Play Golf to Promote Your Business

I recently went to a driving range for the very first time, in preparation for my first round of golf. Different from the other sports in which I participate (cycling and hockey) in that there’s a lot less physical effort and much more mental effort, I wasn’t convinced that playing golf would really be of interest to me.

Until, that is, I was explained the social aspect to golf.

On a typical golf course, people go out in sets of four to play each round. Because there needs to be a gap between players, the clubs will generally insist on this amount of grouping. When a pair shows up and wants to golf, they will be asked to wait until another pair arrives, and then they can golf as a foursome. As a result, you will end up spending a couple hours with people you are now meeting for the first time.

If your clientèle is of the type to play golf, then this can be a great way to gain an introduction to some people you would otherwise have difficulty locating. Not only that, but you will also have the opportunity to spend a few hours with them, making your 30 second elevator pitch into a two hour discussion about their business and how you might be able to help them.

In golf, unlike many other sports, it’s considered acceptable to discuss business while playing. Not only that, but social etiquette on the links frowns upon the use of cell phones (no one will be happy if your phone rings while they’re in the middle of lining up their putt). As a result, you are expected to hold conversation with your fellow players.

This is one of the best ways to network. You get to enjoy some time in the sun, perfect your golf game, meet new people, and grow your business all at the same time.

I looked up the price of membership out of curiosity.At one club, the annual membership is about $5000, while others did not list prices. This, however, is the price of exclusivity, and a worthwhile business expense. While I’m not rushing out to get a membership right now, it’s certainly in my list of potential places to continue my networking efforts.

Why the Decor can be too Expensive

In my previous article, I justified spending relatively large amounts of money on your office decor. The justification was along the lines of showing your potential clients how their money is spent, and in the long run, it will pay for itself with acceptable higher fees.

I was then informed that Walmart, with top gross earnings in the world on an annual basis, has its corporate offices in a set of trailers in the middle of a field. Despite this cheap appearance, businesses will still approach the company, hoping to get their products carried by the store, and on entry to the offices, end up selling their products at the lowest price possible.

To resolve this contradiction to my publication, I placed a caveat on my position – that I was not targeting the discount industry, in which signs of frugality are key to increasing business.

However, this did not go far enough. The truth is, the decor of an office is highly dependent on the marketing image that you want to present. In the discount industry, the image is frugality. In the corporate legal industry, a more extravagant decor is called for. In the programming industry, things get a little more complicated.

On the one hand, there’s the image of Facebook and various other start-ups. They began in college dorm rooms, garages, abandoned offices. There might have been pizza boxes piled by the door, a foosball table in the middle of the room with sharp edges, and nerf balls scattered about.

The other side is that of the slick programmer, who has all the gadgets, who’s desk would make the bridge of the USS Enterprise look bare. The place is sparkling clean, everything is using the latest technology.

Which is the better image? It depends on who you’re trying to impress.

Is one image worth more than the other? Not really, since both appeal to a specific market. What is important is that when you choose your decor, you are aware of the marketing image you now present, and how that will affect your ability to bring in more clients without losing your current clients.

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.