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November 2005

Shingle Grandiloquence
by Brian Dunning

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If ever there was a harmless man, it is Conrad Wiegand, of Gold Hill, Nevada. If ever there was a gentle spirit that thought itself unfired gunpowder and latent ruin, it is Conrad Wiegand. If ever there was an oyster that fancied itself a whale; or a jack-o'lantern, confined to a swamp, that fancied itself a planet with a billion-mile orbit; or a summer zephyr that deemed itself a hurricane, it is Conrad Wiegand...

When I met Conrad, he was "Superintendent of the Gold Hill Assay Office" -- and he was not only its Superintendent, but its entire force... Here latterly he has entered journalism; and his journalism is what it might be expected to be: colossal to ear, but pigmy to the eye... He doubtless edits, sets the type, and prints his paper, all alone; but he delights to speak of the concern as if it occupies a block and employs a thousand men.
- Mark Twain, Roughing It, 1880

I love that quote, as it so clearly illustrates the old maxim that the more things change, the more they stay the same. 125 years later, the world of small business is still bursting at the seams with Conrad Wiegands and his ilk. I often wonder how Conrad would avail himself of today's communication tools, and give his invisible newspaper compositors a veil of third dimension.

Automated phone menus permit a sole proprietor to make it seem as though an army of extensions and departments are on call. Email and mailing lists let anyone create barrages of communiques from non-existent Alter Egos and phantom employees. Web sites can show legions of headshots on the company directory page, all gathered from Google's image search.

Yet even the modest tools available in 1880 are still employed today. Whenever I read how Conrad introduced himself as the Superintendent of his assaying business, I am reminded of the CEO I once knew of a dot-com drycleaning delivery business. He's the same guy who drove the van around. He answered the corporate cell phone with one name, wore the corporate delivery uniform with a different name on the nametag, and conducted the corporate business using his own true name with the grandiloquent title "CEO" appended.

In real companies, of course, "CEO" is meaningless unless it refers to the executive officer who is appointed by, and answerable to, a Board of Directors who represent shareholders. But, there's certainly no law (in the United States anyway) that says these can't all be the same person. There's also no law that says a sole proprietor can't title himself Grand Poombah, Mickey Mouse, or Sultan of All Creation. Thus, "CEO" is no less valid a title for a sole proprietor than "Pretentious Quack" is, and it might be more likely to trick a potential customer into thinking that you're more than just a one-man-shop. Of course, such a customer would need to be someone who's pretty easily tricked; in which case, I say, just pickpocket the buffoon when you meet him and be done with it.

Then there is my realtor, as independent a surfer as ever lived, who, while paddling his board toward that left break, has an answering machine responding that a member of his "team" will reply soon. His business name, in fact, is "Your Team, Inc." If you can call the back of a 1975 VW bus an office, that's what it is; but when on the phone, he always needs to "drop by the office to speak with his team" and speaks only in the first person plural: "We" have been talking about your house and think you should hire one of "us" to sell it for you. That I can recall, he has never used the word "I" when in realtor mode. Like Conrad Wiegand of Gold Hill, he "delights to speak of his concern as if it occupies a block and employs a thousand men."

Another modern advantage that Conrad would have liked to have in his corner is the ability to sell electrons. In nearly all cases, I advise my companies to sell by electronic download only: no physical packaging, no expensive boxes, and most significantly, no inventory costs or carryover. I like the fact that I never run out of electrons, and if I ever do, I can always get more of them. I use it to improve the bottom line; Conrad would use it to increase the apparent depth of his talent with the trend of eBooks.

Some clever wags have conspired to call themselves authors of "books" that have never darkened a page with ink, and certainly never troubled a publisher. You'll see them all over the Internet: get-rich-quick schemes, How-To guides, and a thousand other excuses for the vainglorious to call themselves authors and hawk their "books". Nothing strokes this type of personality finer than to casually mention references to his "book". As we all know, what this means is that he wrote something in a pirated copy of Word and saved it as a PDF, then stuck it on his web site. "I've written a book." "If you'd like to learn more on this subject, you might want to take a look at the book I wrote." Or, for the especially generous, "We're able to give away free copies of our 265-page book today." 264 of those pages are probably upsell attempts to some other worthless content on his site. There is one particular perpetrator of this crime against modesty in the person of a prominent proponent of New Age healing, whose "book" warning of the dangers of medical care is so popular that it would probably get published as a real book, were it not so full of grammatical errors, spelling errors, editorial errors, and, well, just errors in general, let's say.

But, just to prove that I'm not biased, let's talk about my own occupation, software; and to prove that I'm not above hypocrisy, let's point the collective finger at me for a change (which finger is for you to decide). Something that always makes me laugh is the practice of Photoshopping fake software boxes. As I've trumpeted above, I don't sell boxed software (used to: been there, done that, learned my lesson) and don't plan to return to the practice. So why are there pictures of software boxes on web sites that I've been rumored to be associated with: here, and here? Worse, I even made one of those myself: I won't say which, I'll leave it to you experts to decide which was done by a professional designer and which was hacked together by some fat clown who had nothing to better to do in the middle of one night. Let's do ourselves all a favor, and the next time we see a pretend box shot of non-existent software on a web site, let's call the owner out on it and enjoy a group laugh. I volunteer to be first on the chopping block.

A partner and I have a property business, and one of the vendors we use sells products and services for property investors on a web site. The guy has a practice that always makes me blow milk out of my nose (even when I haven't been drinking milk - it's amazing!). He posts frequently - annoyingly frequently, desperately frequently - to a mailing list I subscribe to. Most are announcements of new or rehashed product offerings. And almost without fail, there is a silly claim that response to his last offering was so crushing that it overloaded his web server! Now I've met the guy, and I know that the total nationwide market is only about 2000 customers (and if he's doing great might capture 1/10th of 1% of the market - say, 2 people) - nevertheless all 2000 of them seem to need his attention all at once. His replies to questions on the mailing list - although very prompt, there probably being little else to do in his quiet office - always apologize for the delay, due to "overwhelming customer response." A couple years ago he offered classes, and magically, when the first class was announced, it had already been filled! Amazing! Overwhelming customer demand had filled unannounced classes, and severely limited the space on those few remaining sessions. In fact, the demand had overloaded his web server. I have no doubt that I will see another such post from him today. Fortunately it's still funny. My guess is that he bought a cheap self-help book on marketing yourself and was advised to "tell them they can't have it, and they'll want it." Gee, haven't heard that one before.

Now I don't mean to sound like I'm down on all the world's blowfish, or that I simply dismiss them as cheap entertainment - and if I do dimiss them, I still don't mean to sound like it. Certainly many of them provide good products and services. But if they were a little more genuine about who they are and what they're about, I for one would take it as a breath of fresh air. Or if they would just dump the embarrassing "CEO" title and go with the more distinctive "Sultan of All Creation" - it's a better ice breaker, and even has more syllables.

Browse Mode
Jan 10 Solving Performance Emergencies with FileMaker Server
Aug 06 Top Ten Sessions Cut from the 2006 FileMaker Developer Conference
Jul 06 Who's Driving This Thing, Anyway? Or, How Marketing and Engineering Buried the Hatchet (Warning: Contains a Curse Word)
Nov 05 Shingle Grandiloquence
Oct 05 In Celebration of Geek Magnetism
Aug 05 A Rogues' Gallery of Devcon Attendees
Mar 05 Lies, Damned Lies, and Project Specifications
Feb 05 Pick the Right Tool for the Job
Oct 04 Home Media Server Requirements
Jul 04 Leveraging Your FileMaker Lingo
Apr 04 Technical Support Redux
Mar 04 Enforce Seats in FileMaker 7/8/9 Commercial Solutions
Feb 04 Reinventing the Wheel
Oct 03 WAP: The Technology That Wasn't
Aug 03 Brian Dunning's California Governor Election Platform
Jul 03 Sex and the Single Software Developer
May 03 XSLT: Creeping Out of the Closet?
Feb 03 A Consultant's Guide to Traveling
Nov 02 Adventures of Bat Magnum, FileMaker Consultant
Sep 02 FileMaker at Area 51
Aug 02 FileMaker Terminology
Feb 02 Computer Shunts
Dec 01 Aquabase Alpha & the Consultant's Challenge
Aug 01 It IS the Size That Counts
Jun 01 On the Trail of Sasquatch
May 01 Spring Cleaning
Feb 01 FileMaker Mobile Survivor Challenge
Jan 01 Letter from Nürburg
Dec 00 Performance Anxiety
Nov 00 Objection, Your Honor
Oct 00 Leveraging Convergence: Jargon for the 21st Century
Sep 00 Top Ten Things to Do at Devcon
Aug 00 Aesop's FileMaker Fables
Jul 00 Ten Commandments of FileMaker Pro
Jun 00 Explats Cross Examined
May 00 iMac, Therefore iServe
Mar 00 Valley of the Dollars
Jan 00 Are You Up for a Review?
Nov 99 Tales from the Script
Sep 99 Tech Support Revisited
Jul 99 Moderns vs. Classicals
Mar 99 Nashoba, We Hardly Knew Ye