Collaborate or Die – Why Collaboration Is Important To Small Business

“Anyone who uses the phrase
‘easy as taking candy from a baby’
has never tried taking candy from a baby.” –
R. Hood

Let me start with a personal story. I have an acquaintance who’s freelancing as web developer. More on a creative side, less on programming, but essentially the same web development and web design as we do at Zealus. We’ve known each other for quite some time. This person (let’s call him John) oftentimes asks for my help on projects just to drop me off a few hours or days later. The typical conversation goes the same every time – first a phone call for help, brief description of the project and (almost) begging because John has overestimated his capacity or knowledge. I spend about an hour explaining and pointing out at least two acceptable solutions. John thanks me in the warmest terms. In about 10 – 12 hours (usually early next morning) he’s calling me again to discuss more ideas or ask more questions which takes up another hour. During this conversation John would offer me either to take the project completely off his hands, have me equally involved or make other advances – usually to make me divulge as much thinking as I possibly can regarding my approach to solving his problem. Then, out of nowhere, he would come up with completely different scheme of things that simplifies the problem to one single bare bone and makes my role in a project completely redundant. With elevated cheer and almost theatrical (in a bad sense) happiness he says something about how happy he was to be able to find such a simple solution and how he’s going to nail himself, since it will be so simple. With all that said he hangs up for another year or so.

So why do I always fall for his cries for help. Obviously, I’ve seen this go through time and time again. I know the story inside out and can even predict what his simplified solution would be. How come I keep giving up my time for this schmuck?

Well, first of all, any such story pretty much always ends the same – John has never landed a job from the client he needed someone else’s help with. So I am not the biggest looser here. There are, however, certain takeaways from any such situation that I think are worth spending my time on.

First – it’s a good Q & A practice. You would think you’ve had enough practice answering your other clients’ questions, but you would be wrong. Practice makes perfect, practicing on someone your income doesn’t depend on is saving you money. Think about that for a second – you are getting a free target practice session to polish your Q&A skills topped with fuzzy warm feeling that you are trying to help somebody.

Second – it’s a collective brain storming. Even a way less qualified person that you are is capable of coming up with inventive idea you didn’t think of, twice so – in creative environment. Listen before saying something is the rule of thumb. It’s like digging for diamonds in the rough, but some diamonds are well worth it.

Third – it is good to train your brains on someone else’s problem. Your brain actually functions differently (with a lot less stress) if you don’t have to solve the problem. So you end up with really good ideas and solutions for things you still may encounter in a future – but at least you will be prepared well in advance.

Fourth – I get to hear what other crazy requirements people have for services similar to mine. This way I can think of/create something in advance and beat my competitors by over-delivering before they even start talking. Think about this – if everybody out there wants a forum installed (which actually was the case a few years back) you can do your home work and pair up with great forum developer or designer who specializes in forum skins. When the time comes and you get asked to add a forum to your client’s site – you don’t go on a desperate trip to find someone capable of doing things at any cost, you go to a person you pre-screened for this job already.

Fifth – and the last one for today – is the simple fact that I am selling myself to John every time he asks me something. He may do this for a different reason (to extract information) but what he ultimately hears is that I can do this job for him better than he can do it himself. When the time comes and he gets that big fat client that he would not want to drop at any cost – I’ll be there.

As you can see, even these little things are well worth the trouble, let alone other perks (free coffee?). This is why collaboration – even if you cannot understand or realize its benefits right away – is always better. Once you start collaborating with your peers, you turn them into your agents, instead of head-on competitors. More on that – in the next post, stay tuned.


Micromanagement As A Way To Destroy Productivity

You have probably heard the “If you want something done right – you do it yourself” adagio times and times again. You agree and when you hire help you tend to tell in every little detail how stuff should be done, because that’s exactly how you would do it. You did it thousands of times, so it should be perfect, right? Wrong!

There’s hardly any other way of management as ineffective and destructive as micromanagement. Sometimes a complete absence of management would do better. Imagine you micromanage a group of 3 people, whom you tend to micromanage. That’s basically doing their jobs together with them. So if each one of them has a standard 40 hour work week that alone is going to 120 hours a week. Add your own responsibilities which should add up to another 40 hours per week and you arrive at 160 hours per week. Which leaves you precisely 8 hours per week to sleep, eat and have a life. The math is amazing, isn’t it?

Aside from this obvious exaggeration there are more issues with micromanagement than you might think. Once you’re comfortably sure none of your employees can make a single step without consulting with you, you can be sure you will get nagged every 5 minutes with requests to validate everyone’s output and the inevitable “Done, now what?”. That is, of course, if your employees won’t “forget” to ask than to have a few precious minutes without that authoritarian “What are you working on now?” questioning.

This constant nagging leaves you no chance to concentrate on your own work that you do as their manager or supervisor – acquiring new tasks, planning, measuring risks and so on, every single moment of your time will be devoted to distributing tasks, controlling the process and validating the output. This will also lead to huge waste, justified by “He didn’t tell me what to do, so I’m doing nothing”. True, why do anything at all if all you hear back is “Did I tell you to do that?”

Micromanagement creates no incentive to work efficiently, given the amount of waste obvious to any one with a bit of common sense. It creates a stressful work environment for both the employer and employee. It hurts productivity from multiple angles and creates an almost Orwellian state of mind as you are being watched and told what to do almost every minute. Yet, many of small business owners tend to implement this kind of management style, because they just know how to do it right. They did it a thousand times over, so they should know better. Right?


Small Business Basics – 5 Online Fraud Prevention Tips

There are hundreds of accounts of fraudsters using various scam methods for credit card stealing, making fraudulent purchases or selling goods that never arrive at their intended destination. So much so that small businesses were literally forced to incorporate those fraud transactions into cost of doing their business online. Here are a few tips that should help a small business sustain some of the most often tried transactions – purchase with fraudulent credit cards. Some small businesses have this reason alone to choose more expensive credit card processor, like PayPal,  in order to not to deal with fraud themselves, potentially loosing thousands of dollars in revenue. These simple steps may help recover that money given that small business processes credit cards through its own merchant account.

1. Verify shipping vs. billing address. Some web sites even refuse to ship to an address that is different from billing, but that is really up to the business owner. If you sell something that could potentially be a gift, so that one relative can order it for another – pass it on, but if you sell something that people mostly order for themselves, like gadgets or novelties, then shipping address way off from billing might suggest something fishy.

2. Ask yourself – does the order make sense? If you are selling expensive merchandise that people are most likely to buy once in a while – would the order for five items make sense? Call the billing phone number to verify the purchase – it will cost you 2 minutes, but potentially can save you hundreds of dollars.

3. Have the payment cleared yet? Institute shipping and handling policies that will cover your bases while you wait for payment to clear. Sometimes it may take a day or two for payment to go through all the hoops of your payment system, be patient and wait out the whole thing. It may bounce off for a number of reasons, first of which is stolen credit card.

4. Verify the IP address‘s geographic location vs. both shipping and billing. It sounds a bit nerdy at first, but any online shopping cart can be tweaked to display originating IP address along with the order information. The task is to see if the IP address belongs to the same region as the two addresses. An order originating from Eastern Europe’s IP address that has billing address in Connecticut and shipping destination in California is hardly legit. In some cases you won’t be able to tell if the IP address is or is not located where the billing or shipping addresses are, in these cases just move on to #5.

5. Never hesitate to call the bank that have issued credit card. Have your clients enter the 800 number on the back of the credit card along with their billing information. In any doubt – call the bank and have them verify that name, billing and shipping addresses are legit. Some banks even have that option on their initial menu.