The 2-hour, 2-hundred-dollar rule

I’m not a big believe in golden rules, generally. But we have 1 golden rule at work that supersedes all other rules. And that’s our 2-hour, 2-hundred-dollar rule. Which goes like this:

No one shall spend more than 2 hours or $200 on any one thing without first discussing it with the team.

I can’t claim to have created this rule, although I wish I had – Jeff did. I wish I had created this rule because I think it accomplishes two simple but great things:

  1. It speaks to the face we’re all equal in our responsibility to the company – Jeff and I follow this rule, all our staff follow this rule. We’re all equally free to explore, to think, to create – with a set boundary
  2. It provides some freedom to our staff to make their own decisions about what bugs they want to fully explore, what topics they want to read more about, when they want to push something to focus on perfecting something else.

I’ve used this rule to justify buying a particular ebook, ordering some new software and spending a morning optimizing 1 site by a few hundred milliseconds – all within the past 2 quarters. Nothing major, nothing ground-breaking, but allows me some freedom to just explore something of interest to me.

This same rule has also prevented me from spending all day improving the usability of a feature that is only used occasionally by a client, and already had an existing, functional interface. I simply brought up that I wanted to explore this, and that I thought I needed 4 hours. After discussing with the team, we determined it just wasn’t worth it, so I left it alone.

And that last, the case wherein the request to spend additional time is rejected may in fact be the most useful – because it forces the proponent to defend a position, it forces all of us to get up to speed on a project and to think critically about not only what’s best for us as a company, but what’s best for our client.

Creating a win

In my job, I do a mix of project work (larger bits, building sites, etc), tickets (service requests from clients) & management (running a company). Historically, I would spend my mornings doing the latter two tasks – they’re all piecemeal items that take anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 hours to complete, then I’d switch over to project work in the afternoon before wrapping up with a little management action – mostly status updates from staff/contractors.

This was ok, except that it really left only 3-4 hours a day to do project work, and in the afternoons which have *always* been less productive than mornings & evenings for me. I felt like I always had a huge pile of tickets and wasn’t keeping up with project work. Partially because we’re so busy, but partially just a sense because with such a short timeframe, I often wasn’t reaching a milestone within a day. And I like checking things off my to-do list.

So earlier this year, I started to push things around, and watch how things fell out. I don’t work fridays, and I don’t launch projects on thursdays (because I don’t work fridays), so I tried to do tickets & non-daily management tasks on Thursdays. This worked out ok for me, but less so for clients – they wanted tickets done before thursdays so that they could review them too. So now I’ve moved my “tickets” day to Mondays. And this has been an epic win.

I discovered that no one minded if I told them that their request would be completed the following Monday – even though they minded when I used to say Thursdays. I think that’s because mentally, Mondays are the start of something, even if it’s the next something, whereas Thursdays are near the end, so people are feeling rushed to finish before the end of the week. And because I’m not in the office on Fridays, there was always an extra dose of staff management, partner meetings & ticket requests to deal with anyways.

So now on Mondays I do tickets, I buy supplies, I check on staff, I check in on clients. I spend all day doing little 5 minute-1 hour tasks. By the end of the day, generally, my to-dos for the week have dropped to only the projects I’m working on and 1 or 2 others. And, rather than feeling stressed because I’m already behind after 1 day, I instead feel accomplished because I’ve cleared my slate and now have 3 solid days of “real” development ahead of me. Days with few interruptions where I can knock off milestones and get that satisfying tick on my to do list.

So I’m not doing any less work, or any different work. But just by examining how I worked, and looking at what clients were expecting, I’ve been able to shift my week around to be, on the whole, markedly more productive than it was prior to my making this shift. I’ve created a win for myself where previously there was generally only failure and “close”. This month we’re experimenting by putting everyone on this schedule. We now have enough staff that every day but Friday has 1 staff member knocking out service requests, freeing the rest of us to just to project work the rest of the week. I’m hoping that we’ll not only maintain our current turn-around-times for service requests, but potentially actually get a little faster with this system, even though each staff is spending only 1 day a week, rather than little bits of everyday.


Blast from the Past: Pencilneck Creations Site Mockup

At the turn of the century, I was finishing my degree & running my company as a sideline. Today, digging through my digital archives to find a file from that era, I found this: My photoshop mockup for the original Pencilneck Creations site (Pencilneck Software was born when I joined forces with Jeff. Given the nature of the company, we changed the company name slightly from ‘Creations’ to ‘Software’):

Pencilneck Creations
The remaining mockup from my original "corporate" site

Simple, very plain – this is definitely the style I liked at the time. Not that there was any fear of anyone confusing me with a designer. But looking at our current site (woefully out of date as it is), we’ve come a long way, baby.

Have Lunch with Me

I often waffle back-and-forth about the value of “soft” networking – where I’m not necessarily wanting something from the other person, or vice versa – but more just a “hey, how are you, what’s new?” A friendly interaction so that I know the cool stuff that they’re doing and vice versa. Defining a value for this is hard, and it does take time – which is one thing I often don’t have a lot of. On the other hand, there are lots of very cool people, locally, doing very cool, very diverse work. There may never be a direct professional reason for us to interact, but does that matter? Lauren & I get together for drinks semi-frequently (or semi-infrequently. Whatever the description, it’s probably not often enough). We talk some shop, but because we’ve been friends for ages, we’re just as likely to not talk shop. I don’t expect to get business out of it, but I do find I often come back from our sessions feeling re-energized about some particular topic or problem.

Being an entrepreneur can be fairly isolating – actually, that was one of the draws for me. I focus on my work, my business part focuses on sales, and magically money appears (where I by magically I mean we work really f’ing hard, but there’s definitely some magic to how it all comes together). But beyond our internal interactions, there’s very few outlets to talk, at large, about business ideas. I can read books, attend conferences, participate in online forums/discussions, but none of those replace good face to face interactions. What’s more, I firmly believe that local markets strongly influence companies – that is, 2 small companies from Vancouver, in different segments, are more likely to have similar issues than 2 companies in the same segment from different cities. Things like health benefits, paying staff enough to afford Vancouver’s exorbitant real estate, life balance, transit, parking, etc. When I meet with other small business owners or consultants elsewhere, we chat superficially, but there’s always this element of competition about our interactions. Lauren wrote very eloquently about defining your own success for BC Business, which I think is a key component when chatting with other professionals. I’m certainly guilty of being envious of colleagues’ successes. But lately, I find myself more able to celebrate their success, without feeling that inner lurch of envy. Possibly because I’m really proud of what I’ve accomplished, but mostly I think because I’ve learned that there’s no one whom I need to compete with more than myself. If I can always make my next project better, in some way, than my last, I’m doing things right.

So, loooong digression from the original point of this post aside, I’ve been thinking about trying to “network”. Wherein by “network” I mean “have lunch/drinks with people whom I think are doing cool stuff”. I follow on Twitter a whole slew of locals whom I’ve met here & there at some function but otherwise don’t know. This is often the case – I don’t do terribly well at functions – a room full of strangers – even a room full of friends is a panic inducing thought. But I may well have heard enough to want to know more, somewhen. Many I don’t even know what you do. I often end up with clutches of business cards or new twitter handles, without being able to remember why I even have them. But you seem interesting & I’d like to know more. So I’m going to try something out: I’m going to try & have lunch with someone local whom I think is doing something cool at least once a month. That might not seem like a lot, but it’s a start. I don’t want to sell you on Pencilneck Software, I don’t want to be sold on your company. I just want to meet you and listen to your story, tell you something about mine. Low-key, and spaced far enough part that I don’t stress out about it.


So what I’m saying, dear Vancouver, is that I’d like to have lunch with you. I’m booked already this week, but how’s your next week looking?

Newsletter Stats from the Pencilneck CMS

So our CMS, the Pencilneck CMS includes a email newsletter management system. With a little time between finishing one project & starting the next, I took some time to analyze the data we generate – in part out of self-interest, but also as part of a new project to provide additional analytics tools for our clients. Having spent the better part of a morning generating data, I thought I’d share this information with the general public. I’d love to know how this corresponds to the data from other newsletter delivery systems.

All times report are Pacific Time. All hours cited include the entirety of the hour. For instnace, 8AM means all time between 8:00:00 and 8:59:59, inclusive. For time-of-day reporting, I divided up the hours into 4 blocks – unequal in length but useful for business hours:

  • Midnight-7AM: the Pre-work period
  • 8AM – 11AM: the morning at work.
  • Noon-4PM: the afternoon at work.
  • 5pm-11PMt: the evening at home

Number of Newsletter Recipients: 7,956,301

These first few numbers are based on the number of sends, so when our clients decided to send a newsletter.

Most Popular Day to Send a Newsletter: Tuesday (34%), Monday (28%).
Least Popular Day to Send a Newsletter: Saturday(1%), Friday (5%).

Most Popular Time of Day to Send a Newsletter: 8AM-11AM (40%), Midnight-7AM (25%)
Least Popular Time of Day to Send a Newsletter: 5PM-11PM (2%),Noon-4PM(10%)

Most Popular Day & Time to Send: Tuesday Midnight-7AM (34%), Monday 8AM-11AM (30%)
Least Popular Day & Time to Send: Friday 5PM-11PM(1%), Saturday 5PM-11PM (3%)

These next set of numbers are the “best” results based on open rate. The Open rate was calculated by dividing the number of newsletters that were opened vs the number of newsletters received. A newsletter is considered received if our system did not receive any bounce notifications regarding the delivery.

Best Day to Send a newsletter: Sunday (35%), Monday (33%)
Worst Day to Send a newsletter: Saturday (2%), Friday (8%)

Best Time of Day to send a newsletter: Midnight-7AM (40%), 5PM-11PM(35%)
Worst Time of Day to send a newsletter: 8AM-11AM (5%), Noon-4PM (8%)

Best Day & Time to send a newsletter: Monday Midnight-7AM (65%), Sunday 5PM-11PM(45%)
Worst Day & Time to send a newsletter: Saturday Midnight-7AM(1%),Friday Noon-4PM(3%). And worth mention is Wednesday Noon-4PM (4%).

We also, by way of Geolocation via IP address, can track where a recipient opens a Newsletter. For our clients, we group this by Province & State for Canada, US, Mexico & Australia, and the rest of the world simply by Country. I discounted all geo-data with less than 100 total recipients, to single out places like Ghana & its 100% open rate based on 4 recipients. Actually, the same recipient, 4 times.

Best open rate, by Recipient location: Ontario (65%), British Columbia (45%)
Worst open rate, by recipient location: Alberta (4%), Minnesota (5%)

Finally, I looked at links, and where they appear within the source code. To do this, I stripped all the header & styling information from the HTML source, leaving just the body, and divided that into quarters to see which links were the most clicked on. These results are probably not that surprising, but nevertheless. I determined the click rate by calculating the total number of recipients who clicked on a link vs the total number of opened newsletters. I then split that up based on which portion of the newsletter the click was in.

Overall clickthrough rate: 11%.
Average number of links per newsletter: 6
Most links in a newsletter: 104

Clickthrough rate for links in the third quarter of content: 9%
Clickthrough rate for links in the first quarter of content:
Clickthrough rate for links in the second quarter of content
: 8%
Clickthrough rate for links in the third quarter of content
: 4%
Clickthrough rate for links in the last quarter of content
: 15%

Given these numbers, I then calculated the overall percentage of links per quarter of content:

Links found in the first quarter of content: 14%
Links found in the second quarter of content: 46%
Links found in the third quarter of content: 28%
Links found in the last quarter of content: 12%

I’m not entirely sure what to make of all this. Some other random notes:

  • In general, Ontario & BC have a vastly higher open rate than anywhere else in Canada.
  • For the US, the 2 coasts open a rate about twice as much as middle America.
  • Germans are the most diligent European newsletter recipients.
  • It seems fairly clear that the best way to get someone to read your newsletter is to have it arrive before they get to their desk, but not so early as to have a lot of mail arrive between it arriving and the recipient checking their mail. Monday mornings are definitely the best for this.
  • Wednesday shows a general dipping in all stats. It really is hump day.
  • People skim newsletters: That’s why the top & bottom of your newsletter have the best click-through rates. This is likely partially explained by “Click here to view online” & Logos at the top & Unsubscribe links at the bottom of newsletters.
  • I’d love to do some signal-vs-noise analysis of newsletter – that, the clickthrough rates based on % of content that IS as link vs % of content that is NOT a link. My belief is that briefer newsletters do better.

I’ve stored all this data, along with the queries used to generate it all so I can now do this semi-regularly. Ideally, I’ll find some time to craft a simple API on this so that anyone could pull this anonymous, aggregate data to use, but I suspect that will be a long-term back-burner sort of project.

Better redirection

For sites powered by the Pencilneck CMS, we’ve for ages and ages had what we called “Friendly URLs”. These are common across CMS’s, blogs, etc (some ironically, I don’t use them on because I’m too lazy to reconfigure my config & htaccess files). Back in the day, we did this by physically writing a folder to the server. Which was not ideal. So we then switched to redirected using ColdFusions onMissingTemplate() handler. In this instance, we have the IIS server trigger a 404 error, which calls a custom CFM file, which does not, in fact, exist. This triggers the sites onMissingTemplate() handler to actually read the URL and load up the appropriate page from the DB. This works well, but there’s a fair amount of overhead. Vs. the physical stub option, it added between 400-600 ms – not a huge amount, but enough to cause a noticeable overhead on busy sites.

But a while back for a larger project, we installed the Helicon ISAPI rewrite module for IIS. I’ve been using this for a variety of things on sites, such as locking down directories for documents, redirecting particular scripts elsewhere, etc. But I hadn’t set it up to handle our friendly URL system.

This past weekend, I finally spent the time to test out the difference – and it’s impressive. Despite running exactly the same script as the current OnMissingTemplate() handler calls, it runs much faster – on average, 80-100 ms (vs. 400-600 previously) – a significant decrease – I’m guessing because there’s overhead from IIS to generate the 404, hand that off to the custom 404 page, which doesn’t exist, so hands it off to the onMissingTemplate() handler which then calls this script. Now, the the ISAPI rewrite condition kicks in and it calls the script directly.

And now all of our sites are slightly more responsive, which is better for everyone!

The power of Twitter & the “Ellen Effect”

So, on Thursday, one of my clients, the Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue Association (VOKRA) was linked to from the Ellen DeGeneres Show’s Blog, after being mentioned on the show. At the same time, a tweet was sent from the @TheEllenShow twitter account (As an aside, the reason for all of this is that Anna Torv, who is the star of the Vancouver-filmed show Fringe, fosters kittens for VOKRA, so she’s now much cooler in my books than she was before I knew this). Because of this one-time spike, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at VOKRA stats to see what sort of effect this had on their site, particularly as I had been worried a huge flood of traffic might down our servers (for the record, they passed with nary even a flinch. The charts below will show why).

The Ellen Bump
The Ellen Bump

As you can see, traffic generated from Ellen gave VOKRA a huge, but very brief, jump in traffic, from an average of 300 visitors a day to 3900 visitors. Which is nice to see. But, given Ellen’s reach (she’s the 4th-most influential woman in media & has over 3 million followers on twitter), I had been expecting a larger bump from it.

What’s particularly interesting, however, is how that traffic arrived at VOKRA:

How Ellen Viewers reached VOKRA
How Ellen Viewers reached VOKRA

Twitter blew the link on Ellen’s blog out of the water, driving 3 times more traffic to it than the links on the blog. Of the twitter traffic, all but 100 of those clicks came either from the individual tweet or the main page of Ellen’s account – the split is about 50/50 (of those 100 remaining visitors, all but 3 came from my own tweet – thanks, followers!). Being mentioned on the show was nearly as powerful as the tweet. Breaking down those Google searches, the most common was “kitten rescue vancouver ellen“, which suggests to me that comes from people watching the show and searching. A mere 839 visitors clicked through from the blog post itself. Although, perhaps not that surprising: It takes far more investment in the topic to do that, as likely, you’ll

  1. Watch the show & become interested in the topic
  2. THEN go to the Ellen show’s website and read more
  3. AND FINALLY, click through to the end point.

Which is yes, only one extra step, but in terms of buy-in, seems much, much more to me.

A final analysis. What VOKRA wants more than anything when you go to their site is one of 2 things:

  1. Apply to adopt a kitten
  2. Donate to them

What’s disappointing is that all this traffic had almost no effect on either of those 2 goals. There were a few more applications than usual over the past couple of days – a total of 14, vs, I believe, 8 for same period the previous week. And there was no effect on donations – no increase in either number of donations or amount over the previous week (given the increase in visitors, their donations-per-visitor ratio in fact just took a huge hit).

My conclusions to the above? VOKRA’s homepage is not as effective as it should be in communicating those 2 goals, and should be looked at (hopefully this analysis will mean that I get the chance to do). Analyzing what visitors did at the site, nearly every visitor clicked on the big cat banner picture – and then nothing else. The 2nd most popular click was to the blog post about being on Ellen – and then nothing else. In fact, the links to adopt & donate did not see a similar-sized jump in clicks, whereas the blog, gallery¬† & about us pages all did.

Women in tech I admire: Lauren & Emira

So today is “Ada Lovelace day“, a brand-new thing, to celebrate women in Tech, something that is definitely an issue, as many have pointed out when looking at conference speaker lists and whatnot. And there’s plenty of awesome women in tech & design, and I’ve been fortunate to work with several. However, I’m going to tell a story about two in particular, and the two are probably pretty obvious if you know me: Lauren Bacon & Emira Mears

I met Lauren way back when, when the internet was still young enough that we often had to explain to people why they might want a website. I met Lauren in one of those circuitous routes that made it inevitable we would be friends: I had a class with her younger sister, who introduced me to Day, who at the time was working part time at Duthie Books on 10th, and also starting up a small company called “Envolve Communications” with Jason Mogus (Envolve later became Communicopia). Day then introduced me to Lauren, who had moved down from Prince George and was working for Day & Jason when I started working there too. Lauren and I worked together at Communicopia, where we also met Emira. Way, way back in 2000, Lauren & Emira left to start their company Raised Eyebrow. I left Communicopia shortly thereafter to burn-out in a dot-com startup, while they slowly but surely, built what seemed to me an entirely different business model – one that I longed for, but was definitely not convinced it would work. Given that they’re thriving and not only the company I worked for at the time, but all but one of our clients, vendors and partners no longer exist, their business model clealy works ;).

When I started a sideline development company, Pencilneck Creations, I got to work with Lauren & Emira. And let me tell you – I’ve never had better bosses than they. They were patient, but knew how to push me to get things done. They both inspired and were inspired by their clients, and passed that on to myself and other contractors they worked with. They had a zine (Soapbox Girls, now sadly defunct), that inspired me to start blogging regularly some 8 years ago. They fought hard for women in tech to be recognized. They fought hard for themselves to be recognized, and slowly, surely, they were. I don’t think it’d be a stretch to say that they are now one of the most well-known local design firms, particularly in the sector of social-tech and progressive tech.

Lauren & Emira were also an inspiration to me when I left Digitopolis and formed Pencilneck Software with Jeff – I knew how they had worked, and that gave me the confidence to think I could do it too. They were also incredibly kind to Jeff and I, and we did a number of projects together our first years in business.

Lauren & Emira have also written a book, The Boss of You, celebrate International Women’s Day as a stat at their company, write passionately about women in business in technology on their blogs, continue to build beautiful, functional, useful websites, and also reach out to not only help, but promote other women in business across North America. I’ve worked, and continue to work now with a remarkable number of women in tech & design, but really, none are quite as rockin’.

So today, for Ada Lovelace day, I’m celebrating Lauren & Emira.

Learning to celebrate success

I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic recently, because in my ongoing goal to emote more, this is a real easy arena to do something about, one would think – how hard can it be to take a moment to reflect on an accomplishment and self-congratulate? Very hard apparently. And why? Because I’m nothing if not an eternal Devil’s Advocate. Show me something good, and it’ll take all of 10 seconds to find something to quibble about – a counter-argument to a statement, an oversight, a mistake, a not-quite-perfect element. But it’ll take minutes, if not hours for me to come to the conclusion that none of those things matter, and what you’ve shown me is in fact, really quite good.

At work, this was never an issue when I was working by myself, or just with Jeff. I’m only ever as good as the project I’m currently working on. We didn’t stop to celebrate our success because we were always driving so hard for our next success. And, to be frank, because I’m leary of success. Looking at a finished website, and I don’t see a great project, I see a site that could load 0.2 milliseconds faster, or a function that’ll only work in these 15 scenarios, and not in these other 2, or a datbase that could be further optimized, or could have just a few more accessibility features, or … etc. You see the point. This doesn’t extend (generally) to other people’s work – I love seeing what other people do, and unless asked, generally approach it with an appreciative, rather than a critical eye. But I cannot turn my critical eye away from myself. I’ve discovered that as an owner and manager of a software company that my critical eye extends to everything produced by staff because whatever they produce is implicitly approved/produced by myself (I’m only as good as the software my team is currently working on). I’ve tried to do things as little as a fist-pump, or shouting “yes!” when I solve a particularly troublesome piece of code, which, actually, is very satisfying, but I mean on a larger scale.

Celebrating success is, however, important for corporate success. For both morale and for brand-building. I often encounter people who know our work, but don’t know that we were the producers of the work. This is largely because we at Pencilneck don’t have a great track history of celebrating our success. We haven’t been good about thanking our clients, or celebrating with them, despite feeling great about launching a project for them. We haven’t written press releases to puff out our chests so everyone can see what awesome work we’ve done, even when we’ve really deserved to. And I haven’t taken the time to pause and celebrate the completion of a project with my staff. And this, I think, can lead to problems down the road. So I’m committing myself to start to do this. I don’t know what exactly we’re going to do, but I’m going to make a point of pausing, with my team, when we complete a project, to celebrate. This won’t be a time to review the project with a critical eye to see how we could have done better. This will be an event, perhaps as quick as a meeting around the water-cooler, perhaps an evening out, to sit around, thank the team and let them bask in their well-deserved glory.

And how will we celebrate with our clients & partners? I don’t know. But we’ll do something this year to better mark the end of a project then simply saying “we’re live!”, and then turn around and start in on something else.

How do you celebrate your success?

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