For those curious about life in a software start-up, here's a peek at the last two weeks which were an especially intense time for us. At Windward we have been moving our reporting & docgen portal system over to SharePoint. Because this is a recent effort, we were too late to get an exhibit space at Microsoft's annual SharePoint Conference. So we got on the wait list and purchased a full page ad in the conference show guide. Bad news but it was the best we could do.
Then two weeks ago we received a call. There were 4 spaces left in the exhibit hall, we won the lottery for one of them, did we want it. Wow. That would give us just 10 days to prepare for the show. In addition, prep issues aside, doing everything last minute is a lot more expensive. On the flip side, SharePoint is really taking off now and so being at this show was incredibly important. We talked it out and decided that we had to go.
On the marketing side we started off with one gigantic advantage. We had created the ad already for the Conference show guide. We reworked that ad for the banners in our booth. There is no way we could have come up with something that good from scratch in the time available. The response to our ad, "Reporting so easy your boss can do it," was outstanding. Many people told us they thought we had one of the best ads of the show – and easily the one that best defined the product.
On arrival we found we had another significant advantage. The booth space we had was originally a larger booth that was never picked up. It was split up and we received a part. Because it was a prime large booth – we were close by the entrance of the exhibit area in the second row. And it gets better. When people walked in, if they glanced right, there was a break in the first row and our booth was directly visible in that break. And the center of what was seen in that break was the picture from our backdrop. Through pure luck we lined up perfectly to have the best location and facing of any small booth in the show.
A cardinal rule in start-ups is don't plan on luck, but take full advantage of it when you get it. Between an inspired ad already created and a perfect booth location, we had a great presentation.
That did not mean that marketing got to take it easy and coast. They had to get us reservations (which were a lot more last minute), rent booth equipment (also more last minute), and get everything shipped out (again more because we couldn't risk it going ground). We learned one thing from our neighboring booth. Normally for monitors we buy new monitors from Dell and have them ship direct to the show, then ship them home afterwards. Buying them is cheaper than renting and you have additional large monitors afterwards (which you always need more of). No time so we rented. But the booth next to us went to Best Buy when they arrived, bought large TVs (that can also be a monitor) and raffled them off at the end of the show. We'll do this next time as it's cheaper and will get us a couple of thousand cold leads.
The marketing group definitely had a lot to do. But they had it easy compared to development…
Our goal for the release candidate of Arrow 3.0 was end of October – and that was tight. That went out the window and instead the direction was get every piece of interesting functionality in time for the show. Don't worry about error handling. It's fine if it only handles the happy path. But make it so we can show everything.
In addition, we have been reworking the UI and that was scheduled to be completed in November as we got feedback on the functionality. Suddenly that priority was flipped as we wanted it beautiful for the show. This required massive re-working of several parts.
Needless to say, when first proposed the development team was concerned that this was not doable. Actually "concerned" is an understatement. But as I told them, in a start-up what must be done trumps what can be done. And besides, sleep is highly over-rated. Everyone agreed to make it happen but they did have one very important final question – would there be t-shirts for pulling it off (there will).
To touch on one specific part, I personally was adding the code to provide support for gauges (we have had charts for years but not gauges). What we ended up with was 1 gauge. So no choice between bar vs. dial gauges, no choice between gauge form (¼, ½, etc. dial). No choice on the style. But we could do anything with a ¾ dial gauge drawn with the default style. (Our inside joke was we didn't have gauges, we had gauge.) I got it all working the Friday before the show (we flew out Sunday morning). And it worked out fine, not a single person asked to see other gauges or styles – they just wanted to see a gauge working.
We demonstrated the system to one of our partners Wednesday (3 days left) to get their feedback. They liked it a lot – but also suggested two new features that would have a major wow factor. First they asked if we could tie our web parts to other web parts so they could communicate and update each other. Second he asked about drill-down (which we had planned for version 3.1). They saw both as valuable and so… Two additional features to add in over the final three days. They did it, and both items made a really good impression in the demos.
Most of us were operating on 4 – 6 hours of sleep a night. And virtually all we did for those 10 days was work & sleep. We brought food in most nights to feed everyone. The final Friday it was mostly working when we called a break at 2:30am. Saturday we were back at it and finding a couple of bugs (I think 5 total) where I was getting worried. But about 4:00 that afternoon we had a build that had everything in it working, all the samples in, and the demo machines running fine.
How good did we hit it? Over the 5 days of the show, demonstrating the product to over a thousand people, including the Microsoft program manager for SSRS (our main competitor) – not a single bug occurred. Not one. The development team we have at Windward, even in a total focus on get the feature in, still writes rock solid code. That's a tremendous advantage for us as a company – and is one of the reasons we could get this done.
In hindsight we balanced this out perfectly. I think key to this was three things that anyone in this situation would do well to keep in mind. First, work with what you have and use it to maximum advantage. Creating a new ad, adding support for multiple gauge styles, etc would have been a disaster.
Second, quality makes it possible to do more in a push. Having great marketing collateral, having powerful rock solid code – that let us ad to those. Without those we would have been scrambling just to have something that was marginally good.
Third, and most important, you can't do this without highly skilled & motivated people. Hiring and supporting quality people always pays off. In cases like this it's the only way you can pull something like this off. I think this group can accomplish almost anything. I'm really proud of this team we have.
So how did the show go? Very well. We talked to a lot of people and there is a lot of interest in what we have. What I loved hearing, and a lot of people said it, was that we provide a clearly missing piece to SharePoint. That's a nice position to be in.
We also learned a lot, from the sessions, from the keynotes, from talking to Microsoft people, and from talking to prospects. We had 4 developers at the show all learning everything they could over the 5 days (their thumbnails of each session). We have returned with pages of proposed changes, features, UI approaches, etc. Incredibly valuable learning experience for that alone.
And as I look over what else we want to do with what we've learned I realized one key point – we've already done the hard parts. We've got a lot to do, but it won't take a lot of time. And when we're done, we think we can hit our goal – that users don't realize that our product exists because we are such a natural extension of SharePoint & Office.