How can Webmasters sell an idea?

FCW's DotGov Thursday column examines how to see an idea for a new Webbased product or service through to implementation

The Webmaster often is the point person for an agency's entrepreneurial activities in delivering products and services to the public. Those entrepreneurial requirements sometimes can appear to be at odds with the administrative nature of federal government programs. This is an illusion.

All organizations — federal and private — have activities that are entrepreneurial and administrative in nature. Th0se activities fit into a business life cycle: At the beginning, new ideas require the entrepreneurial spirit, but later, the idea for the new product or service has to "go formal" and be included in your agency planning, budget, procurement and other administrative processes.

To be successful at implementing programs, it's not enough just to work on the internal administrative processes. You must interact with the people who maintain the processes. Do not be fooled into thinking that producing pieces of paper means "participation" in your agency processes. Processes are the "tangible" activities of people. It is just as important — perhaps more — to interact with the people who manage the processes. Understanding this is key to getting ideas introduced and ultimately obtaining the resources to support a new product or service.

Generating new product and service ideas requires working with many people. Interact with many groups and organizations inside and outside your immediate environment because new products and services often stem from a combination of needs across different groups.

Include in your circle of contacts an increasing number of vendors. Most likely, ideas that support even a relatively small customer base of several thousand will require the purchase of other products and services. Vendor contacts will help you develop at least a conceptual feel for what products and support would be required.

A new idea usually begins with a kernel that sets it apart from current products and services. It's the thing that generates your own interest as well as ignites interest in others. This is your "marketing theme," and it is vital in successfully promoting your new product or service. The sound bite, the branding and the creation of a trademark at the preliminary stages is just as important for selling the idea internally as it is when launching the new product or service into the public domain.

Conduct your own initial pilots to the extent you can. Try posting a new feature to your Web site to sharpen the conceptual analysis of your new idea, and include a feedback mechanism. This might range from seeking informal comments from other Webmasters to an e-mail button for voluntary feedback from the prospective customer base.

Feedback is essential to improving the idea. Realize that ideas will change significantly as you learn more and interact more. Maintain a thick hide and be open to changing your idea. Expect — and help — your idea to "morph." Part of the enjoyment of being an entrepreneur is observing how your idea changes over time.

As your idea emerges from the entrepreneurial stage and "goes formal," you must loosen your control and bend to the controls imposed by your agency's internal business processes. Your own initial pilots will need to evolve into a formal business case if you expect to create a program that can go beyond your own individual efforts. You will need to propose new budgets as part of the agency's annual data call for issue papers.

Decide if you are committed to the long haul of implementing a new program. If you decide that what you enjoy is formulating new ideas, be prepared to let the new program go for someone else to implement.

If you intend to see your idea through to implementation, you must recognize the importance of developing your own leadership, business and management skills. Technical expertise is not the same thing as managing a business or groups of people. Begin thinking and working on what it means to lead a new business venture involving agency resources of funds and personnel. Although the concept of a new idea for a product and service can be "sold" internally and achieve a sort of finality, management skills are never really complete. The improvement of leadership, business acumen and management abilities is a life-long work.

You would be a very lucky Webmaster if you're able to define a new product or service and also have the opportunity to build a new organization around the new idea. My rule of thumb is that 100 new ideas result in 10 good ideas. Of this 10, a very good hit ratio would be one idea that ultimately becomes implemented. Best of luck. Keep trying, and one will land.

Kellett is founder of the federal Web Business Council, co-chairman of the federal WebMasters Forum and director of GSA's Emerging IT Policies Division.

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