django can make some weird db schemas. just sayin.

When you have awesome people and less than awesome results, it is usually one of three things

  1. leadership (me),
  2. processes or
  3. design (in the global sense of project design patterns).

I set all three as CEO for our rewrite of Tendenci to the open source software platform for nonprofits. Thus no matter what, I take 100% of the responsibility for delays between 2009 and 2014.

To be clear, I’m pleased with the progress on Tendenci, self hosted or our hosted solutions. Basically the team kicked ass on Tendenci 5.1 and I’m proud of them. It was definitely a cumulative effort from many people, past and present, addressing an incredibly complex problem – people.

Tendenci is about people, it isn’t a shopping cart selling shirts (and shopping carts can be complex, just nothing as complex as human behavior).

Tendenci is designed to be as simple as possible, but no simpler. The “minimum viable product” of 2009 is not something our client base wanted to hear about in 2014, even if the new version of Tendenci does mobile and much more. People don’t like to go backwards from what is now called “agile” development.

Lesson 1 – if you want to get REALLY agile – only build what people fund.

Yes, only build funded modifications. (Or contributed pull requests as time is money.) It’s amazing how many people will suggest a great mod. Everyone uses the web so clearly they are experts sharing their wisdom of how it should be built. As if driving a car makes me qualified to build one. And when you say 4k for the mod suddenly the programming module they desperately need isn’t relevant and they find another way.

Why? Why charge for modifications? Priorities. It tell you what people value. And we did that very well from 2001 to 2009. Resulting in a stress tested solid product. But proprietary because 2001 was a bit too soon to start building open source web apps. We had to start over if we wanted to be open source, so I pulled the trigger.

Then I tried to simplify things a bit too much. Things got a bit too Web 2.0 with blocks and giant fonts losing all data density in the display. Upsetting our power-users and looking clunky on screen. My bad. (the good news is it is mostly fixed now.)

Why is oversimplification such a fail?

Think about your car’s dashboard and controls. Look at them when you next get in your car. Incredibly complex information, right? Vast amounts of it. Presented while you are going 70 mph. Just wow. If what is fundamentally a horse (staying with the horse/car analogy briefly) with no visual controls, has evolved to this level of complexity, then exactly how simple can you make Association Management Software? Well, it isn’t a simple problem. 20,000 users on a web application is much more complicated than a car. Or a shopping cart.

Tendenci – because humans are complex. Groups of humans are even more complex!

So why this post? I’d like to start sharing what I learned along the way. Why this is one step in a long journey. And hopefully our clients and employees and the entire open source community will benefit from it. If not, then those who prefer destruction over creating something, those who laugh at people still tilting at windmills, then they will have won and there will be written documentation of my folly.

All I can do is tell you a bit about the journey. Record it along the way. And schedule blog posts over time.

Disclaimers: For the purpose of this series of posts I make no apologies if I speak Geek or brutalize the English language with poor grammar and typos while using pseudo-code to express programming concepts, all mixed up together with abandon in horrific run-on sentences. It happens. Go read another blog if it isn’t your thing. This one is mine.

As for the database schemas – I’ll cover that in a future post…for now suffice it to say I have had to relearn the primacy of MVC is MODEL-CONTROLLER-VIEW in that order. And it takes discipline to do that with Django. More later….

14 years and a big year at that

This is a cross post. Please comment on the original post on the official Schipul Web Design Company Blog here.

September 1, 2011 is the 14th anniversary of starting the company. 14 years. Considering I was unable to hold a single job for more than 2 years before this (if you exclude teaching on and off at a gym in college) this is impressive for me to stay focused for 14 years. But my job has changed. Years ago I realized that the company had grown to the point that I, me personally, was no longer the one building web sites. Rather my job transformed into growing people. And I enjoy and try very hard to surround myself with brilliant, hard working people with positive attitudes. Turns out they make great employees and they challenge me to grow at the same time.

14 is kind of an awkward age. I think if you are married there isn’t even a recommended gift from de beers given it isn’t a multiple of 5. (Wait. Sheesh, I just looked it up. 14 years is traditionally ivory? What the heck? Do NOT send me any ivory people. Really. Elephants look better with their tusks IMHO.)

And this is my second blog post on blog.schipul.com. I have submitted other posts, but as I was reminded when I mentioned to Katie that I was writing this post, apparently “snark” isn’t appropriate on blog.schipul.com.  I must reserve that for my own blog or the Chron. Thus my previous posts were rejected by Katie for official publication. Hopefully this one makes the cut!

Back to the 14 year thing. Obviously I am incredibly grateful to my family and friends who helped me start the business. There truly is no such thing as a self-made-man, woman, entrepreneur, whatever. We ALL get a TON of help in both sweat equity, money, advice, support and every other type of help imaginable. Nobody can do it alone. The media likes to tell the story of a modern day Galt charging forward solo against the odds. It doesn’t work that way. It takes a network of support to start a business. And I had that network 14 years ago and I still have it now. And as I have said many times, the biggest supporter I have ever had is my wife Rachel. If Rachel had not gone back to work in 1997 when I quit my job the company wouldn’t exist at all.

In the early days, huge thanks to Paul Bieniawski, Scott Pederson and Javier Avellan as well. Starting a company is like moving apartments when you are young; everyone says they are your friend, but suddenly they are busy and can’t help on that particular Saturday. Rachel, Paul, Scott and Javier freed up the time to help me and were truly paid in pizza and beer (yes really). Our first server was built on the floor of Scott’s kitchen using left over alpha hardware and a case, motherboard and CPU purchased on Harwin. (Tip for future entrepreneurs – NEVER use “alpha” hardware. Uuuugh, that server was rough. But it got the job done.)

Employees – the team – the heart of the company. I appreciate Jennifer, Rodney, Aaron, Jenny, Katie, Eloy, Kerry, Lyndia and the entire team. We definitely would NOT be celebrating 14 years without all of them. And that’s not even listing some of our former employees who made huge contributions, helped the company move forward and then went on to follow their own path. Their impact was felt and moved the ship forward. And a special shout out to Ellen M, my very first employee, who is awesome despite having gone to t.u.

Clients – we are here to serve our clients and without clients we wouldn’t exist. Saying thank you to our clients, letting them know we understand we work for them, and that we appreciate them, can’t be repeated often enough. So if you are a client reading this - THANK YOU!

I have a lot of history of the company to write. Forgive me if I am missing something and I’ll try to get it all organized by the time we hit 15 years.

So if I didn’t write a blog post at year 10, if I didn’t write one at year 11, 12 or 13, why now? Because 2011 is different for us. We have not had a year this transformative in the company’s history since 2001 when we shut down network consulting services and started programming codebase (now called Tendenci.) In fact our theme this year is “Go Big or Go Home” which I borrowed from Aaron’s team goals. That Aaron is a wise man.

“Go Big or Go Home” is definitely not a typical theme for a conservative businessman running a company during a recession. But in 2011 we effectively “doubled down” as they say. Instead of running from a recession, we charged into it and reinvested while cutting costs and reinventing our products. Go big or go home in 2011 means this year we:

  1. Tendenci – Finished the rewrite of Tendenci version 5 on the Amazon server cloud. The rewrite started in January of 2009 and we had a few clients moved onto the new version in 2010. But only in 2011 has our dedicated team of programmers started to really build the recurring revenue and functionality to rival Tendenci 4. I can’t speak highly enough of the team. Writing software ALWAYS takes longer than you want and costs more. That has been the case for us with the rewrite of Tendenci. But it IS done and live on client sites like Discovery Green in and ThinkLA. We look forward to converting our other 400 clients to the latest version over the next few years.
  2.  SchipulCon 2011! – We had our first Tendenci user conference in 2007. We tried to do it again in 2008 but Hurricane Ike had other ideas and instead we cancelled and had a giant party. I know, a dot-com kind of thing to do, but if you remember the time after Ike we all needed a bit of healing and beer heals.  In 2009 we renamed it SchipulCon and had a great event at our long time client the Houston Zoo. Well, you guessed it, we are DOING IT AGAIN! Please check out our speakers and register for SchipulCon October 6,7, 2011 at client Norris Conference Center at CityCentre in Houston.
  3. Silicon Valley – we opened an office in Silicon Valley in March of this year led by April Kyle. We are learning to speak Californian and finding they aren’t so different from us! West coaster? Give us at call in the valley at 408-430-3137!
  4. Business Processes – kind of boring to talk about, but we have completely reengineered our internal processes from accounting procedures to better utilization of SugarCRM and switching time tracking and moving our email to the cloud. It hasn’t been completely smooth, but it is building a foundation for us to continue our growth unimpeded. Thank you to the team for moving with the cheese in 2011 as we grow! And it helps our clients by improving our efficiency which allows us to reinvest in YOU!
  5. Tendenci self-signup – by the end of 2011 smaller organizations will be able to self signup for a much lower cost Tendenci site for their organization. We have lowered our costs by moving into the cloud and we are passing those savings on to our clients to enable more and more small associations to take advantage of our technology at an affordable price. (Special shout-out to former employee Glenbot who has moved on to a VC backed firm. Without Glen’s contributions to Tendenci 5 over the last few years we wouldn’t be this close. Thanks Glen. I appreciate the beautiful code dude.)

And to our competitors who told our clients we had “stagnated” and had “stopped updating Tendenci,” … um…. ooops, meet T5 baby! Rockin the cloud for a bigger and better future. Two and a half years of serious double-down and rebuilding was hard to endure, but we are near the finish line to the ultimate benefit of our clients.

And the team has done all of that in the fourth year of a recession. Call us crazy, but we figured there would never be a good time to do any of these changes, so why not do them all at once? Why not Go Big or Go Home in 2011?! And we are doing it. And I couldn’t be more proud of our employees or more grateful to our clients and everyone who has helped us not only this year, but every year for the last 14 years.

Please join us for SchipulCon and get some brain candy. We are here to serve you. We are reinvesting to serve you better. And as always, we are appreciative of Houston and the community and friends that have supported us for so long. Thank you!

Ed

This is a cross post. Please comment on the original post on the official Schipul Web Design Company Blog here.

Leadership at the Expansion Stage

From: Leadership at the Expansion Stage: Dos and Dont’s

The key defining attribute of expansion stage organizations is that they are expanding rapidly to capture a market opportunity and capitalize on their product or distribution advantage. It then behooves the leader to be even more aware of the rapidly changing circumstances, especially when it comes to how they affect the wants and needs of his or her constituencies (customers, partners and employees).

Being generally resource-constrained, younger companies typically try to stretch their people, encouraging them to wear many hats and multi-task, and of course no one is more overloaded than the CEO and his or her management team. In such a situation, it is very easy to focus on hard KPIs such as sales, marketing return, net promoter score, etc., and rely on those numbers and trends alone to manage the company. Yes, those numbers are good indicators to help one “manage” a business — planning projects, organizing people to execute according to a plan, controlling the pace of the project and ensuring its output. But that is not leading! It’s just supervising the execution of a plan. To really assess the situation, numbers alone are not enough because they do not tell the whole story — especially the human dimension — and it requires the leader to be extremely perceptive and responsive to changing circumstances in order to push the company ahead.

So much easier said than done.

I Just Need a Website, That’s All I Need

caller: I was calling about a web site

developer: cool, that’s what we do. how can I help?

caller: I have a simple site and I need some updates. not much really, just a few changes. is that something you do?

developer: yes, what is the url?

caller: well I’ll need you to sign an NDA before I give you the url. can I fax it over?

developer: no (thinks: “do I still have a fax to email gateway working? hmmm”)

caller: what?

developer: we just met and you want to fist bump attorneys?

caller: no, i just don’t know how else to protect my intellectual property!

developer: you have a site now, right?

caller: yes

developer: live on the internet?

caller: yes

developer: …… long pause…..

caller: ok, I see your point.

…. 45 minutes of spec requests and contract pre-negotiation convo takes place here….

caller: so basically that’s it. my brother-in-law said he could build it for $225 dollars but I wanted to call around and get a few options to see if I could reduce the cost. He’s not very good actually.

Thoughts going through your head as the dev:

  1. developer (option 1): so you have a job board and you want to enhance a few features of monster.com to allow for a commission and affiliate structure?
  2. developer (option 2): so you have a great e-commerce idea, have been reviewing amazon.com and found a few ways to improve on their theories to sell widgets?
  3. developer (opti0n 3): so you want to have a self sustaining site that makes you money with no effort invested while you work at your current job realizing the money-for-nothing potential advertised on TV?

Resolution: have you heard of Crowdspring?

#respect #withAllDueRespect

Men, ask yourself, are you still a sexist pig?

This is a cross post. Please comment on “Men, ask yourself, are you still a sexist pig?” on Chron.com.

Yup, I’m calling the men out on subtle sexism. A lot of men, probably me too when I was younger, have a problem with their women making more than them. Rachel, my wife, made more than me for YEARS after we first got married. This was in the early 90s and I would argue that we have made a lot of progress reducing sexism over the last 20 years, although certainly it still exists.

So here we are in 2011. And if you ask a guy “would it bother you if your significant other made more money than you?” they will, based on my small sample survey, still say “YES!” It bugs them. They feel that men SHOULD make more than women. No particular reason, just because. If you follow the first question up with “Do you consider yourself sexist?” They say “NO!” – but they are. And I’ve wanted to say this to them, but I just didn’t have the data and really I have other battles to fight. Then I saw this editorial in Sunday’s Houston Chronicle.

Scott Burns: A bad decade for jobs — especially for men

Hey, guys, I’ve got to confirm some tough news: Women have become the new men. While the Atlantic Monthly went a bit overboard last year in an article titled “The End of Men,” the economic statistics aren’t encouraging.

Truth is, the gals we like to impress so much with our manliness have wiped us out when it comes to the game of Bringing Home the Bacon. That’s not hyperbole. In the first decade of this century, U.S. Labor Department figures show that women have gained 2,119,000 jobs. During the same period, men gained a piddling 54,000 jobs.

This is the kind of score you’d have if the Yankees played against a Little League team, or the Dallas Mavericks played against a very small high school.

Basically, we guys never had the ball. Women got 97.5 percent of all the new jobs created between 2000 and 2010.

versus

In the 1990s, men won 46 percent of the 18.4 million new jobs created. In the 1980s, men won 41 percent of the 19.5 million jobs created.

and apparently this is particularly true for cities like Houston.

One group of women out-earns their male competition. Researcher James Chung of Reach Advisors found that unmarried women under age 30 and without children who lived in large cities made more money than their male counterparts. Specifically, he found that this group of women earned more in 147 of 150 major cities, with the premium reaching as high as 17 percent in New York

and this one has gotta sting a bit if you still think “he-man-caveman-should-make-more-money-than-girl

“One way in which college-educated married men have gained financially is that they increasingly are likely to be married to the highest-income wives.” Now men can go to college in hopes their B.A. or B.S. degree will lead to a coveted “MR.” degree.

At my son’s recent High School graduation honors ceremony, there were probably 20 women to 3 guys who achieved the highest honors in the senior class. The guys have checked out. But somehow they don’t think this is going to relate to the real world when they get a job later. And the men are really insecure about this, and I have written about insecurity and the dangers that go with it in the past.

If America is a meritocracy, if business works like it should, then women SHOULD be making more than men. Because they are EARNING it. And if men have issues with this, let’s call it what it is; insecurity and sexism. So ask yourself, are you still a sexist pig?

This is a cross post. Please comment on “Men, ask yourself, are you still a sexist pig?” on Chron.com.

 

what are people paid for?

New post on Chron.com on What Are People Paid For? This is a cross-post so please comment on the Chron site if interested.


schipulmug.jpg

Ed Schipul

Two questions I like to ask in the interview process are below. (Oh don’t worry, most job applicants don’t take the time to google things like “schipul interview questions” so I’m pretty sure I’m not giving anything away.)

The first question is quite simple:

What is the goal of business?

The answer is simple:

To make money.

Now before you run me out of town on suspicion of being a citi-group-harvard-educated-asset-denuding-specialist, I’d like to differentiate between a business and the leadership. A business is a cold-hearted piece of paper that lives and dies on the oxygen of money. This does NOT mean the leadership can behave themselves in an unethical way. It just means that the business itself lacks a soul and that the soul must be transplanted in through ethical leadership and ethical employees working to create “greater value than cost” for clients. And the business must make a profit or at some point it will fail. And we all would lose our jobs. That sucks. Thus profit is good.

I would say about 50% of the applicants get the “what is the goal of business?” question correct. 25% say it out right. (I like that group.) 25% say it apologetically like they are embarrassed to admit they like money. (Baroo? Ya, check it. Money is awesome.) And 50% of the applicants just ramble on about “providing a service” and “interacting with customers” and “making management happy” and blah blah. For those applicants I always wonder “gee, are they going to work for us for free?” Yes take care of the customer, but you have to make a profit or you aren’t a business, are you? You can do both.

Regardless of the answer to the “what is the goal of business” question I always explain the correct answer and why. I wish someone explained that to me when I graduated from TAMU with stars in my eyes and a political science degree, bent on saving the world. (Then life happened. Now I’m a capitalist. Harumph. I’ll get another go at it when I retire.)

Regarding social responsibility I highly recommend reading James O’Toole on “The Ethics of Human Capital.” From the article:

I believe it can be argued reasonably that the creation of an ethical corporate culture is the prime role, task, and responsibility of a virtuous leader. For that to be the case, an ethical corporate culture would be defined as one in which all the stakeholders of an organization are treated with due respect. That is, the legitimate needs of customers, owners, suppliers, host communities, and employees would be both acknowledged and addressed by an organization. – James O’Toole

The second question I like to ask? It’s about compensation. It is:

What are people paid for?

I’ve never had an applicant get this one fully right. They usually respond with “taking care of the customer.” And I ask “so everyone in customer support at Amazon makes exactly the same?” They say “No.” I ask “Why?” and nobody gets it. My response is below (Note: I googled it extensively but can’t find the original source. This is my interpretation and if you know the source please tell me?)
Blue Acrobat at OVO! by Cirque de Soleil in Houston

What are people paid for? People in a business are paid for two things; responsibility and expectations.

  1. People are paid first for their level of responsibility.
    1. With power comes responsibility. Responsibility is hard. A manager should usually make more money than their employees. They have more responsibility.
    2. Responsibility does NOT mean strictly “management.” We have some awesome employees with huge amounts of financial or technical responsibility that are compensated for this while they don’t directly manage any “people.”
    3. Level up – organizations should give employees the ability to take on responsibilities that are smaller to prepare them for more responsibility later. Examples are things like managing the training schedule, managing interns, advanced reporting and research to help business decisions, keeping the break room clean, making sure we have paper in the printers. All of these things are responsibilities. If you are above cleaning the coffee pot you won’t work at our shop. (But I get that some people worship MBA’s, I am just not one….)
    4. Most applicants agree that paying people for their responsibility is fair. Tenure is nice, but younger more ambitious employees can and do pass up more senior employees in compensation. That is fair.
  2. People are next paid for “what they are EXPECTED to do.” This one is more complicated. The good news is the employee is in complete control of managing their superiors’ expectations of them. Examples:
    1. Events – Events change expectations.
      1. If your star quarterback just won the super bowl they should be paid quite well next season. But wait! What if the day after winning the super bowl they crash on their motorcycle and shatter their throwing arm in 10 places? Well, then their new pay rate is zero. Harsh, but that one event completely changed your expectation of what they will do next season. To protect the other players and the owners, you can’t pay someone you think isn’t going to do anything the same as someone you think might win the super bowl. (Hopefully football teams take out insurance to take care of their players!)
    2. Tasks – Small tasks EXACTLY equate to bigger tasks. Humans are consistent like that.
      1. If you ask someone to clean the coffee pot and you get a delayed “<pause….> OK” then you can BET that is exactly how they will treat your 100k/year annual account. The applicant will TELL you they will differentiate, but once they settle in, small responsibilities are the best indicator of how they will handle larger responsibilities. An intern who doesn’t want to load the dishwasher to help out on their first day is best fired immediately. Pride is deadly. Servant leadership rules.
    3. Training – consume training like candy.
      1. Training is good for the employee because nobody can ever take knowledge away from you.
      2. It prepares them for greater responsibility (see 1 above)
      3. It means they are ready for new opportunities down the road. “Just in time training” is crap, be trained BEFORE the opportunity happens or else it is just an “event” and not an opportunity at all.
      4. If you don’t know a technology an employer is looking for, invest $30 in yourself and learn all you can at sites like Lynda.com or YouTube. (Side note: last Thanksgiving they asked me to ‘carve the turkey’. Why? Why would you let the guy who doesn’t spend much time in the kitchen ruin the bird on the most important family meal of the year? Luckily, I solved it with training on turkey carving. True story.)
    4. Hard Work and Initiative.
      1. Ideas vs Results – A well meaning employee says “hey I have this great idea for the company!” An employee that you expect will rock the world later has an idea, prototypes it, takes it as far as she can take it without company resources, and then schedules a meeting with you to go over “initial results and research.”
      2. I once had a sales job applicant interview with me and he started the meeting by showing me a six page marketing plan he had developed for the company. He presented it in its entirety and I was floored! Who wouldn’t expect this guy to be a rock star? (Side note: the plan was completely wrong because he didn’t know our revenue model. But WHO CARES?! This guy’s initiative and demonstrated work ethic was unbelievable. Sadly I lost him to a competitor.)
      3. Tabitha, who recently joined the company, set herself apart by doing her entire resume as a pop-up book. A skill she learned by watching YouTube videos in less than a week. THAT is initiative. And I am very glad she joined our team before a competitor hired her!

Compensation is a loaded conversation. Job applicants always have some idea of what they think they should be paid (not what they are “worth” but what they think they should be “paid” – big difference). The ones right out of school are told some industry average, some too high, some too low, by the University. Those numbers don’t add up. And I have yet to talk to an applicant who says “the school told me I should be able to create X value for the corporation. I realize the money paid to me initially is earned by the other workers and I really appreciate them taking a risk on training me.” Ya, that doesn’t happen. Ever.

See? That second question, what are people paid for, is a LOT more complicated. But there is an answer. And YOU are in control of setting expectations of yourself. So in many ways, people are very much in control of their income. They just frequently prefer to hide behind the “management hasn’t promoted me” excuse without working hard to increase their responsibilities and the expectations of what they will do in the future.

I would love your feedback on this post. And despite the last paragraph of my last big post, on this one I welcome your IDEAS! – Thanks!


Chron.com on What Are People Paid For? This is a cross-post so please comment on the Chron site if interested.

Managing The Fire-Hose of Ideas

As the company has grown over the years, I have hit a number of tipping points that were unexpected and hurt the company. Bears AttackUnfortunately I have been unable to find a book that predicts these moments accurately and I know few people who have organically grown a 30+ employee 13 year old technology and marketing firm. We’re a bit odd. So while there are many sage leaders in the city of Houston, few have ever been “in my shoes” so to speak and most aren’t really sure what we do. In other words, sometimes I am flying blind and changes are clear only in hind sight. I am having one of those moments now and it involves ideas and a very motivated, skilled, enthusiastic and hard working group of employees.

The problem is ideas. Too many of them.

My management philosophy has always been the same. “Hire good people. Train the hell out of them. Let them run.” There can be problems with this. If you train them and they run off to a field to pick daisies, you fire them. But my experience has been that people are a LOT more motivated when they are given the tools and the freedom to do their jobs.

I once worked at a large corporation where I needed a Vice President’s sign off to get a $30 book I needed to do my job. And I had to write up a justification about why I needed the book. I called it a “pre-book-report” at the time. Anyway, I come from a family that consumes books like other people consume Doritos so this blew my mind. My manager, her boss, the VP and I spent way more than $30 in salaries debating the merits of said book. Most of which was made up because none of us had read it. So while the CEO said we were there to “maximize shareholder values” the rest of us didn’t get the memo. So I kept reading books and just paid for everything I needed out of my own pocket.

And I vowed I wouldn’t cripple my employees that way when years later I started a company.

Back to ideas. Thanks to our clients we get to eat. And we help them make a profit using our technology and processes. Everything is thanks to our clients. They expect and deserve the best possible service at the best possible value that we can deliver. That takes training. And I am committed to training. So far this year we sent 11 people to SXSWi, 2 people to SMX, 2 people to DrupalCon, 2 people to NTEN’s NTC, 2 people to the TSG Summit, 2 people to PyCon, we have 4 scheduled to attend Tufte, etc….  And it’s only March 19! Perhaps I shouldn’t share this because my competitors can see that the secret sauce over here is training. But I’m not that worried as investor led companies tend to maximize profits for the quarter and therefore lack the discipline and will to invest so heavily in training. Particularly if all of those expenses hit you in the same quarter.

Now, all of those employees are back from cities all across the United States and they are walking in to my office with idea after idea. After idea. After idea. And ideas are good. But it’s too much.

This is compounded because ideas are pretty cliche. You can’t patent an idea, you can only patent an implementation of an idea. Ideas only have value when you take action on them. It is results that create value, not ideas. Yet all of us in life want to provide the ideas and have them get done, usually by someone else. And we take it personal when someone shoots our idea down, and people know that, so the more ideas you throw out there the more people nod their heads in agreement. “Why yes, that is a good idea.” And it might be. But we’ll never know unless someone prioritizes it and commits the resources to implement the idea and then evaluates the results.

And some ideas are just bad. For example Ethan Watters expressed these emotions about one idea:

The idea of going to a Shriners meeting and listening to some high school student read her award-winning essay on the value of democracy seemed like an activity that I might encounter in the first ring of hell.

Nothing against the Shriners, but that is an idea that if you told me you were doing that I would say “hmmm, sounds interesting.” Yet I would be thinking: “No, that does NOT sound like a good idea for me and NO I do not want to test that idea.” But I wouldn’t say that.

A few years ago I judged a Tech-Transfer event for MBA students who presented a case on if an academic patent should be commercialized for the university where the research was done. I kid you not – this one patent was for a nanotech etching machine that was less than half the size and more expensive than one that was commercialized and in use in industry. It is hard not to look at that idea, shake your head, and think “was that just some dude who wanted to frame a patent for his wall?” I guess it’s academia so they have more wiggle room, but sheesh. This is an example of a bad idea that wasted time and money.

Testing ideas is expensive.

As a CEO your dream is someone walks up and says

“I had this idea so I prototyped it and the initial results look promising. Can we schedule a time to go over the results?”

And sometimes that happens. It really does. And those people get promoted at our company much faster than others. But more often than not you are presented with an idea like it is a sacred object and expected to immediately commit resources to test it. And there are simply too many ideas. And never enough resources.

(Sidebar: You actually get a LOT of innovation from the sales team (yes really) because they talk to prospects and see actual needs before people who only work with products we already support. Because no one within the company already knows X new product, a sales person with initiative will self install (read: prototype). That is how we started offering WordPress and Drupal as new product lines and THEY ARE GREAT!)

I was pondering the expense of organizing and testing all of these ideas while on a long walk with the dog this morning. A few possible solutions came to mind:

  1. Set up a DIGG type ranking system for idea submission and have employees vote the ideas up or down.
    1. They talk about this a little in Groundswell. But Idunno, I rarely see committees find the best possible idea. They usually blend everything until you get a compromised version of mush. Or whoever can write the best python script wins the vote. I love Amazon reviews, but I rarely write one. Does that mean my ideas don’t have value because I won’t use that particular tool?
  2. Require employees to write-up the idea and present it in an organized fashion at a scheduled time.
    1. This would stop the revolving door in my office of people presenting great ideas. Yet as I recently blogged about visionaries, it is the Eureka moments that lead to big discoveries. I am not sure a global “you must write it up” filter is in the best interest of the company.
  3. Schedule office hours.
    1. This is probably something I should do as a CEO as I am a little too accessible at times which prevents me from getting my work done. But again, will I miss a Eureka moment? What is it that I do that could possibly be more important than working with our employees?
  4. Say “no” to everything.
    1. Saying “no” to everything has actually worked well for me in the past. If the employee  isn’t motivated enough to overcome the first “no” then they aren’t that committed to the idea. Or so goes the thinking. But people are very different culturally. Extroverts ask me the same question 10 times while introverts won’t ask at all! Won’t this method bubble the “squeaky wheel” ideas up to the top? I doubt those are the best ones.
  5. Make them run it by their manager first.
    1. Otherwise known as the “hide behind hierarchy” method. Would this not break the spirit of an employee if they felt the CEO was inaccessible? What if they had an issue with their manager at a personal level, but had a good working relationship, but didn’t want to share? And do I really want to be the type of founder who is unwilling to talk to any employee? The answer to that is a resounding “no!” I spend more time with employees than I do with clients because I know developing our employees is what it takes to get to great customer satisfaction!

I’m at a loss here. I see we have hit this point. I feel like I am drinking from a firehose and I can’t keep up. While ideas alone are worthless, the implementation of a good idea has definite value!

My question to anyone who has made it this far in the post is “do you know of a system that has been tested and works for a CEO of a high growth company to handle employee ideas?” And I specifically do not want ideas. What I need is knowledge of a system that has been tested and works. Even if that system is a behavior modification on my part.

 

 

pattern hunter

“The visionary is a pattern hunter. And as the patterns begin to take shape, the visionary paces the hall anxiously, staring out the window. The cognitive dissonance builds between what is and what will be. The visionary’s sense of discomfort grows.”

and

Science writer Isaac Asimov said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but, ‘That’s funny…'”

and

“You have to have confidence in nonsense,” says airplane designer Burt Rutan, whose aircraft have circled the globe on a single tank of gas, and have climbed to the edge of space as well.

source

advice for entrepreneurs

So here’s my advice: If you want to become an entrepreneur… or a musician, an occupational therapist, a magician — or whatever — be certain that you know what excites you and why you want to succeed, and don’t fret over how you’ll get there. Know that when you’re driven by the right motivating forces, you will eventually discover all the right things necessary to succeed. (source)
Jay Steinfeld, CEO of Blinds.com

3 Rules to be a Billionaire

There are three rules to becoming a billionaire in business. First the business rules, then the story: Hugh MacLeod gets even with Shel Israel

  1. Sell at a profit.
    1. You have to sell at a profit. You can’t sell at a loss and make it up in volume. Any fool can reach 10M in sales by simply selling $10 for $1. Granted he will have lost at least 9M, but he will have achieved 10M in revenue! The point is you have to sell at a profit.
  2. Love what you do.
    1. You can’t sustain unless you love what you do. At least in your initial business. Sure you can tough it out for a year. Two years. Three or four. But you can’t sustain 10 to 20 years if you don’t love it. You have to love what you do (at least in your initial business!)
  3. Have a recurring revenue model.
    1. You MUST have a recurring revenue model. It takes too much energy to make a sale no matter what your profit margin is. Your customer must come back to you, and refer business to you, or you won’t make it.

The story of the three rules of becoming a billionaire:

Years ago I heard Ken Jones` speak. Now Ken has never been accused of having a shortage of ego (#heh, forgive me Ken). And I heard him speak at an IABC, or maybe a PRSA function in Houston when he told the story. I remember it as “so I talked to a man who was in the room with these three billionaires and he asked them “what is the secret” and their reply was the three rules.” I probably got that wrong, or paraphrased it poorly, but what I do know is as follows.

I have had 5 dba’s counting my current 13 year old company. 2 were play dbas for home businesses that I can barely remember. 1 dba (1994/95 ish) was real for web design but failed. The next was a corporation with a partner that never made real money and basically failed. (I never said I was a fast learner!) Then this corporation started in 1997 *almost* failed in the recession of 2001 and 2002 because we did not have a recurring revenue model. I learned my lesson. Follow the three rules.

More? Take a class from Ken at U of H for more. But know what you love before you show up because they can’t teach you that. Business is tough; stack the deck in your favor. And don’t believe that crap from wall street. Go sell something. No seriously, go SELL SOMETHING!

work smarter and harder

The false axiom “work harder not smarter” came up in conversation today. Which reminded me of this paragraph I did on the book Rework called When to Apply Business Advice:

Sometimes advice is populist, but there is a logical flaw. A company who follows the infamous “work smarter not harder” quickly falls to a company that believes “work smarter AND harder.” Working smarter-not-harder would only work if hard workers were dumb. But we get smarter through experience! So unfortunately, hard workers are typically also smarter than you. Oooops. But we don’t like to admit that. What we want to hear is that the 4 hour work week is a winner.  I certainly wish the global economy worked that way. (But it doesn’t)

You can read the full post at When to Apply Business Advice.

Apple has been able to create a halo of good experience around its products

“Microsoft wonders why people get so upset when the Windows system crashes, and they try to point out that it crashes less than Apple. But try telling that to an Apple person, and they’ll vehemently deny it. And the reason why is that Apple has been able to create a halo of good experience around its products.”

– Ziba Design’s, Steve McCallion quoted in the book Glimmer by Berger.

focus on offering goods and services people actually want and need

“In today’s increasingly saturated product marketplace, surface appeal is not enough to elevate me-too products or services above the pack, or to yield sustained success. The harder trick is to use design to get beneath that superficial marketing level and to delve down to core business issues such as: What do people really need? And how can we best provide that?

That business should be focused on offering goods and services people actually want and need may seem obvious. Why would companies do otherwise? The reason is that they often are focused more on their own existing capabilities and objectives than on the needs of others.”

– Warren Berger, GLIMMER: How Design Can Transform Your Life, and Maybe Even The World, pg 100

When to Apply Business Advice

I emailed out to the company today’s quote of the day, something we do internally, with the three quotes below. But given how popular advice from 37 Signals is among some of my employees, I wanted to add some commentary (after the jump). And BTW, I definitely agree with these three quotes from Rework.

“You need less than you think…Do you really need six months or can you make something in two?”  (pg. 53)

and

“No time is no excuse.  The most common excuse people give: “There’s not enough time.”  They claim they’d love to start a company, learn an instrument, market an invention, write a book, or whatever, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day.  Come on.  There’s always enough time if you spend it right.” (pg. 40)

and

“When you put off decisions, they pile up.  And piles end up ignored, dealt with in haste, or thrown out.  As a result, the individual problems in those piles stay unresolved.  Whenever you can, swap ‘Let’s think about it’ with ‘Let’s decide on it.’  Commit to making decisions.  Don’t wait for the perfect solution.  Decide and move forward.  You want to get into the rhythm of making choices.  When you get into that flow of making decision after decision, you build momentum and boost morale…You can’t build on top of ‘We’ll decide later,’ but you can build on top of ‘Done.’  The problem comes when you postpone decisions in the hope that a perfect answer will come to you later.  It won’t.” (pg. 77)

All from Jason Fried and David Hansson in the book Rework

COMMENTS: 37 Signals has been successful creating jobs for people and making a profit. They build tools for themselves and then share their applications with others. There is no question Basecamp is a success. The 37 Signals formula is to build products to the exact specifications of THEIR customers, it just so happens the customer is first and foremost THEM.

Our business model is different. We make products for OTHER people. This is a subtle but important distinction. Picture a male fashion designer who makes women’s clothes. He can appreciate them. He has a creative vision. But the clothes he designs will be worn by his female clientele. The male fashion designer’s success is when women purchase his designs built for the them. The male fashion designer is challenged to make a simple and beautiful product that works with the physical reality of his customers.

While I usually agree with the content of Rework, I find I do not always agree with the 37 Signals viewpoint. Yes, it works for them. Yes I agree with 90% of it. But just as critical is to know what advice is bad advice for a firm like ours. I think it is important that I plan for the company’s future. Thus I do not agree with statements such as this:

“Writing a plan makes you feel in control of things you can’t actually control…Why don’t we call plans what they really are: guesses.  Start referring to your business plans as business guesses, your financial plans as financial guesses and your strategic plans as strategic guesses.  Now you can stop worrying about them as much.”  (pg. 19)

It is catchy. It makes for a good anti-establishment Purple Cow type of quote. But I suspect the employees at Schipul appreciate me applying that advice carefully. Does that advice relate to our particular situation? No. And I think the team at 37 is plenty of smart enough to tell people to apply their advice…well, if it applies!

Sometimes advice is populist, but there is a logical flaw. A company who follows the infamous “work smarter not harder” quickly falls to a company that believes “work smarter AND harder.” Working smarter-not-harder would only work if hard workers were dumb. But we get smarter through experience! So unfortunately, hard workers are typically also smarter than you. Oooops. But we don’t like to admit that. What we want to hear is that the 4 hour work week is a winner.  I certainly wish the global economy worked that way!

I guess I am saying, use common sense and trust experience built upon DOING stuff.

The Pursuit of Attention – Quotes

The pursuit of attention is now emerging as one of the electric organizing principles of American life. Not only are people pursuing attention in new ways, but there is evidence that we have begun to restructure our culture – including even our politics and economy – around the idea of attention as a glittering ultimate recognition and reward. Celebrities are the icons, but the pursuit of attention is now being diffused and institutionalized, hardwired into our beings through new systems of media, business, and technology, and fueled by new, aching deprivations that prey on our psyches. The result is a spreading virus of prosaic but dehumanizing behavior that subtly alienates us from one another and turns daily interactions into a veiled competition for recognition and respect.

– Introduction to The Pursuit of Attention, second edition, by Charles Derber. 1979, 2000

All my stripper friends
All my ex-boyfriends
We all want the same thing
We all want the same thing
Parties in the bar, reaching for the stars
We all want the same thing

All My Stripper Friends, Tila Tequila

Office Lighting and Productivity

I run a creative agency and lighting is a frequent topic. In short, we have the people who want to live in the dark and never talk to anyone. And the people who want to “let the light shine in!”. The bottom line is if you employ both you must side with the people who believe in light because their case is more dire.

shadows-on-the-walkHere is a mix of facts and opinions on the topic of lighting in the workplace. Some is research, and some based on running this company for the last 11 years. You may also want to see this post on Scobleizer about office lighting.

From the book Using Office Design to Increase Productivity,  Michael Brill

Lighting is an essential component of the office environment. People must perceive and attend to a variety of information in order to perform the tasks associated with office work. Approximately 85% of the information needed to perform these tasks is received through the eyes (Hughes, 1976). Therefore a luminous environment is not only desirable, but a necessity. – pg 175

Quantity of light:

Within a reasonable range of lighting levels, increasing the amount of light in a setting may lead to improvements in worker performance. Weston (1945) found that performance improved on a laboratory task when more lighting was provided but increases in performance became smaller with each incremental increase in lighting level. – pg 176

and

In general, increased lighting levels produce greater satisfaction (Boyce, 1973), but after lighting levels are sufficient for the tasks, adding more light provides smaller increases in satisfaction (Saunders, 1969). – pg 176

Quality of light:

Lighting quality appears to be a more important determinant of satisfaction than the quantity of light. Langdon and Keighley (1964) found that office workers who were dissatisfied with lighting did not like the distribution of the lighting in the office. … complained about the lack of “task lighting” (Conway, 1976).

And finally, problems with glare caused by very bright lighting may have decreased employee satisfaction in a study by Nemecek and Granjean (1973). – pg 176

Concerns regarding lighting in an office environment

  1. Providing enough light for a variety of work (desk, versus light for a file cabinet, tools, tasks..)
  2. Energy efficient (windows!)
  3. Lighting problems associated with computers, specifically glare (much less an issue with flat panel monitors thankfully!)

The Hawthorne Effect

Because we are human, you can’t believe what we say. Sad, but true. From Wikipedia on the Hawthorne Effect

The term gets its name from a factory called the Hawthorne Works, where a series of experiments on factory workers were carried out between 1924 and 1932.

Many types of experiments were conducted, but the initial purpose was to study the effects of lighting on worker productivity. Researchers found that productivity almost always increased after a change in illumination but later returned to normal levels. This effect was observed for minute increases in illumination.

Or to put this another way, any change in the lighting resulted in increased productivity. The assumption being that asking and testing different lighting levels means management is “watching” and people temporarily work harder.

Measure without Informing if Possible

From a management perspective, being familiar with the Hawthorne Effect from college, when the employees finally convinced me to try out “casual dress” for the company I agreed. What I didn’t tell everyone is that I would look at billable time, total time worked, sales increases or decreases, job satisfaction, etc in relation. No change.

So while I have no doubt our employees at the time HONESTLY BELIEVED casual dress code would increase productivity, in fact it did not. Casual dress did not improve productivity by one iota.

Managers in Particular Need Well Lit Approachable Areas

From a google search I found these comments on what employees seek in managers. This one on Approachability directly relates to lighting:

Another key personality trait is approachability. This quality is related to your human dimension and to how comfortable that people feel around you. Remember, approachability can be crucial in many situations.

Consider scenarios when employees have problems in their work lives or personal lives, when they make mistakes on the job, when they want to discuss their salary and when they want to express concerns about you.

Employees also want to approach you with positive feedback and new ideas that can help the organization to improve. If you are not approachable, employees often feel too much distance and discomfort.

Direct Connection Between Lack of Lighting and Depression

Low light and lack of light is a cause of depression. So much so that light is actually used as a TREATMENT for depression. Particularly full spectrum natural light. From wikipedia on darkness:

Darkness can have a strong psychological impact. It can cause depression in people with seasonal affective disorder, fear in nyctophobics, comfort in lygophilics, or attraction as in gothic fashion.

This comes into play in the office environment when a vocal minority want all of the lights turned down low. Everyone agrees and, briefly, productivity goes up. Then it drops back to previous levels and nobody can find their keys in the dark. And depression and sarcasm go up. Joy.

An additional concern in an office environment is people who have offices benefit from the windows. But are they leaving the door open and the blinds open to share that natural light with their coworkers? Or is this collective good (light is a collective good!) being hoarded by the few?

As a creative agency we frequently get the requests to turn the lights off. To have everyone live in a cave. And it looks very cool. Images of glowing monitors and hipsters hunkered down with blue LED lights outlining their computers come to mind!

But to be clear, it is a minority that benefit from working in the dark, if even they benefit at all. Don’t listen to hipsters who want to work in the dark, they are telling the truth, but they speak only for themselves and not the majority of their coworkers (and certainly not clients).

One positive item about lighting changes is if an employee suddenly starts wanting to live in the dark, this may be a cue to you to meet with them to find out what has changed. Why are they no longer approachable? Is there something you can help with from a work perspective?

The Bottom Line on Lighting in the Office Environment

  1. Quality of lighting matters more than quantity of lighting
  2. Provide adequate task lighting
  3. Share natural light from the windows as much as possible
  4. Pay extra for interior windows to exterior offices so the light is a shared good
  5. Turn the lights on to increase productivity if that is your one variable

PS – And on a side note – yea! Our office expansion is complete!

Time of your life, huh kid?

Part of blogging, for me, it contextual in regards to “the times”. The current events are relevant to the medium. And this is our current reality in the United States of America.

  1. Unemployment hits 25-year high – jobless rate hits 8.1% in February as a record-high 12.5 million people are unemployed (3/6/2009)
  2. Merrill Lynch uncovers trading ‘irregularity’ – London forex trader reported to be at centre of probe (3/6/2009)
  3. Agreement Sets Stage for Madoff Plea Bargain – massive worldwide Ponzi scheme
  4. Obama’s speech to the nation – Determined Obama vows to renew US
  5. Jindal’s response to Obama
  6. 90 minute wait, 3 minute interview – job fairs
  7. Big bank stocks get dumped again – Citigroup stock below $1
  8. Saskatchewan a jobs ‘hot spot’ in Canada
  9. Republican Bailout Bill Fails
  10. overhaul of U.S. health care system?
  11. GM going bankrupt “substantial doubt” it will remain a “going concern”

So things are kind of crappy right now. Yet we miss the most basic truth. Business is about making something and selling it. Or performing a service and being paid for it. It isn’t about derivatives that you can’t understand. And those fancy Harvard MBAs, unfortunately, are lying to you.  Find a way to humbly serve the customer profitably.

Like Joel Goodson says near the end of the Academy Award Winning memorable (seminal?) movie Risky Business:

My name is Joel Goodson. I deal in human fulfillment. I grossed over eight thousand dollars in one night. Time of your life, huh kid?

No I’m not suggesting we become Joel. I am suggesting that he is more of a business man than GM, Citibank, Merrill Lynch, Madoff, Stanford, or the lot of them.

No One Makes it Alone – NO ONE.

Ninja Squirrles Cooperating
Ninja Squirrles Cooperating

Reading Gladwell‘s book Outliers, and this quote grabbed my attention.

He’d had to make his way alone, and no one — not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses — ever makes it alone.

I have always disliked the phrase “self made man” because in my experience I have never met one. Ever. We have this vision of a Galt-esque intellectual warrior who single handedly drives to success. And while this archetype may exist, they don’t achieve this success without innumerable amounts of assistance from people.

So the next time you hear someone say they are “self made”. Or a friend describe someone as a “self made man”. Please call BS. And buy them a copy of Outliers.

The photo? Two squirrels cooperating by the vision of the artist Elaine Bradford.

GM Advertisements in Newlywed Section of the Houston Chronicle

General Motors "fun and games" with fake wedding listings in the Houston Chronicle today.  A bit early for April Fool’s and at first the announcements seem real and the ad placement very out of place.  But a quick reading of the text for the engaged couples reveals snarky text with a very ad copywriter sense of humor.

Gmadvertorialchroniclewedannounce1 Gmadvertorialchroniclewedannounce2

Gmadvertorialchroniclewedannounce3The copy starts:

The Chevy family is proud to announce the marriage of Fuel Efficiency and Power.  The ceremony took place in the Vortec V8 engine, where the couple first met.  They will be making their home in the all new 2007 Chevy Tahoe.  It is a first marriage for both.

Both the bride and groom are graduates of the full-size SUV class with Fuel Efficiency receiving honrs for getting EPA est. 22 MPG Highway.  Power’s achievements include 320 horsepower and 340 lb-ft of torque. <more – check images>

The above ad was at first, before catching the fact that everything was faked, surprising.  What remains funny is that in the same issue of the Chronicle there is an editorial from the Sierra Club (the Sierra Club???) advocating bailing out the big three automakers subject to fuel efficiency improvements.  Go figure.  First power marries fuel efficiency, although the latter can’t get it up past 22, and now the Sierra Club wants to marry GM.