How to Improve Your Reputation as an Open Source Provider
If you are as open source service provider you have a distinct advantage over many peers in the web development arena. With open source you are using the power of tens of millions of dollars worth of software and bringing that value to bear on even the smallest project you work on. You are part of a vibrant community that has drawn (and continues to draw) both amazing development talent and high-profile customers who look for your services by name. All of that said, there are some things a CMS like Drupal doesn't bring to the table, and those elements are critical to improving your reputation in the field.
How do you distinguish yourself and retain and attract the best customers? It boils down to reputation - opinions about your business based on what you actually do. Building a good reputation for your company is something that everyone (developer, project manager, owner, etc.) needs to be involved in and committed to.
So how do you do it?
1. Focus on communication
One of the easiest ways to distinguish your company is to make sure there is a focus on communication.
Doing work is all well and good, but if your customer doesn't know what you are doing, it makes them nervous. For any project you engage on be sure to do the following:
- Establish point-people and stakeholders for your team and your customer and make sure everyone has email and phone numbers for those people.
- Create a document that describes what you are going to deliver, before you start building it.
- Setup a documentation repo and communication hub (we use Basecamp internally).
- Schedule a regular weekly check-in call with your customers during the project, and call them periodically to check-in after your project is done.
- Send weekly recaps of project status.
Most importantly, if something goes wrong on a project, identify the best solution and then pick up the phone and alert your customer. Don't wait! Problems almost never get better and customers will always appreciate an early heads-up.
If your company has even two team members, it's important to make sure lines of communication are available - and are being used. Here are some ideas:
- Setup and use an instant messaging system.
- For larger companies, Yammer can be a great tool. It allows for cross-team visibility and causes less interruption
- Conduct bi-weekly or daily stand-up meetings. In a company of more than 20 people, we've found twice per week is ideal.
- Provide as much visibility into the overall health and status of your company as you would like to hear yourself.
2. Be on time
Being on time is easily one of the most powerful things you can do to improve your reputation. It indicates respect and a sincere interest in the other party you are engaging with. Consider how your company rates in timeliness of the following:
- Responding to work requests/sales opportunities.
- Returning customer emails and phone calls.
- Face-to-face meetings and scheduled phone call.
- Project deadlines/milestones.
Be sure to schedule buffer time around any meetings or work to allow you to show up on time.
3. Do what you say
The old standby of "Under-promise and over-deliver" is a dangerous proposition when it comes to building on a large framework like Drupal. Too often I have seen well-meaning developers "throw in a feature" by including a module, only to add significantly to project cost and blow timelines because of bugs, additional training cost, etc. Instead, promise what you know you can deliver and then build in a buffer to account for mistakes, getting sick or client delays. Clients will appreciate on time delivery of what you promise, and they rarely care about early delivery or additional features - they have their own timelines and may be overwhelmed by bonus elements.
IMPORTANT: If you can simply deliver on what you say you can do, you'll be a cut above the average company.
4. Be a thought leader
People appreciate good content and good advice, and the most successful people out there are constantly looking for ways to improve themselves. Keeping this in mind, it's important to carve out time to create content early and often.
For us at Metal Toad, the evolution of our thought leadership has followed this progression:
- Organizing events
The root of modern-day thought leadership is blogging. No matter how inexperienced you may feel on a particular topic, there is someone out there who will find that information helpful. In fact, as a novice in a certain area you may be able to create content that is more readily accessible to people than an expert.
When just getting your feet wet expect your first blog post to take you a day or two - and expect it to be pretty lousy. But publish it anyway, and carve out time for either monthly or quarterly blogging. After blogging for a number of years now, my blog posts typically take shape in an hour or so.
Once you have a stable of good content and have established a pattern of producing content, the next step should be a newsletter. Newsletters typically have a different audience than your blog, and can allow you to create a "greatest hits" from content produced online.
It's important to know that creating a newsletter is a big undertaking, but can provide ongoing connection with more people than you could possibly reach through manual contact. I also think an important element of a newsletter is that it provides a reminder about your company for any recipients. I always reflect on the companies I receive newsletters from when I see the subject line and sender in my inbox even if I don't read it.
For us, creating a newsletter involved hiring a full-time editor, who has also helped us wrangle our blog and produce interesting video and audio content. Obviously, there is no hard and fast rule about when to create a newsletter, but for us it made sense when we hit a dozen people.
Our podcast, Toadcast, is a labor of love from our Senior Developer, Robbie Ferrero and our Marketing Strategist, Robert Haydon (we like people named Robert at the Toad). If you or any of your team members are passionate about this medium I strongly recommend supporting this endeavor. The cost is relatively low in terms of recording equipment, though it's important to have a consistent host and spend some time on the production value.
Once you have an established voice on your blog, presenting is a great reputation builder if you don't mind getting up and speaking in front of people. For people who haven't presented before, it's important to get some practice runs in. Your peers at your company can provide an excellent first run (be sure to solicit feedback!) and presenting at your local Drupal meetup group is a good place to refine things even further.
Another path to reputation building is organizing useful events. This can range from starting or helping to organize your local Drupal meetup group or more specialized events. I'm an advocate for the collaborative approach when it comes to organizing and paying for events, though I know other owners who believe in single-organization events. The recent Portland Drupal Business Summit was an example of a good collaborative event (produced by the Portland Drupal Business Consortium).
Your commitment to service matters
When trying to stand out in a field where the technology is already defined, it's more important to offer great customer service and follow through on what you can offer than to know how to implement any particular module, algorithm or feature. Be real and respectful, and demonstrate this by following through and providing excellent communication. You will be successful, attract great clients and people will be interested in hearing what you have to say.