Liz Pearce is the CEO of LiquidPlanner, a predictive project management solution, who started as the Director of Marketing in 2008 and became CEO in 2012. Since then, she's bootstrapped LiquidPlanner from a handful of developers to a team of more than sixty (and still growing!). We talked about her story, advice to project managers and how to use "work uncertainty" at your company.
Can you tell me about the beginnings of LiquidPlanner?
Our founders were ex-Microsoft and Expedia executives running project management offices. They had ideas for LiquidPlanner back in 2006 and launched in 2007. I was the marketing contractor back then. We spent 5 years doing R&D on our proprietary scheduling engine which allows us to do the automation schedule for all kinds of teams!
How does LiquidPlanner differentiate itself from other project management tools?
LiquidPlanner is a dynamic project management tool. Pretty much every other system on the planet has people manually putting dates into tools. LiquidPlanner actually calculates the dates for you based on priorities, resource availability, and how big the work is.
Unlike other systems, we are expecting things to be changing all the time. If you are using MS Project or Wrike, you would have to go and update the end dates.
In LiquidPlanner, the scheduling engine updates the work for you: when work comes in, when resources get pulled out for something else. All those things get calculated automatically.
There isn’t another tool that does this. You can think of it almost as a GPS for your projects. You may have started going in one direction, but if something changes or if you took a wrong turn, the GPS corrects it. The same thing happens in LiquidPlanner. You might discover something is harder as things come up, and we recalculate your route for you.
We also offer a number of integrations. Our biggest focus is to improve on the process of project and team managers, give them visibility and let them actually execute their work in an efficient way. We’re sticking to our knitting there.
"Project managers have a really hard job. Most of them are forced to use tools like Excel or MS Project to do a job that requires a lot of administrative tasks where you have to go and update stuff constantly and that takes a lot of time. They are capable of doing really strategic work, so if they can consider options that automate part of their work to find time to be more strategic, they’ll find they can be more effective in their role."
Are your customers more on the startup side or enterprise?
Most of our customers are in the mid-market. We have lots of small businesses and we serve a lot of departments within large enterprises that are using our platform. Most of our customers are in the midsize company range.
Do you have tips or advice for project managers?
Project managers have a really hard job. Most of them are forced to use tools like Excel or MS Project to do a job that requires a lot of administrative tasks where you have to go and update stuff constantly and that takes a lot of time. They are capable of doing really strategic work, so if they can consider options that automate part of their work to find time to be more strategic, they’ll find they can be more effective in their role.
What kind of tools have you found critical for LiquidPlanner and running your team? Currently and as you've grown.
For a long time, everything we’ve done is in LiquidPlanner. We really built every aspect of the business from development to marketing, to operations. It’s all been a series of projects to create a platform that allows us to grow.
How do you go about collecting feedback and improving LiquidPlanner for your customers?
We have a number of different ways we collect feedback. Our roadmap is almost entirely customer driven. We collect feedback, tag it and categorize it in Zendesk tickets. We also have a UX team that does tons of primary customer research. So we do a lot of surveys and user testing. And the results of that inform our product strategy, and that includes ethnographic studies and observing customers using our products, in their own environment.
How did you hear about the tools you use or how did they get incorporated into your stacklist?
We have experts in all of our different departments. They research and identify solutions for their functional areas. One department we have is sales development, and a member there said he was familiar with SalesLoft and used it at another company. He really communicated the value proposition for that particular tool.
The marketing team is very cutting edge in how they drive demand. They are constantly scanning blogs and sites for different tools that can really help on the technical side of marketing.
Which tools are your favorites or really stand out for your team right now?
You mentioned LiquidPlanner as a productivity tool. Where does LiquidPlanner fall in the space of project management versus productivity. Do you think those are the same things or how do you differentiate the two?
For a lot of companies, they are not the same thing. They might be using MS project, which is only used by the project manager, whereas LiquidPlanner is used by everyone on the team. The company or the leaders within the company are setting priorities. Then those priorities drive the daily to-do lists for everybody on the team. A lot of companies get into trouble when they divorce the two things. But when you bring them together it creates a lot of efficiency and productivity because everyone sees the work they are doing and how it contributes to the overall goal of the organization.
"If your boss or employee gives you a wide range you can ask “what might happen that will have it come into the low end?” or “what would take it to get the high end of the estimate?” It empowers people to be more honest in their estimates and gives managers and stakeholders a more realistic picture of what can get done."
What is “work uncertainty” and how can a company use that for a competitive advantage?
The way we estimate in our product is different than in most systems. Everything in LiquidPlanner is best case versus worst case, which is different because other systems ask a date for when you will be done with something. But we ask “best case: if you continuously work on this, how long will it take you?” so we are basing it on effort. So you can move the pieces around and say “if I did these things that are x big, when would I get it all done?”
We can do that even though the work is uncertain. This is something that a lot of people face in their jobs. They are innovating. If they are software developers or product developers or manufacturing and building something totally new, they don’t know how long it will exactly take but they still need some predictability as to when they might complete it.
We handle it by incorporating that uncertainty into the timeline and we give a best case/worst case scenario for when you’ll finish the work.
People love to talk about estimation because it’s such a hot-button issue. When you are asked to give a single point estimate like “tell me when you’re gonna be done with this,” you enter into a social construct and you’re committing to that person to have it done by that date. So you might be really optimistic and over promise a date. Or maybe you've been around the block a few times so you sandbag the estimates a little bit and you build some suffer into that.
It changes the social dynamic when you give a best case/worst case on how long something will take because then you can have a conversation about it.
If your boss or employee gives you a wide range you can ask “what might happen that will have it come into the low end?” or “what would take it to get the high end of the estimate?”
It empowers people to be more honest in their estimates and gives managers and stakeholders a more realistic picture of what can get done.
There’s an interesting power dynamic because a lot of times project managers want the people doing the work to commit to a date or a specific timeline. Or maybe the project is understaffed, and the person being asked for the estimate doesn’t know what's being asked.
So you get into tricky situations and it causes some culture problems on teams. We’re really trying to make the whole process and experience of planning and working on a project together better.