Saturday, September 12, 2009

It’s a little like home schooling

It's been a busy week: lots to talk about but little time to write.

I'm continuing to divide time between developing the plan for the client business, due at the end of this month, and plans for developing my own business. A college friend, now an independent marketing specialist, offered to help me sort out my strategic thinking. I made a good stab at writing down what I am in business to do: the experience of trying to do it is really helping me to see the potential structures, processes, and value around it. I still need to get it down to a clear strap line that says what it is, a brochure that describes how it works, and a web site that builds the brand around it. It's tricky, especially working alone, and it helps to have people to bounce ideas off of
Finding the resources to support a small business are a lot like navigating the community around home schooling. There's an underlying meme that we are the bedrock of capitalism, standing outside the big institutions, a bit alienated and a little superior. The community of individuals offers one another advice and support, experienced or sometimes just earnest, supported by a great deal of folk wisdom. There's an emphasis on having the confidence that you know more than they think you do. They connct to a network of suppliers, separate from the subcontractors used by large businesses, and scaled to be more direct, individual, and casual.
I've found good resources, aggregators like John Jantsch's Duct Tape Marketing and Pam Slim's Escape from Cubicle Nation, that sometimes offer solid business advice on key planning, operating, and leadership topics. I take notes on the best quarter of their interviews, trying to fit my own aspirations and experiences to the antecdotes and changing the way I'm approaching business structure and evolution. Many of the rest, though, fall somewhere between entertaining and hucksterism, traditional evangelistic sales or bright-eyed Web 2.0 naiveté.
A bit like Robert Bloch's "Hell-bBound Train", the cars are filled with gamblers and hustlers, dreamers and madmen.
     But, sometimes, that's what it takes to make a business.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ah, Europe…

I was scheduled to meet a colleague for lunch on Thursday, catching up on what we had each been doing since we both parted from Corporate and trading ideas for future projects. I left the Command Center at noon and meet him on the street corner; we walked through the Wyck suggesting preferences and alternatives. We were both taken with a street sign for Alsace cuisine, he lived there and speaks French (albeit with a Canadian accent) and I like the wine region and villages.

The restaurant was plush but empty, the cook said that the Dutch tend to order bread and drinks to go. However, he pulled on his tunic and offered to cook us lunch. There was a good menu, but we suggested that we'd enjoy a meal to his preferences. Big smile, and off he went. He returned with three glasses of honey'd beer and we all drank a toast to the meal. Oxtail soup followed, and a delicate thin-crust pizza. A huge platter of sausages, pork and sauerkraut, fragrant and hot, with a regional white wine. An hour passed, happily.

We pitched our business plans to one another, thought of resources and friends who might be able to help.. An exotic meal gets the global thoughts flowing: do I know anyone in Russia? Of course: I've been thinking about China. Me too, and I have a friend there with a new invention that might help. Furious scribbling on napkins: circles, arrows, world domination.

Dessert arrives, it's two pm. The chef brings out a mason jar with a traditional berry liqueur that he makes himself, and we all toast across the thick dark drink. "Why did you open a restaurant in Maastricht?" A woman, Dutch, and artist… We examined her paintings, the works that their friends had done for the restaurant, the new decoration for the bathrooms.

Three o'clock. A car pulls up and people spill in with their instrument cases. One runs a gallery up the street, another is preparing for the culture festival this weekend. Beer all around, conversation fills the afternoon. Ten minutes about the business, five about the neighborhood, ten about a clinical study, five to share a story. The conversation flows between their group and ours, alternating French and English.

Four pm, really time to be going. I try to decide if the afternoon was wasted, the need to check items off a list nagging at the back of my mind.

   Well, no, not wasted at all, really.
      Not a bit of it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Approaching the end of summer

Everyone is back from vacation: the frequency of boats plying the Maas has picked up in the last weeks, even as the visits bby river cruisers drops off.

The incidence of police stops for excess partying is likewise in decline.

Students are having to keep in touch by phone or mobile, rather than being able to simply meet and hang.

...and the autumn storms are starting to roll in, breaking the afternoon heat and cloudless skies.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Riding the rails

Meetings in Rotterdam today, since I'm sans-auto it was a good chance to try out the new train pass and make the appointments by rail and public transport.
Journey planning starts with the Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) Rail website, determining the best way to get from Maastricht up to Rotterdam (a two-hour car drive). The query engine is straightforward but was broken this morning, returning "No route found" to all proposals. No matter, there are only two main rail junctions to the north, and the information kiosk at the main station confirmed one change at Eindhoven. They said the train left at 8:37, and it was already 8:33, so I did a (slow) sprint over to Track 3, only to find an empty train that didn't leave until 8:54.
Launch errors aside, I enjoy taking the blue and yellow Dutch trains. The Sneltreins and InterCity coaches run fast and on-time, and the connections are always impressively coordinated. I generally find that I only need to walk across the platform to find the next train waiting for me. The trains are quiet (electric) and smooth, so I catch up on writing, typing, or reading with little difficulty. The cabins are clean and moderately full of students and older commuters, surging on and off at major stops. The round-trip fare, 25 euro at 40% discount, was reasonable considering the total four-hour trip out and back. The discount is supposedly good Off-Peak hours only, but nobody has been able to tell me what that includes yet. The platform helpers tell me that there are no "peak hours" in summer, but that almost every weekday minutes is a peak hour in winter. I'll find out soon.

Once I arrived at Rotterdam Centraal, the next jump was to Erasmus MC. Not physically far on a map, but there are a bewildering number of options to get to the institution. Metro, tram, bus, are all outlined on the Rotterdamse Elektrische Tram (RET) website.
Local transit uses strippenkarten for access, but they are encouraging use of the new OV-chipkaart. I got a yellow OV-Kaart from NS, but it didn't look like the blue RET-style one that I needed. Further, it turned out that my Maastricht strippenkart wasn't transferable to Rotterdam's local system. Although tram 8 looked like the best bet, I arrived in the city center with only ten minutes to spare before the scheduled meeting and I could have spent an hour figuring out the last bit. So, regretfully I cheated and flagged a taxi for the last leg (10 euro).
Nonetheless, an encouraging trip, and it will get better with practice. And I managed to stay on the correct side of the train-split in Sittard, avoiding the side trip to Heerlen. 'A good day, overall.