web development

It’s Official! Pre-Launch Sneak Preview is LIVE!

Ok… that was SO full of hype! Truthfully, I am genuinely excited about this, because we’ve been working on MicroWebmasters Alliance for about 4 months now, getting near launch, but not quite far enough along to really announce a date. Well, we’ve got the date now!

March 1, 2008, MicroWebmasters Alliance will be officially live, open for business, and accepting paid memberships. Until then, we are running a pre-launch preview, free of charge.

If you register before March 1, you’ll get a 1 month free membership. We’ll do our best to make it value packed and full of good stuff. The site has over 100 pages of instruction, tools, and some good marketing benefits. Every single page of content has been screened for quality and usefulness – this isn’t a “free for all” article directory! If it isn’t good, it doesn’t get onto the site!

Check it out at: http://www.microwebmasters.com/?a_aid=9d5e23fc (Yes, that’s an affiliate link – members can also enroll as an affiliate if they choose – we’re using this one for tracking purposes.)

MicroWebmasters Alliance encourages cooperation between MicroBusiness Service Providers, and provides training materials to help you learn to provide more affordable services for your clients, while increasing your own profit margins. Tried and true success strategies, useful business tools, recommended productivity software (a lot of it is legal free software), and help in streamlining business tasks. You’ll get a good marketing benefits package also!

Membership is open to Web Service Providers, related Service Providers, and Do It Yourselfers. If you aren’t a web service provider, but want to learn more about serving MicroBusinesses, you can get an Associate Membership, with all the marketing benefits, and all the MicroBusiness specific resources from the site.

This organization is totally unique in the Trade Association world. We aren’t just giving you a few marketing benefits. We’re offering a ton of strategies and tools for doing business more profitably – no hype or scam there, this is the stuff we’ve practiced that has had to measure up against our ethics standards. We are out there actually DOING what we recommend. Our goal is to have at least one “ah-ha” moment in each instructional page of the site.

You have to actually QUALIFY for membership! We don’t take people who are not actively trying to uphold good business practices, and who are not actually serving a MicroBusiness market. We offer a Junior, and a Professional level membership. To get Professional status, you have to be able to demonstrate a certain level of experience. If you cannot, then you get Junior membership – but it is still VERY high value, because if you get designated as a Junior member, you also get training assistance, to learn the stuff you need to learn to get Professional status! We’re talking personal, helpful assistance that improves your skills in a very profitable way! No other trade association offers that!

We’re setting out to change the MicroBusiness Web Service world. We’d love to have you along with us!

A Great Idea, and a Great Product = Half the Job

Our clients are often surprised at the amount of work that goes into marketing and selling a product or service. They are also caught off guard by other aspects of business preparation.

To sell a product that you manufacture, you must not only manufacture a great product, you must package it, prepare marketing materials, document your business policies and procedures, and make sure that your purchase process workflow (offline or on) works smoothly.

With a service, sometimes the documentation process is even more involved, because there are generally more variables.

If you self-publish a book, you may feel that when you have the book written, that you are close to finished. But that was also only half the work. You still need to format it, create a cover, put it into a standard book format, have it edited and reviewed for errors, and put it into the published format. Following that, you still have to set up a sales venue, and promote the book in an effective way, which also involves prepping good marketing materials.

Some clients come to us wanting an affiliate program, feeling that they just need to obtain the appropriate tracking software and it is done. If that were true, everybody would have an affiliate program. To have an effective one, you have to think about how your program will operate, document your policies and procedures, configure the affiliate software to work the way you need it to (this is a fairly big job in itself and involves some forethought), and then create your affiliate support pages – program overview, program details, and affiliate resource page.

Anything worth doing, that is going to get you something worthwhile in return, takes work. If it is going to get you something big, then it takes a lot of work. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either misinformed, ignorant, or dishonest.

People who do not realize the amount of work going into a project usually do not have a clear vision of what they want to accomplish. It stands to reason that if you are aware of what you want to accomplish in selling something, that you will consider HOW you want to sell it. And if you want other people to sell it for you, that you will be willing to give them good information about selling it, create good policies to make paying them sustainable, and that you will be willing to set up a good framework to support those sales.

Those who are not willing to INVEST the necessary work, are not really serious about operating a business. This may sound harsh, but it gets even harsher. They do not want a business, they want to gamble. Because only gambling even pretends to offer something for nothing, and only gamblers get taken in by it. Because we know that with gambling, everybody loses except the “house”, and the occasional RARE winner. With a business gamble, you aren’t going to win.

Most of our clients, when presented with a large amount of work to achieve a goal, do one of two things:

  1. They revise their goals to something more attainable in the short term.
  2. They look at the work, figure out how to prioritize it to make it achievable, and they tackle it one step at a time.

Most of our clients do NOT totally bail, because when they get to the point of working with us, they’ve already committed to owning a business. They’ve already faced similar circumstances where a project seemed overwhelming and so much bigger than they’d thought, and they’ve worked their way through that. So they have a history of hard work and some success under their belt, even if the success is merely overcoming the initial discouragement.

To succeed, we have to think ahead, and be willing to lay the proper groundwork, and then to tackle additional hurdles as they come. Giving up at the outset guarantees failure. Determination, planning, documentation, and hard work, on the other hand, can come together into something purely amazing.

How Many Plates Can You Drop at One Time?

The students had all informed the class of their plans. All but one, that is. He said he was not ready to say anything about it. The next time we met though, when his turn came, he leaned forward slightly, and said, “I can assume that client confidentiality would apply here, and that you’d not try to use my idea?” I assured him that I would not. Inwardly, I felt like bursting out laughing.

It had nothing to do with his idea. It was a good idea. But it wasn’t MY dream! It was his. Where the heck would I fit in the time to steal someone else’s dream? I’m having enough trouble carving my own down to size!

I’ve consolidated and eliminated and compacted and given sites away wholesale. I’ve put sites up for sale that I never thought I’d sell, and felt relieved to see them go. I’ve never looked back – I’ve never even looked to see what the new owners did with them. Instead I looked for the next thing to trim down.

We now have three business lines, all of which are interrelated. It works out very nicely. But I do have to juggle my time. There just isn’t enough to go around otherwise.

I meet people now who are just like I was when I started up – dabbling with this, tinkering with that, spreading myself out to see what all I could do. And I did a lot! I learned a lot! A good deal of it now stands me in good stead to enhance the services we offer. But I can recognize someone in that same stage. It usually means they have not settled on something definitive, that they aren’t quite certain what their business identity is, and that they are not quite ready to be totally serious about something that could succeed in a big way. They are still trying things on for size, unwilling to commit to just one concept. Uninspired as yet with the grand plan, not yet believing quite that they can achieve the huge and astounding.

You can spin a lot of plates as long as each one is not too demanding. Once you grasp on to a few big ones though, you have to let some of the little ones go. The big ones take more attention, and more muscle, and more experience to keep going. They also demand absolute dedication.

I’ve got three big ones going. I’m letting the rest go, because if I try to keep some of those little ones going, I’ll drop a big one. I don’t have time to pick up someone else’s plate and try to keep it going too… There isn’t any time for that!

So don’t worry about talking to me about your dream. I’m happy to brainstorm with you to help you succeed, but I don’t want your dream. And don’t invite me to join your MLM team. I don’t have time for that either, and if you think that I do, then you have not yet grabbed hold of something absorbing and fulfilling. I’m not about to go chasing the illusion of easy wealth, and risk dropping the real thing.

If you feel like you are about to drop something, then I suggest you make SURE something drops. Because if you CHOOSE what drops, you’ll keep the important stuff going. The stuff that can take you somewhere amazing.

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.

When do you Listen to the Experts?

I’ve consulted a number of business “experts” about issues in my business. Some of them have been very helpful about general things. The rare one has been helpful about specific things. An alarming number were no help at all, for one primary reason:

  • They did not understand what my business is, and they did not “hear” when I tried to explain. They wanted to make my business conform to their idea of what it should be, rather than seeing what I wanted it to become and then stepping outside their box to help me make it into that vision.

One expert told me, “Your business is just like every other small business website design company. How are you going to differentiate yourself?” This, after I had just explained how we were different, and what made our business so revolutionary. They didn’t have enough of an understanding of the web development world to even have a clue what we were saying.

Another told me to choose the line that was the most profitable and forget the other two. I tried to explain that was precisely what made our business revolutionary and gave it the potential to be something more than just “another web firm”. If I focus on web development without the rest, we are just another company. If I focus on teaching, I lose the ability to teach anything new because I have no experience in which to develop the strategies that make my teaching effective (a primary problem with most web development training is that it is taught by teachers who have little real-life experience, and NO microbusiness experience). If I focus solely on the trade association, I lose the ability to benefit the members with training, and I lose the edge of day to day experience with clients – the very thing that makes the trade association work. All three, together, can reshape an industry and have HUGE potential. One, by itself, is just another in a long line of ineffective attempts to make something great. The expert didn’t get it, because he didn’t want to listen.

  • Any time an expert hands out canned information that is not applicable to your situation, you need to have the confidence to disregard it.
  • If an expert hands out information that could be adapted to apply, you need to have the confidence to adapt it – and keep asking until you learn how.
  • If you explain something to an expert, and they still hand you the same thing they handed you before you explained, then find another expert because this one isn’t listening.

Business counsel is not a “one size fits all” solution to every business problem. This is especially true if you are developing a revolutionary concept. You need to work with people who are willing to see the “ah-ha” moment in your concept, who are willing to catch the potential, who can get excited about it and then use their skills to help you develop the potential that is there.

Training, consultation, and coaching can be a huge help in getting over a hurdle in your business. But only if the expert is willing to listen long enough to understand just what it is you are trying to achieve. Otherwise, their guidance is going to be useless, and potentially harmful to your ability to achieve.

Bad Ugly Man

The class was talking about how the search engines or Google AdSense may key in on phrases you did not think they would. One of the students spoke up and asked if he could tell a story about that. I said, “of course!”. This was his story:

He had put a web page up, which addressed a technical topic. It had a photo of himself on the page. He watched his traffic, and soon found that he was getting a lot of traffic from Google Images, for the term, “bad ugly man”. He then discovered that if he searched on that term, his picture was the top item returned.

Turns out, his technical topic was “(subject), The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”. Google paired it up with his photo in an unexpected way! A simple disallow tag for his images folder in his robots.txt file solved the problem, but his illustration was priceless.

AdSense and search engines both do sometimes pull out keywords that you do not expect. This can be a good thing in many instances, because it means that you do not have to worry about overanalyzing keywords or calculating keyword density to mine the long tail of search terms. Rather, you just write well, be descriptive in what you say, and the natural result is usually very good.

Once in a while though, you have to tweak a page. A page on Christian Infertility called “Leah After Judah” pulls all sorts of ads about Judaism and Judaic symbols. It isn’t at all what the page is about. So tweaking had to be done to eliminate or selectively target the right phrases on the pages.

When creating a product catalog, take advantage of the search engine’s propensity to catalog everything – write visual and evocative descriptions. You’ll benefit two ways: You’ll help people want the item more if they read the description, and you’ll just naturally include another series of relevant keywords that will get picked up and used in a way that may surprise you.

The descriptions need not be long, or complicated. Just imagine you are describing the item to someone who cannot see it, and who may not know what it is for. Include colors, features, and some phrases to get them thinking about how to use it, or how they’ll feel when they use it. For example:

“Soft and snuggly throw rug. Cuddle up by the fire and enjoy a winter evening with someone you love. Forest green and black colors give this blanket a woodsy feel. Cotton polyester blend is itch-free, soft, and easy to care for.”

Nothing remarkable about that description. It gives an emotional setting, an accurate description, and some adjectives. It will increase the appeal of the item to both search engines and people.

Of course, if you find that you come out on top for searches on the term “itchy blanket”, you’d want to change something. Otherwise, you can probably sit back and watch something unexpected and good happen, just because you took the time to write something natural, and thoughtful.

Update: This page is now pulling search engine results for the term “ugly man”!

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.