Running net.business

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Disaster Recovery

Disasters are almost never expected. That's the nature of them. As this list on the BBC and this anecdote shows, there are all sorts. Disaster recovery is mostly about planning. I found this talk at LUG Radio Live particularly useful and have recommended it to several people since.


Psst, wanna invest?

Last week (27 March-), through a business networking service, I received a message asking if I knew anything about a company who were asking for £25'000 "for a collaboration whereby their processes would be outsourced to [enquirer's friend] in India" - I had a few minutes, so I sent back links and comments for the company registration and domain name registration, which showed some discrepencies with the badly-spelt web site.

I also asked if they'd let me know how it developed, and today I got a pretty funny follow-up:

"my friend had put me down as a contact, so these people called me up over the weekend and offered to meet up. I did, and it was the most amusing meeting. They'd come with the idea that I was going to make a decison then and there, and were prepared to go away with a cheque. I asked them a couple of questions, and the meeting ended when one of the guys said 'put the money on the table and we'd answer all your queries'. Priceless!"

Would you buy a used car from a seller who insists you show them the money before they answer basic questions? Let alone go into business with them...

(Quote used with sender's permission.)


The Business Problems of Free Software

Trading Standards department of a large northern town ... "If Mozilla permit the sale of copied versions of its software, it makes it virtually impossible for us, from a practical point of view, to enforce UK anti-piracy legislation, as it is difficult for us to give general advice to businesses over what is/is not permitted." -- Gervase Markham, Free software? You can't just give it away in The Times, 2006-02-21


Some days you're the pigeon...

Sadly, that day wasn't one of those days. Lots of debugging, a disrupted schedule and some tough choices to make. It was a compromise between performance, stability and locking out a user who might be harmed if they can't access the site. It's a site on a sensitive topic and users might not want to contact us about it.

One down side of not being able to contact a web user is that you can't check they're OK when you have to block them. All you can do is flash a message on their screen when you do.

At least it was a more thought-provoking problem than spending three hours dealing with a failed power supply and mechanical failures, which happened recently.


Taxes and Employment

I've written a little lately on the Dunc-Tank (a project to pay some key debian post-holders) and it's drawn some comments about running a business. I've owned businesses for years and there's a lot I don't know, but I've been frankly shocked by some of the comments. Here's two more. I wrote:

Double-taxation seems like something a good accountant should help to avoid - not heard of it being a significant problem often;

Today, I read a comment from Joe Buck:

"Self-employed people or contractors have to pay double Social Security taxes in the US. That's because, for salaried workers, the worker pays half and the employer pays half."

"This is one factor contributing to why anyone considering leaving regular work and setting up shop as a contractor in the US needs to bill 2x their regularly hourly salary to wind up with the same standard of living. In addition to higher taxes, there's time between contracts, no paid time off, etc."

That's not double taxes. That's one tax split between two parties. Half plus half is one, not double.

If the two parties (employer and employee) are the same (as in self-employment), you're still only paying the one tax. If the business is run half-decent, that tax will be figured into the cost of the worker, even if it's not in their posted gross salary. If the employer part is not widely known, that sounds like government slyness to me.

Double-taxation is paying the same tax twice, not paying one tax split between employer and employee.

By the way, I'm slightly surprised US contractors need to bill 2*gross. When taking on new contract staff at a UK university, I think the cost was estimated at 1.6*gross, and I think I've already mentioned that the cost for a UK SME seems to be about 1.5*gross. Marc commented:

"In my line of business (civil engineering consultants in Canada), clients are normally charged around 2.5*gross salaries."

I guess that's partly because civil engineering insurances are more expensive than computer contractor insurances. The news media often reports that the US taxes less, so maybe work is much rarer there, or something. Which brings me to when I wrote:

I think running a business is a choice, not something anyone ever "had to" do.

to which Scott Robinson replied:

"That is certainly an odd perspective wrt. the choice of becoming an entrepreneur. Have you only lived in places where employment is guaranteed?"

As far as I know, I've never lived in a place with no jobs at all. Sometimes the jobs are crap and sometimes the terms for joining an existing business are crap (so in my opinion, they might as well not exist), but if you didn't want to run a business, you could avoid it. These are all things you weigh up when making your choice whether or not to run a business. Is there anywhere which forces workers to run businesses?

Marc (the civil engineer) also commented:

"Also, running a business isn't unpleasant because of "money-above-all". The unpleasant part is accounting, taxes, legal requirements, and administration. You can hire only your friends and take only the jobs you like, and those headaches don't go away."

I disagree. I don't find business administration particularly unpleasant when done right with good advice and the stuff I can't do (like formal accounts and providing advice) is contracted out. I suspect there are other people who are happy to run responsible businesses, so I still don't see why anyone has to do it if they don't like it. They may choose to do it, to try to save some money, but it's a choice. Business doesn't have to be unpleasant.


Email

Spam

I've had a high proportion of emails from a few people suffer problems, like getting tagged as spam. Investigating further, it seems Microsoft Outlook 2003 or later (not Outlook Express) doesn't generate Message-Id headers by default. That explains why I notice it more at work, as business users are more likely to use Outlook - home users will often switch to something easier. If the ISP mailserver also doesn't add Message-Id headers, some dumb software will note it has the same ID as known spam.

Both sides are at fault here: Outlook is ignoring a SHOULD instruction from the email standards and the anti-spam software is handling missing Message-Id as the same as a blank ID. Read more at Vortices of Extelligence: Outlook 2003's Message-Id insanity and b.cognosco: Outlook 2003 Message-ID Insanity.

Hub told me "At my previous job, the mail from the CTO was coming in without Message-ID:. Why ? Because we used qmail as our MTA and qmail does not add it." I think if you use qmail, you've lots of silly defaults like the error messages to change anyway... I expect qmail can be made to add it somehow, but it'd be better to upgrade to a free software mailserver.

Email, sigs and signing

Ian Rawlings wrote in an article in uk.comp.os.linux that:

"There was a legal precedent set in the UK a little less than a year ago, in which the company's name and contact details in an email signature were taken as sufficient identification of the company for the contents of the email to be acceptable as a contract [...]"

and then helpfully provided some references about it.

The headline on Disclaimers could make emails into contracts [The Register] seems a bit off. Even the article ends:

"The end result of this could be that people who include a signature and disclaimer at the bottom of their emails might actually be making themselves more liable than people who just send one line emails."

Note the might there. It's quite a leap, isn't it?

Mehta v J Pereira Fernandes SA [2006] EWHC 813 (Ch) (07 April 2006) appears to have ruled that headers were not a sufficient signature, rather than that a plain text signature block (sig) is sufficient. Have I missed a key point here?

AFAICS, the ruling contains the following key general points:

"28. I have no doubt that if a party creates and sends an electronically created document then he will be treated as having signed it to the same extent that he would in law be treated as having signed a hard copy of the same document. [...]"

"30. [...] if a party or a party's agent sending an e mail types his or her or his or her principal's name to the extent required or permitted by existing case law in the body of an e mail, then in my view that would be a sufficient signature for the purposes of Section 4. [...]"

I doubt that a sig is quite the same as a hand signature, as it doesn't necessarily 'serve as a method of authentication' as required by the Digital Signature Directive ( 1999/93/EC, Electronic Signatures Regulations 2002), but there are times when it could bind one to things. Essentially, using a sig is like using headed paper, not like hand-signing.

Parts of the ruling (para.19) seem to argue that automatic insertions make things carry less weight AFAICT - does that hint at how futile those forced stupid disclaimers would be if relied upon in court?

Does the same automatic-or-decision point also mean that using a electronic signature tool (gpg or whatever) selectively helps it carry more weight than signing everything automatically? I don't agree it ... signs death warrant for Digital Signatures [Financial Cryptography]

Interesting questions. Anyone know if the answers are decided yet?


Cooperatives

I attended the Cooperatives SW annual meeting in Taunton on Monday 27 November because it covers the new home of Turo Technology. Sadly, headline speaker Dame Pauline Green was unable to attend, but someone else from Cooperatives UK (I think it was John Goodman, but I can't find a name in my notes) gave the keynote presentation about the current state of the cooperatives and current trends.

Among the figures, there was the pretty astonishing Global 300 which was launched back in October. The Global 300 lists the biggest 300 cooperatives and mutuals in the world. The list contains some names I didn't expect and also some names in different positions than I expected. Some things are less surprising: almost every country has agricultural cooperatives and the UK (with mutual insurers, building societies and credit unions) and France are particularly strong in financial cooperatives.

Apparently, the Global 300 will be updated as and when results are published, so watch that space.

More items from the Cooperatives SW meeting soon.

Comments are moderated (damn spammers) but almost anything sensible gets approved (albeit eventually). If you give a web address, I'll link it. I won't publish your email address unless you ask me to, but I'll email you a link when the comment is posted, or the reason why it's not posted.


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This is copyright 2006 MJ Ray. See fuller notice on front page.