Goodbye 2016, Welcome 2017

A few weeks ago, our team member (Joy) who manages our blog asked me to do a year-end review.  I don’t think we’ve done this before, but all of us go through some kind of year end reflection as we head into the new year and I thought why not share my thoughts with everyone especially our team, customers and friends.

In the beginning of 2016, our small Akubo team did a planning session.  This was the first time that we did a session just with the smaller Akubo team.  Not sure if many of you know that Akubo has grown over the years to have multiple product teams within the company.  The core product is our web CRM product (Akubo), but we also have other project teams in house that work on our other projects (Twerkle — our upcoming HR software, Clearbugs — our bug tracking software, and our consulting group which does special projects for clients).

The planning session was meant to review the previous year and to set goals for the coming year.  As typical with most planning sessions, we talked about goals like customer acquisition, customer growth, customer retention, partners, office space planning, etc., and we also talked about internal issues such as employee morale, employee purpose and other things that matter to our well-being as a group, as a company moving forward.  We held our planning session in a condo we rented from one of my friends over at Rockwell (Makati).  Ideally going out of town would have been great, some of the team members suggested Tagaytay, but we had a client training scheduled the next day so the travel time would not have been in our favor.

Did we achieve everything we had planned to do?  No.  Did we achieve anything we had planned to do?  I’m not sure we had kept track of what we had planned and what we accomplished, so I’ll just say that in our next planning session, we will try to be more diligent in writing down our goals and checking in during the year to see how far we’re moving along.  So for our reflection, let me just recall the various highs and lows we had during the year and what we learned along the way.

For our highs, we released Akubo V2, which had been a work in progress for almost a year.  The original UI (user interface) had been around for over 5 years and had started to look dated, and some of the UI technologies and user preferences have also evolved, so we needed the makeover.  But it’s a challenge to switch to a new UI when the changes we were introducing were drastic.  This was not a simple color change, or an additional menu or button here, we completely changed the entire look and feel.   If this was a house remodeling, we essentially built a new house to replace the old house (instead of just repainting the walls and changing some of the cabinets and fixtures).

The challenge was 2-fold.  First was the technical challenge of building a new UI and finding and fixing all the bugs that would come along with any major software project.  And we’re not yet done finding those bugs.  We released the beta in March and in November we switched it on for all our users, and the bug reports have been steady.  There are bugs that only surface upon general release and on Christmas day one of our partners sent me an urgent email informing me of a critical bug … so I quickly went in and isolated the bug and informed our devs that we had something waiting for us to fix after the holidays.

The second challenge was to convince our current customers that the switch would be to their benefit.  Many of our customers had been with us for more than 5 years and were very familiar and happy with the old UI.  We had released the beta in March but many of them didn’t even try it out until we did the full switch over in November.  Some customers asked us to retain the old UI but we decided not to because it would require us to maintain old code indefinitely, and it would also give some of our customers an excuse not to switch over to V2.  We totally understand — change is hard especially when you’re already comfortable and happy with the status quo — but on this last day of 2016, I am happy to say that our transition to V2 has been very successful and I couldn’t be more pleased with how our team managed this transition.

Our other highs for the year were our customer trainings which is as much of a learning experience for us as it is for our customers.  In the later part of 2016, we decided to start doing smaller trainings (less than 10 attendees) and so far we really liked the experience of being able to have more closer interactions with our customers and having more targeted topics for our smaller group of attendees.  We expect to continue doing this in 2017.

I earlier said our highs and lows for the year because more often than not, the lows provide the most valuable experiences for learning and growing.  Our lows for the year were many and I will just highlight the ones that really taught us valuable lessons.  We lost one of our major customers — we had worked with this customer for more than 2 years and they decided not to renew their subscription because of various reasons, one of which we know was our inability to keep up with their needs.  Did we over-promise?  Maybe.  Did we not communicate with them regularly?  Most likely.  What could we have done better?

In various conversations with other customers, especially the ones who are still with us, they have always said that communication and support is key to them.  When we launched Akubo almost 7 years ago, our selling point was good software at a very good price.  But over the years we’ve seen that many of our customers didn’t really care much about the price … some of them even said we’d like to pay more for Akubo if you can give us more technical support, or give us an option to pay more for priority (and personalized) support.  So we’re listening and we are in the midst of discussions internally about introducing an option for a Premium level of Akubo that will provide a dedicated account rep (advocate) for a customer, and a full suite of support and training options that will be included in the Premium levels of Akubo.  This is a new opportunity for us and we are excited about it, but we want to take a judicious approach because we also want to assure many of our clients who will not be able to afford Akubo Premium that we will always take care of you and value serving the many small non-profits and businesses who are out there providing valuable services to their clients and constituents … and we’re happy to help them do that through their Akubo Basic subscriptions.

What about our other products groups (Twerkle, Clearbugs, Consulting), were there lessons learned?  Yes, and it’s been many highs and lows as well.  The highs were product releases, getting new clients, learning new technologies, coming up with new ideas, and welcoming new team members and partners.  But again, the lows have also given us valuable lessons and have helped us grow.  We missed deadlines, we lost some staff, we lost one project from a partner, failed launch of new products, etc..  The challenge is to keep our teams motivated when product launches fail especially if they’ve been working on a project for many months only to see it limping along and not getting the traction we hoped it would.

This is where the rubber meets the road so to speak and we make decisions on whether to forge ahead or quit and move on.  One such example is our political database product Kampanya.  This was something we had envisioned 4 years ago, and late last year we decided to launch it during the campaign season in the Philippines. We had one candidate who was using it, and much of the product had been built for his team … and he did win his election, but we had wanted to also sell this product to other political candidates.  We had a good catchy name (so I thought) and we had a captured audience (again, so I thought).  Although we got a few interested parties, no one signed up and we now have to decide whether we should pursue this again in 2 years (when the campaign season starts up again).  Part of me still wants to because I know there is a need for this, so we’ll revisit Kampanya in 2018 and hopefully have a better response.

I think the most valuable lesson from all of our highs and lows for 2016 is resiliency.  Taking the lows with resilience, learning from them, and bouncing back with a good attitude.  To end my reflections, let me share some points from a list I had prepared for an offsite we did back in 2015.  I didn’t directly share this list to my team as these were more like talking points for me, but here they are and many points will always be true in 2017 and beyond … for leaders, take special note of the last point.

– Accept Risk
– Pursue something that makes us uncomfortable
– Make room for what we don’t know — this opens us up to innovation
– When faced with a challenge, get smarter
– Hire people who are smarter than you — find the risk takers?  those who make you uncomfortable?

Happy New Year!


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