fighting the lack of good ideas

an experiment

Even though I am outraged at the unjustified spike in fuel prices yesterday and today, I had to buy gas.

All of the gas stations near me (around the 54/55 junction) are out of regular. Several were totally out of fuel.

One, Crown, was not out of fuel, but they were out of regular. They’re also the cheapest near me at the moment.

So, since I needed gas anyways, I bought mid-grade. I haven’t bought anything but regular in years because I’ve done well enough mileage-wise on regular. That, and the last time I bought mid-grade, it was a 10% premium in price over regular.

In the intervening years, though, with the rise in gas prices, the percentage difference between regular and mid-grade has been reduced to about 3% – even though the absolute price difference hasn’t changed: it’s still about 10-12 cents.

If there is a 10% difference, my mileage would need to be 10% (or more) higher for it to be worthwhile to buy the more expensive gas. Generally I saw only a 1-2 mpg improvement, which on a 30+ mpg car was not worth the increased cost.

However, if I see a 2 mpg improvement on my Escape, that’s about 10%. With only a 3% price difference, that’s a worthwhile investment.

I’m going to use only mid-grade on my trip up to NY and my driving around Albany the next few days.

Then, on the way back, I’m going to use only premium (an additional 2-3% price premium over mid-grade) to see if I see another mileage improvement… unless using mid-grade provides no discernible difference, in which case I’ll go back to regular.

comment to rush

I emailed the Rush Limbaugh show Friday, and proffered the following:

What if John McCain picked Sarah Palin because he’s planning to retire before his term is up, and this is a masterful plan to pull the biggest political coup d’etat, a la femme?

If McCain/Palin get elected and McCain retires/resigns, Republicans will have the first female president: a major blow to the Democrats who want someone like Hillary elected.

digital radio recording

Figures, what I thought was a new idea isn’t.

I love my DVR, but would likewise love a Digital Radio Recorder so I could pause and rewind ‘live’ radio.

With a bit of Googling, I found the Shark (see here).

The only improvement I could see would be to get something like this into a car so you could record one station while you listen to a CD, or are in a restaurant for lunch.

what’s your business strategy?

There only seem to be about two strategies that work: you can try for growth (like most companies seem to do), or you can try for the niche that will consistently pay for your product. I don’t know if there are other models out there that work, but these two do.

The growth, aka ‘monopoly’, model is what most companies pick because they think it’s easy: just keep selling products to more and more people. The issue with this growth model is that eventually you reach [almost] everyone, and then you can only continue to grow by acquisition. Another problem I can see with it is that if you are trying to reach *everyone*, you will make many of them very unhappy.

The niche model, which far fewer mid-large companies seem to aim for, only goes after a small segment of the population. But they go aggressively for that small segment. Niche providers might ‘accidentally’ reach a large population segment (eg Apple with their iPod), but they thrive because they have customers who will only come to them (perhaps a good neighborhood salon or barber shop), and those customers are fiercely loyal – as long as the business doesn’t screw them over.

When’s the last time you heard of “loyal” Wal*Mart customers? Wal*Mart doesn’t really care if somebody leaves them and goes to KMart. I suppose they might exist, but it seems unlikely.

Compare that, though, to regulars at a local restaurant: where the waitstaff recognizes them, and goes a little (or a lot) out of their way to make their visit better than some new person who happens to stroll in.

Personally, I prefer the niche approach. It’s the Unix theory: do one thing, do it well.

If that one thing turns out to appeal to a lot of people, that’s great.

I’d prefer a strong, consistent, even if small, customer base to a huge one that constantly bitches, changes their mind, and doesn’t care about me.

queuing the next generation

Like many people, I work for an under-staffed segment of a remarkably under-staffed company.

Before transitioning to professional services, I worked for support, and they are even more under-staffed.

I see a simple solution to this problem, but the company is too short-sighted to implement anything like this, sadly.

Problem: We need new people. Desperately. Especially in support, though we will need more in professional services, too.

[My] Solution: Establish an on-going co-op/intern program to bring new ideas, young people, and energetic minds to bear on the issue of handling customer service.

How can this be done? I think it’s a combination of trust and energy on the part of the management of the company: they need to be willing to trust people without “experience” to learn how to do the job, and that means they need to expend energy on aggressive recruiting of new talent.

I think the best way to start this is to go to local colleges and trade schools (including tech and community colleges) and look for people who actually want to work. There are certainly a lot of students who don’t want to work. And there are certainly a lot of students who won’t want to do what you need them to.

But I will maintain that there is a notable subset of students (even if they are not in “related” majors) who are both willing and able to handle the high-stress, interrupt-driven environment of technical support. And those are the folks you (we) need to find and recruit to handle your (our) technical support backlog.

One way to do this would be to hire them on as full-time, but hourly workers, and pay for up to 9 or 10 credits per semester at the school they are attending. This will give them an incentive to continue their education (after all, their employer is paying for it), and to want to stick around with the company when they’re done with school. Pay them, say, $20k per year, but cap their weekly hours at 40. Make sure they go home when the day is done so they don’t burn out. With the company paying for their school, it might take an extra year for them to graduate, but when they do, they’ll have both experience, and – probably – a desire to continue working for the company that helped them through.

The big selling point on this, though, needs to be that you only recruit outstanding sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Too many freshmen don’t know what they want to do, nor do they tend to have the drive – yet – to get to where they want to be. The other component needs to be to at least annually, if not semi-annually, issue 5-10% raises for those folks who are performing well – as a further incentive for them to want to continue.

The big advantage for the company is that when those students graduate, they’re very well trained of the company’s product(s) and procedures. This makes bringing them onboard as “real” technical support personnel much easier as their need not be a long orientation and familiarization period.

Unfortunately for where I work, though, the company is too focused on this quarter to worry about how they can improve the next decade.

preparing for change (part the second)

As with knowledge capture, so must any successful organization pursue training.

Training need not be formal. It can be self-paced, on-the-job, as-you-go, or formal. I know that I have learned the most about the product I support not from formal training, but from actually supporting it.

Part of that is because we have had a tribal knowledge base, that needs to be captured. But part of it is because what we do varies from customer to customer, based on their environment.

Training must also be focused to the folks who will be undergoing it. Some people learn by doing, others by reading, others by hearing. An effective training program in bringing new people up to speed must, then, combine all of those methods. But training cannot last too long as individual sessions. It would be better to have 1-2 hours of training per day, a couple days a week for 3 months than to have it all in one week, 8 hours a day.

if i ran the zoo…

…or, more accurately, the apartment complex. I was talking to a couple friends this past weekend, and told them I’d like to offer a per-minute lease on an apartment. It turns out that $0.02 per minute is $864/30-day month. For another penny a minute I’d include all utilities.

Ok, so it’s a little off the wall, but why not?

Also, why don’t apartment complexes let you pay your lease with a PayPal subscription? It would certainly make my life easier if I could just sign-up with my PayPal account, and have the rent automatically show up on the right day.