Move by Number

Move by Number

Boxes

For our recent move to Texas, I decided to try something a little different when packing our boxes. Instead of labeling them with the room they were from and scribbling a brief description of its contents, I simply labeled each box consecutively with a number. I.E., 1, 2, 3, 4… all the way up to 125. No marking for which room the contents were from. No labeling as to the boxes contents. Just a number, written on all four sides and the top.

The next step was to create a spreadsheet in Google Drive that listed each box number and its size (small, medium, large, wardrobe, etc..). As each box was packed I created a detailed list of its contents. A few examples:

  • BW printer. Toolbox. Dishes. Mom’s diary. Tupperware.
  • Dutch oven. Purses. Anna’s sheets. Our sheets. Anna’s blanket. Becca’s long sleeve shirts.
  • Living room computer. Long pillow. Plastic tub of clothes. Anna’s train from her birthday. Party hats. Boo flashlight. Jacob’s pullover. Anna’s heavy coat.

Becca was a bit skeptical at first, but in the end this made it extremely easy to pack and to unpack. We had the movers put all the boxes into our two extra bedrooms (they’ll eventually be an office/craft room and a guest bedroom). It made it faster and easier than trying to figure out which box went to which room, and kept the whole house from being flooded with boxes. Next, we figured out what we needed to unpack immediately. For example, I needed my toolbox. A quick search of my list showed that my toolbox was in a medium box labeled 100. Only took a moment to find it once I knew the size and number. We did the same thing with clothes and everyday cooking items (like pans, dishes, glasses..). We didn’t even begin opening the boxes that contained unimportant items (like books) until over a week after delivery.

It wasn’t a perfect system though. I didn’t think to label plastic tubs or mirror boxes. If I did it again I’d label absolutely everything. We also ran into a few snags where the movers (without our knowledge or permission) reboxed a few boxes. On the plus side we knew if something was missing because we had a detailed inventory, but on the downside it made it difficult to find a few boxes because they were no longer numbered. I think the solution to that is to hire better movers or move things on my own next time.

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Finding your friends on Google Images

Finding your friends on Google Images

IMGP2942-300x225My wife and I had some fun tonight searching for people we know on Google Images. We found an old photo of a friend commemorating their score of a 5 on the AP U.S. History exam, a funny college photo of a friend that has been in the workforce for years, a bajillion photos of a family that we know, and other random things. Oh, and lots of photos of my wife, like the one I put in this post (Becca is on the left).

Sounds dumb but is actually really fun to see what the mighty Google thinks is worthy of associating with a friend’s name, and what random crazy photos have found their way onto the internet. If you are bored, take a minute to search for some random old friends you haven’t seen in awhile and see what comes up.

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What I’ve learned as an entrepreneur

What I’ve learned as an entrepreneur

I’ve attempted several small business ventures throughout my life. I’ve learned a lot along the way, and thought I’d share some of my experiences.

When I was about 10 years old I got into the media distribution business. That is a fancy way of saying that I bought a box of floppies at Office Depot, downloaded the Anarchist Cookbook (and other e-texts), and sold them for a few dollars before and after school. I made (from a 10 year old’s perspective) a pile of money. I learned a lot from the experience:

  1. Pricing matters. If I charged $0.50, nobody would buy my disks. If I charged $2.00, everybody wanted them. A higher price gave an appearance of higher quality, which drove sales.
  2. Keep your trade secrets secret. I lost all my business by being too talkative about how I got a hold of the material I was selling. Everyone stopped buying from me and instead just downloaded for free from the internet.

When I was about 15 years old, I started a web hosting business. I had some exposure to ColdFusion (a web programming language that was once fairly popular). The difficulty with programming in ColdFusion was finding a host that supported it. I found one that charged $99/year, or you could get a reseller account that let you buy hosting at $50/year and resell at whatever price you wanted. With the approval of my parents I got a merchant account so I could process credit cards, signed a lease for expensive credit card processing software, and developed a website that would take online orders, process payments, and track revenue. I sold hosting accounts to classmates at a community college that I was attending, tried some online advertising, and made a little money. Ultimately, however, the business was a failure. I made too many mistakes and was too inexperienced for the business to thrive long term. I learned a lot though:

  1. Avoid badmouthing the competition. I made the mistake (repeatedly) of trying to gain business by badmouthing the competition. Unfortunately, this always backfired. The competition’s happy customers were always quick to the defense, and it just left me looking like a jerk.
  2. Avoid getting locked into long-term commitments. Just a few months after I signed the lease for my credit card processing software, affordable online gateways became readily available. I couldn’t switch without paying a huge fee to break my lease. This made the business more time intensive than it needed to be, and cost me a lot of money in unnecessary fees.
  3. Don’t spend your whole advertising budget at once. I spent my whole advertising budget in one go at a website that gives users a kickback when they purchase through a specific link. It was something like “buy hosting through this link and get $10 back”. It looked like I was guaranteed to make a pile of money. Unfortunately, the kickback company had a security flaw that let some of their dishonest users take all my advertising money without providing me a single sale. I was devastated, but learned to diversify my advertising efforts.
  4. Be prepared to change. When ColdFusion went out of style, my sales plummeted. If I had been looking ahead, I could have diversified my product offerings so I could retain repeat customers while appealing to a wider range of people.
  5. Automate, automate, automate. I wasted a lot of time manually doing tasks that I should have automated. This lowered my effective hourly wage and led to costly mistakes.
  6. Keep business and personal funds separate. I co-mingled my funds and it made it difficult to know how much I was actually making. Keeping business and personal funds separate would have made this a lot better.

About a year later, while I still had the web hosting business going, I started a content site focused on LDS media and articles. It was developed on a popular framework of the time, PHP-Nuke. I created modules for this framework that I gave out for free as an advertising tool that gained me piles of international traffic. Learning from previous experience, I automated as much as I could and used multiple methods of advertising. I “generously” offered to take over competitor’s sites that they were no longer interested in or able to maintain. I frequently reviewed how people were accessing my site so I could adapt to the future. This was the first time I started making money by selling advertising space and by using affiliate programs. I learned a lot from this experience, too:

  1. Make backups. I was running this site for several years and making a fair amount of money. I set it on auto-pilot when I left for my mission when I was 19 years old. A few months later, my hosting company went bankrupt and took my website with it. All my data, images, and code was gone. The most recent backup I had was so old I wasn’t able to get anything up and running while serving a full time mission. I lost my entire business in a single day.
  2. Don’t cheap out. My site was on a budget host that charged something like $99 for a lifetime hosting account. In hindsight it was inevitable that this host would fail, but I was blinded by the “savings”. I learned that it is often cheaper in the long run to pay a little more for a quality provider rather than settling for the lowest bidder.
  3. Share. My best traffic came from the free tools and content that I provided. Advertisers loved this traffic and paid me well for it. Visitors loved the content I provided. Webmasters loved the free tools they could put on their websites. It was a win for everybody.
  4. Design matters. Putting the effort into a good design made a huge impact on how people perceived my website and the value it provided. It is just like at the grocery: the store brand may be identical to the name brand, but most people pick the prettier packaging.

When I was 16 years old, I got a job working for KB Toys at my local outlet mall. I discovered that we sold all sorts of products that were hard to get or just crazy discounted. I was able to get complete sets of collectible action figures, discounted strobe lights, rare model cars, and other items that ended up making me more money on eBay (even after fees) than I was getting paid while on the clock. I learned:

  1. Always look for opportunities to make money. I could have been satisfied mopping floors and stocking shelves, but I kept my eyes open for an opportunity to earn more and I found one. I think almost everyone has opportunities to earn more money if they are a little creative and take the time to look for them.
  2. Let someone else pay for your education. When a customer came in looking for collectibles, I’d spend 10-15 minutes talking to them about what they were looking for, what made certain items valuable and certain items worthless, that sort of thing. I was essentially getting paid by KB Toys to learn what items I needed to find to resell, while getting pats on the back from management for keeping customers in the store longer. Later in life I used this same principle to learn new web technologies while on the clock. This earned me a paycheck while improving my resume and giving me new tools to build my business with.
  3. Keep good records. I lost a little money by keeping sloppy records of my shipments. I’d ship a product, and someone would complain saying I didn’t. Without tracking numbers or proof of shipment, I was out of luck.
  4. Be honest. I never used my employee discount when buying items for resale because that was against company policy. When a manager tried to stop me from buying for resale after I had already been doing it for months, he couldn’t because company records showed that I always followed company policy. It never pays in the long term to be dishonest.

When I was 18 years old I got a job in IT at a product packaging company. They had a huge warehouse filled with electronic junk that they occasionally paid to have hauled off. I was given permission to take anything I wanted from the junk bins. I made a pile of money selling parts and components online:

  1. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Like I said, they actually paid to have this stuff hauled off. Laser printers, laptops, desktop computers, industrial measuring equipment, all sorts of stuff. To them it was a pile of trash, to me it was a giant treasure chest waiting to be looted. A lot of it I was able to repair, but even broken stuff could be sold on eBay for a lot of money. This has taught me to always check if something has value before just throwing it out.
  2. Just because it is old doesn’t mean it is valuable. I got a lot of really interesting old stuff from the junk pile. For example, I found a few laptops that didn’t have hard drives. Instead, they had two floppy drives. You’d put the operating system in one floppy drive and your programs in the other. They were in pristine condition, but I was never able to find a buyer. Kind of reminds me of Pawn Stars when people bring in old stuff expecting a million dollars, only to find out the pawn shop isn’t even interested in giving them $10. Sometimes old junk is just that: old junk.

While on my mission, I got a resale certificate and signed up with a wholesale consumer electronics distributor. I made a little pocket money by selling to my fellow missionaries on our preparation day. My goal was to turn it into a full fledged business when I got home from my mission, but that didn’t work out:

  1. Online profit margins are thin. After taxes, office expenses, payment processing, shipping, seller fees on sites like eBay, and with piles of competition, profit margins are razor thin. It is unlikely that you’ll be able to make much money buying from a distribution catalog and selling online.
  2. Cash up front. I fulfilled an order from a missionary without getting paid first. He promised me he’d pay when it arrived. He never paid the full amount, so I ended up losing money on the deal. Still irks me a bit to think about it. I’ve learned to not even bother getting started on a sale or project until I’ve been paid.

When I got home from my mission, I started making webpages again. These would eventually become part of my current company, Corban Works, LLC. The majority of my income comes from advertising. I make sites that people want to visit, and advertisers pay me to show ads to my visitors. I run about 30 websites. I earn enough to pay my family’s bills and to put a little away for the future. Even though I applied all the lessons I learned in the past, my frequent mistakes have forced me to learn a few additional things:

  1. Know when to cut your losses. I’ve created and given up on a few dozen sites over the years. If something isn’t working, it may be time to cut your losses and move on.
  2. There is always room for a creative competitor. Just because there are a bunch of a certain type of business doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a new competitor, provided you bring something new to the table. Most of my high earning websites had stiff competition before I created them. By adding my own perspective or twist to the solution I was able to gain market share from my competitors.
  3. Be your own competitor. This doesn’t apply to all types of businesses, but for websites it is often wise to create a second website that competes with your first website that is already successful. For example, I created Fake Name Generator, then I created Identity Generator, a separate site that provides the same type of service but with a different look and feel. I frequently see both sites show up on the same “top name generator” lists and search results, and often see forum posts where people say they prefer one over the other. This has allowed me to get extra revenue out of a product that I’ve already heavily developed with just a little bit of extra effort.
  4. Diversify. A lot of people learned the hard way during the recent Google algorithm changes that having all your eggs in one basket is risky. It is also sometimes easier to start a new project than it is to try to squeeze a few more dollars out of an existing project.
  5. There is no easy money. You’ll spend more time (and money) chasing get rich quick schemes or the latest trend than you will by actually doing something. Anything. Even if it fails. The only way you’ll make money is if you stop reading and start doing.

Also shortly after getting home from my mission, I started buying and selling books with a mission buddy. We developed software that would allow us to scan books at library sales to determine their likely resale value, so we could quickly tear through a library sale to buy all the gems. We also looked into buying and selling remaindered books, although we ultimately decided against that due to the high cost of entry and high risk associated with it. I had a ton of fun during the short time that we worked on this business together, and learned a few things:

  1. Pay attention to your effective hourly wage. We had a lot of fun buying and selling books, but I don’t think we made a very high hourly wage doing it. When I eventually settle down somewhere I’ll definitely pick the hobby back up, but it will only ever be a hobby.
  2. Do your research. Joey and I toured a business that sold remaindered books in bulk. We looked over our options for pricing, transportation, and storage of the books. We visited a business that bought used books in bulk and sold them online. We checked out the competition for software that looks up book prices. We compiled lists of local book sales and attended a bunch of them. We did a ton of research, and this helped us avoid what would have been huge mistakes.
  3. Sometimes the timing just isn’t right.  I still think it would be profitable to develop the software that scans book prices for resale (and encourage Joey to go for it if he has the interest), but the timing was wrong. Joey and I had too many projects going on, too many other interests taking our time, and we weren’t in a position (at least financially) to build this business in a way that would be successful long term.

I could probably triple this list, but I think I’ve already written enough for this post. I can’t emphasize enough how much these little ventures have impacted my life, the way I deal with those around me and the way I view work in general. I think these experiences made me who I am today, and I want to provide the opportunity for my daughter to have learning experiences like these as she grows up even if she ultimately decides she doesn’t want to be an entrepreneur.

Photo courtesy of 401(K) 2013 under the CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

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Montreal is crazy

Montreal is crazy

Becca and I drove our little girl to Montreal this past week. I’m not normally one to do vacation posts, but I had a lot of fun and got to be in a few photos with Anna (normally I’m behind the camera) so I decided I’d share a few pictures.

We went to the Montreal Biodome. It was pretty cool. Anna was amazed by the little monkeys in the trees and, of course, she loved looking at the fishes. We wanted to go to the Botanical Gardens and Insectarium, too, but they were too far away for Anna to walk to on her own. So Anna hopped on my shoulders and off we went!

We recently bought her a new hat and coat and I think she is incredibly adorable in them. We’ve been trying to get her to keep things on her head (like bows, ribbons, and other hats) ever since she was born but she always pulls them off. This hat must be magical or something because she loves wearing it.

Unfortunately the hat and coat makes her just an ounce or two too heavy to carry for long distances on my shoulders. Or maybe we’ve been letting her eat too many animal crackers. Either way, I made her hop off after we got to the botanical gardens…

…which I thought were great but Anna wasn’t super thrilled with them. We were only there for a few minutes before she started sticking her tongue out at us and begging for raisins. So we acquiesced and let her dig into a little toddler sized box of raisins.

There was a little playground, so we spent some time going down the slide and spinning on some odd spinning chair things. Not sure how to describe them exactly.. Sort of like if you put a globe on a stick, stuck in the ground, and cut it in half along the equator. It was just big enough to sit in and the tilt made it possible to get it spinning pretty fast. We all gave it a try. Anna wasn’t a huge fan though.

After the raisins were all gone we headed to the Insectarium to warm up. Becca was grossed out by the giant dead bugs and Anna was exhausted, so we didn’t get to stay long. Probably for the best to avoid nightmares of huge beetles and giant moths.

We bought McDonald’s on the way back to the hotel. Disaster. Our French speaking neighbors to the north kept confusing “coke” with “coffee”, which is very odd considering the French word for coffee is pronounced nearly the same as the English. There was also some confusion over our request for a Happy Meal (perhaps the meals aren’t happy in Canada), but eventually we got it all sorted out and headed to the hotel room.

The burgers were… well… odd. We haven’t traveled out of the country much but we are quickly learning that even if food has the same name, it may be completely different. Same thing happened when we went out to a highly rated Indian restaurant for dinner later in the trip. Their chicken tikka masala was not the chicken tikka masala I have come to know and love.

Anna wasn’t really interested in the food anyway but spent hours playing with the toys that came with her Happy Meal (a large paper placemat, a crayon, a Halloween bucket, and stickers).

Our hotel was just a few kilometers from the Montreal temple. They don’t do many endowment sessions, but I was able to get to one Tuesday night. It was quite a different experience attending the temple in an area where English isn’t the dominant language. All the signs in (and on and around) the temple are in French. Many are also in English, but not all, so it sometimes takes some guessing to figure out what something says.

Once they were ready to start the session, they took a vote to see who wanted French and who wanted English. French won so I ended up wearing headphones that played the English version of the endowment session. Some of the temple workers spoke English which made things easier, but I have no idea how it would work if I went to a temple in a far away land where nobody speaks English.

Anyways, on Wednesday we all visited the temple and Becca taught Anna why we build temples and what we do in them. Anna is of course too young to understand what she is being taught, but we hope she will at least understand that it is important to us.

Eventually it was time to go home. We packed our bags, loaded the bag cart that, as always, was barely functional, and headed to the car. My little helper saw that I was having some trouble with it so she started to push the cart along for me. She would’ve helped me load the car, too, if I had let her (and if she was a foot taller).

The ride home was long, but had some good moments. Anna loves to yell “YAY!” and loves it even more when we yell it back. We had a good 5-10 minute “YAY!” fest on the way out of Canada, with Anna giggling her little head off in the back seat.

She also loves to dance. We burned a mix CD before starting our trip so we wouldn’t have to worry about finding music. Anna has a few favorite songs on it that she just goes crazy over. The CD player is silent for a few seconds in between tracks. Anna is always afraid that the music has stopped and so she promptly shouts “more!” as soon as a song ends.

We eventually made it home and are looking forward to resting after a long vacation.

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Holding your mail (and packages) while on vacation

With the exception of groceries, nearly all of my family’s shopping is done online. It is a rare day when something isn’t being dropped off by either USPS, UPS, or (rarely) FedEx. While I generally enjoy this, it can make it difficult to enjoy a vacation if I’m worried about my stuff potentially sitting on the porch for days. Fortunately, all the major mail delivery services provide an option of holding your mail until you get back. This list is mainly for my convenience so it will be easier for me to remember to turn on mail holds before I leave town, but maybe it will be useful to you, too:

USPS

The post office’s mail hold option is by far the easiest to use, and it is completely free. They provide a simple form where you enter your name, address, and then select your hold options. You can also change your hold preferences later if your vacation is extended or shortened.

UPS

The UPS mail hold option is a little more complicated and isn’t free. UPS provides a service called My Choice at no charge. This service lets you get email or SMS notifications when packages are going to be delivered. They also let you notify them that you will be on vacation, and they let you choose to have packages delivered once you are back. This service costs $5 per package (or $40 per year if you choose to buy a premium My Choice membership). It makes more sense to avoid buying stuff before you leave. You only get charged if something is actually delivered so it is sometimes beneficial to activate the service anyway to catch any unexpected packages.

FedEx

The FedEx option is the worst of them all, but at least it is free. If you know the tracking number for your package then you can pull up the tracking on their website then select “Hold at FedEx Location”. I’d prefer a blanket “hold anything that comes for me” option like USPS and UPS offer, but this is at least better than nothing.

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Pantry moths and weevils

My family went on vacation last month. We were home for maybe 2 days of August. We cleaned out our fridge before we left, threw out a few opened packages from the counter (like cereal and bread), and enjoyed our time away from home.

We loved our vacation but it still felt good to be home at the end of it. Sadly, our enjoyment was short lived. It wasn’t long before we found pantry moth larvae climbing up our walls, and a few days later we were being bugged by full grown moths. Egh. The next day we found weevils in our flour. Ah! Bugs everywhere!

Clean-up

The first step was to order moth traps. These use pheromones to attract the male moths to a sticky trap. The girls can’t get pregnant, and your moth problem ends quickly.

Next, we killed all the bugs we could find. We smushed the larvae, killed the moths, threw out all the food that the weevils could possibly have infested, and threw out shelf liners that could have eggs on them.

Cleaning is vital. We vacuumed out the cupboards then wiped them down with white vinegar. We bagged up the trash (and the vacuumed gunk) and took it outside, away from the house.

Over the next week we were vigilant. We frequently checked the kitchen for moths and weevils, and killed any we could find. A few moths got caught in the trap (yay!), but I think we caught it early enough that it didn’t become too big of a disaster. Haven’t seen a moth or a weevil in a few days.

Prevention

This mess caused me to spend a few hours online trying to figure out how to keep this from happening again. The most effective thing I’ve found is to store grains, flours, nuts, and other food products in hard plastic or glass containers instead of the flimsy bags they are sold in. Bugs can easily eat through bags and cardboard. Plastic tubs and glass jars are much safer.

For long term storage, vacuum sealing and oxygen absorbers are highly effective. Most bugs need oxygen to survive. No oxygen, no bugs. We already store most of our long term stuff (including pasta, rice, and flour) in half gallon jars. We use a vacuum sealer to get most of the air out. We are going to start using oxygen absorbers (available cheap from the LDS church) to make it even more effective.

Some people suggest freezing. Freezing doesn’t destroy the eggs, so to be effective you have to freeze for 2-3 days, thaw for 24 hours, and then repeat several times to ensure everything is dead. Vacuum sealing is much faster and easier. Once the food is out of the freezer, it is of course possible for it to be re-infested. Again, not an issue with vacuum sealing.

Some people suggest including bay leaves in the storage container. I’m not an agricultural expert, but Utah State University has done some informal testing and is convinced that this is an old wives tale, and isn’t effective at preventing or correcting an infestation (see this page, or this PDF, or this other PDF). Either way, vacuum sealing is essentially free once you have the equipment and is a proven method of prevention and correction, so I don’t see a reason to use bay leaves.

The last bit of advice should be obvious, but I’m still a horrible offender: throw out old food! I have a habit of buying new ingredients for new recipes. These recipes are almost always flops, so I end up with bags and bags of strange foods in my cabinet. Take some time every few months to run through your cabinets and toss stuff that is expired or never going to get used.

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