Ten Ways to Make Your Life as an Internet Provider Easier

From ISPs and WISPs to networks in libraries, businesses, and universities, Internet use is on the rise. Yet, as the demand for Internet access continues to grow around the world, so do both the opportunities and challenges for service providers. Just as quickly as your user-base grows, the obstacles facing providers begin to emerge.From competition to unhappy customers, the venture that once seemed certain to succeed can quickly test the will of even the most battle-hardened and tech savvy business owners and network administrators. However, for all types of Internet providers, there are ways to make the process smoother.

For All Providers…

1. Set Boundaries from the Start – When starting up a new service, don’t let your users run wide open. You may be OK without putting rate caps on users when you have only 10 users sharing a 10 meg link, but when you get to 100 users sharing a 10 meg link, you’ll need to put rate caps on them all. The problem with waiting is that your original users will become accustomed to higher speeds and will not be happy with sharing as your business expands – unless you enforce some reasonable restrictions up front.

2. Keep Your Network from Locking Up — Many Internet providers believe that if they set maximum rate caps for their users that their network is safe from locking up due to congestion. However, if you are oversold on your contention ratios, you will lock up and simple rate limits are not enough. Don’t make this mistake.

This may sound obvious, but let me spell it out. We often run into operators with 500 users on a 20-meg link. They then offer two rate plans — 1 meg up and down for consumers and 5 megs up and down for businesses. Next, they put rate caps on each type of user to ensure they don’t exceed their allotted amount. Somehow, this is supposed to exonerate the operator from being oversold. This is all well and good, but if you do the math, 500 users on a 20 meg link will overwhelm your link at some point and nobody will be able to get anywhere close to their “promised amount.”

If you are oversold, you will need something more than rate limits to prevent lockups. At some point, you will need to go with a layer-7 shaper such as Packeteer or Allot NetEnforcer. Or, you can use a NetEqualizer. Your only other option is to keep adding bandwidth.

3. Good Tech Support Is a Must — Don’t put all your faith into the local guru who set up your network. There are many good technical people out there and there are many more that will make a mess of your business. This can create some really tough decisions. I like to use this analogy:

I’m not a concert pianist – not even close – so I can’t tell the guy that hacks away playing Beatles tunes in the piano bar at my local pub from a Julliard trained pianist. Since I can’t play a lick, they all amaze me. Well, the same holds true for non-technical business owners hiring network techs or developers. They all seem amazingly smart when in fact they may run you into the ground. The only way to tell is to find somebody with a really good track record of making things work for people. So, ask around.

The good ones have no vested interest in making a custom dynasty of your business (another thing to watch out for). It’s like the doctor who needs the patient to stay sick. You don’t want that. Poor or misguided tech support may be the single largest cause for failed ISPs or issues with selling your business.

4. Don’t Overspend – ISPs and WISPs, remember that on the open market your business is likely only to be valued at three quarters of your revenue, so don’t delude yourself and overspend on equipment and borrowing thinking that a white night will come along. If your revenue is $500,000 per year, you will be in good shape if you get $400,000 for your business. And this may just cover your debt. Yes, there are exceptions and you might get a bit more, but don’t expect two-times your revenue. It’s just not going to happen, so plan your expenses accordingly.

For network administrators in both public and private companies and institutions, funding is not always a given. Budget cuts and funding reallocation can leave administrators in a bind. So, be judicious when planning and managing your network. Take things like recurring costs and licensing fees into consideration when making purchases. Over time, these expenses can add up.

5. Optimize Your Bandwidth — A NetEqualizer bandwidth controller will allow you to increase your user base by between 10 to 30 percent without having to purchase additional resources. This allows you to increase the amount of people you can put into your infrastructure without an expensive build out. Yet, a purchase like this can be a difficult decision. It’s best to think in the long term.  A NetEqualizer is a one-time cost that will pay for itself in about 4 months. On the other hand, purchasing additional bandwidth keeps adding up month after month.

For Commercial ISPs and WISPs…

6. Make Sure You Have a User-Base to Grow Into — For ISPs and WISPs, perhaps 500 households before you start building out. Yes, you can do it for less, but 500 is sort of a magic number where you can pay yourself and perhaps some hired help so you can be profitable and take a day off. WISPs and ISPs with 100 customers are great, but, at that size, they will remain a hobby that you may not be able to unload a couple of years down the road.

7. Be the Reliable Alternative — If you are in a dense metro area, and have the resources, you can offer Internet connections to hotel and business customers with pay-as-you-go services. Many hotels and businesses have unreliable connections, or none at all.  Obviously you’ll need real estate across the street, but once secured, you can point a directional antenna into the building and give your signal a recognizable name so your users will connect. Then, offer them the connection for a daily fee. For many users, paying a small daily fee for reliable service will be worth it – especially if the hotel or business offers sub par Internet service, none at all, or a connection for an exorbitant price.

8. Make Payment As Easy As Possible — When a customer is delinquent on paying their bill, make sure you have a way to direct them to a payment site. Don’t just shut off their service and wait for them to call. For small operators, you don’t need to automate the payment cycle, just send them to a static page telling them how to pay their bill. For larger operators (3,000-plus users), the expense of automated bill payment may be worth the extra cost, but with a smaller set of customers, a static redirection to a page with instructions and a phone number will suffice.

9. Look for a Competitive Credit Card Processor — Your bank will likely provide a service for you, but they are generally a middle man in this transaction. There are credit card processing agencies that sell their services direct and may be more cost effective. These are no-brainer dollars that add up each month in savings.

10. Cross Market — Don’t be shy about it. Once you have a captive audience, there are all kinds of cross marketing ideas you can do for extra revenue. Done tastefully, your users won’t mind. This could be a special with the local car dealer running coupons for them. Or for something like a pizza place. There is unlimited potential here, and if you’re not taking advantage of it, you’re missing out on easy revenue.

Obviously, these 10 tips won’t apply to every Internet provider, but it’s almost a given that at least some of these issues will emerge over time. While there’s no guarantee that any network will operate perfectly, these tips should help steer Internet providers and network administrators in the right direction.

Tips to Placing Effective Google Ads (What We’ve Learned over the Years)

Here are some basic do’s and don’ts regarding using Google Adwords that we’ve learned through experience. Follow these and you’ll save time and money. We assume that you have run a Google Ad campaign and are familiar with the basic terms.

  • Do use search words and search engine advertising. These clicks are worth it if you want to spend your click-money wisely.
  • Don’t use content ads, or, if you do, use them with extreme caution. We have deduced through much anecdotal evidence that our content ads were often fraudulently abused through scams that Google was unable to detect. In the last six months or so they seem to have this under control, but in general content ad clicks are not worth it. Too many bored people clicking them with no intention to buy anything.
  • Do use the time of day feature. If you have a commercial product for business, don’t run it on weekends. You will get less qualified and more confused buyers. Obviously, if you are targeting home consumers, weekends may be your best bet.
  • Don’t try to be first or even second on the page. Set your budget and try to get the cheapest clicks possible. For example if you are selling “spy vision glasses” and you budget $80 per day, you want to barely reach your target each day. For two reasons.
    • 1) Potential customers that find you on the second page are very seriously searching for a product and are likely to buy. If you can hit your target budget with clicks on the second (less expensive) page your value per click will be much higher.
    • 2) Being the first product displayed will cost you much more per click and will most most likely bring you an early browser rather than somebody ready to buy.
  • Do make sure you have some motivation on your home page to entice people to tell you who they are. This could be a prize giveaway or a white paper — basically just something of value for which they will register or provide contact information.
  • Don’t hide your price. If your product costs $200 and customers are expecting something for $50, you are not going to upsell them. These clicks to unqualified customers will cost you both time and money.
  • Do run multiple ads and route them to specific pages. We call this follow through. Your google ad has very limited word space so, when clicking, the customer should see a follow through on the ad they just clicked. For example, if your product ad says “bumper stickers for baseball fans” don’t send them to your home page if it features 100 other different products. Send them to something specific regarding baseball bumper stickers.

Obviously these tips aren’t foolproof, but we hope they will make the Google Adwords process both easier and more productive.

APConnections a Model for Software Startups

Art was recently asked by the prestigious Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to share his experiences as an entrepreneur on eVenturing.org. In his article, “Building a Software Company from Scratch,” Art shares some of the keys that have led to the success of the NetEqualizer and APConnections. Here’s the article:

Building a Software Company from Scratch

At APconnections, our flagship product, NetEqualizer, is a traffic management and WAN optimization tool. Rather than using compression and caching techniques, NetEqualizer analyzes connections and then doles out bandwidth to them based on preset rules. We look at every connection on the network and compare it to the overall trunk size to determine how to eliminate congestion on the links. NetEqualizer also prevents peer-to-peer traffic from slowing down higher-priority application traffic without shutting down those connections.When we started the company, we had lots of time, very little cash, some software development skills, and a technology idea. This article covers a couple of bootstrapping pearls that we learned to implement by doing.

Don’t be Afraid to Use Open Source

Using open source technology to develop and commercialize new application software can be an invaluable bootstrapping tool for startup entrepreneurs. It has allowed us to validate new technology with a willing set of early adopters who, in turn, provided us with references and debugging. We used this huge number of early adopters, who love to try open source applications, to legitimize our application. Further, this large set of commercial “installs” helped us ring out many of the bugs by users who have no grounds to demand perfection.In addition, we jump-started our products without incurring large development expense. We used open source by starting with technology already in place and extending it, rather than building (or licensing) every piece from scratch.Using open source code makes at least a portion of our technology publicly available. We use bundling, documentation, and proprietary extensions to make it difficult for larger players to steal our thunder. These will account for over half of development work but can be protected by copyright.

Afraid of copycats? In many cases, nothing could be better than to have a large player copy you. Big players value time to market. If one player clones your work, another may acquire your company to catch up in the market.

The transition from open source users to paying customers is a big jump, requiring traditional sales and marketing. Don’t expect your loyal base of open source beta users to start paying for your product. We use testimonials from this critical mass of users to market to paying customers who are reluctant to be early adopters (see below).

Channels? Use Direct Selling and the Web

Our innovation is a bit of a stretch from existing products and, like most innovations, requires some education of the user. Much of the early advice we received related to picking a sales channel. Just signup reps, resellers, and distributors and revenues will grow.

We found the exact opposite to be true. Priming channels is expensive. And, after we pointed the sales channel at customers, closing the sale and supporting the customer fell back on us anyway. Direct selling is not the path to rapid growth. But as a bootstrapping tool direct selling has rewarded us with loyal customers, better margins, and many fewer returns.

We use the Internet to generate hot leads, but we don’t worry about our Google ranking. They key for us is to get every satisfied customer to post somethig about our product. It probably hasn’t improved our Google ratings but customer comments have surely improved our credibility.

Honest postings to blogs and user groups have significant influence on potential customers. We explain to each customer how important their posting is to our company. We often provide them with a link to a user group or appropriate blog. And, as you know, these blogs stay around forever. Then, when we encounter new potential customers, we suggest that they Google our “brand name” and blog, which always generates a slew of believable testimonials. (Check out our Web site to see some of the ways they use testimonials.)

Using open source code and direct sales are surely out-of-step with popular ideas for growing technology companies, especially those funded by equity investors. But they worked very well for us as we grew our company with limited resources to positive cash flow and beyond.

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