Adapting traditional, strict well-defined project models to work dynamically and create long term relationships with startup clients who are in the early stages of developing their business and defining their MVP
At the moment, clients define a new project project within the context of their business, to the agency, who infer and extrapolate this brief into a clear and well-defined project scope or specification. This process is important as it tackles in advance issues that otherwise are likely to arise around project completion, success, milestones and ultimately financials.
By defining the project well to begin with, the agency can ensure that it delivers correctly against what the client has asked for. The client knows and can enforce the building of functionality that meets the standards as defined in the project specification. The agency can also deny large change requests that are outside of the scope of the project and would take extra time and money to implement. The more in depth that the project scope is defined early on, the easier it is for the agency and the client to keep each other in check, with respect to the agreed upon deliverables.
One common problem when using this standard, well defined project model is that new startup style clients that begin to work with the agency, beginning new journeys into new businesses and entrepreneurial ventures will, while often having an in-depth knowledge of their niche / industry, be relatively new and unsure regarding best business and practice with respect to the platform. The most common platform in this situation being the web.
It is often the case that situations and processes that work well offline are not immediately transferable to an online setting. A lot of new businesses moving into online ventures, even from successful offline spaces will be oblivious to this difference and would hugely benefit from expert advice from those who have worked in, developed sites for and helped to grow businesses within the online industry.
Some new businesses in this position will already have business development employees on-board who will help scope out and develop a minimum viable product and plan out the next phases of their product based on user-driven feedback. Or they will already have completed enough testing and scoping to define the first year or so of new functionality roll-outs.
An agency in this situation may find success in beginning to look at working closely with their clients who appear to fit into this category and advising them on the importance of and how to define an MVP and the structure / process for feature rollout over a defined timeframe. This is often a difficult process to begin with new clients in this situation for a number of key reasons:
- Many will already have a well-defined product that they have iterated over and added to (often bloating) many times in their minds before even coming to the agency. Therefore exploring, deconstructing and rationalising the idea that they have become attached to may be met with some resistance.
- Clients beginning in this way will often have a certain level of expertise in the field that they are moving into. Sometimes this is from an offline or a different online area. Either way, the practices and methods that they have previously had success with may not be applicable within the new setting.
- The term minimum viable product will implore a negative reaction from some people, as they may immediately think that the word minimum is only in there to minimise the deliverables and maximise profit for the agency. Especially when this idea is pushed and partially defined by the agency responsible for delivery.
- Winning work via a pitch process becomes more of a challenge, as instead of simply saying “yes” to all of the client’s requirements, there is an offer to provide assistance that some may not understand or feel that they need. There is an opportunity here though to do this well and properly convey the value for the client.
- Costs and quotations usually stem from the client’s initial brief and the complexity of the included functionality. When this is open for variation and improvement, setting a fixed price early on becomes difficult. Especially as clients in this situation are more likely to have a fixed budget, as the business often isn’t making money yet. The risk for loss here is just as great to the agency as it is to the client.
- Under scrutiny, a project may be deemed untenable in the long term by the agency, limiting the positive effects this process can have on a new project.
There are some clear problems that can disrupt an agencies process and increase risk. To properly evaluate the worth of working with clients in this manner, it is necessary to explore the potential advantages of successfully overcoming these issues.
Some clients will just have different expectations of working with an agency to others. For some people, an agency will carry out a set of tasks that will complete a project to a high standard. Projects that often turn out to be the most difficult or make the least money for the agency tend to be those where the client expects a closer relationship throughout the project, where they can give feedback and input at various stages. These clients will expect input and suggestions from the agency during the project. Even when a specification is created from a client scope at the start of a project, simply referring back to it at every point during the project when a client raises queries or concerns will not be conducive to a positive, long term relationship. This is completely at odds with a more regular project from a client who knows their requirements very well and has defined their project in great detail and accuracy.
Employing a more agile way to tackle suitable projects both alleviates this as a problem, and introduces opportunity to add value. By spending more time at the beginning of the project actively exploring potential avenues and addressing client concerns, there is less chance that these sorts of tweaks, ideas and sometimes annoyingly close involvement from the client will come up at inconvenient times. The value here is that the client gets the sort of close relationship that they seek, validating and critiquing their ideas, but all the questions, doubt, pivoting and refinement is actively moved to the start of the project instead of happening continually throughout it, hindering development.
An agency also benefits massively from working with clients as partners for long periods of time, adding value and becoming an essential partner to the business. This not only keeps happy clients on the books paying for support, marketing, upgrades etc., but acts as a good way to secure new work by positive reviews and word of mouth. To keep a business as an agency partner in the long term, several project based criteria must be met:
- The client must be satisfied. If a website is rigorously defined at the beginning of the project and cannot be edited throughout (without delays or costs), then the client is less likely to feel close to the agency by the time delivery comes.
- Value must be added. If a project is scoped out as per a client’s requirements with minimal input from the agency, then there is nothing stopping the client from defining the next scope to a different agency. For the client to remain, the agency must be seen as a team of experts who add significant value that they cannot be sure to find elsewhere.
- The business must find success. If the business does not prosper or even succeed, then there will be no relationship to be had. The more the business succeeds, the more opportunity there is for the agency to increase the work they do for them.
An agile approach to project planning and application aims to satisfy all of these conditions. Satisfaction is likely as the client has more confidence in the agencies understanding of the project and in the agreed upon MVP / product. Value is added here as the agency is far more involved in contributing to defining the product, and likelihood of success and prosperity is increased as the relevant expertise is added at the right time.
The advantages to increased involvement earlier on and greater flexibility are primarily to do with retaining happy clients and setting them up better for success. But the solution here cannot be to simply let the client run the project from the beginning, as the problems discussed previously will remain, and one party will inevitably be left feeling short-changed. There is also the question of what to do when an agency feels that project is not one that will find success, or does not have sufficient expertise in a very unique niche to accurately give relevant input.
The key to implementing these changes in a way that does not create more problems is to become involved in guiding the project, often at a business level, earlier on. This allows for a period of open discussion and definition, within an earlier phase or the project process. Simply having this initial phase of listening to a client’s thoughts and ideas, exploring issues early on, making suggestions based on expertise and previous projects will contribute massively. Here massive value is added for the client, potential pain points later on in the project are identified and addressed and the project as a part of / as the business is more likely to find success.
Usually new projects will begin with one or a series of kickoff meetings between the client and key staff from the agency. There will be some in depth discussion and requirements capture here as everyone is introduced to the project, but the direction will be divided between the clients own aims and goals, design opinions, development preferences and marketing considerations. Each department will have their own concerns that affect the ability for that team to deliver, but usually an agreeable project state is determined that satisfies all departments of the agency and the client. The client at this stage remains the only one who is taking a greater business orientated approach to the project, and no value has been added with respect to this by the agency. If significant changes and input has been added, then are the various contributors from various departments actually giving good advice and input with respect to the direction, growth and success of the business as a whole? A project can be influenced by a designer to include designs that aim to improve UX and bring in new users easier, or a developer can suggest best practice regarding how a part of the site works. But without a discussion of the businesses actual goals and KPI’s, these suggestions while often positive, are at risk of being generic, vague and interchangeable between projects.
Sometimes this more generic approach is necessary. Some clients will need very specific expertise regarding a subject or aspect of their business that they do not understand well enough by themselves.
Before the inputs from various department are heard and added to the project scope, the greater aims and plans for the site as a working business must be acknowledged and determined. By adding in this business understanding and definition phase early on, all other action, meetings and input is governed by a set of key targets, KPI’s and requirements that have been determined first. Value is still added by designers, developers and marketers in later meetings before the project begins in earnest, but now there is a clear direction and set of factors that can drive and govern discussion.
Defining Business Considerations
A minimum viable product is important as it means that the initial idea can easily be tested, validated, improved upon and adjusted. By creating an MVP first, resources are not spent on features / aspects of the site that are not used and do not add significant value. Furthermore, there may be important features or changes that are requested by early adopters / users that they feel would massively improve the experience of using the site. If non-essential features are not a part of the MVP, then this feedback stage could happen sooner as launch would have been earlier. The end result being a more successful business with features that users want and need, built faster and for less cost.
A minimum viable product does not mean a simple or incomplete version of a product. For the process to work properly, the site has to have all of its key functionality working perfectly, as this is necessary to collect proper user feedback and get real opinions on required features / changes beyond “fix the broken issues” or “it will be good when it’s finished”. A complete product is required to give a truly representative experience of a product and correctly validate the concept.
A startup that is evolving in this way means a simpler project to begin with for the agency, instead of a bloated page of ‘nice ideas’ that have been added to over the months or years that the client has been thinking about and defining this project. The following user feedback and feature roll-out stages are key though as these provide a great way for the agency to stay closely tied to and a key part of the businesses growth. By helping to collect user feedback, define project expansion and further phases, the agency adds real value and becomes invaluable.
In order to get the most out of the process following the launch of the MVP, key performance indicators need to be defined so that the most vital aspects of the site can be measured and value determined.
The simplest way to begin defining KPI’s is to determine the metrics that would best give feedback on the assumptions that have been made regarding the MVP. Confirming the assumptions that were made to form the first MVP will validate or invalidate initial ideas regarding which aspects of the site will be successful and which need work. This is a good point to start making adjustments and new assumptions regarding the further roll out of new work and features.
One of the difficulties is in properly telling the difference between vanity metrics that appear positive but do not add value to bottom line key business goals like revenue, growth etc. Methods such as split testing should be employed to gather qualitative data that can be used to draw real, tangible conclusions.
Directly Addressing the Problems
In conclusion, there are ways to apply these concepts to the problems listed out at the beginning of this article.
1. Working with already well-defined ideas
It is important to incorporate client ideas into an MVP model or in-depth specification. The client is often the expert so although the idea is to narrow down the ideas to a minimum working viable model, it is important not to be dismissive or presumptive. Often after extensive discussions and reasoning around the scope of the project, it will become more obvious to the client which parts of their plans are essential and which seem unnecessary for a first version. All the reasoning for picking out some features and not others need to be explained in detail with the reasoning behind the choices elaborated on.
2. Platform differences
This needs to come across as the competent expertise of the agency. The client needs to hear specifically what is different or similar between their own ideas and the reality of running a business / site on the web.
3. Minimum viable product
The use of the term minimum viable product needs explaining properly. A minimum viable product does not mean a half finished, barely working product that is missing some key features. Minimum is to do with minimising the development of features that are not truly crucial to the core features of the site. Everything still needs to be working perfectly, as an MVP is used to determine the viability of the key features of the site and plan out future feature roll-outs. If a client understands the advantages of working to an MVP and how the model is used to effectively plan out the future of the site and validate the existing site then the advantages will be clear to them.
4. The difficult pitch
Although the pitch may be complicated by not simply saying yes to everything, this can easily be made into a favourable point in which the agency can be seen to be adding additional value. By suggesting working together and getting involved in this depth with the agency as partners from the beginning, a startup can see that the agency won’t just be working to a specification, but will be giving real thought and input. This is where real value is added above and beyond agencies who will simply complete and deliver the working site.
5. Giving accurate quotations
Following this process does not mean giving the client the ability to make constant alterations throughout, it mainly just adds an additional preparation stage at the beginning. This phase, if sold well and deemed necessary by the client, can be costed accurately. It may even be the case that adjustments to quotations can be given if the planning reveals large modifications to the project as it was initially scoped out.
6. Dealing with untenable projects
Some projects will go through this practice and no one on the agency team will understand the clients vision or plan to make their project or business successful. Judgement here needs to be used to take into account the expertise of all involved, including the client and their own insights and reasoning for funding / starting this project to begin with. But if there really is no faith in the product succeeding or the client is not open to the idea of collaborating and forming an MVP then this process will not be necessary and the new beginning phase of the project will essentially be skipped and the project will run as any normal one would. The advantage is that these things are checked and offered to the client before a project gets underway.