Feb 092010

At Scio, we’ve been working towards a goal of achieving a “standard” process and platform for developing SaaS products for a long time. Of course, when it comes to services, nothing is ever “done” – it just reaches a point where you know you are achieving goals, satisfying customers and can continue to improve over time.

We’re in the business of developing SaaS products. To develop custom products economically and reliably, you have to build or adopt tools, methodologies and repeatable processes that streamline the process, cut out unnecessary waste, and control risk. We, like many software development groups who have adopted Agile development processes, have realized that much of the business of “manufacturing software” aligns well with the concept of Lean manufacturing and product design.  In fact, the leading Agile consultancy, Poppendieck, has produced a book on the subject.

But what does this have to do with SaaS? Our move down the Lean and Agile road is not an accident. It is our core belief that customers will be more successful if they and their products and business processes are also Lean and Agile. We’re not alone in that thinking. Bessemer Venture Partners, in the latest release of their Top 10 Laws for Cloud Computing, covers the core concepts even if they don’t acknowledge them as Lean specifically. Steve Blank and Eric Ries recognize something they call a “lean startup.”

So – what is the core of Lean as it applies to SaaS?  The original concept of Lean was started in Japan and has been defined as:

  • Build only what is needed
  • Eliminate anything that does not add value
  • Stop if something goes wrong

At Scio, we’ve translated this to:

  1. Build only what is needed – Agile and Lean are customer-driven methodologies. Building what is needed assumes you have a customer and you can get feedback directly and honestly from users. This doesn’t mean focus groups however that are just about “improving the current status quo.” As has been said, “If you asked people in the early 1900’s what would improve their personal transportation – we’d all be riding better horses.”  SaaS products are also user driven, as we and others have said many times.  To know what is needed, a SaaS vendor needs to get their product in front of end-users as early as possible and go through a “verification of vision.” This means testing the hypotheses that the product provides value, users will use it productively and customers will pay for it. At Scio, we’ve acted on this idea  by standardizing on SaaS specific platforms, services and frameworks (like SaaSGrid) that eliminate the development of the operational aspects of SaaS and provide a consistent multi-tenant architecture that can be used across multiple products. This, coupled with Agile scrum principles allows our customers to get their core products in front of key customers in three to four months. Because these common aspects of SaaS products are available on a “pay as you go” model, they don’t contribute unnecessary costs to the needed capital to launch a product and they only contribute incrementally to overhead.
  2. Eliminate anything that does not add value – Getting a product in front of actual paying customers as soon as possible means not developing features that do not directly add value for end users. This assumes you can field test the feature set early and is the next level of verification just below the first point. It assumes what is known in Lean as “pull-driven” features – features that users need and actively advocate. It also points to the “slow drip of new features” that users expect from online services rather than the “version-driven” approach of traditional software releases. It does not however mean the end-user “defines” the product vision. This is where the first point and the second separate. Innovative products rarely rise directly from customer requirements, but value-driven features can and do.  For us, translates to building on modern extensible architectures that don’t require extensive re-writes to implement new features over time and “post release.”  We also ask our clients to take their assumed feature sets and apply the “80-20 rule” – which simply says that 20% of all features of a product will deliver 80% of the value. In Lean, features that do not add value are considered waste, but there are two forms of waste recognized: Those that do not add value but are unavoidable with current technology and those that create no value and are avoidable with a better design.  This also leads to more concentration on “user-experience” and understanding of the user’s context and avoidance of risky, over-complex projects.
  3. Stop if something goes wrong – SaaS products naturally reach different audiences based on marketing, vertical demand, market maturity and the delivery medium of the Internet itself. But, what happens if your development cycle for a complete product is the 12-18 months common projects in traditional software? Your initial cost and risk go up drastically and if your vision is off the mark, failure can be very costly. At Scio, we focus on developing a core product that can reach paid customer release in six months or less. This keeps risk low and insures new products have the potential to reach positive cash flow at the earliest possible point in the product lifecycle.  This also fits with the mantra, “fail early and often.” A product can be a complete failure of vision or there may be just certain aspects that miss the mark. Either way, you need tools to monitor product usage and user feedback and a roadmap that allows you to get market verification early and to avoid “big bang” releases that are costly and not led by “pull” from users.

Lean also leads into continuous improvement – which is part of the service-led concept of SaaS. There is no “perfection” – only continuous improvement over time lead by user pull and innovation. The steady drip of user-led improvement leads to better retention. lower churn and a longer customer lifecycle – key SaaS metrics.  Better understanding of the value stream, another principle in Lean, leads to better pricing and more value recognition by customers.

There is a lot more to cover in terms of the alignment between Lean, Agile and SaaS. Take this as your “introduction” and follow the references I have provided. I’ll be adding more articles about this important subject in the near term – so watch for the Lean tag in our cloud – but in the sprit of Lean – we’ll stop here for now.

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