A Product Origin Story

September 11, 2018 • #

Fulcrum, our SaaS product for field data collection, is coming up on its 7th birthday this year. We’ve come a long way: from a bootstrapped, barely-functional system at launch in 2011 to a platform with over 1,800 customers, healthy revenue, and a growing team expanding it to ever larger clients around the world. I thought I’d step back and recall its origins from a product management perspective.

We created Fulcrum to address a need we had in our business, and quickly realized its application to dozens of other markets with a slightly different color of the same issue: getting accurate field reporting from a deskless, mobile workforce back to a centralized hub for reporting and analysis. While we knew it wasn’t a brand new invention to create a data collection platform, we knew we could bring a novel solution combining our strengths, and that other existing tools on the market had fundamental holes we saw as essential to our own business. We had a few core ideas, all of which combined would give us a unique and powerful foundation we didn’t see elsewhere:

  1. Use a mobile-first design approach — Too many products at the time still considered their mobile offerings afterthoughts (if they existed at all).
  2. Make disconnected, offline use seamless to a mobile user — They shouldn’t have to fiddle. Way too many products in 2011 (and many still today) took the simpler engineering approach of building for always-connected environments. (requires #1)
  3. Put location data at the coreEverything geolocated. (requires #1)
  4. Enable business analysis with spatial relationships — Even though we’re geographers, most people don’t see the world through a geo lens, but should. (requires #3)
  5. Make it cloud-centric — In 2011 desktop software was well on the way out, so we wanted an platform we could cloud host with APIs for everything. Creating from building block primitives let us horizontally scale on the infrastructure.

Regardless of the addressable market for this potential solution, we planned to invest and build it anyway. At the beginning, it was critical enough to our own business workflow to spend the money to improve our data products, delivery timelines, and team efficiency. But when looking outward to others, we had a simple hypothesis: if we feel these gaps are worth closing for ourselves, the fusion of these ideas will create a new way of connecting the field to the office seamlessly, while enhancing the strengths of each working context. Markets like utilities, construction, environmental services, oil and gas, and mining all suffer from a similar body of logistical and information management challenges we did.

Fulcrum wasn’t our first foray into software development, or even our first attempt to create our own toolset for mobile mapping. Previously we’d built a couple of applications: one never went to market, was completely internal-only, and one we did bring to market for a targeted industry (building and home inspections). Both petered out, but we took away revelations about how to do it better and apply what we’d done to a wider market. In early 2011 we went back to the whiteboard and conceptualized how to take what we’d learned the previous years and build something new, with the foundational approach above as our guidebook.

We started building in early spring, and launched in September 2011. It was free accounts only, didn’t have multi-user support, there was only a simple iOS client and no web UI for data management — suffice it to say it was early. But in my view this was essential to getting where we are today. We took our infant product to FOSS4G 2011 to show what we were working on to the early adopter crowd. Even with such an immature system we got great feedback. This was the beginning of learning a core competency you need to make good products, what I’d call “idea fusion”: the ability to aggregate feedback from users (external) and combine with your own ideas (internal) to create something unified and coherent. A product can’t become great without doing these things in concert.

I think it’s natural for creators to favor one path over the other — either falling into the trap of only building specifically what customers ask for, or creating based solely on their own vision in a vacuum with little guidance from customers on what pains actually look like. The key I’ve learned is to find a pleasant balance between the two. Unless you have razor sharp predictive capabilities and total knowledge of customer problems, you end up chasing ghosts without course correction based on iterative user feedback. Mapping your vision to reality is challenging to do, and it assumes your vision is perfectly clear.

On the other hand, waiting at the beck and call of your user to dictate exactly what to build works well in the early days when you’re looking for traction, but without an opinion about how the world should be, you likely won’t do anything revolutionary. Most customers view a problem with a narrow array of options to fix it, not because they’re uninventive, but because designing tools isn’t their mission or expertise. They’re on a path to solve a very specific problem, and the imagination space of how to make their life better is viewed through the lens of how they currently do it. Like the quote (maybe apocryphally) attributed to Henry Ford: “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would’ve asked for a faster horse.” In order to invent the car, you have to envision a new product completely unlike the one your customer is even asking for, sometimes even requiring other industry to build up around you at the same time. When automobiles first hit the road, an entire network of supporting infrastructure existed around draft animals, not machines.

We’ve tried to hold true to this philosophy of balance over the years as Fulcrum has matured. As our team grows, the challenge of reconciling requests from paying customers and our own vision for the future of work gets much harder. What constitutes a “big idea” gets even bigger, and the compulsion to treat near term customer pains becomes ever more attractive (because, if you’re doing things right, you have more of them, holding larger checks).

When I look back to the early ‘10s at the genesis of Fulcrum, it’s amazing to think about how far we’ve carried it, and how evolved the product is today. But while Fulcrum has advanced leaps and bounds, it also aligns remarkably closely with our original concept and hypotheses. Our mantra about the problem we’re solving has matured over 7 years, but hasn’t fundamentally changed in its roots.