Frustrated by the large amounts of unbilled time required to call and email his freelance clients, Lars approached Crowdbotics in mid-2019 to build an app that helps freelancers manage their projects internally while automatically publishing their progress to clients externally.
Crowdbotics quickly provided Lars with a project manager and developers and contacted him daily to update him on the progress of his build. “The communication from Crowdbotics was so consistent and comprehensive that nothing could slip through the cracks,” said Lars.
Today, Lars sells a lifetime subscription to Showcasing.io that pays for itself within months thanks to the two-sided data flow that Lars envisioned. Lars continues to host and develop Showcasing with Crowdbotics and soon plans to add features such as in-app invoicing and document management. We recently sat down with Lars to discuss the process of building Showcasing and his vision for a better project management tool.
Crowdbotics: Tell me a little bit about the consulting work that you do and your professional background in general.
Lars: I do mainly advertising consulting. I build funnels for lead generation, but it could also be e-commerce, or sometimes even applications. It’s helpful to work with different types of industries and different types of companies to really understand the landscape. In the past two years, I've been focusing on that.
I also graduated from my MBA program at Samford in Birmingham this December. I was doing the consulting next to my MBA, and I also play semi-professional soccer. So I basically combined those three things. And by doing all these things, I'm trying to get connected with as many people as I can in different industries.
I think that if you look at sports, if you look at business, and if you look at any major events, I'm trying to connect with all the people that I'm getting in contact with, and putting out that I have expertise in advertising. So that's how I rolled into that type of consulting.
My background for my bachelor’s degree was marketing, so I already had some affiliation with it. I just wanted to see which area of marketing I wanted to specialize in, so I decided to dive into advertising because it's continuously changing.
Crowdbotics: That's a really unique profile for our users. Congrats on the MBA. It sounds like you don’t have a conventional engineering or computer science background. Is that right?
Lars: The funny part is that one of the companies that I'm heavily involved with is a tech company. They build applications and Shopify e-commerce websites, and I’m their advertising arm for their business. They refer clients that they’ve built something for to me, so that's where my technical background comes from, is just by working together with developers on these projects.
They’re telling me about these infrastructures, different frameworks, different issues they're running into that are definitely associated with the success of my advertising. So that's where I began to think, “Maybe I should start building an application myself.”
But I knew that they were a really high end development shop. That's the type of client that they serve. With my budget, I would not be able to work with them, but I could use their advice to see what would be my best option.
My monthly cost to host the app through Crowdbotics is low enough that it's better to use Crowdbotics than to have another developer do it for you.
One of my other connections that I've worked with in the past was more involved with marketing. He mentioned Crowdbotics to me, and that's how it started. When I started reading into the concept, I liked that there were fully functional Blueprints that you can start out with, and then you can customize after that to make the application work for your specific needs.
I knew that my application needed certain parts of certain Blueprints, but that you would have to mend those ideas together to be able to realize the idea. That combination of prebuilt and custom options is why I felt like it was a good fit that was in my price range, compared to more traditional options.
Crowdbotics: So it was a fit, both budget-wise and in that you saw a pre-existing set of Blueprints and thought you could snap them together to fit your needs. Did you end up using a Blueprint in the final build?
Lars: Not quite. When I had the free consultation with your team, I described all the things that it would need to have short-term and long-term. Getting to an MVP as soon as we could was the goal. And there were some components that were already pre-built, but it wasn't the whole Blueprint. So, ultimately, we took advantage of components from a few different Blueprints in order to build it faster.
Crowdbotics: Can you tell me about your app, Showcasing?
Lars: What I wanted to do is make the process between the freelancer and the client a bit smoother than it has traditionally been. Because when I freelanced myself, I felt that a lot of the communication that I was having with my clients was not being paid for. It was very hard to leverage that.
I was thinking of ideas to make that process easier. A lot of the project management tools out there focus more on the internal part, which is fairly complex from a technical perspective. A client may not be that tech savvy, but they still need to know what the progress is. So, most of the time, that progress tracking happens through emails or calls.
I felt like that process could be made easier for the client and automated as far as sending an update. So that's when I came up with the idea of creating a data flow that not only helps you internally manage your project, but also publish your progress to your clients externally, where they have their own login. They have their own account and can look at the work.
You click on the logo of your client, and then it pops up a timeline with all the tasks that are being created and what the status is on those tasks. So if there are any questions on a given task, or they just want to see what is going on, then they don't have to send an email or call you to ask.
You normally don't get paid for those things. But if the client checks what has been happening on their own time, then it doesn't require any communication from you. So you might save, let's say, 30 minutes per client a month — and that's being very conservative — on client communication by using the tool. If you have maybe five to 15 clients as a freelancer, then you might save $500 to $1,000 a month with a tool that costs $29 per month. And if you purchase a lifetime plan, it’s around $500, which gives you your cost back in a month.
So that was the essential problem that I needed to solve. There are more features that are going to be added, but it was crucial to me that this part was fixed. That's why I reached out to ask what the costs would be to make sure that that MVP was up and running, and then what are the hosting and maintenance fees to maintain that application. Those were the main things that made me choose Crowdbotics when it comes to making this application.
Crowdbotics: And Showcasing.io is a web application, correct?
Lars: It's a web application that’s mainly meant for desktop, but it is responsive. The client is able to see that timeline on their mobile phone as well.
For the freelancer, it’s an easy way to record tasks for internal use. But when they're creating these tasks, it automatically puts them in the format of a timeline so that the client is able to see the tasks in a more client-friendly way. And that data flow is special because it not only creates a list of things that were done, but it also creates that client interface at the same time.
It's basically splitting the way that you are showing your work, which is why it’s called Showcasing. Internally, you want to showcase it so that it's very clear across the board to all clients what is going on, where it needs to go, and what you’re focusing on.
And then, on the client side, it's very stripped down, where the only thing that they can really do is check what has been happening and then make any requests based on what they see. It's kind of dividing the way that client management has been done.
When you compare it with the major client management platforms like Asana, Jira, and Basecamp, they still have too many times that you can click into something and the client is like, “Well, I don't want to work in this. This is way too complex. All I want to do is see what happened, and then maybe ask questions or add additional comments to what has been happening. I don’t want to worry about having to learn this tool.”
The fact that it has zero learning curve is one of the selling points that I really want to communicate to freelancers, because you don't want to deal with explaining it to your client, because guess what, you don't get paid for that either.
Crowdbotics: Yeah, those unbilled hours can absolutely add up. So what materials did you bring to us initially? Was it just an idea and a rough outline of what you thought you would need? Or was it more specific?
Lars: Actually, the whole idea started with a business partner of mine out of Malaysia. We brainstormed on everything, and they were more developers while I was more the marketing side of things. But I felt like it wasn't the most comfortable fit with the time difference. It felt like it was going to be a difficult ride if I had gone with them at the time. So we didn't go through it, but I still had that idea on my mind.
That's when I reached out to Crowdbotics, and they said, “Can you give us some Adobe XD screens to give us a sense of the visuals?” I didn't have those. I just had wireframes, like, a whimsical wireframe thing that wasn't very detailed as far as design. So I went on Fiverr and I found someone from the Philippines, and we started working on the designs to get the look and feel of it the right way.
From the start, Crowdbotics offered a productive collaboration in which we asked each other key questions to make sure the app would work perfectly.
When I sent over those Adobe XD screens, actually, they're still pretty accurate compared to what the design eventually became. So I've just partnered with the person on Fiverr for any of the new designs or new screens that I want to add. I make sure that they get the design done, and then I send the Adobe XD files to the project manager at Crowdbotics, and then they make an estimate. That's what they did the first time — an estimation on every screen and how many customized hours that's going to cost as far as backend and frontend functionality.
Crowdbotics: Can you give me an overview of what technical problems that you needed to solve, or even just the sort of user experience problems that you needed to address? And then how we went about tackling those concerns?
Lars: For every screen that I wanted, I wrote down every single piece of functionality that I could think of so that we could get the best possible scope document in place. The salesperson and I talked through, “Okay, this is what it needs to do. This is what we can promise as far as a quote is concerned. This is something that we might not want to include in the MVP, and this is something that we would want to include in the MVP.” And then we broke it down and stripped it down to the pieces that were necessary to get to that core functionality for that MVP.
After that, we went more into the development side and how we could manage it in those hours without running over. That was the next goal. I worked with a project manager, a frontend developer, and a backend developer. It started mainly with the backend developer doing all the functionality.
We went through every little step along the way of all these screens and broke it down into sprints. We had daily meetings where, in the beginning, it would be a lot of the backend developer asking, “Okay, what if x happens? What if y happens?” Questioning everything that I said, so that maybe I'm thinking all of a sudden, okay, well, it would create this unintended consequence, so we need to fix that before it becomes a bigger problem.
In that sense, as far as infrastructure, it was a collaboration of questioning each other to make sure that it would work perfectly. That's what the beginning stage looked like, as far as the back end.
The front end was kind of the smooth part. Once the functionality was in place, the frontend developer would start designing the way that the screens looked in Adobe XD and mixing it with the functionality that the backend developer created. So that was a more smooth process.
The back end part was where it was crucial that you write everything down and make sure that you don't want it to break later on, because that's gonna cost more time to fix it. I think the functionality is where you have to really collaborate and work together, so I liked it.
It was a daily process where it was a 15 minute call, like, “Okay, what happened? What were you facing? What were the challenges?” Because it was so consistent, there was nothing that could slip through the cracks.
Crowdbotics: So you feel like the team did a good job of comprehensively talking the app through with you and anticipating possible overruns and speed bumps?
Lars: Yeah, I think the project manager does an amazing job managing it all. I mean, I'm well-aware of how developers work. And developers can be pretty absorbed in their work, not communicating in the best way. But I think that the project manager is a great middleman between those two worlds.
The project manager did a great job of laying expectations out there and managing both the frontend developer and the backend developer. I think the team of three is the perfect amount. You don't want it to be too many, because then there are too many people fixing things and changing things. I think that a project manager that lays the expectations out and is able to talk to the developers is a good thing. And then having a frontend person who’s mainly responsible for designs, and a backend person who handles the app architecture, I think it was a good dynamic. And it was clear what everyone's tasks were.
Crowdbotics: Can you think of any specific product features or successful components of the product that you can attribute directly to input from that team of three?
Lars: Inviting a client was a challenge that we had. How do we make that process as easy as possible without having the client do too many things? They came up with a creative way of sending out a particular type of link that sends the recipient to a signup page that we built, and then whenever they fill out that information, that client will automatically be added to the admins or the freelancers page.
I like that there are fully functional Blueprints that you can start out with and then customize to make the application work for your specific needs.
That was not me coming up with that. I didn't think of that. That's what they came up with, as a creative solution to that problem. In some ways, I didn’t know how to even approach that problem, or whether it was realistic. In the end, they came up with a creative solution that did make that functionality work.
Crowdbotics: So what's next on the roadmap for the product?
Lars: The next step that I want to have is for the freelancer to get paid through the application. I’ve found a smart way of doing this with PayPal. So right now — actually, today — I should get the Adobe XD screen from the Fiverr person so that I can get a quote on the invoice section of the tool.
You fill out your PayPal.me link in the tool and it attaches that PayPal.me link to an email notification that acts as a pay button. So, you fill out the same form that you would fill out to create a new task, but it's now a form that has the due date, the amount of the invoice, and the title of the invoice.
That form automatically creates this email where it says, “Dear [Client Name], your invoice [title] of [amount] is due on [due date].” At the bottom, it says, “Pay invoice”, and that link automatically generates that PayPal.me link. After clicking it, your client will see a customized page from PayPal that says that they have to pay the specified amount.
So, your client logs into PayPal once, sets it up, and then they can continue to pay. It's just a new way of invoicing without using any API integration, so it's less development work. But at the same time, it's a creative way for the client to feel like they're in a customized environment where they can do anything that they need related to, say, marketing services or development services or graphic design services.
So, that's the next step on the roadmap, is implementing that and communicating to new users that Showcasing can get you paid faster.
Crowdbotics: I know that collecting payment is probably the chief issue for most freelancers, so reducing friction for that as much as possible is great.
Lars: When you send it, it actually has an option for you to click “Send again”, which prompts a pop-up that says, “Do you really want to send this invoice again?” And if you agree, it will resend that exact same email again. So, if you never see that amount come into your account, you have the ability to follow up easily by sending another email.
Crowdbotics: That’s great. Automated follow-ups will be really useful.
Lars: That's the next step. I feel like there are a few more parts that the tool needs before it has reached the final version that I feel is ready for a lot of heavy advertising. So I'm slowly working on the roadmap, selling lifetime deals with salespeople in person so that I can continue to grow the tool.
That's how I see the future — maybe this year, maybe next year — having that really big launch. I don’t want to push something out that isn't ready, because in the end that's going to come back to bite me more than being careful and making sure that everything is the way that it needs to be.
Crowdbotics: That’s a smart approach. Do you plan to continue using Crowdbotics to get it into that final form?
Lars: Yes. After I get the design, I’m going to bring it to Crowdbotics and get your team working on it.
Also, it's not something that I've mentioned yet, but my monthly cost to keep the app running is low enough that it's better to use Crowdbotics than to have another developer do it for you. Having a developer manage that each month is going to cost almost as much as what that fee is, and I’m not even paying for any of the calls that the app is making. Normally, you have an Amazon AWS bill that is a non-negligible amount.
Having Crowdbotics manage that, plus having that fee covered, makes it more relevant for me to work with Crowdbotics on a monthly basis. So, I wouldn't leave even once the contract is over. I would just renew on a month-to-month basis, until — let’s say the tool grows really big. I probably would want to work in collaboration with Crowdbotics. It might be a different dynamic, but it would still be a partnership.
Crowdbotics: That's great to hear. Is there anything else that you want to add about Showcasing?
Lars: I think the main thing is that I built Showcasing to make the life of a freelancer easier. There are a lot of tools out there that focus on the things that my tool focuses on, but they never take into perspective the struggles of what a freelancer deals with.
I think that the simplicity of the application on the client side versus the necessary tools on the freelancer side is the main thing that I wanted to accomplish. And I believe that by using Crowdbotics, and by using the people that they hired in the different places in the world, who all probably have all freelancing experience, that helped them understand the concept because they are dealing with the same issues.
The main slogan is “Made by freelancers, for freelancers.” It’s a true statement, not only from my personal perspective, but also from the perspective of the developers and project managers that have worked on it, because at one point or another, they have worked as freelancers. That’s one of the most important parts of this concept, is that it's very niche-based, where a lot of the other tools out there have a more generic focus.
To learn more about Showcasing, visit showcasing.io.
To start building with Crowdbotics, contact us today.
April 9, 2020