Category: Business

Planning for a new job

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ll soon be starting the first new job I’ve had in 11 years. I’m conscious that I’ve probably been spoiled by having built many of the systems and processes in use at my soon-to-be former employer, so that I might lack the perspective of what a newcomer to our organization faces. With that in mind, here are some items I’ll endeavor to keep in mind during the first few weeks and beyond at new company.

Speak up and ask questions. I need to make sure I understand what I’m meant to understand at certain points in time. Of course I won’t know everything in the first week or month, but if I’m expected to deliver on something, I need to ensure I fully understand the assignment, or else ask questions (at the risk of making myself look silly) until I do.

I don’t have to prove myself. I’ve been an IT professional for x years, the resume looks good, I passed the phone interview, I passed the on-site interviews, and now I’m sitting here in the HQ of my new employer. Be confident of my skills, add my unique insights where possible, but don’t feel as if I have to hit one out of the park in the first week. I tend to be methodical and reasoned in my decision-making, so this hasn’t been an issue in the past. And remember: Never compare your weaknesses to other people’s strengths. Each person has something to bring to the table.

I have peers now. One of the challenges at my BT job was that I was sort of a team of one. I was the primary guy for network changes within the Managed Service, which included a firewall cluster, and a handful of routers and switches. BT never provided any networking training so I was mostly self-taught on those. That’s fine, but I missed the opportunity to learn about best practices or even bounce ideas off of other people, instead being stuck with what I could scrounge up on Google, StackExchange, and the like. Now that there’s a team of people I’m working with (plus a generous training allowance from the company), I expect learning to kick into overdrive.

Find the balance. When I started with my previous company, I was 28 years old and single. Long hours were the norm, and my schedule didn’t need to be coordinated with anyone. Now I’m older, with a wife and two young children. I’m still planning on long hours, but they’ll need to be mapped around family dinners, school events, and sick kids. Plus, there’s a fitness center and personal trainer at my new work. For my mental and physical state, it’s imperative I establish a consistent workout schedule.

Push myself. This consolidates the points above. It’s time to push my career into overdrive. I’ve earned a tremendous opportunity, and my family has been willing to upend their lives in order to help me realize it. I don’t want to let them down, and I don’t want to let myself down. I need to ensure that I’m delivering to my full potential every day, while at the same time pushing my potential further. I don’t mind working hard and putting in long hours, as long as we’re all moving the ball down the field.

Two other final thoughts before I wrap up.

Go where you’re celebrated, not where you’re tolerated. –Unknown

And:

Instead of wondering where your next vacation is, maybe you ought to set up a life you don’t need to escape from. –Seth Godin



Unlocking creativity

I’m currently taking the Crash Course on Creativity by Stanford’s Tina Seelig. The course is a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), which in this case means that it has tens of thousands of students (massive!), is free, and is online. The barriers to entry are: you have a pulse, computer, email address, time, and initiative.

We’re only a day into the course, and already the online nature of things is creating some interesting challenges. We’ve all been broken up into groups of five. I live near Orlando, and my other teammates are in Ohio, NYC, LA, and Alaska. How far away we are doesn’t matter as much as the fact that we are apart at all. Put another way, I’m likely to have as much real-life contact with someone on the other side of town as I am with someone in Alaska or Pakistan. This means we have to be creative not only for the assignments themselves, but in how we collaborate and communicate over distance to share ideas.

This is a good thing. These are powerful skills to have as we continue to develop our knowledge worker economy. Email, Skype, Google Docs, Google Hangouts, conference calling, and probably dozens of other methods I haven’t considered are all free and free game.

As for the first assignment, we are being asked to “find as many things as you can that you ALL have in common. The more surprising the better!”. It’s tempting to go for standard fare such as favorite foods or places visited, but I’d like to really try to stretch and find something exceptional. If we all did something unusual or surprising together after meeting each other online but before turning in the assignment, that would qualify as something in common, wouldn’t it? :) We’re still left with the logistical and technical challenges of getting everyone together in the same “room”, but that in and of itself lends itself to creative thinking.

Everyone on my team seems interesting and quite different from myself, so I’m excited for this journey!



Real estate and public speaking

As part of keeping up my real estate license continuing education requirements, and just being knowledgeable about such matters in general, I attended a real estate law symposium today put on by our local real estate association. A few things occurred to me as I was sitting there:

  • Being a good lawyer doesn’t necessarily mean you will be a good public speaker.
  • Being a good speaker doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good lawyer.
  • I believe everyone at the symposium was a decent lawyer, but they were not all good public speakers.

In my opinion, and in the opinion of some others, I am a decent public speaker. I sailed through an undergraduate speaking course. I was President of the UCF chapter of AKPsi business fraternity, which takes some degree of skill in oratory (and solid understanding of Robert’s Rules of Order). In my professional career I’ve conducted successful training courses, some involving speaking for 6+ hours a day for 4 or 5 days in a row. I say all this not to toot my own horn, but to possibly offer a disclaimer that I may be hyper-sensitive to bad public speaking.

Today’s program, overall, was fairly educational and informative. However, I would make the following recommendations to the speakers, or others considering speaking:

  1. Don’t rely on the technology. Have your act together so you can continue with your program if the projector. Or if your iPad is misbehaving or you click the Home button by accident. If you truly know your material, you should be able to condense your presentation down to a few sheets of paper with bullet points on them. I know people that can talk for an hour (and one guy who could talk for a day) based on these bullet points:
    • DNS
      • Why?
      • How it works
      • Servers and roles
      • Security

    Having a technical foul-up that leaves you clicking frantically in PowerPoint or shuffling through your 30 pages of slide deck printouts is the presentation equivalent of that record scratch sound effect used in movies when someone stops the party.

  2. Seek acknowledgement. Ask questions, state obvious things (within reason) to get people nodding and on your side. Make the audience feel smart at the same time you’re instructing them on things they don’t know.
  3. Know your audience. In this case, these were attorneys, primarily practicing in the area of real estate, so they had a sufficient idea of the day-to-day struggles a real estate sales associate or broker might face, as well as a lot of the jargon. That said, some of the topics and questions were way over the heads of most of the people in the room, mainly because it was such an edge case that almost nobody was likely to encounter that scenario except the person asking the question. And if they did, they’d just call their attorney, not try to recall what was said at a symposium three years prior. “I’m the Buyer, and one of Sellers (who is a joint owner) was hit by a bus and is now comatose. The other owner is trying to get a power of attorney over the comatose owner. This happened after I submitted my offer but before it was accepted. What should I do?” is not a question I’d feel is appropriate to ask and expect answered in front of 120 people who will probably glean nothing useful from the answer.
  4. Don’t talk down to me. Sort of the same as Know Your Audience, but important enough to separate out. While repetition is good to drive home a point, it’s easy to go overboard. We are all grown adults, professionals in our fields, and we’ve paid to be there, so at least pretend that we are peers. Many of the most successful people in the world, when you meet them, make you feel like they care about you and value your opinion. Seeking Acknowledgement is part of this.
  5. Manage your time. Personally, if there are 5 minutes left and you still have 8 slides to go, you probably haven’t managed your time well. Now I start to get a little anxious that you’ll either go over your time or not cover all the material. For whatever reason, I have a personality quirk that makes me anxious when people are getting The Hook but aren’t able to tie things up in a bow at the end. I can’t be the only one.
  6. There are dumb questions. They exist. I’m fine, and usually appreciative, if you tell the asker that their question really isn’t relevant to the discussion at hand and that you’d be happy to speak to them about it personally afterward.
  7. Grab bag.. Speak clearly. Act confident. Share stories about your experiences in the subject area instead of reading off slides.

That’s all that occurs to me at the moment. I’m sure there are countless books on Public Speaking that enumerate and elaborate on these points in a more thought-out manner, but I did want to get some of my thoughts down.

One interesting take-away from today’s symposium: the most confident and engaging speaker was the person a licensee should be wary of. She’s the director of the state regulatory agency that oversees real estate practitioners. It’s attorneys under her direction that a licensee would spar with if the licensee were suspected of violating laws related to real estate practice in the state of Florida.

(BTW, the comatose joint owner situation actually happened to be back in Tampa. No, I did not seek counsel… either one-on-one or in front of an audience.)



Lending Club update – 10 months later

It’s been about ten months since I started my Lending Club IRA account as documented in my Hello, Lending Club post.

All in all it’s been going pretty well. I’m a little surprised at how few late or defaulted notes there are at this point. I may be jaded by my Prosper experiences, but I expected more people to get their money and not make any payments. On the other hand, the number of Fully Paid notes at this point is higher than I would’ve predicted. Perhaps these were solid borrowers who needed short term loans but were turned away by the banks? I haven’t gone back through and looked at the individual notes.

The plan is to continue rolling principal and interest payments into new notes indefinitely. Assuming that my non-LC retirement accounts continue to perform acceptably, I don’t foresee being overweight on Lending Club. Each year I’ll evaluate the balances on all my retirement funds and decide whether my yearly Roth IRA contribution should go towards Lending Club or other places. While I want to maximize my total return, I’m conscious of not wanting to be overweight on Lending Club overall.



Can I be a Comcast customer please?

To earn the privilege of giving Comcast $80 every month, I need to drive across Orlando to a payment center and show them my driver’s license.

This was the news delivered to me on Monday morning by telephone by someone trying to process my move order from old house to new house. They are not able to process my order for new TV and high-speed Internet service until I get in my car, drive 19 miles down I-4, show them my drivers license, then get back in my car and drive back home. At that point they would be happy to schedule an installer to come to the house and hook up my service. I was offered no other possible remedies, despite pointing out several times that this was an undue burden for opening an account. Can I fax a copy of my drivers license? No.

The reason I was given is that the previous occupants of this home have an outstanding balance. This is not my problem.

With DSL for Internet and satellite for TV being perfectly acceptable substitutes for a coax cable, does Comcast really want to be throwing up barriers to signup?

I’ve engaged @ComcastCares and @ComcastWill, and while they’ve been responsive, I’m still looking for a call or email that can give me a yes or no as to whether Comcast would like me as a customer. The only reason I’ve waited 2 days so far is that I own a cable modem I’m really happy with!

Update Wed, 05/16/2012: Carlos, from Comcast in Orlando, called and we spoke for several minutes. He wanted to understand what the issue was and get things moving. I expressed my desire to order service. He said he’d check with dispatch and get back to me first thing in the morning.
Update Thurs, 05/17/2012: No call from Carlos today.
Update Fri, 05/18/2012: In the morning sent an email to We Can Help email address at Comcast, based on a tweet from a Comcast rep, explaining the situation. In the afternoon received an automated call this afternoon that a Comcast technician would be at my house tomorrow, Saturday, between 10am and noon. Unsure if appointment is for TV or TV+Internet.
Update Sat, 05/19/2012: Technician was a no-call/no-show. Called Comcast at 12:45p, navigated phone tree to place where it says to push 5 if a tech missed an appointment. Received message that call volumes are very high, wasn’t given an option to hold, was then disconnected.

The quest to give Comcast money continues…



Does Comcast really need do to customer surveys?

Does Comcast really need do to customer surveys to figure out why people hate them?

It’s very simple. We’re not sports people and are too busy to watch much TV besides, so I was planning on canceling our cable TV. Poking around the Comcast web site, I noticed there was a plan for $20/mo called Limited Basic that would give us the broadcast channels and a few others, but that’s it. After finding that plan on their site, I decided I was OK with paying $20/mo to avoid some hassles with trying to find some shows through Hulu or torrenting them or whatever.

And then I chatted with Comcast.


Part 1:

Part 2:


And that was the end of the conversation, after I let the window sit for 3 or 4 minutes. *shrug*

If they had just processed the change immediately (and did you notice the part where ‘Elijah’ says “You’ve certainly reached the right department!”), I probably would’ve paid $20/mo for the next 10 years without giving it a second thought. At the beginning of the day, I was content with Comcast and felt the TV package we subscribed to simply didn’t meet our needs. At the end of the day, I’m looking forward to canceling their TV service altogether, NOT because of their core product, but because of the disdainful business practices they wrap around it. What a hell of a way to treat a long-time customer who says to you, “I want to stay with you but I’d like a less-costly plan.”

Are we clear on this one, Comcast?



Hello, Lending Club

I joined Lending Club a few weeks ago.

History

This is not my first foray into the world of peer-to-peer (P2P) lending. Loyal readers (hi, you two!) might recall that I invested in loans through Prosper back in 2006 and 2007. You may also recall that I didn’t fare too well. Here’s my current account status:

To review: out of 28 loans, 11 were paid as agreed, and 17 were ultimately sent to collections or discharged through bankruptcy, where I either got pennies on the dollar or nothing at all.

Those investments were discussed previously in this blog:
http://www.bbhart.com/81/prospercom/
http://www.bbhart.com/265/prosper-13-months-later/

Rationale

So why am I back to P2P lending for more punishment? Well, a few things are different this time.

  1. My mood towards the stock market has soured. I’m not confident stocks as a group can deliver their historical rate of return in the decades ahead. I’ve been out of school, in the work force, and saving for retirement since 1997. In that time the S&P 500 has seen a compound annual growth rate of 5.64%. I believe I can do better, but I’m also realistic about what’s truly possible. I’d feel successful if I earned 8-10%.
  2. I’m investing with Lending Club instead of Prosper. Lending Club was the first US peer-to-peer lender to register its offerings with the SEC. They’ve had a number of years now to tune their business model. Regardless of how you might feel about the SEC, investing with a company that’s subject to some degree of SEC oversight is probably safer than a company that isn’t. I don’t blame Prosper — they were learning the same expensive lessons that I was and I truly feel they had altruistic motives — but I’m trying a different company anyway.
  3. I’m investing through a self-directed IRA (SD-IRA). One of the biggest headaches I had with Prosper was dealing with the taxes once March/April rolled around. They basically act like 28 individual securities, which means a lot of typing into Turbotax. With the IRA account, I invest free of the taxes or tax reporting burdens I would’ve had with a regular account.
  4. I’m dealing with lots of loans this time around. Instead of having $2,500 tied up in 28 loans at Prosper, I’ve invested twice the money ($5,000) in 7x the number of loans (~200 when fully funded). This spreads the risk amongst lots of individual borrowers.
  5. Historical defaults are known, and I’ve factored them in to my expected rate of return. I invested in Prosper when the company was brand-spanking new. They were learning, and I was learning. Turns out their default rate was much higher than they anticipated, which destroyed return on investment (ROI). They didn’t have years of data to draw conclusions against. Lending Club does. There will be defaults, but since there’s an acceptable amount of historical data (in my opinion) to be able to predict default rates, I’ve factored defaults in to my expected ROI.
Getting Started

I dragged my feet on getting everything set up. There are a few more hoops involved in setting your Lending Club account up using retirement funds. The process isn’t difficult, per se, but neither the documentation nor the automation is where it needs to be to make it dead simple for investors of all ages and computer skills. The flows appear to be:

Forms
You ---(mail or fax)---> Lending Club ---(forwards to)---> SD-IRA Services

Money
You ---(check or rollover form)---> SD-IRA Services ---(wires to)---> Lending Club

At the end of it, you end up with a Self-Directed IRA account at the aptly-named Self-Directed IRA Services and a Lending Club account. One interesting side-effect of having a self-directed IRA is that I can invest retirement funds in things like real estate, stock of privately-held companies, and tax liens.

One important note: if you want to do the Lending Club IRA thing, you need to use a special link on the Lending Club web site to kick off the process, and it’s not always easy to find. If you blow it and create a regular account, thinking there will be a place where they ask you what kind of account you want, then their support people have to delete it and you start all over again, which can take a day or two.

You can roll over part or all of an existing Roth or Traditional IRA over to SD-IRA/Lending Club, but I opted to make them my 2011 Roth contribution, which meant I just mailed them a check. I can’t comment on how smooth the rollover process is, but I’d expect they do a lot of them and it wouldn’t be any problem.

Investing

Once the forms were received and my check was cashed, I ended up with basically what amounts to 5,000 shares of my Lending Club account worth $1 each in my SD-IRA account (see below) and an available cash balance of $5,000 in my Lending Club account.

One of my problems with Prosper is that I ended up engaging in emotional investing. I read people’s sob stories and ended up investing a disproportionate share of my funds in their loan. Turns out those people default just as frequently as everyone else. Thus, Rules 1 and 2 were born.

Brian Rule 1: Nobody gets more than $25 from me.
Brian Rule 2: Ignore the stories.

Which is better: 25 loans of $200 each? Or 200 loans of $25 each? I don’t know; I’d say it depends on who the 25 loans are for. But I feel better having my loans spread amongst many people. As for ignoring the stories, time will tell on whether that’s a good idea, but if everything else is in place (additional Rules below), then I’m less concerned about how you acquired the debt as I am in your ability to pay off your loan.

For the first $3,500 or so of my total $5,000, I used Lending Club’s Invest function.

Clicking Invest automates Rules 1 and 2 for you. It builds a portfolio of $25 notes (Rule 1) and it doesn’t read the borrower stories (Rule 2). What it does do is build portfolios based on your risk tolerance. It doesn’t discriminate between types of loans, though, so if you’d rather not loan to someone starting a business or needing to cover medical expenses, this feature probably isn’t for you.

As strange as it sounds, for the first $5000 I felt it was more important to get my money placed than to spend hours and hours vetting $25 loans one-by-one. I used the Invest function for the initial $5000, but after all was said and done with rejected or expired offers, about $3500 was allocated and the remaining $1500 was left over to reallocate. At that point, I decided it was time to get more particular about the loans and make some more rules.

Brian Rule 3: Invest in higher-rate loans.
Brian Rule 4: Focus on debt consolidations.
Brian Rule 5: Borrowers should have jobs. Even better if it’s for the government/military, and better still if they’ve been there for at least 1 year.

Lending Club’s historical data demonstrates that investing in higher-rate loans will net a higher return than “safer” loans when you subtract out the default rate. In other words (and speaking generally), which one would you prefer?

  • 8.9% with 1% defaults = 7.9%

    OR

  • 16% with 5% defaults = 11%

In my opinion, the answer is: it depends. If you play it by the numbers, and expect default rates to remain close to their historical values across all class of borrowers, then you’d chose the 16% portfolio. On the other hand, you might sleep better at night knowing only 1% of your loans will default, as opposed to 5%. You’re loaning real money to real people; it might effect you emotionally to have some of those people stiff you. You will want to minimize the number of defaults, even if it means a lower rate of return, just so you can sleep more soundly at night.

I tried to remain unemotional with Prosper, but it’s hard to do that when you read the borrower’s hard luck story before deciding to invest. Once the loans were funded, I found myself rooting for these people, even though I knew some of them would skip out on me. And sure enough, when a loan would go from 30 past, to 60 past, to 90 past, to Sent To Collections, I would scream inside “But you were one of the good ones!!! This wasn’t supposed to happen!!!”. Like I mentioned earlier, I made fewer loans with a higher amount-per-loan than I have with Lending Club, which didn’t help me divest myself emotionally. One loan defaulting hurt.

For my last $1,500 I decided to set up some basic filters in Lending Club’s Browse Notes screen. I wanted to exercise a bit more discretion in the loans I made, while trying not to become emotionally involved. This meant paying closer attention to the borrower’s statistics, while trying not to become too involved in their business. I screened for Debt Consolidation loans, for people with a steady job under their belt, who were mainly in the C/D range, with some B’s and D’s (and even a few E’s) tossed in there, those who had had their income verified by Lending Club, and where Lending Club had already approved the loan. Very few loans met all those criteria, and certainly not $1,500 worth at $25 each. I loosened the criteria some, relaxing the Approved status and looking at some loans that weren’t Debt Consolidation, and have been able to come close to funding out my full $5,000.

All told it will end up taking close to 3 weeks to fully invest my initial $5,000. Some loans I agreed to fund either expired before being fully funded or were rejected by Lending Club for some reason. When that happens, the money is returned back to me to reinvest, but days or weeks may have passed where that money was idle. It ends up being a fair amount of work to place all your money, but once it’s done, all you have to worry about is either re-investing the money people pay you every month or pulling it off the table and finding something else to invest in.

Wrap Up

As of December 19, this is what my account looks like:

I’m still waiting on $150 to find its way into funded loans, but otherwise, as I mentioned, it’s taken me about 3 weeks to invest $4,850 in loans that pass my sniff test. You can expect that I’ll update this blog periodically with how it goes.

Update 12/20/2011: Peter Renton from SocialLending.net reminded me about lendstats.com. LendStats is not affiliated with Prosper or Lending Club; you could use it to do a sanity check against what those sites are reporting for performance. Here are my stats for my old Prosper loans.



Bye BOA

We officially left Bank of America today. We’ve had our checking accounts moved over to USAA for two months now to give us time to weed out any issues or recurring ACH payments we might have.

Why USAA? We live virtually, meaning if there’s a way to do something online, we’ll do it. USAA has free checking, with free checks, free debit transactions, and free ATM withdrawals(a). I can deposit a check into my account just by taking a picture of it with my phone. It’s easy to get a CSR on the phone(b). They don’t have branches, but if I need to make an in-person deposit and not do the smartphone picture deposit thing, then I can go to the UPS Store here in Celebration and make my deposit there. If I need an official check, I can order it online and they’ll mail it to me. In a nutshell, I can do all my banking without leaving the house, which is how it should be in the year 2011.

Why not Bank of America? For the most part, I never really paid too much attention to banks. For what we do, I thought a bank is a bank is a bank. Then BOA announced a few months ago that they were instituting a service charge for debit card users, a response to their fees being capped by the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law. I’m not a debit card person — I use my credit card anywhere and everywhere(c) — so the new fee wouldn’t have affected me. But the announcement did get me thinking. BOA is still profiting from each and every one of their debit card transactions, they’re just now making less. Again, it’s not that BOA is now taking a bath on debit cards, it’s that they’re now only making $x a year in profits as opposed to $x * 2.

It’s not that there was one event that caused me to spend time moving my accounts somewhere else(d). It was a slow build-up, death-by-a-thousand-cuts… a 10 minute wait in a phone queue, a crashed web site, long lines at the branch. They’re probably too big for their own good. Scale is good up to a point, but you reach a certain size where you’re receiving the optimal benefit from that size, and once you exceed that size, stuff starts slipping through the cracks. An organization gets so large they get bogged down in bureaucracy and internal politics, and they can’t affect the changes that keep them responsive to their customers and competitive with respect to rates and products.

The USAA web site is not as friendly as Bank of America’s, but overall I’m happy with the move so far. Time will tell if it stays that way.

(a) – Up to 15 a month.
(b) – To close my accounts, I first tried calling BOA this morning at their 800 number for checking and savings accounts. There was no option for Close Account on their phone tree. When I pushed the option to speak to an agent, it told me the call center was currently closed. The call center opened at 7am; this was at 8:30am.
(c) – And religiously pay it off every month.
(d) – And it does take time. I probably spent 3 or 4 non-contiguous hours making the move. That’s time opening accounts, canceling and re-adding ACH links, ordering checks, setting up smartphone deposit capability, and other stuff.



Hillsborough County tax certificate sale

To summarize my experience this year with the Hillsborough County (FL) tax certificate sale, it would be:

Hey, Hillsborough County, do you want an interest-free loan of $3,000 for a month?

I bid on a bunch of certificates but there was enough money willing to settle for .25% that I was outbid on everything. It was an interesting process, though, and I don’t regret participating.



Corporate logo redesigns

Justice Mitchell shared this today: adweek.com blog: A look at 30 other corporate logo redesigns. The link has side-by-side comparisons of logo “upgrades” from some notable companies or products.

My take on things would be…

  • Win: AT&T, BP, Burger King, Cisco, Delta, Goodwrench, MTV (even though I hate MTV), Sprint, Ubuntu, UPS, Walmart (much improved), Yellow Pages
  • Lose: Best Buy, Kraft, Mastercard, Pepsi, Quicktime, Seattle’s Best (worse in a BIG way), Gap
  • No better/no worse (“meh”): Animal Planet, AOL, Bausch & Lomb, Capital One, Google, Jack in the box, KFC, MSN, Quark, Rhapsody, Starbucks, XEROX

Any strong agreements or disagreements with my assessment?