“Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn,” reads one of the posters on the office wall.
We are located in a quiet street just outside of the centre of Stuttgart, Germany, in an office that could be mistaken for being someone’s home if not for the number of desks, office chairs and PCs in most of the rooms. Numerous pot plants receive plenty of light through the ground level windows. In the entrance hallway, a monitor shows KPI measures towards the current company goals. A cork board has pinned to it photos of the 16 employees and other associates, a clipping of a magazine article on the company, a picture of Niklas, the CEO, speaking at an event, and a blue Santa Claus hat, despite it being the middle of August.
Filestage is the name of the company that created this homely office space, the cork board, and a product of the same name. Filestage the product is a tool for people to review and give feedback on e-media such as videos, audio, design documents, PDFs and more. After we tried it out to see if it would be useful for a retrospective exercise with a distributed team, they reached out to us for feedback. Not in the usual cold way using a standard feedback form, but contacting us personally to ask us how and why we were using it, and how they might make it better for us. Excited by a company taking such care over customer feedback, we made contact with Niklas and arranged a visit to find out more about them.
Niklas started by giving us some of the company history. Along with university friend Maël (who unfortunately was not available during our visit), the two of them wanted to create something of their own rather than work for a corporate company. They experienced for themselves that “sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.” Niklas and Maël started out by building an app for a retailer. The idea was for an app that helped people to find misplaced phones or tablets. The app worked well, but it was simply not popular. Niklas and Maël quickly realised that they had developed what their retail partner thought their customers wanted, not what their customers actually wanted.
With this lesson learned, Filestage was conceived by Niklas and Maël going out and talking to real people that had real problems to solve. Given their backgrounds in marketing and media respectively, Niklas and Maël interviewed more than 40 people working in these industries. They identified problem areas of inefficiency in feedback cycles, for example, lots of emails being sent back-and-forth between people as a marketing campaign develops, and they saw an opportunity for technology to streamline this process. This customer led approach to product development is quite radical in Germany, where the norm would be to perfect a product before taking it to the market and hoping it is successful.
During the visit, we are joined by Anne, the Customer Success Manager, a role that includes helping Filestage to understand their customers better. Anne and Niklas recognised the importance of building relationships and not just making sales. “We are in a service industry, we need to build relationships and trust,” Niklas says.
The product is evolved based on the feedback of the many. They want to stick with a standard product avoiding what many companies do in diverging their code base and ending up with customised products for each customer and the exponential maintenance costs that brings. Developers use tools such as use cases, so that they have a good understanding of who is using the tool and why. The developers are empowered to challenge the requirements, and they have a healthy drive to create solutions that give the most value with the least amount of complexity in the product as possible. Niklas tells us that he has “many healthy debates,” with the CTO on getting this balance right, to the overall good of the product and the company.
Niklas and Maël had no background knowledge of Agile and Scrum. They only became aware of it and how it complimented their own approach when they started building the development team. Experienced and knowledgeable developers shared their Scrum practices, and this fed into how the company is now run. As well as daily meetings in each team, retrospectives are done across discipline so that people of different competencies understand what they need from each other. At Filestage, the retrospective is always started by talking about the positive things that are happening before looking at what could be improved. The impression is of a company with clear goals and where communication is efficient and usually face-to-face.
With such focus on providing a product based on customer feedback, continuous improvement and delivering valuable features with the least amount of complexity, it looks like Filestage are on to a winner. After our chat with Niklas and Anne, we step out of the conference room, back into the hallway and over the text on the floor that reads “This is a bullshit free zone.” Filestage is our kind of place.
Many thanks to Niklas and Anne for welcoming us to Filestage and to Stuttgart.