Sharktower project delivery software was the brainchild of a team who’d spent years watching large scale digital transformation programmes flounder in manual admin, poor collaboration and crippling governance processes.
Knowing there had to be a better way, the team set about designing and developing a project delivery platform that could automate repetitive processes, enable more transparency, and cut through the complexity of traditional systems.
They knew the market was competitive. But they also knew that a simple, easy-to-use platform – underpinned by powerful AI – could set them apart from basic work management tools and over-complicated enterprise project management software.
And so, in 2015, the beta version of Sharktower AI-driven project management software was conceived in-house at Mudano – a data consultancy that’s now part of Accenture. We asked co-founders Craig Mackay and Lynsey Taylor about their experience during the first five years, and the lessons they learned along the way.
The Beta version of Sharktower, which looks very different these days!
By 2016, the platform was still mostly founder code but was continually tested in real client delivery projects behind the scenes at Mudano. In September 2016 the current co-founders Craig Mackay and Lynsey Taylor started to lead the product proposition and development.
Lynsey: “Managing customer expectations alongside a product team needs a lot of juggling! I was spending all my time on client site speaking to customers whilst also trying to direct the team back at base. It quickly became clear we needed to expand the team and put some better structure in place. We hired a QA – a person dedicated to testing the product - and I spent more time defining acceptance criteria upfront so that I didn’t need to input as much during development.”
Craig: “It was great to have Sharktower in constant real-life use and see where the principles of visual plans and data-driven insights were adding value. But it was very much still a consultant’s toolkit. Our initial challenge was to build in better prioritisation and backlog management, as everyone in the business was having input into product requirements.”
2017 saw the most significant step forward in new feature development as Sharktower usage was extended, including a year-long portfolio delivery with a leading FS client. This was also the year the team started transforming the product from the original founder code.
CM: “We built a lot of features very fast to keep up with demand, and some were very specific to one user group’s requirements. While it significantly moved the platform forward, it did mean that performance was suffering, and the product UI became a bit of Frankenstein’s monster. We also had to learn how to build engineering squads as we scaled from two engineers to over twenty. At times falling into the trap of trying to be Spotify and not finding our own way.”
LT: “Listening to your customers is important, but their needs should be combined with knowledge of the market and other product management best practice. At times we should have probed the job to be done – or the actual problem the customer was facing - rather than just building their suggested solution. Rather than listening to too many different people’s opinions on what the product should do, try collating their feedback and combining it with your own judgement.”
2018 saw significant investment in AI R&D and the opening of Sharktower’s Edinburgh development, with support from a Scottish Enterprise R&D Grant. This resulted in a complete rebuild of the product, to ensure it was scalable but also delivered a modern UI and engaging UX.
LT: “We probably prepared for the future too early. In a scaling company, it’s always hard to know the right time to create certain functions or resources. We put in place a Customer Success function, created a detailed knowledgebase, a ticketing system complete with automation, product analytics software, and built in-app guidance. While I am now glad we have all of this in place already, it was potentially too early at the time we first set it up.”
CM: “Putting product design and user experience at the heart of development was the turnaround for Sharktower as we rebuilt it from the ground up. We had to deliver a consumer grade experience if we wanted the platform to be used by all stakeholders rather than just experienced consultants. We had some challenges finding our way in the advancement of AI R&D - we probably started from a position of “what can we do with AI?” instead of looking at the problems we were trying to solve and then asking, “how can machine learning /AI help with that?”.
By 2019, Sharktower was a mature platform, but it was still only being used by consulting teams. So the team started planning to go direct to market as a B2B SaaS offering. By the end of the year, the opportunity came up for Craig and Lynsey to spin Sharktower out as a complete standalone business.
LT: “The need to define our target audience became more and more apparent – we needed to be clear which customers we could service and which business problems we were trying to tackle. Narrowing this down meant we were able to start creating the vision and path for the new business.”
CM: “This period was about sucking up as much knowledge and external experience as possible. Reading every book about building a SaaS business, going to every product conference and visiting a variety of different businesses. Most important was speaking to as many founders as possible on their journey. It made us realise early on how hard this was going to be, but also what we didn’t know and the experience we would need to put in place around us.”
In February 2020, Sharktower launched as a completely standalone company... yep, just a couple of weeks before the UK’s first lockdown!
CM: “We had planned a lot ahead of our spin-out, but of course we couldn’t have planned for COVID. All opportunity for business development stopped for nearly 6 months. Our go-to-market strategy and conference launches etc were also out the window. At the same time, we had to evolve from being a product and engineering team to being a marketing and sales focused business. It required a lot of relentless belief to keeping pressing on. We changed our initial market focus, refreshed our proposition and underwent a rebrand during that time, culminating in a ‘proper’ launch in September 2020.”
LT: “At this point, more than ever, we learned the importance of being honest with each other - across the whole business. Being thrust into a world where we hardly saw each other meant that communication styles had to rapidly change – and combine that with being a start-up business, there was little time for misunderstandings or taking offence – we just had to get on with it to make sure we could achieve our goals.”
Sharktower as it looks now to users who log in from 27 countries worldwide.
Over 40 brands in 27 countries are now delivering change in Sharktower. That means - across the world - users are logging into Sharktower every hour of the working week.
CM: “The biggest lesson through all this was adaptability. We like to plan for every scenario; perhaps too much. But I didn't think we'd have to be re-planning our strategy almost every single month during the first year. Learning not to get too hung up on plans but instead follow the opportunities presented to us was key.”
LT: “Resilience and being there for each other has been key – having the right people around us to guide and advise has been invaluable. It’s also been important for all of us to share how we’re feeling, so that we ensure no-one is taking too much of the burden.”
Sharktower are #SUS21 Silver Partners. Catch them in the online and IRL exhibitor hall, and tune in to their workshop on October 25th.