Saturday, January 22, 2011

Saturday shorts

‘Three thoughts for starting the weekend, with a plane back to Maastricht early Monday morning.

tier-1-visaI visited my immigration consultant for Britain on Friday: I’ve been in the country for a year of my 3-year term on my Tier 1 visa and wanted to check on the ‘what next’ process.

The Conservative government has recently announced it’s intent to tighten rules for Tier 1 folks (knowledge workers), lowering the intake to just 1,000 people (plus those with exceptional talent) for 2012.  A two-year renewal is still available if you meet the income and bank balance rules. 

Permanent visas may be granted if the holder hasn’t been out of the country for more than 180- days in the entire 5-year period.  For most people doing business in Europe, this will be an impossible barrier.

I haven’t had a conversation with my Dutch folks yet, but become eligible for permanent visa status later this year.   Anyone know if the rules are changing?

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No-Evil 2I posted some thoughts the other day on spoken and unspoken social cues.  This was sparked by a meeting that left me with the gut sense that it hadn’t gone well even though the conversation was cordial and informative.

A couple of people asked if it wasn’t a case of ‘sour grapes’: shifting responsibility for the outcome onto a busy or disinterested colleague.  I meant the essay as a learning exercise: when your gut and hear are in conflict, it’s always good to listen to intuition.

In this case, there were clear signs out of the list I compiled that we weren’t making the connection.  It’s not a matter of blame, but chemistry.    I am in the habit of taking time to learn, to ask how I might have done better or differently to improve outcomes.  Sometimes, as in pitching to investors, it helps me improve.  In this case, we’ll see (they didn’t accept my LinkedIn request to keep in touch, so that’s probably significant).

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social_networkingAnd, following up on yesterday’s post about creating a new web site, I will, indeed, need to create a social network presence for the client.  dedicated Email, Facebook and LinkedIn pages, Twitter or Tumblr linked to a dynamic window on the site are obvious features.  Are there others to recommend?

For that matter, what about traditional media, especially at the community level?  A note on the bulletin board or the local paper for starting a new service not only created short term buzz, but enters into the paper’s archive for future searches.  Business cards and 1-page fliers, a table at a community event, even word of mouth are all likely still effective means of awareness and promotion.

Finally, all this fussing with meta-tags made me aware of the lack of tags on my blog.  Here is a link that helped me, but the recommended “META TAG BUILDER” generated code with incorrect closing brackets on each line.  Be prepared to edit and preview your HTML.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Bringing up a web site

Website BuildingA friend asked me to help them bring up their web site for their new business.  I hadn’t created a site from scratch in quite a while, sop it seemed like a geek-fun way to spend a Saturday (rainy and cold anyway).  The process has certainly evolved from the days that I edited HTML by hand, but not as much as I’d hoped from the days of FrontPage.

  • Setting up the domain:  This was relatively straightforward: search for a good variation on the business name in the hosting services, and then pick the one with the best value for services.  It cost about $7o for the domain, the web hosting, and a few certification and security features for two years at GoDaddy (be sure to search for discount codes).   The domain name was up in half an hour: it took 24 hours for the DNS names to propagate and for FTP access to come up.
  • Setting up the tools:  It took an hour to configure my web editor to mate with the hosting site’s FTP server.  Mostly a matter of getting URLs, ports, root directories, permissions and passwords aligned, it did require a call to tech support to straighten out a minor DNS problem.
  • Authoring the pages: Since the demise of FrontPage (which was I admit, limited and buggy), the alternatives have been to use the “Starter” design tools and templates provided by hosting companies, or to buy a high-end professional package.  Both are horrible for starting and maintaining a 10-page personal or small-business site.  I use WYSIWYG Web Builder, a feature- and cost-effective but highly idiosyncratic middle  ground.
    • I had the client build their sample site pages in Powerpoint: not a great storyboarding tool, but one everyone can use.  And it gets images, text, colors and layout pretty close to what they want / need so that organized content can be transferred into the design tool.    Even then, what should have been a two-hour process took a day: image aspect ratios couldn’t be locked, for examples, so pictures distorted as I resized them,  Contact Me PHP forms code was not allowed to run on GoDaddy. Pages displayed differently in IE and Firefox.  And on and on.
  • Setting the legalities:  Copyright, Privacy, Terms of Service, Verification Certificates are all standard kit on today’s sites, and since this small-business site held original works, it all mattered .  Is Creative Commons good enough, or is stronger protection and control needed?  To watermark or not?  It takes research and thought, tailoring the necessary elements that nobody will really ever read.
  • Doing the analytics: Google’s Webmaster tools will run an Analytics analysis, telling you how to make your site more attractive to the robots that ceaselessly catalogue the Internet.  Permission files, owner verification, sitemap files, an <H1> header on every page, keywords aligned with page words.  It makes me realize how little computers understand even simple aspects of our sites.  The Semantic Web is still a long ways off.

By evening, when BT lost it’s broadband for an hour, the site was pretty well up and running.  There’s a shakedown week while it gets reviewed by suppliers, customers, and friends, but then it’s up and running.  A good day’s (hard) work.

I suppose establishing the social network presence will need to come next…

Disclaimer: I did not ask for, accept, or receive any compensation: these are my own tools, ideas, and experiences.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What would Ran do?

sadhuDo an internet search on “Parable of the Sadhu” some day when you have time to reflect.  You’ll find lots of term papers and business cases on the subject, based on a Harvard business case.  I studied it during a management training course at Sundance years ago.

The core is pretty simple, if unusual.

Bowen McCoy, a middle-aged banker, had dreamed of climbing a peak in Nepal.  He save, he trained, finally he and his friends went.  The weather was closing in as they neared the final ascent, and they knew that they had to press on or lose their window to make the summit.  A Japanese team emerged from the fog with a half-dead holy man, a Sadhu, that they had found further up the mountain.  Dumping the stricken monk in front of McCoy’s group, they said that they had done their part and then left.  To stay and tend the victim would lose them their weather window and probably kill the monk; if one left to carry him down, the rest would have to give up their opportunity to complete the climb.

What should they do and why?

The whole exercise may be found here, and I know what I said at the time our group debated the alternatives. 

This week, I’m reminded of the story again while musing on Ran Fiennes’ presentation.  What would he have done?  I suspect, without proof, that he’d have pressed on, leaving the Sadhu behind. 

Strength / weakness; right / wrong? 

Hint: what I think would be his answer wasn’t my answer.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

That failure to communicate

conversation

The dark bricks of the Underground rushed by the windows; I swayed with the carriage and sorted out the morning.  I had a feeling that the meeting I’d just left had not gone well, but couldn’t put my finger on a problem in the substance of the talks. In fact, reflecting on the conversation, I wasn’t sure why my gut was so certain.  Yet, even if my head wasn’t sure, my gut knew

How?

It must be in the prosody of the conversation, not in the words exchanged.  I do think that we pick up subliminal cues from timing, body language, the rhythm and flow of conversation, that color how we interpret the words being used.  (Psychologists say that at least 80% of the meaning is conveyed in non-verbal cues).

So what cues were being picked up?  I can think of a few:

  • Timing: They were late and didn’t linger once the business was done.
  • Body language: Rather than smile, lean in, and make eye contact: they were distracted and fidgety.
  • Engagement:  Questions were answered, but never followed with a reciprocal question; comments weren’t elaborated or discussed.
  • Respect: Agreement wasn’t acknowledged; disagreement wasn’t negotiated.
  • Connection: There was no recognition of events, people or experiences that we shared in the past, no take-up on those where we might connect in the future.
  • Exchange:  They neither gave nor accepted any token of value, an offer to inform, act, or connect to solve a problem.
  • Affect: Cordial and businesslike, grey without any happiness or concern
  • Evolution:  The conversation didn’t build anything, it just circled the bricks.

conversation 2I think that people do pick up some combination of these negative cues and compensate by listening more carefully, looking for common ground, backing off a bit.  Disappointment leads to that sense that “things didn’t go well”, almost irrespective of the spoken outcomes of the meeting.  Your gut knows.

I walked back through the conversation with those thoughts in mind: In this case, there wasn’t much that could have improved things.  But I can, in hindsight, see where I was trying little experiments to try to improve the atmosphere.  I wish I had more simple charisma to fall back on that might have saved it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Drive and motivation

fiennes 1

Sir Ranulph Fiennes presented at this weeks Enterprise Tuesday here in Cambridge: it was really a memorable evening.

Fiennes, ‘the world’s greatest living explorer’, is the first person to visit both the north and south poles by surface travel, and the first to cross Antarctica on foot (both aided and unaided).  He recently became the oldest person to summit Mt. Everest, and is in the midst of planning something spectacular with a small team later this year (which he won’t reveal lest the Norwegians beat him to it).

His talk tried to put all of these accomplishments into the perspective of  “”Making the dream come true”: creating a vision and taking the steps to make it reality (hence the entrepreneurial connection).  He comes across determined, focused, unsmiling, with a self-depreciating humor but little tolerance for how the world judges what he does.  It’s an inspiring (and sometimes painful) presentation, but (of course) leaves me with questions afterwards.

Fiennes 2During the Q&A, he was asked several times what drives him: he didn’t seem to understand the question.  Maybe there isn’t a reason: it’s simply an existential axiom that he does it.  Certainly the 3-year expeditions, filled with incredible hardship and loneliness, can’t be seen in any higher context while they are ongoing.  I suspect that every day, every step, was simply an act of will forcing himself to go on to the next step, to make the day’s objective, to finish the stage in the time allotted. It’s not a reflective exercise.

In a much milder way, it’s how the business-building works as well.  It’s all situational: what is the most important thing to get done today; when I try to do it, what stands in my way.  How do I deal with that, while hoarding resources for the next challenge, and the next.  Where is the finish; can I keep going towards it?  Maybe the only way to do that is with focus, determination, and a bit of blindness to what others think.

People generally seek to minimize pain and enhance their comfort: they move towards soft equilibrium spots in life.  But there are some who move away from it: the Olympic athletes I’ve met, people like Feinnes.  What is the motivation to see out extreme conditions, to worsen their lot rather than improve it (as the pictures of frostbitten fingers and blistered toes demonstrated throughout the evening).  Fiennes 3Again, he doesn’t seem to think about it.  He points to the charitable funds raised, takes obvious pride in being First, but there doesn’t seem to be an overarching goal or something that he is trying to prove.  He goes on one expedition after another simply because that is what he does (and it’s the only thing that people without A-levels can do, he says).

There are lots of ways to be comfortable in life, and lots of reasons not to leave the security one has, no matter how far it falls short of what one might want.  I’ve found that I have to step off a comfortable center and take some hardship to open an opportunity for something better.  I couldn’t be promoted from Research Director to CEO: I had to quit, go back to school, and start fresh.

I know that the organizers wanted us to think about setting lofty goals, taking risks, persevering in the face of any hardships, and finally battling through to completion.  Well and good.  But it isn’t the story that Ran Fiennes tells.  Rather, his seems to be the tale of a remarkably capable man who could notched accomplishments without knowing, caring, or even thinking about where they led,

or ended.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Pondering pricing

right priceWhat is the right price for a product or service?

This seems to be the question as the week starts, coming up in many guises.  I am meeting next week with a  group that owns a large medical imaging facility: a key question is how they price the service (marketed as ‘product’ in the form of 1-hour slots to use the device).  A friend is debating how much to charge for painting murals in residential settings.  A US contractor approached our design partnership to ask if a simple software job could be contracted for completion in the next three weeks.

What all of these have in common is the need to set a price.

Classically, the proper price of anything is what the market is willing to pay for it.  It has to be more than the cost or producing the goods or delivering the service, and close to the maximum that the customer is willing to pay.  It is bounded by what the competition would charge; boosted by brand reputation.  It’s limited by who goes first in a negotiation: if the seller puts out the first number, the buyer will only push down from there.  Thus it’s always best to have the buyer make the first offer so the price can go up from there.

So, in practice, how can I set the “right” price?  (And, echoing last week’s thinking, does it differ from a ”fair” price?)

Simple pricing is established once the production costs are known: what the materials cost and the value of the resource time.  Then I set price at a 20% margin for a service, a 5x multiple of build cost for product. If it’s a risky job (as when I shipped a device to a US customer only to have it held by Customs), then the premium has to be higher.

But this sort of estimate often has no relation to what a buyer would actually pay. I priced the software job that way, and have been advised that we seriously underbid the job.

Price demandMarket pricing can be established by surveying the cost of similar goods and services, or by asking potential customers what the likely value would be.  A conversation with the local Cambridge imaging center gave me some guidance on their model, while a market survey is guiding my friend’s pricing (interestingly, the British refuse to specify a number, while the Dutch do readily).

The microeconomic model of demand and supply are supposed to give guidance, but in practice is unusable as a guide.

Cash-flow pricing works if I can estimate what benefit the customer would get from the product over time.  If their discounted cash flow over several years adds up to significantly more than the price I am charging, then there may be room to raise the price without impacting the sales volume.

This has been most useful in the business development work that I’ve been doing: valuing a business that we are trying to fund or sell.

Strategic pricingFinally, there is value pricing, in which a good salesman makes the case for premium pricing.  This is the best way to set a price, especially if I am offering a tailored product or boutique service.  There are also consumable accessories and supporting services that can raise the overall price (think about the extended warranties offered by many electronics stores at checkout) and extend the payments that I receive from the sale.

In my situation, market pricing strategies seem to work best, coupled with a willingness to learn from experience: assessing my effort and reward, the customer’s satisfaction and recurrence, after each transaction.  I never feel like I got as much as I could have, but I usually feel like I got fair compensation for my work.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A last thought for the holidays

I’m catching up with personal items today as the rain mists across Cambridgeshire.  The shopping is done, banking is caught up, my offices are tidy.

I’ve started updating the Christmas card list, copying addresses from the cards received into the address books.  And starting to wonder if there is still a point.

Christmas cards were a way to keep in touch with friends from school, from old jobs, from family connections.  Each year, I’d send a greeting to about 50 families with an update on what our family was doing, our new contact information, and warm wishes for the season and the new year.  And most of them would write back, maybe with a picture or a newsletter; we all stayed in touch.

But now there’s Facebook.

Many of the people that I send cards to (and probably about 100 more that I didn’t have time or contact details to write) are now Friends whose status and pictures update periodically.  To varying degrees, I know what they’re doing, how to contact them, and exchange the occasional greeting.

So, are Christmas cards redundant?  I’d give them up reluctantly, but the inflow diminishes each year, down to about 20 now, and my enthusiasm for sending cards wanes as well. I would feel guilty sending e-cards, and still send (Dutch) cards to a dozen close friends and immediate family.  But I can forsee a time, several years away, when the tradition draws to a close.

The US Census Bureau says that 1.9 billion Christmas cards are sent each year (Valentines Day is second, with 192 million).  I prefer the opportunity to be in closer, more casual touch with people who remain important in my life.  But I will miss the color and the surprise of the yearly greeting.

Something lost; something gained. On balance…?  It’s a topic to ponder over tea while watching the rain fall over the gardens.