Technology Can Slow You Down

I’m working on a project that has been passed through a couple of iterations of design. A project that was scheduled to take a few months is now about to be released, over a year later. Why? Technology slowed us down.

For this project, one of the people involved decided to make use of a new technology which no one in the company had ever used before, along with a second technology for which we had limited experience available to us. The selling point for those technologies was that they were supposed to be easy to develop in.

Now, at the end of the project, the issues holding us up are directly related to those 2 technologies. Quite literally, they slow the program down. We’ve reached the point where some of us on the project are seriously considering rewriting those sections of the application. We figure that with 2 of us working on this using our downtime, we can get those sections of the program rewritten by the end of the month, in time for the program to go to production on its current schedule.

Perhaps this time technology will actually make things faster.

How I Find Blogging Ideas

This is #9 on Chris Brogan’s list of 100 Blog Topics I Hope YOU Write.

I read the paper every day, and so I am fairly caught up on current events. I’m working on building a business, so I do a fair amount of reading along those topics. I read other peoples blogs using the WordPress Readomatic. As well, I am an avid reader, and am constantly reading novels, going through 2 to 5 novels a week. I spend time on LinkedIn and Facebook, reading what my friends and associates are doing, as well as belonging to several groups and following their discussions.

With the amount of reading I do, it should not be surprising that I will come across ideas or statements that pique my interest. When that happens, it will often be the source of another article. Some get written immediately, others sit around for a while.

The only exception to this is Chris Brogan’s list, which I came across via a friend’s blog (http://lichtman.ca/) and who opened a challenge to see who could get through the list first. I’m usually up for a challenge, and so I started writing on those topics. I did find a few items in the list to which I cannot relate (for example, #6: How Flickr Did It Right) and skipped over those. The list, however, did provide me with ideas for starting articles on days that I want to write, but for some reason, can’t be inspired to come up with a topic.

Saving Money on an IT Solution

Small and medium sized businesses will, at some point in their development, require an IT solution. The need may be driven by an increase in client volume, requiring some tasks to be automated. It may be financially driven, to make tracking finances easier. Whatever the reason, the owner or manager of the business goes out looking for a solution.

Depending on the personality of the owner or manager, they will do one of a few things:

  1. Go to their local software/hardware store and take the advice of the clerk and buy something off the shelf.
  2. Call their cousin’s friend who once took a computer course and have them build a custom solution.
  3. Ask a business associate for a recommendation, and use them.
  4. Put out an ad describing part of the IT need, and sort through the responses.

Each of these methods has a problem, and in some cases, more than one. I will run through each, and then make a recommendation for how to acquire an IT solution.

In the first solution, the clerk in the store does not necessarily have the expertise to properly advise you. He or she likely does not understand your business, and so does not know what kind of solution you really need. As well, if he is on commission, then their recommendation will be biased.

In the second case, there are a few problems. The first is that you are mixing family and business. Each person has their own policies in this matter, but it should be acknowledged. The second problem is also the matter of credentials and expertise. What kind of experience does this person have? What do their previous clients say about them? Most importantly, though, is the question as to whether you even need a custom solution.

The third case has the fewest problems, but is not immune. You have a personal recommendation from another business, so the expertise has been vouched for. However, each business is unique, and unless you research the recommendation, you can potentially run into the issues from the second case.

The fourth case illustrates a problem with all the scenarios. While it will provide you with the largest selection of people to choose from, unless your business is in IT, you likely do not have the skills necessary to evaluate which of your applicants is best.

The following advice can be applied to any of the above scenarios.

  1. Require references from any provider, much as you would ask for references from a job applicant. This will help you determine what their past clients think of them. If they cannot provide references, look for someone else.
  2. Find out how much time they will spend evaluating your business before getting to work. The more time they will spend doing research, the more appropriate the solution will be.
  3. Find out what their maintenance contracts are like, and how much it will cost you. This is often the location of the “hidden fees” in IT.
  4. Request a time frame for delivery of the solution. Make sure that they provide a guarantee that it will be ready when they say it will be.
  5. Find out (if you can) whether they are commissioned to sell certain products. Ask them to show you the various options, and the pros and cons of each.
  6. When talking to them, ask for explanation of any technical term you don’t understand. A competent consultant will simplify their language to help you understand.
  7. Get a contract, and make sure that all the fees are outlined clearly, as well as deliverables, dates and time for each stage, guarantees, and who owns each part of the solution. Depending on the nature of the solution, the consultant may own portions of it in terms of intellectual property, but it needs to be specified in the contract.

Following the above guidelines will help you evaluate potential consultants. Most of this information can be acquired before the work starts, and should not cost you anything. The time frame is the most difficult to provide, and you may not be able to get this in advance, but you should require it as part of the work.

It is worth spending the extra time and money to get an appropriate IT solution. A poorly done solution will have to be redone, and potentially at a much higher expense. As well, if the solution is right the first time, you will start reaping the benefits immediately, while if you start with a bad solution, you will waste time and money trying to make it work, after which you will learn that you need a completely new solution.

If you had time to do it twice, you had time to do it right the first time.

The Right Time for Publicity

This is the realm of a Catch 22. In order for a business to grow, people need to know about it. However, if people know about your business before you have solidified your product, you may end up with negative publicity that will haunt you for a while. If you wait too long before making your product public, you may end up losing a significant portion of the market to your competition who went public before you did.

Of course, if you have a business plan (which if you want your business to be successful, you will definitely need one), then you should have thought about this already. The question is, what did you come up with?

Some businesses can be developed in stages, which makes the answer to this question relatively simple: provide public information in stages, as each piece of your product or service becomes available. This way, you can ensure that the components you’re advertising can stand up to public scrutiny, and you don’t talk about the components you are still working on.

Other businesses, however, have an all-or-nothing perspective. They have a single product which cannot be broken into pieces. If these businesses require funding before the product is ready for sale, they will have to decide how much information to broadcast. Tell too little information about your product, and you won’t gain interest. Tell too much, and you may end up promising more than you can deliver, or give your competitors information that can be used by them. The trick is in striking the right balance between the two extremes.

My advice would be to use the following as general guidelines:

  1. Be sure you are ready to talk about your product before going live.
  2. Try to find a way to break up your deliverables into stages so that you can start generating a revenue stream and good publicity while you work on the later stages.
  3. When talking about a work-in-progress, don’t talk about the features you haven’t solved yet, or are not 100% certain will be in the final product.
  4. Make sure that when you start talking about your product, you have an image ready. You will make your first impression at this point in time, so be sure it is the one you want. You’re lucky, you get to control the timing of your first impression.
  5. Don’t talk off-the-cuff. You will be asked questions about your product or service, and if you don’t have a prepared answer, be aware that creating one on the spot may result in revealing more information than you would otherwise want to tell.
  6. Don’t target a bigger market than you are capable of managing. If your product can service millions of people in hundreds of industries, that doesn’t mean you need to target every industry from the start. Pick one or two as your initial market, and build on your success. You can work on expanding while impressing the smaller group you targeted.

Succeed or Fail? Your Choice…

I have been reading over the last few days many articles on success, and a few on failure. In business, only a few will succeed, and it’s not always the individual with the best idea. For example, Starbucks succeeded in building a massive empire, but there are thousands of small coffee shops that did not grow. Is Starbucks the best coffee? Not in my opinion. But there is something special about Starbucks that cannot be said for its competition.

There are many books written about the success of various companies. Successful entrepreneurs will give interviews talking about their keys to success. What they don’t talk about is how they might have failed. When is the last time a failed start-up was the topic of a small business magazine?

There are, in my opinion, 2 components to a successful business. The first, discussed by Joel Spolsky in his article Joel Spolsky’s Secret to Start-up Success, is about motivation. The successful entrepreneur has pushed through the hard times and the easy times. Despite it all, they remained driven and motivated, and in the end, it pays off. “The person who makes a success of living is the one who sees his goal steadily and aims for it unswervingly.” Cecil B. DeMille

The second component is best expressed in the saying “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” Winston B. Churchill Every success has failures along the way. In order to succeed, one must not stop at the failure, but use the experience to move forward. There is a lesson to be learned in every failure, but too many people stop at the failure, and, rather than analyze why it was failure, merely quit. Success does not come to those who quit.

In conclusion, to succeed in your endeavors, find a way to maintain your enthusiasm for what you are doing. That means that you need to enjoy the journey to your goal, and not just the goal itself. Second, when encountering a failure, use it as an opportunity to learn, to gain experience, and move on. If you wrote a book and a publisher rejects it, look at why it was rejected. Did you target the wrong market? Do you need to rewrite sections to improve the flow of ideas? Then make the necessary adjustments and try again. It may take one try, it may take 100 tries. But if you persevere, it will pay off.

Ways to Save a Bad Time at a Conference

This is #8 on Chris Brogan’s list of 100 Blog Topics I Hope YOU Write.

First of all, I have skipped #6, and, not having used Flickr yet, will not be writing about that at this point in time.

To me, there are two types of bad times at conferences. First, the conference may turn out to be something that you were not expecting (as an example, you go to a Sci-Fi convention, and discover that it’s actually a Star Trek convention, in which you happen to have no interest). The second type of bad time is where the conference could have been good, but for some reason, you aren’t connecting.

In the first case, there’s really not much you can do, unless you decide to take the opportunity to learn something new. Extra knowledge can be useful, even if you don’t know yet how you might apply it. Besides, in any group setting, there’s the networking aspect, which is difficult to predict as to how it will pay off in the long run.

In the second case, there’s a different problem. You went to a conference on the nature of the universe expecting to hear lectures from the like of Stephen Hawking, and discover that he wasn’t interested in presenting, so they took the local high school physics teacher as a stand-in. Couple this with the fact that 90% of the attendees are still in high school. You have a PhD in physics.

Remember, that unless you failed to do any research into the conference (in which case you have no one to blame but yourself for it not living up to your expectations), there are likely other people at this conference who are also not enjoying themselves. Other people who came to the conference with similar expectations to your own, and made similar discoveries as you have about the nature of the conference.

Find them.

You could sit and complain together, but better yet, you can set up an impromptu conference in the middle of the one you’re all attending. Even if you can only find one or two other people who seem bored, get together with them in a fairly public area (look for a spare room that’s part of the conference area but isn’t being used at the moment) and give a presentation on a topic you are considered expert in (assuming, of course, that it relates to the subject of the conference). Ask the people you’ve met to do the same.

In a short while, you will have heard a few ad lib presentations on topics that you would have found interesting. You’ve connected to a few other experts in the field. And if the organizers of the conference are paying attention, you may soon get a request to help them organize their next conference, preventing a repeat of the poor performance.

Clever idea… but are you the first?

If you are an entrepreneur, then you have likely come across the question in the title more than once when you presented your idea to someone. The question is valid, but, unfortunately, often difficult to answer. I was reading today in the National Post about how due diligence on the show Dragons’ Den failed to reveal in two particular cases that the products under investigation were not, in fact, original. While I will not discuss here the issues in the products mentioned in that article, I will talk about the question that should have been raised.

Has your idea been done, or tried, before?

Often, when you think of an idea that could be turned into a business venture, the first step is forgotten, or given minimal attention. Before you go diving into the work and becoming emotionally attached to the idea, do your own due diligence. Try to locate your nearest competition, and find the pros and cons of their product or service. What advantage do you hold over them? If you cannot answer that question, then your entire idea may be flawed, or based off of out-of-date information.

A common response, though, is: “There is no competition! My idea is so unique and innovative that no one has ever tried it before!”

The answer to that, of course, is that you haven’t looked hard enough. If your idea has never been tried before, then what makes you think it is viable as a business. The competition may be distant, or impractical. It may be expensive beyond the cost of the problem it is supposed to solve.

But it exists.

To start yourself looking for the competition, think about the problem your idea solves. Then look at what other people faced with the same problem do. Do they ignore it? Do they use some roundabout way of solving it? Is their current solution expensive? What are pros and cons of the solutions that are already out there? How does your idea compare?

To make this a little simpler, suppose you had a potential client sitting in front of you. They will give you $100K contract on the spot if you can convince them that your solution is really the best. Of course, you can talk about the problem your idea solves. You can talk about your price versus the price of the competition. But what you absolutely must talk about is how is your product better than the alternatives. That means you need to know your competition in great detail, because if you don’t, you will lose the sale. If your potential client knows more than you about your competition, then they will ask you questions you don’t know the answer to, and then you lose the client.

Business Proposals

I have my first business proposal sometime next week. I’m meeting with someone who is a potential client AND a potential investor to describe my idea, the research I have already done into it, and to get buy-in from them. I’m actually not trying to get any money from them at this point, but I’m aware that it is a possibility.

I know that I should ask him to sign an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) and I will, but I’m not sure if he will sign. Probably will, though, as I know this guy fairly well, and it would get back to him if he tried to steal my idea. Also, he’s not technical, and therefore the details of my idea are quite possibly beyond him, so from his perspective, he may as well pay me to develop this idea as well as pay anyone else.

I’m still trying to figure out the pitch, though. I don’t want to go too technical, as that’s not the point. Currently what I need from him is to get access to people that can help me with the research. So he needs to know, in high level terms, what it is I’m thinking of. Since he may become an investor as well, he needs to know what the estimated cost of developing this solution is, and why. Time frames are important, but are hard to judge until the research is complete (I did plan a research period followed by a development period, but currently the time frames for development are completely tentative).

Can anyone think of other aspects of the idea I should probably cover? Also, what format should my presentation be in? I can throw together a document outlining the idea, or I can put together a PowerPoint presentation and bring my laptop (if he has a projector available, since I don’t). However, this is an initial meeting to see if there is interest, and perhaps a presentation like that at this stage is overkill.