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Tech and Strategy for Entrepreneurs

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1. Female Entrepreneurs Rising.

Last year, for the first time ever, we did more business with female entrepreneurs than with males. While we’re a very small sample size, we still think that we represent a larger trend in the economy. Our female clients often perceive nuances in how people learn and buy that help them build software which is more human and “relatable”.

2. Mid-Life Entrepreneurs Trending.
There are a surprising number of middle-aged and older people getting into entrepreneurship.

We’re talking about people who’ve never started companies before and are not serial entrepreneurs – but do have business experience and savvy.  I think economic optimism and the idea that “you only live once” is driving this phenomenon. Also, the desire for working independence which has been propagated by millennials is making its’ way upstream.  Add to this the fact that older people are willing to stand the test of time and follow-through and often have more connections and resources.

3. Adversity and “hard work” are going away. Not.
I don’t buy the notion that as the technology advances, we won’t have to face adversity.

In fact, I think that if we don’t have to work, technology will quickly slow down and stall. Adversity is necessary/good for us.  The entrepreneurs I know who faced huge obstacles and dealt with chaos or unfairness earlier in their lives tend to push through “impossible” situations later in life. And I say this as someone who had some obstacles, but nothing like the people I’m referring to. We can’t and shouldn’t try to program risk and adversity out of everything we do no matter how sophisticated out technology becomes. I have to remind myself that if I haven’t scared myself recently, I’m probably not pushing hard enough.

4. More Re-training Workers for Tech.
This is finally happening and I’m excited to see it!

As an example, many organizations are training former service-industry workers to perform QA and software testing. These entry-level positions can earn far more than service jobs and pave the way for individuals to move up in tech companies. College degrees are not a barrier, here. We don’t look for them. I think we need to give people a serious chance – but in order to give people them that chance, we also need some safeguards – see the next item.

5. Increasing Working Restrictions.
Technology startups need flexibility in structuring working relationships.

I call this a negative trend. The regulatory environment needs to be as creative as the businesses we start. For example, we have team members who want to own some of the risk and rewards of their work.  Others ask us to take 3 hours off on a Wednesday to do a project with their kids and make it up on Thursday – but that pushes them into overtime. Still, others want to be paid for a project outcome. There is some reason to believe that less than 8 hours per day is more productive in certain fields or on highly abstract work, which potentially trashes the notion of “full-time”.  What if we focused on regulations that allow parties to construct agreements in simple language and receive justice quickly when they are aggrieved?

6. Smaller Geographies getting into the mix.
Smaller cities hosting new startups are developing their own unique value propositions.

In 1903, the Wright Brothers’ “startup” was founded in Dayton, OH and on the sands of Kitty Hawk, NC. Today, Silicon valley and a few of the larger cities call themselves the center of the startup universe. In a way, they’re right – its simple math: $50k in seed money can’t compete with $500k. Or can it? From Knoxville TN to San Luis Obispo, CA, small-town startups play to a lifestyle, a creative element and the rebel in us. Entrepreneurs in these places are often very pragmatic, feet-on-the-street types who are willing to test and try anything, drive any car and live anywhere. Nothing is beneath them. The Wright Brothers were small town Ohio boys who went to an even smaller strip of sand in North Carolina with a great big idea, tested every assumption, worked with their hands, recruited unlikely talent and ultimately crushed their well-heeled Washington, DC-based competition. My advice – if you’re in a smaller area, play to your strengths. You can’t beat the valley at its’ own game, but you can play a different game.

7. Coworking/shared office spaces will wane.
I call this the “introvert re-awakening”.

Shared working spaces are all the rage and nice for helping startups get going, providing good economics, collaboration, etc. However, consider that the very first thing many startup clients want us to do is to sign an NDA. Obviously, secrecy is important to them! Also, almost every introvert I talk to (and most engineers fit that category) wishes they had more privacy at work. Lacking that privacy, these team members tend to subconsciously “look busy” rather than focusing on thoughtful production. And finally, there is politics: I was in an office of a business partner recently where we couldn’t speak candidly about a technical problem because the problem’s creator happened to be another company which was right around the corner in the same room of a shared workspace. Open space is great and every office should have some, but privacy is also natural and its’ returning.

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  • entrepreneur
  • Management
  • trends
963

I know what you’re thinking: “Encourage employees to quit? That’s ridiculous! Everyone knows how stressful and expensive it is to deal with high turnover!” Stay with me for a minute. Encouraging employee turnover at your company may be the best move you can make to build a hard-working team culture, and it might just boost your bottom line.

My brother and I started a moving company when we were in high school. Because of our school and athletic commitments, we had a hard time finding part-time work that fit around our schedules. We started helping friends’ families move, and soon word began to spread. Years later, we now handle more than 13,000 moves per year, making us the largest independent moving company in California. Our business model remains true to our origin – we hire college athletes as movers and allow them to build their own schedules, affording them the opportunity to work their way through school.

Let’s use Meathead Movers as our case study. In an industry plagued by high turnover rates, we’ve adopted a process that we refer to as “encouraged turnover.” Here’s how it works: when we hire a new mover, we sit down with them to figure out what their long-term goals are. Our mission then becomes equipping them with the skills and mentorship they need to reach those goals. If they want to become an accountant, we’ll let them shadow our accountants. If they want to be a marketer, we’ll get them plugged in with our marketing team.

Along the way, these employees are also exposed to customer service best practices, executing contracts, learning how to manage their peers in high-pressure situations, commercial driving experience and even general professional lessons, such as learning how to tie a tie and balance a checkbook. Once they’ve graduated school and are ready to move on to their desired career path, we’re the first in line to recommend our superstar employees to companies in their field; we even take the step of calling their hiring manager for their next job to offer a recommendation. And when they get the job, we use our own company resources to throw them a celebratory BBQ.

So, how can “encouraged turnover” help your company?

One of the benefits of this managerial style is that it incentivizes employees to work harder. Companies are always trying to stimulate higher performance from their employees. If an employee knows that your desire as the employer is to help them reach their next goal, then it’s in their best interest to turn you into a raving fan. It’s a paradigm shift for the employee, turning a “stepping-stone job” into an important link in the chain to future success. Identifying and supporting employees’ future goals allows Meathead to give context to on-job situations that in other companies could cause an employee to become disgruntled or unmotivated. For example, if an employee comes back from a move super frustrated by a difficult client, our managers can ask “Hey, you want to be a firefighter, right? Do you think you will encounter high stress situations then? View this as an opportunity to learn the skills needed to deal with stressful situations and on-the-spot decision making under pressure.” This will fuel enthusiasm and a greater sense of purpose in what they’re doing. The result at Meathead Movers has been a workforce of people always looking for ways to go above and beyond, knowing their effort will be rewarded in the form of a strong recommendation when it comes time to transition.

Another benefit of “encouraged turnover” is that it lets your employees know that you care about their individual success, not just the success of the company. This will make your employees feel more valued and less dispensable. If you’ve ever worked for an employer that you knew truly wanted you to succeed, then you know how it affected your attitude at work every day. Now contrast that with an experience you’ve had working somewhere that made you feel more like a number than a name. I’m willing to bet that you were more productive for the company that really valued you. Productive employees eliminate waste, and efficiency increases profit.

When you have incentivized employees who feel like their employer values them, you create a culture where people are genuinely excited to work for your company. This is the “team” mentality that great coaches inspire in sports. Teamwork is what wins championships. Even the best athletes know they can’t win without the help of their team. When your employees feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves, you’ll see greater synergy in the office that will lead to even more productivity. Now everyone is a winner!

Now, your employees may already be in the field they want to be in long-term. In that case, you could find out what position they hope to eventually be promoted to and work to prepare them for that role through mentorship, job shadowing, etc.

Through our own experience with “encouraged turnover,” we’ve seen employees go on to become business owners, lawyers, financial advisers and more. The key is communicating this message: “You can reach your dreams, and we want to help you get there.” Of course, they may like working for you so much that they never want to leave!
By: Aaron Steed, CEO of Meathead Movers
Aaron Steed is president, co-founder and CEO of Meathead Movers. He founded Meathead Movers at 17-years-old in 1997 with his brother, Evan. As CEO, Steed oversees all areas of the company – providing clarity, strategy and accountability for everyone on the Meathead team. He has established an open-door style of management, similar to that of a coach, and is well-known for being happily available to assist employees at their jobs or in their personal lives.
In 2015, Steed and the team at Meathead Movers launched the #MoveToEndDV campaign to encourage businesses all over the world to donate free products and services to victims of domestic violence – just like Meathead Movers provides free moving services to victims fleeing an abusive situation.

 

Aaron Steed, CEO of Meathead Movers
Aaron Steed is president, co-founder and CEO of Meathead Movers. He founded Meathead Movers at 17-years-old in 1997 with his brother, Evan. As CEO, Steed oversees all areas of the company – providing clarity, strategy and accountability for everyone on the Meathead team. He has established an open-door style of management, similar to that of a coach, and is well-known for being happily available to assist employees at their jobs or in their personal lives.
In 2015, Steed and the team at Meathead Movers launched the #MoveToEndDV campaign to encourage businesses all over the world to donate free products and services to victims of domestic violence – just like Meathead Movers provides free moving services to victims fleeing an abusive situation.

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  • Employees
  • Growth
  • Management
  • Quit
  • Turnover
617

Tech support is generally synonymous with a bad experience in today’s standard of software support. We usually consider ourselves lucky if we can understand the accent of whomever is asking us to turn our computer off and on again, and it has come to the point where support that meets basic expectations is exulted as going above and beyond. What is most incredulous about this industry wide support negligence, is that it actually ends up costing software companies more finically in addition to the bad reputation incurred.
Support is expensive. A fully staffed in-house support department with 24/7 phone and live chat service can easily cost as much as a software company’s sales staff or development team. Because of this daunting upfront cost, many companies opt to outsource their support staff or to offer merely a support email address that might as well be a black hole. These options are basically guaranteed to leave customers frustrated, and they take away the lines of communication that a customer could use to express their frustration. This leaves companies deaf to the problems in their software and ensures that their clients will be trapped in a cycle of complaints that will only end when they take their business elsewhere. Bad tech support is the more common problem, but companies can also be over-friendly and waste unnecessary resources to support. If your support staff spends hundreds of hours talking clients through a workaround that could be resolved with a simple bug fix, this is just as financially wasteful as losing clients.

Having pitfalls on both sides can make the prospect of an efficient support department daunting, but most can be avoided by simply listening. Rather than treating support like an annoyance and a cost, support should be embraced as an opportunity. Support is the easiest form of customer feedback to receive; people are literally calling you and telling you what they think. Rather than spending on market research, customer surveys, and product immersion, start by listening the feedback that is already flowing in. If you are worried that you are spending too much time and money addressing client feedback, then ask yourself some basic questions:

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By embracing tech support, your company can have a great source of focused feedback and a great reputation. Rather than obsessing over ticket numbers and call duration metrics, success should be measured in what you are learning about your customers. Knowing your market, knowing its needs, and knowing what features are valuable, should bring actionable business insights that more than pay for your customer service department.

transparent-red-no-circle  If you find tech support a chore, then you are not listening and you are not getting your money back.

transparent-red-no-circle  If you are not at all investing in tech support, then you are going to lose touch and lose business.

layer-1 If you can gain insight and ignore the frivolous, you will have a successful department!

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  • Feedback
  • Phones
  • Support
  • Tickets
408

During the early days of AP Logic, I had an employee come to me and ask for a demotion. I had promoted this person from a web development/service & support role where he excelled and placed him into a project management position. Shortly after, I found that he was stressed out, customers were not getting consistent feedback was and I was frustrated by the entire situation.

At this point, this individual had a clear choice: To admit it wasn’t working or to try and push through. He chose the former route. He walked into my office and said something like “Jim, I’m really good at doing things in order, consistently, every time. If you ask me to put up a fence, I can dig post holes consistently, accurately, in order, and I won’t mind doing it over and over. But prioritizing competing needs and responding immediately without complete information isn’t my strength. Can I go back to my old position?”

His honesty impressed me and he earned my trust and respect in a way that few people have done before or since. I didn’t cut his pay and in fact he went on to become our point-person for customer support – someone that was deeply appreciated by all our clients. So here’s the point: Do you think his career suffered or benefited because he was direct and honest? Here’s a hint: we’re still good friends many years later.

Another story: A few years ago, a Sr. Software engineer and I were struggling to figure out the best way to work together. He was frustrated by certain types of work we were doing and felt like he was all alone trying to handle complicated situations. We discussed his personality and the realities of our business and came to the conclusion that while we could change some things, if those changes didn’t work, we would both be up-front with each other about our intentions and form a plan for his exit, together. That way, there would be no hard feelings or surprises. And that’s what we did. A year later, he left the company and went to a position that was better suited to him, and, some time after that, he referred a friend to our company that now holds a critical leadership position. Again, we’re still friends and respect each other greatly.

I tell these stories because trust and fear are two opposite sides of the same coin. If any of us had feared getting screwed and made unilateral moves, we would have guaranteed a worse outcome. I know the counter-arguments: there are boundaries in an employment relationship that are appropriate and not everything should be discussed. There are times when people act in bad faith and an open conversation isn’t possible. But there is also a degree of candor, which, if exercised, shows a refreshingly human element that we all crave – and it will cause most people WANT to be open, honest and look for a win-win.

Take a look at this post that details how a friend handles his employees honestly, here.

Just remember, someone has to go first and take the risk. At AP Logic, sometimes it was me and other times it was a team member with an issue to solve. I’ve never regretted acting without fear.  I’ve certainly regretted doing the opposite.

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  • Communication
  • Employees
  • Fear
  • Management
293

Have you ever seen the above cartoon? More to the point, have you ever lived it? And if you have, you’ve probably lost a few years of life trying to understand how something seemingly so simple could… not be so simple!

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From my standpoint as an engineer, it boils down to things not being communicated. If the customer fails to mention an important business rule then it’s possible that while creating the project a solution to a problem for the engineer would actually break the system as far the customer’s needs go.

It’s understandable that people forget things…we are all human right? Would it be better to mega-train the engineers so that no business rules could be missed? Should the customer be involved in every decision during the application’s design and implementation? I’ve been on teams where we’ve gone with one of those choices and neither really worked out, there should exist some middle ground where customers and engineers are communicating on a regular basis about the project. Have the engineers explain to the customers what they are doing for that piece of the application and why if it conflicts with something they expected.

Somewhere there’s an ideal frequency of interaction which will result in a product that has the correct amount of compromises without a ridiculous investment of time or money on the customer’s part.

There could also be room to give the engineer more flexibility when it comes to business rules or ways that the application could work. A good engineer will have up-to-date knowledge of current technologies and can often do things the customer may have not thought of, or even known was possible. Giving the engineer room to make decisions that are best for the website and then adapting your business rules to the new system could be very beneficial. Customers and Business/Sales teams win when they invest the engineer in the outcomes of the project. Getting the engineer invested accomplishes to things: 1) it makes them more important in the process and not just a tool to be leveraged and 2) engineers want to solve problems not just write code. You make money from us when you let us do some thinking and solve the problem. I’ve automated tasks for customers in the past that they had no idea we could automate, but the project started out with “This process has to be manual” until I showed them it could be done, and they ended up changing the rule since the application could do it faster. 90% of the time you won’t get the answer you want immediately, but if you’re patient, you’ll get a better result because we’ll stay up all night working on it until we’ve solved it, and solved it right!

I know it doesn’t sound like communicating more with the cave dwellers would help but it does (not just about the specific technical requirements!), and it’ll be less frustrating for everyone, so get out there and call your engineers!

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  • Coding
  • Communication
  • Employees
  • Humans
253

As you would expect, at AP Logic, we get a ton of requests for mobile app development, but interestingly, very few clients know which device form factors (sizes) they want us to build for. Why does it matter?

Have you ever observed people taking notes during a presentation or conversation? Recently at a business symposium, I noticed that about half the room was taking notes on tablets. On phones, not so much. What about checking the status of a flight at an airport gate? On the phone. Comparing prices or reading product reviews while shopping in a physical store? The phone. Reading a book? Tablet. The situation often dictates which device people will use.

So, why not build for both? You, can but its really two different apps, with the commensurate time and cost. In fact, building for tablets is really more akin to building a desktop app or website than building for a phone. When we design screens, we group the tablets together with our desktop applications from a UI standpoint, and treat the phones separately. An iPad screen has about 7 times the area of an iPhone and typically most “desktop” websites will render just fine in Safari for the iPad. That’s a completely different design challenge than the phone. In fact, when on a budget, you might just do that: build a phone app and let tablet users browse your site unless they like to torture themselves with a phone app on the tab.

Once you’ve admitted that tablets and phones require a very different approach and solved the terribly obvious question of “does the user have the device?”, then you can ask:

  1. Are people physically moving or don’t have access to a larger device? If so, the phone is most convenient for them. This applies to pedestrians, shoppers, drivers (gasp), short-ride vehicle passengers and others.
  2. Is the user responding to an immediate problem? Finding gas, food or lodging on your phone while pulled over on the highway is very different than planning the trip in the first place. Don’t confuse the two! I only use Priceline on my phone when I need to book a hotel immediately and I’m in a vehicle or meeting. Otherwise, its MUCH easier to use on the tab or laptop.
  3. Is the user focused more on data input or output? A physical keyboard is the obvious answer to input. However (for the non-initiated), you will be surprised how easy tablets are for typing, and if its notes, emails, etc, they are very adequate in a pinch. A phone works for short messages and tweets, but generally is not an “input” device.

Looking to the future: Once eye-tracking and voice recognition become standard forms of data input, most of the above criteria will disappear. At that point, almost everything will have a degree of mobility, and the larger issue will be the user’s degree of distraction and how much physical area exists to display information.

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  • design
  • mobile
  • phone
  • tablet
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