Happy 7th Anniversary

Far Reach CakeSeven years ago today I remember leaving the house for the first time to go to work full time for Far Reach. We had no office, as our future home in the UNI incubator was not yet finished. Instead I spent the first couple of weeks working at the coffee shop, the library, or at Kate’s kitchen table. We had a business plan, which we had created over the previous 10+ months, but I really didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.

This Far Reach thing all started in early 2006 when Jason decided he was ready to start his own company. I clearly remember the morning that Jason approached my cubicle, looked at me, and asked, “Are you in?” I knew exactly what he was talking about—we had had many discussions over lunch at Taco John’s about starting our own company. I replied, “Yes, but let me make sure my wife is on board.” That night I talked to my wife about it and she asked, “Who is involved in this besides you and Jason?” I listed the names of the other guilty parties, and she gave me the green light. She knew we had the right people on the Far Reach bus, even if the gas tank on the bus was pointed at empty.

Fast forward to Friday, April 13, 2007. That Friday the 13th was my last day at my corporate gig that paid well and had great benefits. My wife and I have three kids, including our (at that time) 5-year-old twins who both have autism. My wife had been a stay-at-home mom the previous 5 years so she could provide the care our kids required. Maybe we didn’t know better, but neither of us was too worried about jumping in to start Far Reach. What’s the worst thing that could happen, right?

A month into our journey at Far Reach, we found ourselves throwing away our finely crafted business plan as it became clear that pursing K-12 educational software would have been most likely a complete failure. It was a bit late to turn back, so we learned quickly about “pivoting.” We decided to focus on doing some website projects and consulting work that we had just started, which was the beginning of Far Reach as it exists today.

Cleaning the Far Reach Office

Not everyone thought that starting our own company was a good idea. Why give up the corporate job with a steady paycheck for something that is completely unknown? It is true that none of the 5 founding partners had any experience running a company, none of us had an MBA, and to top it all off we were all developers. What did we know about starting a company? We all had families to support. How would this all work? Were we crazy?

I guess we were/are a bit crazy, but we had a solid foundation of five partners who wanted to do something that made a difference. It would have been easy to stay at our corporate jobs and remain a cog in the system—filling out forms, writing code, and earning that steady paycheck. Instead we had a vision: to create a great place to work and build great software.

What if Jason had not decided to stop by my cubicle? What if I had said “no”? What if Far Reach never existed? Whoa, deep questions. For me, the past seven years have been a journey filled with great experiences, relationships, and learning.

Incubator Graduation - Far ReachHad we never started Far Reach, I would have never met our great advisors and mentors, including people like Mike Colwell and Maureen Collins-Williams. I would have never met people in the Iowa startup community, including people like Christian Renaud, Geoff Wood, and Ben Milne. I would have missed out on great events like Big Omaha and EntreFest. I would have missed the opportunity to work with our awesome employees. I would have missed the opportunity to meet and work with our great clients. I would have missed out on projects that give back to our community, such as Sturgis Falls Celebration and Operation MAD. I would have never had the chance to help build three other companies:

I would have missed out on a lot.

Traditionally the number seven is considered a lucky number. Today, on our 7th anniversary, I feel very lucky to be part of Far Reach. I’m proud of the team we have built and what we have accomplished in the past 7 years. Jason and I still occasionally have lunch at Taco John’s, but now we don’t talk about, “What if we started a company,” but rather, “How do we make Far Reach even better?” The Taco Bravos are still made the same way, but they seem to taste better now.

Posted in Business, Fun | 5 Comments

Using ArcGIS and Maps to Visualize Your Data

Deep down I am a data guy. I like to dig in to datasets to learn about the data and how to find useful information from it. I especially enjoy finding ways to effectively present data to users in ways that are easy to understand and use.

During the past couple of years at Far Reach I have had the opportunity to work on various projects that involve visualization of data. Two of these projects include the Greater Cedar Valley Alliance & Chamber Data Portal and more recently, Mortgage MarketSmart. In a recent post I talked about how we focused on usability within Mortgage MarketSmart. Now I am going to focus on visualization of data.

Maps are the primary tool used in the Mortgage MarketSmart application. We use maps to show data geographically. When a dataset is loaded on the map, the counties are filled with a color symbolizing the data attribute for that location. This is all pretty cool, but users want the ability to visualize the data in different ways—the way that lets them get the information they need. With this in mind, we built in the ability to customize the symbology for map layers.

Let’s jump to an example. One of the basic actions in the platform is to add one or more datasets to the map. Once the dataset is loaded on the map, the user sees the dataset as a layer on the map with its default symbology.

Visualizing Data with Map Symbology

As you can see, it’s not the most helpful data. Obviously you don’t have context, but trust us, this is too vague.

To make the visual data more relevant, users can customize the symbology for the dataset by using a “Custom Theme.”

  1. Field – The attribute in the selected dataset you wish to symbolize.
  2. Color Theme – The color scheme for symbolizing your data (various colors and a heat map option are available).
  3. Method – Three different symbology methodologies are provided including Equal Interval, Natural Breaks, and Quantile.
  4. Break Count – The number of category segments you want to create.
  5. Apply – Update the selected dataset to reflect the new settings.

Custom Map Symbology, Mortgage MarketSmart

Once you have the settings customized, you can save the map and your settings will automatically be applied to your dataset the next time your map loads. Pretty slick!

Applying Data to Decisions  

In a recent release of Mortgage MarketSmart, our new Market Comparison Ranking Tool was launched. This tool allows users to compare and rank locations based on selected attributes. The purpose of the tool is to provide insight on which locations are most important to the user based on what criteria they care about.

Once the user has selected their attributes and locations, the ranking engine goes to work and produces a data grid showing the rankings. Notice in the screenshot below that the user sees the raw priority score and can break down the locations into different tiers (groups) based on the priority score and methodology.

Mortgage Market Comparison Tool

The user can apply methodologies and class breaks just like they did to datasets on a map, but this time the tiers are shown in the data grid. The result is the user-selected data that is important to them and the ability to create tiers of locations where they can focus their efforts and resources.

The tiers from the data grid can be shown in a map to provide a great visual of their market data.

Mortgage Market Comparison Map

Taking this one step further, the users can choose one or more tiers to create a new market, which can then be added to other maps.

Making sense of data can be a challenge, but by allowing users to customize how the data is displayed in the maps, the data comes to life and allows the user to make better decisions.

Posted in Custom Software Development | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Facebook Page Reach is Dropping. Let’s All Just Quit.

I know you can’t 100% tell my tone from the title of this blog, but it’s sarcastic. The last few months I’ve heard people complaining about a decrease in organic Facebook reach. Things, “Facebook is out to get small business,” and, “Facebook is just out to make us buy ads.”

This blog post is specifically inspired by a recent Time article: “The Free-Marketing Gravy Train Is Over on Facebook.” The article is relatively unbiased, but I’ve seen people on social media get outraged. Maybe you’re one of them; maybe you’re not. Either way, let’s take a step back and look at a few things.

Organic Facebook Reach is Dropping

Organic Facebook Reach is DroppingNo one will dispute you on that fact. I’ve seen it, you’ve seen it, and other Facebook marketers have seen it—it started in October 2013. If you haven’t noticed it, you’re either not paying attention to your Insights, didn’t have good reach to start with, or are posting great content.

Why is reach dropping? It’s caused by a variety of factors that have been made public, along with reasons we aren’t privy to.

The biggest reason for cutting organic reach is that users could potentially see 1,500 pieces of content every day, just on Facebook. I’m a Facebook user, and I definitely don’t want to see that much content. That’s what Twitter’s for. Facebook’s algorithms now show content based on post recency, type of content, quality of the content (Facebook marketers are still trying to figure out what this means), and individual preferences such as engagement level with the page.

You may think, “I have 1,000 likes on my page so every post should be reaching that many people.” Not necessarily. Some users don’t log in every day (shocking, I know); some have purposely hidden your content; and not everyone wants to see that template cat meme you posted in a feeble attempt to get engagement.

I understand that a drop in organic reach is upsetting—we’ve come to expect Facebook to be free. But Facebook would go out of business if it didn’t change.

Facebook Was Never Free

I remember in a first-semester college class—macroeconomics—learning that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Everything has an opportunity cost. I’ve held strong over the last few years that Facebook is not free…it’s “free.” It provides the illusion of being free, but what does it really cost you?

If you’re a small business owner, when you’re spending time doing Facebook marketing, you’re not spending time performing other essential business functions (besides marketing, of course). If your employees run your page, you’re paying them to do that, whether you realize it or not.

Just like any other marketing medium, Facebook marketing is an investment—as it should be. If you do Facebook marketing correctly, you’ll get more out of it than you put into it (assuming you set goals and tracking mechanisms ahead of time). If you’re not happy with your return, get help. Some of us spend our whole lives figuring this stuff out.

Facebook is a Business, Not a Charity

Before its IPO, Facebook offered a lot of value for little to no cost. That was deliberate. They used that approach to increase the number of individual users on the site and the businesses trying to reach those users. At 1.2 billion users, I’d say their plan worked.

Now that they’re public—heck, even if they weren’t public—they need to make money. Saying, “Facebook is ripping us off by making us buy ads on their platform,” is an unfair statement. You can still make a Facebook page for free, right? Right. You can still try to get as many likes as you can without paying, right? You don’t have to run ads on Facebook to be successful. No one is forcing your hand.

I’m not necessarily defending Facebook; I’m trying to look at it from an unbiased view (which, trust me, is hard when I want 100% organic reach too).

As a business, you don’t even have to be on Facebook. If you say, “but I do have to be on Facebook because that’s where my customers are,” then you’re just helping me make my next point. So thank you.

If your customers are watching the local news, you’re going to look at advertising during that program. Would you expect to get those ads for free? I didn’t think so. If you’re trying to reach your audience with Google Ads, you don’t expect Google to offer that for free, do you? Me neither. Then how is it different with Facebook?

To me, Google and Facebook are a good comparison in this instance. There are low-cost (I’m hesitant to say free…see above) options to reach your audience—organic search optimization on Google, organic page reach on Facebook. But there are paid options to supplement your organic efforts—Google AdWords and Facebook ads.

You Are Facebook’s Product

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but assuming you’re a Facebook user, you are the product that Facebook is selling. They’re not selling a platform or a place for social connection (that’s all free, remember)—they’re selling businesses the ability to reach targeted users.

Users are the product, so Facebook has to keep us happy, or it won’t survive. There are already rumors that youngsters aren’t getting on the network (that’s a whole other rant).

So how does Facebook keep users happy? At this point, their strategy is to allow anyone to post content (keeping businesses on the platform) without annoying users (filtering out the bad content). Note: “bad” is a relative term based on the individual user.

If Facebook showed all possible pieces of content to every user—imagine Twitter plus all the social stories (this friend liked this, that friend commented on that)—the average user would get overwhelmed pretty fast. If users get overwhelmed and flock away from the platform in bulk, Facebook suddenly loses its “product,” and therefore its revenue.

This Can Be Good News

I know most people this affects think this is terrible news—the worst news ever for people who use Facebook for marketing. However, I feel very differently. I’m actually kind of excited about it. Here’s why:

It’s a Challenge

I have to step up my game to get my content seen. Bring it on; I’m ready.

Higher Quality Content

Sometimes I see some absolutely terrible content come across my newsfeed or monitoring tools. Some posts make me think, “Who on earth posted that and what was going through their head?”

Higher quality content will happen one of many ways: 1) terrible content just won’t be shown, 2) marketers will step up their games and post better content, or 3) people posting bad content and not seeing results will leave Facebook.

More Engaged Users

This is kind of hopeful on my part. If there’s less content clutter, and only higher quality content, engagement should increase, right? (Only if you’re putting out good content, of course.)

Fewer Half-Assers

As a Facebook marketer, it’s hard for me to see businesses half-assing it on Facebook. If you want results, you have to invest (again, not just financially)! I’m hoping this Facebook change helps businesses see that it truly is a marketing investment, and if you’re not willing to invest appropriately, don’t bother at all.

Let’s agree to stop wasting our energy complaining about the drop in reach, and put that effort toward making great content that beats that 6% average mentioned in the Time article. Let’s look at Facebook as a marketing investment, not a free ride.

If you’re committed to using Facebook as a business driver—which may or may not make sense for your organization—we know what we’re doing. Get in touch.

What Do You Think?

I know this post will spur different opinions in different people. I want to hear those opinions. Share them in the comments, or shoot me an email.

Posted in Marketing, Social Media | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Hamburgers All Around

I’ve written before about our efforts to integrate our Core Values into everything we do. It’s an ongoing exercise and we’re always trying to think of ways to make it fun.

The idea for our latest initiative was triggered by Chris, rather innocently, a few months ago.

Hamburger Core Values

Jordan doing a hamburger while wearing a hamburger hat. It doesn't get much better than that!

We were having our weekly Monday morning Huddle with the whole team and were celebrating the successful completion of a big project. Chris suggested we give the project team a “hamburger” for their great work. The team—confused looks on their faces—agreed, somewhat reluctantly, that it was a good idea.

“Are you ready?” Chris said. “Sure…?” the team replied. What transpired next falls into to the category of “what happens in the Huddle stays in the Huddle.”

Suffice it to say, he led us through a thoroughly cheesy cheer having to do with a hamburger being “well done.” Get it? Completed project. Well done. I told you it was cheesy.

Ok, before I lose you completely, let me get to the real point. Integrating a desired culture into your organization isn’t as easy as it sounds. It takes work. We’ve long felt that a great way to reinforce our culture is to recognize when people are actively living our Core Values—and we’ve done that, somewhat informally, all along. We thought it would be worth our while, though, to kick it up a notch and formalize it in a fun way.

Enter the Shout-Out. Starting this week, we’re going to publicly recognize each other when someone exemplifies living the Core Values. It could be something as simple as taking a few minutes to help a teammate get “unstuck” or as big as organizing a team effort to make a difference. The point is to reward actions and behaviors that reinforce our culture.

Far Reach Hamburger StickersHere’s where the hamburgers come in. We created stickers with a hamburger theme and everyone designed their own laminated poster upon which said stickers can be placed, along with a note about why they deserve a hamburger. We’ll talk about them in our weekly Huddles and, at the end of each month, we’ll count them up and the person with the most stickers will get to choose from some fabulous prizes!

At the end of the year, the person with the most hamburgers will be the proud recipient of the “Hamburglar of the Year” trophy and even more valuable prizes.

Hamburger Trophy

It’s goofy, but it’s fun and memorable and, to us at least, it’s meaningful. We’ll see how it goes, but I have the feeling we’re going to be enjoying a lot of hamburgers around here this year.

Hamburger ADDY Awards

We celebrated all our ADDYs with a bunch of hamburgers.

Posted in Core Values, Fun | Tagged , , | 2 Comments