Posts in “Business”

October 22, 2012

Business is triage

Any idiot can run any project well.

Hire experienced professionals. Staff every project completely. Get the best tools. Use the highest quality materials. Have independent consultants and auditors verify everything. Take the time to do things right, and never settle for second-best.

If leadership is the art of delegation, then everyone can lead a product launch, a construction project, or a rocket launch.

All you need to succeed is a pile of clichés (“Never settle for second best,” “Quality is job one,” “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well,” etc.) and an even bigger pile of cash.

Fast Company had a great article years ago about software development for the Space Shuttle. There are some interesting and even useful lessons about the process that kept software errors to 1 in 420,000 lines of code.

The problem with applying these lessons to my business: at that point they’d been working on the code for 22 years and were still spending $35 million a year on maintaining it. I can’t afford government-level quality. (And I mean that in every way it can be interpreted…)

Business is triage. Resources are limited and competition is intense, and the never-ending job of a business leader is deciding what we can get along without and how good something has to be before we ship it.

Sometimes a well-meaning employee asks when we’re going to “get through this phase” — stop changing direction quickly, stop taking on big projects with small teams, stop shipping things as soon as they are market-viable, etc.

The answer is “never, I hope.” Because a business that isn’t in triage mode is a business on its way out of business.


October 12, 2012

Profit Is Why You Are in Business

Does your business have a noble mission? Mine does, too. But making a profit is what enables a business to accomplish its mission. Profit needs to be the first priority or you will not have a chance to pursue any others.

It is easy to fall into the trap of labeling things “strategic” as an excuse for unprofitable work. I know, I have done it.

Chapter 10 of Fire Someone Today is now online, and summarized in these slides:

October 3, 2012

The four-word employee handbook

Everything I want from myself and others at work (and in life!) can be summed up in four words:

Honor God. Love others.

When we started Logos Bible Software twenty years ago, I used a software program to generate a boilerplate “attorney approved” employee handbook. When employees asked “What’s our policy on…?” I might refer them to the handbook, since I couldn’t always remember what it said. But more often I would just approve their special request, or tell them to use their best judgment.

Then I took the Zappos tour, and read the Netflix culture slides. And I realized that we already employed awesome, smart people who trust each other. What did we need a butt-covering book of legalese for?

So that’s it: Honor God. Love others. Our new employee handbook in a nutshell, and the primary measure we weigh decisions against.

To complement the nutshell-handbook we developed a set of slides that expound on the theme, meet the letter of the law, introduce our corporate values, and explain the culture. We even decided on two actual rules: no smoking, and no open flames.

It can be scary to work with so few guidelines. Managers wonder if employees will abuse the un-tracked vacation time; employees wonder if they’re embracing too much or too little freedom. It requires trust and openness and conversation. But after 18 months it is working well.

January 28, 2010

On failing our customers

I try to stay accessible, publishing my email address, answering my own phone, participating in our forums, etc. In normal days this means I get occasional complaints from customers, and I’m able to make that customer happy and hear about weak spots in our product or systems.

But now I’m hearing from upset customers every day. And I don’t blame them: wait times to talk to customer service or technical support can be over half-an-hour. (It hurts me to type that!)

We released Logos 4 on November 2nd. Knowing that upgrades always create extra customer service, we planned appropriately. We scheduled overtime, extended our hours, opened on Saturday, and even catered lunch for the team the first few days.

It’s not been enough. Within a couple weeks our reps were burning out, and we had to cut back the extended hours. We started hiring, but too slowly. We kept thinking “the rush is almost over.” But it’s still not; Logos 4 upgrade sales were more than double my expectations, and in the first eight weeks of our release we had as many users move to our new platform as move to our platform in an entire “normal” year.

And now we’re facing limits we didn’t even consider. We need to recruit, interview and train more service agents. We need to shuffle departments to make more space for desks and chairs. We’re out of phone lines; we’ve hit capacity on our telephone trunk line. (The one I thought would last us forever!) And our six-year-old phone system that was supposed to grow with us? It was discontinued the year after we bought it, and we’re having problems expanding it to support a second receptionist.

Our goal for customer service is every email answered in 24 business hours, every phone call answered — by a person – in a few rings, and no more than two minutes, if any, on hold.

These are ambitious goals, and we’re not meeting them today. I’m sorry. But we’re working hard to get back there as fast as possible.

January 14, 2010

Lonely at the end? Yes, so keep a few of the pirates…

Derek Johnson is a young entrepreneur here in Bellingham who’s been setting the world on fire with Tatango and his “cover the earth” social media strategy. I think he’s going places.

Today he posted about how there’s now not one other person at Tatango who was there at the start.

It’s true, the people who are a perfect fit for a startup or small business often don’t fit when the business grows. People and businesses change. Employees who like or thrive in the chaos of a startup don’t always like the structure and organization of a profitable business. And the people who work well in a stable, profitable business often don’t have the attitude (or the courage!) to work on a shaky startup.

I joke that Logos in the early days was staffed by pirates. We were a motley crew of ignorant youth, corporate refugees, failed entrepreneurs, dropouts, disc jockeys, roofing salesmen… a lot of people you wouldn’t have hired, myself included.

Today people apply to work at Logos because they’ve heard we’re a strong company with good pay and benefits that treats people well. (It’s true! And we’re hiring!) And we hire people with relevant education, experience, and a track record.

It works well for everybody. And there’s less yelling in the office.

But some of those pirates were amazing people. Some could do tech support, write code, and fix the company van, all in one day. One built a loft for developers to sleep in, up under the eaves, and baked a blackberry pie from berries picked behind the office.

And most importantly, they weren’t afraid to speak the truth.

18 years later, we’ve managed to hold onto a few of the pirates. 2 of 3 founding partners are still here, along with some family members, employee #1, and a few from the second year.

And I love these people. (Most days.) Because they will do whatever needs to be done. Because they do remember that time when… Because they never call me ‘sir’. And because they will fearlessly speak the truth when others keep their mouths shut.

Derek, it’s going to get even more lonely. As you move from success to success, which I am sure you will, you’ll find more and more people who tell you what you want to hear. People will join you because you’re a meal-ticket. They’ll work for you because they want a stable, safe job. And that’s great.

But keep an eye out for those few crazy pirates who can grow with you. People you can count on today, and tomorrow, and who will be there to give it to you straight when no one else will. Even when you don’t want to hear it.

January 11, 2010

Solve tomorrow’s problem (or get out fast)

Necessity is the mother of invention, and as a consequence, lots of new products address today’s felt needs.

If you’re developing a tech product, though, I think it’s a better plan to address tomorrow’s needs than today’s. Because by the time you develop and market your product, today will be history, and gone with it may be the problem you were trying to solve.

Remember the dedicated e-mail devices that were sold in office supply stores? A small screen, keyboard, and phone-line connection so that you could get on e-mail for a couple hundred bucks instead of buying a more expensive general-purpose computer.

Not a big hit, because the price of the computer was falling every day.

The family radios? (Higher-powered, more phone-like walkie-talkies.) Released just a few years before everyone and their dog got a much more useful cell phone.

Of course you can be too early. E-books are hot now, but none of the pioneers of the late 1990’s are with us today.

There is money to be made solving today’s problem, and if you’re able to move quickly and exploit a window in time, good for you. But if you’re making a large investment, it’s worth looking down the road.

Practical wisdom on growing your business that you can start using today.

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