Migrating VPS Providers and Why

A while back, I talked about legacy hosting providers and the value they hold (or in many cases, don’t). I touted the benefits of procuring your own Virtual Private Server (VPS) or if you only have one or two sites, finding someone like me that can host your stuff reliably with all the bells and whistles for cheap. These old legacy guys bank on you being too lazy to move your stuff so they can continue to charge you like they did in 1997.

I still contend that VPS is the way to go, but as mentioned above, reliability is key. Your site is no good to you if it is down all the time and if you run an eCommerce site, no amount of sales prices, SEO, and great product can contend with not being up. This is where we started running into problems with our old host and I’d like to share the last year with you to explain why I moved and why you should too if you’re having the same issues with your VPS provider.

I would also like to note that I will be critical of the old provider and name names, and I am not receiving anything from the new provider to write this. I am writing to share my experience as a customer of two competing services and show you that it is not hard to migrate VPS services, even for a non-server-admin like myself.

About three years ago, I tagged onto a friend’s VPS and DNS services for a split MX record on myTooq.com. As things progressed and I started building sites, I essentially took over his VPS with him running a few projects there still. This VPS was with A Small Orange based out of Atlanta, Georgia. They were excellent as far reliability and customer support went. I mean, I was (am) an idiot when it comes to a lot of this stuff and I could send an email and get their help on anything. They wold respond, usually within minutes and things would doing what I needed them to be doing in no time. Roughly two and half years ago, my buddy was looking at their site pricing and found that he was being charged about 25% more than the current rates for a more powerful VPS. When he asked them about it, he was basically told that it was his duty to ensure that he kept his eye open for better pricing (which I agree with).

We discussed things and migrated to their “Cloud VPS” service and things were pretty great for a while. We had a faster rig, lower price, and ASO migrated everything for us with no major issues. Then, in January of this year, I received an email from a client that his site was down along with his email. This was on a Friday afternoon, and a quick check showed that everybody was down, which I think at the time was a total of 32 sites, of which about 26/27 were externally facing client sites. I fired off an email to support as I had done several times in the past and didn’t hear back for a little longer than normal. To make a long story short, ASO had farmed out this part of their business to another company (I think HostGator), and they had a massive failure. I woke up Saturday morning to an email stating that all backups had been lost along with the data on the server. We relied on their backups for our data (I know now this is very bad practice). I did an inventory of the locally stored assets I had (I had a few full site backups and a lot of content backed up) and started contacting customers to share the bad news. I was essentially going to have to rebuild thirty sites as a fast I could and I was devastated at the prospect. By Saturday night, I had a few site back online and was stressed out and exhausted. Sunday resulted in a call with the possibility that they would be able to recover at least some of the data and luckily by Sunday evening, almost all of our sites were back up and running (the rest restored overnight). Not all of their clients were so lucky.

As it turns out, ASO had built their own system and had planed to start migrating customers on the Monday and had the failure happen a week later, it likely would not have affected more than a handful of people. I talked with a few of the ASO execs and decided to give them another shot (and commended the grace under fire of their support staff). I also provided some feedback on communicating more openly about what was happening. Obviously, they don’t want to announce that kind of failure to the world, but they were not thorough with their email lists and important communications were being missed. Our sites had been deployed to the new in-house cluster on the Sunday night and we were set to go.

Fast forward a few days and things are down again. Turns out there was a hardware failure of a non-destructive kind (I could go check my emails to see what it was, but the specifics aren’t huge here).  They get things fixed and things are up and running. Then a couple of weeks later, something else goes. Then again, and again. Downtime is not usually massive, but anywhere from 5 minutes to half-an-hour at a time every 10-15 days is still unacceptable (and this is when I or a client would notice). I installed Copperegg for monitoring and found that things were down far too often to be considered reliable anymore and it was time to change. I set up an account at BigBrainGlobal.com after reading reviews on a web hosting forum and seeing many reviews. They migrated everything for me, but I wasn’t ready to make the full switch. I developed new sites there and left the old sites with ASO for several months.  The BBG VPS also had better specs (2x cores, 4X RAM, 3.5 X storage, & more monthly bandwidth than I can dream of using) and an easy to find lifetime 25% off deal.

Since the summer, I have not seen an unplanned outage on BBG. There was a maintenance outage with a few minutes of downtime, but it was done late at night and well communicated and literally 5 minutes long. They sent an email warning about Hurricane Sandy and that they had prepared as best they could, but their data centre was in the storm zone and may be affected. Luckily, their preparations prevented any issues and all was fine (staff was safe too). During the storm, they sent out one or two updates. When the danger had passed they sent out an email. I knew what to expect while they were in the middle of a hurricane.

Last week, I remigrated all of the sites from ASO to BBG in an afternoon and with no major issues (had to remigrate to catch changes made in the 5 months of BBG running next to ASO). I had a few things to fix up with some certificates and site references, but essentially it was pain free. Things are now running on a much beefier server for a lower cost and I don’t have to field calls every ten days about things being down. I will say that BBG’s support does not respond quite as quickly as ASO’s does, but it is certainly still something I’d consider reasonable (fast by most company’s standards). They also seem to know how to solve things quickly and permanently.

I think that A Small Orange is undergoing some growing pains and suffering their own success. Their infrastructure is not matured and reliable, communication procedures are going more corporate (cautious and worried about legal over accessible, timely, and direct), and lots of new support staff aren’t yet as knowledgeable as their senior peers. I will still say to this day that ASO support, even newer staff, are some of the best support agents when it comes to speed, empathy, and taking ownership of a problem. I wish them, and ASO, the best as they figure out this growth spurt. As to Big Brain Global, I look forward to reliable service and growing my business with your services.

Migration is pretty easy. If your host isn’t cutting it, make the call and make a change. A small amount of pain to migrate offers a chance to receive better service and uptime, but you can also find better pricing and juicier servers in the process.


How to Acquire or Market to New Customers

I haven’t posted in a little while, and just tripped across an answer that I posted for someone on Quora a while ago, but I though that I would share it here.

The question was asking how a small customer facing business could market to or acquire new customers. You can read the original post here.

The following was my response:

There are numerous means of acquiring new traffic to a brick and mortar store, many of which are inexpensive and some of which are free.

Keep in mind it costs less to keep an existing customer than it does to find new customers. Ensure that the customers you do have are having their expectations exceeded. This will result in repeat business and word of mouth that is invaluable.

Methods of delivery:
Online Presence
– Start a blog about your business that demonstrates your expertise in your field. For a restaurant it might be posts about locally sourced food, special preparations, etc. For a spa, maybe a new product line or ways to extend the benefits of a treatment.
– Twitter and Facebook can both help with getting your name out. Essentially ask your existing clientele to “like” you (Facebook) or ‘follow” you on Twitter. As you post interesting content, they will share their content with people in their social network.
– Sign up for MailChimp or a similar service and mail a newsletter at regular intervals. While this doesn’t necessarily bring in new customers, it may bring your existing customers back more often. 
– Some companies have had success with Groupon and similar sites. Between the discounted pricing and the site’s fees, this may or may not be a wise channel to market your business.

Traditional Marketing
– Ads in a local weekly paper can be purchased relatively cheap and the price can be further reduced if you purchase numerous ads in advance.
– Donate to worthy causes. Silent auctions and the like are often in need of items and services to help raise money. You get a new customer and some exposure.
– Flyers. You can often receive flyer distribution quite inexpensively and targeted by postal/zip code. This makes it easy to test the return on investment.
– Sponsorship of local events (music festivals, art shows, etc) can provide visibility.
– Radio, television and newspapers – getting into a greater expense, so I won’t expand on these.

And the number one way to increase traffic flow? 
Ensure that your front line staff are engaged with each and every one of your customers. As an owner or manager, make it your goal to talk to ever single person that comes through your doors, even if only to extend a warm “hello”.

Remember that a great experience is without explanation a good thing, a terrible experience will result in a complaint allowing you to turn it into a great experience and the worst is a mediocre experience. Any customer that is not angry (and then wowed) or wowed from the start is not going to sing your praises and help you grow your business.

Things to deliver:
Ensure you have a solid offering to present when choosing your methods above. A flyer campaign is not going to do much good without some kind of offer to compel people to visit you. This does not mean that you have to offer a 50% discount, but rather have a call to action that results in customers paying you money for something of value.
– Ask your staff for things are lacking or could be improved and act on their advice.
– Ask your customers what would improve their experience and what would make them return more often.
– If you setup Facebook, Twitter and/or a blog, tell your customers about it and provide the links so they can sign up
– Be creative in your marketing. If you send an email newsletter, try a discount for bringing a friend with you, or a deal on an additional service, etc.
– As each customer leaves, ensure that someone has invited them back. “Thanks for coming in today Susan. Please come back and see us soon” goes a long way.

This is fairly long, and I could go on for a while. Depending on the business, location, management and a host of other factors, the strategy will change. Don’t afraid to be creative in your customer acquisition, but be sure to evaluate the return on investment and measure the success of each method. If one method fails, move on. If a method works, keep it in your arsenal and keep trying new things.


Concept Engineering Site Launch

I have just launched a website built for Concept Engineering. 

concepteng.ca screen capture

This was a fairly comprehensive site with a lot of different components and a client with an eye for detail. The main features of the site include:

  • jsp image slider on the home page with text
  • A blog re-purposed as a newsfeed
  • A client area with Dropbox like functionality (great for sharing engineering docs when they are too large for email)
  • Dojo slider displays for projects and services
  • Lightbox call outs

The project was not on a set timeline and getting it right was more important than getting it done (they had an existing site already). There was a lot of emails and phone calls back and forth in between adding elements and gathering feedback. From little tweaks to a couple of big changes early on, it was a challenge and a lot of fun to work on and I managed to learn a lot as it went along.

Concept Engineering already had a good handle on their branding and did not want to veer too far away from that. The colours, logo and some other key elements were important to keep to prevent losing the familiarity gained with their prior branding efforts. Like many other clients we talk to, they simply needed a site that they could maintain without waiting on somebody else to make those changes and so I built the site with Concrete5. They can make their own updates easily, add projects, add staff and generally manage the site on their own, only calling me if they are too busy or get stuck on something.

A big thanks to Jason, Gary and Cam at Concept Engineering for their business and their input.

_________

Also, just a reminder to check out Yeggers. I’m still poking away at the concept and trying to validate whether this is a viable way to garner website clients. If you know someone that might be interested, please pass it on. Feel free to leave a comment with what you think of the idea, pricing, value, etc.


Client Video

I wouldn’t bill myself out as a video guy by any means, but one of our clients (Doug at Solalta Group) wanted a video to showcase a property he has in the Dominican Republic that is looking for partners. I spent a couple of hours on a concept idea that was really rough, but showed him what I was able to accomplish and he liked it.

I spent a bit more time tweaking, tightening and messing around and managed this:

 

Working with Doug over the past little while, I have seen numerous pictures of the property and the area and people surrounding it. Doug splits his time between Edmonton and the DR and has shared tonnes of information about living there, the food, the lifestyle, the people and more. I have on more than one occasion tried to point out that I might be able to better complete work and design for his projects if he were to fly me to the DR, but to no avail. Hopefully my future holds a trip for even a short vacation. Hopefully during the middle of an Edmonton winter too.

As to the production? Pretty much value budget tools all the way around. Prezi was the canvas with pictures text and video all laid out there. I then used Camtasia to record the screen and audio as I panned through the Prezi presentation. The whole thing is shot in one take with the only edits being splices at the beginning and end and fading the volume in and out. It took a few versions to find something that worked, something that Doug liked, and had the timing right. There were countless dry runs to try and get the timing right and somewhat close to the music’s beat.

The music and some of the photos came from here. If you look closely, the Youtube video has simply been embedded into the presentation layer. The crop I made at the beginning of the video was to cut me pressing play.

While I don’t foresee any Oscar nominations for this season (I didn’t one for this either), it was pretty fun to do, especially since Doug was throwing around ideas and I thought I’d take a stab at something. If you happen to be a developer/financier looking for a project and you want more information about Doug’s Royal Palms project, you can get in touch here: http://solaltagroup.ca/contact-us/

 


No-to-Low Budget Bootcamp Pt1

Bootcamp is probably not the best term for this post. One, I haven’t had a lot of time to post lately and today is no different. Two, I’m hardly one to espouse advice on what does and does not work as far as marketing goes. My successes have been well tempered and often failures, but I think many of the ideas are still valid, worth sharing and may help you come up with variations or improvements.

Shotgun Marketing

First off, there is no magic marketing bullet. You are not going to start on Twitter today and be overrun with customers tomorrow. A flyer drop this week does not mean you’ll be swamped next week. If you’re a small business and just starting with low or no cost marketing, you have to focus on the long tail. You should and will try many different avenues, techniques and tactics to attract attention and drive customers to your door. Do NOT sink all of your budget or time into one single avenue. If it does not work, you are fucked and have no means of trying something else.

The goal of shotgun marketing is to spend time and money on several avenues without spending too much time or money on any single avenue. Instead of one magic bullet, you’re firing hundreds of pellets in the direction of the target and seeing what hits. For each avenue, you are able to see what works and what doesn’t and adjust your focus to spend resources on the paths that work and stop with the things that don’t. This does not mean you’ll never experiment again with things that didn’t work this time around. If anything, you have a little more knowledge and can execute better the next time, but with some skepticism.

With that being said, some things are not readily measured (yet) and may not appear to be doing much for a while. Twitter may not show any direct result for ages, or ever, but without being there, you’re missing out on the conversation altogether. It’s not a direct marketing type of thing, so you don’t see direct ties to the bottom line.

WOM

If you have a great product or provide a great service (or cheaper, or faster, pick two of the three as the old axiom says), and consistently deliver what you promise, it stands to reason that in good time, you will attain a solid level of Word-of-Mouth advertising.  Keep in mind this works both ways though. Piss a customer off and they’ll tell everyone they know.

Social Media

Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, and a slough of others. There are many ways to utilize these services in ways that can benefit your business and many ways to get ignored forever online. I’m not going to give a full breakdown on how to best utilize any of these networks as there are plenty of others that have written about them far better than I ever could. The biggest thing to keep in mind? You would never walk into a cocktail party and introduce yourself with the line, “Today only! Super deal on widgets and widget installations! Tell all your friends!”. Just because you’re online, doesn’t give you the right to act like a douche canoe. Build relationships, respond to criticisms and contribute to the conversation. The internet is not a free, flyer delivery system, so don’t treat it like one.

If you’re lucky, your customers are talking about you online and you have the opportunity to take part in the conversation, but only if you are there to hear them.

For some good reads on using social media, check out Unmarketing by Scott Stratten, The Thank You Economy by Gary Vaynerchuck and Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith.

Networking

Chamber of Commerce, Toastmasters, local business associations, online industry meetups, industry conferences, the grocery store. Get out there and meet others, and just like social media, you’re there to build relationships, not sell.

Doorknocking

I don’t necessarily mean you should go door to door and sell stuff, but rather, think of businesses that compliment yours and ways you could work together for mutual benefit. If you sell kitchen cabinets, then find someone that sells tiles, someone that does kitchen renovations, home builders and the like, and go knock on their door. Ask to see some of their work so you can recommend them to your clients that ask. Ask them to keep you in mind when their clients ask about cabinets.

An amazing number of people will let their business fail before doing this. It’s uncomfortable, and can seem socially awkward. But again, it is about building relationships, not selling. If you’re driving business to someone else, in most cases they will try to reciprocate and if you work together, both businesses can benefit greatly.

Leaving it there for now…

There’s a lot more I could write on this, and will at some point, but I’m out of time for now. I’m not even proofing this before posting. I’ll add more later and revise this one if need be.


MYSMB Part 1 – Assess Value, Passion, and Risk

Holy smokes I’ve been busy. I’m supposed to be working on something else right now, but promised to get this series rolling out last week and then again this week.

As a quick aside, we launched websites for Essex Appraisal and Kimberley Studios over the last week. Both are simple CMS websites built with Concrete5 and Kimberley studios uses a Wufoo form for the online rental application. I’ll be launching our own consulting site soon as well as a new business line for the embedded hardware geeks out there. Details to follow here soon.

Anyways, on to Part One:

Marketing your Small Business – Know what you do, what you’ve done and what you need to succeed.

Before looking at print, television, radio, social media, word of mouth, or any other channel of advertising, your budget and ad copy, the most important thing to do is figure out some answers to a few questions:

What is it you provide in exchange for money, or other goods, that provides value to your customers?

That question may sound absolutely stupid for many business owners. “We sell widgets you idiot” you’d say, or “We build websites” or whatever it is that you do. These responses all answer part of the question, but not all of it. Widgets and websites themselves can be great products and services, but anybody can sell widgets or create websites. I can buy widgets from anywhere. I can pay almost anyone to build a website if I need it. The goal of this question centres around the VALUE you provide. And not value from your perspective (“We’ve got the best widgets out there”), but the value from your customer’s point of view (“Their widgets are good enough, but their service is really good and they make it convenient”).

Because anyone can sell products and services, the goal is to see how you add perceived value over your competitors. Maybe you provide better service, guarantee your work, faster service, better communication, free upgrades, bulk discounts, or whatever else you do that your competitor doesn’t. Maybe you’re an expert in your field and can support your product, while the other guy carries widgets as part of his product line but doesn’t know a damn thing about them.

Your value proposition will likely take some time to evolve and may continue to continually revolve. With our website business, we’re working with clients while we shape how we can add and scale our value. While right now, this sees us spending time on non-chargeable activities, we get to run experiments to see if certain services are viable to offer to all of our clients. Every client we work with has different needs and we end up working on a lot of non-website (and non-billable) work. We’ve sourced tradeshow booths, signage, business cards, done flyer design, fixed computers, swept showroom floors, and a million other things. Our main value is that we’ll do pretty much anything to help small business owners get started and succeed. Does that scale? Not in the slightest. But while we’re small and getting started, we provide a huge amount of value for our clients and we get to evaluate offering new services.

Know your customers and where you might find more

Talk to your existing customers or your potential customers. Ask them what makes them come to you for widgets in the first place and what keeps them coming back. While you’re at it, ask them if there is anything that would make them come back more often or tell others about you. Think about alternate channels that you might find new customers that you haven’t looked at before. Consider narrowing or widening your scope.

Engaging with your customers provides insight into how they view your products and services, giving hints at where to find more. You might sell a widget that prints dollar bills and find out a client uses them as a cheap doorstop alternative. Instead of being offended that “their using it wrong”, you may find yourself in the doorstop business too. Define these verticals as a means of targeting where to spend your marketing dollars.

What makes you passionate about your business?

One client set out on his own because his old employer rarely did right by their customers. He knew he could deliver better service, at a better price and would not have to lie to get their business. He’s a great craftsman, does top notch work and is one of the most honest guys in his line of work. Sure, his pricing is lower than anyone else in the city, but his value is in getting accurate estimates and schedules and no price shenanigans. As he starts out, things are moving slower than he wants it to, but he’s building a foundation for a business that will be there for decades if he so chooses.

I started myTooq because I felt that there was a lack of real solutions for small business owners to manage their own books without complication or year-end expenses to have their accountant track down and fix their mistakes. I love seeing small business owners transform from idealistic dreamers that think about making the leap, to the their first sale, to hiring the first employee, and hopefully to that point where money in exceeds money out. When the doors fling open on day one and no one comes rushing in, there is a sense that I can help people through that and channel the lows into making progress. I’ve been in that depressing low stage of business ownership and the only way out is to do something productive that works toward your goals. Helping SMBOs is what I love doing.

If you think back to why you started in the first place (or if you’re thinking of starting, think about why you want to jump into the unknown).

Where lies your risk?

All business ventures contain some element of risk. If you chase down the wrong path, make a big spend on a television commercial campaign and it flops, what will that do to your business? Are you better to focus all your efforts on one area of marketing or spread yourself to have many ‘lines in the water’? Can you afford to experiment. Ensure you listen to that little voice in your head when it comes to risk. It’s easy to listen to the big shouty voice that says “YES! RADIO ADS AND TELEVISION ADS WILL MAKE ME RICH!”, when you should give some credence to the little voice back there saying “but if they don’t, I’ll need a bankruptcy lawyer. Maybe lets look at other things too”.

Ideally, the value you add for customers combined with your passion and knowlegde will be the bedrock of how you market your business. Knowing where your risk is at will help eliminate high cost avenues of advertising and marketing and help you operate at a level where you can sleep at night and gain incremental results.

Lastly, never underestimate the power of word of mouth advertising. If you’re in a business that’s all about burn and turn, no amount of marketing or advertising will help you keep a business running in the long term. You’ll eventually run out of suckers and your reputation will precede you in all that you do.

If you’re in a business where repeat sales are rare due to the nature of the product or service, you need to wow the pants off of every client so they talk about you. If you install hardwood floors for a living, it’s not likely that you’ll be back in a few years to install new floors again (and if new floors are needed, they are not calling you this time around). Assuming you sell good flooring and do a great job of installing it, you’ll probably get some good word of mouth for the first little while. But over time, the floors are not new anymore and your smiling installer face fades from memory. Why not send a bottle of good quality hardwood floor cleaner out at the first couple of anniversaries of the installation with a handwritten note thanking the client for their business again? Maybe in year 8 or 9, you offer a discount on refinishing services and the cycle starts again. Even if you don’t see repeat business from the customer, you can bet that anyone that brings up hardwood with them will hear all about you.

And if you sell consumable items or services, the goal should always be to be the first and only place people would ever think of buying from. Always look at the long tail and never pre-profile a customer. The person buying a tiny widget today, may be the guy coming back to buy a thousand of them next week. Treat every customer as if your business depends on their loyalty. It does.

(Note: I’ve used advertising and marketing interchangeably throughout this post and I’m aware this is not quite right. The post was written throughout the day without proofing and requires a little more work. I’ll make some updates over the next day or two.)

Next Post: No-to-Low Budget Bootcamp

 

 


Marketing Your Small Business

With our recent addition of client services to our arsenal, a nice way of saying we’re now also doing consulting work, I’m seeing many of our small business clients struggling with or looking for ways to improve their marketing efforts. Over the next few weeks, I’ll post a series about different methods and means to market your small business.

While having a purely word of mouth referral business or one where repeat customers are the norm are great things, what do you do when starting out?  Certainly, either angle requires at least a few customers to kick start things. If you have transitioned from working on the side while having a day job, you have some relative safety when you make the leap with a few clients already talking about you. If you have made the leap before acquiring customers, be prepared for things to take longer and your customer acquisition to cost more. Maybe you’ve been around for a while but need to give your sales channel a shot in the arm.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll detail my experience and some of my client’s experiences with customer acquisition, what has worked and what has not. We’ll look at some of the traditional means (print, radio, television), guerrilla tactics you can use, and of course creating an effective presence on the web. When the series is done, I hope to have a helpful guide for small business owners that can help target limited budget dollars to effective means of letting people know you exist and turn them into customers.

Look for the first post later this week.