American Psycho: The search for premium business cards

There’s a famous scene from an infamous movie that epitomises the business card fetish. It is both ridiculous and funny. Here’s the thing though – if you’re in professional services there’s a lot riding on that card.

Late last year when I decided to rejuvenate Crossbolt, I realised that I would need to get new business cards. I only had two left and I wanted to keep one for posterity. This meant that I’d be able to have one business meeting before I’d need to wait until the stocks had been replenished. Fortunately my sales cycle is usually short and the engagements lengthy: I just need to place the card in the right hand and if it sticks we’re on another sleigh ride. That first impression is all important and as the business card is typically the only tangible brand collateral that is exchanged it’s the splash screen for the whole business in the palm of my hand.

It’s also a fantastic opportunity: most folk’s business cards look the same. Arrogant and presumptious? Maybe but I did learn a few things. Johannesburg, where I’m based has a myriad of “1000 cards for R500” deals (about $75 at the time). These are standard, digitally printed, double-sided, full color cards. In fact your cards are batched with a bunch of other folks in the print run so everybody’s cards end up looking similar. My search for a more upmarket offering came to nought:

“No we don’t do embossing”, “No we stopped foil stamping a while back”, “You want what ?”

 I was flabbergasted! I mean we’re talking about the continent’s economic hub here. After much googling and some phone calls I eventually found three credible operations: one in a small town in the Free State and two in Cape Town (really). I settled on The Letterpress Company. I’ve been a fan of letterpress for a while now (follow that last link, its really good). Bashing out the text with a solid die leaves a tactile quality that is missing in modern digital printing. The Letterpress Company use a vintage Heidelberg press and pay attention to service excellence – they were exactly what I had been hunting for.

Finding the right service provider was only part of the challenge. Unlike digital printing, my letterpress run involved manufacturing a laser cut die for the positive imprint and a foiling block (for the logo foil colors). In simple terms if I decided to change any of the content in future, I would incur these costs again and they aren’t cheap. It was a good time to revamp the logo with my graphic designer (that took a very long time too).

Final product : Letterpress, metallic blue and grey foiling on 100% cotton paper 

  Crossbolt: Small operation, premium goods. With a perhaps psychotic attention to detail.  Makes all the difference when its your capital project we’re looking after.

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Adventures with Thunk!: Where the corporate folk take advice from smart blokes with tattoos

It was a large and prestigious law-firm. Our footfalls echoed in the massive glass atrium as we homed in on the lone reception desk. With me was Don Packett, MD of Thunk! who also moonlights as a stand-up comedian. Bringing up the rear was the inimitable Richard Mulholland (more wild hair and tattoos) and the adrenalin man, Trevor Mey. We had a 10:30 meeting in the boardroom. They were paying us to be there.

Side effects include seeing things differently

Let’s backtrack a bit. I met Richard at a mutual friend’s wedding a few weeks back. Rich was the only new face at a table populated with my old skate crew (another story). We got to chatting and he mentioned his companies, Missing Link and Thunk!. He’s a good storyteller and the evolution of each entity made for interesting listening (and gave me an excuse not to be embarrassing myself on the dance floor). I was particularly intrigued by Thunk’s commodity: “We sell perspective.”

Huh?

We met for lunch a week later and by then I was more conversant in Thunk’s modus operandi. To paraphrase Rich and Don: smart people (or groups of people) who’ve been staring at the same problem-space for an extended period sometimes get the equivalent of writer’s block. New ideas dry up and forward progress is achingly slow. Enter a team of Thunkers: “smart mo-fo’s” (their term), completely alien to the problem have a crack at solving it in a no-holds-barred brainstorming session. To ensure that perspectives stay fresh, the Thunk team pulls in a ‘Brain Trust‘ member into the workshop: a bright spark from outside the company who is given no preparation material – literally an address and a time to pitch up. This time, that was me and I walked right into an audience with the law firm’s executive board members (wearing my Vibram’s…just to add to the Thunk! corporate counter-culture).

So, does it add value? Without a doubt, YES (we actually got an applause at the end of the session). The washing machine that is the Thunk! brainstorming session does spin out new idea’s at an impressive pace. What I found particularly valuable though is that it also creates a unique environment where members of the client team feel safe in putting out their own innovative (off-center) ideas. These ideas may well have been gagged by the staid conservatism in the corporate atmosphere but with Rich standing in front letting rip with business anecdotes interspersed with penis humor, suddenly it’s not so scary to voice an idea…with the assurance that you’re not going to be the wackiest guy in the room.

Don, Rich and I differ when it comes to whether Thunk! is able to consistently come up with the sexy solutions in all scenarios or whether they catalyze the client’s own bright sparks into coming up with the solution themselves. My training in crisis counselling biases me toward the latter approach: helping people to help themselves. The high impact ideation machine that is Thunk! doesn’t have time to tout subtleties like empowerment. They’re more likely to say: “Hell yeah, bring it on, we’ll figure it out five different ways in three hours or less”.

Brash marketing poise aside (it’s a calculated differentiator) they:

  • Have a unique product offering
  • Deliver real value in a high energy swoop of entertainment
  • Will get you thinking differently

…all nicely wrapped in cool.  Don’t take my word for it, give ’em a call and visit the lair.

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About.me: Own that first impression online (quickly!)

I regularly google about people in advance of meetings with them. Admittedly  it was disconcerting the first time I met someone new and hearing them mention that they had been checking me out too! I was immediately curious (and slightly anxious) as to what they had found. “All good things, right?”

In my case it’s my own Facebook profile and then my personal Linked In page. There are then a bunch of entries relating to ‘the other Farid‘ (whom I know personally), before you hit my Twitter profile. This situation is fortunate because I still have some control over what people think when they check me out:

  • At the top of the list, you are indeed looking at the real Farid Essack (i.e. me and not the other guy)
  • I have the power to change the content in my Linked In profile and my Facebook page

Great, but there’s still a problem: my professional persona in the Linked in profile is different from my Facebook persona and both of these are vastly different from what I use Twitter for.

I heard about About.Me through Twitter and the concept is brilliant and simple. About.me is offering a single page splash screen as the first impression that people get when they check you out. They can then navigate to your various other online personalities through links on this page. Via a dashboard, you get to see how much interest there’s been, where they’ve come from and what they clicked on next. Most importantly however is that you get to control that important first impression that people get.

A port of entry about you on the web

It’s in beta at the moment but interest is spreading pretty quickly. They’re venture cap funded and have some some influential backers. A quick look at the Twitter activity on the subject shows the Twitterati breaking down the doors to get a Beta invite. Better reserve your name before the public release: the only thing worse than not having control of that first impression is having someone take over yours as a lark. But then nobody is twisted enough to do that, right?

I can’t personally see how the format ‘http://about.me/%5BYourname%5D’ can ever be sustainable. One check on Facebook for ‘Tim Jones’ as an example brings up over 500 results.   On the other hand it’s precisely this exclusivity that’s making the big splash at the moment. I mean people still make up silly permutations to get a dotcom url. Act now and beat your namesakes to the one instance of your name that’s up for grabs.

Oh, here’s me: http://about.me/faridessack

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Just a better way of handling your notes

I do a lot of research. I have a wide variety of professional and personal interests matched with a rabid curiosity. Like most folks, I typically open up a browser, hit Google and start reading. As I progress, I open up links in new browser tabs. If I’m in serious information gathering mode, I open up a Word document in tandem and start copying and pasting bits of pertinent information for later processing.

Occasionally my notes are taken at project meetings, in training or at conferences and are scrawled in a book or worse, on pieces of paper. If I’m facilitating a meeting I usually can’t write or type anything meaningful so I record audio. If these artifacts are not required for meeting minutes, they’re usually filed away someplace often never to be processed again.

Here’s the thing:

  • I work across multiple computers and don’t always have access to the documents that I create. This is especially true when I am working on a client sponsored laptop or workstation.
  • Paper notes cannot be searched and are mostly inaccessible to me. It’s often easier for me to re-research the topic on the web than to have to hunt down where I stored my scrawls.  
  • I don’t like taking personal information into client sites even if it’s resident on my own laptop. Occasionally I experience a personal emergency and need access to information which is stored on a separate machine or network. I used to carry important personal information on a flash drive but this was also inefficient as I would forget to keep that snapshot updated.
  • In the past, I’ve blasted many artifacts off to a Gmail account to make my notes persistent and searchable, but the process is not slick enough to where I use it consistently.

Say goodbye to lost scrawls

I found “Evernote” while reading ‘office-in-the-cloud’ type blogs. This is a free, hosted, note management solution. You can capture or access your notes through a browser or a desktop application that stays synchronised for offline work. Your notes are then available everywhere on a multitude of devices (desktop, laptop, mobile phone, iPad…whatever).

Capturing of notes is efficient and I find myself keeping an Evernote page or client open all the time now. Amongst other things it allows me to quickly use my webcam to take snapshots of scrawled notes.  You can also use your mobile phone to take photos of business cards, whiteboards or travel receipts and instantly capture these as tagged notes. This allows the information to be saved and grouped in the right context at the time of the ‘transaction’ as opposed to doing it all retrospectively.  

Regarding written notes: Evernote offers native integration support for Livescribe pens so your paper notes go straight to your Evernote filing cabinet in the clouds. Sounds wicked but I’m ok with capturing the pages via my laptop webcam or mobile phonecam. Besides I have a Fisher Millenium pen that is guaranteed never to run out of ink and I want to get my mileage!

The search features work well and Evernote uses OCR to make the printed and handwritten text inside images searchable (with limited success on the latter).

It’s a good tool for team collaboration on R&D type projects, especially if the folks are not co-located though you do need to upgrade to the premium version for this (at a whopping $5/month…).

At the time of writing, Evernote has been picking up 10000 new users a day and there is a whole sub-cult being spawned around new ways of using this software.

Final tip: Dump the notepad feature (equivalent to folders) and capture the meta information in your note name instead eg. “Project/Category name_sub category_description”. This one was “Blog_article_Evernote”. Sounds trivial but dropping the folders makes mobile phone access more efficient by dropping a navigation step.

Posted in Project management, Technology and culture | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Resolving conflicts: here’s one you can try at home

Fighting the good fight

You can’t control others’ acts but you can control how you react” (Old saying)

A while back during a management class, the instructor gave us a simple model for conflict resolution. She explained how it worked and mentioned that it could be used in any context – projects or even domestically! I’ve used this model continuously and have drawn the picture for many others on whiteboards, on restaurant napkins and once even on a beach.

A simple framework for conflict resolution

The figure above is all that you have to remember. On the vertical axis is my own happiness. On the horizontal axis is my need to keep others happy. Here’s how it works: When there is a conflict in play, there are four options that I have. I’ll describe each one in sequence and when I choose to use it.

Quadrant 1: Do not engage, walk away. This is my first filter. I choose to avoid the conflict under the following conditions:

–       I am up against an almighty stakeholder and I’m likely to come off second-best. Better not to pick fight. Better to be unhappy than to risk being unhappy and crushed.

–       OR: There is no possible positive outcome from the conflict (eg. roadrage temptation). Better to walk away.

–       OR: I’m indifferent to the outcome of the conflict. Better not to expend the energy getting involved.  I ask myself: “do I really care about the outcome or am I engaging because my pride has been wounded?”

This first-pass filter has saved me from a lot of unnecessary heartache. I no longer get upset about minor things, don’t fight other people’s battles and if I am going to engage ‘on principle’, I make certain that it’s a line in the sand worth defending.

Quadrant 2: Confront the problem. Once I know that it’s a cause worth fighting for, I immediately move towards a responsible confrontation with the other stakeholders (project team members, my wife, whoever…). Confronting an issue is the best way to find a solution where all parties are happy. The dragon is slain and doesn’t come back. I’m ok if things get heated as long as we’re both lucid and understand that we’re still searching for a common solution.

Quadrant 3: Smoothing things over. There are always folks for whom a confrontation is seen as a ‘bad thing’ or a lack of control. They’re the ones who are quick to step in and pull parties apart saying ‘play nice’. This is crummy. It stops the problem being solved and the pain will be sure to return. The person doing the smoothing feels that they have done something good yet the person with the problem is left unsatisfied. As a project manager I’m quick to spot stakeholders who avoid confrontations. With these folks, I’ve found it best to actually draw the framework in the figure and say “I’m taking us to the scary place so that we can find a solution together. Because I care.”. The only time I’ll smooth things over is if the emotions are running so high that folks are no longer lucid.

Quadrant 4: Forcing. If after trying to confront the problem and getting no joy, I’m prepared to enforce a decision. Personally on projects this is a last resort but one I’m prepared to make if the stakes are high enough eg. a team cannot reach consensus on a time-critical project. People won’t be happy but it allows me to move on.

If they are worthy, confront problems. It’s the best approach to a sustainably happy outcome. 

 

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Consulting companies: great cashflow and lousy exits

The anticipation of the trip

 Getting the Crossbolt cogs spinning again over the last few days has been exciting. It’s a bit like pulling the cover off a sportscar that’s been in storage for a while. Once the battery is charged, you pump fuel into the big carbs, say a prayer and hit the ignition. If it’s anything like my old Alfa there are other factors beyond fuel, spark and compression that come into it: the phase of the moon, the ambient temperature, prevailing interest rates (I’ve never been certain). Eventually it fires up and as things are warming up, I’m bewitched by the smell of the leather and petrol fumes. With the little Momo racing wheel in my hand it’s the anticipation of the trip that kicks in. Where will we go this time?

Enough of the analogy. Where will Crossbolt go this time? Taking a look at the school fees of the past seemed like a good idea: 

 “Consulting companies are great cash generative beasts but have lousy exit strategies“. Unless there’s solid IP in the form of products, nobody is going to buy you out regardless of your pitch on elegant processes. Consulting companies scale poorly: they can only sell a finite number of hours linked to the available skills on tap. Unless the company has a ruthless hire-and-fire policy, the growth is tempered by keeping resource numbers sustainable through economic cycles. They do well in the good times and then haemorrage cash during lean times. Some hotshot companies are able to capitalise on well run fixed-price projects but that’s hard and eventually one goes south and erodes the profits of past successes. 

Hot products still don't sell by themselves

It’s often during the lean times when there is an over-capacity of capable people that the epiphany arrives: “gee whizz, we should be building products!“. Folks climb into product R&D in earnest. The initiative takes on a life of it’s own even after economic cycles have turned and many thousands of hours are burned building the ‘brilliant product’. Then it’s done. And nobody buys it. Or worse, a few people buy it and you have to support them forever (you get the point). At this stage there’s the hard truth: making it in the product game is more about good selling than good engineering. Consulting companies have access to the latter but the former is in short supply. To paraphrase Kiyosaki: “I’m a best-selling author, not a best-writing author”.    

I did lose some money learning this. Remarkably my own lack of specialisation when I started meant that I just didn’t have the idea for a great product. So while I charged clients to build their products, I focused on learning tax law and investing strategies. As the bank balance grew, Crossbolt did invest in a few less-than-successful ventures (ok they just lost money). It was the tail end of the .com boom so it was hard to resist! The school fees here pointed me to something interesting: the power of compounded returns from the invested war-chest solved the scaling problem. There isn’t necessarily a need to scale up aggressively people-wise.

A solution: Run lean, keep costs down, leverage the strong cash generative potential to optimise the invested capital and be very wary of sponsoring maverick product development. No matter how sexy it looks at the time.   This time ’round:  I already figured one answer to the scaling problem that worked for me so no changes there. Regarding ventures – sure, eager as ever but with a bit more wisdom around sharing the risk and cherry picking. I only need one to work.

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Rearview mirror

I took a drive today, time to emancipate“, Pearl Jam, Rearviewmirror

Rear view mirror, Pacific Highway 1, California

When I started, the big challenge was to be able to make it through one year without having to rely on formal employment. That first year shot past before I noticed. A while later when I had to move office files that were taking up too much space into off-site storage, I realized with a wry grin that I’d forgotten to celebrate the 5-year anniversary too!

It’s coming up on 10 years now…and the journey has been spectacular. So much so, that I scaled down company commitments and spent the last year in retirement, just keeping a wary eye on the investment portfolio and dreaming new dreams.

Having avoided it for so long, why blog now? While some commentary may be anecdotal, there’s no intention here to retrospectively capture all the adventures of the past. I’m also skeptical about the narcissistic nature of blogs. The answer: have some fun capturing the lessons learned over the years so that I don’t repeat mistakes of the past. This may be in project management or around running technology businesses. If it turns out that these are of value to a wider audience than Crossbolt’s paying clients well that’s just great too.

Drinking coffee and dreaming new dreams

The time has come to blow the dust off my tools and get back into the thick of things.

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Preamble

I formed Crossbolt Intellisys in 2001. A few weeks earlier I had quit my job as a systems engineer. Oddly I had just returned to head office in Johannesburg after wrapping up a year on site on a spectacularly successful project. Perhaps it was the interminable traffic jams, the gloomy weather or the anti-climax of returning to a cushy corporate world after the thrill of building a large, highly-automated factory. I’m not sure, but I resigned within three days of my return.

It was hard to walk away from what was a perfectly acceptable looking future. I had a lot of time to think about it as I sat in traffic and felt the wrath of summer Highveld storms through the canvas roof of my 75 Alfa Spider. There was enough cash saved to last me 4 months…and no prospects, just the craving of something new and different. I oscillated between anxiety (panic at times) and excitement as I worked through my month long notice period.

I finished my last day on a client’s site wrapping up some outstanding work. There was no farewell party, just a lonely Friday night flight from Port Elizabeth back to Johannesburg. As I’d been away for most of the previous year, I didn’t even have a place of my own to go to.

The view from my first week in office

On Sunday, two days later my brother called me with a project lead. I caught a guy at the airport who was in transit between Durban and JFK (NYC) and had a brief chat. “Can you join me in LA later this week?”. And so it began.

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