Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Adding Value

I went to get new business cards from VistaPrint today. There are lots of choices and it took longer than I expected. I almost bailed out from the choices, but I had an issue recently with mine.
I needed to get some books sent back to my house, so I wrote out my address, printed labels, and then I handed out a business card at a trade show to a shipper. I got a call later asking if I was sending things to the Florida address. That threw me until I remembered the company used to be in Florida. I corrected them, but it made me realize my business cards were woefully out of date.
And I just realized that despite my quick design, they're still out of date. I got the main brand on there, but forgot one of the others. Oh well, after the holidays I'll get my artist working on a new one.
In any case, I started as I always do with a quick Google search and picked Vistaprint, who was the first result, I've used them before, and they had a special on the front page, $3.99 for 250 cards. That's more than I need, and so I opted to go over there.
After working through the designs, I ended up clicking "checkout" and they showed me what I saved with their special, however the total was $22, which surprised me. I'd opted for some labels, but those were around $5. I didn't think a lot of it, moved on, and on the next page I saw shipping at $14, which all of a sudden made me rethink things.
A couple interesting observations on the process.

Things I like:

From a business standpoint, I thought VistaPrint did a good job upselling me. They presented a number of options at each point of the selling process. An example below:


A few times I missed the red upsells, but that was my rush, and it could result in more sales for them.

They added additional, related products, with my customized logo. Here’s a couple they had:


There were many more, probably 3 or 4 pages worth of goods and services, including Google Adwords and a website, which made sense. This is a good time to add value for a customer, and since people probably don’t get business cards too often, the extra annoyance probably doesn’t hurt too much.

Things I Didn’t Like

There were a few things that I think bordered on sneaky or unethical. This might seem like a great deal:


but when I go to checkout on the next step, I see this:


Nowhere in the process was I ever informed of shipping costs (I went back and looked) and to offer me a deal of $4 for cards, but check $10 for shipping, something I might overlook, seems a little sneaky and disingenuous. I feel a bit like this is a markup on a service that makes no sense. A package like this should cost about $2-3 to ship, and even doubling that for handling doesn’t get me to $10.

It’s about managing their Q and I’m sure you’re paying for priority on the presses, but they present this as a shipping item, which seems a bit unethical. In the order for color cards, which I did the first time, the cost for Standard was over $13.

I checked a few other places and their prices aren’t too far off from what you might pay elsewhere, but the presentation is different. They make me think like I’m getting a deal, I’m not, and then I feel a bit deceived. If I plan to pay $20 for cards from somewhere else, I’m happy. Here I planned to pay $10 and feel ripped off when I end up with $20 of charges.

Lessons for Business

More and more people are becoming more informed shoppers. The average person that might hit your site has likely ordered something from Amazon or another online retailer and so they know what to expect with shipping.

While I like up-selling and convenience, deceiving people likely won’t pay off in the long run. People will move on to other businesses.

The exception might be if you have a niche like Vistaprint and you don’t look for a ton of repeat business. I likely wont’ go there again and will look for other companies to service my needs.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Do No Evil

One of Google's tenets is to "do no evil" as they run their corporation. This article questions their motives as they've changed the agreement for Chrome, their browser.

I don't necessarily think that Google is evil, and in many ways I think they've learned from Microsoft in how to not appear so. They're a corporation, striving for profit and trying to do a better job, but they're going to stumble. Naturally they want to promote their own products, which makes sense, and tie them tightly together.

That's what Microsoft wants as well, though they sometimes go too far in preventing alternatives from being adopted.

It's a fine line that you walk as a corporation, trying to grow, trying to make a profit, and it's hard sometimes to know if you're skirting the line and perhaps doing something unethical. In my ventures we've tried to be fair, but there are plenty of people that have disagreed with our decisions.

Personally I think this is where capitalism fails. As entities grow larger, become more popular, they gain power, and it's hard to not take advantage of that power to grow more. I think many times the most successful companies sometimes appear evil because they continue to do what has worked for them. And those practices often shut out or prevent smaller companies from competing, making them appear evil.

There's no shortage of evil companies, however, with plenty of people willing to make decisions and engage in practices they know are illegal or immoral, all to make a few more shekels.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Adding Value

I went to get new business cards from VistaPrint today. There are lots of choices and it took longer than I expected. I almost bailed out from the choices, but I had an issue recently with mine.

I needed to get some books sent back to my house, so I wrote out my address, printed labels, and then I handed out a business card at a trade show to a shipper. I got a call later asking if I was sending things to the Florida address. That threw me until I remembered the company used to be in Florida. I corrected them, but it made me realize my business cards were woefully out of date.

And I just realized that despite my quick design, they're still out of date. I got the main brand on there, but forgot one of the others. Oh well, after the holidays I'll get my artist working on a new one.

In any case, I started as I always do with a quick Google search and picked Vistaprint, who was the first result, I've used them before, and they had a special on the front page, $3.99 for 250 cards. That's more than I need, and so I opted to go over there.

After working through the designs, I ended up clicking "checkout" and they showed me what I saved with their special, however the total was $22, which surprised me. I'd opted for some labels, but those were around $5. I didn't think a lot of it, moved on, and on the next page I saw shipping at $14, which all of a sudden made me rethink things.

A couple interesting observations.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Hiring Your First Employee

It’s my boss, or rather the owner of the company I work for (yes I work for someone in addition to owning a company), but it’s still an interesting post.

Hiring Your First Employee

I don’t know when Neil hired the first person to work for Red Gate Software, but I think he’s got a great memory and he really gives you some good things to think about in this post at 47 Hats.

Some of the items are in making the decision to hire someone, but there are some good ones about picking the person as well. I especially agree with the part of getting a domain expert to help you (use your network to find someone) and also test the person on the task they’re being hired for, don’t ask them to talk about it, make them do it.

Worth the read.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


The salary bonus thing is interesting. However I’m not sure that a rolling bonus in lieu of bonuses and salary increases makes sense. You pay salaries no matter what. A bonus typically is paid when things are good, not when bad. So I tend to agree that limiting pay raises makes some sense. But I’m not sure rolling bonuses make a lot of sense. If we have a bad quarter, then if we know next Q won’t end up with a bonus, you’ll get people that game it.

Actually people will game anything. He’s what I suggest. I’d set a minimum number you need to hit to pay a bonus, something lower than you have and a lower bonus. Maybe $250k profit, and then 300pounds bonus. So if we hit this, no looking back at previous quarters. Then set a discretionary bonus based on numbers above that does look back. I think you have to define profit and define how you look back, or at least explain it every quarter. It doesn’t have to be a set formula, but the explanation has to make sense. It doesn’t have to be the same every quarter, you can modify this each quarter, just in a way that makes sense.

You have a certain amount of goodwill, so the discretionary part might work. If you maintain the trust with employees and this type of open dialog. While I would like to know the exact structure, it’s so I can keep track. Others would game it, and I don’t like that, nor do I like management gaming it either. Both sides tend to slide revenue to make/miss bonuses, at least in the US. A minimum ensures there is always something to shoot for, but a discretion, especially one that is explained, keeps people from gaming.

I've been reading Big Brown, about UPS, and they have some interesting thoughts in there on sharing with employees on a regular basis the profits of the company. I think that might actually be a better solution than bonuses over time. That's if you want to build a long term business and not just have employees there for a short period of time.

No matter what you do, the effectiveness of the plan really comes down to how your employees feel they are being treated, and the quality of your employees. You won't please everyone, especially those that are not high performers, but you can definitely motivate those that are.

And perhaps use people's reactions to your plan as a way to weed out those that don't fit with your company's culture.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Being Flexible

The other day I went into Best Buy to return something. I'd purchased some giveaways for a corporate event and somehow they didn't get given away. That was disappointing, but I decided I'd return them and use the money for more prizes next time.

In any case, I knew I was going out for other errands and tossed them in the car. As I was out, I passed a Best Buy, not the one I normally go to, but since it was there, I decided to go in. I walked in, there were 2 people at Customer Service, and a relatively quiet store at 2:00 on a Wednesday afternoon, and so I stood next in line, waiting for either of the CS people to finish with a customer so I could be helped.

At one register there was a gentleman that obviously had some warranty issue with a laptop. From what I could gather his had died and they couldn't replace or fix it, so the senior CS girl was planning on giving him a slightly more expensive one since that was the best match they had in stock. On one hand that's a great customer service move. Help the person out then, even if it's not the most price conscious or efficient thing to do for that purchase. Earn some goodwill.

On the other hand, I stood there for 15 minutes while the girl tried to get the computer guy and then the manager to approve the transaction. Apparently that required a call to corporate, so the manager came over, talked to the guy, then went in the back, then came back, then walked around waiting for a return call. I'm not sure what happened since I was out of there by then, but the guy was a little torqued. He had a cane and had to keep leaning on the counter and shifting position. I felt bad for him.

In the meantime, before I got helped after15 minutes, the line had grown from 1 (me), to 6 people behind me, all of them a little annoyed. I have to admit that I was tempted to leave, and then to complain, but instead decided to see how bad it could be. I thought about this blog while waiting.

The other CS person was sitting on the phone, on hold because she wasn't pressing buttons or saying anything. Perhaps she was listening to a lecture, but after 10 minutes I doubted it. Eventually while the manager was walking around, the senior girl with the computer guy decided to get things moving, she told the second girl to just do something and hang up the phone. Then she must have approved something on that register because the CS girl started processing the lady there.

While that was happening, the senior CS person walked to the Pick Up register and called me over. She smiled, apologized, and quickly processed my return and then apologized again. About 45sec to get that done and I appreciated her effort, though it took awhile.

What could be done better?

When I typically go into Best Buy I browse around through a few departments, looking to see what's there. I often have something in mind, but I like to see what's new. In walking through MP3, Cameras, Computers, TVs, in 15 minutes, I'll usually have no less than 5 people ask if they can help me. It gets annoying and I need to write Best Buy.

However in standing in line, watching the return line grow from zero when I arrived to 6 in 15 minutes and nothing move, is pretty bad.

Immediately the first girl could have either
  • Handed the phone to the customer and asked her to listen for someone while she helped others
  • Put the phone on speaker and listened for it
  • Asked the manager after 2 or 3 minutes what to do.

Any of those should have resulted in lady 1 being processed quicker.

The senior CS girl, who was more on the ball, could have started processing other things while waiting for someone to square away the computer guy. It wouldn't have helped him, but it would have gotten things moving. I should mention that she did process an in-store pickup while waiting, which was good to see. I didn't watch to see how quickly she got others through the line, and I wish I would have.

The manager is most at fault. It would be bad if she wasn't aware of the growing line, but it's worse that she walked over there twice, with at least 5 people in line both times, and didn't call someone up there.

Best Buy possibly should just give a little more power to their CS people. You'll lose money on a few transactions, but that's nothing compared to the goodwill you earn. I can get really, sh**ty service like that at Wal-Mart and pay the same or less.

If Best Buy can pay a few dozen people to walk around and constantly check on people that are browsing, can't they move a few of them up to help process people in lines? I can see letting the line grow slightly at check out to see if people will buy more batteries, DVDs, candy, etc. that are on display, but it's the 21st century.

If you run a retail or service type business, ensure that your people are cross trained and can help customers out. You want to help them process through as quickly as they want to be processed. Or as slowly. If they want to talk, you want CS people to talk with them. If they want to return something, don't make it a hassle. It makes it that much more likely they won't come back. Or they'll start trying out their competitors.

My next trip will be to Ultimate Electronics. Just to see if they're better.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Just Do It

I was recently reading Joel Spolsky’s column in Inc. on management and I thought it was an interesting story. In general you want to be efficient with your time. You don’t want to waste it doing things that someone else could do better and possibly cheaper. Time management is a skill that you need to do well to succeed.

If you don’t want to succeed and just work for someone, that’s fine too, but time management can still help you.

In any case, I think it’s a balance that you have to find. Recently I asked to have someone else take over some of my duties on a part-time basis, mainly to give me more time for other things. I wasn’t sure how well this would go over with the boss since I’d been doing things fine and I was essentially asking for someone else to make my job easier. But I had a few arguments:

  • Someone else needs to know how to do this, since the proverbial bus could strike me down at any time.
  • I’m fairly expensive, and this isn’t really a good use of my time.
  • I could take on other tasks.

I wasn’t exactly emphasizing the last item since I’m fairly busy, but I don’t mind taking on other tasks periodically. Mostly I was hoping to get more vacation in (I’ve never taken my allotment) and get ahead more on my writing.

In any case, I did get someone that helps out, but I still try to go and handle some of those duties, primarily processing email to the webmaster, on a regular basis. It helps me to keep in touch with my customers, but also to show that I’m not above performing duties.

I have a story similar to Joel’s, but with the opposite effect. I was working in an office early in my career, in a small company, and we had a break room. In it was the large printer that was shared by everyone in the office. One day I walked in right behind the President of the company and we were waiting for things to print. His job was ahead of mine, but stopped in the middle as the printer was out of paper, but I didn’t know that.

He asked if I would add more paper, I did, and the printer started back up, printed his job and then mine. Now I didn’t mind loading paper in there, and I might have felt differently if he had gone to get a cup of coffee or talk to someone while I took a couple minutes to locate paper and load the printer. Instead he stood there and watched me.

My impressions of him took a further turn for the worse when I witnessed him doing the same thing to someone else at the coffee pot, asking them to make him more coffee while he stood there. Needless to say I didn’t stay there very long.

I’ve always pitched in when needed. I’ve had CTOs help pull cable and make patch cables with me, and I’ve been happy to handle permissions issues as the senior DBA when I made probably twice what others in the office did.

It’s not always about efficiency. Sometimes it’s about showing that you’re a leader and willing to do whatever it takes to get things done. And you’re no better than the others in the company.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Garnering Market Share

It’s not often that any of us builds a business or product that has a chance to dominate a market, especially a market that already exists in a fairly large scale, but I think Apple has that chance here.

I agree with the idea here that Apple should sell a $99 iPhone and try to really set themselves up as the “generic” smartphone. Tylonal did that with aspirin, McDonalds with fast foot, Starbucks with luxury coffee, and Apple has done it with the iPod. The iPhone would allow them to do it again.

I don’t know what their profit margins are, but they are well capitalized, and they could easily try this for 6 months and see if their share of the market jumps dramatically, especially as none of the other vendors have done a decent job of getting a touch screen, easy to use smartphone.

I typically recommend building your business for the long term, making smart investments and not bets, but this isn’t a big bet. In fact, I’d think while they might risk some capital, they are making a fairly safe bet that their market will grow. Adding another network, say a T-Mobile to their list of carriers might make more sense, but if they want to stick with ATT, then this is a good idea.

If I had the chance to substantially grow market share, and have more exposure to my product, I’d be willing to take some risk, some amount of capital that I had and make the attempt. Market share is important and can really help you grow in the long term if you can deliver value to your customers.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Inbox Zero

An interesting idea in this video. I’d recommend you watch this if you have too much email.

If I were in a company, I might try this, and I am getting to the point where I will close email sometimes. However I tend to work in a customer service area at times and it’s good to be able to respond to people. Plus the task switching, and wandering around a bit actually helps me think about things that I need to write about.

When you’re running your own business, however, it’s important that you recognize that your time has value. You might have to do everything, including emptying the trash cans, but that doesn’t mean you do it every hour. Nor do you need to respond to every email immediately. Use rules and learn to trash things that don’t make sense.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Bad Design for Users

To me, this web page is a poor design for users: Digital Camera Reviews from C|Net:


If you look at this, you’ll notice that cameras 2-4 are all the same model, just different colors. In fact, of the 10 cameras on this page there are only 4 models. So as I’m trying to figure out which one I like or is reviewed well, I find that I have to go through a lot of pages to find 5-10 cameras to read reviews for.

This is a great case of C|Net not really thinking through the design and not helping users as well as they could.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A Neat Idea

I went to the Winter Park Athletic Club tonight, thinking I'd get a run in and purchase a pass for a day or two. When I got there, however, I had a surprise. The door is locked, with a bar code key system for access. No one was at the desk (4:00 on a Friday), so I couldn't knock on the door and get access. However they had a sign on the door, so I called the number.

A lady answered and said she'd be happy to set me up with a day pass. Actually I wanted 2, and they're $10 a day, but she said she'd do $15 for 2, so I said great and I was at the club.

So she walked me through their process. There's a lock box on the wall, which has bar code keys (keychain sized) inside. I grabbed one, which had a number written on it, and held it up to the reader in the glass. It let me inside and there were envelopes on the desk, each with numbers corresponding to the bar code keys. I grabbed mine, and inside mine was a waiver and info sheet that I filled out, including my credit card number, and marking 2 days along with the charge. I dropped it in the slot, my credit card in my wallet along with the bar code reader, and then worked out.

Tomorrow my bar code reader will work, and they'll have updated their system to mark it for 2 days. When I'm done I drop it in the slot and they reuse it. They have cameras set up for remove monitoring and recording, so they can tell who came in and double check their charges. I'm sure they do it randomly, but it's a neat way to run a business, track users, and save on employee costs.

I bet other businesses that are service related like this, or rental related, could work like this, at least on a small scale.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Fake Sale

I was driving the kids to soccer the other day and noticed someone standing on the corner of two busy streets, spinning a sign in his hands. It had the Circuit City logo on it and announced a store closing sale, and a big 20% off verbage. Smaller print said "up to" near the 20%, but more on this later.

I was surprised since this was a store that opened less than a few months ago, taking the place of a Target that moved down the road. It's a decent location, and I can only guess that the recent woes of Circuit City as a company are contributing to this. I guess I'd mention there's a Best Buy that's about 2 miles South of this store and another one that's about 5 miles North of it, so perhaps they can't get enough traffic in there.

I was busy that day, but with the need to purchase a bunch of prizes soon, I thought this would be a good place to load up on a few things. Typically I go to Best Buy every year, but Circuit City enticed me. So I stopped by there the next day to check things out.

I had every intention of buying something and picked up a basket when I walked in to put things in. I started wandering in the TV area, needing a LCD mount, but not really anything else. I went to see iPods and Zunes, then computer stuff, and I realized something. Almost everything in the store was marked at 5% or 10% off. Accessories tended to be in the 15% range, but I stopped and actually walked around, looking for something that was 20% off. It seemed to be limited to music CDs, although there were a few things at 30% off (auto install kits).

I felt cheated.

This feels like every other sale that they might normally run, 10% off, which I can get at Amazon, and likely Best Buy.

I know this is the beginning of their closure, and there's a chance I would go back, but honestly that's not likely. If I see a 30% or even a 50% off sign, I'm going to guess that most things are 10-20% off. Or that there is very little stuff left and why waste my time.

Something like this probably does more damage to the Circuit City brand to me than anything. I've bought stuff from them since I was 15 years old, over 25 years now, and I would buy more from them if they were closer. When this store opened, I needed a mouse and a couple things one day and went here instead of Best Buy.

That won't be the case anymore.

There has to be a decent cost to keeping the store open, paying employees, etc. Perhaps they're stuck with a certain level of fixed costs and don't want to sell out too quickly, but honestly they would be better off having a real sale, go 20% off on every thing, take some losses (you're going to anyway) and make people feel good. If you turn around things in the company, you're going to want that goodwill.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Learning from Chefs

or perhaps better titled "marketing through teaching"

This is worth watching and I think Jason Fried has great ideas. Perhaps not for everyone, but I think some people can make this work.

I hope I'm one of them.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

And More Customer Service

No sooner had I finished my last post than I went to get service for my son's Zune. It stopped working and so I went to submit a repair order. It went smoothly, but for some reason it wouldn't complete the order. This is what I got:

Now I can understand that the process online might have issues. I live a ways out in the country, so sometimes systems don't like my address. However in this case, the thing that struck me was that a phone number is highlighted. It's in a bright color and so I dialed it. I got a tone and immediately realized this was the TDD number, not the customer service number.

It's for hearing impaired, not sight impaired. Highlight the number most of us use, not the one few people use.

Basic Customer Service

We've all had many customer service experience, some good, some bad, but I know that there is almost always room for improvement. While you cannot please everyone, doing the little things can really help improve your reputation, and hopefully, your business.

Recently I was coming back from dropping my kids off at school and I noticed that work was being done at the house across from my mailbox. There was a new garage going up, pole barn style, and the crew had worked fairly quickly and efficiently to get it done. I try to pay attention because contractors are hard to find, especially those that work efficiently and quickly. While I'd like to talk to the homeowner before I use them, I decided to stop and talk to the contractors.

I walked up and asked if they guys doing the work were the ones contracted since often they sub crews. One of the men said it was his father's business, and then asked if he could help. I said that I was looking to have an awning built on our barn and I was hoping to get an estimate.

Now at this point there are a few things that could happen:
1. He could offer to come over and do the estimate (or schedule it with me).
2. He could call someone to do the estimate.

I was kind of expecting one of these, but instead I got a third option. He gave me his father's card and said I should call him. Not a horrible bit of customer service, but it was a little inconvenient for me. I have to track down his father, schedule things, explain my story again, etc.

I can completely understand that perhaps this guy doesn't want to do the estimate, or his father doesn't let him. It was good he had a card and gave one to me, but he could have improved this easily.

My preference would be that he call his father and tell him I need an estimate or even that he ask me if he could have my number or if I'd like a card. Give me the choice and allow me to then choose what makes the most sense. My wife would probably be happy calling someone rather than giving out her number, but for me I would have preferred that someone set it up for me.

They guys were nice and helpful, but for sure I thought this was a place where customer service could be improved. What I would really have preferred is he come over, look at what I need, measure things, and then call his Dad, letting him work up the bid.

I'll call him and schedule something, but I'm definitely not as thrilled with these guys as I was before I stopped by.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


One of the things that I learned in building SQLServerCentral.com is how not to track traffic to the site or growth. We used a few counters over the years, gathering basic information, and while that helped, it wasn’t enough. Time and time again we couldn’t answer questions about our audience and develop patterns for how people used our service.

It’s easier on a web site, but it can be done in almost any business. You just need to spend time doing it. Asking questions of customers, finding out how they came to you, why, and then storing that information away.

If you don’t have tracking on your web site, add it through Google Analytics now. I actually just set that up recently for this site as well as my other persona sites. It doesn’t give you a ton of data, but it does give you good information and you’ll learn some valuable things.

We use it on SQLServerCentral now and it has helped me in working with our developers to learn:

  • that we need to be Google friendly. A large percentage of our traffic comes from there.
  • We need to support IE and Firefox, as we get about 40-some percent from each platform and that most people have upgraded to Firefox 3, something I need to do.
  • Most of our people are 1024 or higher in terms of resolution. Good for addressing complaints about not fitting on 800x600.

For JumpstartTV, we’ve added more tracking and actually tried to build a framework that we can add to most everything. We want to try and track each email, each link, each click and now when, and who, clicked it. That helps us to determine a few things.

  • How active people are
  • Is the audience turning over, meaning can we keep people engaged or are our 500 videos a day from the same person or different people.
  • What things work well when we change them. Do people notice them?

There are  many more questions we try to answer, and many we’re not sure to ask, but I’m sure we’ll think of along the way. Tracking as much as we can enables us to go back and potentially ask those questions in the past as well as the present and determine how well we’re building the business.

Most people aren’t that technical and it can be hard to track stuff, but it’s a question you want to ask of all your providers for your web stuff, email, etc. Get the data and you can always figure out what to do with it. Grab an online disk, put up a computer in your office, something and save all this stuff. Don’t worry if it isn’t in a database, that can happen later. Just get it stored somewhere.

If you want my recommendation, invest in a database guy. Not necessarily full time, but someone that knows BI and have them slowly move this data into something like SQL Server. I think that’s a great platform and it includes tons of BI capabilities, something other platforms don’t. As they pull in the data, slowly you can then use Excel or some other platform to begin analyzing it and finding out more about your business and how to grow it.

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Run Your Business as a Business

I’ve thought this for a long time: you need to run your business as a business, not an investment. Too often it seems that public companies, and many startups, are run like an investment, someone seeking to maximize a stock price (or a selling price) by making short term decisions. My guess is that Venture Capital firms have driven this for startups and executive pay for public companies.

I was thinking about this as I ran across a post from 37 Signals(Sequoia Captial: Armchair Quarterback), a company that I think does things the right way. The post references a slide show from Sequoia Capital that talks about things changing as the US appears to be heading into recession. I flipped through the slideshow and it made sense to me, but I like that 37 Signals is questioning what they used to advise clients. My guess, since I was a part of a company that was VC-backed in 2000, was that they were told to grow revenue, preferably along a curve and grow the company, so it “appeared” you were doing well. Acceleration, regardless of the potential for a crash (because expenses were too high), was king.

I fundamentally disagree with that strategy, and it’s completely driven by greed and the desire to close out an investment early. Even a 5-10 year time fra

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me, which is what I’ve heard some VCs pushing, it too quick for a business.

My view is that you build for 50 years, conserve cash, make good decisions, and then if you’re running a fundamentally sound enterprise, consider buyout offers (or IPOs, if that’s possible).

VCs can succeed with this strategy, then they won’t be expecting 4 or 5 of their 10 investments to fail. They can have 6 or 7 produce decent enterprises that might be neutral in terms of their investment, 1 or 2 that fail, and then 1 that hits it big.

All that have to do is think single or double, not home run.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Double Posting

I think that it’s a great idea to keep a few blogs going, and separate out your thoughts in different areas into different blogs. Tags and categories work well, but your business  postings shouldn’t necessarily be mixed in with your thoughts on the election, your car, or anything else. Sometimes it’s good to have separate blogs.

For this post, I’m mainly testing LiveWriter, which is an offline client. Not that I need an offline client, but there are times it would be good. However I’d like to sometimes post things to a couple blogs, and this makes it easy, something that I’m trying to get better at: making work easier.

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Success and Motivation

Mark Cuban has an interesting blog I follow and he published a great piece on how to get rich recently. The bottom line, there is not shortcut, and he's right. You need to be a bit lucky, but you have to have money to take advantage of opportunity, and that means conserving cash where possible. We spend money when we need to, but we also question our expenditures and try to ensure that we're making good choices or taking advantage of an opportunity.

He linked back to a republish of how he got going, really a four part series on Success and Motivation. He tends to make it seem like a young man's game, and in many ways it is, but it really is about sacrifice. Are you willing to give up time and other things in your life to drive forward and look for (and create) opportunities for you to grow? I was a long time ago, but I didn't do a good job of focusing on the business side. I spent too much time on the technical side, beefing up those skills and not looking for opportunities.

You also need to have an end goal of working for yourself. You might make it as a corporate guy, but I think the odds of you getting rich are better working for yourself.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Face to Face

I've run two companies now as virtual entities, with my fellow partners and founders physically located in another part of the country. It's different than just having us all work at home, we actually have to get on an airplane or make a long drive to get together.

That presents some challenges and it makes for some interesting opportunities (and savings), but it also means that we drift apart at times. Early on we would get together once a year at a trade show, but it would be a hectic time for us since we also had other duties. At one point we started arriving two days early for the show, but with families coming at times, that didn't help a lot. We often ended up with a half a day together to sit and brainstorm.

We do have regular calls to talk business, but it's not the same as face to face contact, and I forget that at times. A few years ago I started to make a bit of an effort to fly to Florida, where my partners are, to talk business and spend time together. It worked out OK, but we sold the first company soon after that and formed a new one, but we each also moved on to other things.

Recently I made a trip to speak at a small conference and actually went a day early and stayed a day later to spend time with one of my partners. The day before wasn't a lot of business since we often want to catch up a little, but we did talk generally about life, and that helps us to get into a groove.

The last day we had some good conversations, brainstorming, looking over our web site, and talking business for hours, getting some productive things out of the trip. I'd forgotten how valuable that is and realize that I probably need to make time for 2 or 3 of those trips a year to help us grow and stay in touch.

As much information as we can pass electronically and over the phone, it somehow still pales when compared to the productivity we get in a face to face environment. I think you have some diminishing returns, especially when you see someone every day, but you need a little time every once in awhile to keep in touch.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Budgets: Good or Bad?

In a small company things tend to move quicker, decisions are made on the fly, and there is often little overhead to how the company runs. Many people like that, including me, and it seems that this is a no-nonsense, very efficient way to run the business. That might be true, but I think that without some set of formal processes, it's easy for small companies to waste resource and to do the same thing over and over because they don't make things run smoother.

Personally I think a lot of how well the small business (meaning 1-20 people, founder and first employees) runs depends on the founder and leaders. If they're organized and have some experience, they can operate with very, very low overhead and be efficient. If they're not, it's easy to have things spiral out of control as people either make their own decisions, not necessarily in line with the company's goals, or they are paralyzed waiting for the founder to start them moving.

What does this have to do with budgets? I was thinking of this when I read a post by a medium sized business owner. The company had grown to about 130 people and you have to have some level of coordination at that point from various departments because you have 130 people marching somewhat in the same direction, but not with precision. Each department has slightly different agendas, and each group is trying to get funding for their particular idea.

When you're 10 people, everyone can come to the leader and ask for money, justify it, and then
move on. The leader can kind of keep a handle on what's approved and what's not, or at least where the money is going. Once you grow larger, especially when you have 30 or 40 people, it's hard to know who's spending what, or what they're spending it on.

High level budgets, at a project or department level, are good, just to keep organized and help you understand where money is going. We tend to informally budget for certain projects, which just helps each of us have an idea of how much money we'll be spending over the next xx months. We often do need to track later to see if we are spending on track, but this gives us a nice thumbnail of what revenue we need to earn.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Battle for Time

I was talking with my partner, Andy, today from End to End Training and he mentioned that he didn't want to be wasting time on small projects, like short term consulting. Our other partner, Brian, has a separate consulting business (Pragmatic Works) and has been doing some remote consulting. He's done with with conference calls and Webex, primarily because a customer couldn't afford his rate. So he went with a good rate remotely.

I thought that wasn't necessarily a bad idea, but Andy said that if you couldn't sustain the customers, you wouldn't really be doing well. If you could only book 1 or 2 hours a day, it wasn't great money and it meant that you weren't focusing on your business. Andy said it was like hitting singles all day, and he wanted to hit home runs.

While a home run would be nice, singles are what this blog is about.

We talked a bit about it and I agree with Andy that you don't want to get too distracted with other projects. We can't afford to hire someone else, but we're getting close. In the meantime, every project that Andy or Chris (our employee) do must provide some amount of payback. Either immediately, or in the short term (< href="http://www.jumpstarttv.com/">JumpstartTV is our primary goal right now. We bought it really with the intention of helping Brian out and getting a few names. That was earlier this year, but now it seems that property might be the best one for growing revenue and building a good business in the next year.

In any case, it's not hitting a home run, though it could be. Instead we're focusing on the things that make the most sense for us to grow the business and revenue in the short term. Not next month, but the next six. To me it's a contact hit.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Facebook - I'm on it

I've never really gotten the social site thing. I don't get the appeal of Facebook, LinkedIn, Plaxo, MySpace, etc., beyond the ability to set up your own web site easily. Since I can do that on my own, I wasn't really sure why I should mess with something like the social sites, but I wonder if I'm missing something.

My wife mentioned she was on Facebook, with like 300 friends, which seems like a lot to me, so I decided to give it a try. It's something of a business experiment, and it's something of a trial for me as well. I signed up today and you can find me as sjones at sqlservercentral dot com.

I did find a couple friends from high school on there, which was interesting, mildly. Not sure if I'll ping them, or if they'll ping me, but we'll see.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Daily Discussions

I don't always feel like it, and I've even tried to avoid them, but I know there's a value in having daily discussions with the management team. In our case that's Andy, with me and Brian more as consultants to the business. With 1 full-time employee (plus Andy), there's not a lot of people stuff, but we have a lot of business to manage.

I find that I tend to get in a routine, used to hearing from him on a regular basis, touching base with how things are going, brainstorming, talking over the things working and not working, and making plans for the future. It's typically a meeting, and we try to not waste too much time, though I'm sure we've blown a few hours talking about wood, politics, or many other things.

Most of the time I find that 3 times a week is good, allowing us to touch base and chat about what's working and not working. It gives Andy a break from his normal work and it's "thinking time," which I don't get enough of at my day job and is invaluable for making the business grow.

Monday, September 15, 2008

What's a Contact Hitter

I've always loved the game of baseball: watching it, playing, all aspects of it. A few years ago I decided to start playing again as an adult. I hadn't played since I was in high school and was a little nervous about getting out there. It didn't help that I got drafted to play on one of the top teams in the 38&over league.

My first year in the league I wanted to hit the ball hard. I mean I really wanted to hit well and show the rest of the guys in my league I could play. As the games went by over the first month or so of the season, I racked up walks, ground outs, fly outs, and quite a few strike outs, but no hits. Eventually I started thinking this wasn't really my talent and just swung hard.

In our 9th or 10th game, I finally swung through a pitch and knocked a home run over the fence. I was thrilled since I'd not even seen anyone hit one. My first hit was one to remember. The next time up I swung through another pitch and hit a second one. As expected, the third time up I popped one way up in the air, but another out.

Still I was thrilled. It seemed my season was saved. I kept thinking about that day every time I went up to bat and kept swinging. I never hit another home run, but I did start to get some hits. Those built confidence and I enjoyed the rest of the season.

The next winter I started practicing at home, putting a practice machine in my basement and going down there 4-5 times a week to hit little whiffle balls. That practice paid off through the season and I ended up hitting over .300 that season, making lots of contact. No home runs, but I had a productive, and enjoyable, year.

The next winter I didn't practice as much, but I swung hard in the games that summer. I hit some deep balls, no home runs, but I had some impressive shots. It got to the point that some people would slip the shortstop over to right field and overplay me. I didn't get many hits, and it wasn't a great year. Toward the end of the year I joined a softball team as well and not wanting to hurt myself, learned to place my hits where I could get on base, rather than swinging for the fences.

I learned something from that.

The home run hitters look good. They are flashy, sexy, and impressive. However they don't win games and it's not much fun to go up there and fly out or strike out. And it's not something that I liked. I learned that I would much rather hit more often, with less power, but more accuracy or results than be flashy.

A contact hitter is one that focuses on not striking out. Instead they want to get the ball in play, increasing the odds that they'll get on base every trip to the plate. Some of the most productive baseball players ever have been contact hitters, who aren't as flashy as a Hank Aaron or a Barry Bonds, but they are some of the most respected players by their peers.

And they are successful in their field. They get the paycheck and tend to have long careers.

I think you can do the same thing in business, and I think many people would like to have a long, productive business career and work in relative anonymity or obscurity than be the flashy CEO of a company that fails. Or have a business or two fail before they succeed with another one.

Most people I know are scared to start a business, but they need not be. They can start a business, be conservative, and make those smart decisions, never "swinging for the fences", but "looking to make contact, " each and every day. They can build something that might not make them rich, but will make them proud each day they go to work.

I'm starting this blog to talk about business. Reasonable businesses that can survive, and thrive, and sustain the owner and employees for a long, long time.