Same as Markus, Only Better

About a year ago I read an article about a man from Vancouver named Markus Frind.  Chances are you’ve heard of him.

His story struck a major chord with me that I will never forget.  Markus is one of the reasons I am doing what I am doing today.

To be fair, there are many entrepreneurs and marketing geniuses who have inspired me, but Markus’s story is unique in terms of what I got from it.

Markus Frind created a dating web site called plentyoffish.com.

Apparently he was a jobless slacker and decided to learn ASP to help get a job.  To learn ASP he needed a project to work on, so he created plentyoffish.com.  In three weeks.  All by himself.

He thought it was good so he published it, and as he tells it, the money pretty much started rolling in.  (I’m skipping over all sorts of details here, but keep in mind I read this a year ago and this is how I remember it.)

But the thing I remember most was something Markus said that gave me some insight into the way his arrogant mind works.  After the site had been up and running for a while, his customers started complaining about the site’s functionality.  They said it was ugly, the photos were distorted, and they wanted new features.

So, while Markus romped around with his girlfriend, raking in the dough and working only an hour a day, he completely ignored his users.

The most interesting point here is that he was doing it on purpose.  He had no intention of changing the site, fixing the distorted photos, or adding new features.

His reasoning?  The site was making him lots of money so why change it and possibly put that at risk.  In other words, his income was more important than his stupid users.

O.   M.   G.

I am almost embarrassed to say that I was inspired by his ability to jump into something new, build it by himself, publish it, market it, and manage its growth.  However, I utterly detest his complete disregard for quality at the expense of his customers.  It makes the hairs of my professional ethics stand up on end.

Yet here I am a year later, still thinking about Markus Frind.  Now I’m even talking about him.

The point of this post is that sometimes you get your inspiration from the most unlikely places.  Take it from wherever you can get it, and then take massive action and do what you think is right.

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Ratings are Overrated

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while now, and something that happened recently hit home hard enough to really send me over the edge.

So let me go ahead and put it out there:  I have a problem with user ratings.

I have been a member of Amazon for 10 years.  I am completely loyal to them and probably spend a minimum of $1,000 per year with them.  I have had similar relationships with other sites that have soured, while Amazon continues to stand tall (no pun intended).

One of my reasons for being so loyal to Amazon is that their member rating system is beyond compare.  When you read user reviews of books for example, you are pretty much looking at the real deal.  For the most part, people say what they think.

Sure, there are authors who will try to artificially increase a particular book’s rating by having all their friends and neighbors and parents and fans go on to the site and give it good ratings.  However, I’d like to believe the law of averages will eventually take care of that and besides, most readers are savvy enough to see through these games.

Now, contrast this with another site, (which I won’t mention but if you email me I’ll tell you privately), that lauds itself in its marketing materials because “our vendors get all 4.5 star or above ratings.”

Can someone explain to me how this is useful?  What does it say about this company?  That any vendor below 4.5 stars gets summarily kicked off their site?

NO!  What it says is that they “encourage” their raters to give good ratings.  So please, tell me how this helps me, as a consumer, to decide whether to use this service or not?  In other words, if everyone gets 5 stars, what is the point???

It reminds me of the 60-Minutes article a few years about about the Millenials, who feel that everyone in the game deserves a trophy whether they won or not.  Which is ridiculous when you think about it.  A game isn’t a game if someone doesn’t win.  Giving trophies to the losers sets these kids up for a lifetime of unreasonable expectations.

In addition, how does the losing team (or poorly performing vendor) ever learn of their weaknesses, in order to try to improve them?  Not only is it not fair to the readers, it’s not fair to the vendors!

Here’s another example:  A couple of months ago I ordered two exercise tapes from a seller on a popular auction site.  The condition was listed as “Like New” which to me means the box is open and maybe the tape has been played once or twice but it’s otherwise indistinguishable from a new item.

I received the tapes and after watching them both, found that one of them was in only fair condition.  The color was off, the viewing was scratchy, and the sound was inconsistent, which is indicative of a VHS tape that has either been played too many times or sat in someone’s trunk for a half a year.

The tapes were cheap and I did not want to send them back, I was happy enough with  my purchase, but I wanted to make a point.  So I gave the seller a “neutral” rating and stated that one of the tapes was not in the advertised condition.

An interesting thing happened.  The auction site REALLY did not want me to leave this less than perfect rating.  It discouraged me *strongly* and made me agree to a list of statements by checking off a series of boxes, before it would finalize my rating.  Huh???

Now, for the icing on the cake… In last week’s post I mentioned that I had hired two VAs.  One of them delivered substandard work, and I felt that I paid her for 10 hours to do something I could have done in about two.  So I politely told her I didn’t need her any more and ended her assignment, and generously gave her a 4-star rating.  She had all 5-star ratings previously, which honestly stumped me a bit given the poor quality of the work I got from her.

She emailed me and asked me to please change my rating to all five stars, because she “cares about her reputation.”  She mentioned that she had given me five stars in return and so would I please reconsider my rating.  Well, I did not respond to her because what I really wanted to tell her was that she was lucky I didn’t give her two stars.

Whatever happened to “Gee why didn’t you like my work? What could I have done to make you happy? Can I make it up to you?”

I have had several of these WTF moments over the past several months regarding ratings.  I have thought a lot about it, and I have come up with a list of possible reasons for why this trend may be taking place.  These really are guesses, I claim no expertise in this field except for a healthy dose of insight into human nature.

  • People don’t like conflict and giving someone a poor rating “to their face” is hard to do.  Amazon’s products are very impersonal, which makes it easier to be honest.  Hiring a freelancer to do work for you on the other hand, is very personal.
  • Most people don’t know how to give constructive criticism.
  • Sites that support ratings systems have come to believe for some reason that having better overall ratings makes their site or product more desirable.
  • People would rather not give a rating at all if they have a bad experience, which skews the ratings (but they WILL tell their friends about it).
  • People believe that they deserve a good rating automatically, without having to earn it.
  • Somewhat related to the previous point, but worth its own mention is the whole concept of the entitlement generation.  Urban legends about millenials whose mothers call their bosses when they don’t get a favorable annual review come to mind.

I’d love to hear what others think of this, whether you agree or disagree.  If you agree, can you offer your own suggestions for what might be happening here?  If you disagree with me, why?  Really, I want to know.

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Outsourcing Made Easy?

I recently listened to a podcast episode from Internet Business Mastery.  [Internet Marketing is not my business model, but as a busy entrepreneur I do appreciate all their tips on how to maximize your time so you can get more done with less effort.]

This particular episode  had to do with outsourcing and coincidentally I was just about to start researching how this VA (Virtual Assistant) concept works. So after this podcast I decided it seemed easy enough, so I dug in.

There are many places you can find VAs, many more than the ones I found in my research, but I went with oDesk.com because I found my developers there, am relatively happy with their site, and am familiar with the interface.

There are tens of thousands of VAs on the oDesk site.  I narrowed my search by using keywords for the type of work I was looking for (market research, content writing, statistical analysis, databases, etc.).  I narrowed it down further by selecting only those with “Excellent” English skills (self-assessed), 4 star or above ratings, tests taken, and a rate of $10 per hour or less. The vast majority of these people are young women from the Philippines, but there were a few men, and a smattering from India and the US.

If, like me, you have had visions of paying $2.00 an hour for a top notch assistant, you can forget it.  It doesn’t really happen like that.

Then I carefully read each person’s profile, work history, reviews, and work samples if they had them.  I chose the ones I liked by adding them to a”favorites” list and when I had about a dozen, I wrote up the job description and sent out what oDesk calls an Invitation to Interview.

I got responses from a few right away.  Then the hurricane hit the Philippines and I got nothing for several days.  As they recovered from the storm, I got a few more (with apologies!) and then it pretty much fell off.  Some never got back to me at all.

I found that in general, even the ones who claimed excellent English skills do not have excellent English skills, at least not in writing.  I chose two that I felt had the best combination of relevant work, decent written English, and had good reviews from past customers.

I decided to split the work up between the two of them and gave them each half the hours and half the work.  I had an expectation that one of them would be better than the other, but after two weeks I found the opposite to be true.  (My hiring skills have never been spot-on, so I have learned not to completely trust my instincts in this area.)

I “un-hired” the one I felt was not cutting it, and I’ll keep the other and increase her hours to the full 10 hours per week.  As I discover more and more things to give her I can increase her hours as needed.  I also have two more that I liked, as runner-ups, that I could easily slot into the job if I want to try another VA out.

An interesting thing I’m finding out about using VAs is that you can hire them relatively quickly, test them out for a week or two, and if you’re not happy, replace them.  You still got the work they did, the work is not specialized, so it’s not hard to retrain someone new, and eventually you’ll get someone you love and stick with them.

In addition, there are other, even cheaper, resources available (in the $3/hr range) that can be used to do tasks that require brains but not great English.  Researching and compiling lists of clubs is one area that comes to mind.  That will be the next job I outsource… as soon as I have time.

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Alpha Testing, One Week Later

The first Alpha release of Grouvia.com was launched one week ago today.

It’s not a huge surprise that out of all the people who said they would help test the site, only three actually logged in to the site. One person spent a good amount of time and sent us back some great results. The other two spent a minimal amount of time and sent us no feedback at all.

Disappointing yes, surprising no.

It’s early and there’s not a lot to see right now, so I’m not discouraged. We are doing our own internal testing and the developers are working hard to address the issues we bring up. We ultimately decided to rewrite the entire messaging module because the Drupal module had a queer, confusing interface and did not do everything we wanted it to do. So was modified to the point where it is no longer part of the core framework. Oh well.

My most important Aha moment this week for me was this: the decision to come out with a “pre-alpha” release was both a great idea and a terrible idea.

WHY IT WAS A GREAT IDEA
It was a great idea because it forced us to deal with some very difficult development issues early on instead of waiting until 3/4ths of the code was done. We learned from our mistakes, adjusted some things, and now we go forward with new understanding and purpose.

WHY IT WAS A TERRIBLE IDEA
It was a terrible idea from a publicity perspective because we spent a lot of time and effort pushing for signups, crafting and sending announcements, coming up with test scripts, and biting our nail on edge about what people would think. It was like throwing a party and having only two people show up. I’m not sure what I learned from this exercise… maybe a slightly better understanding of human nature and perhaps also a more realistic set of expectations. Every disappointment should be a lesson.

At any rate, at this point I think we have identified all of the issues that we’re going to and we need to move on to the next phase. It was a tough week with a lot of back and forth with the development team, and I’m ready to move on. Alpha 2 is scheduled for a 10/23 release and that will have all the group features. This is exciting because it means we can start forming real groups and having real members. It will be a giant leap forward.

Next week I’ll tell you about my new Filipino VAs.

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Do you enjoy reading these posts? Why not sign-up to receive Grouvia’s e-newsletter? You’ll get the latest news delivered to your inbox and you can participate in the Grouvia development process. It’s free. Sign up at www.grouvia.com.

Grouvia Alpha 1 Is Here!

I’m so excited, today is the launch of the first release of Grouvia.com. My small team and I have been working on this site for seven months now, and I am thrilled that this day has come at last. This is the first step in what I’m certain will be a long and successful series of great releases for Grouvia.com.

The past several months have seen many long days, sleepless nights, and seven-day workweeks. The Internet changes at lightning speed and for an Internet application such as Grouvia to succeed we have to keep up the pace. Working on a tight budget has not hampered us, it has honed our efforts to almost razor sharp precision. Our focus is tight and our tactics are relentless.

The Social Media PR campaign is starting to show some great results, as Grouvia is seen more and more in the online universe. Thank you to Grouvia’s amazing PR man, Karl Schmieder at MessagingLab, who has also become my friend and marketing mentor.

The developers have done a nice job of implementing Grouvia’s preliminary set of features. And it’s no surprise because they have a very thorough and clear set of requirements to work with, thanks to the incredible talents of Regina Rubeo, an IT consultant and great friend who has tenaciously stuck with me through the ups and downs of the last six months. Regina, I could not have made it this far without you and I am oh so grateful for your help and strong shoulders.

Dad, Mom, Brenda, Karamjit, Deepak, Tajinder, Vishal, David, Vicki, Pie, Johnny, Patty, thank you all for the various roles you’ve played in making this day happen, whether that was offering time, understanding, support, friendship, great work, or helping to spread the word.

And while I’m at it I might as well thank David Meerman Scott, Norm Brodsky, Joel Spolsky, Timothy Ferriss, Guy Kawasaki, Robert Kiyosaki, Jacob Nielsen, Steve Krug, Michael Gerber, Dan Kennedy, and Markus Frind for sharing your knowledge and stories in the form of books, blogs, articles, and even personal assistance in some cases. The knowledge I have gained from these materials has been incredible.

And most important of all — I have to thank my loving husband Gus, who has supported me like a rock through it all. You’re the best, baby.

See you all next week!

[BTW, if you haven’t signed up to be on Grouvia’s mailing list, you should do that now :-).]