What you don't see when a website goes down

FolioHD went down this week due to some server problems. I happened to be in Paris, approximately 5,642 miles away from where the servers reside in Los Angeles. This tends to be a problem when you are physically nowhere near the data center and when you can't fix things remotely. The remaining two days of my vacation were spent on spotty, unreliable wifi, emailing with customers and working with vendors and contractors to bring the site back online.

During the process, I received hundreds of emails from customers. I would lump these customers in three categories:

  • Those who asked when their sites would be back online. Totally understandable.
  • The entitled customers who tell me how I am hurting their business, that this is unacceptable, they are infuriated, demand refunds, and tell me they will be going elsewhere. (I actually referred many of these customers to a competitor of ours.)
  • And then, few and far between, are the empathetic customers who are compassionate, more than patient, and understand we are working as quickly as we can to fix things.

When something doesn't work as expected, it's normal to become irritated or angry. (I remember when our electricity was out for about 3 days back in 2002. I wrote an angry tirade to Southern California Edison on my blog at the time.)

But having experienced being on the other side of an outage now, I figured I'd share a little bit about how I've spent the last 48 hours.

  • Found out about the downtime, began to diagnose the issue
  • Started answering customer emails
  • Diagnosed the problem, weighed possible solutions
  • Sent out a mass email to recently active customers telling them we're working on the issue
  • Decided on a solution, started calling vendors over Skype (from Paris)
  • Replied to all sorts of customers asking for status updates
  • Selected a vendor, asked a very kind friend to pick up some hard drives from our data center and drive them across town to the data recovery facility
  • Coordinated the purchase of new hardware to be overnighted to the data center
  • Discussed status updates throughout the night with our data recovery team as they worked to save data
  • Continued responding to angry emails
  • Flew home
  • Landed, picked up hard drives from data recovery facility
  • Drove them across Los Angeles to the data center and plugged them in
  • Got the site back online
  • Emailed active customers to inform them of the news and explain what happened and what was going to change to make sure this didn't happen again
  • Started issuing refunds and credits

The last two of days of my "vacation", I got maybe 3 hours of sleep in total. I slept with my phone in-hand, waking up to every vibration to check on status updates from our data recovery team and to triage anything urgent.

Throughout the whole process, I received several emails that were quite encouraging:

"I really appreciate your upfront and clear communication regarding this incident. Your professionalism does not go unnoticed."

"I am certainly glad that you all were able to get FolioHD back I'm action! Although it was tough, you all did an exceptional job with keeping us all informed. I am more than sure that from this conquered hurdle, FolioHD will reach new heights that will align and even exceed what you all have envisioned."

"Great communication through out your down time ... and I can tell from your email above that there are genuine, interested people at work behind the scenes, which prompted me to put this email together. Keep up the good work and all the best for 2014! "

Too often, people think of websites as machines and not people. What encourages me about these emails is that these customers actually understand that every harsh word spoken to a company is actually read by someone who has invested blood, sweat and tears into the product, and instead of using their words to tear down, they chose to be positive and understood this fact. I totally understand the frustration of those who rely on us and those who speak their mind about it, but when it comes down to it, I hope they can understand that I am just as frustrated as they are, and that their harsh words only take me away from trying to fix the root of the problem. They don't see the 22 hours days people like me put in to get things back in order.

The next time you email somebody who runs a website, keep in mind that you're dealing with normal people. Speak with civility and respect. Your words are far more likely to be heard than those who act entitled and fly off the handle.

Want to sell me something? Here's how.

As a business owner, I cannot count the number of times I am solicited for products or services, or by recruiters looking to work with us. Over time, you learn to tune them out just like we all do with junk mail.

But last week at Preact, something far different happened - far superior to cold calls and cold emails. We received a packet on our doorstep from a private banker at Wells Fargo. This was a cold outreach from her, but she had taken the time to learn about our company and do her research before contacting us. And the way she did it was genius: finding things important to us and mentioning them. Case in point: on our Company page, there's a reference to our near-religious love of Taco Tuesday. So what does she close her note with? "I <3 TACOS! Maybe we can meet Tuesday?"

This is the way to build relationships. Even if we're not in the market for a private banker at this point, some day I will be, and you know who will come to mind first.

Something similar happened recently after I posted a job online. Most applicants reply to a detailed job posting with a simple canned response. But I received an email from a candidate who took the time to go line-by-line in my job posting to respond to everything I wrote. In fact, he took so much time and put in so much thought to his email that I actually felt obligated to respond immediately and thank him for taking the time. Even if he wasn't the most qualified person, I'd feel more inclined to give him a closer look simply because he took the time to do something to stand out.

And when it comes to selling yourself, your product or your service, standing out is the name of the game. But amazingly, it isn't rocket science. Take the time to be personable and to do something meaningful and you'll have a leg up on the competition.

You are no longer allowed to look at Mount Rushmore.

Dirty political tricks are finally starting to affect normal people, and I couldn't be more excited about it.

Because Republicans won't pass a bill to fund the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration decided to "make life as difficult for people as we can" and has barricaded public monuments, national parks, views of Mount Rushmore (you can't even pull over to the side of the road to take a picture of it - see picture below), and more recently attempted to block access to the ocean in Florida. That doesn't much sound like the "hope and change" we were sold on. To me, it sounds like politics as usual - maybe worse than we've ever seen before.

For years, the American people have lost more and more freedom and prosperity to a type of tyrannistic government that looks very similar to the government that America was founded to escape from in the first place, but it hasn't really affected the average, every day person... until now.

Now, the Obama administration has even decided to block access to public property that isn't actually funded by the government.

"You do have to wonder about the wisdom of an organization that would use staff they don't have the money to pay to evict visitors from a park site that operates without costing them any money."

This week we also saw the Affordable Care Act exchanges launch. Americans finally began to see first-hand that government healthcare plans are costing 2-4x more than their existing plans with less coverage, and people are pissed.

The government is starting to interfere with people's daily lives, and Americans are finally starting to wake up. I just hope we do something about it before it's too late.

Eliminating the need for politics through the church

I tend to stay away from religion and politics here, but this is something that's been on my mind lately and I wanted to share it.

Recently I ran into my former (now-retired) voice teacher from high school, Bob, at a coffee shop. I was unaware in high school, but as we chatted, it became clear to me that he is a hardcore democrat. We began talking politics, as I was curious as to why he felt the way he does. He explained that Republicans are out-of-touch rich people who don't know how hard the less-fortunate have it (he lumped himself into that category).

I can't totally disagree with that.

I clarified that the main reason for his beliefs is that he feels we should take care of the less-fortunate in our country.

I don't disagree with that either.

But I see a solution that lives outside the realm of politics. Unfortunately, I think that only a small fraction of people agree with me, and pessimistically I realize that my solution is quite unrealistic in the world in which we live. But it doesn't hurt to be an idealist, does it?

For this post, we'll assume the main idealogical difference that people have is the method in which we as a society ensure that everyone has "enough" and that no one slips through the cracks.

--

A couple months ago, my church decided to raise $500,000 in one weekend. They felt called to raise the money to give it away (100% would go to 50 partners, both locally and globally, with not a penny kept by the church). We blew well past the $500,000 mark, raising over $800,000 in just a few weeks. Among other things, this money went to keep after school programs for kids open during the summer, to assist a women's shelter, and to the Orange County Food Bank whose stock levels were running at 40%. (You can find the full list of partners here.) And this campaign was above and beyond the normal outreach program at my church.

Say what you will about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but no one can argue that this is such an amazing display of what the church was intended to be for the world - a beacon of light, and a community of people who love and serve the world around them.

Of course my church is blessed with the resources to be able to pull off a major campaign like this, but the reality is that far too many churches don't even try to impact their world in the same way. And this is just one of the many reasons the church gets a bad rap today.

-- 

In a perfect world where the church serves those in need around them in the same way my church strives to do, I can't say we'd have less poverty, but I do know that the government wouldn't be forced to step in. Everyone wants to help those in need; it's just the method over which we tend to argue. I think that people should be responsible for themselves, and that it isn't the government's job to take care of anyone. But this doesn't mean I don't think we shouldn't take care of the less fortunate - I do! But I believe that this is the role of the church, private organizations, and the individual.

Of course, we live in a world where people are too focused on themselves and many churches barely have enough money to keep the lights on, let alone help those around them. But when charity is run through private organizations and on a local level, there is far less waste, misuse and fraud, because people tend to make a dollar go further when there is a limited amount of money, as opposed to a national government who has seemingly unlimited coffers (thanks to ever-increasing taxes).

Unfortunately, my ideal world will never be a reality. All I can do is continue to serve and give through my church, a place where I voluntarily give because I see the impact they're making locally and globally, and hope that other churches and organizations will take notice and follow suit - and hope that people will begin to see the church as a community of people that makes a real impact for good in this world.

Relationships: No regrets

This post is about failed relationships, and it's something that is atypical for me to write about for a couple reasons:

  1. I'm a guy and guys don't typically talk about relationships, especially in a public forum.
  2. It highlights one of my failures/vulnerabilities and the internet is typically a place where people only put their best foot forward (myself included).

I've been through a couple relationships over the past year, neither one of them easy for me to get over when they ended. I tend to romanticize over relationships more than most guys, partially because my motives in relationships differ. I don't date much (nor casually), and when I decide to pursue a relationship, it's only after I know I could see a future with that person. Shortsighted relationship vision is a huge emotional draw and quite frankly, I think my time is better spent elsewhere.

Recently I was able to get together with an ex for a casual dinner to catch up and see what we've learned from both our relationship together and the relationships we've had since. It stinks when a relationship ends, but if you can look back and largely remember the positives about what you learned from your interactions and from dealing with the other person, I'd chalk that up to a win. I learned so much about how to understand and deal with emotions (especially the ones that don't make sense and where the desired response is completely opposite of my fix-it nature) and just really how to be a man.

We both agreed that our relationship together helped us "grow up" in a sense and prepared us for our ultimate relationships in the future. Even though there are a lot of painful memories, especially after the relationship ended, I have no regrets from taking a chance. Ideally heartbreaks don't happen, but the reality is that that's not possible. For one reason or another, somebody is likely to get hurt. It's impossible to get close to someone without finding out that you might not be good together - even if you have the foundation of a friendship, and there's no fool-proof way to eliminate that risk.

I post this partially as a motivation to myself that making yourself vulnerable is a risky business, but one that is totally worth it. It doesn't feel good to get your heart broken but if you don't take the risk, you're missing out on something potentially beautiful. And I would know about missing out, because I was void a relationship for a solid 4 years, largely because I was too scared to take any risk (all while blaming it on being "too busy").

I'm also thankful this ex and I are able to be friends following a long term relationship. One of the worst parts about a break up is the fact that it can destroy a friendship, and the risk of that is inevitable. The reality is that following a breakup, it's painful to even think about the other person because of the memories that it stirs. But I'm glad I was willing to risk a friendship for the chance of it blossoming into something greater.

Stepping out and taking the risk of vulnerability is something that doesn't come easy for me, but now I know I won't look back years from now and always wonder "What if?". Relationships are tough, especially when you set your expectations as high as I do. I have no idea what's in my future; I'm just thankful that this year, I finally risked my emotions and the feelings I guard the closest to give love a chance.

Traditional car dealerships are a thing of the past

Car dealerships.

What comes to mind when you hear that phrase? To me, I think of pesky salesmen, cheap linoleum flooring, fluorescent lighting, and the smell of rubber. And everybody has a story about the painful process of buying a car. I can't imagine being the only person to have the same feelings to the typical car dealerships as I do. That's part of the reason why I was so confused when Chevrolet came out with an ad campaign last year that was shot entirely inside a dealership.

In fact, several of the commercials in this campaign began with a faint loudspeaker of the receptionist calling in a salesperson from outside. The campaign did a great job of making you feel like you were there, including the throngs of lonely salespeople standing around. But is that really a good thing?

Even Toyota got in on the action recently, running their own campaign of commercials shot on the set of a car dealership.

I might be more attuned to the subpar experience of the stereotypical car dealership than most (since I seem to complain about more things than most), but there's something about a dealership that defies these norms that flips the typical visit to the car dealership around from being a dreaded experience to one that is looked forward to.

Tesla is one example of a company trying something different. Rather than building dealerships in normal places like auto centers, they've focused on being where you already go. Here in Orange County, Tesla has a store in Fashion Island, one of our upscale, outdoor shopping malls. They've got another dealership a few miles away on Pacific Coast Highway amidst other boutique shops. But even when you visit one of their locations, it doesn't feel like a car dealership. They've got one or two cars out on display, and you can't take them for a test drive. The purpose of these stores is to inform you about their vehicles and show you what's coming.

Of course, this model doesn't work for all car companies. Tesla (currently) offers two models and sells to a high end market. Car makers like Chevy have quite a few more cars than that.

But still, not all dealership experiences have to suck in the way that we are used to. The pictures below are of Newport Lexus in Newport Beach, CA.

Newport Lexus is my dealership of choice after I bought my Lexus. It feels nothing like a car dealership, despite having rows and rows of cars out front. When you walk inside, it feels like you're walking into the lobby of a 5-star hotel. The rest of the experience isn't far off from that. The retail areas and coffee shop and lounge make it a place you want to visit on a regular basis. The free car washes are nice, and I try to make it in at least once a week to enjoy this perk of getting my car serviced there.

But the beauty of Newport Lexus is more than just the nice building and the perks; it's the people. I have never met such friendly people who really get to know you. Because I visit once a week for my car wash, I've built up friendly relationships with many of the staff members who greet me by name when I arrive. And when it's time to get my car serviced, I look forward to the day I get to drive in and see everybody. And now I can't picture myself buying a car from anywhere else. They've succeeded because they've built a relationship with me and won my loyalty.

Everything about the experience at Newport Lexus is fantastic. When I go through my list of things I hate about the typical car dealership, I realize I find none of them at Newport Lexus, which makes me wonder, why do so many other dealerships not care about the experience of their customers? I think we are slowly seeing a trend toward offering perks at particular dealerships. Some now advertise free washes on weekends or free coffee when you stop by. But are these perks the tipping point to get people to come back?

As we see in nearly every industry, monumental improvements in the norm typically come from the top down. It makes sense why Tesla (as a company) and some other high end dealerships have radically changed the way they sell cars. I'm just looking forward to the day where linoleum floors, endless options packages and packs of salesmen with bad ties are a thing of the past.

How Cory is tired of the media demonizing success: Phil Mickelson edition

It disgusts me how much the media demonizes the wealth of successful people.

Phil Mickelson got flak this week for saying new federal and state tax rates would prevent him from joining in on a deal to be part of the San Diego Padres new ownership group. He explained the new tax code would force him to make "drastic changes".

On Sunday, Mickelson explained, "If you add up all the federal and you look at the disability and the unemployment and the Social Security and the state, my tax rate is 62, 63 percent."

His comments were perceived "insensitive", so he apologized.

"I think that it was insensitive to talk about it publicly to those people who are not able to find a job, that are struggling paycheck to paycheck," Mickelson said. "I think that was insensitive to discuss it in that forum."

Do you mean to tell me that the average golf fan was offended by Mickelson's comments? I find that hard to believe.

It's likely he wouldn't have apologized for his comments if he weren't so demonized by the media. This post written by golf writer Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press is written with an extreme left slant, riddled with sensationalism that I wouldn't even call journalism. (If I gave him a press badge at an event, I'd make sure his badge labeled him a "Blogger".)

The same day, Tami Luhby of CNN published a post titled The truth behind Mickelson's taxes. She leads with the title, "There's no doubt that Phil Mickelson pays a lot in income taxes as a California resident, but it's not as much as he thinks." Her article breaks down what he pays in taxes and guesses he pays a mere 51% instead of Mickelson's quoted "62, 63 percent". Whoop-de-do, Tami.

I think people in the media (not to be confused with journalists) fail to remember what successful people do with their money. Mickelson runs a foundation with his wife called The Phil and Amy Mickelson Foundation that focuses on education and family issues. They partnered with ExxonMobil to develop a curriculum for teachers to help motivate students in math and science. He has also contributed to many other charitable groups, several of which benefit wounded veterans. And yes, he'll get a tax break for that. As he should.

But for the media to demonize Phil Mickelson's success personal opinions on taxes in golf is short-sighted and pathetic. It's disappointing that legitimate news publications feel it's okay to report in such a way where their posts contain a subtext of intentionally derogatory language against someone who voices an opinion contrary to their own, while labeling it as reporting.

Sure, Mickelson has a great job and we're all jealous. I just wish the media would keep in mind that the wealthy don't leach.

Obama, taxes, investors, and capital: Why raising taxes hurts the startup industry

TL;DR: The startup industry largely supports Obama who wants to increase taxes on the wealthy. Raising taxes on the wealthy directly affects the amount of capital available to entrepreneurs because when investors pay more in taxes, they have less money to invest in new startups.

The internet startup "industry" is built off the fact that there are investors who are willing to write checks to entrepreneurs to create new businesses. Startup incubators like Y Combinator and TechStars have been able to fund a large number of businesses because investors have been willing to put their money at risk. In fact, the current total value of companies Y Combinator has funded is around $10 billion. In essence, the startup industry is the perfect example of how investing should work.

It's no secret that most people in the startup space support President Obama, and here's why I'm baffled by this: Obama wants to significantly raise taxes on everyone making over $250,000/year, and not just raise income tax but drastically increase taxes on investment returns. The problem with taking more money from this group is that it takes away money that would otherwise be invested in startups. Why does the startup community want to increase taxes on their own investors? What could have been used to fund a startup now goes to paying more taxes.

I don't think this correlation is made very often. When people in the startup space think about rich people paying more in taxes, I don't think it's associated with the very same people who are funding their startups and paying their salaries.

I'm thankful to the people who have invested in my startup. Because of the capital we've received, we are not only able to start a business, but actually hire people and create jobs! (Politicians says that the government can create jobs, but in reality, more available capital helps fund more startups who are able to create jobs.)

The shortsightedness of wanting to tax the rich to solve our problems needs to stop. Government is wildly inefficient at most of what it sets out to do, and it's not the answer to most of our problems today. I hope more people in the startup space will wake up to the fact that higher taxes on successful people (namely, our very own investors) is completely counterproductive and will do nothing but hurt our industry and future innovation in the long run.

Why I'm removing TechCrunch from my RSS reader

TechCrunch used to be the best place for tech news, but it has since turned into a place for personal vendettas and opinion pieces. I present to you three examples from the past week:

In the first example, writer Gregory Ferenstein goes on a personal attack of Chick-fil-a. Most of the first four paragraphs have nothing to do with technology, and are inserted simply to frame Chick-fil-a in a negative light. The tech angle to the story was apparently how Chick-fil-a marketing created a Facebook account as a marketing tool. But half of the article is about a "Same Day Kissing Protest" which has absolutely no relevancy to tech news, nor the story at hand. The writer uses this opportunity to promote an event for a cause in which he personally believes. This is far from objective news reporting that TechCrunch was built around.

Example #2: Writer Sarah Perez spends six paragraphs complaining about the speed of Gmail.

Gmail is unusable. The other day, I counted how long it took Gmail to perform basic functions: open an email, do search, and expand a thread. On a high-speed FiOS connection, on an Internet where clicks translate to immediate actions, it’s incredible to watch Gmail struggle to even function. 10 seconds to perform a search, 14 seconds to open an email message, 10 seconds to expand a conversation thread.

Unfortunately for Sarah, the problem she experiences is the complete opposite of 99% of people who use Gmail. I can't vouch for her problems because I don't have the same volume of email she talks about. And judging by the comments, no one else agrees with her either. Again, this is another solid example of a writer personally attacking a company based on her own experience rather than writing an objective story with any research or fact checking.

In example #3, Matt Burns posts a screenshot about a new format of the Google search results page in which the filtering options were moved above search results from the sidebar.

I’m honestly torn over the new design. On one hand I love the vertical layout. My mind never fully embraced the search tools being located on a sidebar. Now, with the tools positioned directly under the search field, I find it’s a bit more natural to change the parameters of the search. But at the same time, it feels very repetitive to have the category bar located a few lines under the black Google product bar. Plus, there is an awful amount of whitespace flanking either side of the search results.

This tech writer has somehow missed the memo (with reporting from his own site, mind you) that Google is killing the top black bar. The end goal is not to be repetitive, but to find a new alternative that performs as well as the existing top black bar. Regardless, I find it a complete waste of time to read an entire paragraph about his personal opinions of how Google's search results page should look.

How is any of this technology news? Under Arrington's watch, TechCrunch was the most credible, most interesting tech news read on the web. Today, it's the TMZ of tech.

If the new direction of TechCrunch is to become a place where tech news takes a back seat to opinion pieces and unresearched assumptions of writers who choose to rant about their own problems, then that's fine - I can go elsewhere for my tech news. I just hadn't seen the official memo.

Just focus and get it done (and some notes from @ValioCon)

Last weekend, I attended the 2nd annual ValioCon in San Diego. The first happened just over a year ago. When I introduced myself to fellow designers, I listed off the latest things I had built and some well-known sites or projects that people could associate with my name.

But as I introduced myself, I found myself giving the same introduction as I did last year. Why? Because I haven't "released" anything new that I've been working on in over a year. I'm ashamed.

That's not to say I haven't done anything. I've been busy all year. FolioHD is gaining traction like crazy. I redesigned Bandzoogle's site manager platform. I did some work for Zillow. I've sold lots of premium Posterous themes. I'm now doing some pretty exciting design work at Kelley Blue Book (on a contract basis). Most importantly of all (to me), I've worked on exciting new projects of my own like The Mux and Less Neglect. But neither of those have been released yet, simply because they aren't finished. And surprisingly, those are the projects I've wanted to finish most of all.

During the conference last year, there were other designers who teased upcoming releases of their own products. Fast forward to this year. They still haven't been released either.

I don't know what their reasoning is, but I know I don't have many excuses. I simply need to focus. It's quite honestly embarassing to me that I have so many unfinished projects on my plate. Itn fact, it's a big problem of mine. I will half-finish projects, then get excited about something new and move on.

At ValioCon this year, I jotted down something a speaker said relating to getting things done:

Treat side-projects like a real job. Have a product schedule, deadlines, and make sure you meet them and consequences if you don't.

This is something I plan to implement in all of my side projects.

I also think it's a time management issue. I make sure I have a healthy balance of work and personal time in my life. I think it's important to rest and have fun. But in order to finish things, it's sometimes important to make sacrifices. Another speaker at ValioCon gave this piece of advice:

There's an unhealthy point in any side business where you have to sacrifice something.

Things simply aren't going to get done on their own. It takes serious focus and sometimes sacrifice if you want to get where you want to go.

Setting reasonable goals and expectations is important. If you don't, there's a good chance you'll end up in a similar situation where you look back and realize you haven't made it any closer to your personal goals than you were a year ago.

So my new goal is to release a working version of The Mux, and a beta version of Less Neglect by the time I turn 25 next month. That leaves just over a month to release two half-finished products. I think it's doable. And if I stick to a written schedule, it definitely is.

But I could use your help, internet. Hold me accountable!