Listen to Podcast on Your Favorite Service
The internet marketspace emphasizes both self-service and self-reliance. The buyer, you and me, hold a puzzle-piece shaped description of needs. We then strive to find a service provider who can complete the picture. Rarely do I talk with a real human being or get to ask questions. The damned chat windows on sales pages focus on the wrong answers – well certainly not my answers.
But then, some services standout such as Recurly. As a note, they are NOT sponsoring this episode or podcast. We are but a humble customer they have never heard of.
I will identify Recurly’ services, our decisions, and our processes in this chapter. But maybe first, I define Recurly. For PodcastFlow, Recurly replaces PayPal. I divulged a few of our misadventures with PayPal in Chapter 5. Their failures forced us to run away. Recurly promises to be tool to manage credit card payments for subscriptions to our software and our courses. We ask new customers to buy a subscription with a credit card and we do not want to ever deal with the confidential financial data related to the credit card. There are two reasons. First, it makes us a target for bad actors on the web. Second, to collect that sort of financial data means we must comply with a rigorous series of international standards. Frankly, my favorite means of keeping data safe is to limit access to it, even my own.
Recurly’s business model better resembles a fast-food restaurant than a linen-draped place with too-much silverware. I still prefer the professionalism of sit-down dining in comfortable place with wait staff who listen, and teach, and indulge me that little bit. The internet business model provides few opportunities for indulgences and poetic descriptions of savory foods. Instead, our team steps to a figurative service window on the internet with no one at the counter. Both the modern buyer and the modern seller expect little human interaction at this figurative service window. The exchange, occurring at near-light-speed, completes. An old promise of no human touch fulfilled. “Look ma, no hands”.
Our team shifted focus to Recurly in less time than it took to understand the facts, the sort of speed on sees after touching a hot stove; a reflexive twitch. It was after we re-tooled for Recurly that we appreciated our decision, their services, and the full scope of their offerings. PayPal provided the pain and we hit Recurly in the recoil.
I could paint that decision process to tell almost-truthful story – tell a bragging story. Here, in the left column here are the features we want. In the right column, the features Recurly offers. While we did deliberate as a team over a modest pro-con matrix. We did not do anything like this. We knew what we hated (oh, PayPal) and through that experience, learned what we really needed and wanted from a partner.
I can admit that both the PayPal and the Recurly decisions involved more intuition and gut than research.
Recurly ticked off enough features to be the good-enough option. Surprisingly, we accidently found features that resolved long-simmering issues between Kelly and me. We found these features as we wrote the code, not before.
Kelly and I had a kinetic discussion about pricing and features in October of 2019. My position was absolute and solid in structure. On the other hand, Kelly sought flexibility to bundle offerings, offer coupons, and capture analytic data. Her desire for flexibility opposed my understanding of what PayPal could offer. A subscription with PayPal followed a simple rule: X dollars for Y term renewed at Z intervals. To this formula, we can have a trial or no trial.
Kelly wanted pricing that allowed us to sell a course with the software free for six months, then renew the software at an annual rate. Described thus: “six months of software for free”. Buy this and get that, and that too – like late-night knife commercials.
My position: We can only structure offers that we can support with our tools (and our partner’s tools).
Her positions: others do this, why can’t we?
I had to win the conversation. We can only do what the tech permits. I refused to write a full suite of tools for managing payment which may step us into storing payment data such as credit card numbers, expiry dates, and billing postal codes.
As a tool smith, I propped myself on two false pretenses. One, instead of accepting my duty to solve problems, I fought back with: “No”. Second, I then assumed that PayPal had the same capabilities and limitations that its competitors have: Hertz to Avis or Wendy’s to Burger King. As firms compete, their offerings overlap.
I was wrong, again.
We acknowledged the failings with PayPal in June of 2019. By July of 2019, we continued to fight with PayPal. Services and technical documents fell below our expectations. We compensated by limiting our vision and banging at problems with the few tools they offered us. They offered one path forward. We followed it.
In December, our team’s combined frustrations with PayPal pressured us to movement – in the same way that flood waters push on a dam. I had tunnel vision. My tunnel vision infused the team. My explicit and implicit instructions failed to include the freedom to examine other vendors.
When we started the project in June, our intent involved selling subscription-based software to a global market. In December, our offerings expanded to include courses. Our needs changed. PayPal barely met the needs defined in June. Then failed to meet the needs known to us in December.
The needs did not change, only our comprehension of those needs.
The dam broke when our accounting team explained South Dakota v. Wayfair Inc. Vision opened wide; at that moment, my resistance ceased instantly. We shifted focus, wrote a digital connector within a week. The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) determined that business must collect sales taxes on behalf of every state in the U.S. PayPal can’t do this, not for subscriptions.
A subscription is different than a standard online purchase. Let’s say I am buying tea at my favorite tea shop. I click my Earl Grey, select the one-pound bag. Find my demerara sugar cubes. Sneak-a-peek at some lovely kitch, then order a new tea strainer. I examine my on-line shopping cart. I forgot my tin of Scottish Morn. I find then add that. The shopping cart analogy works well. I have an inventory of items in a basket. The checkout process calculates price based on quantities and unit prices. I have already provided my shipping address to them. They have a subtotal of goods sold. They know my location. The system looks up the taxes. The grocery items are tax exempt in Vermont, the tea strainer is not. The taxes display, then I pay the total amount after selecting my shipping option. This process cycles back and forth between the website and the customer. A digital dialog progresses in the background.
Subscriptions vary from the purchase of a product. The consumer buys annually or monthly. After the first approval, the subsequent purchases run through without additional guidance. The same amount is charged to the credit card at the appropriate interval. There is less back-and-forth between consumer and vendor. To calculate taxes, one must have key ingredients. First, we need to know the location of the buyer. We can approximate this from the shipping address, or the billing address, or the internet address. These sources for location may not agree, therefore a bit of guessing is required. Shipping address is likely more accurate than the billing address. These addresses are both likely more accurate than the internet address.
The process of identifying a consumer’s precise location is an estimate. The town related to my shipping address has my home in Brattleboro Vermont nearly thirty kilometers away. This town collects sales tax on goods. My mailing address, a post box is five kilometers away. My internet address shows up with random locations around Vermont and New Hampshire. When my VPN is running, the internet thinks I am in Ashburn, Virginia.
The precise location matters. Brattleboro Vermont charges additional sales tax. My town does not. But because my shipping postal code appears to be in Brattleboro, we sometimes pay sales tax. My tax rate should be six percent. Instead, it varies between six and seven percent.
The variation results because of challenges in finding a precise location with imperfect data. In the type of software, we write, no one has written syntax for “maybe”. Rules inside of business software involve matching a situation against known criteria. If the postal code is 05301, then the consumer is in Brattleboro Vermont. Oracle database systems resist variations on this such if the postal code is 05301, maybe the customer is Brattleboro Vermont. A software developer faced with resolving this situation must look for more data. The software, nor the software developer can know that the United States Postal Service used the same postal code for five towns covering nearly 1000 square kilometers. We, developers, strive for greater precision with more data.
Often more data obscures. The data fail to align. Instead of a tiny dot on a map, a system paints a vague box of likely locations for my home. Therefore, the developer must then decide whether charging tax or not charging tax is the better course.
In the end, the developer must decide to avoid fines and penalties. Failure to collect taxes may result in fines while collecting taxes where not due may not even be noticed by the consumer. Done. The developer decides to charge the additional one percent and send it all to the State of Vermont. Vermont will send some to the Town of Brattleboro. Therefore, Brattleboro collects sales tax for a transaction between me and my tea vendor in New York. To be entirely clear, I am not in Brattleboro. I did not ship to Brattleboro. Go ahead Brattleboro, enjoy the one percent sales tax collected from my purchases.
Something similar did happen in Boston Massachusetts in 1773, with tea, with taxes on tea. I know that story, I had two third cousins participate in that protest (yes, a few generations back and they were both third cousins).
The Ideal Customer
Our decision-making process in December informed me about how I respond to the pressure to buy. I am skeptical. I deny trust to anything advertised or efforts to capture my attention. My eyes scan and my brain filters incredibly fast. There are times that I wonder how anyone sells anything to me. But I buy. Sometimes, I even shop with pleasure. Though, shopping with pleasure is rare. Most often I fill with dread. I frankly hate shopping.
When I do buy something, I can effuse on the purchase – tell stories, show off a bit. I am a customer that businesses should want. I am an ideal customer (of course, I’ll say that about myself).
I am NOT the customer that business advertise to. I do not fit into demographics of sought-after consumers. I never did. Never once growing up did I sincerely identify with anyone’s target market demographic. They always wanted someone else. In my youth, I did try. Regret, and sadness and frustration often followed my effort to be a customer. I cannot buy clothing off-the-shelf. I feel like a comic book freak sent from section to section, wandering store to store wanting something to fit and look good. As a teenager, each thigh was 71 centimeters. My waist was 66 centimeters. Salespeople pointed to the distance saying: somewhere else. At an awards dinner in the Bay Area back in my Cisco days, a friend told me that my shoes would not do. I nearly cried. I resisted then yielded. Tiina stated with confidence that we will find shoes that fit. We called Marco, my bay-area driver (long before Uber) to support our shopping effort. After six hours, Tiina accepted failure. My mother, then living in Italy, had written me a letter about that time. My mother wrote of herself: I must be Cinderella’s oft sister, there isn’t a shoe in Europe that fits my foot. Our extraordinarily wide feet always put us in the oft position, the other shop, the other place.
Shop attendants informed me in plain words: “We have nothing here for you”.
I have cash money and a problem to solve. But so many businesses have said: No, not you.
Over the decades, retail businesses and I came to a firmer resolution. I could not go to malls and bright stores any longer due to PTSD.
From twenty years of age, I started working on emergency ambulances in and around the cities of Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. That work served as my summer job during school, and an easy landing place after my degree. It paid well after some seniority. The job eventually faded to weekend work, then finally no more flashing lights, no more crime scenes, violence, degradation, death, mutilation, and bitter sadness. By the age of 28, my startle response was lethal. I lived on a raw edge due to PTSD. No more holiday firework shows, no more big crowds, no more concerts. And no more brightly colored malls and stores.
Brightly colored lights can at times cause me to shut down to a child-like state. The incapacity it causes starts a cascade of other problems. When like this, I just do not belong with normal people. I feel broken.
I got help. I improved. I learned my triggers. I did eventually return to a few concerts. Yet, shopping malls and big retail stores instill me with fear of my own response.
The poor businesses think they offer happy bright colors, the colors and energy of joy. Yet to some population, it is just too much stimulus – it is all noise.
I spent a year in Iraq in 2006, and then I spent ten years as a paramedic in rural New England, including time as chief of a service, mentor, instructor, and incident commander. I have tools and techniques to assist with managing my PTSD. Twenty-five years of symptoms that wax and wane, inform my basic decisions about shopping, travel, adventure, and fun.
I am not broken!
Nor am I unusual.
The fact I am not the demographic for so many businesses is not my fault but their fault.
I have spent my entire adult life learning to avoid anyone that tells me I must pay attention to them. If you are advertising, I know you are NOT advertising to me. You have already told me that, I am not in your demographic. I have walked into your store and been told: “We have nothing for you here”.
Your crowds, your bright lights, your music will crumble my strength. I will become irrational, fearful, angry, a resentful of being trapped by your walls. Your behavior already tells me that you do not want me, you do not know me.
Guess what, I am an ideal customer. Screw you for not knowing that. And screw you for not figuring out how to sell to me. Know who did? Amazon. Know who else did? Any number of bespoke tailors who know how to shape fabric to fit the human. I can buy a car in a snap. The most recent car happened to have been the most expensive one on the lot, and the most expense model the manufacturer makes. Frankly, I did not care much about the cost. The car fits me (or is it that I fit the car). I am happy to have it.
The ideal consumer is one who has money and looking for a solution or a product.
It is that simple.
Podcast Flow LLC sells subscription-based software to a global market. We need a solution that helps us manage subscriptions, including payment and regulatory compliance. The cost of the solution will be treated as cost-of-goods-sold. We budgeted PayPal to cost approximately 4% or more of every transaction. Therefore, we have money to fund our solution.
We are an ideal customer.
How to Sell to Me
Selling to me is hard. Fifty years of television ads, fifty years of radio ads, twenty years of internet ads. As a technologist, I know all of the knobs and switches to help me minimize attention-grabbing noise. Throughout my adult life, I could program any device and use the fast-forward button.
For those of you who have ever left a military post at the main gate. The experience can be like arriving in Oz. Across that road are brightly colored signs, big letters, flashing signs, flashing lights. On post, the colors, building shapes, signs, and terrain adhere to color palettes established by Uncle Sam – muted, earth-tones, subtle. Off post, there are fast food joints, bars, pawn shops, and bail bonds. They all scream: Look at me!
I can’t. I can’t see anything in that mess. My basic skills for friend and foe recognition fail. I need to differentiate trust from don’t-trust. I need to tell the difference between signal and noise, a technical term from the old days of radio. Sometimes there is a valuable message in the chaos of static, lights, and mess. That message is the signal. The rest is noise. I need to filter the noise, which is also called squelching.
I instantly squelch red, yellow, flashing, and strobing. I can squelch movement. It’s hard. I can spot an owl land on a tree limb from 100 meters in the pre-dawn light. Clearly, I do not enjoy Las Vegas.
That first measure I make is a trust/don’t trust assessment, also called a threat assessment. How safe am I?
In my first weeks working in the city on an ambulance I learned a new way to knock on a door. Step one – do not stand in front of the door. Step two – knock on door with an outstretched arm, most often with the long flashlight. Step three – understand the person on the inside has already experienced trauma sufficient to call emergency services. In summary, when knocking on a door, my life is at risk.
Dear Vendor: know that some portion of your audience performs an instantaneous threat assignment – often unconsciously and executed with bias beyond your understanding. Please help me with this assessment. How easily can I find your bone fides?
Dear Vendor: please tell me what you offer? Please tell me a clean story, a consistent story. I understand that positioning a new product in an emerging market is difficult. During the 1970s somebody once said: nobody needs a computer on their desktop or in their home. Yet today, so many of us carry mobile computers on our person.
Dear Vendor: please try to avoid stupid mistakes. My criteria and tolerance for creative spelling varies. In a multi-lingual neighborhood, phonetic efforts can be a great hook to grab my attention. On the internet, be professional about language. In 2020, a non-native use of a language on the internet can be warning sign. If you wish to sell to corporate businesses in North American, that typo may signal me you are a fraudster. Conversely, it could also tell me that you are also a left-handed dyslexic like me – thereby fostering accidental kindredship. You can’t know how I’ll respond. Get it right.
Dear Vendor: please provide some depth. Somehow connect to something beyond yourself. Local-town trades person may have a two-page website. Even there, I expect a phone number that make sense and a dot on a map. Please, please find someway to establish a legacy on the internet. If you really can’t, write a heck of an origin story to tell me why I can’t verify you in some respect. You, your idea, your product, and your website didn’t hatch fully formed and ready for business. If it did, you are committing fraud.
Here is a fundamental checklist for selling to a scarred, scared, and skeptical market:
First blink: survive the friend-or-foe threat assessment.
Second blink: tell me what you offer
Third blink: don’t distract me with errors and excessive movement (noise); Be consistent.
If you survive that, then know I will dig. I am about to give you money, maybe my credit card. I may tie my business to yours.
I will triangulate you, your firm, your staff, your products, and your services.
Yes, the first search is absolutely done with one, two, or three internet search engines. No, Google is not alone. Google results are manipulated by revenue to Google, neither good nor bad.
We took Recurly and ran it through popular news aggregation sites and search tools. Multiple sources reported that Recurly raised $19.5 capital during the fall of 2019. That infusion of capital was after our first efforts with Paypal.
Results that adds to credibility:
- A competitor advertising on top of a search for the target name
- The target results in the top few listing of the search
- One or more articles by an independent source – even a hometown newspaper
- Some hint of multiple links, such as partners, etc
- Social media hits including blogs.
- Are there blogs? Do the blogs augment the story? Or distract?
- Any references to staffing, hiring, leadership? What are the jobs that are posted? What credentials are required for the jobs?
- Is there a help desk or knowledge base? Can I get to it?
Clearly there are derogatory results that prompt elimination. I can skip that analysis.
Let’s imagine, you are Recurly and you want to sell to me. Your wicked smart marketing team knows everything I have just now written. Let’s review what Recurly is selling. They suggest they have the ability manage subscription payment and renewal for our on-line software. Recurly tells us this in the hidden information in their website header:
Title: Subscription Billing and Recurring Billing Platform | Recurly
Description: Recurly provides enterprise-class subscription management for thousands of businesses worldwide.
That is a near perfect alignment with our statement of needs.
They offer a proof-statement through their dedicated developer’s website. They provide complete documentation of their digital connectors on a website. In this documentation, they provide two additional nibbles of information.
First, they document their entire history of their application programming interface, including data on prior versions.
Second, they provided me a link to download their interface. I am not, my team is not stuck typing stuff from a website and failing due to errors. Recurly met us half-way. We must still write code but now we have a known and demonstrable target.
The information we discovered on the internet told us that someone else has trusted this company. Someone has invested time, money, and smarts into this company. Their digital interface demonstrated human intelligence and experience in knowing what we would need.
I tell myself that the segregation of the developer’s hub and documentation to a separate website illustrates a negotiated settlement between the marketing people, corporate leadership, and technical people. I fabricate the following in my mind: there is a voice in a meeting stating that the API and technical documentation is a corporate and marketing asset. Another voice in this meeting argues back. No, decision makers will never look. It is just noise that will distract the audience. A third voice states: you can’t share the API publicly because it gives up our intellectual property and gives our competitors an advantage.
Listen to me. I make decisions. I am an ideal customer – for someone. I am not unique. I am not a unicorn. Accept your customers for who they are, not who you want them to be.
Let’s follow my eyes through Recurly’s primary website (as I see it in the Winter of 2020). I see a clean website. There is some small movement of company names fading in and out of a list of supposed customers – some well-known firms and some I’ve never heard of.
I scan this list. There are some firms listed that would defend their brand and kill this website if their name was ill-used. Ok. Tick. Probably not complete lie.
Their website is not screaming at me to pay attention. Their website can sit on my desktop and not distract my eye. I can leave it up. Dozens of websites I visit per day, I must close, bury, or minimize. They flash something. The moment a website moves, I kill it. Boom! Gone. I have three monitors and I want a fourth on my desk. If I give your website real estate on my desk, don’t be the ass that pulls my attention from something more important. You be you. I have you open for a reason. Do a popup, play a video, have stupid moving box follow me down the page… you are gone. I kill you, I close you. Bye bye.
While discussing website animation… let it be purposeful and deliberate. Let it tell a story in the movement, then please make it stop. What goes on in my mind while I am at my desk? I balance between intense focus and head-on-a-swivel distractions. At any second, something critical and urgent may disrupt everything. I have spent fifteen years responding to emergency calls from other people. I spent a year in Iraq building communications infrastructure whilst people fired rifles and mortars somewhere in earshot.
Listen, I am one of millions. If you wish to distract me with movement, make sure you mean it. For example, crashed server, failed services, new urgent trouble ticket, bank balance crashing, a health or welfare issue for friend, family, or colleague. All the rest of y’all: shut up.
As I roll down the Recurly site, I read some of the words on the page. “Powering subscription commerce” hits home with a message. I understand. Good.
“Top Subscription Platform for maximizing revenue” with maximizing revenue in bold. I don’t trust this statement. Top platform is subjective. Maximizing revenue is not their job. They collect money for my firm to manage subscriptions. They don’t sell for me. They don’t market for me. Our revenue rests on my shoulders, not theirs – unless they are in the marketing and sales business as well. Wasted space, wasted words.
Roll down…A list of companies. Oddly Recurly is not claiming them as customers. They just list logos. I just clicked their link to “See all customers”. I am not there, so this statement is not truthful. The truth is worth advocating for. Moving on…
“Subscribe to our philosophy” – ooh clever. But I do not know what it means. I try to click and nothing happens. There is no article or definition. Too bad. Wasted space. Roll on…
I see resources in a region. Helpful. Good. And now a menu with some meat. Here I am at the bottom of the page, having ignored the top 90%. My signal to noise analysis continues as I click through the links. Recurly’s signal-to-noise ratio is on-par with most North American business-to-business websites.
Why did we miss them in June?
I can’t answer well. Recurly did not appear in our quickie analysis of PayPal’s competitors. Furthermore, we searched three months before they got a 19-million-dollar investment. We could have used the wrong search terms. They could have had the wrong keywords on their site. My tunnel vision and focus on a market leader added to the delay in making a better decision.
Furthermore, I am a scared, scarred, and skeptical consumer. That’s a tough market to hit. I firmly believe that if you want my attention, you are wrong because I am not now, nor never have been your demographic. My defenses must have flexibility otherwise, innovation and invention are not possible. I need others. I need to feel some sense of inclusion. I may need your services. Riddle that out, and you’ll win the game.
Not only did we write an interface to Recurly that works brilliantly, Recurly continue to improve their services. PodcastFlow intended to launch during the eve of the global COVID pandemic. We hit pause and postponed our effort.
During the ensuing month, Recurly snuck in a nice little feature called “items”. It seems like an obvious feature. Items makes bundling and building subscription plans easier. In the summer of 2020, we modified our digital connector to Recurly to use these items. We then made very real improvement login and security aspects of our products. Recurly’s improvement met new needs for PodcastFlow.
We decided to release more courses for podcasters. We had already written a learning management system with Oracle APEX and PL/SQL. The Learning Management System is attached to PodcastFlow. The two are separate software. With the enhancement at Recurly, now if we see “LMS” in the first part of an item code, we know that the customer bought access to the learning management system. The second part of the code informs us which course or courses to provide access to.
The few weeks of effort improved our services significantly. I have a few criticisms or hopes for Recurly, they are so minor I’ll not share them publicly. Maybe by the time, I record this episode and publish it, they will have made a few fixes.
In closing, the self-service nature of the internet marketplace means the seller may know little about the actual customer. Store front windows like websites often echo the age, taste, bias, and demographic of the marketing and sales team. Sadly, too few marketing folks recognize that their decisions may be repelling customers with cash.
You know who my perfect demographic for a product or a service that I sell? Or even the perfect demographic for this podcast? Anyone interested. While I do speak about business, entrepreneurship, software development, and business decisions I hope I don’t drive away interest (unless of course, your PayPal. Oh well.)
In the next chapter, I will discuss the United States Supreme Court decision “South Dakota versus Wayfair”. This ruling changed internet commerce in the United States. It had an immediate and profound impact on nearly every business selling anything via the internet to a person in the United States.