My Stop

In 1988 a spaceship named DOS 3.0 landed in my yard. The aliens (through the company I worked for) recruited me and I became a member of a very elite group. I started carrying a laptop computer with me on my sales calls. (Well, it wasn’t exactly a laptop unless you had a very big lap). I carried it in a kind of briefcase. It was state of the art. It ran at 4 Megahertz and had a twenty meg hard drive. It was so advanced that its external storage facility was a 3 ½” hard diskette rather than a 5 ¼” floppy. And, by the way, in those days floppy discs really were floppy! Everyone who saw it was impressed.

I used it to access a database of my company’s inventory and submit orders. Those were the days before the World Wide Web. The Internet existed but only people schooled in the arcana of Gopher and Mosaic could hope to do anything with it. It was a strange and forbidden land. My computer, with the aid of elaborate script files, connected through the normal copper wire analog phone system directly to our warehouse’s IBM 360 mini mainframe. By today’s standards the process was unspeakably slow. But it was as wondrous in its time as steamships were in the days of commercial sailing craft.

I had become interested in computers in 1976 while studying symbolic logic in graduate school. At the time computers were as big as large freezers and programs were entered for processing via punch cards. I took a programming class and liked it. Then I took assembly language and realized that while I loved the idea of computing, I didn’t really want to study that hard. Instead I quit school and went off to live in the Virgin Islands.

The island adventure came and went. And so I found myself lugging around a computer in a briefcase and coaxing it to work its magic with DOS 3.0. The mouse hadn’t yet been invented, nor had the graphical user interface, of course, so all instructions had to be entered in the form of commands. Color monitors were future dreams. The screen was a noncommittal darkish brown color. But I was good at DOS and was generally considered to be a technically savvy guy. This, by the way, didn’t help me with the women since geeks were not to become sex objects for another twenty years.

I liked playing with computers. I got Windows when it came out and dutifully upgraded to the latest version of every software program that I owned. I had email through Prodigy and then CompuServe back when only enthusiasts like me were online. The only people to communicate with were other computer lovers. I kept up with new developments in computing as much as possible while working full time as a salesperson but eventually and inevitably fell behind, a victim of Moore’s Law. Keeping up was like running beside an accelerating train. It was a losing proposition. Today computer technology is a field for experts.

Fortunately, the same changes that made my computer expertise irrelevant and outdated made the machines themselves fabulously useful. Today we buy relatively inexpensive programs, point at pictures and text, click and the machine does everything else. This is especially true of Apple products. I suspect that somewhere deep inside Microsoft offerings DOS lives to this day like a horse hidden in the engine compartment of a car.

So now we should, in theory, be wildly productive. We have a tool that can calculate anything, organize everything and communicate with everybody on the surface of the planet. It’s cheap and easy to operate. No real expertise is required and geeks work cheap if, for some reason, you can’t be bothered to do stuff yourself. You and I should be some pretty darn productive motor scooters! And the people who should benefit most of all should be salespeople. After all, our job is to communicate with people and get them to buy stuff. Since everyone is totally connected in every possible way at every minute of the day technology should have made our jobs easy. Alas, that hasn’t turned out to be the case. Much of the promise of technology has turned out to be stillborn for business people and consumers alike, a victim of Sir Karl Popper’s famous Law of Unintended Consequences.

Why? Well, it takes two to tango. *

If you are the one reader who has been following closely and not multitasking by watching retro surf movies on You Tube, talking to your therapist on your cell phone, friending a new local pizza parlor on Facebook, Linking In and checking tweets about antique bird feeders you’ll remember that we left our hero frantically running alongside the speeding train that is the evolution of technology. And this is one race he has no hope of winning.

The problem is an embarrassment of riches. There are far more tools than any person can master and many of them, while seductive, end up being far less efficacious than the good old telephone.

So the choice is to fling myself onto the train or just stop running. I’m smart enough to know that trains are big and powerful. They’re dangerous. If I don’t get onboard I may never discover the marketing potential of Facebook or the community-building miracle of Twitter. I’ll miss that big connection that can only come through Linked In. Or maybe I’ll make the leap only to look up from my texting just in time to see the truck that kills me.

I like keeping my books with QuickBooks. I work with Excel every day. Email, in moderation, is downright handy and my iPhone is useful for calling people. (Yes, it does have a phone app). I realize that in the real world of small business it only takes a couple of programs to run a successful business. The rest are just time wasting and spirit numbing distractions. Indeed, spending too much time with them can put you out of business.

So forgive me if I don’t answer your tweet or quickly respond to your text. It’s unlikely we’ll webinar together. Have fun on the high-speed rails of technology. I won’t be riding with you. This is my stop.

* (The idiom “it takes two to tango” comes from the popular 1952 song by Al Hoffman and Dick Manning, a song that was popularized by Pearl Bailey).





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Frequently Avoided Questions

I’ve been nice to everyone for several days in a row now. Please believe me when I tell you that I’ve been sorely tempted to act far less charitably. Beset by the two great scourges of our era, the customer avoidance conspiracy and the tyrannous telephone tree, my patience has been tried nearly to its limits. Perhaps the non-fenestration of my frustration will kill me, the pressure building until I simply explode. So be it then, for I’ve resolved to remain outwardly sanguine, impervious to effrontery and a shining light of cheerfulness. It’s not easy.

Life is complicated and I’m the kind of person who not only likes it that way but who works overtime to make it more so. I recently divested myself of one business, moved to a rural area where I know almost nobody and the people already there have known everybody else forever and started a couple of businesses. Heck. If one didn’t kill me, I should have two! Neither is intended to make me a billionaire. We’re talking little businesses in little towns. It’s a lifestyle thing and, so far, things are going well. But this is America. You can’t just spread your fruit out on a towel and sell it along the road. There are licenses to list, links to link, accounts to activate. There’s no small amount of work to do before the real work can be done. I’ve been slogging my way through it.

In theory this should be easy. After all, we’re all only a mouse click away from anything and any one, except (it turns out) the person that we’re trying to reach or the job we’re trying to do. We are a click away from provocatively posed goats dressed in leather. But the rule that rules is: the ease of doing anything online is inversely proportional to the value of the project. To view goats in gear requires little effort. But to do anything really worthwhile an infinite number of steps are required.

Eager to do business, every large company has set up online support services to help its customer wanderers in the wilderness. I’ve spent my fair share of hours trying to get answers to my questions by reading FAQs and accessing “help” indexes, a victim of what I call the customer avoidance conspiracy. Its central premise is: you can save lots of money by minimizing real human interaction with your customers. I have no idea how the economics of this gambit really play out, but if this form of service ever results in solving one of my problems I’ll run naked through Wal*Mart wearing a propeller beanie. Don’t hold your breath, however, because I figured out this game long ago and I no longer play.

So into the phone zone I go, where I run a new “avoid your customers like the plague” gauntlet, the tyrannous telephone tree. You know the drill: “your call is very important to us so for your convenience we’ve installed an automated attendant, please listen to the following six thousand, nine hundred and twelve options because they have recently changed” (and none of which will sound like the department that can address my issue).  Really? They installed the system for my convenience? Having such obvious smoke blown in my face is more offensive than a recording that delivers, “Customer questions are an intolerable annoyance, goodbye” and then just hangs up.

Now I don’t know about you but I’ve never had any question answered to my satisfaction by one of these menus from hell. So I take all the usual measures to get a live person on the phone. This can be a bit of a game because the enemy can be wily. They know how to make reaching real people difficult. I’ll admit that there are things I’ve been unable to buy because I just couldn’t find anyone to take my money. There have been accounts I couldn’t open because I couldn’t figure out how to do so. But sometimes I manage to beat the system and I get to talk to a live person. And here’s the kicker.

Invariably the voice on the other end of the line is friendly. They almost always give me the impression that they want to help. While they have various levels of skill at following the prompts on the trouble-shooting software they are (usually) obviously employing to help me, they succeed in solving my problems nearly 100% of the time. Sometimes they have to get help to do so but that’s OK because they always solve my problem or answer my question. They are always nice. And I am always appreciative. These real human beings invariably leave me with a good impression of the company. Their electronic counterparts seldom if ever do.

While there may be people who prefer the automated kiosk at the airport, the menu tree on the telephone and the self-checkout at the retail store, I much prefer to deal with real people. And my anecdotal research tells me that I am not alone. It galls me that so many big companies hold their customers in contempt and that in some cases I’m stuck with doing business with them anyway. It irks me that I have to waste so much time trying to reach a person that can accurately deal with my issue or answer my question. I find it hard to believe that, with all the bad will it engenders, avoidance of live interaction with one’s customers is actually a cost effective business strategy.

That’s why I’m always surprised when truly small businesses take pains to make themselves seem bigger than they are. Have they never been in the telephone tree house? Do they not detect the sarcasm in the recording that says that their call is important?

It often takes vivid contrast to reveal what matters. Lately I’ve had the experience of dealing with both the very biggest and the very smallest of businesses. Not one single business has been nice to me. But a lot of people have.

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In the Land of Opportunity

“Opportunity” is a word the meaning of which everyone knows. In the normal sense it represents a chance to gain, accomplish, seize or do something. Opportunities in this everyday sense of the word abound. They are easily and often recognized. For most people this is a source of optimism. For would-be entrepreneurs, the ubiquity of everyday opportunity represents unremitting temptation to court disaster. There is, perhaps, no greater single cause of business failure than the failure to make the distinction between everyday opportunity and opportunity in the special sense required for supporting a reasonable chance of business success.

For the entrepreneur the word” opportunity” has special meaning. It connotes not just a chance for gain but also a sense of the very real likelihood that that gain can be realized. All businesses involve risk. Opportunities are businesses that actually represent lower risks than the market perceives them to have. The accurate spotter of entrepreneurial opportunity realizes that a profitable business can be created where the rest of the market sees the enterprise as too risky or undoable. Entrepreneurial opportunities sometimes exist for only a moment in time or they go unrecognized for years. Hesitate, and the window (of opportunity!) will sooner or later close and the opening will be seized by another and your big chance may be lost.

By the way, opportunity is not necessarily connected to being the first in any industry. Indeed, there is significant evidence that being the first is a disadvantage. Think facebook. MySpace and Friendster  were established businesses before facebook came on the scene. Bill Gates didn’t write DOS (the basic product that put Microsoft on the map) and he only reluctantly accepted the idea of licensing (the concept that multiplies Microsoft’s riches). Opportunity is not necessarily about the product. It’s much more about execution.

Entrepreneurs are often inspired by great ideas. Most of these ideas are not opportunities. Those destined for success utilize tools for screening their inspiration. They seek a measure of objectivity to balance their subjective excitement. The most successful entrepreneurs are not fond of risk. Indeed, the best are among the most risk averse of all business people. Rather, they calculate risk better than most people do. In reality, they succeed in large part by playing the odds, placing their bets only where they have a strong chance of winning.


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The Cat Nap as Productivity Tool

Sometimes I consider getting a job. The feeling almost always quickly passes. You see, I’ve had jobs before. In fact, I first started working for money when I was twelve and have been employed practically nonstop ever since. Don’t for a minute think that this implies that I am particularly driven, ambitious or industrious. No. I just like having money better than not having it and, not being a trust fund baby, working has been my only option.

During much of that time I worked for other people. But about fifteen years ago I started my own business. This turned out to be a good idea and I worked hard at it until terminal boredom set in and I had to make the choice between future satisfaction and current income. As it was, I almost stayed too long. I’m lucky to be out alive. You see, I have low “sameness tolerance”. Some readers will know what I mean when I say that I was in danger of stripping naked and running through the super market. Attention shoppers!

Now I’m out and most days I spend more money than I make. But that’s how starting a new business is. I can deal with that bugbear. Still, the job offers (and I get some) are tempting. The problem with them is that all my would-be bosses are crazy and when it comes to “crazy” I have very particular tastes. If I have to work for a lunatic then I like working for the lunatic I know. I like working for me.

It seems that somewhere alone this life’s journey my DNA mutated and certain political genes were lost. It’s cool that there are other people in the world, and under controlled circumstances I can work with them. I just can’t work FOR them. No meetings, no evaluations, no abiding incompetent coworkers, nor listening to corporate drivel for me. Big problems I can deal with. Being gnawed to death by petty rules, politically proper peccadilloes and paperwork are bridges too far for this traveler.

That’s not to say that I report to no one, far from it. I share my work area with the most demanding of office mates, my Siamese cat, Sammy. And he’s over-the-top affectionate. Listen, It’s charming that he just can’t get enough of my attention. It’s flattering that he wants to spend the day in my lap. It’s past adorable that he lives to nudge my face. “But, hey, I’m starving here! I can’t talk on the phone with you all over me. I can’t type. Let me work already!”

Cathartic exclamations of frustration not withstanding, those of you who live with cats will realize the futility of my entreaties.

Cats aren’t people. (Relax, we aren’t here taking a sudden and unwelcome turn into the arcane world of evolutionary genetics (although I’ve been known to do so)). Unwanted people in one’s office are easily dealt with. Screaming at them usually works just fine. On the occasions when you don’t actually want them in your lap (Let’s keep HR out of this, shall we?) the best course is prevention.

Back when I had employees I learned to position my desk so it faced the wall. Looking over one’s shoulder to hold a conversation makes all but the most insensitive visitor uncomfortable and they’ll usually leave your office and go about their business in fairly short order. Keeping stacked books in the guest chair also works well. Better yet, rid your office of the chair altogether. Good tricks all, but they won’t work with cats.

No. Those of us who work from home need a cat-be-gone app. But before you reach for your iPhone, relax. You’ve got one already… in the laundry room.

When Sammy gets too lovey and I’ve really got to work I throw a bath towel into the dryer. In ten minutes it’s toasty warm. I fold it on the bed and install the cat. He sniffs it with what looks to me like surprise, delight and wonderment, circles as cats do, lies down, closes his eyes and goes to wherever sleeping cats go. And I can finally get back to work.

To paraphrase The Beatles, Happiness is a warm cat.

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Hello small World!

Owning a small business has been compared, pejoratively, to buying a job. In ten percent unemployment America it doesn’t sound so bad anymore. Once upon a time people invested in their own businesses because they felt that they could make more working for themselves than working for someone else. Today many start or purchase businesses because they feel more secure being responsible for their own earnings.

Working for yourself as opposed to working for someone else can be compared to minority verses majority stockholder interests. Investors are willing to pay a premium (often a huge one) to gain controlling interest in a firm. They reason (not necessarily correctly) that the firm will be better managed under their guidance and (correctly) that their own agendas will be actively pursued with less interference.

Employees (government regulation and labor law not withstanding) retain employment at the whim of the firm’s owners. Their tenure is seldom under their own control. In many states employment can be terminated summarily without cause. Owners of small businesses enjoy indemnity from summary termination. They can be fired, but they’ll have to serve as both the executioner and the condemned.

Of course there is no guarantee that any business will survive. Firms often go under in spite of the best efforts of their owners. Here things get a little muddy. Distinguishing voluntary closure (sale of the firm, retirement, walking away to pursue other interests, etc.) from non-viability is far from easy and may be impossible. Even casual research will yield a wide range of conflicting results concerning business survival rates but it’s generally accepted that about half of new businesses survive four years (averaged for all industries).

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the average tenure of employees in the US in 2008 was 4.1 years. In light of current economic conditions it would be reasonable to guess that this number might be somewhat lower today. Just like the business owners discussed above, some of these employees will have left of the own volition and the employment of others will have been terminated involuntarily.

So there you have it. The likelihood that you will still have your job after four years is about equal no matter whether you work for yourself or for someone else. Real job security in the sense of continued employment is the same. However, for many, there must be some sense of security conferred by being the boss, otherwise investors wouldn’t consistently pay more for majority interests. Either way, on average, you’re gone in four years. You might as well be the boss.

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