Update (long overdue)

Last weekend I was fighting a nasty cold and decided I’d post an update up here. After typing and editing for what seemed like an hour, I accidentally hit the Backspace key and found myself going backwards in my browser, and when I clicked forward, my blog post was gone. I was pretty pissed off. So, I’m feeling better this weekend, less fat-fingered, and I’m going to take another shot. Here goes it. By the way, this is long, but as always, in the spirit of transparency and honesty, I’m going to give you all I can.

(Quick side note: Be my buddy on Citysquares.com! You need an account.)

Update on company morale: It was very interesting. About 4 weeks ago I started to pick up on a vibe of discontent among our small staff. I honed in on it for a couple weeks, listened closely and found it was true. I think it started right after the launch of the new site. The staff was really hyped up about the new launch, but it got delayed by a week. That was the first disappointment. As a result of all the enthusiasm around the launch, the staff was also hyping customers and partners. The launch went a week later and it went well, but as usual, not without bugs. And for all of the Citysquares staff, except for me and Bob, this is their first startup experience, certainly their first web startup. So they felt a little disappointed I think, because of the delay and the bugs, and because the fizz in the bottle didn’t add up to the big explosion everyone was expecting. I realized that I had to become more engaged with everyone and address these matters one by one. I was stuck in my office, helping Bob and Justin fight fires on the site. I needed to stop that, and get out in front of the team and put their minds at ease and share the plan. After opening the lines of communication, top to bottom, side to side, and working with Bob and Justin, first, to set the plan, and then once it was communicated across the company and other channels, the stress went away and everyone started to breath easier.

On top of all this, as the company continues to grow, new personalities enter the equation and new relationship dynamics sprout and change. I suddenly had flashbacks of days at prior startups, and how it’s so important to water the seeds of those relationships and keep the soil fertile, and also to clip off the thorns. When you cut right down to it, the company is only as good as our people. And people, well, need people. We spend more time with each other than we do our own families, for the most part. So it’s critical to build this company from the ground up with deep rooted relationships firmly in place – that starts now. I firmly believe that those relationships, those bonds, can be the source of greatness for the business, or the source of something devastating. Anyway, morale has gone from OK to great, and mostly because the stress of the launch is gone and also, we’re doing more together, as a company. For instance:

  1. Beer Fridays.
    Every day at 4pm, we have a beer and wind down the week, we joke around, we chat, and relax the shoulders and posture – just chill. Last week we had our first, and while most people actually stayed at their desks, the vibe was very loose. People were joking around, instant messaging each other, and friends, busting each others chops a little and letting off a little steam. Last night, we all went next door to Gaslight for a drink. It was good – lots of laughs, and more letting off steam.
  2. Monthly company lunch.
    Once a month, on a set day/time, we all either head out to lunch together in town, preferably nearby, or we order in. The purpose of this is the same as beer Fridays – don’t take things so seriously, get out from behind the desk, stretch the legs, relax the shoulders, have a little fun, and build bonds. But also, to talk about company matters, changes to any policies perhaps (yes, this web startup does have policies), and to just open up the lines of communication. This is very important. This month we went to JJ Foleys Cafe and it was a good time. After lunch, the office was in 5th gear – I was very happy to see that. This is going to last until the company gets so big that it just gets too expensive and we’ll have to slim it down a bit. But for now, it’s totally manageable.
  3. Holiday outing
    So we were all thinking that we could have a big Citysquares.com holiday party. Maybe we’d invite customers, users, friends, partners, etc. But the more I thought about this the less practical it became. Just too much, right now. Maybe sometime next year when there’s a better reason. So we opted instead for a company outing. We’re still trying to figure out where, but we’re thinking of going to F1 Boston, or to a paint ball range or something, and then a big lunch in the north end. Not quite sure, but this is the direction. We’ll do it on a Friday, perhaps December 14th. We’ll shut down the office, leave at like 1 or 2pm, and go have some fun. This way, a) it doesn’t impede on people’s personal time and b) it’s a free half-day off.

Well, that’s a big one. It’s pretty detailed but I thought it was a good entrepreneurial topic that you might enjoy.

Update on the new site launch. The site launch went well, albeit late. And like any product launch, it didn’t go off without a hitch – it had it’s fair share of bugs. The feedback from folks was quite immediate and ranged from raves about the new design/look/feel, compliments and sometimes confusion about the new navigation, to complaints about certain functionalities and features. Things that people loved included: design, navigation, breadth of the site, fusion of some new social features with local search. Things that people didn’t like: search, navigation, user profiling (People Profiles). Bob and Justin were quick to fix some navigational issues, and that continues to be a work in progress, and they also quickly fixed some of the people profile problems that we launched with. Search continues to be the biggest problem, and the new search functionality is on track to be implemented at the end of November. That’s probably the biggest thorn in our side right now, as it pertains the site experience. Bob and Justin are also working hard to revamp some of the customer profile pages and upgrade some UI stuff, specifically on the city/neighborhood home pages. Too much real estate is being used by the map and the businesses are far too low. This is going to be fixed next week I believe. As always, these things are to be expected and improvements are going to become more frequent and rapid. Bob and Justin have some very exciting plans for the site, once these bugs and fires are take care of. All things considered, the new site has impressed many and is a huge upgrade from the old site and we’re very pleased.

Sales. As I’ll tell you over and over again, Citysquares is not a technology company – we’re a sales and marketing company. That’s where we invest most of our dollars. Our goal is revenue, not widgets or Facebook apps (at least not yet…). Much of my job is to oversee these efforts, and so far Citysquares is doing a hell of a job with sales. Last month we had another record month. I am becoming more and more impressed with a) our sales manager Phillip, and b) our two full time sales people Kim and Jason. The three of them work extremely well together and when they get into 5th gear, boy are they good.

We had a strange incident with the sales team this week actually. We hired a new guy who started on Monday. He quit on Friday for “another offer.” Phillip was pretty ticked off and just had him leave right away, and I would have done the same thing. Everyone took it very lightly and even laughed it off, but we have to be more careful and listen to our guts a little more. I think most, if not all, of us had a feeling about this guy. It’s caused us a bit of frustration because now we have to fill his seat and that takes time and money. It’s OK to laugh about this once, but we need to be sure this is the last time.

Other things. There are lots of other things I could talk about in great detail, but this post is going on long enough. I’ll run through a few things though, briefly:

  1. HR – Yeah, yeah, we’re only 10 people, but ya know, it wont be long until we’re 20 and handling HR matters is going to become a real pain the ass. We offer competitive salaries for everyone, stock options for most staff, and a great Harvard Pilgrim Health Care HMO plan. But two of the employees’ families are growing, we’re hiring more people and their needs are different, and we need to be able to a) offer more benefits and do so cost effectively, and b) offload some of this management. We talked with AdminiStaff. Frankly, I was not impressed. They couldn’t give me a straight answer as to how much their services would cost me, per employee. Isn’t that the bottom line??? Not for them I guess. We are talking with TriNet – much much better! We’re running some numbers and we hope to be able to use them starting Jan ’08.
  2. Marketing – going well. We decided to have less control over the tactical approach to the marketing, we accepted the fact that we don’t have a resident marketing expert and we should really let our partners have more control over the approach, and get a little less hands-on. We should help establish the strategy, the goal, the vision, help build and approve the plan, but then let our expert partners run with it. This is why we have these partners. We decided on this about 3 weeks ago, and it seems to be working well.
  3. Traffic – growing nicely. Alexa sucks. Quantcast is pretty cool. Google Analytics is rockin. I trust AWStats the most though. Uniques are growing nicely, repeats are steady, page-views are already at an all time record high this month. I want to see much more though. We’re working to tweak our SEO, and improve upon our content strategy, and marketing is a big part of this, so are partnerships with content and media partners. Speaking of which…
  4. I hope to announce a new and exciting content/media partnership in the next couple of weeks.
  5. Hired an office manager, Amber, a couple weeks ago. So far that’s working out very nicely! I can actually get back to working ON the business, not so much IN the business.

Well, that oughtta do it. Wow, this was a long post. I guess that’s what happens when you let it go so long. Sorry for the silence everyone!