The Importance of “The Bigger Picture”

I’ve been spending the week before WordCamp US in New York City, adjusting to the time zone difference, meeting some clients and WordPress folks, and browsing around. As usual, discussions with smart entrepreneurs and developers are insightful, challenging the mind and providing various ideas for experimentation and validating different models.

Assumptions != Business strategy. Source: http://dilbert.com/strip/2010-10-05
Assumptions != Business strategy. Source: http://dilbert.com/strip/2010-10-05

Workflow and Operations

While chatting today with a few great guys over a hookah, we did cover some integrational aspects of a platform connecting to different systems, providing a wider suite of services and automating processes. We reviewed certain issues with support companies and plugin authors dealing with free support, and in the midst of the heated discussion, I got challenged by my friend Vova Feldman from Freemius to provide some support services and organize our process around that.

This got me thinking about my support experience in 4 different companies as a part of the development process, the fact that we do provide maintenance and retainer development services anyway, and I’m comfortable training staff or aligning priorities – but that’s not my priority.

“It’s operations after all – regardless of the business niche or the field, there is always a certain process to follow, a workflow to build, and a business plan to outline the business picture”.

While every business has its quirks and special bits, the majority of the day-to-day or even long-term planning goes around a certain business model.

The “Common Sense” Phenomenon

With the good amount of #wpdrama lately, there’s a lot going on between people who care a lot about the WordPress community, but disagree on the leadership questions, or the future of WordPress, or what happens with the platform as a whole: should we beat Wix and Squarespace, or tackle the Enterprise space; are we abandoning PHP 5.2 for good, and the like. Since I generally believe in good karma and the fact that WordPress has done a lot for the Open Source world, empowering bloggers and small business owners and providing a different perspective on publishing, I fully support the mantra of “democratizing publishing“:

I often hear people referring to “the other coast” as “it’s common sense, how come they won’t apply it?”. It’s especially funny while sitting on a table and 5 people coming up with different “common sense” problems against the future of WordPress, and then start arguing with one another by providing facts for or against a certain statement, in a “pros and cons” manner, depending on where they stand.

It’s a good popcorn material, especially on the first row, and after a couple of drinks.

So, What About the Future of WordPress?

But in the grand scheme of things, it’s a problem unrelated to the “common sense” – it is in fact the bigger picture that is lacking context; context that has been provided to some, but not publicly available to others. That makes it even worse when a ship is headed to a random direction, without any pointers, planning, or expectations (in the context of a random freelance or small business out there).

Talking about support, I met with the owners of a large hosting company in Europe and they openly admitted that the majority of their operations/planning talks are related to WordPress, and yet they have no idea what’s going on with the platform, what will happen in the next years, is there a danger of purchasing and closing the product and so forth. And these sound like a valid concern for someone who doesn’t spend the majority of their time in a somewhat inner circle, and some are still valid even for many of us.

That said, I find having a clear position on the long-term development of WordPress being paramount to the growth of the project and the community. This is the best way to resolve problems and drama – just as a jurisdictional law provides the framework to follow for being a good citizen, or the governmental planning for budget distribution and investment activities in the long run. People unhappy with the plan can discuss, argue, protest, provide a different point of view or leave the city/country if they disagree with plans related to the ecosystem, the educational problems, crisis the health sector, security policies in the city, privacy and what not.

We see that all the time in a state/country context, and the public and transparent long-term planning makes it possible without massive disruptions.

OK – What is Long-Term Planning Anyway?

Back to our support dilemma, the reason I don’t find support particularly amusing in this case is that it’s not rocket science. Bare in mind that I’m not trying to insult any of my friends working as support folks or running support businesses. It does however translate to operations and a good process related to the available budget and number of customers. That said, I rarely find a job amusing, unless it’s in the cancer research or aeronautics areas which are still unexplored or mystical and require a solid amount of know-how in so many different disciplines.

A Sample Super Brief Support Long-Term Business Plan

A business model canvas for planning and measuring
A business model canvas for planning and measuring

The business of support, for example, can contain various hidden ingredients and is full of different challenges related to hiring, different shifts, response times, communication channels, internal logistics, server access, best help desk software tools and what not. Just as the hosting business, web development, design, marketing, finances, law, and many more. But the core of it – in a standard support scenario of a customer asking for help for a product/service – there are several generic prerequisites:

  • a customer has already acquired a service/product
  • a customer needs a channel/way to reach out to support

Those are obviously the logical bits about why support is needed in the first place.

Then the logistics process could be as follows (again, purely as an example):

  • phone support is available from 9am – 9pm on business days, and 10am – 2pm on weekends
  • tickets are being responded in 12 business hours
  • a problem shouldn’t take more than 3 steps back-and-forth to solve
  • problems have priorities – low, standard, and urgent
  • urgent ones are to be resolved within an hour, and all resources are allocated there
  • standard problems are … (something something)
  • support includes X,Y,Z
  • X is resolved by first-level support staff
  • Y is resolved by second-level support staff
  • Z requires up to 48 hours for reaction due to (something), and is worked on by third-level support staff
  • anything other than X, Y, Z is not included in the support policy and is considered custom work/else

The financial/growth bit varies wildly, but say:

  • clients pay an average of $100 per support request
  • the current monthly number of requests is 200
  • requests grow by 2% on a month-to-month basis
  • 60% of the after-taxes revenue goes to salaries
  • 10% goes to tools
  • 30% goes to marketing or growth

The onboarding bit for clients may be as follows:

  • 30% of our clients found us on Google, 40% at WordCamps, 30% through partnerships with dev agencies
  • we can invest in Adwords (with the right ROI measuring after a few campaigns) in order to grow the first group
  • allocate more budget to attend more WordCamps in order to meet more customers
  • build a list/ask for recommendations/meet at events/work out a way to meet more agencies and provide support plans
  • churn rate for clients is X, and we want to grow by Y percent per year – so more planning on reducing 1 by optimizing process/pricing and investing in things for higher growth

The hiring process for new staff, example:

  • technical prerequisites for support levels 1, 2, 3 are X, Y, Z
  • we need to build a training program for topics A, B, C (assuming it’s being built or purchased through a learning platform that has most of it if it’s general)
  • hiring an experienced support rep costs $XXXX and requires 2 weeks of training
  • hiring a new support person will require 3 months of training through the platform X/some of our guys working here
  • a new recruit becomes useful in X months
  • total investment for a new hire before becoming active is $XXXXX
  • monthly cost is $YYY
  • average time of a person in a company is 1y, 3y, 5y (whatever it is)
  • a support person takes 30% – 40% of the profit allocated for support from salaries
  • based on the above – some formulas for number of clients / requests needed for a new higher, margin on top of salaries, how often new recruits should be trained, how to increase the retention etc

As I said earlier, all of those are hypothetical and could be applied in so many different ways. But based on my experience doing support as part of my development career in different companies and dozens of talks with other people, they all face similar problems, use similar tools, care about different metrics (margins, growth, customer satisfaction percentage etc), which means that they all rotate around a process.

And the “bigger picture” is in fact visualizing a process.

Processes that allow you to define workflows, measure, and execute better.

Why Are Processes and The Bigger Picture Important?

The good thing about processes is that, once being used to them, you can apply them in different aspects of life.

  1. There are different workflows and systems for learning new languages in a significantly lower amount of time by following a process. These depend on person’s experience and how each one’s brain functions, but there are different systems as well.
  2. You can start a new business, venture, startup or something else by knowing the concept of a process and looking for the bigger picture. The bigger picture would allow you organize your work load, measure activities, track and compare metrics, isolate specific problematic bits, and identify key problems or aspects to work on based on the above.
  3. This makes learning new things easier. Because you know how much more there is, what are the branches, and how they interact with each other.
  4. That said, knowing the bigger picture helps your development activity. Debugging a problem in a large system is impossible without context – it will simply cause regressions. And building a component for a platform without knowing how it plays with others is often ludicrous.
  5. It will help you build better specifications and roadmaps.
  6. It will make the project management easier. Plan for the deadline, and then allocate the work milestones backwards, with all the buffers, leaves, surprises that may occur.
  7. It will also make you a better consultant, given the fact that understanding the bigger picture of your clients’ businesses will provide you with the opportunity to analyze their model, suggest optimizations, and build a system / provide a service tailored to their needs – instead of a generic one for them to get used to.

Regardless of how you look into it, the bigger picture is essential. It gives you the end goal, the framework, the processes needed on a day-to-day. It sheds enough light in your work so that you can focus better, stop wandering around unsure what is wrong, and optimize the way you spend your time. It also allows you to be more effective, spend more time enjoying life, sleeping or having fun with friends and family, or earning more in order to invest in another venture, reduce costs, or build something new.

Understanding the “bigger picture” could make your life easier as well – even when planning a trip you can predict certain issues such as delayed flights due to bad weather, luggage problems due to expected purchases on site, visiting a crowded location or one with a terrible weather and so on. Being more informed and doing your due diligence in order to shape the bigger picture can save you a lot of time from problems in the long run by helping you plan properly and avoid unexpected surprises. That experience is adding up, saves you time in the long run, and provides you with a unique perspective or analytical thinking that could be applied in so many other areas of life.

Organized and reasonable people need “the bigger picture” in order to take informed decisions. Assumptions are subjective, waste time and are often incorrect, or could even cause conflicts.

Regardless of whether you are a student, an employee, a manager, a community leader, the global thinking is essential to your growth and personal and professional development.

Your thoughts?