execution problems, the project continued to slip.

In January 2016, a similar social network for women was launched, this meant we had lost “the first to market” position and we felt that meant that we had to be better to have any chance of being successful.  

Orphise continued to test the website from her various devices and browser and managed the regular Friday meetings where issues were discussed and (in theory) progressed or resolved.  However, even with reporting tracking the delays and the project continued to slip.   However eventually, Viaro reported the website as finished as ready for testing.

Even after repeated request and planned test schedule was never really published.  Access to an online test report was published.  The testing was only documented on completion of the test.  Testing became a never-ending cycle of confusion and failure.  Eventually, WO5C requested Release candidates to be used where features could be signed off as completed.  Unfortunately, this never really seemed to achieve.

June 2016 RFFinal (numerically RC9) the website still wasn’t in acceptable and fit for purpose state.  Nearly a whole year to deliver an 8-week project and still not finished.

Orphise and Gareth got together and sat and worked out what the options to move the project forward were

The options were:

2.3.3    Options for Change

2.3.3.1   Do Nothing

Do Nothing was quickly discounted.  The persistent delays in delivery meant Orphise and Gareth had lost confidence in the supplier.

It should be noted, company V. appeared to be able to deliver some services successfully.  They have a professional looking website, named references (companies and individuals) and fixed projects are part of their service offering.

2.3.3.2   Hire a Developer

Hiring a developer was an attractive option as it meant we would have technical expertise from day one.  This was considered with one eye on operational/maintenance activities (backup/recovery, updates etc.).  After all, it appeared that the development to date had only really been utilizing one or two developers (at the most) at any one time.  A job description (skills and experience) was developed, with expectations and even a guaranteed minimum hours/week.  Orphise, sourced some CV’s and together they reviewed them.  One capable candidate (whom shall remain nameless) was rejected due to not being an exact fit for what we were looking for.  On receipt of the rejection, they received an emotive (the tone was perceived to be angry email, even the intention was not.  This confirmed that the rejection was correct as it implied a cultural misfit.  In the end, Orphise and Gareth found a great candidate, who had the experience, skills, enthusiasm, and flexibility, even his references checked out.  We were also what he was looking for.  However, unfortunately, he was Swiss-based, and his rates reflected that.  Based on, that and the extended timeline for delivery (forecast had to be extended) meant that WO5C couldn’t afford to increase the available OPEX budget.  Another solution had to be found, and that solution meant going off-shore, off-shore to India.

2.3.3.3   Find Another Company

Orphise made some inquiries with some Indian companies.  One company presented itself very well.  Skype meetings and requests for information proved quite positive.  However, this was (once again) going to be a “leap of faith” as neither had worked with the company before.  Remote supplier management is much harder when the only contact is via conference call facilities.  It is far easier when you can meet in person.

However, Orphise and Gareth were already involved in another start-up that was making rapid progress on developing another service that used mobile applications and website.  In addition, they used Basecamp for sharing documents and providing feedback.  Conference calls involved not just the account manager or the developer, but a representative from both camps at the same time.  In essence, we had the PM role and Engineer/Developer role available within the same call.  This meant the left hand knew what the right hand was doing and any questions around scope, features, recommendations, or advice could quickly be resolved without fear of compromise.  A far more open and fruitful approach.  Therefore, it was agreed Mobisoft would become the WO5C developers (subject to negotiations…)

2.3.4    Advice, Finance MVP

Some activities that Orphise and Gareth engaged in that don’t neatly fit into the timeline are listed below

As a first-time start-up ‘noob’ Gareth with a history predominantly in IT infrastructure/services solutions as opposed to more application/web development reached out to mentors and former colleagues for advice.  That advice was greatly received (especially from Albert Vanderplancke) regarding go to market strategies and development projects.

2.4     We Need Better Help…

The first step was to determine if Mobisoft could help and what that would cost.

With the appropriate paperwork signed (NDA’s etc) Mobisoft were given access to the hosted server (yes it was a cloud service provider).  They assigned the appropriate individuals to conduct an in-depth analysis of the code and a plan/price to resolve.

Based on their assessment Mobisoft put together an action plan and costed a proposal.

Code debug

Options and costs

Debug

2.4.1    Frustration and Failure…

The final week of development, the lead developer Pratik pulled it out of the bag

2.5     Launch

3     Lessons Learnt

This section summarises some the lessons WO5C has learnt

3.1     Getting Help

It is OK to ask for help – not one successful businessman or woman has built a business on their own.  They will have had various degrees of leveraged support and skills from different people.  In fact, it could be argued that the best leaders have always identified capable people to help deliver their vision and then provided them with the mandate to enable them, to do their job.  As opposed to micro-managing and then claiming all the glory but none of the failure.  If an expert is giving you their considered opinion listen, and you asked for it, you should listen – you do not have to act on it, but you must take responsibility for the decision you made (either way).

3.1.1    NDA’s

Make sure you have a standard NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreements) for participants to use.  At the end of the day, it is your IP (intellectual property, no ‘Internet Protocol’) you are trying to protect.  For most, it shouldn’t be an issue to sign.  Use it judiciously though, i.e. when sharing key documents and get it checked/approved by a qualified lawyer.

3.2     Proposal Review

3.2.1    Aspects of a good proposal

The following section highlights some aspects of a good proposal.  It should go without saying that accuracy and presentation are important in a proposal (substitute the name of the document, e.g. Statement of Work).  Are formatting errors, spelling mistakes, the language used appropriately?  If the document received is poor will the work being delivered be of a similar level?

Customer Requirements – what are the problems that are required to be resolved.

Objective – what are we trying to achieve with the proposal? How is the solution going to resolve the problems identified in the requirements section?  This helps all stakeholders to understand the purpose and intent of the solution being defined.

In scope/out of scope – what is going to be delivered as part of the scope of the project?  Gareth personally likes to see some items listed as out of scope and not just the catch-all, “if an item is listed as specifically in scope then the item is out of scope”.  Although this is typical project management 101, it isn’t necessarily how the real world operates.  In addition, if some items were listed as out of scope, they may be aspects you (as the customer) may not have considered and may be required as part of the project (which required an adjustment/amendment) or can be added to the wish list, post-execution.  Or it might suggest a level of transparency as they are confirming that they aren’t included.

Deliverables – what actually is being signed off as delivered?  What is the customer paying for?  Is it a product, a report (with evidence of critical thinking)?  Articles that may be included here are; as-built configuration documentation, architecture diagrams, naming conventions, testing plans, successful test reports.

Gareth is a big fan of as-built documentation.  Even though it (in practice) it is rarely read.  However, it is a snapshot in time that states what should have (or was) installed and configured.  This is critical for troubleshooting (root cause analysis) and creates a level of accountability for those building the product (or service) to those supporting the product (or service)

Cost/Investment – how much is the engagement going to cost?  Are the duration and effort clearly stated?  Are any out of hours (e.g. late night, weekends, or statutory days) rates specified?

Other questions to ask or understand from the supplier can relate to methodologies and frameworks.  Do they utilize any standards for project management or implementation?

3.2.2    Fixed Price vs T&M

A fixed price can be good if the project overruns, but make sure all of what you need is within the fixed price.  Otherwise, the extras that are deemed critical can rapidly become very expensive; will that extra money be sourced from CAPEX or OPEX?

Time and Materials (T&M) is great for managing costs where change is rapid and can result in lower project costs due to the customer accepting more of the risk.  However, if you don’t manage the project with a capable delivery company costs can spiral.

3.3     Project Management

Aspects of good project delivery that you should expect as a customer

3.4     References

References – check the references of the company providing the work.  Obtain examples of work.  Speak to the references.  Was the work they did of a similar nature, would they utilize them again, or for this type of work.

3.5     Some Hard Lessons

3.5.1    Supplier not delivering

WO5C should have terminated the relationship with company V. earlier.  A fixed price project had been quoted, so apart from hosting costs, developer costs were not spiraling out of control.  In this case, I believe it is fair that the “dollars” and limited budget meant we lost sight of the goal; or perhaps more accurately limited our capacity to change.

Standards are there for a reason – company V. did not always adhere to best practices in selecting and implementing widgets which added to the complexity of troubleshooting errors.

You pay for what you get – free plugins/3rd party support within WordPress are used with inherent risks that they may not be supported.  Many of the plugins implemented by company V. were also heavily customized which meant that they broke when updates/patches were applied.

WO5C was delivered with millionaire investors, without fancy Mayfair or Geneva offices (not Zurich as Orphise speaks French and English, not Swiss German).  This lack of available funds probably contributed to Orphise and Gareth from sticking with company V. too long or trying to fix the WordPress based website for MVP.

Supplier extraction strategies can be difficult.  Do you have access to the assets (code)?  Have you got a comprehensive list of access details?  Who has access to what?  What privileges have they got? Can you easily remove access?  Fortunately, company V. hadn’t strictly adhered to (the requested) best practice of named accounts and so cloud service provider access was easier to restrict.  The new supplier easily changed server administrative level passwords.

3.5.2    In Scope or Not…

Company V. argued about the scope because they hadn’t done their due diligence.

4     Where are we now?

The website was launched in French and English in November 2017.

WO5C v2.0 was developed using the same design but coded using different principles.

wo5c.com currently has over 76 members and is continuing to grow.

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