Martha Lane Fox and the rise of the web app’?

A recent review of DirectGov by “Dot Com” survivor and digital thriver Martha Lane Fox caught my attention. Why? Because she’s helping raise awareness of what I do for a living — build web applications. And when Martha helps me, she also helps you, too.

Digital numbers

DirectGov is a portal-cum-directory for a whole slew of government services, initiatives and resources. What I see is a start, but there’s much, much more that can be done. Fortunately for us, Miss Fox appears to agree.

Hmm, still wondering what I’m talking about, I see. Before reading any further, you might want to have a squint at my primer on web applications, whereupon all will become clear!

By way of an abridged background, British-born Fox, founder of Last Minute, the leisure travel website, managed to retain her government advisory role, surviving the General Election defeat of the Labour Party who brought her to table in the first place. Contrast that with the departure of business “Tsar” Lord Sugar. But that’s politics, and Sugar is a Labour man, which probably explains everything.

Championing the web application, sort of

Anyway, Fox has reviewed the DirectGov collection of web-enabled services, offering several recommendations. That aside, what’s most interesting about this whole review, for me, isn’t the review itself, or even DirectGov for that matter. And the less said about the politics the better. No, what’s really interesting is that the whole idea of web-enabled services — henceforth referred to as web applications — have been pushed into the unblinking gaze of the public eye, and that of many a politician, too, I no wonder.

For a company like Octane, this is crucial, because this room to breath helps legitimize what I do for a living; which is designing and developing web applications.

At some point, the hope is that the conversation won’t start with the question: “So what is a web application anyway?” but with: “So I have all this data, fifteen members of staff divided across three different locations and I need them all to be able to manage that data. Can you do that?” Well of course I can! But right now, that conversation is some way off, and I have to scramble through that explanatory briar patch before I get to the aforementioned money question.

How does this raised awareness help you?

Good question. Firstly, at the governmental level at least, over the next few years, more and more of your transactions will be on-line. Everything from accounts being filed with Companies House, to VAT returns to Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. I’m already doing this kind of thing, but there are many of you who aren’t. More crucially, your accountants probably aren’t, either.

Anyway, as time passes by, you now get the whole web thing. In time, you’ll understand the difference between a website and a web application. You’ll begin to realize there’s money to either be saved or made, and that has very direct impact on your business.

So the conversation then changes. More resources become available, more businesses like me enter the fray, and services emerge, allowing you to do things over the web that were unthinkable just three years ago, all without costing you too much money.

Your expectations are now higher because you appreciate what can be achieved, and what your business can achieve, via the web. You reap the rewards of your curiosity, just like Premier UK Venues did all those years ago when I built To Book for them.

How does a web application help save money?

Miss Fox recommended the Conservative-Democrat coalition party move a third of services onto the web:

“Shifting 30 per cent of government service delivery contacts to digital channels would deliver gross annual savings of more than £1.3bn, rising to £2.2bn if 50 per cent of contacts shifted to digital.”

So how does that work? Well, in different ways. Especially if you compare print to a web page:

“She contrasts the process of applying for a student loan, which ends with the printing out and signing of a 30-page document, with the simplicity of booking a flight.”

The fact is, print costs a lot of money. The cost is divided several ways. Firstly, there’s the initial production, which is unavoidable, irrespective of the media, then there’s the design phase, actual print and then finally delivery. Then there’s the re-prints, which becomes a constant cycle. Clearly there’s a huge argument for going paperless, which I’ve discussed previously, and is doable for some.

Work smart, go web-based, save money

Are there any other ways in which a web application help save money? To answer that, I must quote myself:

  • Automating business processes saves you time
  • Increased work capacity
  • Reduced data errors, loss and duplication
  • Work more efficiency
  • More accurate data entry
  • Save money over time (greater ROI)

In conclusion

Getting a big-up from a big industry name like Martha Lane Fox won’t happen often, so it’s up to people like me to make the most of these moments, when awareness is raised and people are just that more curious, or educated.

But these are curious times in which we live in, and right now, in spite of the hardships many are likely to endure, Octane is getting along nicely. All of which is rather prophetic really, given my earlier thoughts on how a web app’ can save a business money during a recession.

Aside from me whoring what I do to pay the bills, the core aspect of what I’m driving is that you can adopt the same perspective as myself — by striving for the precision of thought and vision to take a good long look at what you do and remove waste and refine what remains, wherever possible.

Don’t ever become complacent and believe that what you’re doing is the best you can do, there’s always room for improvement. Just ask Martha Lane Fox.

What inspired me to start a web design agency

Sifting through the updates on Facebook, a question caught my attention which triggered a flash of memories right in front of my eyes: “What inspired you to start a business?” This being a Sunday, I thought I’d walk through some of those early memories once more.

What inspired me to start a business?

The question posed by StartUp Donut prompted a reply from me, but I soon started to wander off-topic, meandering into the minutia of the why and the when. So I reigned in my thoughts and decided to put them all here, on Octane.

To answer the question, I just wanted to be the master of my own destiny. The thought of working for someone else simply wasn’t (and still isn’t) in the least appealing to me.

In the beginning…

Originally, the intention was to start up Octane with a couple of guys from college, but things just didn’t work out that way. I was, in many ways, forced into the decision by circumstances largely outside of my control.

At the time, I was working in Leeds, as a new media designer, which entailed designing and building interactive CDs, web design and elements of video and 3D production. The first 3 years were excellent, but then the last 6 months became utterly intolerable. I still don’t know what happened, but something had clearly changed in the guy I was working for. In the end, I had to go.

In hindsight (which is always 20-20 vision), I should have looked for employment elsewhere and built up my network. But I didn’t. I should have waited until I had someone who could partner with me to handle the sales and marketing. But I didn’t.

At the time, web design was very, very new. So I was striding straight into a completely new market, with all the perils and potential you’d expect. And even today, what I do is still widely unknown and new to many.

I also saw a lot of confusion on the part of businesses, business owners and marketing managers, who weren’t quite sure what the whole “web thing” meant. And inside that moment of perfect confusion, a circling swarm of web design agencies were visibly preying on the the confused and the bemused.

From the very beginning, I was determined to, firstly, do things my way, and secondly, to do things right by everyone I did business with, and to be as honest as necessity would allow, without harming my self in the process. That mentality and philosophy stood me in good stead, and I began to win the respect of not just clients, but of those other agencies who, over the coming years, would see me as a constant in an ever-changing industry.

So from 1999 to about 2004, I was more a fireman and a trauma councillor than a web designer — intervening in emergencies and then tending to the people burnt by one disaster or another. While that earned me a solid reputation and won me a substantial amount of referral work, selling directly was extremely difficult because I was guilty by association and constantly walking through dirty water.

The first 10 years really didn’t hit home until after the event, sometime in late June of 2009. Again, in hindsight, I ought to have done more to celebrate the occasion, but things were hard for everyone I knew and the moment just slipped by. But I did manage to scribble together a few thoughts on my time running Octane from 1999-2009:

“There have been trials. There have been tribulations. I’ve survived everything from the bursting of the Dot Com bubble to the current global economic downturn.

For any business to last ten years is a major milestone. But for a web design agency, I breath very rarefied air, shared by few others.”

A special kind of hell.

Running your own business is a trade-off between control and stability, and it’s a trade-off I’ve been a willing participant of since 1999.

I see so many businesses and business people fail for so many totally avoidable reasons, many of which are as a result of poor decision making, over-reaching self interest, an inability to say “no”, and a lack of vision and objectivity.

Conversely, a lack of success is not always the presence of those things, but an absence of good fortune and an array of friends and colleagues to assist wherever they feel able to. Those early decisions to go alone have proved to be instrumental in my relative confinement as an individual and not a team.

But the thought of giving in and working for someone else, to be beholden to their politics, and having to be a witness to all of those bad things is to me some kind of purgatory. I simply could not stand being a party to and being expected to be a participant in a failure of thought and deed, when I know for sure there are better and more viable ways.

“Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven” — Paradise Lost, John Milton

The future of Octane?

Right now, the future of Octane looks very bright! I’m presently working on a number of large projects, which I fully intend writing about in due course. Rather than tease, I can tell you about two in particular.

Qwiktax started out as a relatively modest bookkeeping web application, but has since grown into a more mature, feature-complete accounting package, designed to allow small businesses to manage not just their bookkeeping, but employee payroll, fixed assets and VAT, as well as view on-going trading results, loans and profit & loss accounts. So far, we’re making good progress, but there’s still much to do before it’s complete and ready for general release.

To Book is an existing web application that is to be re-designed and re-developed, taking it to version three. In simple terms, To Book is an accommodation management tool specific to the needs of one particular business. To Book 3 will be a generic system, which we can sell to just about anyone who wants to take control of their event management needs. To Book 3 will be, by far, the most ambitious project I’ll have undertaken so far, and I just can’t wait to get going. Right now, we’re moving through the various agreed stages of the project plan, having signed off the initial wireframe designs and flow diagrams, I’m now moving onto the actual design stage proper.

Here and now…

So, all in all, there’s much for me to look forward to and exciting times ahead. With winter just around the corner, and all of the attendant festivities in tow, there’ll be no let up for me, but that’s business!

StartUp Donut — What inspired you to start a business?

Don’t be afraid to ask questions

Why. Now there’s a thing to ask. I often can’t ask enough questions. If I didn’t ask questions, projects simply wouldn’t get off the ground.

OK, first of all, sorry about the long absence; I’ve been very, very busy over the last several months. Right now, I’m working on several large projects (more about those some other time, perhaps) that are soaking up a good measure of my time. However, I was aware of the time between now and the last article, so here I am, with some thoughts of mine from the front line.

A question of taking the lead

Over the last week or so, I’ve been working on a lead that came through the Octane website from a freight company in London. They want a system to manage consignments and customer payments that their staff can use both here and abroad, where their customers’ consignments are being shipped to. After having sent something like 25 emails to them, we were finally edging closer to something resembling what they wanted, as a brief, and here’s what they had to say:

“Thanks for your input. Really appreciated. I must say you are the second person that we would consider if we do go ahead with the system development. I really like the way you broken down things and you are also detailed and have so many question which I think is the only way to understand what we really want. Others have come up with estimates without asking a fraction of the questions which you have asked.”

You see, I can’t do my job properly (or perhaps at all) if I don’t know enough about the things I’m working on. Also, there are times when what the client thinks they want isn’t really what they need, or more importantly, what their customers need. And then there’s the unintentional omissions, the lack of technical clout on their part, the legal implications, and finally, the gotchas.

Being like Colombo

Not everyone appreciates the endless barrage of questions. I suppose some people find being asked questions like some kind of pestering, or that you’re questioning their abilities in some way, as if they haven’t or can’t articulate their needs properly.

Let’s face it, who doesn’t think Lieutenant Colombo a laughable irritation with his trademark “Err, excuse me, sir. Just one last question…” he asks, head bowed, with an upturned hand to his head, waving his cigar aloft as he scratches a furrow in his brow with a stubby thumb. But you know what? Colombo always figured things out in the end.

He would often ask obvious questions. Now, they are the most irritating questions, but sometimes, you need to make absolutely sure you understand things, or woe betide the fool who goes to work on X when the project required Y.

One lead in particular kept insisting that what she wanted was simple because she’d seen a friend doing the same thing, whatever that meant. Once I’d managed to disentangle what she needed from what she thought she wanted, the whole complexion of the project changed dramatically. Rather than something simple, what was asking for would have been a £3,000-5,000 project, while not earth shattering, is still much more than she’d anticipated. I replied with an email containing a huge list of questions I’d managed to lift from difference sources, to save time, and I never heard from her again!

Fire away!

I freely admit that I’m not the diplomat I imagine myself to be, and so a machine gun style assault of questions might not have been the best tactic, in that one instance.

The problem for yourself is knowing how far to go, and how much effort to pour into that earliest of phases, when they could just take your questions, your initial thoughts and vanish into the night. I’m in a similar position, whereby the aforementioned lead could easily take the draft brief and schedule for the web application project I’ve supplied them with a move onto someone else.

I’m able to mitigate against some of these problems by giving them only the most superficial explanation of what I have in, leaving out key details which would allow them to take my ideas make them happen. So for them to get at my ideas, they need me to follow them through. However, if you’re just selling red, green and blue widgets, you have to find other ways of keeping that lead warm.

So, what am I asking you to do? Why ask questions, of course! Honestly, don’t be afraid to look silly asking those obvious questions, because that one moment of silliness might look like a good deal more appealing than seeing a project stall or even fail, all for the want of being obvious.

Why the hell should small businesses even care about brand?

Brand is something most people have an understanding of — Heinz, Apple, Ford, Nike, Sony. Just about everyone knows the value of a brand name and the perception of others towards you when you invest in those brands. But what about your own brand, and does it even make sense to talk about your own business brand when you’re a small business?

The rules that apply to the Ford’s and Apple’s of this world also apply to your local plumber, joiner and electrician. Recently, I wrote about the 10 personal branding habits of the professionals, which has been a very successful article, one that clearly resonates with a lot of businesses around the world. However, it’s not the rules that separate the large businesses from the smaller ones, but the words, phrases and terminology; big businesses are much more likely to have university educated marketeers who’re up on all the current business parlance. As for the small business? It’s all buzz words and jargon to them.

The cult of personality marketing

Over on Marketing Donut, a growing business services and advice web magazine, a title caught my eye — “I’m a small business – why do I need a brand?” It’s a good question. It’s also a very good article, too!

For the most part, talking about brand with small businesses is just confusing and stirs up more questions than it answers. However, the advice offered here in the above article is precisely the kind I offer to my clients, which makes the whole thing much more understandable to the plumbers, joiners and electricians of this world.

Oftentimes, the client will reply by saying: “Oh, so this is like a brand name, yeah?” So I find it’s better to let them make that connection, rather than me try and place it there. At that point, brand isn’t this big thing, but something they can not only get a fix on and pursue as a function of their own marketing, succeeding by the sheer weight of their own personality.

It’s easy to think of marketing, or any kind of promotional activity, as being external to you and your business, as if there’s no physical connection between the two. But that’s what brand is essentially all about; bridging the perception of your business with the business itself. In reality, you become the very essence of your marketing.

But even this sounds contrived and lofty, when for the most part a smile, a disarming joke, a professional approach to work and a little honesty are all hallmarks of someone who’s likely to do well from word-of-mouth marketing. And at that point, their brand begins to grow and grow.

Out there, all over the country, thousands of plumbers, car mechanics, joiners, painters, decorators and electricians have thriving local trades, all of which are directly attributable to them marketing themselves through their personalities.

The brand performance curve

I’ve found is that smaller businesses often feel a greater benefit from an improved brand image than larger more established businesses, with the plumber being a good example; you really wouldn’t expect your local plumber to have professionally designed and printed business cards, would you?

So that one thing makes a statement which implies someone who is established and professional enough to put their name to their service. Immediately, the perception of that business is lifted high above their competitors. But for the larger more established businesses, the effort required for differentiation is measurably more difficult. Why? Because it is expected that larger businesses have business cards, compliment slips, headed paper and envelopes, pretty girls answering telephone calls in plush office receptions, account handlers wearing crisp suits and wide smiles —here, differentiation demands extraordinary people making extraordinary effort because these businesses have ridden their brand performance up and over the curve and are now coasting along the plateau.

Do you still care about your brand?

You should. But I wouldn’t get too hung up about it, either. Many business people recognize their deficiencies, so if you can see where you’re going wrong, you’re already on the road to a remedy. That said, knowing that little changes can lead to better things for your small business, perhaps you ought to think big!

Twitter to show a measure of trust in businesses?

Twitter may soon be wearing a business hat. Some will argue it has been for a while, but I’m talking about an official doffing of the cap towards businesses, with services specific to their needs. And critically, arguably the most important thing to emerge might be an indicator of Twitter’s trust in you and your business.
Twitter, the global social network

Putting the social into social media marketing

So there I was last night, working my way through the Answers forum on LinkedIn and up came the question: How are you generating leads using social media? To which I replied:

“Essentially, it’s all about what the offer is and how it fits your target audience. So many people get sucked into the Facebook-Twitter thing, thinking they just need to get a ton of friends / followers and then post links to their stuff. Wrong.

The same rules apply to social media as in real life — you build relationships around common interests, and this takes time and a degree of sincerity.

I recently published an ebook about WordPress for businesses. That being my proposition, my network of friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter did the rest. But that would not have happened had I not assisted in helping them promote their own content.”

So the leads come as a result a number of factors:

  1. the trust in you by those in your network
  2. the quality of your network (those with the same approach as you)
  3. the value of your offer to those in your network

And at its core, that’s life, and social media is not so special that anyone could make a case for its sudden departure from those simple rules. Yes, there’s more to this than a simple 1-2-3 guide to life, social media and everything in between, but that’s as good a place to start as any.

Twitter’s take on trust

This morning, my curated news source that is Twitter unearthed an interesting headline that caught my eye. By the looks of things, Twitter are readying new business features:

“After close to five months of beta testing, Twitter is preparing to launch a suite of business features tied to a central Twitter Business Center.”

So, it looks like Twitter are finally getting their act together and offering some of the features we’ve grown accustom to with CoTweet and HootSuite. But in amongst the brief overview of this proposed new direction by Twitter was mention of something that’s almost throw-away, but could have far reaching and profound consequences for businesses on Twitter:

“Other new capabilities include customization of business profile pages, verified account badges for corporations and organizations (not just people)…”

A verified account on Twitter is a much sought after prize. Why? Because it’s an indicator of trust in you as an individual and a brand by Twitter. That might not be the reason for a verified account (it’s typically used by famous people to show it’s them and not someone masquerading as them), but the value is there for all to see.

Reputation, recognition and Ra Ra skirts

For businesses, the criteria would need to be different. Yes, there’s still going to be people trying to pass themselves off as the Sony’s and the PayPal’s of this world, but for the legitimate businesses like Octane, this really is all about trust and the enormous value that brings along. However, it does all depend on what criteria they choose to use. As I pointed out in a LinkedIn Answers topic last night:

“Getting a profile verified is like knitting fog — almost impossible. Sorry, that’s not entirely correct. If you’re an almost unknown yet gorgeous US female presenter on some bizarre cable channel aimed at guys, then yes, you’re guaranteed.”

A brand new social media metric

Done right and Twitter could have a brand new metric on their hands — up there with Google’s PageRank, the much maligned but still much used Alexa rank and the very real possibility of a PeopleRank, should Facebook get their way — one used by others as an indictor of trust and to help determine the value of a business.

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