Saturday, 29 September 2007

Protocol Therapy

An entrepreneur is required to wear many hats. In my case that can be anything from reviewing operational performance, developing new marketing channels, discussing finances with the rest of the board, to even sometimes sales.

For me this is part of the appeal of what I do. I'm better at starting things than I am at finishing so moving between different demands on my time keeps my work fresh and exciting. Though like everyone, I have to make sure there aren't too many plates spinning.

Recently however, I've been making a bit more time for the technician in me and doing some development. I've been investigating various services and protocols, building test systems to assess their potential to be offered as new services for our clients.

I've discovered that I find protocol implementation quite therapeutic. Give me an RFC, Visual Studio and a copy of NUnit and I can zone out for several hours.

Unit testing was made for this kind of development. I get lost in the mesmeric cycle of

  1. Identify requirement in RFC
  2. Write test for requirement
  3. Write code to make test pass
  4. repeat

The outcome is a robust implementation that meets the spec. as well as a general sense of well being.

Obviously I have to ration this kind of therapy, I have got a company to run, but it shows that relaxation can be found in the most unlikely of places as entirely personal.

To find mine, I just had to embrace my inner geek.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Making a profit

I ended up watching a documentary on BBC Four last night about Factory Records, the epoch defining Manchester record label that brought the world Joy Division, New Order and The Happy Mondays.

It was headed up by Tony Wilson, local TV presenter and champion of the local music scene. He was notorious for grand gestures, not pulling any punches and just making stuff happened irrespective of the consequences.

Factory was never a big commercial success, lurching from one financial crisis to another. Profit was sacrificed at the alter of style. For example New Order released the biggest selling EP of all time, Blue Monday, unfortunately they lost money on every sale because the packaging was so expensive to produce.

At one point in the program he was asked if he ever did anything in order to make a profit. He bombastically replied that of course they hadn't it was all about the vision.

From a commercial point of view this sounds ludicrous and the Blue Monday production was commercial suicide. However this struck me as one end of an entreprenurial spectrum rather than sheer stupidity.

Any entrepeneurial adventure starts with a vision. Some will immediately analyse the commercial opportunity, assess the market, predict sales and production costs and kill or feed the project at that point. Others will carry on regardless confident in the vision and will beg and borrow to keep the dream alive.

It's the latter kind of visions that change our world, from hydro-cyclone vacuum cleaners to clockwork radios to the Internet to the regeneration of a city.

Without a bit of blind faith the world would be very boring.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Hotxt fizzle out

Well it seems that Hotxt are closing the doors on their service as of 30th September.

Seems even with the mighty Doug Richard backing them they couldn't compete with good old fashioned SMS. It may cost more, but it sure as dammit works more reliably and everyone, and that's 2.5 BILLION subscribers, can use it.

The team behind it are not giving up mind you, they're releasing a new service trutap which on casual first inspection seems to be a social networking, blogging, communication type thingy.

Ah the joy of using free services where providers can pull the plug when they feel like doing something else.

The franchise approach and the dangers of not being in control

Had an joyful customer service experience from a couple of franchise operations today that, as well as infuriating me, are very relevant to a book I'm reading at the moment. E-myth Revisited by Michael Gerber, has as it's central tenet that to make truly successful business one should view it as a franchise prototype.

His view is that if you build the business as if you're going to replicate it, even if you have no plans to franchise, then it will make the business able to operate without the involvement of the principal and therefore be far stronger.

Being a 'new man' of the nineties, I can share with you that I was shopping for face wash. My wife convinced me to try several varieties and the one I settled on, ie it didn't feel like several layers of skin had been stripped from my face, was from Clarins. So off I went to the local franchise at Debenhams in the city centre.

No one was behind the counter. Eventually someone arrived, she proceeded to tell me she was dealing with another customer, it wasn't her stall and that anyway the other person was at lunch. Needless to say I didn't stick around.

Off to the John Lewis franchise next and a totally different experience. Someone was there, in fact someone came over from a different franchise to help me because another customer was being dealt with.

I noticed that they had a 30ml version of the wash in a travel pack so I asked about buying one of those separately. Annoyingly the standard size is 125ml so too big to take in hand luggage on a plane currently. They couldn't sell me one but did find me several testers for my next trip.

So confidence restored, but it could so easily have not been. What if I had been a new customer, recommended to try out their products, or buying something for a friend? A customer lost, the Clarins brand tarnished.

One of the things we pride ourselves on at Esendex, and something we receive plaudits for, is the quality of our customer service. It's going to be one of the key challenges we face as we continue our rapid growth.

Back to the book, it's a good easy read but I've only just started the section on how you do it. Will let you know.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

To iPhone or Not To iPhone

The launch date and network have been announced but the real question is should I get one?

I like my iPod and I like what I'm hearing about the iPhone user interface, except the virtual keyboard. Perfect you'd think.

For all their user interface foibles, Nokia know how to make mobile phones. Ewan at SMSTextNews has posted at length about the end of his love-affair with Nokia: Help I'm Shunning Nokia. In many ways I'm inclined to agree with him.

The N95 is a gratuitous phone that offers a fantastic range of features but with total disregard for battery consumption. But it does make and receive calls and I bet typing text messages is easier than the iPhone.

I find the music features a bit limiting. Why oh why are album tracks played alphabetically rather than in album order. But I can't fit many albums on my 512MB card so I use it on random and change the tracks relatively frequently.

The killer feature for me is the camera. The 5MP one sported by the N95 is fantastic and overshadows the paltry 2MP in the iPhone. I've got so used to having a decent camera with me wherever I am I'm not ready to give it up.

My ideal scenario, iTunes for Nokia to replace the truly terrible Nokia Music Manager and allow me to play tracks in their destined order.

With Nokia's reinvention as a mobile services and content provider I suspect this is probably not on the cards. But I'll certainly be checking out their music offerings.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Esendex 2.0

I realised over the weekend that I'd been a bit quiet on the blog front of late. We're going through some big changes here at Esendex towers and it's been more a symptom of focusing on those.

We're a profitable, successful organisation with an ever growing customer base in 5 countries around the world. This gives a fantastic platform to develop the business further into new markets and new levels of service. Esendex 2.0.

We're currently focusing our efforts in 3 areas:

Web Site

We are launching a new web site very soon. We've integrated with the Episerver CMS to enable rapid updates and changes to the content.

We've always been praised on the quality of our customer service and support and as we grow we're looking at more scalable ways of offering that same level of service. One of the main improvements will be the inclusion of blogs run by the Development team and Support team as well as a broaded corporate blog.

Both the Developer and Support sites are being managed directly by the relevant teams and the blogs will be their way of the keeping our customers up to date with everything they need to know.

In the case of the Development this will be posts on using the SDK, new features we're adding to support developers and a more in depth explanation of the approach, rationale, etc.

The Support bog will be broader in it's appeal, giving customers information on releases, new features, how tos. planned outages and anything else the team feels would assist customers.

System Architecture

A lot of work has been going on to develop our system architecture to support a new range of services as well as our forecasted growth over the next 5 years. While the system is more than capable of coping with our current levels of traffic, the last thing we want is technology to be the constraint on our aspirations.

I will be posting about some specific developments over the coming weeks. Essentially we are moving our platform from an Enterprise to a Mobile Operator architecture. The two key challenges we face:

  • Introduce an order of magnitude improvement in our capacity
  • Maintain our availability and reliability levels

It has been a real challenge but the results are looking very exciting in a nerdy, check out that performance graph, kind of way.

New Services

Over the coming months you'll be seeing a range of new services. Can't go into too much detail but a new era is dawning.

Fittest Director - The Result

I didn't come last.

Monday, 10 September 2007

UK Numbering Activation via Yahoo?

We have recently been assigned a number range by Ofcom and part of the process of setting this up involves activating the number range across all communication providers in the UK.

I was amazed to discover that this process is all driven by a Yahoo Group.

I guess in the same way that businesses have come to rely on free telephony through Skype, it makes sense for Ofcom to use a free service if it proves robust enough. Indeed, if you consider the timescales that the various providers work, carrier pigeon would probably work just as well.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Seems I have a skill

Had my assessment for Britain's Fittest Director yesterday and I made a surprising discovery.

One of the test was a balance test which involved standing on one leg while blindfolded. I managed well over a minute.

Sean the assessor told me I wiped the floor with the opposition on that one, though he wasn't at liberty to tell by how much. Not sure whether that will make up for the "pretty good for someone who doesn't normally bench press" performance in that exercise and the "you're not the worst" feedback on the pull-ups.

Fortunately my legs came to my rescue on the other assessments so while I won't be troubling the leader board, I didn't embarrass myself either. Results out soon.

While I'm here, Sean McIntosh the assessor was excellent. Professional, knowledgeable and I bet as a personal trainer he'd be very motivational. He gave me a card so if you are looking for training in the region surrounding Coventry drop me a line and I'll forward you his details.

Don't break the interface

Ian and Jonathon have been paired up on resolving a long standing omission from our system, aggregating inbound long messages.

Currently when a subscriber sends a long message to one of our SMS long numbers or short codes, each part of that message arrives in the inbox, or is pushed to our customers web service, individually. Aggregating the messages for multiple accounts while maintaining performance was a reasonably significant architectural problem to resolve.

We had looked at it before but were never quite happy with the solution. I finally committed the development time to do it as a result of the a case being raised by a very patient and reasonable customer. This time we were ready.

One of the constraints on any changes we make to our systems is preserving the interface to customers who use our API. In our initial plans we were going to potentially break it for some people.

Ian describes it in more detail in his post: Esendex Inbound Multipart Messaging Update. While we weren't strictly breaking the interface, if our customers had made reasonable assumptions about the length strings being passed it could break their application.

Not happy with this, the three of us sat down and we did come up with a solution that satisfied the internal architecture of our system while still supporting our existing customers.

We are going to provide an API option on an account to aggregate long messages. While we'll be storing messages in their aggregated form in our system. For those accounts with that option switched off, the API will re-split the messages before delivering them.

All existing accounts will have the option turned off by default and all new accounts will have the option turned on.

It makes the Options page a little more complicated but it keeps everyone working, which is what it's all about.