Reviews for Sale

I guess there really is a market for everything. It would never have occured to me to sell reviews, or to buy reviews if I were a seller. Amazon is suing 1114 individual reviewers, as well it should. I rely, to some degree, on reviews when buying things.

I have perhaps a bad habit of never getting around to reviews, though sometimes if I am especially pleased, or vice-versa, I will. There are products you can’t review until you’ve used them a while. I recently bought an Android tablet that was well reviewed, seemed reasonable in quality, and had a higher price than three ill-fated tablets I’d ordered from Walmart. The cheaper ones disappointingly lasted only a few months, and were flaky in the meantime. I bought the seemingly better one to replace one of those. It lasted ten days. Technically, eight, since the date of the order is two days before we received it. The weakest point of all of them seems to be the screen. This one at least had wi-fi that worked reliably, plus it charged reliably and lasted well between charges. It breaking inspired a review. But I digress.

If I am going to look at reviews and average stars to help steer my buying (not that I haven’t bought things that had no rating at all yet), I want to know they are legitimate. I was dismayed enough that the company from which I bought my daughter a clarinet rewards a review with a second year of warranty.

I Am Not A Millenial

But this open letter to management from a millenial makes some excellent point, starting with a bang with “You tolerate low-performance.” Now, there are reasons this happens more than it should. As a former manager said regarding being able to get rid of a poor employee: “There’s too many laws.” And this isn’t even a country where you’re really stuck with a person once you have hired them, so it’s best not to hire if at all possible.

William Levitt

Fascinating story of Levitt creating suburbia. It strikes me that while home construction stayed more efficient than it once was, the process later migrated away from his sheer assembly line, low skill version. Also, had it not been him, it would likely have been someone. The time was right. On the other hand, it might have been more organic and varied, filling that housing need affordably. I am no construction expert, but most of my life I have had the idea that there has to be a better way – a new better way – for housing to be made efficient and affordable. I mean, above and beyond rethinking the ridiculous burden of local zoning and other regulation that does more than anything to contribute to homelessness and excess cost.

Personal angle on this is my late friend Tom had been born in Levittown, NY, and had moved in his youth to Massachusetts, even though his father still worked as a flight engineer out of New York. That was how I first heard of Levittown and its origin.

Another personal angle: I would have absolutely hated the rules Levitt imposed. If such rules are attached after you own property, then it’s not really your property. I’d have been the first person to rebel and add a fence or a clothesline, if for no other reason than because it was forbidden. More likely, though, I’d have moved elsewhere.

Pricing for Freelancers

Pricing is always a favorite topic of mine. I have always had a tendency to undervalue my own skills and efforts, and to price too low, then be just as disgusted as I am with people not valuing the work enough to pay what the actual price should be. Worse, it doesn’t actually get you more work to lowball yourself. There’s a psychological element with me. First, what I find easy, I can’t imagine people wanting to pay much for. Second, I have spent a lifetime at generally limited means, and I can’t imagine paying the amount that is generally charged for most services, including those I could provide. Third, I was raised, somehow, not to think well of my own work and skills. This has tended to make me sound to others like I brag when I state how good I am in some way, when that is more of an attempt to convince myself and perhaps thwart negativity from others that would persuade me downward. But I digress.

The actual point of this post is to link to pricing advice for freelancers that explains why you should remove the zeros. Excellent thinking.

Messy and Fluffy

Rob May has possibly his best post yet, which rang a huge bell with me, on both business and personal levels. Not surprised, mind you, just that it’s cool to see someone come out and say it, reminding me of what I have observed to some degree.

On the personal side, in going through old posts to find milestones for my kids, for school paperwork, it struck me – and hard – that I was reading posts that made our life sound idyllic, as in some ways it was in, say, 2005, while in the background I was angry, frustrated, there were problems, and much wasn’t or couldn’t be said. Not to rehash personal problems in a post otherwise unrelated, but as a top of my mind example of how life for us may not be how others see it, however much we do or don’t obfuscate the realities. Naturally it’s enhanced by obfuscating the reality, also known as marketing, but people can see what they want or expect to see, even without encouragement.

Mostly, though, we encourage. “There is hype, and there is substance, and the two are rarely in sync.” Hype. Marketing. PR. Personal glorification. Sharing only the good news. It happens in the workplace, which is where I first realized such a thing existed.

When I worked for Christy’s Markets, floating from store to store for a week at a time to cover manager and assistant manager vacations during the summer, there was a girl in one store who was almost legendarily awesome. She was the best. Nobody knew as much or did as much as she did. Everyone knew it!

Somehow I didn’t see it, myself, but man, everyone said so. I had encountered someone who was her own personal PR engine, making sure everyone knew she was great. She was adequate. Or maybe not, considering that she was fired a few months later. Fluff and nonsense can only do so much if the substance slips or if you do something genuinely wrong.

I was in awe of that self-promotional ability, which I have yet to master. I managed a touch of it when I worked in tech support, but there was also substance there. All I had to do was use the types of self-promotion the company was fond of toward the end of being promoted, and it worked. Trouble is, hype can never sleep.

Which brings me to business and the current day and my own foibles. I am probably better at certain technical things than almost anyone, more of a natural, and yet I was unable to get a job and have trouble drumming up work as a self-employed person. I not only don’t hype or market myself well, am not only prone to excess honesty about my own limits, but also tend to have too much self-doubt.

You cannot have self-doubt and show it. The world, the prospective customers or employers, the prospective dates, to get personal, must see the self-assured, all is rosy perspective, even to the point it might sound absurd to you, living the reality.

I know this. I do! And yet… ugh… I Just Can’t Do It. And I can’t do it on behalf of “let me support your computer usage” or “let me manage your site” yet, no matter how good I am. Which raises havoc with pricing, too. I suspect it might help if I were part of an organization beyond just myself, looking to do work myself. It might feel more natural to build a mythos.

Down with imposter syndrome! Fake it ’til you make it! Yeah. Something like that… just need to internalize it.

Missing the Point

I work part time for a pretty large company. I’ve been there almost two and a half years, which is forever in terms of their retention, if hardly the longest in my location. It’s a bit like human mortality, in which infant mortality drags the average down, but if you make it past the early days, you’ll probably last a while.

They have two big concerns: retention and safety. They like people to stay as long as possible, because you get better at the work and can be more effective, more than outweighing the higher pay. On the other hand, the last pay increase you ever get as a part-timer is at the three year mark. Raises a refront-loaded at rapid intervals, then annual, then end. I’m not sure anyone there knows the term, at least at my location, but retention affects institutional knowledge, which has a meta effect on how well operations run.

They also prefer people not to get hurt, which makes sense from both fiscal and humanitarian perspectives. Retention even factors in, as you presumably work more safely as well as efficiently. It costs money. It costs efficiency. It makes life harder for the people who aren’t injured and have to cover the load.

If there have been no injuries in the previous month that required seeing a doctor, we get pizza. Mind you, the shift starts between 2:30 and 4:00 AM, depending on expected volume, largely but not entirely a seasonal thing. There are no pizza places open at 2 in the morning, unless you count a nearby convenience store that happens to offer a limited selection of pizza. So when we get pizza, it is cold, having been picked up by the manager on his way to work late the night before. The pizza is extraordinarily popular, though it works better if we are told the day before we are getting it that day and can eat accordingly in anticipation. If there is one problem, it’s that they get not quite enough of it.

One time, months ago, a day manager was covering and ran to McDonald’s instead, so we each got a double cheeseburger and fries. It was fresh and warm, but it wasn’t pizza, but she was filling in and meant well, and we at least were sitting down for a meeting before work proper started, making it easy to eat. Another problem with McDonald’s, to me, is ketchup. I always put extra ketchup on a burger, since they don’t come with enough, and use it on my fries. There was none.

We have a new manager, and I don’t believe we have had pizza since she started. We knew we’d finally made an injury-free month again, and would be getting pizza soon, but nobody warned us what day. Usually it’s a Wednesday, and they let us know on Tuesday (we work Tuesday through Saturday). Saturday morning we walked in to find bags of McDonald’s waiting for us. The fries were cold and soggy. The burgers were thinking about still being warm. Maybe.. Not sure when the manager got the food, but it clearly was no time close to when we started our shift, even if it wasn’t on her way there at 11 PM or midnight.

Missed the point.

It felt like the manager did it as an obligatory thing she just had to do and didn’t care about. It felt like she went for the option and timing that was convenient for her. It made employees make fun of her behind her back (or in full view, going entirely over her head) even more than usual.

After maybe a year of monthly meetings with a few employees to talk about retention, what makes those who stay do so and what would make people inclined to stay longer, there was a major thing that came of it, company-wide. Benefits for part-time people. Starting this year, if you had worked enough hours – basically a year worth – you could opt into any or all of a reasonably decent medical, dental and vision plan at very low cost as these things go. Later in the year there will be vacation days and holiday pay. That’s a sensible, direct, and surprising thing to have done to encourage retention.

There was also a minor thing.

Apart from it simply being a hard job at crazy hours, sometimes being held or kept by people only because they need something until they find a real job in this economy, or because their other job isn’t a real job either, the biggest reason people choose to leave is abrasive managers. The guy who runs the overall facility used to sometimes come in during our shift and irritate people so much they’d quit. He learned from that and improved dramatically. There is a part time manager who can be similar, but who has also improved. I think highly of her, yet if I’d had the wherewithal to do so, I’d have quit due to her. Nobody wants to say this in the retention meetings. They hovered around it when the meetings were run by the old manager, widely respected and not a retention killer himself. Now that the new manager is even worse than the part-time manager at being imperious, abrasive or otherwise off-putting, and she runs the retention meetings, it really doesn’t get said. The meetings are kind of strained and uncomfortable, not aided by the manager seeming not to have ever run meetings before.

So what has kept coming up, over and over, is coffee.

As in, free or really cheap coffee for the employees as a benefit. Traditional at some companies or in some industries.

Well, they’d tried having a coffeemaker a few years ago, but apparently one employee would steal all the sugar packets or such, and it was a mess. So there was discussion of getting a vending machine for it instead.

And they did. With all kinds of fancified coffee options, all at a dollar a cup. I saw it and thought it seemed too expensive. Apparently so did other people, and I haven’t seen anyone buy any yet. Oops.

Missing the point, they put in a coffee machine at full price, using the water hookup that used to go to a cold and hot water dispenser that allowed people to bring in and make instant cocoa. Appropriately, near the bathrooms, as that’s another factor, at least for me.

You see, coffee is a diuretic.

My wanted-to-quit fight with the part time manager was over going to the bathroom, using my judgment to run in, from close by, while everything had come to a stop for a minute or so. What made me so mad was I’d just been thinking that retention shouldn’t be a problem, because they were treating us increasingly professionally, so we could use our judgment in many situations like that. That’s the real answer to the retention issue: learning to trust your employees (and which ones you can trust, and how far) and treat them with some professionalism.

Yes, we are lucky to be allowed to go to the bathroom at all… and they gave us a coffee machine? That nobody will have time to use… or to relieve themselves from? Which brings it back to the coffee suggestion being half-joking on the part of the employees who kept making it, and the sweet spot for it actually going over being free or very cheap.

The company missed the point of the “benefit” entirely. And in a way the safety pizza is a benefit, too, as well as an incentive unrelated to retention, so it’s a case of missing related points.

Coffee Perks

Shocking, I know, but free coffee is a disproportionate perk. So are other, similar things…

The sarcasm comes from firsthand experience. When I worked at the original incarnation of Corporate Software, initially there was not only free coffee – good free coffee, if nothing gourmet like the article mentions – but also hot chocolate, tea, and even Crystal Lite. It was one of those places to work. They also had extremely low cost soda.

The primary business there was software sales, and they pioneered what would become common ways of selling software licensing packages. I was in their secondary business of tech support, which they’d gotten into with great success and massive hiring, if not high margins.

One thing led to another. Corporate Software became Strean International became three companies, of which Stream was the one that sold tech support only, without the higher margin elements.

Fewer things were free. The good coffee became awful, but lower maintenance and more likely to be available on demand, coffee. Then there was no more cocoa…

Not the same as free coffee, but there was near mutiny when the free hot chocolate went away. That for people there at the time was the dividing line between the cool company and the company that just didn’t care about its people anymore. Such a little thing. Yet I’d swear it was the beginning of the end of the business. Not that it ever 100% ended, but it changed hands and eventually emerged as a company that doesn’t seem to have any connection with the past, at least from a long since outsider’s perspective.

Clearly the linked article is touting results promulgated by a company with a vested interest in self-promotion and sales of coffee. Certainly there are company cultures that aren’t as tied to expectations of certain kinds of perks as, for instance, ones employing tech workers may be. The basic point remains: Surprisingly minor ways in which you treat employees can mean a lot, all out of proportion to the cost.