Mar 082010

I’ve seen a lot of different “roadmaps” for SaaS products lately. Some of them are good guides for specific questions. Some are simply misleading or poorly focused. But only a few of us are talking about the two guiding thoughts behind a realistic roadmap that are critical to success:

  1. Developing a product that customers want, will pay for and will advocate
  2. Finding and scaling an economically viable business model without wasted time or money

These two points form the basis for a slowly building consensus among founders of successful (and some failed) SaaS companies and those of us who have been involved in multiple projects over time. If you haven’t come across them, you will if you need to go for funding of any kind or show a business model these days. These folks are in the business of making money from the SaaS business model and developing companies with a worth that is many times their investment.

People who are unfamiliar with the Lean concept often think that it means developing a product that is at best, minimal and at worst, a product that is too basic and that no one will actually want. We’re used to the idea that it can easily require a two-year development cycle to get a fully-featured product to market. So, when someone says, “We can develop a SaaS product in six months or less!” there is a tendency to dismiss them as novice product managers or marketers.

If this has been your thought, I don’t blame you.  You should question what is behind that type of claim. If it is just the size of the development team that can be brought to bear on the project, I would remind you of the old joke in production engineering:

“While we know that it is true a woman can produce a baby in nine months, this does not mean it is also true nine women can produce a baby in one month.”

For our own part, we’ve developed our concept of lean product development based on careful analysis of what we could provide to our customers to help them be successful. Rather than repeat the entire mantra – let me call out some leading references you should be familiar with for evaluating your roadmap:

  • Bessemer Cloud Computing Law #1 – Less is More! Leverage the cloud. Don’t spend money to build features that don’t provide direct value to the end user.  Go into the market and “rent” services. Services allow you to concentrate your resources (time, talent and money) on your core value. They will in fact be richer and more cost effective than anything you can afford to develop.
  • Steve Blank – Perfection by Subtraction – Having a clear, tight vision helps to keep development scope down, but it isn’t the key to the “minimum viable product” often mentioned in discussions about product development.  The key is to get a product in front of customers who can understand the vision and who can become evangelists for it because – They have a problem your vision will solve. They understand they have the problem. They have been actively looking for a solution. They have put together some parts of a solution themselves. They have or can get a budget for something that solves the problem.  These customers can validate the vision and will actively pull it into the shape that fits their context. With them behind you – you can develop a beta product that is much closer to what the market needs.  This is also part of Bessemer’s Law #5 – Build Employee Software – which talks about the “consumerization of software” that SaaS has enabled.
  • David Skok – Why Startups Fail – The business model is just as important as the feature set in the end. We’ve all heard of great products that never sold enough to return their investment before failing. Learning if you have a market fit, if you can actually scale your operations profitably, if the cost of acquiring a customer (CAC) is less than the average lifetime value (LTV), and if you are going to have enough cash when it comes time to hit the marketing accelerator pedal – these are differences between success and crash and burn. They come down to having a roadmap that gets you into the market early, allows you to test your business model and your product before you have burned all your cash.
  • Eric Reis – The Promise of the Lean Startup – Leverage the Agile methodology and philosophy to develop progressively based on customer pull rather than a miracle of market anticipation. We’d all like to be Apple, but we’re not – and getting there is a lot harder and more expensive than we need to expend ourselves on.  The SaaS multi-tenant model allows incremental releases and fixes, usage monitoring, and real feedback-driven products that customers pay for. Eric has a very good presentation with the difference between two companies he was with – that brought him into Lean thinking.
  • And finally – Evangelous Simoudis – Criteria for Determining a Company’s SaaSyness – This brings all the previous ideas together with having a successful business model and product BEFORE you go for funding. This puts funding when it will do the most good – when you can use the extra acceleration to get the proven product in the market and when in the classic hockey stick market model, it will be easier to get cash with attractive terms.

But – that means having a roadmap that allows you to make these things happen with a reasonable investment. It means signing up customers and getting cashflow before you reach what you might otherwise think was a full-featured product. It means a company with a product in a licensed model will have to think a little differently than a startup to retain their existing customers, but the larger picture should remain stable.

So, coming back to the premise of this article – a realistic roadmap for SaaS should allow you to –

  • Validate your vision with early adopter/evangelist customers as soon as you can show them your the core of your product’s business value.
  • Test your marketing, sales and operations during a beta that is still less than a full-market version, but allows you to show your vision to the broader market and get further feedback.
  • Leverage services and products that allow you to focus on developing the core value and keep your choices in line with business outcomes – lower initial cost and faster time to market.
  • Keep your investment to a reasonable level, particularly in advance of breakeven, and allow high power funding to come when it can do the most good – when you have a proven product and customers.
  • Allow early cashflow by having a product driven by paid customer demand.
  • Be Agile and flexible in both your product development and your business model.

At Scio – we have used these points to come up with a general roadmap that we customize for each customer’s situation.

Our choice of methodologies, tools and technologies is similarly aligned to ensure we can execute successfully at each stage. Every outsourcing company will decide where they need to focus but for us this means:

  • Using the .NET framework as our core techology base. This allows us to apply common skills across a variety of devices and applications and to tap into a much larger commercial resource pool for staffing. It also keeps costs low because we can focus on building best practices and development patterns while leveraging a large pool of libraries that are available for .Net.
  • Building on a SaaS application server – SaaSGrid – that lowers the total cost of development and provides the common SaaS monitoring and operational needs. Sticking to one “best of breed” application server that we understand the internals of lowers risk and “discovery” associated with learning new development patterns and allows us to focus on the problem of delivering business value to end users.
  • Leveraging Agile and Lean methodologies internally to allow us to deliver useable software early with feedback from customers and operate with high efficiency.
  • Use a Nearshore model to put us in closer contact with our customer base and to better enable the promise of collaborative software development embodied in Agile.
  • A production model that can apply consistent approaches and learning across engagements rather than approaching each project as a “one-time shot.”
  • And finally – a business model that not coincidentally has a lot in parallel with the concepts we expect our customers to embrace.

That is just the choices we’ve made.  Making these choices is a lot like we ask our customers to do when picking a feature set. We purposely left “opportunistic” approaches off the table that would mean we had to spread ourselves a lot thinner to support them at the same level as our core. It also means we can concentrate on improving our core value set without compromising the services we deliver.  We concentrate on our core – developing successful SaaS products repeatably, economically, and quickly – and let our customers do the same for their clients.

So what is your roadmap? Does it align with the ideas we and others have offered in recent articles on developing Internet-based products? It’s all about using the delivery technology that underlies SaaS products to your best advantage in the end.  Whether you develop your product in house or with a product developer like Scio – I strongly suggest you consider your roadmap and the driving vision behind it. It can save you a great deal and lower your risk greatly.  Worth considering…

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