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Oh, that espresso machine problem

jason

Sunday I mentioned that my espresso machine failed during a matcha latte demo. It turned out to be a trivial thing… my thermal cutoff died. My initial impression that it must have overheated was correct.

I went to Home Espresso Repair in Phinney Ridge, just in my neighborhood. They were brilliant and helped diagnose the problem without so much as a bench fee, and sold me the fuse for $5 + tax. I also got a replacement for a slightly broken portafilter handle—a small plastic endcap had mysteriously disappeard some time ago—and they replaced the handle for a mere $1.

I went home and installed the fuse myself, and it seemed to work, and then I closed up the machine, and it seemed not to work anymore. Yesterday I went back to the shop and they weren’t terribly busy, so one of the partners tested and replaced the fuse in front of me, and made sure it worked before I departed.

When I got home, it seemed not to work, but I tried another wall socket before running back, wanting to avoid seeming like a larger idiot. That was a good idea, because it turned out that somehow a circuit breaker associated with that socket had been tripped recently, maybe when I was testing the machine the day before. Everything is good.

How to be adaptable

jason

Over the last few days I have been chatting with some more people who I think will be good partners for near-term business projects… I was approached by someone who wants me to coordinate and plan a short-term ceramics event in the late summer/early fall in Seattle.

I also started conversations with another nifty Ballard business that has a compatible concept for Asian lifestyle goods, and it seems I will be doing some wholesale brokerage for them after we can settle on terms. They have excellently designed home interior goods made using sustainable practices.

Over time I realized that the best way to build my business is through partnerships with compatible projects. I’m hoping I’m not too late on the execution… but I’m quite happy with selling other goods as long as their objectives aren’t too far from my own.

I’m more than a little worried with all of the money risks I have right now, but I think I’m taking the right path to solve the problems… nonexistent inventory risk, building relationships with people of similar mind, and staying true to my vision, even if not the original tactics. 

First matcha latte demo

jason

It was a quiet day at Bellevue’s Uwajimaya, but I did my first demonstration of Three Tree Tea’s matcha latte mix.

Customer reception seemed mostly positive, but there are some folks who don’t like matcha, some who don’t like sugar, and some who don’t like milk…We’re not talking about an outrageously sweet drink; it’s not like a typical bubble tea. But there’s a wide range of tolerance for sweetness. Occasionally someone would say it wasn’t sweet enough (which is a more solvable problem: add more sugar)… Tea is a very personal beverage, and everyone responds differently. I’m quite fond of this particular blend, because it’s not too sweet and not too bitter… most of my Japanese friends say “choudo ii” (just right.) But Uwajimaya’s customer base comes from all sorts of regions… Today a Thai customer said that the dragon beard candy wasn’t as sweet as she prefers. Indian, Thai, Indonesian and Vietnamese taste preferences tend to run a little sweeter than Japanese and Korean preferences, and Japanese and Koreans tend to like more sweetness than Chinese customers.

One bit of disaster struck. I started out serving hot matcha lattes, steaming the drink with an espresso machine’s steamer attachment. At some point the power indicator light went out, and I thought maybe the machine overheated and shut itself off. But it never got back to normal… I couldn’t turn it on again.

I improvised. The weather was moderate today, so it was no problem to start serving “iced” lattes… I just used cold milk and shook it up in a plastic pitcher supplied by Masalisa.

The big surprise of the day was that the medium size outsold the smallest “impulse” size. It is a bit cheaper per serving, but that’s quite the opposite experience with the dragon beard candy; I usually sell way more 3–pc. samplers than any other size. I’m happy about that, because the 1/2 lb. size will likely have some more elegant packaging in the future, and if it remains the bestseller, that will be a good coincidence.

Demos on weekdays, sorbet at night

jason

I somehow confused myself into thinking that today was still Wednesday. I’ve had a bit of trouble sleeping so maybe my mind isn’t working at full speed.

Anyway, I’ve been doing more weekday sampling at Uwajimaya so that I can get rid of more candy. I have a bit of an overstock problem still and I’m not very happy about it… but sampling helps sell products, so I’m just doing more of it… my target was more the dinner rush, but it seems Seattle’s Uwajimaya doesn’t get much of one. Fortunately, it means I can be a little more personable with the customers that come by, and talk less like a pitchman and more like an ordinary human being… the conversion rate is much higher. I sample less, but sell reasonably well and get people interested beyond the 2–5 minutes they stand in front of me.

Last week I didn’t sell much doing the two weeknight demos, but today I managed to clear about as much in two hours as I did in Portland all day last Sunday. I’ll be at Uwajimaya Seattle again tomorrow and Saturday, and somewhere else on Sunday, most likely Bellevue.

When I got home my roommate asked me to take ourselves to Red Mill for dinner, so we split a red onion veggie burger, nibbled some onion rings and overdosed on some fruity milkshakes.

She reminded me that it was Thursday. I think my brain was functioning enough at Uwajimaya that I remembered I needed some potatoes for a dinner party we planned for Friday… but I thought I had one more day, so I ignored other vegetable needs.

So after eating I stopped at a supermarket and picked up some more vegetables and some cannelini beans… I’ll make a little soup tomorrow, and some of my potato pizza, and a little salad. I made some fennel marinated in course salt and yuzu juice, something I’ve made before on several occasions and I’m quite fond of.

I did some prep work for tomorrow, since I’ll be entertaining straight after a demo. I simmered some rhubarb in sugar and water, and pureed it with some fresh strawberries and a bit of lemon juice. It’ll be turned into a sorbet in the morning. The base tastes nice, so I think the sorbet will be pretty good. The strawberries seem to be of the almost flavorless California supermarket freight friendly variety, but they’ll work for now… Local strawberries won’t be in season for a bit longer.

My favorite results with strawberry in sorbets are when small local berries make it to the market. I usually just puree the strawberries with sugar and a bit of basil, and add some lemon juice to balance the sweetness. I can’t remember the exact variety but they are usually sweet and aromatic. I guess I will hunt some down when the time comes.

Telling marketing stories

jason

Joi Ito wrote about a book called All Marketers Are Liars which talks about the relevance of the stories behind products to their perceived value. It sounds like a good read, since I also realized the story behind a product is at least as important as the product itself… but I still haven’t figured out how to build a huge audience based on the story.

The products that I am most fascinated with, and most likely to import, have really compelling origin stories… when I first saw the dragon beard candy—served to an emperor two thousand years ago, handmade, ephemeral, usually unable to survive more than an hour or so in humid conditions—at a Japanese trade show I got really excited about it because it was unlike anything else on the US market, and fascinating to watch.

Of course, there’s not much of a “lie” in our story, but there’s some mythmaking. We don’t know which emperor the candy was first served to, but we’re retelling the traditional legend that every dragon beard candy maker in the world knows because they were taught the story by their master. We do try to message that this is more delicate than the street version, which might be a minor deception, because it’s necessary that we have this less sticky, more “refined” texture to avoid melting. It’s maybe less “fun” than the street version because it’s not as chewy and messy and there’s no 60 year old guy making it right in front of you, but the maker tries to compensate for it with beautiful presentation, an obsession for detail, and substantially better hygienic practices.

I guess one problem is getting the candy’s story retold effectively. I’ve so far been most successful with a high-touch method of doing the storytelling: live demos, in-store sampling, and so on. At wholesale margins, it’s really hard to build enough of a market to make a living doing that. Even with the word of mouth effect, I think my product is so obscure that the word of mouth doesn’t translate into rapid growth of customers; it’s special occasion; in the U.S. it doesn’t have the inherent advantage of being sold to tourists who want something interesting to bring back to their home countries, and it’s more extravagant than the US is used to for Asian foods.

But maybe my problem is more one of scale… I may not be “big” enough to do what has to be done on my own.

Matcha gin

jason

Matcha GinLast night I mixed about 1/4 cup Matcha Latte mix with a couple of tablespoons of warm water, stirred it a bit, then I added about 3 cups (or roughly 750 ml) of dry gin and shook it up a bit. I will infuse the mixture for about 7 days and then keep it in the freezer. I want to minimize the risk of oxidation and also keep the flavor green-tea like.

I’ve made this type of drink once before using about a tablespoon of matcha and maybe 3/4 cup sugar (it was a sweeter drink last time). I usually drank it after dinner served extremely cold, just pulled from the freezer. In that case it was more of a strong liqueur; it had a heady green tea flavor but was sweet enough that it needed to be blended with some shochu or vodka to cut the sugar.

I will infuse it for about 7 days. After that I will store it in the freezer to minimize additional oxidation, so that I can keep the color as green as possible. I think it’s discolored a bit since I first made it last night since it was more of a emerald color originally, but a little bit of color change is probably unavoidable.

I’m hoping it will make for a nice martini, just shaken and poured into a glass washed with vermouth. The last version of this I made worked for a martini but was more of a digestiv-style drink.

A rare case of tax procrastination

jason

When I worked at Microsoft I had a habit of figuring out my taxes just after all the forms came in… I would file my return right away if I was due a refund, or wait until the last moment if I owed money.

This year my taxes were more complicated than ever before… complex capital gains, carryover of prior year capitol loss, business loss, vehicle expenses for business, travel expenses, business use of home… I had a fat stack of papers to fill out, an insane number of receipts, and I was too cheap to spring for accounting software last year to make my life easier. I also had a pretty busy February and March.

So, in spite of the fact that I anticipated a huge refund this year, I put most of the work off until last Sunday night or so. Accordingly, I was working down to the wire. I probably have to file an amended return because I didn’t include every one of my little expenses. Not to mention my return probably looks suspicious because I have such a dramatic disparity between revenue and business expenses… some of that due to unfortunate inventory management mistakes last summer, and some due to the fact that some of last year’s sales aren’t reflected until they get paid this year.

I was one of the slackers at midnight tonight. I was suitably frazzled, and I am sure I made a few mistakes. I’ll try to figure it out again after making a dent in the litany of other tasks I am trying to catch up on…

Irritating spammers

jason

It seems over the last few months my referrer logs on my blog site have become nearly useless.

I used to enjoy looking to see who was linking to me, but now 90% of the “referrers” are actually bogus. They attempt to promote questionable pharmaceutical or gambling sites. Someone just writes a bunch of scripts that cruise blog sites with forged headers.

Most of them are immediately obvious ploys but every once in a while something pops up with an innocuous-looking URL that tricks me.

I think they are trying to trigger fake trackbacks or something. After I added the Human Interaction Proof (HIP) requirement to post comments on my blog, all of the spammer efforts were shifted from making bogus comments to making bogus HTTP referral log entries.

Somehow I can’t figure out how such spammers think this helps them. I wouldn’t actually buy anything from such a site and cluttering up referral logs can’t help with search engine page rankings, so what exactly is the objective?

Outsourced customer service sucks

jason

A bit over a week ago my otherwise nifty Motorola MPX220 phone decided to stop charging… the battery seemed fine, but when I plugged in any of several charging devices, no power flowed into the device.

After struggling through what I thought was a long hold time, I got someone who had a hard time understanding how to spell simple words, even when I spelled them out multiple times. A scheduled pickup never materialized, and I called back late the next day, and they told me my address was not on file. I gave my information all over again, and the scheduled AM pickup also never happened.

I called a third time yesterday, waited on hold about 20 minutes after several abortive attempts at navigating irrelevant voice prompts, and they scheduled a same-day pickup at my office. Someone from FedEx did show up, this time with a completely blank waybill, and I had no idea what the address should have been. So she said she could come back the next day, but I figured I could drop the package off somewhere just as easily on my own.

When I called Motorola again, I waited on hold for 25 minutes once more, only to get transferred a recording with a barely audible pronunciation of the destination address. I tried to drop the filled-out waybill today at Kinko’s, but they refused to accept the package because there was no recipient account number on the waybill.

On the rare occasions when I’ve had to return something electronic for repairs or exchanges, the vendor almost always just sent their driver with a door tag, or gave me a link to a web page where I could print my own label. This odd exception has wasted more hours than I would have thought possible. I found the whole thing very frustrating.

I was about to unleash a fury on the unfortunate person who would answer my call today, but the wait time was only 2 minutes, this time and she was oddly disarming and suitably apologetic. She managed to confirm the pickup by telephone instead of the usual electronic method, and even gave me an account number to list on the waybill in case something went wrong.

I could have been more explosive… I was rehearsing empty threats of lawsuits in my mind before I called. Thank goodness an occasional customer sevice lackey has decent people skills. We might be reading about violent cases of Customer Service Rage.

All of the daytime customer service staff seemed to be located in India, and are apparently unaccustomed to US accents pronouncing things like letters and common street names. However, after 4 pm or so, it seems that the support staff are in some Latin American country, and although the staff speak with an accent the ones I’ve encountered so far seemed less confused by American English conventions.

I’m not philosophically opposed to outsourcing; it stretched our resource-constrained team far further than previously possible when I was at Microsoft. Telephone customer service is hard to do well even inside a company. But I wish companies would evaluate the cost in a more sophisticated fashion: What’s the cost of customer frustration with a company? What’s the cost of a bad experience? What are your corrective measures when your outsourced customer service ruins your customer relationships?

In my import business, my goal is to find things that are imported for a good reason: I want something if the product is made better where it’s from than anywhere else, or an has a distinctive style that can’t be readily duplicated, or it otherwise has a really compelling origin story. I think that outsourcing of technical services will ultimately have this approach, as well as the low-end brutal cost consciousness that’s the dominant reason for going to India, China and Russia right now. There are some really well-educated folks in Asia and Russia and some of them are bound to develop technologies or maybe even service methodologies that will be in demand on their own merits, rather than simply because they cost less. Burnout jobs in call centers that spend most of the time trying not to be helpful to customers in to avoid expensive bench time or better software design… is this really the best outsourcing model?

 

Woohoo! My laptop is back!

jason

I have been living on borrowed laptop since the 29th or so, when I sent my laptop off for repairs. It finally came back today. I was off running errands in the morning so I had to pick it up from the FedEx distribution center down in South Seattle.

I scheduled a bunch of demos for the next couple of weeks, so I hope to clear some inventory. I don’t like being in the position I’m in now… having too much inventory, having no seasonal factors in my favor for buying… it’s frustrating. On the bright side, one of my customers indicated they had sold through more product over the last few weeks, so the sting will be a bit smaller.

Yesterday I had a meeting with a distributor to talk about a line of products I don’t think I can completely handle on my own. It’s will be using my own branding, so I can minimize the risk of someone else stealing my supplier, and of course I also would be selling some custom products that couldn’t just be duplicated. I need to explore a bit more. I learned a lot at the meeting, and got one option that might work out.k

In the evening, since it was First Thursday, I went to the Henry gallery with Jennifer and another couple of folks, where I saw a couple of nifty installation pieces. One of them, a three-screen video installation from Doug Aitken, called “Interiors,” must have taken some incredible editing skills… three simultaneous videos on three different screens with edits tightly syncronized, overlapped and with a complex sound design.

Alex Lieber’s mobiles were kind of clever… They seemed a little Ikea-inspired, but I might just be cynical.