Why Decor is Worth the Price

I had a conversation a few days ago about the decor of an office, and why it might be worth the expenditure to have nice decor. Rather than give you my thoughts on the topic, I’ll repeat what we talked about, and let you weigh in with your opinions.

An accounting firm had recently acquired new offices, and invited over their clients to see it, essentially, an open house for the new office. One of the clients made a comment: I guess your fees are about to go up.

This was not a comment made in jest, nor was it a complaint. It was an expectation of what would likely become a reality.

When a client sees a nice office, with a receptionist at the door and paintings on the wall, there are a few thoughts that go through their heads. First, that the firm must be well-off to be able to afford those items. Second, their fees must be high to make it all worthwhile. Third, that they must have some clients already who think the firm is worth their fees.

When a potential client walks into an office, they will be taking a look around, to see whether or not they should be trusting their business to this firm. In this case, appearances are extremely important, so much so that firms will spend tens of thousands of dollars just to get the look they want. The justification is simple – they can sign more clients, at higher rates, on account of the favorable impression that the office creates.

The actual decor is not really relevant. I’ve worked in corporate gray cubicles for a few years, which I find depressing. At the same time, they are neat and clean (or at least easy to make look that way). My personal preference is for stained wood furniture, as I find that look to be more welcoming. Others prefer chrome and glass. It doesn’t matter so long as the look is balanced and professional.

It doesn’t have to be expensive either. You can buy desks at Ikea along with chairs, a series of bookshelves to create private spaces, some potted plants to bring life to the room, and have outfitted a dozen work stations for less than $2000.

How would you justify such expense? Or do you feel that this really is worth it, in which case, why not?

Crunch at the End of Time

I’ve worked on many projects over the years, and I’ve noticed something in common with all of them. No matter how big or small the project, no matter how long or short the time line, the closer to the end of the project I get, the tighter the deadline seems. In discussion with several other people, I’m aware that I’m not alone in this regard, that many people who work on projects seem to notice the same trend.

At first, I wondered if it was a scheduling issue. In an earlier article, I discuss how to deal with scheduling issues, and after trying some of the advice suggested there, I realized that this was not the issue.

The problem has little to do with scheduling, and a lot to do with the nature of projects. The real problem is that when a project time line is written, the project itself is often poorly understood. As the project progresses, the problems being solved become clearer, as does the solution. However, the time required to build the solution gets longer, and soon even the padding put into the original estimate is long gone.

Is this a failing in our ability to estimate the amount of time needed for a particular amount of work?

I would tend to say that we are able to provide that estimate with a high level of accuracy. However, we are hard-pressed to accurately assess what work it is that we’ll be doing by the end of the project.

For now, I don’t see an answer to this problem, but I’m sure I’m not alone. How would you go about providing time estimates so that you don’t find yourself working late hours the closer you get to the final deadline?

An Incomplete Product

I just made a few purchases for my new office space – a desk and a white board. My desk came from Walmart – an L-shaped desk with a hutch in black and cherry finish. I picked it up from the store, dropped it off at the office still in the box and unassembled. The white board came from an office supply website that does delivery, and arrived exactly when it was supposed to.

The Desk

When I bought the desk, I knew it wasn’t assembled, and would take a couple hours to get it built. Once I opened the box, the instructions were clear and easy to follow. Every piece had an easily-removed sticker with a number on it so that I could match them up with the directions. The instructions were written in clear English and were presented in a logical format.

Two hours after opening the box, my desk was ready to use.

The White Board

The white board was a different story. I purchased it from the web site for two reasons – it was a great price ($28 for a 24″ by 36″ board), and it included delivery.

When I opened the box, though, I discovered that something was missing. Not something large, but something I was completely surprised that it didn’t come with. That is, it was missing the screws to hang it on a wall.

This isn’t just me, but that product was not complete. The board was close to useless without the screws, since I had no real way to prop it up to use. I had to go out and buy a pair of drywall fillers and screws to hang it with. The expense was about $0.50 in hardware.

To complete the product, the manufacturer should have tossed in the screws. They could even charge for it, because I would have paid for it, as would most people buying this board.

At the end of the day, I felt like I had bought half a product.

When you’re selling a product, make sure you include everything that would be needed by your consumer to use your product.

Motivating Productivity

I recently moved into an office with several developers, some of whom are using the space as a kind of co-working space with everything you need for a technical development shop. This office is somewhat unique, in my experience, with many developers with a variety of expertise sharing their experience in a casual environment.

Naturally, in a space like this, with everyone being friendly and sociable, there are often conversations taking place over a variety of topics. Phone conversations have limited privacy, and result in the noise level in the space rapidly rising. When the socializing starts, productivity drops across the room.

The question here is not how to reduce the distraction – that’s the easy part. The real question is how to motivate people around you to be productive so that none of the issues above become real issues.

I personally prefer a work environment with some ambient noise, whether conversation, or music, or other sounds that can’t be clearly made out. Others prefer an absolutely silent work space, and others prefer complete chaos. Trying to get several people in a single office to agree on the environment can be quite a challenge.

One part, however, should not be too difficult to resolve – that is, the need to have at all times a professional work environment in which productivity of one person is not hampered by the socializing that goes on.

Perhaps the best way to approach this is to educate the individuals in the office as to what a professional environment is, and only then can real progress be made. To help out, here’s a starting list, though by no means absolute or complete:

  • Clean and tidy: How do you convince a potential client of your professionalism when walking into your office they see papers scattered about, chaos ruling the day? Not to mention that a tidy work environment can also have many productivity benefits as well (not sterile – tidy).
  • Quiet: It doesn’t need to be silent as a tomb, but having a low level of ambient noise helps people concentrate, and removes distractions.
  • Friendly: No, you don’t need to have a long conversation with every person who walks through the door, but a pleasant “good morning” can help start someone’s day off right (note, I learned this from my current environment, where every person will greet you when you arrive).
  • Industrious: Okay, you may not want to see everyone sweating away at their tasks, but at the same time, signs of work being done can promote a generally more productive environment, creating a cycle of productivity.

What do you think? How would you go about removing distraction from your work environment, and how would you go about promoting a productive environment? What do you think a professional work environment looks like?

The Unvalidated Industry

There is one industry which is, perhaps, unique in this respect. Fees run in the thousands of dollars a month. The explanation of what companies in this industry do are such that few people can truly understand them. Reports as to what activity is done on behalf of a particular client are vague, if the reports are written at all. The actions done on behalf of a client cannot be verified by an outside source.

This industry is plagued with trade secrets, so closely guarded that even their own clients cannot be told what it is they do. An NDA would not be sufficient to protect the interests of the company, risk of an employee taking the trade knowledge and starting a competing company is incredibly high.

The industry suffers from another problem. There are many companies who take advantage of the inability for their clients to verify their activity. As a result, they charge high fees to do little if any work.

This industry is that of Search Engine Optimization.

Because this industry is a constant battle between search engines trying to provide higher quality results against companies trying to game the system, SEO companies are extremely quiet about what it is they do. In the past, this wasn’t a real problem for their clients, since results were easier to measure. But today, these companies can claim credit for any positive result gained from the search engines, and who’s to say they’re lying?

The problem is that it is impossible to know, when talking to a company, whether they are in fact legitimate (that is, your money will be spent on actually trying to boost your page rank) and whether they are any good. The graphs and pictures shown as part of the sales pitch are irrelevant, since they cannot be independently verified.

As an example of the difficulty in verification, a company might say that they place hundreds of links for your site on pages with high page rank, thus boosting your own score. But what those sites are you may never know, because that’s a trade secret. You might be shown a few, after signing an NDA, but the full extent of what’s being done on your behalf is a secret.

Is there any way to break this cycle? It’s in the best interests of companies looking for SEO work to break the system, but which company would be the first to open their process to the public?

True Source of Funding in Canada

In a discussion this week with the owner of another company, I was surprised to hear the following fact:

It’s easier to borrow $5 million than it is to borrow $50 thousand. In fact, if all you want is $50,000 then most lending institutions are not really interested in your business.

Surprised, I went to verify this with someone knowledgeable in the area, and he confirmed it. As a small, business, client, the banks have little interest in your business. The implied reason is because a smaller business is a higher risk than a larger business.

That’s not to say the banks won’t lend you money. However, they require that the business put up an amount equal in size to the amount borrowed. So if a business is looking to borrow $100,000, then they must put up that amount as a security against the loan.

The logic, of course, is flawed. If the business were capable of putting up that amount of money, they wouldn’t need to borrow it.

Additionally, here in Canada the loans are insured up to $100,000 per loan. That means that the true risk for the bank is very little, since the principle is essentially guaranteed.

For all the talk about how stimulus dollars are helping businesses grow, it seems that the reality is that big businesses can get bigger, but small businesses are finding it exceedingly difficult to acquire the capital they need in order to grow and expand.

I would be curious to know your thoughts on this, and whether in your locale you are witnessing a similar story when it comes to hunting for small business loans.

Keeping Your Eyes Open

I have a project that I work on when I have some spare time – fortunately or not, that isn’t very often. The project started as as idea a few months ago when I was looking for a service to fill a need, and, not finding one, decided I would create it. As such, it’s never been a priority to work on it, but more of a hobby than anything else.

Since this isn’t the project that I think will make me rich and famous (though, of course, I wouldn’t complain if it did), I don’t go out canvassing for it, or promoting it like wildfire. I quickly built a mock-up of what the project might look like in its finished state, and now slowly chip away at it as I have time, implementing more parts to it, and expanding on the idea.

However, I still try to keep my eyes open for opportunity.

Although the project is a hobby, when I do work on it, I take it seriously. I try to focus, dedicate some time, remove distractions. I treat the project like that of a client, only in this case, the client is me.

As a result, I also do research for the project, looking for the same type of outside contributors that I would search for on behalf of any of my clients. This includes looking for funding.

No, I’m not out seeking an investment. But I am keeping my eyes and ears open for development opportunities for the idea, and this often comes by searching through investor resources. Right now, the entire project costs are less than $1,000. The project could be completed by paying someone to do the work for less than $10,000.

I don’t need the money to finish the project – it’s proceeding without that.

But the best time to accept an investment is when you don’t need the money – it puts you in a stronger negotiating position. After all, if you don’t need the money, you really can walk away from it.

Make sure you’re always listening for opportunities, even though you may not need them yet. When the right opportunity comes your way, make sure you don’t have your eyes shut.

Client Offers

I just received an offer from one of my service providers which read as follows:

If every one of our clients switched to paper-less billing, we would save 5,000 trees per month. Switch to paper-less billing and we’ll donate $2 to some environmental organization, plus you’ll be entered for a chance to win $1,000 and an equal amount will be donated as well.

Now, I’m not someone who’s against helping the environment. But to me, this offer seemed a little silly, for a few reasons:

  1. If I was so concerned about the environment, the notice that I can reduce paper would be sufficient – the donation is not really relevant;
  2. If I didn’t care about the environment, I would want the savings passed on to me, not to some conservation organization;
  3. If the concern is about the length of time the electronic records are kept for (mine are on record for 18 months), then I’m likely to print out the bills in any case, thus negating any benefit to the environment.

As such, I see this offer as not really achieving any grand goal. The company in question is likely saving between $1 and $2 per month by not mailing be a bill. They are therefore essentially donating the first month of savings to another organization. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but the mere fact that they are not printing my bill is already contributing toward improving the environment.

A better offer would be to do this a little differently.

Assume, for the sake of argument, that the company is saving $2 per month by not printing my bill. I may choose to print it, but then I absorb all the associated costs. As such, by my signing up for electronic billing, the company could persuade me to do so by passing some of that savings back to me.

On the other hand, corporate donations are being made for public appearance as much as for any other reason. So a donation could be made as well, and still satisfy both sides. Offer as incentive to switch billing methods both a reduction on the monthly bill, and a donation. The reduction doesn’t have to be a lot – perhaps $1 in the example above. The company is still making money on having me switch. For public appearance, donate the other dollar from the first month to some organization.

As a result, you make those customers who don’t care about the environment, but would happily switch for a 2-3% reduction on their bill, take on this form of billing. It doesn’t cost the service provider anything, since those costs would have been saved in any case. The public relations portion of the company is happy as well, because they made a sizable donation to a charity out of savings. Everyone wins.

Except the company, which now has reduced its margins on the bill by about 2-3%.