So there I was, happily working at my desk when my new boss suddenly stormed into my office and ordered me to “Stop what you’re doing. We need to talk.” I knew, from the tone of his voice, that this was serious. A real crisis. The year was 2004 and I’d been a web developer since the mid 90’s (with a long break from 2000 to 2004). Over the years I had built dozens of websites. Perhaps even hundreds. Some of the sites I had built looked good. Others didn’t look so good. Some of them had rather fancy features. Others were basic. None of the websites I had built before 2004 had been profitable for their owners. Not one.
By the end of 2004. I was the web developer for a car leasing company, based in Glasgow. At the time, I think my official job title was ‘IT manager’. However, being the only person in the entire IT department, I didn’t really have anyone to manage but myself. My job was to build and maintain a website that sold cars online. Well, strictly speaking the site leased cars over the web. However, since each lease resulted in somebody somewhere purchasing a brand new car, I prefer to call it “selling”. Forgive my geekiness.
The company I was working for were based in my home town. The place of work amounted to a couple of portacabins which had been somehow joined together. My boss was this really big guy called Andy. I’m sure he was over 6 foot tall and must have weighed over 300lbs. About five years previously, I understand, he was a bankrupt driving instructor. Now he was running a car leasing business and he was my boss.
“There’s a problem with that sales system you built” he told me.
“What’s up with it?”
“It’s taking each of the sales staff between one and two minutes to enter the names and addresses of the new customers. You need to do something about it.”
“But you can’t. It’s just the way it’s been built. There’s a space on the form and they click on the box and enter the address. I can’t really help it if they’re slow at typing.”
“You need to reduce the time it takes to fill out one of those forms to less than half a minute for each new customer entry.”
“Well, I’m not sure how to”, I protested, “I mean, I think there’s some kind of database that the Royal Mail has and you can probably sign up to use that. However, it’s complicated and I think it costs a fortune.”
“Go figure it out.”
Perhaps I’ve sexed that conversation up a little, however, if my memory serves me correctly that was pretty much a typical meeting between my old boss and I. At the time I felt that he was being unreasonable. I think I still do! I can remember us having similar conversations about getting the online system to automatically send “happy birthday” text (SMS) messages to the customers on their birthdays. The guy seemed to be obsessed with having everything automated – from invoices to even recording toilet breaks.
I don’t think we knew it at the time but many years later I can see that we were actually building a Digital Nervous System. This is precisely the kind of system that Bill Gates championed in his best seller, “Business at the Speed of Thought”.
All of those little pieces of the jigsaw that we slowly put together, from the quote systems to the invoice systems to the website were all working together. And boy did it work!
Sure enough, within around 18 months that company were selling cars on the web like hot cakes. They ended up one of the biggest car leasing companies in the UK. The last time I saw the owner he was driving a Rolls Royce Silver Phantom – the same kind of car that Alan Sugar gets driven around in but a different colour. As for me, I ended up driving around in a new Merc. Sure, it wasn’t as fancy as the Roller and if you want to know a secret, it was leased. Never the less, I thought at the time that it was pretty good going for a guy who had been flat broke and on the dole six months earlier.
This was my first website success story. Later on I came to regret the fact that I never secured any ownership of the system that I had built, but let’s draw a veil over that line of conversation.
Since those days, I have been obsessed with the question, “What makes the difference between an online business that is successful and an online business that is a failure?”
As you can imagine, I don’t think it’s an easy question to answer. There’s lots of different variables that make the difference – from the design of the website, to the marketing strategy that’s being used to customer service (whatever that is!). However, whenever I have observed a company going ballistic (going from zero to making many millions per year) on the web then one component that does seem to be common is that all those sky rocketing business owners either have or are obsessed with having their own digital nervous system.
I think the Holy Grail for any online business is to have one IT system that does everything. By “everything” I mean it takes care of every single process from sales, to product delivery to after sales and even company accounts. Sadly, building systems of that nature is not easy. I’ll go further and say that the idea of building a perfect digital nervous system is bordering on the impossible. I have serious doubts about whether anyone (even Bill Gates!) has managed to build a perfect or near perfect digital nervous system for any company. The challenge with those kinds of systems is getting all of the different components to talk to each other.
Never the less, even though we might be reaching for the stars I think business owners across the board should aspire to have some sort of digital nervous system for their businesses. I suppose the whole concept seems a little bit geeky and irrelevant for most people. However, when you’ve seen first hand the kind of results that can be achieved with a good online system then I’m absolutely sure that your mind will be blown.
For example, one of the things that I was asked to build (back in the day) was a system that sets off an alarm whenever a sales enquiry was submitted from the website. It involved plasma screens, charts, pictures of traffic lights and all sorts of bells and whistles. To most people it would seem pointless and over the top – like using the Millenium Falcon to go to the shops for a loaf of bread. However, when you see something like that in action you soon come to realise that it can be the difference between a market leading business and a business that’s going under. The truth is, systems like that really work! All the big boys are using systems like that and it’s not because they like tinkering with technology. It’s because they like making large piles of cash.
If you have a business or you’re thinking about starting a business – particularly an online business, then this is something that you should definitely be thinking about. The best way to get started is to write down a list of all the tasks that you need to do to make your business work. You should jot down every single process – from sending emails to generating invoices. Once you have everything down then the trick is to find out where you’re wasting energy and to ask yourself is there any way that you can do the task more efficiently.
Building a complete digital nervous system for your business might take many months. However, you can make a start today and as one supermarket chain says, “Every Little Helps”. Don’t forget to pay attention to little things. For instance, how do you keep appointments? Do you jot them down on a piece of paper or a diary? Do you write them down on a calendar? Do you keep your appointments on a website of some sort?
It seems like such a trivial issue that it’s barely worth bothering about. However, my challenge to you is to really think about these kind of things. If you store your appointments on a piece of paper or a website then what happens when you don’t have your diary with you or you’re not in front of a computer? For what it’s worth, I’ve recently switched from storing my appointments on the web to storing them on my iPhone. It’s hardly the technical breakthrough of the century but as far as my life goes it has really made a big difference.
The nice thing about all of this is that you don’t have to invest in one really powerful customised IT system to get this concept working for you. Many of the best organisational tools that you could possibly hope for are already available free of charge. I think one of the best and most under-appeciated tools that people have is their mobile phones. If you have a fancy enough mobile phone (let’s not advertise too much here!) then you can easily download accounts apps, to-do list apps and all sorts of fantastic business applications absolutely free of charge. I would really encourage you to look into that, if you have time.
When you’ve gone through the process I’ve described above you might eventually decide that you’d like one software application for everything. Something that allows you to update your website, send invoices, contact affiliates, do accounts, manage appointments and basically run your life for you. I believe that the best and most cost effective way of acquiring your dream IT system is via a little known web application framework called “Codeigniter”. However, I shall leave that conversation for another day.
Thanks for reading. Rock on!
– David Connelly