Jim Harrer

STARTUPS, TURNAROUNDS, APPDEV, AGILE & LIFE...

If your website can't respond to spike demands, it's time to consider Windows Azure.

My wife Debbie and I caught the premiere of NBC’s The Biggest Loser the other night. For those that follow the show, Jillian Michaels returns as the senior screamer on the show. I like watching the show because of its use of embedded product placements and am always curious what they’re going to do next.

TheBiggestLoserThis year, The Biggest Loser has a totally redesigned fitness center, with all of the equipment provided by Planet Fitness, a low cost, neighborhood gym model, available as a franchise. They appear to be out lifting 24 Hour Fitness, the previous equipment sponsor on the show.

As the premier was airing with Bob, Jillian and Dolvett beaming over the new gym equipment by Planet Fitness, I decided to visit http://www.planetfitness.com/ to see if anyone had purchased the rights for Central Oregon, where I live. I’ve been a gym goer since I was 14 and have thought about owning a neighborhood gym for the past 20 years. But that is another blog post, I digress.

windows azure on JimHarer dot comWhen I attempted to go to Planet Fitness, their site crashed. The premier had over 1 million viewers; I suspect this was a spike the Planet Fitness IT team may have not expected. I'm sure the sales and marketing team were happy their product placement created demand, yet immediately went into shock when their web site crashed.  I want to suggest a better way. If Planet Fitness would have moved their website to Microsoft Windows Azure Cloud Platform, they could have easily adjusted the amount of computing resources around their original air dates on both east and west coast premiers. Once their website and member portal is converted to take advantage of Windows Azure elasticity, it’s really as easy as logging onto the Azure management portal and moving a slider up and down to allocate more or fewer server instances.  You have the advantage of extra computing resources when you need them without paying for a maximum build out of a datacenter only to be fully utilized when the Biggest Loser airs.

If your business is a B2C (Business to Consumer), and you’re approaching the tipping point, your IT staff should be moving your customer facing web properties into the cloud. IT staff are always resistant to change, especially outside their comfort zone.  This is when you need a team of skills-based consultants who have been there and done that, successfully.

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Old Dogs and New Tricks – Thinking like a Startup

You could say I’m an old dog in terms of technology. I started my first business in 1986, back when a Hayes 2400 baud modem was the hot ticket. Fast forward 25 years later, president of two public companies (Mustang and Starbase), a couple corporate turnarounds (Web Associates, Starbase and Alchemy) and two startups (Mustang and EventMingle), you could say I’ve earned my battle scars.

For those of you who have been following my blog know, I have recently been working with 7 startups though our VentureBox business accelerator here in Bend, Oregon. Startups live in the constant state of thinking of ways to disrupt competitors and pivot business plans to grow rapidly in order to increase cash or traction. This week, I had a lot of time to think a lot about the differences between startups and well established businesses. One of the questions that came to mind was: “When is it ok for an older company to stop focusing on cash and traction?" I tried to pick my words carefully. Note, I didn’t say stop altogether, I said stop focusing.

Information TechnologyBusinesses, as they mature, develop large customer bases they have to support. They have infrastructure in place. They have made decisions about their back office systems such as accounting, CRM, work flow, servers, operating systems, technology partners, etc. Next thing you know, years have gone by, you have tens of thousands of customers and 1,000 employees. Cash and traction may no longer be a focus. Every decision needs to take into account, how will it affect my customers? How does the change impact my back office? Next thing you know, your company is not as agile as before and you ask yourself, "How did we get here?"

Each of the turnarounds I led had major back-office issues. Web Associates built web content for HP, Apple and other companies, yet didn’t build the internal controls to track the cost of producing those pages. They assumed we made money because it was a six-figure sale. You can't improve margins if you don't know - to the dollar - what the margin is. Just like in a startup, find metrics you can easily track in a graph.

Starbase’s accounting system didn’t talk with the customer support ticket system, which resulted in customers getting support even if they never actually paid for the software, which resulted in longer DSOs then we had to have.  We couldn't easily inform customers when the defect was fixed by engineering because the CRM app didn't talk to the defect tracking system and version control. These disconnects cost us margin and didn't help us build raving fan customers.

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