In the Arena

Almost every day at some point I wander over to Hacker News, which has some great discussion, along with some less great discussion, among people pursuing or aspiring to pursue a software startup or similar business. Likewise with local events (like ITEN STL offers), and even more so the Business of Software conference earlier this month. (experiences)

I used to have a software product business myself, a vertical market SaaS firm. Now that I’ve been out of that for over a year, the thing I miss most is the feeling of being “in the arena”, of having a speculative product out there for people to buy. To be out there is both terrifying and exhilarating. I have heard it said that there are “product people” and “consulting people”, and looking back it is clear to me that I am mostly in the Product category.

Unlike some product people (like Amy Hoy, whom I admire greatly!) I don’t think it’s necessary to swear off one thing to do the other. Consulting (building software for clients) is very satisfying, especially when working with a team of great people (and a group of very competent customers) like we have at Oasis Digital.

So while I’m going to keep building software for other people, I’m also going to go back to the marketplace with speculative products. This time it will be products in the plural, some subset of:

  • Web/SaaS software
  • iPad software
  • iPhone / iPod Touch software
  • Android software (by year-end the stores will be piled high with Android tablets)
  • Or possibly HTML5/etc software to address all of the above
  • Backend / data / system management software
  • Or even, possibly, locally installed desktop software

I apologize for the vagueness of this list; but I agree with Derek Sivers about keeping one’s specific goals to oneself so my voluminous and tedious notes on exactly what products to offer, will remain offline.

SaaS: The Business Model – Video

On Feb. 27 at St. Louis Innovation Camp 2010, I gave a talk on the SaaS business model. I posted the slides, handout, audio, and transcript soon thereafter. Here, finally, is a video of the 44-minute-long talk. Why did it take over three months to get online? Read on below.

video

Warning: Sausage-making Discussion Below

The following has nothing to do with the content of the video.

This is an x.264 video, shown here initially with a Flash-only player (FV WordPress Flowplayer). Later I’ll replace this Flash-only widget with one that offers HTML5 video (for iPad use, in particular), when I find one that works sufficiently well.

That’s the easy part, though. Getting this video to you here was an adventure, and not in a good way. Three recordings were made of the talk:

  1. We hired a professional videographer to record the talk. When I say professional, I mean it only in the most literal way, i.e. the videographer charged money. They showed up with a nice camera and a wireless lapel mic… but somehow produced a broken video recording (the first 10-15 minutes were intermittant video noise). In addition, the mic gain was turned up way too high and thus the audio is awful.
  2. Dave Blankenship recorded the talk on his consumer camcoder; he was not paid for this, and he did a much better job. This video is usable all the way through, but arrived in an oddball format produced mostly by some models of JVC camcorders. The audio was not so hot, because he used the mic built in to the camcorder from the back of the room.
  3. I recorded the audio using a $5 microphone plugged in to an iPod Nano, sitting on a table at the front of the room. It’s a bit noisy, but with a few minutes of work with Audacity (Noise Removal and Normalization), the results are much better than either video attempt.

Armed with this, I set about to somehow combine the video from #2 with the audio from #3. I send emails describing this mess to several videographers I found on Craigslist. Most of them didn’t reply at all. I finally got a cost estimate from one, of many hundreds of dollars or more, and not much assurance of results.

Now I’m willing to spend some money to get good results, but spending it without confidence of results is less appealing; so I set about trying myself instead.

First, I cleaned the audio in Audacity as mentioned above.

Second, I watched the video and listened to the audio a few times, to get the approximate starting timestamp in each one of the moment the talk actually started; each recording had a different amount of lead-in time

Third, I grabbed ffmpeg, the swiss army knife of command line video and audio processing. After reading a dozen web pages of ffmpeg advice, and a number of experiments (with short -t settings, to quickly see how well it works without waiting to transcode the whole thing), I ended up with this command to produce the encoded video:

ffmpeg -y -ss 40.0 -i Recording-3-audio-only-clean.wav -ss 95 -i Recording-2-video-ok-audio-bad.mod -shortest -t 18000 -vcodec libx264 -vpre normal -b 700k -threads 2 Cordes-2010-SaaS.m4v

I then noticed that the MacPorts installation of ffmpeg omits the important qt-faststart tool, and found this helpful version of qt-faststart and used it instead, on my Mac; later I switched to a Linux machine with an ffmpeg install including qt-faststart. Without the faststart step, the metadata in the m4v file is arranged in a way that prevent progressive/streaming play-while-downloading.

The results are good but not great:

  • The video has some motion/interlace artifacts; these were present in the original recording, and I’m not aware offhand of what to do about them
  • The video camera used rectangular pixels; the pixel aspect ratio is 3:2 while it is intended for display at 16:9. I wasn’t able (at least in 20 minutes of learning and experimentation) to get the 16:9 output working correctly, so if you grab the underlying m4v file you can see the aspect ratio a bit off in the shape of the clock on the wall, for example.
  • The audio-video sync is adequate (and plenty good enough to follow along) but not perfect. Clearly using the audio track on a video recording is much better than putting them together in post-processing.
  • The audio is not as good as if I used a lav or headset mic, though I think it’s quite remarkably good for a $5 mic plugged in to iPod.
  • I’ve no idea if ffmpeg complies with any of the relevant copyrights/patents/whatever in video production, though it seems hopefully safe to use for a one-off non-commercial video like this. (Normally I use Apple’s iMovie for my videos, and I assume Apple has taken care of such things.)

A few morals of this story:

  • Get some powerful tools, and learn how to use them.
  • Be willing to pay for professional work, but be skeptical. Just because you pay, doesn’t mean it will be quality work.
  • Have a plan B. If I had assumed that at least one of the two videos would get decent audio, and skipped my own audio recording, I’d not have been able to deliver the acceptable audio here. If Dave had assumed that my professional videographer would produce results, and turned off his camera, we’d have no video here at all.

Mobile Workforce Management, a Five Year SaaS Mission Completed

Here is the story of a substantial chunk of my professional life over the last five years. I didn’t tell this story in real time (for various good reasons), though I have mentioned bits of it in various talks.

In 2004, I co-founded a vertical market Software as a Service firm, Mobile Workforce Management (MWM). MWM serves the underground utility locating industry with a Software-as-a-Service offering, TicketRx. Most people interact with this industry only with an occasional “call before you dig”, and think of it as just a phone number. However, there is a lot more to that industry than a phone number; there are numerous companies involved, each interacting with the others to complete the work. It is a vertical market niche with specific software needs, which our product met.

I personally wrote and administrated the first version of the TicketRx software and the first few servers, and my cofounder personally performed analysis, support, documentation, operations, and mountains of other work. We then incrementally hired a team to expand our capacity (and make ourselves replaceable), building an organization to serve its customers. Our software startup became an operating business with a life of its own.

Fast forward… five years of incremental and accelerating growth…

In 2009, the opportunity presented itself to sell MWM, and we did so. MWM is still there, operating fine without me. The press release about the sale is online and is also reproduced below. It is amusing to see how PR-speak invaded, labeling TicketRx as “custom” even though its whole essence was to not be custom, but rather off-the-shelf and highly configurable. Perhaps it is custom in the very broad sense of being industry-specific.

As is common in deals like this, the “terms of the transactions were not disclosed”, along with many other interesting bits. Still, I have a great number of lessons-learned to share in future posts and talks; and as of early 2010, there is extensive information about the product itself on the company’s web site, http://mwmsolutions.com/

Where does that leave me?

For some reason, the notion of having two companies then selling one, has been surprisingly hard to communicate. I still own Oasis Digital Solutions Inc., a consulting / custom software development firm, and work more intensely than ever with its customers and developers. Oasis Digital is growing up rapidly, with marketing efforts and ever-increasing process and organizational maturity.

Growing a product/SaaS business was a great experience, and one I hope to repeat. I’m actively on the lookout for another non-consulting software business to launch, when the time and opportunity are right.


St. Louis-based MWM sold to Consolidated Utility Services Inc.

Custom software product TicketRx, provides cost effective job tracking for utility locating company

Jan. 19, 2010: ST. LOUIS, Mo. – St. Louis-based Mobile Workforce Management has announced the successful sale of its company assets, including its commercial software as a service product, TicketRx, to Consolidated Utility Services Inc., an underground utilities locator company based in Omaha, Nebraska.

“With TicketRx, we created a customizable system to provide field service staff remote access and management tools for receiving, routing and tracking tickets and job assignments in real time,” said Kyle Cordes, a principal of Mobile Workforce Management (MWM) and owner of local consulting firm Oasis Digital. “We started TicketRx in 2004, and experienced great success with over 1,000 users and a growth rate of 25% per year.”

The sale of TicketRx to Consolidated will allow the company to integrate the system into their full spectrum of services that serve to protect utility companies’ underground infrastructure. In addition to ticket tracking, Consolidated offers clients systems for locating utilities, performing field audits and managing claims.

“Creating a comprehensive software solution such as TicketRx that fulfills a complex set of needs and watching it operate successfully is a very rewarding experience,” said Cordes. “I am confident the custom software solution we developed will make Consolidated’s business stronger.”

TicketRx processes one-call tickets from ‘call before you dig’ call centers or utility companies and then routes the work to the appropriate field worker. Technicians have immediate access to the information they need, which improves on-time performance. And managers have easy-to-use tools for scheduling, balancing work loads and providing emergency notifications. The system tracks all activity on the ticket, which can be used to create invoices and reports.

TicketRx is a Software as a Service (SaaS) model, a growing trend in which companies are adopting easy-to-use services that can be integrated efficiently, with minimal risk and at a cost advantage. With SaaS companies can have the service they need without the responsibility for their own internal servers, data centers or related IT staff, saving them time and money. According to industry analyst firm Gartner by 2010, 30 percent of all new software will be delivered as a service

Since the sale of MWM, Cordes will focus his energies on Oasis Digital. “The sale of MWM and TicketRx allows us to concentrate our efforts first on our consulting clients here in St. Louis and elsewhere, then later on our next SaaS opportunity,” Cordes said.

About Oasis Digital Solutions Inc.

St. Louis-based Oasis Digital develops custom software for workflow management, application integration, business process automation, and handheld devices for companies nationwide. Oasis Digital can produce a whole project or subsystem depending on the needs of the client, using a variety of computer languages and technologies. Fore more information, visit www.oasisdigital.com.

About TicketRx

TicketRx is a product of Mobile Workforce Management, LLC, and is a software-as-a-service program for the underground utility locating industry that can manage locating tickets from one-call centers or directly from the utility companies. TicketRx offers a unique combination of a broad feature set, fast setup and quick learning time. For more information, visit www.mwmsolutions.com/ticketrx.

SaaS: The Business Model – Slides, Audio, Transcript

On Feb. 27 at St. Louis Innovation Camp 2010, I gave a talk on the SaaS business model. If you missed it, you might be interested in:

Upcoming Talk: How to SaaS, Revisited

Back in 2007 I gave a talk on Selling your Software as a Service. The room was quite small but tightly packed, and several people have asked since then if I plan to repeat it. (I went back and listened to the recording of that talk, on the linked page; it holds up quite well. I recommend it if you interested in the topic!)

I finally have the right opportunity to do so; later this month at the St. Louis Innovation Camp mini-conference I’ll give an updated talk on the same topic, on Friday, Feb 26, in a time-slot to-be-determined. The talk:

The Software as a Service Business Model

In this talk, I will share some “lessons learned” from five years operating a Software as a Service business. Topics will include:

  • What is SaaS?
  • Starting a SaaS business
  • SaaS Product Management
  • Cash Flow
  • Customer Retention
  • Infrastructure and Operations