If you're here because you saw one of my posts, you're probably well aware of the link in my signature to SmallBizGeeks.com. SMB is a fairly new message board dedicated to tech-related small business. Since it popped up shortly after I started my company, I have been following it quite closely and contributing what little insight I can. The "regulars" have a wide range of experience and interests, so there are a lot of resources in both the tech and business sides.
The most common member is probably the freelance tech support guy. Many of these folks are doing support work on the side, while others have made the jump and are doing it full-time.
The next most common is the web design/development guy, looking for clients and ranging from small site design to web app programming.
After that comes the standard software developer (or ISV) trying to find the next killer app or find the market for their existing app.
Finally, there are dot-com startups doing something different - pushing an idea that might one day blow up into a multi-million dollar company (it still happens).
If you're one of these types, or even if you're not and the words "small business" and "geek" perk your ears up, come check it out. Lurk for a while. Join up and introduce yourself.
It's easy to claim that customer service makes your business a success, but it's hard to actually do it. Good service requires time and energy - and unpaid work, sometimes.
It's fantastic when you're the recipient of good service. It makes you want to continue doing business with a company. In fact, there is so much competition for your business that you should really only work with folks that are willing to go that extra mile. (Yes, this post will likely include cliches)
We were torn between two local banks for handling our business banking. Both are big enough to offer the services we need but small enough to give us someone we can talk to in person. When we called one bank to set up an appointment, the lady was snotty and rude - "We don't do appointments. Just come in and someone will help you when they're free." The other bank's representative invited us to come in and have coffee while she told us about their services. We were sold before we even went in. Since then, I've had the wonderful experience of watching someone drop everything to talk to me and answer questions. Not for more business, but because I had questions and I'm a customer.
The same goes for regular vendors. In dealing with a client's hosting company, I wasted over half an hour with an incompetent support tech who failed to ask me what the problem was until 20 minutes into the call! I called up the company that just bought the hosting co. and got an understanding, technically competent engineer to fix my problem in two minutes.
Sometimes it's a matter of talking to the right person... but sometimes I have to wonder if I want to do business with a company that relies on the wrong person.
I'm finishing up one project, which I underbid, managed badly, and has come to frustrate me. It's almost over, though, and they're the kind of client which is hell to work with but once the project is done they're evangelists for your company. At the very least, I got paid a little and learned a lot.
I had a meeting on Tuesday which revealed a project much much larger than I originally expected. It's nowhere near the largest project I've done, but it's complicated enough that I'd need to do a lot more research before quoting it. During the meeting, their budget man comes in to ask me how much it will cost so he can get grants to cover it (they're a non-profit). Thinking quick, I told him we'd have to come up with a full proposal before committing to anything... so we would submit a contract for the Design and Specification phase. That would allow us to get paid for creating the proposal. I've found that the worst rejections come after you spend a ridiculous amount of time on the proposal (because you're doing things right) and then hearing that "Sorry, we've decided to hold off or do it internally."
I'm not a fan of the standard bid model anyway, because not all developers are the same - especially when it comes to the web. So I gave the budget man a rough range, which he didn't think was unreasonable, and then told him I'd charge him a certain amount to create the proposal. He said that would be fine. This is great news, because then I can take my time and really set it up the way it should be...without risking a complete loss of my time.
Finally, I landed a big project this week. My partner and I headed out to Chicago to meet with a client whose site was just launched. They are extremely happy with our work and have asked us about some other services - SEO, online marketing consulting, and continued management of the accounts. We put together a really solid proposal and presented it to the CEO, President, and lead salesman. It was a bit intimidating to sit across from a man who leads a $100 million company, but things went very well - by the end they shook our hands and agreed to the preliminary term we recommended. If things go well, we'll see a lot of money for this one. If not, we've still paid the bills for a while. I have no doubt that we can make this work.
There are so many clients, projects, contracts, meetings, etc. to manage right now that I am starting to become more confident in our chances. When we put on the suits and start pitching, you can tell that they're sizing us up - and they're satisfied. One of my clients recently told me that "people want to be associated with success, and a lot of the time that means being around success."
I'm starting to realize that our confidence shows, it looks like success, and that means people want to work with us. And that's exciting for our company.
How to Fail in Business Even Though You Try Really Hard
Ok, the title isn't accurate. I'm not failing...yet. Since leaving my job and starting my own company, I've landed one contract and opened a handful of doors for leads. First, the contract I got was a very small project that I lowered my rate to get. The budget was ridiculously small, but it's my first project for the new company and I wanted the income. With nothing else to do (that's never really true) I figured it would be ok. Plus, there's more work from them down the road which I'll be happy to take.
Unfortunately, the holiday season makes it hard to conduct business. So many folks are on vacation or are preoccupied. Cold-calls/emails aren't very effective, I'm seeing. Unless you have a connection, you really don't stand much chance in this business (web design, development, programming, marketing).
However, I have a few solid leads. A friend of mine called me up and told me of a great possibility...oh, and can he get a finder's fee? (The answer is yes.) A couple other possibilities on the line as well... some personal projects to get back to...
Lots of fun, lots of work, lots of stress. I think that's what this boils down to.
Goodbye cruel stability
On Monday of this week, I gave my two weeks' notice. I gave my bosses a letter announcing my departure from the company and stating my reasons for doing so... I was surprised that they had less of a reaction. I felt like they might have known - or at least suspected something - but in the meeting they were clearly knocked off guard. There was no yelling or crying... they didn't seem mad or upset. But they didn't seem to expect it at all.
I told them that I am starting my own company, but I played it down - that it was really just a way to pay the bills while I tried to figure out my life. I also told them the name of my new company, in hopes that I would get a little contract work from them after I'm gone.
In the meantime, they are understandably concerned with getting things finished up before I go. This means completing projects as fast as possible, documenting the things that only I know how to do, and helping to make the transition to an eventual replacement.
The funny thing to me is that there's no way I could do all of this in two weeks. I spent this past week finishing up one project, and have another full week's work on another. That leaves no time whatsoever for documentation, training, whatever. They're shooting themselves in the foot.
One of the ways to obtain job security is to make sure that you're the only person in the world who knows what in the hell you do. As a web programmer, server administrator, security consultant, network manager, etc., there are thousands of folks out there that could do my job. But in a company of five, where I am the only person capable of doing these things, it is imperative that they find a replacement quickly. For the money they're paying me, I seriously doubt that they will find anyone with these skills in the next week. It can all be learned, of course, but it can't be learned in a matter of days. Before I leave, I am going to tell them that I'll be willing to help out - contracts, training, consulting, whatever - but I will charge them. They won't like it, but they'll take my help because they're screwing themselves over now.
All in all, I'm anxious to get started on my own. I'm looking forward to long nights of work and sleeping in until nine. And to the ulcers that come with knowing that your next house payment relies on whether you get this contract. But mostly, I'm looking forward to doing good work again.
Strangers on a Strange Website
I was posting on another message board (I feel a little guilty admitting that... like I'm cheating on Slashdot or something) and described a site that I built. The site, also the subject of several of my journal entries, was not named or anything. Someone knew right away what the site was. Apparently, he is friends with one of my beta users. Amazing.
I've had a few sites over the years, but this is certainly the first that could become anything more than a personal project. Many users have complimented me on the features... and with the new design and features that I've been working on, I'm excited to see what it will become.
I remember the first time I heard from a stranger... I was studying in Japan, keeping a journal online, and got a card in the mail. I hadn't gotten much mail at that point, so it was a big surprise. After reading the card, I realized that I didn't know the person who sent it to me. A complete stranger found my site, read all my entries, and sent me a card overseas. Things like that make you feel just a little bit more optimistic about the human race.
The Exciting World of Me
To break from my usual rants about work and my developing career, I'll make it short and sweet and hit on different topics...
I hate the election, and I'm starting to get fed up with my country. Between the Patriot Act and failing social support systems, I don't like any of the candidates and I don't feel good about our future.
Four years ago, I studied in Japan. Just before I went, I visited the dentist. That was the last time I went. Now, I have at least one cavity and it has started to hurt. This morning I scheduled an appointment to have a cleaning and filling.
To save money (after all, I may not have a steady paycheck soon), I try not to go out to lunch. Instead, I bring something in. Today: Campbell's Chunky soup (Chicken, Cheese, and Broccoli with Potato).
Two weeks ago, I posted a journal entry about my boss asking me to work a ridiculous amount of unnecessary overtime. Last week, I came in to discover that he was asking me to work "as much overtime as possible." Again, it was unnecessary. My response to both was to put in a few extra hours, but basically work the same schedule as I always do. He hasn't said anything, but he did give me plenty of glares when I'd leave the office before 6pm.
Last night, I started playing with MySQL. In the past, my web development has relied on a SQL Server database. It's powerful, easy to use, and has a heck of a lot of literature to help support it. Like most proprietary vs. open source battles, MySQL has some shortcomings that will frustrate me over the next few months. Fortunately, there are some benefits (again, very common) that will probably win out. The price is the biggest benefit. The drawbacks that I see thus far involve database management tools that suck. MySQL Administrator appears to work, but it couldn't create a table in my database and the error messages were worthless. I tried installing MySQL on a Windows server in my home, but I couldn't get the Administrator to even connect. SQL Server worked right away.
Now it appears that the hosting company is using MySQL 3.x and the Administrator is for 4.x+. I'm willing to accept the possibility that my own unfamiliarity with this software is the reason why I'm failing. But I'm also thinking that this configuration/setup is not ideal for my learning. Instead of screwing around with MySQL and PHP (in which I'm a complete newbie) I think I'll try converting some of my ASP applications to use MySQL.
If I can create the tables and get my data in there.
Any suggestions on MySQL tools would be appreciated. For now, it'll have to work with 3.x. I'll have my new server up in a few weeks. If I can get MySQL to do the job, I'll save the money I'd have spent on MSSQL and maybe I can go out to lunch sometime.
Evil Comments! Raaa!!!
I just posted my 666th comment. Just a coincidence that I looked in my profile and saw it.
I nearly went off on my boss today. Then I thought about simply packing up and walking out. Finally, I settled down and sent a rational, calm email explaining why he was being an idiot and I was right. He understood and my patience paid off. Instead of ordering me to work "as much as necessary" to get the project done in the next four days, I've got the next four days to get "as much as possible" done.
Really - if it's going to take 80-100 hours to get finished, why would you think I could get that done in the next four days? Or that I would agree to, considering that the mistakes that brought about this situation were not my doing?
I doubled my "freaks" today...three people added me as their foe. I looked through their posts and my recent posts and none of them posted comments in anything that I posted in. I can't figure it out.
If someone has a problem with something I say, post a freakin' comment. To my journal, my post, or whatever.
If you add me to your foes list, let me know why.
I've discovered a weakness that I didn't realize affected me so much: impatience.
As I prepare to leave my job and start my own company, I've been working long hours and trying to keep things secret. I don't want my bosses to fire me before I'm ready to leave. But it's wearing me down quite a bit, going home and effectively working a second full time job...
We have a few proposals out, ranging from nearly nothing to being able to pay the bills for two years. It's great to think about that high end - not worrying about having enough to live on, having the freedom to go for a few months with not a lot lined up, etc. But it's scary to think about that low end; I'd hate to be stuck in my job for another couple of months.
One client said that they would come back with a number that they would be willing to spend, and wanted to know what they could get for that. I like that type of business - where I know what we're dealing with and we aren't going to lose the project just because the client wasn't sure how flexible we'd be.
So here I am, pushing the limits of my patience as I wait to hear back from the clients. Trying not to explode every time I hear my boss promise to get something done and then come to me with more work to do before the impossible deadline. Oh well, it's a distraction from the stress of uncertainty.
My First Hardware Mod
I've never done any kind of hardware stuff before... and I know this is as basic as it goes, but I'm proud of my first attempt:
I'v had an unused case fan sitting on my desk for the last few months. Originally, it was plugged directly into the inside of my case and simply run up to my desk. But that wasn't very attractive or efficient (you have to open your case to turn it off?).
So I cut open a USB cable and spliced the power ends together with the case fan. The wires were conveniently color coded red and black on both. Taped the wires so they wouldn't touch, and voila! A USB-powered case fan.
Still not attractive, but much easier to turn on and off.
Though I haven't informed my employers yet, I will be leaving my job as soon as possible.
'Possible' means that I need to have something lined up before I leave. I am starting my own company, which will directly compete with my current employer. Too long have I been unhappy in my job, frustrated with the clients, the salary, and the way that my bosses run the company.
My business partner and I will complement each others' skills very well. He also brings clients, different abilities, and a new perspective. We're both entreprenurial, but he will remain in his full time job for a while longer (they're paying for his MBA).
We're looking for clients and projects. I'm also starting a marketing campaign (starting with some ideas I got from "Guerilla Marketing for Free") and have some great prospects for clients. Once I have enough work waiting for me on the other side, I will quit my job. It's scary as hell, but I'm confident in our ability to get the minimum amount of work needed in order to pay the bills and survive.
Salary and overtime
Like everyone else, there are things I hate about my job. Like most everyone else, I hate being underpaid. Since there are so few people in my company, and two of them are owners, I can pretty much estimate how much they are making. My work is responsible for the majority of their salaries.
So when we're busy enough that I won't be able to get everything done in a 40 hour week, there are three options:
1. I do it anyway, and don't get compensated. I'm salary.
2. We don't do it, and tell the client it won't get done until later.
3. Outsource it.
Now there's another option, but my bosses do not seem willing to consider it. I would gladly do the work, on my nights and weekends, if they compensated me for it. Take the money they would pay to a contractor, give it to me, and "buy" my free time. Hell, I'd take additional vacation time. Or gifts. Whatever.
They told me at my review in January that they simply could not afford to pay me more. Recently, I've altogether stopped working at home. I don't do any work after I leave the office, and I simply refuse to do anything (other than an emergency as my job might require) without them specifically telling me to do it.
There's no benefit to me. If I work 40 hours or 60, I get the same paycheck. If I get projects done faster, more efficiently, etc. then I might get a "good job." My one and only bonus was $1,000 after the first quarter. Laughable, considering that my overtime (and hard work during hours) brought in nearly $100,000.
I suggested this "compensate me for the extra work" idea, but my boss basically shrugged it off. Another time, I pointed out that there was no benefit to me for the overtime. I could be working on my house, watching a movie, reading a book - why should I work for free?
The response was two-fold: one, I'm a salary employee. I have no free time. And two, I did get a bonus for that quarter. "Do you call that nothing?"
I call that an unequal trade - my spare time for a lower rate of pay, not guaranteed or even hinted at. Just a - well, here are a few scraps. Have at it.
Damn the Man
Almost two years ago, I had an idea to build a site. The nature of the site, while not crucial to the discussion, made it a potentially profitable business idea. From advertising, member subscriptions, etc. it would be possible to make it quite lucrative.
After already beginning work on the site, I approached my bosses with the idea. My plan was for our company, using company resources (read: financial backing, server space, design, development time), to achieve the vision that I had. Despite my bosses' interest and enthusiasm, they did very little in the way of helping me. I developed the entire site in my own time (from home, and outside of work hours). Other than a few meetings and the server space (at no additional cost to the company), there was no contribution to the project.
After a year of beta stage, I want to take it to the next stage. In order to clear up any confusion and hopefully prevent any problems down the road, I requested that they formally sign over all rights to the name, code, data, etc. associated with the site.
That's where the problems begin.
Now that I have shown so much interest in the project, they also begin to show more interest. There is no chance for us to dedicate company time to the project, they are not willing to spend money to make it happen, and because it is not a paying project at this point it will always be less of a priority than our paying clients.
I am not willing to work on it during my free time if there is no benefit to me. If I don't own it, then there's no guarantee that I will ever see a profit. I could quit or be fired and the site (including my hundreds or thousands of hours' work during my spare time) would be left with the company.
So here's my problem: Because the domain name is owned by me (in my personal account), I could simply take the site and the domain name to another server. They would have to sue me to get it back from me. Of course, I would be fired long before that ever happened. My other option, assuming that they refuse to sign it over, is to start from scratch and create a brand new site with a different name.
Since I'm the only one with the ability to work on the site, here's how it will play out:
1. The project doesn't get done.
2. The project gets done.
a. They devote company time to it.
b. They ask me to do it on my own time.
i. They compensate me for that time.
ii. They don't compensate me.
Since 2a won't happen because of our busy schedule, the only option that I would even consider acceptable is obviously 2bi. I think that's highly unlikely - so I'm left with either starting from scratch or convincing them to sign it over.
The worst thing is that my bosses are becoming more and more unreasonable with every week. And each week, I start to look harder and harder for a new job.
Does anyone have any ideas about this?
UPDATE (July 30, 2004) My request (and subsequent discussion) has resulted in an offer by my employer. They agreed to sign over any claims of ownership, including code, trademark, etc. completely free of charge. They won't host my site for free anymore, but I'm allowed to take it elsewhere. The only catch is that I have to sign a non-compete agreement. The terms of the agreement are a bit vague at this point, but I will be certain to have a lawyer examine it before I sign. They're afraid that I will be offered (and accept) projects outside of work. This concern has been there in the past, but with the publicity of this site I will exposed to a lot more potential clients. They're asking for a two-year agreement, but I won't sign anything that extends past my employment with them. Basically, if I quit (or they fire me) then I won't be prevented from working in this business for any period of time. While I'm generally against such agreements, this seems to be a way for everyone to get what they want. If I decided to quit and form my own company, which is a possibility in the future, I need to be free and clear of any obligations or limitations.
Thanks to everyone that offered their advice. It seems that my gamble will pay off; I can avoid any future legal or ethical issues, and they can rest assured that I'm not competing with them while on their payroll.
I got my first "first post" today, and completely on accident. It was modded +5 Funny. I tossed out a one-liner... really the only thing I had to say on the topic. I was surprised to see that it was the first post because I didn't hurry - it was probably three or four minutes after the story showed up on the front page that I responded. I guess I got lucky.
Why do people really care about first posts anyway? Why do I care?
Disagreement != Troll
After posting this comment, I've nearly given up on Slashdot being a reasonable community for discussion and thought.
A reasonable person cannot possibly look at Linux as a corporate alternative and call it free. It's not free, there are costs associated with it. There are costs with ANY system, and Linux is no different. In fact, Linux may have higher costs in some situations - it's the nature of the beast at this point in time. This is INDISPUTABLE.
Of course, there are other reasons to use Linux in your company - and in my opinion, those outweigh the potential costs.
Slashdot moderators, however, decide to mark my comments as Troll, while actual Flamebait and Troll posts beneath me are modded as Insightful. Stuff like, "You are completely fucking delusional." Great.
Is Slashdot an open discussion? Not when it comes to certain topics, such as Linux, Microsoft, RIAA, etc. It's a huge circle jerk, made possible by the moderation system.
Since I've been allowed to, I've meta-moderated at every chance. Many posts are correctly modded, but sometimes I find those gems where someone speaks his mind and says something unpopular. Those are always marked Troll or Flamebait. In the context of the discussion, it may be the only worthwhile comment. Or it might be the very reason for the subsequent discussion. Such comments are priceless - it is a shame that they are moderated in such a way.
Shame on those moderators and shame on Slashdot for perpetuating this downward spiral of free thought.