Dan Prince: “The third thing would be to capture analytics effectively”

First and foremost you have to provide a solution to a large problem. A lot of people go out and build a platform that doesn’t solve anybody’s major problem. For people to flock to your solution it has to actually solve a problem they had. As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need […]

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First and foremost you have to provide a solution to a large problem. A lot of people go out and build a platform that doesn’t solve anybody’s major problem. For people to flock to your solution it has to actually solve a problem they had.

As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dan Prince.

Dan is a life-long technologist and technology entrepreneur starting his first tech company in 1993. Dan has always taken a pragmatic approach to technology, opting for simplicity over perfection, people over processes, and communication over documentation. He believes in continual improvement, both personally, and in business. He is often noted as saying that reduction in someone’s cognitive computational effort is the key to improving their experience. This is true whether you’re talking about user interface design, or interpersonal communication. He is a futurist that believes with technology that we can significantly increase our average lifespan.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I got my start very early in life. I was lucky to have entrepreneurial parents. They were early adopters of computers for their deposition service back in the mid-seventies and having access to those allowed me to learn about computer architecture and coding at an early age. Playing with computers back then was like a game to me. I played on the computer much like I played on my Atari. I didn’t imagine that it would turn into a life-long interest or a career. In my 20s I worked in construction and it wasn’t until I was a father of 4 with all the bills that accompany 4 children that I decided to get a college degree. I worked part time and my wife watched the kids while I went to school full time for 4 years to earn the piece of paper that would begin my journey into professional technology development.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

It wasn’t so much of an aha moment for me. It was a nagging fear of not living up to my potential that pushed me over the edge and into illumisoft. Specifically, the fear of not fulfilling my potential in business, not fulfilling my potential in setting an example for my sons, and not fulfilling the special purpose that I believe we each have and are born to do. I’ve always thought my special purpose was to have a positive impact on the world and I knew that without doing new things that I would never discover what my special purpose was.

My dad died in his mid-40s’. He had started a business only a couple of years before that and until then had spent his life working for other people. In my heart, I know he would have been successful in his business if he had just a couple more years. I knew this because the people he had worked for had ALWAYS loved him. I don’t remember a time when he wasn’t the shop foreman, or in some other way, “in charge” of a major part of the companies he worked for. Clearly, he knew how to get things done and build strong relationships. It was a shame that he died without realizing the great success I think he had the potential to realize. His death, combined with my own awareness of my mortality motivated me to start my business.

In early 2014 I was given the opportunity to help someone that was in dire need. The CEO of an early startup by the name of Unidoor Enterprises had hired a technology agency to produce a prototype of a software system. After several months without any evidence of progress, he wanted me to help him determine if he should continue that relationship. He wanted me to do an assessment and of course, he wanted to pay me for my time. My initial response was to turn him down. I didn’t need another job. I had a good job already. I was a software development manager over several teams at Epiq Systems in Kansas City. But over the next several weeks he contacted me several more times asking and then finally pleading with me to help him. I gave in and agreed, but only because of his desperation. I said I would help him, but I wasn’t going to charge him because I didn’t want the hassle of billing and taxes. I just wanted to give him a quick favor and then go on with my life.

After a preliminary audit of the agency situation, I determined that they would not be able to provide the system. I reported the same back to the Unidoor CEO with regret about the situation. But then I saw hopelessness in his eyes. The owner had invested a lot of money and the lack of software was keeping them from moving forward. If the CEO couldn’t deliver on his part, it would be a huge issue for the entire company. So, again, I gave in and told him I would see what I could do. Within a month I had hired a handful of developers and were busily creating the software for Unidoor.

So those are the things that inspired me to push forward with illumisoft. I just want to build something that inspires my sons to build their own businesses and hopefully along the way, set an example about being centered around helping others. Being centered around helping others is why we’ve focused our services on the healthcare industry. We realized at some point several years ago, that building great solutions feels good. Delighting our clients feels great. But, building great solutions that delight our clients, and then realizing you’ve helped literally hundreds of thousands of people around the world live happier, healthier lives feels noble and heroic and worth it.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Building a business is not without challenge. I was given an ultimatum at work and I wound up quitting that job in May of 2015 after a year of working on Unidoor’s project on the side. In June of 2015 Unidoor pulled the plug on the project. My income suddenly dried up. I knew I could’ve gotten my job back but at that same time it made me feel a bit guilty. The reason was because one of my sons was working hard trying to grow his business and struggling with it. He wasn’t throwing in the towel and as I pondered what to do next, I felt obligated, as a father, to take advantage of this opportunity to build my own business in support of him growing his.

Another time, in early 2018, we had found a considerable number of new clients and new projects and were humming right along. We had hired 20 people when suddenly, the majority of our work either completed or was cancelled within a short time. We found ourselves unable to make payroll more than once and as a result we let everyone but 3 people go. It was a very dark time. I considered throwing in the towel and even looked for a CIO position for a few weeks. But, it dawned on me that I still had clients that needed their projects finished and so we continued to work. We changed our model from onshore developers to offshore, from rapid turnaround time to scheduling projects a bit further out, and we made it through.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

These days things are going really good. Through those hard times we learned that customer service was more important than anything else. We have focused our efforts towards providing the best customer service possible given the situation. We understand that the greatest hurdle, the most monumental impact to a project is understanding what the client is asking for. Most companies ask their prospective client what they want and then they go and build it. What we’ve found is that what the client asks for and what they want are often not exactly the same thing. The difference can be the difference between a delighted client and an unhappy one. We are thankful that we turned the corner. Now, we pride ourselves on being the most ignorant person in the room. We ask the questions that should be asked even when, and especially when we think we know the answer. You would be surprised how many times we ask the question with the obvious answer and find out that what we thought the answer would be isn’t the case at all. We have also found that when you find these differences in what you think the obvious answer is that it usually changes everything else.

Today we are growing consistently and making the most out of every engagement. We are able to spread our services both deep and wide within most organizations and we’ve developed a reputation for being able to absorb complexity with ease. We attribute this reputation directly to our willingness to ask the dumb questions and because we know that we get the highest return on our time investment from doing so.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I don’t know how funny it is, but when I first started out I was a little skittish about talking about money. For instance I would make sure that I qualified all my bids with disclaimers saying there was no way I could guarantee the bid unless there was absolutely zero changes to what I thought the client wanted at the time of the bid. This approach prevented me from getting some bids, but the ones that I did get I made sure to fulfill on my promises. One time I had a client propose to prepay me $100,000 for a 2 1/2% discount on my rate. I accepted it and we did about $150,000 worth of work over the next 9 to 10 months. When the client received the final bill, they were astonished. They couldn’t believe that it was over $100,000 since that is what they had paid me. I discussed with them that the contract clearly says it’s time and materials and our rate is what it is per hour. After many hours of discussion, I was convinced that I was not going to get paid the additional $50,000 that we had worked and billed for. In retrospect, I knew that I could have resolved this problem from the very beginning by having many discussions about money with the client at the beginning of the projects as opposed to after a misunderstanding arose. But, because I was afraid of not getting the job I was afraid to have those conversations because of the risk that it would cause the prospect to accept somebody else’s bid. The loss of that 50K played directly into us having to lay everyone off in mid-2018 and that, as I said, was a very dark time.

Again this isn’t the funniest of stories, although I can laugh about it now, I definitely could not at the time. That said, I learned a valuable lesson, and that is that my fear of having the crucial conversation about money was not a $50,000 fear. It had no value whatsoever and that I had to overcome it if I was going to continue to build large system projects for major regional hospitals and Fortune 500 clients.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think what makes us stand out more than anything else here’s our willingness to truly partner with our clients through clear communication dedication and hard work. That’s one of the reasons why we bill on an hourly rate, by doing so the client understands very clearly what he’s getting for his money an hour’s worth of our work. We make sure that every hour we work for our clients that we can clearly demonstrate the level of effort that was put into that hour.

On one project, the client knew exactly what he wanted to build. He had already architected the system and estimated how many developers it would take and how long it would take them. The architecture was adequate, although it was an architecture from a few years earlier. Because of legal verifications and internal review board decisions, the project was held up for more than nine months. When they were finally given the go ahead to begin the project the timeline that they had to complete it was now going to put the project at risk. We discussed with the client in great detail all of the constraints that were now governing the situation and we proposed that we completely changed the architecture. As a result we were able to complete the project at about 40% of what the client had estimated in terms of cost. We were also able to meet the time line and in fact completed with several weeks to spare. The client told us we not only hit a home run but we knocked it out of the park! We contribute this client success story wholeheartedly to the fact that we built a good relationship with them and were able to understand all of the constraints that they were facing both the ones that they could verbalize and articulate to us but also the ones that were implied and apparent.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

That’s hard to say because everybody burns out for different reasons. For me I think exercise and eating right is definitely a foundational piece of my ability to stay focused and motivated. But I think everybody needs a balance in their life between family friends health and overcoming struggle. Yes, overcoming struggle is a part of happiness. Therefore it’s important to set yourself up to struggle. It is overcoming a little bit of challenge that gives people confidence and allows them to love themselves. The truth of the matter is that you can either set yourself up to struggle towards something that you choose to struggle against or life will just throw things at you and you could struggle with those. you’re going to struggle and the more you choose your own struggles the happier you are. The happier you are the less chance you have a burning out.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I’ve got a lot of people in my life that have supported me along the way and I’m very grateful for every one of them. But, there are a couple people that have helped me through the early stages of business growth that I want to give special appreciation to. Tyler Prince, my son, one of four there’s also an entrepreneurial type a person. He started a business right before I started mine. Against all odds he struggled and pushed an grew his business into a sustainable window cleaning company. He has grown his revenue by over 50% every year that he’s been in business. But it hasn’t been easy for him and at times it was very very difficult. We decided to form somewhat of a mastermind group where we would meet every week and talk about our business challenges and successes and help each other strategize how to move forward. We did this for several years and if it wasn’t for those weekly accountability sessions I could have very easily given up.

For recently I’d like to give a word of appreciation for Matt Heelan. I hired Matt back in the end of 2017 and because of his dedication his hard work his willingness to think like the owner and think like the client we were able to make it through one of the darkest periods in illumisoft’s history. But not only make it through, we are now thriving, and a large part of that as a result of his efforts.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?

We don’t currently operate a platform. We are platform builders and customizers. We offer custom software solutions and platform development services. However, in my experience with supporting entrepreneurial efforts in this area I would say the three main steps that you need to take to build a strong community of users and subscribers would include building a strong brand that aligns with your intended audience, making sure that your software is easy to use and easy to understand, and being consistent in never taking advantage of your subscriber base by marketing to them and upselling to them ad nauseum.

What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?

There are a few monetization models out there that are viable, but it really depends on your intended audience which one works best. And by working best it can not only be what works best for you as a company it has to be a win win between you and your subscriber base.

For instance you can use a flat rate pricing model or a tiered flat rate pricing model which is easier to sell but difficult to adjust revenue once you add new features to your platform. You can do usage based pricing, but this will disconnect the value from the product and it’s harder to predict revenue and harder for your clients to predict their costs. Another model you can use is per user pricing which allows revenue to scale with the adoption of your platform but it also encourages limiting that adoption.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SaaS? Please share a story or an example for each.

First and foremost you have to provide a solution to a large problem. A lot of people go out and build a platform that doesn’t solve anybody’s major problem. For people to flock to your solution it has to actually solve a problem they had.

Secondly I would say that solving their problem in an elegant way that is cognitively inexpensive is a must. If your product isn’t easy to use you’ve limited your market value to only those people that are intelligent enough or patient enough to use it. This can be a huge killer of subscriber growth.

The third thing would be to capture analytics effectively. There is a lot of nuance to platform management and if you can’t see into the void of who’s using your platform and for what then you’re at a huge disadvantage. When you can see into it you can make changes and adjust the platform appropriately before your userbase starts to fall off.

And that brings us to number 4 make sure that your platform is easily flexible. What this means is that you build your platform with flexibility built into it. You should be able to turn and turn off modules you should be able to add and remove modules. You should be able to adjust the usability of your user interface easily. The old model of if you build it they will come is true but fewer and fewer people are coming because a greater number of solutions exist.

The fifth thing that I would do to make sure that you build a successful app or software as a service is by researching the market that you’re getting into. Make sure you understand your target audience’s desires and needs intimately. Spend time with them create and manage surveys, market to them and see what moves them problem the better you understand your market the more equipped you are to build a successful solution for them.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I don’t know how to solve this problem but I understand that the majority of the people in the world are talking and communicating ineffectively. If we could find a way to sift through the vast amount of information that we necessarily are forced to process, and if we could do so in a way that produces truth much more readily, the world would be a better place. It is far too easy today to disseminate lies, distrust, and division, and far too difficult to prove that they are lies.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can find this on Facebook, on LinkedIn, and on Twitter. Just look for illumisoft.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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