An experiment

So, I’m trying something new!

I think there are enough people on Twitter who use Class PET and Read & Respond Engage to try out a best-practice blog. I have set it up on Posterous, here, and would love for anyone to share how they are doing!

(possibly the shortest post I have ever written!)

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Don't conform… or obfuscate

Some people define insanity as doing the same thing as you have always done and expecting a different result each time.  Well, for me, launching new products, someone could have looked at me and committed me.  I seem to fall into the same trap…well no more!

I shall explain – this isn’t an advert – just self-reflection and honesty.

By now, I hope you know  I work for Scholastic Education.  The type of resource we are traditionally known for is teacher resources (typically A4, with or without a CD-ROM inside).  However, in the last couple of years we have been publishing other types of resource: reciprocal reading, non-fiction guided reading, digital resources such as Story Stage, Class PET and Read & Respond Engage.  Normally, when you launch new products into new areas that you don’t normally publish, you look at the competition, see what they are doing and copy them.

For example, Class PET.  We launched what is a fantastic digital resource as a subscription product.  Something that is the norm for that type of resource, and therefore, why wouldn’t we do this? We hadn’t counted on two things. One was that the market was changing when we launched.  What worked as the norm isn’t necessarily going to work in the future, and secondly, most importantly, it goes against what we do as a business.  (The closest thing Scholastic have to a subscription product are our magazines at £20-£40 a year – not hundreds of pounds a year.)  Therefore, our customers weren’t expecting to see subscription type product from a company that they usually purchase and own the resource from*.  So, we did the thing that most companies steer as far away from as possible: we changed.  We now offer Class PET and Read & Respond Engage as a one-time only purchase, just the same as if you bought a book**.

The part of selling books to schools that has always been clouded in obfuscation is that of guided reading.  Probably not the thing to say as an Educational Publisher!  Look at any publisher of guided reading books, and it seems that 23.6p is added on every time they add a couple of pages.  Well, this time, you can call the men with the white coats off…we are going against the crowd here.  Next month, we are launching a Guided Reading series that are the same price, whether they are for Pink band A, or Orange.  Whether they have four or twelve pages.

No more confusion, no more working out how much something is going to cost. Simple, clear pricing.

The lesson I have learned? To trust my instincts.

*note – our customers are very likely exactly the same as those of companies who do offer subscription products, it is the expectation that is different.

**there is a nominal annual Access and Update fee, but this is for a guarantee that the resource that will work with any future curriculum that is published.

Great Expectations or why businesses should under promise and over deliver

If you set the bar high, you have to reach it

If you set the bar high, you have to reach it

This post was originally posted on The Best of Hinckley blog, where I occasionally guest post.  You can read it here, or in its original context.

I am sitting here, typing this blog post out, very early on the day of my house move.  It has been a long time coming – we put our house up for sale last October, and after five agents (two local, two national and one internet based) failed to sell it, we managed to let it out after only two days.  This is a post about setting expectations.

In everything I do, I prefer to buy from local companies, therefore the  first agent who came around to the house was from an agent who only works in Hinckley and the surrounding area.  He was enthusiastic, and left our house saying that we would be sold within a fortnight.  A fortnight came and went, the house didn’t appear in the local paper when he said it would, and took quite some time to appear online, and after three months, we had had enough and went to some national agents to save the situation.

We had three agents in to look at the house in January, and chose two of them.  We went national for greater coverage, and more professional appearance and because both of them said that the previous agent had done it all badly, and they could have it sold within weeks.  Weeks came and went.  Chasing agents turned into a small hobby of mine, and it wasn’t long at all before they were suggesting that it maybe the price – because the market is absolutely fine!  We lowered the price quite substantially, and still no movement.

Finally we went with another local agent, and an internet based seller.  The former followed exactly the same pattern as the three above and the internet one claimed an average number of days to sell a house was 21 days. You guessed, it 21 days on and we haven’t had a sniff.

I don’t blame any of the agents for not selling our house, it is a very tough market.  If five agents can’t sell it, you have to think that there is something more than just one bad agent.  In unguarded times, one of the agents said that the houses that were selling were going at the bottom of the scale, and only then it was very tough to get them moving.  It is a hard time to sell anything.  What I do blame them for, is setting very unrealistic expectations. Neither my wife or I are daft people, we can take the truth, what has been incredibly tough to take is sales people setting themselves up as a fantastic way of getting houses sold, and in every case would get it sold within weeks – when really they probably knew it would take much much longer.  We have been left with an incredibly sour taste in our mouths from dealing with people who deal primarily in doublespeak.

The lessons to learn for any business out there are:

  • be honest;
  • talk to people as grown-ups who can take the truth;
  • set a reasonable level of expectation;
  • if you say you will call every week with an update, do it;
  • if you say that you will be able to sell a house or deliver your product  in a fortnight, do it!

If you are in business then whatever you say you do, ensure that you do everything in your power to do it – under promise and over deliver. Even if the first agent had sold the house in three weeks, the very high bar of a fortnight would not have been met and the outcome is – I am disappointed.

And what happened to the house?  Well I met Graham from Easy-Lets and Sales in Earl Shilton who came and let our house out in two days – much quicker than he thought it would be and at every stage, he has provided a level of service which surpasses all our other experiences.  Well done Graham!

How tech saved me from being homeless

OK so that title is laced with much hyperbole, but at least it made you look! And it has an element of truth in it!

For one reason or another – mainly the landlord being on holiday in the far east –  the tenancy agreements for our new house took a long time to come through.  In fact, so long that they didn’t make it to me until 3pm yesterday, and we move in today!  I needed a scanner, and quickly, otherwise, we may well have not had keys to our new home until tomorrow, which would have been bad!

Enter stage right the Scan2PDF app for Android.  For £3.99 it turned my phones camera into a scanner, taking a photo of each page, collating them together and then emailing the PDF straight to the Estate Agent. Very. Nice. App.

8-years in the making…

I moved into my home just over eight years ago, and as many of you will know, next week we will be moving out of it.  Since I have been living in Leicestershire, I have worked for three different companies in five different locations: Coventry (17 miles), Cheltenham (85 miles commute), Coventry (26 miles), Leamington Spa (28 miles) and now Witney (72 miles).

So, to house clearing ready for the move next week, and what did I come across, but photos of the house when I came to view it – and I couldn’t help but share!  I have put some photos below – the reason everything is in blue, yellow and purple is that the house was decorated in Leicester City colours…

I haven’t done any of the bathroom and kitchen – but believe me they have had as much of a makeover as the rest of the house!

Descriptive Wordpress URLs

In WordPress, when you first set it up, your urls when you post look something like this: http://www.chrisrat.com/blog/?p=123.  Not entirely the most descriptive!   I have to thank my friends over at BrainPOP UK for the tip here to turn that into a descriptive URL.

This is a short post, as it is super easy to sort.  In your WordPress control panel, go to ‘Settings’ then to ‘Permalinks’ and you will see something like this:

If you have never been here before, then the ‘Default’ radio button will be selected.  Simply select ‘Custom Structure’ and copy what I have put in above, and it will make it a lot more usable!

Remember everything

When I made my debut Teach Meet presentation at Teach Meet East (from about 1 hr 16m 30s), one of the services I talked about was Remember the Milk. I use RTM often, and although it isn’t new, and a lot of people have used it before, there seemed to be quite a few people who had never heard of it when I spoke.

So what is it?

Remember the Milk is task management software…a funky to-do list if you like, that you can share. The example I gave at TMEast was that I can tell it to remind me to do my expenses tomorrow, and tomorrow I will get an email telling me to do my expenses.  Simple, but effective.

How do you use it?

There are a number of ways to get things on the list (email, Android app, chrome widgets etc.) but the main way I use it is through the desktop app and the web interface.  Type in what you want to do, and when to do it like this:

and it appears in your to-do list with the time set for when it is due like this:

When you have finished compiling the list (and my house moving list needs a lot of work!), then you can start to set up folders and notifications etc.  I have my reminders sent to me three different ways, so I can’t avoid them!  I get them to two different email addresses (work and home), and via skype. There are a host of other ways you can be reminded as well, but three is fine for me!  One thing that does work really well, is that it synchronises with your Google Calendar.

Why go pro?

RTM is free unless you take out the pro version.  I wanted to use RTM with my BlackBerry, as it can take any tasks that I have set up in Outlook, and turn them into to-do’s in RTM.  To be honest, I didn’t use that feature that much, but now that I have an Android phone, I am using it a lot more.

So, I mentioned sharing, how does that work?

This is where RTM becomes really powerful, and where you can get people to work together toward the same goals.  In RTM, you can share any one of your lists with a colleague, and then allocate a task to them (and therefore receive tasks from them!).  I have used it a few times this way, but you have to ensure that the people that you are using it with, know and like web2 tools – otherwise you are going to have a battle on your hands to get people to use it!

In conclusion:

I like it a lot, it has never let me down, but you have to remember that it is only as good as the content you put in.  If you make a habit of using it, your productivity will go up – if you use it sporadically, as with anything, it will only be sporadically useful!