Working With E-Builders

If you work with big web service firms, you may have noticed that the industry has had a tough couple of months.

  • On November 21, MarchFirst announced the need to raise $100 million in cash to meet its obligations through early 2001.

  • Earlier this month, Xpedior’s parent, PSINet, classified it as a “discontinued operation” and is now eager to sell it off.
  • In July, one of Razorfish’s clients sued it for missing most of its deadlines and delivering an “unusable” site.

Shares of nearly all the big, public e-builders have plummeted, putting their employees’ stock options — and morale — under water. What’s wrong with the industry, and how can you avoid being affected by the troubles?

The biggest firms have grown too large, too fast. The industry is only six years old, after all, and some of these companies have been public for two of them. Desperate to handle their additional employees and projects, most have organized themselves like ad agencies. Account executives deal with clients. Producers manage schedules and budgets. Designers and programmers labor behind the scenes creating the actual deliverables. It’s all supposed to run like clockwork if everyone sticks to their detailed, written processes.

Sadly, real-life projects rarely conform neatly with process flow charts. Creating and running today’s e-businesses isn’t like making a magazine ad or a TV commercial. Take, say, a typical e-tailer who wants to make it easier for shoppers to find and buy products on her site. A designer might want to adjust the site’s layout and colors. A strategist might suggest cross-selling related products. An information architect might reduce the number of links and menus on each page. A copywriter might improve the clarity of the help text. A programmer might look for ways to make the search engine return more relevant results.

Any or all of these may be appropriate. But specialists see the world from their own particular point of view. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. If the e-tailer wants to apply a number of these suggestions, the consultants need to coordinate not only with the client but also among themselves. Then their elaborate process, intended to help, instead slows everyone down with too-granular status reports, irrelevant documentation, and endless meetings — if anyone pays it any attention at all.

After running a variety of projects over the years, one thing I’ve learned is that a small team of experienced, well-rounded professionals works faster, costs less, and produces better results than a big, bureaucratic company. Big agencies want you to think you need dozens of anonymous web monkeys slaving over expensive middleware and a multitier infrastructure to create a category-killer web application. That plays to their strength, which is the number of people they can throw at a project. But it’s not necessarily true.

Here’s what I’d recommend instead:

Hire people, not companies. It isn’t a firm’s expertise that matters, but that of its individual professionals. Can you even name the people who run the companies you engage? When you evaluate a firm, get references and portfolios not only of the firm as a whole, but also of those who will actually work on your project.

Make sure the people you deal with regularly are the ones doing the work. Ad agencies hide their creatives behind account executives. That doesn’t work for e-builders. You need to communicate directly with the designers and programmers building your business. It’s no use finding people whose talent and experience you admire if they are secretly pulled away for other projects.

Avoid firms that try to hide behind a process. You’ll only get frustrated with their inefficiency and rigidity. To test a firm’s flexibility, ask how it handles changes in midstream. Alarm bells should ring if it answers that its up-front requirements analysis and project planning minimize the need for changes down the road. Good consultants know that as a side effect of working at Internet speed, all projects see their requirements change along the way.

Focus on your business goals. Know what you want to make and to whom you want to sell it. Come up with measurable success targets. Prioritize all the features of your product so your consultants can work on the most important ones first, giving you something that has business value even before the project is finished.

Don’t micromanage your consultants. Once you find good, experienced people to work with, let them do their thing. Ensure they are always working on whatever your business needs most at the moment, but don’t dictate what technologies they must use. Accept their time and cost estimates, and understand that any changes you make will affect the deadline and final cost.

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