Entrepreneur

Product management on a shoestring

There are shortcuts and then there are shortcuts that cost money. When you’re running a small company, you’ll likely find both types are essential if you want to give your team time to focus.

After six years at extremely large media and technology firms (Comcast and Viacom), I went back to startups, where I started my digital career in 1996. Problem was, a lot of the infrastructure that was at my fingertips at these larger companies didn’t exist for my new company, leading me to an essential question: How do we operate and compete with bigger established players?

It came down to tools – 10 services that we believe give our four-person engineering group the heft to develop like we had seven or eight people. Rather than paying the extra salaries, though, our total monthly cost is roughly $1,500.

These are rough estimates, of course; your mileage will vary, void where prohibited, may cause drowsiness, etc.

Below, you’ll find my 10 tools for getting things done at a small startup. Like me, you may learn that a little bit of money each month can go a long way. If you know of any tool I have missed, though, please add them in the comments below.

1) Chartbeat (for real-time analytics)

We use this service every day, all day. It came out of Andrew Weissman’s betaworks incubator group in New York (they are the folks behind Summize, now part of Twitter, and bit.ly, amongst others.)

What it does: Provides real-time data on who is using your site, what pages they are on, and page load.
What it costs: $9.95/month ($119.40 annually).
Why we use it: To suss out what people are doing on the site,  see where they are coming from and get an immediate sense of traffic.
Complementary to: Google Analytics, which is the free resource for historical data.
Competitive with: Nothing that I know of.
Nits: Slows down page load, as all analytics packages do, and isn’t as integrated with Google Analytics as we would like (but they are working on it.)

2) Litmus App (for cross-browser compatibility testing)

I have no idea who is behind the service, but their testing machines are based in Seattle. They are usually prompt with email customer service.

What it does: Allows you to test your website across at least 10 browsers.
What it costs: $49/month ($588 annually).
Why we use it: To test our site across multiple browsers. We don’t use the email component, as we are using MailChimp for that (see more later).
Complementary to: Testing your site yourself on multiple browsers.
Competitive with: Nothing that I know of.
Nits: The Macintosh browser renders can be slow, the process can take up to ten minutes, they can’t replicate the experience or visuals for a user that has logged into your site. They also can’t look at page changes that occur when you use Ajax to alter a page element. They can analyze pages that are behind a password (like your staging servers, for example).

3) Mashery (for API gatekeeping)

By Oren Michels, formerly VP of Feedster. We are firm believers that having universal access to our core technology is important to our success, and that getting people to use our site FanFeedr as the tap-water for sports aggregation is important from a business perspective. Having an API (application programming interface) enables this. At their simplest level, APIs allow databases or services to talk to one another.

What it does: Allows you to deploy a multi-expression API to anybody or nobody (you set the rules) plus analytics.
What it costs: $500/month for startups; $5,000 for bigger firms ($6,000 or $60,000 annually).
Why we use it: To gate keep and measure our API usage.
Complementary to: Building your own API.
Competitive with: Nothing that I know of.
Nits: Seems like a lot of cash, but once you price having a engineer build a business rules engine, plus analytics, you will quickly see that $6,000 is actually cheap.

4) MailChimp (for email newsletters)

Free email newsletter campaign manager.

What it does: Allows you to set up email newsletters driven off of your registered users list. These campaigns can be driven off of RSS feeds as well.
What it costs: Free to start, but you will run into $50/month fees fairly quickly if you have site traffic greater than 50,000 users or 5,000 newsletter users ($600 annually).
Why we use it: To push the “hottest” stories of the day to subscribers.
Complementary to: Other outreach that you do, including widgets.
Competitive with: Nothing that I know of.
Nits: MailChimp is a branded presence on your newsletters (in the footer.) The RSS ingestion is in beta, so it has some kinks.

5) UserVoice (for product prioritization)

Also part of the betaworks group, this firm allows you to put a large “Feedback” tab on every page of your site to solicit product ideas from your users, allow them to get help with the site and it allows them to submit bugs (but it isn’t a replacement for your own bug-filing system.)

What it does: Allows you to rank what features are most important to users using a vote system. Each user gets 10 votes.
What it costs: Free to start, $89 for a package with value ($0 or $1,068 annually).
Why we use it: Best way to crowdsource customer development. They are extremely responsive to feature feedback themselves.
Complementary to: Your own ticketing system — and your ability, as a product developer/manager, to intuit customer needs.
Competitive with: Get Satisfaction.
Nits: Relatively expensive, and the page size overhead for the embedded Feedback widget is high.

6) Google Docs (for surveys)

Google. ’nuff said.

What it does: You can conduct multi-part surveys and track responses in real-time using their “Form” element.
What it costs: Always free (thank you, AdWords).
Why we use it: Customer development surveys.
Complementary to: Conducting usability and customer research sessions in person.
Competitive with: SurveyMonkey (yes, another simian product) and WuFoo.
Nits: Embedding images seems impossible (which is hard for usability, obviously, but you can refer people to URLs.) The user experience for viewing the form as opposed to viewing the results is under-developed. No way to create mailing campaigns where the same group of people are polled or new people are solicited (this has to be monitored separately).

7) Silverback (for usability testing)

Easy usability.

What it does: On Macintoshes, it records the screen activity and clicks for any usability test subjects, as well as recording the audio, and even more importantly, the video of the subjects’ faces so that you can see their reaction to tasks.
What it costs: Free the first month, more in subsequent months.
Why we use it: Usability studies.
Complementary to: Conducting usability and customer research sessions in person.
Competitive with: Getting a room with a two-way mirror, moderator and a lot of cost.
Nits: Can’t set up a list of tasks (and scores) for a user to execute, so it still requires a human being to tell the subject what to do.

8 ) Gnip (for RSS and Twitter crawling)

Outsourced API ingestion.

What it does: Make your life easier by allowing you to do one integration to get access to several different social APIs.
What it costs: $1,000 annually for startups.
Why we use it: Cheaper than doing it ourselves.
Complementary to: Mashery.
Competitive with: Rolling your own.
Nits: We are just starting to work on this, so nothing yet.

9) Facebook Connect (for account creation)

Users can use their Facebook profile on our site.

What it does: Allows users to sign up for the service in three clicks, as opposed to typing out their email, suggesting a password, verifying the email, and then having them come back to the site.
What it costs: Free.
Why we use it: Reduce friction for signups. 20% of our site users have signed up, as opposed to the 1-2% signups we were getting on Viacom.
Complementary to: Your own email sign-up process, OpenID sign-up, Twitter Auth.
Competitive with: All of the above.
Nits: It adds considerable overhead to your page size and speed. It also doesn’t fully extend Facebook permissions onto your third-party domain, and doesn’t integrate with the Facebook Comment widget in a neat fashion (forcing us to roll our own). They are working on the latter items.

10) Pivotal Tracker (for feature prioritization)

Allows you and your co-workers to pick user scenarios and features and to vote for them, so that the best ideas rise to the top (theoretically.) I heard about this from Max Ventilla at Aardvark.

What it does: Bug and feature tracking.
What it costs: Free.
Why we might use it: Fanatical usage amongst other software developers.
Complementary to: Your own bug-tracking and UserVoice.
Competitive with: BaseCamp, Assembla.
Nits: Doesn’t allot time for bug-fixing as elegantly as other solutions, can’t take direct input from users on their feature requests and prioritization (to be clear, I don’t know of a firm that does this).


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