CTO Mastermind Open House

Written by Theresa Shafer. Posted in Consulting Business, Silicon Valley

Saturday March 24, 9-11am

Ground Floor Silicon Valley, located at  2030 Duane Avenue, Santa Clara,

We are launching new Mastermind groups in response to several requests from entrepreneurs who wanted to form an advisory board of peers with a deeper understanding of each other’s businesses and shared accountability.

Come to the meeting and see if you feel comfortable with the other folks that we invite and we will work out times and locations. There will certainly be one group that meets on weekends, there may be others that meet on a workday.

The difference between these mastermind meetings and a Bootstrapper Breakfast meeting is that anyone is welcome to drop in to a breakfast, this will be the same group meeting and holding each other accountable for goals and commitments. Over time, because these entrepreneurs are more or less in the same stage of their business and meeting multiple times they will get to know each better than the average breakfast attendee.

There is no charge for this open house but if you decide to join a facilitated small group there is a small monthly subscription.  Want to be notified of future open houses join Bay Area Mastermind meetup.

Tools for Finding a Physical Workspace: Deskwanted, LiquidSpace, Loosecubes, OpenDesks

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Consulting Business, First Office, Silicon Valley, Startups

If you are looking to rent a desk or conference room by the hour, day, week or month here are four tools you can use to search. All of them cover Silicon Valley and other metropolitan regions as well

Updated: Also consider Evenues and Cloud Virtual Office, see below for details.

Implications for the  future of startups and small service firms:

  • It’s interesting that same forces that are making fractional leases on computing capability available in the cloud seem to be at work enabling the ad hoc provisioning of workspaces.
  • Coupled with the pervasive availability of wifi in coffee shops and eating establishments and transition to laptops or even smaller form factor tablets and smartphones for computing support,  the old assumptions that an incubator provided value offering office space, Internet connectivity, and space in a co-located datacenter are defunct.
  • For startups with less than a dozen people, both their computing and physical office configurations are becoming increasingly virtual.

I think this will enable new opportunities for firms to provide professional services, knowledge work, and clerical support in a variety of new forms and delivery modes by interacting either in virtual on-line spaces and/or virtual office space on demand.



Update Thu-Feb-09
: A commenter suggests evenues.com also provides information about meeting rooms and event venues. I took a quick look at the site for Meeting Rooms San Jose and learned about a number of new venues to consider. The site also had an interesting blog post on “A Brief History of Coffee Houses as Meeting Places” which reminded me of this RSA video of Steve Johnson on “Where Good Ideas Come From.” In it he explains that coffee houses were one of the first co-working establishments that allowed people to mix and recombine different thoughts to form new ideas.

Update Fri-Feb-10: I came across Cloud Virtual Office (tagline “Virtual Offices & Touchdown Space”) researching “Going Bedouin” a term coined by Greg Olsen that I had written about previously on “Bootstrapping Startups: Bedouin, Global, Incessant, and Transparent” Related blog posts:

  • the original blog post by Greg Olsen is no longer available but a copy that admits an image that contained his recipe for a Bedouin startup is still up at “Going Bedouin” on GigaOm
  • The Long Hallway” by Jonathan Follett

Update Mon-Apr-2 a reader suggested DesksNear.Me as another tool for this list.

Refine and Curate Your Thoughts as FAQs, Articles, and Talks

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 4 Finding your Niche, 5 Scaling Up Stage, Blogging, Consulting Business, Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

Prospects gain an appreciation for your expertise and ability to understand and to solve their problems through what you write, what you say, and what your customers’ say about you. You should have a plan for developing referrals and testimonials, but I want to focus writing and public speaking as opportunities to demonstrate your expertise and give prospects a reason to believe that you can assist them. These outbound messaging strategies will complement your referral program and are essential to attracting new customers and cultivating valuable long-term business relationships.

Here are some suggestions for practices that will help you routinely refine and curate your thoughts.

Written content:

  1. Collect Good Questions & Your Good Answers: When you get a good question from a prospect or a customer take the time to write up a succinct answer in a follow up e-mail (even if you have answered it in a phone call or face to face meeting).
  2. Refine & Generalize Your Good Answers: save your e-mail in a special folder for “good answers” and set aside time every week or month to reviewing and refining it so that it becomes a more general answer that’s applicable to more than just the person you initially answered it for.
  3. Start a FAQ on your website: If you don’t have one it’s worth considering starting a “Frequently Asked Questions” list. If a particular question indicates you have a defect in our standard presentation or marketing materials it’s more appropriate to fix the source of the question instead.
  4. Reformat Your Generalized Good Answers: Convert good answers into articles or blog posts.

Talks

  1. Make the Time to Rehearse: Always leave time to rehearse in front of at least one other person before you give the live talk.
  2. Record Your Talks: Record at least the audio for your talks and listen to both your presentation and any Q&A. Listen to it again a few days later and a month or two later.
  3. Consider Writing an Article: either as a leave behind instead of your slides or as another blog post.
  4. Never Give a Talk Only Once:  Considering the cost in time to develop and rehearse a good talk, you want to find at least three opportunities to give a talk or variations on it.
  5. Videotape A Good Talk In Front Of An Audience: Once you have given a talk two or three times live either do a video recording of it or arrange to have later versions videotaped. You will look and sound much better in front of a live audience with a talk you are comfortable giving and this will come through on the video. Consider editing it into a couple of 5-10 minute chunks if you can to use as teasers,  summaries, or good stand-alone content.

Len Sklar: Be Clear About Payment Terms And Consequences

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, Consulting Business, Rules of Thumb, skmurphy, Video

Len Sklar, author “The Check is NOT in the Mail”  has spoken several times at Bootstrapper Breakfasts.  Here is a recent talk he gave where he stresses the importance of putting payment terms and the consequences on non-payment in writing, communicating them in advance, and ensuring that they are understood.

It all seems so obvious but have you actually done this?

Too many entrepreneurs are afraid to pick up the phone and see if it’s a quality problem or a slow payment problem, letting the situation fester until they become angry and less effective or staying ignorant of real defect in their offering that need to be addressed.

Prevent Collection Problems With Clarity on Payment Terms

Key points to story:

  • Business manager asked patients to pay when services were rendered.
  • He did not ask them to make payments on bills that were in arrears but did ask them to bring the account current at the next time that services were rendered.
  • He stressed that they valued their business and anticipated that some patients would react angrily.  He did not become angry in turn.
  • He outlined the consequences and escalation path for non-payment after different periods of delinquency.
  • He made sure that they understood the terms by asking if they had questions, which if any parts were unclear, and to stress aspects of the policy that patients often ignored.
  • If you don’t discuss money before you provide your product or service then you are forced to discuss it after you have provided the product or service when your negotiating position is substantially worse.

Related Blog Posts

Getting Unstuck

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Consulting Business

“If there is something you must do and you cannot do it, you cannot do anything else.”
Mignon McLaughlin

I think this highlights a variation on perfectionism but it’s something I certainly wrestle with from time to time. “Good enough” is one way to break the logjam, but if something is late I can sometimes feel that it has to be better (or perfect) to justify the fact that it’s late.

I worked with a peer manager at Cisco who would damage projects because he wanted to work on a task but he could not do quick and dirty version or a first draft. He would get later and work on it without showing anyone and ultimately teams learned to route around him or be very careful of any solo assignments he took on.

Sometimes I don’t want to take the next step because I can’t face the downside: I would rather live with the possibility of an outcome than take the necessary steps to determine if it’s actually going to happen.  When I was younger I would sometimes hold off on selling a stock that had dropped because “it’s not a loss until I sell it.”

When I had a business in the mid-90’s I was slow to prune my sales funnel of prospects that had stalled, I see this same behavior in clients now. Once you do you realize that you have to generate more leads and that often forces you to explore new options or approaches you have hesitated on because the pipeline looks full.

Perfectionism is a very dangerous trait in a startup founder. Two ways that we address it in both our own operations and in our client engagements is to use wikis and shared calendars. Every draft of a plan or document goes into the wiki from the beginning: everyone’s drafts and progress (or lack of progress) are visible to everyone else on the team. But because we are on the same team we can help each other out.  Shared calendars and gives team members permission to help with phone calls and meetings you are avoiding scheduling.

Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through. Face it.
Joseph Conrad

Five Reasons Companies Hire Consultants

Written by Theresa Shafer. Posted in Consulting Business

From an article by Theresa Shafer in the  PATCA Feb 2011 Newsletter

Understanding why companies hire consultants can provide clues on what to look for and how to find more business.

1.   Crisis Resolution: Often consultants are hired to solve a crisis when the current staff cannot resolve the situation adequately.  Sometimes the crisis involves time to market, sometimes product failure, or an unexpected employee situation. For example, outside consultants might be bought in to solve a power, timing, or IE6 compatibility issue. These situations are great opportunities because you have a very motivated buyer! What type of crises do you help solve? How can you find more of these situations?

2.   Expert Skills: Consultants are hired for skills that are not available in-house. If these skills are a short-term need, it’s often much more cost-effective for a company to hire an outside expert rather than adding someone on the full-time payroll. To which teams do you bring complementary skills?

3.   Additional Resources: Consultants are added to the staff to deliver a project that is important and urgent. They may look to outside consultants to fully staff the latest project, or to complete a project that is outside of their business model. Besides PATCA, where do companies look for these qualified resources? Are you listed there?

4.  Training: Sometimes, especially in areas involving new technologies, a company’s staff will need to be trained. They may need to learn how to use a new device, a software package, or a new management training system. On which tools could you provide training? What are some new skills that you could teach?

5.   Objective Review: Companies can’t always have highly specialized experts on staff full time to evaluate every product or service they want to use. They may use outside consultants to fully evaluate and independently test a new software product, tool, or compliance program. What set of tools could you evaluate and advise on?

Consultants are a useful and cost effective resource for companies. They meet short term needs for specific expertise. And, it may be more cost-effective for a company compared to adding someone on the full-time payroll. Broadcasting how your talents and expertise can be of value in solving prospective clients’ problems is a good way to find new partnering and client relationships.

Keeping the Ball Rolling With Prospects

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, 4 Finding your Niche, Consulting Business, Customer Development, skmurphy

Most of our clients offer complex software products, frequently in combination with some amount of consulting services. Their sales are not the results of credit card transactions but a complex orchestrated sales process. Frequently their prospects need to see a custom demonstration or a benchmark that relies on their own data, not just the standard demo our customers routinely perform.

Prospects are often very busy and it can be difficult to determine if they are slacking off or overwhelmed, at least temporarily, with other priorities.

Here are five steps we try to get out customers to include in their sales process to keep the ball rolling with busy prospects.

  1. Get a commitment for when the prospect will send the data or other inputs that they need either for a custom demo or custom proposal. For example “so do you think you can get that to me by next Tuesday?”
  2. Get permission to call them back or follow up: “so if I don’t hear from you is it OK if I call you back on Thursday to make sure this doesn’t fall through the cracks.” Notice that you give the prospect some slack from their committed date.
  3. Understand what the ultimate deadline is that they are working to. That way in the call backs you can mention “I just want to be clear; you indicated you wanted us to finish the evaluation by the end of October to meet your deadlines. If we can’t get your specs and input data  and get started we can’t meet your date.” Be especially wary of “we need this yesterday” as  due date. It may mean that they have been living with the problem for while and have no firm plan to proceed. Worse that that, yesterday is not a day that will ever come.
  4. Always put an expiration date on any quotation or proposal. This gives you two more chances to follow up, once a few days before it’s due to expire to remind them, and once a day or two after it’s expired to give them one last chance to buy and to determine, if possible why they delayed or decided not to buy.
  5. There is a temptation when a prospect slows done to push for near term dates or to try and pull the timetable back in. The prospect is really in charge of the sales timetable so these efforts are often useless or even counter-productive.  Instead you should offer a date that is even farther out and see if they pull it back in. If they tell you that they plan to get back to you in four weeks after you have been “playing ping pong” and iterating rapidly over earlier requests, suggest that you will check in in three months if you don’t hear from them. This pushes the date out even further, if they are serious about buying it’s better to let them pull the date back in instead of pushing for an earlier date if they start to feel overwhelmed.

Lack of response is not the worst outcome for a startup.  The worst outcome is that you first invest time in a detailed customized demo, perhaps followed by  a detailed proposal, and then find that the prospects are maintaining radio silence. Before you invest a lot of your team’s time,make sure that there is a strong business reason that will force them to make a decision.

Keeping Your Customers’ Trust

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Books, Consulting Business, Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

Consulting is the art of influencing people at their request. People want some sort of change—or fear some sort of change—so they seek consulting, in one form or another.
Gerald Weinberg in “Secrets of Consulting

I think B2B software is often purchased by firms hoping to achieve–or avoid–some sort of change. Like consulting, software is the promise of an ongoing business relationship.  The two essentials in a mutually satisfactory business relationship are trust and an exchange of value. Weinberg offers 11 “Laws of Trust” in chapter 13 of  “Secrets of Consulting” that I believe are also very applicable to software startups trying to establish and maintain successful business relationships with their prospects and customers. I have added my own notes as bullets after each Law where I felt I could add some ways to apply them more directly to software startups.

  1. Nobody but you cares about the reason you let another person down.
    • It’s tempting to spend time on excuses that would be better spent on anticipating and preventing poor performance and unsatisfactory outcomes.
    • See also “Conserving Trust In a Downturn
  2. Trust takes years to win, moments to lose.
    • If you do something do make a customer doubt your firm’s integrity or commitment to shared success  it’s often an unrecoverable error.
  3. People don’t tell you when they stop trusting you.
    • You have to listen for what’s not said.
    • If your customers are not asking you for help, it’s possible that you have a rock solid product. It’s more likely that they no longer have any confidence in your ability to help them.
    • It’s also critical to establish and maintain trust among founders, see “Three Tips For Minimizing Misunderstandings Among Co-Founders
  4. The trick of earning trust is to avoid all tricks.
  5. People are never liars—in their own eyes.
    • Weinberg elaborates: Always believe that your prospects and customers are telling the truth—as they see it, and as they think it would help me to hear it.
    • Especially in the beginning of a business relationship it takes time to earn trust; prospects in particular are not going to be entirely candid until they have confidence in your ability to help them.
  6. Always trust your client—and cut the cards.
    • Always be collecting data. Always be collecting multiple perspectives.
  7. Never be dishonest, even if the client requests it.
    • It’s better to be viewed as uncooperative than a cheat. And once you establish a willingness to bend or break rules in the customer’s mind you will get asked to do it again.
  8. Never promise anything you are not sure you can deliver.
    • Especially with early customers you are asking them to take a risk in working with you, only make commitments you are confident of keeping. This often argues for a phased approach or contingent pricing so that you are only paid after you have delivered a result.
    • See also “Honesty in Negotiations
  9. Always keep your promise.
    • This is true even for beta customers (or those that have purchased your early “minimum viable product”). Too often beta or MVP is used as an excuse for non-performance:  “We told you it was beta software.” Don’t be those guys.
    • See also “Experiments Vs. Commitments
  10. Get it in writing, but depend on trust.
    • The primary reason to put things in plain English is to make sure that both sides clearly understand their mutual expectations and requirements, which will help to prevent a lot of misunderstandings.
    • Keeping your business operations clear to  your employees employees also fosters trust, and is an important component of maintaining your customers’ trust with you startup where anyone can be customer facing as the situation dictates.  See also “The Business is Everyone’s Business.”
  11. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
    • Weinberg simply calls out “The Golden Rule” to complement his first ten.

“People usually feel weak and vulnerable when they retain a consultant. Small wonder that the consultants they retain are first and foremost the ones they feel will not hurt them. Consultants who are looking for work should think less about price and learn more about trust.”
Gerald Weinberg on “Price and Trust” in “Secrets of Consulting”

I think this also applies to software startups. In our “Engineering Your Sales” workshop we stress that your prospect won’t act on your offer until they both understand your product and believe in your benefits, and that requires establishing trust.

Weinberg’s wrote Secrets in 1985 and I have purchased a half a dozen copies since it first came out, buying new ones when I wanted to re-read it and could not remember who I had lent it to last. It’s a great book.  It’s now out as an E-book on Smashwords and well worth the $9.95. The print version has a nicer layout but all of the content except for his final list of rules (the last three pages) is in the E-Book. And you can’t grep dead trees so in some ways it’s more readable.

Recognizing Chris Finnie as a Partner and Advisor

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Consulting Business

We focus on strategy and business development for software startups. We’ve been fortunate to develop strong relationships with firms who also serve startups but offer complementary services, as well as firms who focus on larger clients but whose expertise is also of benefit to startups.

We work with a number of partners to create value for our clients. We take a long-term view of each partnership, believing that establishing close, mutually beneficial relationships with our partners is the best way to give our clients the best service possible.

We have been doing joint projects with Chris Finnie for more than six months and she has proven to be a very effective collaboration partner.

A lot of people can string words together. But not everybody can do it in a way that positions your company and your product. That communicates a meaningful benefit to your target audience. That drives sales. Chris can. With more than two decades in high-technology marketing, she is quick to understand new technologies. She can scope out relevant benefits and the competitive landscape, with a full appreciation for marketing messages that support the business strategy, just as fast. Chris is a successful business manager and owner with deep experience as an agency creative director.

Chris has added a lot to our messaging capabilities and brings a complementary set of skills in  copywriting and copyediting to our team.

Beat The Clock

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Consulting Business

I picked up a used copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s “How the World Was One” which recounts the communications revolutions kicked off first by transatlantic cables starting in the 1860’s and by communications satellites in the 1960’s.  Fiber optic technology has revitalized underwater cables (see a great recap by Neal Stephenson in Wired “Mother Earth, Mother Board.”)

Writing in 1991, he opens with a memory of attending a lecture by the historian Arnold Toynbee in 1947 “The Unification of the World,” at a time when much of the world was still recovering from World War 2. Clarke characterizes Toynbee’s thesis that developments in transportation and communication would seen create a single planetary society as unusually farsighted.

Thanks to transistor and the microchip, that dawn has certainly arrived–if one uses a somewhat generous definition of the word culture… Nevertheless, Toynbee is essentially correct. Except for a few dwindling tribes in equally dwindling forests, the human race has now become almost a single entity, divided by time zones rather than the natural frontiers of geography.

As more and more startups add global team members or even start out as global teams, the key challenges to communication and coordination have less to do with distance and much more to synchronization and managing across different time zones. It’s much easier to manage a team 3,000 miles apart spread from Vancouver to Costa Rica than Palo Alto to Boston for example. Much less a global team where any three members span at least five time zones.

Skype, or other low cost VoIP solutions enable easy voice communication. Wikis and source code control repositories allow for the teams works product to be easily revised–sometimes recovered–so that a current snapshot of “the truth” about a product is always available to team members. So applications are being layered onto the basic communications infrastructure to make global teams (and their complex work relationships) more effective.

The rule of thumb a decade ago was to co-locate a team to make it maximally effective. That’s probably still true, but collaboration technologies now make it possible to include a more diverse, and often more collectively creative, group of team members. We find ourselves with a global practice now. Most of our clients are still in Silicon Valley, but perhaps a third at one any one time are “out of region” many 3,9, or even 12.5 hours away.

I have two observations about long distance work relationships:

  1. Time zones matter more than miles: once people are not in the same room the offset in their circadian cycles is harder to manage than geographic distance.
  2. Anthony Jay suggested  in “Corporation Man”  that managers should embrace systems that augment memory but distrust and minimize the use of systems that replace communication.  Because what matters in communication is not what’s said but what’s understood, synchronous communication enables you to quickly close the feedback loop to make sure that you understand what the other party meant and vice versa.

Collecting Unpaid Bills

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 3 Early Customer Stage, Consulting Business, Legal Issues, Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

In 1995 I did some work for one of the early web startups in Palo Alto. They had delivered a number of database driven websites using a proprietary software technology that they had developed, and had sold the technology to several firms. But they had a problem collecting unpaid bills: they had not been paid for a number of the technology sales and they were running out of cash.

I asked the CEO, “What do they say when you call them?”

He said, “We haven’t called them.”

I said, “Do you have their phone numbers? Do you mind if I try calling them?”

So I called them and asked “I am calling to check on your use of the XYZ web generator. Are you happy with the product?”

If they said no I would try and determine if it was something we could address. If they said yes I would say “according to our records we have not received your payment yet, can you please put a check for the $5,000 you owe us for the software in the mail today?”

Most of the firms using the product paid.

The Check Is Not In The Mail

CheckNOTInMail

I was reminded of this reading  Len Sklar‘s chapter on “Debt recovery – Do You Hate To Ask For Your Money?” in “The Check is Not in the Mail

Many business people not only feel uncomfortable about asking for the money they have so deservedly earned from providing their product or service, they handle their discomfort by simply not getting on the phone and asking or else by doing it clumsily – with unacceptable results.  And, asking in person can be even more discomfiting.

Len’s book “The Check Is Not In the Mail” covers credit policies and collections and is required reading for bootstrappers. He came to our March 7 breakfast and facilitated some very well received interactive exercises: several bootstrappers in turn took the role of a delinquent customer and Len demonstrated a variety of low key techniques to move beyond a current deadlock.

See also “Len Sklar: Be Clear About Payment Terms and Consequences” [Video]

Simple Client Satisfaction & Process Improvement Survey

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Consulting Business

Whether it’s a free phone call or a working session, a workshop, or a longer term engagement we normally send the following four question survey to all of the participants:

Please help us improve our engagement and service delivery processes.

Please take five minutes and answer the following four questions with one or two items that come to mind.

  1. What questions or suggestions that we offered were most useful?
  2. What were the least useful?
  3. What did we fail to do that you expected us to do?
  4. What else can we do to improve our practice.

We get a high response rate often learn things to do more of  (and less of) to improve our practice.  Feel free to adapt this to your own purposes.

For longer engagements we will often have a partner who had the little contact with the client (and who will therefore not be evaluated) call and ask these questions:  it’s always easier to give bad news indirectly and a disinterested party is better able to probe for the good and areas needing improvement.

Matt Perez on How Nearsoft Leverages Yammer

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 5 Scaling Up Stage, Consulting Business, skmurphy, Tools for Startups

I met Matt Perez in 2003 just as I was starting SKMurphy.  It was the tail end of nuclear winter in Silicon Valley and folks were trying to figure out what was next. We kept running into one another at various networking events and as we got to know one another realized that we both had a passion for technology and innovation.

After I facilitated the Conversation Central roundtables on “Global Teams” at the 2009 Design Automation Conference I decided that a significant shift was underway where not only were teams in larger firms more often global but startups and small technology firms were going global much earlier in their life cycle than had been the case in the 1990’s.  One of the enablers for this is a host of low cost collaboration tools. Some that are synchronous like Skype and real time dashboards,  and others that are “quasi-synchronous” like wikis, distributed source code management and Yammer. These tools  enable faster decision making because the team is able to maintain a “shared situational awareness.”

After a lunch with Matt in December where we had discussed this trend he agreed to share some of the ways that his firm, Nearsoft, was using Yammer and other collaboration tools to enable them to keep distributed teams providing development services and ongoing support in sync.

Q:  Can talk you a little bit about what your firm does? I understand that your focused is on outsourced product development.

Nearsoft is a software product development firm with operations in Mexico.  We work best as innovation partner to ISVs, SaaS companies and consumer-facing sites.  These businesses understand that software is at the core of their business and they demand to work with people who are as dedicated and serious as they are about building great software.

We specifically avoid working with businesses that treat their software as a “backroom” operation or, worse, as a necessary evil.

Q: How do you work with clients?

We work in long-term relationships with our clients.  We create teams around each client, with the right skills in the appropriate technologies.  As the new team learns about the client’s business, they can contribute to all aspects of it, not just the raw coding.

Short-term, project-based engagements don’t work for us and I don’t believe they work for clients, either.  It may work for doing something of the side, some throw-away code.  But for the core product, you want to have a stable team of people that work well together.

We invest heavily in hiring the best and brightest and have created an environment that helps attract and retain that level of talent.  A big part of that is because of the opportunity to work with leading-edge companies in the Valley as part of their core team.  If we had people work on little projects here and there, we would not get the good ones; or, if we got them, they would not stick around for long.

Q:  What collaboration tools do you use internally and with clients to support your methodology and your engagement model?

A: The first that comes to mind is Yammer, a Twitter-like system but for private use.  Our folks are used to Twitter, so using Yammer was a natural.  It works great for geographically distributed teams because it helps maintain a team presence.

In the situation where everybody in a team works out of the same office, team presence is a function of being physically in the office at the same time.  Without consciously checking, you know when people are “there” and when they’re not.  Yammer serves a similar function in that even if I am not reading each posting individually, I get a sense of people being “there” as the stream flows through.

It’s also a casual environment where people can jump in and out without much protocol.  If I am looking for somebody, I can just ask “anybody seen Joe?” and one or more people will respond.  Also, if people are joking around a particular event, you can also jump in and do the water cooler thing that’s part of social cohesion of effective groups.

Besides Yammer, we use Skype a lot.  For example, a group of us keep a Skype “group chat” open all the time that we use a lot like Yammer.  The reason we do it on Skype is that it’s easier to switch to voice conferencing when the text chats get too convoluted.

One of our client teams uses video all the time.  They use both Skype and Adobe Connect.

Of course, we also use a number of tools to keep track of open issues, source code control, etc.

Q: What has been the impact of Yammer on your ability to deliver results?

Yammer and Skype and the rest of these real-time tools give us and our clients the benefit of being in touch constantly. Little problems and misunderstanding remain “little,” they don’t snowball into big, hairy messes.  One person may say, “I am going to implement X using Y” and immediately another will jump in with “No, you shouldn’t use Y for reason Z.”  They may go back and forth in the text stream, clarifying things.  Then switch to voice or video.  Misunderstanding is cleared before any major work is wasted building the wrong solution.

Without something as immediate as Yammer or IM tools, the question may sit in somebody’s email for a day before anybody looks at it.  By then, the wrong solution may be finished only to be thrown away.

BTW, that is true for the folks working physically in the same office.  In many ways, it is more convenient to casually ask a question or make a comment using one of the tools than in person.  You can ask your question without “imposing” on the other people to drop what they’re doing to answer your question.  The other people can choose when to respond.  If they glance at it and see a “Google It” question, then they can just ignore it.  If it looks important, then they can direct their attention to it at their convenience.

Q:  What, if anything would you do differently?

When I started the company I tried several models before settling on the way we operate today.  It would have been nice if somehow I could have gone through that part of it a bit more quickly.

We’ve had a couple of startup clients that didn’t make through the crisis in 2009.  I thought they were dynamite businesses and wished they could have been able to stay in business.  We helped all we could but in the end they didn’t make it.

Q: What else have you learned from working internally and with customers in this fashion?

The most salient thing for me is that cultural alignment is key.  Effective communications include a ton of stuff that’s never said; it literally goes without saying.  There’s a lot of “you know what I mean?” in there and it would be too costly, emotionally and in time, to explain every little subtlety that goes on in a conversation.  Likewise, it can very expensive when people miss out any of those subtleties.  To deal with this you need to make sure that everybody in the team is aligned with the goals of the business and that they “know” what it takes to get there.

One example I can think of is when a developer is asked when he can get something “done.”  If we both don’t have the same understanding of what “done” means, then we are going to end up in hot water.

Q: Thanks for your time


For some outstanding examples of how to blend humor into an explanation of a complex service I would encourage you to take a look at  two of Nearsoft’s videos:

I really appreciate Matt’s willingness to talk about some of the practical challenges in working in a geographically distributed organization. If you would like to talk about lessons learned from your startup or innovative business practices that you would be willing to talk candidly about, please contact me and we can explore an interview that would be of interest to bootstrapping entrepreneurs.

SKMurphy Featured In Case Study For Central Desktop

Written by Theresa Shafer. Posted in Consulting Business, Rules of Thumb, Tools for Startups

SKMurphy was interviewed and selected as one of a dozen case studies on Document Management Solutions for Consulting Groups by Central Desktop. Read about our innovative approach at “Document Management Solution helps SKMurphy Consulting Group Increase Productivity.

We make some strong claims in the case study:

  • Increased productivity – approximately 5 to 10 times more productive
  • Significantly sped up decision making time on projects
  • Eliminated version control issues for faster review cycles

The baseline is E-Mailing documents and phone tag. We rely on the edit lock that Central Desktop show to prevent you from editing the same file at the same time as someone else (this happens more than you might think as you get close to a deadline) and find that setting update notification for two hours encourages other members of the team to contribute.

We use Central Desktop to work with all of our clients and have found that it allows us to respond with drafts much more quickly and to achieve a working consensus in a few hours to a day or two. We use it to rapidly prototype the content for key E-Mails, presentation outlines, datasheets, backgrounders, and other content or documents that are used in the sales or customer engagement process by our clients. Each of our clients has their own password protected workspace, as well as any attendee at a workshop who wants one. We also use them for projects with our partners.

We think this approach offers them the following benefits:

  • The workspaces are searchable and both the wiki pages and attached files are under version control so they good visibility and control over our joint work product, whether it is in planning stages, in process, or had been delivered.
  • Meetings and conference calls are more productive. We use the same wiki page can be used the agenda, notes in process during the meeting, and for minutes and action items afterward. There is one place to look for anything about a meeting and it can have hyperlinks to other content that was discussed. This is an order of magnitude more productive than reconciling a stream of E-Mails for agenda and minutes.
  • The workspace is the first place to look and it’s more easily organized than anyone’s inbox. It’s not uncommon for us to run a Skype text chat session for conference calls and append that to the meeting page as well. This is a lightweight approach to making meetings more productive and because things get documented immediately you have more of a complete archive as you add folks to the team or want to look back in two or three months to see what was decided.
  • We normally include the cost of Central Desktop in our engagement fees but have turned over the workspace to clients at the end of an assignment. One client we worked with in 2006 through 2008 had more than 550 pages and attached files in the workspace.

We have been working in wikis since we started in 2003. We chose Central Desktop in 2006 and phased other wiki platforms out except where a customer is already using one. We have more than a hundred distinct workspaces (some are archived) that have been used with clients, workshop attendees, partner projects, and internal projects.

We are happy to have a phone conversation if you are interested in trying to incorporate them into your business: Sean has given a number of talks on them as well if you would like a briefing or presentation for your group or event. We do not resell Central Desktop and we were not compensated by them for the case study: we agreed to talk about it because we have been satisfied customers for more than three years.

Related blog posts on wikis:

Three Good Books for Consultants

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 3 Early Customer Stage, Books, Consulting Business, skmurphy

I continue to run into folks who find themselves encouraged to launching a consulting career by their former employer and what is proving to be a very deep recession. Here are three books I recommend to them to help get some perspective on the career they now find themselves in.

I have a related blog post from October of last year on “Customer Development for a Consulting Practice in a Downturn” and another one from July of 2007 on “Networking in Silicon Valley” that is still accurate.

A Too Common Conversation of Late

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Consulting Business, skmurphy

Layoffs continue to encourage old friends and co-workers to reconnect and many to consider–somewhat involuntarily–an entrepreneurial phase for their next career move. I spoke to three people today who had been laid off in the last month or so. Here is the summary of some key suggestions the three conversations:

  • If you are considering joining or forming a startup, check out a Bootstrappers Breakfast that’s convenient. We are up to four a month in Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, and Milpitas.
  • Probably the best South Bay group for professionals seeking employment is the eight year old CSIX, they meet every Tuesday in Cupertino and every Thursday in Saratoga.
  • If you are considering a career in consulting consider joining/attending
  • If you are feeling inventive check out the Inventor’s Alliance and TechShop.
  • We see a decidedly mixed economic environment with some clients prospering and others not so much. It’s definitely not as bad as the dotcom meltdown for technical folks in Silicon Valley but it’s not good and it doesn’t look like it will turn around this year.
  • There is a lot of opportunity, especially if you are able to take advantage of some technical and business innovations whose full effects are yet to be felt:
    • Skype, and VoIP in general make global conversations, both personal and teleconferences much less expensive.
    • Cloud computing, in particular Amazon’s EC2, make launching a new web business cheap and easy to scale.
    • Wikis and real-time document collaboration services are fundamentally altering consulting service delivery.
    • More generally, software-enabled services that blend human expertise with automation are creating a number of new kinds of businesses.

I am always happy to hear from old friends and former co-workers and happy to try and connect you with other folks or firms where there may be some synergies.

Three Things I’ve Learned About Networking

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Consulting Business, Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

Three things I’ve learned about networking:

  1. Good questions sell.
  2. Listening sells.
  3. Networking is helping other people: carry more than your own card and connect folks who will benefit from talking to each other.

Ford Harding’s Rainmaking (now with 2nd Edition, see not below) has been a source of inspiration and insight for me, his focus is professional service firms but a lot of it is also applicable to any complex sale that involves orchestration and ongoing service and support. He has a good blog as well.

Related blog posts

  • Customer Development for a Consulting Practice in a Downturn” from October 2008 where I also suggested that
    “One good book on consulting is Gerald Weinberg’s “Secrets of Consulting” (he also blogs at http://secretsofconsulting.blogspot.com/ ). He advises that in a week you spend two days doing work, two days marketing yourself, and one day getting better at what you do. If you are working on a product to complement your consulting you might modify that to three days doing work, 1 day marketing yourself, and one day developing your product. As work slacks off divide your time between additional marketing efforts and working on your product.”
  • Networking and Referrals from August 2008 offers definitions for both
    • Networking is the act of putting yourself in an environment to meet and interact with others.
    • Referrals happen when someone introduces you to a third party who might benefit from what you have to offer.
  • Networking in Silicon Valley” from July of 2007 where I observed:
    “One of the secrets to navigating Silicon Valley, is that it’s actually a very small place with many connections: some that can take a while to discover are nonetheless quite potent. That being said the single most important thing to avoid is wasting people’s time. Time is more scarce than capital, technology, or knowledge.”
  • “Continuing Education in Entrepreneurship” from October 2006 suggests networking offers “knowledge that isn’t written down” (and not to be found in Mr. Google’s basement):
    “I had this epiphany that I had spent the last dozen years or so, since I started attending Software Entrepreneur Forum (now SDForum) and Churchill Club meetings, in this ad hoc program in continuing entrepreneurial education. Books are valuable, and not enough entrepreneurs do enough reading, but there is also a category of knowledge that hasn’t been written down yet. And you can gain wisdom from listening to someone who has played the game–even if it’s just their mistakes–that you would otherwise have to gain from your mistakes experience.”

Malcolm Gladwell offers a perspective on networking in “Six Degrees of Lois Weinberg” about the true nature of excellent networkers.

“…people like Lois aren’t bound by the same categories and partitions that defeat the rest of us. This is what the power of the people who know everyone comes down to in the end. It is not — as much as we would like to believe otherwise — something rich and complex, some potent mixture of ambition and energy and smarts and vision and insecurity. It’s much simpler than that. It’s the same lesson they teach in Sunday school. Lois knows lots of people because she likes lots of people. And all those people Lois knows and likes invariably like her, too, because there is nothing more irresistible to a human being than to be unqualifiedly liked by another.”

Update February 19: Ford Harding E-mailed me a reminder to link to his second addition of Rainmaking, called “Rainmaking Attracting New Clients No Matter What Your Field” which has 40% new material in preference to his older addition of “Rainmaking.”

Quick Links

Bootstrappers Breakfast Link Startup Stages Clients In the News Upcoming Events Office Hours Button Newsletter SignUp