Chris Roberts

When not to Do It Yourself

• Posted in Business

I have a bad habit that I've been trying to kick ever since I started running a business. I have a built in compulsion to do everything myself. Whether this stems from force of habit from the days when I was the only person in the business, or from some kind of built-in arrogance that makes me feel I'm the only man for the job - I don't know. All I know is that it's there - and it's not good.

What do I mean by DIY projects? I mean the sort of project that's got nothing directly related to the money generating potential of the business, but still needs to be done.

The problem with DIY

One of the main problems with DIY projects are that you rarely take the time to evaluate the true cost of the project from the outset. Often, even after the project is complete you won't be aware of the full cost. Without knowing the true cost, you can't make sensible comparisons with other, less labour intensive alternatives (and don't forget - it's your most valuable asset at stake here!).

A perfect example of this was our office telephone system.

When we moved to our new offices we moved from simple telephone lines to a digital ISDN line. This prompted the search for a new telephone system. The convenience of using a voice over IP (VOIP) system was appealing as we could use the same internal network for both computer and voice communications, and we could move phones around the office when we wanted to without having to go back to the patch cabinet to switch the sockets on the wall from one network to another.

Whilst looking around the web, I came across Asterisk - an open source, software PBX (private branch exchange) system which runs on Linux. It seemed that it would do exactly what we needed, and even better it was free!

All I needed was a PC to run it on. So - I retired an old server that we didn't use much and set about downloading an Asterisk distribution. There were several to choose from, including some which, in theory, could be installed and ready to go within an hour.

After a few hours of playing around, things looked promising so I set about ordering the other bits and pieces that we needed. This included a number of SIP phones and an interface card for the PC to connect it to the incoming ISDN lines.

A few days later, the hardware arrived and I set about installing the card in the PC. Unfortunately, it turned out that none of the 'quick and easy' Asterisk distributions available at the time had built in support for the ISDN card.

I will, at this point, cut a long story short - suffice to say that several days of downloading source code, compiling custom kernels and manually editing configuration files later, we had a working telephone system.

Unfortunately - our working system included a number of 'undocumented features', including random crashes and the inability to transfer calls from one internal extension to another. Despite several forum posts, and replies from some very helpful people, we never managed to resolve all of our issues.

But at least it didn't cost too much money, right?

The Alternative - Getting the experts in

When walking from one office to another to take a call that couldn't be transferred started to wear a little thin, I decided that we should explore a professionally installed system.

We spoke to our good friends at Axonex who provided us with a quote for a complete Cisco solution. Once we placed the order, they delivered within a week and installed the system within an afternoon. They even found the time to run us through some of the system's features and gave me a quick tour of the administration tools. The system worked perfectly from day one and has never faltered.

Was it worth it?

In a word, no.

Simply taking the costs of hardware into consideration, the Cisco solution did come in a tad more expensive. The cost to the business of implementing the solution, though, was far lower. Even if you disregard the fact that the DIY solution never worked properly, the time spent trying to 'save money' did exactly the opposite. It distracted me from running my business and resulted in wasted days which could've been spent making money.

After all, if your time can't be better spent making your business make money - what are you in business for?