The problems of selling a 'modular' software system

Modularity comes at a cost…

Modularity comes at a cost…

For years, a lot of software has been sold on a ‘modular’ basis, with the view that customers can buy only the critical functions that they need now, at a lower cost, then add on extra functionality and capabilities as their needs (and their budget) grows.

For over 25 years, I sold a legacy accounting system that was completely modular based. This system had over 20 modules and we had customers using as little as 3 modules, right up to the full suite. At the outset, this seemed like a great idea - after all, a smaller business that was just starting out and had a couple of employees didn’t need full inventory and warehousing. Just the basic debtors and creditors control, and perhaps a general ledger with bank reconciliations. As their product lines (and their cashflow) grew, we could add inventory control, and perhaps purchasing.

However, we repeatedly came across situations where customers would actually refuse to upgrade, even though they needed the extra modules because they were struggling to cope with just a subset of features. We also had customers who would purchase the extra modules, receive training and implementation assistance, then a year later we’d go on site and realise that they simply weren’t using them any more.

This always bugged me and I couldn’t understand their rationale behind this. To me, it was counter productive and wasteful.

Then it happened to me.

We have been using HubSpot’s free CRM offering here at my startup HR Partner for a few months now. Our very small team loves the software, and I like how it integrates with our support system, our G-Suite emails and other services we use. It was a great contact management tool, however we were starting to push against the edges of the capabilities, so two weeks ago, seeing as we were growing and increasing our cashflow, I decided to bite the bullet and sign up for HubSpot’s full sales and marketing professional suites - a not insignificant investment in terms of time and money.

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After the first week of training and setting up configurations and being excited about things, I noticed after a few days that my team members, and myself, were reverting back to just using the contact management functionality. I mean, we had these great tools for capturing form information, setting up automated email reply sequences, automatically scheduling demo bookings etc. all with a press of a single button (and sometimes not even that), but we were going back to typing long hand repeated emails and booking demos the ‘old way’.

This process made me realise that sheer working habits and ‘muscle memory’ dictates a lot of the ways that a team will work. Old habits die hard.

The other thing I realised is that we probably tried to change too much too quickly. Had I rolled out the new features piecemeal over a few weeks, it might have been easier for the team to get completely familiar with one feature before having to learn another one. To that end, I am still rolling out all the fabulous automation that HubSpot has, but slower, and with a little more discipline. I am also listening to the feedback from team members during the rollout, to hear what their thoughts are on each little feature, plus seeing if they have any suggestions for improvement, rather than just setting everything up myself and telling them to go use it.

One last thing I’ve noticed is that if a software system has a lot of features, and most of those features are hidden away out of sight (because the customer has never activated those modules), then it is much, much harder to lead the customer on the path of discovery towards those new modules. We came across this scenario time and time again with the legacy accounting system I spoke about earlier. Our customers would simply have no clue that they could do ‘x’ in that software because they had never seen anything in the system that even hinted at it. It was only during regular on site consulting calls that we would have to talk to the customer about it whenever we discovered there was a need for it.

Even with HubSpot, I am astounded every day when I see what added functionality there is within the system. I would have completely redesigned some of our business practices and processes differently had I known what we would have unlocked by signing up for the full plan. To change them now is much more difficult than setting them up a certain way at the outset.

Taking all this into consideration, I am glad that we designed our flagship SaaS app HR Partner differently. We considered having a ‘modular’ structure at one stage (and indeed, at one stage we even hid the extra modules on the menu that we thought our customers would not use yet), but eschewed that path to provide an ‘all in the box’ solution. The only thing we charge extra for is the Timesheet module, but only about 10% of our customers actually use that, and it is not really an ‘optional’ thing anyhow, but rather something that you would need straight away.

So if you sign up for HR Partner, you get everything available to you at the same monthly subscription price. Users who are curious can click around and self discover new functionality, and they can ask us about it if they need a hand setting it up - or else they can simply play and experiment at their own pace. No need to talk to a consultant or support person and get roped into paying extra. Also, by knowing that the functionality is there, they can better plan to implement it in the future, or set up processes now which will accommodate the extra features down the track.

Do you sell modular software systems? I would love to hear your thoughts on the pros and cons of this methodology.

On Friendship

Ned and Jane, high school friends whom I have known for over 30 years now…

Ned and Jane, high school friends whom I have known for over 30 years now…

I was lucky enough to have spent the Australia Day long weekend just gone hanging out and playing music with old friends. Strange to think that aside from 2 people who I only met in 2017 (you know who you are Kendra and Fiona), that most of my closest friends who I would consider in my ‘inner circle’, I have known for more than three decades. Some of them, over four decades!

I guess that is the nature of my personality. I find it hard to actually make friends in the first place, but once I do make friends whom I connect with, I would gladly take a bullet for them and will be friends with them until the end (or they do something to shatter my trust in them). Those in the ‘inner circle’ are as dear to me as family.

I met friends on the weekend that I hadn’t spoken to in over 10 years, but we still took up where we left off as if it was just last week. And that made me think how lapse I have been over the past many years keeping up contact with my old friends. I have just been too caught up with work and other things going on in my life, that the nurturing of old friendships has been left to wallow in the weeds.

To that end, in 2019 I am intending to put a lot more effort into (a) tightening the bonds of friendship with old friends and (b) casting out the line to create some new friendships with like minded people. As an introvert (INFP), I usually find it difficult to reach out and form new friendships, but I am determined to overcome that and end this year with at least one more person in my ‘inner circle’.

This means:

  • Keeping up with our Sunday picnic session on the clifftops at Nightcliff Jetty (as we did all last year)

  • Attending more functions and music festivals with friends

  • Inviting people around to our house for dinner more often

  • Calling friends out of the blue to go out for a coffee or a beer at a pub

I’ll update this post in 12 months to see how I’ve gone with this initiative.

It was so nice to get a handwritten dinner invite last week!

It was so nice to get a handwritten dinner invite last week!

Note that this means less social media. In the past, I have used Facebook etc. as a bit of a crutch and a passive way to keep up with what my friends are doing, but this year, I am actually going to eschew most social media for communication and get back to some old fashioned talking to people and writing letters.

The Folly of 'Unimportant Data'

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Having been involved in computers for nearly 4 decades now, I have a healthy view towards data backups. Both my Macs are backed up to a local Time Machine drive on my network, PLUS to Amazon Glacier. I also have important development & client files copied to Google Drive and DropBox on a regular basis. Onsite and offsite backup.

I backup nearly all my critical data that I work with daily. However, I also have a ton of data which (I thought) I consider unimportant. This comprises of:

  • Old videos that I have edited and uploaded to Youtube etc.

  • Copies of photos from my wife’s phone

  • Images for all software installers I’ve used while setting up my PCs

  • Interesting videos or lessons that I have downloaded from Youtube over the years

  • Collections of interesting guitar tabs I’ve found online, etc.

Basically, stuff that I thought I could find again later if I really needed them.

Then, this week, the 3TB external drive that I had all this stuff on finally gave up the ghost and died. “No biggie” I thought to myself. “It was nice to have, but I’ll just get a new drive and start accumulating this unimportant stuff again from scratch”.

But then, in that same week:

  • My wife asked about a photo from her old phone that she couldn’t find any longer, and was it in my backup?

  • My son called to ask if I had a raw copy of a video I had edited for him some years ago as he needed another section (that I had edited out in the final render) for an audition he had to do.

  • I found out I had to reinstall an audio plugin for one of my old recordings, and the original publisher no longer had the older version of the plugin (which I needed to match my audio project) available for download on their site any longer.

How coincidental was that? All of a sudden, I needed this “unimportant” data that I thought I could throw away.

So this week, I’ve sent the external drive away to a data recovery service to see what they can do about bringing it back to life. The offer a free inspection to examine the extent of the failure, and quoted my AUD$300 to recover the data if they can. I figure $300 is worth it to me to just have all that data at my fingertips again, and if I do get it back, I will immediately be setting up a Glacier backup for all of it.

The Disconnectivity of Remote Working

Photo by  trail  on  Unsplash

Photo by trail on Unsplash

Throughout the 30+ years of running my own business, I have explored all aspects of teamwork.  From having my own in house team, to having a totally remote team, to a combined mix of the two.

Which do I prefer? Now THAT is an interesting question.

I would consider myself an introvert, and I do prefer working by myself in my own home office a lot of the time.  However, some of my best working memories have been when I have been in an office situation and working alongside others.

There is something about the human connection of being in the same space as others.  A myriad of non verbal cues and communication that goes on, most at a sub conscious level, which lends itself to a better sense of being part of a community which is pulling in the same direction.

Case in point - my current startup is a fully remote setup.  For the past two years, it was really only myself and another co-founder, who worked in a small town literally on the other side of the world.

Now, my co-founder and I had a great working relationship, and we produced a ton of stuff together.  All communication was mainly via Slack and email, and we used to talk on a daily basis PLUS have a weekly web video catch up.

My co-founder left the startup about 2 months ago.  The first week was really challenging, as I directly missed talking to someone while working away on new ideas.

But by the end of the first month, I started to get used to working by myself again.  After all, I had run the startup by myself for about a year before my co-founder joined me.  So it felt basically the same as it did before.

By the end of the second month, I was actually struggling to recall even working with my former co-founder.  This concerned me, as I always considered myself a sensitive person who liked to reminisce about happy memories.  So why was it suddenly so difficult for me to recall any of those good times we had had?  My co-founder's departure was amicable, so this wasn't as a result of any ill feelings.  Rather it just seemed that those experiences and memories were just floating out of reach, and without anything to anchor them too, they just seemed to waft away whenever I tried to recall them.

Even when I would go back through a Slack conversation to find an old screenshot or idea, I would re-read some of our conversations - but I struggled to actually remember the emotions or personality behind those chats.  Re-reading them seemed somehow cold and impersonal and I couldn't tell if I was tired, or angry, excited or happy while typing those paragraphs.

As a direct contrast to that, I can still clearly recall events that happened in my office over 20 years ago when I worked only feet away from the rest of my team.

Tiny things like a shared look, collapsing on the floor laughing at an 'in house' joke, or the casual punch on the shoulder as someone congratulated you while walking past your desk - all those things just added so much to my working experience that I, even as a self confessed 'lone wolf', missed them terribly.

There is something about being around people who are experiencing the highs and lows of their lives (even outside of work) that is strangely enriching and bonding.

To extend this even further - I was looking through my Facebook feed just this week, and I realised that I have become close friends with a vast majority of people that I have worked with face to face over the decades.  Remote workers much less so.  For some reason when a former remote staff member posts about their family or holiday or other life event, I find myself a lot less engaged with their thoughts and feelings.  There is still an element of them being an unknown 'stranger' so that any such intimate details of their lives instills a sense of guilt that I tend to deliberately avoid seeming too familiar or presumptuous when reading their posts.

While my recently departed co-founder and I had discussed an actual company meetup where we (and potential future staff) could meet face to face, it never happened during our working time together.  And now that my co-founder has moved on, I have accepted that we will probably never, ever meet in real life.

I am in the process of building up a whole new remote team now though, and am looking at strategies to try and counter this feeling of disconnection with those that I will figuratively work alongside for the coming years.

Regular company face to face meetups are definitely on the cards.  But I am also thinking that we might need to put something else in place outside of those times.

But what could take the virtual place of those little moments like tossing a paper plane across the office to see whose desk it would land on, or the understanding look that I would share with a colleague across from me after hanging up from a talking to a difficult client, or the good natured group ribbing that would happen when a co-worker brought a delicious smelling lunch into the office?  I have yet to see a web or mobile app that can replicate this sort of interaction.

Perhaps I have to go and invent it?