How Web Hosting is Like a Free Puppy

When I told a few colleagues the title of this blog post, I got big grins and dramatic nods without even telling them what the post was about.  If you’ve been in business for any length of time, you’ve likely dealt with a hosting crisis that has fried your nerves and stressed you to the max. As a non-techie with over ten years’ experience hosting websites for clients, have I ever learned a thing or two about avoiding the potholes (because, *ahem*, I think I’ve hit them ALL)!

This is a topic that people write books about (I’ve mentioned it in another post, too), so without getting too deep, I want to share with you a few “secrets” I’ve learned along the way to avoid 95% of the issues that typically come with having a site live on the internet.  Let’s start with the most important considerations, in my experience, to ensure you’ve got a good setup.

A great server configuration for your website will include:

  1. Reliable server with good uptime that allows your site to load quickly, with minimal downtime.  Not all services are created equal. You can test this by using to evaluate the load speed of sites on different servers. (A great tool for analyzing the load speed of your website is Google Page Speed.)
  2. Automated backup system that regularly backs up your site both on the server and on an alternate server (“backup” server) so that if your site crashes or is hacked, it can easily be reloaded and launched. (We have our sites backed up locally daily and offsite weekly).
  3. If you use WordPress (and you should!) or any Content Management System (CMS), it should be updated regularly for security purposes (monthly seems to suffice).  There are some ways you can have this automated, or you should have a qualified programmer that does this manually for you (it doesn’t take long, and you need someone with more expertise than a typical VA).
  4. If you are doing a lot of media or special launches or campaigns that could drive a lot of traffic to your site, you’ll want to make sure your hosting setup will accommodate the traffic.  I once had a client who was booked as a guest on a huge talk radio show, and the traffic he received during and after the interview crashed his site.  Reeeeeally bad time for the site to crash.  *Gulp*
  5. Do not host your email on the same server. I repeat:  Do not host your email on the same server as your website.  I highly recommend using a dedicated email service to handle all your email.  First of all, if you’re hosting on the cheap, you are most likely using a shared server that is also hosting hundreds, thousands, or tens-of-thousands of other sites … if any of these sites are engaged in shoddy spamming practices (and they are), the entire server will be blacklisted, affecting your email’s deliverability.  Secondly, if anything at all happens to your site, your email will go down with it.  A crash, hack, explosion, server outage, or any number of scenarios could bring down your site.  It’s in your best interest to have your email hosted elsewhere so you still get your email while they’re figuring out what’s up with your site.  (If you need a third reason, most local email hosting sucks … they have poor spam filters in addition to their poor deliverability.) My favorite solution for email is Google Apps, for about a dozen reasons I might go over in another post. :)

Common Misconceptions about the Cost of Hosting a Website

There are lots of misconceptions about hosting out there … the biggest one being that hosting is cheap.  Renting square footage on the server is cheap, just like buying land is cheap compared to the cost of laying cable and plumbing and building the house (metaphors aplenty on this one).  Here’s what is not cheap about hosting a website:

  • Moving your site to a new server,
  • Backing up your site regularly,
  • Testing to ensure it’s working properly,
  • Keeping the server up-to-date with the latest patches and software updates,
  • Keeping your site software updated (different from server software),
  • Making sure all the software and plugins on the server plays nice with your site and your CMS (like WordPress or Drupal),
  • Troubleshooting server-related glitches, and more

All of these things cost money.  Choosing a service provider based on price alone is like picking up a puppy from the pound: you don’t know what you’re getting.  What kind of diet has it been fed (translation: vet bills)? What kind of bad habits has it picked up (translation: chewed Manolo Blahniks, a bitten milk man, gnawed table leg, “spots” on the carpet)? What’s its temperament like? Has it been properly socialized?  How much is it going to eat every day (translation: $$$)?  How much exercise will it need?  Puppies become dogs, and they’re the furthest thing from cheap.

When finding good hosting for your site, there is a LOT to consider, and most people are clueless until something goes wrong and they’re looking at hundreds or thousands of dollars in emergency programming expenses to fix things (not to mention the time and energy–unplanned–that you expend resolving your issue[s]).  And sometimes, God forbid, things can’t be fixed.

Learn about SMS’ web hosting support for WordPress sites.

Question:  What are your server nightmares, and what have you learned? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

Facing the Sting: Why Solopreneurs are destined to stay that way forever

I just found my way to a blog post that stopped me dead in my tracks and lit my bottlerocket to the moon.  This guy is bananas – as a bit of a marketing snob and wordsmither myself, I’m mesmerized by Peter Shallard’s (@PeterShallard) poignant way of communicating the honest-to-God truth about what it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur.

In his post, “The Truth – Why Solopreneurs are destined to stay that way forever,” Peter cuts right to the soul of what is keeping so many independent professionals stuck.

Here’s a brief intro to what Peter says about the destiny of solopreneurs:

Most solopreneurs have dreams or vague plans to one day make it to the big time. A proper company and staff to boot. Whether it’s an in-house team or outsourced global workforce, every business owner dreams of growing the family, even if only to a single virtual assistant.

Yet such dreams are almost never realized.

Despite the lower-than-ever cost of bringing outsource talent onboard, entrepreneurs still struggle more than ever to actually getting around to doing it.

I have a nose for self-sabotage and something here reeks of internal conflict! This post explains why you still haven’t hired that person you know you should. Hint: It’s all in your head.

“I just can’t let go”

Famous last words of the archetypal solopreneur who endlessly procrastinates hiring the help they need.

I want to just copy the whole freaking post and paste it here for you to read.

My experience hiring my first virtual assistant

I remember when I hired my first VA three years ago.  I was kinda terrified, not gonna lie.  I mean, looking back, it wasn’t a big deal, but it felt like a HUGE commitment to siphon off part of my cashflow every month to another resource, in spite of my being very clear that I needed to get leverage, stat, if I was going to keep growing my business.

I’ve seen my clients grapple with this over-and-over again.  Truthfully, the reason I have a marketing team that executes booking / publicity, marketing administration and social media marketing for our clients is because the thought of trying to find a qualified, solid resource to execute on their strategy (once they’ve defined it through my Marketing Gameplan program) was intimidating and overwhelming to them… and I saw them struggling once they hired someone because they didn’t know how to bring out the best in that resource.

Make the shift from solopreneur to entrepreneur

I love how Peter closes out his post, with a charge to all “solopreneurs” to get about the business of breaking through to greater possibility and fulfillment as an entrepreneur.  Remember our charge: Who must I become to complete this quest?

Getting a team of people to do important work is harder than it looks. It requires a special set of skills that you won’t learn in school or from your parents. It’s tough and your unconscious mind knows this.

That is why your veins are riddled with fear. Your intuitive self is trying to stop you rushing into a situation that it knows you can’t handle. The same thing would happen if you lined up to ride a rodeo horse. Fear. It means there is something coming up which you need to prepare for.

This post isn’t about “how to be a manager” – it’s about how to pay attention to the signals your mind is sending you. It’s about how to overcome a hugely limiting form of self sabotage, that’s stopping you achieving your business goals.

If you’re a solopreneur who has always dreamed of building a team, it’s time to start preparing your mind for the challenge. You’re not procrastinating because of “control” issues, you’re procrastinating because you’re not ready… yet.

So get ready. Read, learn, train. You know how to be an entrepreneur. Now it’s time to learn how to be a manager.

You can check out Peter’s blog here (add him to you RSS Reader – good stuff!).

How are YOU getting leverage in your business by outsourcing and bringing in help?  And how are things going for you? Let’s talk about your experiences in the comments!

5 key lessons for hiring virtual team members (Part Two)

I have learned SO many lessons about working with a virtual team — and some of them came the hard way.  Here are the final two key lessons learned (you can catch the first three lessons for working with virtual assistants here):

Set up the right platforms to work well “in the cloud”

We use several tools to create our “virtual office.”  In the beginning, I would let our VAs use their preferred tools for time tracking and project management, but nixed this pretty early on.  As a business owner, you want things to be streamlined and systemized as much as possible to reduce your own learning curve, curb turbulence from changing to new systems frequently, make it easy to establish consistent office procedures for all resources, etc.  To manage your team and your business, you need tools for time tracking and reporting, invoicing and collecting payments, project management, email marketing, and database management.  Through some trial and error, we’ve found a suite of tools that work fantastically … one of the things I looked for when choosing our tools was API integration capabilities.

I want the tools we’re leveraging to integrate well with other tools we use.  I also learned a hard lesson and now skip the more obscure free tools.  We pay for a lot of our tools, and we use the “most popular”, industry tested tools in the marketplace:  Basecamp, Google Apps, Freshbooks, SalesForce, MailChimp, 1ShoppingCart, Hoot Suite.

Free often means bugs, free providers often don’t or can’t keep up with the rapidly-changing Web 2.0 landscape, and the “big guys” are typically more collaborative–including apps with functionality via API integration to help you  integrate different platforms.

Spend time learning to communicate effectively with virtual resources

I asked Doreen, the admin who’s worked with me and my clients for the longest (and she’s a rock star!), the most important condition she felt needed to be established between the VA and the client, and she listed several:

  • How do you like to communicate (email, phone calls)?
  • How often do you want to be updated on tasks?
  • How closely do you want to work together?
  • Do you expect phone calls and/or emails to be responded to at a certain frequency (daily, twice daily, etc)?
  • Are you comfortable setting deadlines for your VA?
  • How do you handle it when a project doesn’t “go right” — most often, communication issues are at the heart of the matter when things are bumpy or even disastrous.

In a conversation I had this week with Carlos, another of our team members, he mentioned that the quality that he found most valuable when joining our team was our transparency:  We do our best to show all our cards, warts and all – this is how we do things, this is what’s working well and not working well, I am flawed [in this way], I want to rely on you for XXXX, I should have handled this differently, etc.  I specifically recall him asking about payment after he joined our team, and my response to him was a detailed email that disclosed every step of our process, what he could expect, what to do if he had any problems.  This kind of communication instills certainty and confidence in the people who are collaborating with you, inspiring loyalty and ownership of the work you’re doing together.

Question:  What are some key strategies you’ve learned along the way to building a collaborative, powerful relationship with your VA?

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5 key lessons for hiring team members (Part One)

Working with a virtual assistantA few years ago, like many of you, I came to a crossroads in my business where I had to look at hiring an assistant, both to support and to work with my clients.

I have learned SO many lessons about working with a virtual team — and some of them came the hard way.  I could probably write on the experience of working with a virtual assistant for days, both the good at the bad, but I wanted to narrow it down to some key points:

To the best of your ability, know what you’re looking for before you hire a virtual assistant

If you aren’t clear on what responsibilities you want someone to handle for you, what skills you want them to have, and what outcomes you want them to support you in creating, you are likely to waste both time and money.  From my perspective, the whole point of hiring a team member is to rely on them for leverage. I look for a virtual team member who: can handle something that I can’t, shouldn’t, or won’t. A virtual assistant and I should achieve good results by partnering together, and I trade dollars for that.  It is incredibly frustrating for both parties to get into a project or job and to realize that you either aren’t a good fit for each other, or that, as a leader, you’ve not provided the kind of direction your assistant needs to do a good job for you.

Before I hire someone new, I spend some time mapping out the skill set we want this new team member to have. There have been times I’ve needed to hire someone and, frankly, I wasn’t sure what skills we should looking for.  I just knew what result we wanted to create.  In this situation, it is my responsibility to spend some due-diligence time learning what we’re looking for so we can make a good hire; and let me tell you, I don’t feel like I EVER have time to do this.  I’d rather stick needles under my fingernails than dig into another job description and grapple with minutiae that doesn’t inspire me. Suck it up, sister, I tell myself, and I dig in.

Here’s the truth: Wasted time and energy onboarding someone new are inevitable.  Learning to work well with someone takes time.  They’re going to make mistakes, execute things incongruent with your intentions, and generally botch things up.  Sometimes, it’s your fault.  Creating synergistic relationships takes time and intention.  What’s important is that you’re spending this time, money and energy on someone who has the chops to do the job well after a reasonable learning curve–so hire well.

If you’re not hiring a virtual assistant you know, make sure they are a member of a professional association

As much as I love our VA team, and I love the experience of working with others virtually, it’s not without its risks.  A BIG risk is that the person you hire could at some point act unethically because of sour grapes.  They might not deliver on promises made.  They could disappear into the ether.  They could attempt to sabotage you somehow in the marketplace.

If they are a member of a professional organization, you have the leverage of filing an ethics complaint for unethical behavior.  We have had a couple of instances where we’ve been able to ward of “bad behavior” by playing this card, and one instance where we’ve actually had to file an ethics complaint. If the VA isn’t a member of a professional association, there is basically no governing body to assist besides the good ol’ fashioned court system, which is often cumbersome and time-consuming.  Most VAs will care more about being reported to their professional association than having to fight you in court... nothing like a jury of their REAL peers.

Use a solid agreement that protects your interests

Having a strong, clear agreement in place is another way we’ve been able to shield ourselves from bad behavior.  A solid VA agreement will include these clauses (not necessarily an exhaustive list, but a good start):

Compensation. Include standard information like hourly pay rate, payment schedule, turnaround time, and communication protocol.  Also include some verbiage to indicate that incomplete projects cannot be billed unless the project was terminated by the client (you).  This will keep you from being financially liable for work that isn’t properly completed, particularly useful when a VA has a personal or business emergency that interferes with completing work for you, or when a VA frankly doesn’t know what they’re doing and/or just doesn’t deliver.  There have been times in my business where I’ve assigned work to someone that, for whatever reason, they haven’t delivered and I’ve been protected financially by this stipulation.

Confidentiality. A solid confidentiality agreement will give you protection should a working relationship go south.  In the performance of duties while working for you, information about you and your clients will be obtained.  Witha proper confidentiality clause, this information (including business practices, details of transactions, and other confidential information) cannot be disclosed, giving you recourse should they get to blabbering and slandering.

Arbitration. Make sure you include an arbitration addendum stipulating that unresolved differences will be handled via arbitration in your county/city.  If litigation ever comes up, your interest is for it to be convenient for you and a hassle for the other party.  I’ve not needed to litigate any business issues since this clause was added to my agreements (knock on wood) six years ago.  It’s a deterrent to legal wrangling; it would be a big hassle for someone in another state to have to come here to meet with an arbitrator — it’s been in both of our interests to just work things out without causing either of us excessive duress to bring resolution.

Up next: Part two on working with a virtual assistant