Thoughts

5 min read

How difficult can it be to develop software?

Thoughts

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    EVORA

Back in 2011 Paul, Ed and I founded EVORA Global, a niche sustainability consultancy focussed on the real estate investment market, driven by a passion to make a difference.

A year later we were winning more clients, gathering an abundance of data and our spreadsheets started bursting at the seams. Although there was a proliferation of energy management software around, sustainability software was thin on the ground. After a very brief relationship with a small outfit, which went bust even before the ink had dried on our agreement, we made the bold move of deciding to do it ourselves – I mean, how difficult could it be?

It’s worth noting at this point none of us had any software experience but when you’re budding entrepreneurs why let a minor point of naivety and ignorance get in the way of a great idea and enthusiasm.

My friend Pete, a software developer who had recently been made redundant, and had kicked off a mobile app business, was keen to support us. So, with a hefty budget of £30k supported by a ‘detailed’ design sketched out on numerous bits of paper, Pete launched off to create the best and latest sustainability software to wow our clients. And amazingly it was pretty good. How and why on earth do companies spend millions on software development we thought.

Ok, so we did more than double the budget that year to add a few bells and whistles and for at least 12 months all was looking good. But nothing is ever that straight forward. Our business was growing, our clients were getting more demanding and the software had been built on a simple (and cheap) framework to speed up development, which quickly hit a ceiling of scalability and functionality.

After a swift Board meeting the decision was made to up the investment in the software to create release two. In reality, this actually meant starting again from scratch but since we thought we knew what we were doing now, what could go wrong.

With a bigger budget Pete built Version 2 in a new framework and with some outside help. Again, it was impressive what we achieved but it was very much a tool for our consultants, rather than a client facing software product. This was not a necessarily a bad thing. It was driving internal productivity and ensuring the quality of data, something we’d become recognised for. But keen to engage and excite our clients, we designed some impressive reporting formats, outsourcing the development to a third party. We learnt a lot at this stage, most of it painful and costly.

Having negotiated what seemed like a great deal with the outsourcing company, the reality is you get what you pay for. The ineptitude of one of their staff highlighted this, when we happened to stumble upon a tweet from one of their juniors saying how great it was to be put in charge of a project having only recently graduated – yes, our project.

Major overruns and a proliferation of bugs, which went untested turned out not to be the major issue. We’d developed an ‘almost’ amazing interactive front end…. which our clients did not want to use – “Just send us PDF prints” was the feedback. The problem was there was no PDF print functionality – somehow, we’d missed this during our market evaluation.

So fast forward several years and we now have a dedicated inhouse team of 10 software professionals who are great at what they do, producing a fantastic software platform, SIERA.

If only it was that straight forward.

We have now, like the others, spent several millions on the software – all self-funded I might add. SIERA is primarily used by our consultants (all 47 of them) to deliver tech enabled solutions to our clients – and it does it amazingly well. And it has helped us win some major instructions with leaders in the industry such as Schroders, LGIM, UBS, Hines and The Crown Estate. So, what’s not straight forward about that?

Over the last few years, we have seen a number of sustainability software companies emerge with great dashboards and reporting capability sold as SAAS products targeting our real estate investment market.

Our investment has been predominantly under the bonnet, rather than client facing. In simple terms, if the SAAS products are like a getting into a shiny BMW, SIERA is like getting into the cockpit of an Airbus – you need a pilot to fly it, but you’ll get way further.

But the reality is, the market is starting to mature and our clients are seeking a level of hands on Self Service. And let’s be honest, great looking dashboards sell. So, we’ve been busy repositioning SIERA.

Market knowledge is powerful. We recently engaged an excellent niche research firm, which has been highly insightful and we have fed the findings into our development roadmap.

We’ve also engaged a UX (User Experience) design expert so that the various stakeholders who interact with SIERA will have a great experience. I wish we’d done this years ago.

SIERA is an incredibly powerful software tool, totally niche to the real estate investment market, helping our consultants to deliver amazing solutions to our clients. This has been the essence of who we are. But the market never stands still so Version 3 is under development ready for release Q1 next year with a brand-new look and feel and some unique functionality.

I’ll keep you updated on how we’re progressing, provide some sneak previews later this year and share some insights from all that we’ve learned.