Business 2.0 – Taking the leap forward…

The following post doesn’t really fit in line with the normal spirit of the blog, simply because it’s not funny nor directly related to technology. It’s called Business 2.0, as it relates to the ever problematic question any business owner has: “When should I grow and how?”.

As you may know, I’ve been a freelance Asterisk Platform developer since early 2003, turned to freelance development (Penguin for hire) around April 2007. Since that time, I’ve built systems and platforms for some of the better known brands around the world. Be it working directly with the customer or through a 3rd party (as a sub contractor) – I can easily say that I’ve completed over 120 different large scale projects within 3 years time. Now, when I refer to projects, I’m not referring to installing PBX systems, I don’t do that at all – I’m referring to highly complex application level development, creating some of the most innovative Asterisk based systems I’ve ever seen.

Image representing Jajah as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

Vodafone

Image via Wikipedia

Putting aside everything, finalizing a rough estimate of 40 development projects on a yearly base, most of these performed solely by myself is a fairly challenging task. Sure, at times I’ll outsource some work to other freelancers like myself, specifically in fields where I’m not all that fluent (Database, Web Development, UI) – but yet, doing that means that I’m conducting 3 – 5 projects on a monthly basis.

After doing so for 3 years now, I can’t help but start thinking about expanding my business, taking it to the next level by hiring more people and building it up to a new level. Question remains for this: “How? What is the natural track of expanding your business?” – of course the simple answer would be: “Just hire another developer or two, and start doing more sales” – it’s not as simple as it sounds. After thinking about it for some time, I’ve concluded there are a few models of expansion:

Model 1: Organic Growth

Organic growth can be described as the simplest way of growth: “Hire a new guy and get more work in”. The problem with this model that it is fully reliant on your ability to sell more. However, as you concentrate on sales more, you take time from the development and delivery process – thus, the addition of the new developer is not a 100% addition, it’s actually 100% (developer) minus 40% (you) – so you are not at 200% capacity, you are 160% capacity. Surely 160 is 100, however, for the initial 6 months, till the guy learns the ropes, you are not at 160, you are actually at 80 – can you and your business sustain that?

Thus, the main issue with Organic growth is cash flow, can your business sustain the elevated expenses with less income for the period of transition? If the answer is NO, then you need a different method. If the answer is YES, then you are in the best place in the world, however, bear in mind that taking someone to work for you is a responsibility – people are not resources, they are human beings, with families and children – taking someone to work for you is like taking responsibility for their lives.

Model 2: The Partner

Panama Business and Investment
Image by thinkpanama via Flickr

A partnership with a person who is equally matched to you is always a good option. Technically speaking, it means that you are teaming with someone who generates as much work as you do and is capable of finalizing the work as fast and as good as you can. Yet, taking a partner doesn’t negate the requirement for a new employee or two. In this case, you may end up with too much sales with too little staff to deliver – that is a big problem.

Another issue with partners is the issue of trust. While most partners tend to rely on each other and trust each other, that trust can easily be broken (in most cases by stupid things). It’s enough for one partner to now carry its weight in sales/development to initiate a chain reaction, shortly ending in the partnership dissolving.

So, the partner is a good option, however, may prove to be problematic if the wrong partner is chosen – in addition, dissolving a partnership solely on these issues isn’t all that simple – and usually ends up in litigation and other judicial issues – YUCK!

Model 3: Un-intrusive Angel

Some people ragard Un-intrusive Angels as “Stupid Money” – an Angel investor that doesn’t interfere in your company business model and operations. In many cases, this is how start-up companies start – someone gives them a lump sum of money to start their business, signing off to own a portion of the new company.

An un-intrusive investor usually gives you the money and pays you a visit once every few months to see how his money is spent. Don’t expect to raise a whole lot from these people, usually you will get anything from 25K$ to around 250K$ – tops. If you are getting an investment from an Angel, make sure you plan your business carefully – and make sure your investor knows what he is getting into. The Angel is not a found piggy bank, he is a business man looking for profit – if you make sure his expectations of profits (time frame, amount, percentage, etc) are kept within the reason of your business – he will make an educated decision and invest accordingly. Promises like: “you’ll double your money in 3 years” are stupid – make sure it’s realistic and to the point. If you promise the moon, and reach a star – that’s a problem, if you promise the skies and hit a start – that’s wonderful.

Model 4: The Strategic-Intrusive Angel

Jeff pulver

Image by TheFemGeek via Flickr

A strategic angel is similar to the previous one in terms of funds, however, he is more capable in assisting your business meet its goals. Usually, it would be someone who is already a well established figure in your business sector, had made his money from previous companies and is now looking for new ideas and businesses. I call him an intrusive Angel, as sometimes he may have ideas as to where your business should go – and he will make sure you hear his ideas. You may regard it as annoying, but you should still listen to your Angel and pay him the respect he deserves.

Sometimes this Angel may invest in your business due to the fact that he has a hidden agenda. An agenda can be: The angel looks at your business and see a certain potential you are not planning, he’ll invest and try to re-direct your company to the agenda he sees. This is usually the case when your angel is invested into several endeavours that is either parallel to each other or may have orthogonal intersection points. These angels can be the builders of your business or the destroyers, it is up to you to make sure the latter doesn’t happen.

Prolog:

So, which model did I choose? – I didn’t choose yet, I’m still figuring it out myself. What ever the model may be, the choice isn’t simple nor straight forward. At best, whatever choice I’ll take will have a profound impact on my business and me – so I’ll need to weigh my options carefully. If you can think of an additional model, I’d love to hear about it – so just comment on this post.

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Asterisk, Greed and Revenue Shares

Revenue sharing is one of the oldest methods of earning profits, actually, I believe it may just be right up there with trading of goods and food. For those of you not in the know, I’ll explain what revenue sharing is:

  1. A content provider wishes to distribute a certain type of content – charging for it.
  2. The content provider has not ability to charge the consumers directly, thus he partners with another party – the transport maintainer.
  3. The transport maintainer charges the consumer, while keeping a certain percentage in his pocket.
  4. Everybody’s is happy.

In general, this model works really well in many markets – specifically those that are driven by unique content – for example the mobile content market (ringtones, screen savers, games, apps) – the Apple App store is a wonderful example of how this works.

In the telecom industry, the revenue shares business is very common – however, in many cases it is highly guarded as a secret – main reason is that now one wants anybody else to know how they do it. This hiding of information, usually results in some problems – as when there is hiding of information, only those in the know are able to access it. Those in the know are called “mediators” or in Herbew “Machers”. In this entire ordeal, the mediator also takes a small percentage – leaving the content provider with slightly less. So, now it looks like this:

  1. A content provider wishes to distribute a certain type of content – charging for it.
  2. The content provider has not ability to charge the consumers directly, thus he contacts a mediator to find him a transport partner.
  3. The mediator engages the prospective transport maintainer.
  4. The transport maintainer charges the consumer, while keeping a certain percentage in his pocket and passing some funds to the mediator as well.
  5. Everybody’s is happy.

So, if everybody’s so happy – why am I bitching about it? very simple – people are Greedy and always want more – putting the entire model into a frenzy. In order to give an example, let’s imagine the following scenario:

  1. Company A provides IVR based content utilizing Asterisk server, connected to the internet.
  2. The mediator engages a premium number company, getting the total revenue of 0.08$ for every inbound minute of traffic.
  3. The premium number company leaves 0.01$ in its pocket and also pays the mediator a fee of 0.01$ per minute.
  4. The content provider gets 0.06$ of the 0.08$ – 75% of the net profit goes to the content provider.
  5. Content provider says: “Hell, I want the mediators 0.01$ as well, and I think the premium company should only get 0.005$, so I would get 0.075$ at the end”
  6. Content provider contacts the premium provider and starts complaining
  7. Premium provider negotiates and strikes a deal for 0.07 to the content provider, leaving the premium provider with 0.005$ and the mediator with 0.005$
  8. Premium provider says: “I’m not making enough money on this, actually, I’m loosing money – I’ll find a better alternative service for that access number”
  9. Premium provider asks mediator to bring in a new customer, providing similar content – mediator has sure incentive here
  10. Premium provider gets new customer and transfers the access number to the new customer – returning back to previous profits
  11. Original content provider is left with no profits and only greed in his hands
Screenshot of a GPL screensaver
Image via Wikipedia

Over the past 10 years, I’ve seen this vicious cycle happen over and over and over again, in various formats and scenarios – but always ending in the same outcome – the content provider always suffers. If you’re a content provider and you provide IVR based services, let the people that provide you the access make their cut and the people in the middle, without them, you will have a service with no access – which means no service at all. Don’t go about thinking you can keep all the profits to yourself, you will break the equilibrium of this business, and eventually, no one will want to do business with you.

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Call Analytics – Closed Alpha testing group

Well, it’s been almost a month since I’ve started writing about the humbug project. Now, it’s time to actually get you people involved, at least in the initial levels. We are looking to add 10 additional members into the humbug call analytics suite. Currently available analytics during the alpha testing is inbound call analytics.

Our aim is to gather as much information as we can and as much user requests as we can, humbug is a community oriented project, thus it relies on community oriented input and feature requests. Participating members will  be granted access to the humbug analytics portal, allowing them to gather statistical information regarding their inbound call hits and their top ten DID numbers – we are working on additional statistics. As new stats will become available, we’ll role those out into the service as soon as possible.

In order to participate in the closed alpha testing, please send an email to alphatest at humbuglabs.org, and we’ll send you a short piece of dialplan code to insert into your Asterisk server. Technically speaking, we’ll send you a short AGI command that looks like this:

exten => _X.,n,AGI(agi://somehost/DataReceiver,some_unique_ident)

The above line needs to be inserted into any place you would like to generate call analytics from. We’ll also enclose configuration steps for FreePBX (and other FreePBX compatible distributions). We are hard at work for creating a FreePBX integrated module, so you can do a one-click install.

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Call Analytics – Beyond CDR analysis – Part I

“Oh, just get me the CDR‘s and I’ll take it from there” – how many times have I heard these words before? I can’t even imagine the number of times in the past 15 years of IT/Telecom’s work that I’ve done and in the last 8 years of Asterisk in particular – when it comes to billing and fraud management, it would appear that the CDR’s are the Rosetta Stone of the industry.

Over the past 6 months, several of my friends and I had been asking ourselves this question: “Is there more to billing, fraud management and profit leakage? does it really all begins and ends with the CDRs?” – so, here we were, a group of 3 engineers dealing with telecom system and billing systems – we knew that the answer is a definite YES, however, how come most companies and system aren’t even aware of this, in such a way that causes them to leak telecom profits and waste their hard earned profit margins on simple accidental mis-interpretation of CDR records.

So, we’ve decided to sit down and start analyzing calls in real-time, trying to evaluate not only the CDR record that is received upon the completion of the call – but also understand the traversal path of the call, analyzing it in real time and evaluating it profit leakage potential. At the mean time, we’re concentrating our work on Asterisk, as it is the simplest for us to implement – however, we’re not focusing it only on that – we’ll looking at adding it to FreeSwitch, Yate, OpenSer/Kamailio, OpenSIPS and the various varients.

So, what have we done so far? well, one thing we never really had with any of the existing systems was a clear view of what’s going on “right-now” on our systems, so we said: “it would really be great if we could know how many call hits we’ve received during the past 15, 30, 45 or 60 minutes” – so here is what we made:

Inbound call statistics for 30 minutesThe above image shows our top 10 inbound DID numbers, as you can see these are in the 972 and 447 country codes (yes, we work mainly in Israel and the UK). At the backend, our servers are analyzing the data in real time, generating an active alert in the case a DID number’s statistics change in a somewhat drastic change, thus, establish a traffic anomaly. Another thing that interested us was our usage across multiple servers, which we are exhibiting in the below graph:

Traffic by server spread

Now, as you can see, the top graph shows a discrete anomaly:

Discrete traffic anomalyThis anomaly indicates something went wrong on all our servers between 00:45 and 1:15, which gives us a fairly discrete period of time to seek for a problem in the system. What happened was that one of the guys updated a portion of the data traversal API – basically deleting it :-) [we resumed full work after about 40 minutes].

So, where is it all going to? well simple, a new Open Source based service that we’ll be launching within a few months from now. Our intention is to provide a means for simple, straight forward, highly reliable, call analytics, fraud management and profit leakage analysis service. A service which is based upon a simple to use API on one hand and Open Source based data gathering agents. Our belief is that by analyzing large amounts of data, from multiple sources around the world, we’ll be able to ascertain the fingerprint of a telecom bound attack – being able to alert the respective users of the service and maybe in the later future, also provide a means to block the attack as it advances across the world.

I’ll be updating about our advancement as we go along, but for the time being, this is something I felt would interest you.

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Beyond the dialtone – PBX user experience revisited

When most of us think about PBX systems, we usually associate these with cumbersome usage, confusing dialing codes and in most cases – a PBX system is automatically associated with the annoying task of transferring a call from one handset to another. Lately, I’ve been thinking deeply about how people use PBX systems, is this really the only way to use a PBX system? is there something else to the mix? can we really enrich one of the oldest operational paradigms in the world? – and for that matter, can the public be re-educated to assimilate a new breed of PBX systems or services?

Hardware-based IP phone
Image via Wikipedia

As to answering the question of re-educating the public, I guess I’ll have to leave that question to the head shrinks. As to answering the latter, enriching the PBX experience is both achievable and advisable. When I say enriching, I mainly talk about your ability to bring to the IP phone functionality usually not associated with it. Imagine to have the ability to receive a stock exchange RSS feed to your phones idle screen, notice that you stock is either rising or falling, and by the flick of a button – either sell or buy. We’ve all come accustomed to IP phones that look like the one of the right. A whole bunch of buttons, that in most cases have no direct use when our phone is utilized using a single account. However, these buttons can be externally re-assigned and re-programmed to achieve greater functionality – surpassing the normal behavior of just making phone calls.

The technology involved exists on almost every high-end IP phone on the market (well, at least those made by SNOM, Aastra, Cisco and Polycom – most of the Chinese makers don’t have this) – it’s called a Mini Browsers. Mini Browsers are exactly what they are called, these are simplified versions of your typical Internet browser. Some vendors had produced their own XML based Mini browser markup language (SNOM, Cisco, Aastra) while others had decided to provide a sub-set of XHTML (Polycom). The variations between the vendors are at the neck deep of the problems of using Mini Browsers, and that is that the formats are considerably different. Sure, SNOM had more or less adopted Cisco’s general structure, however, it still varies.

Through the utilization of this technology, it is possible to create phone based browser applications, that seem native to the phone user, as the general interface resembles the native phone interface. It is now the developers job to make the web interface displayed to the user as seamless and as native as possible, keeping in mind that the developer must remain agnostic to the information retrieval layer. Most companies leave their phone systems and these tasks to their system administrators and infrastructure team, however, this task is far beyond their capabilities and skill set. Creating an agnostic IP phone minibrowser dislplay layer, capable of utilizing multiple vendors and models, is a question of content management and content rendering, very must similar to the content transcoding problem that is common to the mobile content world – in other words, a sys-admin will create an ad-hoc solution, a programmer will create a proper, well structured, well designed solution that carry the enterprise beyond its initial needs and requirements.

A short example of how these interfaces work can be found here – on my company blog.

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