How the Company-Startup Thing Worked Out For Me, Year 2

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | 2 Comments

About a year ago, I shared the first post in what will hopefully be a long series about starting and growing a company. The timeline went something like this:

  • April 2011 – started the company.
  • April 2012 – year one finished, but I didn’t blog about it right away. I wanted to get it into the rear view mirror for perspective before blogging.
  • April 2013 – year two finished, so I blogged about year one.
  • April 2014 – year three finished, so I’m blogging about year two now.

When Last We Met

As we finished up year 1, we had just brought Employee #1, Jes Schultz Borland, on board. Jeremiah, Kendra, and I were doing different variations of our health check process, and we had to get things to be more standardized.

We invested big, pouring five figures of cash into rebranding our web site, implementing, and becoming an Amazon partner. We didn’t want to be a big, faceless corporation, but we wanted to start growing our product range and our presence online.

So how’d year two go?

The New Web Site: Amazing.

The new(est) company logo

The new(est) company logo

We hired PixelSpoke to design our brand – our logo, our web site, our font, etc. They started by asking us (and some of our clients) all kinds of interesting questions. They built a profile of how we saw ourselves, how our customers saw us, and how we wanted to be seen.

Three words: loving commando nurses.

I am not making this up.

Before PixelSpoke, was an off-the-shelf WordPress theme that felt like a personal blog, not a consulting company that supported three people full time. We didn’t want to masquerade as Global Megacorp Consulting – we wanted something that felt really hand-crafted and personal with as few straight lines as practical. They nailed it.

PixelSpoke introduced us to Eric Larsen, the artist who drew our portraits for the site, and continues to draw portraits for our slide decks and promotional materials.

We had some bumps along the way – for example, our first logo contained a red cross, the only logo protected by the Geneva Convention. Oops. We discovered this stuff while working with our (awesome) lawyers to protect our brand name, our logo, and our scripts.

The Legal Stuff: Covering Our Butts

We embarked on a mission to trademark and copyright the stuff that we were working really hard to build. At first I felt kind of guilty – after all, I love giving away stuff to the community – but we had to make sure it didn’t get abused.

For example, during year 2, I got an email from a software company giving me a polite heads-up that they were including sp_Blitz® in the next version of their product. They thought they were doing us a favor by getting it more publicity, but that immediately freaked me out. I had visions of “Powered by Brent Ozar’s sp_Blitz” in their marketing material, and I politely asked them to hold off.

Recording webcasts from Cabo

Recording webcasts from Cabo

To protect ourselves, we trademarked and copyrighted stuff, built an End User License Agreement, and forced users to agree to the EULA before downloading scripts like sp_Blitz® and sp_BlitzIndex®.

A little part of me died inside when we did that, but it was the right thing to do. Our babies were growing up. (Even now, in spring 2014, our admin is still adding ® marks to our trademarked terms scattered around the web and in our documents.)

We also stopped hosting community bloggers on our internet host. For years, I’d personally picked up the tab to host dozens of community blogs including Kevin Kline, Jorge Segarra, Erin Stellato, Ryan Adams, Tim Ford, and Michael Swart. I’d originally started doing that because I was maniacally dedicated to fostering new blogger voices in the SQL Server community, and I didn’t want anything to stand in their way – even a $10/mo hosting bill. Many of these bloggers had grown up to MVP status, publishing books, and even going to work for competing consulting companies. With us moving our hosting into Amazon EC2, it just seemed like the right time to encourage those bloggers to leave the nest and get their own hosting. It broke my heart a little, but those folks were grown up too, and I’m so proud to see them continuing to blog today.

The Web Site Made Sales Way Easier

The single toughest thing about year one of our company was the sales process. Oh, wow, did it suck. We had no idea how to communicate with new clients who kept saying the same thing over and over: “We want to work with Brent.”

We tried communicating the strengths of the other team members. We tried keeping me out of the sales calls. We tried raising my rates above the rest of the staff. We tried pushing my availability farther out into the future. We tried saying I wasn’t accepting new clients. Nothing seemed to work.

Ben Block and I running the Disney Half Marathon

Ben Block and I running the Disney Half Marathon

At some point in year 2, the problem simply disappeared. I can’t pinpoint exactly when, but I think it was due to a few different factors:

  • The new web site felt much more like a company, not a lone guy blogging about stuff.
  • Each post had clear bylines with pictures of the authors
  • Jeremiah and Kendra had built up a solid history of blog posts, and they were bringing in search results for things that I’d never blogged about
  • The contact page made it clear that multiple people were involved in the company
  • We made a new pitch deck for sales calls that emphasized our process

The end result: new clients stopped demanding that I work on their project, and started happily working with any of us.

This change came with a wonderful byproduct – each of us had distinct roles in the company that fit our personalities really well. I do sales and marketing, Kendra manages people and processes, and Jeremiah is research & development.

Became an Amazon Web Services Partner

In mid-2012, we believed that Amazon Web Services held a lot of promise for us. I believed (and still do) that businesses would rather pay by the hour for flexible IT infrastructure than make huge capital outlays. After all, we’re a small business and we don’t own a single server either.

To join the Amazon Web Services Partner Network, we had to shell out some cash, pass a few tests, and two of us had to attend Amazon’s architecture training classes. Jeremiah and I went, and I enjoyed it a lot. We set up our Amazon Partner Network profile page, set up pages on our own site advertising our AWS consulting, and blogged about some of the work we’d done. We hosted our web site in a load-balanced, somewhat-geographically-redundant EC2 setup.

This experiment cost us in the neighborhood of $30k-$50k.

And nearly no business came in. (Certainly not $30k-$50k worth.)

We learned a funny lesson that seems obvious in retrospect; you don’t need a consultant to get SQL Server into Amazon Web Services, just as you don’t need a consultant to get it installed in on-premises bare metal. You need a consultant after you’ve already gone live and the performance or reliability isn’t what you expect.

We’re not a VMware, NetApp, EMC, or Dell partner either, but our blog posts about running SQL Server on those platforms mean that people call us for slow SQL Server performance. We realized that Amazon Web Services isn’t the central part of our offering, but our expertise on the subject is just one of the reasons people call us. We don’t need to be an official partner in order to get that business.

People don’t find us by searching vendor partnership directories.

People find us by searching Google.

Later on in year 3, this realization helped us crystallize our product offerings down to just one product: our SQL Critical Care®.

Other Year Two Bets

The $30k-$50k AWS bet didn’t feel stressful or wasted – it seemed like the right bet at the time, and I don’t think any of us ever second-guessed it. I’m telling the story here to illustrate what it’s like starting a small business: some (many? most?) of your bets will not pay off, and that’s okay.

2013 company retreat in Cabo

2013 company retreat in Cabo

Some of the bets we made in year two included:

  • Investing in to track downloads and client leads (total failure because we didn’t have enough manpower to follow up on the leads, and we didn’t want to pester them)
  • Hiring Lori Edwards to make improvements to sp_Blitz® (success because we didn’t have enough time to make a lot of necessary fixes ourselves)
  • Hiring a contractor to build an sp_Blitz® app (success, because people continue to use it to this day, but kind of a pain to keep up to date)
  • Hosting our second company retreat, this time in Cabo, Mexico (success, because chilaquiles and donkeys)

Refocused My Speaking Efforts

I was honored to be invited to present Building the Fastest SQL Servers at both Microsoft TechEd North America and in Europe. You can watch the screencasts of the Orlando session and the Amsterdam one, and they were both a ton of fun.

I was flabbergasted when the live attendees voted me into the top 5 sessions at both conferences (out of hundreds of sessions), up alongside incredible speakers like Mark Russinovich and Mark Minasi. That was a real gut-check moment. For years, I’ve been accustomed to having really high ratings in the SQL Server community, but to be rated one of the best sessions across Windows, development, and SharePoint tracks? Wow, okay, maybe I’d gotten good at this stuff.

Despite the rush of really good feedback, I decided not to speak at TechEd again. The way the conference was set up, attendees all thought I was a Microsoft employee, and that wasn’t good for my branding. Presenters actually lose money at these types of events, and the only way to break even is to gain consulting or training business. That doesn’t work when attendees think you’re a blue badge. (If I’m going to give away training and lose money, I’m going to do it for a community-driven conference, not a vendor event.)

I came to the same conclusion about company internal training events, too. I was really excited to be invited to speak at a Fortune 100 company’s annual learning conference, and I thought it’d get my foot in the door for additional revenue. Nope – even though the employees had a great time at the talks, it didn’t turn into consulting work because big companies already have preferred vendor relationships with big consulting companies.

Conference badges from a single road trip

Conference badges from a single road trip

It’s really cool to be invited to these big events – but if they don’t produce revenue for the company, is it really good for me (and the company)? I love helping people, but in year 2, I learned that I need to focus on a couple of simple questions:

  • Are we going to get revenue (consulting or training) enough to offset the trip?
  • If not, how can we maximize the number of people we help at the lowest cost to everyone involved?
  • How can we control the quality of the event?

We wanted to make as many successful bets as possible, which brought us to a big milestone:

Ran Our First Training Class

When I attended conferences as an employee, I thought to myself, “I really need a guided list of sessions that I should attend. I only want to attend the best stuff for people like me.” I didn’t want to sift through a bunch of really crappy unrelated sessions. I didn’t want to wonder who the good speakers were and who was going to just read off their slides. I wanted a clear progression of sessions that built upon each other and taught me real-world useful stuff. I wanted a summary module that drove it all home, connected the dots, and told me what to do when I got back to the office.

Except I didn’t know I wanted all that until Jeremiah, Kendra, and I sat down and talked about what sucked about conferences, and how we could build something different.

Kendra teaching in Atlanta

Kendra teaching in Atlanta

We started with a 2-day developer training class in Atlanta in spring 2013. We were already used to doing 1-day pre-conference sessions at major conferences, and we figured a 2-day class was the next logical step up.

At the time, it felt like a huuuuge risk. We were committed to running the class even if just a couple of attendees showed up. We had to shell out tens of thousands of dollars for travel, hotel, banquet room fees, and advertising. We blocked out weeks on our calendar to build, test, and rehearse the class material.

Sure, our training-class-at-sea SQLcruise idea had panned out, but similar efforts from other community members didn’t catch on. What if the cruise thing was just luck? And sure, my online training sales were going fairly well – I was running live virtualization and tuning classes at $200-$300/pop with pretty good turnout, but many of those sales were international attendees. Would people actually fly to a class in Atlanta?

Thankfully, it worked out – around 30 people went for it, and the event finished out our year 2 with a success. At least one of our bets paid off.

What I Expected for Year Three

Looking at my calendar and my to-dos as of April 2013, one thing was looming large: training.

Our in-person training at conferences was getting rave reviews. Companies were paying us to bring the training onsite, and companies were willing to fly their employees to a training event in Atlanta. We needed to continue to ramp this up in year three.

Our remote video training was successful too, but was a total nightmare to operate. It involved a hacked-up combination of EventBrite, WebEx, and a WordPress plugin. We wanted to scale this up too, but it had to be higher quality for both the attendee and the organizer.

What I (Not We) Screwed Up in Year Two

In retrospect, there’s one thing I did a really, really crappy job on: accounting. Sure, we had an accounting firm managing the books, and they were all in order, but we weren’t paying much attention to the details. We just kept an eye on the bank balance and made sure it kept going gradually up.

At one point in a partner discussion, I sat bolt upright and realized I had spent the first part of my career closely reviewing budgeting and P&Ls for someone else’s hotels, and I had simply not even glanced at that stuff for our very own business. Hello. What a total lapse of judgment. I couldn’t even begin to tell you how much money we’d spent on a particular conference, what our overall profit rate was on training or consulting, or whether our first employee was profitable. I was a data guy, for crying out loud, and I didn’t even have my finger on the most basic statistics of our business.

I say I screwed this one up because this is something I know how to do, and I’ve done before throughout my career. I know better, and I should have done better. As a company, we made pretty good decisions on when to make additional bets and when to stop putting money down, but we could have been much more informed when we made those bets. That’s my fault, and it’s something I still struggle with today.

Making Decisions About Time Allocation

It’s tough as a founder because I’ve only got so many hours in the day.

At a Jaguar social media event with Erika

At a Jaguar social media event with Erika

Right now, for example, it’s 9:45AM on Saturday morning. I spent about an hour this morning going through emails and putting some infrastructure in place for our 2015 training classes, and then I spent an hour and a half writing this post.

Should I have been reviewing the P&L instead, looking at how our employee profitability is going, and projecting the date when we can hire employee #3? Should I have finished the expense reports for my recent SQLSaturday Lisbon and SQLintersection Orlando trip? Or should I just surf Reddit? I know I’ve only got about another 12 minutes before Erika wakes up, and from that point on, the rest of our Saturday will be spent together. (To be a good partner, I try not to work on weekends when she’s awake.)

I chose to put the time into this post because writing and sharing rejuvenates me. A long time ago, Tom LaRock told me something that really stuck with me: if you want to stay motivated, you’ve gotta spend your true spare time doing the things that energize you, and avoid doing things that drain you. It’s all a tricky balance of doing enough fun stuff to keep you motivated to do the hard work that pays off later.

In year two, time allocation was probably my toughest challenge. Erika and I made a deal that I’d travel no more than one week per month. My quality of life went up after that, I think, and it forced me to think more about video sales and passive income. As much as I love travel and speaking, I had to cut back in order to keep making progress on all of my Epic Life Quest goals and not just focus on a single area.

Consulting: Startup or Lifestyle Business?

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | 2 Comments

In the startup world, these two terms mean very different things.

A startup is a company designed for growth. It has to scale far beyond the founders’ skills and time – and that means rapidly taking on additional staff and risk. Startup founders live a compromise: they work their tails off night and day, trying to deliver value as quickly as possible, with the end goal of selling their company. To deliver on everything, they have to hire staff quickly too, and the founders ask their staff to hustle just as hard.

A lifestyle business helps the founders live a particular lifestyle with a base level of income. This business is all about compromise too – its founders aren’t going to build something that sells out to Facebook for a billion Bitcoins. They have to keep working in order to keep the lifestyle going.

Corporate Retreat 2014

Corporate Retreat 2014

These two businesses have different levels of:

  • Income
  • Work hours
  • Family time
  • Travel
  • Stress
  • Fame
  • Debt
  • Risk

When you decide to quit your day job and become a consultant, make a conscious decision about which type of business you want to build, and what kind of founder you want to be.

That one initial decision helps guide the rest.

Neither decision is wrong – they both work – but this isn’t a mark-all-that-apply question.

Why Hybrids Rarely Work

You could theoretically start a lifestyle business, work at it a long time, and eventually build up enough value that it can be sold without you staying involved.

But if other folks see you being successful at your lifestyle business, they’re going to start up similar businesses to solve the same problem. Rather than building a lifestyle business, though, they’re going to build startups. They’ll put the gas pedal to the floor, burn the midnight oil, and ramp up their business value as fast as possible. They’ll be the ones who get acquired, and then they’ll have the resources to build an even larger base.

You could also theoretically start a startup, and then eventually coast down into a lifestyle business. That rarely works because startups require such aggressive risk and debt – it’s hard to coast them into a relaxed cruising speed.

My Own Career Choices

I’ve done the small startup employee thing. I remember the excitement of funding coming in, moving up to nicer offices, and acquiring other companies. I also remember my startup employer skipping a paycheck at the exact time I was trying to buy a house. I remember the incredible stress of walking into the mortgage company’s offices with my prior 3 paychecks and playing dumb, pretending I just hadn’t received the paper copy of this week’s, and hoping like hell they didn’t ask for one.

Later, when I worked at Quest Software, I saw life at a much larger quasi-startup. I still got to be around a lot of startup employees – but it was because we acquired them, hahaha. Those small startup founders made good money, but, well, at the end of the day, they were right back at a big company, sitting through meetings, working long hours. They’d sacrificed some of the best years of their lives, and I wasn’t sure the returns made sense.

This time around, when Jeremiah, Kendra, and I wrote a big manifesto about Brent Ozar Unlimited‘s company’s goals, we focused on lifestyles. We wanted to be financially comfortable enough, but we didn’t want to sacrifice our family lives to get there.

How Our Decision Drives Our Consulting Company

That decision drives how we hire employees. We don’t grow aggressively – we want to be able to cover months and months of salaries even if the economy hits another bump. That means even though we get lots of calls for consulting help, we don’t hire willy-nilly. We aimed for growing by one employee a year for the first few years.

That decision drives how we treat employees. We know we could sell a DBA-on-call product and instantly boost our bottom line, but it would come at the expense of our employees’ home lives. (Well, that and we’d probably have to hire different employees, and probably even different founders, because none of us are fond of pager duty.)

That decision drives – heck, it even drives what we drive. I’ve got a 6-year-old car that I’m quite content with. Sure, I drool over the new Porsche 911 Targa - what an incredibly trick folding roof – but I’d rather relax this week at a conference in Orlando and catch up with friends.

What Should You Blog About?

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | Leave a comment

Like the Barenaked Ladies sang, it’s all been done, but you still have to come up with blog posts and presentations. Here’s how to do it.

Step 1: Understand that you’re working a 2-year plan. If you wanna come up with a bunch of totally disconnected, unrelated, throwaway blog posts, then just put a bunch of Books Online page titles in a hat, and draw a different one out every week. Done.

But if, on the other hand, you want to have a reputation as an expert, then you need to pick the topic and focus on it.

I’m not saying every blog post has to sound like a broken record repeating the same exact topic over and over – variety is great – but understand that if you want readers to recognize you, your blog posts need to be recognizable.

Step 2: Write a profile for your ideal reader. Read my post on How to Write a Conference Abstract, where I talk about how to write a little biography of your attendee. I’ve got a few sample profiles in there, but don’t just copy/paste – use one as a starting point, and make it your own. Most bloggers I work with tend to pick their own selves as of 2-5 years ago, and that’s an excellent approach.

Then make a list of:

  • What they know, and you won’t cover in your blog
  • What they don’t know, but know they want to learn
  • What they don’t even know they don’t know yet, but need to

Step 3: Write a table of contents for an all-day class. In 2 years, you’re going to have a 1-day pre-conference training class for $99. It’s going to teach your ideal reader exactly what she needs to know.

  1. Build the table of contents – a list of 45-60 minute modules.
  2. Build the key takeaways for each module.
  3. Build the list of things the attendee should already know going in (which should map up to a subset of what the reader knows)
  4. Build the list of things you won’t cover in the class

Presto: each takeaway is a potential blog post topic.

What We Learned

What We Learned

For example, at right is a recap slide from one of my presentations about storage testing. Before I wrote that presentation, I’d already blogged about many of the topics like using CrystalDiskMark and using SQLIO.

I used to think that attendees wouldn’t want to come see me speak about a topic that I’d already written for the blog. After all, they read it, right? Totally not true – and in fact, it’s just the opposite. If you’re known for writing about testing storage throughput, then attendees will want to see your presentations about it. You wouldn’t go see my presentation on PowerBI, nor would you go see Jen Stirrup’s presentation about index tuning. It’s all about building yourself a reputation for a topic.

You don’t have to write a blog post about EVERY one of your takeaways – after all, especially if you’re going to offer a paid training class, you need to save some stuff for the attendees.

You also don’t have to be a slave to the agenda, either – if something else inspires you, write about it. But I bet once you’ve got this agenda written out, you’ll be chock full of inspiration to get started on the path to the pre-con.

It never ends, either – right now, I’m writing blog posts and presentations as part of my 2015/2016 training agenda. And yep, this post is a part of that!

How Candles Help Me Work Less

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | 1 Comment

I telecommute full time and I try to stop working at 5PM – part of the whole partner & family thing in my Epic Life Quest - but when I’m in the zone surfing /r/gifs for DBAreactions ideas, time flies by.

I wanted a gentle reminder that it’s around 4:30PM, and I need to start wrapping things up. I hate jarring alarms, so I added a couple of candles on my windowsill:

Candle Corner

Candle Corner

Inside each of the glass candleholders is a battery-operated votive candle with a built-in timer. You just turn this on at 4:30PM (or whenever), and it’ll come on automatically every day at 4:30PM and run for 4 hours.

Battery-operated candles with an AA battery for size reference

Battery-operated candles with an AA battery for size reference

Each candle takes 2 AA batteries, and I use Eneloop rechargeables because they seem to win awards in comparison tests. Same thing with the La Cross Technology battery charger. I’ve used both of those around the house for years, and they work great.

They have a nice flickering glow, so at 4:30, they’re a gentle reminder out of the corner of my eye. Someone’s got their light on for me, and it’s time for me to wrap things up at work. They’re purposely not in my line of sight because I don’t want a big flashing light going, “IT’S QUITTIN’ TIME!”

As the sun falls and the room gets darker, the flickering becomes more noticeable, and I like that too.

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