WordCamp Chicago 2011

I was lucky enough to share the stage with some cool people at WordCamp Chicago in July 2011. The slides from my presentation are available for download at http://maxim650.com/wcchi-2011. If/when the video from the presentation becomes available this will be updated with a link.

The before and after sites from the presentation are also available.

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Web Hosting: Are You Ready for a VPS?

For the uninformed, A VPS has hidden dangers

You have a successful website (or blog).

Congratulations!

You installed WordPress, and found a cool theme.

You figured out plugins and widgets.

Best of all, you figured out how to bring traffic.

Take a bow and pat yourself on the back. I raise my drink to you, Rock Star of the Internet! But excess can bring a hangover…

Your site is so successful that your traffic is slowing other sites on your shared server. Your hosting company has suggested you switch to a Virtual Private Server (VPS).

You might think, “I got this far. I’ll save a few bucks and manage the VPS myself.” If you are truly a tech ninja this is fine, but there are hidden dangers with managing a VPS yourself.

PC users might appreciate an analogy.

Warning for Mac Users

Skip the bullet points ahead (you won’t believe them anyway).
Just put your dominant hand in a blender. It will be faster and will hurt less.

  • Imagine that you have a program that requires MS Access and a special framework to handle the network interface.
  • Your program won’t work with the plain vanilla version of those, it needs some add-on modules installed.
  • You have to manually install and configure the software and add-on modules.
  • In Iambic Pentameter. From a DOS prompt.
  • It’s all keyboard. No mouse. No drag-and-drop.
  • Undaunted, you search Google, but the only documentation you can find is at least 2 years old.
  • Oh, there’s no Undo button, either.
  • What about security? Or will you just leave the door to your house open with your wallet on the dining room table?

THAT is a Debian Linux VPS. I love the idea of open source software, and Linux is an incredibly powerful and adaptable system. But it’s also extremely complex and requires a lot of care and feeding, especially in the harsh environment of the Internet.

I’m new to the world of VPS, but I have a few questions I would ask before diving into it.

  1. Is your site or business bringing in enough revenue to support the higher server costs?
  2. Will they provide support (managed service), or do you do the heavy lifting yourself (unmanaged service)?
  3. Is it included with your monthly subscription, or is it by the hour?
  4. What flavor(s) of Linux do they provide?
  5. Can you find documentation for it?
  6. Do they have experience with the requirements of your platform or CMS  (Joomla!, Drupal, WordPress)?
  7. Do you have the knowledge to maintain a secure environment?
  8. Is it really worth your time (and sanity) to try administering your own server? (A: No.)

Share your experiences and other questions in the comments. I would love to learn what your experience has been.

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Cold Feet and a Cardboard Sign

It was mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve, and I was walking reluctantly through the aisles of the store. Despite my best efforts, the Christmas spirit managed to find a crack in my armor: I couldn’t get the sight of that woman out of my head.

When I pulled into the parking lot, she was standing by the road holding a cardboard sign. A quick glance over my shoulder caught the words “Single Mom” and “Will work for Xmas.”

Completing my purchases, I requested cash back and stuffed it in my jacket pocket where I could reach it easily. I tossed my purchases in the back seat and started the car.

She stood on the snow piled to the side of the road, the sign held high before her face, like a shield to deflect the judgment of affluent shoppers. I pulled up to the light at the edge of the parking lot and pushed the button to open the passenger window. She didn’t move, and I wondered if she noticed me.

I called out, “Merry Christmas,” she lowered the sign and turned her head. Under her hood, her face looked older than I expected. I wondered how many kids she had, and how old they are. She started to climb down the snow bank, moving slowly, limbs nearly paralyzed from the cold. I leaned across the seat and stretched my arm out.

“My feet are so cold,” she said, reaching slowly in to accept my meager offering. I smiled weakly and nodded. The light turned green and I called out “Merry Christmas” again as I pulled away.

This encounter affected me. I spent a lot of time thinking I should have given her more money, wishing that my business had been in a better place. I thought that maybe I should have given her a ride somewhere, bought her some food, done something. But what?

After Christmas dinner, I told the story to a good friend over tea.

Never mind that it was Christmas Eve, why should anyone ever have to stand outside, shivering and shame-filled, hoping for a handout? How did our society fail?

My friend wisely pointed out that we are responsible for our own reality. We can’t control circumstances, but we do choose how we react to them. Our decisions and actions have consequences. This is true for everyone, including Sign Lady.

Is it sad that Sign Lady was begging on Christmas Eve?

Yes.

Should I (or any of the hundreds of other people who drove by that day) done more to help her?

Yes.

Did she have to wait so long to ask for help, or in such a dramatic fashion?

No.

There is a societal failure here, but it isn’t about charity, or lack of opportunity.

The failure is that our educational system doesn’t teach people the difference between self-esteem and pride. People equate being wrong or asking for help with weakness. I know many smart people who mistakenly believe that being wrong is a failure. How many more believe that they should be able to do everything by themselves?

The reality is that asking for help fills a need: Givers need recipients. And you are worthy of help!

I needed a reminder of what it felt like to give. Sign Lady provided that.

I can’t know the circumstances that Sign Lady faced on her journey to the snow bank, but it’s a pretty safe bet that it took her a while to get there. She probably had many opportunities along the way to ask for help. Did a sense of pride hold her back?

Whether at work, school, business, or personal life, have you been reluctant to ask for help? In the last year I have struggled mightily with many areas of my fledgling my business because I thought “I should be able to do this myself.”

While I will probably make that mistake again, I am grateful for the reminders Sign Lady gave me.

  1. Givers need recipients.
  2. You are worth asking for help (and so am I).

I hope it’s easier for you to internalize those lessons than it has been for me.

Dear Lady with the Cold Feet and Cardboard Sign,

I don’t know anything about you, but I thank you. By doing what you did, you gave me a chance to give, something I desperately needed. You also reminded me that it’s OK to ask for help.

I sincerely hope your night and Christmas day got warmer, and that your future is filled with hope.

Now if I could just find a way to ease the guilt about not giving more…

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Panel Discussion: State of the Entrepreneur

The 140 Character Conference came to Detroit in October 2010, and my friend Dave Murray put a panel together to talk about the state of entrepreneurship in Detroit. I was honored to be included in the panel with two people I like and respect Dan Walker (founder of River’s End Consulting), Pat Williams (Realtor and Virtual Assistant).

While the whole twenty minutes is good (I have watched this a few times and taken different things away each time , and I was on the couch!), the highlight starts with Dave’s closing remarks at 14:04. Hilarity ensues about a minute later. (I won’t be offended if you turn the volume down for my answer.)

Enjoy!

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Facebook vs. Google vs. Small Business

Indecisive Magic Eight BallMagic Eight Ball-ConcentrateEven my Magic 8-Ball can’t shed any light on the topic. The first time I asked the question it refused to answer: The d20 inside floated to the screen on edge. I shook the ball and asked it again. It still dodged the question and said, “Concentrate and ask again.”

What was the question that intimidated my prognosticator?

Will an Internet power shift from Google to Facebook have an impact on small businesses?

I clicked a link in my Twitter stream that set my head spinning. It’s a long article on TechCrunch that speculates that Facebook will grow larger than Google within five years. It raises questions about the future of internet advertising, influence, and the complex relationships between multi-billion-dollar companies. Among them: Where will the advertising budgets go?  Are higher click-through rates more important than highly targeted ads? What will happen to the cost of online advertising?

These are important questions for companies like Coca-Cola, Microsoft, and Amazon. Those companies are not my clients.

I’m far more interested in what impact will this have on the people and businesses I work with. The MI-SBTDC defines a small business as having fewer than 500 employees.

What if Facebook wins a  sumo wrestling match with Google? How will really small companies with fewer than 50 employees be affected? Here are some reasons why this would have minimal impact on small businesses, at least for the next few years.

  • I may be in the minority, but I (almost) never click on ads. It doesn’t matter whether they’re on a Google search results page or a Facebook page. If I want to find soy-based candles, I’ll hunt them down when I’m ready. I will continue not clicking on ads regardless of whether they’re on Facebook or Google. (Maybe this doesn’t support my point, but it’s my blog.)
  • Sometimes I want an answer to a question where my network lacks expertise. What does my local building code say about GFCI outlets? Where can I find documentation about a specific WordPress function? I’m not likely to ask on Facebook.
  • People establish relationships with other people, not with businesses.
  • Just because I like your business page on Facebook doesn’t mean that I will interact with you there. I “like” dozens of pages, the majority of which were “suggested” by friends who own (or know the owners of) a small business, group or cause. Guess how many times I have commented or asked a question there? Not many. In most cases I have never visited the website let alone set foot in that business.
  • I have considered cleaning up my list of likes, but I don’t want to offend the people who suggested those sites. I could just remove them all, but then I would be a hypocrite if and when I ever make a Facebook page for my business.
  • When I need to get the street address for a first-time visitor to Goldfish Tea I go to their website, not Facebook. That may change, but it will take a while before people switch that habit.
  • Imagine that the faucet on your kitchen sink breaks and you can’t shut the water off. Do you:
  1. Update your Facebook status and hope that a knowledgeable friend replies in the next few hours?
  2. Open a search engine and look for a local plumber?
  3. Look for a phone book and find a plumber with emergency service?

The relevance and usefulness of the printed telephone directory is declining. Currently Google fills that need for me. I don’t see Facebook taking over any time soon. Facebook’s interface is cumbersome and confusing, and given their track record I don’t expect them to simplify or streamline it any time soon. If I want information quickly I don’t want to poke around to find the menu that does what I want.

Here’s the big question: Should small businesses abandon their website in favor of a Facebook page?

NO!

Here’s why.

You alienate potential customers.
I know plenty of people who are not on Facebook. I know many more who have Facebook accounts but log on less than once a month. These people are not going to search for you on Facebook.

Control.
When you establish an account with any web-based service (Facebook, WordPress.com, Flickr, YouTube, Tumblr, etc.) you are bound by the Terms of Use, regardless of whether you read them (disclaimer: I haven’t either). It’s not a stretch to think Facebook has reserved the right to take down content that is inappropriate or illegal. (No, I don’t find it interesting enough to go look. Feel free to enlighten me in the comments.) By hosting your own website you retain complete control over appearance, content, who can interact on your blog, and much more.

The TechCrunch article hints that Facebook is planning to add other services (like keyword search) that might compete directly with Google. All well and good, but even if their service works better than Google’s, it will take time before they can pull a significant share of the search market.

So, what should your small business do?

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Facebook is important, Google isn’t going away any time soon, and there are other places to interact and share your message. Each has strengths and weaknesses. Test and compare multiple methods to find what works for you. If you don’t know how to do that, hire those skills.

Stay alert. Things that were working may lose effectiveness. People will keep inventing ways to interact with current customers and find new ones. Some of these will be viable, others won’t.

Leverage your agility. Small organizations can react and move quickly. Pay attention to trends, and shift when it makes sense for your business.

There are a lot of websites and analysts that will keep an eagle eye on the “battle for the internet” and report every jab, feint, and parry as if it’s going to turn the world upside down. In the end, small businesses will grow and thrive based on their own merits, not whether people search on Google, Bing, Yahoo, or Facebook. You control your destiny. Remember that.

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