Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Selling Online in 2017

As a web application developer around the start of the 21st century, I recall the beginning of the e-commerce era as being one of extremely complex and technical development. I developed and taught e-commerce/ e-marketing programs at Holland College and Nova Scotia Community College from about 1998 through 2003 when the depth of technical knowledge that both developers and business owners needed to implement e-commerce was substantial, often prohibitively so for small craft businesses like ChezCraft, a small craft business my wife and I own. As the marketplace for e-marketplaces has expanded, the technical aspects have been (thankfully) pushed back into the realm of application vendor/developers while the strategic decisions have come to the forefront for businesses. It is still a substantial piece of work to understand all the strategic elements, but the technology has become mainstream - as Gartner's Hype Cycle would suggest - and the costs and level of effort have come into the range of small craft businesses looking to sell their wares online. 

Through the late 1990's and early 2000's, getting into e-commerce meant either custom development of e-commerce catalogues and shopping carts or purchase of expensive (and often overpowered) bespoke software applications. Integration with web technology was highly complex. Businesses had very few options about payment processing and often had to engage several individual vendors to set up the environment for secure payment acceptance. Moving forward to current day, the marketplace has become all but saturated with opportunities to sell online with ease. As with so many other productivity applications out there, the hardest decision is to pick the right one(s) that best suit your business need and your style. But if you feel that online sales are something you want to do, then there are a host of alternative solutions.


Basic e-marketing can be done without payment processing. Many opportunities exist today - from using social media (Facebook or Pinterest for example) to localized markets like Kijiji. They don't allow for a full e-commerce transactions, but you can always supplement these promotional sites with PayPal payment requests or banking e-transfers once you have "hooked" a prospect.

CMS Systems

A Content Management System (CMS) allows you to develop content (pages or posts) on your website. Many of those - like InnovaIT's implementation of InsiteCreation - allow you to easily create online catalogues and to connect product sales to a PayPal account allowing for both catalogue browsing/   shopping cart functionality and payment processing, including shipping, product options and other previously complex e-commerce configurations.

Online Marketplaces

Dedicated online marketplaces like Shopify and Etsy have become favourites for online craft sales. These services make it easy to sign up and get started selling quickly, taking the complexity of back-end configuration out of your hands so you can focus on marketing and selling.

Payment Providers

Payment processing vendors have also expanded their services to include the creation of online stores and catalogues. Remote payment services like PayPal and Square have made the ability to sell - wherever and whenever -  increasingly simple. ChezCraft has been using Square's remote processing application - combined with a tablet or smartphone to enable credit card sales in the field. We are still investigating the opportunities for Square's online catalogue product.

 If you are considering online sales, it is still worthwhile to talk with a specialist, consultant, or your accountant about your needs and to complete a  full-scale cost-benefit (return on investment) analysis. Discount rates, sales commissions, annual fees, etc. can be substantial and the ability to reach the right markets is also dependent on a good decision. Feel free to reach out to us for an opinion or input on your options.

Happy sales to you!

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Seven C’s (and one D) of Leading and Managing Professionals

Forty years of management and membership in professional teams has allowed me to observe valuable leadership skills and characteristics in diverse environments including Banking, Sales, IT, Community Services, and Academia. A hoped-for "C"-based mnemonic for those qualities was dashed by my great favour for "delegation".  So, it’s seven C’s and one D to describe these skills and for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts.

Consideration – appreciating individuals as professionals is critical to managing them; recognizing their technical proficiency, appreciating and leveraging those “smarts”, but also treating them with respect - e.g. allowing a reasonable level of self-management and autonomy in their working conditions. Most professionals do not need to be harassed to produce quality results.

Consensus-building – If you bring a number of very smart people together, there are bound to be differences of opinion. Building consensus means getting folks to agree first to the definition of the problem and then building agreement on characteristics of a successful solution. At times, consensus building may be more acquiescence than agreement, but it's important that once selected, everyone gets behind the chosen solution.

Conflict Resolution – work conflict is not limited to the work of professionals. Conflict comes from many sources including personality, authority, resources, seniority, social and cultural influence, etc. For individual conflicts, isolating the source of the conflict and creating opportunities to either avoid or mend conflicts is a strategic skill.  Recognizing stages of team formation and facilitating the team through those transitions are important skills to manage overall team conflict.

Conciliation –  While including the ability to diplomatically resolve issues between individuals, this skill also refers to the leader’s own ability to give in to subordinates at times, especially when the outcome is not obvious or when potential failure may be instructive – in a safe and respectful way.

Collaboration – many hands may make light the load and the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. Building a collaborative mindset benefits from providing the opportunity for positive reinforcement  of outstanding success that comes from working together. Mentorship and a focus on team learning can be an effective way to promote effective collaboration.

Collegiality – developing and maintaining healthy and productive relationships among your team will make collaborative success a common outcome. Reinforcing strong team norms is important but also recognizing that while you may be a manager or leader, you are also a colleague. Management by walking around (MBWA) and active (selective) project membership can be effective strategies as long as you are not seen as lurking or micro-managing.

Consultation – employing a consultative approach starts with understanding that work is personal; when change must happen, people want to be aware of the possible impact as early as possible. Consultation can go too far – especially when the need for timely and responsive action is critical – but insufficient consultation with stakeholders in a process or structure that has to change can lead to disaster.

Delegation – as a manager, you are accountable for the success and failure of your team toward meeting organizational goals. But that doesn't mean you are responsible for every task and project. Delegating responsibility can get you great results while freeing up your time to focus on key tasks. It requires a critical balance between giving autonomy to others and maintaining ownership of the overall project result. Effective delegation as a skill depends a great deal on ensuring clarity on the task and expectations for quality, scope of authority, timelines, and the schedule for regular check-ins and reports.

Another important delegation skill is to manage the overall project portfolio in such a way as to ensure that those who have interest (and appropriate qualifications and ability) in leading a project have the opportunity to apply for the assignment and then to delegate “favoured” projects fairly.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Music as Catalyst for Technology Talent

When I was completing my IT diploma at the Information Technology Institute (ITI) a few years back, our class often socialized together – most often at various venues on Spring Garden Road in Halifax, but also occasionally at one of our classmates’ homes/apartments. I was pleasantly surprised that the ability to pick up a guitar, electric piano, harmonica, etc. and to play something (with some talent) was more often the case than not among this group of IT educator candidates. It was more than just music appreciation, and the quality of performance was often quite good. It got so a few of us were jamming at least once a week in the final months of our program.

A new report has just come out from ICTC that expands on this, presenting compelling research on why cities with great music scenes and music education produce some of the best technology hubs, and attract substantial science and technology talent.

Check out the report.
This publication presents a bi-directional view of the role of music in the development of technology hubs. On the one hand, there is a substantial overlap in the skills of music and technology including:
  • Creativity & innovation
  • Independent and analytical thinking
  • Computational skills
  • Adaptability
  • Decision-making
  • Initiative Leadership
  • Planning and organizing
  • Teamwork and relationship-building
On the other hand, the appreciation of music and musical performance seems to be important to those who seek a living in technology and innovation industries. So, those municipalities that boast a healthy variety of music performance venues are considered favourably in terms of quality of life by both technology professionals and the executives who hire them.
So much for left brain, right brain? I wonder now if the great music scene in Halifax was one of the reasons I chose to stay here after my Masters degree? It certainly was one of the reasons I was so enthusiastic in participating in and facilitating the development of the Music Arts and Music Business programs at NSCC.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Myth of the Free Lunch

Something for free always sounds better than something for cost, doesn't it? Well sure, it sounds better, but is it really? Can the free lunch truly exist? I got caught in the trap of the benevolent vendor recently when I offered "free services" to a local community association for as long as I was a member of their board. I made it clear that when I left, I would have to charge a fair fee, albeit a reduced not-for-profits' rate. In spite of that, when the time came to move from volunteer to paid services, the transition didn't go well.

It is compelling to consider the continuation of such philanthropy but the fact is that even if I only offered my time/services for free, there are real costs to be considered. In this case it was primarily the opportunity cost associated with using time that could have be turned to more profitable activities or to work for clients who have a higher priority. I am a keen believer in community involvement and volunteerism, but beginning to understand that offering services for free that you normally charge for comes with its challenges.

The question of "free" services needs a great deal of definition. This is in part because although the offer is given freely, the receiving organization still has an expectation of services being rendered with good quality and attention. However, your paying clients expect to you to show value for the money they are paying, otherwise why should they pay you at all? It is obvious that you need to give your paying clients the priority they deserve, but what does that mean to the expectations of a charity when you have made a commitment?

And so, back to a clear definition of "free services": it is imperative when giving (or receiving) free or deeply discounted services that the conditions of the gift including priority, timeliness of response, effort included (and not), term/ duration of offer, and so on are very clear between the volunteer and the association. Perhaps I failed to prepare them properly for the transition resulting from my departure and as a result, now the provision of two years of free services is being viewed as a plan to create a profitable dependency upon my company. It is in this light that I continue to hear one of my Dad's favorite sayings "you get what you pay for". Mind you, he also used to say, "never look a gift horse in the mouth". :-)

I have reflected on a few valuable lessons; first, I would encourage you to volunteer actively in your community, but be sure to volunteer services and effort that has no conflict with your primary business if possible; second, if there is no distinct term of offer, consider creating at least nominal cash exchange so that the expectations of both the receiving organization and the  donor are covered in such a way as to bind a valid and understandable contract; and finally, there is no free lunch, so be sure that the "real" transaction is clear and transparent and transitional terms are understood. Then the only question is "who's paying the tip?"

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Tail Wagging the Dog

The engagement of technology to solve organizational problems often fails in either ineffective tool selection or poorly-planned tool implementation (or both). In either case, the disenfranchised stakeholder will see the imposition of the technology as the tail wagging the dog. Invariably, bringing a new tool to bear on a problem means change, and that will require appropriate change management approaches.

Tool Selection
Selecting the right technology tool is easiest if you have defined the problem well. Not only does this basic step make the choice of tool more obvious, it can also help identify the stakeholders and affected processes and systems in the scope of its adoption. Too often, the tool is selected before stakeholder analysis is conducted, resulting in affected stakeholders suddenly forced to work around a solution to accomplish tasks they have been heretofore successfully completing. The result is sometimes disastrous on the department or sub-system affected: at the least it is distracting and inconvenient, and may negatively impact departmental performance.

Best-of-breed tools are very specific to a problem while integrated approaches may simultaneously address a number of organizational needs. Selecting a best-of-breed solution can be valuable in terms of focused effectiveness while limiting impact on near systems. But if the investment is great, then the danger is the tendency to apply the solution inappropriately against other needs (if all you have is a hammer, then all problems look like a nail). On the other hand, integrated solutions can optimize overall reach, but may result in a compromise that solves only a percentage of each problem (unless you have lots of budget for difficult and expensive customization).

Tool Implementation
In an earlier post I mentioned the butterfly effect that may result from integrating and adding solutions to existing systems - an effect that occurs as best-of-breed solutions are joined to established systems - often resulting in unseen negative impacts down the line. The addition of a workflow application, for example, may have an unforeseen effect on existing projects that must bridge the transition period; or the move to a CMS from a regular communications/publication process may require unplanned new skills (technical, legal, etc.) for content approvers.

Overlooking these needs not only creates short-term frustration in operations; it also creates distrust of those who are planning and selecting solutions. The solution may be the right one, but when deploying a technology solution, ensure that there is plenty of time to accommodate the changes needed by impacted processes and ensure that all stakeholders are very clear about the impact so that they can be part of the implementation process.

Change Management
Change is the only constant in modern organizations, and managing that change is a critical role of the CIO and Operational Managers. Successful change management requires effective time management and communication strategies, superior collaborative planning and implementation, strategic development of process champions, and a focus on scope and risk mitigation. Computer-based simulation and modellling as well as strategic pilots can minimize risk and organizational shock. Developing a fall-back strategy or contingency plan is also a valuable practice in technology implementation.

Wagging the technology tail in the modern organization really comes down to ensuring you apply technology to the business need, not simply adapting your business processes to the technology. That's not to say that examining business process is a bad thing, but if your technology is compromising your business mission - as a colleague of mine likes to say - "Man, that dog just don't hunt"!

Monday, October 29, 2012

ROI & Decision-Based Evidence-Making

I was a sales rep for Atlantic Lottery in Newfoundland (in another life, it seems) and I recognize that experience provided more real "education" than three university degrees have done for me since. A great lesson came one summer's day in the town of Lawn on the province's south coast.  A particularly resistant shop owner was testing my Xerox and Dale Carnegie sales training techniques to the limit. It didn't seem he was going to buy into lottery products until I finally asked him to tell me what it was he really wanted.

"At the end of the day," he says "I want to be richer, smarter, or both - you show me how what you got makes me that, and I'll buy it".

It seems that you don't have to be a big or sophisticated business to understand "Return on Investment". But many businesses and their developers, accountants, and consultants use ROI calculation as a way to prove a decision they have already made about a project or investment. That's what I call decision-based evidence-making - where you build evidence around the decision instead of collecting evidence to make a decision. Done properly, however, ROI calculation should reduce risk and optimize the likelihood of making a good choice.

ROI calculation is not easy - but for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) it is more important than ever to do it as well and as objectively as you can. There are some excellent applications out there to help you to do your own, or to support your decision systems when working with a consultant or advisor. Some of the best tools available to Canadian Businesses can be found on the Canada Business Network website at the link shown below. A particularly good tool we like to use is the ROI Calculator from the now defunct E-Commerce Institute of Montreal - unfortunately also no longer on the CBN site, but call us and we'll be happy to get a copy to you. In addition to helping guide you through a well-developed analysis, the tool generates a report to calculate your Total Cost of Ownership, Net Present Value, Payback Period and your Return on Investment for any project (technology or otherwise) that you may be considering. It's simple to use and needs only MS-Excel to run. I do recommend you engage a consultant or accountant in any serious ROI exercise, but regardless, ROI tools like this really can help with evidence-based decision-making. WARNING: this tool could make you richer, smarter, and likely both!

The Canada Business Network can be found at www.canadabusiness.ca

Monday, October 22, 2012

Square Pegs and Round Holes

A few years ago I attended a conference for SMEs seeking eBusiness advice for their operations. The speaker (a self-professed expert on eBusiness) suggested that building a custom application in this day and age makes no sense when off-the-shelf (OTS) applications are available for nearly any conceivable function at a fraction of the cost of custom development.

My disappointment at her remarks stems from a long career that has proven time and again that the debate on "buy versus build" is rarely that simple. Here are a few reasons why:

Overall Cost: The price dimension alone offers plenty of complexity. OTS products may have hidden long-term costs such as license, maintenance and service level contracts, upgrades, platform changes, training, or implementation and installation costs that set their overall cost of ownership above the custom-built price tag.

Functionality: As far as features are concerned, any OTS application will have limitations in functionality out of the box. So, if you need a multifunction solution you may have to buy more than one application to cover all your requirements, while a single custom solution can be inclusive.

Process Fitness: Suitability may also be an issue in this debate as many in the OTS camp will try to sell you a solution that is "close" to your need - suggesting you rebuild your business processes to fit the software gaps. While I am a big fan of business process re-engineering, sometimes your unique business processes represent your competitive advantage.  Forcing you to fit your business to a solution instead of the reverse is like forcing square pegs into round holes.

A recent project for one of our major clients identified a viable third option - integration. Integration is a combination of third party products with custom development. In the case of this particular build it involved developing a custom web-based access to connect to a commercial desktop solution. Our research indicated that while the initial price was about the same for upgrading to a different product with the enhanced functionality the client was seeking, the long-term return on investment was substantially better for an integrated solution.  The approach offers future economy and scalability - important values for the client that take long-term cost and other benefits into consideration.

No one can tell you whether you should buy or build without a thorough needs analysis. Avoid "ex-spurts"* who present the buy-versus-build argument as a foregone conclusion. Be sure to complete a full ROI calculation on any solution you implement - whether you buy, build, or integrate.

*"Ex-spurts" is a term I use to describe the false prophets of the consulting profession and comes from a humorous quip about experts that states that an "ex" is a has-been and a "spurt" is a drip under pressure.