The Tressel Mess

It pains me to say this, because I really do like Jim Tressel, but I think last night went very poorly for OSU and it will wear even worse with the passage of time. To wit:

  • the crack by Gordon Gee that he was happy Tressel didn’t fire him was absolutely bone-headed. I hope he regretted it the moment he said it because the last thing we needed was the president of the university reinforcing the idea that the head football coach runs the place. It was especially egregious, given that last night was supposed to be some kind of public reprimand.
  • the self-imposed punishment feels entirely inadequate to me. At a minimum, the optics of him serving 2 games while his players serve 5 is awful. Yes, the violations are different and potentially warrant different sanctions, but (a) Tressel should be held to a higher standard and (b) Tressel’s crimes are worse than the players IMO. I personally think the floor for the punishment should have been 5 games plus vacating all 2010 wins (with the possible exception of the Sugar Bowl).
  • part of the sanctions were a public apology from Tressel. I thought he was short on contrition last night. The opening stuff about contrasting the emails he got this time with the ones he gets for hospital visits and the like felt very self-serving to me. He didn’t use the word “sorry” or “apologize” in his remarks (he might have in response to a question) and the closest he came to actually apologizing came late with this bit:

I’m disappointed that this happened at all. I take my responsibility
for what we do at Ohio State seriously. And for the game of football.
And I plan to grow form this, and I’m sincerely saddened by the fact
that I let some people down and didn’t do things as well as I could
possibly do. I am pleased that the young people involved are safe.
They’re not involved in any criminal activity. They’re all in college
and they’re all going to graduate from Ohio State. To me thats what it’s
all about.

This should have come at the opening and should have been stronger.

The decision to allow the players involved to play in the Sugar Bowl was probably justified, but to many people it gave the impression that OSU was willing to trade ethics for victories. The knowledge of how Tressel acted at the time reinforces that impression. And my sense is that how the press conference itself played out is unfortunately more of the same.

ResortGems – Give Us a Shot

The last year and a half has been quite a whirlwind for us. Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth Carl Bernard von Moltke famously said

No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy

Had he been talking about being an entrepreneur, he might have instead said

No business plan ever survives contact with the market

And so it has been with us. Initially formed as a site to allow timeshare owners to trade with each other, we’ve since renamed the site (twice) and flipped the model completely to reflect the feedback from customers and friends who have used it. Now, resortgems.com is a site with a much broader appeal than the one we started out with. It offers benefits to timeshare owners (looking to earn rental income from their unit) and travelers (looking to get the best value for their vacation dollar) alike.

Some of the initial feedback given to us was that we didn’t have enough inventory. Although we have more than ten thousand timeshare listings from owners (we call these “gems”), that wasn’t enough to provide the breadth and depth of coverage that people need. To help solve this problem, we’ve now added the capability to book a room at over 25000 hotels in the United States (more locations coming soon).

This is the time of year when you’re no doubt planning lots of upcoming travel. Whether it’s for spring break or summer vacation, there’s a good chance that you’ll soon find yourself needing to make arrangements for a place to stay. My request is to give us a shot to serve your needs in this. We work very hard for all of our customers to find them the best deal we can and have put a ton of effort into making the site attractive and useful.

As always, I’d love any feedback you have – especially if you look us over and find us lacking in some respect.

RRBO – Prepping the Store

One of the great challenges of being an entrepreneur is trying to make sure you have the right product in the market. For our site (www.rrbo.com), this is especially important given how much competition there is. And the critical time is upon us. Most people get serious about travel (spring break and summer vacation) right after the end of year holidays. Needless to say, we want to make sure we’re optimized to meet customer’s needs when that hits.

So, I have a favor to ask of those of you who read this. Pretend you don’t know me and that you stumble upon www.rrbo.com while planning your next vacation. If for whatever reason you think you wouldn’t use our site to book where you’re going to stay, send me an email at mike _at_ mikedoel _dot_ com with the top one or two reasons that would make you hesitate. Don’t worry about hurt feelings – I’d much rather get brutally honest feedback that we can address than have you hold back.

Thanks in advance.

Miss Ya Pops

I got the call from my sister just after 1:30am that my dad, Keith Veale, had died in what sounds like a pretty peaceful fashion. It was a call I had been bracing for for quite some time due to his combination of age (81) and history of heart disease. But it’s still not an easy call to take.

Like a lot of folks, I am a child that has been profoundly shaped by divorce and remarriage. For some, this can be a traumatic experience that makes you cynical about love and marriage. But this has not been my experience. My mom was remarried when I was still quite young (7) and for me, “normal” was having two dads who both loved me and taught me what it means to be a man.

My dad was one of the truly nicest people you’d ever want to meet. He was the kind of guy who was up without an alarm way before the sun came up so that he could be down at the local coffee shop when it opened at 5:30am. Yes he loved coffee, but more than that, he loved talking with the people in the shop.

He was an active golfer – still playing once or twice a week into his eighties though it had started to get difficult to walk the course for him. My love of golf comes from him. He bought me my first set of clubs and showed me how to play. And not just how to chip and putt (which I do very badly indeed), but more importantly, how to conduct yourself on the course and to how to carry that through to everyday life.

After moving to California with my mom (within days of his first heart attack) in the summer of 1988, my dad sold timeshares for a number of years. He had been a salesman for most of his adult life and really enjoyed it. I know that timeshare salesmen have a generally poor reputation. Too bad most of them weren’t like my dad or the industry would be viewed far better than it is. In the last couple of years, as I’ve been working on a startup in the timeshare industry, he was thrilled to offer advice and coaching. Recently, he was excited that the advice and coaching could go both ways as he volunteered to build a website for the Model A Restorer’s Club meetup coming to San Diego in 2011. He loved tinkering with his computer and for years he taught many other senior citizens how to use theirs.

More than anything, my dad was a true role model as a husband and father. He loved my mom with a selflessness that is hard to describe – in sickness and in health. He sacrificed to try and make her dreams come true, even to the point of extreme financial hardship. And when she was dying of cancer, he cared for her with a tenderness and tirelessness that revealed a depth of character I can only dream of.

In short, my dad was a great man and will be truly missed. I love you pops.

Keith Veale
December 1, 1928 – April 21, 2010

The Resolutions

Since publicly stated goals help encourage accountability, I’m documenting my goals for the year. Like everyone else, I fall into the trap of getting overly enthusiastic at the start and set unreasonable expectations. And with the way I’m wired, once I fall off the wagon of good habits, I find it hard to get back on. So, this year, I’m going to try to keep the goals realistic.

I’m a believer of the expression “you can’t manage what you don’t measure”. In the last couple of years, I’ve done a decent job of measuring exercise volume (thanks to Nike+), but not the other elements of healthy living. So, this year, my goals are basically to improve the one area I have already been measuring and start to measure other things I think will lead to overall health:

  1. As previously committed, I’m setting a goal of improving my Nike+ workouts by 50% this year – from 58 to 87 runs.
  2. I’m also resolving to post monthly counts of four other things that affect my overall health – physical and mental: healthy meals (currently defined as those that meet the “Michael Pollan test”), runs or other form of exercise, hours of television watched, and books completed.
  3. Finally, I’m going to keep private counts for a couple things of a spiritual nature (e.g. days where I read scripture). I’m not a very public person in this regard, so I won’t be posting about it. But I want to count my progress anyway.

Of course, merely keeping track of counts of things and posting (some of) them regularly isn’t much of a chore. But, I’m obviously planning that this will be something of a trick I play on myself. If I have to come clean about how many of my meals are good, I’m hoping I’ll make better choices about what I eat. Furthermore, if I fall off the wagon for a bit, this will be easier to get back on.

That’s the theory anyway.

Regarding Edgecase

I mentioned this in my prior post, but I wanted to highlight it on its own. Not everyone yet understands how modern web development is done and how powerful technologies like Ruby on Rails and its associated ecosystem are. But one company that does is Edgecase. They’ve been our partner on VacationTrade for many months now and I couldn’t be more happy. If you’re looking to hire a team of people to help develop a web application the right way, you really should take a look at Edgecase. Thanks again guys.

A year (or more) in the life

December 23, 2009 at 9:45pm EST. That marks the official time when the project/company that has consumed my life for a year (really more) was finally open for business. Check it out at http://www.vacationtrade.com and get details about what it is we do at http://www.vacationtrade.com/page/blog. If you own a timeshare and have become frustrated with the experience of trying to exchange it through RCI or Interval International, we hope we can make your life better.

The site is in an alpha state right now. That means it basically works but it’s not hard to find bugs or opportunities for improvement. There’s a saying in the startup world – if you’re not embarrassed/worried by the first release of your product, you waited too long to release. I also like what Paul Graham had to say in his essay on what startups are really like:

It’s so important to launch fast that it may be better to think of your initial version not as a product, but as a trick for getting users to start talking to you.

Alright users – speak up!

The past year and change has really been a whirlwind. It actually all started in April of 2008 when Mike Blackwell and I decided we wanted to form a company together. We just needed to figure out what it was to do. I could not ask for a better person to go through my initial startup experience with than Mike. As the former CEO of ShareThis along with getting in on the ground floor of a prior startup that crashed and burned, Mike knew the ropes and was able to properly set my expectations and helped us to focus on the right things. He is also a great guy who has an integrity and perspective on life that I really admire.

Over the course of the past year, we’ve had several other folks come along and join the team in one way or another. Once we had settled on the right business idea (after many false starts), Bob Kington and LJ Freeman got involved as co-founders of the company in May of this year. In July, Sara Gibbons joined us and in November, Kevin Munc became employee #6. Gina Winkler also spent a fair amount of time on our project as did several other friends. And we could not have done this without the help of the guys at Edgecase, most especially Adam McCrea.

So, come and check us out and let us know what you think. Yes, I’m slightly embarrassed about the site’s flaws and shortcomings, but I guess that means we released in time. The next several months are going to be extremely busy (just as the past several have been) while we react to feedback and make improvements. I take it as a good sign that there’s a big part of me that wants to get started on those right now. But, it is Christmas time and rest and family time are also important. Have a Merry Christmas everyone and may your 2010 find you as excited by life’s opportunities as I am.

About Last Tweet

Earlier today, I tweeted that I couldn’t recommend Braintree as a payment processor. It was a tweet born of frustration and would probably have better been kept to myself. But now several folks have asked for an explanation, so I’ll try to do so in a way that is fair to Braintree.

There are several good reasons to like Braintree as a processor for your site:

  • They allow you to treat payment processing and merchant account handling (two separate things) as if they were one.
  • They relieve you of the requirement to hold sensitive data (i.e. credit card numbers) in your database, thereby making PCI compliance much less of a headache than it need be
  • They have a well documented and relatively simple API to develop to that is a piece of cake to integrate into a Rails app
  • They have some folks on staff who are Columbus Ruby Brigade alumni

So, after a brief survey and at the suggestion of colleagues, we decided to use Braintree for our site. We’re not yet live on that site, so I’ll keep details of it somewhat private at this point. But you can think of the site as one that uses a model similar to StubHub or Glyde (sexy UI by the way fellas) but in the travel/vacation industry. Watch this space over the next couple weeks for more details.

At any rate, we first contacted Braintree about 2 months ago and began a dialog about engaging their services. This included a discussion of our business model, anticipated transaction volumes, revenue projections, and the like. Given that we were not yet done with development, we did not submit a formal application with them at that time. Instead, we continued work on the items we knew Braintree wanted to see (e.g. clear communication about pricing, customer support contacts, terms of service, etc.) as well as the more core features of the site. During this time, Braintree allowed us to develop against their development gateway and occasionally asked us if we had any questions (we did not – it all appeared straight forward to us).

This week, the time came to actually begin the formal application process. Which is when we ran into problems. As mentioned above, one of the things Braintree does for its customers is handle the merchant account setup. It turns out that this was a more significant step than I thought. Once the underwriters saw our site, they declared it a high risk site and refused to underwrite the creation of the merchant account for us. It’s not clear why we were considered high risk when other sites with essentially identical business models in different industries are allowed to proceed. The message given to us is that our customer guarantee (which currently looks SHOCKINGLY like StubHub as we refine it for our specific case) was something they didn’t want to cover. But, they let us know, they’d be happy to work with us if we changed our business model in fundamental ways.

So, I was frustrated with Braintree for a few reasons:

  • The risk issue was not detected by them in a timely fashion.
  • Resolution of the issue was poorly handled. For example, we didn’t get a chance to talk directly to the underwriter to make sure they were clear on the model and risks (or lack thereof in our case)
  • The only suggested remediation was to fundamentally change our business model. I have to believe we could have perhaps explored intermediate options (e.g. holding some reserves in the merchant account) but Braintree did not make those available to us.
  • In the end, I just believe that Braintree didn’t necessarily do a good job at being an advocate for us in one of their core value propositions (i.e. setting up the merchant account)

Of course, we’re not without blame in this too. One of the great things about working in a startup is that you learn things at such an insane pace. Here are my lessons learned, hoping the future entrepreneurs might avoid some of the mistakes we’ve made:

  • Don’t under-estimate the merchant account creation process – especially in this economy with banks still being fairly risk averse
  • Always have a backup plan. We didn’t in this case, and now we’re scrambling to get another solution in place
  • Don’t let it get you down and tweet out of frustration. After all, a bad day at a startup is still better than most days in a big company.

So, I hope that didn’t come across as too whiny or unfair to Braintree. I definitely think they could have done better and hope they’ll do a better job with future customers. But I know too that most people who use them still think very highly of them. Sadly though, that won’t be with us.