The superb folks at A51 – makers of activeCollab web collaboration and project management software – reviewed our Reports module for activeCollab. An extension to activeCollab that lets you track key performance indicators of projects, people and companies. activeCollab team says:
Reports Module is one of the most successful activeCollab related products developed outside A51.
That’s right. Hundreds of customers use Reports module and they all find it invaluable. Here’s a comment we got a few hours ago:
I use both your Reports and Planning modules. LOVE them both.
We eat our own dogfood. We use our products daily and listen to our customers. Frankly, we developed Reports module for our own use. When we couldn’t imagine living without it, we released it as a product.
Sometimes you download software and you just can’t believe how bad it is, or how hard it is to accomplish the very simple tasks that the software tries to accomplish. Chances are, it’s because the developers of the software don’t use it.
– Joel Spolski on Eating your own Dogfood
Thankfully, our software does not fall in this category.
The Story Behind Reports Module
It’s been over a year we launched the Reports module. We were using activeCollab for managing projects and needed a better reporting system. We wanted to track velocity of projects (rate at which they are completing), iteration charts (kind of work done each week) and insights into most active and longest open items. We also wanted to track what items needed attention and were risky / dependent on others.
We started generating these reports using SQL queries on activeCollab database. We created a few MySQL views, ran a set of queries and exported a CSV file at the end.
One day, I resolved to make this look prettier and put together a dashboard with charts and lists populated from these queries. I polished it over the next few days and put it up on our activeCollab setup. The reaction was “WOW!” We kept it going for a while, but Reports module was destined for something bigger.
Software Services vs Products Dilemma
If you are a software services company, you write a lot of code. You build tools that save you time. Most of these tools have great value, but only for you. At times, you dream of generalizing these tools and releasing them for greater good. But often they end up as internal side projects. Sometimes you release them, but can’t give them enough attention since you already have other paid projects waiting.
I’ve been through this experience two dozen times. In last 12 years at Magnet, I’ve initiated about 22 products. Most died. Some were released as open source. Some became popular. Some took life of their own. None gave us revenue we could sustain. Paid consulting projects kept running the company and product ideas remained only a wish.
I was not going to repeat that mistake this time.
If you do it, do it for good
When I decided to release Reports module to public, I was clear it had to be a long-term product, a paid product and something that I will pay enough attention to. No more side projects. I wanted something that will become a business in its own.
Over the last year, Reports module has evolved. Nine releases in a year, many bug fixes, enhancements and a major overhaul, Reports module has come a long way. We have also seen sales grow after our initial launch, slow down, and then pick up once again after the major 1.6 version launch. We have incorporated a lot of user feedback (we feel privileged to have participating customers!)
Today, Reports module gives us insights. It helps us track project progress, how the team is doing and even the overall system usage. There are enormous improvements in the “prettiness” too!
We have our wish list open though, and there are improvements we are planning for this year.
activeCollab team did a comprehensive review of the module – features, usefulness and its working. At the end, they said:
Reports module can be a very useful and handy tool, especially if you’re working with clients and great number of people. Everything is accessible easily, available at one place, and simple to set up.
Everything is accessible, available and simple! – that sums up our principles for developing software. We use them on all our software and are glad activeCollab team recognized them clearly. (I hope they finds Reports module useful for tracking their projects as well!)
I want to end this post with a summary of I think contributed to our little success with Reports module (and our other products).
- Unexplored, super niche market: Reports module was the first commercial module for activeCollab. First reporting tool of its kind. activeCollab has a small, but participating and forward thinking customer base. This really worked.
- Accessible, available, simple: Our focus is always on keeping only what’s important and making it easily accessible. Things that would take you hours to do, we want you to do them in minutes. We want everything simple and easy to understand. We spend more time thinking about simplifying our products, than in writing code! Everything from our products to demo videos is designed with our users in mind.
- Community participation: We made it simple to give feedback. We’ve had some great feedback from customers and we improve our products with that. Participating on activeCollab forums helped establish credibility as well.
- Long term vision, self-interest and passion: I founded Apps Magnet to be a sustainable long-term business that makes money by making people more productive. I am passionate about programming, productivity and making a difference. Apps Magnet is an expression of my passion. We make products that we want, we build them with passion, and are happy to find enough customers who share this passion.
Thank you for reading! I wish you a passionate and productive day today!