Interesting small business ideas coming out of the recession

In a glass-half-full note, one of the positive things that comes out of a downturn is that laid off workers generate new business ideas.  Here’s one you probably haven’t heard of: wedding cake rentals.  My brother-in-law and his wife have started a company called Twin Cities Cake Rental, which allows engaged couples in Minneapolis/St. Paul to rent a wedding cake.  The cake itself is a prop, and guests are served sheet cake, saving the new couple hundreds of dollars.

Good luck in your new venture, Chris and Robbin!

Webworkers: How to not compete on price

Once again, Jeremy nails the question of how to differentiate your web based business:

… take a look at what (customers) are complaining about …

* Missing delivery dates

* Inconsiderate, rude responses

* Canceling projects

* No phone support

* Not responsive

* No consistency when it comes to who is working on the project

Don’t respond to an RFQ with just price – talk about service excellence!  Talk about points of differentiation!

On That Software Guy’s FAQ page, I talk about my Zen Cart module development services this way:

As with most things in life, with freelance software developers, you get what you pay for.

  • My Quantity Discounts and Better Together modules have been downloaded over 8,000 times each. If you look at the total download statistics for That Software Guy’s contributions, you’ll see my contributions have been downloaded over 40,000 times.
  • I have been doing commercial software development for over 20 years.
  • I have a proven track record of delivering highly functional software.
  • That Software Guy, Inc. has been in business since 2003. Government fees, insurance, accounting and tax preparation costs and other forms of fixed overhead are in excess of $1,000 per year. I wouldn’t keep the business open if it weren’t consistently making money, and the only way to make money consistently is by delivering a service which people value.
  • I am a PayPal verified, native speaker of English who’s a US resident and in the phone book.
  • Communication is a critical success factor. Is someone who doesn’t speak English really going to be able to make sense of your business needs and create proposals that work for you?

If you compare value rather than cost per hour, you’ll see that it makes more sense to hire me. Better contractors produce better results.

How can you differentiate your business?

Whoops! They did it again.

Microsoft’s latest foray into things that might possibly have a small chance of not sucking is their new MOSS offering – Sharepoint as a service. Now I know what you’re thinking: has That Software Guy lost his mind? Actually using a low quality, buggy, insecure Microsoft service?

Relax. I’m just doing it because I needed a laugh. And sure enough, I got one.

The marketing ploy is, “use MOSS because you won’t have to provision your own capacity to run Sharepoint – we’ll do it for you.” But then when it comes to actually trialling the service, you get a pretty blue dialog that says,

* The number of available trial accounts has temporarily reached its limit.

ROTFL!! Boy, that’s sure a confidence builder.

OK, so why would someone who wasn’t clueless use a closed-source content management system? Why would you choose to be at the mercy of a single vendor with such a lousy delivery record? And has Microsoft finally solved problems that everyone else figured out decades ago, such as managing multiple simultaneous updates to a single resource? (The Sharepoint 2003 answer was “last one in wins with no notification of impending overwrite.” Nice!)

Got GL?

TechInsuranceMany moons ago, when That Software Guy was consulting full-time, he was contractually required to carry a large general liability policy (in case someone tripped over his briefcase or whatever). I got the policy from a fellow named Steve Arnold from TechInsurance. When I went back to W-2 status, I let the policy lapse because I started doing all my That Software Guy work on the Internet. Still, I had a nagging feeling that I wasn’t doing the right thing – and Steve confirmed this in a catch up phone call last week:

“Even though you’re Internet-based, you still have a liability exposure! You have rocks in your head not to have coverage!”

Well, he didn’t actually say that (although I’m sure he thought it) – Steve was extremely polite and helpful in explaining that there are still a number of edge cases – a UPS guy delivering a package, meeting a client for lunch – where liability still exists for Internet based operations like mine. So I wound up getting coverage again through them, and I must say it was a smooth and pleasant experience. If you’re a small IT or engineering business looking for a policy, give the TechInsurance folks a try.

Got Backup?

Athena BackupYou know protecting your data is critical, so you take care to create backups. Thumb drives. Burning CDs. External hard drives.

These are all good things – but do you have an offsite backup strategy to compliment them? Offsite backup gives you that extra bit of peace of mind that even if a Katrina-type disaster occurred, or a burglar stole all your computer gear1, you’d still be able to get at your data.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about Athena Backup, a small company from Canada started by a couple of engineers I knew from my days at Nortel in Ottawa. Well, I got their software installed and backing up both my PC and my Mac, and I must say, it works like a dream.

Athena Backup screenshot
Screenshot of Athena Backup. Navigation through your backed-up files uses a familiar File Explorer metaphor in a crisp, uncluttered design.


Karen Gauthier, the firm’s marketing director, made this pitch for the service:

Athena Backup is the smart choice for backing up your irreplaceable files. Protect all of your files even if they reside on different computers and different platforms for just $7.95 per month. Sophisticated, secure and reliable backup technology ensures that all your digital media including photos, videos, music and sensitive personal documents will be protected and secure. Sign up today and enjoy 60 days of free protection for all of the computers in your home.

A risk free 60 day trial is really a no-brainer. Give it a shot and see how it works for you.

1. This actually happened to me. What a nightmare!

How to hire a Zen Cart consultant

A client of mine was looking for some OSCommerce to Zen Cart conversion work – something I don’t do, but I wanted to at least give him a bit of guidance through the process.

Hiring a Zen Cart consultant is pretty much like hiring any other consultant; you want to look at their portfolio, make sure they’re competent to do the job, and so forth. Some specific checks you can do:

Candidate Credentials

  • How active are they on the Zen Cart forum? People who are the most knowledgeable are active forum participants.
  • How many contributions have they made to the product? The easiest way for a new designer to demonstrate skill is to make a contribution; if they haven’t done so, the extent of their experience may be limited to simply skinning.

Specifications of Work to be Performed:

  • All database logic must be outside the template. A classic problem with Template Monster templates is that they don’t separate business logic from presentation, which locks you into their template and makes it difficult for you to change your site or upgrade.
  • Template overrides must be used. Don’t let them just update the classic or default template; this will make it more difficult for you to upgrade.
  • The current codebase must be used. You can easily verify this by comparing their changes with the latest codebase; if there are changes beyond what they did, they started with an old base. This will make it … that’s right, more difficult to upgrade.
  • A complete list of modified core files must be provided. The list should be as small as possible (because overrides should be used where possible).

Now let’s flip it around. Consultants who are good are busy. You need to make your firm, your job and your business seem attractive to them; don’t just assume that because they’re in business, they will automatically want to work with you. Here’s what That Software Guy looks for in a client:

  • A cooperative spirit.
  • The ability to clearly and concisely state requirements.
  • A win-win attitude

What do I mean by each of these?

  • Someone with an uncooperative spirit will not disclose their budget or schedule, won’t answer questions promptly, will blow off deadlines, etc. In extreme cases, someone with an uncooperative spirit will insult you and your services. It goes without saying that I decline these accounts.
  • An inability to clearly state requirements – in other words, ambiguous or vague requests – smells like a money-loser to a freelancer. Time is money, and rework caused by misunderstanding is something freelancers want to avoid. If you seem flaky, a freelancer will likely charge you more or refuse to work with you at all.
  • The opposite of a win-win attitude is an attitude of resentfulness that they actually have to pay a freelancer. This runs the gamut from complaining about price (“but it’s only a couple of lines of code!”) to trivializing the work involved (“this seems very straightforward, so it shouldn’t cost that much”). Clients like this aren’t fun to work with, and successful freelancers – who have a choice of clients – will avoid them.

If you want to read more about how consultants size you up as a client, Jeremy Tuber has written a couple of posts about it from the perspective of a graphic designer here, here and here. The last one is a story from my business.

Knowing where to tinker makes all the difference

I came across a famous story the other day – I’m sure you’ve read it before:

“Nikola Tesla visited Henry Ford at his factory, which was having some
kind of difficulty. Ford asked Tesla if he could help identify the
problem area. Tesla walked up to a wall of boilerplate and made a
small X in chalk on one of the plates. Ford was thrilled, and told him
to send an invoice.

The bill arrived, for $10,000. Ford asked for a breakdown. Tesla sent
another invoice, indicating a $1 charge for marking the wall with an
X, and $9,999 for knowing where to put it.”

“Know Where Man” Urban Legend, hosted by snopes.com

Sometimes Engineer Charlie Steinmetz is the hero of this tale, as in this recounting.

A similar story involves Picasso:

One day, Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him.

“It’s you — Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist.”

So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.

“It’s perfect!” she gushed. “You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?”

“Five thousand dollars,” the artist replied.

“B-b-but, what?” the woman sputtered. “How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!”

To which Picasso responded, “Madame, it took me my entire life.”

Now some people have argued that one or both of these accounts are apocryphal, but the historicity of these narratives is beside the point. The point is that although an experienced hand makes a difficult job look easy, that must not dissuade you from charging full price for your work.

I’m a software designer, so the refrain I hear is, “but it’s only a couple of lines of code!” Irrespective of whether it is or it isn’t just a couple of lines of code, what this really means is, “I don’t want to pay for your time and expertise.” So I just reiterate my cost estimate and ask them how many lines of code they’d like. 🙂

The latest from Amazon

Web King Amazon.com has just announced the Amazon All Business Center, which includes WebStore by Amazon, an interesting looking hosted e-commerce application. The pricing on WebStore is $59.99/month, and you can list your own items which you will fulfill along side Amazon.com items that they fulfill. This is an extension of the existing aStore offering, where affiliate marketers (called “associates”) can list Amazon items and get referral fees.

Each of the two store options has a different look and feel, with some different configuration options. You can check out a demo aStore at http://astore.amazon.com/demostore-20 and a demo Webstore at http://atthetrailhead.com/.

Here’s the press release on the All Business Center from Amazon.