The only website that closes at night

The revolutionary thing about the internet is that it's "always on". Do some shopping at midnight in your PJ's? Yep. Watch a movie at 3 AM from bed? Absolutely.

Which is why I was astonished to discover a website that has "normal business hours" and actually closes at night. Of course it would be a government website, namely the Social Security Administration.


How did I discover this?
I recently heard it's possible to estimate your future social security benefits on the Social Security website, so I decided to try it out. But following the link that says "Estimate Your Retirement Benefits", I was greeted with a CLOSED message, which is probably the only website in the world that actually closes at night.

Turns out since it's 10:22 PM here on the West Coast, I'm outside of those normal operating hours for those East Coast servers.

Seriously, what in the world?

<rant> Please don't send an email like this to customer support

In this episode of "the life of a business owner..."

People say the darndest things when writing in to customer support. Here's a recent example sent in to FolioHD.

"My service is still not working. My business depends on the reliability of this website and if this can't be fixed I'll have to switch providers immediately."

Do customers think support people are more inclined to respond faster if they include a line like this? Do they subconsciously think a slight threat is going to get their problem fixed any faster?

The unfortunate fact is that 99 out of 100 times, the "problem" is a user error (at least in our case - in this particular instance, a misconfigured domain name). But when you're the service provider, it's never the customer's fault -- and I'll gladly take on their problem as if it were the most important thing in the world, but because I want them to have a good experience, not because of their tone.

There's just something inside me that hopes they don't correlate their slightly threatening tone to what got their problem resolved, because it really doesn't help.

</rant>

Disincentivized

  • It was announced today that illegal immigrants will now be eligible to receive back tax refunds even though they've never actually paid taxes.
  • Today I went to pick up a prescription that cost me over $100 because my new Obamacare insurance doesn't cover it. My old insurance was 1/4 the cost and covered everything.
  • I'm working on filing my taxes and am astounded at the amount of money I'm handing over to Uncle Sam. And I'm seeing less in return for it than ever before.

I'm beginning to wonder what the point is of working hard all day, sometimes nights and weekends. I work more than I should, to the point it sometimes starts to interfere with relationships and social activities and I have to constantly keep myself in check, but I've chosen to do it because I enjoy it and because I want to get ahead.

But with every action our government takes, they take away my incentive to actually try to get ahead.

Why should I work hard to pay for a $100 prescription, where if I made less money, I wouldn't pay anything at all?

Why should I work to pay my rent, when the government would chip in and help me pay for a place just as nice if I made less money?

Why is the government handing out my money who have done nothing to earn it and who haven't gone through the legal routes to be here?

This system doesn't work. The people on the low end of the pole have no incentive to work hard because they are being handed everything. And the people on the upper end have no incentive to work hard because they'll get the same benefits regardless of how hard they work.

Welcome to the new America.

Resort fees, dealer fees, convenience fees, and other bogus charges

Typically when we buy something, we're accustomed to paying the listed price, plus a mandated tax on the item. But recently we've become accustomed to seeing additional fees on purchases that aren't listed in the purchase price. This is already common practice for things like utility bills, cell phone bills, and car rentals. But over the past decade, this practice has extended to the internet in some incredibly shady ways.

Ever booked a hotel room and been forced to fork over an extra $15 or $20 a night at the front desk, on top of what you already paid to book the room? You may or may not have been aware of this charge called a "Resort Fee", a completely bogus charge some hotels are resorting (no pun intended) to, in order to maintain profit margins but still appear competitive on their price.

How does it work? Imaging you're filtering for 4-star hotels, then sorting by price, lowest to highest. "Wow," you say, "I found an amazing 4-star hotel for $90 a night!" Not so fast. If you look closely, you'll see a Resort Fee of something like $20 per night, payable to the hotel upon arrival. So what's going on? Well, for that hotel to appear in the top results for the price range, they lower their price but make back that amount in the form of a fee that isn't included in the price.

I recently came across an incredibly shady example of this fee on a Travelzoo deal:

"A resort fee of $15 per night is not included and will be paid directly to the hotel. This fee covers Wi-Fi, pool access, spa access (may be limited), fitness center access, newspaper, phone calls (may be limited), in-room coffee, in-room bottled water, self parking, valet parking and additional inclusions."

Travelzoo is all about great deals, but if you factor in the extra $15 you're going to have to fork over, you have to question if it's really that great of a deal. But the most offensive part is that this hotel is communicating this fee covers things like self-parking, coffee, fitness center access, and even pool/spa access! We all know even the most basic hotels have offered this forever at no additional charge. This is a blatant way to make back the profit they would have lost by actually offering a deal.

These tactics extend to things far beyond hotel bookings. Ever bought a car and thought you got a great deal? You should watch this video about the four square model, the model that every car dealership uses to make sure they make a certain profit on every car sale. Oh, and that dealer fee you may have paid from anywhere from $200-$750? Yeah, that's just a bogus fee - doesn't actually cover anything. It just goes toward making your purchase price appear lower.

Fortunately, there are some sites that actively try to give you an out-the-door price, which I really appreciate. Stubhub shows you your out-the-door price per ticket to an event. Southwest shows you the out-the-door price on an airline ticket - it includes all the bogus government fees.

I have declared war on these types of bogus fees. I try to avoid them as much as I possibly can and I hope I can convince you to do the same, when at all possible.

"Don’t give people what they want; give them what they need."

TL;DR: This post is an incredibly petty example of how Lexus improved an already perfectly positioned parking brake. Seriously.

"Don’t give people what they want; give them what they need." - Joss Whedon

We've all heard this quote a thousand times; sometimes I use it to my advantage in my design work. It's easy to discount others opinions when you think what you've done is superior. But this post isn't about me...

I used to own a 2006 Lexus GS 300. One of the best features of this car (in my opinion) was the location of the parking brake pedal, located above where the left foot rests.

I liked the position of the parking brake because of my bent toward efficiency. I was able to park the car in an efficient manner:

  1. Left hand: on steering wheel
  2. Right foot: on brake
  3. Left foot: set parking brake
  4. Right hand: turn off car

This is in different than other cars where you might need your right hand to pull an emergency brake in the center console. (Using your right hand for two actions takes twice as long to get out of the car.) In my Lexus, all four limbs could be doing something at the same time. This sped up the process for exiting the vehicle.

Then my car got totaled.

This may surprise you, but one of the biggest criteria for my future car was a parking brake system that was as efficient as my GS 300.

I wasn't able to find anything that matched up.

In fact, it wasn't until I found the new Lexus GS 350 that I was blown away.

The 2013+ Lexus GS comes equipped with an automatic parking brake. When Auto mode is enabled, the parking brake is automatically engaged every time the car is in park.

I never would have thought of such a feature. If I were dreaming up the world's greatest Lexus, I would have asked them to leave the parking brake foot pedal in the same spot. However, they went ahead and eliminated the need to even think about my parking brake at all.

This kind of innovation is what creators - both designers and otherwise - should be thinking about. Too often are we asking others for their opinions on our designs or creations. We need to make sure we're stepping back and thinking about what our users actually need, and not what they're asking for.

Renting a car, one of the last bastions of "the old empire"

In recent years, technology has solved most of the pain points of travel and logistics. Uber now delivers a car to you in just minutes with the press of a button. Waze gets you around traffic. Hotwire's app and Hotel Tonight let you book a same-day hotel with a couple taps. But have you tried renting a car lately?

If traditional car rental companies have been consistent in one area, it's making the process of renting a car one of the worst experiences on the planet. They've tried to innovate by adding ways to bypass the counter and head straight to your car, and now you can rent "cool" cars from some companies, but they're missing the point. In fact, in Seatac's new car rental building, Hertz has one of the most absurd solutions to making things easier: a luxurious waiting area.

When I walked by the Hertz rental counter a couple days ago, I almost thought there was a movie theater in the building. The chairs were large, there was plenty of leg room, and it was masterfully lit; the only thing it was missing was a movie screen.

Has Hertz's ability to innovate come down to simply building a nicer waiting area while your significant other stand in line?

But I digress.

I reserved a car through another company and approached the counter. I'll spare you the sob story: They didn't have the car I had prepaid for. (I needed a large SUV as I was planning on carrying a lot of people.) Despite receiving confirmation that my Yukon (or similar vehicle) would be waiting for me upon arrival, it turns out that the closest thing they had was a Jeep.

I cancelled my reservation and went to another counter.

Thrifty had a Yukon XL. Great. However, at Thrifty, you can't rent an SUV directly - it's only available as an upgrade. In order to rent an SUV, you must first make a reservation online for another kind of car (like economy), then have the counter upgrade your reservation. As I stood at the counter, I had to pull out my laptop and make a reservation online and wait about 5 minutes for it to make its way through the system. (Are carrier pigeons delivering my reservation?) The attendant then had to try to upgrade me and no one knew exactly what rate she would be able to get me.

Hi. It's 2014. Is this really where we're at?

Oh, but this isn't over yet. After I get my reservation packet, I head downstairs to the garage to find the car. Three attendants and 15 minutes later, we find the SUV. First they tried to put me in a full-size car. We explained we rented a premium SUV. They said they didn't have any, but we could have an Xterra. We then point to a large Yukon sitting over in the corner. Finally we had our car.

I detail this story to make a point: Renting a car (especially if you care about what car you end up with) is still one of the worst experiences on the planet. Leaps and bounds in innovation clearly isn't going to happen with the big car rental companies, unfortunately. It's going to end up coming from Silicon Valley.

We're already starting to see out-of-the-box challengers. FlightCar gives you free airport parking by allowing you to rent out your car to others while you're out of town. But it's going to be a long, uphill battle. We've already seen airports make a fuss about UberX because it cuts out their airport on their ~$4 fee they charge to Uber Black Cars (and they make money from taxis, too). (They say it's an insurance issue, but let's be real.) Already when you rent a car at an airport, 20%-40% of what you pay goes to various local tourism taxes and, of course, the airport.

What we need is a new sort of company that starves the traditional rental car companies. Without that, we will never see real innovation, because they don't have anything to fear. When I rent a car, it shouldn't take interfacing with a total of 10 people to rent a car, especially when I prepay online.

"The old empire" of unionized industries is crumbling, but one of their remaining pillars is the car rental industry - a $10 billion/year industry. It will take some time, but that pillar is bound to come down. And I can't wait to watch it unfold.

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.