Thursday, May 31, 2007

More Gardening Lessons

gardening toolsI started this list yesterday. What gardening has taught me about having a website.

  1. You can always pull one more weed, plant one more flower, or install another piece of hardscaping. The work is never done. On the web, your site is always under construction -- so don't bother telling everyone so. A site that doesn't change is dead.
  2. You can't rush the harvest. Don't expect to be on the first page of the Google rankings on the first day your site goes live. Despite what you see on TV, it does take time. Ask your webmaster about "Search Engine Optimization".
  3. Corn won't grow in the shade. Remember at whom you are aiming your site. Are you trying to inform and educate? Are you trying to market a product? Who are your visitors and what do they want? Make the conditions optimal for their success first.
So, can you think of any gardening metaphors for your business?

Monday, May 28, 2007

Gardening Rules for Your Website

pile of dirtAs with last year, Lisa and I spent a great deal of time this holiday weekend working in our gardens. This year we took delivery of over four cubic yards of compost from the city which had to be spread around the various beds. We also planted and I used up the remaining retaining wall bricks from last year's project.

While trundling back and forth with wheelbarrows full of dirt, I began to reflect on how having a website for your business mirrors having a garden. What follows are the gardening rules for websites that I came up with over the course of several days.

  1. You can get a lot done in a weekend, but remember, you still have to weed. After you build that website (or have it built), remember to budget time, effort, and/or money to maintain the site. Broken links, old information, both make your site look less than professional (and will reduce it's productivity).
  2. You can get away with just adding a little fertilizer for quite a while, but eventually you really need to give the bed an overhaul. Just like your garden soil, your website can get old and tired and eventually you need to give it an overhaul. Ask your webmaster about the newest and latest tools to make your site as productive as possible. It's no longer sufficient just to have a website. It needs to be fresh and modern or you will look as out of date as your site.
  3. Take time to figure out exactly how much compost you need. If you decide to upgrade your site (or are building it for the first time), have a long chat with your webmaster. What exactly do you need and why? Don't bother adding features which you don't actually need. That would be like order an extra cubic yard of compost than you need. It's a lot of work for no real purpose.
More tomorrow.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Building a Web Tool

I spent some time today working on a new tool/service/product that I can offer to my clients. Many of them have a need to display a list of upcoming events, whether it's classes, exhibits, concerts, or annual meetings, they need to present that information to their website visitors. The trick is that this information changes on a regular basis and many of them have better things to do than figure out the relevant HTML code to make the changes themselves.

Enter my little piece of code. I don't really have a name for it yet, but for now we'll call it the Calendar Reader.

After installing the Calendar Reader, the website owner can maintain the upcoming events using Google Calendar. Any changes they make in the Google Calendar will immediately show up on their website. Pretty neat, huh?

The code is still a bit primitive and still requires the skills of a web programmer to install and customize. Once in place, though, anyone who can handle the Google Calendar interface can maintain their own list of events.

So, do you use Google Calendar?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Seth Godin: Beat Mediocrity!

On Tuesday I saw Seth Godin give a presentation at the Michigan Theater.


I had six pages of notes and that didn't even scratch the surface of what he was saying. So much of it was relevant and important and could have a great impact on my business and even my life.

If only I could remember it all.

Glancing through my notes (some of which are completely incomprehensible to me even though I wrote them), the overarching message I get is that I have a choice. I can choose to be the best or I can choose to be average. The former is the path to true success.

The trick is that you can't be the best at everything.

So, what do I choose to be that thing at which I will excel?

I'll let you know when I figure that out.

So, what are you the best at? How do you know?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

Fred, me, Lisa, and Marilyn
Saturday night Lisa and I headed down to Toledo to meet with our friends, Fred and Marilyn Neuhausel. They had invited us to go with them to the Toledo Mud Hens game that evening. While I've been to see a major league team before (just last Summer to see the Tigers), I'd never gone to a minor league game.

As I said, I've been to Tigers games, both in the old park on Michigan and Trumble and the newer Comerica Park. When I was a little kid, I saw my brother play in a little league game. This experience was somewhere in the middle -- and tremendously agreeable. It had the best aspects of both the small local game (more intimate surroundings and passionate fans who still had fun) and of the larger venues (concession stands and fireworks).

We passed an exceedingly fun evening with our friends. We cheered for the great plays and cringed when things didn't go so well. Lisa was very excited to have seen her first grand slam home run. Too bad it was for the other team! In the end, the noble Hens went down to defeat, but our evening was a delightful success.

So, if you are down in Toledo in the evening this Summer, you might want to check to see whether the Mud Hens are playing. You might want to get those tickets in advance, though. Since they've moved to the new stadium, they've been selling out a lot.

So, when was the last time you went to a minor league baseball game?

Another Step to the Third Degree

Of course, in this case, the "Third Degree" to which I'm referring is my next Black Belt. Conceivably, this Fall I will be earning my third degree (or third dan) from Keith Hafner's Karate. To prepare for this, my teacher, Professor Hafner, has started training and testing us (my friend Peter Gluck and I are both eligible). Each month we are to perform in front of the school a demonstration of the Professor's choosing.

The first month we had to show two of our advanced forms (or kata). I don't mind doing this at all. I'm kind of a big ham, so performing in front of a group is fun for me and it gets me pretty juiced up.

This month was more of a challenge.

This test was to perform a "multiple break". This means that we have to break five single boards in succession using different moves on each one. The challenge isn't so much the act of breaking a board, but rather maintaining the mental focus necessary to aim the techniques accurately. Ordinarily in a break you take one or two practice swings to make sure that your aim is good before you put your full strength into actually striking the target. With the multiple break, you only get that opportunity on the first board. After that it is all about targeting on the fly and maintaining your focus.

The fact that Lisa and I didn't have to visit the emergency room afterward should tell you that the break was a success. The funny thing is, from the moment my foot left the floor for the first kick, the process blurred entirely. Watching the video, I know the crowd was cheering, but I didn't hear a thing.

Every time I do a break, I experience much the same thing. The focus is so complete that I don't even notice the passage of time. Of course, now that I know that I have such an ability within me, I want to discover how I can apply that to my everyday life.

Maybe that will be one of my future tests!

So, have you ever made a break? If so, what was your experience like?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Beyond the Job, Part 4: Arts and Crafts

Crafty Brian Tolle
Brian Tolle gets crafty
This is the final part to my report on the Leadership Ann Arbor Quality of Life Day. You might want to read part 1, part 2, and part 3 first.

In the final part of our whirlwind tour of the vast cultural and entertainment possibilities in the Ann Arbor area, we first stopped in at The Ark. The Ark is a music venue right on Main Street in downtown Ann Arbor. It specializes in acoustical presentations and, as such, is a haven for traditional and folk music in the area.

According to our host, Barb Chaffer-Authier, back in 1965, a group of churches decided to set up a haven for students in the community free of drugs and alcohol which would expose the youth to music poetry and art. Over the ensuing forty years, the Ark has gone through many incarnations, but has remained true to the ideal of presenting great music to the Ann Arbor community. The 400 seat venue has performances almost 300 nights a year. Remarkably tickets range between $11 and $30. Some shows are even free.

Check out their website for more information about upcoming acts and opportunities to volunteer your time. What? Yes, I said "volunteer". After all, the Ark is a nonprofit organization and much of what they accomplish is partially due to the over 200 volunteers who help with everything from concessions to sound production.

After we left the Ark, we headed around the corner to the Ann Arbor Arts Center. I had probably walked past this place a thousand times without it coming to my notice. I'm glad Russ and Ron finally led me through the door!

The Center, around since 1909, has as it's mission "to engage the community in education, exhibition, and exploration of the visual arts." It houses an exhibition space, an art store, and, upstairs, a series of classrooms where students of all ages get to learn about the visual arts and to explore their own creativity. In our case, we were given the opportunity to express ourselves through glazing ceramics.

What a lot of fun!

Bree Jacobs: Art teacher
Bree Jacobs, our teacher
I haven't had an art class since high school. Sitting there with the other Leadership folks and chatting as we worked on our personal masterpieces, I was, for a time, transported back to my childhood. Our teacher at the Center, Bree Jacobs, gave us some brief instruction on the technical issues involved with adding color to plain, white ceramic, but otherwise stepped back to let us do our thing.

I'm not going to tell you what I did. I'll receive the finished piece in June when I graduate from Leadership. Then I'll present it as it should be presented -- visually.

So, that was it for our final full day of Leadership. We will still get together next month for our graduation, but this session is basically done. After that I will have to take some time to look back at the process to see how I've changed. For now, though, I'd have to say that the whole thing was definitely worth it. If you have the opportunity (and you do) I'd highly recommend you check it out.

So, when was the last time you had "art class"?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Beyond the Job, Part 3: Arts and Sports

Christen McArdle
This is the second part to my report on the Leadership Ann Arbor Quality of Life Day. You might want to read part 1 and part 2 first.

After a very busy morning, we stopped at the Metro Cafe at the corner of Detroit and Catherine. As we tucked into our lunches (a very tasty black bean burger for me), Christen McArdle, the Executive Director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival gave us a great presentation on that annual event.

I had heard of the Festival, of course. It's kind of hard for even the most hermit-like computer programmer to miss any mention of the annual week-long event. What I didn't realize, though, is that the Ann Arbor festival is the second oldest experimental film festival in North America! They just celebrated their 45th anniversary this year and they are already planning for number 46 (set for March 25-30, 2008).

Unfortunately, not all is joyful in the world of experimental film. Apparently, state politicians, playing to their conservative constituencies have cut funding to the Festival, including $20,000 which had already been allocated for this year. Apparently they relied on a vaguely-worded statute which allowed them to label some of the films as "pornographic" and therefore deny the funding. Now, I guess that they have a right to do that (though the Festival organization is fighting the statute), what I find alarming is that the legislators in question didn't even see the films.

So, this state of affairs has left the Festival in a hard place. They are now having to dedicate much more of their time to raising funding from other sources. Still, they are pressing onward, determined that they will make it to their 50th anniversary and beyond.

After lunch we headed over to the athletic campus where we learned about the various developments with the University sporting events. In Ann Arbor, you might say that there are one or two people who are interested in Wolverine football or basketball. Michigan has a veritable plethora of other teams, though, which many people don't pay as much attention to.

Maybe they should.

According to our host, Michigan softball now ranks 3rd and Michigan baseball is number one in the Big 10. In fact, I would be surprised if anyone guessed that the winningest coach in Michigan history is the softball coach, Carol Hutchins (though she maintains that it's just because she's played a lot of games).

The next time you are in the mood for watching some live sporting action, you might want to check out some of the "other" teams around Ann Arbor. Have fun!

Tomorrow: Music and creativity.

So, have you seen any of the "other" sporting events available through the University?

Beyond the Job, Part 2: Arts and Sciences

This is the second part to my report on the Leadership Ann Arbor Quality of Life Day. You might want to read part 1 first.

After getting mildly damp in our abortive attempt at a nature hike, we all boarded a bus and headed out to the University of Michigan's North Campus. There we went in for a tour of the Arthur Miller Theatre.

Let me take this short moment to tell you that I actually went to classes on North Campus. Imagine my surprise when we pulled up in the parking lot where I used to park. Half of the lot was gone, to be taken up by this huge building. Heck, I was on that campus only a few months ago and I hadn't seen the construction. Sometimes I think I've got to get out more.

Oh, well, back to the story.

The theatre is the only one named for Arthur Miller, who was an alumni of U of M. It hosts a variety of performance venues as well as instructional and training facilities. We also learned that most of the performance venues in town are actually owned and run by the University. According to our host, Russ Collins, the unusual thing about this setup is that the U allows other theatrical groups to to use the space. The next time you come out to attend a play at the Power Center, or a concert at Hill Auditorium, give a nod in the general direction of the administration building.

Ann Arbor Hands-on MuseumOnce again dashing through the rain, we all hopped back on the bus and headed downtown. Our next stop: The Hands-on Museum.

What a blast.

My only disappointment was that we were only allowed to stay for about 30 minutes. I found so many displays which captivated my attention. I wanted to play with them all. Of course, I had to play nice and not knock any small children out of my way. I think I managed nicely, thank you.

According to, Pam Smith, the Director of Public Affairs & Marketing, over its 25 year existence, the HoM has hosted about 3.2 million visitors. Currently the annual total is over 210,000 (and half of them are from outside Washtenaw county)!

On top of the too-numerous-to-mention science exhibits, I loved the pieces of antique fire-fighting equipment which dotted the building. Apparently the HoM's home is a former firehouse and when the designers built the HoM, they took great pains to maintain the bones of the old structure. One of the rooms evenhad an old firepole in it (which several kids we attempting to scale).

After our hosts dragged us from the fun-filled halls of the Hands-on Museum, we took a quick tour of the local farmers' market and then headed off to lunch.

Which was good because I was very hungry!

Tomorrow, the woes of the Film Festival.

So, have you ever been to the Hands-on Museum?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Beyond the Job: Quality of Life

I know I just finished writing about the make up day for our Leadership Ann Arbor Education Day, but here I am again with my next report. Sadly, this report is about our final full class day, Quality of Life.

Today was all about the things that Ann Arbor offers which make life here worth living. Very few of us find our motivation solely through our jobs or even our home life. Both are, of course, vital, but we can experience those aspects of our lives anywhere. Why Ann Arbor?

Our hosts for the day, Ron Olson, the Chief of the Parks and Recreation Division of the State of Michigan (and one of the only living people for whom a park has been named) and Russ Collins, the Executive Director of the Michigan Theater, posited that "quality of life" had much to do with our opportunities for growth. From its parks and nature areas, to its museums and theaters, to the U of M athletic offerings and the plethora of musical venues, Ann Arbor possesses opportunity in abundance.

Somewhat reminiscent of our very first class, Economic Development Day, our hosts had jam-packed so much into one day that by the end many of us felt as if our heads would explode. How can you contain all that a community like this holds in a single day? Obviously you can't, so we had to make do with a tantalizing overview.

Our day started with a visit to Gallup Park, up on the north side of town. I had been there once or twice in the past, but never with a knowledgeable guide. Our hosts started by telling us about some statistics about our city which we might not have known. For example, one aspect of QoL is simply how safe people feel. In this survey, a full 75% of people felt secure in their homes and neighborhoods. Not a bad score at all. Ironically, that number goes up to 80% of people who felt safe visiting downtown Ann Arbor!

We then heard from David Borneman, the Natural Area Preservation Coordinator. He told us of the efforts of his department to restore indigenous plant species to the area and to clear away invasive species. We learned what makes a site a good candidate for restoration (relatively low incidence of invasive species, a variety of native species, undisturbed soil, among other factors). We also heard about his department's re-introduction of prescribed burns to support continued dominance of local species -- apparently local species are fire-tolerant, while foreign invasive species tend not to be.

Lara Treemore-Spears
Lara Treemore-Spears
After all this lecturing, we were all raring to go out on our nature hike. We divided ourselves into four groups and, ignoring the gentle Spring rain, off we went into the green. Our group's guide, Lara Treemore-Spears, answered our questions as we hiked. She told us more about site restoration, about interdependence issues in the nature areas (that ugly clump of "weeds" is actually vital to support local bird species), and about the problems which arise from home landscaping (fertilizers, invasive species such as honeysuckle and crabapple).

Then the lightning struck.

Oh, not too close. We managed an orderly retreat back to the nature center (no trampling of the elderly or anything) and hid out under an awning, continuing to listen to our knowledgeable guide while we watched the "gentle Spring rain" turn into a "torrential Spring thunderstorm".

Then the lightning struck again...

... much closer.

When your guide ducks and heads for cover, it would be the height of foolishness to ignore her wisdom and experience.

So ended the first two hours of QoL Day. Despite being a trifle damp, the experience was well worth the price of admission. As a gardener I might even start looking at more native flora the next time I start planning a garden design. Now, what am I going to do about that honeysuckle that we planted last year?

Tomorrow, the theatre and science fun!

So, do you have enough sense to come in out of the rain?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Hot Off the Presses

newsletterI just completed and sent out the most recent version of the Clearing Up the Confusion E-zine. This one has a little more description of LinkedIn and how you can use it and I included a great article from Scott Ginsberg on maintaining your network using your email software's auto-complete feature.

You can read the issue online, or subscribe to receive it every two weeks in your inbox.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Quick Fun: DIY iGoogle Gadgets

Google recently changed the name of it's personalized homepage to iGoogle. I've written before about some of the fun things associated with the service, including the time and location sensitive themes and some of the neat gadgets which are available.

I was looking in on my homepage today and happened to notice a link at the bottom which pointed to a page where you could "Make your own gadget" with no programming required. As a programmer, I was immediately intrigued, of course, so I had to check it out.

The page presents you with 7 different types of gadget which you can create. Most are just fun stuff (the Google Gram, Countdown). Others provide windows into your life to share with those you know and love (Photo Album, Daily Me). In all cases, the idea is to share -- the penultimate step of the creation process is sending out invitations for others to include your new gadget in their iGoogle home page. Of course, your recipients can't actually view the gadget unless they, too, have an iGoogle home page.

Just to try it out, I created a quick list of the books on my "to read" list. Feel free to add it to your home page.

I don't know how useful or how much use these tools will see. They're pretty light-weight and there are a number of services out on the net which duplicate the general functionality if not the capability to be included in someone elses home page. Still, I'm always impressed by how Google keeps coming up with new cool things which keep us thinking about the possibilities.

So, would you use any of these do-it-yourself gadgets?

Friday, May 04, 2007

Back to School, Part 2: Public and Private

Clonlara School
The Clonlara School
Continuing my two-part series on the Leadership Ann Arbor Education Day. You might want to read part 1 first.

After hearing about the state of the district, we divided up into three teams to hop on bright yellow-orange school buses and head out to visit several schools around the area. I had to cut my day short, unfortunately, so I had to follow along behind my group in my car. To their credit, none of them made faces at me through the back window.

Our first stop was at a small private school located not far from my own home. The Clonlara School (named after the town in Ireland from which the founder's ancestors came) reminded me of nothing so much as a modern interpretation of the one-room schoolhouse. They cater to students from K to 12, but only have about 50 students at the school (pop quiz: On average, how many students per grade level?) The school divides the students into three groups, youngers, middles, and olders, and teach subject matter based upon the specific needs of the individual students.

Standing in a central common room, surrounded by computers on one side and the trees and shrubs of a large terrarium on the other, you could really feel that this place was a little different. Unfortunately, our time was a bit limited, so we didn't really get to see any classes in action. I would have liked to have seen how the teachers dealt with a classroom with ages ranging from 5 to 10 with all sorts of specific needs. After having taught martial arts for a few years, I know that this can be quite a challenge.

After we left Clonlara, we headed up to the north end of town to the Logan Elementary School. There, the principal, Arlene Barnes, took us on a forty-five minute tour. We met several teachers and even got to watch one class in action. The teacher, Mr. Parks, was praising his class for coping well with a last-minute change in schedule that morning. In general, the teachers, students and Ms. Barnes all seemed pretty happy and excited about their work.

The only real example of any problems that we noticed was when Ms. Barnes referred to some difficulties getting an inclined walkway renovated. Apparently at one time, the walkway had been carpeted, but, over the years, that carpeting had become worn and tattered. It wasn't until Ms. Barnes described the situation as a "safety hazard" that she was able to get someone to come in, strip away the damaged carpeting and have the floor resurfaced.

In reflection, I think the scariest part of the fact that the schools are having to make due with less and less money, is that it means more than just the loss of good teachers or the elimination of arts, music, or sports. It means that, inch by inch, the students, teachers, and the members of the community accept a lower and lower level of performance -- performance dictated by funds available. Where once the goal was to be the leaders and best, now we're satisfied to be in the middle of the pack. How long before we accept just not being last?

And with that decline how long before our best and brightest move on to greener pastures?

So, is this a real problem or am I just blowing it way out of proportion?

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Back to School

Dr. Todd Roberts
Dr. Todd Roberts, Superintendent of AAPS
Back in February, our Leadership Ann Arbor class had our Education Day. Lindsay McCarthy, our fearless leader, had scheduled us to visit a variety of local schools, both public and private, K-12 and post-secondary. Then we got a real taste of being in school.

We had a Snow Day!

Thankfully, Lindsay, and the associated educational leaders, were able to reschedule the portion of the day that we missed. So, yesterday, bright and early at 8am, we assembled at the Chamber of Commerce offices for our make-up exam, er, I mean, presentations.

We started out with an hour-long talk from Dr. Todd Roberts, the Superintendent of the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

This is not a happy guy.

Oh, sure. He has a lot to be proud of. AAPS has been #1 in receiving National Merit Scholarships for two years now. Various schools within his jurisdiction have received awards for their music and arts programs. Students in our schools tend to score much higher than the national average on standardized tests. Heck, AAPS is even the second largest employer in Ann Arbor (with over 3000 full and part time employees), behind only the University of Michigan.

So, what's his problem?

The problem is that, as with many public institutions in the great state of Michigan, his funding is getting cut.

And things don't look to be getting any better in the upcoming years.

At the beginning of this school year, the state government gave him a budget of $9619 per student. Now, close to the end of the year (with little to no time to make changes) he has to cut the district's expenses by $122 per student. This is the third time in five years that Lansing has cut his funding.

Fortunately, according to Dr. Roberts, AAPS is better off than 90% of the districts in Michigan. We have funds saved up for a rainy day that can go to help offset these difficulties. Unfortunately, the forecast is for a long string of stormy weather.

This is all just a bunch of numbers, though. What really brought the situation home was when one of the high school students in Leadership asked whether the music program was going to be cut. You could tell that this was important to her on a personal level.

Dr. Roberts didn't come right out and say that the music program would have to go (and art, drama, and anything else not directly related to state-mandated academic requirements). After all, no one wants to crush a young woman's dreams. He did, however, make it pretty clear that things are looking grim for anything not included in the "three R's".

I wish I could write about the light at the end of the tunnel. To be sure, the school district has many talented and dedicated individuals who are constantly looking for ways to make dwindling resources stretch a little farther. We do have funds put away to support the schools during tough economic times. We do have a vibrant, active community which values education on every level. We have a lot going for us.

Let's hope it's enough.

Tomorrow I'll write about a couple of the schools which we visited.

So, what are your fondest memories of your early school days?

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Reflections on the Gray

Gray FogAfter yesterday's post about the nature of my project preferences (and the revealed underlying forces which make up my character), I began to consider how those factors might affect my ability as an entrepreneur. Does my need for clear-cut black and white answers preclude any success as a business owner? Can I overcome or at least bend my skills to the task at hand? Can I learn to love the gray?

About a year ago, I read Michael Gerber's The E-myth Revisited. In it, he describes three different characters (not necessarily different people) necessary to make a strong business: the technician, the manager, and the entrepreneur. The danger, he wrote, is that many people who start businesses are excellent technicians -- they know how to do the job -- but are deficient in the areas of manager (the ability to create and stick to systems) and entrepreneur (the visionary, big-picture stuff).

This last role is the one where I need the most work. The visionary works in the gray areas and makes decisions on partial information. He worries, not so much about how to do things, but what new thing to try next. Being the consummate technician (and only slightly less so, the methodical manager), this stuff makes me distinctly uncomfortable.

So, how do I overcome this discomfort?

Well, if my Karate training has taught me nothing else, it's that sometimes you've just got to do it. And do it. And do it. The muscle doesn't grow stronger without lifting the weight which is almost too much for it to bear. Also, as with any other growth, there will (and should) be some discomfort.

Then, it occurs to me that maybe sometimes it is just a numbers thing.

Last year, inspired by my hero, Scott Ginsberg, I created a list of 101 goals for 2007. Was it easy? Not really. It took me a couple of weeks to get them all in place -- some better than others. The trick, though, was just to set aside a little time each day to write things down. Three here, two more there, the list just continued to grow. So, following my methodical nature. Is it possible, by simply working a little each day, to become a visionary?

Will that shed some light on the gray?

I'll have to let you know.

So, how do you deal with the gray?