Seed Edition: Finally, light at the end of the tunnel for subscription billing!

A recurring theme in our business practice has been a search for a viable subscription billing service.  At least several times a year we find ourselves diving into the minefield of payment gateways, processors and third party services to support a new product offering of our own or for a client project.  In our most recent foray, I started out by telling our client that “handling recurring payments is at best a daunting subject, and in truth is most likely an utter quagmire.”  Fortunately, we were invited to participate in early beta for the Seed Edition offering and found light at the end of the tunnel.

The basic concept of subscription billing is that you need to get a credit card processed on a regular basis … sounds simple right?  Unfortunately, it’s never that easy.  The payment processing world has layer upon layer of companies and services trying to get a small slice of every transaction, and a wide range of options, none of which are easily understood.  Over the years, we’ve evaluated and tested dozens of possible solutions.  Rather than name names or share horror stories, I thought it might help to provide a general overview of the world of subscription payments which should help convey the complexity of finding the right solution.

Credit Card Processing

There are many ways to get credit cards processed, including services designed mostly for web based transactions, but pretty much every bank and financial institution these days will happily process cards for a fee.  Every processor has different fee structures and service offerings.  Some processors won’t sell direct, such as Authorize.net, so you have to go through a processing reseller.  Also, not all will support recurring payments and, even if they do, it’s likely a limited functionality offering with no management features.

Payment Gateways

Most credit card processors provide a payment gateway that allows you to process credit cards online or through an API if you want to programmatically post transactions.  The main purpose of the Gateway is to securely pass credit card information to the processor.  Not all Gateways are alike.  Some are basically just set up to be websites that you can use in your office or home instead of a credit card machine.  Others have the ability to be embedded in a website or passed into from a form post but may end up with a look and feel different from your product site.

 Recurring Payments

Some processing services offer a gateway with recurring billing service that allows you to store a client credit card with a monthly amount and automate the processing.  Others just allow storage of the credit card and then you manually have to submit the transaction each period.  There are a number of services that will securely store credit card information and automatically send the bill to the processor on a regular basis … which is where Seed Edition comes in.

It’s very possible when designing an web application or shopping cart to store credit cards, navigate the maze of processing and gateway services and then set up some scheduled processes to run credit cards every month.  Unfortunately, this is expensive, often unreliable and beyond the technical means of many smaller businesses.

Seed Edition makes the entire process extremely simple.  PayPal and Authorize.net gateways are supported so you simply get the appropriate account and enter credentials in the Seed Edition setup interface.  It’s then an easy process to create a subscription model, add clients with regular payment patterns and begin billing on a regular basis.  For more advanced use cases, Seed Edition provides a robust API to automate account and subscription creation, and to generate payment inquiries.  The user interface is simple for billing staff and powerful for reporting and management activities.


Realities of Solution Change Management

Coming out of business school, somebody once told me, “If you design a solution correctly, everybody can be a winner.”  It was up to the solution designer to capture every user’s requests, wants, and needs and to piece them together into a solution that creates high value for all of them.  Soon after, I entered the real world of system implementation and I soon realized that this advice was purely, 100%, unequivocally wrong.

In the real world of solution design and implementation, executive management, middle management, and rank-and-file often have very different and competing goals.  Executive managers typically value reporting and metrics. They want to capture every piece of data that might possibly be used for some type of analytical reporting at some point in the future. Executives tend to drive systems towards analytically powerful, but overly-complex systems.

On the other hand, rank-and-file employees typically value efficiency, ease of use, and collaboration.  They want a tool that actually speeds up their job and helps keep them on the same page with other team members. Rank-and-file employees tend to drive towards automated, efficient systems with very little analytical power and accountability. Middle Managers are usually trapped somewhere in between, having the unenviable task of reconciling one group to the other.

So what is a QuickBase developer to do?  Far be it from me to offer a solution to probably the most difficult problem in change management; however, the following observations have been helpful to me.

Step 1: Accept Reality

First, I have found that after a new system is put in place users can be grouped into one of three categories:

  • Winners: Users who gain high value from a system
  • Losers: Users whose jobs will temporarily be made more difficult by the new system.
  • Sorta’ Winners/Sorta’ Losers: Users who will gain some value from the system, but will also have some difficulty adopting it.

It is impossible to design a system where at least one user group does not face challenges. The sooner we accept this reality, the sooner we can design strategies to manage the effects of change on this group. This is very evident in sales automation systems. Most systems on the market are geared more towards executive management and middle management.  It is usually an uphill battle to explain to a sales rep, who is used to capturing their sales quickly on a paper form and letting an admin deal with organizing the data, that they gain value from now having to logon to an online system they don’t yet understand in order to enter their leads. Or even worse, now they need to fill out a paper sheet on the road and re-enter it into the fancy new sales system. But what about the value they perceive from having a place to manage their contacts and follow ups? My experience is that most sales reps already have sophisticated and effective ways for managing this for themselves.

So let’s face it, management are the winners in most sales systems, not the sales rep.  If you were to build a sales system geared towards sales reps, management would most likely have to make major tradeoffs in the type of reporting they will see.  Still not convinced?  A major goal of sales systems is pipeline reporting. What value does a sales rep get from having to login to the system and update their “Expected Close Dates” every week? In this instance, I posit they get limited value.  Let’s be honest with ourselves that each group expereinces solution changes very differently, so we can plan how to maximize overall value to the organization as a whole.

Step 2: Choose Your Winners

Your next step is choose which user group will be your winners.  In some cases, this will already be chosen for you.  If you are hired by executive management and they are providing your requirements, you have no choice but to gear a system towards this user group. In other cases, it will be less clear who your winners should be.

Who is the optimal user group to build a system around? I don’t think there is a single right answer to this, as this is largely determined by the organizational situation.  My personal view that no matter what user group you target as the Winners, it is often optimal to convince executive management that they accept the role of Sorta’ Winners/Sorta’ Losers.  This creates an environment where management is accepting trade-offs, resulting in a more balanced system.

Step 3:  Maximize Value to the Sorta’ Winners/Sorta’ Losers

Next, you should try to create as much value for the Sorta’ Winners/Sorta’ Losers as possible.  The goal of course is to win as many of these users over to your side as possible.  It is the battle for the heart and minds of this user group where the true success of the system is decided. For QuickBase, this is easier because it was designed to be simple yet powerful for end users and it also enables them to create their own solutions.

Step 4: Plan for your Losers

Best case scenario, these users will grumble about the system, but comply. More often, they will vocally complain about the system, but comply. Worst case scenario, they will actively sabotage the implementation of the new system.   The absolutely worst thing you can do with this group is ignore them or refuse to accept that they exist, though this often seems the path of least resistance. Their anger will grow and possibly spread to other user groups. I have found it helpful to listen to their issues and actively communicate the benefits of the system to the organization as a whole. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t, but at least they feel listened to. I also try to make concessions when possible and keep them in the communication loop. I have had varied results with this, but it always turns out better if I acknowledge them.

What do you think? How do you handle change management, especially user groups who will lose from your system?

Also, if you are interested in this sort of stuff, you should read Our Iceberg is Melting by John Kotter, whose ideas I borrowed freely.

About James Cosman

James is a Solution Architect at MCF Technology Solutions, a leading provider of cloud computing services (most notably QuickBase). His core competency lies in translating stated business needs into tangible, value creating applications. His MCF team is based in the great city of Houston, Texas and he holds an MBA from Rice University. Go Owls!


“Living IT”: QuickBase Leads The Way

It seems there is a continual push and pull in the technology world between centralizing and consolidating technology vs. distributing and diversifying.  We’ve asked ourselves this question often of whether our clients will be better served with a single technology to support their needs.

This line of questioning typically leads to the evaluation of the trade off between a single multi-purposed technology that solves many problems but none well as opposed to a number of “best-of-breed” solutions.

In reality organizations seem to answer this perennial question with decisions that shift the balance continually.  These decisions and the resulting daily interactions with IT systems are what we refer to as “Living IT”.  By acknowledging that technology within an organization is a dynamic entity allows for a whole new approach to solving business process and technology challenges.  A number of important factors are defining “Living IT” and it’s place in the 21st century organization.

1. The gap between management and technology is shrinking

As the Cloud evolves and the explosion of advanced collaboration and business process tools continues, technology that previously relied on IT staff to deploy and support is becoming accessible directly to information and process managers.  Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) technologies such as QuickBase are a perfect example of tools that are narrowing this gap.  While QuickBase has the ability to handle advanced technological problems, the codeless development environment is used by managers with limited technical skills in tens of thousands of companies to deploy collaborative information gathering and process applications.

2. The costs and risks of change are shrinking as the benefits are growing

The 21st century company has to adapt quickly.  This means adding capacity and scaling quickly but also being nimble enough to shrink and shift directions nimbly.  In the “Living IT” environment companies need tools that are flexible, scalable and in many cases expendable.  QuickBase is again an ideal model for supporting change at a low cost.  The QuickBase subscription model is user based allowing organizations to develop as many platform applications as are needed with the scaling costs based on users only.  As organizations needs change applications can be retired without concern and new ones rapidly developed and deployed.

3.  Interconnectivity and security, two sides of the same coin are the main drivers of 21st century technology

Ubiquitous access to the internet has opened the doors to a new wave of collaboration between people and between technologies.  This new power of communication has also brought with it very real organizational concerns about security and accessibility of information.   QuickBase provides powerful tools to take advantage of collaboration but also manage the associated risks.

  • Domain/application user model: QuickBase users are registered with the QuickBase domain or with a private domain for enterprise accounts.  Application managers can then invite users who have registered in their domain to applications to allow access.  This simple but powerful model allows for easy collaboration with users inside and outside the organization without compromising security.
  • Role based security: within an application access is defined for each user by designated roles.  Roles can be easily configured for simple access rules or more complex data driven models.  This enables applications to effectively create different user and data experiences tailored for each application user.
  • Secure and capable API: QuickBase supports communication to and from external application via an HTTP API model.  The API enables interaction with all application tables for query, record add/update and import actions as well as more advanced interactivity.  All API interaction required authenticated sessions and for increased security, applications can enforce API token requirements.

The most important consideration in creating a true “Living It” environment is to embrace and not fear technology change.  Even very traditional technologies like accounting systems have to flex and change as the tax and other financial policies change.  Process and collaboration tools need to be even more flexible to support organizational evolution.  QuickBase is in ideal tool for supporting the “Living IT” environment due to it’s ability to enable development of secure, collaborative process and information management applications.