Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Should you start a business?

As I write this, I'm laughing inside. I'm avoiding starting another one right now, just because life is a little hectic, but read this post with the same title and decide for yourself.

If you have the inclination, or even have thought about it, I'd encourage you to try. If you're under 25, not married, or have no kids, give it a go. We need more small businesses.

Friday, December 9, 2011

How Foursquare Grew

An interesting look at how FourSquare grew so quickly. It's an interesting look at using your customers to help you grow by building a platform.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Where do I tweet? My personal account or a company account?

This is something I’ve been asked about blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc. My advice is that you ought to keep a professional brand out there for your company.

I have two accounts, one for me personally (@way0utwest) and then one for my site (@SQLServerCentrl). The company site definitely gets less time from me than my personal account. I rarely sign on to the company account away from my PC, so it’s hard to maintain.

What I suggest first is that you use the company account to talk about the company, but make sure that someone is watching them. I would share this account with multiple people, and get them to spend a little bit of time each day posting items.

Feel free to retweet to/from your personal account and business accounts to the other. When appropriate. The important thing to remember is that the business account is based on your business and should match your business.

The personal account is for you, and you can get away with some tweets that aren’t business related, but if you are closely associated with your business, be careful about what you tweet. Remember it’s still your brand.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How Should We Pay People?

It’s an interesting article on how to pay people from Dan Ariely at Business Week. It’s a look at some of the issues with paying for knowledge work, or work that isn’t well defined. The short version is that you don’t want to specify too tightly what you expect people to do, but then you have to motivate them to work in the best interests of the company.

I think this is one of the fundamental problems in management today. We still have this mentality from the blue collar factory worker and piecemeal or easily measurable work items being applied by management to knowledge workers. It doesn’t work well, and somehow we think that the hours work in some way relate to the output.

I blame lawyers. They tend to use this model, since they often bill by the hour. However the end result, the quality of that they produce, which is usually research, isn’t easily quantified in anything other than a win or loss. That often comes down to not only the soundness of the argument or the logic, but the charisma of the lawyer. That’s not even close to the way we do business in many other industries, especially technology.

Monday, September 19, 2011

More than money

I saw someone post a tweet during the recent hurricane that hit the East coast that essentially questioned the decision by Home Depot to stay open 24 hours. The tweet essentially questioned the business sense of paying employees when there wouldn’t likely sell enough materials to pay for the cost of electricity and staff. I was surprised, mostly because the person posting the tweet typically has more compassion for people than companies.

This decision isn’t about profit and loss. From an accounting, or MBA standpoint, this isn’t worth doing. However it isn’t about profits. It’s about serving the community and going the extra mile. It’s about being available to help your customers if they need it. I doubt anyone will come, but someone that gets damage at 10pm just might want to come get some wood, buckets, tarps, etc. for repair.

I’m sure some PR benefit accrues from the decision, but in my mind, this is more about being part of the community and understanding that there is more to business than straight profit.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Users first

I like this philosphy, Users First, Brands Second. It’s a piece from Fred Wilson, a VC investor in NYC. He makes great points that you want to make sure you are building a service users want first, and then worry about the branding and partnerships.

Ultimately you want a great service or product, and that comes from building something for your customers, clients, users, not your partners.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Distance Yourself with Emails

One of the things I’ve always done in a small business is publish my email. I want customers, or potential customers to email me, especially if they have issues.

As my companies grew, however, we learned that there are definitely tasks that we farm out to different people. An example of this is the problems with our website. It’s customary to have a “webmaster@” email address, and while we didn’t mind people pinging us, we didn’t want me, or my partner, to be stuck answering all of the emails.

So we added the webmaster email to our list. We both had passwords, and could check (and respond), but it gave us a layer of abstraction. Over the years, when we had an email for some specific function, we added an email, even if it was an alias to one of our accounts. It enabled easier workflow, and it allowed us to publish a standard email people could use.

I’ve suggested this to a few friends, especially those that do events with their small business. Having an “events@” or”webinars@” is an easy email to give to people and it prevents their emails from clogging your inbox. You might alias it to yourself, but if there are enough emails, you want to be able to send those to someone else, and having an abstraction through a separate email works out well.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Fire Some of Your Customers

An interesting read from the HBR: It's Time to Fire Some of Your Customers

I worry that this is taken too literally by some people. It makes some sense, focus on those customers that provide good revenue, but this could easily be taken too far by the MBA crowd, and trying to be too efficient to limit yourself to certain customers.

Your customers will change over time, and you need a wide variety of them. The best customers are those you want to cater to, but offending or pushing away too many average customers might leave you without enough good customers over time. It’s also easy to make mistakes about who are the best customers if you don’t ask the right questions of your data. Make sure that you examine the “best” customers from many sides, many points of view, and analyze the data in multiple ways.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Passion and Business

From Great People are Overrated (Part II), there’s quote in one of the comments: I read this recently: Boeing went downhill after their primary strategic focus shifted from being passionate about building great planes, to a focus of delivering “shareholder value”.

I read something similar in a book about Clear Channel Communications, with a quote from their CEO saying they had to run their business the best way they knew how, without worrying about the competitors. If they did a great job, the profits would follow.

I’m not sure I like how Clear Channel has run their business, but they have run it their way and been successful. I do think that having a passion and building your product or service to be the best you can, for your market, means you will tend to do well. When you manage for shareholders or an investment, I think we all suffer with a worse product or service.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Should You Allow Telecommuting?

I think I’d always make remote work an option for a company I owned, but should you? What if you’ve never worked remotely yourself, or if you have some concerns?

Ultimately you have to trust your employees. They have access to your data, your equipment, etc. They can find ways to waste time at work, and some of them will end up wasting more time at work than they would at home.

Implement a pilot program, test out different jobs, and with different people. Let them know this is a privilege that can be revoked, and see if their work improves or declines. You don’t need fancy auditing, or monitoring, or anything more than you have now. Either they get work done or they don’t.

If they do, you might be able to vastly reduce the costs you bear in maintaining a large office space. You might even be able to hire new people at lower salaries by giving them the option to work remotely.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Over Messaging

One of the things that I think people do in business these days is either over-message or under-message.

It’s easy to over-message, by sending something every day to people that isn’t interesting, or contains too much marketing. As an example, I am on the Woodcraft and Rockler mailing lists, and they both message too often. I get 1-2 emails every week from them with some sales, which really means that there’s always a sale.

Now once in awhile that works, and perhaps it does drive people that really love woodworking to spend more with them, but I think it may annoy a lot of people and I’m sure there are people that either a) unsubscribe, or b) only look at the emails when they feel like spending money.

What would I rather see? I’d like less frequent emails, with more rare sales, or the same frequency, but some interesting content in the newsletter that might get me to read for 5 minutes. An editorial, a tip or trick, a way that someone uses a tool on sale.

If you send out frequent emails, I’d encourage you to do a few things. First, track unsubscribes and if you start getting a lot of them, make sure you lower your frequency or find out why. The other thing I’d do is let people offer feedback. Perhaps some of them only want to get emails regurarly and others don’t. If you don’t have a technical way to do this, split your lists up. Put people into less frequent email lists and send them every other newsletter, or even combine two of your others into one and send it to them less frequently.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Email Questions

In your business, you’ll get lots of emails (hopefully) that deal with your products or services. Answering them is important, and it shows a touch with your customers, but it shouldn’t be “just” what you do.

In my business, since I have a discussion area, I don’t answer questions in email, but instead point them to the discussion area. That works for me, but in most businesses that’s not the answer.

However you don’t want to answer the same question a few dozen times. What you ought to do is answer the question, then bcc yourself on the email, and re-use that content.

  • Publish the content as an FAQ on your site, of frequently asked questions.
  • Use the content in a newsletter as a “common questions” or support issue.
  • Use the content to develop an article or piece that helps teach something to users.

There are numerous ways to take advantage of this. Plus once you’ve done that, you can refer email questions to an already published answer, saving some time.

Monday, May 23, 2011

IT and Innovation

This is a powerful quote:

“This is the digital world IT must keep up with--one where Apple can view a $40,000 car as an accessory to the iPhone.” - From IT Is Too Darn Slow

Not that every business needs constant innovation, but it does show opportunity and thinking outside the box is important. As you look to build a business, look for those ways in which people might view the world differently.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Play Long Ball

One of the sayings of my business partner is to play long ball. Make decisions that are good for the long term, not the short term.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t make decisions about processes or issues that need to be dealt with today. Or that you focus on long term planning only. Or even that you don’t tackle some project because it’s a short term fix.

It means being aware that your business is a long term venture and you want to make decisions that will improve the business in the long term, not the short term.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Too Busy

I know I’ve been neglecting this blog. In my life in the first quarter there was a lot of travel, lots of work at my regular job, and a status quo in the business side of things, so I let this go.

I’ll make an effort to post more links and ideas on business moving forward.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Bootstrapping Yourself

Getting started in business is a little scary, and it can be a leap of faith that you’ll make something happen. Here’s a nice story that I found on the 37 Signals blog that talks about someone getting started: Bootstrapped, Profitable, & Proud: Braintree

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

It's Not Just Money

I watched a great TED presentation on sustainable restaurants, and it was refreshing to see that the owner/chef is concerned about making money, but also balancing that with his goals of building a more sustainable restaurant.

I think that in business, you have to balance both, otherwise you start to lose some of your morals and ethics as you seek to succeed.

Friday, January 21, 2011

It's a grind

I am always on the lookout for a business that I might want to own. It's not that I'm unhappy with my job now, but the side business with a partner isn't doing great, and never will be something that I'll do full time. I also think about retirement, and the best way to keep working past 65 is to own your own business.

I have looked at sandwich shops, bookstores, a wood business, etc. When I talk about them with friends and my business partner, they always say that those are a grind and do I want to go do that work every day?

They're all a grind. Every job, no matter how exciting to you and how creative, becomes a grind. You do the same things over and over, and while you might get more variety in some, you still mechanically do the same things over and over. Tune someones's computer or car? Always new things that break and new types of items to work on, but the process of troubleshooting, talking to customers, fixing issues is a repetitive process over time. Make pens, assemble sandwiches, pour drinks, they're all the same.

I'm not sure how you get away from this, other than to find the thing that you really enjoy. Even that can be hard as often a hobby you find exciting becomes a chore when you have to do it, and repeat what you've done.

No solutions today, but just a recognition that life is hard, and hopefully you find the thing that you do enjoy doing over and over again.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Cupcake Store

My wife and I went out for lunch recently and afterward she said she wanted a cupcake form the cupcake store. I played along, and soon realized she was serious when we walked a few stores down in the building to find The Cupcake Store.

There was a small store that did cupcakes and coffee. We bought a few cupcakes from a very nice lady and went on our way. We ate them on the way home and they were good, but they were cupcakes. I'm not a big sweets guy, but my wife loves them. She enjoyed the treat but mentioned that has to be a hard business.

I would agree, and it's a very niche-y business. Not a lot of people would go out of their way for a cupcake, but I could be wrong. I am sure you can't support many of those stores in an area, but maybe one works. However you need to sell a lot of $2.00 cupcakes to make money and I'm not sure how many people will support you.

To be fair, I think there are a lot of things one could do. Offer these cupcakes as desserts in restaurants and other stores, taking a smaller profit in order to grow volume. Perhaps look to advertise and get more party deals, office buildings, etc. I don't know if they are trying any of these things, but I hope they do. A small business like that is a neat idea and I would like to see is succeed.

I'll keep an eye and see if they survive. I know I'll at least go there one more time with my daughter. They sell frosting shots, and that's about all she wants out of a cupcake.