Paul Carney

Working hard to make things simple

If Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder…What Does Time Do?

Time: That space between my last blog post and this one. How long it has been!

We hear that time heals and time flies, but I am not sure it does either. Time just moves forward. It doesn’t yield for anyone or any event.  Every moment that goes by is gone – forever.

So, do what you can, when you can. Give someone a call. Praise someone who did a kind deed. Carve out some time in your day to do one thing that you love to do, even if it is as minimal as reading the comics in the morning newspaper. Whatever it is, set aside the time to do it.

Once you get the hang of it, you can allocate some time to help others, since that creates such a great sense of self-worth. Before you know it, you will be using time the way you want and not the other way around.

I will take my own advice and carve out more time to write in my blog. I use Evernote to keep track of my ideas and there are many. I simply have to use some of my time to do it. And that I will do!

What if You Could Only Move Forward?

If you could only move forward, where would you end up? The endpoints are limitless – bound only by your velocity and direction.

But what if you found yourself going in circles? Do you think you can really accomplish something? The answer is, “Yes”.

Think about a hockey game. Between the periods, you get to watch an amazing machine, usually a Zamboni, come out and turn the rough surface into a gleaming sheet of almost perfectly-smooth ice. Did you ever notice that the machine never backs up? The experienced driver knows how to clear the entire surface by simply moving forward in concentric loops around the oval rink.

Think about that the next time you find yourself moving in a direction, but not feeling like you are getting anywhere. Or perhaps your movement brings you back to a spot where you have been before. As long as you don’t trace the exact route you took the first time, there is a way to move forward, going in circles, but still end up going somewhere. As long as your circles continue to expand outward, the universe is your only bounds!

My First Web Business – The Final Chapter (Part 5 of 5)

If you have been following along (Part 1: The Idea, Part 2: The Goods, Part 3: Business Basics and Part 4: Getting Customers) then you will know that we are at a turning point. The business has grown so much that we have to decide what to do.

In the previous section, I stated that we had been “mystery shopped” by the “Catalog Critic” from the Wall Street Journal. The critic called me the day before it was to be released to let me know that we were earning a “Best Value” in the class and that the only reason we did not get “Best Overall” was that we did not include a “Teddy Bear” in the basket! Imagine that. We had included a “Pamper Mom” package in our baskets, but did not see a “Teddy Bear” as a “necessity”. It still was a great feat for or small company to get such great exposure.

When the write-up hit the streets, the orders jumped. I was still working a full-time job managing the professionals of a regional branch of a national consulting firm. As I would head home each night, one part of me would hope that there would be a ton of orders waiting, while the other (logical) part of me would realize that every dozen orders meant more hours of work ahead of me to build, package and prepare for shipping the next day. On most days, the “I-hope-there-are-lots-of-orders” part of me was completely satisfied!

It was at this point that I had to make a decision: do I quit my full-time job and continue to grow the business or do I try to find a way to capitalize on what I had built? Remember, I had created the business as a reason to build a web-based business in order to learn and prove that I could do it. Now that I had created a profitable business, the question remained if I really wanted to continue to build this business or not.

After reviewing my skills, talents and what I wanted to work on for the rest of my working career, I decided that I needed to sell the product line to someone who was already in the gift basket retailing business. I was ready to continue riding the “dot-com” boom and wanted to get involved with more dot-com start-ups instead of building this business bigger. So, I searched the industry to find an organization who retailed gifts, including gift baskets, but did not have a unique offering for baby gift baskets.

I talked with a few organizations and within 4 months found my answer. It was a national gift basket retailer who not only wanted to add the basket line to their offerings, but needed a lot of help with their web site! Given my experiences so far, they made me an offer to acquire the gift basket line that I had developed and to have me build them a new web site. In July, 1999, I negotiated cash at signing with royalty payments from the Baby Necessities gift baskets for the next 4 years.

And that was how Ishtot was born. I had started a successful business and sold its first product line. While that may be the end of that story, it is not the last product line that I sold. You see, my young daughter at the time had been getting a lot of spam in her email inbox and I could not control it well. I developed a plan to solve the problem: a closed-loop email communication system called Capango that would allow you to control who you communicated with via the web. I am still truly amazed when I re-read the archived FAQ as to how little the email spam situation has changed since 2004!

I built the product in 2002-2004 and then sold it to South49 Solutions so that it could become the foundation for the Natural Insight workforce management platform. I will tell you more about that story, including some fascinating details of taking venture capital, working with boards of directors and how one person can have a profound impact on the success or failure of a company, regardless of the quality of the team or product you have.

My First Web Business – Getting Customers (Part 4 of 5)

We are now up to Part 4 in this series (Part 1: The Idea, Part 2: The Goods and Part 3: Business Basics)  and it is now that we are focused on attracting the customers. As I have covered, even though the footwork to get a business up and running seems like you have gotten more than half way to your goal, you are not even close. This stage is the most important one.

I will mention that we have been thinking a lot about the customers – who they are, what they want and what they will pay – but you cannot invite them in to use your service until all of the pieces are in place. That is where we are now.

I broke down the potential market into 3 segments in order to develop the plan to attract the right customers:

  1. Moms
  2. Retail
  3. Businesses (HR departments)

For each of these segments, I devised a plan. The “Moms” group was the one that I was going to spend the least amount of effort on (about 10%) as there is no easy way to connect with them (this was pre-social media days). But I felt that they still offered an avenue for business. My main approach with them was to place my glossy brochures in places that I knew they would frequent. In what could be called a minimal “guerrilla marketing” effort, I would stick a brochure into every magazine at any office I visited, like doctor, dentist, auto repair, etc. That way, the next time a person was reading the magazine, the brochure would drop into their lap.

“Retail” was the focus of the next largest effort, at around 20%. I worked with some local vendors, like a second-hand clothing store, a health center and a pre-Kindergarten learning center, to display one of my baskets with a stack of brochures. Each brochure had a code on it so that I could track any orders from there and I offered to give the retailer a 20% commission for any sales. I found that having the actual basket on display (not for sale) made a big difference in getting a sale.

Finally, as you have figured out, I spent the majority of my efforts (70%+) on the “Business” segment. My research and experience in the Washington, DC, area was that there were a lot of companies who had young staff who were beginning their family lives. By working for a few of these businesses, I saw that the Human Resources (HR) department would routinely send flowers or candy or a cute Teddy Bear to the family upon the birth of a baby. This happened even for companies where the Dad worked.

So I decided to target the business HR departments with an idea of being unique and different with their gift. If they were going to send something nice, why not send something special that the family will continue to use for years. It is a gift that parents will not soon forget. My pitch worked, as the vast majority of my revenues were from businesses. I developed a relationship with some very large companies, some of whom were ordering 2-5 baskets a week!

One segment of those businesses were the financial companies on Wall Street. Word had spread and before I knew it, almost every major firm was sending our baskets. The best part was that they always ordered the most expensive basket and paid for the extra “rush” processing – no questions asked. That boost to our profit margins helped fuel the growth of the business.

I also knew that once a family of childbearing years received one of our baskets, that they were likely to order a basket for their friends or relatives who were also most likely having babies. This worked extremely well. We received many notes on our orders that indicated that they had received a basket and wanted to send this unique and appreciated gift, too.

Business was booming! I was so excited. Then it happened: we were “mystery shopped” by the “Catalog Critic” of no other than the Wall Street Journal!

The review published in the Wall Street Journal changed the course of the Baby Necessities gift basket business. In my next (and final post) of this series, I will explain what happened and how I responded.

My First Web Business – Business Basics (Part 3 of 5)

This is the third part (Part 1: The Idea and Part 2: The Goods) of a five-part series in which I describe how I started a Web-based business, grew it and then sold it. It was an experience I would never trade and wanted to share it with you as inspiration to try it for yourself.

By this point, I had the idea decided, the Web site built and all of the items I needed to make the product. The next step was setting up the business.

I knew that I needed to have my own Web domain and the capability to send and receive email addresses from that domain. I had seen multiple small businesses that had set up a Web site under their unique domain, but still used a yahoo or aol email address for their business email. That may work fine, but it does not portray a business in the way I wanted it to be viewed.

In order to spread the word about my new business, I printed business cards and had a small amount of letterhead and matching envelopes printed. Since I was going to target businesses directly, these would be handy to send letters and the business cards were needed for me to hand out at networking events and local Chamber of Commerce meetings.

From my point of view, a separate phone and fax line was also a necessity, since even back in 1997, those were the preferred ways for customers to get in touch with a business. I even set up a toll-free number that went directly to a 24-hour-a-day answering service who would take the orders for me. My goal was to make it as easy as possible for customers to order the gift baskets, since the arrival of a baby is a big affair and people generally want to get the gift delivered as soon as possible.

I worked with Nick Davis, the president of Sans Serif Communications, to develop a tri-fold, 4-color glossy brochure and rolodex card. Nick was awesome at helping me organize my thoughts into a selling proposition. We included the name and phrase of the company: Ishtot – I Should Have Thought Of That, in order to help generate some recall ability. And his idea to do a rolodex card helped us get repeat business, especially from the multitude of New York City brokerage firms that soon became my largest customers. You can see a PDF of the brochure, business letterhead and rolodex card here: Baby Necessities Marketing

I decided that Ishtot, Inc. would be a sub-chapter S corporation (s-corp), and did all of the paperwork to get that in place. I had to register with the Commonwealth of Virginia and even Fairfax County, the local business authority. Ishtot had its own bank account and credit card, and since I wanted to allow customers to use their credit cards, I worked with a credit card processing company to be able to accept Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Today, you can do most of this online and more quickly than you could in 1997, but in all cases, it takes diligence and a lot of checklists!

You would think that at this point you are more than half-way to getting your business off the ground. But you are mistaken – you are not even close. While everything I outlined above is required to get your business ready, the most important and sink-or-swim factor still remains: how to get paying customers. My next post will cover what I did to get that ball rolling – uphill at first!

My First Web Business – The Goods (Part 2 of 5)

As you read in my first installment, I now had a business idea and it was time to build it. First order of business: What would the Baby Necessities gift baskets have in them?

My wife and I came up with a list of items we thought were necessary to have around when you have a newborn. Most of the items were available through your local pharmacy or grocery store. If I was to make a profit, I needed to buy the goods at closer to wholesale price, but I was a small company with no history and low order volume. How would I get someone to give me a wholesale price?

I canvassed my wife’s network of pharmacists. There was one who had worked with her at a major retail chain, but had left to work for a small, local pharmacy called Leesburg Pharmacy in Leesburg, Virginia. I contacted the owner to see if he would be willing to sell me items at a discount. As the old saying goes, “You don’t know unless you ask.” So I should not have been that surprised when he agreed to allow me to place bulk orders of the items from him at his cost plus 10%.

In keeping with the “necessities” part of the product’s name, we searched for a company that had a wide range of health, safety, feeding, care and sleep-oriented products. The clear choices were The First Years and Johnson’s Baby Care. I attempted to contact both and only The First Years got back to me.

I indicated that I wanted to order about 15 of their products by the case. I even agreed to pre-pay for the order if necessary. They asked a few questions, wanted a bank reference and a few days later, gave me the way to place my order. Sweet! I got to order, get it shipped to me and they billed me. My first order was for over $750 worth of goods and the truck showed up 6 days later with the products. From that point on, my typical order exceeded $1,500, they continued to bill me and I paid the bill on-time. I was fortunate that The First Years gave me such a great opportunity.

Even back in 1998, I was amazed at how many of the other things I could get online: the unique carriage-shaped wicker baskets, the stuffing to put in it, even the ability to buy various cardboard box sizes by the pallet! I now had all of the pieces and parts to build the baskets – all I needed was customers…

In my next post, I will describe how I set up the business from business cards to credit card merchant accounts – and everything in between. As you will see, a lot of work will have gone into the business by that point and there is still not one paying customer.

My First Web Business – The Birth of the Idea (Part 1 of 5)

Back in 1996, I was looking for a reason to build a Web-based business. I had started playing around with building Web sites, but wanted to see if I could launch a successful business using the Web.

I began by building a few interactive Web sites. In 1996, there were not many online e-commerce Web sites, so I had to go looking for ways to build one. I found the gem: Matt’s Script Archives.  This is a site, which still exists today, managed by Matt Wright that had a load of Perl CGI scripts which I could use to build my interactive Web site, including a shopping cart. I know – a shopping cart is very basic today, but it was not back in 1996!

So I found a Web hosting company, built some Perl scripts and had an interactive Web site. But what should I sell? My wife was the one who sparked the idea of a niche baby gift basket.

My sister was having twin boys very soon and she seemed to have everything (times 2) already. My wife and I already had our first child, so we knew about some of the things that you need but don’t have when a baby is around. In addition, my wife is a pharmacist and would field many questions from new Moms about baby-related issues and items.

So as a gift, my wife went around the pharmacy and gathered items that she knew, from experience, that my sister would most likely need. These items included things like:

  1. a nasal syringe – remember: babies can’t blow their noses when they get a cold
  2. Infans’ Tylenol – to reduce a fever, which inevitably occurs at 11:00 pm when the local pharmacy is not open
  3. baby nail clippers – they are so tiny but I could still use them with my big hands
  4. gel teether – a lifesaver for a teething baby!
And the list went on. My wife was so proud of this gift that she put a few more together when friends of ours were having their first babies.
What a hit! We got calls from people telling us that their baby awoke in the middle of the night with a fever. They called the doctor and the doctor said to give them some Infants’ Tylenol to reduce the fever. The nearest 24-hour pharmacy was more than an hour away, but luckily for them, their gift basket from us had it!
We heard stories like this over and over and that is when I decided to give birth (just couldn’t resist the pun…) to the “Baby Necessities Gift Basket”.
In my next post, I will tell the story of how I decided on the contents and sourced the suppliers. To this day, I am still amazed at how I got one of the top baby products companies in the country to ship me products via tractor trailers – and extend me a credit line to do it! Stay tuned to learn what I did.

Do You Remember Your First Date with the Web?

Do you remember the first time you saw the World Wide Web? What did you see and how did you react? Did you understand how much your life would change that day? I sure didn’t!

My first date with “the Web” was in 1993 when I first saw a “green glob” moving across the computer screen on the National Weather Service’s Web site. I was in the office of one of Datatel‘s senior engineers who had downloaded the latest update for the NCSA Mosaic browser. We were watching the herky-jerky motion of the glob moving across the screen with the Virginia/Maryland border drawn as a line so that we could see where the clouds were in relation to where we were located.

Do you remember those globs? We used to see them moving on the TV screen during the local weather forecast, indicating clouds or rain. But here it was on a computer! How cool was that?

I knew I had to connect. So, I got a 1,200 baud modem and a Prodigy account. Prodigy’s service was quite limited and every screen would completely refresh, which was sooooo slow. Then came AOL and it’s awesome (for the time) service. The biggest advantage: AOL’s software downloaded to your computer, so it looked like your other software and did not have to refresh the entire screen each time you requested information from the Internet!

And as we all know, it is history from there. Imagine describing to someone back in 1995 that within 10 years things like eBay, Amazon, Craigslist and Google would exist. Then imagine that only 5 years later, services like Facebook and Twitter would dominate, allowing you to get it all on a mobile “phone!” I know that I will get at least 2-3 more “WOW” moments in my lifetime when technology makes me remember my first date with it. How many dates do you think you will have?

The 3 C’s to Get What You Want

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – where have I heard that before? Oh yeah, the Rolling Stones are singing in on Pandora for me right now.

While it may be true that you can’t always get what you want, that doesn’t mean that you should not try. From my experience, there are 3 characteristics that you must exhibit in order to get what you want:

  1. Confidence. People like to be around others who exhibit confidence. It gives them a sense of stability in a world of constant change. You don’t want to be over-confident or become arrogant, but offer the leadership to face adversity and overcome the situation. A confident person builds relationships with people so that they have someone they can turn to when they need it.
  2. Competence. If you are trying to get people to believe in or follow you, whether it be for business or a volunteer organization, you must be able to show them that you are competent. You must have a solid background to know what you are doing AND that you have surrounded yourself with people who can do the things you don’t know how to do. Remember: competence is not just about what you can do, but what the entire team is capable of doing.
  3. Credibility.Building a trust between you and other people is the foundation to any solid relationship. You have to be able to do more than “talk the talk” and actually “walk the walk”, as they say. Trust takes time and a lot of effort, like any good investment.

If you can master those attributes, then you will find it a lot easier to get what you want. And who knows, while you are at it, you “might just get what you need!”

Who do you know that exhibits these 3 characteristics? Doesn’t it seem that they consistently get what they want?

Time, Talent and Cash: Triad of Success

So much has been written about time management, but how do you effectively manage time, talent AND cash? As scarce resources, you have to determine the proper balance to achieve real value.

When you tackle a problem, you first determine if you have access to the talent. If you don’t have a way to use your own talent or gather the right resources to solve the problem, then no amount of time or cash will help.

Given that you now have access to the talent, how much time do you have? It is the one resource that you cannot increase – it is a steady resource that moves at the same pace, even though it sometimes seems to stand still. It is often difficult to be realistic in estimating how much time a task will take. Men, in particular, tend to underestimate how long a project will take, including the 5 extra trips to the hardware store!

And finally, we arrive at the cash portion of the equation. How much cash do you have and how much will you need? If this is related to a work project where you are trying to make money, it is important to make sure you will make more money than you are going to spend. If it is something like a home improvement project, then you need to make sure you have the money in your budget, including a 20% allocation in case you exceed the budget.

Good business owners and managers know how to take inventory of the time, talent and cash they have at their disposal. The great people have figured out how to effectively allocate those resources to gain maximum achievement. It is not easy to do, but if you can set up a process so that you understand how you have used these scarce resources in the past, it will help you develop patterns that will help you move forward more effectively.

That is why you have to review your inventory of time, talent and cash if you want to succeed. Of course, this is very closely related to the “Good, Fast or Cheap – Pick 2” concept. When you understand both of these formulas, you have a tremendous advantage over everyone around you. Go out and use them to achieve success!