BY STEVE HENDERSHOT PORTRAITS BY TODD WINTERS
Whether startups or not-for-profits, resource-strapped organizations can benefit from familiar—and not-so-familiar—project management approaches.
Pavan Bapu, Gramovox, Chicago, Illinois, USA
Peering through an antique shop window in Chicago, Illinois, USA, Pavan Bapu had an idea for a new product: a Bluetooth-enabled stereo system that looks like a 1920s gramophone, complete with a curved, horn speaker. He loved the concept of fusing classic style to digital technology, and bought the old Magnavox he saw through the window. After building an initial prototype with a friend using that machine's speaker and electronic components he bought online, Mr. Bapu was convinced he had a winner.
“I needed to dedicate 100 percent of my time. I also had to get crafty.”
One problem: He had little money and no project team to develop the prototype into a marketable product. Development firms he approached quoted him between US$100,000 and US$300,000 to refine the idea—well beyond his budget. So Mr. Bapu, now 28, quit his advertising agency job and started the development project on his own, backed by US$50,000 he drained from his savings accounts.
“I needed to dedicate 100 percent of my time,” Mr. Bapu says. “I also had to get crafty.”
Although a rookie entrepreneur, Mr. Bapu was hardly a project management novice. He had overseen a series of successful, hybrid hardware/software projects used in advertising campaigns. Yet those projects were well staffed and amply funded. Mr. Bapu knew a different approach would be required to complete his project on a shoestring budget.
In the ensuing months, Mr. Bapu made a series of choices that enabled him to build a viable product. By the end of 2013, he had completed a full prototype within his US$50,000 budget, and his new Chicago-based company, Gramovox, had attracted US$240,000 through a crowdfunding campaign on the online platform Kickstarter. In January 2014, Mr. Bapu unveiled his product at the annual Grammy Awards ceremony and won high-profile fans. Mr. Bapu announced an additional US$650,000 in venture-capital investment last August, and the following month his company started shipping its product.
“When you're starting out in the prototyping process, it's very easy to drain all your money very quickly. Leverage what you have: your passions and your determination.”
Gramovox is no longer a fledgling startup, but there are project management strategies to be gleaned from the way Mr. Bapu developed his product despite a deficit of cash. These five strategies are relevant to startups and not-for-profits—and any other resource-strapped organization looking to execute high-stakes projects with a small team and budget.
What Mr. Bapu lacked in funding at the outset of his project, he made up for by cultivating passionate stakeholders. He generated end-user interest in the project by producing a teaser website showing off the initial prototype. The site was promoted by popular technology news websites, and soon Mr. Bapu had collected thousands of email addresses of interested prospective customers.
That list helped give him leverage with prospective vendors and contractors. Some agreed to work for reduced or delayed pay. Mr. Bapu estimates that by the time he received money from the crowdfunding campaign, his partners had kicked in more than US$200,000 of unpaid labor. This included both donated time and delayed pay.
Not every prospective partner offered discounts or flexible terms, but Mr. Bapu kept calling until he found those who would—including acousticians who tested the horns in anechoic chambers, prototyping shops that produced the horns, and manufacturers who would produce components for the finished product.
Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler
In January 2014, Mr. Bapu unveiled his product at the annual Grammy Awards ceremony and won high-profile fans.
“I found people who really believed in the product, and who also believed in what it could do for them down the road,” Mr. Bapu says. “When you're starting out in the prototyping process, it's very easy to drain all your money very quickly. Leverage what you have: your passions and your determination. Allow your vendors to empathize with you—it is key to saving costs.”
2) Maintain the team's focus—every day.
So much of good project management is about smart planning, intense focus on goals and daily discipline—not money. Startups and not-for-profit teams without contingency funds to handle unexpected challenges can look to agile approaches, such as a daily Scrum meeting, to keep things on track.
“Spend 10 to 15 minutes every morning with your team in a stand-up meeting, looking at the work that's been done, that's in progress and that needs to be done, focusing on today's priorities and near-term priorities,” says Karen R.J. White, PMP, PMI Fellow, author of Practical Project Management for Agile Nonprofits and adjunct professor at Marlboro College Center for Graduate and Professional Studies, Brattleboro, Vermont, USA.
“Spend 10 to 15 minutes every morning with your team in a stand-up meeting, looking at the work that's been done, that's in progress and that needs to be done.”
—Karen R.J. White, PMP, PMI Fellow, Marlboro College Center for Graduate and Professional Studies, Brattleboro, Vermont, USA
“You can do that by standing in front of a visual portrayal of the project's schedule, with a flipchart or whiteboard handy. Use sticky notes placed on the schedule to mark the status of each component. Issues are captured on the flipchart,” Ms. White says. “Any issues that arise should be taken up outside the meetings. If you do that, you'll be surprised how quickly you can update a project's schedule status.”
Bostjan Bregar, CEO of The 4th Office, a London, England-based maker of cloud-based collaboration software, says organizations’ biggest challenge is focusing resources on what is most critical for success. That doesn't mean stifling innovation and adaptation, but it does mean limiting changes to stay within the project's established scope. “Empowerment, agility and creativity must be harnessed within an organized structure that helps teams stay focused on what is important,” Mr. Bregar says.
Note to Not-for-Profits: Make Good Use of Volunteers
Not-for-profits may not have giant budgets, but they do have a resource that makes for-profit organizations envious: volunteer labor. The problem is that volunteer management takes time and effort to do well. Many not-for-profit project managers, stretched thin and short-staffed, find themselves too busy to make good use of volunteers.
Ms. White, a former PMI Board member, recommends writing volunteer handbooks with complete job descriptions, and then interviewing prospective volunteers to match them with appropriate opportunities and explain expectations that accompany the position.
It's a lot of work, she acknowledges, but the result can be a set of highly skilled, dedicated workers who are donating their time. When Ms. White manages projects with volunteers, she factors in the approximate per-hour replacement value of the labor provided by volunteers, to better quantify their impact.
3) Consider midstream revenue sources.
Mr. Bapu convinced his suppliers that their up-front investment of time would pay off later—and it has. But by the time he needed partners to begin manufacturing components en masse, he had cash in hand via Kickstarter. This agile notion of using revenue earned midstream in order to fund the next phase of a project is gaining momentum among project managers of all stripes, according to Nick Hadjinicolaou, PMP, PgMP, director of the Global Project Management program, Torrens University, Adelaide, Australia. “Methodologies are starting to take shape where you're getting out there and getting some returns and sales of a product, and then once you get that first revenue, you can reinvest to fund the next phase,” Mr. Hadjinicolaou says.
For manufacturers such as Gramovox, an injection of cash often comes in the form of a large pre-order from an anchor client or else a collection of small orders made possible through crowdfunding.
“At a minimum, you need to be clear about the scope, even if it's just a one-page brief defining the essentials and establishing some basic controls.”
—Nick Hadjinicolaou, PMP, PgMP, Torrens University, Adelaide, Australia
4) Customize the project management approach.
Cash-strapped project managers at very small organizations can sometimes feel overwhelmed by A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), Mr. Hadjinicolaou says.
Yet startups and not-for-profits can apply the principles of strong project management—defining a project's scope, budget and schedule, understanding stakeholders and risk factors—without employing everything they see in the PMBOK® Guide.
“It's about fit for purpose, and taking the bits out of the standard that you need to make it work,” Mr. Hadjinicolaou says. “At a minimum, you need to be clear about the scope, even if it's just a one-page brief defining the essentials and establishing some basic controls.”
5) Tell the project's story.
Mr. Bapu didn't have much money in Gramovox's early days, but he did have something else of value: a compelling story. The first part of his narrative focused on the speaker system he wanted to build: “We showed people a time machine that would allow people to stream nostalgia,” he says.
The second part of Mr. Bapu's story aimed to get prospective partners to believe he could develop a successful product out of his idea. “You have to have a vision, and you have to believe in it and champion it with everyone you work with,” Mr. Bapu says. “If you have no money, that might be all you have at your disposal. But if you're able to communicate the vision effectively, people will rally behind you.”
Some of his success stems from communicating that vision for the product to partners. “They were sold on the story,” Mr. Bapu says, “so that that they almost felt that if they were to change too much it would ruin the narrative. That's the power of developing a crystallized vision and communicating it so it resonates.” PM
“If you're able to communicate the vision effectively, people will rally behind you.”
PM NETWORK MARCH 2015 WWW.PMI.ORG
MARCH 2015 PM NETWORK