E-commerce - What Amazon has that you don't
I used to hear this question from my customers: "I saw this cool thing on Amazon, can you build that for me?" My unspoken answer was "Sure, just give me Amazon's development budget, and I will be glad to!"
However, after a while, my flippant internal answer no longer rang true for me. I remembered my early days as a broadcast engineer in a budget challenged television station in the South. Our viewers would be subjected to a network quality commercial one minute, followed by a locally made commercial for Joe's Used Cars, made on a shoestring.
Today, web shoppers know how easy it is to shop on Amazon and other well produced eCommerce websites. They are now comfortable with seeing multiple views of a product, being able to select from a variety of shapes and sizes, make easy shipping choices, and paying for this with their credit card in a matter of seconds.
Thus, you not only have to look professional, but you have to act like a professional as well. Missing functionality and broken code will have your customers looking elsewhere in no time.
All of this functionality takes a lot of coding to work on a consistent basis. As alluring as it may be to "roll your own", trust me when I tell you that it is no easy trick. Going with a tried and tested ecommerce platform is the way to go here.
No, you don’t have amazon.com’s multi million dollar development budget. But today, thanks to the many tested ecommerce platforms available, you don't have to.
E-commerce - Dress for Success
When you meet someone in person for the first time, within seconds they have made decisions about who you are and whether they like you - simply by looking at you. It's a survival skill as old as mankind.
The same thing happens online. If your e-commerce store looks amateurish, unorganized and hard to navigate, your customers will go elsewhere, as quick as a mouse click. Today, I would like to recommend some excellent resources to help you understand great ecommerce design, and will reveal the 1 Key to Success that no executive wants to hear.
First, let's talk about basics. If you eCommerce website is difficult or impossible to navigate, you have no chance of getting someone to buy from you. Whether your e-commerce site is b2b or b2c, it must be obvious within a second or less how to find what you are looking for. One of the best books on this - with a title that says it all - is "Don't Make Me Think!" by Steve Krug.
Secondly, there are tons of resources out there if you are interested in design. Here is a great list of website design blogs and magazines that I refer to all the time.
Finally, here is the one thing that every business owner or decision maker must do - right now. Go to a mirror and ask yourself - "Am I a design professional?" "Have I been trained in what good design means and looks like?"
The (honest) answer is probably no. But wait, you say, I am the one writing the check! My opinion counts! Yes, that is true and the one thing you don't want to do is to waste your money.
That key to success? Trust your designer! If you don't have one, go find one and trust them. It's so hard to do. I have seen so many eCommerce sites either languish or go out of business because the owner thought they were a designer, or better than the one they were paying.
Be that owner of a successful eCommerce site and make sure you have it "Dressed for Success!"
3 reasons change is accelerating
Recently I was having dinner with a colleague, who asked me if I thought the rate of change in Internet related technology was increasing, rather than proceeding at a more gradual and predictable rate.
I responded that it felt like it was increasing, but could not put my finger on why I felt that way.After pondering it some more, I think there are 3 reasons behind my gut feeling:
The move to cloud computing - Being able to provision (set up) a server in a matter of minutes, take it down when you are done, and only pay for the time you used it, is a revolutionary change. Freed from the limits of tying up capital and human resources, it is so much easier to try new ideas and grow existing companies. The full effects of this are just beginning to be felt.
Growth of mobile devices -
Since the dawn of the (commercial) Internet 15 years ago, all development was directed at browsers running on desktop computers. This year, mobile devices (smartphones, tablets, and others) will outpace the desktops. Think millions of Chinese with iphones who have never seen a PC. This will have revolutionary impacts on the folks who design and build websites.
Recently, Ray Ozzie left his post at Microsoft. In his exit memo, entitled "Dawn of a New Day
", he wrote about the 2 trends noted above, and how Microsoft was not doing such a great job in adapting to these trends. However, there is a third trend that is driving change:
Globalization - The massive increase in global Internet access means that both producers and consumers of Internet content can and are located all over the world. Internet professionals in the US compete with Internet savvy folks all over the world now.
When I was born in 1955, the United States was the global commercial powerhouse, mostly because the rest of the world was either rebuilding from WWII or strangled by Communism. Today, we are competing against a vibrant, interconnected world economy. But, if we believe in that fundamental capitalistic concept that competition is good, the world and the Internet should be a better place for it.
Zombie Projects and 5 ways to stop them
Every company that does project work - from development companies like Highland Software to designers, construction companies and home builders - has run into Zombie projects. Zombie projects are those projects that are never finished - they keep sucking money and resources ( "Brains! Brains!" ) from your organization. What is worse is that your organization spends her time fighting the Zombies, while the good, well behaved projects are left to fend for themselves.
Your customers hate Zombies too. No customer wants to see a project dragged out beyond what you told them it would take.
Here is the hard truth - you are to blame for creating Zombies - not your customer.
What causes a Project to turn into a Zombie?
Most projects start off looking like regular, non Zombie projects. You have a clearly defined scope of work which the customer has signed off on, and you eagerly start to work. Then, bit by bit, the project starts to sour. The customer asks for "just a few small changes". The item that you thought would take 2 days to do turns into 2 weeks. Someone quits or gets reassigned. Vendors don't deliver as promised.
Project Managers are your primary Zombie Fighters. Their job is to spot emergent zombie behavior in a project and stop it before it goes too far. What are their weapons? Good project management tools to keep track of deliverables, budget and schedules. If they spot a project creeping out of control, they should immediately tell their manager and bring in extra help.
How to avoid Zombies in the first place
1. Smaller is better - Smaller projects with shorter timeframes are easier to control than bigger ones. If you have a big project, break it up into smaller chunks. Have the client sign off on each smaller chunk before starting on the next one.
2. Put it in writing - Clearly define what you are going to do, with the customer's signature. When you get a scope change request, tell your customer " We will glad to quote that for you, and let you know when it can be done."
3. Start at the very beginning - Timing is critical. If possible, projects should start soon after they are quoted. Revisit the quote if too much time has elapsed, or if there have been significant personnel changes on either side. Make sure everyone is on board before actually beginning the project.
4. Regroup and adjust - Sometimes the best laid plans go awry. Great project managers (like great football coaches) can spot tactics that are just not working, and readjust to changing conditions.
5. Common purpose - Finally, the greatest Zombie creator is an adversarial relationship between customer and contractor. Constantly remind each side of the common purpose you both share - to get the project done. You would not have started it if there wasn't some benefit to both sides if completed correctly.
Zombies are everywhere. I know - I have seen a lot of them. They are a constant threat to your firm's existence. If too many projects turn into Zombies, they will eat your brains and leave the corpse of your business to rot in the sun.
Don't let it happen to you!
Are you marketing like it's 1999?
It's been 10 years since the Millennium, yet I still see many companies that are marketing their goods and services like it was 1999 - you know, before Google, Twitter, Facebook and all the other ways to get your company noticed.
Even Highland Software is guilty of it - but we are trying to do better!
E-commerce is basically the same since it started out in 1995. You go to a website where you see a number of products for sale arranged in categories. You select the products you want to buy and add them to a shopping cart. Enter your address and payment information, and you are done. Nothing has changed in 15 years.
What has changed is how your customers find you. Search engines have become so sophisticated that it is very hard to "trick" them. Thus, you have to know the SEO rules and provide valuable content that is relevant to your products and services.
Social media, as a way for folks to find you, did not even exist 10 years ago, yet Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and various location based services such as Foursquare are now a significant way for customers and potential customers to pick your site out of the noise of the Internet.
One of my favorite sources for great information about this is www.60secondmarketer.com
This site is chock full of great, free advice and videos to get you up to date on the latest trends in the business. Check them out!
Chickens and Eggs
My brother-in-law James started raising chickens this year. This is a perfectly respectable thing to do in Macon GA, and it's a good idea almost anywhere. James bought 20 little chicks, figuring about half would not make it to adulthood.
Miraculously, almost all survived, and pretty soon, James had to build a chicken pen, then a full blown chicken house. Right on cue, they started laying eggs, and now James's chicken enterprise is generating a dozen eggs a day. Trouble is - James and his wife don't eat a lot of eggs, so there is plenty of surplus for me when I visit.
James's chicken farm is like a lot of businesses - most folks don't plan for either success or failure - they just start feeding the chickens and watch what happens.
A better way to do this is to plan for success, and grow your business into that plan. One of the best books on this is The E-Myth Revisited.
Another key to survival of a small business is the ability to expand and contract fairly rapidly based on business conditions. You never know how many of your chicks will survive, and how many will be roosters rather than hens.
These days, it is a lot easier due to the multitude of out sourced services available. You can contract out (and use what you need) almost all aspects of your business - from space to people to systems. Just be careful you hang onto your core folks, and don't put all your Systems eggs in the same basket. Get your phone, email, website, etc. from different vendors, so it's unlikely they will all go down at the same time (unless the blog below happens).
And most of all, you need to love what you do, since you will be knee deep in chicken droppings and be eating a lot of eggs if you are successful.
Update: James Cullen Pritchett passed away April 11, 2010 suddenly at the age of 53. Be sure to love what you are doing, since it may be the last thing you do.
Why the Internet will collapse one day, and what you should do when it happens
It is my firm belief that, one day, we will wake up and try to connect to the world through our websites, facebook, and twitter accounts, and find that the entire Internet is down. We will resort to outdated technologies (television) and find out our worse fears are true - the Internet is completely non functional.
As someone who makes his living from the Internet, this is a pretty weird thing to say. Yet, I have a fairly good understanding of how this corner of the technology world works, and I can see it is a distinct possibility. We have recently seen DDOS attacks (Distributed Denial of Service) on Facebook and Twitter, and government and commercial sites are under constant daily attack. Botnets (networks of infected PCs with robot programs) constantly scan our data center. One day, the Barbarians will break through the gates.
So, what should you do when this happens? First, think "Bruce said this would happen one day". Next, take a deep breath and remember these facts:
- Human civilization lasted thousands of years without it
- There will be thousands of very smart people working to bring it back on line
- The "bad guys" don't want to permanently bring the Internet down - they would be killing the goose that lays the golden cyber eggs.
So, step away from the computer, put down your iphone, step outside and look around. The birds are still singing, the sky is still blue, your heart is still beating. Soon enough, the noise and traffic of our hyper connected world will once more fill our lives with too much information and too little wisdom.
And remember, you heard it here first.
How does Email Work?
There is a lot of confusion about some basics of how email works - what is the difference between Incoming and Outgoing email, where email is stored, and why Highland provides certain services and not others.
Unlike the regular Post Office service, email is not (normally) a two way street. Although it appears in your Outlook, Entourage, or other email client that emails coming in and out are using the same system, often this is not the case.
An email addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org is stored on a server somewhere until you come and download it to your local computer. You have to tell your email client (Outlook, Entourage, webmail, etc. ) which server your messages are stored on and how to log into that server - called setting up your POP server settings. POP stands for Post Office Protocol. You can set your email client to leave a copy of the email on the server or not after you download it. Warning - emails can rapidly build up and completely clog your inbox.
Incoming mail has now become a commodity item in the Internet world, with many companies providing email boxes for less that a dollar a month. Most incoming email systems offer spam filtering and antivirus filters that scan all incoming messages.
Outgoing emails use something called SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol). This is where you compose an email on your email client and send it to someone else.
Normally, this service is provided by the company that provides you with your connection to the Internet - on the device that you are using. So, it is very possible to have a different SMTP setting for your home computer, your office computer and your smartphone.
Now, here comes the part where spammers come into play - and why Highland Software does not offer SMTP service. Spammers (actually their automated robot programs) are constantly looking for "open SMTP" servers. If they can find one, they instantly start using it to spew out spam. Of course, they don't use their own servers - they would easily be shut down that way.
The big problem for a company like Highland is getting "blacklisted". If a spammer starts using a Highland server for spam, others will quickly find out and block ANY email coming from that server - even legitimate ones like order confirmation emails, notification emails, etc. We definitely don't want this to happen.