Why we started
Glass Factory

Why we started Glass Factory
I'll say it. Tools to manage agency business are crap. It's not a pretty or polite thing to say, but after 20+ years in the service space, using almost every tool imaginable, I am here to confirm what you have felt for years. It's not you; it's the tools.

I've probably just had you reliving all the times you've said in a beaten down exasperated voice: "Why can't the tool tell me… [insert simple business question here]?"

You know what I'm talking about. The moment someone asks the simple question: "when can we start this project?" and you take 3 hours to run 6 reports that still can't tell you the answer. You are not alone. We are all Sisyphus pushing the "operational" rock up the hill until it falls back down again. The Sisyphus cycle: once a year you say, "This year we're going to get our systems in order!" Your company starts a task force. You pile over research. You prepare competitive audits, set up demos and pilot trials. After two - three months of frustration, you remember the last time you tried to push this rock over the hill you learned:
- You can spend $30-80 dollars per employee, per month, across five or six tools that don't speak to each other; require MacGyver savant like skills to jimmy-rig, and take up the valuable time of your employees who are vocal about how they weren't hired for data entry.
OR
- You can invest $250,000 - $500,000 getting a custom implementation of an enterprise system which is obviously not developed by people who work in the agency/service realm.
Weary from asking, "Why can't I?" we at Castle decided to build a tool for ourselves, and for the sake of all our "Why can't I?" brethren we offer you, Glass Factory.
What We Needed and Why
Brief Introduction - I am Alison Grippo a Co-Founder and Co-Creator of Glass Factory. I started working in the digital service space in 1996 - before most people even knew digital development was going to be the next big wave in marketing, advertising, and product. I started out producing, and over the course of my career grew to lead operations and delivery organizations for very successful agencies. Every company I have ever worked with has gone through a process of needing the proper tools. One of my areas of expertise is process and operations so I was always in charge of making tools and systems work together to support the business. For nearly 20 years I found nothing. I have hacked together MS Project Server. I have customized tools like Unanet, Maconomy and AtTask (Workfront). I have tied together disparate tools like Smartsheet + Teamwork + Harvest + Jira. I have also, of course, designed massive excel workbooks with visual basic to create the tools and workflow needed just to answer basic questions like "who is available to start work?" In each company, in each role, I heard often about the volume of time my teams spent making tools work. There was data entry, data scrubbing, hacks to make reports spit out the right data that could then be analyzed outside of the tool etc. Key team members were spending 20% of their week managing toolsets, not paying attention to their client and product work just to answer four simple questions:

  1. What is my company's pipeline?
  2. Does my company have the team to support the pipeline and the current business?
  3. Are my company's client projects running on time and on budget meeting revenue?
  4. Is my company profitable?

In theory, these four questions should be easily answered if your tool set is designed to capture and manage the right data. I was lucky to meet Castle who were in the process of trying to solve the toolset problem, and together we decided to crack the nut.
Size Doesn't Matter
Being a small, medium, large or ginormous organization does not change the questions or the needs. For every agency there are three areas which need to be in sync:

  • Plans
  • Resources
  • Time sheets
Every business needs, what I call, a center of truth where these three touch points can come together to enable:

  1. Reporting
  2. Billing
  3. Financials
  4. Staffing

Before choosing to build vs. buy, Castle struggled with a size question I have often heard: "well we're a mid sized firm, so Google Spreadsheets seems like the right solution and it's cheap and easy for now." "For Now" is the operational death blow. "For Now" is often the long term critical blocker to scaling. Plan for when you are growing and hiring so when you do hit scale, and you will, you are not hampered by having to rebuild your infrastructure and process while managing your existing business. It is the difference between proactively and reactively managing the business.
Castle's Situation
Castle Digital Partners is venture services firm with 6 offices and a plan for rapid growth. We have teams in Los Angeles, Charlotte, New York, London, Samara, and Prague. Our firm operates with a highly distributed team model requiring we focus our energies building great products, not managing spreadsheets. We needed a holistic feature set that supported our business model at scale. Scale is important, our infrastructure needs to grow with us from the 100 people we have now, to potentially 500+ people with 10+ offices. For that we needed:

  1. Timesheets people will use
  2. Resource Management and Planning that was real-time, collaborative, and helpful
  3. Pipeline Planning
  4. Project Planning and Health Tracking
  5. Billing / Invoicing
  6. Integrations with common tools (e.g. Jira, Pivotal, Github)
  7. Employee Profiles
  8. Accurate reporting
  9. Flexibility for contract styles and pricing
  10. Reasonable pricing (<$25/pp Per Month)

Most important - the tool had to be simple to use and not require hours of data entry and scrubbing to make reporting worthwhile. We wanted the tool to be completely self-service. We are a distributed team filled with serial entrepreneurs, so our system needs to provide insights and answers - not generate more questions.
PLANS
Part 1
Plans are the central nervous system to our and your company. The single common factor across all clients is a plan. A clear set of plans creates transparency because they hold all the data for:

  1. Project health
  2. Plient health
  3. Company health
  4. Resource needs
  5. Timelines
  6. Budgets

For some reason however, those plans rarely are easy to make and consolidate within one tool set. Castle needed to make sure:

  1. People made plans they could actively manage
  2. The plans are simple to maintain.
  3. Plans provided accurate data around budgets, time, resources, activities and milestones.
  4. Plans can easily translate to invoices
  5. Rate cards at the project level
  6. Flexible pricing models for T&M, Fixed Fee and Retainers

One key thing we did to simplify the overall situation was take Task Management out of the equation. We believe there are great tools out there for Task management: Jira and Pivotal to name two, so instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, we integrated. In Glass Factory you create and keep accurate high level plans that take a few minutes to set up, and then manage your tasks using a tool set you already have. Our integrations take updates from the 3rd party tools including time so we have accurate status but our team members do not have to complete data entry in multiple systems.

Glass Factory uses Plan Styles to support any methodology - because we all know there is no "one right way". Our plans have a familiar look of spreadsheets and we integrate our resourcing at the plan level to immediately avoid conflicts - this nearly eliminated our weekly resource meeting because all the right people had real time visibility into staffing. Our Plan styles are living records of activity that are dynamically populated with real actuals data so you always know at a glance your project or client health. We enabled project level rate cards and client and program level pricing options so we can always be flexible with our contract needs and ensure accurate reporting.

Because no plan is ever right the first time - we made sure that we could track against a baseline and different pricing models as well. This way we are always learning from history and preparing for the future.

Our plans are completely integrated with our resourcing and rates so we can generate accurate invoices without needing to compile a lot of data or use a separate finance time for invoice generation. Our billings can integrate with QB and soon Xero so all our data is in synch with our back office accounting. Our ability to manage invoices like this gives our business owners flexibility as well to make discount and adjustment decisions that will tie back to reporting. A planning and billing ecosystem working in harmony.

Perfect, we now have plans people will use that don't take days to create and 10 hours a week to modify and manage, and not to brag, but they look slick - like share with a client as is slick.

Resource Management
Part 2
Resources are the amazing team members who make up our company - the people who make the magic happen. As I mentioned, Castle is incredibly distributed with time zone challenges. We can not wait for meetings to tell us if we can staff a client with the right team. Castle also takes employee happiness very seriously and we never want bored people sitting around waiting for something juicy to work on. Sound familiar?

At Castle, like other agencies, we needed to solve the following problems:

  1. How can we accurately know who is available when and for how long without having to ask multiple people.
  2. Always on visibility into the total utilization of the company 6+ months in advance including potential new business
  3. Easily manage resource changes that are needed for backfills, vacations or other switches.
  4. How to empower the project teams to solve resourcing issues without executive intervention.
  5. Soft book roles and individuals for potential projects

Sound familiar no?

The day to day issues around resourcing require teams and companies have visibility into the entire organization. Transparency for the whole organization around integrated resource and project plans enables project managers and other team leads to quickly make decisions around staffing without impacting other projects. We solved this by creating two views that provide the macro picture. A utilization board with powerful filters and an open roles board to show exactly what expertise is needed when and who can fill the role without conflicts.

To solve for new business needs we built in probability. By resourcing our plans at the estimate stage (softbooking) we can easily see our needs should the three jobs at 75% probability start on time. Our revenue and resource reporting can now help us plan for multiple scenarios based on the probability of our pipeline.

Now we can see needs months in advance. We avoid conflicts because all our resources are synched with plans and probability. We manage headcount easily because we know our open role needs well in advance. Castle is now always ahead of resource problems and focused on growth.
Utilization Board
Utilization Board
Understanding the user mindset is key to the successful development of each pillar. You need to ask what the user is saying at each stage. At the acquisition stage, the user doesn't know you, doesn't know anything about you. What they're saying is 'Who are you and why would I use you? Why should I even care?' During onboarding, they're saying 'I'm considering you. I've bothered to take time to play around with you. I'm thinking about you, but you still need to convince me.'

Once they reach core task completion, they've already passed a major milestone. At this point they're saying, 'I get you; I understand what you're about and I can see the value.' The administration pillar is all about customisation. The user's saying 'I get the value of what you're providing, but I want to adapt you to my own needs.'