Personal Growth

The Disconnectivity of Remote Working

 Photo by  trail  on  Unsplash

Photo by trail on Unsplash

Throughout the 30+ years of running my own business, I have explored all aspects of teamwork.  From having my own in house team, to having a totally remote team, to a combined mix of the two.

Which do I prefer? Now THAT is an interesting question.

I would consider myself an introvert, and I do prefer working by myself in my own home office a lot of the time.  However, some of my best working memories have been when I have been in an office situation and working alongside others.

There is something about the human connection of being in the same space as others.  A myriad of non verbal cues and communication that goes on, most at a sub conscious level, which lends itself to a better sense of being part of a community which is pulling in the same direction.

Case in point - my current startup is a fully remote setup.  For the past two years, it was really only myself and another co-founder, who worked in a small town literally on the other side of the world.

Now, my co-founder and I had a great working relationship, and we produced a ton of stuff together.  All communication was mainly via Slack and email, and we used to talk on a daily basis PLUS have a weekly web video catch up.

My co-founder left the startup about 2 months ago.  The first week was really challenging, as I directly missed talking to someone while working away on new ideas.

But by the end of the first month, I started to get used to working by myself again.  After all, I had run the startup by myself for about a year before my co-founder joined me.  So it felt basically the same as it did before.

By the end of the second month, I was actually struggling to recall even working with my former co-founder.  This concerned me, as I always considered myself a sensitive person who liked to reminisce about happy memories.  So why was it suddenly so difficult for me to recall any of those good times we had had?  My co-founder's departure was amicable, so this wasn't as a result of any ill feelings.  Rather it just seemed that those experiences and memories were just floating out of reach, and without anything to anchor them too, they just seemed to waft away whenever I tried to recall them.

Even when I would go back through a Slack conversation to find an old screenshot or idea, I would re-read some of our conversations - but I struggled to actually remember the emotions or personality behind those chats.  Re-reading them seemed somehow cold and impersonal and I couldn't tell if I was tired, or angry, excited or happy while typing those paragraphs.

As a direct contrast to that, I can still clearly recall events that happened in my office over 20 years ago when I worked only feet away from the rest of my team.

Tiny things like a shared look, collapsing on the floor laughing at an 'in house' joke, or the casual punch on the shoulder as someone congratulated you while walking past your desk - all those things just added so much to my working experience that I, even as a self confessed 'lone wolf', missed them terribly.

There is something about being around people who are experiencing the highs and lows of their lives (even outside of work) that is strangely enriching and bonding.

To extend this even further - I was looking through my Facebook feed just this week, and I realised that I have become close friends with a vast majority of people that I have worked with face to face over the decades.  Remote workers much less so.  For some reason when a former remote staff member posts about their family or holiday or other life event, I find myself a lot less engaged with their thoughts and feelings.  There is still an element of them being an unknown 'stranger' so that any such intimate details of their lives instills a sense of guilt that I tend to deliberately avoid seeming too familiar or presumptuous when reading their posts.

While my recently departed co-founder and I had discussed an actual company meetup where we (and potential future staff) could meet face to face, it never happened during our working time together.  And now that my co-founder has moved on, I have accepted that we will probably never, ever meet in real life.

I am in the process of building up a whole new remote team now though, and am looking at strategies to try and counter this feeling of disconnection with those that I will figuratively work alongside for the coming years.

Regular company face to face meetups are definitely on the cards.  But I am also thinking that we might need to put something else in place outside of those times.

But what could take the virtual place of those little moments like tossing a paper plane across the office to see whose desk it would land on, or the understanding look that I would share with a colleague across from me after hanging up from a talking to a difficult client, or the good natured group ribbing that would happen when a co-worker brought a delicious smelling lunch into the office?  I have yet to see a web or mobile app that can replicate this sort of interaction.

Perhaps I have to go and invent it?
 

Getting heard on the internet

 Picture courtesy of National Geographic

Picture courtesy of National Geographic

Someone once told me that the ideal size for a human community is something in the order of 500 people.  Apparently that was the average size of a village or community back in the day, and it meant that every person pretty much knew everyone else.  Neighbours would know each other and look out for one another when they were sick or in need.  Anyone who tried to misbehave or act out was generally known, and quickly brought back into line by the collective, because everyone had a stake in the wellbeing and survival of the community.

Yesterday I was introduced to a new 'game' online at paperplanes.world (Tip: Visit it on your mobile browser).  It is a beautifully designed, simple site which lets you make paper planes, stamp them with your location and 'launch' them out into the internet.  You can also 'catch' planes that others have launched, look at where they have been by the stamps on it, then stamp it with your own location and relaunch it back into the virtual skies again.

It is fascinating to see where some planes have been in their travels, and also exciting to see where you planes will end up.

A deceptively simple game, but it was all the more engrossing to me, as it took me back to my childhood loves of building, discovering and connecting with others.

When I first signed on to the game yesterday, there were around 100,000 planes flying around this virtual world.  I launched a few, and caught many.  Most of the ones I caught were filled with stamps, showing the number of people who had caught it in the past.

But today when I went back online, there were around 400,000 planes flying around.  Quadruple what it was yesterday.  I caught a few planes, but noted that nearly all of them had only one stamp - from the originator who built and launched the plane in the first place.

Somewhere along the line, the balance tipped.  When I started, I felt an instant connectedness to the others playing the game, because the planes I launched had a good chance of being caught, and the planes that I caught had been stamped by so many others.

But now, any planes I launched into the ether would likely just buzz endlessly around the world, lonely and ignored in the huge stream of lost and lonely paper planes.  That connectedness that I once experienced is now severely diluted in the increasing noise.

I can only imagine that the players who started in this game when there were only a few hundred planes flying around would have a different argument - that they were catching the same planes over and over again, and had little chance of seeing a plane from the other side of the world.

I feel exactly the same when it comes to social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram or Medium.

The early days of the platform means that what you say is easily visible to other early adopters, and the feedback and conversations you have will be meaningful and rich.  But over time, the increasing crowds initially is exciting, as you perceive your audience and reach growing, but there comes a time when your uniqueness and individuality (and sense of self importance) within that ecosystem is simply diluted away to something generic.

That is why, in my latest startup SaaS app, I am not going for large numbers of users, but rather a quality community.  We recently removed our free plans to further accomplish this goal.  I am proud when asked, to say that my users number in the hundreds, instead of six or seven figure mark.  At this stage I still know virtually all my users by name, and support tickets can still stay personalised and friendly.  My users are not statistics on a spreadsheet.  They are part of my village.

As for the paper planes game, I have changed my thinking there too.  I no longer make and launch planes into the already crowded skies.  Nowadays I am happy to simply capture other people planes, stamp them and send them on.  I now relish catching planes with only a single stamp on them, because I feel that when I stamp them and send them on, in effect I am saying "This lonely plane matters, and I hope it has a great journey".  Somewhere in the world, someone will check their stats on their launched planes, and I hope it gives them a brief spark of connection with a guy in remote Australia.

20 years of Blaze...

The 1st of September marks a major milestone in my life.  It will mean that I have been running my company, Blaze Business Software Pty Ltd for 20 years now.  Two decades.  It seems almost unbelievable to me at times.

Back in September 1996, I had only been married for a month, I was about to turn 30, and I decided to start a software consultancy business out of my bedroom.  Thus began the rollercoaster, including getting an office in the Cullen Bay area of Darwin, growing the team to at one stage around 16 people, and then now coming full circle to just my wife and I working from a home office again in a 'lifestyle' business.

So many changes in the IT industry at that time.  When I started Blaze, the internet was just hitting mainstream here in Australia, and everything was still dial up.  We were one of the first offices to get an ISDN line into our office, and I clearly remember setting up a small Windows 98 server in the back which was running some sort of DOS mail daemon so that we could have individual email addresses for every employee.  Something that was so rare back then.

We were also one of the first companies locally to upgrade to Microsoft Exchange and implement ActiveSync.  I clearly remember proudly showing off how I could read and reply to emails on my Palm Pilot in real time to all my clients.  Nowadays that is just an expected thing, but back then I was pleased that we were pushing the envelope and being cutting edge.

Lots of nice memories, such as being the finalist in the Telstra Small Business Awards up here in 1998 I think.  Lots of other small awards and achievements.  But there were also some really tough times, and many days where I didn't know whether I wanted to close the doors forever and go raise sheep in the Italian mountains.

But through all that, I still wake up every day and look forward to doing the work I do.  I am always grateful to have met so many wonderful people through my business.  From clients (many of whom I still work with 20+ years later), to employees who have become close friends, to colleagues and competitors and everyone who has walked through the doors or called in the past 2 decades.  Thank You.

Proving that it is never too late to be a 'startup', this year I have embarked on a whole new reboot of the business, as we become a SaaS company providing subscription based business software.  Given that I will be turning 50 this year, I don't know if I will have the energy to keep on with the consulting and support role for many more years, and I am looking forward to setting up a passive income source from a modern, web based subscription platform.

Just another step in our long and interesting journey.  Hope to see you all along the way...

When your hard work becomes invisible

In my latest project, I have been working very hard on getting the UX right.  I want the interface of my web app to NOT fight the user every step of the way, and to make some semi-intelligent guesses as to what they want to do.  Wherever part of the interface looks clickable, I want the user to be able to click on it and get the result they expected.

That sort of precognition takes hard work - LOTS of hard work.  Just today I spent pretty much ALL day on one small piece of functionality, that at the end of the day, my users will probably never really notice.

Come to think of it, *I* pretty much don't notice it now that it is finished, but I know it is there, and it is making my movements through my web app a lot smoother and logical.  

Just this evening I was thinking about it, and I was a little sad that all my work was essentially invisible to the end user - after all, they only usually notice things when they DON'T work.

But I was reassured by something a wise man once told me - "Character is what you do when no one is watching".  I like to think that my app has good character.

Why do most people give up after one try? I blame Wile E. Coyote!

Most people of my generation grew up with Saturday morning cartoons on TV.  One of my favourites was always watching Wile E. Coyote endlessly chasing the Road Runner.

I don't know about you, but I was always rooting for the coyote, and straw polls among my peers seemed to show a similar sentiment.  We all craved for the day that Wile E would triumph and be rewarded with a road runner roast.  (Rumour has it that there was ONE secret episode in which he actually won, but furious Googling and Youtubing has yet to reveal this treasure.)

But even as a young impressionable kid, I was always vexed by two questions.

1. How did Wile E afford all that gear and equipment from Acme Inc. ??  He must have either had a large stash of money somewhere, or else a great line of credit with the company.

1b. And if he DID indeed have access to lots of cash, why didn't he just BUY himself a Kentucky Fried Roadrunner family dinner instead of trying to hunt one himself?  Perhaps he was just in it for the thrill of the chase?

2. Why did Wile E always give up after the first try?  I mean, he would invest a LOT of money and time in setting up the most elaborate traps, but as soon as one tiny thing made it all go wrong, he would give up and move onto the next idea, instead of retrying or improving his first idea.

 

I think it is this second factor that has become imbued in a lot of people in my generation.  I keep meeting peer entrepreneurs who tell me sorry tales of woe where they tried something the once, noticed that it didn't work, then dropped it like a hot potato to move on to the next thing.

Usually when I probe further and ask them if they tried to pivot their idea in some way or revisit it with some changes, I am met with an incredulous stare.  They almost always never considered trying again.

I blame Wile E.

In a lot of ways, Wile E. Coyote is much like a lot of funded startups these days:

  • A LOT of disposable cash, with a high burn rate
  • 'Fail fast' manifesto - pick and, dust off and try something new after every failure
  • Quick iteration from concept to execution, with bare minimum planning beforehand, or else planning as they go along
  • Single track focus on ONE end result, but with many paths to get there

Arguably some good traits in there, but there is always room for improvement.  I always wondered what would have happened if Wile E had grown intellectually and emotionally and perhaps explored the possibilities of:

  • Using guile to befriend and win the trust of the Roadrunner before capturing him
  • Had 'guaranteed performance' contracts drawn up with Acme Inc. that would have insured him against failure and allowed him to replace failed equipment at no extra cost
  • Used his money and influence to organise other coyotes in the area to work together to capture roadrunners

Perhaps the generation of entrepreneurs that grew up with those messages may be going things slightly differently nowadays?  

Well, at least MY Saturday mornings may have been a LOT more enjoyable had he done so.

I'm on a bus!

Today, I caught a public bus for the first time since I was in school - well over 30 years ago!  But I had to drop my car off for a service early this morning, and decided to walk into the city and catch a bus back home.  Purely on a whim.

I decided to look at the differences then and now, with the whole experience.

When I was younger, I don't think I EVER looked at a bus timetable.  I would just turn up at a bus stop, and unless it was a Sunday (the buses in my town don't run on Sundays), I would just wait until one turned up and hop on it.  I guess my concept of time was pretty elastic and I would not consider a 40 minute wait to be 'terrible' as compared to a 5 minute wait.  I would simply wait.

Nowadays, I realise that my concept of 'time' is sliced into distinct categories.  I looked at the bus timetable this morning and realised I would have a 20 minute wait for the next one.  That seem like an interminably long time to me, and I found myself making plans in my head about how I would optimise that wait time.  I could walk down the road and pop into a shop to get a drink...  then perhaps sit on a bench in the park across the road and write a little in my Field Notes book until it was departure time...  The plans were coming thick and fast.

I decided that No - I would simply sit and wait.  And do nothing.  I would steel myself against getting my iPhone out and whiling away the time.  I would just sit with no distractions.  (Actually, I ended up unintentionally eavesdropping on the loud conversation the lady sitting next to me was having on HER iPhone!).

While waiting and glancing at the information panels around the bus stop, I saw a notice advertising the bus services new app.  You could track where all the buses were, and see in real time where the bus you were waiting for was with it.  How cool.  So much information at your fingertips these days.  I was tempted to make a dive for my phone and download the app, but I successfully restrained myself.

Finally, my bus arrived.  I got on an enquired about the fare.  It was $3.  Exactly 10 times the fare I paid on my last bus trip 30 years ago as a kid, which was 30 cents.  I smiled inwardly at these salient coincidental facts.

Once seated, I noticed that the buses these days were far more comfortable that those of yore, and actually had working air conditioning that transformed the whole vehicle into an icebox.  Very nice in our usual warm weather.

I couldn't contain myself any longer, and reached for my phone.  This was where I was pleasantly surprised again to note that the buses now have free WiFi access on board.  Nice.  Just what the current 'always connected' generation would expect, and need.

I glanced around the bus as we travelled, and noticed that virtually all the passengers were older people, and that NONE of the other passengers seemed to be taking advantage of free WiFi or using their phones.  They were actually kicking back and looking out the windows. 

I decided to put away my phone and do the same.

Eventually, I reached my stop near home, and hopped off.  I walked the final few hundred metres to my house enjoying the mid morning warmth of the sun, and listening to Greek workmen in a building lot swearing at each other in 3 languages, and reflected at how great life was, in my very brief step back in time to a no technologically obsessed world.

 

Why I gave up on online forums

 "Guitar Troll" by Steve Bolduc

"Guitar Troll" by Steve Bolduc

Earlier this year, I decided to make the difficult decision to turn my back on online guitar and music communities.  I had been participating in various forums for many years, indeed even racking up nearly 10,000 posts at one of them.

I used to enjoy the camaraderie and sharing of knowledge that went with those forums in the early days, but over time things devolved and changed.

I am sure we have all seen it, on various internet communities.  The trolls start to emerge.  Discussions turn into sniping and personal insults.  Everyone seems to become outraged at the tiniest misinterpretation of something.  People judge without knowing.

It all started to get too much.  I initially pushed back at the negativity, and attempted to either defend or explain my point of view - but alas, the waves of constant hostility just began to wear me down.

"Relax" others would tell me.  "It is just the internet.  People do things there that they would never do in real life or to your face.  Just grow a thicker skin and stop being so sensitive."

Well, I was raised to believe that character is defined by what you do when nobody is looking.  I sincerely believe that someone who acts in a hostile or mean fashion behind the anonymity of a screen name has character flaws that I would not find attractive in real life either.

As for the second part about growing a thicker skin, well... as a musician, I believe that my sensitivity is actually an asset towards me creativity.  If I was to lose or suppress that, then I would lose a part of myself that makes music a joy to my soul.

So I have decided to take a sabbatical from online forums for a long while.  Who know, as with most communities, their nature is to evolve and change over time, and perhaps one day, they will organically weed out the energy sucking trolls and begin to celebrate those members that share knowledge and try to advance humankind again.

Then, I will rejoin the fray with gusto.

 

The key to good customer service - consistency

To continue my conversations on customer service on this blog, I'd like to distill the essence of what I consider good customer service down to one key element.  Consistency.

Humans thrive on the comfort of the 'known'.  As a species, we don't generally like surprises.  It moves us out of our comfort zone and clashes with our sense of peace and calm.

Any organisation that provides a service should have consistency as a high priority, and I don't mean the sterile, production line like consistency of, say, a franchise like McDonalds, that does everything according to a procedure manual.

I mean the consistency of providing that extra touch that delights the soul.

I will give you an example.  Given the fact that I work from home, I often crave the chance to get out to appreciate different scenery.  There is a cafe that opened up near me recently that I enjoy going to.  The coffee and food is great, and my 'usual' is a mocha coffee.  It is what I ALWAYS order when I go there, which is over 30 times now.

I recognise most of the staff, and some of them know me now.  A couple of them even are good enough to say 'Mocha coffee sir?' as soon as I walk in.  That makes me feel special, and appreciated.

There is however one staff member, who has been there since I first started going there, and who has taken my order over a dozen times, who ALWAYS asks me what I would like while giving me a blank stare.

That's all right, I will put that down to personality traits and perhaps some training, but there is another factor that has been irking me of late.

The first dozen or so times I ordered a Mocha coffee, it came to me with a single Tiny Teddy biscuit beside the cup.  A lovely touch I thought.  Then I began receiving the odd cup without the TinyTeddy.  That was a little disconcerting.  Consistency was failing.

What compounded it however, was the response of the staff.  I began to jokingly ask where was my missing biscuit when my coffee arrived without one.  On one occassion, the waiter was profusely apologetic and fetched me TWO biscuits as compensation.  On another couple of occassions, the waitresses just laughed it off and said something along the lines of "Oh Really?", without attempting to make amends or offer an apology.

That's the missing consistency.  I had an expectation that I would get a biscuit with my coffee, as well as the expectation that the staff would make it right when I pointed out to them that there was an inconsistency.

I know that most of you are thinking "First world problems", and it certainly is.  But this episode is building up a wedge of ill feeling between myself and this establishment.

On the other end of the scale is Sharon, my massage therapist.  I have been going to see her on a monthly basis for over ten years now.  The main reason is because she gives a great massage that makes me forget about the stresses and trials of my life, but the biggest factor is that in the whole decade that she has been treating me, her service delivery has been unfailingly consistent.

Sure she does introduce minor variations here and there, but the key elements of her treatment that I especially enjoy are always there.  Simple things like at the end of the massage when she bathes my feet with warm water to wash the oil off - I always look forward to that bit, and she never fails to finish my treatment with that thrill.  Ever.

I know that in my own business, I struggle to deliver consistent service to my clients, but I am willing to make the effort to try and discover:

(a) exactly WHAT elements of my service that clients think are special, and

(b) trying to ensure that I always deliver on those elements identified in (a) above.

Together, lets brings back great service to small business.

 

What challenge for 2015?

Well, I cannot believe that it has been two years since I restarted this blog.  I know I was a little slack in updating it last year, but that is one of the things that I plan to fix this year.  Publish more!

So rather than do the usual 'resolutions' for the new year, I am going to set myself some challenges, and make them public so that there is some accountability out there.  Here goes:

Challenge 1: Read more books - real paper books.  Dig into some classic literature, as well as revisit some of my old fantasy genre collections and enjoy holding real paper in my hands and visiting other worlds in my head.

Challenge 2: Set up multiple passive income streams via the various app stores.  Get enough apps out there and selling at a steady rate so that I can have an income stream to meet the basic bills.

Challenge 3: As part of (2) above, I am going to try and write and release at least one app per month in 2015.  My objective is to release several into the wild and see if any take off.

Challenge 4: Write an eBook.  About my experience as a 'lone wolf' programmer.  I have been through the ups and downs for three decades now, so hopefully my experiences will be of use as a learning tool for another up and coming 'lone wolf'.  This is also a part of (2) above.

Challenge 5: Reconnect with friends again.  In the past couple of years, I feel like I have drifted apart from many close friends.  I need to step up and take an active role in re-engaging with old friends and enjoying their friendships again.

Game on.

Cyclone Tracy - 40 years on

I have been thoroughly enjoying reading the stories on Facebook from my friends who lived through the destructive forces of Cyclone Tracy, 40 years ago.  My contribution isn't as poignant or direct as some of theirs, but it has a (kind of) twist ending.

During that time, I was about 8 years old, and we lived in a small town called Taiping, in my birth country of Malaysia.  At that stage as a kid, I had never travelled outside of the country.

The day after Christmas in 1974, my family was over at a neighbours house having drinks to celebrate the festivities.  The grown ups however, were distracted and talking about this devastating storm called a 'cyclone' that had destroyed an entire town called Darwin in Northern Australia.  As an impressionable kid, I was quite shaken by the serious, grave tones of the adults, and I left the party early to run back home to our own house.

We had a huge map of the world taped to the wall outside the bedroom my sisters and I shared, and I went and found a map pin and scoured the whole map for this place called "Darwin".  When I found it, I stuck the pin into the map over it, and vowed that I would NEVER, EVER go to that place in the world as long as I lived.

Well, just 4 years later, we were packing all our worldly belongings (and getting rid of most of it) to emigrate to Australia...to... a place called Darwin.  A place which I have happily called my home for three quarters of my life.