Business

Pushbutton businesses

by Jason on December 19, 2011 · 0 comments

pushbutton

Things I did on a Sunday afternoon: ordered and provisioned a few domain names, a VOIP 1-800 number, and shot 15 videos.  If I’d hustled a little more, or spent the whole day on it, I could have had a mostly viable business up and running in a day, and it’s worth noting that it was a day that not that long ago was traditionally a day of rest where nothing was open.

Now, I didn’t open a bank account, since I didn’t have the need for a new one, and if I’d gotten to the merchant account application it would have taken two weeks or so with my chosen provider to get that set up, so accepting money would still have been a challenge (or maybe not: I can’t remember if PayPal is instant setup and it’s just the first withdrawal that takes a week or so to validate.)  Also, if this was a full business I’d need to register a few things with the government, but all those things are possible, instantly, online; it just has to be during business hours.

The thing is, I have fallback accounts for most of those, so after you set up a pushbutton business or two, the obstacles just become todo items for later in the week.  And that’s pretty amazing.  None of what I did on that Sunday required much technical knowhow (I’ll do a few neat things to the videos in post-production, and probably I’ll have a custom website put together instead of a template, but those are optional items.)

So what’s your excuse?

Oh, and if you’re curious, these updates were extensions to my existing business, but throughout the process my mind kept drifting to making a “pushbutton business in a box” checklist, to use as a serial entrepreneurship experiment and/or an info product for sale.  I may go ahead with that depending on how much baggage I can clear before year end; email me for details.

(Nothing to do with accounting; just my favourite video about the number 3.)

I know very little about accounting, but I’m content to do sustained damage for a while longer before I dump a big box of mayhem on some bookkeeper’s desk.

One of the joys (and incredible dangers) of consulting on a fee-for-hire business, which still makes up the bulk of my company’s revenues, is the shift to what I call triple-entry accounting, which follows three key stages in the project life cycle:

You get the gig. Usually with a quote, either real or just estimated in your head. Ca-ching! Same as cash baby! That’s entry number one.

You do the work. That means the client now owes you that money that you’ve already spent, mentally or literally, from entry one.  That’s OK, new money’s about to come in.  Wait, isn’t this the same as–Ca-ching! Entry two.

You send the invoice. Often this comes a few days after the work is done, due to signoffs, etc.  But it’s kind of like a new entry, because Ca-ching, entry three! That cheque is surely in the mail!

And you (usually) get paid. This isn’t actually an entry in the lifecycle, not just because “quadruple-entry accounting” sounds lamer somehow, but because by now you’re so broke from having spent that money three times over you’re just happy the long nightmare is over. Until the next gig, which is hopefully well underway by now.

In his E-Myth series, Michael Gerber talks about how important it is for business owners to split their tasks into actual jobs that eventually other people can fill.  In our little workflow above, that’d be sales, execution, and, uh, money guy (I’m drawing a blank on the job that does the invoicing and cashing – owner?)

Beyond planning for growth, this is a context where a little self-induced schizophrenia can be an advantage, so at least you’re (hopefully) not spending the money 3 times before you even get it.  That said, a triple payday is often a huge motivating factor, even if it’s 66% imaginary.

Bench Advertising Kills!(Via Corrupt Camel)

Granted, the first thing I think of when I see one of those “you just proved bench advertising works!” ads on a bus shelter is generally “you just proved you have unsold inventory!” but since I don’t much like driving I’ve got some extra brain bandwidth while I’m being chauffeured past these signs, and here’s where I ended up:

Why is it so seemingly awkward for people to use their service to sell the actual service?

I think there’s a little bit of mental holdover from the “make money with tiny classified ads” (that teach you how to make money from tiny classified ads, ad infinitum) and other Ponzi-like schemes that are preventing people from doing their best work, but it boggles my mind that, in this case, bus ad people aren’t taking notes from which customers stick around (which would be a clue that they’re successful) and borrow some of their concepts to promote the overall service.

Or maybe bus ads are inherently unprofitable to run and there are no success stories. Or maybe the “you just proved…” ads have been tested to be the most awesome tactic ever.  I don’t really know, but the things bug me.  If it didn’t break my rule against rewarding behaviour I don’t like, I’d have an entry on my todo list to buy as much outdoor advertising as I can, at least in my neighbourhood, to ensure the messaging I see every day fits how I want the world to look.

(As an aside, how awesome would it be to be able to think up a sustainable business model that allowed you to put ads all over town reminding you that you’re awesome, or maybe just that you should get back to work? Hmm, maybe there’s a segment of realtors that got into the business purely as a way to have a tax-deductible means of putting up really good photos of themselves around town.)

Anyway, my main point with bus ads is that using unsold inventory to sell more space seems like a poor means of positioning if you want to get maximum value for your service, and that would hold true for most ad sales that have a finite pool of inventory. TV networks can get away with running ads for their own product because one of their jobs is to increase viewership, which then increases the rates they can charge for ads, which, by the way, is the purest form of using ads to sell ads I’ve found, with Adwords arbitrage being at the absolute other end of the spectrum.

For everyone else, even – or especially – if you don’t sell advertising or lead generation services, it’s a fun exercise to look at what you sell and see how it itself can be used to generate more of your core business, be it in the packaging, the experience your provide, or some other differentiator that brings prospects back to your offer.

I’ve been thinking lately about personal congruence as a success factor.

I had a client last night reporting that he couldn’t see some ads on a page of his site.  More specifically, it was a “link to us” page and the sample banners weren’t showing up in Chrome.  And of course, they worked fine for me, because why make it easy?

After too much research in what turned out to be the wrong direction, I discovered that there is some kind of weird bug for some Chrome users where images don’t show up, but that wasn’t what this problem was – he was using an ad blocker plugin, so yeah, he couldn’t see his own ads.  I don’t mean that with any disrespect, it was just one of those head slappers that should have been identified a lot quicker than it was.

In this case, there wasn’t a compelling reason to have the sample banners be actual links, so I advised removing them, turning the banners into simple images, which would probably resolve the problem, but it brings to mind a different rule of thumb.

Are you asking your current and potential customers to do things you wouldn’t do?  In other words, do you have personal congruence with your work?

Another example, going back a few years to when I worked in telephony.  I was building a front end for a predictive dialler for a large company.  This is one of those machines that calls a bunch of phone numbers in advance, figures out if there’s a real human on the other end, and then routes the call to a rep to complete the transaction.  The plus side of a system like that is reps spend way less time dialling the phone and way more time doing actual business, but the down side is that the person being called has that annoying few seconds of silence that tells them they’re being called by a machine.

(Incidentally, I had no problems implementing this system, at least from a personal congruence perspective – it was for existing customers and delivered a valuable service in a cost-effective manner.  I was hardly ever home anyway, so it wasn’t going to affect me, but believe it or not I actually like talking to outbound sales reps from time to time.)

Anyway, the system got deployed, and reports of high abandon rates were starting to come in, which of course had to be a technical problem.  The conversation with the business sponsor went kind of like this:

“People are hanging up on our system before we can route the calls to a rep.  Fix it.”

“OK, you know when you’re at home and you get a phone call from a number you don’t recognize, and you say ‘hello’ and then there’s just silence?”

“Oh yeah, I hate those, I always hang up.”

(silence)

“Do you realize that’s what you built?”

“Yeah, but why are people hanging up?  There must be something wrong with the transfer.”

It’s easy to laugh at the silly pointy haired business sponsor, but she wasn’t pointy-haired, she just had a blind spot in her thinking, which was possibly enhanced due to the lack of personal congruence with what she’d been tasked to do.

People say that the most successful businesses are the ones where everyone’s 100% passionate about the product or service.  I don’t know if that’s absolutely necessary – maybe you just have to be really passionate about what you do in that company – but if you’re working towards a goal that you 100% do not believe in and would never recommend to your mom (assuming it’s in a market that your mom would like, but you get the idea,) you’re going to have a lot tougher time getting out of bed in the morning.

I’ve noticed a trend in the business pitch (yes, I’m a Shark Tank and Dragon’s Den addict, er, enthusiast) wherein people never use the most obvious analogy.

In Hollywood, or at least in movies about Hollywood, which I’m sure are 100% accurate portrayals of the culture, there’s this thing where movies are pitched as a combination or variation of previous films – there’s a good (and brief) summary of the pitch formula on everything2 (which has a great justification for short pitches in general: “forty million people were tuning in to watch TV movies on any given night, based on one or two sentences that were written in TV Guide that boiled down the entire plot.”)

In the business pitch, it seems like comparing yourself to anything that’s ever been done before is certain death, or at least I don’t see it on the TV shows.  Maybe there’s a copyright rule that prevents it, and that’s why, for example, TeamBuy couldn’t say “we’re making a Groupon clone” when they were on Dragon’s Den (or it’s possible that GroupOn wasn’t big enough to be on the radar at the time of shooting.)

I think it goes beyond business pitch shows though – GameFly lets you rent video games by mail, and you can keep them as long as you want, and when you mail one back you get another one from your list.  Yes, it’s Netflix for video games.  But they never say that in their ads, including the long descriptions of the service given out in the Revision 3 show sponsor announcements.

I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but it looks like, for business, that you have to look original but at the same time do everything you can to implant the other brand’s name in your potential investor or customer’s head.  Nobody wants to support a copycat, but everyone wants what the big guy’s got.

iOS sightings: the iPad as PowerPoint killer

by Jason on December 10, 2010 · 0 comments

Not to get repetitive, but if I don’t monitor these things I won’t be able to tell if I just think I’m seeing more of them because I wrote about them (like that thing where you buy a car and then all you see is that model – and colour – on the road,) or if it’s an actual trend (which I suspect it is, because duh, Apple is so cool.)

Medical device firms are giving iPads to their reps, claiming it’s a more engaging way to pull out sales data for prospects that beats out sheets of paper or waiting for a laptop to start up to run a deck.

It’s not clear in the article how many sales presentations are custom apps and how many are simply Keynote presentations.  It’s possible that some are using special sections of the company website, which would allow for quick distribution but then you’ve got latency and possible network outages. I know I’ve seen a few sales presentation apps in the store (not tools to make presentations, actual presentations,) but one would think that these things would be best distributed internally to avoid competition.  But hey, what do I know.

I’m also curious what the going rates are for custom-built sales presentations for companies going the app route.  We’re at a weird nexus point in time here, where development costs are still high (for good development, anyway,) but you could literally (badly) photograph a pile of poop and show that on the iPad and prospects would still oooh and aaah over the device, and probably buy whatever the poop’s covering (or the poop itself.  Note to self, contact fertilizer companies for sales pitch.)

The other angle would be the divide between good salespeople and good sales tools.  I’d wager that good salespeople could compete against poor salespeople with an iPad, but as a retention policy, companies would be well off to equip their people with every tool they want.  Closing rates might not justify the deployment and maintenance costs in themselves, but the HR savings might make it work.

This has been sitting in a tab for way too long, so here it is: Ryan Carson on 12 Things You Wish You’d Known Before Building a Web App. Blog post here, slide deck here, audio here.

The audio seems to be for a slightly different deck, but it more or less meshes. Lots of great advice, and well worth listening to a few times.

In the interest of actually getting off the pot, as it were, and posting something about this (and thus triumphantly closing some Flock tabs), I’ll just focus on a few points:

Thing 1 (slide 2): Keep one user database.

The idea here is that if you’ve got more than one web app, put all the users for all systems into one user database, so users of one app will automatically become users of another, thus reducing a barrier.

I disagree with this one. There may or may not be privacy concerns and/or potential security exposures to worry about, but I’m primarily against the idea from the perspective of an eventual exit strategy. Selling one site that contains user information that’s used on another site could be complicated if the sale doesn’t include all affected properties at once, which may not be the scenario that finally happens.

On the other hand, I’m mostly in agreement with the next slide/thing, which recommends having one e-commerce system. I only maintain one non-PayPal commerce system right now, and I’d love to be able to say that 10 years from now. Web users are pretty used to going to a separate site for credit card entry (I’m not sure, but it might even make things seem more secure that way), and keeping everything on one box lets you capitalize on split tests etc., provided your client sites are in roughly similar markets.

In both cases, of course, the back end can be common with different UI code and/or databases (same schema, different db).

Thing 3/Slide 4: Don’t have your coder do the XHTML/CSS

The timing’s funny on this – up until now one person’s handled the whole enchilada, partly because the design firm we usually work with does great Flash and PSDs but lousy markup, but also due to the company size. We just started a project this week where we had the option for the client to supply complete markup.

This was a bit of a gamble on our part (to be honest, I was inspired to go ahead due to Ryan’s talk), since the project timeline and other factors meant we’d have limited ability to send things back to be re-worked if there were problems, but it turns out the XHTML was passable – it wouldn’t validate, but hey, at least it had a doctype that said it was XHTML! The project’s still ongoing, but at this point it looks like we’ll get through it without having to open Photoshop, which is a huge win and has moved “in house designer” way up on my “to hire” list (yes, we’re experimenting with various levels of outsourcing and contractors, but this concept of separation of responsibilities has the potential to create enough work to justify a full time body.)

So a few quibbles here and there (but then again, we’re in a different part of the web industry than Carsonified is), but overall highly recommended. Check it out as soon as you get a chance – if you’re busy now, I can vouch that it sits nicely in a browser tab.