Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Book Signing

When I was a teenager, I used to greatly enjoy watching reruns of Monty Python's Flying Circus on PBS. I recall an often repeated line from that program "...and now for something completely different."

So I was wondering if a Tom Spears book signing qualifies as something "completely different"?

It sure feels that way.

If someone told me a couple of years ago, that I would be signing and selling copies of my first novel at a local cafe, I would have looked at them like they were crazy. And if that person had suggested I'd be excited about it, I would have known they were crazy. I was too deeply engrossed in the business of business at that time to even be interested.

And yet, here I am -- my first official book signing scheduled for "Cheri O's" in Ashland on Saturday from 10AM to 2PM. And I'm psyched about it.

Not that I'm expecting to be overrun with fans, but it certainly seems symbolic -- showing that, yes indeed, I really am an author.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Umm, I think your computer's dead...

As a bit of a break from my series of posts on work lessons, I must whine a bit about computers.

Today (and for the last week), I've been working on a Dell Inspiron Mini, one we bought a few years ago to keep in the kitchen. Much of it's life has been spent looking up recipes, or performing targeted web searches. An easy existence, as computer's lives go. This last week, I've discovered it is NOT a machine suitable for writing novels. The screen is quite small, the keyboard is very tight, and it uses our (sometimes working) WiFi connection for access to the web.

I pine away for a replacement....
....which I already purchased. From Best Buy on Monday. I stayed with a laptop, but added a huge screen, a CD drive, lots of memory and a full sized keyboard (and a lot of additional weight, but I'm usually only carrying the thing around the house). I'm excited to get to work on the new machine.

So why am I still using the mini?

Because I foolishly asked Best Buy to transfer my data to the new computer. It seemed like a great idea at the time -- spend a few dollars (eighty), and then I don't have to waste my hours doing it. That was five days ago. So why isn't it done? I don't know.

The guy who "checked in" my new computer estimated twenty four hours. So I'm dropping in today, and not leaving without the new computer -- even if I have to do the data transfer myself.

Which brings me to another question -- what is wrong with the old computer? Not the Mini, the one that booted me onto the Mini in the first place.

Admittedly, that Dell Laptop is six years old now, and was never purchased with writing novels in mind. It was my old work computer from two jobs ago, selected to be a reasonable compromise between performance and travel portability. Over time it's performance has gotten worse and worse until it was taking fifteen seconds between clicks and half an hour to restart. Sounds like a virus, right? That's what I thought, but repeated scans have come up blank. Not enough memory? Maybe....

Anyway, I also asked Best Buy to look at this machine as well. And guess what -- it's not done either! I'll be asking about that as well. Hopefully, they will have already diagnosed it, found something easily fixable, and I can keep it as a back-up. Hopefully.

But wait, there's one more insult to add to these injuries.

For the past ten years I've been doing my taxes on one of two computers that we refer to as "the dinosaurs". I do this because the taxes can tie up a computer for a time, and once the tax software is loaded, I can live with the relatively slow response times.

So I had a need to get a pdf copy of last year's return on Monday. I went upstairs to start dino #2 (where last year's taxes were done) and...nothing. Deader than a doornail. Wouldn't start ever after I checked the GFI button, traced the power cables, and made sure the surge protector was on.

I was afraid to even look at Dino #1 (which must be a good fifteen years old now).

So I'll be crossing my fingers a second time that the IRS doesn't send me a letter with "questions" about any old returns. They can only do that for what, seven years?


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Distributors and Dealers

Here is a good work lesson. It's pretty specific, but definitely isn't obvious -- sometimes it's a good idea to have contractual agreements with your dealers or distributors, and other times it isn't. And where you do have contracts, it is important that they conform to local laws.

Within the United States, commercial contractual arrangements are regulated by state laws -- either the general commercial code for that state, or specific regulations that have been passed. In many states, it seems like the laws were set up to favor local car dealerships in their "struggles" with automotive manufacturers. They cover things like notice periods on cancellation, cure periods, and the buyback of inventory. Because these laws vary considerably from state to state, it is important to know what you can and can't do before you start to do anything that impacts territory, length of the agreement, renewals, inventory requirements, and similar things.

But what's a supplier to do? Learn the details of fifty different laws -- laws that can change, by the way? Can't you write a contract with your dealer/distributor that is universally valid in the U.S.?

If you try going that route, it's likely the agreement will be so weak, that you'll be completely hamstrung. One advantage of a universal agreement, however, is it does set expectations for you and your distribution partners. And you only have one agreement to learn. If you make the contract too restrictive, however, it is likely some paragraphs won't stand up if there's a dispute that ends up in court. That's probably about as good as you can do.

If there's no contract, then general commercial law in the state prevails -- which is probably even more disadvantageous to a supplier.

So what's the best strategy?

In the United States, I suggest having a very knowledgeable attorney write a universal contract -- one restrictive enough to give you some options when your distributor doesn't perform -- but also checking state laws before you make an major changes in the relationship.

Outside of the United States it is a different ball game altogether. Laws in the U.S. vary a lot. Internationally, they vary even more.

In one instance, I was sued by an international dealer for hundreds of thousands of dollars for "brand development" he had supposedly done on my behalf. Of course, we were cancelling him for non-performance, but the way this particular country's laws worked, since we had a contractual commercial relationship, he could come after us. And he did. And it cost big bucks.

I later learned that if we hadn't reduced the relationship to a contract, we would have only been subject to normal commercial law, and the "brand development" stuff would have been excluded.

Outside of the U.S., you will, unfortunately need to ask a local attorney what is the best policy. It is a slow, tedious and expensive process, but done correctly, it can save you bundles later. Absolutely don't just take your U.S. agreement and have your distributor sign it -- you could be setting yourself up for some huge problems down the line.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Country Risk

I was burned in Argentina. And in Saudi Arabia. China, too. Personally.

I've watched others within companies where I've worked experience disasters in India, Pakistan, China, Libya, etc.

These disasters were mostly commercial issues. Mostly related to legal maneuvers by either the government itself, or advantage taken by local business people utilizing leverage their local governments provided. Mostly limited in scope, but only through good fortune.

Most of these countries have a history of business train wrecks. They go back on promises, change the rules, toss agreements aside when it is convenient, or use their legal system to take advantage. Then they "reform", claim they are anxious for direct foreign investment, invite capital back in. And then the cycle happens again.

Why these situations happen is all over the map, and could undoubtedly fill volumes.

My work lesson is in how you deal with these types of opportunities/problems as an individual manager. So here are my thoughts, developed through a couple of trips to the school of hard knocks on this subject.

1. Just say no. If a country has a history of fleecing foreigners, or of foreign investors being mistreated, it will probably happen again. If possible, just stay out altogether.

2. Limit your exposure. Put as little in the country as possible. Take out what you can whenever possible.

3. Find a solid partner. A manager, investor or adviser. Get someone who can see trouble coming and help you develop a plan to deal with it.

4. Trust but verify. Trust should be earned in such places, not assumed. Check out the reputation of anyone you will be dependent upon.

5. Control the venue. Contracts are great, but they are even better if you control where they will be enforced. Don't accept a third world court venue where you will lose on knowledge of local law, access to resources, and sympathy.

6. Anticipate problems. Use history, current events, and adviser information. Put together plans to deal with issues before they happen.

7. Communicate with your superiors. Sooner or later something bad will happen. It's important they are aware of the risks before a bomb drops.

International business is hard. But for many companies, it's essential to success and can't be ignored. But appropriate caution and preparation will prevent a disastrous or, at the least, a very unpleasant experience.

If you enjoy my blog posts, check out my novel, LEVERAGE, now available at Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Get Your Customer Input from Multiple Sources?

I've used a lot of methods to get customer input for new products or services. Surveys, focus groups, partnering, or just winging things without any customer input at all.

But what works the best? Or the worst? What is the best trade-off?

The "experts" insist that getting maximal customer input will give you the best results. In my (not so) humble opinion, I think that is the path to mediocrity. And it may be the best path in many cases.

The biggest businesses successes I've seen, have been development projects where the "inventor" has a game changing idea and relied mostly on their own instincts and thoughts to design it. But there is an inherent bias in looking at big successes developed using this method -- you rarely hear about the failures! And I'm aware of a few spectacular ones. I'm just guessing, but I believe a lone inventor is more likely to come up with an idea that is revolutionary, but also more likely to miss the target completely. It's a high risk proposition, with a greater potential reward. If you're going to use this development method, your organization better have an exceptionally high tolerance for failures.

Conversely, projects where I sought multiple inputs from customers through surveys, focus groups, and the like, tend to "regress to the mean". That phrase means you tend to develop a "jack of all trades, but a master of none" -- a device or service that does a mediocre job of satisfying a broad range of needs, but doesn't excel in any particular dimension. My personal experience is the design ends up loaded with options and variations, and cost go too high. Additionally, customers are usually pretty poor at understanding radically different solutions to their current problems, and so they tend to push you back toward the familiar.

So how about partnering? That seems like it might be a good compromise -- some customer input, but still enough innovation to allow a big hit.

My personal experience is this combination results in the worst of both worlds.

There is still the home-run aspect of the lone inventor scenario, moderated only slightly by having a second voice involved in the project. But the partner organization tends to pull your development efforts toward their particular needs and idiosyncracies. If they represent the market at large, you win. In my experience, they will lead you to an ideal solution -- for them. And usually a miss for almost everyone else.

On one particularly large and expensive project I managed, we used a customer partner for the development. The customer insisted on safety, maintenance, and operating parameters for the product that added significant costs. Once we finished the development and started trying to sell it to others, we discovered the customer-partner's payback economics were significantly different than those of other organizations. And some issues other potential buyers had were not a problem for the partner, and so were ignored. The project was ultimately shelved, probably a couple of years later than it should have been.

So while customer input can reduce the risks of project failure, it can also reduce the reach and level of innovation you might otherwise achieve. As to partnering, I can't think of any time it would be an improvement over broad customer input or none.