It’s not a failure, it’s a learning experience

Before I did this here WordPress thing, I did other things. I tend to forget a lot of them, mostly because the biggest job I did over the past twenty years was raise my children. Everything else was squeezed in around that, and that particular job still isn’t finished. There’s a common thread around the things Ron and I did, both for work and for living, and that was if it didn’t quite work out the way we planned, we’d just try something different.

Oddly enough, that works for parenting too. It’s also a core philosophy behind WordPress development, so maybe that’s why we like. Just wait, things will change. ;)

Back in the beginning, at the start of my adult life – or at least only a few pages into that chapter – I was a *lot* more impulsive, and my husband maybe a bit more indulgent. This is the story of when I owned a craft store – why I started it, how I ran it, and why I stopped.

We lived out in the country, off a secondary highway. It was a road people did not use to get somewhere else, just whatever was out that way. Not quite the middle of nowhere, but you could get there from here. And as these places normally, go there was a whole passel of women looking for things to do, so there was a healthy craft community. One day, a few of us were talking and I had received a mail order catalog from a supplier out in Alberta. Alberta doesn’t have sales tax, so the prices were basically wholesale. Most of the other women were not interested in ordering anything, even though the prices were really good, becasue the shipping would be high for each order. “Well, let’s go in on an order together,” I said. They were all fine with that as long as I was the one who handled it.

Of course, after that I got the idea to put in an order for more that what people asked for and thing I thought they might need. When I sold off some of those items, I used the money to pick out more items. This worked really well at the time because many of my neighbors were familiar with home parties (like for Tupperware), knew how it worked, and liked buying stuff they needed – especially if they could just pop down to my place and get it.

Eventually, the corner of the room got bigger, I found more suppliers, and since my house was also not finished, I got Ron to build me a room on the lower level, with a door to the outside. When that got bigger – it didn’t take long – we decided to use half of the lower level for a proper “shop”. We had also formed a company for the consultation Ron was doing, so we made Rennick Craft Supplies a subsidiary of it. Funds to do major things like building a room were company paid for. We hired Ron’s brother to do the actual build because Ron was often away working. The old one-room shop then became Ron’s office.

All of this without a business plan and without a bank loan. I either used money from sales to buy new inventory (my main cost) or got some from The Bank of Ron – I mean, an investment from the parent company.For example, we went to a craft trade show in Calgary, but Ron’s company foot the bill for the entire trip.

At some point I got the bright idea to have a site on the internet. See the wayback machine archive for it here, as it is no longer online. I never did quite get to the point of using e-commerce software, as literally the only free software available for it was Mal’s E-commerce. I didn’t even have my own domain name as this was the mid-nineties and they were still around $70. I had to figure out how to navigate the newly birthed web, and how to build a site – all in HTML!

Also, I had no idea what I was doing.

No, really. I just jumped in then figured out what to do as best I could, or even as good enough as possible. I wrote a catalog and made copies at Staples, mailing them out myself.

I stumbled along, trying to broaden the business while dealing with flaky customers, a sagging craft industry (it goes in cycles) and my money tied up in inventory. I often had to order 12 of an item, even if the customer only wanted 2.

During this time, we also started homeschooling. So in between listening for a car in the driveway, making supper, doing laundry, and doing spelling drills, I often had the kids help me with packing up orders, greeting customers, and drilling them on times tables as we repackaged beads. I planned & taught classes to bring in people on a regular basis, but as the decade neared to a close, the downturn in crafting (scrapbooking was just becoming huge), the lack of funds and an unfinished house, plus a new Wal-Mart in town made it really easy to stop when we had our fourth (and last) child. Her arriving on the scene, as well as my grandmother passing, made things painfully obvious.

I sat down, ran over my finances for a full five years and determined this: for all my efforts, I had grossed an average of $400 a month. Not counting each July & August, when we closed for the summer and there was very little business anyway. That’s gross, not net. Any net was more inventory. Certainly not a good return for the amount of time I put into it.

When we decided to close, it was as if a huge weight had lifted. This was a big hint. I sold off what I could, and the rest I took with me when we all moved to a new city, selling our old house to the brother that had worked on it. I held a massive yard sale there, selling off most of the remaining supplies I didn’t want to keep for the kids or myself. I still have some of the supplies kicking around – a ten pound bag of hot glue sticks lasts a long long time. ;)

So what did I learn with the thousands invested in mostly inventory? Oh, a LOT. While more expensive than the community college course in computer programming I took for a year, it was less than a business degree from a university and probably more useful.

  • While I did take an accounting course, I learned a I really *really* hate accounting. And one needs to stay on top of the paperwork and have a proper filing system, that one actually uses.
  • Sometimes you have to round up.
  • You really do have to spend money to make money. The trick is what to spend it on.
  • You really need to know your industry inside out.
  • Networking is more handy than you think
  • Your instincts are probably right. If it looks like things are taking a downturn or something isn’t working: change. Don’t wait and see.
  • Throwing more money at some things is not worth it.
  • Treating customers as people, paying attention to them, and remembering them goes further than advertising.
  • Doing too many things at once dilutes your message.
  • Automate whatever you can, ask questions when you don’t know.
  • “I don’t know, let me check,” is an acceptable answer.
  • Some people will not do business with you for reasons that will never make sense. Don’t waste time chasing after them.
  • If your heart’s not in it, it’s time to pack up.

I’ve seen people older than I am who have not learned some of these lessons, so overall I feel grateful that they took only ten years or less to learn. Many of the lessons listed above I use in the work I do now. Sometimes when I am sorting through a box of old papers, I find some receipts or flyers relating to the craft store and I feel a little sad it didn’t work out. Then I realize that while it may not have worked out the way I expected, it gave me experience and confidence to move on to something bigger and better.

Right there is one of the biggest lessons we passed on to our kids – you can pick a job or career, but you don’t have to be “stuck” with it when it’s just not for you any more.

WordPress merit badges

dscf2868

Sometimes I come up with silly ideas and then run with it. Today was one of those days. Someone said something, this lead to more, and my brain blurted out that it would be really neat if their were WordPress achievement badges, like you get in Girl Guides & Cub Scouts.

And then I cracked open my sketchbook because I am old school like that and prefer an actual writing implement to draw with. Here’s the ones I came up with, and their descriptions. How many have you earned? ;)

WordPress logo – earned by successfully installing WordPress manually, under 5 minutes.

Mu – for installing WordPress MU, or multisite (networks).

X – for editing the Codex usefully.

puzzle piece – for writing a plugin and hosting it in the repo

Screenshot – for creating a theme

Tent – for organizing a WordCamp

BP – anything Buddypress. :D Using it, writing for it…

Paw print – for working in trac, submitting tickets, and patches

Matt – the “I met Matt!” badge. Must include photo for verification.

SQL Diver – for diving into the database

Troll – the anti-matt troll badge. Given in rare cases, limited amounts. (actually, this is the only DE-merit)

Server – the server management badge.

Not shown:
the badge for bringing a friend over from Blogger to WordPress
being a Wordcamp attendee or speaker (airplane!)
being on WordPress TV
the GPL badge. Icon of grape kool-aid. (’nuff said)
a $ badge if you’re a WP freelancer earning a living

What other ones could there be?

Disclaimer: I just came up with the idea as a joke, because it’s funny. Tho the positive ones would be awesome if they really did exist. Alas, while my sewing skills are good, this would involve embroidery. ;)

If anyone decides to crack open Illustrator and make ones for blog sidebars, I would LOVE to see them! :D

More suggestions:
– tshirt collector. Can you go a week wearing nothing but WordPress shirts?
– easy one for the noobs, 100 posts.
– book author
– dog food ;)
– dev chat participant

Free as in Speech

About a year ago, I heard someone say, “Free as in speech, not as in beer.” (It was probably Jane Wells.) I think partly because I’m not an American and have never been a “bar” person, it took me a while to get the connection. Whoever said it aside, they were referring to the GPL (GNU Public License) which is what WordPress (the software behind this site) is licensed under.

If my take on “not as in beer” is correct, then it refers to the fact that the GPL does not mean (in terms of beer) that there is an open bar or the drinks are on the house. Whether that association is correct or not, the GPL does not grant that all software licensed under it is free of cost.

You may charge a fee for the physical act of transferring a copy, and you may at your option offer warranty protection in exchange for a fee. – GPLv2 (Note: For the purposes of this post, all further quotes reference the GPLv2.)

So, charging for the original copy & providing warranty (includes support) is perfectly acceptable under the GPL. For the most part, whenever people in the WordPress community start talking about the GPL, I find something else to do. The main reason for that is it’s only a matter of time before someone equates the GPL to free of cost. It’s discouraging to see an opinion expressed that sounds like the person has not taken the time to read the document they are expressing an opinion on. However, the case may be that they are confusing one part of the license to mean something other than what it does.

BECAUSE THE PROGRAM IS LICENSED FREE OF CHARGE, THERE IS NO WARRANTY FOR THE PROGRAM…

This doesn’t mean that the software is free, but that the license is free. If something is GPL, you cannot charge for the GPL license.

You may modify your copy or copies of the Program or any portion of it, thus forming a work based on the Program, and copy and distribute such modifications or work under the terms of…

Let’s suppose you have a GPL software product that you want to charge $99 for distribution and a 60 day warranty. The GPL is ok with that. What the GPL is not okay with is charging additional fees for permission to copy (eg. multi-use licenses), modify (developer license) or (re)distribute the software. It’s worth noting that a developer version which includes additional resources for developers is allowed. By process of elimination, I’ve concluded that the “free as in speech” refers to these freedoms that the license grants you once you have the software.

There are some in the WordPress community who feel that the GPL is anti-commercial. I don’t believe that’s true. I made my first open source contribution in 1989. But, until about two years ago, I made my living writing or modifying proprietary software (I did a four year stint of teaching others how to write proprietary software). In many instances, granting a right to copy the source of the software was a condition of being paid for writing the software. In cases where it wasn’t, I gave my clients the source code anyway. So, in fact, I have never written software where I didn’t give the client the source code.

From 1994 through to 2002, I ran a successful consulting business based on proprietary software. Among my clients were Digital Equipment (a proprietary giant from the 80s) and International Paper. I was the IT lead that launched StarChoice Television (now Shaw Direct).

For most of the last two years, I’ve been writing 100% GPL software. It took Andrea & I a while to find our groove. A business model that works with proprietary software isn’t necessarily going to work with open source software. Following the model that I used in my previous consulting business was not a stellar success. BUT, the fact that we’ve picked up a few bruises along the way and have learned to approach the business differently doesn’t make the GPL (or any other open source license) anti-commercial.

We could argue the advantages and disadvantages of the open source & proprietary software ’til we are all too old for it to matter. Some prefer working with proprietary platforms/development environments and others prefer open platforms. So, it’s an argument that can’t be won. BUT, if you need proprietary licenses in a development platform/environment where most of the development is openly licensed, you’re doing it wrong. The amount of cooperation that exists within the WordPress community far outweighs the costs of competing in a proprietary market.

As a closing note, I’d like to thank Triple-J & Ryan who both wrote posts earlier today where they talked about the GPL.