The prime minister is calling: Are you prepared for success?

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This is the next commentary from guest blogger John Craig, a veteran of commercializing mobile technologies. We welcome your feedback.

By John Craig

Obtaining a lighthouse customer is a critical first step in starting a business. It establishes your credibility as a seller, and creates a repeatable case study that captures the needs of your target market. The follow-on step is differentiating your business relative to the competition. Having something that others cannot easily duplicate or manufacture is critical to establishing a secure beachhead in your chosen market.

Sales may now be the least of your concerns. What may now undo you is your own marketing prowess. Your reputation is now dependant on how you execute on your next contract, and there are a number of key factors that hopefully you have prepared for.

Can you scale?

Can you handle the incoming onslaught of sales? How fast can you turn work around? In the mobile app development world, it was important for our firm, Purple Forge, to have a way of handling both large volumes of customers at the same time and customers with tight timelines. Our approach to this problem was to develop a streamlined app factory, one that would allow us to mint apps at an incredible rate and speed our customers to market. The app factory consisted of a cloud-based content management system that could push content and graphics to templated mobile applications. Our factory approach allowed us to compile and deliver draft applications as fast as our customers could provide us with the content to display.

The value of this decision soon became apparent. After establishing ourselves as a leading mobile app development firm for the government with our initial success on the Canada Day application in 2010, we were approached by the Department of Heritage to develop an application for the Royal Tour of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. To this point the fastest app we had ever built and had approved by the Apple store was 15 working days from start to finish. This time we were being asked to have it done and approved in five working days.

Now, this was William and Kate’s first trip abroad, and as far as we could distinguish, the first official app ever produced for British royalty. There was an incredible amount of pressure to get this right, with visibility on the app all the way up to the prime minister’s office. With the tour starting on June 30, 2011, we had a firm commitment on the afternoon of June 15 to proceed. Working closely with the Department of Heritage’s exceptional graphics design team over the next two days (and nights) I was reviewing the app with the prime minister’s principal secretary on Friday afternoon, and we were able to submit for Apple’s accelerated approval that evening. The app was available on Tuesday of the following week.

Boom! Our app factory approach allowed us to execute on this unique opportunity and move into the mainstream of mobile app development for the Canadian government.

How do I remain consistent in my offer?

Speed can sometimes bring all the scale you need, but can you be consistent? This was another critical theme for us in the design of our app factory. We achieved this by building out template applications outfitted with the major required features already baked in. For example, in the tourism space, our standard applications all came with location-enabled directories to allow users to find the nearest attractions and restaurants, postcard features to allow users to share their journey with friends, and survey capabilities to capture traveler feedback.

These features are all battle-tested and proven in previous accounts, only needing content and graphics to be changed to meet the new client’s needs. This ensures that not only are we quick to deliver, but we are also reliable and robust. Government customers in particular, as mentioned in my last blog, “A small business guide to working with government,” do not like to play guinea pigs for new technology. It also ensures a consistent look and feel and a common management of language and accessibility.

Can I be flexible?

But not every customer you serve is going to want the same set of features or functions. Customization capabilities are critical, as well as the ability to change content on the fly. A smart move for us was to invest in developing an app factory that not only allowed us to update the content in our currently deployed apps, but to add in new modular features as we progressed.

A great example was the introduction of our mapping module allowing us to display GPS-enabled snow ploughs and city cameras on a map for the City of Calgary. We were able to have the Calgary Road Conditions app available for the first major snowfall. Its popularity sent the application to #1 in the Apple app store in the navigation category.

We learned some valuable lessons here as well. For every new module developed, it was important for us to understand our ability to potentially adapt and sell it to another customer. In some cases we have turned down customers who were too heavily focused on features that could not be reused elsewhere. Too much flexibility eats into your margins and can hurt the consistency and scale of your offer. Balancing opportunity cost with customization requires a very soft touch.

Winning your first account is key, but it’s critical to understand how you are going to win your next account and repeat that with greater efficiency and consistency without sacrificing your ability to adapt to customers’ changing requirements. It’s the difference between being a one-hit wonder and building a long-term business.

Image: Be Different or Be Dead

John Craig is the co-founder and VP of Sales and Marketing for Purple Forge.

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