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Archive for October, 2006

LandlordMax Customer Testimonial

Today we just received the following great LandlordMax testimonial from Jennifer Beaton which I’d like to share with you:

“I have been using LandlordMax for over a year a now. I manage 54 doors and can’t imagine what type of spreadsheet I would need if I didn’t have LandlordMax. It is very easy to use and has a wide variety of reports that gives me the information that I need to provide reports to my clients on a monthly basis. Excellent product with a great price! Keep up the hard work!!”

Jennifer Beaton

Weekly 7

10 reasons people make stupid decisions
The title says it all. And this is probably one of the very few times I agree with every point in the list!!!

Google Puts Lid on New Products
Realizing that its myriad services are confusing users, it will focus on refining what it has.

Automated Antenna Design
A little off the usual topic, but seeing as I’m an AI (Artificial Intelligence) buff, and especially genetic algorithms (aka evolutionary algorithms) this is a great story!

DMOZ Directory – How Much Money Is It Worth To You
Personally I don’t believe it’s worth much, if anything, right now. There seems to be a lot innactivity and possibly some corruption going on. Just read the comments in that post alone, and trust me you see these types of comments everywhere online!

The Multi-Tasking Myth
Multi-tasking is very difficult, and although I do admit that some people are better at it then others, you always encounter some penalty.

10 Tips for Moving From Programmer to Entrepreneur
Some great tips! Many of which I’ve had to learn the hard way myself. Probably his first tip was the most applicable for me initially, but one which I strongly agree with now.

Must Read: Top 10 Mortgage Mistakes
Some great tips here if you’re shopping for a mortgage, especially if you’re new to the industry.

Is Technical Phone Support a Viable Option for a Software Company?

Yes and no.

Yes, in that it lets you get closer to your customers. There’s nothing quite like talking to your customers one on one to find out exactly what they think of your product, of your company, how they found you, and everything else. Having a phone number also gives some credibility to your company.

No, because phone support is extremely costly. Most people don’t realize it, but phone support is several times more expensive than online support for the same customer base! As well, although it increases the sales, it’s nowhere near in proportion to the extra costs. I now understand why pretty much every software company charges for phone support.

So is it a viable option? Maybe… Rather than debate the hypothetical, I’m going to share our latest experience with free phone support and our prototype project here at LandlordMax. There’s nothing better than a case study! The results might be different for you and your company, but this is what happened for us.

When I first started LandlordMax, I offered support through email only. In the beginning it was pretty simple, I could manage it all through my email client. As the company grew, the support needs grew where we ended up purchasing a customer support system called FogBugz (allowing multiple people to manage support through a web application). As our needs continued to grow and exceeded even this software (we still actively use it for project management and bug tracking, it’s strong suite), we moved up to HelpSpot which is focused on customer service. This is an online system which accepts requests by email, through online forms, etc. All requests are allocated a ticket number and everyone also receives an online link where they can view the details of the request directly online if they want (including every detail, from how long it took to respond, and so on). This is great because it alleviates a lot of the issues with people who have very aggressive spam filters (because we’re a real estate based business, sometimes we need to use words such as “mortgage”, etc., which are often wrongly picked up as spam by email filters).

Because of the way our customer service system works, we’re able to offer free unlimited online support which is guaranteed to be answered within 1-2 business days (generally we answer it on the same day). This is great because most of our competitors charge for ANY support, and some quite a bit! Never mind phone support which I’ll get to in a minute.

About three months ago we decided that we wanted to start offering free phone support to our customers. Up until now, that is for the past 3-4 years, as I just described, we’ve been offering online support only (email, web forms, etc.). We wanted to see if it made a difference, how much, and if we could offer it for free. You see, although I could charge for phone support like our competitors, I really don’t like this option. To give you an idea of the market, most of our competitors charge between $100-200/hour for phone support!!! Some only offer email support if you buy a support contract. Another competitor will only sell you their software if you also buy a minimum support service package of $200! Personally I don’t believe in this. If you buy a product, you shouldn’t have to pay to get some help in answering your questions. I understand there is a place for premium support, for example a guaranteed response within 24 hours, etc., but this wasn’t out goal today.

I also do understand the business behind it, phone support does cost money. And let me assure you, it really does cost quite a bit. Not just in technology or service costs, but in man-hours! Man-hours are your largest cost factor, no doubt about it. Anyways, what we decided to do was offer free unlimited phone support for 3 months as a trial experiment to see if it was a viable option for us. Hopefully by offering phone support this would increase our customer’s happiness, and hence increase our sales. We also decided to use 3 months because it gives it some time to build momemtum As well, perhaps we’d also be able to add some extra sales from people who were more timid about purchasing software from a website and would rather purchase it over the phone.

That was three months ago. Today I know the results. So let’s look at the results of our experiment. Although I’m not going to share the detailed metrics, here’s a summary of what happened:

  • The average time to support a customer increased significantly over the phone versus online support. There’s nothing wrong here, it’s just the way it is. I would say that on average the time spent responding to a customer increases by 2-10 times. This can be attributed to the fact that some people ask more questions on the phone, some wish for you to wait while proceeding through the steps (for example waiting for the purchase email to make it through), sometimes you wish to wait to verify that the customers issue is fully resolved, and so on. Overall I would say this is fairly accurate metric for us.
  • For each person who answers the phone you need to train them in your software. This includes how it works, how to properly answer questions, what the procedures and policies are, etc. To achieve a good support level this is not a small task.
  • With phone support, although we don’t promise an immediate answer (we keep the same guarantee of 1-2 business days), phone calls break people’s workflow, their rhythm. For every break in concentration expect between 15-30 minutes of lost time to get back to the same productive state. With online support this can be drastically reduced by answering requests in batches during breaks, or what we list to call “mental breaks” (where you need to look at something different to give you brain a break). By doing this we keep all support responses in blocks and greatly increase overall productivity!
  • Long distances phone charges do add up… We’re using a VOIP system but that’s also not without it’s own costs.
  • Sales have increased, but nowhere near in proportion to the extra costs (especially if you add in the time costs). I’d say that we’ve barely increased sales by 10% and almost multiplied our support costs by 5-6 times. Therefore it doesn’t make sense to spend 5-6 times more money to make 10% more!
  • One thing that you really benefit from is that you get real live customer feedback about your software. I personally found that when I was on the phone, people told me a lot more about what they liked and didn’t like about the software right away. They also told me what their biggest pains where, which is golden! Which features do you think we’re going to add next? Probably where our customers biggest pains are!

Therefore, weighing in the pros and cons, it looks like we’re going to discontinue free phone support. Actually at this time, we’re going to discontinue all phone support. We’ll probably try it again in the future, things do change, but for now it just doesn’t make economical sense.

I can already hear some people saying why don’t you just offer paid phone support for those customers who want it. This way you don’t have to build it into your price and those that are interested can pay. The reality is that I’ve found that only about 7% of our customers (combined with pre-sales) use phone support. I can’t speak for every industry, but assuming these numbers, and the fact that we’d have to charge, I believe that the total percentage of people who would use paid phone support would drop significantly. Because there is a minimum fixed cost associated to having a call center, we’d still have to charge a minimum fee per call to just cover the costs. Assuming only 10% of the people who use phone support would be willing to pay the fee (I’d guess around $100/hour), then that would mean 0.7% of all customers would use this service. I’m not willing to risk the significant amount of capital it would take (we’d now also have to add a billing system to our phone system) to support 0.7% of our customers. At that point, unfortunately, I’d have to welcome them to purchase from our competitors.

As you can see, it’s not that I don’t want to offer phone support for LandlordMax, it’s just that it’s not a viable option for us. And yes I understand that some people will not purchase anything from a company that doesn’t offer phone support, but that’s ok. I’m willing to lose that very very small percentage of customers. Assuming they’re 10% of the 0.7% of customers willing to pay for phone support, we’d be losing 0.07% of our potential customers.

Therefore, to answer the question based on our experiment, is it viable for software companies to offer technical phone support. Again the answer is yes and no. It depends on your market and who you are:

Software under $100

I seriously doubt you can do it for free. I also doubt you can charge for it either! Unless you have economies of scale and you can seriously amortize your costs, no one is going to pay you the price of your software for assistance! And if you did offer phone support, it couldn’t be more than one call for free at best, if that. I looked up Quicken, a large company that can use the advantage of economies of scale, and they only offer free phone support for installation, purchase related questions, etc. After that, any help within the software (for example how to setup a bank, etc.) will cost you $24.95 per issue, or 86% of the purchase price!

Software between $100-$250

You’d still be hard pressed, but you might have a chance. Of course you could only offer one incident at most, and every additional call would have to be charged. Also if your company is smaller than a medium sized company ($10 million plus in annual revenue), I just don’t see how you could offer free phone support.

Software between $250-$1000

Possibly. Here’s where it gets interesting. I think in this case the industry and specifics of the software will determine whether you can or not. To give you an idea of just how difficult it still is at this level of pricing, Microsoft Office only offers you two free phone support sessions and then they charge you $35 per additional incident, all this for a product that costs $399 for the “standard” edition!

Software over $1000

Generally software over $1000 comes with some sort of SLA (Service Level Agreement). The more expensive the more comprehensive the agreement. Under $5000 it will be somewhat limited, but over $30,000 it becomes generally becomes much more comprehensive (before LandlordMax I had only worked with one company that sold software for under $30,000). Often in these markets there are a limited number of customers, and the vast majority are corporations where phone support is expected as part of the SLA (wouldn’t you expect it if you paid $1 million for a software package).
So all said and done, looking at our cost to benefit ratios, it looks like we’ll have to end our phone support for now. There’s not much to debate about. Like I said earlier, we’ll probably try it again in the future, maybe next year… I don’t know. But for now, we’re going to go back to online support only (email, online forms, etc.). I just can’t justify the substantial extra costs for the amount of extra revenue it provides. This would be like asking a landlord to build a private pool for each apartment unit to generate an extra 10% in revenue. It just wouldn’t make sense, landlords don’t do that.

To quickly end the discussion, since I know some people will ask, do you regret experimenting with offering phone support? Absolutely not! I think every business is different, and every business should try it! You can’t grow without trying. Michael Jordan didn’t just start scoring baskets on day one, he tried a lot of things before he figured out just what worked for him. So try things, test what works and doesn’t for your company. Maybe you’ll have very different results than we did at LandlordMax. Please comment if you did, I’d love to hear about it.

Should You Use a Code Profiler?

If you’re a software developers, absolutely!!! No doubt about it!

Before I go on, let me just take a step back to explain what a code profiler is to those that aren’t familiar with the term since a lot of you here also aren’t software developers. And surprisingly, a lot of software developers have no idea what a code profiler is!

A code profiler is a software application that helps you find performance bottlenecks, pin down memory leaks and resolve threading issues in your software application. So in other words, it’s a tool that helps you find where your own software needs the most improvement.

You would think that with today’s amazingly fast machines you wouldn’t need to worry so much about performance or memory (threading is something you always have to worry about). Yes, that’s partially true, but not always! For LandlordMax, as the database becomes progressively larger, so does the importance of running a code profiler. As some of you may have noticed, we’ve really been pushing performance enhancements recently (for example: here and here), and there’s a reason why. When we initially ran our tests, we ran them with fairly large databases, but we’d only test one section at a time. Lately we’ve been really pushing the envelop, creating databases that are larger than any of our customers will ever have, and we’ve noticed some performance issues with these massive databases, as well as some memory issues.

So then the question becomes, why not just optimize everything? Because that’s incredibly time consuming and very expensive. But more importantly, it’s often a waste of time and money. Most of the improvements you’ll do won’t make any noticeable difference. For example, if a screen refreshes in 10ms versus 20ms, no one will notice, it’s too fast to be perceptible, even if it’s a doubling in speed! However the cost of this improvement may be significant, hence driving up the cost of the software! No one wants this, and there’s no real benefit to anyone in this case.

So what we’re left with is focusing on the main performance bottlenecks. How do we do this? Most people will think that you just look at code, it should be obvious. It’s not! Often where you think there’s a bottleneck is just plain wrong. This is one of the hardest things to do!

So where does this leave us? How do we do this? We could integrate within our application a bunch of timers, memory readouts, etc. that would continually post information out to the screen. I’d suggest against this because this is very time consuming, error prone, has the high probability of introducing unncessary bugs, and adds a lot of extra code to your application.

A better solution is to use a code profiling application. As LandlordMax is Java based, I can only talk about the Java code profiling application. There’s 4 main software solutions, all ranging greatly in price, how they tackle the problem of profiling, what features they offer, etc. They are: JProfiler, YourKit, OptimizeIt, and JProbe.

After some analysis, I narrowed our list of options down to either JProfiler or YourKit. I simply couldn’t justify the cost of OptimizeIt, and JProbe seemed still stuck back about a decade in terms of GUI (it just wasn’t friendly to work with at all).

I did personally contact both of the companies I was interested in evaluating (JProfiler and YourKit) and told them I was going to write a review here on FollowSteph.com about this topic. Both were enthusiastic about it, and each was willing to provide me with a free license to their application (thank you!) so that I could really try out their software packages. It’s great to see this kind of enthusiasm! It’s also great to see companies that really believe in their products!

That being said, after some experimenting, I’m going to say that I prefer JProfiler. YourKit was nice, but I found JProfiler’s interface much more intuitive, it provided me the information I needed in a very organized and obvious manner. This made finding the bottlenecks and memory issues much faster and easier! Therefore in my opinion, although both tools are powerful, but I recommend JProfiler as the better alternative.

To give you a few examples of some of the phenomenal improvements we got with LandlordMax, before we started using JProfiler, we ran a rent roll report that generated 521 pages of rents due (that’s a big database!) in less than 14 minutes. That seemed reasonable to us when you consider the size of the report. This same report now runs on my computer in 12 seconds!!! Yes you read that right, in 12 seconds! When we ran it with JProfiler, the performance bottleneck jumped right out at us. It was not at all where we thought it was, we had been focusing on the wrong area of code. Had we not used JProfiler for this, we could have spent many more hours, possibly days, trying to improve the performance and it would have only been minor, maybe we would have shredded one minute from the total time, nothing like what we achieved.

Also, remember that the time cost to fix this was extremely small, once we saw it in the “CPU Views” section, it was a no-brainer. Solving it wasn’t obvious, but locating the source of the issue was! Much like locating the leak in a pipe can be brutal, but once you know where it is, solving it isn’t nearly as difficult. With JProfiler we were able to find it in seconds, with just one pass of the report.

Although I’ve been mostly mentioning performance bottlenecks, memory leaks (or extraneous usage) can and also does happen. While running JProfiler we also found that we used more memory than necessary in many places. We immediately saw that our “instance” count was extremely high for Vector Objects (a Java library object that stores a list of other objects). Why was our instance count so high? By quickly drilling down JProfiler’s Call Tree, we immediately noticed the issue.

JProfiler Call Tree

JProfiler Call Tree

What was happening is that for each Model Object we created (a chunk of programming code that represents either a real world object or a concept), we were pre-creating several empty Vectors (lists). I know that without a context this doesn’t make much sense, so let’s give it a context. So for example, when we created a new Building Object, we would pre-create an empty Vector (list) of units, of accounting entries, and every other item that might be in the tabbed panels. There’s nothing wrong with that. When we were in the list view (where you would only see the list of buildings without the details), we only populated the basic building information so that it could be drawn in the table, not the full data (the list of accounting entries, etc.). We didn’t populate these lists (accounting entries, etc.) for every building because you might never view most of the buildings every time. Why take the performance and memory hit to pre-populate all the data if you probably will only use a small portion of it. Therefore we’d only populate the lists (accounting entries, etc.) for a building when that building was selected. This way, only when we actually look at the details of a building do we put information in our Vector Objects (accounting entries, etc.).

So how can there be a memory leak here? Well there isn’t one really. But what happens is that when we created a new Building we’d also create several empty lists (accounting entries, etc.) by creating a new Vector Object with no items in it. Still don’t see where the memory leak is? To be honest in retrospect it’s really obvious, but at the time I hadn’t really thought of it. The memory leak is that each of those empty Vectors Objects take memory. Each Vector Object has to be created (instantiated and allocated). Although the list contains nothing, the Vector Object does take up space. If you only have a few hundred buildings, it’s almost unoticeable. But now imagine that you have thousands of buildings, each with about a dozen empty Vector Objects! What about if you run a rent roll report like the one above with 521 pages of Objects each containing a dozen or so empty Vector Objects (lists)!

I wasn’t even looking for a memory issue in this area of the code, but by just running JProfiler while performing some random tasks quickly brought this to my attention. Of course, I had I run LandlordMax with a database of only a few hundred buildings I probably wouldn’t have noticed anything. You see in Object Oriented Languages such as Java, almost everything is an Object, there’s lots of Objects. Each Screen is an Object itself composed of many other Objects (Button Objects, Label Objects, etc.). There are Objects everywhere. But in this case because the database was much larger, the Object count quickly got out of proportion and it became very obvious when looking at the metrics within JProfiler.

JProfiler Instance Count

So to fix this little issue, all we had to do is go from created empty Vectors (lists) to using lazy instantiation. What that means is that we don’t even create an empty Vector, all we basically do is say this is where the list will go in memory. We don’t actually put a list there, not even an empty one. In Java, we assign it the value of “null”. Without getting too technical, variables generally point to the Object in memory, they don’t store the actual Object (pass by reference rather than pass by value). So when we put “null”, we don’t need to worry about allocating that Vector Object right now, we can deal with it later if need be (or never if we don’t need to). if you want more details this article explains it in a lot more detail. Anyways, doing this greatly reduced the amount of memory we used everywhere. Had I not run a code profiler like JProfiler, I don’t think I would have noticed this. It’s not a show stopper, but the less memory your software uses the better, and generally the faster it is. It didn’t need to create and destroy all these empty Vector object instances for nothing.

Another great benefit we quickly got with JProfiler is that it showed us our data entry screens needed some performance boosts. Up until now, we generally focused on the list views, as those are the ones that contain the biggest amount of data. But JProfiler quickly brought to our attention that the combo boxes can be performance issues. For example, when I go to create a new accounting entry where the database contains over 2000 tenants, 2000 buildings, 2000 vendors, etc., each of these respective combo boxes need to be redrawn (in case any data updates were made). Each combo box requires a database call. Each combo box requires some Objects to be created and destroyed as they are updated. This quickly added up and became really apparent with a large database just by looking at the screens within JProfiler.

Because of this, we’ve now added some caching to LandlordMax which will be available in the next major release. As I mentioned earlier in this article, we could have cached everything, but because of JProfiler we focused on only caching the combo boxes that had performance and memory bottlenecks (which ended up only being 5 combo boxes). Talk about a time saver! I can’t imagine having created caching for everything! By analyzing the metrics, we found that 99% of the performance bottlenecks could be attributed to only 5 combo boxes, which is a lot less than hundreds of potential combo boxes, labels, prefilled data entry fields, etc.

As a quick side note, those of you who aren’t familiar, caching is a way of storing information in memory so that it doesn’t have to be retrieved from the database each time (and also a way of re-using the same Object instances rather than re-creating new ones each time). Because of this, if no changes occur between screens (for example no tenants are added, removed, or modified), the combo box is virtually instantaneously drawn and consumes no extra memory. If a change do occur (a tenant’s name is modified, etc.), we now just update the cached tenant list so that it still doesn’t require a full database call or the creation of new objects. If you have thousands of tenants, buildings, units, vendors, etc., this can quickly add up.

JProfiler CPU Hotspot

Before I finish this article, I just wanted to point out JProfiler’s “Hot Spot” functionality which is available for memory and performance analysis. This is basically a feature within the software that tries to actively point out to you where the bottlenecks are, so that you don’t have to look any further. Think of it as a summary of where you should look next, where you should look to enhance your software. It’s a nice little feature. Now that I think about it, it’s almost like it generates a “to do” list for you on where you should focus your time and money to enhance performance.

So have I convinced you that you (at least you software developers and software company owners) that you should run a code profiler for your software application if you haven’t already done so? I hope so! These were only some of the highlights we got from using JProfiler, there were others (I didn’t even mention any of it’s thread analyzing capabilities!). As you can tell, I really benefited from using JProfiler, so I definitely recommend them, especially if you’re coding in Java. The value in terms of time, cost, and benefits is definitely worth it!

LearningCenter.com Forums Open to the Public

For those of you who are fairly new to this blog, I’m also the co-author (with Glenn Scott) of another related blog called LearningCentre.com. On this blog we post all the latest and greatest information on SEO (Search Engine Optimization), website monetization, and website promotion that we learned through both of our respective businesses. For example, I’ve learned a lot through this blog, through my company LandlordMax Property Management Software, and through LearningCentre.com. Glenn also has a number of online businesses and websites that he’s learned a lot from that have made him financially independent. Based on our combined information and knowledge sharing, we decided almost 2 months ago to start LearningCentre.com.

Today’s great news is that we’ve decided to open up the Forums section of LearningCentre.com for free. In the past we charged a one-time $100 fee for a lifetime membership, but we’ve decided to go another route for now. For more details, I’ll refer you to my latest LearningCentre.com blog post. In any case, you’ll find the LearningCentre.com forum full of SEO, website promotion, and website monetization information. Both me and Glenn are big posters, we’re actually now using the forum as our main source of information and idea sharing (it’s easier and keeps a recorded history for us). As well, many of the people from our seminar are posting in the forum, sharing what they’ve learned since they took our seminar!

There’s lots of great information for those of you interested in these domains, so check the LearningCentre.com forums when you have chance.

Weekly 7

Rank Order – Current account balance
The account balance of the world countries. Some very astounishing information in this list

Yearly US Budget Deficit or Surplus since 1960
Again, another very surprising piece of information! Hopefully this trend won’t continue.

How Do We Calculate It?
The world’s distribution of money

Pinching the Penny Pinchers
Some very good examples of corporations cutting costs in very wrong ways.

On risk
A good discussion on how people evaluate risk

Did I Remember To
Now that’s what I call software testing!

I almost destroyed a life today
A small but very potent story that might make you think before acting.

LandlordMax Customer Testimonial

Last week we received not one but two great customer testimonials for LandlordMax which I’d like to share. I’ve already posted the first one earlier, so here’s the second great customer testimonial we received in one week:

“Thank you very much. I am really enjoying the use of your program and now I love your support.”

John D. White, Jr.
Texas Commercial Realty

Google Page Rank Update

Looks like Google is in the middle of another Page Rank update. So far it appears that FollowSteph.com is going to move up a rank from a PR4 to a PR5! Very exciting since each extra Page Rank number means a whole extra magnitude of web presence as acknowledged by Google and the online community.

Here’s a little tool I found on Darren Rowse’s blog that helps give you an idea of what you’re Page Rank will be once Google is done the update:

Future PageRank Tool © SEO Chat

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