Simon Dickson has been blogging about online government, politics and WordPress since 2005. Some important people read it.

 
 
Tuesday 15 September 2009

Crowdsourcing my business plan

I've been thinking a lot lately about the future direction of Puffbox. The company has been in existence for two and a half years, and things have gone pretty well. I'm consistently busy, with regular offers of interesting projects: sometimes too many offers, actually. The mortgage gets paid each month, and there's no immediate threat to a pretty comfortable status quo. So I'm not worried as such; just keen to stay ahead of the game.

The 'WordPress (etc) into government' campaign seems to have been successful; partly through my own efforts, I hope. We've got some departments doing some really quite adventurous things, and others dipping toes into the water. There's now a clutch of us freelancers / consultants selling our expertise into Whitehall, and a few instances of departments doing it for themselves. And with WordPress itself maturing as a product, it feels like we're entering a new phase.

It's a shift from 'look what we can do' to 'how can we do it properly?'. A realisation that high-profile sites really can't rely on individual developers, no matter how multi-talented - for the benefit of the developer as much as the client, possibly moreso even. The accumulation of a year or two of actual real-world experience.

I can see several possible directions Puffbox could take. But I'd like to get some input from those actually inside government: the clients, current and potential. What would be of most interest to you - practically, strategically, financially?

  • More of the same. Keep doing what I'm doing, designing and building modest, innovative sites and apps. But bring in other similarly-skilled people to share the load. We'd continue to use off-the-shelf hosting services, or departments' own arrangements. Sell the benefit of our longer experience: sure, you could do it yourself, but we'll do it quicker and better.
  • Move into hosting and support of WordPress sites - not just sites I/we build necessarily, either. 'Business class' rather than 'coach': expensive, but with a package of WP and plugin upgrading, security, etc etc to merit it. I'd need to form some kind of relationship with a tech guru or two; good news is, I know a few already.
  • Focus on a couple of specific WP-based apps of specific interest to government. Perhaps a 'press office' function, skinnable to slot neatly into departmental sites. Or a locally-hosted Basecamp-style project management app. Or a UserVoice-clone. Or an online content aggregator. Or a 'social intranet' based on BuddyPress. Or a consultation platform. Hire them out for an ongoing fee, as opposed to selling a one-off deliverable.
  • Develop an expertise in something new - RDFa? Data/API? Geo/mapping? Emailing? Video hosting? Possibly WordPress related, possibly not.
  • Does it weaken the 'government expertise' pitch if I start to look at more political or commercial work?

It could be one of the above, or several at once, or something completely different. But I can't shake the feeling that now is the right time to be doing something. What would you want from me, guys?

If you don't feel comfortable commenting publicly, drop me an email. And remember, I never refuse the offer of a coffee.

Comments ( 7 )

  1. paul canning says:

    In the wake of #bccwebsite looking for more engagement with local government would be me, admittedly biased!, suggestion.

    Making the business case for profoundly cheaper website development could be enormously productive in local government allied to a push for sites built on the same basis that business sites are, for example spending lots more on testing/research than they currently do.

    Simon, more engagement with the problems of local government by you, with your history and, dare I say it, cred, would be invaluable.

  2. I'd say growth is always a good thing, but do beware of spreading yourself too thinly or giving yourself a too-large financial commitment.

    Ultimately going from one man, working alone and hiring others in to being an actual company was a painful step for me. OK, I moved from ERP systems (with web front ends) to the web dev world and that alone was a massive step.

    As a business we would, in the early days, do anything that came up. Consequently our commitments were all over the place and it cost us dearly. Once we focussed on WordPress, things improved because we had only one set of problems to worry about. Then we focussed on sectors (in our case Enterprise + News & Media) and that improved things again. What we're now doing is developing packaged solutions for the sectors in which we're establishing a name where we can use our understanding of their problems to make life better, but at lower cost. There seems to be strong interest in this, with key decision makers popping up all the time.

    So what you're thinking of, there, is something similar - and I think it's probably the best way to get growth in your company. It also helps move you away from being a pure service company.

    Good luck, whatever direction you choose!

  3. Steph Gray says:

    Three tips from me:

    1) You put your finger on it with:

    It's a shift from 'look what we can do' to 'how can we do it properly?'. A realisation that high-profile sites really can't rely on individual developers, no matter how multi-talented

    The market is ready for agencies which offer WordPress-as-default-platform solutions as part of a full service. In fact, I'm already detecting a change in the agencies I speak to. But pretty quickly, working as a network of associates, you need to have a project management process and culture which gives clients confidence in the format and flexibility which is and isn't possible when working with you. In other words, you need to standardise on some processes, milestones and deliverables that make life bearable for both clients and colleagues - I learned that from the evolution of my previous employer into a big agency.

    2) Develop say 3 core products which are customisable flavours of general tools based on WordPress. I'd vote for a consultation platform, an event aggregation platform, and an idea submission/discussion engine. Don't work up any of them too much, but make sure there's a solid basic package for each you can roll out with a customised skin rapidly and cheaply.

    3) Sort out hosting. Find a LAMP guru or team and a reliable infrastructure provider, based in the UK, able to answer the tough questions of IT security officers confidently. Corporate/government clients are much less price sensitive than consumers when it comes to hosting but demand reliability and guarantees that the necessary patches will be applied as needed in the future. Work up a retainer model for maintenance and offer it as part of every proposal.

    I say this to you here, because you asked, but of course I'd say pretty much the same things to anyone :)

  4. Oh, find a team. Sites shouldn't rely on a single developer, but there seems to be a preference for buying from single developers. Going fully cooperative and multi-developer actually made it a bit more difficult to sell for a while. Is there an easy way to overcome the "I trust only Fred and I want only Fred to do my work" desire that many nervous clients have?

  5. I agree with what others have already said about the importance of providing a supported, managed service. Very few of your target clients have the kind of expertise to set up and manage servers and troubleshoot when things go wrong. Before I inherited those skills in house (i.e. Steph!) this was certainly moving up the priority list for me, and I had started to look around for someone who could supplement your own knowhow and availability. Whether you do this within Puffbox, or hand people off to a Puffbox partner after the development work's done, is up to you entirely - but I think it should be your top priority to offer end to end service in some form.

    I like your ideas for development of govt-friendly apps. But I suspect the reality is they'd be difficult to sell in: different strokes for different folks, clients at very different stages of adoption and so on. You could find yourself spending lots of energy on sales and marketing when you'd be better responding to individual needs and developing bespoke tools like you have been doing. But sharing, licensing and re-using elements where you can is a good thing. Continuing to blog about the stuff you've made and talking at informal gatherings of gov webbies seems as good a way as any of doing this.

    I don't think seeking commercial clients would necessarily weaken your government expertise credentials. (Political work might muddy the waters though). I think the Puffbox brand is about socially responsible, web software development for the public good - using the best of agile, open source publishing platforms (i.e. WP) to save public money, empower the client to be less reliant on the big firms, and increase accountabilty/transparency. Potentially by extension, you could do the same for SME and 3rd sector.

    Good for you for crowdsourcing this by the way!

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