Managing Online Projects in 5 Easy Steps

You have clients, deadlines and tons of work to do. You have to deliver results and stay on top of your lists. You have to be productive. Otherwise you’re out of the game. And being out of the game is not fun.

I had an online business for more than 10 years and I pretty much know all the thrills of it. It’s engaging, passionate and filled with action. You don’t have time to get bored. Unless you step out of the game. Which, as I already said, it’s not fun.

Over the years, I created, implemented and launched more than 25 online projects. Each with its own budget, promotion, human resources and logistic. Some of them had 2-3 years projections and even more. Some of them become market leaders, some of them dropped dead after a few months. And despite their success or failure I enjoyed doing them all.

In today’s post I’ll share the process I used to make all those projects alive. It got refined over the years, adding something here, cutting something from there. It aims to be simple enough to be applied to a niche blog, but sustainable enough for the next huge social network hit. Which is exactly what you’re working on right now, of course.

Online Projects In 5 Easy Steps

Every online project would answer to only 5 questions, and those are:

  1. what is it?
  2. who’s going to use it?
  3. how does it look?
  4. what does it do?
  5. how can I do it?

Each question has its own role and specific implementation techniques. I told you, it’s not complicated. Let’s take them one at a time:

1. What Is It?

This is the cornerstone of your project. It has to be contained within only one sentence. For instance: google is a search engine. DMOZ is a link directory. Mashable is a social media blog.  You got the idea. Keeping it in only one sentence prevents you from starting mutant projects, with overlapping or even opposite functionalities. Usually, the first answer that pops into your head is the correct one, although you can get some improvements if you brainstorm it a little.

From my experience, if the root of your project is not clearly defined, you will have serious troubles later on. Too many times, on a technological, geeky rush, we tend to skip this step and go straight into implementation details. As fun as it may be for some of us, the development part is only the 5th part of this set of questions. Skipping the first 4 points will be like dining out naked: you can be sure you’ll make a huge impression, but you cannot be sure it will be the desired one.

2. Who’s Going To Use It?

The second question is about the beneficiary: who’s going to actually use your product? This is what I call “role playing project management”. Oh, this is the most entertaining question of all, that I can tell you. Impersonating other people is always fun. Trying to actually picture the portrait of a standard user for your project is enlightening. In a mirroring way, finding the fundamental traits of an ideal customer will reveal parts of your project you didn’t even know you had.

Another interesting segment of this step is to identify at least 3 consumer characteristics of your ideal user, regardless of your project. It’s a very fun exercise. For instance, how often does he goes to the movies? Or what kind of car does he drive? What tooth paste does he use? Does he use toothpaste at all? You may think right now: what’s the link between the toothpaste of an imaginary character and my online project? Well, if you can’t imagine the user of your project, chances are he doesn’t really exist.

3. How Does It Look?

This deals with the actual support of your project. An online project is not only a web site. It can spread unto other protocols, like email, or mobile. Most of the time, your online project will have at least web and email as its basic information support, but with the latest deployment in the mobile industry, including iPhone, you will have to include mobile as standard pretty soon.

Also at this level, you start to identify the type of messages you are going to use. It could be text, images, animations, video or audio. This step is mandatory and it will have an important impact in the final step. Many project managers call this “provisioning”, I used to call it “how does it look”. This stage will also be responsible with the logical structure of your project: home page, content pages and the relationship between them. You’re wireframing. And while you’re wireframing, it’s pretty smart to start designing your own SEO strategy before adding content to your product. Identify target keywords and hot content areas.

4. What Does It Do?

Slowly, we’re getting there.The 4th question deals with the flesh of your project. If wireframing means constructing bones, now you’re adding some flesh and blood. In this stage you’re defining your features list. Starting from the simple ones, like “I want a link bar at the top, containing these links” up to something like “this workflow will enhance user experience and make him stick with our product”. Or something in between.

I often found that in this stage of a project you can create some very basic unit tests. Don’t freak out, it’s nothing complicated, just a list of desired actions and expected results. If you create an ecommerce site, one of your desired activities in your estore could be “putting products in the shopping basket”. And the expected result would look like “updating database with new values and showing this on to the user”. It can get complicated, of course, but this approach it’s a gold mine especially if you switch teams a lot.

5. How Can I Do It?

And it’s only in the final stage that we’re actually doing it. And we don’t even start with doing it, we start with planning it. Yeap, so far we didn’t have any plan at all. It’s time to create milestones, chose our technologies, start coding and get on with the launch. This is by far the most exciting stage of an online project and many entrepreneurs are starting directly here. Now you understand why we had to chose around question no 3 the types of messages we will use. Because based on those choices we are choosing technologies right now.

From this stage ahead, you can leverage everything you learned about planing, coding and launching. This is pretty much what you do every day, only you can do it now without constantly asking if you’re doing the right thing. You already decided this. You already answered every question which could potentially become a leak in your planing. And that’s refreshing.

One more thing: after you finally launch the project, getting back to the question number 1 “What is it?” would be really interesting. You may have some surprises 😉


This project management flow was part of a presentation I did a while ago at a local tech event. If you’re interested, you can download the mind map used for the presentation (a screenshot of it is just below this paragraph) [download#7#size]. Also, feel free to ask any questions about this strategy in comments.

6 thoughts on “Managing Online Projects in 5 Easy Steps”

  1. I am working on a new project and will be using this and so many other of your articles. Thanks!
    .-= Casey´s last blog ..Photo of the Week: Walking Through a Dream =-.


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