Tag Archives: business

You Lost Them at Computer

Since there is a Federal election going on this May, my wife is hard at work teaching her grade 6 class all the ins and outs of the Canadian Government. She’s talking about the Senate, the House of Commons, the Prime Minister’s office, Cabinet, election ridings, all the various philosophies of the political parties. She’s about 15 minutes into the lesson when one of her ESL exchange students puts up her hand and asks, “What is voting?”

This is something that happens in the tech industry all too often. We get all excited trying to explain a product, what it can do and how it works, when the customer is still stuck on trying to figure out one key piece of information. To make matters worse, we’re talking to adults here. They don’t want to look stupid, so they are less likely to speak up when they don’t understand something. They’ll go with the guy who gave them a decorative pen instead. This why we need to have intense rapport with our customers. They need to feel comfortable asking questions. Better yet, ask THEM questions about what they understand, so you can craft your message accordingly. Remember, just because everyone in the room speaks English, it doesn’t mean you all speak the same language.

What Can You Do Right Now?

We all have skills we wish we had. When you own a business, you pretty much want all of them. Accounting skills, social skills, marketing skills, bow-hunting and computer hacking skills. But when the bills come in at the end of the month, the only skills that matter are the ones you have right now.

Last week, the SUCCESS self-employment program got me an appointment with Julia Vidacovic, a business coach from Vancouver. I would say she’s my kind of personal skills coach. She’s not so much concerned with my feelings as she is with getting me out there and making money. When you sign up to work with Julia, the emphasis is on the WORK. When I got there, she asked me where I wanted to see my business go. I told her the truth. I want to be making most of my money from high end clients that demand complicated e-commerce solutions that only I could provide. I also told her that there were a lot of other freelance programmers out there who were better than me at it.

She then asked me that question: What can you do right now?

The answer was staring right at me in my portfolio. It gave me a new perspective on my marketing. I was worrying too much about the markets that I didn’t have yet. Those clients in that portfolio represented a customer template that I could possibly replicate. If I tried to target some of the traits of those initial customers, I could see my sales increase. The more sales I made, the more permission I would have to market some more complicated services like e-commerce and Software as a Service.

I realized that this applies to every business, even every job. Everyone has something they can do. Think of it as a seed of success. It doesn’t matter how common the skill is. If you have done something for someone else, and they are happy about it, that forms a concrete basis for your marketing plan. Everything else is just guesswork.

You can find Julia and more of her wisdom at www.brightestspark.com




It’s odd that a game like Recettear is my office distraction of choice. It’s the story of an item shop owner in a high fantasy setting, the sort you meet in RPG’s like Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy. The game’s protagonist, Recette, has to pay off a large debt incurred by her estranged father. With the help of Tear, the loan officer fairy, she starts an item shop selling to the various people and adventurers about town. In this game, I get to take a break from working on products and dealing with clients so I can work with different products and deal with different clients.

Granted, business in Recettear is a lot easier than in real life. Everything is bright and cheery. Marketing is all handled for you, and people just wander in to your shop. All you have to worry about from your competition is the occasional trash talk and maniacal laughter. Your customers pay you in a sparkly tornado of coins. I wish my clients paid me in coin tornados. It would probably make a mess, though.

If you have kids, I would say Recettear is the best way to teach them how to run a business. Unlike those myriad of tycoon games, your customers aren’t simply a bunch of faceless little avatars. They react emotionally to how you treat them, all in their full-screen saucer-eyed glory. Some of them even have back-stories, and the better relationship you have with them, the more of the game you get to see.

So check out Recettear if you want a decidedly adorable introduction to the world of retail. The game can be found on Steam or other fine download services.

Things I learned from the Black Swan (Not the Movie)

Nicholas Nassim Taleb‘s book the Black Swan was easily my favorite read of 2010. In his own meandering, hyper-intellectual way, Taleb explores the nature of randomness and the unknowable. I held off on writing a review for months because I thought I could write the mother of all reviews that would blow minds clear across to Saturn and back. We all know that’s not going to happen. After all, Taleb wrote the mind-blowing book, not me. I’m not even sure I get it myself, to be honest. Instead, I’m going to list everything you need to know in life that you can learn from the Black Swan.

1. The known is not as important as the unknown.
This is why the book is called “Black Swan”. If you’ve only seen white swans before, you’ll have a rule in your head that all swans are white. Travel to Australia and New Zealand, where there are Black Swans, that rule is completely broken. The unknown factor of there being black swans changes the nature of what a swan is. It’s not always going to be a white creature anymore. These unknown factors are responsible for many of history’s upsets, like intentions of the hijackers on 9/11, the location of the Japanese fleet before pearl harbour, or Christopher Columbus’ voyage. The known isn’t very important when unknown existing factors can change the situation completely.

2. Heuristics are better than rules.
When dealing with the unknown, the situation can change completely based on just a few key pieces of information. You can calculate all the mathematical scenarios you like, but they aren’t going to change the fact that the Emperor just showed up to his own procession wearing only a crown and a smile. For instance, the New York Times believes that as a rule, people will pay for journalism. They aren’t going to be so self-assured when the advertising based news services eat their lunch. So-called “rules of thumb” will get you through more situations than doing things by the book.

3. All large institutions are fragile
Big government, big corporations, it doesn’t matter. They are all held together by an extremely delicate web of tense agreements between millions of individuals. They may have all the military, the money, and the lawyers, but it doesn’t take much change to rend the fabric of society. Complexity, by it’s nature, makes organizations fragile. I’m not saying we should start burying guns in our backyards, I’m saying that governments and corporations are not as powerful as we think. If you think that Harper majority is going to send jack-booted thugs kicking down our doors, remember that it only took one guy setting himself on fire in Tunisia to turn the entire Middle East upside-down, and they had more jack-booted thugs than anybody.

4. Anti-fragility matters, not size.
So large institutions are fragile because they can’t respond to change. The opposite of that should be robustness right? Not quite. The opposite of a fragile organization is one that takes advantage of Black Swan events. Something that is decentralized, adaptable, makes many mistakes and learns from them all. I’m seeing this philosophy take shape in companies like 37signals and Freshbooks. It’s new class of privately owned companies with malleable products, day-one profit goals, and no outside money. Read “Re-work” for a more detailed description of this philosophy.

5. Randomness does not equal gambling.
Casinos are terrible metaphors for randomness. All Casino games have a knowable amounts of outcomes. There are always 52 cards for a deck, and 6 sides to a die. There are no rules for a truly random event taking place, like the casino being hit by a meteorite or an Ocean’s 11 style heist.

6. The only way to deal with randomness is to expose yourself to it.

You can’t avoid randomness by buying more insurance, forming more committees or even burying guns in your yard (the powder will get wet) so what are you supposed to do with your life? The only way to deal with randomness is experience it yourself. Make it your friend. This is not the same as risk-taking. Rock-climbing and sky-diving involve taking a large number of non-random precautions. Instead, take on an endeavour where the outcome is unknown. This is similar to Google’s so-called “20% time” that has led to innovations like gmail and Google reader. For the average person, that means reading a book about an unfamiliar subject, having lunch with someone new, or perhaps even commenting on blogs from time to time.

Does Living in Abbotsford Embarrass You?

Livingsocial put out a facebook ad a while back about Abbotsford’s “Bucket List”. What are the 365 things you need to do in Abbotsford before you die? I must confess, the first thing that sprung to my mind was “Leave.”

Abbotsford is a city that takes a little too much pride in its folksy-ness. If you’re a kid growing up here with a love for science, literature, and very particular styles of Norwegian Black Metal, it’s a culture that can kind of get on your nerves. You want to flee from the blank stares of disgust and confusion to a place that’s not a conservative party stronghold! A place where one can find intelligentsia, symposia, or at the very least some decent dim sum. Unfortunately, many Abbotsford escapees are struck down by real estate prices and an unfriendly job market.

The more I meet other professionals in this town, the more I get the sense that they feel they are settling by moving here. They believe that because they didn’t have the grades, the charisma, or overall business sense they are banished to view Canada’s Pacific jewel at a distance while knee-deep in the Cow manure. Their dreams have taken a back seat to adult reality.

It’s a good thing I’m living the dream here.

When I worked in Vancouver, I was subject to management that wasn’t even on this continent for an hourly pittance. Now I have my own company, and I feast or famine on my own efforts. I belong to the Fraser Valley Ruby Brigade, a programming club so renowned that it attracts developers from Vancouver to its austere ranks. This city has so much room to grow technologically. And I do this all from a nice, new, affordable two bedroom apartment where I live with my beautiful wife. Am I embarrassed to live in Abbotsford? As it stands right now, I’d be embarrassed to live anywhere else.