Long read: why we work agile
A longer thought piece by Dropsolid CEO and co-founder Dominique on the reasons behind our agile approach. (Spoiler alert: because we're wired to create business value for every client). A Dutch translation of this article is available here.
In this blog post I will explain:
- How our way of working enables every company to transform and become a digital business company. And, coincidentally, why classic RFPs are a thing of the past.
- How freedom time results in a superior service to our customers.
- Why this added value does not imply a disproportionately large price tag
The digital business company in today's market
The inconvenient truth has long been out: websites have become a commodity business. A lot of perfectly capable Drupal agencies and website builders are suffering in today’s hyper-competitive market. Plenty of small companies with very bright, young and motivated minds work day and night to deliver websites to their customers at ridiculous and, eventually, unsustainable day rates. A few upcoming SaaS and PaaS tools – including our very own James and Jenny – are shaping the further automation of web development. Add to this the ever-increasing proliferation of offshore development companies and it is easy to see how this race to the bottom is providing the end customer in excellent value for money. Or is it? In the short run, yes.
In today’s Belgium market, everyone is perpetually busy with frantic attempts to take their company into the digital realm. Proven business models across all sectors are under severe pressure due to the digital disruption and CEOs across the country are rushing to get neatly designed, decent-looking website platforms up and running in a new-web age. In this heated market, value, time and freedom are a scarce resource. In the long run, however, the value of a website or digitally connected environment does not lie in the click and code, but in the business value of the solution. These days, there’s nothing easier than creating a beautiful website at minimal cost. If the platform behind it is incapable of serving the underlying business goals, the website is completely and utterly useless.
This heated market allows for tremendous opportunities. Most old-school agencies are busy squeezing every last drop out of both their customers’ existing budget and the time of their developers. It does not require a visionary mind to realise that this will eventually lead to rack and ruin – both in terms of human capital and quality of the solutions delivered. At Dropsolid, we do things different and create Freedom Time for our teams. This will become clear later. First, allow me to compare the old-school way of web development to the new way of creating digital experiences.
Transition from fixed-price RFPs to agile development
Every professional is familiar with the classic RFP model and its explanation is rather straightforward.
Internal stakeholders sit together to define business requirements and, subsequently, concrete features of the desired solution(s). Some of the larger organisations bring external consultants to the table to help define some of the required capabilities, but this is not always the case.
The next step is a closed or public fixed-price request for proposal to potential vendors, organised by the presales or central purchasing department. The final vendor selection is usually heavily price-based, completeness of the supplier’s response - matching every request - and, sometimes, a demo of the proposed solution. A typical RFP track looks like this:
- Perceived need > RFP > 1-on-1 response
- Price-based vendor selection > fixed-price kick-off > analysis
- Wireframes and design > development > theming > training
- Launch > support
This seems to make perfect sense at first sight. Both the responsibilities and budget are clear from the outset. The bulk of the work for web development companies lies in matching the required capabilities with the web development company’s expertise and offerings. Counterintuitively though, these kind of projects do not provide enough value per euro invested. Even worse: they allow the integrator or agency to remain passive and they transfer the majority of the risk and responsibility to the buyer.
Very often there is a disconnect between the perceived and actual required capabilities of organisations. In layman’s terms: companies usually don’t know what they need. Fixed-price RFPs are both the simplest and the hardest thing: X will be provided by Y date for Z price. At Dropsolid, we like to challenge this, because we believe that fixed-price RFPs generate less business value per euro invested. Rigorous advance planning and a feature-heavy focus hardly ever lead to a cost-efficient, ROI-sensible solution in the long run. That is why we are geared towards a different way of working, according to the following (simplified) model:
Note the cyclical, continuous integration approach to the above graph. In a longer version, it reads like this:
- Contact companies before they have realized the issues themselves
- Requirements analysis or Transformation/Business scan
- Presales phase: more oriented towards potential ROI calculation
- Project kick-off, first sprints based on must haves
- Functional and Technical Analysis
- Wireframing and subsequent design
- Development, theming and user training
- Go back to step one and repeat if necessary!
We did not devise this seemingly lengthy, circular approach to appear different or justify charging more (which we don’t do anyway). We build websites using the Dropsolid agile development model because we learned the hard way. Businesses have business problems, and that is why we are here to solve them together. We do not only ask our customers what they want, we try to think proactively and come up together with the best solution that generates the most value. In the founding years of Dropsolid, we sometimes made the mistake of going along with our client’s wishes too much, because they seemed to know perfectly what they needed. Often they were right, more often they weren’t.
Web development used to be easy. Not anymore. Organisations no longer need websites, they need far-reaching digital experiences. End customers are increasingly expecting – not just demanding – an smooth, unified experience across all channels. Good luck trying to do this with a disconnected web platform - it simply won't do.
Automation to enable value-creating freedom time
Back to our initial story: why we differentiate ourselves from typical web agencies. And why we do not allow our customers to squeeze themselves and our staff until everyone runs out of juice. You'll notice that I'm not justifying a slow and expensive approach – in fact, quite the opposite is true.
Ever since day one, we have allowed our teams to set aside some time to be creative. This has resulted in plenty of innovations over the past four years: the best example is James, our Drupal Cloud Butler (a PaaS product). Through automation and standardisation of run-of-the-mill processes, implementations and tools, we are now in the perfect position to focus on what matters: enabling digital experiences and delivering on digital business.
Added value of a digital business company
It’s all about building the right things that will have the most impact on your business. This is an inherently different approach than digital agencies take. They will build just the website that you ask for, with a heavy focus on the marketing side of things. Something they are usually pretty good at. Which is why we prefer to collaborate with them on large projects, rather than fighting them. On the other side of the market, however, you find the pure website integrator. They will focus on the specs and rely mostly on the client for generating ideas about adding business value and how they tie in with digital transformation and digital industrialisation.
Our Freedom Time allows us to build and adapt our products, which often - if not always - results in a better overall solution for our customers. We have now built plenty of solutions for the most common business problems, so we can share the development costs over multiple customers. A digital business company implies a complete and aligned vision in strategy, service and products. With the goal always being more value for the customer. The golden combo of standardised and custom capabilities allows for a faster time-to-market, a great TCO and agile way of working, so business can stay in the driver’s seat. No more no’s from IT, no more postponement from the marketing teams. No more huge budgets going to large, and upon completion, possibly outdated feature-filled websites. The agile way of working, allows for a counterintuitive conservative way of spending.
Talking numbers, internally we keep a tight check on things through our extensive managing and reporting tools (Cumul.io, Redmine, Teamleader, etc.). Our team’s freedom time has resulted in creative innovations and I strongly believe it will continue to do so. Our multisite platform, for example, will be a next step. The teams get time to think, time to build and the freedom to create and build new things.
Our customers do not pay us for the work of an individual team members – they pay us for the combined experience of the entire team. Our overhead costs ultimately result in extra value for our customers – we better make sure it does, otherwise we'll be out of a job soon. We provide stability, continuity, business value, strategy and completeness of vision, all under the umbrella of the Dropsolid brand.
If you've made it this far down my blog post, you might have been suppressing the urge to pull a Mitterand and remark: "et alors?" Well, it's quite simple: this way of working matters to your business, too.
Our rigorous approach was not designed to make you sign a blank cheque whilst mitigating accountability from our end - quite the contrary. By analysing the business needs and breaking them down into individual items and business epics, you as a business owner can keep a tighter check than ever on our performance. Every single working hour is accounted for and provides actionable results. If something doesn't feel quite right or does not generate the required impact, we simply replace it with something different. And that is, ultimately, where the value for you and your business lies: generating maximum impact with minimum waste of time, effort, resources and money. If you disagree, put us to the test: I am confident we will be able to prove you wrong.