An online software system for project management that enables multiple users to work on the same document at once, is attracting high-profile international clients.
Projectmanager.com chief executive Jason Westland launched the software-as-a-service website in August 2009 and has since acquired 4000 paying companies. Among them are the United Nations, the US military, Boeing, NASA and Volvo.
Volvo CIO Miguel Ferrer has personally endorsed the product. “We choose ProjectManager.com because it’s extremely easy to use. In fact, we had a team of experienced project managers up and running, managing projects within the same day. This was without the need of training or guidance, because the user interface is so intuitive. On top of that, the support is great. We are extremely satisfied with the product.”
A standard subscription would be a 10-user account for US$115 a month, but large organisations such as the UN are paying for tens of thousands of users. Westland says projectmanager.com has been adopted by the UN agency International Fund for Agriculture (IFAD), which manages US$100 million projects in Africa around construction, irrigation and agriculture. “They’ll go in and set up a hospital, doctors and dentist’s surgery and a school and then a farming learning centre and try and teach people the needs of the land and how to farm,” he says.
The IFAD rollout of projectmanager.com is being done in three phases, first in Europe, then Africa and then in the US. “I believe that with thousands and thousands and thousands of users, it’s certainly one of the largest SaaS rollouts in project management in the world.”
Westland says projectmanager.com was chosen by a committee in the UN which looked at 1000 online applications and shortlisted 300, without Westland even knowing that his product was being reviewed. It was when a representative from the UN rang him to discuss projectmanager.com that he realised the organisation had been subscribing to the service.
Projectmanager.com is what Westland describes as “low touch”. The software is designed to be so intuitive to use that it requires no training. “Customers come across your website, they engage a trial, they then sign up a number of users and then they grow fast, all without needing to contact you,” he says.
“Only when you have achieved that, can you achieve the hockey stick growth curve [that is, vertical growth]. Because anything that requires high touch — presentations, training, customer visits, any documentation you have to send them to support - will reduce the vertical height of the hockey stick growth. So we spend a lot of time optimising the business model so it is incredibly ‘low touch’.”
He estimates there are around 10,000 users on the website every day, but the company’s sole support person only receives around 50 emails requesting help on a daily basis. The low touch model has also ensured that 90 percent of the company’s resources are ploughed back into improving the website, with a major release every four weeks.
Nuts and bolts
Westland spent $1 million and 18 months on the initial development. He employs a team of six dotnet developers including what he describes as the best Adobe Flex developer in Australasia. The website software is proprietary and based on .Net with a SQL platform.
The website is hosted by Liquid Web, which Westland describes as “the most secure and reliable hosting company in the world and probably the most expensive as well.
“Liquid Web have a 24/7 service and their support is phenomenal, guaranteed 100 percent up time in reliability.”
Critical to projectmanager.com’s success is speed. Westland says they have improved the speed of use by 400 percent since Christmas. “We are constantly monitoring speed, which is how I know that figure.”
“All our server infrastructure is based in the US, but we are running soon with a Content Delivery Network and that means that we will have servers in all regions of the world.”
As Westland describes it, the website – which is rich in graphics – will be “cookie cut” and delivered from servers in locations that are closer to the end user, thereby improving the speed of the application.
He is currently signed with Amazon, which he describes as being the McDonalds of the industry. “Everyone knows they can get an Amazon account real cheap and even though they have fantastic server and security infrastructure, their brand for large strategic clients isn’t as great.”
Westland believes a brand with a different pedigree – Microsoft Azure is one of two on his shortlist, the other he declined to name – will attract more high calibre clients.
What has enabled Westland to spend so much of his time and resources on development is some savvy online marketing, key to which has been securing the domain name projectmanager.com in 2008.
“Google likes domain names which exactly match the words that you search. So I always said I’d only start the company if we had the best possible name,” he says.
That name was held by a recruitment site, and its owner originally asked for half a million US dollars. But then the recession hit and Westland offered to pay off the owner’s credit card bill (in excess of $20,000 is all he will tell Computerworld) in exchange for the name.
Westland has funded projectmanger.com from his suite of traditional project manager software companies, which includes MPMM – a method of project management that is used by the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. The enterprise package can be downloaded and installed for US$495.
In addition there is Method 123, a series of detailed word documents about project management that can cost between US $10 and $295 for the entire kit. Prior to developing and selling software, Westland was a project manager in New Zealand and Europe and has published a book about the topic (on Amazon.com 11 customers have rated it four and half stars out of five). His software background came from his time as GM for design and technology at Marshal Software, which was sold to NetIQ in 2002 and whose shareholders have remained his business advisers.
Aside from prosaic domain names Google, according to Westland, also loves content. So he employs writers in the Philippines and the US to write online blogs and articles in an order to ensure his domain name remains among the first that comes up when the words “project” and “manager” are typed into search engines. He also has a twitter site with 1820 followers and tweets tips on project management. Indeed Westland is wise to the power of online media, and approached Computerworld with his story.
Westland’s marketing ethos is based on the “freemium” idea – that is you give away something for free and then up sell. In his case it is advice on project management. He personally looks after the top strategic clients such as the UN and the US military and says they sometimes email him for advice — not about the product, but about management concerns such as how to motivate staff.
MPMM and Method 123 have provided the cash flow to fund projectmanager.com, which has enabled Westland to take the website to the world market without venture capital or an IPO (as in the most well known local SaaS product Xero). It also provided a ready made community with 250,000 subscribing to the Method 123 newsletter. Before launching projectmanager.com Westland surveyed 30,000 recipients and received 22,000 responses with the overriding message being they wanted project management software that was simple, online and included the most common features of Microsoft Project.
Westland’s next move is to establish strategic partnerships with large companies such as Dell, Google and Salesforce. This will involve leaving New Zealand and moving to the US next year with his partner and young family. (He also has a house in France and intends to resume living overseas, although he says projectmanager.com will continue to be based in this country.)
An example of a strategic partnership could mean he strikes a deal with Dell in which a three-month trial of projectmanager.com, is installed on every computer sold – that would give him access to 25 million customers. Or it could be that projectmanager.com is a plug-in application to salesforce.com. “They are a billion dollar company, if we get just a fraction of that, if we get $2 from every person that used it every month that would be fantastic.”
In order to sign up a strategic partnership Westland needs to get in front of the companies’ most senior managers. This requires an introduction and the people who enable these meetings are paid on high retainers.
It is the big wins that Westland is aiming for. And all with an eye for making the final deal – selling projectmanager.com to the highest bidder. He says he has had plenty of interest from US-based venture capitalists and he hinted that high profile companies such as Microsoft and Google may have been sniffing around.
He says he will sell once his target of customers and revenue is meant – he wouldn’t tell Computerworld what that is.