Better business blogging

So here I am, late 2009 and we’re still talking about blogging. Many might just roll their eyes at the thought, but there are still some valuable lessons to be learned — mistakes made at the very beginning can be with you until the very end.

Wayne Smallman founder of web design, development and internet marketing consultancy Octane Interactive explains further.


So you think you’re ready to run your own business?

Running your own business isn’t easy. It’s a life-changing commitment that requires a great deal of your time. But the possible rewards can often vastly out-weigh the trials, troubles and tribulations you’ll encounter along the way.

Before embarking on this perilous and exciting journey, you must first perform a very honest appraisal of yourself by asking the following questions:

Are you able to work on your own?

Unless you’re in a partnership of some description, then you’re on your own. This can be hardest aspect to face for most people.

Almost every decision you make will be your own. There’s no passing the buck because the buck stops with you!

Are you stubborn and determined?

Either directly or indirectly, people are going to get in your way. They’re either competing head-on with you, or you’re dealing with people who’re making your life hard in some way.

In addition, you could be working towards fulfilling an agenda or part of a business strategy which is proving harder than you first imagined.

If you’re not both stubborn and determined, then failure is close at hand, unless you’ve got sheer blind luck on your side. But I wouldn’t put too much faith in some positive happenstance or oodles of good fortune coming your way — hope and luck aren’t anything like a plan.

There’s no substitute for getting your head down and working hard. So don’t ever plan around luck. Plan for failure but hope for the best. That way, you’ll encounter few surprises that you can’t deal with.

Do you believe you’ve got what it takes?

If you don’t believe completely in what you’re doing, how can you expect anyone else to?

You must exude desire, have an appetite for success and the will to succeed in the face of stiff and concerted opposition and competition.

Can you deal with stress?

Along the way, you’re going to have your patience tested to the limit. Be that from an awkward client, an obstructive supplier or a recalcitrant member of staff .. or even the computer in front of you when it’s on the blink!

For most, a daily diet of stress is something they simply cannot stomach, while others salivate at the prospect. Which one are you? If you’re the former, you’re going to struggle, while if you’re the latter, then you’re on the right path.

Can you remain focused?

What with stress, work pressures, company politics and sometimes out of sheer boredom, you will lose focus. How do you refocus? Can you refocus? Can you remain focused with all of those daily distractions around you?

From time to time, we all lose focus, but it’s how quickly we find that focus again and how long we hold onto it which is a key ingredient in avoiding needless and often costly business mistakes.

Are you a life learner?

Remember when you passed your driving test? Assuming that you did, that license entitles you to two things: to drive and to continue to learn to drive. As with life, your business and your role in your business is closely linked to living and learning.

To embrace success and avoid the yawning jaws of defeat, you must keep moving, and moving in a direction that distances you from your competitors. Renew your skills and maintain clear blue waters between your business competitors and yourself.

Don’t neglect your “Organic Knowledge”, which is all of your education and training, that sometimes, we just take for granted, and fail to see the true value of. Use your knowledge and experience to the full.

Are you pragmatist, optimist, pessimist or a realist?

From time to time, as your business evolves, you’ll be a bit of all four. Sometimes, you’ll be up in the air, jumping around with ideas and exploring new avenues and new business possibilities with the energy of a teenager.

However, there are times when you’ll sit there staring out of the window with a blank expression, wondering just what the hell you’re going to do next.

Then there’s the workman-like you. Unfazed by the heavy load, you plow on in a methodical, deliberate and efficient manner.

How you manage these phases is essential. However, each phase has a cautionary tale to tell:

Too much enthusiasm and optimism can steer you dangerously off course and force you to expend valuable energy, resources and time along the way.

Too many saturnine moments and you’ll find yourself in the Doldrums, not able to find the trade winds that are the life blood of your business.

Then having your head down, micromanaging every detail might have you running too close to shore and in danger of foundering, because you didn’t see the bigger picture coming towards you.

Strike a balance. Learn to deal with those things that perturb you and look to mix & match your tasks to avoid getting stuck in a rut.

Can you manage the tasks at hand?

It’s all good and well having work coming to your door, but unless you can manage those projects, keep track of where you are with them and where other people are too, then you may find some projects withering and wasting away, maybe even forcing you to lose a customer in the process.

The solution? Get a pen, a sheet of paper and make a list! List those things To Do. You might even rank them, give them some tactile weighting so that you know how important or how urgent those tasks are. You might even want to jot down the names of the people involved in those tasks, too.

Whatever your routine, the trick is to stick to it. If others are to participate, then find some standard way of managing those lists that everyone else can understand.

There’s no value in having the most amazing way of managing your day-to-day work load if no one else can understand what on Earth you’re going on about!

Can you be relied upon and trusted?

I imagine most people think that they can be trusted and relied upon, but that’s not always the case. Even if your intentions are good, your schedule, your personal life or even your colander-like memory can step in and wreak havoc.

When working for your customers, any excuse is usually no excuse at all. Let these guys down and they’ll find another supplier. Let your staff down and you could be doing interviews all week instead of working on the next big thing.

Stay focused, make a note of your promises and damn well keep them!

When you’re down, can you pick yourself up?

You might think I’ve talked about this before, but this is quite different.

Are you precious about what it is that you do? That’s to say: if someone criticizes your work, can you deal with that criticism?

If you cannot justify yourself and your work, then you’ve not thought things through as thoroughly as you should have.

If your client can give you one good reason why they think that you’re wrong, then you have to give them five excellent reasons why you know that you are right.

This isn’t really about compromising, this is about thinking beyond your needs, your own desires and sensibilities and being objective, focused and having a clarity of vision that will pay dividends over time.

Can you be a diplomat?

Losing your cool isn’t going to do you or your business any favours. Similarly, not observing the sometimes delicate political sensibilities of clients can cause friction.

As well as being a business person, you have to be a diplomat, one who’s prepared to discuss rather than dictate.

No, this isn’t about total capitulation. It’s about planning long-term, striking a balance and keeping the right people on your side.

Are you prepared to say no?

Sometimes, saying no to a client can seem like saying goodbye. Trust me, this isn’t the case.

However, simply saying no isn’t good enough, you must provide evidence of why you think your client has either got something wrong, or not seen what you’ve seen.

Make a good case for your argument and your client will respect you and learn to trust your judgment.

Can you survive the famine after the feast?

In lean times, you’re going to have to make do. At times like this, you need to be proactive rather than reactive and delve right into business development and draw in new work.

Go through your client list, think of what you were doing for them last, maybe there’s something that needs updating. Call those clients, ask them if everything is OK.

Find something that might be in need of a change or an update, supply a quote, a plan of action and work towards a meeting with them.

Plan for the hard times, set funds aside, look for trends and seasonality in what you do and be ready.

Can you go the distance?

In business, there is no finishing line. This is the long race.

You need stamina and the capacity to move beyond the “wall”, when you’re running on empty and the goal in sight seems to be moving away from you, or the outstretched arm of a competitor seems closer than your own.

Dig deep, get your breathing right, strike a rhythm and hold the pace.

Can you be professional?

Being a professional is about combining all of the above. Much like the best and most well-loved sports stars, professionalism doesn’t end when you’re not performing.

You are your business, and professionalism doesn’t stop just because you’re not in the office, or it’s outside business hours.

Are you scared?

You should be. Failure is much closer to you than success. Running a business is a huge undertaking, even more so when there are people relying on you for their livelihoods. Feed on the fear, repurpose that emotion into the stuff that fuels you.

What’s the name of your fear? Well, that’s easy! Fear has many names, most of which are the same names as your competitors.

However, you can make success your name, but only if you try hard enough!

This article was first published on Octane’s sister blog, Blah, Blah! Technology, in an article entitled: “Are you ready to run your own business?


Questionable Antics on LinkedIn’s Q&A?

LinkedIn’s Q&A is a great way to get answers from some of the smartest business people in the world. It’s also an excellent way to demonstrate your expertise to those very same people. Sadly, not everyone is going to give you a straight, or even a polite, answer.

LinkedIn, the professional business network

In life, we live and we learn. The wise share what they know and help others avoid their own hard mistakes. And then there are those who choose to be unhelpful, egotistical and just plain ignorant. What was it I was saying about professionalism again?

“A huge salary is not a sign of professionalism. Nor is a insulting the competition, getting blind drunk in public, beating up your girlfriend, illicit affairs, gambling addictions, abusive behaviour or questionable TV appearances.”

Being openly hostile, ignorant, rude, stupid and generally annoying don’t count towards professionalism either. Case in point: the Q&A section on LinkedIn, sometimes littered with some very unpleasant replies.

So what is LinkedIn?

“LinkedIn is an interconnected network of experienced professionals from around the world, representing 170 industries and 200 countries. You can find, be introduced to, and collaborate with qualified professionals that you need to work with to accomplish your goals.”

Goals. Remember that word.

A few days ago, I answered the question: “What are the key criteria for making a business decision?“, posed by Gary Lennon, co-founder of Ideas2Reality.

Yes, the question is a little broad, but I was reminded of what my dad once said when asked: “How long is a piece of string?” To which he replied: “Half its length multiplied by two”. There’s usually an answer to even the most ambiguous question, which his actually wasn’t, it was just broad.

Gary replied to me personally, and thanked me for taking the time out to answer his question sensibly. I was just glad to help. However, he’d posted the question in several different areas on LinkedIn and the replies he got weren’t all as helpful as my own.

I wasn’t in the least surprised. I recently made my thoughts very clear, concerning the total lack of professionalism exhibited by some on the LinkedIn Q&A:

“If you don’t like a question in the LinkedIn Q&A, don’t answer. Smart arse replies show a lack of professionalism, plus you look stupid.”

As a professional, the Q&A on LinkedIn is a perfect venue to demonstrate your knowledge and expertise, not only to the people asking questions, but to everyone else besides. The good news is, idiocy, rudeness and belligerence are usually self-regulating; why should anyone consider you as an expert if you’re acting so unprofessionally?

Gary called me on Skype a couple of days later, to discuss a great idea he’s working on, directly related to the question. Fortunately, he was fine about some of the replies he got, and laughed them off.

But it was towards the end of our hour-long conversation when he said something that really struck a chord and conjured up a very clear image in my mind, and sort of put the LinkedIn Q&A into its proper perspective.

“We’re all just trying to move the ball along. We might not be there to see the end product, but at least we try!”

Or words to that effect. And in an instant, I could see the business playing field before me. Immediately, I began to see business as a game of football / soccer.

Our loved ones are collectively the goal keeper, there to keep the other side from taking the advantage, to control the pace of the game and to get the ball in play again, back up the field.

Our financial backers, business support organizations and the many, many support groups and business forums like LinkedIn are the defenders, each taking a turn at moving the ball forward.

Our business partners, senior management and directors are the mid-field, linking the play from the back and holding the attacking line.

We, the innovators, the doers, the creators and the people with the ideas are the strikers, stepping in and out of the wild tackles, dodging the attempts to bring us down and take possession of the ball. We press our advantage, aiming to make a Net gain.

Fans go wild…


9 steps to building a better biz tech’ workflow

Technology marches on. The rate of technological progress increases all of the time. How we react to this change varies from the hopeful to the outright hostile. But what if there’s a new technology that could improve your workflow?

To those like me, technological change is both inevitable and usually for the better. For some, the changing face of technology is a barrier.

Are barriers to new technology all in the mind?

So can we say that mindset is a barrier to the uptake of new technology? This was the question put to me recently, where my reply was published as a centre spread in the event organizer publication.

The common perception (and by extension, a common misconception) is that technology is something new. No, technology is as old as the first stone wielded to crack a nut:

“You see, the perception is that technology is new stuff, like computers, energy-efficient light bulbs, high-speed trains, space flight, nanotechnology, genetics, crazily tall buildings and stupidly long bridges.

When in actual fact, technology is glazed drinking mugs, the three field system, mass-produced cloths, glass windows, zip fasteners, the bow & arrow, central heating and the printed word.”

And the events industry is by no means an exception to such mental barriers, as I noted in the featured article:

“It’s not that people resist change for no reason, it’s that the resistance comes as a result of there not being compelling enough reasons to do things differently.”

There’s several ways of looking at this issue:

  • having looked at the technologies available, only to discover few if any are an appropriate fit, or replacement of those currently being used;
  • not having looked at the available technologies in enough detail, to determine their benefits;
  • fear of technology and change itself.

It’s easy to say people are lazy or ignorant, but it’s not nearly that simple. Once you’ve got yourself a workflow, it’s a brave person who risks the productivity of their business to find new and better ways of doing things.

New technology ideas. Same old business problems

This becomes even more of a concern if you’re a business with employees. The potential for short-term disruption might be more expensive than the gained benefits over the same period. This is always a challenge, for any business.

Scale that up for multinationals businesses, like a leading client of mine who’re in the process of moving over to Microsoft SharePoint, and the training costs alone would make you wince, not to mention actual implementation, technical support, or the cost of the software itself.

Having seen how I’d recently re-built my entire workflow around Marketcircle’s Daylite CRM package for the Mac, a client of mine, PR and communications professional Emily Cagle decided to buy an iMac and download a trial version of Daylite. This is fine if there’s only the one of you, as is the case with my client and myself.

There are those brave souls who abandon paper and pens and even the comfy confines of Microsoft Excel. A couple of years ago, I developed a web application for Premier UK, an events management specialist based in the West Midlands. This was a complete departure for them, and an exceptionally brave and bold move, too. Obviously not for everyone.

But if you’re a bigger company, what’s the solution?

Building a better workflow

Whenever I offer advice, I do so from my own point of view; what would I do if I were in their situation? If you’re keen to try out a new technology in your business, it’s essential the process be as real as possible, while minimizing the chances of their being major problems along the way:

  1. make sure that whatever new technologies you choose will link into and integrate with your business in the same or a similar way to the ones they’re replacing;
  2. whether it’s software or hardware, do some research and find out what other people think;
  3. if it’s a software-based solution, see if there’s a trial version available;
  4. identify a low priority / low cost project that doesn’t have a strict deadline;
  5. to make the experience as real as possible, engage with the customer / client and get them on your side, maybe with a financial incentive for them to be a Guinea pig;
  6. make sure you have access to all of the support staff / resources you’re going to need when things go wrong, because there’s a very good chance they will;
  7. document your every action, so you or anyone else can re-trace your steps;
  8. be sure to involve at least one other member of your team, to ensure the knowledge you’re acquiring isn’t all in one place;
  9. compartmentalize each process and measure the amount of time taken, then compare to your present workflow.

Of course, each business is different, so it’s as well that you write down your existing process first, making sure your leap of faith isn’t going to result in the loss of some key aspect of your workflow.

We all want to make more money. Ideally, we want to make more money while making less effort. By building a workflow based around more efficient technologies, you’re heading in the right direction.


The pros and cons of staying secure and blocking spam with a contact form

So you’ve got a website! Now what? If you want to connect with your visitors, you’re going to need a contact form. But what are the security advantages and disadvantages associated with a contact form?

I’m sure you, like me, have had your fair share of spam email; people trying to sell you everything from prescription drugs to watches. Worse still, some of these offers will probably be coming through your companies contact form, which is both annoying and a time waster.

Securing response forms with a CAPTCHA

OK, I confess, this is a buzzword. After everything I said about buzzwords and jargon being a pain, I go and do this! But, there’s a a very good reason.

There is a way of preventing a good percentage of the unsolicited email you receive, and it’s a security feature you can add to your contact forms. It’s called CAPTCHA, which stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Human Apart. If you go to the contact page of the Octane website, you’ll see one in action.

Manually submitting contact forms

However, CAPTCHAs aren’t a silver bullet, or some kind of cure-all. Because of the various tools I use, I can see where people come from before they send me a message via my contact form.

The vast majority of the spam I get is from India. So rather than this being some automated system trying and failing to complete my response form and navigate its way around the CAPTCHA, it’s a real person at the other end. That’s a problem you can’t solve with software alone.

However, some feel having a CAPTCHA on your response forms might be doing more harm than good. As an example, a recent body of research shows that CAPTCHAs have a measurable effect on conversion rates:

“From the data you can see that with CAPTCHA on, there was an 88% reduction in SPAM but there were 159 failed conversions. Those failed conversions could be SPAM, but they could also be people who couldn’t figure out the CAPTCHA and finally just gave up. With CAPTCHA’s on, SPAM and failed conversions accounted for 7.3% of all the conversions for the 3 month period. With CAPTCHA’s off, SPAM conversions accounted for 4.1% of all the conversions for the 3 month period. That possibly means when CAPTCHA’s are on, the company could lose out on 3.2% of all their conversions!”

Those figures do certainly offer pause for thought. But it’s also worth mentioning this is a relatively small study group, and I have a feeling that the type of visitor could play a major part in conversion and abandon rates.

Respondr response form script

Because I got sick of relying on other people, I wrote my own response form script, called Respondr, which you’ll find being used here on Octane, as well as on the Blah, Blah! Technology blog, and several clients of mine.

Rospondr is free to download, and if you’re a web developer, it should be easy enough for you to install and configure. Rospondr also includes a built-in CAPTCHA, which can also be configured.

In the time I’ve been using CAPTCHAs, I’ve seen several people get stuck with them, but very few have abandoned them. My feeling is, people know why they’re being asked to enter a security code, because they’re just as sick of unsolicited mail as I am.

But if you are concerned about people abandoning your contact form, make sure your telephone number is near by, so they can call you direct.

Masked passwords versus usability

I’ve always disliked masked passwords. What’s a masked password? It’s any text field on a contact form that turns all of the characters you’re typing into bullet points. Let’s face it, if you can’t see what you’re typing, how can you be at all sure you’ve typed the right thing?

Recently, usability expert Jakob Nielsen weighed in on the subject of masked passwords:

“The more uncertain users feel about typing passwords, the more likely they are to (a) employ overly simple passwords and/or (b) copy-paste passwords from a file on their computer. Both behaviors lead to a true loss of security.”

This is a problem for both new and seasoned web users alike. As a web developer, I don’t use masked password form fields. If a client asked for them, I explain why they’re such a bad idea, who’s positives are massively out-weighed by the negatives.

If you’re worried about people looking over your shoulder, that’s a people thing and not something software can get around. At the very least, if web developers are going to use masked passwords in their response forms, they should include a little check box which enables and disables it, to give the user the option.

Conclusion

Ultimately, if you choose to use CAPTCHAs or masked passwords on your company website, it’s about balance; are you doing the right thing by your customers / clients visiting your website?

And knowing your audience is essential, which is why I highly recommend you track the visitors to your website, to help widen that knowledge.