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From the Sponsor’s Desk – Run Your Project like a Start-Up

“Timing, perseverance, and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success.” – Biz Stone, Twitter co-founder

Information is power. Knowing the right stuff can provide ground breaking insights, enable breakthrough actions and lead to paradigm changing products and services. Successful start-up ventures are often founded on those three building blocks – information leading to insight leading to action. That’s why you might want to run your project like a start-up.

In this post, we’ll look at a company that delivered its first successful product using these three building blocks. Its latest product has followed that same recipe for success. We’ll also discover from that journey what worked for them to achieve a successful outcome.
Thanks to Pawel Kijko for the details on this story.

The Situation

In 2008, a young computer science student, Kamil Rudnicki, developed a program to pass the C++ class at university. A venture capital firm became interested in his project and, after some discussion, agreed to fund the development of the tool.
That initial venture evolved into the formation of a company called Time Solutions and the launch of a product called TimeCamp, a time management tool for project managers and individual team members. Today the TimeCamp team numbers some 30 staff and serves over 200,000 users around the world.
To build and extend the TimeCamp tool, the company used a variety of project management, collaboration and communication tools in addition to their own, including Slack and Trello. However, when they measured their own time utilization with TimeCamp, they found the amount of time spent on communication and project administration exceeded 51%. Only 49% of all staff time was devoted to productive work! With the Slack/Trello combination, too much time was being spent on meetings and online conversations, on features and functions that yielded little or no return. Too little time was being spent on real work! It became apparent that they needed a different solution. And so, they decided to create their own solution, an application that would allow them to maintain the usability and core functionality of Slack and Trello while keeping a focus on the company’s specific collaboration and project management needs.

The Goal

To develop a tool that would deliver efficient communication and project management functionality, combine the best features of Slack and Trello and reduce collaboration and project management effort to less than 25% of workload. The resulting gain in productivity would be used to finance the development effort with an expected payback of two to three years. The tool would be designed exclusively for internal use, focusing initially on the TimeCamp team, later on their customers and partners.

The Project

The new tool was called HeySpace. Time Solutions launched the HeySpace project in February, 2017. They put together a small, somewhat inexperienced team of three developers, a UX designer and a leader/product owner. They set June as the first release point, incorporating the Kanban Board and Chat function along with a user friendly layout.

There was a significant learning curve. New technology for the team included:

  • For the web app – ReactJS, an open-source JavaScript library which was used for building user interfaces
  • For the mobile app – React-native
  • For the desktop app – Electron, a framework for creating native applications with web technologies like JavaScript, HTML, and CSS.

To plug the skill gap, they arranged for training from an experienced React developer and organized an online course with Q&A sessions. They also spent time going through online forums to address more explicit questions.

After the initial kick-off, the team struggled to deliver, with a lack of clarity on accountabilities, random and unstructured meetings and numerous conflicts. To remedy the situation, they decided to run the project using the Scrum methodology. One of their colleagues with extensive experience in Scrum had recommended it as a way to improve project workflow and performance. The team went for one day of Scrum training and was then charged with making it work. One of the developers assumed the role of Scrum Master and so the journey began. The product owner was responsible for establishing requirements. Prioritizing the delivery sequence was left to the development team. The team designated two stages in each sprint for testing and code review. The code review involved one developer reviewing the work of another to identify and correct problems. Testing was handed over to any available member of the TimeCamp team.

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As you know, there is a learning curve for agile adoption. The product owner created an initial product backlog and, with the development team, defined the scope for the first sprint. The development team targeted two weeks as the sprint duration. At the end of the first two week sprint, the functionality was not complete and the quality was not acceptable. So the team did a review. Their findings:

  • The daily scrum meetings were too long, not always well attended and often not productive.
  • Individuals were doing too much on their own without consulting and sharing with their colleagues. The collaboration that was essential for rapid delivery and acceptable quality wasn’t happening.
  • Their estimates for how much effort was required to deliver the sprint functionality were all over the map. As well, they had no standard estimating approach to help improve the estimates.
  • The features and priorities designated by the product manager weren’t always what their clients wanted and needed.

So the team made changes. They brought in an experienced Scrum Master. They introduced Story Points. That helped the team determine how long implementing a feature would take so their estimates would be more reliable. Of course, the learning curve on new technology had to be taken into consideration so precision took a while to achieve. Also, the product owner started to place much more focus on dialoging with their clients and understanding their needs. Over time, the team became proficient in the Scrum way of life and proceeded to deliver two week HeySpace sprints regularly and successfully for their internal teams.

In June 2018, the team decided to go external with HeySpace. They wanted to see if people outside their organization would value the product as much as the TimeCamp team did. Initially there was no charge for the app. In fact, there still is a free version of the app available. The motivation was and is to get feedback from other users to more effectively direct their efforts.

From a promotion standpoint, the team had just a few posts on the HeySpace and TimeCamp blogs. To increase awareness, in August 2018, they decided to advertise on Product Hunt. That resulted in over 1000 signups. However, they soon discovered that they may have taken that step too soon. Immediate feedback pointed out that the app lacked features the external market demanded, like mobile and desktop apps.

To address the communication gap, they started a newsletter to inform clients about progress. Greater emphasis was placed on keeping the blogs up to date with timely posts. They started to capture all feedback. While that was often a tedious job, the messages often inspired and motivated the whole team. They set up a Roadmap on the HeySpace website to show what they were currently working on and to allow existing and potential users to add suggestions of their own and vote on their future development plans.

The Product Owner made sure they replied to each and every suggestion. He also prepared a survey that was sent out to all workspace owners and tried to reach out to as many users as possible via personalized emails to cultivate understanding and rapport. Conference calls were also being done to understand users need and to improve HeySpace capabilities. And they continue to look for new ways to reach out and get feedback.

The Results

HeySpace was originally conceived as a tool to improve the performance of the TimeCamp team. It has achieved that goal. HeySpace is now the only mandatory application at Time Solutions. Staff open the app when they start work and close it when they leave for the day.

  • Everyone communicates via HeySpace and only via HeySpace,
  • Everyone registers their projects with HeySpace,
  • Each manager follows the work of the team via HeySpace,
  • Everyone plans their daily work through separate HeySpace workspaces – creating their personal space for their notes, projects, etc.

By the end of 2018, in addition to the TimeCamp team, HeySpace had over 4000 signups and the team had a much better understanding about their customers and their needs. HeySpace has also received welcome external recognition. Finances Online awarded HeySpace their Rising Star and Great User Experience awards and Product Hunt awarded it their #4 Product of the Day in August 2018.

The application now offers all the core features including the recently launched iOS mobile app and integrations with TimeCamp and Calendar. They are now focusing on other integrations and additional features driven by customer feedback.

As Pawel Kijko, the contributor of this story stated, “The best thing about HeySpace for me is it’s a way to communicate and manage your project in one place and a really user-friendly and simple interface. I cannot get lost! It’s a place where you can say Hey to your colleagues and a Space to work on your projects.” By the way, Pawel is the Chief Acquisition Officer on HeySpace and CEO at Heraldbee, a free application for advertising for small and medium-sized online shops.

How a Great Team Delivered

Here was a small team that had to cope with three significant concurrent changes: to build the new HeySpace product, to learn and apply new technologies, and to learn and leverage a new methodology and team dynamic. Yet, in two short years they have successfully delivered a robust HeySpace product to improve the performance of the TimeCamp team and acquired a loyal and growing number of external users. How did they do it? I think there were six key elements that enabled their success:

  1. Measure – If Time Solutions staff had not measured their time spent, they would not have realized the amount of non-productive time being incurred. That realization led to the launch of the HeySpace project, the development and release of the HeySpace product, the resulting improvement in the TimeCamp team’s performance and the revenue potential from external clients.
  2. Set goals – One key was to set goals and stick with them. They established milestones for HeySpace development. They settled on two week sprints. They set goals for number of clients. They didn’t always meet their targets but when they missed, they would review the results, revise their approach and strive to improve.
  3. Build individual skills and organizational capability – The team had significant challenges to build their skills and capabilities on the new technology, the new methodology and the new HeySpace product. They obviously rose to the challenge, leveraging in house expertise on the technology front and testing efforts, external talent in the Scrum Master and an individual passion for learning. See another post on this key success factor – It’s the Mastery that Counts
  4. Build individual skills and organizational capability – The team had significant challenges to build their skills and capabilities on the new technology, the new methodology and the new HeySpace product. They obviously rose to the challenge, leveraging in house expertise on the technology front and testing efforts, external talent in the Scrum Master and an individual passion for learning. See another post on this key success factor – It’s the Mastery that Counts
  5. Leverage agile strengths – The team took the Scrum fundamentals to heart. They adopted a simple project organization and a small team model. They operated with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. They produced small time-boxed deliverables. And they used practices that were based on transparency, inspection and adaptation.
  6. Engage your clients – In both stages of HeySpace development, the team focused on their clients. In the first stage, they zeroed in on the TimeCamp team needs. In the second stage, they engaged with external users and prospects. The result: a better product and more satisfied clients.
  7. Executive sponsorship – The HeySpace team had access to and input from the TimeCamp team and managers and the Time Solutions executive. That accelerated decision-making and ensured adequate staffing and funding for the team’s plans. The final decision maker on the project? Kamil Rudnicki, the Time Solutions CEO.

It’s always a pleasure for me to learn and write about a successful project like this. It emerged from a small, inexperienced team that transformed into a still small but now highly talented, high performance group. So, if you’d like to grow your team building capabilities and your team’s performance, put these points on your checklist of things to consider. Also remember, use Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks covering the key stakeholder group, the decision management process and the Decision Framework (including resource management and process best practices) right up front so you don’t overlook these key success factors.

Finally, thanks to everyone who has willingly shared their experiences for presentation on this blog. Everyone benefits. First-time contributors get a copy of one of my books. Readers get insights they can apply to their own unique circumstances. So, if you have a project experience, good, bad and everything in between, send me the details and we’ll chat. I’ll write it up and, when you’re happy with the results, Project Times will post it so others can learn from your experiences.

Drew Davison

Drew Davison is the owner and principal consultant at Davison Consulting and a former system development executive. He is the developer of Project Pre-Check, an innovative framework for launching projects and guiding successful project delivery, the author of Project Pre-Check - The Stakeholder Practice for Successful Business and Technology Change and Project Pre-Check FastPath - The Project Manager’s Guide to Stakeholder Management. He works with organizations that are undergoing major business and technology change to implement the empowered stakeholder groups critical to project success. Drew can be reached at [email protected].

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