Streamlined Angles on Turbulent Technologies

Joel York

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Making Markodojo | Untold SaaS Product Secrets

saas product secretsToday, I’m excited to announce the launch of Markodojo, my agile marketing management SaaS startup and an entirely new breed of enterprise marketing software. You say: “That’s great Joel, but what’s in it for me?” Well, if you are a marketing manager, please skip to the shameless plug below, then head straight to the Markodojo website and sign up for a 30-day free trial. If you are a SaaS founder or a SaaS startup executive, then stick around for the entire blog post, because I’m going to share some closely held, untold secrets of SaaS product design.

First the plug.

Markodojo Marketing Management is Here!

marketing management softwareIf you are a marketer, then you must check out Markodojo. I guarantee you have not seen any other marketing management software like it. If you are not a marketer, then please do me the small favor of passing this along to everyone you know who works in marketing.

Tweet it!

Markodojo marketing management software combines agile principles with the best of CRM, project management, and innovative Internet collaboration to give marketing teams what they have been sorely lacking, a true enterprise app for marketing.

In classic Chaotic Flow style, there is a free 30 day trial and you can buy Markodojo by credit card right inside the app. Check it out!

End of plug.

With that out of the way, I thought I’d use this auspicious occasion to share a little of my own experience over the past year as the Markodojo chief product designer in the hopes that it will prove useful to other SaaS founders and SaaS product executives. You might also want to check out this previous post: Eleven Secrets off SaaS Product Design, because this current post builds on the ideas presented in them with real-world Markodojo examples.

Two Clear Paths to Great SaaS Products

I talked to a lot of entrepreneur friends before starting Markodojo: founders and early employees of companies like Zendesk, Marketo, Salesforce, etc., in whose footsteps I would like Markodojo to follow. In the course of those conversations, two clear paths emerged for creating great SaaS products.

Path #1: Do What You Love…and Hate
This path to great SaaS products was followed by founders who had spent their career in a particular industry sector. Based on their own frustrations with the tools at hand, they struck out to solve the problems they knew all too well.

Path #2: Talk to a 100 Potential Customers
This path was followed by founders who were looking for that great next opportunity wherever it may be. When they found it, that opportunity led them into unknown territory, so they needed significant validation outside their own area of expertise.

The paths that led to lackluster SaaS products all had one thing in common: dabbling with the customer. These paths were followed by founders who cared more about making money, than meeting the needs of their customers. You just can’t fake SaaS customer affinity. You must know your SaaS customers, know their needs, and care about solving their problems. Anything short of this will show in your SaaS product. Markodojo has followed path #1.

A CMO’s Tale: The Thin Line Between Love and Hate

love hateI’ve spent the bulk of my career in B2B software and enjoyed ten years of it in the CMO spot. However, I have always been confounded, frustrated, and indeed embarrassed, by the fact that there is no decent enterprise software for managing marketing. While sales, engineering, manufacturing, finance, support and even customer success have identifiable systems of record, most marketing departments are still managed by spreadsheets. As a result, marketing is messy, misunderstood and always reinventing the wheel.

It is doubly strange that the modern marketing department often has the largest technology budget. What isn’t obvious is that all that money is spent on “individual contributor tools.” Every person in marketing drives a tool: designers have design software, online marketing managers have marketing automation, PR managers have PR databases, and so on. Yet any CMO will tell you that marketing is a team sport. Just think of the number of people that might touch a simple email before it is sent to a customer: a product manager, a copywriter, a designer, a web developer and an online marketing manager would not be unusual. In fact, most of the money spent in marketing is spent on people. It is sad that so little attention is paid to managing that investment.

marketing investment

In the course of my career, I’ve tried every available tool for managing marketing: spreadsheets, project management, enterprise collaboration, and even simple white boards—they’re all weak, they don’t scale, and I hate them all. Marketing management is a difficult beast to tame. Marketing projects come in a staggering range of size and complexity from tweets to trade shows. Each marketing role is unique, yet they must all work together to produce quality results. Moreover, marketing requires ongoing collaboration with a wide array of contributors outside the marketing department, including customers, sales, engineering, vendors, industry influencers, executive teams, and so on. And today more than ever, marketing is expected to produce results. These are not the kinds of customer problems you can solve by dabbling.

SaaS Product Design Secrets Courtesy of Markodojo

Why do I believe Markodojo can tame the enterprise marketing management beast? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question. If it were simple, it would have been done already. If I try to condense it, I’d say it is because the Markodojo product design reflects a true sympathy for the marketing customer, while applying healthy doses of SaaS and agile innovation. And, if Markodojo doesn’t deliver, I’ll have to eat my blog!

saas product design challenge

In the interest of not doing so, the rest of this post builds upon one of my most popular articles, Eleven Secrets of SaaS Product Design with 6 untold insider secrets of SaaS product design, bringing the total to 17. While it’s easy to find marketing copy describing any SaaS product, it’s not so easy to find a discussion of the design thinking behind a SaaS product—founders just don’t share this sensitive information. The difference between these 6 untold secrets and the previously published 11 plain vanilla secrets is that I’m going to tie them to real-world Markodojo design choices from a founder’s point-of-view. Enjoy!

Markodojo Agile Project Management

SaaS Product Design Secret #12 | Innovate with Purpose

saas product innovationThere is no room for extraneous bells and whistles in SaaS. Features that are not useful just get in the way and innovative features require customer education. On the other hand, it ain’t 2005, so you can’t just deliver a commodity SaaS product and bank on lower TCO to drive adoption. You must innovate. They key is to innovate with the purpose of addressing specific, important customer needs.

The Markodojo approach to agile project management is unique, but it isn’t arbitrary. It is designed with two complementary goals:

  • Provide a simple way to manage the incredible range of marketing projects.
  • Enable a minimalist path to agile marketing best practices.

Specifically, Markodojo projects form a hierarchy that starts at the top with major marketing functions, campaigns and product launches, and flows down project by project to the smallest tasks. Every project has a place in the hierarchy, and the depth of the hierarchy has no limit. While I am hard pressed to say this is innovative in the iPhone sense of the word; it is innovative in that generic project management tools don’t use this approach. As a result, they do not scale for marketing.

saas product learning curve

The Markodojo project hierarchy allows projects to contain anything from a simple task list for a weekly blog calendar to complete project plans for trade shows and product launches, and indeed entire departmental plans that mirror the marketing organization. At the same time, it enables the agile best practice of incremental work by making it dead simple to break big things into little things by expanding any project into subprojects. It also provides the extra benefit of complete visibility to everything going on in marketing, a veritable CMO Holy Grail.

Generic project management tools do not solve these problems. They follow a well-worn and rather technical model of project tasks lists with perhaps some modest grouping of projects into ‘folders’ ala desktop software file systems. They simply do not scale. The Markodojo project hierarchy is purposeful innovation directed at the specific marketing needs for agility, scalability and visibility.

Markodojo Sharing

SaaS Product Design Secret #13 | Do Something Incredible

saas product innovationInnovation with purpose is great; sexy innovation with purpose is better. Markodojo online marketing collaboration is sexy. Marketers must work with a broad array of people outside of marketing to do their jobs, including engineering, sales, customers, executives, journalists, industry pundits, vendors, and so on. But, most marketing collaboration is still done by email. The area of marketing collaboration was so green field that we just went to town in Markodojo.

Virtually every significant item in Markodojo is “sharable” in the same way you might share an online meeting or put a widget on a website. You can share a project with a vendor to collaborate online. You can share a graph of marketing results with your CEO. You can share a calendar of marketing plans with your sales team. You can share a project request form with sales to foster internal collaboration. You can share a 5 star rating widget on your blog, so customers can rate your content. And by sharing, I don’t just mean showing. Pages and widgets shared outside the Markodojo app are as interactive and secure as they are inside the Markodojo app. The sharer controls what can be read, edited, uploaded, deleted and so forth. If you have the opportunity to do something incredible with your SaaS product, then do it!

Markodojo Project Sheet and Online Tour

SaaS Product Design Secret #14: Build a Bridge for Beginners

bridge for beginnersThere is a lot of innovative stuff in Markodojo. Unfortunately, every innovation increases the learning curve for new users. SaaS Product Design Secret #4: Design for Discovery encourages you to make your SaaS product self-learning, such that it adapts to the interest and expertise of users over time, but it doesn’t give much guidance on how to do this. There are some generic things you can do, for example Markodojo has a online tour available throughout the app. With the tour turned on, you can browse through Markodojo and the tour will tell you about everything you see and how to use it.

However, the more critical bridges for beginners often require an intimate understanding of the context of your customer in the first time use of your SaaS application. For example, I mentioned earlier that most marketing departments are still managed by spreadsheets. If you open up the Markodojo agile project management module, the first thing you will see is a ‘project sheet’ that looks an awfully lot like a spreadsheet. This is by design. The Markodojo project sheet is most certainly NOT a spreadsheet, but it looks and feels like one on the surface to make easy for the beginner. Once you start using it, the underlying innovations surface naturally with a minimum of education.

Markodojo Project Customization and Unlimited Custom Fields

SaaS Product Design Secret #15: Architect Broadly, Implement Narrowly

saas product architecturePerhaps the most difficult challenge of SaaS product design is the requirement to balance the need for simplicity, particularly for the first-time user, against the need to address complex business problems in all their variations. In plain English, first time users want one thing to work really fast, really well, while advanced users want to tailor your solution in very specific ways to automate their very specific business processes.

The ability to bridge this gap defines the most scalable SaaS products. Most project management tools used by marketers today do not bridge this gap. They do not scale beyond the simplest use cases. Many enterprise SaaS products do not bridge this gap. They can only be sold to the largest customers. Products like Salesforce and Zendesk bridge this gap with finesse. As a result, their potential markets run from small groups to large organizations and from simple use cases to complex business processes.

Here is the dope: architect broadly, implement narrowly. Do not sacrifice architecture in your agile go-to-market frenzy, or you will permanently lock yourself into a limited customer segment. Build a strong foundation for configuration, customization and extensibility, but only implement and expose the most important use cases in your minimum viable product. That’s a lot to take in, so here is a Markodojo example.

saas product architecture

Out of the box Markodojo functionality is limited to common customer needs and best practices. All significant items in Markodojo: projects, people, surveys, etc. come with a very short list of standard fields. For example, a person has a name, title, email, phone number, a website address and not much more. This follows the minimalist SaaS product design theory of adding the fewest features required to satisfy uniform customer requirements.

At the same time, all significant items in Markodojo can be customized with an unlimited number of custom fields. This allows the advanced customer to do things like create separate profiles for bloggers and vendors, or to track items that are unique by the type of project, such as story points for product management and leads for online marketing.

The difference is that the standard, out-of-the-box capabilities derive from a clear understanding of common customer needs, whereas the custom capabilities derive from a solid architectural foundation that enables mass customization. Architecture cannot be bolted on one use case at a time. On the contrary, good architecture simplifies the design and implementation of any given feature, because it tells you how to do it.

Markodojo Themes and Backgrounds

SaaS Product Design Secret #16 | Make It Fun

saas product funIt’s very easy in B2B software to get so lost in business processes, customer pains, efficiency and usability that you forget that your ‘users’ are actually human beings. Don’t just design your SaaS products to be efficient, make them pretty to look at and fun to use. Do something for the personal satisfaction of your customers, not just their business satisfaction.

Making your SaaS product fun will not close a sale, but it will build brand loyalty. And frankly, it’s not that much extra work. You can decide for yourself whether Markodojo appeals to you own sense of fun, but there is no denying that we made the effort. Markodojo users can upload profile pictures and project mascots, they can choose their favorite color scheme, and they can spice things up with background images. I’m not saying these things are in any way cutting-edge, they’re not even table stakes in consumer software. But, they are often overlooked in business software. Your SaaS customers can spend an unusually large amount of time inside your Sass product; don’t let them get bored.

Markodojo Web Client and APIs

SaaS Product Design Secret #17 | Make It Fast

saas product fastThere are few things more annoying to a user than waiting on your SaaS product. In an ideal world, the software is always faster than the user, not the other way around. Unfortunately, this almost universal SaaS product requirement rarely appears on a SaaS product development backlog, until it is too late. Like mass customization, speed is fundamentally an architectural problem. For a SaaS product to be fast, it must be designed to be fast from the beginning. Trying to speed up a slow SaaS product always entails architectural changes that are expensive and time consuming, whereas designing speed in from the beginning is virtually free.

First, if you are still using a server-centric approach like PHP, stop. Push your client to the client. Today’s computers, tablets and smart phones have more processing capacity than ever. Don’t do on the server, what you can do on the client, because there are a lot more clients than servers. Second, wait time is mostly network delay. Speed up your APIs and slim down the data you send over them. Most importantly, think about speed from day one. You can relax though; I’m not going to go into the architectural choices that make Markodojo fast. In fact, you couldn’t pay me to do it—gotta keep something secret. But, you can try Markodojo marketing management software and see for yourself.

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More Stories By Joel York

Joel York is an Internet software executive and popular SaaS / Cloud blogger at Chaotic Flow and Cloud Ave. He is well known for his work in SaaS / cloud business models, sales and marketing strategy, and financial metrics. Professionally, he has managed global sales and marketing organizations serving over 50 countries, including local offices in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and India. He holds degrees in physics from Caltech and Cornell and received his MBA from the University of Chicago. Joel York is currently VP Marketing at Meltwater Group and Principal at the Internet startup consulting firm affinitos.