Thursday, November 01, 2007

Email can be tricky

Personally I think business would have be better off if email had never been invented but we're stuck with it now so it's important to learn how to use it properly. I consider myself reasonably accomplished in this area but today has been a day that tested my emailing skills and my restraint.

This email exchange came just after sending my monthly invoices to my tech support clients for October. I've been working on a network upgrade for the past few months for one of my clients and quite frankly it's been a nightmare. The reasons for this have been more bad luck than anyone in particular's fault and I've been trying hard to keep them happy through the process. I emailed them their monthly invoice this morning with some trepidation and waited to see what came back if anything.

Here is the reply I received shortly afterwards

Lachlan

As previously communicated I am concerned as to the length of time and now the budgeted cost overrun it is taking to complete the project. Also the fact that costs are being incurred in relation to <COMPANY NAME DELETED> are substantiallly as a result of the delay in the implementing the new server and network. I respectfully ask that you review your fees in relation to <COMPANY NAME DELETED>.

I also ask that you advise us of your anticipated completion. My expectation is that you allocate sufficent time to complete in 1 or 2 days and so as not to have such large lead times between visits.

Regards

Frank Jones

As I said this project has been a nightmare and I'm sympathetic to Frank's concerns (not his real name). I'd already discounted more than 50% of my charges from my previous few months' invoices due to these problems and that was without being asked to do so. I wasn't crazy about the idea of discounting this latest invoice even further. One of the reasons for the large lead times between visits that Frank speaks of is I was losing so much money doing Frank's work that I had to service other clients to ensure I didn't go broke.

What to do?

I had two options, either agree or refuse to further discount my latest invoice.

To refuse would probably result in the client going elsewhere and to be honest that would almost be a relief. I didn't like the idea of them walking with such a bad impression of me so I wanted to avoid that if possible.

That only left agreeing to discount my invoice even further and losing even more money. How much money though? Every amount I thought of was either too big for me to happily accept or too small to prevent Frank from being dissatisfied. There was obviously a sweet spot, a level that would keep Frank happy but not send me broke. I was struggling on how to find that sweet spot when I came up with a brain wave.

I would ask Frank.

Frank knows how much he wants to pay. He's a reasonable guy and I think I can trust him not to send me broke.

I eagerly sat back down at my desk and tapped out the following reply.

Hello Frank,

I am deeply concerned by the issues you have raised and express my sincere apologies for the delay in providing you with the services you have contracted me to provide.

I acknowledge that this project has been somewhat of a train wreck and true to form, continues to cause problems for me to this day. I have done my best to insulate <COMPANY NAME DELETED> from these problems by never leaving you with inoperative systems between visits and forgiving $2700 in labour charges over the past 3 months.

I have taken onboard your suggestions regarding my project scheduling and will endeavour to provide you with a completion schedule and date in the near future.

In an effort to aleve your budgetary concerns I invite you to adjust the total of my October invoice to an amount that you feel is more appropriate. Please advise me of the amount you feel is fair and I will supply you with a revised invoice reflecting that amount.

Regards,

Lachlan Gemmell

I perhaps laid it on a little thick but by and large the sentiment is genuine.

I sent that reply around midday and it's just gone 5pm. There's been no word back from Frank and I'm not surprised. I'm guessing he's never had a supplier say to him, "just pay me what you think it's worth". I don't think he knows quite how to respond.

I've no doubt that this offer will demonstrate to Frank that I'm serious about making sure he's happy with my service. What I'm hoping though is that he recognises that retaining someone with that sort of commitment is more important than saving a few extra dollars. If he doesn't and instead asks for some ridiculous discount, I'll honor my promise but he won't be receiving a November invoice from me.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Resurrection

It's time to resurrect my long neglected blog. Once again I find myself embarking on new ventures and while the Sydney project ended in failure, I found writing this blog as I worked on Sydney helped me to focus my efforts and keep me motivated.

When you're self-employed maintaining focus and motivation is a continuing struggle. You can let yourself get so busy with your day to day work that you lose focus and don't have time for the bigger picture. Alternately motivation can be the problem and you can find yourself doing very little work at all. Of late I've found myself oscillating between those two extremes. A few weeks ago I was busy all day every day with my tech support consultancy fixing email, virus and networking problems for people. These past two weeks however it's been the opposite. I've been putting jobs off, wasting time on the internet, forgetting appointments and all for no good reason whatsoever.

So I'm resurrecting this blog to once again help keep myself honest. The basic premise is that since I don't really have a boss to report my progress back to, I'll report it here instead. As I said, I have some new business ventures in progress which I'll be writing about, plus I'll be sharing what I've learnt over the past decade about running a one man IT business.

Also because it's become such an important part of my life these past two years I'm going to occasionally bore you with my efforts to become a half decent long distance runner. Apart from that I'll keep my personal life out of this so if you're a friend of mine you have nothing to fear by my reappearance on the blog scene.

That should do for now. I'll post again tomorrow with a brief overview of each of the projects I'm currently working on.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Whatever happened to that Lachlan guy?

Short answer, I set myself up to fail and used a competitor who beat me to the punch as an excuse to quit.

Yes it was a promising start, I was even surprising myself with my progress. I had an idea who's time I thought had come and I may have even been right about that. I abandoned the Sydney project with probably about 60% of it completed though I doubt I'll ever go back and finish it.

Thanks to everyone who followed my progress here. I'm really sorry to have let you all down with such a poor showing. At least some of you seemed to be quite entertained by my story as it unfolded, it's just a shame I never got around to finding out how it ended.

For those few of you who tracked me down to make sure I was still alive and kicking after my sudden disappearance from the net I am especially grateful. To have had people from the other side of the world that I'd never met before concerned about my welfare was a unique experience that I won't forget.

As for what I have actually been doing I've been continuing with my own business doing consulting work to help small businesses in Sydney with their IT systems. That's Sydney the city, not the code name for some vapourware pipe dream project. On top of that I discovered I'm a pretty good half-marathoner, found and lost a girlfriend or two, moved house again and suffered a major health scare (doing fine now thanks).

So what was the big secret?

At it's heart Sydney was an email archiving add-on for a particular email server. You can see what I hoped it would be become by checking out this real product released early last year.

Their product, while slightly different to what Sydney would have been, is actually very good and received endorsement from the manufacturers of the MDaemon email server I was targeting (previously codenamed Geneva by me).

At the time I decided, probably correctly, that the market share of MDaemon wasn't big enough for a second email archiving add-on and with everything else that was going on, I let work on Sydney fall away completely.

So what now?

I'm continuing with my consulting work doing IT for local small businesses. I'm doing a fair amount of programming as part of that but I'd like to be doing more.

There's potential there for bringing someone onboard to work with me, handling the tech support work while I do more programming, though I'm being extra cautious about finding the right person for the job. The fallout from mistakes I made last time I hired somebody was still haunting me these past few years and holding me back somewhat while I was working on Sydney.

There's also one or two other new business ideas that I'd like to explore further. I'm not sure if they're viable yet but I'll be looking into them more closely over the next few months.

And for this blog?

Well it's pretty obvious I lost interest in continuing this blog as of early last year. To be honest it's now more of an embarrassment to me than anything else. It's obviously the first thing that comes up if anybody Googles me and a few times in the past year I've had new acquaintances asking me if I ever got around to buying myself a new pair of shoes.

I'm not sure that just because it's a little embarrassing means that I should be taking it down though. It documents a fairly significant time in my life, and the fact that it isn't documenting a huge success doesn't seem sufficient enough reason to be removing it. After all the point of the whole blogging exercise was for both myself and others to learn from my mistakes. I can't do that if I hide them away and pretend they never happened.

So I'll keep it here. FeedBurner is currently reporting just over 200 subscribers who have stayed with me since my last post in March 2005. While that's incredibly flattering I'm not under any illusions that you've all been sitting on the edge of your seats the last 18 months waiting for me to post again. Certainly many of you no doubt just never got around to removing me from the list of feeds you have set up to check.

So now's your chance to unsubscribe if you want to.

If you stick around I'll post again before the end of the week. Most likely it will consist of some more in-depth navel gazing, disecting the doomed Sydney project and my failings. After that I'll probably go quiet again for a while. Like I said earlier I do have some other business ideas but I'm not ready to talk about them yet and maybe I won't talk about them here at all. I did have fun writing this blog though so I'll probably start writing again at some point in the next few months.

I won't be blogging again though unless I'm sure I can achieve a different end result the next time around. There was far too much talk and not enough action surrounding Sydney. Whether my next venture succeeds or fails that's one thing that needs to change.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

So so tempting

Back when I was moving house you might remember I was going to have to pay an extra weeks rent of $270 because I didn't give enough notice that I was moving out. Fortunately I was able to vacate early enough for the real estate agent to be able to find a new tenant before my notice period ended and so I didn't have to pay the extra $270. I was pretty happy about that since I just didn't have an extra $270 to waste on an empty flat that I wasn't using.

Stupidly though I forgot to cancel the automatic payment of my rent from my bank account resulting in me paying the extra $270 anyway. The real estate agent was quite good about it and about 2 weeks ago sent me a cheque for $270 reimbursing me for my accidental overpayment.

The twist to this story comes a few days ago when I received a second cheque for $270 in the mail. It's a mistake on the real estate agent's part, he's just forgotten he's already sent me a cheque. It even has an almost identical hand written note attached to it apologising for the delay.

I can think of many reasons why I'm morally entitled to a free weeks rent in my old house. The TV aerial socket never worked, the landlord refused to put in flyscreens over summer, and they didn't tell me before I moved in that I'd have builders doing repair work in my house for nearly a month.

I can think of even more good uses for that $270 right now also. Holes in my shoes and teeth, a wardrobe from 1999, an overdue Christmas present for my parents, and a girl to in vainly try to impress.

Whichever way I spin things though it's not my money. I can't say I haven't been tempted, if I'd had another reason to walk into a bank these past few days I think I would have deposited it into my account. It has to go back though and this public acknowledgement of that is designed to shame me into doing so. I'll take it back to them before the end of today and I'll post a comment below once I've done it.

That new pair of shoes will just have to wait.

A very well worn shoe

Friday, February 25, 2005

Running on borrowed time

Fresh from the double trouble hard drive failures in my server I've just had to go and buy a new transformer and cord for my primary development laptop. The old cord had just stopped working, I think 3 years of being wrapped and unwrapped every day took it's toll and broke a connection somewhere within it.

They sure do gouge you for those spare parts, $95 Australian it cost me for a replacement but at least it was only the cord and not the whole laptop that needed replacing.

My laptop, a Compaq Evo N160, is holding up reasonably well but it's definitely showing it's age. As I write this there is a folded up piece of cardboard jammed into the hinge of the screen which helps stop the crazy kaleidoscope patterns that appear when I first turn it on. If fiddling with the cardboard wedge doesn't work I have to push down on the bottom right and top left corners of the laptop while pushing upwards into the centre of the laptop with my left knee. Once the spinning screen stops, I have to keep very still to stop it from happening again.

That's pretty much indicative of most of my computing equipment. It was all purchased almost 3 years ago or more and it shows. I can cope with the little quirks each of my machines has for now but they're all on borrowed time. Every time I have to fight with my laptop to stop the screen spinning or my server blue screens at startup I wonder if it's day has come.

I just have to keep them up and running for a few more months. If they can hold together until Sydney is released I can start to retire them gracefully and replace them with some nice bright and shiny new machines. Assuming Sydney actually generates some income that is.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

I hate Western Digital

"...based on the lightning doesn't strike twice principle I should be right for a while now."

That was me almost exactly two months ago. I'd just had a hard drive failure in my server and lost my source code version control repository. It was an annoyance but I could get by since I still had the latest version of the Sydney source code on my working machine. I took it as a warning to improve my backup procedures but reasoned that statistically speaking I should be safe from hard drive failures for a while.

Statistically speaking, I'm an idiot.

The second hard drive that was in that server (another Western Digital 120GB IDE drive) has just failed. While I had some warning that the first drive was going to fail this one died suddenly before I could pull anything off it. On it was my version control repository (again), my build server virtual machine, a bunch of testing virtual machines and most importantly several years worth of real world test data that I have been gathering to feed into Sydney.

And what of my improved backup procedures that the first drive failure prompted me to put into place? Unfortunately they're still on the drawing board. I have a old machine ready to use as a backup server that I'll keep at my house but I haven't finished putting it together yet. Another week and it would have been ready, I've just been too busy with the moves and technical support jobs of late to devote more time to it.

The good news

The good news is that by going into Windows safe mode and using xcopy repeatedly it appears I was able to recover some of the files. I've retrieved my version control repository, an older version of my build server virtual machine and maybe 15% of the test data archive. The drive has now completely died, emitting all sorts of scraping, clicking and clanking noises if I try to use it.

So once again, through good fortune rather than good planning, I seem to have averted disaster. I'm not going to tempt fate again though. As I said last time

"Of course if lightning does happen to strike twice I'll have to be very wary. These things happen in threes you know."

The backup server will be up running at my house before the end of the working week.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

All settled in

It's been almost a month since my last posting. About half that time I was busy with my moves and the other half of the time I guess I was settling into my new surroundings and just didn't get around to posting.

Time to get stuck into it all again though with the moves from my old home/office to a new house and a new office completed. Many thanks to the friends and family who helped me through the whole process, without you I would really have been lost.

It was a very busy time made just that bit harder by a big network setup job for a local business that came through almost the day I started my move. I would have put them off until after the move but I'd been chasing this job for 3 months and didn't want to risk losing it to someone else. So I've been spending my days at their offices these past few weeks and moving my furniture and boxes in the early mornings and evenings.

There's been no progress on the Sydney front but I am in a much better position now, both in terms of my work and home environments and my financial situation.

The new house is really quite good and my housemates are good people. There have been no problems between us but even if there were, I'm traveling light now with all my work equipment at the office so I can quite easily move to another shared house if I need to.

The new office I'm assuming is also quite good, but the truth is I've only been there four times in the past 5 weeks, each time for no longer than an hour or two. Lucky the rent is so ridiculously cheap or it would have been a real waste of money. Starting next week though I'll be making a real effort to spend more time there and get stuck into Sydney again.

I did have one unexpected stroke of luck during the moving process. The real estate agent was able to find a new tenant for my old place before my notice period ended and as a result I didn't have to pay that extra week's rent I thought I was going to have to. A nice little bonus just when I needed it, moving is always a strain on the finances even when you do it on the cheap.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

The first move

After a slightly more difficult than expected search I've found a new house to live in. It's a share house a few hundred metres from my current house. I wanted somewhere that close since I don't have a car and so need somewhere central with good public transport. My current location is perfect in these respects and the new house will be just as good.

I'll start moving my stuff into the new house next weekend, but this weekend it's the move into the new office. I'm packing today, and tomorrow, with the help of a mate and his trailer will move my computers, books and desks. I'm only taking what is necessary for working on Sydney, all other distractions will go to the new house or into storage.

I've made a slight miscalculation with the amount of notice I had to give for my current residence. I thought I had to give 2 weeks notice that I was going to move out. It turns out I need to give 3 weeks notice before I leave. That's an extra $270 I'm going to have to pay to my old landlord for a flat I'll have moved out of and will be completely empty and unused during that third week. At a time when I'm also having to fork out bond money for both the new house and new office it's a costly mistake. A simple call to the real estate agent on my part to check how much notice I needed to give would have been advisable.

I can't dwell on that though, the purpose of the move wasn't to save money but to create a better working environment. The money I will be saving in rent, $65 per week, is just a nice side-benefit. The real measure of success will be if I'm able to once again properly focus on Sydney.

These boxes aren't going to pack themselves though so it's time to stop procrastinating and get to work. I'll post again soon once I've settled in.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Time to start packing

I'm starting to organise for the move to the new shared office space. I've received confirmation by email stating what the rent and bond will be and the date I can move in it so it's all stations go. The rent will be $55 per week and I can start moving in on the 16th of this month. My tenancy will be based on a handshake agreement between myself and the other tenants so I at least wanted those important figures and dates in writing from day one.

Currently I pay $270 per week for my 1 bedroom unit (home/office), sleeping upstairs and working, cooking, eating, washing in the one room downstairs. It's a little pricey mainly because of the location, almost in the centre of the city. I could justify the high weekly cost when I was paying for only half the rent, $135, with personal funds and the other half, $135, with business funds. Once I move into the new office though I can't really justify spending the whole $270 solely on a place to live.

So as well as moving to a new office I'll also be moving house. These last 18 months were my first experience of living alone in a 1 bedroom place and I have to admit I didn't really like it much. It's far too isolating especially when you're working alone most of the time as well.

I'll be going back to living in share accomodation and it's something I'm looking forward to. I'd lived in share accomodation for about 7 years with nearly 20 different people before my current house. It's not for everyone but I enjoy the variety you get from with living with people of all types.

I wouldn't consider moving back to share accomodation if I was still working from home. Nobody wants a flatmate that's home all the time or else they wouldn't after a few months of me hanging around the house all day every day. There's also the security aspect, usually flatmates are OK but then there's their friends, people who forget to lock the doors and parties where you don't know most of the people wandering around your house.

Hopefully I'll find a suitable share house in the same suburb I'm in now. My current suburb is ideal being in a central location, with excellent public transport on my doorstep and within walking distance of my favourite pubs and venues. A room for around the same rent as what I currently pay, $135 out of personal funds, will put me ahead by close to $100 per week and in a better work environment as well. After that there'll be no more excuses for not making the progress I should be.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

A second blog

I've started another blog, titled Lachlan on Delphi. I'll be using it to record my experiences mainly with Borland's Delphi software development environment with the odd excursion into other areas. I won't be discussing Sydney over there, so if you're not a programmer it probably won't interest you much.

On a sidenote, if you are a programmer and you haven't looked at Delphi in a while, it's time you took another look. Borland is taking back their position of producing the best development tools on the market with the latest version of Delphi. The new Delphi 2005 supports Win32 development with Object Pascal and .NET development with both C# and Object Pascal all in the one IDE. Throw in a bunch of other enhancements like refactoring, direct integration to version control, automatic file history tracking, a highly customisable IDE and a Model Driven Architecture framework and it's proving to be a killer release.