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.

Will Microsoft Read Your Azure-Hosted Data Too?

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | 3 Comments

Last week we learned that Microsoft will read your email if they believe you’re sharing their trade secrets. This isn’t illegal – if you sign up for Hotmail, you agree to terms & conditions that give Microsoft the right to poke through your stuff.

The case against this blogger appears pretty solid, which makes me wonder – how many bloggers did Microsoft pursue before they settled on this guy? Are they batting a thousand with their investigations, or were there other email-reading incidents that went unreported because they didn’t find enough evidence to win a case?

With free email, chat, and voice services, I totally understand that this is the price we pay. Like they say, if you’re not the paying customer, then you’re the product. But what about the paying customers? Specifically:

What about Azure cloud services customers?

What happens if you host your business’s data in Microsoft’s cloud, and Microsoft believes you’re doing something to harm them – like, say, pirating software?

The Windows Azure Agreement says as of Jan 2014:

1. d. Customer Data. You are solely responsible for the content of all Customer Data. You will secure and maintain all rights in Customer Data necessary for us to provide the Services to you without violating the rights of any third party…

This is your first warning: you’d better not be storing copyrighted data that belongs to somebody else. If you do, you can’t claim it was somebody else’s fault – it’s yours. (That’s totally fair, and typical with other hosting provider agreements.)

Next up: who can see the data?

2. b. Privacy and data location. We treat Customer Data in accordance with our Privacy Statement.

Switching over to the Privacy Statement’s Customer Data section. At first glance, it sounds more secure than the Hotmail terms & conditions, but keep reading:

We only use Customer Data to provide the Services. This may include troubleshooting aimed at preventing, detecting and repairing problems affecting the operation of the Services and the improvement of features that involve the detection of, and protection against, emerging and evolving threats to the user (such as malware or spam).

“Spreading spam” is one heck of a low bar. If you’re running an email list in Azure, and someone marks your email as spam, the Azure terms & conditions give Microsoft the right to read your cloud data and look for evidence that you’ve broken the law.

But furthermore, that second sentence is interesting because it gives Microsoft a nice loophole. They’re in the business of keeping Windows secure for their users. If they suspected you of spreading malware – or, say, spreading a pirated version of Windows that just might contain malware – they could use your Azure data to detect that.

In that case, who gets to read your Azure data?

In the Sharing Your Information section:

We will not disclose Customer Data, Administrator Data, Payment Data or Support Data (“your information”) outside of Microsoft or its controlled subsidiaries and affiliates except as you direct, or as described in your agreement(s) or this privacy statement.

In with the Hotmail incident, the problem was that Microsoft itself was reading the blogger’s communications, not that the data was sent to outside groups. Microsoft built the case for law enforcement and then handed over the evidence. So could they do that in Azure?

We will not disclose Customer Data to a third party (including law enforcement, other government entity, or civil litigant; excluding our subcontractors) except as you direct or unless required by law.

The “required by law” line is a little tricky. If Microsoft picks up the phone and says they have good reason to believe you’re pirating Windows or spreading malware or whatever, the government would then start to build a case against you, and ask Microsoft to hand over your customer data. They’d be “required to by law.”

Is Amazon Web Services any better?

The AWS Customer Agreement has similar wording about you being responsible for your content, and that you’re not allowed to host copyrighted content. As to who gets access:

8.1 Your Content. As between you and us, you or your licensors own all right, title, and interest in and to Your Content. Except as provided in this Section 8, we obtain no rights under this Agreement from you or your licensors to Your Content, including any related intellectual property rights. You consent to our use of Your Content to provide the Service Offerings to you and any End Users. We may disclose Your Content to provide the Service Offerings to you or any End Users or to comply with any request of a governmental or regulatory body (including subpoenas or court orders).

Amazon doesn’t include “malware” or “spam” anywhere in the doc, or any wording about protecting other end users from what you’re doing. To some extent this makes sense because they aren’t a software manufacturer who needs to worry about desktop operating systems. (Although they do make the Kindle.)

This section is a little vague though:

3.2 Data Privacy… You consent to our collection, use and disclosure of information associated with the Service Offerings in accordance with our Privacy Policy, and to the processing of Your Content in, and the transfer of Your Content into, the AWS regions you select.

There’s no separate AWS Privacy Policy that I can find, and the closes thing is the Amazon.com Privacy Notice. It’s more targeted at general web site and e-commerce stuff, like cookies, but technically it could give them superpowers:

Information You Give Us: We receive and store any information you enter on our Web site or give us in any other way. Click here to see examples of what we collect. You can choose not to provide certain information, but then you might not be able to take advantage of many of our features. We use the information that you provide for such purposes as responding to your requests, customizing future shopping for you, improving our stores, and communicating with you.

So if the paranoid guy inside me reads this, technically the data I store in AWS can be used to improve the online store at Amazon.com. If you’re an e-commerce vendor, your eyes probably just got a little wider.

Welcome to the cloud. Here’s your tin foil hat.

I can't understand how Google figured out I was sharing their copyrighted code.

I can’t understand how Google figured out I was sharing their copyrighted code.

Online privacy isn’t just dead – it never existed. Companies like Microsoft and Amazon are responsible to their shareholders to safeguard value. Today, if you’re going to use their services to do something illegal to undermine their value, you shouldn’t be surprised if they turn your data over to law enforcement. This isn’t Big Brother NSA snooping – this is just the common sense business world that we’ve built.

Yes, in the process of their investigation, corporations are going to read the data of some innocent bystanders – the investigators are human, and they’re going to make mistakes. You won’t hear about those until Edward Snowden v2.0 comes out of the corporate woodwork.

Now, about that always-on webcam in your living room game console, and those Google Glasses that you want to strap onto your face….

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