Monthly Archives: October 2008

Green Tomato Relish – Another Garden Metaphor

Yesterday, I enjoyed a nice chicken salad on crackers, made especially tasty by stirring in a healthy amount of green tomato relish. The day before, I savored nachos, topped with zingy green tomato salsa. Tonight, I’ll slice and fry the last green tomato to serve beside dinner.

Sometime about the end of August, our abundant tomato crop was hit with the first freeze. We weren’t sure then whether we’d get any mature tomatoes or not. In the best Frugal Yankee tradition, I began looking for recipes for green tomatoes.

Relish, Salsa, Fried Green Tomatoes, Pickles, Casseroles, etc. Who knew there were so many uses for unripe garden fruits?

Every single one required two things from me:

1. Additional ingredients. Sometimes they were things I did not have on hand – I had to get them specifically if I wanted to utillize the abundant crop of green tomatoes.

2. Effort and specific types of work. What I did with them made all the difference.

You can see where I’m going with this…

We didn’t plant the garden and say, “Oh! I hope we get a LOT of green tomatoes, I’m just so looking forward to having to make-do!” We had big dreams when we planted 40 tomato plants. We wanted sauced, diced, and ketchuped tomatoes!

That first freeze didn’t kill our hopes. In fact, after that first freeze, which only killed the tops of the tomatoes, we gathered a small amount of red tomatoes – enough to make a weeny batch of ketchup. A few more tomatoes ripened indoors after a hard killing frost in September.

But we had more greens than reds, and we had to do something with them. In order to use them, we had to add the right ingredients, and if we didn’t have them, we had to go buy them. One or two were things I’d not need for anything else – I had to get them specifically to make use of those green tomatoes. And I had to do the right things with them, to make them into something good, otherwise they’d just be yucky green tomatoes.

Life, family, and business all do that to us. We plan our plans, and start to carry them out, and along comes a disaster that blights our hopes and kills the plans. What do we do then?

Do we cry that we didn’t get our juicy red tomatoes? Do we look at the distruction of our plants and at all those sad green tomatoes and see nothing but disaster? Or do we go seek out recipes for green tomatoes, and then add the necessary additional elements to turn them into something unexpected, but every bit as tasty and useful as what we had originally planned?

Sure, I still wish I had been able to harvest a bounty of red, ripe tomatoes. But since life handed me green tomatoes, I’m just thankful that there was something good I could do with them to turn it into a blessing of a different kind.

Magento’s Turn

We researched a bunch more carts, and selected PrestaShop and Magento from the heap to learn to use. I’ve muddled my way through literally dozens of cart types and managed to make them work – some well, some not so well. Magento defeated me, and becomes yet another to be added to our “Never Again” list. Understand… I’m not stupid. I am pretty experienced now at templating, setup, and other common aspects of a range of dynamic software. I teach classes on this stuff, through a highly credible institution.

If you’ve wandered around in the cart world, Magento is getting rave reviews. At least, it sounds like it. But most people who choose not to use it just wander off, and never say a thing, because they somehow think maybe they were the cause, perhaps not smart enough.

It fails our tests on three critical points:

Design, Function, and Sustainability.

1. Templating is a nightmare. I kid you not. They not only scattered the template bits through about 200 files, they threw XML into the mix for no other reason than just because someone could, I guess. It feels very much like they happened to have someone who was all happy for XML, who just wanted something to do, so they let him work it into the templates. Unfortunately, for most designers learning how to template a cart, in a hurry, learning to apply yet another coding language, with proprietary usages, is not only inefficient, it vastly complicates things. Think I’m exaggerating? Look around. Algozone, Template Monster, and a number of other sites have Magento template areas with not ONE THING in them. All of the freely available templates for Magento are merely a variation on the default theme – many have just changed a graphic or two, no real significant changes are made. That says loudly that it is so difficult that even template gurus are avoiding it.

2. Bugs. Things just didn’t work. Simple things, like categories. And the fix for one was likely to cause something else to break. Some features didn’t quite work yet, because they are still on the drawing board. Some were supposed to work, and didn’t. Overall, it was surprisingly stable in some functions given the relatively young age, but it lacked stability in some rather basic areas.

3. Updates. Ok, so we NEED updates. And we expect them. In fact, one of the criteria for “good” Open Source software is that it have an active developer community. Magento feels a little more like being thrashed by Hammy. I downloaded and installed version 1.1.3, and tested it – the next morning there was a notice that 1.1.4 was available. I then downloaded and installed version 1.1.4 just a few days later. Within a week, there was a notice that version 1.1.5 was released, with a critical security update. Ok, I can see that. But then a week and a half later, version 1.1.6 was announced. Each update required a tedious install procedure (more tedious than the simple ones, but even simple ones would have been annoying every week!). Considering that each update had the risk and very real possibility of breaking something, it was simply too fatiguing to contemplate actually trying to manage a site in this for a client. How the heck could I afford to maintain it at my usual rates? And how in the world could the client afford to pay more just to keep up with an ill-planned update schedule? Many can barely afford even a small fee each month.

Given the complexity of templating, the lack of existing templates that would be easy to change, I’d have to charge considerably more to my clients for setting up the site. Given the bugs, they’d pay more, and get less than they expected. Given the update schedule, they’d be squeezed for even more to keep the thing running without unacceptable risk, and their site would be down once a week for updates and troubleshooting after doing the update.

I think that Magento has potential. But I think that it is immature, and that the templating is overly complicated without a benefit that even begins to justify the complexity. And the update schedule is simply insane.

This is one reason I have waffled back to the position of giving CRE one last chance. Because I keep getting told by other developers that there are plenty of other options. But there really aren’t. There are a LOT of potentials. Plenty of possibilities for tomorrow.

But today, we have only the choice between solutions such as PrestaShop (promising, functional, but lacking in at least one critical feature set), Magento (nuff said), Zen (clunky setup, awkward templating), CubeCart (I REFUSE to hand edit code just to get basic features, and then have to hand edit it again every time the cart needs a patch installed!), VirtueMart (functional, usable, but lacks key functions), Agora (PULLEEEZE… it has ONE shipping option… Anything else you have to custom code!), or any number of other almost but not quite usable cart systems out there that people use only because they don’t know that they shouldn’t have to spend all those extra hours setting up or maintaining a cart.

I’m not just complaining and trashing systems left and right. We are involved at a more practical level – reviewing and publishing reviews is necessary, I think. But actually working on the projects that can meet the need is also important. And we’ll keep doing that too. Sharing our knowledge of how to do things in CRE and Joomla, sharing our custom modifications for VirtueMart, making our auto-install systems available for others to use.

The need is there. And as long as our clients need it, we’ll fight to get it, and help create solutions.

There’s Always a Next Level

I’m not sure whether I find it exhilarating, or indescribably wearying. Sometimes a little of both, I guess. We are in the process of taking our business to “the next level”. I find that every time I do, there is another level waiting. I’m not even so sure it is like stairs or rungs of a ladder. Maybe more like a mountainside. Sometimes rocky outcroppings, sometimes smooth slopes, sometimes gravely slides, but always small pebbles, streams, hummocks and plants to navigate around and over.

I’m also constantly seeing differences between people who succeed in business, and those who don’t, and I think that the constant growth and change and upward climb is one of those things. Failure to grow when opportunity presents, and resistence to needed change stifles a business.

Growth isn’t something that just happens. Not sustainable growth, anyway. You can’t just get more customers and grow a business. Each time you get more customers, you have to adjust to the increased workload. If you don’t, you sink. So growth means planning, adjusting, and more work. It means changing the way you work long term. If you don’t, growth becomes an unpleasant experience.

Statistically, a significant number of businesses scale back after explosive growth, choosing to never grow that large again. They maintain a sort of equilibrium, by turning away business, or by neglecting to accommodate additional customers in a satisfactory manner – so they go elsewhere. They may choose to stop marketing, or decide that extra service is no longer possible. They reach “critical mass” and choose not to change how they do things to raise the limits so further growth is possible.

I think that there are two points that are missed by small business owners where growth is concerned:

1. Not understanding themselves well enough to know what it is they love about the business, and how to keep it in the business as growth occurs. Often, they think about what they want, but not what that actually means. Everyone wants to be famous, but do they want reporters waiting to ambush them when they leave their house? Everyone wants to be rich, but do they want to pay the taxes, make the choices, and deal with the responsibilities that come with it? Business is like that – rapid and large growth has two sides, and it is wise to understand what you really love about your business, so you can preserve it and minimize the negative impacts of growth. This should be considered early on. What is it that defines the business, and makes you love doing it? When growth occurs, those are the things to hang onto, and to develop new strategies to preserve.

2. Not being able to change in constructive ways. They tend to just get bogged down when growth happens, and they hate that, so they feel like growth isn’t what they wanted after all. Tied closely to the first point, the ability to actually initiate change in a business, in a way that keeps it fun, is one of the keys to growing beyond your current capacity. Sometimes it means systems for the routine or boring parts. Sometimes it means automation to streamline the processes so they are more efficient, and so you have more time for the fun parts. Sometimes it means outsourcing the parts you are not as good at, or dislike doing. Sometimes it means hiring someone and defining duties for them that take the less enjoyable tasks off your shoulders. But it always means lightening the load of the things that you do not enjoy as much, first, and never automating anything that is a critical element in defining your niche if it would lose quality to do so.

The onward and upward path is much smoother if we are thinking about where the time holes are in our business, and always thinking about how to make things operate more efficiently. Plug the holes, and life gets more fun, and less harried.

There is never a stage in business where efforts cannot be made to keep it enjoyable, and to keep it growing, if that is your goal. There’s always a change that can be made to make things better.

And Again with CRELoaded – B2B Released

Well, I’m not happy with the pricing on B2B. It is the subscription model revisited. Some very discouraging elements to the new pricing on it.

First, they raised the price – a LOT. I can guarantee they will lose business because of it. Many people who need it, and who would buy it if priced lower, won’t. It does include some tech support, but many of those who need to just get in the door with it don’t really care about that.

The entire package is now $595. An upgrade from 6.2 is $250. They are giving a short term concession to recent purchasers of 6.2, to reduce it to $200. If you just paid $350 for a piece of software, would you be happy about being stung for another $200 when you discover two weeks after you bought it, that an upgrade is impending? They are offering a free upgrade for people who bought it recently – but only to the people who KNEW 6.3 was coming. NOT to the people who didn’t know that – those who bought 6.2 B2B just a week or so before 6.3 standard was released. Those are the people who were caught totally off guard, and had no idea that it was coming.

The nasty part to it is that the price includes only three months worth of updates and patches. That includes bugfixes and security patches! They want another $195 for 12 months of the privilege of downloading fixes! This is not standard for the software industry. The standard is that patches and bug fixes are free, whereas there may be another charge for major feature update versions. This is just a variation on the subscription theme.

I think they should have kept the price lower. I will say this until I’m blue. $300 is one of those mental price breakpoints for many small businesses who need to get in the door with a wholesale-capable cart option. If they needed to cut something, they should logically cut support. Not everyone needs it, or wants it. And business-wise, that would actually increase their profits. Here is why:

If you offer software at a price of $300, with no support, the bulk of what you make is gravy. You maintain the website, the documentation, and the forums. All relatively low costs. Lowering the price increases sales on the items with the highest profit margin. Hmmm…. that’s a good thing!

If you bump the price to $600, you not only slashed your sales by MORE than 50%, you also MORE than doubled the amount of overhead if you justify that increase by bundling it with support. Personal support is expensive to provide. The profit margin on it is very low. You have to hire people to put in hours, to provide that support. You just slashed your sales, and you just slashed your profit margin, both at the same time!

On the other hand, if you charge SEPARATELY for the software, and the support, you come out ahead. At the lower price, sales go up on the things that have the lowest overhead and the highest profit margin. That’s smart! And there is no built in support cost for people who do not need it (many people are perfectly happy using the forums) – support becomes a separate thing which has to then be self-sustaining, as it should be. It becomes the LESSER part of the business, where software sales becomes the greater part. Again, as it should be.

Higher sales, higher profits, with each business owner paying only for what they really need. Everybody wins.

That said, it is also relevant to mention that I’ve been asked to review both the Pro package, and the B2B package. I’m currently selecting suitable projects to use them with, so that they will be truly tested under actual business need conditions. The reviews will happen in two stages – short term first impressions, and long term performance. I’ll be posting links to the reviews here when they are completed.

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.

Take Heart CRE Users… X-Cart is Infinitely Worse

Gosh, I feel like a snippy critic for this one. I’d worry about it except that everything I’m going to say is absolutely true, and something that people investigating cart options oughta know.

A client contacted me to do some work on X-Cart. She paid for the software – no Open Source freebies here. We had trouble accessing the support forums in the first place, due to ownership issues. Once we did, I have become increasingly frustrated with this cart. I’ll outline a few of the reasons why I hope to never have to work on it again – in fact, any other new clients who have it will be turned down flat.

1. Documentation is weak. For a paid cart, that isn’t acceptable. It covers only the most basic stuff, and does not outline many necessary bits of info.

2. You are required to put the version number in the signature line of your forum posts to get help. The version number is hard to find – their instructions do not pertain to new versions. Once you find it, you have to go back and edit your forum profile just to put that sig line in. I don’t like being hassled to get help.

3. You have to edit a LANGUAGE FILE just to change the home page contents! Please be shocked here! This is inconvenient, awkward, and completely unacceptable for cart functions within the last five years! There are hundreds of language files, and you can’t even find the right one without explicit instructions.

4. The template is a NIGHTMARE. In excess of 100 files each one containing one little bit of the page, one snippet of the boxes, etc. The only templating I’ve seen that is worse, is Magento. I don’t mind a header, footer, and main template file. But when every single cell is chopped up on the page, and when the contents of those cells are all in different files from the cell code, it becomes an impossible task to try to edit any part of the design without a reference guide to do it. This level of complexity is not only unnecessary, it is the equivalent of rubbing two sticks together to get light.

5. Nothing is simple or logical. It is all convoluted and cumbersome. Backend functions take more steps than necessary, and there are no intuitive tasks. Forget trying to learn this one without both reading the manual, and spending a lot of time on the forums looking up stuff that should be intuitive, but is not.

6. Updating is also inconvenient. This makes site sustainability more costly.

7. Support is paid only. That wouldn’t be a problem, except they have two classes of tickets – HotRush, and Normal. If you have a problem that is urgent, like your site being down, the only way you can get timely help is with a HotRush ticket. They cost twice as much! Currently their support turnaround time on normal tickets is TWO DAYS! This isn’t just unacceptable, it is grossly irresponsible.

8. It has no outstanding features, no advantage that would make any of this justifiable. It doesn’t do anything that other carts don’t do, it doesn’t have ONE THING that is more convenient to do, or more functional. It isn’t a matter of the disadvantages outweighing the advantages – there simply ARE no advantages that would make this cart even a consideration for anyone who needs a functional cart.

I’d expect better than this from Open Source. In a commercial product, it is completely ridiculous. I cannot for the life of me figure out why someone would PAY MONEY for lousy software accompanied by bad support. That is available free, anywhere. Good software with decent forum support is available all over the place.

This doesn’t just go onto my “I don’t like it” list, it goes onto my “Never again” list. Sad, because at one time they had some potential. They obviously have not kept up with the rest of the industry.

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.

Don’cha Wish I’d Shut Up About CRELoaded?

Some things have gone on behind the scenes. One small improvement has occurred, along with some other troubling things. We take heart from the improvement, worry at the indicators that things are still very much up in the air where the future of this much needed software is concerned.

Some shakeups in leadership. Unknown what the effects will be.

Some forum members reinstated. This is a good thing, and they’ve come back in and are posting without recriminations. A hearty cheer for greatpcs (Jason over at Hoosier Web Design), and discounttools (Jody – sorry don’t know your major business name). I’m sure some others I do not know well enough to know about.

So, it is with great trepidation that I release a report, of sorts, which is a listing of recommendations. I’m releasing this publicly for two reasons:

1. I don’t have the ear of anyone at CRE anymore. This is a way to put this out there so it can be received in whatever spirit they choose to receive it in, or they can reject it outright.

2. I think there are great lessons to be learned about the Open Source world, and about treating your customers well, developing a project, targeting a market, support and service, and cost containment. In presenting my conclusions about what should be done, publicly, I am not just complaining and listing problems. I am giving the other half of the lesson – not just what should NOT be done, but how it might be done better, to overcome both the long term problems of the company, and the newer ones precipitated by a misguided attempt to overcome the earlier ones!

I don’t know all the inside scoop at CRE. But I know what is happening on the outside, and what those things mean must be happening on the inside. All recommendations are based on the problems I see. I’d assume there are other problems under the surface which I cannot address.

You may download the CRELoaded Recommendations PDF HERE.

I don’t expect them to like it. I don’t expect everyone in the CRE user base to applaud what I have to say either. But experience tells me my recommendations are sound, sustainable, and completely achievable, and that implementing them will turn the project around in the way it needs to be in order to not just survive, but to thrive.

I hereby throw it to the wolves.

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

Recession Survival Tactics – Outsourcing

Part 6 of a 6 Part Series on Recession Survival

Outsourcing has a couple of applications within recession survival. It can help to manage growth more fluidly if you manage to continue to grow, or it can help you in downsizing if that is what you need to do.

Now, first, I have to make one thing clear. You hear all the time that it makes more sense to hire someone to do something if they can do it faster and more efficiently. The example is given that if you bill at $45 per hour, then you can save if you pay an outsourced subcontractor $25 per hour to do the job instead.

That ONLY works IF you have MORE profitable things to do in the same time! If you do not have enough work, outsourcing only saves money if it saves you from costly errors, or helps you make a leap forward in your business that you could not make without the service or which simply yield a higher result when done professionally (marketing, website services, printing services, etc). Otherwise, you really have no choice but to do it yourself, even if it does take you more time.

Outsourcing can help you find automation solutions (you can hire a professional to help you devise them, or to create or install them for you), it can help you create templates that you may not know how to create yourself, and it can help you handle work overflow (so you do not lose clients), without having to hire an employee.

If your business is scaling back, you can either offer a work at home option to your employee, and keep them on part time, or you can move to outsourcing to at least keep the services and preserve as much of the business as possible.

When you have a chance at something that you cannot otherwise handle yourself, or which you lack the expertise to do completely, you can find skilled subcontractors to help you with parts of the job.

If your services need to change in ways that offer different combinations of tasks than you previously offered, and you are not skilled in all of them, you can collaborate with other professionals to be able to offer something more. It is better to get $400 from a $500 contract than it is to not be able to GET the contract. In this way, outsourcing can help you be more flexible, to meet a wider variety of needs in changing circumstances.

Usually, outsourcing is built on a backbone of networking relationships. When you work with subcontractors, you develop a mutually beneficial business relationship. It often ends up being one where you refer other work to them, and they refer work back to you. It helps you build a network of people who know you, who know your work standards, and who are happy to refer others to you. Since they know you, they can speak with conviction when giving the referral, and that goes further than referrals from people who have not actually worked with you.

It won’t be a solution for everyone, but it can be a valuable tool in managing work loads, and in being able to supplement your skills with other specialized skills when needed.

Recession Survival Tactics – Automation and Systemization

Part 5 of a 6 Part Series on Recession Survival

One key to saving money, and giving your customers higher value in a recession, is to systemize and automate where possible.There is NO BUSINESS which cannot benefit at some point from systemization or automation.

It may be as simple as creating a routine to do repetitive tasks faster. It may involve creating a template to start with each time you write a contract or proposal, or for producing products, documents, or other items. If you do something once a week, or more, you can usually find a way to make it faster.

Automation is something that can be implemented in a website, or through online services, or through use of the right tools in the office. It is one of the keys to breaking through to new levels of profit and getting past some of your time barriers, but it can also be a key to retaining high value while containing costs for your customers or clients.

For small businesses though, it is important that you automate the right things, and in the right way. There are three basic keys to good automation:

1. It should save you more time than it costs you. Done at the wrong time (too soon), or with the wrong tools, you’ll spend more time setting up and maintaining the automation than you’ll save. So think about the long term tasks involved before you jump in, or you’ll just bury yourself.

2. It should NEVER negatively affect your unique selling proposition, and it should not harm your customer relations. Good automation preserves what is unique about your business. It allows you to automate the IMPERSONAL parts of the business, while retaining the essential elements of personal contact or custom service that may define your business. This is especially critical for small businesses, because this is often what allows you to compete with larger companies that are fully automated.

3. It should save you time, while simultaneously enhancing your ability to deliver consistent and high quality service or products to your customers. The point here is that it should make business better for THEM, too. Done right, it makes your business better, and is not something that lessens quality or availability.

Some of this can be done through a website, and often it can save you money over other options.
Some can be done with free software – either on your desktop, or installed into your hosting space.
Some can be done through purchase of hardware or equipment in your office.
Some can be done with templates or other tools that you make, which eliminate the repetitive steps in a process.

Time can be saved simply by devising routines, or systems, for getting tasks done, that shave off time. Not “automation” per-se, but more of an assembly line procedure where you work from templates, start with the same base each time, or work out the fastest way to do something, then do it that way every time. Often, this lays the groundwork for automation, because it helps us spot the repetitive tasks that CAN be automated without harming quality.

Automation and systemization are one of the things that help you achieve extraordinary results, either in growth, uniqueness in your business, or in offering higher value for less money. In a recession, all of these aspects can be part of defining the success potentials and making you an exception in the sea of losses.

Recession Survival Tactics – Economizing

Part 4 of a 6 Part Recession Survival Series

I live in a double wide mobile home. I do not plan to move any time soon. Why? Because in 9 months, it will be paid for. The house payment even now is low. The house meets our needs, houses our business, and does not interfere with our ability to succeed. Since our business is conducted on the phone, by email, or in person in other locations, it does not harm our business success. It allows us to reduce our operating expenses considerably.

When looking at where to economize, you want to make sure that the economies do not harm your ability to effectively conduct business. If we held appointments in our home, we’d have to have a better house. The point being, use what works for your business.

Here are some ideas, in no particular order:

1. Refill ink cartridges. This works great for color ink, for some printers. It does NOT work well for black ink, the refill ink tends to bleed and feather.
2. Buy in bulk where you can. Share purchases with another business owner if you need to.
3. Recycle shipping boxes and materials. Make it a badge of honor by creating a 3X4 label that says, “This box proudly recycled by (company name.”
4. Use flat rate long distance. Try Qwest for Small Business. Only use internet phone service if it is good quality with your connection.
5. Make sure your website is functioning in all the ways it can to save you money.
6. Review all of your utilities and see if there are ways to cut them. A little caulk or weatherstripping can save on energy bills.
7. Consolidate business travel. Keep trips to a minimum. Tell clients that you are combining appointments to conserve energy. They’ll get it.
8. Stock up on closeouts and sales of items you regularly need.
9. Look for alternatives for your most expensive supplies.
10. Buy more RAM for a slow computer, instead of getting a new computer. Get a pro to help you clean up the hard drive, trim down unneeded programs, or scan for malware.
11. Postpone haircuts for 1-2 weeks longer. Wear just a little less makeup. Use a dollop less shampoo. Wear pants an extra day before washing. All of these things reflect on business, even though they aren’t precisely business expenses, but they can often be nudged a bit without causing negative effects.
12. Go paperless as often as possible. You’ll save on paper and ink.
13. Look for Free and Open Source software first – There is a ton of really good free stuff out there, for basic business purposes, and specialized purposes. Try Open Office, NotesBrowser, Serif PagePlus, The GIMP, Inkscape, Scribus, Audacity, CamStudio, and much more.
14. Look for bootstrap options instead of debt. Debt places a burden on you each month, bootstrapping gets you profiting faster, by work and workarounds. As business grows, you can move from bootstrapping to a healthier cash flow based on revenues instead of debt.
15. Invest in things with reasonable assurances of returns. Don’t gamble, and throw away money in the hopes that it will yield a high return. This goes for marketing, buying more computer or web services than you need, and other business purchases.
16. Set up a support forum – you can reduce support costs this way, because even though you have to answer a lot of questions there, the answers benefit more than one person. Other users will come in and help you also.
17. Review your internet connection. Too slow a connection can cost some businesses more than the price of an upgrade. Faster speed for others mean only minimal compromises that do not harm productivity. Analyze your needs, and adjust your plan accordingly.
18. Save money in your home. If you can live on less, you can survive tough times better in your business. Our best advice for saving on groceries? Use your crock pot. Soups, casseroles, and roasted meals are easy to prepare, just a few minutes tossing ingredients in the pot, and you’ll have dinner 8 hours later. Combined with a bread machine, a crock pot can be a means of avoiding fast food and quick fix purchases. Since dinner can cook while you work, you save time, and avoid impulse purchases.

Look at your business with new eyes. Where can you find alternatives, cut waste, save pennies, and compromise without killing the essence?

Keep what truly matters. Take the cuts where they are less important.

Recession Survival Tactics – Products and Services

Part 3 of a 6 Part Recession Survival Series

Sometimes you are going to have to change more than marketing messages to survive great changes in the attitudes and priorities of your target market. Sometimes you have to change your very product and service line.

At its most obvious, it means offering lower cost options. That is sometimes possible by offering less. But sometimes “less” guts it of value. So to offer a lower price, you have to find a way to do it that is new – that preserves the value while lowering the price.

But it can also mean simply finding ways to change your product from a non-essential product to an essential one, or making your luxury a more affordable one, finding ways to enhance the value of the product or service, or changing the offering to make it more fitting to people who are struggling.

And sometimes you have to completely abandon a product line, and move to something else. Some product lines just won’t survive. If there is a high chance that your target market is going to dry up, don’t delay! Explore alternatives NOW, and get them lined up, ready to roll. Start selling them alongside, and have your fallback product or service line working as soon as possible.

When looking for ways to offer more, for less, start with office economies first. We’ll have an entire article on that, but basically, look for ways to save first.

Then look for ways to produce faster. This may mean starting with templates, creating package deals instead of custom deals, investing in intelligent automation for selective areas, or developing systems for speeding up your work.

If you can’t do that without removing some value, then look over your product or service carefully – what is the MOST ESSENTIAL value point? What are the least essential value points? Can you drop a few of the less essential ones, while keeping the most essential, and lower the price that way?

When you are looking at new product lines, consider things related to what you already offer if at all practical. Then you don’t have to completely change your business. The key is though, that you want to either pick up your existing target market as they drift (to a different pricepoint or value emphasis), or you want to pick a newly emerging target market early on. Look at where your customers are going when they leave you, or look at what they are retaining while they let go of your product or service. Go into that, because it is more likely to last through the crunch.

Self-sufficiency and affordability are on the rise – those markets are booming. But they are also becoming much more competitive. People are looking HARD for the best deal, and you’ll have to work harder to persuade people that YOU are the best deal, in more than just price.

For 90% of the businesses out there, change will be required. And some of it will be dramatic, painful change. But without it, you sink. With it, you grow in new ways, and become a better business person.

CRELoaded’s Bad Business Example

NOT part of the Recession Survival Series – That will publish later today. Just an important interjection that should not wait.

I thought long and hard before writing this. I dislike categorizing someone else’s decisions as a bad example, but the mounting trail of actions on the part of the new CRE team comes together into some unmistakable patterns. I think an article about this, especially now, is both pertinent, and worth exploring to illustrate some points about business. I apologize for the negativity, but there just isn’t any way to be positive about this because it is SO CLEAR that what is happening is bad for everyone involved, ESPECIALLY the CRE developers. I’ve never seen someone so blatantly shoot themselves in the foot!

I think it is also relevant to point out that when CRE announced the update to 6.3, and its new pricing structure, my first impulse was to say, “Well, there goes that one, my clients will never go for yearly extortion.” (And it is that – no other software company disables part of the software if you do not renew. They withold updates or support, but they do not lock you out of the admin.) But one client said, “Oh, I can go for that.” (she is selling the store so she doesn’t need to worry much about sustainability), so we moved forward with it anyway. I thought I would be open minded about it and see whether the upgrade had value. I have now decided, irrevocably, that CRE will not be a sustainable option for our clients. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend it again unless there are significant changes in both the company policy and behavior, and the software itself. I will explain those reasons in this post.

First, it is important to understand who the target market is. CRELoaded was Open Source software, and always had a free version available. Development was slow, the software was somewhat clunky, but fairly functional. There always remained a high number of bugs. Those who used it did not use it because they loved it, or because it was fabulous – for the most part, except for a few blindly rabid fans, they used it because it was the best of the worst. Cart software tends to be old, clunky, and built on aging frameworks (like CRE), or new, immature, and lacking in important features (it is incredibly complex, so development is very difficult). There is very little middle ground. CRE just happened to have a smidge more ease of use and sustainability than others. But the margin was SLIM.

CRE had a set of longstanding problems, leftover from its OSCommerce roots. OSCommerce is an aging dinosaur, which is even more clunky and awkward than CRE. But CRE retained enough of that to be time consuming and annoying to use in ways it should not have been. Less so than Zen, X-Cart, Cube Cart or some of the other options, but still frustrating to use much of the time.

In spite of that, a gathering of people, all with the thought that at least since it was Open Source, the community could contribute and make it better together, came together and did just that. Many of the major improvements in CRE were contributed by community members. The support base was almost exclusively community contributed. You got help from other users, not from the developers. There is a certain amount of idealism in the Open Source community, people are willing to band together for the common good.

So now, with a paid scheme in front of them, the community feels betrayed. The scheme was sprung on them with no notice, no warning. Purchasers of higher priced versions have no consideration if they have purchased very recently. Too bad, pay again if you want to upgrade. Long time users, who have invested a great deal in the CRE community are now told, pay if you want to keep your store going. If you don’t pay, your store either gets outdated, or if you already have upgraded to the new paid scheme, we’ll lock you out if you don’t KEEP paying. Contributors find that their contributions are now rolled into a package that THEY have to pay for if they want to use!

The developers are crying that they did it to make the software better. But that does not appear to be the case. The new package is mostly window dressing. They also claim they did it to provide better support. But they don’t. In fact, they’ve shut out the best helpers from the forum. They say they have “new documentation”, yet it is sparse, not even current for the new version, and only contains instructions for obvious tasks. The conclusions I draw from this are not very nice, but there is so much evidence, there really is no other conclusion.

You now get a little support when you pay for the software. Complaints on the forums allude to wasteful responses, and burning the support time in clarifications that should have been obvious, instead of getting actual help. Further, since they’ve shut down the people on the forum who can help you there for free, and have driven off many others, the conclusion is that the developers resent the free source of information, and want to confine people to the paid support.

If you think this conclusion is off, consider:

  • The major contributors to the forums have been suspended from the forums. These are the ONLY source of helpful information on trickier issues.
  • The ONLY voice for the company, who ever posts to the forums, has NEVER ONCE actually answered a question, even when the answer had to be fairly simple. NOT ONCE. The answers are always hedgy, they circumvent the actual question, and then lay blame for the criticism of the project on “unprofessional” behavior of the criticizers. If you express dissatisfaction, apparently, you are unprofessional!

At the same time they have done these things, they have embedded yet MORE advertising in their software. Not only do you have to pay a yearly fee with the promise of penalty if you do not, but they have placed advertising through the whole software interface. It shows up during the install (in a way that is not obvious that it is not a required informational field instead of a request for info from a service), template ads embedded in the design area, active ads at the top of the admin.

Again, we might accept these things if there were significant improvements. But I’m not seeing that either.

The longstanding problems are still there. A little bit of eye candy (and not even GOOD eye candy, the design improvements are pretty lame) in the backend, a few more modules bundled in, and one or two tweaks which did not make things easier, only changed how it is done. No real VALUE added to the package for the average user.

Consider… Leftover from OSCommerce, the software has had a major issue in wasting time. It does this in two ways:

1. Database queries are very wasteful, and SO SLOW, that you spend an average of 15 to 45 seconds just waiting for an admin page to load. 5-10 seconds is considered normal to long for page load times. Cumulatively, this adds up, and it drives people off from the frontend also, costing in customers.

2. The interface is clunky, requiring 2-3 actions to do things that should take 1. To configure the store, I am confronted with more than a dozen links. Each of these leads to a page of config options – each page has probably 20-30 options on it. In order to edit any of those, I must first select it… and wait for the page to load. Then I have to hit an Edit button… and wait for a page to load. I can then edit the item, and… wait for the page to load again. I am spending between 1 and 2 full minutes on EACH OPTION. That means it takes me 15 to 30 minutes to edit each set of options instead of the 2 minutes it should take. All in all, HOURS of wasted time for each install and setup. This should be done in a single screen. Load the list of options, and edit fields already visible, so all options can be edited at once. A single form for each set of options, instead of hundreds of fiddly separate forms. There is no reason why it should not have been done LONG AGO. I just don’t have that kind of time to waste. I’ve used Joomla. I know what config interfaces should be.

The new version has only 2 templates. The old standard, and a new one that is WORSE than the old standard as far as coding methods and editability. It has hard coded images all through it instead of putting them into the stylesheet where they can be more easily controlled. One can only assume that the lack of quality templates, and the lack of templates in general (they reduced from 4 to 2), was to provide an incentive for people to purchase templates instead.

It is abundantly clear that all the “work” they were doing on 6.3 and the delays to release were caused not by the developers slaving night and day to bring new features or improvements, but to embed all the new revenue generation bits and protections into the code. They developed for their greed, and not for the customer need. That is pretty short sighted, because if they’d just made it good, and done some real improvements, people would not be nearly so grumbly about having to pay for it. All that coding time they spent forcing customers to pay for more and more just serves to detract from the value, and tick off the customers. REALLY foolish.

Interestingly, they are running around doing a lot of “image control”, and spending a LOT of time trying to put bandaids on all the negative reviews and comments. This is borne out in their forums and by the fact that they dug out my blog (not by any means a ragingly popular blog), and took the time to comment. Now, not ONE issue has ever been addressed other than by placating and evasive words. Had they done what they knew to be right, and were they confident in what they are doing, they’d be concentrating on fixing problems and hurrying to address issues with actual helpful information. The fact that they don’t do this tells me that they KNOW they are on shaky ground, they know they are being unfair and inconsiderate, and they know that they are also on legally questionable ground (a whole ‘NOTHER story!). Even STARTING down that kind of road is foolish. It tells me they are more concerned with ILLUSION than with REALITY. Always a deadly course for a business. And suggests ulterior motives – questionable ownership, and the possible intent to bleed the company and walk away, or to use it for other less honorable purposes. For any serious business, problem resolution and prevention is ALWAYS more profitable than damage control after the fact.

It is important to realize that a store owner cannot just “move to another cart”, otherwise you cannot quite understand the position that a cart users is put in when a cart moves from free to paid, or worse, to a situation like CRE just did. Each cart has DAYS of work involved in the setup, and often hundreds or thousands of dollars spent to get it the way they needed it. Sometimes custom coding has been done, to get just the right features, and that custom code, design, and config work cannot just be ‘ported to another cart. Most of the time, it must be painstakingly redone. So what is the struggling shop owner to do? This change will cause many to either operate a store that is at risk for security exploit, or to be forced out of business. Yes, it is that serious, especially in the current economic climate.

Now, there is a complete conclusion here. It is a lengthy one, for which I appologize, but it must be explained fully to get the whole import.

First, they deprived people of their agency. They took away the independent options, and are muscling people into a position of HAVING to buy what they did not choose to purchase in the first place.

Second, they have demonstrated over and over that they do not appreciate the help of the community, in fact, they resent it, and want it to go away. There is no other conclusion for the events on the forum.

Third, they will shut out any resources which provide any alternative to purchasing services or enhancements from them. They fear any competition, they have no willingness to develop a spirit of helpfulness.

Fourth, their actions are completely contrary to the community spirit of Open Source. They are driving away the very community that build them, and turning on them in a fairly nasty way.

Fifth, the leadership is talking a lot, but saying absolutely nothing of value. The comments on one of my previous CRE posts are clear evidence of that. Lots of placating words, an effort to manipulate me into accepting blame as the unreasonable bad guy, but no actual addressing of actual issues. There never has been, and one can only assume there is no effort to do so.

Sixth, the software has only ever been good enough to compete as a free offering. If I want bad software, I can get it free anywhere. If I want GOOD software, that is also available free. If I want to actually PAY for poor support, I can get that from ANY company out there! If I want to pay for obsolete OSCommerce underpinnings, I can get LiteCommerce. If I want nightmarish templating, I can get that from X-Cart. If I want unsustainability, I can get that from CubeCart. If I want any of those options for free, the choices are plentiful. Any one of those packages costs less over time than CRE, and is no worse. I refused to pay for them because they had serious problems – and I feel that paid software ought to NOT have the most obvious sustainability problems.

Seventh, they are spending a lot of time on image control, and on policing negative publicity. Time that could be better spent actually addressing the issues. They KNOW they are in trouble, and they know the course they are on is indefensible – otherwise they’d answer effectively, and work on fixing what is wrong.

Eighth, they did this at the beginning of a recession! People are looking at CUTTING BACK, not adding on expenses. BAD TIMING!

Ninth, the combination of poor decisions and inconsiderate actions on their part, not to mention just bad business management in their choices to just go around telling people to stop complaining and gee everything will be ok cause we are really nice people after all instead of actually addressing issues in an open and helpful manner, combined with an unsustainable payment model, means that they cannot stay in business long under the current structure and policy. I am a startup expert. I know what it takes to succeed. They have consistently done everything that would get in the way of long term momentum, and they are currently driving off their most loyal customers – those that were responsible for bringing them the most business. The only customers left are those who feel they have no choice. That is a poor base, they’ll eventually find other options.

I think the company cannot survive more than another year, perhaps two at the outset if they continue as they are. That is a well-considered opinion there, and one that I feel strongly. This is, perhaps, the primary reason I will no longer recommend it as a viable and sustainable option for my clients. The company is not stable enough to ensure that the software will go forward in growth with my clients. It is too likely to fold and simply disappear. I won’t advise that my clients invest in something so shaky.

I’ve advised that my clients get behind new projects a lot. We’ve invested our time and support behind MANY young projects, and many Open Source projects. This one, we can’t. It lacks the two most important elements in Open Source, and brings with it baggage and a developing track record that virtually guarantees their failure.

For the record, the two most important factors in Open Source, to ensure sustainability, security, and growth, are:

1. An active and responsive developer community. Theirs is obviously not responsive, and their activity is concentrated more on developing more forced revenue streams than on delivering value to the users.

2. An active user community. It is drying up so fast that only a few die hard hopefuls are left, and some ignorant newbies who did not know what they were coming into.

So the whole point here is, in those points above, CRELoaded has given us an admirable roadmap of what NOT to do if you want to stay in business. If their actions were carefully calculated to drive off their customers and go down in an unspectacular poof of electrons, they have chosen exactly the course to ensure that it happens.

Take a lesson from them:

1. Understand your target market, and put their needs first.

2. Base your revenue generation on the choices and goodwill of your customer base.

3. Give good value at every point possible.

4. Cultivate a spirit of helpfulness.

All four are things they have failed to do, and which can make or break a business. DO those four things, and you can succeed and compete even against big business. Fail to do those things and you’ll crash, no matter WHAT your business size.

So long CRE… been nice knowing you, but I don’t think I’ll be there for the funeral.

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.

Recession Survival Tactics – Marketing Messages

Part 2 of a 6 Part Recession Survival Series

So things are changing. That means you have to change. Only a very fortunate few are going to survive it without changing, and then only if their business is already providing rock bottom value. Everything else is going to require change on the part of business owners to be able to keep business coming in.

There are several facets to this, which we’ll cover in separate articles.

The principal thing that happens in a recession, is that people reprioritize. If you were on their list of affordable choices yesterday, you may be struck from it today – or they may decide that they can only justify half the expense that they could justify the day before. And it literally happens that fast. It doesn’t stop there either, because one day they’ll decide on half. The next day their hours at work may be cut, and you may be stricken entirely.

How are you going to keep people coming to you as a viable option? Maybe your marketing message has always emphasized quality, indulgence, service, the extras. People still want that, but when money is tight, they see dollar signs in front of those words! So somehow, you have to get words in there that emphasize value, affordability, low cost, better results for the expense, etc. Concepts that now take precedence.

People will be concerned primarily with two concepts:

1. How to save money on essentials or reduce the cost of their favorite indulgences to the point that they can still justify them.
2. How to make money, in a lower risk environment.

If you can demonstrate an ability to help them with either of those goals, in a way that helps them feel that you have sympathy for their situation, you have a good chance of keeping business. Maybe you can do that just by pointing out things you didn’t emphasize as much before. Maybe you’ll have to completely revisit your target market – will you shift from a mainstream item to a luxury item, or will you rescale to adapt with your existing target market as they change?

Find out what your customers most want and need. Then find ways of communicating the ways that your product or services supply those needs and wants.

Be willing to change your slogan. Be willing to change your primary marketing messages, and indeed, the very identity of your business if necessary. We are heading into something that will affect our nation strongly for a decade or more. You won’t be wasting your time on a temporary change. This kind of action is necessary, or you’ll be too late.

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.