A successful entrepreneur shares her thoughts on business success and failure.

Finding my mojo in an unlikely place…

Tara (always an interesting read and a very cool chick who gets it) writes about finding her mojo in a recent blog entry. She goes into detail about companies that have “mojo” (that almost unexplainable “cool” vibe you get when you use their products or services) vs. ones that don’t. A couple of the points she mentions are “don’t be a commodity” — since commodities compete on price, not value — and “have a higher purpose” — which is a point I jibe with on a personal level, but never quite really had on a business level.

Until now.

Let’s go back a couple of years, first. Probably one of the most important lessons I ever learned in business was back when I was busting my butt and going to every networking event to not only find customers, but to figure out what customers really wanted in a hosting company. That lesson came in a surprisingly simple form: “Why do your customers choose Simpli?” a business owner asked me at one of those networking events.

I totally tripped over the question. It caught me off guard. “Well…we have great uptime, and are at a fantastic data center…” I stammered. I mean, we had happy customers, and they referred their friends. We were growing at a tremendous rate and could barely rack and stack servers fast enough. We had a great network…in fact, that’s what Simpli touted on its front page: 100% Network Uptime Guarantee. Surely that was why customers chose us!

“That’s not why customers choose you,” he said, smiling. At that moment I had nothing but absolute hatred for this man. How dare he tell me why my customers chose me! How arrogant of him! He wasn’t even a customer of ours! How could he possibly know something that I, the owner of the company in question, did not know?

He could tell I was offended, and apologized. “I didn’t mean to come off like that,” he said. “But what you need to do is ask your customers why they chose you. I think you will find the answer surprising.”

I left, still angry, but conceding that the guy had a point. Knowing I had some homework to do, I emailed some of our best customers and asked them why they really chose us…and the answers floored me. Here I had thought that the #1 secret to running a successful hosting company was to keep the network up and running and the servers happy…and my customers are telling me that while that was important, it wasn’t the reason they chose Simpli. In fact, they realized that a bit of downtime was “in the cards,” as they say. Server hardware does fail. Routing hiccups happen. And while we do our best to maintain 100% uptime, including buying those fancy redundant routers and switches and utilizing multiple network providers, things will still fail every once in a while.

What my customers were saying was that they appreciated Simpli for 1) really doing our best to keep everything online and running, and 2) when bad things did happen, they appreciated the way we communicated issues and kept them in the loop the entire time. In fact, during the 99.99% of the time when things did go well, they enjoyed our personal support, our reaching out of an extra hand, and the willingness of our staff to go the extra mile to make sure our customers were satisfied at every point in the process.

Our customers had mentioned this difference when I had those conversations back in early 2005, but I hadn’t really seen how we were different from our competitors until today.

Yesterday, we signed a new customer and agreed to pick up their servers from a colocation company in San Francisco, which I am not naming here in this blog because their name is not the point. They are a competitor of ours for sure — we have picked up several customers from them in the past, and lost a few. It’s been a net gain for us, however, and the customers we’ve gained had some real war stories about them. Since potential customers often quoted this company against Simpli, I wanted to understand for myself what their setup looked like and how their staff worked. I offered a significant discount to our new customer to go pick up their servers from the other colocation company, and offered to do it myself (even though I haven’t de-racked servers for Simpli in almost a year) because I wanted to see the entire process.

I went into the datacenter and signed in at the security desk, only to be told I wasn’t on the access list for that company. The security guard called their sales manager, who explained that “for security reasons, the security guard does not have Internet access” and that they printed an access list for the guard every day. Okay, fine, I get that, but the problem was that our customer had added me to the access list yesterday at 10AM PST…plenty of time to get me on the printout today. When I explained that to the sales manager, he patronized me, using a “there, there” sort of tone: “You don’t have to be so impatient. Just give me 20 seconds and we’ll get this sorted out. Now if you could please hand the phone back to the security guard so he can put you on the list, we’ll get this all sorted out for you right away.”

That was sorted, then (still with no explanation of how the access list mysteriously got printed this morning without my name on it) and I was off to the datacenter. I asked where I was supposed to go and the security guard said “2nd floor” and pointed in a vague “that” direction. “Elevators?” I asked and he nodded. Okay, no problem. I went into the elevator and headed up to the second floor. A couple other people got out there, too. I had absolutely no idea where I was supposed to go, so I asked one of them. He pointed at a door and said “There.”

The access badge I had been given opened the door, and I was faced with a datacenter. Of course, I had no idea where our customers’ servers were, and everyone else had disappeared. I looked around and spotted someone who looked like he worked there. I asked him where our servers were. “What’s your customer ID?” he responded. (Note: I hate that question. No one wants to be treated like a number.) I told him I had no idea. He pointed at the badge I was now wearing and said “It’s on your badge.”

“Oh,” I said. I was feeling really stupid at this point. I sucked it up and moved on. “Can you help me find our servers?”

“Use the phone,” he said, pointing at a red phone on the wall. “That calls our NOC” — he pointed at a wall with a couple windows in it. Behind it, I could see cubicles. Wait, you have to use a phone to call the guys you can see through the window? Uh, okay… I turned around to ask if he could help, but he had disappeared. I picked up the phone and watched one of the guys on the other side of the window answer it. He came out and showed me the servers. Finally!

This will turn into a long story if I unravel the entire 1 hour, 47 minutes I spent there deracking just 5 servers. (Typically I can de-rack 5 servers in about 45 minutes.) Here are some of the experiences I had:

  • I picked up the phone and asked for a screwdriver. They found one and helpfully told me where the rest of the tools were. Yay! Except there weren’t any other tools there, and the screwdriver they had given me was too small for some of our screws. Picked up the phone again. Waited. The guy took several more minutes to dig up a bigger screwdriver, and chastised me with “Haven’t you been here before? You’re supposed to bring your own tools.” Great, except I didn’t have any and wasn’t warned about that. Again, I felt like an idiot.
  • I needed a knife or scissors to cut some zip ties. Another phone call and more waiting and the same guy came out with his personal knife (apparently they don’t stock scissors there?) and cut the zip ties for me. Then I found out I had more zip ties to cut, but he had already disappeared. Picked up phone again, waited…same guy came out with the knife. I began to feel sorry for their techs.
  • The servers’ rails were really stuck, so I asked for help. The first time I asked for help de-racking them, the tech said “No”, turned around, and walked off. I picked up the phone and waited again. He came out again. This time, another tech came out to help him. This second tech told me that the other guy was new on the job and didn’t know “the rules.” “The rules” apparently included the following, all of which were direct quotes from this guy’s mouth: 1) “We are not allowed to help colo customers.” 2) “We should be charging you for this.” 3) “We’re not datacenter techs; we’re sysadmins.” 4) “Only facilities is allowed to help you de-rack servers.” 5) “You’ll have to enter a ticket and wait for your credit card on file to be charged, and then we can assign someone to this.” 6) “Just be polite.” (I wasn’t aware I wasn’t being polite by asking you nicely to help me de-rack some stuck servers.) And the kicker, which I hereby nominate for Worst Tech Line Ever: 7) “Yeah, um, we do this for a living, okay?” Like I don’t!

All in all, I’d have to say that was the worst colocation-related experience I’ve had in my life, and I’ve de-racked many servers many times. We finally did get the servers de-racked (it took all 3 of us working in tandem — those were some nasty rails) and I walked off, shaking my head.

I recognize this for what it was…probably the best example ever of what sets Simpli apart from most hosting companies. Put simply, we actually give a damn about our customers. We’re the colo company that invites you into our office, lets you sit on the couch, and serves you some water. And we actually (gasp!) have scissors and screwdrivers and zip ties and let you use them. Our techs don’t have condescending, arrogant, holier-than-thou, “we do this for a living” attitudes — we hire people who are smart, with good tech skills, and actually love to help others. In fact, if any of our techs ever had an attitude like that other colo company’s tech did, I’d fire them without even thinking twice. But I know they don’t because I’ve seen them in action, and our customers will back me up on that.

I got that before, but I didn’t really get it from a customer perspective. Now I do. It’s inspired me to finally get our old, long-in-the-tooth, all-about-the-uptime website kicked to the curb. Now I know what I need to write about Simpli. It’s clear that our attitude shines through, and that’s why we win customers. It’s all about helping people and making them realize that they and their businesses are valued. And while we still have our faults and places we could improve, I know in my heart we’re doing the right thing, and that is what will make us successful in the long term.

It was a long and interesting path to finding Simpli’s mojo, but I found it, and I’m ready to tell the world.

By the way, here’s what our new customer had to say: “What kind of customer service is this?”

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