Spotlight, Dynamics CRM, and the age-old question of “build vs buy”

We’re in the early stages of creating a new membership “engine” built on Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2015. This isn’t a decision we’ve taken lightly – the decision to buy vs. build is always complex where software is concerned, as Mike Hadlow explains in this excellent blog post. In our case, though, there’s two good reasons why we’ve decided to integrate an off-the-shelf solution.

First, we are willing to change our own business process to suit the software. We’ve been printing books since 1927, and our business model is tightly coupled to our publishing process. As part of this project, we’re going to decouple those two areas of activity. Publishing is a differentiator for us, and always will be, but membership is not – whilst it’s important that it works, it’s not hugely important how it works. If CRM can offer us a “pit of success”, we’ll happily do what’s necessary to fall in it.

Second – we really understand what it costs to write our own software. We’ve got a solid, mature agile process, which links in to our time-tracking system. One of the high-level metrics that we track is “cost per point” – how much, in pounds, does it cost us to get a single story point into production? It’s easy for businesses to think of off-the-shelf software as “expensive”, because it has a price tag, and bespoke software as ‘free’ because you’re already paying developers’ salaries, but that’s a pretty naive way to look at it. When you factor in the opportunity cost of all the things we could have been doing instead of reinventing the CRM wheel, the off-the-shelf option starts to look a lot more attractive even when it carries a hefty up-front price tag.

That’s two good reasons why we’re going with CRM2015. Now for two good reasons why CRM projects fail, and what we’re doing to mitigate them.

First – scope creep. CRM vendors will happily sell it CRM as the solution to all your problems, and then they’ll start showing off marketing campaigns and case management and Outlook integration and web portals and everybody’s eyes light up like this is the most amazing thing they’ve ever seen… and next thing you know you’ve got a 300-page “requirements” document and everyone’s got so carried away by what’s possible that they’ve forgotten what they were trying to fix in the first place. I’ve seen this happen first-hand, and it doesn’t work, and the reason it doesn’t work is that the project isn’t being driven by prioritised requirements, it’s being driven by wish-lists.

So… start with a problem. Any successful business probably has dozens of things that could be done better – so list them, analyze them, identify dependencies. Work out which one to solve first, and focus. CRM isn’t fundamentally different to any other software project. Identify your milestones. Be absolutely brutal about the MVP – what is the simplest possible thing that’s better than what we’ve got right now? Build that. Ship that. Get people using it. In our case, CRM’s first outing is going to be as a replacement for GroupMail, our email-merge tool, and that’s it. We’ll integrate just enough data that CRM can send personalised email to a specific group of customers, we’ll ship it, and we’ll use it – and then we’ll iterate based on feedback and lessons learned. We already have a pretty good idea what we’ll do after that, but we’re not going to worry about it until we’ve delivered that first MVP release.

I think the second reason CRM projects fail is over-extension. Dynamics CRM is a really powerful, flexible platform, and with enough consultants effort you can probably get it to do just about anything. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best solution. Sure, there’s going to be cases where it makes sense to customise CRM by adding a new field or some validation rules. Spotlight holds the same core “business” data  as any other company – what’s your name? Where do you live? what’s your email address? Is your account up-to-date? Off-the-shelf CRM is very, very good at managing this sort of information – and once you’ve got this core information in CRM, there’s dozens of off-the-shelf marketing tools available to help you use it more effectively.

But Spotlight stores a lot more than that. We also store all the information that appears on your professional acting CV – height, weight, eye colour, hairstyle, skills, credits. We store details of almost all the productions being cast in the UK, we track tens of thousands of CV submissions every day, and millions of job notification emails each week. We manage terabytes of photography and video clips.  You probably could get CRM to manage all this information. But hey, you can open a beer bottle with a dollar bill – doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, though.


The overlap – the green bit – is where CRM solves one of our problems. The blue bit is things CRM does that aren’t really relevant to us – not at the moment, anyway. The red bit is the stuff that we’re going to keep out of CRM. And that dark area on the border… that’s representation, which is a tremendously complicated tangle of operational data, business data and publishing data that we’re going to have to work out as part of our service roadmap. Fun.

Now, different people – and systems! – have different expectations about what “CRM” and “membership” mean.

  • To our customers, good CRM means it’s easy to join Spotlight, it’s easy to manage your account, it’s easy to talk to us and get answers to your questions. You know how you hate phoning the electric company because every time you get through you talk to a different person who has no idea what’s going on, and your “my account” page on their website says one thing and your bill says something else and the person on the phone doesn’t agree with either of them? Yeah. Imagine the complete opposite of that.
  • To our marketing team, good CRM is about accurate data, effective marketing campaigns, happy customers – and, yes, revenue. It’s about helping us work out what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong, giving us the intelligence we need to make decisions about new products and initiatives.
  • To our software team,  good CRM means easy access to the data and processes you’ll need to build great products. Responsive systems, logical data structures, simple integration patterns and intuitive API endpoints. In other words, if you want to build an awesome online tool that’s only available to customers with a current, paid-up Spotlight Actors membership, it should be trivial to work out whether the current user can see it or not.

Same system, same data, three radically different use cases. So here’s how we’re proposing to make it work:


Astute readers will notice a slim black box marked “abstraction layer”. That’s how we’re going to fool the rest of our stack into thinking that Dynamics CRM 2015 is a ReSTful microservice, so tune in over the next couple of weeks to find out how it works, what sort of patterns and techniques we’re using, and how we’re going to test and monitor it.