Hanging Our Shingle

This past week, I did something I’ve wanted to do for years: I started a consulting business with a friend. Brandon and I have worked together since 2004 and have collaborated on a number of projects over the years.

When friends and family ask what it is we do, I’m not sure what I should tell them. But, in short, Brandon brings years of design experience to the partnership while I focus on WordPress training and consulting. We’ve combined our skills to help small businesses and individuals create a professional looking web presence minus the three-hour recurring meetings and complex project plans.

We’ve worked on large and complex projects that take months to complete. But projects that size are not our focus.  Instead, we are focused on small projects. Small businesses move quickly. They don’t have large budgets or months to spend creating new branding, logos and blogs. We’ve found that their needs match up well with our skills. So we decided to make it official and create a business.

In that regard, we started Ox Consulting with this in mind, and are tackling projects we can complete in a few days instead of a new months. Without having to sacrifice quality.

 Ox

We are nowhere near being able to quit our day jobs. Maybe down the road. But today I’m enjoying getting to meet people who are full of passion, energy and big ideas. Large companies have layers of bureaucracy. Making even small changes to a color scheme requires meetings, approvals and delays. Contrast that with working alongside the owner of a small business who likes the new logo we created, and in minutes, says, “Let’s go with it!”

There’s a raw excitement being around those who put everything on the line to chase their dreams. I love sitting across from someone listening to why they decided to drop off the corporate ladder, and try to make it on their own. Many are working more hours than ever before and loving it.

Brandon and I are taking things slow. That means turning down projects that aren’t in our wheel-house or would require we put other projects on hold for months on end.

We’ve also noticed that short timelines result in fewer meetings and status updates and a higher likelihood that both parties will satisfied with the work.

Of course, if your needs aren’t a good match for us, we’ll always try to recommend someone who is.

Anatomy of Greed

Imagine hanging signs around your home that include words such as honesty, integrity, and respect while expecting those virtues to magically rub off on your children. It sounds absurd, doesn’t it?

Teaching your children how to respect others takes a lot more work than simply hanging a sign on the bathroom door. If you’d like your children to learn respect you’d probably start off by showing respect to them and others. Over time, your children will recognize that your actions match your values.

As foolish and ineffective as hanging signs around your house sounds, it’s exactly what executives at Enron did to the employee parking garage. Each floor of the garage was decked out in signs that included Enron business virtues such as ambitious, undaunted, innovative and smart. I came across this fact while listening to the audiobook, “Anatomy of Greed” by former Enron trader, Brian Cruver.

“Anatomy of Greed” is the fascinating story of how Enron executives took financial short cuts and thought they were above the law. Masterminded by Jeff Skilling, they decided the laws of accounting did not apply to them because they were smarter than everyone else. The downfall of Enron proves that all it takes is a handful of crooked individuals to bring down one of the most admired companies in the world and kick thousands of employees to the curb. Of course, Skilling saw it coming and, like a rat, jumped ship before the company sunk, but not before he cashed out Enron stock worth several hundred million dollars.

He’s currently serving a 24-year prison term.

Clearly the signs around Enron had no influence on employee behavior. In fact, employees began to mock the virtues at meetings and around the water cooler. And it’s easy to understand why: employees don’t want to feel like they’re being brainwashed.

I’m reminded of a manager who demanded each employee hang a sign on his or her office door inscribed with the company’s values. Of course, there was as much enthusiasm to hang the sign as there was to attend a mandatory company party. Nobody wants someone else’s values shoved down their throat. My favorite memory of this experience was how this same manager attached a values sign to one of the main doors using white athletic tape.

No frame. No push pins.  Just two-inch wide athletic tape.

Each day I wonder what virtues I’m passing on to my children. And even “passing” is probably too strong a word. I hope they recognized, through my example, what virtues I try to live each day. If I’m lucky, maybe they will pick up a few in time.

As for the athletic tape, I’ll save it for wrapping my aging ankles.

iPhone Comparison Chart

One can’t visit a tech blog these days without the obligatory iPhone comparison chart pitting the Verizon iPhone vs. the AT&T iPhone. I decided to create a chart for those who are still on the fence.

I’m one of those AT&T customers who foolishly believed I was purchasing a phone. In reality, I bought ultra-portable computer that plays Angry Birds and fart sounds for about a hundred bucks a month.

I’ve owned an iPhone on the AT&T network for nearly three years and, just this week, I was moments away from completing a phone call in the remote, out-in-the-boonies village called Seattle. After four straight dropped calls, I got tired of speaking to myself and drove to my friend’s home to speak with him face to face. If you’re in the same boat, I suggest creating a personalized voicemail greeting that starts with, “I’m sorry. I’m an AT&T customer and voice calls are not part of my current plan. Please leave me your email and I’ll be in touch as soon as I find a WIFI hotspot”.

For those of you who have yet to select a carrier for your mobile Facebook status updater, consider the the following chart in making your selection.

iPhonecomparison

Calling Apple Technical Support

My son handed me his iPod Touch, and I could tell by his expression that something was wrong. He couldn’t get it to turn on and neither could I. I figured the battery was dead so I plugged it into my computer and waited. But no luck. It still refused to turn on 30 minutes later.

Although I’ve owned a number of Apple products, I’ve never called their technical support. I avoid calling support unless I’m down to my last option given past experiences. A while back I called Dell’s technical support line. It took 25 minutes before I spoke with an agent, and when I finally did he tried to sell me additional services instead of helping solve my problem. It took another three or four calls before I finally reached someone who could help solve my problem. I wasted several hours and the entire process soured my feelings towards Dell.

That incident was on my mind as I navigated to Apple’s website. I quickly found a link called Apple Support Express Lane. I selected support for the iPod touch  and typed my serial number. I was then presented with a few options, one of which was for an Apple rep to call my home. Under this option were the words, “Wait time less than 1 minute”. That can’t be right. What company would provide assistance almost immediately on a Sunday evening?

I decided to give it a try. I typed my phone number and the phone rang 30 seconds later. Apple must employ an auto-dialer? But no, it was a support engineer on the line and I could understand every word he said. He jumped right into helping me fix the the problem. He didn’t try to sell me anything. He didn’t pass me off to another tier of support. He didn’t even make me recite my serial number.

Within two minutes my son’s iPod Touch was back to normal. The entire process was smooth and unlike any other support call I’ve made. Based on this experience, I’m lead to believe that part of the premium I pay as an Apple customer goes into providing top-notch technical support.

Life Saving Device

When I purchase a product like the AeroBed, I know it’s going to include an unintentionally funny warning tag. Such tags read like a Who’s Who from the Darwin Awards, full of delightful clues into how owners used the product incorrectly leading to a visit to the emergency room or death.

Last night the kids begged me to retrieve the AeroBed from the garage and set it up in the living room where they could watch a movie for 20 minutes before falling asleep. When I began to inflate the bed, I noticed this warning.

My favorite line is This is not a life saving device. But I’m not sure what to make of it. Does AeroBed mean their inflatable mattress should not be used as a floatation device? One of my goals is to use a product so inappropriately that my actions result in a revision to the warning tag.

All I know is that the AeroBed is a life saving device when Kim and I want to watch a movie on a Friday night and the kids won’t stay in their own beds. Within minutes of inflation the kids are watching “Cars” for the 300th time and on the verge of sleep.

If that’s not life saving for the parents I don’t know what is.

warning

What Does Your Company Win On?

This past week I attended an event on the Microsoft campus organized by the Social Media Club of Seattle. Although I’m interested in social media I primarily attend to network and rub shoulders with a group of smart and interesting people. This week’s event was no exception.

I learned something from each speaker, but I’m going to focus on a talk given by Sean O’Driscoll. Sean spent 15 years at Microsoft where he helped create the Microsoft MVP program.

Sean began by asking a simple question: “What does your company win on?”

Some companies win on price. Walmart is famous for winning on price. But winning on price is no fun because it’s a race to the bottom. It can also torch your suppliers. When a company has difficulty separating their product offering from those offered by their competition, they often resort to waging a price war. One problem to this strategy is customer loyalty seldom follows. The internet makes it easy to price compare, and your customers will buy from whomever offers them the lower price since that’s the only difference they recognize. K-Mart learned this lesson firsthand and barely survived. fedex

Other companies like Fed Ex and Nike win on innovation.

Vizio getting their HD sets into Costco? They are winning on distribution.

Some people say Apple wins on style, but that’s only partially true. Apple has figured out how to create products that delight customers. In less than a year, my iPhone became the most valued gadget I own to the point that I’d rather give up my PC than my iPhone.

Walk into any Apple store and you’ll find employees who know the products they sell. You won’t spend fifteen minutes looking for someone to help you which is the norm at many retailers.

I recently went to the Apple store looking to purchase a case for my iPhone. The options were overwhelming. But an Apple store employee quickly described the differences before removing an iPhone from his pocket and handing it to me. “You want this one”, he told me. He was right.

He wasn’t selling a car or condo. We’re talking a $35 case. But  he cut through the BS and found what I was after. Sounds easy, but it’s rare to find someone who actually understands the gadgets they’re peddling. Is the guy at Best Buy who just sold a dish washer, the best person to sell a smartphone? With Best Buy, it feels like they want to sell me something – anything,  while at Apple, their goal is to educate me. Of course, Apple wants me to purchase their products, but they understand I’ll be a more loyal customer if I’m not just happy today but six months from now.

According to Sean, if your company isn’t winning on relationships, they won’t make it in this new world of immediate feedback and sharing through Twitter, Facebook and blogs. Information travels too quickly to recover from treating your customers poorly. Companies that build relationships will not only survive but thrive.

What does Sean mean by this?

Take a look at BMW. This is a company that works closely with enthusiast car club chapters around the globe. That gives the company access to some of the most influential fans of their cars who, in turn, share their excitement with potential buyers. These clubs often focus on the performance aspects of the car, but they also teach their members how to perform routine maintenance including car care. I attended one of these workshops and learned how to care for the exterior of my car. Until this time, I had no idea clay could be used to remove dirt and sand from paint.

BMW helps me learn more about my car and, in turn, I feel more invested in my choice and am more likely to purchase another one. The more features I use, the more invested I feel and the more likely I’ll become a return customer. For BMW, the relationship starts once I leave the dealership.

When I think of companies that excel at building relationships I think of Woot, Zappos, Amazon, Nordstrom, Apple and REI.

Take a look at your business and ask yourself, “What do we win on?”

What companies do you see winning by building relationships with their customers?

Wooden Car Carrier

After goofing around with my kids at the Children’s Bookshop in Kent, we decided to buy this wooden car carrier for Kai’s birthday.

It’s made by Melissa & Doug which makes me imagine a brother and sister team building sacksful of wooden toys from their parent’s garage. But Kim tells me they make quality toys which is another way of saying they are more expensive than they appear.

So far the car carrier has been a success and we haven’t lost any of the cars down the heating vent.  I may go back and purchase one for myself.  I’m serious. Last year I bought a set of Monkey Benders and took them to work.

MelandDoug

Learning by Breaking

I learned about computers by breaking them.

Not intentionally. But by experimenting. Which lead to breaking them.

I bought my first computer in 1993 from a mail order business called Zeos. It didn’t come with a soundcard. So I bought one and tried to install it. I did the same with a CD ROM. Neither installation went well. Luckily I have an uncle who is a computer whiz.

Have you ever disassembled a washing machine or another appliance and you get to that point where you’re less concerned in fixing the problem as much as you are about getting it back together?

I was well past that point with my computer. I had wires and cables and cards littering my PC case. I didn’t dare plug it in because I figured there was a high probability it would explode.

My uncle is very methodical. He’d place my computer on the table. Then he’d begin removing those parts that were not in the right place. Once that was done, he’d read the directions for the items I was attempting to install. I know that sound crazy but it always worked. He never made me feel stupid. Maybe he enjoyed the company. But I always come away from those visits with a lot of newfound computer knowledge.

Over time and after many mistakes, I could repair most problems my computer tossed at me. I enjoyed building a new system every few years. From picking the motherboard to researching which chips I could overclock, it was not just fun but educational. Even today, when I interview a candidate for a technical position, I ask, “Have you built your own computer?” That often leads to an interesting discussion. If you’re a nerd.

But things have changed, and I blame the iPhone.

Well, maybe age has something to do with it. Or having four children and less free time on the weekends.  But the iPhone shoulders some of the blame.

Let me explain.

Until I owned an iPhone, a day didn’t go by when I felt like tossing my phone against the wall. I’ve owned phones from all the major brands, and they made a day at the dentist feel like a vacation in comparison to using even the phone’s most basic features.

I’ve never owned a Mac. I was a iPod laggard who finally jumped on the bandwagon when the fifth generation iPod arrived. But out of sheer desperation, I bought an iPhone before giving up on all phones.

And that’s when things changed. I no longer had to tinker with dozens of complicated geeky settings to get it working. I wasn’t looking back to the manual to see how to retrieve my voicemail. I just plugged it in, and it WORKED. And not only did it work but it was fun to use. It had personality. It had flair. It didn’t require me to reset it every 30 minutes. What do you mean all the available applications are neatly housed under the iTunes umbrella? Get outta here.

My problem is now I expect other gadgets to “just work”. As much as I learned by installing my own soundcard, I’d rather spend time watching my daughter kick my butt in a game of Boggle or Angry Birds. I understand that Apple is a “closed system” but I don’t care. If the end result is my device works, then that’s a trade-off I’m willing to make.

Apple’s success with the iPhone has encouraged competitors  to pick up their game and offer comparable devices. Google’s Android phones are selling like crazy. RIM devices are still loved by those who compose a lot of email, and Microsoft is on the verge of launching Windows Phone 7 which looks great and has been garnering good reviews. The smartphone market is still young with fewer than 20% penetration in the US.

With a number of high quality phones being offered today or around the corner, we as consumers are the big winners.

The Ticket Taker

“One for the Social Network” I told the cashier sitting behind glass trying as best I could to aim my voice through the awkwardly placed speaker.

“Eight dollars” came his reply.

With ticket in hand, I made my way inside the theater and headed down the dimly lit hall towards the ticket taker. As I approached, I noticed a woman of small stature taking tickets. Well, she was doing more than just taking tickets.

She rested one arm against a podium. With her other arm, she read each ticket before putting it next to a pad of paper that listed each movie playing at the theater. A mark was made under the  movie’s title before she put out her hand to take the next ticket.

As I watched her go through this routine with the next patron, I realized she had a disability. Her balance was wobbly and her hand shook as she scratched each check mark, but she had the podium to lean against, stabling her position.

Normally, getting through a line with 6 to 8 people ahead of me would take a few seconds. Tickets would be shuffled and then ripped in bulk, and with the swing of an arm, each patron would be on her way.

But this line barely moved at all.

When it was my turn, I handed her my ticket and said hello. She said hello back to me without looking up. She picked up a pencil and made one mark under “The Social Network”.  She put down the pencil and glanced back at her pad of paper.

“Theater five is on your right”, she said, finally looking up. I smiled and said thanks. She smiled back before taking the next ticket.

As I sat in the theater waiting for the movie to begin, I thought about this woman who made me slow down for a moment and ponder, happy I’d not complained from the back of the line or stressed over whether I’d make to my seat in time to catch all the previews. Instead I thought about the pride this woman took in her job. She was organized. She appeared to enjoy her job. She made me feel like more than just an eight buck ticket.

Until now I assumed the goal of any ticket taker is to move the line through as quickly as possible. The owner must have recognized something in her more valuable than sheer efficiency.

I will remember this experience the next time I step into a slow moving line. You never know who is up front taking tickets and putting their heart and soul into the job.

Shopping For A Shower Curtain

After staring at the various colors, patterns and fabrics for nearly twenty minutes, I had to admit that I do not posses the skills or fashion sense to purchase a shower curtain.

My old brown shower curtain had begun to turn light brown. So I went shopping for a new one not fully understanding what I was getting myself into.

I located the shower curtain aisle at Fred Meyer and began looking for something that didn’t look too cutesy or juvenile. I didn’t want a floral pattern anymore than I needed one depicting SpongeBob SquarePants. I wanted something neutral. Something safe. Maybe light brown with a splash of boring that screams, “selected by a guy who wears Dockers five days a week”.

I located a few patterns I thought would work just about the time I noticed they came in a number of sizes. That’s when I realized I was looking at drapery and window coverings.

Off to a good start.

Eventually, I found shower curtains next to the shower liners and hooks and rods. I wondered out loud if this was an all-or-none purchase. If I purchase one item am I required to upgrade the other three? This whole experience is beginning to feel like a scam.

I decide to begin with the shower curtains which are on display. I quickly locate one with geometric shapes that will work. Now I’m supposed to match the big red number on the display curtain to the bin number where I can retrieve the packaged curtain for purchase. But I quickly realize there are two or three times as many display curtains as packaged curtains for sale.

The available curtains fall into two categories:

1. Those that are 100% transparent

2. Those that are 80% transparent that include cutesy frogs

I’ll admit that I don’t know a lot about shower curtains but my limited knowledge tells me that shower curtains should possess two characteristics: keep the water off the floor and keep people from having to watch me shower.  Every curtain in stock failed one of the requirements.

I decided to skip the curtain for now and move on to shower liners. I’m no longer a shower liner rookie because I can tell you they come in a number of colors that include white, tan, and clear. The clear liner and transparent curtain make the ultimate stalker ensemble. I tossed couple tan liners in my cart.

By this time I was worn down from the experience. I took one look at the wall of hooks and grabbed the first box I could find under fifteen bucks.

Something tells me I’m working backwards. I reached down to the bottom rack where the “bargain bin” curtains are in disarray. Some have been opened. Most have been shoved into a generic plastic bag. All include a big red sticker that says, “CLEARANCE”. I try not to think about someone taking a curtain home for a test shower only to return it the next day. After some digging I locate one brown and one green curtain. Both are ugly. Both look like something Courtney Love might wear. But both are marked half off. I tossed the brown one in my cart. Or maybe it was the green one. I dunno.

I got everything hung up that night, and it looks worse than I can describe. In fact, it looks so hideous that nobody is going to ask to use my shower.

I could be on to something.