Medium Business Blues

As I was heading to bed last night, I posted a question on twitter: “What should I blog about tomorrow”. My friend Joe Stump quickly came back with this:
What needs are not being filled by the web for medium size businesses?

It’s an interesting question that made it hard for me to go to sleep (thanks Joe). But I think I have an answer

It’s not just the web… it’s all of software

The web isn’t the problem. I think medium-sized (and a lot of small) businesses are really lacking in good software. Even worse, a lot of the software they use everyday makes what they do harder. Like most things, it’s partly social, partly technological.

Sally, the warehouse manager, gets a new piece of software, and because she’s always used other people’s stuff and never written her own, she’s used to “following the rules” on the computer, and ultimatly jumps through hoops instead of trying to find a better way. It’s not her job to try to figure out what the software should do. So she ends up copying & pasting into Excel. She figures out to wait one second before hitting enter in that form, or else it’ll beep and lock up. She uses the “location” field as the secondary inventory, because isn’t not being used.

It’s not your fault

Your core business is selling wine, not supply-chain management. Even if you could hire a coder or two to make your operations more efficient, you’d extract more value by streamlining the buying of wine than making your warehouse manager marginally more efficient.

Let’s take an example: Amazon. What’s their core business (or was a few years ago)? Selling?… Selling what? They started with books, but their core business was shuffling goods around. Supply Chain. So what’d they do? They wrote it themselves. Now they have teams of robots and the infrastructure to bring on new suppliers instantly.

Jeff Attwood (by way of Joel Spolsky) wrote about core business coding in Programming is Hard, Let’s Go Shopping!. The conclusion is that even if the software is out there, doing it yourself gives you an opportunity to have a unique advantage.

It is our (the computer folks’) fault

When I started at the Wine Library, there were about 20 employees and a really rickety old POS system. That POS system did inventory, registers, (very very basic) accounting, and exporting to the web. After 7 years, a lot has changed, but we still don’t have great software for ANY parts of our operation.

Software is hard. Let’s fix it

How do we get to there from here?

I think the Agile methodologies point in the right direction. Amazing folks like Amy Hoy are helping lead the way towards user-centric, easy to use software that can solve problems, and make everyone happier and more productive.

But, I’m a freelancer…

So? Find a local business that’s big enough to need you, and small enough to really dig the savings they’d get by having some major part of their day-to-day easier and nicer. Not a UX person? Find someone to team up with. Coding is the last step in the process. Drawings, storyboards, talking, paper-models, all that “touchy-feely” stuff is how great software gets made.

Eat the dog food. Use this “great” thing you’ve built and see where the sticking points are

Observe the people who know more than you do about this part of the business. See what’s hard for them. Just because you know how to navigate a form by keyboard, doesn’t mean they should have to.

What about the Web?

None of this stuff precludes the web. All kinds of formerly desktop software is moving over (and has been for years). Why can’t supply-chain or call-center software do the same? Just be smart! Use SSL where appropriate, don’t store credit-cards, try to break your software with bad input.

Why Summer School Rocked

I almost stayed back a year in high school.

There was a very good reason… One I can’t fault the administration for: I didn’t do any homework. My mom tried (bless her heart did she try… and try…. and TRY). Nothing worked. I just found it all so boring and pointless.

I wasn’t one of those overachievers that went to Summer School to get ahead

I went because I had to. I fought so hard and made life hell before I got there. What I realized after a week or so was that I was having a great time. I always had my work done. Finished everything first. Was engaged… a star.

What happened?

Was it that the work was a bit easier than “normal” school? I doubt it.
How about knowing that my butt was on the line, and it was this or repeat a grade. Not likely.
Super amazing teacher? Nope (she was good, don’t get me wrong).

The power of focus

Surprise, surprise, I have ADD. Old school, missing the “H”, honest-to-goodness ADD. What made me a star at summer school was that it was ONE class, with one subject for a stretch. I could put the weight of my mind on a single problem at a time and focus till it was done. No distractions from other subjects… No getting overwhelmed by the crush of homework from everything else.

So what?

By now, you dear reader, may be asking, “So what? Why do I care? How does this help ME”. Here’s how:

ADD, ADHD, Aspergers or just plain lazy, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. We’re in the age of GETTING THINGS DONE, with action lists, next items and TO-DOs. If you can isolate one thing at time, and here’s the key, block out everything else. Ignore the rest of it, you’re much more likely to get it done, and feel a whole lot better in the process.

Feedback

Let me know what you think. Leave a comment, or just tell me on twitter… You don’t need a whole new TO-DO here. Just “@kastner You’re so wrong it hurts”, or “@kastner I was stuck in the bathroom at summer school… the entire time. (my zipper got stuck)”