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This is an edited and abridged transcript from our ‘In the Ring’ podcast series about discovery. 

For the next six weeks, we’ll be sitting down and talking with Melissa Curra, SUMO Heavy’s Director of Strategy to break down the entire process. 

You can also listen and subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

John: When it comes to hiring agencies, pricing seems to be a ‘dark art’, in that it’s hard to determine what value you get for what you’re paying. In my experience (on both sides of the fence), the customer that’s getting the ‘value-priced option’, for lack of a better term, seems to scream the loudest. How does SUMO or any other agency determine the actual cost of discovery?

Melissa: Here at SUMO, we’ve been doing this for a long time. We take on a variety of types of discoveries and clients that are looking for features and build-outs of all different types of complexities. So our discovery costs can vary. However, they are determined by this preset expectation of process. And that is to say, we adhere to a timeline. Usually, there is a clear understanding, not only at SUMO but at a lot of agencies of what the client is pretty much looking for a site or a feature or a replatforming, whatever it might be. And so your discovery time and the time an agency is taking to discover what it is they’re going to be building. And the best and most cost-effective way to build that is going to be generally based on the complexity of the thing. So we have a range. However, it’s built on a very specific set of expectations.

John: I’m a client and I come to you and ask, ‘is discovery separate cost from your other services? Is that broken out? Is something separate,’ How do you explain that to the client? How do you sell that?

Melissa: We make it really clear, just through our communication. As we get to know each other, get to know the client, meet our teams, get acquainted, we verbally explain this clearly, we make ourselves available for questions throughout the decision making process. As the client, you might have a few contenders and a few people in the works, who might handle this discovery and build out for you. They’re all going to look and feel a little bit different. You have to bring this back to a decision maker maker and get an answer for this budget. So we make ourselves really open to questions and concerns and comments as people make the decision about the money concerning discovery. So yeah, we do it separately, because we think it is justifiable as its own process and its own course of action.

John: Why is it calculated differently, or separately? Why do you keep it as a different thing? You’re always going to get that client that says, ‘why can’t you just tell me what it costs’? 

Melissa: We package our discovery differently at SUMO because for us, the whole point of the discovery is to build you a realistic roadmap of the build out or whatever it is you’re asking for. And so for us to loosely throw a number for a budget, we like to really make that call based on documentation, and what we call the discovery process. We do keep the project itself and its budget in mind, we are able to roughly estimate but really our discovery at SUMO and why we price it differently, is because it’s completely different than the build out you’re asking for. It’s a different set of resources. It’s going to be a different muscle for you to use organization. For the client, because you’re going to be talking about a lot of things perhaps you haven’t talked about, you’re going to be documenting a lot of things that perhaps you have not documented. 

From those conversations, those documents, those user flows, the designs, all the things, we talked about the technical infrastructure, comparative analysis, and documentation. All of those things are going to tell us and tell you and your team very clearly, how difficult the thing you’re asking for is the series of things you’re asking for is how much it’s going to really cost you, and how long it’s really going to take for us at SUMO. To throw that out there before we’ve even done a discovery is a bit of a foolhardy decision, and we try to stay away from it. Again, we will throw estimates out there. But we cannot be clear enough to our prospective clients that it is just that a rough estimate, and that they’ll get a much more realistic picture here, as they go through discovery with us. And so we chopped them out into different costs because they’re truly different processes with us.

John: It sounds like you wouldn’t be doing the client any favors, just ballparking, or giving them an estimate when the actual piece of work that you deliver might be an entirely different animal. And just to clarify something, when we say discovery, what they’re paying for is not to have us, ‘discover things’, but what they’re really paying for is a roadmap at the end.

Melissa: Here at SUMO, we don’t call it a discovery. We call it a Weigh-In. We think that more holistically describes what it is, it’s this set of recommendations, the set of documentation, and the set of decision making, that builds out this roadmap. And so that when the Weigh-In is over you come to work the next day, you’re ready to work. Because during the Weigh-In, we built out how exactly we are going to make all of these moving pieces within this whole infrastructure of your needs, your RFP, your statement of work, how we’re going to make those work together, and then what you can expect at the end. It’s a really detailed roadmap. So yeah, I think discovery is a really broad brush to paint with, we make it a little more specific, we call it a Weigh-In. We’re a very intimate and involved company here at SUMO. Other agencies’ discoveries might be called that because they are a bit broader. And it also depends on what agency you’re going to. 

John: In the end, no matter which way you go, a thorough agency would provide you with that roadmap.

Let’s get into hypotheticals here: I’ve hired agency X, and I’ve hired SUMO. What if the client decides, ‘thanks for the fun taking my roadmap and going elsewhere’? Is that part of the contract? They’re not locked in with SUMO, they could take it and take it to another agency, correct?

Melissa: Yes, absolutely. So at the end of our discovery or Weigh-In, as we call it, we record all our meetings, and save those and send those to your team. They’re saved, and we put together like I’m saying a bunch of documentation, and I mean, a bunch of documentation. And yes, our clients get to keep that all at the end of their discovery process with us, which also is, again, why we bill it differently. It’s a different set of deliverables. That comes with a roadmap and this course of action, and we even recommend agencies that we think would be a good developmental partner for them to really implement this. And yes, they are allowed to keep it and move forward with that discovery.

John:  How often does the client take their roadmap and go on their way?

Melissa: That’s a sometimes, definitely a sometimes. I call it a rough 20% of the time, but definitely, sometimes. And the reasons for those are mostly budgetary. However, it can also be just where they are in their product lifecycle. Sometimes what happens is, especially with new ideas, fresh ideas, some people come to a discovery for that plan of action. And that realistic understanding and deep dive of how much this is going to cost them what they would need, what they’re really going to have to think about. Some people are looking for investors. And so what our Weigh-In and our discovery does is provide them with really solid documentation to back and continue and further their ideas. And so they’re just not ready for the implementation itself. 

John: Someone has an idea, and they want to build an MVP. They want to do discovery, they want to walk away with a roadmap, but they’re not actually ready to not ready to sign on the dotted line, they want to either talk to investors, talk to other people talk to stakeholders. Is there some sort of shelf life for a roadmap, or would it go case by case?

Melissa: It’s definitely case by case because that’s all just dependent on the scope of the idea in the first place. If you have a better grasp as a company, two years after you went through a discovery with an agency, and you’re ready to put your finger on that metaphorical trigger, and really put some development resources behind it, then as long as you didn’t wildly change any of your needs in the first place, the roadmap would still be a really good insight into the level of effort of what you’re trying to build. Some of the details might change, but if you go back to the same agency that built that discovery out, and especially if you came to someone like us here at SUMO, where you’re gonna get a lot of infrastructure advice, we would simply look over it, review it, and tell you if it has drastically changed and go from there.

Again, if you’re having conversations with agencies, and it seems like a lot of black magic, and you’re not able to ask and get answers to like honest, valid, transparent questions, then you should really think about that, consider it into your decision making, because human beings working at companies that go to other companies with human beings working out them should be able to ask questions and get answers that they’re not being charged for. So ask.

John: What you’re saying is, we are transparent enough in that you build a roadmap for me, and then at the end of 2021, I can come back and say, ‘Melissa, we’re ready to go now’. What has changed in the tech environment and other business environments? What are the changes that you recommend? And when we do that, would we have to start another process again? Or would it just be a matter of just reviewing the documents? And how long would something like that take?

Melissa: It would be more of a reevaluation of the roadmap we left off with if anything has wildly changed within your plan. So for example, if the roadmap we built during your discovery, led to you making the decision about one platform, but then you come to us a year and a half later, you’re like, ‘nevermind, I want to use a custom platform, I’ve completely changed the idea, all of the branding’, then, of course, you’re going to have to have a different scope of work. But remember, we’ve already spent a ton of time with you. So it wouldn’t be a different version of discovery, it would have a different process. However, our goal is ubiquitous, it’s always to build a realistic timeline and a roadmap with you. Again, it would just be a series of transparent conversations.

John: I was going to say, you’ve already selected one platform you’ve had branding here, you’ve got other x-factors here, and two out of three of those things have changed. Is there a point where you go, ‘okay gang, we need to start over’?

Melissa: I try my best to not have to completely tear something down and start over. If at that point, we were the ones that helped you build the roadmap, and I’ve gone into that process with you here at SUMO, I’ll just re-scope and kind of give you a realistic picture based on what we have built last time. Basically, you’re coming to me now and telling me what your needs are. Here’s what we could do. And then here’s where we’d have to hold off or iterate.

John: Have clients over tried to negotiate like they were trying to cut costs or find ways to cut? I know we talked about it in the last episode about cutting time. Are there ways that they could cut costs there? This not only is a large time commitment, but it’s also a financial commitment. Does that ever come into the negotiations? Or is it that once they have the realization that this is a huge commitment they’re all in?

Melissa: When clients come to us, that person is coming to us and sends that initial email, we respect that and understand that it’s their job to get this for as little cost to their company as possible. Because not only are they looking at the cost of discovery, they’re looking at the cost of building this. And it’s really intimidating. It’s a lot of sticker shock. So of course, people always try to understand exactly why we’re quoting and what they’re getting for the money. And that’s why we believe in transparency because we believe in the cost and the dollar sign we’ve attached to this process. 

If the negotiating does start to sound like perhaps it’s just not a good fit, like the way we look at Discovery, and the way we look at what we need to do here before we build something out, just isn’t the right fit, and it’s not what that company is looking for, then we just make a solid recommendation of a company that maybe would be a good fit and go from there. We hope that there’s a chance we might work together a time in the future.

John:  Keep that line of communication open in case things change, because things do change.

Melissa: Exactly.

John: Are there any special circumstances or clauses or guarantees that someone might want to add where you can’t perform certain tasks or if we can’t get it done by a certain date? Is that something that happens?

Melissa: I wouldn’t say that there are any special circumstances or clauses that come with our discovery. Because generally, when we send a proposal for our Weigh-In process, we include a really specific timeline that has been tailored to you, the person asking us for the work. And so it clearly says what you can expect when the discovery is going to end and what you will have in your hands by that date. I guess you could say that our whole discovery proposal is a lot. It’s just a list of what you can expect. So no, we don’t have any clauses. Again, it’s pretty simple, straightforward, you get to keep all of it at the end. That’s kind of a cool clause in there, that you don’t have to use us. We do not have to be the development team that implements your plan. However, all of this is yours. So no, we don’t have many special circumstances.

John: Is there anything proprietary in our roadmap in that they could take that and use that elsewhere? Is there any kind of legal thing that happens with the roadmap? Or is it basically, for lack of a better term ‘open source’?

Melissa: The discovery process itself at SUMO and the way we approach it isn’t proprietary. However, yes, by the end of a SUMO Weigh-In discovery, the information that sits within that timeline, that roadmap, and all those recommendations is absolutely proprietary. We do not disclose that to anyone ever. However, the company and the client that we just ended the way in and the discovery with is free to do with that roadmap with that information as they see fit. There’s nothing especially proprietary about our process. It’s really, in my opinion, that the people working at SUMO are unique. We are the special sauce. 

John:  Why is the money a company will spend on discovery and getting that roadmap worth it in the end?

Melissa: The money is worth it in the end for any discovery you might be going through. And I don’t want to say any discovery as a blanket term, you know, you should ask questions, make sure the money you’re spending is worth it to you. There are even people who come to us and they decide that it’s not worth the money to go through our Weigh-In process. So make sure you’re asking questions. Make sure everyone in your organization is comfortable with the process that you’re signing up for and the price and the cost associated with that process. For sure. We think discovery is worth the money because it’s a set and documented plan for success in our eyes. If you were to hire an independent contractor, a consulting resource internally, really it cost you per year, about the same thing as doing this discovery, if you take it from that perspective, and the time down the road, that your organization is going to spend filling in holes that might present themselves because of poor planning. 

I urge people that are trying to enter a discovery process and who might be balking at the cost of the discovery process to really take into consideration the complexity of what you are trying to build and the goals that you have as an organization. If the project at hand and the goals are really high reaching, you guys know you’re sitting on a really good idea, product site feature, whatever it is, then calculate how much it’s going to cost you to perhaps have to pause that sites production time to make changes to fix bugs after you’ve deployed it after it’s live. Because that time and those resources are costly.