Software as a Service (SaaS) Tactics: Three strategic ways to succeed

For those of you who’re unaware, SaaS stands for Software as a Service and it’s becoming overwhelmingly successful as a business model for companies all over the world. Danny Bluestone, CEO of Cyber-Duck, sheds some light on a world of programs based in the Cloud.

So you’ve seen the SaaS, mobile app or web application hi-tech bandwagon rolling past – and you fancied jumping on board. This article is aimed at both UK business leaders and startup entrepreneurs that want to deliver successful projects during 2012. The article is written by Danny Bluestone, CEO of Cyber-Duck – an award winning digital agency that has created dozens of successful SaaS projects.

Danny Bluestone of Cyber-Duck

Danny working on a hackathon to develop 3 applications over 48 hours (more images at QuackHack))

In 2011 searching Google (or one of the many app stores online) would have returned thousands of free and paid applications, but many of these apps do not provide any real ROI to their creators. According to AdMob (iPhone’s largest ad network), [1] 54% of free apps have less than 1,000 users, and only 5% have more than 100,000 users. For a well-established business professional or entrepreneur, developing successful software is one of the strongest business investments you can make in today’s economy, leveraging on the intellectual property, business model and concepts that you are (or think you are) familiar with.  Only you know how ‘niche’ your particular market is and all you need to do now is produce an excellent product that is highly marketable.

So what do you need to do to create a compelling application, mobile app or SaaS project (or a combination of them)? Are there any golden rules that will help you to ensure and measure success? Hopefully, yes.

For the purpose of this article, let’s assume that you have a ‘big idea’, some budget, and a business model with a projected cashflow forecast. These should be simple spreadsheets highlighting your overheads and when the monetization or the ROI will happen. This is relevant even if your goal is to measure success as ‘sign-ups’ or registrations, because they have value too!

SaaS Projects

The projects here have had built in marketing and promotional engines to help the launch go viral. If you follow the tips in the article, you too could be very successful with SaaS

1. Project Plan

Start to prepare the project plan and foundations for the project. Always show your plan to at least 3 experienced professionals to get their input, as it’s likely that their input will help you to better define the content within your project plan. The plan should include the following sections:

Executive Summary – Start your Plan with an executive summary: a synopsis of the key points of your project plan. It should explain how the application will work and what the USP’s are for the UX (user experience), technology and billing model (focusing on the end customer benefits of course!).  Include a bullet pointed timeline  – no need for a Gantt chart – that lists all the project milestones and who is responsible. This kind of summary is useful for colleagues, third parties and investors.

Competitors – Put together your competitor research. Start by identifying 5 competitors highlighting their USP’s for UX, technology and their business models. Make sure you ‘sign-up’ and try their app – there’s no point trying to succeed in a field you’re not fully versed with. Jot down any issues with their business model. Research their marketing, SEO (positioning on Google or app stores) and team structure if possible, but don’t get discouraged and lose sight of your overall goals.

Human Resources – Make a note of any in-house HR resources with their respective responsibilities, and list any external agency requirements including specific skillsets that are required.

Use cases – Create use cases to help you to understand what type of functions the application (or system) needs to deliver to meet the requirements of the various audiences. It is best to write them like stories, for example “Bill has been browsing the application and would like to register an account to save his progress so far.” Putting a human face on the cases helps move them from the realms of the hypothetical to the real world, which is where your software is going to end up.

Technical and Functional requirements – Following the use cases put together a functional and technical specification listing key functionality and required technologies (whether bespoke or third party). Keep it short as we’ll go into more detail later, and it’s important to maintain momentum at this stage.

Financial plan – Both start-ups and established businesses should quantify their funding and production costs including agency/freelancer, staff, software and, server and ongoing support costs.

Cash flow forecast – Breaking-even does not tend to happen for the majority of businesses within the first year, and therefore – as depressing as it sounds – you should be realistic about how you will cover your overheads in the first year.

Marketing plan – How do you intend on marketing your app? When you have designed the key screens, engage with suppliers and potential customers to try and strike business partnerships and ‘feed’ off their ideas – you will no doubt get plenty of fodder for marketing tactics. But what about a higher level strategy? Come up with a ‘theme’ based marketing plan by identifying real use case scenarios, business problems and theming a strategic solution based on your product’s features and offering.

Meet-ups

Going to relevant Meetups and presenting your application can not only help you get exposure but also bounce ideas of other professionals.

2. Prototype

Once you have completed the preparation stage, recruit an elite team of digital ninjas from a suitable agency and get to work on a prototype.
Brief – Try and be 100% coherent about your vision, goals, desired look and feel (including specifying examples) and functional requirements. Getting a minimum of five different proposals will give you a good indication about the professionalism of the agencies as well as how realistic your plans are. The best briefs start with informal dialogues rather than rigid tenders; this will allow both parties to agree on the appropriate level of functionality, timelines and budgets yielding far more creativity and accurate proposals. By inspecting an agency’s proposals you will get a true insight into the agency and its methodology.

Technology – Establish what technology you want to use by looking at competitors. While you want to be innovative, innovation without value has no benefit; so don’t reinvent the wheel just for the sake of it. You may want to choose off the shelf frameworks or packages for content driven apps or websites such as WordPress. I recommend that you try and create a ‘responsive’ (or adaptive) user experience that will work seamlessly on PCs, mobile and tablet devices using HTML5. If you need to create app store ‘apps’ use software and packages that allow you to do this (PhoneGap is an excellent example).

For bespoke backend processing, ecommerce, data visualization or custom app development you may want to draw on powerful backend frameworks like Symfony followed by jQuery for interfaces and Highcharts for graph visualization. If the mobile/tablet app needs to use hardware acceleration you may need to consider developing a native mobile app using toolkits like Objective C or the Android SDK (Java). Look at things holistically; you may need to use several technologies (and even interface between them using webservices or APIs). Either way, you or your agency should specify them in your technological requirements document.

Agency or freelancers? – One of the most critical decisions you will make is nominating a reputable agency. The reason I am suggesting an agency is because the good ones can bring to the table high level UX, SaaS Developers, marketing and branding experts. Whilst I don’t want to typecast all freelancers – and there are some great freelancers out there – from our experience they are less accountable and in some circumstances they will disappear when you need them the most. Agencies tend to have premises, which makes tracking them down that bit easier.

Type of agency – Always ensure the agency has sound processes (agile development, user centred design) and experience implementing the technologies agreed upon. The team within the agency is important. Starting with the account manager (the agencies internal ‘product owner’) who will oversee the project, all the way down to the user experience architect and producer, through to designers and the developers, accountable for implementing the design and business logic. A good team will ensure all members are constantly involved during the production process and during final quality assurance iterations. Key to success is having a permanent internal project manager (this could be you) who is able to project manage the project from start to finish.

The production process – We have already mentioned the technology and this is an essential component of the build but its only part of it. It’s worth investing in a decent logo, colour palette, copywriting and mission statement. Technology is queen, design / content is king and the user experience is the ace of spades. All of these components combined with market demand and the general finesse (that can only be achieved through rigorous testing) will critically determine how customers rate the product experience. So what is the recommended path for production? In truth, we recommend a mixture of both scrum and UCD methodologies.

The latter allows you to strategically plan the appmaps/sitemaps, flow of control diagrams and wireframes allowing you to develop an initial prototype using software like Axure before you even start the design or development! This way the UX architect focuses on the schematics, screen relationships and flow, getting feedback from real users into the wireframes. The agile methodology (namely scrum) starts even before this. Scrum encourages project stakeholders to incorporate the MMS (minimal marketable subset) of functionality for each product release (from the planning stages) to avoid bloating the product with non-essential features. What I also love about Scrum besides the transparency and frequency of meetings is the ‘common sense’ approach of working in small teams to achieve milestones. For example, develop a small feature or entire module and test it with real users (and then test it in its entirety when it is ready to be ‘glued’ to the other modules).

3. Go to market!

Wireframes

The production process is important. Get the entire team involved in your wireframes and create functional specifications. This is an example of a wireframe from a new web application called Cash in Your Gadgets

You’ve gone through the challenges of putting together a great project plan and transformed yourself into a SaaS powerhouse. But how do you go gaining market traction? Read below before you start.

Prototype – Typically a good project has 4 primary phases regardless of what methodology you use: Strategy, design, development and testing. The key one is testing – and how you go about doing that? A ‘hot topic’ in application, mobile app or bespoke website development is at what point is the system truly ready for UAT (user acceptance testing)? When is that magical moment that a product is truly ready to go live? Let’s take one step backwards – you should use a small group of external testers (as well as your own team) during the ‘development’ stages that will shed light on usability issues. Once you are confident that the system is ready to go fully live get all the stakeholders to ‘sign off’ every use case and screen. Loop back and reiterate and when the ‘holy sign off’ is granted, the system is then ready to pass UAT.

Beta testing – The next stage is a transfer into a beta phase or soft launch, and get another group (fresh users) to test all use cases. Make sure you interview these users and conduct focus groups too. Any bugs should be added onto a collaborative ‘bug sheet’ and change requests should be prioritized with only critical bugs being ‘redeveloped’ immediately.  Make quick fixes and get both groups of users (the early ones and fresh ones) to retest all the use cases and features. Typically this process takes anything from 2 weeks to 2-3 months depending on the size of your project.

Features – Opting for an agile philosophy (that stems from lean manufacturing) is true for any project. Ensure that the release 01 of your project only includes the MMS and stay clear from any features that are not essential. Remember that the best apps such as Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and even Operating Systems were developed with core functionalities only. It might take you 3 days to produce a feature but it will take you a 3 times longer to test it!

Networking – I recommend as much networking during the project plan, prototype and market phases. By networking with like-minded individuals via websites like Meetup.com, you will be able to get input into your strategy, business model and technology – and talking problems out often helps in itself. Furthermore, experienced business owners will be able to recommend the best agencies (word of mouth advice is often the most potent) and latest marketing trends and tactics. Make sure you take a smartphone so you can follow all these influential types on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Social Media – One of the simplest stepping stones in promoting your project is to get involved with social media. You can be informal, but be calculative when reaching out to your network and followers. Say important things in order not to dilute your voice. Ensure that all facets of your tactical marketing activities tie into your strategic themes.

PR – You need to create a constant buzz around your brand. Plan key PR activity including surveys, launch parties and then target blogs, portals and the media to promote your product’s competitive advantage. Ensure you wire out regular press releases using services like BusinessWire; it’s not cheap, but well worth the price as you will be able to syndicate your press release to the likes of Bloomberg, Reuters, Google and Yahoo news.

SEO – One of the best ways to market a new SaaS project, bespoke website or a mobile app is via SEO tactics. By holistically planning your SEO/SEM so it ties into your themes whilst running alongside and with your PR activities, it is possible to get first class Google results to promote your bespoke website, SaaS or mobile app.

Mobile apps – Consider the marketing power that a mobile app could bring to your SaaS application or bespoke website. With over 30% of users viewing interfaces on mobile devices this is one audience you shouldn’t ignore. If you want to learn more about where the mobile market is heading and what type of apps are out there, view my apps presentation published May 2012.

[1] ‘The Business of iPhone App Development – Making and Marketing apps that Succeed’ David Wooldridge (with Michael Schneider)