Your Word is Binding

When working with small companies, and in particular, when it is an individual doing the work, there is often a significant amount of work that is done informally. An email is sent, responded to, some phone calls exchanged, and the work begins. The terms may or may not be clear to everyone involved, the expectations might not be clearly defined.

Often, there is a contract, but it is only arranged after the work has begun, which makes its validity questionable from a legal perspective. At a minimum, the issues regarding the work already done would have to be addressed in the contract to some extent.

The problem arises, however, if a disagreement arises prior to a contract being signed. As an employer, you need to be very careful that any commitments already made, whether verbal or written, are still being honored.

As an example, take an employer who hires someone to perform some work, and agrees to bypass the training normally required to do that work. The company’s policy is that people who are training are not paid.

If, after a few days on the job, the employer decides that the new employee needs more training, at this point in time, they may still be obligated to pay the employee. The reason is that the employee can argue that the agreement was to be paid for the work – and that there would be a certain amount of work available to be done. If the employer decides to remove that work, they need to be aware that they might still have to pay the employee for the training at this point.

That’s not to say that the employer is necessarily in the wrong for refusing to pay, but that regardless of the legal right or wrong, from an image perspective, it would be critical to pay this employee. First, it will build trust in the employer that they honor their agreements. Second, the employee might have given up another opportunity when told that they would be paid – potentially making the employer liable for that missed opportunity.

But most importantly, people need to honor their obligations. If you give someone your word, and then discover that an error was made, you need to try, as much as possible, to honor whatever promises were made.

After all, building trust starts with being trustworthy, and if you don’t honor your word, then you are not trustworthy.

Facebook Competitions

I entered a Facebook competition this week, something I hadn’t done before, but had certainly witnessed. The premise of the contest was simple – each person puts up an idea, and everyone votes on which idea they think is best. You encourage your friends to vote as well, and at the end of a specified period of time, the votes are tallied and the idea with the most votes wins.

This contest was being sponsored by Funding Universe, a site which helps pair investors and businesses. The rules were as stated above, with the addition that people could give up to 5 “stars” to each idea, and could vote for each idea once per day. The length of the contest was 2 weeks, so that meant someone voting every day could contribute up to 70 votes for their favorite idea.

The prize? $2,000 cash, plus the opportunity to have your idea presented to a bunch of investors, if you want them to.

At first, the concept of the contest sounds good – see a bunch of business ideas, and then the best idea gets voted to the top, and therefore wins.

In reality, this is just a popularity contest.

Take my idea, for example. The idea is actually a project I’m working on, called Casual Wine Reviews. I submitted it to the contest on Monday, and have been getting about 120 votes per day. That translates into about 25 or so people voting for my idea. The catch, of course, is that I know most of the people voting for the idea, they’re my friends who want to help me win. The person with the most friends is the one who will win this contest.

OK, maybe not the most popular person, but certainly the person with the most influence is going to win. The reason is simple – people are more likely to go onto this site and vote every day because they know one of the contestants than because they care about the contest itself.

Naturally, I’m going to ask you to vote for my idea – vote early, and vote often – but the whole concept of this contest is fundamentally flawed. What really needs to happen is that the people eligible to vote need to be stated before-hand, and then once the ideas are in, they decide which idea they think is best. Trying to figure out what the public thinks is best is just looking to see who can influence the most voters.

So, if you can, visit http://apps.facebook.com/idea-pitch/ and add the application. Then vote for Casual Wine Reviews and give it 5 stars. Then go back the next day and repeat, and so on, until the contest is over. I would really appreciate it! (If you want to tell your friends, that would be helpful as well.)

How Much Paperwork is Enough?

When running a project, it is often necessary to document certain things, for example, requirements, estimates for the work, time lines, testing results, and so on. Often, as a result of who will be seeing the documents, a particular format is needed, or perhaps the wording has to be adjusted to fit the usage.

All this is perfectly normal.

However, the one thing you want to make sure is that regardless of who will be seeing it, the information is documented only a single time, and then re-used from there. Most often, the initial data is being documented by people who don’t like writing things down in the first place. As an example, I’m a programmer by training, and while I’ll complain about bad documentation, or the lack thereof, I also don’t like documenting things myself.

The one thing that such people like less than documenting once is to have to document twice.

Granted, the person requesting the documentation often doesn’t know at the time the documents are produced what their final use will be, and therefore, what format would best suit that need. As such, the documents produced can fall woefully short of meeting those needs, and therefore have to be reproduced.

But once the document has been produced, unless there is a deviation from the accepted standards, it should not be thrown back to the original author to determine the best format for the current need. The person applying the information to a particular use should deal with that, and then use the resulting document to create a new template for the next project.

It’s all about efficiency, and a wise use of resources. If you had time to do it twice, there was time to do it right the first time. But if it has to be done twice, make sure that the person doing it the second time is the same person who sees the need to redo it in the first place.

How Reachable Are You?

I don’t have an iPhone or a Blackberry, and I don’t want one. My cellphone can’t receive text messages, let alone images or video messages. If someone needs to reach me urgently, then they call me. If it’s not that urgent, an email will reach me fairly quickly.

I like it that way.

It comes down to choice. I spent 10 days in the fall in Denmark, and didn’t check my email a single time. I came back to a mountain of messages (over 300 requiring a response), but I enjoyed my vacation. I was able to relax and not think about work.

Reaching me while not on vacation is similar. If I’m working, then send me an email – I’ll be notified within seconds of its arrival. If you need me urgently, call me. If I can’t answer the phone, leave a message and I will call you back as soon as I am able. If you can’t reach me by calling, then there is no other way to reach me short of physically locating me.

Sorry, it’s the way I operate.

I don’t want to be fully accessible 24 hours a day. If I’m eating dinner, I don’t want to think about work. Sure, I can turn off the notification, but I’d rather go the simple route of not having a notification in the first place. I’m actually fairly accessible, you just need to know how to best reach me.

At some point in the future, I’ll likely break down and get an iPhone or similar device. Not by choice, but by need. I recognize that for some people, working with such a device is necessary, or provides other benefits. Travelers, for example, can avoid pulling out their laptops just for their email. Other applications running on those devices can provide other benefits.

So, what will it take to get me on such a device?

Well, my employer could insist. Or I could end up spending more time on the road. Or perhaps I’ll see an app that I just have to have, and therefore cave to temptation.

But I don’t want to be more reachable. I think my life is fine the way it is right now.

Just Say No

There’s something special about working with a small business. Whether it’s the fact that things might be handled a little more casually, or that you know every employee by name, birthday, and hobbies, it’s a little more comfortable.

Nothing lasts forever, and if you’re dealing with a successful small business, then sooner or later, the company gets larger, and many of the things that made the company special are no longer available. With over 50 employees, you’re lucky if you know the names of the people working on your project. The owner/founder no longer has time to talk to you as often as you would like.

As the owner or founder of a small business, it’s important to recognize this difference, and try to work with it. From what I’ve seen, the biggest change that happens to growing businesses is the ability to say no.

When a business is growing and expanding, there is temptation to accept every job that floats your way. No matter the request, your business can handle it. After all, you’ve gone from 5 employees to 25 employees, and need to make sure that you have enough work for all of them, so the more work the merrier.

Little could be further from the truth. While having idle employees is not a healthy state for a business, having employees do work for which they are unqualified, or over-qualified, to do, is also not a healthy state for your business, as it generates either frustration on the part of the client that the work is sub-par, or on the part of the employees that they are working on boring stuff.

Accepting every bit of business that comes your way does not necessarily improve your business. As a sole proprietor, you may have had that luxury, but once you start building a brand, that freedom is gone. When it was only you and a few employees, again, you may have been able to take all the work that came your way, but when you’re creating a business, that freedom disappeared.

Most small business owners have learned how to say no:

  • No, I won’t take on that project, because it’s too big for what my company can handle;
  • No, I won’t work with this client, because he doesn’t pay when he says he will;
  • No, I won’t work on this contract, because it’s not what my business is trying to do.

However, during periods of growth, saying no to any one of these becomes more difficult – your business needs the work and income to support its new size. However, from the perspective of your clients, it’s necessary to continue to say no when the client or project does not further your business, and when they detract from your company’s ability to satisfy your clients’ needs.

Saying no isn’t bad for your business, it helps define what your business stands for. Your business is defined as much by what you don’t take on as by what you do take on.

So please, when growing, continue to say no to those projects and clients that don’t help your business grow in the direction you envision, it will help improve the image of your business in the eyes of your clients, and at the end of the day, everyone will be happier with the outcome.

One Year is Not Enough

In a recent conversation with a coworker, we were discussing the fact that some people had been working at our company for over 30 years. We moved from there to the other side of the story, in which there were some people who had really short stays at the company, working there for between 6 and 12 months. I then commented that the first year at a company doesn’t really count.

In fact, I continued, if you work at a company for less than a year, people think of how long you’ve been at the company in months, and are therefore a newcomer. You don’t know how the company operates (true or not), and you haven’t established your credibility and expertise yet. Once you cross that one year mark, things change, and you start to be accepted as though you’ve always been working there.

When looking for another job, a one-year stint at a company on your resume will immediately raise the question as to why you were there for only a year. While there are a few good answers (the company was bought out, I moved to another city), most are not. At only a year, it’s unlikely that you reached the limits of your potential at the company – if you did, it raises the questions of why you elected to work at a company with such a short career path.

The sweet spot is somewhere between two years, at which point you could have established yourself in the company, and 7 to 10 years, by which point you run the risk of being trapped in your seniority.

Yes, there can be such a thing as staying at a job too long. Many jobs have benefits and perks that come along with seniority. At the point that the value of those perks makes a jump, it can be difficult to make the decision to leave the job for a new position, in the process giving up those benefits that you spent years working your way toward.

When looking at your career path, make sure that the stops and pauses along the way are long enough to gain the benefits and lessons of the stop, but not so long that you appear to have become a permanent fixture there.

Tied to a Provider

Much of my work is done through colleagues – for example, I have a few graphic artists that I can hire on a regular basis, some SEO specialists, marketers, branding consultants, web developers, and so on. While I can do some of all this work myself, most of my clients need a combination of experts in various fields, and bring me onto the project to find the appropriate experts and coordinate the team.

However, what this also means is that in meetings with clients, I’ll bring along another expert appropriate to the situation to provide additional perspective. On occasion, it will come out during the meeting that my colleague doesn’t actually work for me, but with me. The questions that immediately follow are:

Who owns the relationship?

What happens if one of us moves to Malta or is otherwise unavailable?

These questions have very real ramifications to the client. The client needs to know who is liable for the work agreed upon. Who does the client turn to if there is some level of dissatisfaction with part or all of the work done through our agreement. Additionally, if someone moves away, what happens to the client’s work and support? What if one of the people I hired moves away?

The Relationship

In answer to the first concern, the answer is always the same – the relationship is owned by the middleman. The reason for this is simple – the one coordinating the various parts of the project including working with multiple vendors and service providers makes most sense to be the person the client uses as the primary contact for the project.

That being said, the client should be provided with the contact information for each of the vendors where appropriate. The middleman needs to know what’s happening with all aspects of the project, but does not need to control every communique.

Disappearing Vendor

If one of the vendors is no longer available, then from the client’s perspective, there’s no issue. The middleman locates a replacement for the vendor, passes on the relevant information to the client and vendors, and the project carries on. Often, the middleman can hold onto copies of the work in progress as well, so that little is lost even if the absence of the vendor occurs suddenly.

Disappearing Middleman

If the middleman disappears, the client can directly contact the vendors and manage the relationship themselves. Much of the value to the middleman is provided upfront in giving referrals, with the ongoing value being that they act as both project manager and client relationship manager to the various parties.

Client Benefits

The benefit to the client is therefore two-fold. First, they don’t need to search for each vendor, or manage each of those relationships. They can manage a single relationship for the project, and trust that the various people needed to do the work will be available as required. Second, if there’s a change to the vendors, this is little chance that both the middleman and the vendors will choose the exact same time to be unavailable – which means that the client is not tied to a single provider, but to two halves of a pair.

This flexibility can make it easier for a client to switch providers at any level. They can cut out the middleman and stick with the vendors, or insist that other vendors be used and that the middleman work with the new vendors. In either case, the client is left with both the control and the flexibility.

Vendor Benefits

The benefit to the vendor is that they don’t have to manage a client relationship, and can be assured that work coming through specific middlemen will be with known associate vendors. The marketers will know who the graphic artists are, the developers will know who is managing the SEO work, and it will be consistent between projects. This results in higher quality over time, and reduces the risk inherent in assembling new teams who haven’t worked together before.

The trouble is finding someone who coordinate such projects, and who can find a good balance of vendors in multiple areas to provide real value to the clients. Since there is a cost to the client for having a project manager, that person must bring real value beyond coordination and bring in referrals, quality control, and risk reduction.

Enter Optimal Upgrade Consulting Inc. This is what we do.

Visitors and Organic Growth

A question that has come up on several occasions is how to build a large user base for a website that depends on its users for content. The first users will have little incentive to stay – after all, there’s no content there yet. Later users will not arrive, since the earlier users have not provided anything yet.

There are, fortunately, a few options available to you, each with its merits, each with its shortcomings.

Self-Production

This method is useful when the content in question can be produced by a single person, but is too much work to be produced by solely one person. An example would be a collection of data – collecting the data isn’t difficult, merely time consuming. The owner of the site can therefore spend a few weeks collecting some data to get the site started, raising the conversion rate for new users.

Simulated Users

Sometimes, you need the appearance of social interactions in order to grow the site. The easiest way is to create a few “fake” accounts, or get your family and friends to create accounts, and keep it up for a few weeks. As new users join, some of the originals can drop off, or, if they’ve enjoyed the site, keep on using it.

Buying Users

Sometimes you need a large influx of users, well beyond what you can arrange directly through your social network. In that case, you may need to buy users – give them free accounts, increased privileges, or send them tangible merchandise.

Which is for you?

There’s no single answer for all new sites. I’m working on one site that is giving away accounts to all users who sign up pre-beta launch. Another site I’m building will be giving away a one-year membership to the first users who sign up. Yet another site I’ve been involved with worked with creating a dozen demo accounts, which were replaced with the first dozen real users.

If you have an idea for a site that relies on its users for content, get in touch with me, and I can help you understand how each of these systems might apply to your project in particular.