WTF – Tim O’Reilly – Lightbulbs On!

What's the Future - Tim O'Reilly

Best Read of the Year, not just for high technology, but for a reasoned meaning behind political events over the last two years, both in the UK and the USA. I can relate it straight back to some of the prescient statements made by Jeff Bezos about Amazon “Day 1” disciplines: the best defence against an organisations path to oblivion being:

  1. customer obsession
  2. a skeptical view of proxies
  3. the eager adoption of external trends, and
  4. high-velocity decision making

Things go off course when interests divide in a zero-sum way between different customer groups that you serve, and where proxies indicating “success” diverge from a clearly defined “desired outcome”.

The normal path is to start with your “customer” and give an analogue of what indicates “success” for them in what you do; a clear understanding of the desired outcome. Then the measures to track progress toward that goal, the path you follow to get there (adjusting as you go), and a frequent review that steps still serve the intended objective. 

Fake News on Social Media, Finance Industry Meltdowns, unfettered slavery to “the market” and to “shareholder value” have all been central to recent political events in both the UK and the USA. Politicians of all colours were complicit in letting proxies for “success” dissociate fair balance of both wealth and future prospects from a vast majority of the customers they were elected to serve. In the face of that, the electorate in the UK bit back – as they did for Trump in the US too.

Part 3 of the book, entitled “A World Ruled by Algorithms” – pages 153-252 – is brilliant writing on our current state and injustices. Part 4 (pages 255-350) entitled “It’s up to us” maps a path to brighter times for us and our descendants.

Tim says:

The barriers to fresh thinking are even higher in politics than in business. The Overton Window, a term introduced by Joseph P. Overton of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy,  says that an ideas political viability falls within a window framing a range of policies considered politically acceptable in the current climate of public opinion. There are ideas that a politician simply cannot recommend without being considered too extreme to gain or keep public office.

In the 2016 US presidential election, Donald Trump didn’t just  push the Overton Window far too to right, he shattered it, making statement after statement that would have been disqualifying for any previous candidate. Fortunately, once the window has come unstuck, it is possible to move it radically new directions.

He then says that when such things happen, as they did at the time of the Great Depression, the scene is set to do radical things to change course for the ultimate greater good. So, things may well get better the other side of Trumps outrageous pandering to the excesses of the right, and indeed after we see the result of our electorates division over BRexit played out in the next 18 months.

One final thing that struck me was how one political “hot potato” issue involving Uber in Taiwan got very divided and extreme opinions split 50/50 – but nevertheless got reconciled to everyone’s satisfaction in the end. This using a technique called Principal Component Analysis (PCA) and a piece of software called “Pol.is”. This allows folks to publish assertions, vote and see how the filter bubbles evolve through many iterations over a 4 week period. “I think Passenger Liability Insurance should be mandatory for riders on UberX private vehicles” (heavy split votes, 33% both ends of the spectrum) evolved to 95% agreeing with “The Government should leverage this opportunity to challenge the taxi industry to improve their management and quality control system, so that drivers and riders would enjoy the same quality service as Uber”. The licensing authority in Taipei duly followed up for the citizens and all sides of that industry. 

I wonder what the BRexit “demand on parliament” would have looked like if we’d followed that process, and if indeed any of our politicians could have encapsulated the benefits to us all on either side of that question. I suspect we’d have a much clearer picture than we do right now.

In summary, a superb book. Highly recommended.

Danger, Will Robinson, Danger

One thing that bemused the hell out of me – as a Software guy visiting prospective PC dealers in 1983 – was our account manager for the North UK. On arrival at a new prospective reseller, he would take a tape measure out, and measure the distance between the nearest Directors Car Parking Slot, and their front door. He’d then repeat the exercise for the nearest Visitors Car Parking Spot and the front door. And then walk in for the meeting to discuss their application to resell our range of Personal Computers.

If the Directors slot was closer to the door than the Visitor slot, the meeting was a very short one. The positioning betrayed the senior managements attitude to customers, which in countless cases I saw in other regions (eventually) to translate to that Company’s success (or otherwise). A brilliant and simple leading indicator.

One of the other red flags when companies became successful was when their own HQ building became ostentatious. I always wonder if the leaders can manage to retain their focus on their customers at the same time as building these things. Like Apple in a magazine today:

Apple HQ

And then Salesforce, with the now tallest building in San Francisco:

Salesforce Tower

I do sincerely hope the focus on customers remains in place, and that none of the customers are adversely upset with where each company is channeling it’s profits. I also remember a Telco Equipment salesperson turning up at his largest customer in his new Ferrari, and their reaction of disgust that unhinged their long term relationship; he should have left it at home and driven in using something more routine.

Modesty and Frugality are usually a better leading indicator of delivering good value to folks buying from you. As are all the little things that demonstrate that the success of the customer is your primary motivation.

Crossing the Chasm on One Page of A4 … and Wardley Maps

Crossing the Chasm Diagram

Crossing the Chasm – on one sheet of A4

The core essence of most management books I read can be boiled down to occupy a sheet of A4. There have also been a few big mistakes along the way, such as what were considered at the time to be seminal works, like Tom Peter’s “In Search of Excellence” — that in retrospect was an example summarised as “even the most successful companies possess DNA that also breed the seeds of their own destruction”.

I have much simpler business dynamics mapped out that I can explain to fast track employees — and demonstrate — inside an hour; there are usually four graphs that, once drawn, will betray the dynamics (or points of failure) afflicting any business. A very useful lesson I learnt from Microsoft when I used to distribute their software. But I digress.

Among my many Business books, I thought the insights in Geoffrey Moores Book “Crossing the Chasm” were brilliant — and useful for helping grow some of the product businesses i’ve run. The only gotcha is that I found myself keeping on cross referencing different parts of the book when trying to build a go-to-market plan for DEC Alpha AXP Servers (my first use of his work) back in the mid-1990’s — the time I worked for one of DEC’s Distributors.

So, suitably bored when my wife was watching J.R. Ewing being mischievous in the first UK run of “Dallas” on TV, I sat on the living room floor and penned this one page summary of the books major points. Just click it to download the PDF with my compliments. Or watch the author himself describe the model in under 14 minutes at an O’Reilly Strata Conference here. Or alternatively, go buy the latest edition of his book: Crossing the Chasm

My PA (when I ran Marketing Services at Demon Internet) redrew my hand-drawn sheet of A4 into the Microsoft Publisher document that output the one page PDF, and that i’ve referred to ever since. If you want a copy of the source file, please let me know — drop a request to: ian.waring@software-enabled.com.

That said, i’ve been far more inspired by the recent work of Simon Wardley. He effectively breaks a service into its individual components and positions each on a 2D map;  x-axis dictates the stage of the components evolution as it does through a Chasm-style lifecycle; the y-axis symbolises the value chain from raw materials to end user experience. You then place all the individual components and their linkages as part of an end-to-end service on the result. Having seen the landscape in this map form, then to assess how each component evolves/moves from custom build to commodity status over time. Even newest components evolve from chaotic genesis (where standards are not defined and/or features incomplete) to becoming well understood utilities in time.

The result highlights which service components need Agile, fast iterating discovery and which are becoming industrialised, six-sigma commodities. And once you see your map, you can focus teams and their measures on the important changes needed without breeding any contradictory or conflict-ridden behaviours. You end up with a well understood map and – once you overlay competitive offerings – can also assess the positions of other organisations that you may be competing with.

The only gotcha in all of this approach is that Simon hasn’t written the book yet. However, I notice he’s just provided a summary of his work on his Bits n Pieces Blog yesterday. See: Wardley Maps – set of useful Posts. That will keep anyone out of mischief for a very long time, but the end result is a well articulated, compelling strategy and the basis for a well thought out, go to market plan.

In the meantime, the basics on what is and isn’t working, and sussing out the important things to focus on, are core skills I can bring to bear for any software, channel-based or internet related business. I’m also technically literate enough to drag the supporting data out of IT systems for you where needed. Whether your business is an Internet-based startup or an established B2C or B2B Enterprise focussed IT business, i’d be delighted to assist.

Nadella: Heard what he said, knew what he meant

Satya Nadella

That’s a variation of an old “Two Ronnies” song in the guise of “Jehosaphat & Jones” entitled “I heard what she said, but knew what she meant” (words or three minutes into this video). Having read Satya Nadella’s Open Letter to employees issued at the start of Microsoft’s new fiscal year, I did think it was long. However, the real delight was reading Jean-Louis Gassee – previously the CTO of Apple – not only pulling it apart, but then having a crack at showing how it should have been written:

Team,

This is the beginning of our new FY 2015 – and of a new era at Microsoft. I have good news and bad news.The bad news is the old Devices and Services mantra won’t work. For example: I’ve determined we’ll never make money in tablets or smartphones.

So, do we continue to pretend we’re “all in” or do we face reality and make the painful decision to pull out so we can use our resources – including our integrity – to fight winnable battles? With the support of the Microsoft Board, I’ve chosen the latter.

We’ll do our utmost to minimize the pain that will naturally arise from this change. Specifically, we’ll offer generous transitions arrangements in and out of the company to concerned Microsoftians and former Nokians.

The good news is we have immense resources to be a major player in the new world of Cloud services and Native Apps for mobile devices.

We let the first innings of that game go by, but the sting energizes us. An example of such commitment is the rapid spread of Office applications – and related Cloud services – on any and all mobile devices. All Microsoft Enterprise and Consumer products/services will follow, including Xbox properties.

I realize this will disrupt the status quo and apologize for the pain to come. We have a choice: change or be changed.

Stay tuned.

Satya.

Jean-Louis Gassee’s  full take-home on the original is provided here. Satya Nadella should hire him.

Uber in London: The Streisand Effect keeps on giving

Uber Logo

With the same overall theme as yesterday, if you’re looking at your future, step one is to look at what your customers would value, then to work back to the service components to deliver it.

I’ve followed Uber since I first discovered them in San Francisco, and it looks a simple model – to the user. You want to go from where you are to another local destination. You typically see where the closest driver is to you on your smartphone. You ask your handset for a price to go to a specific destination. It tells you. If you accept, the car is ordered and comes to pick you up. When you get dropped off, your credit card is charged, and both you and the taxi driver get the opportunity to rate each other. Job done.

Behind that facade is a model of supply and demand. Taxi drivers that can clock on and off at will. At times of high demand and dwindling available ride capacity, prices are ramped up (to “surge” pricing) to encourage more drivers onto the road. Drivers and customers with voluminous bad ratings removed. Drivers paid well enough to make more money than those in most taxi firms ($80-90,000/year in New York), or the freedom to work part time – even down to a level where your reward is to pay for your car for a few hours per week of work, and have free use of it at other times.

The service is simple and compelling enough that i’d have thought tax firms would have cottoned onto how the service works, and to replicate it before Uber ever appeared on these shores. But, with a wasted five years, they’ve appeared – and Taxi drivers all over Europe decided to run the most effective advertising campaign for an upstart competitor in their history. A one-day 850% subscriber growth; that really takes some doing, even if you were on the same side.

I’m just surprised that whoever called the go-slows all over Europe didn’t take the time out to study what we in the tech industry know as “The Streisand Effect” – Wikipedia reference here. BBC Radio 2 even ran a segment on Uber at lunchtime today, followed by every TV News Bulletin i’ve heard since. I downloaded the app as a result of hearing it on that lunchtime slot, as I guess many others did too (albeit no coverage in my area 50 miles West of London – yet). Given the five years of missed prep time, I think they’ve now lost – or find themselves in fast follower mode to incorporate similar technology into their service before they have a mass exodus to Uber (of customers, then drivers).

London Cabbies do know all the practical use of rat runs that SatNav systems are still learning, but even that is a matter of time now. I suspect appealing for regulation will, at best, only delay the inevitable.

The safest option – given users love the simplicity and lack of surprises in the service – is to get busy quickly. Plenty of mobile phone app prototyping help available on the very patch that London Black Cab drivers serve.

Starting with the end in mind: IT Management Heat vs Light

A very good place to startOne source of constant bemusement to me is the habit of intelligent people to pee in the industry market research bathwater, and then to pay handsomely to drink a hybrid mix of the result collected across their peers.

Perhaps betrayed by an early experience of one research company coming in to present to the management of the vendor I was working at, and finding in the rehearsal their conjecture that sales of specific machine sizes had badly dipped in the preceding quarter. Except they hadn’t; we’d had the biggest growth in sales of the highlighted machines in our history in that timeframe. When I mentioned my concern, the appropriate slides were corrected in short order, and no doubt the receiving audience impressed with the skill in their analysis that built a forecast starting with an amazingly accurate, perceptive (and otherwise publicly unreported) recent history.

I’ve been doubly nervous ever since – always relating back to the old “Deep Throat” hints given in “All the Presidents Men” – that of, in every case, “to follow the money”.

Earlier today, I was having some banter on one of the boards of “The Motley Fool” which referenced the ways certain institutions were imposing measures on staff – well away from a useful business use that positively supported better results for their customers. Well, except of providing sound bites to politicians. I can sense that in Education, in some elements of Health provision, and rather fundamentally in the Police service. I’ve even done a drains-up some time ago that reflected on the way UK Police are measured, and tried trace the rationale back to source – which was a senior politician imploring them to reduce crime; blog post here. The subtlety of this was rather lost; the only control placed in their hands was that of compiling the associated statistics, and to make their behaviours on the ground align supporting that data collection, rather than going back to core principles of why they were there, and what their customers wanted of them.

Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon) has the right idea; everything they do aligns with the ultimate end customer, and everything else works back from there. Competition is something to be conscious of, but only to the extent of understanding how you can serve your own customers better. Something that’s also the central model that W. Edwards Deming used to help transform Japanese Industry, and in being disciplined to methodically improve “the system” without unnecessary distractions. Distractions which are extremely apparent to anyone who’s been subjected to his “Red Beads” experiment. But the central task is always “To start with the end in mind”.

With that, I saw a post by Simon Wardley today where Gartner released the results of a survey on “Top 10 Challenges for I&O Leaders”, which I guess is some analogue of what used to be referred to as “CIOs”. Most of which felt to me like a herd mentality – and divorced from the sort of issues i’d have expected to be present. In fact a complete reenactment of this sort of dialogue Simon had mentioned before.

Simon then cited the first 5 things he thought they should be focussed on (around Corrective Action), leaving the remainder “Positive Action” points to be mapped based on that appeared upon that foundation. This in the assumption that those actions would likely be unique to each organisation performing the initial framing exercise.

Simon’s excellent blog post is: My list vs Gartner, shortly followed by On Capabilities. I think it’s a great read. My only regret is that, while I understand his model (I think!), i’ve not had to work on the final piece between his final strategic map (for any business i’m active in) and articulating a pithy & prioritised list of actions based on the diagram created. And I wish he’d get the bandwidth to turn his Wardley Maps into a Book.

Until then, I recommend his Bits & Pieces Blog; it’s a quality read that deserves good prominence on every IT Manager’s (and IT vendors!) RSS feed.

CloudKit – now that’s how to do a secure Database for users

Data Breach Hand Brick Wall Computer

One of the big controversies here relates to the appetite of the current UK government to release personal data with the most basic understanding of what constitutes personal identifiable information. The lessons are there in history, but I fear without knowing the context of the infamous AOL Data Leak, that we are destined to repeat it. With it goes personal information that we typically hold close to our chests, which may otherwise cause personal, social or (in the final analysis) financial prejudice.

When plans were first announced to release NHS records to third parties, and in the absence of what I thought were appropriate controls, I sought (with a heavy heart) to opt out of sharing my medical history with any third party – and instructed my GP accordingly. I’d gladly share everything with satisfactory controls in place (medical research is really important and should be encouraged), but I felt that insufficient care was being exercised. That said, we’re more than happy for my wife’s Genome to be stored in the USA by 23andMe – a company that demonstrably satisfied our privacy concerns.

It therefore came as quite a shock to find that a report, highlighting which third parties had already been granted access to health data with Government mandated approval, ran to a total 459 data releases to 160 organisations (last time I looked, that was 47 pages of PDF). See this and the associated PDFs on that page. Given the level of controls, I felt this was outrageous. Likewise the plans to release HMRC related personal financial data, again with soothing words from ministers in whom, given the NHS data implications, appear to have no empathy for the gross injustices likely to result from their actions.

The simple fact is that what constitutes individual identifiable information needs to be framed not only with what data fields are shared with a third party, but to know the resulting application of that data by the processing party. Not least if there is any suggestion that data is to be combined with other data sources, which could in turn triangulate back to make seemingly “anonymous” records traceable back to a specific individual.Which is precisely what happened in the AOL Data Leak example cited.

With that, and on a somewhat unrelated technical/programmer orientated journey, I set out to learn how Apple had architected it’s new CloudKit API announced this last week. This articulates the way in which applications running on your iPhone handset, iPad or Mac had a trusted way of accessing personal data stored (and synchronised between all of a users Apple devices) “in the Cloud”.

The central identifier that Apple associate with you, as a customer, is your Apple ID – typically an email address. In the Cloud, they give you access to two databases on their cloud infrastructure; one a public one, the other private. However, the second you try to create or access a table in either, the API accepts your iCloud identity and spits back a hash unique to your identity and the application on the iPhone asking to process that data. Different application, different hash. And everyone’s data is in there, so it’s immediately unable to permit any triangulation of disparate data that can trace back to uniquely identify a single user.

Apple take this one stage further, in that any application that asks for any personal identifiable data (like an email address, age, postcode, etc) from any table has to have access to that information specifically approved by the handset owners end user; no explicit permission (on a per application basis), no data.

The data maintained by Apple, besides holding personal information, health data (with HealthKit), details of home automation kit in your house (with HomeKit), and not least your credit card data stored to buy Music, Books and Apps, makes full use of this security model. And they’ve dogfooded it so that third party application providers use exactly the same model, and the same back end infrastructure. Which is also very, very inexpensive (data volumes go into Petabytes before you spend much money).

There are still some nuances I need to work. I’m used to SQL databases and to some NoSQL database structures (i’m MongoDB certified), but it’s not clear, based on looking at the way the database works, which engine is being used behind the scenes. It appears to be a key:value store with some garbage collection mechanics that look like a hybrid file system. It also has the capability to store “subscriptions”, so if specific criteria appear in the data store, specific messages can be dispatched to the users devices over the network automatically. Hence things like new diary appointments in a calendar can be synced across a users iPhone, iPad and Mac transparently, without the need for each to waste battery power polling the large database on the server waiting for events that are likely to arrive infrequently.

The final piece of the puzzle i’ve not worked out yet is, if you have a large database already (say of the calories, carbs, protein, fat and weights of thousands of foods in a nutrition database), how you’d get that loaded into an instance of the public database in Apple’s Cloud. Other that writing custom loading code of course!

That apart, really impressed how Apple have designed the datastore to ensure the security of users personal data, and to ensure an inability to triangulate data between information stored by different applications. And that if any personal identifiable data is requested by an application, that the user of the handset has to specifically authorise it’s disclosure for that application only. And without the app being able to sense if the data is actually present at all ahead of that release permission (so, for example, if a Health App wants to gain access to your blood sampling data, it doesn’t know if that data is even present or not before the permission is given – so the app can’t draw inferences on your probably having diabetes, which would be possible if it could deduce if it knew that you were recording glucose readings at all).

In summary, impressive design and a model that deserves our total respect. The more difficult job will be to get the same mindset in the folks looking to release our most personal data that we shared privately with our public sector servants. They owe us nothing less.

11 steps to initiate a business spectacular – true story

Nuclear Bomb Mushroom

I got asked today how we grew the Microsoft Business at (then) Distributor Metrologie from £1m/month to £5m/month, at the same time doubling the margin from 1% to 2% in the thick of a price war. The sequence of events were as follows:

  1. Metrologie had the previous year bought Olivetti Software Distribution, and had moved its staff and logistics into the company’s High Wycombe base. I got asked to take over the Management of the Microsoft Business after the previous manager had left the company, and the business was bobbing along at £1m/month at 1% margins. Largest customer at the time was Dixons Stores Group, who were tracking at £600K sales per month at that stage.
  2. I was given the one purchasing person to build into a Product Manager, and one buyer. There was an existing licensing team in place.
  3. The bit I wasn’t appraised of was that the Directors had been told that the company was to be subject to a Productivity Improvement Plan, at the same time the vendor was looking to rationalise it’s UK Distributor numbers from 5 to 4. This is code for a prewarning that the expected casualty was…. us.
  4. I talked to 5 resellers and asked what issues they had dealing with any of the Microsoft distributors. The main issue was staff turnover (3 months telesales service typical!), lack of consistent/available licensing expertise and a minefield of pricing mistakes that lost everyone money.
  5. Our small team elected to use some of our Microsoft funds to get as many front line staff as possible Microsoft Sales certified. I wasn’t allowed to take anyone off the phones during the working week, but managed to get 12 people in over a two day weekend to go from zero to passing their accreditation exam. They were willing to get that badge to get them better future career prospects. A few weeks later we trained another classful on the same basis; we ended up with more Sales accredited salespeople than all the other distributors at the time.
  6. With that, when someone called in to order PCs or Servers, they were routinely asked if they wanted software with them – and found (to their delight) that they had an authoritative expert already on the line who handled the order, without surprises, first time.
  7. If you’re in a price war, you focus on two things; one is that you isolate who your key customers are, and secondly you profile the business to see which are the key products.
  8. For the key growth potential customers, we invested our Microsoft co-op funds in helping them do demand creation work; with that, they had a choice of landing an extra 10% margin stream new business dealing with us, or could get 1% lower prices from a distributor willing to sell at cost. No contest, as long as our pricing was there or thereabouts.
  9. The key benchmark products were Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office Professional. Whenever deciding who to trade with, the first phone call was to benchmark the prices of those two part numbers, or slight variations of the same products. However, no-one watched the surrounding, less common products. So, we priced Windows and Office very tightly, but increased the selling prices by 2-3% on the less common products. The default selling price for a specific size of reseller (which mapped into which sales team looked after their account) was put on the trading platform to ensure consistency.
  10. Hand offs to the licensing team, if the business landed, were double-bubbled back to the field/internal salesperson team handling each account – so any more complex queries were handed off, handled professionally, priced and transacted without errors.
  11. We put all the measures in place, tracking the number of customers buying Microsoft software from us 1 month in 3, 2 months in 3 and every month. We routinely incented each sales team to increase the purchase frequencies in their account base on call out days, with programs that were well supported and fun in the office.

The business kept on stepping up. Still a few challenges; we at least twice got reverse ram raids, emptying returned stock back into our warehouse on day 30 of a 31 day month, making a sudden need for sales on the last trading day a bit of a white knuckle ride to offset the likely write down credit (until Microsoft could in turn return the cost to us). The same customer had, at the time, a habit of deciding not to pay it’s suppliers at month end at the end of key trading months, which is not a good thing when you’re making 1% margins assuming they’d pay you to terms.

One of the side effects of the Distribution business is that margins are thin, but volume grows aggressively – at least until you end up with a very small number of really big distributors left standing. A bit like getting wood shavings from wood on a lathe – you want just enough to peel off and the lathe turning faster and faster – but shy away from trying to be too greedy, digging the chisel in deeper and potentially seizing up the lathe.

With a business growing 40%+ per year and margins in the 1-2% range, you can’t fund the growth from retained profits. You just have to keep going back to the stock market every year, demonstrating growth that makes you look like one of the potential “last men standing”, and get another cash infusion to last until next year. And so it goes on, with the smaller distributors gradually falling away.

With the growth from £1m/month to £5m/month in 4 months – much less than the time to seek extra funds to feed the cash position to support the growth – the business started to overtrade. Vendors were very strict on terms, so it became a full time job juggling cash to keep the business flowing. Fortunately, we had magnificent credit and finance teams who, working with our resellers, allowed us the room to keep the business rolling.

With that, we were called into a meeting with the vendor to be told that we were losing the Microsoft Business, despite the big progress we’d made. I got headhunted for a role at Demon Internet, and Tracy (my Product Manager of 4 months experience) got headhunted to become Marketing Manager at a London Reseller. I stayed an extra month to complete our appeal to the vendor, but left at the end of June.

About 2 weeks into my new job, I got a call from my ex-boss to say the company’s appeal had been successful at European level, and that their Distribution Contract with the vendor was to continue. A great end to that story. The company later merged with one of the other distributors, and a cheque for £1000 arrived in the post at home for payment of stock options i’d been awarded in my last months there.

So, the basics are simple, as are the things you need to focus on if you’re ever in a price war (i’ve covered the basics in two previous blog posts, but the more advanced things are something i’d need to customise for any specific engagement). But talking to the customer, and working back to the issues delivering a good and friction free experience to them, is a great way to get things fixed. It has demonstrably worked for me every time – so far!

Email: is 20% getting through really a success?

Baseball Throw

Over the weekend, I sent an email out to a lot of my contacts on LinkedIn. Because of the number of folks i’m connected to, I elected to subscribe to Mailchimp, the email distribution service recommended by most of the experts I engage in the WordPress community. I might be sad, but it’s been fascinating to watch  the stats roll in after sending that email.

In terms of proportion of all my emails successfully delivered, that looks fine:

Emails Delivered to LinkedIn Contacts

However, 2 days after the email was sent, readership of my email message, with the subject line including the recipients Christian name to avoid one of the main traps that spam gets caught in, is:

Emails Seen and UnOpened

Eh, pardon? Only 47.4% of the emails I sent out were read at all? On first blush, that sounds really low to an amateur me. I would have expected it for folks on annual leave, but still not as low as less than half of all messages sent out. In terms of device types used to read the email:

Desktop vs Mobile Email Receipt

which I guess isn’t surprising, given the big volume of readers that looked at the email in the first hour of when it was sent (which was at around 9:00pm on Saturday night). There was another smaller peak between 7am-8am on Sunday morning, and then fairly level tides with small surges around working day arrival, lunch and departure times. In terms of devices used:

Devices used to read Email

However, Mailchimp insert a health warning, saying that iOS devices do handshake the email comms reliably, whereas other services are a lot more fickle – so the number of Apple devices may tend to over report. That said, it reinforces the point I made in a post a few days ago about the importance of keeping your email subject line down to 35 characters – to ensure it’s fully displayed on an iPhone.

All in, I was still shocked by the apparent number of emails successively delivered but not opened at all. Thinking it was bad, I checked and found that Mailchimp reckon the average response aimed into folks aligned to Computers and Electronics (which is my main industry), voluntarily opted in, is 17.8%, and click throughs to provided content around the 1.9% mark. My email click through rate is running at 2.9%. So, my email was 2x the industry norm for readership and 50% above normal click-through rates, though these are predominantly people i’ve enjoyed working with in the past – and who voluntarily connected to me down the years.

So, sending an email looks to be as bad at getting through as expecting to see Tweets from a specific person in your Twitter stream. I know some of my SMS traffic to my wife goes awry occasionally, and i’m told Snapchat is one of the few messaging services that routinely gives you an indication that your message did get through and was viewed.

Getting guaranteed attention of a communication is hence a much longer journey than I expected, and probably (like newspaper ads of old) relying on repeat “opportunities to see”. But don’t panic – i’m not sending the email again to that list; it was a one-time exercise.

This is probably a dose of the obvious to most people, but the proportion of emails lost in action – when I always thought it a reliable distribution mechanism – remains a big learning for me.

Consistency is often an undervalued asset

Ford Tractor Backhoe Brochure

One of the legendary things that Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, used to do from time to time was to issue fairly long parables across the company (note: 110,000+ staff at the time). Following release, there was often quite a discussion to try to understand what he meant, and to then apply what we believed to be the sage learning experience to improve our own corners of the company.

I’ve kept a number of these from way back then, and still find some of them just as applicable these days. Try this one for size, keeping in mind that Ken was also a main board Director of Ford at the time also. I’ll lay odds that many can relate to it, even today – some 37 years after he wrote this.

SUBJ: TRACTORS AND COMPUTERS

I am in the market for a backhoe. It is not an important project and I am embarassed to spend much time on it, but it is an interesting experience.

The other day I stopped at a Ford tractor place and went through their literature rack to get some background information on tractors. They had two kinds of literature. One is a colored brochure with beautiful pictures and glowing terms describing what their tractors would do and the other, black on yellow data sheets which are very plain and just filled with numbers.

They have four models which I think may cover my needs but they all say they are made by different product lines. They seem to compete with each other in who can make the most expensive, beautiful, color brochure and it appears they are more in competition with each other than with other tractor manufacturers. No way would they explain why one Ford tractor would have advantages over another.

Everything in the literature is positive and beautiful. I then tried to study the data sheets. These too seemed to be made by separate product lines even though their tractors were almost identical. They vary from two pages to eight pages and there is no consistency in the way in which the data is presented.

I thought one way of comparing would be to find out what each model weighed so that I could make a guess as to which one had more power and more value. One data sheet had no weights, the next had a tractor without a loader and without a backhoe, the next had a tractor and a loader and the fourth had a tractor, loader, and a backhoe. There were all possible combinations and no way of comparing them.

One brochure brags about the wonderful feature of having a 3 point hitch. It goes into great technical detail of what the pin sizes and dimensions of the hitch are and how much power it has but no where does it ever describe what the advantages of a 3 point hitch are and what you sacrifice in order to get it. With all the beautiful color brochures and the glowing claims made for their tractors which are obviously aimed at the layman, the real questions can only be answered by an expert who happens to know what a 3 point hitch is.

I stopped by the Ford place while going between plants and felt guilty about getting involved with the salesman and so I didn’t talk to anyone. I was afraid that once I did start talking I would get involved for a long time and I wasn’t sure that the salesman would understand the difference between the models anyway. My guess is the salesman would, first of all, sell only the tractor models which he has had experience in selling and would not get involved or feel at ease with the tractor models which he did not have experience with. Then there is the other type of salesman, who I am sure is in this field as in all others, who once he got hold of you would spend most of the time telling about his experiences when he used to sell John Deere Tractors and avoid all technical issues involved in the present line which he is selling.

If I don’t get tired of the whole idea of a backhoe after trying to figure out the pile of literature I have, I’ll try talking to the salesman and see how I do. It takes a lot of nerve because I feel intimidated by my lack of knowledge about the equipment and also about the traditions of buying in this market. I don’t know if you pay list price or whether you look for a 20% discount. I also have to build up my nerve because I am always embarrassed when they act surprised that I don’t know how deep a ditch I want to dig and how heavy a load I want to lift, and I don’t even know how high I want to lift the load.

Sometime I’d like to have you explain whether there is a parallel at Digital with this or not.