Project Estimation (1of 3)

October 26, 2010

One of the areas that has always amazed me with respect to Alliance Partners and their system integration efforts is their ability to estimate and ultimately bid the project cost. It seems almost an art (perhaps a black art) as it is a science, but it is critical to the success of the business.

Project Requirements

It starts with gathering good requirements which is an art in and of itself. In a previous post, we discussed a ‘needs-based’ approach and the type of requirements that you want to gather. We also talked about probing techniques and how to deal with conerns.

Task Breakdown

Once you have a good set of project requirements, you still face the challenge of estimating the cost of the project. Hopefully, you have a good idea of the hardware requirements, but labor usually makes up the bulk of the total cost. Ideally, you can break down the project into a set of tasks to develop a system that meets the requirements. Then for each task you can estimate the effort, duration, and cost.

There are several methods for estimating the labor cost of each task:

  1. SWAG (Not recommended) – Scientific Wild Ass Guess
  2. Expert – ask an expert based on their experience
  3. Delphi – Ask a group to brainstorm and build consensus
  4. Comparative – Based on history or similar task
  5. Weighted average – a combination of estimates (e.g. Optimistic + 4*Likely + Pessimistic) / 6)

Obviously, depending on the size of the project, you’ll need to decide how much time you want to invest in this process. But, estimating project costs is critical to your profitability.

Labor Cost Variables

Other factors to consider in estimating projects.

  • Work interruption factor – no one can work uninterrupted. For instance, meetings. Such breaks in the thought process and work effort will inevitably impact effectiveness. Idea: consider limiting meetings and e-mails to certain parts of the day.
  • Part-time effect – Working on multiple projects can impact effectiveness. The developer must ramp up or down from one project to the next.
  • Skill factor – Obviously, a novice may take longer to complete a task than an expert.
By completing the task breakdown and considering the variables, you can reasonable estimate of the labor cost which often constitute the majority of the cost of the project. Next week, we’ll formulate that into a price and ultimately the proposal.

Drip Marketing

October 19, 2010

According to About.com, drip marketing is a direct marketing strategy that involves sending out several promotional pieces over a period of time to a subset of sales leads. The phrase drip marketing comes from the common phrase used in agriculture and gardening called “drip irrigation.” This is the process of watering plants or crops.

Marketing tactics for Alliance Partners can vary widely, but I do advocate that you look at a way of staying in regular communication with your customers and prospects.

Drip Marketing Mediums

Wikipedia claims that the main mediums for Drip Marketing are:

E-mail. The most commonly used form of drip marketing is E-mail marketing, due to the low cost associated with sending multiple messages over time. Email drip marketing is often used in conjunction with a Form (web) in a method called an Autoresponder. In this method, a lead completes the form on a company’s website and is then enrolled in a drip marketing campaign with messaging appropriate to the form’s context.

Direct Mail. Although more costly, direct mail software has been developed that enables drip marketing techniques using standard postal mail. This technology relies on digital printing, where low-volume print runs are cost justifiable, and the variable data can be merged to personalize each drip message.

Social Media. The principles of Drip Marketing have been applied in many social media marketing tools to schedule a series of updates. One popular tool, HootSuite, allows users to time messages and dissemenate via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and several other social media sites simultaneously.

Plan of Action

Drip marketing is it requires a plan of action. By creating this plan and following it throughout the year you can guarantee consistent with your marketing. To get started:

  • Step 1: Develop your Plan (Plan something EVERY month)
  • Step 2: Strategize the Execution of Your Plan
  • Step 3: Decide who your Target is.
  • Step 4: Create consistency by developing your slogan or phrase. Then place it on every promotional and marketing piece.

You want to be careful not to just ‘spam’ your database. So, make sure that your content is relavant with an intent to educate them about the types of applications and solutions you provide. Success stories are nice, but so is a thoughtful article about the challenges that your customers face. If you are interested in reading more, there is a good article at  Drip Marketing: Slow and Steady Wins the Customer.


Strategic Planning in a Recovering Market (3 of 3)

October 12, 2010

Here are some of final insights from a NIWeek 2010 Alliance Day presentation given by Don Roberts, Exotek. He is a principal of a consulting and operations-support company focused solely on the systems integrator.

Objectives and Measures

The end result of good strategic planning is a set of goals considered critical to the future success of the organization. Each goal is accompanied by specific objectives clarifying what must be done and what is critical to success. Just as important, are defining the measures that will track the accomplishment of the objective? The measures should be:

  • Linked: Measurements communicate what is strategically important by linking back to your strategic objectives.
  • Repeatable: Measurements are continuous over time, allowing comparisons.
  • Leading: Measurements can be used for establishing targets, leading to future performance.
  • Accountable: Measurements are reliable, verifiable, and accurate.
  • Available: Measurements can be derived when they are needed.

Examples

  • Over the next six months, delivery times will decrease by 15% through more localized delivery centers.
  • By the year 2013, customer turnover will decline by 30% through newly created customer service representatives and pro-active customer maintenance procedures.
  • Un-billable time will get cut in half by cross training front line personnel and combining all four operating departments into one single service center.

Plans into Actions

As you put your plans into actions, determine who is the right person or team to accomplish these goals. Consider all people that influence change, including outside contributor or perhaps even a facilitator. Then, decide what the appropriate timing is. A major plan may take more than a year, but should have quarterly or monthly reviews.


Strategic Planning in a Recovering Market (2 of 3)

October 5, 2010

Last week, I shared some of the insights from a NIWeek 2010 Alliance Day presentation given by Don Roberts, Exotek. He is a principal of a consulting and operations-support company focused solely on the systems integrator. Continuing on, Don suggested some tools to assist in your strategic planning process.

Strategy maps put into focus the often-blurry line of sight between your corporate strategy and what your employees do every day

                                                – Kaplan and Norton

Strategic Maps and Balanced Scorecards

Strategic maps help communicate your corporate strategy. And, balanced scorecards are a way to measure your strategic progress. They typically focus your company strategy around the following areas:

  • Financial Perspective – How do you look against the financial objectives of the company’s owners
  • Customer Perspective – How do you look to your current and prospective customers?
  • Internal Business Perspective – What must you excel run an effective business?
  • Learning Perspective – What must you organization learn to improve your business?

These perspectives then help to layout both your strategic map and balanced scorecard. There are more details, then I could effectively cover in this blog, but there are lots of useful information available on-line. Don offered an example for an Alliance Partner.


Strategic Planning in a Recovering Market (1-3)

September 28, 2010

Many companies begin their annual planning process in Q4 of each year. So, I thought that I would pass along some of the insights of Don Roberts, Exotek. He is a principal of a consulting and operations-support company focused solely on the systems integrator. At NIWeek 2010, Don offered his advice on strategic planning as our market recovers.

More than 75% of the average company’s market value comes from intangible assets that traditional metrics don’t measure

                                -Kaplan and Norton HBR 2000

Strategic Planning

The primary goal of strategic planning is to build organizational focus and competency. It gives you the opportunity to balance short term pressures with your long term goals. You can also assess your market situation and react to the changing environment proactively. Then, you can establish organizational alignment.

Strategic planning also provides a recurring process whereby your organization makes choices:

  • Why do we exist?
  • What are our major goals?
  • What resources do we need for a successful future?
  • Who will be our customers?

But, strategic planning is not a way of making future decisions. You can’t create a blueprint of the future because there is no guarantee that things will not change. So, strategic planning should not be a long and drawn out process, but rather an efficient annual assessment of your business to make necessary course adjustments.

Getting Started

Don recommends beginning your strategic planning process, but clarifying:

  • Mission – Why do we exist
  • Core Values – What is important to us
  • Vision – What we want to be

He cautions that semantics not important. The real goal is develop a consensus on the fundamental aspects of your company that will govern your strategic decisions.

Next, consider your product and/or service offering. Review what you are currently selling from your customer’s perspective. Why are they buying from you? What is your competitive strategy? Is your offering valued by customers? Sustainable? Hard to match?

Next, you can define what you want to accomplish in the coming year.  These objectives can be hard or soft, but there can only be one set. Consider organizing them into four perspectives:

  • Financial
  • Customer
  • Internal Processes
  • Learning and Growth

Once your objectives are set, you can drive them into your annual operating plans. For instance, determine how these objectives translate into specific goals for your leaders and how they affect the personal development of your employees. How do your objectives impact the development plans for your products and services? And, what are your marketing and sales plans to capture business for those products and services.


SEO (4 of 4) – Promoting Content Off-Page

September 21, 2010

Finally, we’ll be talking about promoting content off the page.  Of all the things you can do to optimize your content for search, this is the most important.  This is how Google is determining your popularity and putting you at the top of the results page.

Run with the Popular Crowd

Gaining popularity by link building is the key to getting to the top of the results.  It’s more important than anything else you’ll be doing to optimize your page.  Here are some tips for building links.  First, get links from trusted and relevant sites.  Examples of trusted sites are credible institutions like .edus and .govs, user-generated content like blogs and forums, popular sites that Google deems particular relevant and important for a keyword (a good way to find this out is to search the term – popular sites will show up at the top of the results page), and then content rich sites. 

The more links there are on a page, the less value those links have to Google.  Relevancy is just as important as trustworthiness.  It will actually hurt you if your site is about test and automation and you get a link from a blog on women’s fashion.  You should also focus on getting links from external pages as opposed to internal pages.  At NI, we’ve got a lot of content, so it’s pretty easy to build links to our pages from within the site, but for Google, it’s more important that we get links from outside of ni.com.  It’s more valuable if someone else says your popular than you say your popular.  Finally, try to get links from unique domains.  A domain is the name of a website or URL.  Ni.com is our domain name.  It’s more valuable to get 15 links from 15 different domains than 15 links from one domain.

How to Build Links to Your Site

First, create excite content.  Again, Google is trying to reward good content.  If people are really excited about what you do as a company, they are naturally going to talk about you and link back to your site.  You can even create exciting content on an external blog and point back to your site from there.  Then you get some external links to boot.  Next, build relationships.  Build relationships with editors to write articles for you, build relationships with bloggers in your industry to get them to write posts on you.  Next, post comments on blogs and forums related to your industry.  Social  media is a great way to get links back to your site.

Building credibility and popularity through links takes some time, so it’s important to start investing in it early and keep at it until you see the results you want on Google.

Things to Avoid

There are some things to be aware of when you are creating links.  The biggest we’ve already talked about, which is making sure the site is credible and relevant.  “Nofollow” is also good to avoid.  “Nofollow” is an HTML tag used to instruct search engines that a hyperlink should not influence the page’s value in the rankings.  Essentially, it is a vote that doesn’t count.  So don’t waste time posting a link if you aren’t going to get credit for it.  How can you tell if a link is “nofollow”?  Firefox has a great SEO tool that will highlight the “nofollow” links on a page for you.  That way you can easily see if the entire comments section is off limits for SEO-valuable links.  Why would sites want to use “nofollow”? A  lot of social media sites like Facebook and Wikipedia use “nofollow” because they want to make sure the content is valuable for users and not just a breeding ground for links. 

Next, don’t move too fast.  I would recommend only adding 5-7 links a week.  Google is wary of you trying to best their system and they want to make sure you’re earning your popularity.  So don’t make rapid changes. 

Paid links are also a big no-no.  Google has lots of tools in place to try to tell if this is happening, so beware of any site that asks you to pay in exchange for a link.


SEO (3 of 4) – Optimizing the Content on Your Page

September 15, 2010

Continuing to highlight the Search Engine Optimization presentation from Alliance Day, we now turn our attention to designing a SEO-friendly web page. Here is an example of a perfectly optimized web page for the keyword “chocolate donuts.” 

Google views certain content on the page as more important based on where you place it.  The items with a higher weight are page title, headings, and URL.  So you want to make sure in particular that your keywords are at this level. 

Page title

It is also sometimes called the title tag.  A HTML tag is a code surrounded by brackets that denotes format, hyperlinks or information for the bot. The page title or title tag shows up in a couple of places.  It is visible at the top of the browser.  It is also the clickable link in the search engine results.  Here it is “Chocolate Donuts |Mary’s Bakery.” It includes the keyword and also lets users know who is selling the donuts. 

Meta Tags

Meta is a type of HTML tag that gives information about the page.  The bot can see this information in the HTML, but the user can’t see it on the page.  Users can see it on the search engine results page below the clickable link.  Here’s what that looks like.  It is not a factor in determining your rankings, but can help persuade users to click on your link versus another one on the first page. 

Headings

It also, includes our keyword “chocolate donuts.”  Google recognizes the HTML tag “H” and then the number, such as H1 or H2 as the heading tag.  This is the one you want to use in the HTML when you build your page. 

Page Text

You’ll notice the keyword is also sprinkled throughout the body content, with a few variations to allow for users variations in the query and for natural writing.  The keyword is also included in the image file name and alt attribute. 

Alt Tag

The alt attribute, or alt tag, specifies alternative text when the element to which it is applied cannot be rendered.  So if an image can’t load in my browser, I will see this text.  It’s not going to provide the same weight as text, but it is how Google can read your images.

SEO (4 of 4) – Promoting Content Off-Page