For those of you who’ve been keeping track, we launched LavaBlast Software back in April 2007. A year later, we posted three software startup lessons about how we got started and followed up the year after that with four more fun software startup lessons. Now that Year 3 is complete, I should write another set of software startup lessons, but that can wait. Today, I feel we’ve come full circle because we’ve begun working on the type of fun project that we would have enjoyed doing three years ago, but couldn’t afford the risk. In a sense, it feels like a full circle and a new beginning for LavaBlast even though we’re simply working on a new product.
BookingBlast is going to be legen – wait for it – dary. Read on to know more!
Starting from scratch
Pretty much straight out of university, we started LavaBlast Software. We had no money so we had to be creative. By creative, I mean we had to be cheap, work hard and work on something low risk to pay the bills. The recipe for success is simple and we’ve said it before. Let’s just say we sell to businesses and we keep the intellectual property. This strategy has allowed us to start from scratch and making a living.
We already have BookingBlast’s building blocks and now have enough runway to execute on our idea.
Some may stop here – but that’s not enough for us. We have greater ambitions - we’re looking for something bigger - for a greater reward. Based on the assumption that it takes a decade to launch a successful business, we’re not even a third through. We’ve passed through survival and have been growing steadily, but we’re now anxious to move to the next level.
We feel we can get there by converting the enterprise-level software we’ve been producing to date into more scalable Software as a Service (SaaS) products. We’ve been wanting to do this since day 1, but needed short-term revenues. We’re now re-investing into LavaBlast to give us this flexibility. (I guess that visit to an unspoiled private tropical island will have to wait.) We toyed with a few concepts during the past year, looking for software products that:
- No per-client customizations (greater scalability)
- Sold to businesses, not individuals (faster revenue)
- Shorter sales cycle, lower recurring dollar amount per sale (easier to commercialize)
- Related to our existing work and/or future strategies (reuse and upsell synergies)
Hold your horses! I’ll describe BookingBlast’s awesomeness in a minute.
Context & Goal
Our short-term goal with this project is knowledge. We’ve been building enterprise software for a while and want to dumb things down and start aiming for higher volume, but we need to adapt our know-how. We see BookingBlast as a practice run whereas our business is a marathon.
Our long-term goal is growth, in terms of revenue and the size of the company. Lots of the enterprise-level work we’ve done can be commercialized to a broader market but we need a longer runway.
Spill the beans already! What’s BookingBlast?
BookingBlast allows service-based businesses to accept online bookings. Reservations are accepted only during available time slots and deposits are paid online, in advance.
To clarify, our software will allow customers to:
- Book your child’s birthday party online
- Book mobile clowns/magicians/comedians online
- Reserve a massage / spa services online
- Book your chiropractor from their website
- Book a photographer from their Facebook page
- … and accept bookings/reservations in many other industries.
That’s it. It’s not rocket science. It’s been done already – there are many competitors in this space – the market exists. The barrier to entry is low. But that’s not stopping us, because we have a plan. What better way to test our plan than to go out and execute it? The worst that will happen is sales will be lower than desired and we’ll still reach our short-term goal of knowledge. We’re not betting the farm on this – it’s a stepping stone in the context of our longer-term vision.
How did you come up with your secret master plan?
We understand that this is a marketing play more than a technical one. We’re not inventing a killer product, although we can be innovative in our implementation. We decided it was in our best interests to share our plans for BookingBlast with people from diverse backgrounds and get them involved in the process. Ian Graham of The Code Factory always says the engineering students/graduates from the University of Ottawa are more secretive than the ones from Carleton University and we decided to prove him wrong. We openly solicited feedback on Google Wave and at TeamCamp. In the end, we found that we’re not that crazy after all as this validated our initial opinions. We did discover a few interesting twists which we plan on using, however.
Therefore, our plan is not secret – you’ll hear more about it when our product will be in beta. However, here a few lessons we learned from our experiences with collaborative planning.
Phase 1: Internal research
We looked around to find competitors and market penetration strategies. We discussed this internally over a coffee and did our homework. I produced a one-page executive summary of my initial plans.
Phase 2: Feedback solicitation via Google Wave
We published a private wave and invited two dozen random people. We made sure to invite people who were not extremely close to us because their feedback would be biased. We made it clear that the participants could feel free to ignore us as we didn’t care to force anyone into open collaboration, especially if they were busy with their own work. We found that the people least close to us were the ones who contributed the most to the discussion. Within 24h, the discussion had grown to approximately 8 times as long as the original executive summary. Within the next 48h, the discussion grew a bit more, with a few late-comers giving their comments.
The early discussions were the most valuable. They brought in new elements and got everyone involved. They definitely changed our strategy. However, as the discussion grew, I felt that most people lost interest because there was too much to be read. The barrier to entry had been raised, which caused most of the late-comers to elect not to participate. Initially, we thought this was a bad thing as we wanted more feedback, but in retrospect, we feel that what needed to be said was said early on. Had we discussed the same material with each person individually, we would have elicited the same comments over and over. Redundant feedback is not useful (other than for validation) and is a huge time waster.
In conclusion, open collaboration is a great technique to elicit feedback very quickly. I am greatly thankful to those who participated.
Phase 3: Feedback solicitation via TeamCamp
Ottawa’s primary co-working location, The Code Factory, hosts a bi-monthly event initiated by Chris Schmitt called TeamCamp. Once in a while, TeamCamp will have a pitch night where the participants pitch their idea to the group and get feedback. This is a very informal round-table setup but you get to chat with interesting people in Ottawa. A few weeks ago, I pitched BookingBlast to the group. This was great validation for our online booking software, as it proved that we had properly thought it out. Some new strategies were put on the table, but the biggest lesson learned is that you don’t need to spend months thinking about your project if you’re agile enough to adapt it along the way.
Furthermore, we finally had someone stand up and say our idea wasn’t good enough, something we had been waiting for since we started planning BookingBlast. Given the small scale of the project and the low barrier to entry, I was expecting most people to shoot our idea down quickly. Maybe I watch Dragon’s Den too much and read too many angel investor/venture capitalist blogs. In any case, this brought forth great discussions where it appeared other individuals were reading my mind while defending our online reservation software for me.
We’re now ready to start implementing the project! (In fact, we’ve already started and it is progressing nicely!)
We need your help
We’ve posted a basic information request page on our website. If you know business owners that would be interested in participating in our alpha/beta programs, please have them sign-up to our newsletter. We’re approaching the market in a different fashion that what the competition is doing, so we’d love to talk to business owners directly.
Since a good portion of our readers builds software for other businesses, we’d also like to talk to web developers that manage business websites.
Also, feel free to share your thoughts on BookingBlast and how to make it work in the comments. We’re thinking of openly blogging about thinks like SaaS pricing and gathering data concerning some of our strategies for future discussions and commentary.