600,000 Reasons Why…

February 24, 2012

Or to be more precise, 600,000 reasons why I start work early every Friday!

I leave the house at 5.45am which for me is early! By 6.30am I am at the Holbrook House Hotel, Wincanton preparing for the weekly meeting of the Borders Chapter of Business Network International (BNI). I am one of 24 members of the chapter covering a wide range of industries and professions.

It is a great bunch of people all with one common reason for being there. We all want to grow our businesses! Much to my dismay when I first started out I thought that I could just sit back and watch the work come to me! After all I am good at what I do! I know my business! Why would’t people flock to my door and throw work (and therefore money) in my direction? And then the penny dropped! There are plenty of people out there who also know their business equally as well as me. So I realised I needed profile…. better still I needed a sales team….

So I started looking at advertising. Not much return for quite an outlay! Place an advert in a local paper and then hope that the timing was right! What are the odds that a person needed my services would happen to be looking at that paper that week. Odds seemed very high to me.

I looked at various networking groups and organisations. There are some good ones out there which have their place but none quite seemed to fit my needs and requirements. So that’s where the BNI entered into the equation.

Whoa.. hold on… did I not say that networking does not fit my needs and here I am saying a group that has the word “Network” in it’s name is the one for me?

Well yes but…. the name does not really convey exactly what the BNI is all about! It is more a referral group that networks than an out and out networking group. For me most networking groups I have witnessed involve selling to the room. With the BNI it is the opposite! It is about gaining trust and credibility with fellow members so that they can refer me with confidence to their own circle of business and social friends and family. They can only possibly do this if they discover that they need services that I could provide. If they are happy to accept contact for me in this regard then they can refer me in. What happens next is upto me!

Before any member can be in a position to refer another member with confidence they have to get to know that member and understand what it is they do AND what it is they want by way of business referrals. That takes time and effort and that is where the regular Friday morning meetings come in to play. We meet over breakfast, have the chance to let everyone know what sort of work we are looking for, pass referrals to other members AND thank members for the business gained from previous referrals.

That brings me nicely back to my opening statement. When a member thanks another member for the business that information is recorded and for the 24 members of the Borders Chapter, since 1 April 2011 that has amounted to more than £600,000 worth of business! So the return on investment for me is most definitely worth it. And even better the meetings are done and dusted by 8.30am so they don’t interfere with the rest of my working day!

We are always looking for new members so please feel free to get in touch and if you are in the Chippenham area we are looking to launch a new group there and have a meeting on Thursday 1 March.

The BNI has become an integral part of my sales and marketing plans as it is a cost effective way of growing my business and it may well be as effective for your business. But how will you ever know unless you check it out for yourself?

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A database is not a spreadsheet!

April 17, 2011

It’s been a while since my last post but today I was searching through a forum for answers to a technical question and stumbled upon a fantastic post made a couple of years ago by a fellow database developer. Well I say fellow developer but what I really mean is one of the best database developers I know!

His name is Cal Locklin and he has been developing applications using Alpha Software products longer than I have. The following is an extract from his post when he attempted to explain why a database is not a spreadsheet! It is a valid post because it is one of the most common issues I come across when developing applications. Almost always it seems that people start by creating a new worksheet in Excel, Open Office or similar programmes and before they realise it they have major issues with managing the data!

“My own experience is that databases are complex programs with a very steep learning curve early on. A database is not a word processing program. It isn’t even a spreadsheet program. Just by the nature of what a database tries to do, programming, whether you use a genie,wizard or scripts is something that will take time and thought.

I’ve found that most people who’ve never designed and built a real database application don’t really understand what a database is and and how complicated they are to design and build correctly. I don’t know of anyone who is even halfway proficient at building a database who has said they picked it up in just a week or two.

I think one thing that people don’t even consider is that, unlike a spreadsheet where you are free to enter nearly anything into any cell and it’s completely up to the end user how the spreadsheet is used – and, therefore, how accurate the results will be – a good database application will restrict the user from entering bad data and assist with entering good data. However, to build all that functionality requires a lot of thought about the actual processes involved which takes a certain type of personality – one that can think in very detailed steps.

One example I’ve used to explain the detail required is to ask someone to explain to me how to start a car. The typical answer is something like, “Well, you get in the car, put the key in the ignition, and turn the key.”

The real answer is more like this:
– First determine if you are already standing up or if you are sitting down or, perhaps, still laying in bed.
– IF you are sitting down, lean forward so your weight is over your feet then push up with your leg muscles while keeping your center of weight straight above your feet until you are standing upright.
– Next, shift your weight to your right foot and put your left foot forward.
– Put your left foot down and shift your weight to that foot.
– Repeat until you’ve reached the hallway to the back door (checking after each step) and twist your body as you step when you reach the hallway.
– Continue stepping (moving one leg forward and shifting your weight to it) until you reach the key rack.
– Select the keys to the correct vehicle. (Some decision mechanism has to be provided here so you get the right keys.)
– Pick up the keys with your hand. (I will skip all the gory details about how to do that.)
– Move your left hand to the door knob on your left then grab the doorknob and twist it. (Allow for checking to see if this knob has a lever type handle rather than the more conventional knob.)
…… etc., etc., etc.

Of course, if you are simply building a small database that you will be the only one to use or you don’t mind spending weeks training someone else to use it, you can just build some tables and maybe a couple sets (views) and enter the data into the default browses or default forms. However, as soon as you want someone else to use it, I guarantee there will be problems and a lot of bad data before they learn to do it right.

Therein lies the power of a database. A well written application can overcome most of the “bad data” issues and make data entry fast, easy, and accurate. Trying to accomplish the same thing in a spreadsheet or, worse yet a word processor, is nearly impossible.

Unfortunately, learning to harness all that power is not so fast and easy.”
Cal Locklin

So well put, not much more I can add!


Who would have predicted that?

June 6, 2010

Back in 1994 I developed a football prediction game which I ran across several offices during the World Cup that year. It worked! It was great fun, everyone got involved, even those that did not really follow football. We each paid a small fee to play and had a prize fund at the end for the top part of the leaderboard and even for finishing last, which was not as easy as it might sound!

Back then the application was written using Alpha Four which then was a dos based database development tool. It made the administration of the competition easy and allowed everyone to enjoy participating with all the banter you might expect during such a tournament. It was a success, and not just with the football followers. It gave everyone the opportunity to have a go. You did not need to know football, indeed at times it felt like a real handicap!

The success of the game led to it being extend to the following English football league season where we had monthly leaderboards and an overall winner. All of this administration handled by Alpha Four.

So here we are, sixteen years on and after several requests to run a competition again I have taken the plunge! Technology has moved on, anyone heard of the internet? So has Alpha Software! The latest “blow your socks off” version of Alpha Five (jumped from four when windows arrived) is 10.5 and with it comes a whole bunch of features to help rapidly and effectively develop applications for whatever you need. They can be desktop based or browser based and oh boy the program really does pack a punch!

www.goal-count.co.uk was developed from scratch in TWO DAYS!

For the technically minded, the original application used .dbf technology and in the two days, those basic table structures were converted to a mysql database and a robust registration process* created. Scripts have been written to handle the game predictions and the other features of the competition. Using Alpha Five version 10.5 to bring it all together has made this possible. I really don’t know of any other development tool that comes close to providing this sort of functionality and ease of use.

So how will this competition go? The answer is “who knows!” The only thing I can predict is that when it comes to sport, the results can be so unpredictable but how much fun is it to try and predict the outcomes!

* registration process with massive help from AlphaToGo.com


Follow the yellow brick road…

December 4, 2009

The Wizard of Oz has just turned seventy years old and is one of the most watched films ever! So just what exactly has this got to do with good database design?

Well in the film Dorothy and her trusty dog Toto have to follow the yellow brick road to finish their journey. Along the way when they left the road they met all sorts of problems but eventually with the help of some new found friends Dorothy got back onto the road and eventually reached her destination.

No matter what business you are in you will have set procedures to complete a specific task. You might have to follow a specific sales process. Maybe there are legal restrictions and requirements to consider. Perhaps you are using set scripts when staff speak to customers. Are you sending out catalogues and brochures?

So when you or your staff step off the “yellow brick road” are you running the very real risk that something might go wrong? Is that vital piece of information you need to complete that sale missing? Ask yourself how many times YOU have cut corners and ended up going back to re-do things. I know I have many a time and almost every time I have ended up spending extra time back tracking and starting over!

How much time does it take to sort out problems caused when people don’t stick to the script or the laid down procedures. In business we all know time is money! Perhaps you use scripts, check boxes and tick lists to help, but are they always followed or used?

So here’s the thing! If in your business you have set procedures, what safety net do you have in place to keep everything on task? It might be that a database system can do exactly that for your business. A good system can make sure that every “i” is dotted and every “t” crossed. Never again forget that vital piece of information to complete a sale!

I strongly recommend any business to take time out and consider exactly what is in place to make sure that procedures are followed?

How much quicker would Dorothy arrive at the Emerald City if she had not ended up in the castle with the wicked witch and instead stayed on the yellow brick road?


Why use a database? – Repeat After Me!

November 29, 2009

Let me give you a real world example about how a well constructed database system can take the strain of your business and improve your productivity at the same time!

Every Friday, one business I know used to have to generate specific personalised reports for around 40/50 clients. Even though they were using a database system this took on average four hours every week.

They would create a report for the first client, save it to a folder with a unique name. They would then, using Outlook, create a new email for this client, locating the email address and backup email address from within Outlook. The body of the text would be modified to personalise it for the client.

After clicking “send” they would repeat this process for each other client!

It did not take long to create a system where the operator opened a form listing all clients and then clicked a box next to each specific client needing a report that week. That took around sixty seconds to do. They then clicked on one more button and the system took over automatically creating each personalised report and emailing it directly to those who needed it using a personalised email. The system logged the email and saved copies of the reports.

This upgrade also helped in other ways as the original system meant that email addresses were being used from two different sources and I have already explained in a previous blog why that is not good business practice.

This one simple update to an existing system saves around TWO HUNDRED HOURS each year. Put another way, that is more than a month’s salary for one person who could now be put to work elsewhere in the business.

So when was the last time you reviewed your work processes? Have you ever reviewed them? How many repetitive jobs do you undertake every day, week, year? Sometimes it can be very difficult to see what is right in front of you!

So you undertake a review and discover several processes that you just know you can streamline but you say to yourself that it is going to cost too much to sort out.. or is it? Many will fall into the trap of just looking at the cost of developing such enhancements and ignore the full benefits both in financial and productivity terms.

Then there are the intangible benefits! Think back to my earlier example, two hundred extra hours to work on getting more sales or adding value to existing sales. How much extra revenue could that produce for your business? You could soon find that the cost of development has been more than covered by the extra revenue!

So if you find in your business processes that you continually have to repeat it might just be worth considering ways you can boost your efficiency and in doing so…. your bottom line profit!


Why use a database – Quality Counts!

November 22, 2009

I said in my previous blog that I would cover “why” you should use a database. “Why” is a small word with a big meaning and as there are so many reasons why a business should consider using a database, I am going to break this down into bite size chunks!

First of all I am going to cover the need to have good quality, accurate information recorded no matter what system you use. I would argue that for any business the quality of your contact with your clients/customers is one of the most important aspects that needs to be considered.

Let’s just take a moment to consider our own personal experiences with other companies and organisations. How do you feel when you receive correspondence that has your name spelt wrongly? It happens to me all the time and yes I know my surname is not that common but the companies that take the time to get it right move up in my estimation and are more likely to get my business now and in the future!

Okay, so mistakes happen but then how much more annoying is it when you tell them about the mistake yet it is still not corrected! If companies cannot achieve something as basic as spelling your name correctly, what else are they doing wrong!

Most people will shop around and attention to detail can help give you the edge against your competitors.

No matter what client information you need for your business you can guarantee it is like storing shifting sand. Details constantly change. People move house, change their mobile phone numbers, change email details, move jobs, have children, get married, get divorced! The list is never ending!

Maybe you have client details recorded on a spreadsheet. Perhaps on more than one spreadsheet! Maybe you also have details recorded in a paper file and in an accounting package? So you phone a client and find out they have moved. You note this in the paper file but forget to update the spreadsheet and the accounts package.

You don’t realise that there is a problem until that invoice you sent out 90 days ago has not been paid and you have not been getting responses to reminder letters. By the time you have established what has happened you have not only wasted valuable business hours chasing payments but also your cash flow has been adversely affected possibly costing you more money by way of interest charged or not gained!

A well written database system will store client information ONCE and used it throughout your business. This makes it far easier to keep up to date which saves you time AND money.

My next blog will consider the importance of NOT wasting time in business!


So just what is a database?

November 18, 2009

Discovering what exactly is a database is a good place to start! In almost any business you will frequently hear the phrase “I need to update our database” or “according to our records…..”

Well if you do an internet search to find a definition of the word “database” you will see a whole bunch of different definitions. Some are very technical, “A collection of interrelated data items stored together without unnecessary redundancy, to serve one or more applications”, others less so.

I prefer to think of a database as any collection of information that has been organised in some way shape or form. Also most definitions refer to the use of computers to store data but that is not necessarily the case.

Before the explosion in the use of Blackberry’s and pocket pc’s and the ever increasing versatility of the mobile phone, one of the most important business tools in use was the personal organiser! It seemed like every business person carried around (and many still do!) a leather bound bundle of paper which contained everything he or she needed to conduct business! It has the diary to record all appointments. The contacts section where every important phone number and address is written down. It has the meeting notes section where every last detail of each meeting can be recorded. Your tasks can be organised and just about anything else you want to record for both business and personal use!

How many businesses rely on paper? Orders in paper form, hand written invoices or sales slips/receipts, all neatly filed away in folders ready for the book keeper or the accountant. This information is the life blood of any and every business and in the truest sense of the word any such collection could be defined as a “database”

Having said that database’s do not always have to be in electronic format when we talk about the world of business, many are! But even here there are so many ways in which you can store data electronically. The most obvious one is the electronic version of the personal organiser, for most this is Microsoft’s Outlook.

Many also use word processing documents and spreadsheets to collect and record information. All of these formats can be called “databases” BUT sooner or later most will recognise the need to use a true “database” program to store that much needed collection of information and “Why” will be the subject of my next blog!