Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Small Business Hazard From the Sky

Farmer's Market Damage
Paint Can Missile
We've done farmer's markets for eighteen years.  It's an outgrowth of being a beekeeper for fifty years.  There's only so much honey you can use or give away.  The money is not really that good, it's often raining, people can be unpleasant and cheap, dragging your stuff around is a pain and a bunch of other reasons.  We were tired of moving all our stuff, loading, unloading, packing, unpacking, etc., and that's why we opened a small cafe.  We wanted a permanent roof.  Good ideas do not always follow bad.

At times we did as much as five markets a week.  Since the recession...thank you savings and loan policies and derivatives...the financial return has diminished.  People have few dollars to spend and there are too many markets and the commercial retail outlets have begun to figure out and feature "local," "organic" and all those other woods.

Today it was very windy and gusty, probably in the 35-45 MPH category.  These are not good days to put up tents so I decided to forego the tent, put out fewer products and broil in the sun.  Shortly after the starting whistle I was standing at the back of my truck digging out a few products.  I took five steps the the table and the sky went dark and I heard a loud crash.  A vendor's two tents had gone airborne, flown over his cargo van and collided with my truck.  Weighting the corners of your tent is important on all days.  His had four paint cans filled with concrete, probably about thirty pounds each.  That's what collided with my truck and landed where I had been moments before.  One was swinging by it's cord from my tailgate as much as saying "almost got you."

Later I had a string of customers who wanted to debate prices.  It passed through my mind that perhaps I should throw a paint can full of concrete over their heads.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Miscellaneous Frustrations in Not-Working

Real Estate...
The upgrade of the house is done and it's on the market.  The house is located in a great neighborhood (also desirable), looks good, and staged right but no one is offering.

My mother died two years ago and I've started the upgrade of her condo to put on the market.  It's a long story of why it's been empty but that does not really matter.  Demo is underway with a goal of having it on the market by the end of August which means some time in September.

Outplacement Frustration...
My executive coach is no longer with the outplacement firm.  They have a policy, or did, of letting a client take a leave of absence from the service.  We did that informally rather than formally and my online resources are no longer available.  Now not only do I feel a bit thrown under the bus by employers but also by the provided safety net, the outplacement firm.  This week I'll get on the phone and do my best (I am at my best on the phone) to get three months of online access.  My perspective on time has changed greatly since not working at a real job full time.  Everything takes more time than you think.

This noon I started a casual conversation with the CFO of a large corporation about a mile from my home.  Working there would be great for a couple of years.  My intent is to get in as some sort of project manager in the IT space.  The outplacement online resources would be helpful to refresh my knowledge in a few areas.

I run into people 50+ all the time who seem locked into a technology time warp.  Once they figured out email, sort of, that was it.  They don't use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest or read or write any blogs.  I'm not really sure how they communicate.  The younger crowd considers email as archaic as a home phone line.

For whatever reason I've dug a big of a 'too much technology' hole.  My password file has over a hundred entries (I avoid all those 'log in as Facebook' options) and while I have one or two primary email accounts there are many others for selective successful and unsuccessful projects and there are at least a dozen blogs of which two or three are active.  Yesterday I spent an hour configuring my iPhone to do an IMAP connection to an email account that I use to communicate with people that I really don't want to communicate with.  Recently I've been motivated by a tenant in the same commercial building who is less than thirty and netting about $30k a month from very astute blog monetization.  It's easy to avoid technology and avoid those kind of income streams and it's easy to get caught up in technology busywork like too many devices, to many software applications, too many geewhiz things and technology innovation dark holes.  Focus.  Really I should be using Wordpress since that's what all the really successful bloggers use and I have several implementations and profiles but it all takes time and when I feel like writing I gravitate to blogger and lament my lack of better branding, personal, theme, etc.  It's on the list.

We have DSL service at home.  I'd like to upgrade and get rid of our landline but my better half seems to like older phone technology like phones that don't need to be charged (I know, it sits in a charger).  The DSL service has flakey moments.  Our house has bad 1969 phone wiring.  It if rains DSL is flakey.  Other times it's flakey for whatever reason.  It's possible that it's the switch that feeds all of the access points and non-wired devices.  The other night I was having a technology meltdown and wanted to replace the switch.  It was 11:15 PM.  Everything was closed except WalMart which of course had what I needed because WalMart has what middle Americans need to live.  I decided to sleep on it but dreamt about computer crap.  It all worked in the AM.  If I replaced the switch with a new router I could eliminate three devices with one, free up space in the adjacent power strips and simplify my life when "reboot this1, this2, this3, etc." is the logical step.  Of course my life would also be simpler if it did not include IOS, Chrome, XP, Windows 7, Ubuntu and at least two other Linux distributions.  It's an interesting contrast that all the hardware and tools that cause me distress are Chinese.  Perhaps I need to start looking for old IBM and Compaq (USA made) PC's when prowling the garage sales for USA made tools, but perhaps not; China is our future.

About a decade ago I noticed that where ever I went people were talking about computer things, what they bought, what software working, gaming craps, etc.  For whatever reason I felt above that, that I knew more, and I probably did, already leveraging those sorts of things on an enterprise level, actually effectively.  Now, unemployed more or less, I'm bound up in devices, hardware, web abs, RSS feeds, archaic email, app development and content aggregation and publishing tools, cloud tools, archival and restoration issues, etc.

There are days that I just want to sit with my carving tools, a few brushes and a box of paints.  Actually that's what I'd like to do every day.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Finding the right (door) opening...

Small Business...

On Tuesday the commercial freezer at the cafe started to be noisy...I thought.  When you work around equipment you get used to the chaotic rhythm of compressors, fans, ice machines, etc., all compounded by customer conversation and your better half providing minute-to-minute instruction and evaluation.  Small business is the heart of America, according to many, actually the few who have also been instrumental is transferring our manufacturing might overseas.  They have jobs.  I don't.

It sounded like the compressor.  There was an unusual amount of vibration and the thing seemed to be banging.  Our repair guy showed up on WED right during the noon rush.  There is no extra space and we were climbing over him to get to the meat slicer, supplies, etc.  He's really good.  There are two evaporator fans inside the unit and two fans that provide airflow across the cooling coil.  The fans near the compressor seemed to have a bit of end play.  He only had one replacement with him.  We spent about an hour trying to get that to fit before deciding that was a dead end and that cleaning off the fan blades and the coil may have solved the issue.

Before we put it back together...this was the busiest Tuesday we've had for a while...we ran out of food at 1:30...the fire alarm went off and one of our suppliers made a large delivery.  It was a bit of chaos.  After the repair guy left I listened to the din of equipment and concluded that the freezer was much quieter. Good.

We close at 3:00 on Tuesdays.  About 9:15 PM I decided to stop and see if the freezer was making noise.  The fans were running and it was pretty quiet, quiet because the compressor had failed.  Checking the temperature it was clear that 49 cubic feet of frozen meat and supplies were going to thaw.  I walked into Menard's at 9:55 PM and bought two freezers. They close at 10:00 PM.  When I opened the back of the truck it was clear that that was where I'd thrown all the tools and supplies from the recent house remodeling project.

By 10:30 PM I was back at the cafe, had unloaded and unboxed the two freezers and made space for them.  At 11:15 PM there were cold enough to transfer contents.  I hung around until 1:30 AM to make sure the new freezers were cooling adequate.  I was tired and obviously had no options and there was no point in watching them.  What was I going to do at 1:30 AM?

At 9:15 PM when this was discovered we called three or four 24 hours emergency refrigeration companies.  Only one called back and it was ten hours later.  Apparently there is capacity for another firm in the Twin Cities who wish to work evenings and nights and charge whatever they want to save people like us.

Back at the cafe at 7:00 AM I started the quest to find a replacement freezer. These things retail at $11,000 but are frequently discounted to $3500-$4500.  There were three in the Twin Cities but all the delivery/install firms were booked for four to five days.  There must have been a desperate look on my face because one of the vendors gave a decent price of $3600, took off an additional $200 because of my stress and found someone who would do a same-day delivery to the curb for $85.

Later in the day we have a 485 pound crated freezer sitting outside the door.  My daughter and I wheeled the old one to the front door, the 83" front door and pondered the 84 1/2" 485 freezer.  That was the point where I started to lose it.  The freezers were 54" wide.  My better half knows some weird people but had assured me that she'd found someone who would show up and install the freezer, including moving it.  He called and I expressed my concerns.  Before I brought up the dimensions he said "I know it's taller than the door.  I've done this before."  My inclination was a sawzall.  He showed up with two wrenches and a channellock.  The it played out was this.  We used a 2x4 to lift up one end of the old freezer to remove the casters, repeated that on the other end and laid it on edge on a $14.95 four wheel dolly.  The process of getting it to the horizontal was foreboding.

The guy said "go on the other side and push it toward me.  I'll lower it onto the cart."  We'd taken out the shelves but this was still a solid 400 pounds.  My daughter had the job of placing the cart and steadying it under this load.  It worked.  We wheeled it out the door.  Bringing in the new one was a repeat, but in reverse.  The only downside was a second doorway.  This freezer was about 1/4" taller than the old removed one.  Once again I thought sawzall and offered to just make the doorway taller.   The final solution was removal of an apparently unnecessary 1/16" spacer on each caster.  This process involved the 2x4 once again and the guy in good position to be crushed or have parts crushed.

The electrical requirements were the same.  We plugged it in. It worked.

Small business, the heart of America...the American dream.  Yes.  At a 5% net profit we'll have to sell about 12,000  bowls of soup (more or less) to pay for the new freezer.

Part Time Less Than Minimum Wage Challenge
My son , through some of his work with the R programming language, made me aware of Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk).  Computers can do a great amount of work (I've recently watched the backlog of Mad Men and was intrigued with the 1950's ad agency's compulsion to show it's progressiveness by purchasing a computer to do I don't know what) but they do need help.  MTurk is a component of Amazon Web Services, a broad and extension range of computing resources, services and platforms.  People like me can sign up to complete services that computers may not be able to complete correctly like assigning attributes to photographs, selecting the funnier of two comical images, transcribe scripts, etc.  These are know as HITs, Human Intelligence Tasks.

I've now signed up as a worker and can review the thousands of options to complete work.  Prior to this I surveyed several articles by journalists who tested the waters of MTurk to see if you can actually make any money.  The bottom line is that you won't.  You might make minimum wage.  I'll provide an update.


MTurk has received much of the same criticism given to Uber.  Everyone is a contractor, responsible for their own supplies, tax obligations, etc., and the representation that as an independent contractor that you are responsible for your own inevitable success is mis-representative.  Were I not driving a full size pickup I might log into Uber once in a while.  They do have a great web site.  I'm short of time right now but it's on the list.

Outplacement Service...
I've given up on LHH.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A timeout from looking for work to do some real work.

One of my favorite blogs is written by a guy who farms with legacy equipment and daily ponders the logic and economic return of his work.  I've found it inspiring.  It's as much about diagnosis and repair as it is about farming.  At some level I feel bad that his equipment fails but I've found inspiration in his repairs, and of course I know that following each repair something is happening the field and he's productive.

My career was primarily as an IT executive.  Certainly there was a history of being able to code, build networks, lace together telecommunication solutions, conceive and write strategic plans, lobby for budgetary support, etc., but as I frequently say "I was an executive.  I had 'people' who did real work."

The past couple of months were spent on a house project.  The purpose and economics of that were detailed and complex but the bottom line was that it was a good personal journey, one that connected me with a real lasting product.  My art is creative and good, too, but probably lacks the conventional appreciation that this house project will receive.

During the IT career I implemented solutions that will last for a while, like an on-time, on-budget ERP system.  It's likely that no one knows or remembers my role in that.  The house project is interesting in that it's going away.  I can walk through a couple of more times but the work is really for the new owners, as of yet unknown.  It's something that I can feel good about, just as I feel good about the ERP project.  This one is probably good for at least a decade before someone decides to toss it out.

I'd really like to be able to tear apart a tractor engine and put it back together.  That might happen.  My 1952 (1951?) Ford 8N awaits my attention.

Who Asked For That?

It's possible that I've written about this before but it's time for a refresher.

Set Godin reminded me of this with his post on "press the busser"

It has to do with timing and intuition.  You can replace your car battery when you think it's about to die or you can replace it when it's -20 F.  Maintenance schedules are good but they don't preclude doing the right thing when it comes to you.

My best work during the 27-year gig were the projects that just seemed like the right thing to do.  Upon completion each one received the standard owner/executive/budgetary criticism/interrogation of "who asked for this?"  I've come to the conclusion that that is question that I choose to never respectfully answer again.  The user community loved the work, the products that they never asked for bu which made their work easier.

I'm looking for another buzzer to hit, right now.