Lessons Learned (The Hard Way)

Howdy folks!

It would appear my amazing disappearing act has gone on just slightly passed too damn long! My apologies for that. Until recently I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with GrapeShow, so it made little sense updating you. Now that I have a clearer picture, I’d like to begin by filling you in on some old news…

November 28, 2006: blah blah blah … GrapeShow … blah blah blah … failure … blah blah blah … explosion … blah blah blah … severe casualties … blah blah blah … entreprenerd robs bank … blah blah blah … prison!

So, as you can see, GrapeShow went a bit sour and it turns out I am a “miserable failure” (I may have added ‘miserable’). The important thing is I don’t dwell on it <twitch>. I mean, big deal, right? So I put a crazy amount of coding and planning into this thing and never saw it through <twitch>, it’s not like it wasn’t worthwhile. It was a good experience for me <drool> and besides, you never really fail as long as you succeed at learning <massive seizure>.

Seriously though, I did learn quite a bit in the process and I plan on applying that knowledge to my next venture (coming soon). So, in the true spirit of this blog, I would like to share some of what I learned with you now. There were many personal lessons learned as well, but I’ll stick to the professional ones:

1. Don’t bite off more than you can chew

It turns out I am NOT Superman. With GrapeShow, I pushed myself way too hard and tried to do too much too fast. It wasn’t enough that I was inventing a semi-new product, starting a business, and keeping a full-time job on the side (see what I did there). I was also blogging it in real-time, learning a new programming framework, incorporating several new-to-me technologies, and so forth. Which is all well and good, but I was trying to do it at an insane pace and with no help (with exception of design work). I thought I could handle it, but burn-out caught up with me and the rest is history. I’ve learned to take things a tad slower now, be more flexible, get others involved, and ask for help when I need it.

2. Manage your stress levels

This is something I did a horrible job at. As mentioned above, I pushed myself to the breaking point and what’s worse I did almost nothing to help alleviate the stress. They just kept building and building until I blew my top. So I strongly encourage you to incorporate relaxation into your routine and make stress management a high priority in your life. These days I take breaks regularly, I make Sunday a non-work day (for the most part), and I have a tool kit to help me relax my mind and stay balanced.

3. Don’t think too much

The need to thoroughly analyze my plan from every possible angle and make sure there were absolutely no holes caused me to over think things. Obsessive brainstorming and research was standard operating procedure to ensure nothing got missed. Naturally this led me to find what I believed to be potential flaws, which only drove me to more advanced obsessing, and the cycle would repeat. Eventually, when I got tired of searching for solutions to these issues, I began to tell myself that maybe I wasn’t cut out for it and I headed down the path of giving up. It never fails, I start out confident and end up chicken. The irony is, if I wasn’t so concerned about keeping myself from failing, I would probably succeed. Afterall, many of the problems I obsess over may never happen. This is something I am still struggling with but I keep telling myself to stop analyzing so much and just take the leap. The future is uncertain, get over it!

4. Be lucky!

This may sound weird, but it’s a slogan I live by now. I never really believed in luck per say until I watched a program on it and they were talking about the traits of a lucky person. While I still don’t believe in any mystical force, I do believe in lucky people and I’m trying to become one. Most of the lucky people I know have many of these traits:

  • They envision their future
  • They are approachable
  • They are open to opportunity at every corner
  • They keep their eyes open
  • They are positive and know there will be a happy ending

A positive mindset is key! Other than that I would just add that you should be sure you are passionate about what you’re doing and committed to seeing it through.

In upcoming posts, I’ll be writing more about what GrapeShow was all about and what, if anything, will become of it. I’ll also update you more on what I’m currently working on and what lie’s ahead. For now, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite new quotes:

A ship is safe in a harbor, but that’s not what ships were built for.

Lesson of Patience and Commitment

Google Analytics

Every morning, more or less, one of the first things I do is check my blog statistics on Google Analytics and Feed Burner to see how I’m doing. This usually serves as either a pat on the back or a slap in the face depending on the results.

Feedburner Stats
double ouch!!

The problem is, I focus too much on this and not enough on staying the course and maintaining a consistent quality blog. If I see that my numbers are way up, I can get a bit cocky and sloppy with my posts. If my numbers are down, I can get depressed and careless with them. This isn’t an exact science or anything, but checking these numbers regularly seems to cause me more harm than good.

Google Page Rank

All the ups and downs is just no way to keep a consistent blogging mood. Now I’m not saying this blog should be drama free by any means. This is the story of my first business venture and that would be neither realistic for me or entertaining for you. The point is that there are enough mood swings when starting a business, I don’t need any more fuel on the fire unless it’s going to do me some good. That being said, I do benefit from tracking these stats semi-regularly, so I’m certainly not going to quit all together. I’ll check them weekly from now on rather than obsessively.

This is something I’m learning as I read my new Guerrilla Marketing book by Jay Conrad Levinson. He writes in detail about the importance of staying committed to your marketing and keeping consistent rather than shifting from one message to the next. Marketing takes time to see results so while it’s extremely important to measure your performance, you really can’t expect instantaneous success.

Create a sensible plan, then stick with it until it proves itself to you. How long might that take? Three months, if you’re lucky. Probably six months. Possibly as long as a year. But you will never, ever know whether the plan is working within the first sixty days.

He goes on to talk about one of his clients that dropped a plan too quickly and failed versus a client who stuck out their plan, even though it wasn’t getting great results at first, and was a big success. It just goes to show that you can’t be too hasty to react and judge when it comes to seeing a marketing plan through. If you know it’s good, stick with it. I enjoyed the following quote from his book, so I’ll share it with you. This is me quoting him quoting Thomas Smith in London in 1885:

  1. The first time a man looks at an ad, he doesn’t see it.
  2. The second time, he doesn’t notice it.
  3. The third time, he is conscious of its existence.
  4. The fourth time, he faintly remembers having seen it.
  5. The fifth time, he reads the ad.
  6. The sixth time, he turns up his nose at it.
  7. The seventh time, he reads it through and says, “Oh brother!”
  8. The eight time, he says, “Here’s that confounded thing again!”
  9. The ninth time, he wonders if it amounts to anything.
  10. The tenth time, he will ask his neighbor if he has tried it.
  11. The eleventh time, he wonders how the advertiser makes a pay.
  12. The twelfth time, he thinks it must be a good thing.
  13. The thirteenth time, he thinks it might be worth something.
  14. The fourteenth time, he remembers that he wanted such a thing for along time.
  15. The fifteenth time, he is tantalized because he cannot afford to buy it.
  16. The sixteenth time, he things he will buy it someday.
  17. The seventeenth time, he makes a memorandum of it.
  18. The eighteenth time, he swears at his poverty.
  19. The nineteenth time, he counts his money carefully.
  20. The twentieth time he sees the ad, he buys the article or instruct his wife to do so.

So for now I’m just going to keep on keeping on and let the numbers do their thing. The stats posted above are pretty much live data. I suspect my numbers are down because I’m extremely busy and not able to post as often as I’d like. I’m not letting them affect me much though. Soo my subscriptions have dropped 50% in the span of a day, big deal, their just silly little naughty numbers, they’ll go back up. It’s all good. Could you excuse me a moment…


…Yep, I’m just going to keep on keeping on!

Pitfalls of Business

First, let me point out that I still plan on kicking most business aspects to the curb and focusing on the geek realm for the time being, but I came across a good article recently and wanted to share some observations. Plus after a weekend of non-stop coding, business concepts are a nice refreshing breeze right now.

The article is entitled 8 Pitfalls To Avoid When Starting An Internet Business and it’s written by Yaro Starak, an entrepreneur who appears to have had quite a bit of success. His list of 8 is as follows:

  1. Don’t start a business teaching how to make money online.
  2. Choose non-Internet related niches
  3. Don’t focus on making money
  4. Don’t enter a tiny market
  5. Watch out for tiny margins
  6. Look for leverage points
  7. Avoid self-employment thinking
  8. Be aware of your own limitations

These are all good in my mind, and many of them have been ON my mind quite a bit, especially the last three. From number 8:

It’s important when deciding what business to start that you see how it is possible for you to stop doing the day-to-day business fulfillment roles (delivery of services/products, support, sales, etc) in the future. If you can’t automate, outsource, or hire people to do these roles, then you don’t have a business model, you have a job model.

This is something I took away from the Portland Business Fair as well. To be successful you have to be sure that you are working ON the business, not IN it. This may present a slight challenge for me. As will numbers 7 and 9 for that matter. I’ve always been a self reliant person so to go out seeking leverage and asking for help from someone else so that I can focus on the higher level tasks doesn’t come natural to me. Not because I need complete control or anything like that (wipe that smirk off your face Misty), but because I am used to solving my own problems. I am a “go-to guy” by nature who destroys/covers up problems for a living.

When dealing with the problem of how to build a successful business though, I need to venture out and seek help. I’m getting better about this and the more I do it, the more I find that it comes with added benefits you might not expect. When you leverage people and resources, you can often time find marketing opportunities along the way. For instance, by hiring a designer, not only do I leverage someone else’s skills (much greater than my own), but I also potentially get some good advertising out of the deal as the designer inevitably shows off their work on their portfolio and spreads the word. Heck, just putting out a help wanted ad on a couple sites got this blog quite a bit of attention. The same goes for leveraging a new product/technology. You stand a chance of getting mentioned on the products website/brochure/etc as someone who is excelling/revolutionizing with this product, if you do so of course.

So leveraging can help you market. I am becoming more and more aware of this as time goes on. To get out of the “go-it-alone mindset”, which is just a recipe for failure, I am consciously making an effort to involve more people in the process. I’m hiring a designer, networking more, considering partnerships, trying to use new exciting technologies, etc. These days anything that comes my way get’s processed through the “can I use this to help my marketing/leveraging strategy in any way shape or form?” machine.

Business Lessons of the Fair

Well, I survived the Oregon Small Business Fair and now it’s time to share what I learned with you good people. First of all, if you have one of these in your area I would highly recommend going. Surprisingly, I learned quite a bit. As I’ve mentioned, the main reason I attended was to network and promote, the learning was secondary. It turned out to be just the reverse though, as I only handed out maybe five business cards. After the first workshop, I realized that these were much more than consultants trying to get clients, they were loaded with valuable information. So I attended as many of them as humanly possible, leaving little time for networking in between. It was my intention to make up for that at the end, but unfortunately, everyone scattered after the last workshop. A mad rush to the parking garage ensued and escaping was nothing short of pure, grade-A, insanity!

It was definitely an action-packed day. I overslept so had to rush to get there and find a parking spot. Then rushed to get checked in and get to the first workshop. Then rushed around as many booths as I could in between workshops. Then rushed out to my car for a breakfast bar for lunch (which is all I had to eat for the day) and hustled back for the lunch-time workshop. There was alot of really good workshops going on at the same time, so I would sit in one long enough to get the hand out and then rush over to a different one to get their info. Then, as I mentioned, at the end of the day I saw everyone scrambling for the door so I desperately rushed to beat the herd…which did NOT happen. I almost had to throw down with an old lady, but that’s another story.

Alright, I guess that’s enough of an intro, lets dive into what I learned yesterday. I’ll talk about the most important business lessons (in my opinion) from each workshop.

Workshop 1: Home Business … Home Office … Tax Issues

She started off by recommending that you don’t have an office in your home. It can really complicate matters and it’s difficult to keep the two separate. She then proceeded with some good tips if we decide otherwise.

  1. If you want to claim an in home deduction on your taxes, make sure that your home office is used exclusively for business purposes. So, for example, if you have a closet full of clothes and you have to step through your office to get to them (i.e. no other way), then you’ve broken the exclusive rule and you can’t legally claim. You don’t necessarily need walls to determine your office boundaries. There are other barriers you can try (e.g. shelfing, book cases, etc.).
  2. Measure your entire house and then measure your office and determine what percentage of your house your office represents. You then use that percentage for all indirect expenses (utility/garbage bills, general repair/maintenance, etc.). Anything you do directly to your office, however, represents a direct 100 percent expense.
  3. A nice benefit to a home office is claiming mileage on your car. If you don’t work out of the home, you can only claim 35 business trips/year if leaving directly from home. If you do work at home, it’s unlimited. Here’s the kicker: you just have to make sure that you step into your home office before heading out to your car. So don’t go directly from kitchen to car, step into office first (class giggles). You also have to be sure that the first place you stop is a business related stop. From there on out you can claim every other stop on your route, business or not. She pointed out that she has a friend that always make it a point to have a business purpose before leaving her house (class giggles again).

Workshop 2: Be Found – Getting Your Web Site To Your Customers

Most of this I was already aware of because I’ve studied search engine optimization tactics, but maybe you haven’t, so here goes. These are techniques to help your site receive visits from people that are visititing indirectly (i.e. you didn’t send them there, they searched on Google).

  1. Figure out what you want your keyword combinations to be. What words will your potential customers search with to find you? You can find out how popular a keyword combination is by using this tool.
  2. Next you need to make sure that these keyword combinations appear at least twice in the readable text on your page. Be sure you don’t use more than four combinations per page. You also want your keywords to show up in the page title and in your meta tags.
  3. You can build pages aimed exclusively at the search engine robots (i.e. not made for human consumption). This is useful if you have a ton of keyword combinations and, for obvious reasons, don’t want them all appearing in your main content. Once you build these pages, link to them with a sitemap, and link to that from your homepage (in small text at bottom somewhere).
  4. Get people to link to you! This increases your ranking on Google, especially if the other sites are relevant to yours in some way. So it would be effective for me to get other “Portland” or “Entrepreneur” or “Web App” sites to link to me rather than irrelevant sites. There are also tons of free directories out there, so Google “Free Directories” and start getting yourself linked up.
  5. Zack side note: Remember though, quality is more important than quantity. One link from a popular site is worth much more than many links from random, non-popular sites. So you should focus your efforts on obtaining quality links to your site.

Workshop 3: Marketing Your Small Business

This guy was pretty funny. In fact when he got up to the podium, the microphone fell over and made a loud thud. He reacted with a “JESUS!”, then realized he said it right into the microphone and responded with a “how’s that for an intro”. His material was a bit scattered though, so it was hard to take notes, but here’s some key points:

  1. It’s not about what you sell. It’s about the experience!
  2. There are too many products and not enough customers. Therefore, you really have to work hard these days to obtain them. Mass marketing is out; consumers want their buying experience to be personalized and they want to feel important. They are more demanding, better informed, and much more value conscious.
  3. Marketing is the art and science of finding customers, then satisfying them, then growing them, then keeping them. And all at a profit.
  4. Give it to them right, fast, easy, cheap, and personalized! Satisfied customers are vulnerable, you have to consistently exceed expectations.

Workshop 4: How To Advertise Your Business

This guy was hilarious as well. He was super old school and you could tell he’s been in the ad business for a long time. He kept going off on tangents about what’s wrong with the world today and how we are entirely too brand conscious. Probably the funniest moment was when he was handing out examples of good advertising from magazines and he came to one that displayed a woman’s torso and legs. At which point he commented “look at this, this is a great ad … I mean graphically IT’S TERRIFIC”. Then he said “well, that’s it, they’re never going to ask me back again”. Good stuff!

Other than that, I didn’t get much out of this one because he passed around these ad-boards, and people kept getting confused as to which direction to pass. Simply put, it was complete chaos! Here’s an excerpt: “did you already see this one guys…how about his one…which direction is this one going…here you take this and I’ll…no wait…I don’t think I’ve seen that one yet…here, maybe if we keep passing them in front of Zack his head will explode.” Here are a couple things I took away from it however…

  1. It’s much harder these days to get a consumers attention. It used to be a one-to-many platform (i.e. television commercial) and now it’s a many-to-one platform. And in this “MTV world” (this guy was great) people want it extremely fast. Take a look at the difference in movies nowadays, each scene is three seconds. Old movies had much longer scenes and consumers had longer attention spans.
  2. All goods and services in a given industry are parity items (pretty much the same), the difference is how they are perceived. That’s where good marketing comes in.

He closed with a quote by Leo Burnett: “The secret of all effective originality in advertising is not the creation of tricky words and pictures, but one of putting familiar words and pictures into new relationships”.

Workshop 5: Controlling Your Advisers

This guy used to be an accountant and is now a lawyer, so he had lots of good information. He mentioned that advisers grade their clients from A to C. You want to be an A client, so don’t be too difficult by yelling, asking for things to be free, etc.

  1. The primary differences between other advisors and Lawyers: Lawyers are the only people that are authorized to draft up legal business documents and they have access to the legal system. Sure you can have others draft up business documents, but they aren’t supposed to.
  2. The first thing you should do is find a good accountant! You will need them throughout your daily business activities. Then go find a good lawyer. You will need them when your are forming your business and when you are in trouble.
  3. Know what you will need from your advisor before you see them (lawyers charge around $275/hour) and make sure you get a written engagement letter spelling out the exact agreement. Don’t just waltz in and say “I’m buying a business” and expect the lawyer to know what to do at that point, because there are several things they could do. So have a plan of action.

Workshop 6: Cash Flow or No?

This was another great workshop and I actually got a cramp in my hand from writing so fast. It was a nice refresher course from my accounting courses in college. She started out very simply with two statements: “Stuff Has Value” and “I made more than I spent”. These statements represent your balance sheet and income statement respectively. So now I’m thinking, ah this is a refreshing change of pace. Before I even finished that thought, she dived in and started talking extremely fast. I think I actually heard my hand start to cry. Let me try to pull out the key points for you.

  1. The balance sheet shows where you are in terms of worth, the income statement shows where you are in terms of profitability, and the cash flow shows where you are in terms of usability.
  2. There are many very talented people that have no business being in business. Before you start a business you should find out if you have deep enough pockets. Ask yourself: If I don’t make money for one year, what will I live on? If you can’t figure that out, don’t start a business! Because you shouldn’t live off the business you are trying to build.
  3. If you plan to hire an employee and you can’t afford 1.5 times the rate you’ll be paying them, then you can’t afford them. This is her rough estimate that she uses to account for taxes, social security, etc.
  4. You should hire a professional accountant when you first setup the books, a few months after to make adjustments, and before you show your financial statements for the first time.
  5. Do not use Quicken for your business. This is a good program for personal checks and income statement type transactions, but is useless for the balance sheet. She recommends QuickBooks.
  6. You’ll probably have a loss the first year, and this shouldn’t be because of cash flow but because of non-depreciation. The IRS wants you to have a profit within the first 5 years though. They won’t punish you for not having one, but the point is why are you in business if you are still losing money?
  7. A cash flow analysis will help you figure out what you’ll need to charge for your goods/services. You should do this before you go into business to ensure you can afford it. Hint: Double your rates! “You’ll lose clients, you’ll sleep more, and you’ll make just as much”.

I’ll close the same way she did: If you analyze your progress, find problems, and don’t make modifications to fix them, you are insane! “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting the same result”.

Lesson of the Week

I have decided to start posting the single most important lesson I learn each week to this blog every Sunday. I will continue to post throughout the week on where I’m at, tips/tricks I pick up, and so forth, but these posts will be focused exclusively on lessons learned. I’m hoping they will prove useful to you in your endevors and keep you from making the same mistakes I do or help you to share in my successes as the case may be.

As I’ve mentioned in my business plan post, I’ll be attending the Oregon Small Business Fair this Saturday and am looking forward to the many workshops they’ll be offering. These ones, especially, caught my eye:

  • Home business … home office … tax issues
  • Web site magic
  • Marketing your small business
  • How to advertise your business
  • Controlling your advisers
  • E-commerce
  • How do I turn my dream into reality?

Now, these are only 1 hour workshops mind you, so I’m certainly not expecting to walk away an expert, but just to pick up a few useful tidbits. Most of this I can learn online, so really the primary reason I’m going is to network and promote. It’s time to get out of the cube for a while and interact with the human race a little.

Be sure to check back on Sunday (and everyday in between of course) because the most important thing I learn at the fair (provided I learn anything), I’ll be sure to share with you.