Why is writing important to me and my business?

Wow. That’s a big question that I’ve never asked myself before. It’s never been important like being at the top of a list of priorities, or even at the top of the ‘important/urgent’ quadrant of a to-do list. But it’s important to my heart, to the part of me that always has writing as the answer to the question ‘what do you really want to be doing right now’.

The comfort of keyboard clicks & screen focus soothes my soul. My writing has always been a natural outpouring of my thoughts and never a chore. Well, mostly never, unless you count struggling through sections of an unknown subject section in a tender document and even then we made it into the top 2 out of 35. Word count has always been a guiding constraint and never an impossible mountain to climb.

So why the heck am I in an I.T. business? And why do I need a writing course?

My business provides a modest lifestyle for my husband and I to spend time with our young daughters, the eldest of which is rapidly heading towards double-figures! Checking support tickets and researching problems and solutions means I can put money in the bank to pay the mortgage etc etc. But my heart still desperately wants to write.

This year, I’ve had opportunities to stretch my writing wings into two areas I’d never dreamt of before: as a freelancer for two different organisations focussed on the wellbeing of teenagers. I’ve learnt about sexually transmitted infections and the impacts of alcohol on teens. I’ve constructed policies, marketing materials and managed social media sites and I’ve loved every minute of it. But in the back of my mind there’s been this niggling doubt. Do I actually know what I’m doing? My clients are happy with the results so far, but I’m chained by knowledge that I have no educational background in writing, no courses or degrees, just the hope of some raw ability. I’m too scared to say ‘talent’.

So while freelance copywriters abound on the Internet, a lack of formal training is holding me back from pitching this as a skill and turning it into income earning potential. In short, I guess it’s about confidence. It would be an absolute dream to sit at my keyboard each day, write from my heart and be able to match (preferably better!) the money I can generate from solving computer problems.

For my two clients (both existing friends), there is enormous potential to take their passion for young people and create presentations, workshops, blogs, guides, books etc that teach teens, parents and teachers. They both have very real, practical experiences that, when shared effectively, will make a difference in the lives of our young people. And I want to be part of that. I want to be the written voice for them when they are too busy and writing isn’t their passion.

And in addition to seeing this knowledge-sharing potential, I fall straight back to my own I.T. business. There are two books inside of me, to help small business owners. There are two books inside of me to start generating some passive income for my family. And there’s a small voice of doubt that holds me back and always finds something more important to do.

So, there you have it. For me, a scholarship to the Damn Fine Words writing course isn’t about being able to create better website copy to get more I.T. clients. It’s not about a dream to launch a career as a copywriter (I’m not that bold …yet). It’s about learning techniques, knocking rough edges off some writing ability and smashing that barrier of doubt. Because with that new confidence, I can help to change the lives of teens, small business owners & my own family. And the thought of that makes my heart sing.  

-SCuffy

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Vodafail by another name: 3 Mobile demands payment during overseas trip.

Brace yourselves – this is a rant.

In my opinion, mobile phone companies are right down their with real estate agents and used car salesmen. But let me lay out the facts and you can decided for yourself.

After receiving a wedding invitataion, we decided to pack up the kids and head to Wellington for a 10 day holiday. We’re self-employed with clients who rely on us, so by ‘holiday’ I mean ‘time away from the office’. We accept that our lifestyle means our phones come with us and so does the laptop. Then again, we didn’t have to get annual leave approved.

As bad luck would have it, someone’s server decided to have an inexplicable brain fade on the first business day of our holiday. This meant a number of phone calls and SMS messages over a 48hr period. A big number. Fine, that’s the cost of having your own business and deciding to go overseas, without staff back home to handle it. I was expecting to pay a premium for it.

Our first contact from 3 was an SMS asking us to contact them about our bill, currently $338.  No biggy, I thought, I knew why the charges were high. Great customer service that they are warning me that there might be something dodgy going on, or I may be unexpectedly be racking up mobile data charges by putting my happy snaps on Facebook.

The next day, Tony missed a phone call then I received a call from a blocked number. The Indian call centre wanted to talk to me about the large bill. But because I couldn’t remember the PIN number I had set on the account 9 years ago, though I could tell them a million details about the account, they refused to talk to me about the account. I explained the situation to them but they refused to listen.

Two minutes later, we both receive an SMS stating we needed to call 3 urgently about our $883 mobile bill or our account would be terminated. W T F ?

So, Tony calls them and explains the situation, to be told the following: 3 Mobile are allowed to demand immediate payment of a large overseas roaming spend or terminate our account. Note, we are on a business post-paid account here. And apparently this little clause is in the terms and conditions (not that I can find them on their website). So, we’re out sightseeing with our family, with no access to the internet and facing termination of our mobile service WHICH IS ESSENTIAL TO OUR BUSINESS.

We asked for them to extend the deadline until close of business the next day, still extremely unhappy about the whole thing.

Once we’ve returned to our friend’s house, I jump on the internet and can find no way to pay our account. Being post-paid, it’s normally taken out by 3 via direct debit, so I have no BPAY history to them. I could do a new BPAY payment if I had the reference number off my bill .. which hasn’t been sent to us and I don’t have last months because it’s back in BRISBANE. It’s not even viewable on the ‘My 3’ website.

Rock, meet hard place.

I’m not a young backpacker who doesn’t know how global roaming works. I still think it’s a complete rort that telcos get away with such huge roaming charges. I understand there’s extra admin between the visited country and the home country, to get your costs back to your home bill. But the extra amount they charge for that is ridiculous. This is Australia & New Zealand we are talking about, 3 & Vodafone (or should I say Vodafone & Vodafone).

But to demand that the phone user pay that amount immediately or be disconnected is complete bullying tactics. And to point out ‘it’s in the contract conditions’ is a complete waste of time and a cop-out. I’m still yet to find this clause, by the way.

So, that’s the first part of the saga. I’ll update you when I have more to add. Right now I’m starting down the barrel of another phone call back to 3 to hand over my credit card details presumably to pay the bill that I’ve just incurred. So much for monthly post-paid.

Let this be a warning, all you business owners. If you ever go overseas and, heaven forbid’ actually need to use your mobile phone for business purposes, you better keep your credit card handy and stand by for the call from the accounts department. Because, like me, I’m guessing you won’t have read all of the fine print of the mobile service you signed up for 9 years ago.

-SCuffy.

The warrior spirit when germs attack.

I’m sick. Technically, a doctor would announce that a germ of some description has entered my body and that my immune system is in full response mode. I’m pretty sure it’s your common garden variety cold or flu-type bug, that inhabited my 2 year old the week before. 

She got lots of mummy & daddy cuddles and one day off childcare. Today, I ran errands, braved the school uniform shop, did the school run, tamed my Inbox, visited my parents & wrangled the kids into bed by myself. Then I happily collapsed on the couch to watch some recorded TV. That 40mins was as still as I’d been the whole day and I was quite happy to not be washing, tidying or even ‘social mediaing’. Until this blog post started to fester and here I am now in my study at 9:30pm to get it out of my head.

You see, this isn’t a post about the brave warrior mum who soldiers on regardless and pushes aside her own needs. It’s more an observation of that warrior spirit in some people, mother or not.

Even before children, I put progress before rest. I can’t count the number of days I’ve battled through a day at work with tissues & watery eyes. Yes, completely selfish I know, spreading around all those germs. But at some point in my life, maybe once I started working, a switch flipped in me that said a day in bed or a day watching TV on the couch was a waste of a day, even if I was surrounded by tissues. There’s no progress in that, only things to miss out on and more things to catch up with the next day.

Now, I’m not asking for a medal. This is not a bleeding heart story about how selfless us mothers are, or how there’s no such thing as ‘womanflu’. In a spare moment I throw my arms around my husband and say “I’m sick, I’m achy and I’m tired and this is no fun.” So he tells me to go to bed. And I think of all the things I won’t be able to do. And I get back on my computer.

I’m debating whether this attitude is a weakness or a strength. I’m the first to command others to stop and rest when they are feeling run down, yet I hardly ever take my own advice. The funny thing is that the world won’t stop if I do, for a minute or even a few hours. This is demonstrated perfectly when a migraine renders me useless and I do retreat into sleep. But I just seem to have this thing about not letting colds and flus beat me. It’s an attitude. And my husband is the only person that I’ll admit to how I’m really feeling.

He himself is the polar opposite of the manflu sufferer. He hardly ever gets sick and has an amazing ability to push through when he does. He does have the weight of our business on his shoulders which is a powerful motivator.

I’ve known some people who take to their bed at the slightest sniffle or sore tummy. Are they missing the warrior spirit or are the actually way more sensible than me? In this ‘busy busy’ society, do they actually have it right in terms of stopping and looking after themselves? Probably, yes.

But I just don’t know that I could relax into days of bed rest. How about you?

 

Technology considerations for your new startup business

If you’re thinking about starting a business (congratulations!!), then technology might be the very last consideration on your mind.  With a long list of tasks in front of you (like getting a logo and stationery designed, finding an office, and working out your marketing plan), you may just requisition your home computer to start running your new business.  Let’s look at some of your very first technology decisions.

New computer or your home PC? – For a while, your home computer may be adequate to handle the necessities of your business.  However, if your computer time is conflicting with the children’s need to surf the internet for their homework, it may be time to consider a dedicated business computer.  Study any system specifications carefully and check the manufacturer’s websites.  Many ‘cheap’ retail deals are superseded models, cannot be upgraded easily or may not connect to a bigger computer network, which will all be important as you grow.  Also, talk to your accountant about any tax benefits that may be gained from leasing instead of purchasing your IT assets.

Voice over IP – When considering a phone number for your business, take a look at your Voice over IP options.  The quality of this technology has improved significantly and it can provide great local, national and international phone rates.  Today’s systems can plug into a standard cordless phone and your internet connection, so your computer doesn’t have to be turned on for you to make and receive calls.  It makes a fantastic ‘second line’ for businesses that run from your home.  You can have your office phone answered outside of business hours and still receive personal calls on your standard home phone line. 

Internet domain name – Once you have decided on your business name, look at registering your internet domain name.  This will prevent someone else from registering it.  Having your own domain name (like marysmith.com) will give your emails a more professional look and enable you to have a simple webpage established.  Don’t think you have to spend a fortune on a comprehensive website before your first day of actually doing business.  As long as your contact details (phone number, email address, fax number, and location) are easy to find and you have some great information about why your business is different from your competitors, you will be giving the search engines something to find.  This is much better than an ‘under construction’ picture or no internet presence at all.  Use your domain name in your email address to look much more credible than someone operating from a free email account (like myname@gmail.com).  You can still use your internet provider for your email service.  Make certain to check what protection they have in place against email viruses and spam.  Remember to include your website and email address on all of your stationery and marketing materials.    

Email marketing – Investing in an email marketing program provides you with a great communication channel to keep your business in front of your future customers on a regular basis.  Supplement your email marketing with monthly newsletters and occasional special offers.  Get permission to store your customer’s email address from the day they start doing business with you and you’ll build up an impressive database.  

Talk to your local Computer Troubleshooters about how to make the right technology decisions that match the needs of your new business.

Planning the survival of your business

If your technology stopped working, would your business stop functioning too? Is your business totally reliant on the information stored on your computer systems or could you continue to deliver 95% of your products and services and catch up on the computer work later? No matter which end of this scale your business is at, you will fare much better during a major technology outage if you plan in advance, before it happens. This month we take some of the mystery out of Business Continuity Planning.

Business Continuity Planning (BCP) is the process of working out how your business will continue to function during a disaster. These threats to your business could include:
Fire      Burst water pipes      Burglary       Flooding (severe rainfall)      Earthquake      Influenza outbreak      Hardware failure      Software Failure      Internet outage       Tornado/Hurricane/Cyclone      Severed phone cabling      Security breach       Damage by disgruntled employee      Employee error      … And many more!

BCP begins with identifying the possible risks and the impact they would have on your business. What functions would be affected if your main administration PC crashed? How long could you be without internet access? It’s important to evaluate the probability of these incidents occurring and the severity of their impact. This will help you to determine which incidents are the highest priorities to be addressed.

Next, you look at how these risks can be prevented, or the impact of them lessened. This could include copying data to a different site or having a laptop that has the same business-critical software applications as your administration PC.

Finally, you plan the actions that would be needed to help you respond when this incident occurs. Do you need to go to another site to get a copy of your data or bring the laptop in from home? Do you need to temporarily relocate to another site that does have internet access? Can you run a paper-based system until you can access your computers again? Think about who will be responsible for doing what and what resources they will need. This also needs to include any third-party suppliers of your business, like your local Computer Troubleshooter.

Your Business Continuity Plan should be examined, tested and maintained on a regular basis. This is to ensure it still reflects the changing needs of your business and also to make sure that the key parties within your business understand their roles in the process.

Whilst it may seem a little daunting, some forethought and planning will save you a lot of time, stress and money when things do go wrong.

The 5 things YOU must know about your business’s computers

If someone else is responsible for the technology in your business, it can feel fantastic that you don’t have to worry about that part of your business operation.  But whether that person is an employee, a freelance computer guy or a larger I.T. support company, the responsibility for this part of your business still ultimately lies with you.  Here’s a list of what all business owners should know about their own computers:

1. Administrator passwords – ‘Local administrator accounts’ have full access to make changes to your computers.  If you have a server, there may also be a ‘domain administrator’ account.  Make sure you have a record of these account passwords in a safe place.  If your business provides laptops and mobile phones to your staff, also keep a record of any passwords or PIN numbers that are used to secure these mobile devices (e.g. are prompted for when the device is turned on).  This may seem a bit over the top, but it only takes a disgruntled employee or an issue with your support provider and you can find yourself locked out of your own systems, at the mercy of someone else who knows the passwords when you don’t.  I’ve actually seen I.T. companies refuse to release administrator passwords.  Remember, your information is your property, not theirs.

2. Domain name details – If you have your company name registered as a domain on the internet (e.g. for your website or email addresses), make sure you know when your domain is due to expire.  Domain name registration only lasts for a certain period (commonly 1, 2 or 5 years) and must be renewed.  We’ve seen websites and emails stop in their tracks because the domain name registration company couldn’t (or didn’t) contact the business owner to process the domain name renewal.  Also associated with your domain name is a password or PIN number (sometimes known as a registry key).  This proves you are the rightful owner of the domain and is required for making any changes.  It’s a long process if you need to get this password reset because it’s been forgotten, so make sure it’s stored in a safe place.

3. Internet connection details – The modem that connects your computers to the internet is configured with some details that are specific to your account with your internet provider.  This may be as simple as a username and password, but may also include security settings or even ‘port numbers’ for allowing or denying internet access to some software programs.  If you have internet connection problems and the modem needs to be reset back to the factory defaults, this information will be lost.  It can also happen due to a power failure or if the modem is faulty.  Once again, this only takes a few minutes to document, but can save you a huge amount of time when you need it.

4. Last successful backup test – Your backups are only as good as your last successful ‘test restoration’.  If someone else manages your backups, ask them to test that they can restore the data and provide you with a monthly report so you know it’s been done.  If you look after your own backups, make sure this testing is performed by someone in your company and that you receive a report from them to show when it happened. 

5. Software licensing proof – Like the financial and taxation side of your business, the responsibility for legal software ownership rests with the business owner.  Don’t think that you’re only a small business so no-one would audit you.  Keep a safe record of your software license keys and proof of ownership (e.g. purchase receipts).  This also makes license numbers easy to find if your computer software needs to be re-installed or moved to a different computer.

Please make it your ‘New Financial Year’s Resolution’ to obtain this important information and store it safely.

The trials & tribulations of a digital certificate file (aka why you should listen to your husband)

I should have listened to my husband.

Armed with my shiny new copy of Windows 7, I was keen to install it onto my laptop to see if the claims were true that this new operating system would give my laptop a new lease of life.  “Remember to take an image* of it first”, called hubby.  I logically thought this through and reasoned that all of my important files were in My Documents which is synchronised to our server, therefore there was nothing else on the laptop that I needed to keep.  I even thought about my digital certificate file from the ATO, and remembered that I’d previously made a backup copy of this file on another location on our server.  So, with all of my bases covered, I began to format my hard disk.

I should have listened to my husband. 

Windows 7 worked like a dream.  I installed all of the latest Windows Updates including Internet Explorer 8.  The ATO’s Certificate Signing Interface (CSI) software installed perfectly and then the fun began.  I realised, with a lump in my throat, that the backup copy of my digital certificate files was old (as in expired).  It had been renewed, but I hadn’t backed up the renewed version of the file.  The ATO Business Portal wasn’t going to let me do a thing with an expired certificate and it was 3 days before my BAS was due. 

Call #1 made to the ATO helpline which told me that all of their agents were busy due to unprecedented demand and I’d have to call back later (beep, beep, beep).  Somehow I didn’t think they would let me use that as an excuse for lodging my BAS late though (but you wouldn’t answer my call!).

Call #2 made when I found a more direct number to the Technical Helpdesk.  After a 25 minute wait I told them a shorted version of my story (“Ah yes, computer problems .. mumble mumble .. can I have a new certificate please?”).  I received the standard response of “You’ll receive a letter in the mail within 10 business days with your new certificate’s password, you’ll still have to pay your BAS now and I’ll transfer you to the customer service team to register an extension on your lodgement date”.  More time on hold.  Lodgment granted.  Stern warnings about sending money anyway. 

The password letter promptly arrived in the mail but mentioned that I’d also receive an email with my certificate’s PIN number and download location.  Email? What email? I haven’t seen any email?  Off I went to check my junk mail, my spam filter and my other email accounts.  Nope, definitely no email.  Being somewhat of a technology expert (who doesn’t listen to her husband), I was sure that emails are supposed to arrive quicker than postal mail.

Call #3 was made to the ATO, advising them that I didn’t receive the email and could they please resend it.  I was told I had to wait 48hrs before I called them back again, because that was their service level agreement for response times and they wouldn’t even give me the time of day before that timeframe was up.  48hrs later – still no email.

48hrs later, call #5 was made to the ATO, telling them that I still hadn’t received the email and could they please check which email address they were sending it to.  48hrs later – still no email.

Call #6 to the ATO (another 48hrs later) stating that I had not received the email and could they try sending it to a different email address.

Within 24hrs I had received a test email from the ATO and also the required email with my digital certificate’s PIN number.  You see, along with my husband I obtained the last name of ‘Cuff’ which is apparently impossible to hear correctly over the phone.  I therefore get everything from Cliff to Cluff to Cuss, to which I have now resorted to the ‘Cuff, like the end of your sleeve’ explanation.

So, with the time ticking away on my lodgement extension, I proceeded to download my certificate file, change its password, save a backup copy on the server, and import a copy into the CSI certificate store on my laptop to take home for the weekend.

The next problem is that when my laptop is not connected to our office network, the CSI software cannot see the certificate in my ‘domain profile’ (as opposed to the local, cached copy it accesses when disconnected).  This meant a Sunday afternoon visit back to the office to reconnect to the network and prove I could once again see my new certificate file.  Note the word ‘once’ in that sentence?  That means that after successfully loading once, the CSI software then refused to start up correctly, no matter how many times I re-powered or threatened my laptop. 

You can imagine how happy I was, especially after hubby announced he had upgraded Java on my laptop that weekend.  CSI needs Java like fish need water.  Off to the System Restore feature it was then, to roll back the Java update.  After many, many more minutes, I attempted to log onto the domain again and re-try it … but I was greeted by an error that the computer’s account in the domain was invalid, and my log on was going nowhere.

Fine.  Plan C – install the CSI software on another computer, browse to the backup copy of the certificate on the server and away we go.  Until we get an ‘incorrect password’ error.  Huh?  Yes, the password that I thought I’d set on the backup copy of my new certificate file was not working.  So, I looked for the original email from the ATO, hoping I could download the certificate file again from their website.  Not a chance – the certificate file has already been downloaded.

I really, really should have listened to my husband. 

My last hope was to check out the copy of my user profile which had re-synchronised with the server when I successfully logged in that one time.  Joy of joys, it held a copy of the CSI software’s database store.  I copied those files to my second PC which now had CSI on it, and I was in, with a working password!!

Things were looking rosy again, until I remembered that MYOB was on my laptop and my laptop wasn’t allowing anyone to log onto it.  I now had ATO Business Portal access, but no BAS statement to get the figures from to enter into it.  What a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.  Sitting at home was a printed copy of said BAS report, all ready to be entered.  So off home we went, armed with a working copy of my digital certificate file safely copied to my USB key.

My home PC was then loaded with the CSI software and had the certificate imported and I logged in to the Business Portal with my BAS report in hand.  *baited breath*

You have to be kidding me.

‘G1’ is a required field, but G1 on my computer didn’t actually give me a little rectangular box to enter anything into, and the business portal would not budge until I’d entered a number into the required field!

Quick mental checklist – home PC is Windows XP, Internet Explorer 8 with latest Java update. According to the ATO website, IE8 is not a supported browser.  Perhaps the Firefox browser would play?  Nope.  Could this be the curse of the latest Java update once more?

“Dad, have you installed any Java updates on your computers lately?”  Dad also happens to be a small business owner.  “Yes dear, on the PC .. but not on the laptop”.  Brilliant, let’s see if his laptop would work.  Um, nope, same G1 field problem. 

By now I’m seriously thinking it’s personal.  To prove it wasn’t, I asked Dad to log onto the business portal with his own certificate and company details and he was denied the G1 field too.  Having well and truly had enough, I went to bed that evening with visions of the ATO beating down my door for not lodging my return in time. 

Monday morning dawned with the sun shining.  Optimistic after a night of sleep, I logged on to give this thing one more try before I faced the dreaded on-hold time to the ATO.  I did think I could enact some sort of revenge by forcing the poor ATO staffer to listen through my entire story.  The mere thought of that must have scared somebody, because the fabulous G1 field appeared in all it’s editable glory!!

BAS now lodged.  Certificate backed up (again) with a correct password.  Husband confessed to.

Now I know this tale is a series of unfortunate events – events which I was not prepared to let get the better of me because I’m a technical expert and I just would not be beaten.  But if you have learnt anything from it, dear reader, please test that you have a current backup copy of your ATO digital certificate file and you can successfully enter it’s password.  And listen to your husband!

*image = like a backup, but this ‘snapshot’ preserves all of your settings too, so everything can be placed back on your PC identical to the way it was before.