Project Vintage Thunder

The latest on Project Vintage Thunder, by Airstream Life magazine. Sponsored by George M Sutton RV, Reese hitch, Dometic USA, PPG Paint, Axis Products, GSM Vehicles, and Zip-Dee. Vintage Thunder is an "honest" RV refurbishment and travelogue. We tell you what really happens ...

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Credit where credit is due

I mentioned in earlier blogs that certain things had broken -- but I never told you about the outcome of their replacements. Time to rectify that oversight:

(1) Zip awning support arm. A cast aluminum hook from the end of the support arm snapped into three pieces. This is was probably due to "user error". In other words, I didn't read the instructions carefully enough and managed to overstress the hook when I was putting the awning away one night.

Zip-Dee customer service shipped us a replacement promptly, no charge. We did pay for the shipping since we needed it send two-day express to our next courtesy parking stop. I've since studied how the awning should be put away, to avoid this problem again.

(2) Internet-in-Motion box suddenly stopped working. To be specific, the box still came on and appeared to operate except that it could never successfully log onto the Sprint network. After a few phone calls during which we did several tests on the box and tried to reprogram it, the Internet-in-Motion guys shipped me a replacement unit, via two-day express.

I plugged it in (a quick 5-minute job, removing four screws, an antenna cable, and a power cable), and was back online right away. No fuss.

They also provided a UPS return label so I could ship the bad unit back. It's on its way now, for forensic analysis by the manufacturer.

Both Zip-Dee and Internet-in-Motion stood by their product and provided excellent customer service. That means a lot when you are on the road and relying on your equipment to work!

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Learning to be more efficient

We've learned a lot from our three weeks on the road. One of the key lessons is that things get confusing, and it's easy to let business fall between the cracks. We dropped the ball on a few things that needed to be done, including some customer service items, and payments to vendors.

I like to run a tight ship. Mistakes like that are irritating. But when we are traveling we want to have fun, and not be stressed over checking email, receiving cell phone calls while we are trying to have fun, missing deadlines because we weren't paying attention, etc. So we've been making notes about what went wrong -- and right -- during the past three weeks.

It's clear we can't do everything ourselves. We are actually saving money by not having the expenses of a house at the moment, but the offset of that is that we need to pay a bit more for certain services we need, that we can't provide while we are traveling.

For example, for the past ten years we have run our own accounting software for the business. This is a fair bit of work: paying vendors, filing quarterly and monthly tax reports, installing software updates, issuing 1099s, and maintaining a file-drawer full of paper related to it all. Starting this month, we are offloading that task to our accountant. We'll fax him the bills we receive (after approving them), and he'll handle the accounting and tax paperwork. Then he'll email us a quick list of bills we have to pay each month, and we'll pay them online electronically -- in about five minutes.

This might not seem like a big savings, but it eliminates 5-10 hours of work per month, not to mention the hassle of meeting deadlines for tax payments, and all the other little details that a small business has to keep track of. We will also be able to leave an entire file cabinet at home.

Similarly, we pay all our personal bills online. Online banking is a great innovation for travelers, and I highly recommend it. Get online a couple of times a month for ten minutes, and click-click-click, you're done! No stamps, no missed payments, no fussing with the checkbook.

I'll also be outsourcing mailing of magazines. It's just impractical to cart around eight boxes of magazines (about a month's supply) in the trailer, and the back of the truck is already full of stuff. I'll just take a few samples instead. There are people who can mail out issues to new subscribers faster than I can.

Studying our efficiency is a good exercise. I believe that periodically small business owners need to re-evaluate how they spend their time. Otherwise it's too easy to spend much of your day on unproductive minutiae and distractions. Being forced to streamline operations requires you to ruthlessly eliminate the tasks that can be better done by others (outsourcing), and focus on your personal value proposition -- in other words, you should be doing what you're best at, and leaving the rest to others.

Do you do everything yourself because you feel no one else can do it right? That's a sure sign of someone who hasn't learned to delegate effectively. (Some would say, "control freak" but that's too harsh.) Go get an Airstream and travel for a few months -- that'll teach you to relax and delegate! I often tell people that my job is to make sure everything runs so smoothly that I'm not needed anymore. That should be the goal of everyone in management: eliminate the need for their own job. It certainly is MY goal. If I ever achieve that sublime state of perfection, I will be as close to retired as I want to be, and then I can travel forever...