My Web App Triathlon: The launch of 5PM

5pmlogo.jpegI’m going to tell you the short story of how my startup, QG Software, launched its latest product, a project management web app called 5pm. With our team of four split across two continents, it was a long haul. But I learned a few lessons which you can probably use. They’re highlighted at the end. (Editor’s Note: VentureBeat posted a nice review of 5pm yesterday.)

Creating a web app is like a sprint. Building a business around it is more like a marathon: It may take forever, you will feel like quitting a lot of times, and you may never finish it. It is a lot of fun.

For me it feels so much more like a triathlon. You get out of the water after a long swim just to find yourself jumping on a bike and going on. After a year of development, we finally launched 5pm, “a web-based project management service, offered on a subscription model, with a highly intuitive interface and a balanced set of features.” (This was our elevator pitch).

The launch merely marked the beginning of the next stage — acquiring the actual clients.

Back to the starting line.

I know it’s difficult to get excited about yet another project management application. So why did we develop it? How is it different?

It started back in 2002 when we developed our Project and Team Manager web app – the predecessor of 5pm. We created it to manage our own projects, as nothing on the market was working for us. It’s a typical story. The product was popular enough, so we kept updating it, until one day we decided to rebuild it from scratch. We planned to do it within three or four months. It took us twelve.

Our team is composed of four geeks, and it’s split across two continents – a couple of us are in USA (Cincinnati, good old Midwest) and the other two are in Eastern Europe. We had to work around seven hour time difference and many other issues. Each stage brought its own challenges. During development the hardest part was the implementation of the interface we had in mind. We wanted a dual panel view, no page reloads, everything within a click or two, plus the ability to customize it – resize panels and columns, hide/show columns, sort etc… We wanted it to look simple and elegant on the surface while packing a lot of power “under the hood”. Achieving it turned out to be much more difficult than we anticipated, but we are happy with the results.

The UI design is very important to us. That’s the first thing that sets us apart. When it comes to projects and tasks, it’s usually the same functionality – tracking status, exchanging messages and files and so on. No need to reinvent the bicycle. The way this data can be accessed, on another side, is a totally new game. Our approach is a tight, clean interface that is flexible and customizable, with every function within a click or two. Plus there is the Timeline view – it’s like a small application on its own, developed in Flash. We plan to make it fully editable, so tasks and deadlines could be dragged around.

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We started to register our first clients in November 2007 and are using their feedback to decide what features to add next. Our strategy is to be agile and adapt to the market demands.

Here are 3 Lessons we learned from our experience:

* Try it again, differently. Every time you get stuck, and it takes forever to find the right solution, go about it a new way. Think differently. This is just another wall between you and your competitors. The more difficult and time consuming it is, the more difficult it will be for them to keep up with you.

* Set intermediate goals. Coding can be very daunting when you are months deep into development, and the release is still over the horizon. Small goals can cheer up your team. Even if they are not very serious (for example we celebrated our 1000th commit to the SVN repository. Very geeky.) (Editor’s Note: remember the value-add in “Small Successes.“)

* Client Support = Free Marketing! Once you are launched, you will have to deal with clients (can’t live without them). Don’t take it as a chore. Client support is your first source of marketing, and it’s free. Be very responsive to clients’ needs, and take it as an opportunity to differentiate yourself. This may end up being the feature they liked the most.

Have you recently been through a product launch? Tell us about it! And For more on how to build a successful web app, try the Web Apps 101 series on TechCrunch, from last March.

Sergei Podbereschi is co-founder (with his partner Greg Roy) of QG Software, and Theo Worlds, both based in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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