Why I Sold Orpheum

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Two years ago I founded a web hosting company, Orpheum Hosting Solutions. I set out to build a web hosting company that could compete with the likes of MediaTemple on infrastructure, and HostGator on price. As time went on I added more plans, did a wholesale move from a cloud server infrastructure to big, dedicated servers, and even switched backend client management systems to make things easier for everyone.

A few months in, I started to think, “Orpheum should be a business services company. A one-stop shop for small businesses to get their website, web-based applications, and even phone lines, or a phone system all from the same place without having to call Rogers, or worse yet Bell.” So, over the course of the next 36 months, Orpheum began to expand into managed servers, hosted PBX, SIP trunks, and eventually virtual private servers via the acquisition of AeroVPS.

Orpheum was doing well. It was not, however, doing well enough to pay anyone a full-time salary. Two years in Orpheum had acquired several high profile, lucrative customers worth over $1,000 a year. Unfortunately, due to a mix of issues with billing systems, and user interface challenges, onboarding these customers was time consuming. Too time consuming when you factor in that I still had a full-time job, and a young, growing family. Too time consuming when, through my own fault, each VoIP customer required several hours of assistance to get online.

So what happened? Orpheum expanded too quickly. I felt like I spent a lot of time finding the right solutions, and partnering with the right vendors. However I don’t feel like I spent enough time ensuring everything worked properly, that I really understood the technology behind the service and what Orpheum’s customers saw on a daily basis (with the exception of the web hosting and VPS services), and ensuring that customers were onboarded properly. I started to fix this a few months ago, but again… the things I *needed* to be doing had to come first, and the things I *wanted* to do came second, or even third or fourth. Orpheum’s customers suffered.

I brought on a team of people to assist with tech support. They provided level 1 support for the web hosting service, but they were not as familiar with the control panel I used as they were with other, more popular solutions. But it still took a lot of weight off my shoulders, and let me focus on supporting the VPS and VoIP customers. It wasn’t quite enough help though.

And then I really bunged things up when I spent several months, and a good amount of my capital, attempting to build a cloud infrastructure-as-a-service (like Amazon AWS, or Rackspace Cloud) offering. My vendors were not forthcoming enough with pertinent information, over promised, and then under delivered. I blew $1,000 to find out I couldn’t do something the way someone told me I could.

So, I made a very difficult decision to sell Orpheum Hosting Solutions. However, despite the disgruntled customers and accusations otherwise, I did not sell to the highest bidder. I had multiple bidders put offers in over five digits, but I chose to sell to a company/owner that I knew was going to leverage the existing services offered, regardless of whether they kept the brand intact or not. Those other high bidders wanted to dismantle the company, separate off the VoIP customers, perform wholesale moves off of the existing clustered hosting infrastructure onto more traditional, single-box solutions. I said “No” to those bidders.

At the end of the day, this was a lesson in growing too fast, without enough resources. You can build a business yourself, part-time, but it isn’t easy. You need razor sharp focus in the first few years… something I’ve read about time and time again, but once again I make myself learn it the hard way. I will be trying again… it’s in my blood, I can’t help it. But next time the messaging, the onboarding process, the support… everything will be polished, ready for customers on day one. And I’m going to focus hard on the core services people want and need out of the company.

Be Open to Changing Your Mind

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I just came across a blog entry from Jason Fried, co-founder of 37 Signals (developers of online services Basecamp, Highrise, and Campfire). Apparently Jeff Bezos came to visit, and shared quite the observation about people who are “right a lot.” When I read Mr. Bezos’ observation, I couldn’t help but agree enthusiastically. I’ve blogged about this issue before under a slightly different light, but the result is the same.

In business and politics, you have to be flexible. If the past of business and politics has taught us anything, it’s that a firm ideology yields poor (sometimes mixed) results. Believing the same thing today as you did yesterday, despite evidence to the contrary, will only lead to the worst kind of failure. Failing and learning is fine under normal circumstances, but when you’re dealing with the coffers, lives, and repercussions on a national scale, you must be paying attention to what others are saying about an issue.

Looking at the same issue in a different light inevitably leads to observations you simply hadn’t made before. Whether you’re deciding whether to launch a new product, or making changes to the criminal code, chances are there are people (and research) outside your bubble that will help you make a better decision. Unfortunately, especially in politics, this willingness to take in other people’s opinions and research, from all sides of the spectrum, is sorely lacking.

So please, do yourself, and those around you, a favour. If you’re a business leader, or a politician, listen to the opinions and view the research. You don’t have to take the advice/recommendations, but you may just hear or read something that makes a world of difference.

Ford St. Thomas Plant May Have a Buyer

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In case you missed it, yesterday the London Free Press revealed that there is a London-led business group hoping to buy the old Ford St. Thomas Assembly plant, spend $700 million redeveloping it, and then leasing  it out to various users/companies. The initial $700M would be a boon to any local companies that are selected to assist in the redevelopment, and of course turning the plant into usable space once more, potentially housing up to 2,000 employees, would be terrific for the London area.

I, for one, have a few hopes for this plant. Hopefully whatever is done there is done in the most environmentally way possible. The redevelopment is going to cost a tonne of money anyway, so spending some of that money to help reduce long-term energy usage, reduce energy waste, and perhaps even introduce some self-reliability (some solar panels) would be nice. I don’t personally have any skin in the game, but hopefully the business group is thinking of these sorts of things.

Good luck with the purchase and redevelopment, folks!

Celebrating Success in London

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Inspired by a London Free Press moderated roundtable that included several people I have a huge amount of respect for, like Jodi Simpson, Kevin Van Lierop and Chantelle Diachina, I want to spent some time talking about some of the tech-related companies and individuals in London that are doing good things in and for the community, but are also striving in London’s highly underrated tech scene.

  • rTraction - a highly skilled, well-respected web development and online marketing firm that services many non-profits in the city
  • Echidna Solutions – another great web development firm who has donated a lot of their time to efforts like Emerging Leaders
  • Info-Tech Research Group – one of the top 10 IT research firms in the world, rated as the best IT research firm by Outsell (full disclosure: I work at ITRG)
  • Resolution Interactive Media – a very talented group of web developers best known for their online training site built for LHSC, and highly interactive websites for several Ontario colleges
  • Big Blue Bubble – a local video game development company, probably best known for Burn The Rope right now
  • Antic Entertainment – local video game development company that has won awards for their game Junk Battles
  • Start Communications – an Internet service provider, with their own network around downtown London, that customers have been raving about ever since the UBB debate flared up earlier this year
  • Aaron McGowan – a well-respected, and very talented, freelance programmer that specializes in mobile apps and mobile websites
  • Digital Extremes – a large video game developer that’s produced several blockbuster titles like BioShock, Unreal Tournament, Homefront and Dark Sector

And there are lots of others, most of which can be seen on TechAlliance’s Member Directory. For instance, I bet you didn’t know that DirectDial.com is owned by EK3 Technologies, which is based in London. I’m not going to sit here and boast about my company, Orpheum Hosting Solutions, but I do believe Orpheum’s providing a much needed service to freelancers and small business owners!

So really, I won’t sit here and listen to people complain about the lack of a tech industry in London. No, we’re not Santa Clara, California (in the heart of Silicon Valley). But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an industry to break into, or a need that’s going unserved. In fact, if you’re feeling frustrated with your attempts to find a job as a developer or networking professional, London has enough small businesses that the right business plan and marketing will get you the opportunity to do plenty of work. I used to freelance and got the opportunity to build computer networks from scratch for several businesses, and I knew a lot less then than I do now.

Here’s the video.

Oh Nokia…

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Nokia 6185, circa 2000

My first cell phone was a Nokia 6185. Heck, my second cell phone was a Nokia too. They both worked really well, always had good reception, rarely dropped a call. But that was 10 years ago. Since then I’ve gone through a couple of Motorola phones, two BlackBerry devices, and one Samsung. I’m currently using an LG phone and am seriously pondering my next move. An Android-based smartphone or HP’s new Pre 3 are the most likely candidates at this point.

Nokia’s Ancaster, Ontario-born CEO, Stephen Elop (his LinkedIn profile), knows full well that Nokia has lost its lustre. He says so in a strikingly honest, if long winded, memo released to Nokia employees three days ago. He speaks of a story about a burning oil platform (Symbian), and a man having to jump into the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean in order to save himself. Nokia has leapt… but I fear they have jumped onto another platform that’s about to blow.

When I initially read the memo posted on Engadget, which has been verified as being the real thing, I first thought to myself, “Could they be striking a deal with HP? Wow, a Nokia phone with webOS? That would be a hell of a bombshell.” After watching HP’s press conference the other day where they unveiled the Veer, Pre 3 and TouchPad, I thought, “Wow… HP’s really letting the Palm guys go after it and make a killer product.” webOS looks terrific, the hardware looks great, and early builds of webOS 3.0 (as seen in various hands-on videos on the web) look pretty smooth already. Nokia + HP makes perfect sense. Android? Not so much.

In the memo, Mr. Elop says that Nokia’s employees will know more about the future of the company on February 11. That day was today. Imagine my surprise when I read that Nokia and Microsoft announced today that Nokia would be basing their future on Windows Phone 7. I was surprised, yet unsurprised. Mr. Elop is a former Microsoft executive… how predictable.

As a colleague of mine points out on the official Info-Tech Research Group blog, Windows Phone 7 is not exactly experiencing success. Poor sales, small developer ecosystem, and only five different devices available in Canada – two of which are available from a carrier consumers love to hate.

Nokia 6100, circa 2001

So it looks like Nokia wants to use hardware design credentials with Microsoft’s brand new software design practices (which, again, don’t seem to be winning over a lot of people). But wait… if someone like me – with almost no brand loyalty when it comes to cell phones – hasn’t owned a Nokia phone since I was 18 (with the exception of a 3390 for when I visit family overseas), what hardware design expertise does Nokia plan to leverage that will get people buy Nokia phones again?

Is it the expertise that’s brought us the current¬†schizophrenic line of phones available today? The Nokia N8 is the only device that looks worth owning at this point, especially since all of the phones are based on Symbian (the burning platform). All the other phones look like they’ve been ripped-off inspired by BlackBerry, HTC and Motorola.

Wait… that’s it! People have accused Microsoft of stealing ideas from Apple and Linux for years. Nokia’s phones look like they’re Chinese knock-offs of the real deal. Maybe Microsoft and Nokia were meant to be after all?