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Getting to launch! A step-by-step guide…

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Ok, so you’ve got an idea, you’ve got a limited budget and you want to start your own company. To keep control of costs you’ve decided to off-shore the development. Now what do you do? How do you go from idea to launched system? In this post I’ll detail your first steps towards launch. By the end of it you’ll know how to build a mock-up of your business idea and write the most important document you’ll write for the company: your functional specification.
For a simple system this process should take you a month. For a complex build there will be a lot more research and your mock-up and functional specification will be big, budget 3 months of full-time work.
You may also find it useful to look at my overview of starting-up post, first in this series.

A word on strategy
Every good business begins with a solid understanding of the proposition and business plan, in short, your strategy. There’s plenty of quality material on the Internet which covers this, so I’ve assumed that you’ve already done this and you’re now want to take the next step.
However, it is worth reading Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 Rule of Powerpoint it’ll provide you with an idea of what should be included in your business plan and strategy. Your actual business plan should be in a lot more detail than Guy describes in his post – his rules relate only to how the results of your work should be presented, not how the content should be derived.
From here, we can work on how to get your system developed.

From strategy to development
Whether you are out-sourcing or developing in house there are two ways to build a system:

1) Give your developers a rough idea of what to build and keep iterating the design as they build it
2) Give you developers detailed documentation of what to build

When out-sourcing, the second option is always cheaper, faster and lower-risk, not only that but the end product will be better architected, more coherent and easier to maintain. Given this, it might surprise you to learn that the VAST majority of out-sourced developments go down route 1.
Don’t do it, it is more work at the start but entirely worth it.
The basic premise of option 2 is simple, instead of relying on your developers to think through your business properly, you take responsibility yourself. You’ll do this in two ways, firstly by creating a mock-up and then by documenting that mock-up in a functional specification.

Your mock-up
First thing you need to do is get yourself tooled up to create your mock-up.
This requires a visual web-editor (assuming you’re building a web-application). Personally I use Visual Web-Developer from Microsoft, it’s free and powerful. However, it is also very complicated to use as it’s a full web-development environment. If you don’t know how to code in C# then it is probably easier and faster to use Adobe’s Dreamweaver, Frontpage or the freeware KompoZer.
A mock-up is a run through of your site and the learning process you’ll go through as you create it will be exceptionally revealing. It sounds simple but when you start to put pen to paper you’ll very quickly find that it isn’t. Your mock-up is the first stage of building a real understanding of what your system has to do.
The mock-up should contain no functionality and doesn’t need the final graphic design. Its objective is to help your developers understand what information the system should capture, when it should be displayed and what it should do with it when the user “does stuff” on your site.
To give you an idea of how it should look and feel, I’ve created a small mock-up of an email service for you to peruse. Granted it is a mock-up for a terrible email service, but it should serve the purpose of detailing what a mock-up should contact.
When you’re building it, remember to include an admin interface – believe it or not, it is easy to forget to include this. Make sure you think through how you will administer the system, handle customer queries, examine user accounts, run reports on user numbers and website traffic, etc, etc.
Only when you’ve completed your mock-up and been through several iterations with any other business partners you are ready to move onto the next stage, documenting it in a functional specification.

The functional specification
This document is the most important document which you’ll write for your business. It will tell the developer exactly what your system should do. It will contain every page you’ve created in your mock-up and for each screenshot it’ll explain what’s happening on the screen, what the user can do from there and what the system should be doing in the background. The document is called a “functional” specification because it should describe “what” your system does, rather than “how” it should be done.
First thing you need to do is get tooled up. You’ll write the document in Word (or equivalent). You’ll need to include a lot of screenshots and I’ve always found the Firefox plug-in Pearl Crescent Page Saver invaluable – it lets you take screenshots of a whole webpage (not just the part which is displayed).
Secondly you’ll find that you need some software to create flow charts in, I used WizFlow before we bought Visio from Microsoft. Wizflow if easy to use and does most of the stuff you’ll need.

When you set out to write your functional spec, you need to follow a clear structure so that your developers can understand what you are saying. The structure which I always use is:

1) Confidentiality notice – make it clear that this document is your property and you are serious about controlling your IP
2) Introduction – you should describe your company, the structure of the document and a one paragraph of overview of your system
3) User scenarios – Include at least 5 clearly written accounts of what a user might do on your system. These serve to ensure that everyone who ends up on the development team knows what the system is for, write them as a chronological story
4) Overview of the system –five page description of what you system should do, keep it very high-level and include a system overview diagram (see later)
5) End-user functionality – a section for each system module (see later) in the system overview. Each section should include several sub-sections for each possible action within that module
6) Administrator functionality –section for each admin module and sub-sections for each possible action
7) Non-functional requirements – design integration, SEO, availability and uptime requirements, scalability requirements and load calculation, data validators, security and back-up and the development platform (if you have one)

Clearly in a blog post I cannot cover each of these in detail, but one element which is particularly important is your system overview diagram, whilst the developers might not build the system in this way, it is useful for you to mentally split your system up into modules. I’ve done a simple example using email system used in the mock-up:

Matt’s System Overview Diagram

The four boxes would be the four major sections within the “End-user functionality” section of your functional specification. Within each section you should cover with precision what all the possible actions are and what the system should do. From this it is easy to build out your document structure. So for “user access” we’d need a sub-section on “Create account”, “Log in”, “Forgot password”, etc.
Start by building out the document structure. Only when that is complete should you start filling out all the details. This way you’ll slowly build up your document without feeling overwhelmed by it. When you are writing one section, you’ll get ideas for other sections – when this happens go to the relevant section and add the thought in square brackets so you know what to cover when you get to it.
Trust me on this: only one person can author a functional specification. More than one person can review it, but only one person can author.

A word on AJAX
You can’t launch a new site these days without using a few dollops of AJAX here and there, it just wouldn’t do. However, you can’t incorporate AJAX into your mock-up (as there’s no functionality). Where there is a functional requirement for AJAX you’ll need to use a new page in your mock-up (the complete opposite of what AJAX gives you). Therefore you need to explicitly include your AJAX requirements in your functional spec, personally I insert my AJAX requirements in a box, so they are clear to the developers.

In parallel to writing your functional spec, start up the following container documents:
* Future ideas for the development of the system
* Legal points you want to make sure that are included in the terms and conditions
* Any design thoughts (include here screenshots of website designs you like)
* Patent ideas
* Marketing ideas

As you are working through your functional spec you’ll be coming up with lots of ideas in all of these categories (and possible more). Make sure you’ve got simple lists you can just drop them into – get them out of your head and into the computer as fast as you can so that you can maintain a clear mental space free from idea clutter.
Creating a quality functional specification is a time-consuming, but essential, job. Take your time and do a quality job. Don’t be surprised if the document ends up being hundreds of pages long. It vastly increases your chance of delivery.
In the next post I’ll be looking at how to build a long-list of developers, run an RFI to create a developer short-list, run an RFQ to select a vendor and a spare and then what to look out for in the development contract.
I’ve covered a lot of ground in this post, and it’s always hard to compress everything necessary into a small enough package to fit in a blog post, I hope you’ve found this useful. If you have, feel free sign up for our beta trial using the code “startup”.

Editor’s Note: Matt Rogers is the founder of Aroxo, a new web-retail site based in London. He is also a regular contributor to Found|READ. This is the latest in his series on bootstrapping. Read an earlier post here, and check out Matt’s other writings on his blog, Digging my own ditch.

17 Responses to “Getting to launch! A step-by-step guide…”

  1. A year later I must say from experience this is a brilliant article and summary. Despite a degree in Computer Science, only until learning on the job did we realise that along with using agile/incremental (prototyping) development methods, we need to take responsibility for the Information Architecture etc ourselves before handing it over to the developers, and use a little of that old waterfall model too. (Models are misleading).

    Otherwise the process of evolving a project alongside an offshore team becomes near impossible, and early critical trade offs stress them so much at early stages that they lose drive, and consequently we lose quality when their commitment, passion, work, and energy generally, start to slip.

    Currently working on a big project full time, and your article has been very re-assuring. I am taking full responsibility for I.A., Strategy and Design, and progress has been faster than ever as we prototype without too many cooks spoiling the broth… Again, Giga Om rocks. Cheers Matt. I hope the following book helps many others as it as helped us:

  2. Hi guys,

    Thanks for the feedback. I did answer some of the questions a few days ago but for some reason the comments didn’t appear. Anyway.

    Nabil – the further the geographical distance between you and your developers the more important it is to ensure that you’ve got excellent documentation. We’ve out-sourced to India and had a really good experience, this is entirely down to how we ran the vendor selection process (to ensure that we got good guys) and providing quality documentation.

    That said, there’s no alternative to actually visiting your developers regularly throughout the development. Face to face can never be replaced.

  3. Very interesting article for ones who have an idea of startup but don’t know how to begin!
    I am looking forward to the next post!
    Just one question, when you talk about out-sourcing the development, could you precise? For example, I would find it is easy to out-source with a company located in our country or in Europe but how would you manage if you do it with an indian company for example?
    Looking forward to your own experience of out-sourcing!

  4. Found the notes on functional specification useful. However, the document doesn’t address the phase when you don’t have the fund even for employing any developer and you have to be your developer and bring out a demo of you idea.

  5. Good post, but I think the estimate of 1 to 3 months to complete this design is too arbitrary. I have been involved in successful projects built upon Agile methodologies which do not encourage high level of detail in up front designs. However, these have all been built by experienced teams who understand the general architecture of the systems upfront. For an inexperienced team, especially one on the other side of the world, I agree that lack of specification in this area will spell disaster.