Summersault update

Dog SpotterIn November, I posted about what's been happening with me professionally and with my company, Summersault. I appreciate everyone who has asked for updates since, knowing I haven't always had clear or concise updates to give. In case we haven't talked in person, here are a few of the highlights five months later:

In December 2013, I completed the transitions of staffing that I talked about in the previous post, such that I became the sole remaining person at the company. I was grateful that my now former co-workers were all able to find new job opportunities throughout that transition.

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How I learned to run a business

Meeting RoomContinuing in the theme of last week's post on how I became a computer geek, I thought I'd also share some thoughts on how I learned to run a business.

I get asked now and then what path led me to the world of business ownership/management, and I think the short answer is that I've always just learned what I needed to know to support my other interests and passions, and in one particular long-running case, that meant learning the world of business. I've never set out to run a business for the sake of running a business, and I don't have any formal educational training in that skill set.

I'm not sure that my story should be any kind of model for others; I don't claim that I've always learned to run a business well, and I'm sure that there are many things I could and should have done better over the years. But by at least a few traditional measures of my company Summersault's performance from 1997-2013 - profitability, financial stability and customer satisfaction - I think I can claim some success along the way.

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Y Combinator wisdom on helping startups succeed

LaunchPad_300I just finished reading Randall Stross's The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator, a great accounting of the origins, growth and successes of the seed accelerator company that helps "budding digital engineers."  This blog post is a little bit book review, but mostly highlighting the wisdom that Y Combinator seems to capture and employ in its work helping startups succeed.

I could not help but take in that wisdom and Stross's stories through the lens of my own experiences creating a tech company, and while I felt affirmed in having learned a lot of the things that Y Combinator tries to teach its program participants, I also had plenty of forehead slapping moments about things I wish I'd understood better.  I think some of those tidbits are very relevant to what I'll do next, and present day efforts to invigorate the local tech economy here in Richmond, so I'm including some comments on them here too.

If you don't already know about Y Combinator, I encourage you to check out their website, or watch this very recent interview with Paul Graham, who has headed the company's efforts most of this time.  The bottom line is that they host a three-month program in Silicon Valley to help startup companies with the money, advice and industry connections they need to go from concept to initial implementation, ready for investors to take them to the next step.  As Stross describes, they focus on admitting young groups of founders who are going to bring the hard work and innovation needed for success, even if their initial idea for a startup isn't sound. If you use Dropbox, you're benefitting from a startup incubated at Y Combinator.

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What's happening with Chris and Summersault?

Chris on Cadillac Mountain2013 has been a year of change for me in my professional life and at my company, Summersault.  The changes were set in motion by a combination of intentional planning and dealing with the unexpected, and navigating them has been challenging and stressful, but I think ultimately worthwhile.

The company has been around since 1997, and so we have a number of supporters and interested observers who we've connected with over the years, locally here in Richmond, among our clients and vendors, and of course among our friends and families.  As I get questions from them about "what's happening with Summersault?" and "what's happening with you?" I know I haven't always been clear in my responses, in part because the answers (or how to talk about them) haven't always been clear to me.

As I've built Summersault with care and attention to the complex interactions between business needs and human needs, so I've also wanted to give that same care and attention to times of transition and restructuring. It was - and still is - a challenge to share publicly about professional changes that have many layers of complexity. It's a challenge to answer questions about what these changes might mean for individual employees while honoring their privacy. It's a challenge to talk about new directions while acknowledging the interests and concerns of our clients and the services we might still provide to them. It's a challenge to speak about areas where we have encountered difficulty with our local economy, talent pool and business climate without seeming to disparage the good work of people trying to improve the same. It's a challenge to share about the specific difficulties, frustrations, opportunities and realizations that have led to these changes while maintaining harmonious relationships with coworkers, clients and supporters who might have their own and different narratives about Summersault's history and evolution. It's a challenge to distill the feelings, hopes, disappointments, anxiety and messiness that go with owning and running a business with a history and identity in a community I care about, let alone making big changes in that identity. So, when people ask me "what's going on at Summersault?" and I find myself speaking in vague or jargony terms about it, it's clear that I've not done a good enough job of meeting all of the above challenges!

Here, then, is an attempt at answering those questions more clearly, based on what I know and can say now.

Q: What's changing at Summersault? Continue reading What's happening with Chris and Summersault?

The end* of website development as a profession

Glass Art at Indy Art Center

In the beginning was the <blink> tag

In 1997 I co-founded a company whose business model was based on the value of building highly customized websites for our clients.  Those clients often didn't know (or want to know) much about the inner workings of HTML, Photoshop, hyperlinks and web hosting, but they knew that the World Wide Web and the Internet represented a new era of marketing and communications, and it was worth paying someone else to figure those details out so that they could be a part of that in some form.

And so in a time before content management software, Google, PayPal or GoDaddy, we - like other web development companies starting to pop up around the world - built websites, online stores and interactive community tools from scratch.  At first we hand-coded sites in HotDog Pro or BBEdit, and then later used Dreamweaver and Fireworks.  We created complex software applications using Perl, and others used PHP, Python, TCL and C.  We tested for compatibility with Netscape and Internet Explorer, and we submitted links to AltaVista for crawling when we were done.

That model evolved as we went and worked pretty well until around 2008, when we saw the maturity of many new "software as a service" offerings and a bunch of off-the-shelf tools and programs that often made custom website development unnecessary, or at least seen as too costly in the eyes of clients who once had few other choices.  We also saw the focus on developing an online presence shift away from "doing it right" to "doing it quickly" - edgy, authentic and in-progress began to trump polished and highly produced.

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Are your professional strengths being used well every day?

Extinction Level EventIn reading the Gallup book First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently, I encountered their list of questions that, when answered by close to 200,000 employees across almost 8,000 business units in different companies, turned out to be a good measure of organizational dynamics that led to lower employee turnover, higher productivity, and higher customer satisfaction.

At their core, the questions are asking an employee whether they feel their strengths are being used every day at their organization. The questions are simple and applicable across a lot of different kinds of organizations; I've listed them out below.

Using the free open source software LimeSurvey, I set up the questions in an open ended online survey on Summersault's Intranet.  Around twice per month, a randomly selected subset of the staff get an automated email invitation to answer the survey, anonymously by default but with the option to provide our names if we want.

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