April 7, 2020

Small-Business Guide: Fearing Obsolescence, a Company Charts Its Reinvention

Started in 2002 and based in Nashville, Emma had grown quickly. By 2010, it had 90 full-time employees and 30,000 clients. It had recently passed $10 million in sales, but an awareness had begun to set in that its hardware system — built before the cloud even existed — was showing signs of strain. Capacity was running low and programmers had to navigate several layers of the system to update existing features or introduce new ones. These concerns crystallized at the conference when the Emma executives listened to Google employees discuss their plans for Gmail.

Hearing how innovative and agile Google’s software was and how many programmers the company could deploy, the Emma team began to question everything about the company’s ability to compete. “It became fairly obvious that we had to do something,” Mr. Smith said. But how were they going to rethink and rebuild the company while continuing to serve existing customers?

The first step, Mr. Smith said, was to “declare war on our technical-to-nontechnical staffing ratio.” Within a year Emma had ramped up its roster of developers from 20 to 41 — or nearly half of its full-time employees. “If we were to make this a world-class software company,” Mr. Smith said, “we needed to bolster our resources and look and staff up more like a software company.”

Next, the company considered a plan, outlined by consultants already on retainer, that was intended to extend the life of Emma’s existing system. But with a price tag of $250,000, the plan offered little more than a costly Band-Aid. As Mr. Smith and his team considered their options, they found themselves returning to the same question: What would Emma do if it were starting fresh?

Re-engineering both their platform and their products would take time, an anticipated 12 months, and it would cost money. They did not even try to put a price on the project. “It felt more like a commitment to a new way of operating than a one-time project,” Mr. Smith said.

They also knew that any transition process would bring glitches and delays and the real possibility that clients would flee. For an extended period, the company would not be able to adjust its system or processes; it would be stuck with all of the worst aspects of the old platform.

But if Emma did not rework its system, the company would lose long-term competitiveness, leading to a loss not only of existing clients but of future ones as well. In the end, Mr. Smith determined it would be riskier not to start over, noting, “Big fear beats little fear every time.”

When Mr. Smith looked for other small companies that had rebuilt their technology infrastructure, he found few templates. “I will say none of them had taken on the whole thing and certainly not in such a relatively short period of time,” he said.

One that came close is Stratose, a company offering health care cost-containment services in Atlanta. Ten years ago, it completely rewrote its own system, which its president, Tina Ellex, called “the Big Bang theory,” a tough process that required huge blocks of time and a dedicated team. Ideally, Ms. Ellex said, she would have preferred a modular approach. “Anybody would,” she said. “I’ve not seen a lot of companies do a complete rewrite.”

At Emma, the project took 18 months, six months longer than anticipated. And it cost $4.5 million. Preliminary research and design began in the summer of 2010. The company relied primarily on its own engineers and developers, hiring a small outside team to build one set of e-mail tools.

The principal operating guideline was to design a flexible system that would remove the need to do anything like this again. “We didn’t know what the marketplace would look like in five years,” Mr. Smith said. “Also, we didn’t know how databases would evolve in five years either. We couldn’t design for the future, but we could design something that could adapt to what the future will bring.”

Emma chose an application program interface design and a service-oriented architecture, which enabled it to produce and execute updates and new features. The design allows internal services to connect with each other as well as with outside services, which it had little ability to do previously. Emma also re-engineered its database structure to take advantage of cloud-based storage like Amazon’s S3 and new technologies like Redis and CouchDB.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/15/business/smallbusiness/with-its-technology-aging-a-company-reinvents-itself.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

McAfee Antivirus Software Pioneer Arrested in Guatemala City

The interior minister, Mauricio Lopez Bonilla, told The Associated Press that Mr. McAfee, 67, had been arrested on charges of entering Guatemala illegally. He said that Mr. McAfee had been arrested at a hotel in the capital and taken to a detention center for migrants who are in the nation illegally.

Mr. McAfee had been on the run for almost a month since his neighbor, Gregory Faull, on the Belizean island of Ambergris Caye was found dead at his home on Nov. 11. Police there cited Mr. McAfee as a “person of interest” in their investigation, but Mr. McAfee disapppeared.

But he did not disappear from the Internet. He kept up a continuous stream of comment on his blog and on Twitter, accusing the Belizean authorities of persecuting him.

On Tuesday, he resurfaced in Guatemala, dressed in a suit, his blond curls dyed dark brown.

Accompanied by his 20-year-old Belizean girlfriend, Samantha Venagas, and his Guatemalan lawyer, Telésforo Guerra, Mr. McAfee said that he would seek political asylum in Guatemala. Mr. Guerra, a former Guatemalan attorney general, told reporters at a chaotic news conference outside the Supreme Court that his client was being persecuted because he refused to pay Belizean authorities off any longer.

Mr. McAfee has not been associated with the software company that bears his name since 1994, when he sold it and began to pursue his other interests. He ran a yoga retreat and then built a complex in New Mexico to indulge his hobby of flying motorized ultralight airplanes.

He moved to Belize about four years ago, buying properties on the mainland and on Ambergris Caye. It was there that he clashed with Mr. Faull, who complained about the unleashed dogs that Mr. McAfee kept on his property.

On Nov. 9, several of the dogs were found dead. They had been poisoned.

During his time in Belize, Mr. McAfee had apparently become interested in developing a designer drug called MDPV. He posted extensively about his experiments on a Web site.

But he attracted the attention of Belizean authorities, who raided one of his properties in April. He spent a night in jail, but law enforcement officials found no evidence that he was producing methamphetamine and dropped the charges.

After that experience, though, Mr. McAfee appeared to become increasingly convinced that he was being persecuted by the Belizean government. Officials deny that they are persecuting him.

Mr. Guerra told Guatemalan reporters late Wednesday that since there was no warrant for Mr. McAfee’s arrest and since his client was not a fugitive, he would seek to have his client released and returned to the hotel where he would remain under guard.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/06/business/mcafee-antivirus-software-pioneer-arrested-in-guatemala-city.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

The Boss: Gerald Chertavian of Year Up, on the Power of Mentoring

Starting at around age 13, I had a series of weekend and summer jobs — everything from scooping ice cream, making doughnuts and pumping gas to working at the local golf course, where I had to line up carts for the players by 5 a.m.

One of my high school teachers recruited my older brother, then me, to attend his alma mater, Bowdoin College, in Maine. I volunteered for the Big Brothers Big Sisters program and was matched with a local student. The experience opened my eyes to the joys of mentoring.

After I graduated with an economics degree in 1987, I moved to New York as a trainee at Chemical Bank. I signed up again as a Big Brother, and was matched with David Heredia, a 10-year-old Dominican who lived with his mother and brothers on the Lower East Side.

I spent every Saturday with David, who had a gift for drawing, and I saw how hard it was for him to realize his dreams without outside support. That experience planted the idea that I wanted to create a program to equip talented and motivated youth with support, training and job opportunities. I remain close to this day with David, who now has a career in animation.

I decided to get an M.B.A., and in my application to Harvard Business School, I outlined my vision for a youth program. That same year, I met my future wife, Kate, who is English, at a party.

We married in October 1992, after I graduated, and we moved to London. My first job was with an affinity credit card company. Then, a year later, I was a co-founder of a technology and software company, Conduit Communications. In 1999, we sold the company, and the next year, we moved to the United States with our two children — a third was born in 2003 — so I could pursue my idea of helping low-income, at-risk youth.

In 2000, we started Year Up in Boston. It’s been a family project. Kate, who has returned to her profession as an art dealer, volunteered in the office in the early years, and she continues to mentor students. Many nights, we have young adults around our dinner table.

By July 2001, we had enrolled 22 young people for our yearlong program, which includes six months of training and six months in an internship. Our students, who are from 18 to 24 years old, learn middle-skill jobs like desktop and help-desk support.

With companies like Bain Company and Fidelity as partners, the first internships began in January 2002. Later that year, our program received its first big grant, $1 million, and in May 2005, we expanded to Providence, R.I. The next year, we opened an office in the Washington area, then in New York and, over time, seven more cities.

Despite our expansion, we have had our ups and downs. When the financial crisis hit, Wall Street firms were among our largest clients, so we had to scramble to help our interns find new jobs.

And sometimes our students “fire themselves.” They sign a contract with us and expect consequences if they don’t fulfill their end of the deal. We help them work on their confidence, voice and identity, but we are not in the business of accepting excuses. They are capable of owning their futures. We provide them a year to move up in their lives, and so far, about 5,000 have taken advantage of it.

For me, this is a matter of social justice. I believe that young adults deserve opportunity — and that the country needs to better utilize its human capital. This has been my dream for decades, and I feel lucky to be able to help it come true. 

As told to Elizabeth Olson.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=f252057803fc04dbd4d8577274344c7e

Preoccupations: Speaking in Public: How I Conquered the Fear

I ran my own accounting firm for eight years, and in 2009 was co-founder of the American Institute of Certified Tax Coaches, a nonprofit group based in San Diego that educates accountants, lawyers and other tax professionals.

My business partner, Ed Lyon, is a lawyer who owns a software company. When he and I were talking about starting the institute, I assumed that he’d do most of the speaking and training and that I’d write our materials. That turned out to be wishful thinking. Ed said he’d need me to do most of the speaking because of the demands of running his other company.

Ed loves talking in front of groups and is good at it. I, meanwhile, had always shied away from public speaking. Before we started the organization, in fact, I thought I’d better get some practice — but my first talk around that time, in front of group of 200 professional advisers for older taxpayers, was a fiasco.

To try to make taxes more interesting, I thought I’d make a point that people’s hard-earned money can go up in smoke if they don’t consider the tax consequences. I planned to ignite a piece of paper that magicians use to produce a brilliant flame. When the time came to do the trick, the paper hardly burned, so I put it in an empty coffee can I had brought and grabbed another piece of paper. This one caught fire right away.

It ended up burning my blouse, but the audience didn’t seem to notice; instead it was staring at the flames suddenly shooting out of the coffee can. An audience member jumped up and put out the fire, and I somehow got through the rest of the talk. I was never so humiliated. Usually I stay and mingle with the audience at talks like that, but this time I left as soon as I could.

After that, I decided to press on with as many speaking opportunities as possible, to try to become more comfortable with the idea of talking before groups. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I know the material — I’ve written two books about taxes — but I am a bit of a perfectionist and rely heavily on notes, which can create a lot of anxiety.

I talked to my father about how the magic trick had bombed, and he suggested that I have him critique me. I gave the same speech to him, without the magic trick. He said that I seemed more nervous when I relied on my notes and that I should speak more from my heart. I’ve done that ever since, and it has helped.

To gain more experience, I still look for speaking opportunities. I speak before various associations, and I started appearing on television news and talk shows a little more than a year ago. I’ve been on local TV in places like San Diego, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Hawaii.

On television, I’m not as nervous because I’m not in front of a roomful of people. I suppose that if I thought about the number of people watching, I’d become nervous, but I get to provide talking points to the producers, so I know beforehand what they’re going to ask. I’m most comfortable on radio because I can spread my notes all over the desk in front of me and not be self-conscious that people are looking at me.

I’ve made much progress, but the least little curveball can still throw me. Last year, Ed and I were scheduled to speak at a three-day conference in New Orleans. I finished my part on Day 2 and gave a sigh of relief. Ed was supposed to speak the next day, but at 9 that night, he told me that his son had become sick and that he was flying home. I’d have to do his part, too.

“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” he told me.

I didn’t even know what he was planning to talk about. The next morning I got sick to my stomach, but the speech went fine.

I could have taken a course in public speaking or joined a group like Toastmasters, but I set a goal of improving on my own. People with my fear have to decide for themselves what it’s costing them if they can’t overcome it.

Although I’m still nervous about speaking — I don’t sleep well a few days before a talk, for example — I’ve decided not to let it keep me from my mission. I feel strongly that what I’ve learned about taxes can help people.

And I’ve found I don’t need theatrics to captivate my audience. When I let go of what I think they want to hear and just be myself, it helps calm my nerves.

I’ve had several audience members come up to me and say they thought my talk was great and that they learned a lot. It’s hard to believe, but some people have asked: “Do you ever get nervous? Because you don’t look nervous at all. You’re such a natural at this.”

As told to Patricia R. Olsen. E-mail: preoccupations@nytimes.com.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=8eadcc8b613d09039835db6764f958dc

You’re the Boss Blog: MindFlash Makes It Easy to Create a Training Program — and to Charge for It

Tech Support

What small-business owners need to know about technology.

In a post several months ago, I described how the Web-based service MindFlash allows anyone to  create online training presentations, including reviews, quizzes and automatic grading complete with award certificates. (I illustrated the post with a little course of my own on brewing beer.)

The service has proven popular with companies that want to develop internal training programs, like on safety, harassment and other issues that employees might need to get up to speed on. MindFlash’s chief executive, Donna Wells, reports that a range of companies have developed thousands of courses that have been taken by more than 100,000 people.

But on Tuesday MindFlash is unveiling a new version of the service that should make it more interesting to a wider range of companies. That’s because the service will now allow you to charge people to take your course. One of the early preintroduction users of the new pay-for-training feature is Raz Chan, who runs a fitness and martial-arts studio in Vancouver, British Columbia. For fees ranging from $197 to $497, you can learn some of Mr. Chan’s secrets of self-defense in a series of online video courses that can take you all the way through instructor certification. “A lot of our students have been asking for a way to stay on top of the material at home,” says Mr. Chan. “And we hear from a lot of people who live too far away to come to our gym.”

Other early adopters include a software company that charges its fashion-house customers for extra online employee training, and a dentist who is charging other dentists for courses in dental techniques he’s mastered. MindFlash’s service requires a minimum charge of $9.99, but most early users are charging from $20 to $100. While MindFlash usually charges $9.99 a month and up for course developers with more than 10 trainees, it is waiving all fees for those who charge for courses, taking instead a 15-percent commission. (The company is waiving even that commission as an introductory offer until Nov. 1.)

The idea to allow charging came from MindFlash users themselves, said Ms. Wells. Like many Web companies, MindFlash invites users to request new features and to vote on suggestions. From the very beginning, getting to make money off the courses was the request that popped up most often.

In addition to MindFlash providing the means for developing a course and charging for it, Ms. Wells hopes to create a consumer marketplace for anyone who might be interested in online training — a one-stop online shopping place for courses, potentially making MindFlash the Amazon.com of online training sessions. (Hey, a company can dream.) And while the focus is initially on selling training to the public, MindFlash plans to add features aimed at helping businesses sell course content to other businesses that might want to resell it to their trainee customers.

Now excuse me, I’ll need to work on that beer-making course if I’m going to start charging big bucks for it.

You can follow David H. Freedman on Twitter and on Facebook.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=8149204369344d869eb3e9efa09c3230