Monthly Archives: September 2008

It’s Time to Leave the Harbor

A ship in the harbor is safe. Most of the time. During a storm though, the ship is safer at sea. In the harbor, the confines that make it safe at other times, becomes a trap, and the ship is in greater danger. Out at sea, navigation away from the worst of the storm is still possible, and fewer obstacles are present to dash the ship to pieces.

Our economy is heading into a storm. It is likely to be a bad one. How can you get your business out of the trap of a harbor, and out to sea away from the fury of the storm? How can you find calm seas, or at least, less turbulent waves and winds?

In a volatile economy, sitting where you are, hoping that things won’t change, may kill your business. Smart sailors watch the weather signs, listen to the reports, and steer clear of the troubled seas. If they cannot avoid them, they batten down the hatches and try to ride it out. But they try to avoid it first, and only settle to ride it out if there is no other option. And even then, their choice is backed up by changes in their actions, to give their choice the best possible chance of a favorable outcome.

It isn’t time to pull back into the false security of a harbor. It is time to move out, and take smart actions to preserve your business. To adjust for the winds and waves so they don’t swamp you.

  • Assess your current business health, and make smart corrections for current problems or deficiencies.
  • Develop a contingency plan, based on what your customers are most likely to do as things get hard.
  • Watch your stats, and be ready to act if you see declines of more than 1-2 months.
  • Implement your contingency plan, and be ready to move into different ways of doing business if necessary.

We’ve seen a lot of businesses go under recently. Big ones. It didn’t happen suddenly. The signs of an impending storm were there for a long time before the company declared bankruptcy, or sold out, or laid off workers. They either failed to adjust out of ignorance, or decided that they’d try to ride it out in the hopes that it would not get too bad (in spite of clear signs to the contrary), or in hopes that something would rescue them if they just waited. Don’t wait when you should be taking actions to adjust your business! Failure never happens suddenly, it always happens slowly, and there is plenty of time to react if you just do it in a timely manner.

Smart sailors know when to act. And they know to watch the signs. Don’t let the rut of familiarity trap you when wise action can keep your business going strong in spite of what happens around you.

Stages of Growth

A business has stages of growth, where you have to adjust to a new level. Each time it takes a revision of priorities, new ways to be more efficient, and thinking outside the box to become more than just another business like all the rest. How we grow doesn’t only separate the good business operators from the wannabes, it also helps to define what our business becomes that really defines it as unique.

When you struggle to handle growth, and look at systemizing parts of your business, you can either keep the defining things that comprise your unique selling proposition, or you can lose it as you adopt the same methods of coping that every other business devises. Are you really different? Are you going to STAY different as the company grows to become larger and harder to manage?

I know business people who have said, “This far, and no further”, for just that reason. They felt if they grew more, their business would completely depersonalize in a sea of systemization, adopted to cope with larger and larger volume.

  • As your business grows, what are the critical elements of personal touches that you MUST retain if you want to keep your business identity?
  • How can you hire people to give the same kind of service that you do?
  • What are the routine things that can be systemized, and made more predictable, and more beneficial for the client or customer by systemization?
  • Are there existing solutions available to help you grow and still keep your identity, or will you have to create your own?

These are questions you should be asking if you want to grow. And the answers will largely determine WHAT your business grows into.

Think about it through each phase of increased business. What should be systemized now? How do we learn to do things in a way that gets more done, but preserves the unique aspects of our business?

Thinking about it as you go along keeps you from losing the essence of your business in unexpected affects of rapid growth.

Paradigm Shift

Sometimes in business, we reach a point of decision which, if we choose one path over another, will make a fundamental change in how our business operates, and where it takes us. Sometimes when those shifts occur, we hardly recognize them except in retrospect. I’ve learned to see them better on the choice side lately though.

One occurred today, for me, and for one of my associates. This lady is a VA. At one time, we entered into a collaborative agreement where I built a website and maintained it, and she did the grunt work to build the content and promote it. It was a good collaboration for both, and should grow to be something that benefits us both.

Today, she told me she was asked to do a website, and that at first she thought she’d just pass the work on to me, except for the content additions, which she could do. She did not consider that she could actually build the website. She asked me for advice on options for building it, just in case she could. I suggested that perhaps website developer training was what she really needed.

Two shifts occurred in that conversation:

  1. She made the shift from “I don’t do web design because I am not qualified.” to “I can do anything with web design if I have the right person backing me to train me as I go.” From this point on, website issues won’t be a ceiling for her, the possibilities for her are wide open.
  2. I made a shift from feeling that I did not want to train people who are close to me to be my competition, to being willing to teach ALL that I know, with no reservations.

Both of us crossed a line, and neither of us will ever be the same because of it. We have entered a larger world, and our lives will change from this day forth. There is no going back to fearing the unknown for either of us.

We don’t fully see now how it will change our lives. But this is one time when I’ve recognized when it happened that it was a significant thing. Something big, that I won’t fully understand for years. I know the bigness of it, though I don’t completely see the effects in their detail. I only know that in some way, I’ve just untethered myself from a set of limiting ideas, and have given myself permission to soar beyond what I could allow just this morning.

There have been many of those lately. Simultaneous with explosive growth in our company. I don’t think one came from the other, there has not been time. I just think that a business and an owner have to age in to some things, and the growth of the business and my thought concepts occurred around the same time because we just had to mature to that point together.

I know that my associate’s business will take on a life of its own and become something other than what it is now. I know that ours will also. Because both of us had the courage to step beyond boundaries we had this morning, and enter a larger world.

Business and Friendship

A friend and client was talking to me on the phone today. She said, “All of my business seems to be coming from friends. That isn’t how I wanted it. It seems so much more difficult!” She said that it was harder to bill them, and to keep the business side of things businesslike, because her desire to give to her friends was interfering.

When you have a business, and choose to grow that business through networking, virtually every client will be a friend. They do business with you BECAUSE you are a friend. I don’t mean your existing friends or family will come to you for business, they rarely do. But people who have known you always as a business person, will come to trust you because of friendship, and wish to do business with you.

It is OK to charge your friends for work! They come to you usually expecting to pay. If you hum and haw around, you just keep things uncomfortable for them. You can say outright, to friends, or even family, “I can do this much free. After that, the cost to you will be this.”

That is a good thing for both of you. Most of them want to know! If it is something you cannot give, you MUST say so. If it is something you WANT to give, say that too. “I’d be happy to do that for you without charge, because you are a friend, and I can afford to do that this time.”

They didn’t come to you because they wanted a freebie – well once in a while, but usually they needed to do business with someone, they expected to pay, and they chose YOU. They want to pay a fair price. They trust you to give them that. Do so, and you have given them something they were having a hard time finding elsewhere.

Give them the same consideration that you’d give any client – use a contract, spell out the terms, be firm and detailed about costs and limitations. Never think that since it is a friend that you don’t need a contract, or that you can do business more casually. That isn’t why they came to you! And leaving out the details will cause a breach that a good contract won’t risk.

The desire to give is great. In business, we choose when we can afford to, and when we cannot. When we can’t we say so, and confine the giving to giving great service and value for what we charge for. That’s how you grow a business with the best of everything.

It is only when we DON’T say, and when we DON’T put things in writing, or observe professionalism with friends, that we get into trouble.

Friendship and business can co-exist very well together!

It Wasn’t Just a Haircut

I intended to have a hairdresser friend help me cut my hair. I intended to have her help me to create a little more stylish look. I mean, I know my usual cut looks good and flatters me, but it isn’t really a STYLE, it is more just THERE.

I have a photo session coming up for business photos. I wanted to look good. I played around with my hair, looked at samples of hairstyles, and finally settled on a possibility.

Then the email came…

Could I come in on Monday for filming a short interview for a promo film for one of the statewide Women’s Business organizations? My hair was getting bushy, I’d not want to have it permanently recorded that way! I’d have to fit in a haircut on Saturday. No choice if I wanted to not be itchy on Monday.

I decided to see if I could get the look I wanted by cutting the front myself. It was partially successful, but still needed some trimming where I could not reach. Time was tight on Saturday. So I decided to have my daughter help me, after I cut all of it that I could reach.  She had been learning to cut hair, and practicing on her sister’s bangs. It was time she learned to do layered anyway.

I cut around except the center of the back. She watched, as I explained how to use the parts already cut to measure where to cut the other parts, how to hold the hair, etc. I handed her the scissors, and she went to it.

It isn’t bad. It is ok. But it is much shorter than I wanted. It looks good, but it isn’t the look I wanted. I’m not at all upset about it, after all, too short never bothers me, because hair grows. Mine grows fast, and I dislike getting haircuts, so I like it a bit too short to begin with anyway – two weeks later it will be perfect even if it is too short when it is cut. I’ll look professional and good for the filming on Monday, and for the photos in two weeks, so I can live with the results and like it.

I let her try because it isn’t just a haircut. It is training, and capability for her. It is trust, and it is a lesson in learning. Even when you don’t do it perfectly on the first try, that is ok. Better that you tried, and learned, so that you CAN achieve perfection some day.

Hair that is too short for two weeks is a small price to pay for that, even when it is an important haircut.

Optimism, Pessimism, and Realism in Economic Change

Hints of change bring them all out. First the pessimists who want to see it as all bad. Then the optimists who want to ignore all negativity. And last, the realists who balance the facts and determine what is best to do no matter what.

Pessimists come in two types:

  • Those who delight in the bad. They rub their hands in glee, exaggerate the negative, and find delight in the misery and hardship of others. These are the ambulance chasers, and the gossips.
  • Those who want to wallow in despair. They believe themselves incapable of happiness, and each negative thing around them serves to increase their conviction that life sucks. Good things are ignored, or not even recognized. Every hope is an illusion, every light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train, and if events prove otherwise, they are certain there is some trick to it, or that it will not last.

Either type of pessimist poisons the world around them, drip by drip of acid from their negativity.

Optimists also come in two types:

  • The unrealistic people who state over and over that if you just believe that nothing bad will happen, then nothing bad will happen. Problem is, bad things DO happen whether you think they will or not.
  • Those who tell themselves over and over that nothing bad is going to happen, because deep down inside, they fear that if it did, they could not handle it. Blocking out potential negatives is the only way they can cope, because they do not have the self confidence to believe they can succeed in spite of challenge.

Optimism can be just another form of pessimism. It just wears a different mask, but it is really just hiding the same face of low self confidence.

Realism is the balance between the extremes. Yet realists are accused of pessimism by those who call themselves optimists. Rather silly, because realists are, at heart, optimists – the difference is, they DO have the self esteem to believe that they can succeed in spite of opposition. If the worst happens, they know they can handle it.

The realist looks at the facts. They consider whether there is validity in all the circumstances. When faced with potential challenges, they do not stand around wringing their hands about it, and they do not gossip and blow things up to be worse than they are. Nor do they minimize or dismiss legitimate concerns.

Rather, they weigh the evidence, and act accordingly. If it is likely that challenges are coming, they develop a plan of what they will do if it happens. They don’t lose a lot of sleep over it, and they are not scared of negative things, because they have considered the potentials and they have prepared.

Realists are willing to face potential negative situations, because they know they are capable of surviving, and thriving, no matter what. They see both the good and the bad. The good is acknowledged with gratitude, the bad is faced and dealt with heat on.

Change IS happening. Much of it is not good. It is not likely to get better any time soon. But that is ok, because I am prepared, and I am confident that I can succeed even in the face of economic hardship. I have a plan for my business that will allow it to go forward regardless. I have a plan for my life that will make me better situated to cope with it. I am not afraid to face challenge head on, because I know I can cope, even if bad things do happen.

I can be happy even if I don’t get what I want.

Go Ahead… Fly the Plane… It’s EASY!

Imagine…

They lead you to a nice slick little Lear Jet, put you behind the cockpit, and say, “Go ahead. It’s easy. It will practically fly itself. Anyone can do it, even if they don’t know how!”

Would you do it?

Or would you say, “You first!”

Well, building a successful website is on the same level of complexity as flying a plane. Sure, there are easier planes, and harder planes, just as there are easier website types and harder ones. But the level of complexity is just the same.

If you want your website to fly straight and land safely, you are going to have to learn some things. Lessons help. Good instructions are priceless. If you don’t have the time, or can’t learn it, hire a pilot.

I’m not saying don’t build your own website. I’m saying be prepared to learn a LOT if you do, and to feel a lot of confusion, discouragement, and expect the pros to beat you up if you ask for opinions on the job you did (they can’t help it, they are naturally insecure and feel threatened by do it yourselfers).

I’m also saying that if you DID build your own website, even if it wasn’t perfect, give yourself a pat on the back! If you got up in a plane with nothing more than a few rudimentary instructions, and managed to get it off the ground, and then safely back down, you’d be cheering with delight, even if you wobbled a lot and bounced on the landing. Give yourself the same kind of credit for your site!

Yeah… it really is that complicated! The only difference is if you crash, you don’t kill yourself!

More About CRELoaded

I don’t like the direction that many things are going with CRE. It is more than going to a subscription model, it is a dramatic shift into something less… in many ways.

They state that they’ll be doing more for support. But they’ve banned some of their most active members from their forums, stating that they did so due to rude and disruptive statements by those members. Yet that was not the case in at least one instance. Those active members have been, over the years, the REAL support and function behind CRE. Without them, no one would be able to use the software.

It is the opinion of many that the members were banned due to disagreement. That they disagreed with the developers. Posts that disagree are promptly removed.

This is no longer about community. It is about dictatorship. Understand that Open Source REQUIRES a community to succeed. CRE succeeded because members contributed. Now they have no reason to do so. Why should they for the profit of someone else? And especially when that someone else is no longer listening to the community.

It is disheartening. There are those who still want to contribute – myself included. But we will be very reluctant to do so if the project moves more in the direction that it is going now.

It is no longer about one thing. It isn’t about whether it is a paid or free model. It is about community. And it seems that the developers no longer appreciate their users. They SAY they do. But their actions are indicating a profound disrespect for them.

Note: The opinions expressed in this post are the perceptions of the writer, and should not be interpreted or quoted as fact without corroborrating evidence.

I’m a Woman… I Changed My Mind!

I was going to do another top ten list. It was logical, it made sense. Until I started to do it!

Truth is, I don’t use very many online services. If I can do it with a self-hosted program on my server, or a program on my desktop, I’ll own my own functionality, thank you! I haven’t run across a free service that impressed the socks off of me in many moons.

I was hard pressed to come up with THREE extraordinary servcies that I use regularly, let alone those that were any kind of news. The one that came to mind is kind of a trade secret – one of those that is a real find, not highly popular, and something we use in our business to both help our clients, and to sound impressive when we need an answer that nobody else has.

Besides, compiling those list when you DO know what to list is more time consuming than the average post because you have to make sure all your links are valid. So I opted to babble instead.

Business has picked up for us, and we have reached the “sustainability point”. This is the point where we have the number of contracts coming in per week that we set our goals for a year ago, where we knew we’d be to the point where we could make the money necessary to sustain the business and to get Kevin and I onto regular salaries that were liveable – not grandly, mind you, but enough for us to get ahead bit by bit if we are wise.

So we are now strategizing to maintain this level of workload without outsourcing any more than we are now, and planning for outsourcing more once we exceed this level. If business continues as-is, we’ll have a slump again in the winter and spring, then exceed this level this time next year by a significant amount (our business is more than double now what it was this time last year). We’re not out of the woods, but we are galloping toward reaching our goals. That is good.

What is getting us here?

1. Building relationships first. That is the beginning and end of our marketing. The value of those relationships has given us benefits that are incredible. We’ve come to know many wonderful people who have chosen to help us along the way. Their value and friendship is beyond price.

2. Helping before asking, Giving before soliciting. We try to help wherever we can without giving away our services wholesale.

3. Doing our best to serve our clients. We like our clients, and if they like us, it is because we try our best to give them more than they pay for.

4. A truly different set of services. They may look the same on the surface, but once we get into it with the client, the difference is obvious.

5. Determination to do whatever is necessary and honorable to grow our business. We don’t give up. We stick to integrity.

6. Prayer and blessings. We pay a tithe on our earnings, and we consult the Lord in what we do. This should perhaps be first, because if there is wisdom in what we do, it comes from the Lord, and if there is anything wondrous in our growth, it is a result of trying to give back to the Lord as we have things given to us. We surely need to do more in that – but I must acknowledge the hand of God in our growth, and I must acknowledge that when we give to the Lord, He returns it ten-fold again.

So it is fall again, and I am still harried and too busy to possibly do it all, but I’m also working smarter, more focused, and seeing great things come together.

Top Ten Self Hosted Web Applications for Small Business

Oh yes… and they have to be free to make this list…

We use a lot of self-hosted applications. That is, software that we install into our hosting space and run over the web. The ones listed here are ones we’ve used, and found to be of value.

1. Joomla. Hands down the most functional and extensible CMS out there in the Open Source world. Drupal enthusiasts might disagree, but we cannot find nearly the number of extensions for Drupal that are available for Joomla, and the learning curve for Drupal is significantly higher. So Joomla is our number one pick. http://www.joomla.org

2. CMSMadeSimple. For lightweight website needs, this system is simple to use, simple to build a site in, and simple to sustain. An all around winner for someone who does not need the power or extensibility of Joomla, who just needs a basic website that they can easily make changes to. http://www.cmsmadesimple.org

3. WordPress. Ok, that’s a no-brainer. We don’t recommend WordPress for anything more than a blog – it tends to get clunky and unsustainable if you try to expand it too far – but it is tops for blogging. http://www.wordpress.org

4. Magento. A rapidly developing cart that handles pages and products. Worth keeping your eye on, and very functional as-is. http://www.magentocommerce.com

5. PrestaShop. Another rapidly developing cart. Not quite as versatile as Magento, but a great option for simpler online shops. http://www.prestashop.com

6. WebCollab. A real gem. A simple but functional project manager that is just perfect for companies that need a fast solution for tracking multiple projects. The only one we’ve seen where it was designed for one manager to handle multiple projects and get an overview of them all at once. Easy to use. http://webcollab.sourceforge.net

7. PHPTimeClock. A terrific little location independent timeclock. http://timeclock.sourceforge.net

8. WordPressMU. Yeah, it gets a separate listing from WordPress. This is the multi-blog version. We tried several other options for this, but WPMU is just the best solution out there! http://mu.wordpress.org

9. Bad Behavior. It is only a plugin for WordPress… Theoretically. But it is so good it has been adatpted to many other online systems. It slows down spammers and does a good job of that, but also reduces the threat of other malicious bots that attack websites. So good that we’re working on a standalone version that can protect any website. http://bad-behavior.ioerror.us

10. PHPAdsNew. Ok, I’m not terribly enthusiastic about this one, but if you need an ad manager that will work with multiple sites, this one can do it. It has some limits, but is pretty functional. http://sourceforge.net/projects/phpadsnew

Now, we could have added SugarCRM, a host of Joomla extensions, and several other apps, but these are the ones we use on a regular basis, that provide us with truly useful function, and which have been instrumental in building our business.

We’ll have hosted goodies next.

Top Ten Free Small Business Desktop Software Programs

Ok, it’s been done before. But it hasn’t been done by me. Over time, I’ve found some goodies that have helped me work smarter and more efficiently, on a shoestring budget. The following apps help you get your foot in the door when you are trying to build a business on limited resources.

1. Open Office. This is number one on the list, because it is simply great software. It is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. The suite is a free alternative to MS Office, and has the ability to handle word processing, spreadsheets, databases, presentations, and drawing documents. Best of all, it reads and writes MS Office compatible files! http://www.openoffice.org

2. NotesBrowser. Some of you may be tired of me telling you about this little gem, but it rates as number two for its long term value. You never outgrow it! You’ll probably have to download this and play with it to really grasp the power, but it is an information organizer. It categorizes and subcategorizes info, and is a great  place to store info that you have to access over and over. http://www.notesbrowser.com

3. Mozilla FireFox. No big news here! It’s just a browser, right? Actually, it is a powerful tool, which you can extend with plugins. I like it because as a web developer, there are plugins I can add to it that help me keep my tasks central to a single program, and which help make development of websites faster and easier. There are plugins that can help people in other industries as well. http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox/

4. Thunderbird Mail. While we are on the subject of Mozilla, it is worth mentioning this program. I like it better than Outlook, it filters mail more simply. Besides, I never liked MS owning more of my computer than necessary. Thunderbird is mail only, but you can add plugins to it also, to extend the function. http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/thunderbird/

5. Right after Thunderbird, comes Lightning. Actually, this calendar program comes in two versions – SunBird, which is a stand alone calendar, and Lightning, which is the SunBird calendar adapted as a plugin for ThunderBird. So if you want email and calendaring in the same application, just add Lightning to Thunderbird, and off you go! http://www.mozilla.org/projects/calendar/lightning/

6. Serif PagePlus SE. This little desktop publishing program is amazingly functional, and terrific for someone who needs to make business cards and brochures but who cannot afford software to do it. It is also great for graphic designers who want to make downloads of editable templates available on their website, because you can do them in this program, and anybody can download the program and edit them. http://www.freeserifsoftware.com/software/PagePlus/

7. AlZip. A nice little Zip utility that can pack or unpack just about anything, and which leaves cute little eggs all over your desktop. Seriously, this is a highly functional bit of software, and we install it on every computer we own, because it is so good. http://www.altools.net

8. The GIMP. Image and photo editing software. It has its limitations and annoyances, but if you need graphic editing capability that gives you the ability to produce professional quality images, it can get the job done. http://www.gimp.org

9. Audacity. Audio recording and editing. If you need to make a sound blurb, this program can help you do it.  http://audacity.sourceforge.net

10. Infinite Patience. After all that work, you’re entitled to some relaxation! Infinite Patience has a ton of different Solitaire games. For Mac, there’s the classic Solitaire Til Dawn, which Infinite Patience can’t quite measure up to.  www.spf-15.com/infpat.htm

I’d have loved to have added AVG Anti Virus, and TexGen (a terrific little texture generator), but they are not free for commercial use. Friends of mine recommend Inkscape and Scribus, also Open Source programs for graphics and publishing, but I have not used them, so I could not include them on the list. Other favorites that did not make the list (too specific in use, or just not quite as useful), were Max’s HTML Beauty, FreeMind (a mind mapping tool) and Gadwin PrintScreen – a terrific screenshot utility.

I’ll follow this up with some other great finds, for web software, and hosted software services.

Failing to Take Advantage

Periodically, he will call me and tell me he has purchased a domain, or a website. It is sort of an addiction, I think, this reckless spirit of gambling that possesses him and compels him to purchase without getting a professional opinion. Some of his purchases have been fairly pricy – but they sounded good at the time.

He then comes to me and asks me what it will take to make it into this, or that, and what a good deal he got. I tell him the price, and what it will take to actually turn what he bought into what he thought he was getting, and he wanders off disappointed, to look for the next illusive pot of gold.

He could ask, first. I’d tell him. He doesn’t. So his money is wasted on things that do not work, or for which he was unprepared, because he didn’t realize that he was not buying what he thought he was buying.

Many times, professionals will offer simple tips on getting the right start, and they’ll offer it at no charge. They know if they help you get started right, then there is a high chance you’ll come back to them for the next thing. But many people won’t take advantage of that.

With a website, if you intend to use a professional to help you, they should be involved from the time you purchase your domain name – sometimes even before. And you should NEVER purchase an existing website without a professional opinion, unless you have strong experience in assessing the value from a technical perspective. There are simply too many potential risks involved – things you’d never even consider that someone would do to you under the guise of selling you a website.

Domain names and websites are often not what they seem. Their value runs through many layers – the quality and length of the domain name, the age of the domain name or site, the coding of the site, the quality of the content on a site, prior promotion done for the site, etc. Many “bargain” websites were not built for the purpose of selling the site, they were built for the purpose of link propagation, and they may have hidden or subversive links buried in the code, leading to sites you’d rather not be promoting, and which can hurt your chances of ever making anything of it.

When you have a goal or dream, a professional can help you avoid serious errors, speed up the route to success, and help you get more value and profit from the things you do. That’s worth starting out right for.

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.