Monthly Archives: January 2006

Face Time and Free Stuff

Business has been booming for my little custom software company.  We’re not ready to take over the world or release a product just yet, but things are doing OK.  I’m happy.  And I’ve been pondering the means by which I’ve managed to grow the business.  Sometimes it all seems like a happy accident.  But after a talk with a good friend and colleague, I think I understand what has happened.

How does any business get customers?  By advertising?  Nobody pays attention to that anymore.  By clever PR?  Sure, there’s always the odd person who will hire you because he saw that newspaper article about how you donated 100 hours of your time to build a website that takes donations to help cure those poor kids in the oncology ward of the local hospital.  But as I talk to other solo and small businesspeople, an interesting trend reveals itself:  the #1 way small firms get business is by utilizing Face Time and Free Stuff*.

I can hear you already – “Wha-a-a-a-t?” Just bear with me for a moment.

People like to do business with their friends.  Period.  Finito.  End of story.  Go out and ask 100 prospects if they’d rather do business with SuperMegaJumboCorp or with their poker buddy Bob.  Go ahead, ask them.  I guarantee you that if Bob is even remotely competent at doing what SuperMegaJumboCorp does, 100% of the time, the prospect will choose Bob.  Yes, he could get hit by a bus and take the project to the grave with him.  Yes, he’s only one guy and can only provide so much support.  Yes, he could get hired away.  But Bob will get the business in spite of all this, because he is the prospect’s friend.

I’ve actually had prospects tell me that yes, Bob has royally screwed up our database, and yes, it’s hard on our business, but we’re not going to fire him because well, we’ve known Bob a long time and he’s just a real good guy.  Competency didn’t even figure into the equation!  What can we learn from that?

When I first moved to the Central Valley, I didn’t know anybody.  Not a soul!  But here I was, with a new home to pay for and a family to feed, one of about a dozen people freshly laid off from a company that came thiiiiiiiiis close to going out of business.  I had a handful of small clients, but in early 2003 nobody was hiring developers and nobody was taking on custom dev projects.  Obviously, I had to make SOMEthing happen.  So what was my first move?  Did I take out a Yellow Pages ad?  Did I spend $75 to have a bunch of business cards printed up?  Did I paper the business district with flyers?  Did I go running to the Chamber of Commerce?

No.

I sat down with a copy of the Yellow Pages and hand-wrote – yes, hand-wrote, the same way your grandmomma hand-wrote letters to your grandpappy way back when he was serving in the Big Red One – a series of personal letters to the principal of every business in town that appeared to be even remotely technology-related.  But I wasn’t asking for work.  Oh, no.  That would have been sad and small and would have gotten my letter tossed in the trash immediately.  Instead, I introduced myself, briefly summarized my industry experience, and asked about the principal.  I offered to take the principal to lunch and talk shop.  I didn’t approach anyone as a supplicant looking for a favor – I approached them as a peer looking to get to know his fellow tech industry workers.  I forgot all about my predicament and focused on striking up a few new friendships with these interesting new people I was about to meet.

I paid for sushi.  I paid for Tex-Mex.  I paid for American Chain Cuisine.  I visited offices.  I talked, I joked, and I listened – oh, I listened.  People really, really like to talk about themselves.  And in the process of all this, I became friendly with some people.  Friendly enough that eventually a local business owner I’d introduced myself to confided in me that she was unhappy with one of her employees and wanted me to take over his position.  I politely declined that particular bit, but soon ended up doing some other work on contract for her.  Revenue at last!  Pleased, this business owner introduced me to some friends, one of whom I really hit it off with.  I ended up doing a little bit of work with him, too.

Around the same time, two other unrelated local principals took me up on my lunch invitation and I ended up hitting it off with them as well, the result being a little but more work.  Then a sweet lady from a local charity caught wind of my presence in town and invited me to bid on a project.  I took her to coffee, talked about her project and her charity’s mission, and eventually won the bid.

What’s the commonality?

I got face-to-face with these folks.  I got friendly with these folks.  I shared space and time and broke bread with these folks on my own dime before I ever asked anything of them.  In most cases, I never actually asked anything – eventually they just pulled me aside and gave me the “Hey, do you know how to do X?” routine.  But why me?  Why not the 72,566,985 other guys out there with similar qualifications?  Why did I end up getting the business and not them?

Because 72,566,984 of them didn’t bother to reach out, get face-to-face, and hand over a free lunch, that’s why.

When I bid, I’m usually the most expensive bid.  My rates are reportedly higher than most for the local area.  I’m neither handsome nor charming enough to leave people starry-eyed long enough for me to conk them over the head and lift their wallet.  But by golly, I seem to do an alright job of making a new friend over a good meal.  And that appears to be enough to put me in the running for most projects I want to be involved with.  Everyone likes Face Time – a real conversation with a  real human being.  Everyone also likes Free Stuff – a real, honest-to-goodness, no-obligation freebie, like lunch at your choice of restaurant or your favorite flavored latte delivered to your office, just to say hello.  And the best part is, everyone can do this.

Just take yourself back to the schoolyard for a moment, when you were young and open and not conditioned to fear rejection.  What did you do back then to make a new friend? “Hi, you wanna play with me?” or “Here, want half of my sandwich?” were both perfectly acceptable ways of introducing yourself as a kid – unless the sandwich you were offering contained baloney.  Thankfully, the adult world isn’t THAT different.  Baloney still doesn’t fly, but a simple hello and a lunch invitation can work wonders for making new friends.  And if you take care of getting out into the community and making friends with people, the business will come.  Sure, it’s not going to come from every person you meet, nor is every new person you meet going to become a friend.

Even so, you’ll certainly become friendly with many people, have a lot of interesting conversations, and pump a lot of “you” presence into the collective mind of the local marketplace.  Eventually, when there’s enough “you” in the mindspace of the market, the pressure will cause something to pop, just like a closed system that’s been pushed beyond capacity.  And that pop can end up putting dollars in your pocket.

Face Time.  Free Stuff.  Get out in front of people.  Open up.  Make some friends.  Don’t ask for business, just get out there.  Give somebody lunch, or a t-shirt, or a free hour of your time to fix a problem, or shut your yap and listen to someone tell you about himself.

It takes time for this to work.  But for truly small businesses – especially those who are not located in prospect-rich environments – Face Time and Free Stuff is THE way.

*much respect to my buddy John Borkowski for putting a name to this method of getting business that we both found ourselves gravitating toward.  Face Time and Free Stuff – I wish I could say I thought it up.

. . . and Launch!

A few days ago, I asked you to identify some mystery interface details:

resource_tease

 

 

 

system_tease

service_tease

bullet_tease

As you all know, I am no master of suspense – people quickly guessed that I was redesigning my company site.  So without further ado, here it is.

Do you hear that?  That is the sound of a thousand professional designers simultaneously recoiling in horror.  ;)

I can’t say I’m totally happy with the site.  I think it does some things better then the old site did, but as I look at it, I think the old site did some thing better as well.  I’ll be tweaking it up, but I’m not going to spend too much time on it, as I have eager clients awaiting deliverables!

I’m sure I don’t need to actually SAY it, but feel free to send feedback on the new site.  I’ll be over here, awaiting the onslaught of eMails insulting my non-existent design skills.  ;)

What’s The Point of CSS-Based Layout Again?

Can someone remind me again why moving away from table-based layout in favor of CSS layout is important?

This isn’t a bashing post; I “get” how handy CSS is and I get that the whole world of the web is eventually going to all-CSS.  I get that all-CSS sites use less bandwidth.  I get it, I really do.  Perhaps I’m ranting because I’ve had a very frustrating CSS morning.

But that doesn’t change the fact that even after working with CSS-based layout for a solid year now, I can STILL turn out a table-based design that does exactly what I want it to do faster than I can turn out a CSS design that does the same.  It also doesn’t change the fact that every important site I use on a regular basis is table-based.  Amazon.  CNN.  Microsoft.  Inc.  Forbes.  Even Google!  It seems that the vast majority of the web is table-based, and the vast majority of the web appears to render just fine in either FF or IE.

So as I bust my hump learning a whole new way of doing things, I have to wonder; if table-based layout is good enough for those huge players I just named, why isn’t it good enough for the rest of us?

I will continue to work with all-CSS layouts, but I have the distinct feeling that I’m doing it more because that’s what everyone else is doing then because there are compelling benefits to doing so.  And I don’t like that feeling.

Of Dogfood and Soda Police

I encountered an interesting news article today.  It seems that one Ford plant has decided to force employees to drive a Ford or be barred from the plant’s parking lot rather than being allowed to park in the facility’s parking lot.

In the software industry, the phrase “eating your own dogfood” means that you actually use the products you develop.  In general, this is a good thing; it leads to higher levels of quality and a deeper understanding of the user experience.  But I think Ford is taking it much, much too far.  We’re not talking about using Ford products at work for the sake of understanding the user experience; we’re now talking about Ford penalizing employees for what they purchase with their personal money, on personal time.  That’s nuts.

I am reminded of a story I was recently told by an acquaintance about the HR department at his work.  The HR staffers would actually search the refrigerator and employee’s lunches to make sure nobody had brought in any Mountain Dew from home.  Why?  Because the company had struck a deal with a Mountain Dew vendor to provide vending service to their office building at reduced cost on the condition that anyone who consumed Mountain Dew in the building would ONLY consume Mountain Dew that came from the actual Mountain Dew machines.  So, the Soda Police from HR would check cubicles and lunch bags and refrigerators in search of illicit soda.  We’ve all heard stories about Furniture Police and Cubicle Police in the corporate world; now we have Soda Police.  Just saying the term “illicit soda” out loud makes me doubt humanity’s odds of long-term survival.

Anyway.  Back to the Ford issue.  The Soda Police episode makes me wonder; what if someone who works at that Ford plant comes to work in an old Ford that has, say, a non-Ford engine in it?  Are the Ford Police at the plant going to check under the hood to make sure that each employee’s vehicle is 100% Ford?  Suppose it’s a 1940s-era Ford truck that has been restored and is composed mostly of non-Ford aftermarket parts?  Is it still a Ford?  What if it’s a 1988 Ford Escort, but has had all the badges removed, or has had extensive body modifications so that it is not visually identifiable as a Ford?  Is it still a Ford if it doesn’t actually look like a Ford, or SAY Ford on it?

Isn’t this just a little bit like Microsoft or Intuit announcing that all employees MUST use Word or Quicken (respectively) at home, and that any employee caught NOT using Word or Quicken will not be allowed to eat lunch in the company cafeteria?  I understand the desire to have brand loyalty, I understand the desire to show a consolidated face to the competition, I understand the desire for eating your own dogfood in the hopes that it leads to a better customer experience.  But wouldn’t a better alternative be to allocate a loaner car or two for the plant and have employees trade off driving it?  Even better, give each employee one day per month to get out of the plant and run errands while driving a Ford.  They could get a feel for the product they build on a daily basis, and perhaps come to have new ideas about how to make it better.  Heck, some of them might even fall in love with it and decide to buy a Ford.  Mandating that employees must either drive a Ford or park off-site seems as though it’s going to do nothing but create resentment.

If the management who put this policy in place were smarter, they’d be asking the REAL question – why aren’t all of our employees willingly driving Fords already?  I suspect that the reason they haven’t asked that question is that they already know the answer, and they don’t like it.

I realize this is not, strictly speaking, a software business topic.  However, it IS a “stupid management” topic, which happens to be the #1 problem we face in the software business.

Keeping Track of Contacts and Sales

Companies who practice direct mail marketing have long been smart enough to maintain separate metrics for each avenue through which their customers find them.  You know – X number of sales came from our ad in Popular Mechanics, Y came from our ad in Discover, Z came from our infomercial, etc.

Now companies who take advantage of online marketing are able to take advantage of things like referrer logs and PubSub to tell us where our marketing contacts are coming from, but how do ISVs keep track of things at the more granular level, in the “X number of sales came from people visiting the blog, Y came through the handout at my last speech, Z came via Download.com, N came from the eMail newsletter” manner?  Everyone knows it is important to know which methods of advertising and marketing are effective – but how are you all doing it?  Is anyone using a tool that aggregates all this data in one place?

I’m aware of contact management programs such as Goldmine and ACT, but it seems to me that there must be a more specific tool out there someplace.

Christopher’s Guidelines For Meetings

I promise, these “me too” posts are not going to become a habit.

I saw yet another item on SvN that spoke to me.  The topic was the negative effect of meetings on workday focus, productivity, etc.  As usual, the SvN guys took an extreme position – “don’t do meetings” – but I’m going to present what I think is an effective approach to having meetings.  They really can be useful, you just have to run them correctly.  I’ve been told that my stance on meetings is extreme, too.  We’ll see what you think.

Note that I’m referring to these as “guidelines” rather than “rules” so you don’t get the impression that I’m saying my way is the only way.  I am, however, saying that my way might very well be the best way.

Christopher’s Meeting Guideline #1:  Meetings should never be used to present information, only to make decisions about information presented prior to the meeting.  Yeah, yeah, how do people GET information unless it’s presented to them in a meeting, blah blah blah.  See rule 2.

Christopher’s Meeting Guideline #2:  Meetings should have a written objective and agenda, which should be distributed in advance.  Preferably the distribution takes place far enough in advance that the participants have time to actually read up on the subject matter.  I know – being prepared goes against human nature, nobody has time to read, it’s not realistic, blah blah blah.  If nobody in your business has time to spend 15 minutes reading a brief in preparation for a meeting, you have bigger problems than evil meetings.

Christopher’s Meeting Guideline #3:  No chairs.  This one drives people crazy.  I can hear you already – “No chairs?!?  Have you lost your mind?!?  What about pregnant people?  What about the crippled?  What about employees who wheelchair bound, do you force them to hang from their hands, you cold-hearted dog?”  Obviously one must accommodate team members who have extenuating physical circumstances.  But mark my words – stand-up meetings make for short meetings.  Which brings us to…

Christopher’s Meeting Guideline #4:  No meeting should go longer than 1 hour, and even THAT is too long.  I think this one is self-explanatory.  I don’t want to hear about how sometimes 3-hour meetings are necessary.  A 3-hour meeting is a seminar, not a meeting.

Christopher’s Meeting Guideline #5:  The meeting should always start on time.  If you are late, you should find yourself locked out.  Punctuality is the minimum entry fee to professional life as an adult.  If you can’t pull that off, don’t expect to walk in and waste everyone’s time getting caught up on what you missed.

Christopher’s Meeting Guideline #6:  The meeting should have a moderator to help participants to focus.  If someone is continually driving the meeting off-topic, that person should be asked to leave.  “But that’s rude and it singles out that person for humiliation and it’s not fair” and blah blah blah.  My heart bleeds, pal.  You’re in a meeting for a purpose – if a person can’t support and advance that purpose, they should go do something else that is productive.

Christopher’s Meeting Guideline #7:  Invite the fewest number of people necessary to make a decision on the meeting’s subject matter.  I once worked someplace that held “open meetings,” where everyone from the receptionist to the janitor was welcome to come and weigh in on engineering issues.  This is nuts.  The meeting organizer needs to cherry-pick the right mix of participants to ensure well-rounded decision making.  No more and no less.

Christopher’s Meeting Guideline #8:  No food, no drinks, no laptops, no cell phones.  Oh, I can hear you complaining already – “What if we need to look something up while we’re in the meeting?  What if I get an emergency phone call?  What if I didn’t make it to the coffee cart that morning and need my latte?”  What if, what if, what if.  Regarding the phone, why would you interrupt a task of known importance for a phone call of unknown importance?  That’s not an effective use of your time.  Regarding the laptop and coffee, I think they tend to distract.  Your mileage may vary.

Christopher’s Meeting Guideline #9:  If the group hasn’t reached a decision at the 60 minute mark, the meeting ends anyway and the meeting organizer makes the decision.

Christopher’s Meeting Guideline #10:  If you have not read or are not familiar with the subject matter that the meeting addresses, don’t show up.  Your presence will require the group to violate rule #1.

Obviously, you need to find a meeting style that is effective for your team.  When I say effective, I mean “leads to brief, focused meetings that result in a decision being made on some important issue.”  So feel free to tweak these rules to suit you, but be warned – I’ll go on record here as saying that if you’re violating more than three or four of these, your meetings are probably life-sucking, soul-deadening, productivity killers.

Get on the stick and retool your meetings, pronto!

Starting in the Middle and Writing

I read a good piece over on To-Done about starting projects in the middle.  I see that  today’s Signal vs. Noise noticed it as well.  I’m usually hesitant to make “me too” posts, but I think that this is a good enough insight into project work to be worth parroting.

Britt makes a good point about not necessarily needing to start a new project by addressing the first element of the requirements.  I do this all the time with writing.  It’s rare that I’ll write anything from start to finish.  In general, I write small one- or two-sentence snippets that serve to illustrate some part of the point I want an article to make.  If I’m lucky, I’ll get a whole paragraph out.  Then I just drag and drop these snippets and paragraphs into the order in which they make the most sense.  Voila!  Finished article.

Truthfully, I figured everyone worked like this.  Let me ask – how many of you actually start your writing project by writing Page 1, or start developing an application by coding Requirement 1.0?

If it works, it works, and that is one of the highest values to which any project can aspire, but starting with the beginning and ending with the end just seems like an un-naturally orderly way of doing things.  I always try to run tight projects, but just a dash of chaos seems to do a good job of greasing the wheels.