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Thursday, 10 April 2014

Project Management in an international start-up

Managing a tech start-up project might be quite a challenge, especially when you're working with a team that is located in different cities... yet even different countries! But we live in a XXI century and the technology is here to help!

In my opinion there are four main things important for a successful start-up project to run efficiently. Organising regular time-framed team meetings, having reliable cloud-based file repository system, have ways to connect with each other almost "real-time" and define clear responsibilities and task delegation system.

1. Regular, time-framed team meetings
Our team is spread between three Polish cities (Katowice, Kraków and Warsaw) and our CEO is located in Reykjavik, Iceland. Since we are in the Startup Energy Reykjavik program finals, we had to figure out the way to manage telepresence during the interviews, meetings with mentors and possible investors.
The first choice is obviously Skype. The benefit of this application is that it's a stable stand-alone installation on PC and also runs on all mobile platforms. On the other hand the free version does not support multiple video-feeds and desktop sharing.
The next choice was Google Hangout. The giant from Mountain View is working hard to gain more interest in their social network platform Google+ and compete with Facebook. This means that they are offering a lot of useful tools for free, just by signing up to their network. What's important to emphasise is that, oppose to the popular belief, Google+ is a very useful tool for entrepreneurs to build connections (but that's a story for a separate post).
Google Hangout offers free multiple video-feeds, desktop sharing and plenty other cool tools like special effects that will make at least one of your meeting completely unproductive but very entertaining. Obviously it is available on all platforms, but we experienced some problems with running it on Mac OS.
During a Team Meeting, there always have to be a scribe responsible for preparing an agenda for a meeting and compiling meeting minutes. That person is also responsible for time discipline - if the meeting was scheduled for 1 h, he or she has to take control of the group. We put a lot of time into figuring out a good structure of our Meeting Minutes template and I will soon share it on our blog.

2. Reliable cloud-based file repository
There are multiple products available on the market right now and every few months there's some new company offering to revolutionise a way of working with files in the cloud. I personally started using Dropbox when it first started and was amazed by how reliable it is. I used it for many years, but the size limitation in the free account made me switch do Google Drive.
In my opinion Google Drive is a killer app and now I cannot imagine working without it! With a desktop plugin installed all the files we work on are automatically synced to the cloud. We never had an issue with somebody missing a file or having an old version. There are also advanced options that allow you to view who made specific changes and when.
Basically Google Drive with Docs functionality makes an attachment of an e-mail an obsolete feature. I don't even want to start on the beauty of the design and functionality of their mobile apps... A lot of this project is happening thanks to Google and it's all for free!

3. "Real-time" team communication
Robert Kiyosaki use to say: "Most people clock out of their job at 5pm. As an entrepreneur, you're always on the clock. That doesn't mean you're always working though."
Everybody are pigs in a start-up and need to be 100% involved! This means that sometimes we need to get in touch when somebody is at work or is taking care of his/her family. Obviously a mobile phone is a thing to use, but when you deal with an international project things are not so easy.
We decided to rely on the Facebook Messenger system. Obviously this most popular social-network is generally reserved for private matters and posting cat pictures, but we all know we cannot resist the urge to check it out couple of times a day. Facebook tricked everybody into installing a separate app on their phones by removing a chat functionality from the basic Fb app. In the beginning, I was quite annoyed by this, but with time I got to appreciate the functionality of this application.
We have a group chat setup in Facebook called "GeoDrone Talks". In this way we can limit the amount of e-mails and we also see right away if the message was delivered and viewed (we can even do NSA style things by turning on the location option!). Alicja figured out how to setup a custom graphic for a group chat and it nicely pop-ups in our phones with GeoDrone logo (she promised to make a simple infographic to explain this tricky process).

4. Define clear responsibilities and task delegation system
I have some experience in managing group projects from my work at Keilir Institute of Technology. I was experimenting with different methodologies and sizes of groups. What really proved to be effective in a technical projects was a Scrum methodology of self-managing teams. This combined with a good Kanban board and a well managed backlog make projects complete with amazing results. You can take a look at some projects I was managing at KIT on their website.
All those projects are using the Mahara ePortfolio system, which in my opinion is perfect for school/training applications. We also experimented with LeanKit and gave a try to the Office365 EXCEL web app (which then proved to be much worse than the Google Drive alternative).
For the PM work with GeoDrone I wanted to test a app called PODIO that was recommended to me. I did some research and compared it with alternatives. Basecamp is commercial so I automatically skipped it and Asana don't have mobile apps on all the platforms. We started using PODIO, which in the beginning looked quite complicated. It definitely has a high learning curve, but once you get there you appreciate all the customisation options and different cloud-storage products integration.
After working with PODIO for few weeks it turned out, that for a small team this tool is just too elaborate and bulky. Now we are using a simple Google Docs Sheet with clearly defined Work Packages and people responsible for each chunk of work.

This is briefly how we work at GeoDrone, I hope you'll find this article useful and as always we appreciate some constructive feedback! What PM apps, software are you using in your company, start-up?