On The Web, Put Function Over Form

When I was a kid, I had my bedroom rigged up so that I could open and close the door while lying on my bed across the room.

Here’s how it worked: I hammered a nail high up into the back of the door and attached two strings to it. I ran one string around the perimeter of the room back to my bed clockwise, and the other going back the other way, counterclockwise (still with me?).

The two strings met back at the bed, and using key chains as weights, they hung down the wall to where I could easily reach them while lying down. Pulling on one string opened the door; pulling on the other closed it.

I’ll be the first to admit that this was not what you would call an “elegant solution.” The string sometimes got tangled, and the configuration itself made the room look like it had been visited by a giant alien spider.

But you know what? It worked pretty well, and for years I was able to manage both the temperature of the room and my privacy without ever getting out of bed (18 months ago I’m sure I could have gotten venture funding for this idea).

Today, 30 years later, I still have a bias towards practical solutions that are home made, but functional. And I always try to pass that approach along to the companies I work with.

You see I think many companies encourage an (unhealthy) culture of perfection. When it comes to technology in general and the Internet in particular, people look around at all the (legitimately) great and sophisticated things you can now do, and decide that it has to be all or nothing:

• “If I can’t send HTML (graphical) enewsletters that track how many people opened them and what actions they took when they did, then I’m not going to launch an electronic newsletter.”

• “If I can’t afford a database driven web site that recognizes returning visitors and customizes the site for each individual viewer, then I’m not going to pay much attention to my company web site.”

• “If I don’t have the resources to create a feedback email program that uses Artificial intelligence-based autoresponse technology for tracking and responding to customer input, then I’m not going to encourage customer feedback.”

My philosophy on the other hand, is “start with a low end solution and build up.”

Here’s why:

• If you wait until all the stars align to create something that is state of the art, you’ll be waiting a long time. Things change too quickly in the online world, and that day may never come.

• Experience with a low end solution will give you insights into what is required of a high end solution. Just as I learned a lot about bedroom doors, you’ll be in a much better position to evaluate an email marketing vendor (for example)after you’ve run your home grown system for a while.

• Finally — and this is the really important point — a good home grown solution will yield 75% of the benefit of any initiative anyway. Sure, you can improve on it with technology, but it’s the thinking and planning and integration into your business practices that gives you the lion’s share of the benefits. The rest of it is mostly fine tuning and efficiencies.

So here’s my advice: Go ahead and launch your enewsletter today, even if you start out by just sending plain text to a bunch of names out of your email address book. Go ahead and encourage feedback from your customers today, even if you can’t yet automate the process or track the trends. Go ahead and find ways to integrate your company web site into your offline business practices today, even if it’s not fancy or elegant.

Just go ahead today! You can streamline the process later.

The Internet is about tinkering, and the only way to tinker with something is to get it up and running in the first place. I’ll be in my room if you need me.

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