24 April 2010


Fed up with rip off hotels

A rant at the hotel industry and their standards.

I am fed up being ripped off with crap food, especially crap food that is overpriced and you take all evening to serve me.

Where do I start? Cereal loaded with sugar. Muesli is supposed to be healthy. So why only serve varieties with sugar in? This makes as much sense as automatically putting sugar in everyone's tea or coffee and makes no sense for anyone trying to eat healthily or on a low sugar diet. In 1997 I suggested this to Benedict's of Belfast and they got in muesli with no sugar. I stayed in that hotel in a contract for 7 months and when I returned for a random visit last year they were still serving it. Must have made sense I guess and maybe more people than me liked the sugar free muesli, you can even leave a bowl of sugar beside it for the sugarholics (add to taste).

Bacon. It's supposed to be reasonably crispy. A pile of bacon drowning in its own fat that looks like it has been steamed and has more fat on it than bacon just doesn't do it for me. This isn't just me, the other guests were complaining about it too. Why do you think it's acceptable to put out such inedible crap? Shall I call Gordon Ramsey up to tell it to you straight?

Coffee. It's supposed to be fresh and tasty to wake up guests in the morning. Usually however you have instant chemical coffeesoup in your room with a barely adequate amount of milk unless you are sad enough to be staying by yourself. Alternatively you could venture to the breakfast area where I'm sure it's been stewing since 6am. Why don't you do a deal with one of the semi-reasonable high street coffee chains who I am sure would welcome the expansion opportunity or at least have a cafetière available in the room so I can make it myself.

I also know that £5 bowl of soup probably cost you less than £1 for ingredients and 2 mins to heat up so unless your waiter earns £4 for 2 mins work (£120 an hour) I don't buy the rip off. I also don't get the £10 min for a main course either, nor the £3 for a pint, all of which I frequently decline in preference to an entire meal with food and drink, no hidden service charges AND a proper VAT receipt correctly itemised from a Wetherspoons pub with change from £8 (usually less). They can deliver decent food on a budget, why can't you? They also take 10 mins to serve me usually rather than the best part of an hour unlike hotel restaurants while I get bored waiting and wondering how much the hotel will charge me for the 'service'.

I had completely had it tonight when I thought I would try the restaurant. I had to ask especially for the menu. Clearly a tactic that you use so that when people sit down and ask for a menu, you've already 'got them'. Most normal (not hotel) restaurants have the decency to put a menu on public display so you can make your mind up first. Having thought it overpriced, I was just going to have a starter (the famous £5 soup) but then ventured to the bar to see what they had there only to be told they didn't serve food. Except the nuts I spotted and then had to ask if there were any other edible items they sold also not classified as food, such as crisps etc. I then popped out to the car for 5 mins then returned to the restaurant only to find it closed. No warning when I was there 5 mins earlier, no clearly indicated signs indicating their hours, nothing. However, I could get exactly the same food on the menu delivered as room service to my room. I was going to ask if having then had it delivered to my room I could bring it back to the bar, be sociable and annoy all the other hungry guests being told by barstaff that they didn't serve food.

So tonight as I was hungry and actually needed more to eat than nuts (even if the bar didn't classify them as food) I went to Tesco, bought long life milk, sugar free cereal, plates, cutlery, juice, bread, fresh fruit (not available in your restaurant, why?), coffee, cafetière (so I don't need to drink instant chemical soup) and a bottle opener for less than the price of two meals in your restaurant, thus saving me eating breakfast with you indefinitely and at least the next two evening meals. Saved a fortune and of course I can also eat whenever I like. Result. Healthy eating for a 1/3 the price of overpriced unhealthy food. I have also considered buying a microwave for £30 and putting it in my room so that I can enjoy a Tesco curry and rice for an amazing £1.50 rather than the £15 and long delay with it would take you to serve up pretty much the same thing. After 3 days, I'm already in profit (and I can eat my food in less than 10 minutes).

Look this isn't just a stereotypical stingy Scotsman story. There's a number of points here - one is that when I'm in a hotel I actually want to eat healthily and 'normal' food, not joints covered in unpronouncable incomprehensible French names trying to be pretentious. Nor do I need huge portions, starch, carbohydrates and overcooked vegetables. I actually want food that's reasonably close to what I would eat at home, portion size and with tasty fruit and vegetables. I also don't want to wonder why you charge 3x the price of Wetherspoons, your food is nothing special and by the way your beer is probably crap too. Serving 6 types of lager and no ale isn't much of a choice really. As someone in a hotel on business I also resent my week being whittled away waiting for a table, waiting for my order to be taken and waiting for my food to arrive. Once in a while is OK for a special occasion, but when it becomes a regular nightly event because I travel a lot, it eats in not only my time when I could be catching up on work or getting an early night but also when I might like to go for a walk and enjoy the local sights. Wetherspoons can take my order and serve me in 10 mins, why does a restaurant like to block a table out for over an hour with slow service the main cause?

Anyone else think the hotel industry needs a good kicking? As a starting point, if you want the lowest prices for a bed, try this remarkable Hotel search engine which I use very regularly and which makes finding hotels a lot easier.

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08 November 2009


End My Credit Crunch explained

People have been writing to me about End My Credit Crunch (http://www.endmycreditcrunch.com) and how it works, so here's a quick explanation.

There a twitter account @uncrunch, with a supporting website at the URL above hosting banner adverts and more info.

The adverts are sold at 5c per follower per month. With 220 followers, this means that an advert for a month in the twitter account and on the website would cost $11, i.e. $11 to reach 220 followers plus be seen on the site. Compare this to www.tweetvalue.com which values twitter accounts and at the time of posting, it values the uncrunch account at $125 per tweet. We're less than a 10th of the cost, and you get two tweets and a substantial standard size banner advert too, surely excellent value - and you're helping others too.

We're assuming worst case scenario that overheads including corporation tax, VAT, hosting etc will be 50%, so that leaves 50% profit. Out of the profit I'm hoping to take 1/3 to help my family through the credit crunch (debts due to loss of job; 2 family members with terminal cancer; two children at sick kids as well, one due an operation next month; having to sell house) and give away 2/3 to help others. The others will be in 3 forms - 1: a proportion as a winnings pot for anyone following the twitter account - win for free and an incentive to follow. 2: A proportion for people who refer advertisers and 3:a proportion for charities.

If we get 1000 followers and sell 150 adverts then this would mean we'd be giving away around about 1000 * 0.05 * 150 * 50% * 2/3 or about $2,500 per month - as the number of followers goes up so does the amount we can give away. The cost for advertisers to reach people stays the same at 5c per follower.

This could easily scale up to much bigger numbers once the momentum builds, there's twitter accounts with millions of followers out there. Feedback from the press has been really positive we just need more people to get the word out and to reach more people via blogs, newspapers etc. Even Max Clifford's PR company thought it was a good story but unfortunately couldn't take it on just now. The account is being followed by lots of media companies, including The Irish Times, The Times (London) and the Los Angeles Times amongst others.

I'd like to give away $250,000 which would represent 10 months work if we get 10,000 followers and sell the advertising space. It would be disappointing all round if it was a lot less than this and a dream come true if it was more.



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04 November 2009


End my credit crunch launches

We are now live at http://www.endmycreditcrunch.com
Visit. Follow. Win.
Help me. Help charities. Help yourself.

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27 October 2009


Government adopts common sense approach to credit crunch and interest rates

It was announced today that the government would revise credit card terms including importantly stopping the unfair practice of forcing people to pay off the lowest interest rate first, leaving them on a potentially crippling high rate until the entire balance is cleared. Long recognised as unfair, I proposed this to the Department for Business last year and they rejected the idea. Here is the response received.

I'm glad to see that a year later, common sense has finally prevailed.


Dear Mr Cockburn

Thank you for your enquiry regarding the regulation of financial
services interest rates.

The Government has no plans to make regulations regarding the repayment
of loans having differing rates of interest. However, the Government
has introduced strengthened information requirements under the Consumer
Credit Act 2006. Lenders will be obliged from October 2008 to give
their customers clearer and more regular information on the state of
their credit accounts in order to help them identify potential problems
before it is too late. From October 2008, statements must also include
information about the consequences of failing to make payments or of
only making minimum repayments. In addition, lenders are already
required to provide a summary box, as part of the pre-contractual
information, giving consumers a consistent and succinct summary of the
key features of the credit card they are considering and enabling them
to compare different products more easily. The summary box includes APR
and other rates; the interest free period; interest charging
information; allocation of payments; minimum repayment; the amount of
credit; fees; charges; and default charges. Furthermore, lenders have
agreed voluntary post-contractual information guidelines for summary
boxes to be sent with monthly credit card statements. This means that
consumers will be better informed about their financial commitments and
able to check the features of their credit card on a monthly basis.

The OFT recently conducted a study which rejected the idea of forcing
lenders to move to a standard system for interest rate charging.
Instead, it recommended the establishment of a comparison website to
enable consumers to compare the costs of different credit cards based on
their likely patterns of usage and the way different providers calculate
and charge interest. FSA have agreed to host this site on their
'MoneyMadeClear' website, http://www.moneymadeclear.fsa.gov, alongside
existing price comparison functions for insurance and other products.
Furthermore, APACS, the UK trade association for payments and for
institutions that deliver payment services to customers, has set up a
website at http://www.choosingandusing.com/ to help consumers understand
how credit cards work, the factors that they should consider when making
their choice and the best ways to use their card.
I trust this response is helpful.

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03 September 2009


End My Credit Crunch campaign


The End My Credit Crunch group has now launched, please visit the group, check out what we're about and watch the group for imminent news of our launch. Free prizes, no purchase necessary and we help charities too.

many thanks


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19 July 2009


End My Credit Crunch

This post is to announce the holding page for End My Credit Crunch.

The site announcement is being made on 19th July at 19:48, exactly one month to the minute after having the idea. This moment was captured on twitter as I stood at Dublin airport.

The background is that a week or so previously I had been preparing an article for The Times following a tweet from Times Money about how the credit crunch had affected my family and the various problems with jobs, income and working extensively away from home we were having as a result.

That article was supposed to appear on 13th June but unfortunately, got knocked out by other news even though they thought the article would work really well and they felt my situation was really tough. However, such is the way of newspaper articles. Hopefully this one will get a lot more coverage :-)

So after a few days thought following that setback, I tried my hand at coming up with an innovative way of getting out of the Credit Crunch rather than having the story printed in The Times. A month later, here we are and the site behind the scenes is nearly ready.

We are now building the user base ready for a successful launch. Please visit endmycreditcrunch.com and follow us on twitter or drop me a mail on info@endmycreditcrunch. We would be particularly keen to hear from anyone wishing to advertise on this novel twitter related site, we hope to successfully monetise twitter to generate income that can be effectively shared out to good causes and people affected by the credit crunch. Our aim is to give away $250,000.

If this gets to be as popular as the Million Dollar Homepage then you will be glad you got in early. Unlike that site however, we are taking standard banner adverts 468x60 that make an impact. Also unlike that site, our aim is to give away a large portion of what we raise to help as many people as possible.

End My Credit Crunch - a British business helping charities and people world wide out of the crunch, let us uncrunch you!


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19 June 2009


Business plan tips for angel finance

I'd been looking around for a while for tips on how to write a good business plan to attract angel finance and finally found this useful guide on bytestart. Would welcome comments on this and any additional guides like it that people know of.

many thanks


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08 June 2009


Scotland is the place

My recent interview with Scotland is the Place, Scottish government website.

Hope you like it, the space was a bit limited. There's so much more I'd like to say.


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09 April 2009


Fulltiltpoker.com, stickiest site on the Internet

Figures according to Nielsen on-line, February 2009. see here for full breakdown.

Craig, Web project manager, Full Tilt Poker.

Available from mid April for my next opportunity, LinkedIn.

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02 March 2009


The Fred Goodwin pension problem

OK, so the Government and most sane people reckon that Fred's £16m pension reward for the biggest failure in UK corporate history is unjustifiable. I would agree it's an outrageous reward for the biggest fail ever in UK corporate history, however if it's in his contract what can be done?

1. First of all the government should realise that by trying to weasel around contract law and pension law by claiming back his legal entitlement, it opens the floodgates for all those hard-done-by benefit claimants that really need the government's support and are all too often eliminated from the basic money they need by government red tape. I know, I've had the chancellor of the exchequer tell me so personally (he used to be my MP). The government all to regularly hides behind legislation that results in the needy being denied money because of red tape (e.g. form says "please return this form within a month otherwise your claim may be delayed" without informing the claimant that the underlying legislation requires the form to be returned within a month otherwise the claim will be invalid and so on). If the government can twist and bend the legislation to get back some of Sir Fred's pension then it should certainly have a thought for the hard done by citizens of this country, struggling in a recession on a lot less than Fred's feather bed nest egg and who the government is all to happy to exclude from a basic minimum entitlement, despite paying national insurance etc. If the government can bend the rules to rake in money, it can surely bend the rules to pay it out to those who need it most.

2. If the government is adopting the new found stance of ensuring that failure isn't rewarded and that people don't want away from failure with large fat-cat salaries then we really need to question what example MPs are going to set. After all, Gordon Brown has presided over the biggest economic failure this side of the great depression yet in 2 years will walk away from that failure with a well paid job in the city and a pension that even Sir Fred Goodwin would enjoy. Surely if bankers are to be penalised for failure, the same rule should apply to the politicians which allowed the bankers to be so reckless in the first place. The buck stops with government. I'm sure the politicians that preside over failure would be a lot less keen on calling for Fred to pay back some of his pot if the same politicians were having their pension pot culled by the same percentage and for exactly the same reasons.

That's what I don't like about Labour. One rule for them and another one for everyone else.

Shoe on the other foot, Gordon Brown?

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22 February 2009


Aer Lingus cheaper than Ryanair

How Aer Lingus is cheaper than Ryanair. This'll annoy Michael O'Leary.

This is my weekly flight, so these are real figures based on looking at the relative websites today and booking my usual route with my usual baggage allowance and my usual credit card. I have excluded seat booking costs from this as I don't need to choose my seat in advance. Both airlines of course are guilty for advertising headline air fares without including all the mandatory charges (including tax and any booking fees).

Cost Aer Lingus = £109.75. Cost Ryanair = £194.20
Aer Lingus markup over flight cost = 214%
Ryan air markup over flight cost = 285%

Ryan Air are not only more expensive for my journey option but there's no loyalty scheme and I would have to queue at the airport to pay the excess baggage fee.

Booking parameters:

Route Edinburgh - Dublin on 02 March 2009 (need to fly from Edinburgh as it's an early start)
Dublin - Edinburgh/Glasgow on March 06 March 2009 (can fly back to either Glasgow or Edinburgh, doesn't matter to me).
Flying with 17Kg of hold bags
Compared on Sunday afternoon, 22nd Feb 2009

Aer Lingus Edinburgh-Dublin-Edinburgh

Flight £19.99 + £74.99 = £94.98

Including taxes and charges (except the processing charge) = £141.75

Handling charge = £8
Total to fly = £149.75
Bag charge £20
Total to pay = £169.75

cost for mandatory extras on top of the flight cost = ((169.75-94.98)/94.98)*100 =78%

Aer Lingus Edinburgh-Dublin-Glasgow

Flight £19.99 + £14.99 = £34.98

Including taxes and charges (except the processing charge) = £81.75

Handling charge = £8

Total to fly = £89.75
Bag charge = £20

Total to pay = £109.75

costs for Mandatory Extras on top of the flight cost = ((109.75-34.98)/34.98)*100 = 214%

Ryanair Edinburgh-Dublin-Edinburgh

Flight £0.49+£49.99= £50.48

Including taxes and charges = £96.20

Add bag handling = £28.50

Add Mastercard fee £9.50

Add excess bag costs 2Kg (over) * £15 per kilo * 2 (per flight) = £60

Total Ryanair costs = £96.20 + £28.50 + £9.50 + £60 = £194.20

Even without the £60 extra bag charge, this is £134.20

The costs of the flight were £50.48.

Cost for mandatory extras = 166% extra on top of the flight costs.
Plus the bag charge its 285%

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01 February 2009


Banking ignorance

I liked this quote from the recent Davos conference:

One top money market manager said: "If you believe that the world economy will turn the corner at the end of this year, or in [the first quarter] of 2010, I tell you we have not turned the corner, we can't see the corner, we don't even know where the corner is."

Once again, as I have said repeatedly on this blog bankers seem to be completely out of touch with customer service, a vision of improving the quality of their products and are constantly engaged in an endless cycle of making as much money as possible and no consequences for either customer service or indeed the global recession their greed has now caused. The above is simply another statement of their ignorance of the real world. Put the bankers into an environment where it's about more than just making as much money in a risky a fashion as possible and it's into headless chicken mode.

Still, one thing appears clear - the above quote does at least indicate that in the last year months they have learnt something about honesty.

Top tip for banks: Now is the time that you need to start thinking out of the box and investing in startups that have a solid business model which works in a recession. That's where you'll get the great growth rates, not in buying other banks laden with sub-prime debt (Royal Bank of Scotland etc take note)


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27 November 2008


Microsoft project rubbish

I attach a dump from the hated Microsoft Project.

This is the start of a plan, i.e. the top line is task #1. Why does project insist on taking tasks which are a round number of days or zero for a milestone and then rolling them up into fractional days? For the two rolled up tasks in the image, one is a whole number of days and the other isn't. Why is this?! All the tasks are using the same standard calendar.



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25 October 2008


Royal Bank of Scotland incompetence

I have always been a bit surprised by the banking industry. It must be that there is a special set of skills you can only get when working for banking that is completely unavailable anywhere else. The vast majority of banks (when they used to hire people) only took on people with previous banking experience. You might be the best web project manager going, but if you haven't worked for a bank they won't interview you. You might have all the relevant qualifications, but if you haven't worked for a bank, they won't interview you. You might even have extensive payments, e-commerce experience and been security vetted, but if you haven't worked for a bank they won't interview you. Although I have worked in financial services, retail, government and a wide range of sectors, banking is unique in that they require previous experience and will wait forever for the right person and pay over the odds for them rather than take someone who is capable of doing the job. Even government has realised that just employing government people to top jobs is a loser and is keen to recruit from outside. Not so the closed and incestuous world of banking which being so far shoved it own backside is now up the proverbial creek without a paddle and in the biggest mess for nearly a century. Led of course by people who are lifelong bankers, rather than well rounded individuals with a breadth of experience.

I turn now to the fiasco which is Royal Bank Digital Banking which has been the biggest disaster of a service imaginable ever since it first launched, failing of course to casually ignore the bank’s obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act to provide an accessible service for many years.

7 years after the likes of Egg and Intelligent Finance implemented online secure messaging, Royal Bank (they like to claim they are a leader) still doesn't have it. The "alternative" is a long phone call, possibly at expensive rates overseas from a mobile. Not very much of an "online" service then.

They also used to have a very useful financial planner application online. This service was withdrawn.

Recently, and completely unannounced, they made some changes to online banking such that even amending a payment to myself requires a card reader and a card with PIN. Being a business banking customer, my account had no card as all my transactions are online. I write a cheque about once a month and since it's posted, there is no requirement for a card, nor does my account come with one. So in order to do my transactions online I had to have a special online-only card issued. I also need a PIN and a card reader and I have to pack the card and reader as additional extras when I travel just so that I can pay wages into my own account. The alternative (having done it twice now) is a long conversation lasting about 20-30 minutes on the phone to do exactly the same thing but at great expense if I was calling from overseas.

I won't debate the merits of how secure or otherwise this recent change is nor indeed why they would need to implement all that security online when the phone system is as insecure as ever and of course is over an open channel, anyone within earshot can hear it etc. Bit like having 1 lock on your front door and 2 million locks on your back door then saying "we just added another million locks to the back door; our service is really secure now". Burglars aren't stupid. They break in at the weakest point; therefore the security of the back door is irrelevant until the front door is up to the same standard.

So now I turn to the latest set of problems with online banking. They sent me a card, PIN and reader for use with the online banking service over a year ago. However, at that time I had no need for them. The service didn't require their use either for regular payments. A year passed and in all that time I didn't need them once. Then all of a sudden without warning RBS changed the website behaviour so that paying myself via the same payment I had successfully been using for years was now deemed as high risk as setting up a brand new payment to Nigeria in response to a possible scam. Both transactions now need the card, card reader and PIN. No problem I thought and dug out the card and reader I'd got a year ago.

Went to set up transaction and the system said I would need to order a card reader. Funny that, I wonder what the system thought the thing I was holding was that was called a "card reader". There was no way to reset the flag in the system to say I already had one other than to order another one and wait several days until the system thought it had arrived, by which time I could then use the one I already had.

Then I went to use the card I'd had for a year and realised that since I'd never used the card, I couldn't remember the PIN. I called RBS and asked them to send me a new PIN. No can do, that type of card can't have its PIN reset, they had to order a new card instead. However, there's a problem with the supplier and the new card might take up to 3 weeks to arrive. 4 weeks later, I still have no card, no PIN for use with new card and therefore no on-line service. This remember is from a so called leading bank. Buggy websites, poor card functionality and supplier problems too.

On 15th October I put in the following complaint:

1. That the on-line system was changed without warning and for customers like me who required both a card and PIN we needed a 3 week warning at least to ensure no loss of service. This advance warning was not given.

2. I need a card and a PIN to do trivial on-line transactions between my own accounts that have never been a problem, if you are going to change the service to require cards and PINs, you need to check that these cards and PINs are actually available and there isn't a supplier problem. If there is, you need to either delay the upgrade or have an on-line workaround.

3. My wife and I share the same bank account. It isn't possible to set up pay from the business account to our joint account so that my pay goes through as one transaction and her pay goes through as another transaction without endless security checks. Paying a husband and wife who share a common account is such a basic item it is astonishing that it is impossible with direct banking to set up two payments to the same account but with two difference references (e.g. Craig pay and Joscelin pay). Never mind the "Craig dividends" "Joscelin dividends" and expenses payment references I might need as well - one account can only have one reference at a time.

4. When logging the above complaint on 15th October I was passed between several agents all of whom re-requested my details verbally. This is a security risk when I am calling from a phone as it increases the opportunity of people overhearing the conversation. RBS should implement an internal secure call transfer system, just as they already have when transferring from the telephone banking system to when you speak to an agent.

Points 1,2,3,4 were logged as a complaint on 15th October and I was told I would receive a response by 17th October. On 19th October I complained that no response had been received. On 21st October they wrote me a letter saying that they had tried to call me on the 21st but were unable to make contact. My phone has no record of a missed call or otherwise from the bank on 21st October. The response to my complaint was to explain that a card reader order was pending (which I knew) and that I could order a card reader on-line (which I don't care about as they've just acknowledged one was on its way). The letter then said that the changes were introduced to safeguard customers from possible fraud. No explanation as to why no notice was given, no explanation to explain why the loss of on-line service was not considered any explanation as to when my card and PIN which I am still waiting for would actually arrive, no explanation as to their poor call handling and complaint response times.

So I thought I would document the problems on-line just so they have a written record they can look up in case they lose the details again. I also find that telling an organisation I have put my comments on my blog generally results in a better response than the usual stock half-hearted template reply.

Maybe the next time I think of applying for a bank I should put "I want to work for an incestuous company that has no concept of customer service, technical capability or approach to delivering a high class product" and I might stand more of a chance in future. On the other hand, I might just put "Previous banking experience: UK taxpayer. Through your own incompetence taxpayers like me own a part of you. We bailed you out."

Surely an organisation that used to make billions of pounds profit a year and was bigger than Coke could actually deliver a basic on-line service and help desk that is better than this?

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23 October 2008


Estate Agents and the no commission model

So the property market is now at the point where estate agents are selling houses with no commission charges (This is London; 20th October 2008)

Hardly news for me however, I wrote about this in the Linlithgow Gazette on 17th October and on this very blog almost 5 months ago.

How many more estate agents will go bust before they realise the commission model driven on a low number of high profit sales is no longer viable?

These days the main source of house sales is the Internet. If websites didn't run a closed shop estate agents only model, then members of the general public could sell their own homes for a tiny fraction of the present commission driven cost.

The longer that estate agents cling to the 1%+ sales commission model, the more incentive there is for some real competition from the likes of House network - commission free selling.

I should not more have to pay an estate agent several thousand pounds for picking up the phone and sending a seller my way than I should pay autotrader a commission for selling my car. Even eBay don't charge a commission for selling property.

Conventional estate agents pay attention! Time to wake up and smell the coffee.


Letter from Linlithgow Gazette 17th October 2008:

A challenge

Sir,— I have lived in Linlithgow for over seven years and during that time have seen businesses close in the High Street and seen a reduction in diversity in the High Street, including no toy shop, more sandwich shops and properties lying vacant. Coming from the other side of the argument, I worked for Tesco and was IT manager of the grocery website at their corporate HQ in Hertfordshire last year. Yet I feel that another out of town shopping centre is the last thing the town needs – I would rather have Tesco where it is than a larger supermarket that you need to get in a car to drive to.

The £10 minimum charge levied by retailers on credit cards doesn't apply at Tesco and if the small retailers don't want to alienate people they need to drop this requirement – even small retailers can use credit card clearing facilities that charge a flat amount per month (just like Tesco) rather than a per transaction fee.
My job as an e-commerce consultant takes me all over the UK. When I work in London, I see that small traders get more passing custom yet seem much more willing to capitalise on the internet to supplement their passing trade.

With online shopping continuing to rise, the efforts of the Linlithgow High Street to reach out to anyone wanting to shop on line are woeful by comparison. Even something as basic as a one page website listing the company name, address, email address, products and services and opening hours is missing from most of the High Street traders and instead people searching often find traders in Livingston or Falkirk instead – for example enter Linlithgow Plumber in Google and the first site returned says there are none.

Enter West Lothian computers and Google maps returns nothing for Linlithgow either. Most of the time entering generic search terms, for example Linlithgow pubs or Linlithgow restaurants such as tourists would use, simply results in generic listing type sites over which local businesses usually have little or no control – actually returning the site belonging to a local business or Linlithgow.com would be far more useful.

Whilst Linlithgow.com is a useful first step, in times of a credit crunch and competing with out of town shopping, the woeful presence of Linlithgow on the Internet does not help businesses reach out to new customers who would rather look online.

Indeed even those with the most developed websites, that is estate agents, now face challenges from online-only estate agents who list property for sale on the same websites and at a tiny fraction of the price charged by Linlithgow High Street agents. Even the might of Tesco.com can't tell me what's in stock at my local shop in Linlithgow.

The challenge of out of town shopping, online searching for businesses and online shopping presents a problem for businesses from local high street shops to major retail groups, and the people of Linlithgow. In difficult economic times we need to come together and do everything possible to reach as many customers as possible.
Not having an adequate Internet presence in this day and age is like not having a phone number 30 years ago.

Making Linlithgow at the heart of Silicon Glen fully connected with modern shopping trends would not only complement Cittaslow status, but would help businesses of all kinds to combat the challenges posed not only by Springfield's development but also global shopping trends.—Yours etc.,
Chartered IT Professional

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01 October 2008


Correct VAT receipt

I've blogged before about VAT receipts but just for the benefit of the 90%+ of restaurants who seem to think that a total and a VAT number constitutes a VAT receipt, here's the news - it doesn't.

The two things that most restaurants leave off is the separately itemised amount of VAT included in the bill and the rate of VAT applicable. If any restaurants are reading and want to know what you need to put on a VAT receipt, please check out the HMRC website.


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17 September 2008


bengal indian restaurant bayswater paddington

Great Indian food, competitive prices. You need to remember to prod the waiter after they've collected your main course plates otherwise you get ignored. Also, no proper VAT receipt either just a total and a VAT number.

What must be on a VAT receipt.

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19 August 2008


How Africa can be richer than the Middle East

I was reading about the completion in Dubai of the world's tallest skyscraper. Evidently no shortage of money in Dubai then to build tall or extravagant structures, funded of course by oil. Oil being of course a valuable commodity sold worldwide. Africa has a very valuable commidity, available in almost limitless quantities throughout most of the continent - solar power. Why can't we get our acts together and bring forward schemes for solar power in Africa, this one being even cheaper than oil with the potential to power Europe and 2/3 of the Middle East and North Africa countries. That's just one power station as well and using just 0.3% of the desert space. Why is the EU dragging its feet on this? Surely being able to generate electricty from a green source of energy and sharing the profits in Africa then Africa can not only enjoy the sort of spending power Dubai currently has, we can begin to address issues such as poverty in Africa, famine and disease - none of which seem to be major factors in Dubai.

With such a valuable resource, maybe Africa will become the New Middle East, not only in terms of power and wealth, but also wars and conflict involving the West.


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13 August 2008


Back to work by working together

My idea on the show us a better way government website. £20,000 prize to be won by making better use of government data.

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04 August 2008


UK Government big thinking. National Insurance

The present government is accused by Tony Blair of having no policies.

Here's a policy which someone who has been chancellor for 11 years should be able to sort out.

Simplify the tax system and make it accountable.

Here's an example - look at what National Insurance is for on the direct gov website.

Then use that explanation to explain why EMPLOYERS who derive only a minuscule benefit from National Insurance need to pay more NI than employees. Employers do not get the pension benefit, employers get only a tiny benefit from sick pay. Employers still have to pay the majority of maternity pay and employers get no benefit towards unemployment benefit through this tax. Indeed as a self employed person in a Ltd company, you end up paying approx 24% in National Insurance even though you CANNOT CLAIM UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFIT BETWEEN CONTRACTS because "looking for work" whilst out of work is deemed to be paid employment even though you are not being paid whilst doing it.

This nonsense is little better than the equally bureaucratic mess inherited from the Tories. I took my case in 1996 to my MP who now happens to be Chancellor of the Exchequer (i.e. Alistair Darling). This was around the time of Harriet Harman's "send my kids to private school" story:

Letter in The Herald 5-Feb-96
This was published in full as their main letter of the day
Poverty trap bound by red tape

The disproportionate publicity given to a Labour MP's decision to send her child to a grant maintained school is causing the real issues affecting millions of people to be quietly brushed aside by the Conservatives. Here is an example of a "customers" experience of the disastrous state the Welfare system is in after nearly 17 years of Tory rule. They only have themselves to blame. As a "Customer" my response is that the Welfare state is a mass of red tape and I'd like to shop elsewhere, if I could.

Last year I was made unemployed and I registered as such with the unemployment office. It turns out, that despite a 500 a month mortgage, approx. 100 a month in bills and a requirement to buy food to live, I am not eligible for any state aid. I am disqualified from receiving any unemployment because during the year 93/94 I was on the Government's Employment Training initiative and only being credited with National Insurance, not paying it. My other 7 full years of actual contributions count for nothing. I couldn't even get the Welfare State to pay my £70 train fare for an interview because the initial contract was for less than 12 months.

I am disqualified from Social Security as I live with my fiancée and she works 25 hours a week. It apparently doesn't matter that her monthly wage is the same as my mortgage. It costs about 600 a month minimum plus food for us to exist and every month we are going more overdrawn because of the lack of the welfare state. The government defines "full time employment" as 16 hours or week or over and if one of a couple is working this, the other is not eligible for social security or housing benefit no matter what their income is. This definition of "full time employment" is patently ridiculous. If I put on my job applications that I would work 16 hours full time, I'd get laughed at. If I put I'd only work 16 hours a week on my signing on card, I would not get full unemployment benefit. The Government clearly has it both ways.

The "Employment Service" fully accept this problem and numerous people at the Employment service have said "I shouldn't say this but you would be a lot better off if your fiancée gave up her job or moved out". Is it really the Conservative party which believes in "family values" which has created this appalling system - forcing people out of work or splitting up families so that they can afford to eat?

Taking the Conservative philosophy of choice to its conclusion - I believe my paying National Insurance is like obtaining an insurance policy for myself and for the benefit of others. My experience of this system is that the rules are obscure and complex. It eliminates people who need money whilst giving money to those who may be out of work but well off. I would like to opt out of this mess, as I can with a pension scheme, and pay towards a scheme which has clear, easy to understand rules which pays out when I need it. Looking at private redundancy schemes, this is what they offer.

What this country really needs though is a simple system for the unemployed and low paid of adding your income, subtracting reasonable outgoings and then paying all or some of the difference, at a level which gives a guaranteed minimum income but is an incentive to go back to work. No exclusion clauses based on one person's 16 hours work expected to fund a couple. No exclusion clauses based on what happened in the tax year years ago and no automatic benefit for the wealthy whilst genuinely poor people are trying to make ends meet.

The issues surrounding one child's schooling pale into insignificance next to the millions caught in a poverty trap by Conservative Red Tape.

So over 12 years later we still have a state system which means that people out of work can end up being disqualified from receiving any state aid whatsoever because of red tape. Zero income was the sort of thing that national insurance was supposed to eliminate so that people did not end up in poor houses. Zero income does not pay bills. Zero income fuels the credit crunch. In a credit crunch, we need an accountable and fair tax system which ensures that when someone is out of work they are entitled to a minimum benefit, just as when they are in work they are entitled to a minimum wage.

So no more paying 24% national insurance contributions and then excluding people from the very benefits that national insurance was set up to provide. Have a flat rate of NI for all. Abolish employers NI contributions and if necessary adjust the income tax rate accordingly to ensure no employees are worse off. This would result in a fairer and more open tax system. The present alternative of taking a 24% insurance premium and then refusing to pay out for the benefits of that scheme is little better than state theft.


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31 July 2008


Modernising tips: Government starting to take action

Following my blog post on tips in April and my note on the government better regulation site logged at the same time, I am pleased to report that at least part of this is now being taken seriously by the government as reported in today's news. We now need to get complete transparency for charging in restaurants now and abolish the nefarious practice of the mandatory service charge, which only serves to distort prices for customers. No other industry distorts their prices this way, and it has to stop in restaurants. The government response (below) to my idea is non committal and does not help consumers.

There are no regulations covering the practice of mandatory service charges or tips; it is a matter for the individual establishment to decide if they make non-optional charges, at what level the charges are set, and if they include different rules in certain circumstances ie parties over a certain number. Of course, consumers can exercise choice by refusing to dine in the establishment where they consider the charges to be unduly prohibitive. However, where obligatory charges are enforced, they must be set out clearly for the consumer whenever there is an invitation to purchase, ie on a menu card. The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (CPRs) 2008, which came into force on 26 May, require traders not to omit material information which the average consumer needs, according to the context, to make an informed choice but is not prescriptive as to how this information must be given (eg in writing). A case could be made that the average consumer is likely to want to know what mandatory charges are included

The Prices Practices Guide which recommends to traders a set of good practices in giving the consumer information about prices in various situations, and takes account of the provisions of the CPRs, advises that where customers are required to pay a non-optional extra charge, such as a service charge, then it should be incorporated within the fully inclusive price wherever possible, also the non-optional charge should be displayed clearly on any price list or priced menu whether displayed inside or outside the establishment. Where, however, an optional sum is suggested for service, it should not automatically be included in the total bill presented to the customer.

Where a service charge or a tip is paid via a bill, it is a matter for the employer to negotiate with the employee how they are shared out. There is no law which sets this out. However, monies paid to a restaurant (eg by credit card) belong to the restaurant in the first instance, and tax is due on tips however they are paid to the waiter. National Insurance Contributions will be due if the tips are paid to workers by the employer.


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18 July 2008


The demise of the Scottish entrepreneur

Two days ago I posted that Scotland's answer to Dragons Den had ceased trading.

I came across this note I posted to the First Tuesday Scotland network on 9th June 2003, over 5 years ago.

It seems not much has changed in that time to support the Scottish Entrepreneur, indeed with this week's announcement things are only getting worse. Sorry to sound so pessimistic but I tell it as it is.

In message <BPEDJNPNLJEFMFCOBAMOIEDDDOAA.gordon@firsttuesday
scotland.com>, Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp <gordon@firsttuesdayscotland.com>wrote:
>For about 6 years I have disagreed with the direction of Scottish Enterprise
>as a whole and that is why I left the organisation to set up this network.
>Economies are driven by confidence and positivity, demand and the
>availability of disposable income. Regardless of the expertise of the man at
>the top and the people throughout the organisation SE can only do the
>bidding of the Scottish Parliament and this is where it goes wrong - it suffers
>from public sector thinking - good people hamstrung by red tape and politics.
I replied:

The public sector mentality is about as far removed as you can get from the
rapidly moving and flexible environment of being an entrepreneur.

Scottish Enterprise may be headed by a competent individual, but this is little
better than having a competent train driver. If the network operator can't work
the points, you end up permanently on a slow line or a dead end siding.

There needs to be a total change of mindset in the executive and at UK level
before anything serious begins to change.

How about assessing businesses on the quality of the idea, the opportunity it
addresses and the likelihood of success rather than engaging in little more
than a box ticking exercise, or claiming to provide a service for info which can
be easily obtained on line, or assessing businesses based on the number of
birthdays the founder has had?

Scotland is famous for its inventors - people who have changed the world and
been huge successes. What support is there for these people from Scottish
Enterprise? What help in filing for a patent would there be for today's John
Logie Bairds or Alexander Graham Bells or more widely James Dyson or
Trevor Bayliss both of whom had huge obstacles in getting products to

What help would there be in helping the lone entrepreneur with a brilliant idea
if they have little or no resources of their own to do it? Such people would of
course be precluded from the "Proof of concept" funding because this is tied
to working in a research establishment.

Furthermore there is a huge contradiction when it comes down to help for the
entrepreneur. Businesses are supposed to be flexible, geared up for parents
with flexible working needs, geared up for people wanting to work part time,
geared up for distance working etc with all these directives and laws being
passed. So you tick all the boxes for things the executive is saying they want
to promote: "I'm wanting to start up, what help is there for time-poor, cash-
poor parents wanting to work part time in the business while they get going
and keep down a day job and I want to work from home to save money". What
help is there specifically for parents or anyone in these categories? None. The
"Who wants to be an entrepreneur" competition has become "Who wonders
where it went" and The John Logie Baird awards have vanished like the dot in
the middle of the inventor's TV screen. Meantime in the real world where
businesses in 2006 will be prosecuted for ageism in recruitment, we have the
exact opposite going on in the world of the entrepreneur where you can't get
certain awards (e.g. PSYBT) based on whether your partner has had more
than 30 birthdays (even though the main applicant qualifies). Are these to be
made illegal post 2006?

Why does the very nature of how SE lends its funding and help and what help
there is, go almost 100% against what businesses themselves are expected
to do when they employ people? Does no-one do joined up thinking anymore?


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17 July 2008


Company directors at high risk of ID theft due to government data loss

Letter to Computing:

Following the recent string of data losses by HM Government, no-one seems to have taken on board the institutionalised data leaks which HM Government practices as part of its statutory liability and the implication for openly publishing tens of thousands of names, addresses and dates of birth free of charge on the Internet for any ID thief to easily pick up on and make use of.

If this was the general public there would be a national scandal, as there was with the HMRC data loss. If the general public had their names, addresses and dates of birth openly accessible online with no restrictions on who could access them, no payment required and no traceability on who had downloaded them then heads would roll.

Yet this is the exact practice which goes on at Companies House if you are a company director, something that increasing numbers of people are doing to find work as contractors in a shrinking employment market. Whilst it may be a statutory duty to gather such information and whilst it may be perfectly valid to have such information to validate people's IDs in the same way the same information is used to apply for credit cards, I can see no compelling reason why the entire database needs to be dumped uncontrolled for anyone on the web to access unrestricted. We need to move to a model where such private and confidential data is treated the same way irrespective of whether it is a private individual's data on the HMRC computer or a Company Director's data at Company's House - it's the same data after all. The forthcoming changes in the Companies Act only allow the address to be withheld, so even after these changes the director's full name and date of birth will be public and can still easily be tied up with historic electoral registers before the edited versions were introduced. Simply publishing the age is also not enough since the data of birth can be deduced by querying the site once per day for a year, a task easily automated.

You reported on 3rd July, front page, that one person had accessed the name, address and phone number of another businesses' details on-line at the PAYE site. The scale of openly publishing the private details of the directors of 2 million limited companies in the UK is surely much more significant.

Company Directors are not immune from ID theft, yet the government does nothing to protect the ID of over 2 million company directors. Why not?

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16 July 2008


Connect Scotland ceases trading

THE Scottish networking firm that ran Dragons' Den-style events for technology entrepreneurs has been forced to close after struggling with mounting debts.

In what will be seen as a significant blow to the Scottish technology sector, Connect Scotland has ceased trading and has had to lay off all seven staff.

read the full article.

Ironic that the company set up to assist Scots companies find finance has itself run out of money. If the people running Connect, some of the leading lights of Scottish IT can't find money for that venture, it certainly doesn't bode well for budding entrepreneurs trying to find startup cash.

However, down south the Angels Den continues to do well.

Something like that is certainly needed in Scotland.


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02 June 2008


The crowdsourcing revolution, users get paid?

In a recent evaluation of some social networking sites, we find that many sites are valued in the $20-$25 per user range for a one off purchase.

On that basis, and the traffic from this site based on unique users, that's me back to being a dot com (dollar) millionaire again then. However, finding a buyer is another matter.

Seriously though, I am rather surprised at the economic model at work here.

1. Clever programmers write some website software. If you're in the UK you're unlikely to get stock options for this.

2. Said website goes onto become hugely successful, clever programmers don't usually get to become millionaires based on this (bebo being one of the few UK exceptions).

3. Said website is then based on active users, who contribute content. This content then drives further user activity fostering a community some of which has commercial value in the form of advertising. Millions of users contributing content = crowdsourcing. Users build up the site "for free" rather than the pre Web 2.0 days of a company having to pay a 3rd party to do it.

We've moved from the Web1.0 days when you needed to pay content editors to have good content on your site (about.com) to Web2.0 when with a decent site site owners get this content for free. So what's next? I would suggest the next economic revolution on the net is that rather than taking the users for a free ride, they should be paid back in shares based on a proportion of the advertising revenue that their content generates. Then when the company is sold, they get cash for those shares and a reward for having built the site up rather than nothing in the way of a financial thank-you for making the site a success.

There's no such thing as a free lunch and personally I am rather surprised at the hundreds of hours people spend on social networking sites, building up value in those sites for a tiny number of shareholders who walk away with 9 figure payouts and the users who created that wealth getting nothing in return.

Crowdsourcing isn't that new, Adam Smith wrote in 1776 in the founding work of economics the wealth of nations that "the division of labour is the source of economic growth". So what about a fair day's wage for a fair day's work in 2008 then? Profit sharing plans for employees are nothing new in the US although still something of a novelty in the UK, is it such a stretch to extend this concept of profit sharing out to crowdsourced content creators?

People aren't slaves. They shouldn't expect to work for nothing. If the contributors to these sites simply downed tools and said "no more contributions until I get paid for them", the Internet would perhaps turn into a different place with more money being distributed out to the original content creators and less of it being sucked into the middle and the search engines that serve up advertising.

Who do you think is more worthy of being paid?

Is this the new economy?

Craig (posting to his own site).

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26 May 2008


Estate agents, time to change business model

Unsurprisingly estate agents are feeling the pain of the credit crunch, with 150 closing a week and monthly sales down from 14 to 7 properties on average. This is despite Scottish house prices continuing to rise.

The problem here is twofold. First of all with agencies closing, there is fewer competition for consumers and secondly the remaining competition will no doubt carry on with the same absurd practices which led their competitors to go bust on the hope that it won't happen to them.

When I received a quote from some local estate agents, I was alarmed that the rates they quoted of 0.75% and 1% of the sale price were at the lower end of the national average which according to this article is about 2%. Using the national average house price of £218,112 and the figures above, here's an estate agent income calculator:

1. Average house price = £218,112
2. Average estate agent commission = 2% = £4,362 commission
3. Average monthly sales = 7. Therefore average monthly income = £30,535

4 Estate agents per office average, average salary £50,000. Total wages bill approx £18,000. This means approx £12,000 per month profit to cover phone calls, office hire and so on.

Certainly in my case, advertising and other extras such as placement on websites, noticeboards and so on was paid for on top.

So what did I get for my 1% deduction on the sale price, according to the bill? "Professional charges including preparation of draft schedule, validated and printed, insertion of photo in local offices, placement on rightmove website and dealing with enquiries".

For that they get 1% of the sale price, and sole selling rights which mean:

"If missives for the sale of the property are concluded during the period in which the company has sole selling rights then the charges are payable even if the buyer was found by myself".

So basically the current estate agent model means that even if I find a buyer, they get to charge 1% of the sale price. Personally I think this is an undue benefit to the agent and as such possibly unfair (and therefore illegal and unenforceable) however the point here is that it's a huge commission when you consider the actual effort to achieve it. To sell a property for 400K for instance, there isn't a lot of actual effort the agent needs to do besides place adverts in papers and on websites and for that they get £4K+, something that I could employ a full time consultant for a week and still have spare change, yet the estate agent sits back for the calls and gets the money even if I find the buyer. Surely something wrong here.

This is essentially why so many agents are now going bust, and why so many went bust in the previous housing downturn in England in the early 90s. They are dependent on a very small number of very high profit margin sales and so they are extremely vulnerable to market fluctuations and in a quiet period, their profits can dry up very quickly indeed.

The solution naturally is to pay estate agents a proper fee. I would quite happily pay £100 to write a schedule and take photos. I would also, maybe, pay to advertise on websites although I think that the age of having to do so will pass in the next 5 years as more free listing sites emerge. I also don't mind paying to advertise in local papers if necessary or on a per viewing basis if the agent shows the house for sale. However, I object to paying £4K just for them answering the phone when I could do it myself.

So all in it should be perfectly possible to sell a house whatever its market value for a few hundred pounds + whatever extra marketing I want to pay for. The days of taking 1%, 2% of the sale price should be a thing of the past.

This of course means that estate agents have even less money coming in which means that they have to deal with a much wider customer base. Fair enough, I think that there are probably too many estate agents and if the numbers stay at their post-crash lows then this would be a good thing. By having more customers and a lower margin on each, they would overall make more money due to scale and also would be more immune to market fluctuations

e.g. selling 100 properties a month over a much wider customer base and making £500 on each means that the agent makes £50,000 per month rather than £30,000 and having the customers spread over a wider area means they are less vulnerable to local downturns. Incidentally £500 is the min fee that my agent charged, so clearly it is feasible at this level.

Am I the only one who thinks its time for a shake up in how house sales are charged?

Evidently not, see House Network. Any more like it?


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21 May 2008


Independent Scotland: £4Bn budget surplus

SOARING oil prices would give an independent Scotland a £4.4 billion budget surplus, making it one of Europe's richest countries, according to a new study.

The surplus would allow Alex Salmond to maintain existing levels of public spending, while cutting corporation tax from 28% to 12.5%, reducing income tax by 5p in the pound and still having £2 billion every year to invest in a Norwegian-style oil fund to safeguard Scotland against a future decline in North Sea oil revenue.

The study, based on Treasury oil revenue forecasts and official spending figures, has calculated that, without money from the taxation of oil and gas, an independent Scotland would have an underlying deficit of £7.8billion. But when £12.2billion of oil and gas revenues are included, Scotland would have a surplus of more than £4billion.

See the link for more info

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11 May 2008


A tale of two websites

Having blogged about a more flexible e-commerce model for e-commerce before let me recap with some history.

The pioneers of e-commerce back in 1995 were Amazon and eBay. Both used a model that now forms the default business model replicated on nearly every other website. That is, you must register on the website and hold an account on the website with a login and password for you to buy anything. This is completely unnecessary, an invasion of users' privacy, does not help in any anti-fraud measures and is simply websites forcing users to hand over long term purchasing stats because they can rather than because it is an integral part of the transaction. We wouldn't tolerate this intrusiveness on the high street and we freely shop there without having to register with shops first, so why put up with this nonsense online?

This forced registration is excess data gathering and contravenes the third principle of the data protection act, namely that the information being handed over - the customer's buying history - is excessive for the purposes of the individual transaction. Sure it's convenient to have an account already set up if I don't want to enter my data repeatedly, but on the other hand it's really inconvenient having my every purchase tracked, and trying to log in when I'm required to have an account have forgotten the password and hate having yet another website where I have to remember yet another username and password.

Argos, a top 5 retail site in the UK is now bucking this 13 year old trend. You can register if you want to, but you don't have to. Well done Argos. Same goes for Visitscotland.com

Let me tell now the tale of two websites. When trying to buy a Chiminea Barbeque tonight, I found two very similar models at the same price.

One was on greenfingers.com which insisted I had an account or registered first, then when I went to register it said I couldn't because I already had even though when I went through the 10 minute forgotten password dance and logged in there was no account info there. The other was castironchimineas.co.uk which didn't require me to register and as an added triple bonus didn't have the other usual website irritations such as a mandatory courtesy title, needlessly separate first and last name fields (i.e. one field for the whole customer name) and finally allowed Scotland as a valid country. Naturally the latter site got my business, it was far simpler and easier to use.

Well done, castironchimineas, someone taking a leaf out of my book not only on flexible e-commerce, but also how to capture a customer name but also website usability guru Jakob Nielsen who said way back in 1995 that customer name fields should be combined into one.

Maybe 13 years after the e-commerce revolution started, we can start to get back to the basics of usability?


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29 April 2008


Website reviews

I'm going to enjoy slagging off a few websites at http://www.reviewcentre.com/, especially next.co.uk who have about the most user hostile website I have ever used.

Let me just say that any website that doesn't use passwords by trying to do things its own way is off to a very bad start indeed. Mandatory dates of birth when they aren't selling age related goods and all I want to do is just pay by credit card is also questionable under the data protection act, 3rd principle.

"Personal data shall be adequate, relevant and not excessive in relation to the purpose or purposes for which they are processed". The wide definition of processing should be borne in mind when considering the Third Principle. In complying with this Principle, data controllers should seek to identify the minimum amount of information that is required in order properly to fulfil their purpose and this will be a question of fact in each case. If it is necessary to hold additional information about certain individuals, such information should only be collected and recorded in those cases."

So if I can buy age related goods on amazon.co.uk without telling them my actual date of birth, merely that I am old enough why do I need to hand over material for ID theft when I buy on next and they don't sell age related goods?


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27 April 2008


Better business regulation

I've submitted a few ideas to the better regulation website. If you want to cut red tape in business and improve productivity, why don't you do likewise?


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26 April 2008


Tesco, every little helps

Every Friday night when I get back from work about 11pm, the shops have long since closed. The local shops all have lights out, the businesses all have lights out and the only store with lights on is the local Tesco.

Every light on, plain as day, just as if the store was open and full of customers. Yet, the store has been shut for an hour. No dimmer switch, not even just some of them on. Even the staff canteen lights are on long after the staff have left.

Tesco, you are constantly going on about how green you are and isn't it wonderful that your store in Wick is powered by renewable energy and how we'll get green points if we reuse our carrier bags and all that stuff. I actually reuse my carrier bags, I use them instead of bin bags meaning that I don't need to buy use-once bin bags. Back to the point though. Do you not think you might save on the 4.13m tonnes of carbon you eject into the atmosphere every year if you did one simple thing?


You know, like every one else is told to do. Or is your store security more important than the environment?

Remember Tesco, every little helps.


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25 April 2008


Scottish IT consultation with Enterprise minister

At an industry consultation earlier this week, ScotlandIS Members, including myself, met with the Enterprise Minister, Jim Mather. Issues raised included the increasing difficulty in accessing public sector contracts, the contribution the industry can make in helping to grow the economy, and the skills challenges the industry faces.

For more details including the White Paper prepared for the Industry Consultation see the page on the ScotlandIS site.


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20 April 2008


Paypal's contender for most irritating and misleading information on the Internet

If you have a Paypal account linked to a bank account (i.e. so that you can withdraw money) then you are greeted with this abomination every time you attempt to pay by a credit card:

It's the default option to pay by bank account and you can't change it. However, I wonder if enough people wrote to customercare@paypal.com and asked them to change this spurious policy they might change their mind. When I want to spend my money, I'd like the option of specifying which account is debited by default, especially if I ever pay by mobile phone the contortions you have to go to to change the payment method from the default are a major pain. As someone with a bit of e-commerce experience (E-commerce lead for Scotland's tourism portal and Project Manager for Tesco.com grocery) I'd like to think that the laughable reasons Paypal gives could do with a bit of comment.

Paypal's text:
Before deciding to fund your payment with a debit or credit card, consider the benefits of paying with your bank account.

Paying with your bank account is instant and your payment will be completed immediately, as easy as paying with cash

My response: Indeed, however since paying with cash isn't an online option this is rather a bogus comparison, no? Paying with a credit or debit card of course is also instant as paypal gets an authorisation code when I pay with a credit or debit card, therefore the vendor can dispatch the goods immediately. No different to paying with a debit or credit card in a shop, as opposed to handing over my banking details there. Furthermore, if I could pay with cash online it wouldn't be as easy because then I wouldn't benefit from any Paypal or credit card protection would I?

Paypal statement:

Paypal keeps your bank account information safe and secure through military-grade encryption and 100% coverage of any unauthorised use.

My response: I hope you're not implying that my other info, such as my card details, isn't held to the same exacting standards? Which military-grade encryption would that happen to be by the way, Ancient Roman Army encryption of letter transposition or 256 bit AES? 100% coverage of any unauthorised use eh, you mean just like all the credit cards I have?

Paypal statemet:

Easy - use the same bank account for making payments and withdrawals

My response: This isn't easy at all. I want to make withdrawals to my bank account so that I can spend the money. I want to make payments from a credit card so not only do I benefit from up to 7 weeks interest free credit and have a few weeks notice of any fraud hitting my actual bank account when the payment is due, I also don't want to use my business bank account for payments because being a business bank account it is charged per transaction fees whereas my credit card is not. So, using the same account for payments and withdrawals isn't easy at all, in fact you trying to make me use the same account for both is a major pain in the arse.

Let me now redo the screen to say what Paypal is probably wanting to write

Dear Customer, please pay using direct payment because it costs us less in fees.

Which does strike me as rather odd, especially since I can go onto numerous websites and legally download MP3s for as little as 79p. Clearly these sites not only have to cover the artists' licensing costs and their own profits but also any credit card processing charges which let's face it must be pretty minuscule. Indeed, companies such as Protx offer flat rate transactions of 10p for high volume users and the kind reader is referred to realbusiness or even an article I wrote for further info on credit card charges and the options available.

So come on Paypal, come clean with customers and give us some choice instead of bogus excuses please. After all, it's our money.


p.s. I wonder if Paypal presents the same bogus arguments when you try to pay with one of their own branded credit cards?

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16 April 2008


All-hotels.com, no VAT

Be careful booking through all-hotels.com if you are a business. The prices may appear cheap, but they don't issue VAT invoices, this then means you don't get the usual 15% discount over the published rates. 15% = 100*(1-100/117.5) in case you were wondering.

There seems something rather odd about paying to stay in a hotel and there being no VAT due. Where did it go and who collected it?


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31 March 2008


Credit Card Rip Off

Why is it that Easyjet rip me off with a £4.95 minimum credit card fee when I buy something on their site yet I can buy a downloaded MP3 on most UK websites for 79p for no credit card charge at all?

Anyone else feel this is a rip off?

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28 January 2008


PRINCE2 + AGILE = Common sense?

I put "used an Agile/PRINCE2 development strategy" on my CV. It's been quite the conversation starter at interviews. So I thought it would be of interest to blog about it here and gauge the reaction/feedback.

First off PRINCE2 is an acronym for "PRojects IN Controlled Environments" (version 2). PRINCE2 is a generic project management method for exercising control over a project's startup through to closure (SU1 to DP5 for all you who enjoy punch card like references). It's a generic project management method that had its origins in IT but which now makes no reference to IT and could be used from anything from building a ship to planning your summer holiday. Whether you would want to use it on the latter is entirely up to you. The same flexibility of choice is not however accorded to the large number of public (and increasingly private) sector projects that use it since it is seen as the de-facto project management method and its use is frequently mandated, despite there being other methods that may be more relevant for the task in hand. There have also been a large number of complex and extensive government IT project failures recently many of which would have used PRINCE2 and which highlight that even a refined method such as PRINCE2 can run aground on large scale, long running projects that are subject to considerable change.

On paper, PRINCE2 is logical, reasonable and linear. However, as experience suggests - for example in the long series of failed UK Government IT projects where PRINCE2 is the mandated method - simply being logical, reasonable and linear, is not sufficient. It is not sufficient to make it the effective project management method business and public sector organisations really need."
From PRINCE2 problems by Business Transition Technologies

PRINCE2 is based around project control. Control is clearly a Good Thing, however being a generic method with no reference to IT, the closest IT development method would be the waterfall method, which is very well lampooned on the Waterfall2006 site. It is just these shortcomings of the waterfall method which seem to cause the biggest problems with PRINCE2 projects, especially those which due to their complexity and length of development are prone to large amounts of change. PRINCE2 also does not account for software projects comprising multiple versions and how these are handled, nor for website development and deployment which can be an almost continuous process.

Change is inevitable in projects. In response to this Agile development methods arose to deal with this change more effectively, particularly from a software engineering perspective and unlike PRINCE2, cover in detail the more day to day activities such as sprint planning, daily meeting structure etc. Agile does not have comprehensive cover for project management, however the Agile DSDM development method was developed with PRINCE in mind, as detailed in the paper using DSDM with PRINCE2 [PDF]. Thus the combination of Agile and PRINCE2 is not as contradictory as it might at first seem. One is a development method for managing change, the other is a project management method for exercising control, so the two compliment one another and should result in a management method for control in a changing environment. One can see from this white paper on integrating DSDM into a PRINCE2 environment [PDF] that at the actual delivery level the focus is much more on the agile processes rather than PRINCE2.

Alistair Cockburn (no relation) and others have produced a set of agile management methods however this has grown out of the agile community and consists of a set of principles rather than the sort of detailed how-to that would make it easy to sell to the PRINCE2 diehards.

The most complete agile project management method I have come across is DSDM Atern which is described as follows:
What is DSDM Atern?

Atern is an agile project delivery framework that delivers the right solution at the right time.

Importantly, Atern harnesses the knowledge, experience and creativity of end users. It uses an iterative lifecycle to evolve the most appropriate solution to satisfy project objectives.

Using planned, visible timeboxes with clearly-specified outcomes control is exercised throughout by the project manager and the team members themselves.

Roles are clearly defined and work is divided into timeboxes with immoveable deadlines and agreed outcomes.

Atern Agility
Atern’s agile approach avoids the cumbersome rigidity of ‘big design up-front’ without the inevitable risks of ‘no design up front’.

Since it is worth spending some early time examining the structure of the overall solution before building any components, Atern advocates that projects should do just ‘enough design up front’.

Atern flexibility
Atern can be used to complement other project management disciplines such as PRINCE2TM and PMI without duplication of effort.

So it seems to me that you could effectively use PRINCE2 for the high level governance of a project, Atern for the structure of how the project development is to be organised and prioritised and scrum for the day to day elements of effectively organising the software engineer's time and daily priorities.

This is just intended as an overview to illustrate that PRINCE2 and Agile are not necessarily contradictory and that is possible to combine elements of both successfully, particularly when it comes to the managing a stage part of PRINCE2 - Agile turns this into many small stages comprising stable components of work suitable for release. However, what remains a mystery to me is why government departments have been so reluctant in the face of the number of IT failures I have blogged about to promote an agile implementation of PRINCE2 and how it can best be delivered for complex IT projects running into billions of pounds.

This whole sense approach to software development from project governance to day to day management would seem to be the holy grail for minimising such failures. Perhaps it is time to encourage those who mandate PRINCE2 to understand this in order to minimise further wastage.


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27 January 2008


Government consultation on income shifting

The UK government is currently consulting on income shifting. This is a consequence of losing the Arctic Systems case last year, the government didn't get its way so decides to change the law to suit its needs. Nice job if you can get it eh? Nonetheless, together with IR35 this is yet another tax on the self employed (e.g. IT contractors) many of whom have family members contributing to the success of the business but will be penalised if income shifting legislation is drawn up. The Professional Contractors group has a useful resource page on this for more information and is calling for people to sign the petition to scrap the proposed legislation.

Here is a summary of the Professional Contractors Group (PCG) position for more information. Incidentally, although Scotland has 10% of the UK population, 17% of the PCG membership is in Scotland, indicating that such legislation may have a disproportionate effect in Scotland versus the rest of the UK.


The Government has issued draft legislation, intended for inclusion in the Finance Bill 2008, to place a new tax on what it calls “income shifting”. The result will be significant tax increases for hundreds of thousands of small family businesses.

At present, a business owned jointly by a married (and civil partner) couple can distribute profits equally to each: this allows them to use up their tax allowances efficiently, and can create a tax saving. This is a consequence of the independent taxation of spouses that was recognised and accepted by Parliament when it was introduced in the 1980s. Now the Government wishes to impose a tax increase on everyone who has set up a business in this way.

PCG believes that the proposals are unfair

PCG believes that the proposals are unworkable

PCG believes that the proposals are inconsistent with other areas of law

PCG believes that the proposals are not justified by the consultation paper

Ever since the independent taxation of spouses was introduced in the 1980s, it has been common practice for married couples who go into business to set up the business jointly; the consultation paper fails to show that anything has changed since then to justify the new rules.

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20 January 2008


Why Silicon Glen isn't Silicon Valley

I came across this interesting report from 2004 covering the Scottish investment scene and it goes a long way to explain why Scotland isn't home to as many successful startups as it deserves. Not much has changed in 4 years and to put some figures on it, we are apparently we are only working at 20% of our economy's potential:

A 1993 MORI poll in Scotland estimated that there were over 90,000 latent, or would-be, entrepreneurs and business owners in Scotland, who were frustrated in their ability to act on their aspirations by a range of factors, including the absence of role models, difficulties (actual and perceived) in accessing resources, particularly finance, and lack of knowledge about the process of business formation. Based on figures from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitoring (GEM) research programme around 5% of the Scottish adult population is actively engaged in business ownership or in activities being undertaken with a view to entering business ownership. This is around one half of the level experienced in the US and around one-third the level in other small open dynamic economies such as New Zealand.
Actually achieving this increased level of entrepreneurial activity will require a quantum shift in culture and attitudes in Scotland, which may only be achievable over a generation: as the experience of the business birth rate strategy in Scotland has demonstrated, this is not a ‘quick fix’ option. Specifically, access to finance is consistently cited as the prime obstacle to entrepreneurial activity in the GEM reports, and also in our research and contact with potential entrepreneurs. As it is, at present Scotland is working at perhaps 20% of its entrepreneurial potential.

Next time I have a decent idea, I'm off down to London. We have some of the brightest ideas in Scotland, some of the best graduates and even some of the world's largest banks. Yet we struggle at 20% of our potential. Why should I as an entrepreneur waste my time with a funding sector that isn't fit for purpose?
Our view is that the 90,000 “frustrated entrepreneurs” identified by a 1993 MORI poll (a figure consistent with the GEM data for Scotland a decade later) do not become active entrepreneurs largely because the funding landscape is not only too empty, but is also perceived as empty by those looking to enter it. While market participants respond (with some accuracy) that it is in fact not empty, and that sensible ideas well advised can usually find a funder, this accurate opinion is not helpful to an individual who is in full-time employment during normal working hours, has few or no contacts with the market, has little understanding of how it works, has little spare time to find out, and has a perception that entrepreneurial success relies on unique and specific skills that they may not have and may not be able to acquire.
A Darwinian approach to entrepreneurship would demand that these 90,000 aspiring entrepreneurs be left to live or die on their merits – let the fit survive and the rest remain in employment. Such Darwinism is, however, founded on the false premise (a) that this process will ‘weed out’ weak ideas and businesses, which is economically efficient, and (b) that entrepreneurship ought by definition to be hard and difficult, not least because today’s successful entrepreneurs and investors did indeed have to face harsh and difficult environments, and associate success with difficulty.
This Darwinian approach to the creation of an entrepreneurial economy is flawed, as can be seen from the failure of the Scottish economy to significantly raise the level of new business starts and the rate of formation and growth of high-potential companies over the past decade. A funding landscape that was visibly and obviously rich in sources of risk capital for businesses of every kind would remove a major constraint (real and perceived) on the formation of new entrepreneurial ventures. As such, it would provide an environment for the successful transformation of the culture of the Scottish economy into one in which entrepreneurial activity is seen as a legitimate career option and economic role.

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03 December 2007


Towards a more flexible e-commerce model

Argos (a top 5 e-commerce site in the UK) reports on its website when you go to buy something:

Remember, you don't need to register to purchase on this website!

Glory be and hallelujah.

About the only site I know of that allows people to log in if they want to (potentially saving time in the long term) as well as not logging in (thereby saving time for one off purchases and especially if you have forgotten your password etc)

When I go to shop in a normal high street shop, I am not required to log in. Nor am I required in the main to have their store card and use it allowing every purchase I make to be tracked on every visit. Nor am I required to set up a username before I think about putting stuff in my basket. Nor am I required to give my date of birth before purchasing non-age related goods from them.

Yet on-line retailers indulge in this nefarious data gathering just because they can. Tesco.com requires to have a clubcard before purchasing with them (thereby allowing all your purchases to be tracked). Toysrus.com requires a date of birth when registering, even though the vast bulk of their products are non-age related and even though all they need to know is whether I am over 18 or not, see this analysis of their site in terms of the data protection act.

Argos were reviewed as Pants back in 2003 and still persist with the silly practice of requiring everyone to have a courtesy title even when many prefer not to use one. But nonetheless, credit where it's due for being courageous enough to say no to the marketing department's endless quest for customer data "we take your data because we can" and having a site that gives the customer the option of a quick purchase without having to log in as well as using their account if they have one.

A site that offers true customer choice, how long before others follow this lead?


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27 November 2007


Towards a gold standard for contact centre service

I find a good part of my lunch hour is spent dealing with fairly useless contact centres. I would probably get more out of my lunch break and be able to do more interesting things than listen to boring hold music if contact centres improved their quality of service. Things haven't improved much in many years, I recall spending long hours on the phone to Alliance and Leicester in 2001 - often it was half an hour before they even answered the phone.

In response to the lack of initiative and progress in contact centre customer service, I propose the following initial list as targets that contact centres should aspire to, in order to offer gold standard customer service rather than the poor quality crap we have to tolerate at present. No particular order here and feel free to add your own ideas.

1. For an independent company to assess contact centres for typical and peak wait times until you get to speak to someone (including having to work through the menus). Then customers can make informed independent choices regarding which companies waste the least amount of time. These timings should then be published centrally with the worst offenders named and shamed.

2. For companies to aspire to a high level of standard rather than unacceptably long queues and to publish their standard on their website (and on the site mentioned in 1). e.g. "We aim to answer 90% of calls in less than 10 seconds". A standard that some companies actually meet, yet others would laugh at the idea of answering a call within 10 minutes.

3. For information to be available on what the busiest and quietest times are for the contact centre and their hours of opening so that I can make an informed choice about when to call them.

4. To have a facility to turn off hold music. This means that if I am in a long queue I can put my phone on speakerphone and get on with my job without annoying the rest of the office with a tinny version of Vivaldi's concert for hold music annoying everyone around me.

5. When using phone menus, every menu must have a "help" or "none of the previous options apply, I'd like to speak to a real person rather than a robot" type option.

6. Again with phone menus, they must have information on how to go back to the previous menu.

7. An option that if you have waited more than a certain length of time (e.g. a few minutes) in a queue, that there is always the option to leave your number and have someone call you back where your call has reached the front of the queue.

8. A fast track menu system so that you don't have to wait for all the announcements before you can progress to the next menu - you should be able to interrupt any menu and advance quickly without having to hear all the options. Many contact centre menus already do this but it's worth mentioning anyway.

9. To publish the contact centre menus on the company's website so that I can work through them quickly via a web browser, click on the relevant menu option and then to open up Skype or similar and jump straight in the the relevant queue that I've just clicked on.

10. Not having to repeat my details every time the call is transferred, including when I have to transfer from an automated system to an operator. Surely the IT systems at the contact centre can do this?

11. The ability for the contact centre to text or email relevant information in the event that you can't write things down very easily (e.g. driving, walking down street carrying mobile and briefcase, etc.)

12. An acceptance that excessive wait times is not only exceptionally poor customer service but in the false economics of saving money for the company, it actually wastes time for the customers of the contact centre. Since cc operators are usually on less than the average national salary, the implication is their customers' salary average is near to the national average and thus more than the contact centre operator's wages. This means it is a false economy employing insufficient contact centre operators and transferring the consequent wait time onto people whose time is more "expensive" and who would probably be happy to pay a higher premium for shorter wait times.

13. being able to access my account via the same lookup procedure and security procedure used by operators (i.e. if I don't have my policy number, I can just enter postcode, security answers etc). Banning the use of "usernames" for telephone access. My address, security details etc are enough.

14. If you end up in the wrong queue, the centre should be able to transfer calls for me without me having to hang up and start again

15. When the contact centre phones me, they use a legitimate number that accepts return calls and which announces the name of the company (i.e. not like Powergen). This implies the said number is not withheld, a very irritating practice.

16. Operators that have a good command of English. This especially applies to companies thinking of outsourcing their contact centre to Asia.

17. If I don't select a menu, then the options are only repeated twice before I am put through to an operator. They are not repeated indefinitely, nor does the system hang up on me.

18. Being able to easily speak to a manager/supervisor/complaints department.

19. Being able to dial straight into a relevant queue so that I don't have to pay to wait on hold. 20 minutes on hold on a mobile calling internationally is not funny.

20. On completion of a call, being given the option to provide feedback there and then on what I thought of the service given (e.g. press 1 for delighted to 9 for unhappy, etc.)

21. Being able to email the contact centre without having to go through menu spaghetti.

22. Using a phonetic name field (in addition to the usual name fields) in the customer record so that people with names like mine, difficult foreign names etc can have the correct pronunciation of their name recorded, thus meaning that time isn't wasted explaining how to say the name.

23. Treating email as important as fax and phone and providing a response within a "phone call" order of magnitude turnaround. It can be done for a phone call, yet for email response some companies take 5 days to respond. I'm mailing you via a medium that works at close to the speed of light because I want a quick response, not because I want it to sit in a backlog for a week.

24. Employ operators in the contact centre that don't talk over me, listen, and have a good level of knowledge of the topic I am phoning about.

Any more to add to this?


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