Wednesday, February 9, 2011


I'm packing up and getting ready to leave Texas City. My plan is to make my way to Moab in southeastern Utah. I'm meeting the NavUnit, the SecurityChief, and Julius there. They're going to be driving down from Corvallis for a few days. I don't know the exact details of what we'll be doing but I'm sure some mountain biking and rock climbing will be involved. I'm looking forward to our outing. Moab was one of the areas I visited during my original leave of absence and it's high on my list of places to revisit.

It's been a mix of different types of work since my last entry. In early November I decided to take on a contract job to develop an iPad application for a customer of my mobile device application. I finished that job in January. It was a good experience. I learned some new techniques which will be very useful as I further develop my main software product. The client was happy with the end result. He turned out to be a good graphic designer, and when combined with my technical skills it resulted in a nice looking application. The client was also willing to do the bulk of the testing (he was good at it too), which is the part of software development I least enjoy. Despite the positives I somewhat regretted taking on the work. Looking back, it was a distraction from the bakery and ongoing development of my main software product. It was nice to get a good sized check, but because it's for private use the work won't result in an ongoing revenue stream. I'm not sure if it was worth it. If nothing else I learned a few things from it.

We seem to be executing well on our objective of consistently generating a profit at the bakery. We've had four profitable months in a row now and we deployed an inventory management system in January. We had to terminate an employee in December. At HP there were people who's job it was to handle all the legal details which are entailed in terminating an employee. In a small business you get to do it all yourself. For the first time I was exposed to dealing with the Texas Workforce Commission. This is the state's labor management agency. It ended well for the bakery but reinforced the need for us to have robust human resource processes in place. I was glad I had some employee relations experience from my days as a manager. It definitely helped. We've since spent some effort reinforcing our HR processes. I came out of the experience with some admiration for Texas employment law. It's clearly designed to encourage employers to keep people employed, but within a certain set of well thought out constraints. I think the law strikes a good balance between the interests of the employer and the employee. Like many Texans I know, it has a no-nonsense quality to it. The main things to remember are to clearly and consistently communicate expectations, both when they're set and when they're not being met. And above all, write everything down. I ended up sending about 20 pages worth of documentation to the workforce commission in this case. When it come to legal matters, if it isn't written down it might as well not have happened. I imagine a lot of small business owners burn themselves by lack of documentation when it comes these sort of matters.

There's still a lot of things we could do in the bakery to improve efficiency. It's encouraging to see profitability despite all the known inefficiencies which still exist. I also feel good about creating some jobs for the locals. We recently gave one of our employees a raise and made her our first assistant manager. With Nina about to have a baby we knew that we were going to need some help managing operations. We're now using some of the profits to pay ourselves. The cell phones for Nina's family, my mom, and I and certain vehicle expenses (gas, oil changes) are now coming out of the bakery. Relatively speaking it's a modest amount but it's certainly nice to begin seeing some monetary reward for our efforts. We're reserving the bulk of the profits to fund future growth or in case we have rainy days in the future. The sales growth rate has slowed a bit but if the January 2011 sales are any indication we can still expect a strong growth rate this year. Most recently we found someone to help us develop automated cakeball manufacturing equipment. We built a proof of concept unit which produced great results. I'm waiting for the bill of materials so we can order the materials to build what we hope will be a production unit. Hopefully the profits and sales growth will keep coming.

On the software side I released another significant update in January to my main product. The revision added another expansion pack and addressed many stability and reliability issues. Previous versions had proven to be fairly robust, but I'm rather fond of things which never break. I also know that robustness is important to the small business market I'm targeting. The new rev looks to be rock solid. I haven't had a single bug report or problem email since it's release. I'm pretty happy with the results. I've kept raising the price of the software in an attempt to find the point of maximum revenue. The unit volume vs price curve so far has been flat. Unit volumes only go up as the price nears zero. In terms of dollar volume it doesn't look like I've found the maxima yet. The results have encouraged me to continue developing the app. I have three more expansion packs I want to add, one of which is nearing completion. I also want to develop a subscription based service around the app. I've started some early work on the subscription piece, but it's going to take time since it will involve developing a web application to accompany the app. I've become more comfortable with mobile software development but web development is another animal. I have some familiarity with it but I'm going to have learn some new things. That always takes time.

My brother in law, who's a maintenance technician in the petrochemical industry, had an idea for an app which he thinks would be very useful to many folks in that industry. Relative to the app I'm already selling (and the contract app I made) it sounded easy to build, so I took his idea on. The app's nearly ready to be submitted to the publisher. The nature of the app means that the size of the market will be limited. (That said, when you visit this part of the country you realize that the petrochemical industry is huge.) My brother in law says that what the app does is very valuable, so I think we'll be able to charge a fair bit for it. He's been in the industry for 20 years at 3 or 4 different plants and knows a lot of people. I'm hoping we can leverage his network for marketing purposes. The app was quick and easy to build, so worst case it's not much of a loss if it's a flop.

I've had other ideas for useful small business oriented mobile apps which don't seem to already exist but it's pretty limiting when one person is doing the bulk of the work. Playing HR and IT manager, accountant, delivery truck driver, and dishwasher at a bakery doesn't help with time either. I tried to talk one of my engineer cousins in Mexico into becoming a partner but she declined in the end. I think I need to get further along on executing my vision for the app I'm already selling before taking on any other substantial projects. If it keeps growing maybe I'll just hire someone to help with future projects.

I'm looking forward to my bi-annual migration trip. This business stuff has been entertaining. A big part of the fun is not knowing what's going to happen. Figuring out how to overcome obstacles is enjoyable too. There's also a social or organizational engineering piece which I like. There certainly have been some surprises, and I'm sure there will be more. Whether it's going well or not I suppose depends on whether you're getting what you want from it. From that perspective it is going well, but I know that I'm not using typical measuring sticks.

All of that said, at some point (I'm there) things become a bit too routine and I feel the need to leave it all behind for a while. Some aspect of having everything you need in a vehicle with only a vague notion of where you're going and what you'll be doing appeals to me. I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish down here. Time to leave.

The photo at the top is a cake we made for the city's centennial celebration. It barely fit through our door.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Feels Like Work

It's been about a month since I arrived in Texas City. I called my sister as I was arriving and learned that her and her family were at a fund raiser the bakery was participating in. I went there first. It was a pretty big occasion, with a band, booths selling various stuff, an auction, and a dunk tank. Nina was selling goodies. The fund raiser was for the benefit of a little girl with a rare disease. She was the daughter of a guy I'd gone to school with. Since I hadn't taken a shower in two weeks I decided to volunteer for the dunk tank. Apparently I was the first adult to do so. My nephew and his friend hit the target four out of six times. My five year old niece then surprised me by telling me that she was going to be a big sister. Nina was due at the end of February. After the fund raiser ended I went to the bakery, where I found my mom hard at work (we'd hired her earlier in the year) making our best selling product, cakeballs.

I spent the first couple of days figuring out what I should be doing at the bakery over the next fews months. The bakery was in a pretty different state from where it had been a year ago. Year to date sales were 5x where they'd been at the same point last year. The number of regular employees had grown from one to five. The business was self supporting. Nina had taken some of the profits, used them to hire a couple of professionals, and to buy a larger commercial freezer and fridge. Nina had done a good job keeping up with the growth and re-investing the profits wisely. Sales were no longer our biggest challenge. Our focus now would be to improve profitability, with higher sales as a secondary goal. Our cash reserves have been rather flat. We wanted to get cash on a good, steady, growth rate and use it to fund further sales growth.

I'm the bean counter for the bakery, so it fell on me to figure out where the money was going and what to do about it. Being an engineer, I went straight to the data. After some quality time with Excel I was able to glean some things from it. Labor, followed by ingredients is where most of the expenses were. As a fraction of the total pie, fixed expenses (expenses that don't change with sales) had dropped quite a lot from a year ago. It made sense given the higher sales we now had, and was to be expected. Ok, primary contributors identified and quantified, now what? It was pretty evident that our financial metrology and controls were weak. By the time we knew what our sales and expenses were it was too late to do anything about it. We've known this for a while, but we hadn't done anything about it. With the sales growing like it had just getting all the orders out the door was enough of a challenge. I wrote some software and developed procedures which allow us to measure sales and labor expenses on a near realtime basis. We set a goal for labor expense as a fraction of sales, and did some communications with the staff (been a while since I'd made Powerpoint slides). We reorganized a bit, giving employees primary roles which better align with their natural talents, and have delivered some direct feedback to individuals. An employee manual has been assembled to document standard procedures and best practices. It should also help bring future new hires up to speed more quickly. We're now tracking labor expenses and sales on a daily basis and have set limits which we are managing against. It's been a couple of weeks since we deployed the new systems. We're still ironing out some kinks but early indications are that the new systems and controls have helped. November will be telling since it'll be the first full month in which we've used the new controls. We still need better controls for ingredients (the second largest piece of the expense pie), so that's next on my list for the bakery.

Besides improving profitability we're also working to keep our sales growth going, although with less urgency than a year ago, and at a lower target rate. We're now shipping cakeballs (our best selling item). This past Sunday, for the second year in a row, the bakery walked away with the Best of Show award at Taste of the Town, an annual event put on by the local chamber of commerce. I can't really take any credit for this. Nina and the ladies at the shop are just flat out great at what they do. They can make a pile of garbage look like a work of art. It's pretty amazing what they can do with cake and icing. The orders have been piling up this week, so it seems Taste of the Town was worthwhile. Fortunately we have employees who are eager for more work. They may not be so eager in a couple of weeks.

That's the bakery stuff. I'm also spending time on the software business. I hit a hiccup with a derivative product. I had submitted the derivative to the publisher just before leaving for Texas. Halfway to Texas I learned that the publisher had rejected it. The publisher insisted that I sell it as an expansion pack for the first product, instead of selling it as a separate product. I was pretty upset with them. I submitted an appeal, but it was denied. They called me a couple of times, I think in an attempt to appease me, but they still refused to give in. Gradually, as much as I hate to admit it, I came to realize that selling the new features as an expansion pack was a better way to go. Last week the new rev was finally released. Last week's revenues were double the previous record. I guess it was for the best after all.

Also last week one of my customers contacted me to ask if I'd be interested in developing custom software for his business. I was reluctant. I felt like I had a lot of projects already. There was a long list of things I wanted to get done at the bakery before returning to Oregon. I quoted a price that I thought he'd say no to, but he ended up saying yes, so now I'm working on that too.

I guess things are going pretty well, but it feels like I don't have much in the way of free time. I've only gone kayaking once since I arrived. I have at least maintained the habit of commuting on a bike.

It has been fun learning how to operate a business. It's certainly been a good challenge, and something I've always wanted to try. I realize that I'm treating it as an engineering problem, which perhaps is to be expected. Figure out what you should be measuring, develop a way to measure it, and set targets. If you're not hitting the target figure out what the main reasons for not hitting the target are. Go after the big contributors first, working your way down in order of contribution until you hit the target. The main difference, which really isn't much of a difference, is that I'm measuring financial parameters instead of technical parameters. In the end it's just some number that you chase after.

The biggest eyeopeners for me, at least with the bakery, have been on the customer facing side. Turns out there are a lot of people who desire things which look nice, even when it's something that's going to be eaten. They like it when someone pays attention to them and is responsive to their desires. The bakery does make nice looking products, which also taste good, and we are very attentive to our customers. We screw up every now and then, but we go out of our way to make it right for the customer. I think customer service has been a big reason for the sales growth we've had. The best advertising is a happy customer with a good looking and tasty cake. They tell others, and the guests at their events see and taste the product, which generates more customers.

The photo at the top is from White Sands, New Mexico, one of the places I visited after my last post.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Wizards, Slots, & Rattles

Here's the first report from El Viaje Fall 2010.

I didn't drive too far from Corvallis until I arrived at my first stop, Waldo Lake. Waldo Lake is located on the crest of the Oregon Cascades. It's about 2.5 hours drive from Corvallis. The plan was to meet the man previously known as FixItMan and the Nav Unit, then do an overnight kayak trip. I say "previously known as FixItMan" because somewhere in the course of this trip we decided to start calling him the Wizard. The Wizard and I spent the night at a parking lot next to the lake and the Nav Unit showed up the next morning. We loaded up the two kayaks with gear and headed out.

The weather was wet. It rained off an on during the whole trip. The lake was beautiful. It has some of the clearest water I've ever seen. When we kayaked over the deepest part the color was a deep purple that I don't think I've ever seen in water. No one seemed to mind the rain much. Eventually we found a campsite on an isolated bluff at the end of a peninsula. I think it was when we started setting up camp that the Nav Unit began referring to FixItMan as the Wizard. The Wizard kept producing objects which we were wisihing we had, which I think was why the Nav Unit started calling him the Wizard. It had started at the parking lot, where the Wizard produced some dry bags. The dry bags kept the critical stuff (clothing and bedding) perfectly dry. Next was a tarp, complete with stakes and cord to string it up. The Nav Unit and Wizard did a great job putting up the tarp, using kayak paddles as poles. The tarp was tall enough that I could stand up under it. It was angled against the wind, so the effective area it kept dry was larger than the floor plan. It kept the Nav Unit and I dry all night, despite sometimes heavy rain. I slept with only a sleeping bag covering me. Next was good fire starter, which proved critical to getting a fire going. The Wizard also constructed the fire pit, which was designed so that most of the heat was radiated towards the tarp. The fire really made the night much more comfortable. It was hot enough to keep us dry even though it was exposed to the rain. The Nav Unit and I at one point jumped into the lake and raced back up the bluff to the fire. I'm not sure we would have done that if we didn't have a fire.

The next morning we paddled back to our vehicles. I said goodbye to the Nav Unit and followed the Wizard east towards his dwelling in Central Oregon. It was nice to take a shower and relax a bit after being out in the cold rain for a couple days. The next morning I left.

The weather quickly turned much dryer as I crossed into the desert state of Nevada. I spent the next night at a trailhead about an hour east of Reno. I arrived there later in the day but I was so taken by the stark desert on clear day that I hiked off in a semi-random direction heading uphill. I lost track of time and returned in the dark, having left my headlamp in the Buffalo. The next day I went on a longer hike, still in a semi-random direction. I came across some aircraft components littered on the ground. I saw landing gear, some kind of tank, and what I believe was a compressor turbine from a turbojet engine. All of it was beat up and worn really bad, far beyond a repairable state. I figured it must be from a plane wreck. There was a military aircraft base nearby, maybe the plane had originated there? After taking some photos I headed back to the Buffalo, making a big loop. I continued driving eastwards, traveling along what was billed as "The Lonliest Highway". I didn't feel too lonely, but it was pretty empty. The highway ran perpendicular to long valleys separated by mountain ranges. The valleys were once filled with glaciers, which had moved south and scoured out the valleys. It was hard to believe that these valleys were once filled with ice. Now it was a hot, dry, bare desert with hardly any vegetation to be seen in any direction. After stopping to climb and run down a giant sand dune, I continued to Eastern Nevada. Near the Utah border I stopped at a park and hiked up one of the taller peaks, Wheeler Peak. Later I learned that Wheeler was Nevada's tallest peak, at 13k ft in elevation. It also housed what was purported to be Nevada's only glacier. The summit provided a great view on a clear day. It wasn't an especially difficult hike, but I definitely felt the altitude. As had occurred in the Andes, I felt a bit nauseous and had a headache. The trees had begun to reappear at higher elevations in Eastern Nevada. At the start of the Wheeler hike there were forests of Aspen and Bristlecone Pine. Examples of the latter are amongst the oldest living things found. The leaves were turning colors. Fall had arrived here. The golden hillsides reminded me of Upstate New York in the Fall. I also visited the glacier. For sure, there wasn't much left. It was maybe the size of a couple of city blocks. It did have a couple of crevasses. It looked like some interesting routes might form uphill from the glacier in the right season.

After the glacier hike I headed southeast into Utah, then east skirting the Utah / Arizona border. I stopped to check out some slot canyons. I ended up doing a 26 mile backpacking trip, almost entirely at the bottom of slot canyons. The bottom of a slot canyon is it's own little universe, and entering one is like being teleported. The bottoms are river beds. At times they were no wider than the width of a person, and had walls which could be several hundred feet high. In comparison to the top of the canyon the bottom is cool, moist, and dark. In some places the canyon widened into miniature oases where trees and plants grew. The canyons form an interlinked network. I estimated that the full network I was in extended for about 70 miles. When a thunderstorm comes the canyons are a bad place to be in. Any mechanical engineer could tell you why, but the sight of logs spanning the canyon walls 50 ft up in the air was all you needed to see. The slot canyons are funnels for huge, intermittent flows of water. In my entire slot canyon trip I found only one spot where I could climb out, and it was a good scramble. At nightfall, bats came out to hunt for insects, sometimes buzzing me. The canyon walls highly amplified all sounds. The swoosh of a bird flying by was startling. I could literally hear grains of sand falling. The water had left it's mark in all kinds of smoothed out, fluidic rock formations. The rock was colored in hues of red and pink by the different layers of sandstone. Parts of the canyon floor were wet from springs or from water which trickled down from a canyon wall.

After leaving the canyon I hiked along a nearby desert trail which started at the Utah / Arizona border. I soon discovered that the trail crossed all of Arizona from Mexico to Utah. I encountered a rattlesnake during this hike. I must have startled it because it quickly slithered off under a nearby bush. It was well hidden under the bush, but I knew it was there. It must have hoped I hadn't seen it or wasn't interested in it because it wasn't making any noise. I picked up some pebbles and threw them at the bush. The snake now knew that I knew where it was. Wasting no time putting it's new found knowledge to work, the snake initiated it's next defensive measure, which was to shake it's rattle. (Thereby also confirming that it was, in fact, a rattlesnake.) I briefly considered trying to fish it out somehow so I could get a better look at it. Some primitive part of my brain protested vehemently against the idea, however, convincing me that any critter which broadcasts it's location so loudly must be capable of hurting me pretty good. The rattle had worked. Upon my arrival at the trailhead I noticed a large "Caution: Rattlesnakes" sign which I had somehow missed. Later I found out afterwards that rattlesnake bites are extremely poisonous, and potentially fatal. One account I read on the web resulted in a 35 day hospital visit plus 13 surgeries. After the hike I headed to Lake Powell. A dip in the lake was very welcome on a hot desert day and was my first bath in almost a week.

That pretty brings me to my present day status. I'm writing this from Page, Arizona, near the shores of Lake Powell. I should arrive in Texas City in a week or so, depending what other places catch my fancy on the way there. The photo at the top is of a horny toad (which apparently is actually a lizard, not a toad) I saw during the rattlesnake hike. More photos are here.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Underworlds & Strawberry Mountains

It's drizzling outside as I write this. I'll be leaving Corvallis for Texas tomorrow. The start of the rain makes it a bit easier to leave. The Buffalo's got a brand new set of tires, a new drinking water pump (the old one froze during our ice climbing trip in Colorado), and has had a check-up with the mechanic. My house is rented out to college students again. I just need to make some final decisions about what I'm going to take with me and load up the Buffalo.

I've had a few more outings since my last entry. In August the NavUnit, SecurityChief, Matt, and I climbed Three Finger Jack in the Oregon Cascades. After the climb we spent a night out next to a lake, then searched for some caves the next day. The caves were the most novel part of the trip for me. The location of these particular caves is a well kept secret. Cavers in general seem reluctant to divulge the locations of caves. The reason typically given is that others will show up and trash them. After seeing these caves I think another good reason is that you could easily get yourself into a lot of trouble. After hiking cross-country with no apparent trail we came to what looked like giant, cone shaped anthills made out of pumice (a volcanic rock). The anthills turned out to be miniature craters. Inside were holes that opened up into lava tubes. The second one we saw was very impressive. It was a shaft oriented at maybe 80 degrees. The hole at the top was maybe a dozen feet across, but it quickly opened up into a much larger diameter. The shaft went down at least a few hundred feet before it turned completely black. We couldn't see the bottom. It was an odd feeling to suddenly discover that you were standing over a very large empty space which you had previously believed to be solid earth. Kind of like walking on the roof of a domed stadium, believing that it's solid all the way down to the Earth's center, then suddenly peering through a hole in the roof and realizing that there's a whole other environment underneath you. I'd read about caves which extend for many miles, far underground, some with underground rivers and lakes. I now understood why many societies have legends about the underworld.

We'd brought climbing gear with us and started looking for a way to set up a rappel anchor. The second cave required a free rappel down the center of the cave. We didn't know if our rope was long enough to reach anything solid, so we'd have to be prepared to ascend the rope. We weren't sure if we could gather our nerves to do it, but I told the NavUnit that if he could build a solid anchor I would go. The NavUnit's safety module seemed to be operating well, and he's previously rescued climbers off of mountains, so I left the judgment of the anchor's safety up to him. He couldn't find anything near the entrance which satisfied him. There was a dead tree which seemed solid but, as I said, was dead. The rock walls around the crater moved when the NavUnit set up and tested an anchor in them. We didn't have enough rope to reach the nearest ideal anchor (a big living tree), so we decided to look for another cave. Another thing I realized about caving is that it requires a lot of gear. I thought climbing was a gear intensive sport, but serious caving requires far more gear. It was clear we didn't have enough gear. At the very least we needed a few hundred feet of static rope just to set up a good anchor. Better lights would have been good too. We found a third cave. It had a very large opening, with a relatively short drop to a sloped floor you could stand on. The anchor was still a problem. The NavUnit did the best he could with what he had, but it was far from ideal. Since I had previous experience serving as a self propelled disposable anchor tester I went down first. If the anchor failed I'd probably just be permanently maimed instead of instantly dead, as would have been the case with the second cave. Fortunately the anchor held and we all made it to the sloped floor in one piece. The floor sloped downwards under a rock overhang on the side opposite from the anchor. I kept making my way down to try and determine if the cave kept going. At the point where I turned back the cave had narrowed considerably to the point where it was about the width of a human body. It also steepened abruptly. From stories I've heard, squeezing through tight holes seems to be another aspect of caving. A draft suggested that the cave continued through the narrow hole. We called it good, climbed back up the rope, and hiked out to the car. It was a good exploratory outing and introduction into what caving is all about. I'm still not sure how much caving I want to do in the future. Offhand, spending time in dark, constricted spaces doesn't sound terribly appealing. I would like to rap down into the second cave someday, though. Also, spending time in high cold places doesn't sound very appealing either, but I've done it anyway on many occasions.

Over the Labor Day weekend Ann and I headed out to the Strawberry Mountains in Eastern Oregon. Ann had planned out a three day, two night backpacking trip. Neither of us had ever been to the Strawberries. I always enjoy visiting a place I've never been to. An extra bonus is that the route was a loop, so we'd be seeing new scenery the entire time. The Strawberries are a high, craggy ridgeline, surrounded by idyllic alpine lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and meadows. Our route looped around the ridgeline, passing through beautiful alpine landscapes along the way. We took a few short side trips off the loop to visit various lakes and Strawberry Mountain, the highest point in the Strawberries. The weather was mostly sunny. I was glad I had taken plenty of warm clothing, as it got below freezing at night. I was surprised to see a scary looking water ice climb during one of our side trips. We spent the first night next to a spring running through the middle of a meadow with a great view of Strawberry Mountain. After it got dark I tried to sneak up on some deer, but they noticed me well before I got close enough to touch them. We spent our second night next to a lake, which I submerged myself in. It was ice cold. The trip was over all too soon. The next day we hiked around some waterfalls and a lake in the Cascades on the way back home.

Most recently the boys and I floated down the Willamette River which runs through Corvallis. As seems to happen on all our river trips, it was an eventful float. The story is too long to tell here, but I will say that the NavUnit has a new chicken as a direct result of our trip.

We bailed on the adventure race I mentioned in earlier posts. Some combination of barely sufficient training, escalating costs, and other opportunities lead to our decision. I was never really too keen on it, mostly because we were going to shell out a significant amount of cash to do something we can do for free. So, I wasn't too sad to see the end of it. I noticed that my exercise program changed dramatically once the decision was made. The race certainly had been a good motivation for me to get into better shape.

The software business has progressed since my last post. The first business model I experimented with was giving away the software and generating revenue via advertising. I tried that for a month before giving up on the idea, at least for now. It made some money, but not enough to justify the effort. The problem appeared to be that there wasn't enough advertising to go around. I moved on to the next business model, which was paid, ad free software. That resulted in an immediate, relatively large jump in revenue. Over the past few weeks I've been experimenting with different prices, changing the price every week in an effort to find the price which maximizes revenue. It was clear that I was undercharging at the original price. I'm not sure I've found the optimal price yet, so I'm going to keep experimenting with it. I'm now moving on to a third business model, which is offering an enhanced version at a higher price point. The enhanced version will go on sale next week.

It's encouraging to see the business generating some revenue. It's still not a lot, especially compared to what I was making at HP, but it's better suited to my current lifestyle. I also think there's a lot more value the software could add given a bit more time and effort. Hopefully the increasing revenue trend will continue with the enhanced version. For now, I'll be ramping down my efforts with the software business as I switch focus to the bakery.

Before that I'll be crossing the American west in the Buffalo. I'm giving myself two or three weeks tops to make the trip. I'm not sure what places I'll be visiting yet, but roughly I plan on heading south first into the southwest before heading east. The NavUnit and I have arranged to meet FixItMan at a lake in the Oregon Cascades this coming weekend for an overnight kayaking trip. That's the extent of my trip plan so far.

The photo at the top of the entrance to the second cave. The NavUnit took the photo. A few more photos are here.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tunnels Behind Waterfalls & Windy Mountains

Summer's arrived here in the Pacific Northwest. The weather's idyllic so I've been spending a lot of time outside. About a month ago Ann and I went hiking in the Columbia Gorge. The gorge is full of waterfalls and rivers feeding into the big Columbia River. Ann and I hiked several miles into Eagle Creek, one of the rivers feeding the Columbia. The last mile was the most interesting. A trail carved into a cliff side painted green with vegetation snaked through a man made tunnel behind the aptly named Tunnel Falls. Apparently it was a Great Depression era public works project. Pretty cool. The photo at the top is Ann approaching Tunnel Falls. Other Eagle Creek photos are here.

Over the July 4th weekend I climbed Mt. Hood with the NavUnit, the SecurityChief, the Chief's son, and another father with his two sons. I guess you could call Hood our home mountain. Between the NavUnit, the SecurityChief, and I we've probably made a few dozen attempts. It's a popular mountain, with over a dozen routes on it. There's everything from the South Side route, which is mostly a long hike on snow, to the infamous Yocum Ridge, a near suicidal route which is rarely climbed.

Climbing Hood has often seemed to me like visiting another planet. For starters there's all the snow in the middle of summer. On the lower slopes the ski lifts are open year round. The strangely shaped snow formations on the crater wall (Hood is a dormant volcano) lend the appearance of a long lost city. Fumaroles vent from a couple of spots at the bottom of the crater where the snow is conspicuously absent. Crevasses, giant cracks in the glacier ice with eerily blue walls of ice, are the closest thing I've seen to a bottomless pit.

The weirdest part is the weather. Half the time we've attempted a climb on Hood we've end up turning around due to bad weather. The worst weather I've ever experienced (including hurricanes growing up in Texas) has been on Hood. The coldest I've ever felt (I couldn't feel my arms all the way to my shoulders, despite wearing every warm piece of clothing I owned) was on Hood. The last time I was on Hood my ice axe became completely encased in a clear, thick layer of ice, which I later realized had also formed on my clothing. The NavUnit and the SecurityChief tell the story of their tent collapsing during a storm on Hood. The next day on their way down they noticed that the ski lift towers had also collapsed.

This climb turned out to have it's own bit of strange weather. We ascended as two parties. The NavUnit and I headed out for an alternate route, equipped with extra gear while everyone else went up the South Side route. It was very windy. Later on the way down a fellow told us it'd been gusting to 70 MPH at the ski lodge. The wind would whip up in a second or two and then just as abruptly die down to nothing. On several occasions when the wind suddenly gusted I had to quickly throw my axe into the snow and get down on all fours to keep from being blown away. We put our crampons (metal spikes for our boots) on earlier than usual because the wind was blowing us across an ice patch. Worse than the wind were the tiny ice crystals that the wind picked up. I now know what it must feel like to be sandblasted.

After meandering up the mountain and giving ourselves a good scare on a glacier headwall the NavUnit and I arrived at the bottom of the summit wall. The last thousand feet of the climb lay in front of us. Dawn was breaking (we'd started at 2:00 AM). Our view was filled with the summit wall and thin, wispy clouds moving chaotically at impossible speeds over the wall. The morning glow gave the clouds a pinkish / purplish hue. It was a strange sight. It seemed like an odd dance, beautiful and mesmerizing. The wind was still gusting strongly. I imagined what the summit must be like. Standing behind a jet engine at full throttle came to mind. The NavUnit thought we were seeing the formation of a lenticular cloud, which indicates that bad weather is coming. We never really decided to keep going or not, we just started walking in the direction of the summit and kept moving. We reached the top to find the best weather of the entire ascent. There was hardly any wind. The clouds we'd feared from below felt like a warm fog. Every now and then the clouds would break and we'd feel the morning sun's warmth. The mountain had played a joke on us, and we'd almost fallen for it. Just as we were about to start down the second party showed up. We stayed for a bit longer chitchatting, taking photos, and admiring the scenery.

Eventually we started down. Some of the folks in the second party hadn't climbed much so we roped up and placed all the protection we were carrying on the descent. At the time we thought maybe it was overkill, but a couple of days later a climber fell and broke his leg while descending from the summit. It turned into a nice, sunny summer day. Memories of the ascent seemed like a bad dream, but every now and then a wind gust and a blast of ice crystals reminded me that it had been no dream. A layer of clouds hid the lowlands below us. We dropped down through the cloud layer like a diver disappearing below the water's surface. The wife of one of the guys greeted us at the parking lot with a cooler full of beers and cigars. It had been their first time up Hood. We were back on Earth. Photos from the Hood trip are here. Unfortunately I didn't get any good shots of the colored clouds streaming over the summit.

It's looking more likely that I'll be doing the adventure race I mentioned in the last post. My efforts to convince the boys to do something else seem to be falling short. The NavUnit acquired a two person kayak. I've been running and biking a lot. My longest run so far is 7.5 hours. I've convinced myself that there's an outside chance I might actually finish. Still, we haven't paid the entry fee yet so perhaps there's some hope yet.

The software start-up is going well. At least, the installed base has maintained a consistent growth rate. The first revenue generating version just became publicly available and the business has officially made it's first dollar. If it generates a sufficiently strong revenue stream I'll likely hire some people to help out. It's been a lot of work, I'm the bottleneck in the whole affair, and the users are demanding more features.

The bakery had strong sales in June, but we're going into what's typically been a long seasonal slow down. Nina and the crew are finishing a huge cake shaped like a church. The cake is for the dedication ceremony of a new church, the same one we attended when I was growing up. It's sized to serve over a thousand people.

Hope you're having a nice summer wherever you are.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

New Adventures

It's been a while since my last posting. Most of my time since leaving HP has been spent on starting up a software business. The first product was released last week. Despite almost no advertising, the installed base has grown faster than I thought likely. People from 35 countries have downloaded it. It's gotten some good feedback and reviews. I'm pretty happy with the results so far. Version 1.1 just got released yesterday and I've started work on 1.2. I'm trying to build a good reputation with my installed base, so I'm quickly taking their feedback and incorporating it into revisions. Now, to be fair, you should know that I've been giving the product away. Rest assured, however, that there is a method to this madness.

I've enjoyed starting up a new business. Yes, it's been frustrating at times. Having to do nearly everything yourself can be a big challenge, but at the same time it forces you to learn about many different things. Learning how to write code for a platform that's new to you and is constantly in a state of flux can be extremely vexing. I wondered at times if I would ever finish. In some ways it's very similar to other situations I've been in. I now expect to feel perplexed and frustrated when attempting something new. When the frustration and confusion arrives I recognize it, which in turn diminishes it. For me, it's a sign of learning. I did have the sense to hire someone to build the web site and do the graphic design for the icons I needed, but by far I did most of the work. I think I'm over the hump now. It's slowly becoming easier.

As you might guess, a software business is pretty different from a bakery. All you really need for capital equipment is a computer. Other than a place to sit, a power outlet, and an internet connection you don't need much in the way of facilities either. Part of the attraction for me is that you can work from almost anywhere and at any time. Most of the cost is labor, which has mostly been free in my case. If you're willing to work for free and have the right skills (or are willing to invest the time to develop those skills) starting up a software business is pretty inexpensive. Like a bakery, however, you still need to provide good value and treat your customers well.

The strategy end has been fun too. My mantra for the software business has been "fail fast and cheap." I treated the first rev of the product like an experiment who's objective is to measure the size of the market. If the market turns out to not be there, well you didn't invest much so you're not out much. It would be like an engineering experiment which didn't give you the expected answer. The fact is you still learned something, and what you put into it is the price of that learning. If the market is there, that's when things get interesting. My next major objective is to monetize the market. I have several ideas which I'll be pursuing over the next few months. Hopefully at least one will work.

Besides the software start-up I've kept my finger in the bakery pie (no pun intended). It's maintained a strong sales growth rate, matching total 2009 sales in the first four months of 2010. We're wrapping up the transition of our accounts to a different bank, which was more difficult than it sounds. After a brief and well deserved hiatus Nina is back in the thick of it. We're looking for more employees with bakery experience. I'm really proud of my sister. It turns out she has a talent for employee and operations management (besides customer relations and artistic creativity). In these aspects I'd put her on par with many managers and supervisors I knew from HP (including myself). The size of the facilities keeps popping up as a problem. I may fly down for a week or two some time this summer to build a storage shed and to replace some of the refrigeration equipment. Longer term (maybe this fall) we'll need to put together a detailed expansion plan. The latest big order is for the grand opening of a new church (actually the same church we attended when I was growing up). They want a cake shaped like the new church to feed 1500 people.

Aside from the business stuff I've kept mountain biking with the boys and running with Ann. Ann and I went out to the coast for a weekend about a month ago. We hiked out to a remote waterfall, one of the most beautiful I've seen. The next day we wandered semi-aimlessly amongst the rocks on the shore, finding many odd looking critters in the tidal pools and rock faces. Unfortunately neither of us brought cameras. More recently I participated in Pole Pedal Paddle. This is a relay race. You start out downhill skiing on a mountain, then cross country ski, followed by a downhill road ride, a run, kayaking, and finally a sprint to the end. The event is held in Bend, located in Central Oregon. It was an opportunity to see Cliff, who lives near Bend. Cliff did the cross-country ski and the kayak legs. I did the downhill ski and the biking, while the NavUnit did the run and sprint. We lived up to our team name (Doing It Wrong) by breaking multiple rules, which almost resulted in our not being able to participate. The NavUnit would want me to make it clear that I was the team leader. The photo at the top is of me taking a test ride on the bike I used for the event. I was wearing a snowmobile helmet because the helmet I had brought with me apparently didn't have the proper safety certification. (One of the rules we ended up flaunting.) Thanks to the NavUnit for the photo. The next day we went rock climbing at Smith Rock before returning to Corvallis.

Tim and the NavUnit have most recently been trying to convince me to participate in an adventure race. They're targeting a race in Central Washington which will be held in late August. The web site's description sounds pretty brutal. 50-75 miles of mountain biking and 20-30 miles of trail running, both in high topography terrain on the east side of the Cascades. Then another 20-30 miles of paddling on a big lake. The exact distances, the sequence of the legs, and the course checkpoints will not be divulged until the start of the race. Each team is on it's own with regards to navigating through the backcountry and personal safety. GPSes are not allowed, and you have to carry everything you need (including food and water). You have up to 33 hours to finish the course.

I haven't committed to doing it, but I decided to start training. This past weekend I ran for about 4 1/2 hours in the hills and then mountain biked for 5 hours the next day. I felt better than I thought I would, so I'm going to keep it up. Meanwhile, I'm trying to talk the boys into something more pleasant, like an epic climb in the North Cascades. Or gouging out our eyeballs out with an ice pick.

That's it for now. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Bye Bye HP

It's been a surprising past few weeks. I returned to work at HP on March 1st. I was rummaging through PC parts looking for a power supply (my laptop's power supply had died) when my director walked by. She said we had a meeting scheduled. I was unaware of the meeting due to my computer problems. Power supply in hand, we headed off to a room as I wondered what this could be about. It's not often you have a one on one with your third level manager. She cut straight to the chase, using a practiced and carefully worded script. I had 10 weeks to look for a new job at HP before I was going to be terminated. She said (not verbatim) my nomadic lifestyle wasn't a good fit for the job requirements. I couldn't honestly disagree with her.

It's worth providing some background here. Some weeks before I left Texas I had contacted my manager to tell her that I'd be returning early from my leave. While I was at it I also asked if it was possible to work on a six month on / six month off schedule on an ongoing basis. I saw that I was going to need to return to Texas for months at a time on regular basis. She ran it up the management chain. The answer she returned with was that my best bet was to become a contract engineer. I had contacted some people at HP who were working as contract engineers. Amongst other things I learned that the maximum length of the contracts was six months. Also, the trend was towards more contractor labor. It sounded like what I wanted, so I told my manager that contracting was fine with me. I left it at that. My plan going back into HP was that I'd work until late summer, resign, go to Texas, return in the spring of 2011, and look for a contract engineering position at HP. It was a bit of a surprise to learn that I'd be laid off, but I quickly realized that I was getting what I'd asked for. Then I realized that I was getting more than I'd asked for. If I didn't find another job at HP I would get a severance package. With the severance package I'd be getting about what I would have gotten if I'd worked until late summer, except I wasn't going to be working. I'd be eligible for unemployment. My house in Corvallis was still rented out, and while I was in Texas I had rented out the empty lot next to the building which houses the bakery. A few days after returning to HP I pulled February's sales figures for the bakery. Sales had increased more than 5x in four months. I dug into the value of my 401k and some other HP related assets and found some pleasant surprises. I'd set things up so that a portion of my paychecks would go into various investments, but had forgotten about some of them. I decided not to look for another job within HP.

Another important consideration was that I'd been wanting to leave HP for some time. I was prepared to leave three years ago, when I wrote this poem:

The River

I took a trip down the River. At times the River was calm, at times it was rapid. Mostly it was somewhere in between. Although the River has brought me closer to my destination, I see now that it is moving me further away. Therefore, I must leave the River and continue my journey by other means. Although I will soon leave the River, the River will never leave me. The River has taught me many lessons, which I will need for rest of my journey. For that, I thank the River and wish it well on its journey to the Sea.

I didn't leave at the time because HP had said yes to my first leave request.

I don't harbor any ill feelings towards HP or anyone who works there. No doubt, the place has it's ups and downs, but so does any other employer. The bottom line for me is that my employment at HP has enabled me to do a lot of things that I've wanted to do. For that I'm quite grateful. I've believed for some time that HP had served it's purpose. There's other things I should be doing and I need get on with them.

Yesterday was my last day at HP. My plans are to stay in Corvallis through September. The bakery seems to have caught up with the recent growth spurt. Nina hired an experienced decorator recently and made operational changes which have enabled her to step away from daily operations a bit. It's a welcome change from too many days that stretched into the early morning. Challenges remain, but the shop seems to have survived the infant stage. It's a toddler now, still vulnerable, but less so. Working at the bakery spawned various other business ideas, which I am pursuing now that I'm no longer at HP. I don't know if they'll go anywhere, but for me not knowing what will happen is a big part of the fun.

It's mushroom hunting season here. Matt, our expert mushroom hunter, found a secret location in the forest which has been producing large quantities of morels. We've been visiting the spot regularly for the past few weeks. No one else seems to know about it. Ann and I have been eating them fried or in pasta dishes. They're quite tasty. The photo at the top is of one of the largest morels we've found to date. More photos are here.
/****** Used to generate site stats *******/