Category Archives: Stuff

The last buggy whip maker

I plopped down on the well-worn couch he had in his office on one of my regular hang-out visits. He was a local business guy I’ve been friends with for over a decade. It was always a good way to kill a lunch hour with some good conversation and some local fare.

“I’m telling you,” he started. “This business is not what is used to be. Registrations are down a bit from last year.”

“Do you really want to be the last buggy whip maker?” I asked him point blank.

He’d been grousing about the business going down slowly for the past five years or so. I usually empathized, but just let it go. I wasn’t about to tell him what he should be doing.

But today, it was just too much.

“What do you mean?” he asked a bit shocked that I asked him such a stupid question out of nowhere.

The truth is the question did not really come out of nowhere. He was in an industry that was booming ten years ago, before the market started to consolidate a bit. Over the past several years, many of his competitors had closed up shop due to a lack of demand for his kind of services. His company bumped up a bit every time one of them closed, but slowly went down as the demographic moved on and automated. Eventually, he will be the only game in town and his long-term client base will shrink below what he needs to sustain his company at the level of profitability he needs.

“The way I see it — from the outside looking it,” I started, “is you have really one of two choices; assuming you don’t want to be the last buggy-whip maker. If you do, just keep doing what you’re doing.”

He did not want to be the last buggy whip maker. I don’t know anyone who wants to be the last buggy whip maker.

“You could quit investing in growing your business, suck in all the expenses and start hoarding cash. Your company will eventually die an expected, painless death. You then invest that cash into something else that you really want to be doing but your current clients won’t let you.”

“Or?” he asked.

“You could sell the place for as much as you can get to someone who does not believe you are making buggy whips,” I said. “Choose, but choose quickly before the marketplace figures out you are making buggy whips.”

Markets change. Technology changes. Client needs change.

Change is the reward for successfully solving a problem. Recognize that early and move on.

Nobody really wants to be the last buggy whip maker.

White Room

The white room

White Room

I once saw this design makeover show on HGTV where the designer tried to get the family who was in the house to think about all design possibilities. She started out by removing all the furniture and painting everything white. The theory, as she explained it, was to start off with a blank canvass to illustrate that anything and everything was possible.

As I predicted, the family froze in the sea of possibility and lack of direction. The designer ended up guiding them into color combinations, design choices, etc., until they could see how everything was fitting together. Then, they came alive and started participating in the design of their makeover.

Very few people can see possibilities when presented with a blank canvass. Yet this is what happens time and time again with web sites and social media channels.

“You need to create content,” says the social media expert who has created the company’s new Facebook page, blog, Twitter account and Google Plus channel. “Y’know, stuff like videos and photos. Graphic content is always hot.”

And the client tenses up as if he is staring into a white room.

Unless you are prepared and skilled to provide the script, shooting and storytelling for the video or the art direction and shooting for the photos or crafting the blog article framework (or actually writing them) you may want to steer clear of advising a company to get into social media.

Simply setting up the social media channels and walking away is just painting a room white.

Pitchers pitch, catchers catch

Twice this week I had a conversation with my financial advisor. He is also breaking out on his own after being with his firm for the past 20+ years, so we talked about websites, business cards and corporate charters.

He first showed me his new business card, which he did himself. He was no graphic designer, so I whipped up a quick design in ten minutes for him. He has made and saved me a small fortune over the past decade and a bit, so it was ok I didn’t charge him. Besides, the “wow, you’re really good at this!” was payment enough.

The second conversation was about building websites. He had contracted with a firm that specializes in building sites for people like him in the investment industry and he wanted to know if he was paying too much. He had heard that most of this should be free, but the firm was offering space and content that was already vetted. With that one sentence, he had made an argument for using the firm. Even though we build and host websites, there was no way I was going to take on any of his liability.

And lastly, we had a phone conversation this morning about his corporation application (well, actually he had called for my charter and the conversation turned to him.) My advice was immediately, “have your attorney do it,” a conclusion he had already come to even though he had been told by some family members that he could easily do it himself.

I was being a bit selfish here, I must admit. I want him to focus on managing my portfolio, not trying to figure out the ins and outs of the Ohio Department of State and why they sent back his application for the third time because he didn’t complete this field or check that box.

Only a fool for a businessman does his own accounting, marketing and legal work. Hire good people to do what they know how to do. In the end, you’ll sleep better, have more free time to grow your business and stay out of tax court.

* * *

Change is hard but choosing the wrong service is harder

I was listening to the news on the local Cincinnati NPR station this morning and heard a story about the City of Cincinnati moving from its self-hosted email service to either Google or Microsoft. In the analysis portion of the segment, the reporter said;

City officials are arguing for Microsoft because the city employees are already familiar with Microsoft products and it would make the transition easier.

Huh. Read that again and let that sink in a bit.

The rationale for choosing a company to manage what could be lots and lots of sensitive information about the government of a city and about 300,000 of its residents is based on how easy it is to change? I would hope the criteria for choosing an email service is a lot deeper than “easy to change.”

I’m not making an argument for or against Google or Microsoft. They both probably have fine products that will do the job. But the pain of change is temporary. The pain of choosing the wrong product, service or provider lasts a whole lot longer.

Setting expectations in plain English

A few months ago, my shower drain backed up while I was taking a shower. So I called the local Rotor Rooter and the person taking my call started asking me all sorts of questions about what I wanted. I didn’t understand any of what she was asking so I simply said:

“I want to be able to sing all four acts of Figaro at the top of my lungs without my shower backing up. However we get there is your problem.”

She laughed and understood immediately what I needed. “No problem,” she said. “We’ll get a guy out today.”

And the plumber showed up a few hours later. Humming Figaro*.

I tell my server hosting company, “I want to be able to sleep nights.”

I tell my printer, “I want that red Coca-Cola red.”

All the while they press me to define server specs and Pantone® numbers. I don’t let them get off the hook that easily. Once they get you to sign off on a particular color or server speed, they then point to you and say, “but you signed off on that” when you really meant “I want to sleep nights” or “I want a deep red.”

I understand the need to set clear expectations and boundaries, but I am not an expert in the business of plumbing, server hosting and networking or color spec’ing. I have a conversational knowledge but expect the people who are experts to be experts.

How do you define your expectations so you communicate exactly what you want without taking on the responsibility experts should have?

*He didn’t actually hum the entire opera, just the short familiar part. I shared this because it was obvious he and the dispatcher talked and she shared my expectation with him. That’s good; I had hoped story would trickle through. As it turns out, he was also well-read, educated and was politically aware. We had a deep conversation about the state of education and health care in America. As he worked on my drain, of course. For him, it was probably a refreshing debate he normally doesn’t get to have. For me, it was a reminder to never pre-judge a person by what he does for a living.

Instead of bad grammar, we’ll be subjected to bad video

It appears that 2012 is going to be the year social media experts write less and post more video. My take? Instead of bad grammar, we’ll all be subjected to bad video.

I urge you, please take some basic video courses. Learn the basics about sound and lighting. Learn how to write a script and read a teleprompter.

All video that looks casual and authentic has been rehearsed to death. Really.

*My most humble apologies to my audience for subjecting you to the version of me that did not get shoved through hair and makeup. I was hoping to scare you enough to make you think that a little bit of illusion is a good thing.

Complicated could be deadly

Elevator fire panel

I was riding the elevator down from my doctor’s office yesterday and glanced over at the elevator panel. The emergency buttons caught my eye and it occurred to me that something that is intended to be used in the frantic throes of an emergency like a fire in a medical building should never have twelve steps.

And never be printed in small white lettering on a field of scarlet.

I’m sure that the steps were printed there to comply with some laws or other. After all, the chances of a fire breaking out in a modern medical facility are pretty slim. But if it did happen, it would be deadly.

Fireman need a standardized, human-intuitive interface for elevators. Firemen need a Steve Jobs approach.

What mission-critical things in your business are you doing that are simply “complying with the law” that you should be designing?

I’m really scared to upgrade software

I used to to be the first kid on the block to upgrade to a new OS or the latest version of Adobe Photoshop or QuarkXpress. The new-found power of really cool features used to get me excited about possibilities of greatness.

Now, not so much.

I’m getting really scared of upgrading software these days. It’s not because there are some new features I’ll have to learn or the online world is getting more and more complicated. I get all that and my ability to learn and adapt is what keeps me valuable and relevant in the space. I am motivated to stay on the bleeding edge of technology where others fear to tread.

What scares me more is not being able to see the icons and the interface. There is a new trend of gray on gray on gray for icons, fonts and menus where there appears to be a competition among designers to see who can have the least amount of contrast between the icon, the font and the background.

Stop this!

Not only is it really, really bad design but it affects my livelihood in a very real way. While your software designers may strive to be cool and hip, out here in the real world, we need to be fast and profitable. If the interface for your software gets in the way of that, we will push back — by NOT upgrading.

If my eyes hurt after using your software after a few minutes, it’s you, not me.

Free and cheap will just get you free and cheap

This is Brendon Burchard. He is the creator and host of Experts Academy where he will guide you through how to be an expert at anything you are an expert in. He shoots videos that he sends out and posts once a month. Go ahead, register on his site, watch a video. I’ll wait.

Those videos are pretty cool right? Heck, you could even shoot videos like that. It’s just Brendon walking and talking his way through a process.

This month, he reveals what he uses to shoot the videos. Here is the list, with some pricing I pulled together.

JVC GY-HM100U $2900.00
Canon 7D for off-tripod $1600.00

Sennheiser Evolution G2 100 $600.00

DayFlo-EZ LITE 2000 5-Head “softbox” light kit $3000.00

Flex 11Teleprompter $1200.00

Medium duty $200.00

Backdrop frame:
$1200.00 (portable for 200.00)
paper rolls, $180.00ea

Total rough estimate, not including consumables like memory cards, spare bulbs, tape, etc.

Now take a look at the videos that a lot of Social Media experts put together. Notice any difference? On average, their equipment costs are probably under $1,000, with most being way, way under that. Whenever I look at the twitter or G+ stream when the conversation turns to equipment, most often there will be comment after comment about how expensive everything is.

But even the $10,880.00 price tag that Brendon has does not even come close to what this equipment would have cost five years ago. Ten grand is not all that much money to invest in what Brendon provides.

While many skilled videographers can make a cheap Flip camera and the foil wrapper from a stick of Doublemint gum work to make passable video, chances are you don’t have those skills. And the relative quality that is out there shows.

Maybe the social media gurus who look at other social media gurus’ content don’t care about the quality of the video, but clients do. And their customers do.

The old world rules still apply: If you want people to take your business seriously, you have to be in business. That means investing in infrastructure like media creation tools and communications.

Free and cheap will just get your fees set to free and cheap.

This blog post is part of a blog-off series with a group of bloggers from different professions and world views, each exploring a theme from his/her world view. This was about exploring the theme, If you can’t afford the tip, you can’t afford the meal. To explore how others handled the theme, check them out below. I will add links as they publish.

The next social media trend

I ran across this video by @dkny today where the Social Media Manager Aliza Licht, SVP of Global Communications for DKNY, plays the witty “DKNY PR Girl” persona. She posted it on her tumblr. I embedded it below.

With a lot of brands now getting comfortable with using personae to tweet and blog, I think the next step in this whole social media game is that they start pulling back the curtain and letting us see the real person behind the avatar.

The coming out video. The next social media trend.