Monthly Archives: January 2008

Can Your Business Survive a Snowstorm?

I had to teach the class. There really wasn’t any alternative, and when we left the ‘Bow, the sun was shining, and the roads were bare and dry, all the way to Laramie (about 60 miles of open road).

Alex had a doctor’s appointment, so we took care of that, did some shopping, through more fine weather. Just as we parked outside the campus to unload our equipment, the snow started to fly. It came down hard and heavy until it was time for the class to start, after which it stopped.

When it was time to go home, the roads were still bare and dry on the Laramie end, but they were closed. No traffic allowed through. I-80 was also closed. Highway 487 was closed as well. All roads into Medicine Bow were locked down.

We hoped they would open. They did not. It got late, and I got hungry again, so we had a late dinner, then went to find a hotel. Rates in the Laramie area have recently almost doubled. So an $80 room was pretty awful. I didn’t mind the walls that were patched and repainted. I didn’t mind the obviously worn bedframes. I did mind the mattress that had seen better years, and I minded the partially functional heater that kept us in a state of not-quite-sleep through a very long night. I woke at about 6:00 in the morning, unable to bear the discomfort in my legs anymore, and with a nasty headache creeping in around my eyes – doubtless from sleeping without my CPAP mask. I got online, and checked the roads, just before my laptop gave me a low battery warning. I had not thought to pack the adapter, we had only intended to use it a little.

Kevin awoke about 2 hours later. He figured we’d get on the road early. I had to inform him that the roads were still closed. We called the kids, called a friend to check on them – she said that the ‘Bow was a white-out. It was still sunny and fine in Laramie, though bitter cold. We now faced not only the cost of the night out, but more meals, and the prospect of a day of lost work. With several contracts with urgent work to do, losing a day of work was NOT a good option.

We wandered to Staples to see if they had a power adapter that would work with my laptop. We struck out, but came up with Plan 2 – if absolutely necessary, we’d buy another cheap laptop to get by with until we could get back home. Not our favorite plan. We went up to Wal-Mart to see what they had. Nothing, and the laptop options were more expensive than Staples, so we headed back there. Staples advised us to try Radio Shack. We did.

Two helpful guys at the Laramie Radio Shack went to work on trying to find adapters that worked with our laptops. They opened three different ones to find an adapter that worked with my laptop, and searched to get the correct polarity setting. Then they did the same for Kevin’s. It took them about half an hour to come up wtih a solution for both of us. They also checked the roads for us again – still closed.

We headed up to the college, where I have internet access (as an adjunct instructor). We’ll have to camp out in the lobby there, until the roads open, or we are forced to go get another hotel room – hopefully one more comfortable than the last one. We are checking the roads every half hour or so.

Here is the point… I did not think when we left that we’d end up trapped here for so long. We’ve felt that our business was mobile, but I’ve realized that unless I have a spare power adapter that I can keep in my laptop case, I always run the risk of being caught without if I forget it. A laptop is only as good as the power source.

I’ll be tucking a brush and toothbrush into my case also. This is a situation I do not want to find myself in again, totally unprepared.

It does beg the question, how much is prepared enough? I don’t have the answer to that, but I’m realizing that as our business grows, and more people depend on us, that we have to be able to work from wherever we are, under virtually any circumstances. Less than that puts us in a bind if an emergency happens.

A snowstorm is really only one hazard.

Learning to Delegate

I’m good at giving orders. I can organize, order, and instruct quite well. As long as the person I’m giving orders to once had their diaper changed by me…

It has been interesting learning to do that with business (give the orders, not change the diapers). Because it isn’t just the ability to give orders, I also have to correct people when they get it wrong, and instruct them in how to get it right. I also have to “compartmentalize” the work that needs to be done – that is, break off logical sections to delegate.

I actually think that it is the last part that has been the hardest. Partly because of my perceptions of other people, and partly because you really have to think about which tasks can be handed off to someone else without creating more work in the process. And because with Kevin, at least, he has been learning. So I have to keep readjusting the categorizations of tasks that I can hand him. Business is not the same two days in a row!

Lately, we have taken on some subcontractors – an SEO assistant, a design assistant, a template coder, and most recently a writing assistant. It was difficult to even determine at first which specialties I needed, and which ones COULD be outsourced in an efficient manner. It almost happens in “oh duh” moments. In the middle of wondering how I’ll fit something in, or how I’ll approach it, I suddenly realize that someone else could do it. Or I realize that a set of tasks that I previously did not have much of, I now have enough of to outsource. Last week I realized that someone whom I had hired for one purpose could actually do another job as well – what a great thing it was to hand that off and have it come back done exactly to my expectations.

I have to keep reassessing my own position. I’ve moved from being responsible for doing everything, to just being responsible for everything. There is a difference. I sort of like a lot of it – I mean, I can send specs to someone, and have the results appear 24 hours or so later, and I can just take that and use it. The invoice gets sent to Kevin (in his role as office manager), and everything is done without the least fuss from me. I don’t have to figure out the books anymore, I don’t have to sit there with a brain freeze when I hit a mind block in the design process, and I don’t have to sort through CSS trying to find the one contrary bit that is making the whole thing go wacky. But I can do some of the really fun stuff that I’m not ready to let go yet, like the header that I got to hand paint using the Wacom. Gotta love that!

Our business is evolving. Thankfully, so am I. I just hope that my rate of learning keeps up with the growth rate of the business!

Seeking Refuge in Company Policy

We used to be pretty flexible about how we did business. Then somebody messed with us. We instituted a retainer. Our clients pretty much understand that they are a person who can run away, but we are a company with a reputation on the line. Traditionally, the benefit of the doubt has always been with the company, so this policy was a good one, and normal for our industry.

We began using a contract fairly early. We refined the contract bit by bit into something that was fairly simplified, but still contained enough legal language to be enforceable. It covers copyrights, delivery of the service, and intellectual property rights. Essential stuff. The language about what we deliver is simplified so that it is as untechnical as possible. But it still has to include technical terms, or it isn’t enforceable.

Many of our clients are confused by it – they call me and say, “What does this mean?” I explain, and I tell them why it is there, and how it protects them, and if there are any risks in it for them. Those who can afford to have their legal counsel take a look. We’ve used it with government entities, non-profits, and small corporations, and a host of tiny companies. No one has complained about the actual terms. They feel they are fair.

Our policies and standards have developed over time, through experience and need. We’ve been careful to make sure that they protect our customers as much as they protect us, often more.

I had a complaint about our contract, and our retainer policy recently. The business owner complained about the contract having legal language! Then they complained about the retainer – even though this same business owner charges a retainer for their own services, of three times as much as we were asking.

Now sometimes, I’ll make an exception. Once in a while, when I know someone, I’ll do work that they pay me for later. On occasion I’ll work without a contract for small bits of work, but never for a website (ok, once, on a bartered one!). And these people do not EXPECT me to make exceptions. They appreciate the contract, and they expect to have to abide by industry norms. Retainers are the norm.

I’ve learned that those who DO expect me to make exceptions, or who try to batter me down, are assuming I am deciding these things on a whim. They do not understand that companies operate by rules because those rules facilitate smooth business. When you move from sole proprietor to corporation, you have to start formulating sustainable policy. And then you, yourself, have to stick to it. To treat someone like they should set aside their policy is to belittle them and their professionalism.

Our company policy is what it is for good reason. I cannot make an exception without good reason. I am rather thankful that I have intelligent policy to fall back on. It helps me not have to wonder so much whether I SHOULD make an exception. When I don’t feel comfortable extending that, I have it to fall back on. “I’m sorry. This is our company policy, and I am not able to make an exception.”

I think there are some people whom I should choose not to do business with. And at times, company policy has helped determine who that is. I think it is a good thing.

Web Differences We Don’t Notice

There is a difference between doing business offline, and doing business online. And it takes some time to learn what some of the subtle differences are. One of the biggest is, that you are presenting blindfolded, to a mute audience.

Good tracking, and good analysis can only partially make up for the fact that you cannot see how your customer reacts, nor can you hear what they are thinking. You can only measure that they stayed, bought, or left.

When you meet a potential client, and tell them what you do, they give you feedback – their expression, their questions, or their disinterest. You can adjust, and make up for a bad first impression, and they may change their mind and listen. You can clarify a confusing point, and move on to build a relationship with them.

In a store situation, if a customer has questions, you can answer them. They can pick up an item, handle it, and see the size for themselves. If they want something that you HAVE, but which is still boxed up in the back room, you can run get it and present it then and there.

With used items, they can examine it for themselves, judge the degree of wear, look for identifying marks that would tell them whether it is of extraordinary value or not.

Online, all of those things change.

  • If your explanations are confusing, most people WON’T ask. They leave. You don’t know why.
  • If your descriptions are ambiguous, people usually won’t ask for more detail – they’ll go to a store that has it already.
  • If your photos are unclear, they won’t be able to see for themselves.
  • Since they cannot handle something to examine it up close, they’ll rely on good descriptions and photos of used items. Otherwise, they’ll be afraid to buy.
  • Even if you post a message that you may have other items, most people won’t inquire. If you do not post a notice, they won’t ask at all.

Most of the time, there is no second chance. You don’t get the same cues and ability to adjust that you get in real life. You get one chance, the first time, and if you muff it, they leave. Some of the rules to compensate are:

  1. Get to the point. Make your meaning clear using common keywords, but also using keywords that someone might use who is not familiar with your industry terms.
  2. Organize things logically, so they can find it easily. Use web standards for locations, page names, and site structures.
  3. Put contact info right out front. Make it easy for them to ask questions or contact you. This is even more important for service businesses that do not use a shopping cart.
  4. Make descriptions clear, complete, and detailed. More information is better in this instance. Of course, since some people will be put off by huge descriptions, it is wise to have a short description which is linked to a more detailed description.
  5. Provide clear photos. If an item is used and has damage, photograph the damage. They are relying on you to be their eyes and hands – so be meticulous.
  6. Never exaggerate the value of something. Be 100% accurate in how you describe things. Otherwise you’ll appear dishonest. Offline, it is common to exaggerate, because the customer can feel it and judge for themselves. Online, the marketplace rules change, and they have to trust you to do that for them, so accuracy is very important.
  7. Anticipate common questions, fears, or concerns, and address them up front. Provide an FAQ, an informational area, or details to answer those questions ahead of time.
  8. If you have additional stock, either get it up fast, or post a notice on every page that additional items may be available.
  9. Think about it from the customer’s standpoint. What do they want? Is it easy for them to find it? Can they know for certain that you have it?
  10. Present for the lowest common denominator. Your information needs to be for the least familiar of customers. If you provide information for more informed customers, then it needs to be in a “more details” type presentation – simplified here, more details here, in a way that is easy for the more informed customers to find.

While new and more interactive options are available all the time, for the most part, web marketing is still passive marketing. You present, they do with it what they choose. Your success depends entirely upon what you present, and how.

Make it easy for them to buy from you. That doesn’t mean manipulation, it means anticipating their needs, and meeting them in an efficient way. And THAT is the mark of good customer service, and consideration.

Employee, or Entrepreneur?

It is becoming increasingly clear to me that the qualities of an employee, and the qualities of an entrepreneur, are radically different. Being the boss, the developer, the navigator, the leader and the executor of a business plan is a set of jobs that the average employee has difficulty grasping.

I’ve watched my husband make the transition from “company man” to a business owner. It has been very difficult for him. It is only as I watched him that I began to understand why I’ve watched so many friends and family members fail at business ownership.

As a mom of many children, I had to lead. I had to determine what was best, then see to it that it got done in an efficient manner. I had to teach my children how to do the things that I needed them to do. This was excellent preparation for business ownership. Even so, I struggle with many growth and delegation issues.

We were called by a prospect recently, who had big plans. He called regularly for many days, discussing the plans. After talking to him just once, I felt he would not carry out the plans. He had many ideas, but no real direction, and no ability to commit to a course of action, and carry it out. When it came time to “cross the Rubicon”, he could not pick a ford – he kept looking for a shallower spot, so he never crossed.

I mentioned it to my son – and said that the man was ex-military, so he did not know how to be the real leader. My son protested that if the man were in the military, he would learn to lead. I agreed that he would learn to follow orders, and ensure that the personnel under him followed orders, but reasserted that it does not teach someone how to be THE leader. All decisions at the top are made by committee, and no one has full authority to develop a plan independently and carry it out themselves. It is quite unlike the leadership required to run one’s own business.

The same is true of major corporations. The cogs in the wheel are unprepared to BECOME the wheel. Again, no single person is responsible for the direction, execution, and performance of the entire plan. It is all done by groups.

When you begin a business as a sole proprietor, it is all you. You must learn to juggle, prioritize, and act with dispatch. To plan well, and then to commit to a course, and go boldly forward. If assessment is needed, you must do it. You must learn to examine yourself for shortcomings, then devise solutions to compensate. Failure to do all that results in failure of the business.

Not everyone has the ability to be a successful business owner. But then, not every one NEEDS to. If you do need to though, it is wise to realize that new skills are needed, and that you cannot be an employee in your own business. If you are waiting for someone else to tell you what to do, your business will never get off the ground.

Grow a Garden!

Gardening doesn't have to be that hard! No matter where you live, no matter how difficult your circumstances, you CAN grow a successful garden.

Life from the Garden: Grow Your Own Food Anywhere Practical and low cost options for container gardening, sprouting, small yards, edible landscaping, winter gardening, shady yards, and help for people who are getting started too late. Plenty of tips to simplify, save on work and expense.