In trying times, you need a better plan


I knew I was in trouble by the middle of last year. Every approach I had tried to getting new customers was meeting with the same results: nada. There were clues all around me, but I was stubbornly hanging on to my belief that I could get customers without rethinking what I was offering them. I tried radio spots, yellow pages, Google ads, cold calls and occasional prayers, but the customers stayed away in droves. As the economy melted down, I wanted to believe that was the problem rather than the way I was defining my value to the market.

Here’s the problem: If I tell someone that “We do custom software application development for local businesses,” I might as well be shining a halogen lamp at a herd of deer. The message simply does not connect. Even Bob Sytsma, my CPA, could not clearly articulate what we do in terms that would help prospective customers recognize our value.

Now most people who know me tell me that I am a reasonably smart fellow, but I was clearly not smart enough to find my way through this mess. So I started asking for help. I reached out to people in the community like Matthew Dunn, one of the brightest people I know. We had breakfast a couple months ago at the Rhodes Café and Matthew pointed out that I am one of the best planners and analytical writers he knows. What if I offered that service to others? He was inviting me to step outside the box I had defined myself in and look closely at what other assets I have in my inventory.

His suggestion prompted me to take a deep look at my business. I started by making a thorough assessment of my financial situation, my market offerings, my people and my business processes, and started to explore possible strategies. I wrote all of this down, not because I wanted to worship at the altar of a business plan, but because the thought process itself proved to have great value.

What emerged was the realization that there is one asset I had massively undervalued, and all it took was to think about that asset in a different way.

I have been a software developer for more than 40 years. I love the process of conceiving and building systems that help run businesses more effectively. In the process of building solutions for local businesses, I have developed a collection of code that I was thinking of as a “platform” that we could use to speed the development of custom applications. I showed this platform to Paul Grey, chair of TAG, who has had years of experience building and selling software, and he gave me a key piece of insight. There are three types of software programs: platforms, applications and features. He pointed out that a feature such as a $0.99 ring tone is easy to sell by the millions. An application is more difficult, and a platform is even more difficult. By positioning what I was offering as a platform, I was making it more abstract and more difficult to sell. Instead, he suggested that I position it in terms that people will easily understand.

I took Paul’s advice and simply changed the way I present what we do more as a set of features that form a solution to a specific business problem. I demonstrated this to one person after another, and the difference in reaction was palpable. Instead of shining a light at a herd of deer, it felt like I was offering them a garden of their favorite munchies.

My next clue came when I presented my program to the folks at the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce. They liked what they saw, but my inner geek was popping out in the ways I described some of the features and this was causing the halogen light and the deer herd effect. Drew Graham copped to completely tuning out when I slipped into geek speak.

So the lesson here is to let someone else demonstrate the product. But my ego resisted. “Who could possibly know more about it than me?” it asked. And therein lies the rub. My technical knowledge was getting in the way. If the product is so simple, it should not require me to demonstrate it. Someone who is not a techno-geek should be able to present it even better than me. So from this point forward, all demos will be done by Shelly Varner, my sales person. I will relegate myself to the back room where she can slip pizza under the door and let me focus on making the product better.

On to the next question: how to market this wonderful new product? Again, my ego wanted to drive the bus, but I am fortunate enough to have a lot of friends in this town who are graciously willing to offer me their help, support and ideas. One of these friends is Bruce MacCormack. He called me a couple weeks ago to introduce Sharon Atkins. Bruce thought Sharon might be able to help me with my marketing efforts. I met with Sharon and I am so thankful that I did. We had lunch on a Friday and I gave her that plan I mentioned. She thought about it over the weekend and we met the following Tuesday when she walked me through a plan that was bold, imaginative and exciting. I don’t know whether her ideas will actually work, but they are certainly better than mine.

So let me sum this up. I haven’t told you anything about the product I am about to release because if Sharon’s plan works, you will hear about it soon enough. The real point is that I asked for help from people smarter than I am, listened to what they said and parked my own ego. Now all I have to do is remember to feed the ego-parking meter while continuing to invite feedback and support from the great people in this town. Have you got any for me?


Bob Jones is the owner of The Socrates Group, which develops custom software applications for local businesses. He can be reached at


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