The Soloflex Effect

The book Predictably Irrational had a big impact on me, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. It made me see how things that many would consider minor can have a big impact on decision making. Since I need to be able to showcase the benefits OpenNMS provides to clients, understanding their decision making process is very important.

I often harp on the “open core” crowd for using the term “open source” to describe their products. Some would call me a hater, but it is a distinction that is very important to me. By charging for proprietary software licenses in an “open source” product, they skew the discussion from a comparison of solutions to a comparison of software features.

Think about it. Take a look at a press release from any network management product, open core or commercial, and you’ll see it focusing on features. This one monitors VMWare. This one monitors cloud resources. And for these new features you’ll pay a licensing fee (at least for the most powerful and useful ones).

So when I go to talk to a potential customer, they focus on “what features does your product provide?” Quite often features do not lead to solutions. I call this “The Soloflex Effect”.

I’m a fat guy. I’ve always been a fat guy, but many years ago I saw an ad for a Soloflex exercise machine. For just a few dollars a month I could get sculpted abs and big biceps. So I ordered one. I wanted a “Body by Soloflex”.

It showed up in two big boxes, and each one was extremely heavy. It took both me and the delivery guy to get them up the stairs to my second floor apartment. He asked me what they were, and I told him it was an exercise machine. I said that I wasn’t going to unpack it – I would just drag the boxes up and down the stairs a couple of times a day.

Needless to say, for the first month I used the machine regularly. The second month was much more sporadic, and by the third month I was hanging clothes on it.

I had fallen for the trap that I could just go out and buy a thin body. It was just so easy, at least according to the ads. While this was nearly 20 years ago, today there are ads for the “Soloflex Whole Body Vibration Platform”. I don’t even have to work out, “just stand and let the vibration do the work.”

Many people take this approach to network management. All they have to do is by X product, and the network will manage itself. Many sales guys drive expensive cars based on this aspect of human nature.

At OpenNMS we have to do things differently. We sell solutions – not software. When starting a discussion about using OpenNMS we often don’t talk about the features of the product. Instead we ask what problems the client is trying to solve. Believe or not, this is often not an easy question to answer. “I just want to manage my network,” they’ll say, but what does that really mean?

In some of our consulting engagements we ask to spend some time in the Network Operations Center (or just with the guys who are responsible for the network in smaller companies without a formal NOC) just to see what happens on a day to day basis. We talk with those people to find out from where the most pain is coming. And then we try to address it.

For example: one client I worked with many years ago managed tens of thousands of modems (I said it was years ago). I sat in the NOC and watched while the operators spent most of their day tracking down bad modems that needed to be reset.

We found out that we could get traps from the modem bank devices when a modem reported an error, and by using event reduction we could count how many errors a modem was experiencing. Then, if a particular modem generated 5 errors in a rolling 60 minute window, we’d send a command to reset the modem, and then generate an event stating the reset had been attempted. The operators only had to take action if the reset failed.

Nowhere will you find a software company advertising an “error modem reset” feature. But this freed up a tremendous amount of time for the NOC staff. The next step was to repeat the process for the second most painful issue. Over time the NOC was much more streamlined and much more responsive since a lot of the drudgery had been taken out of their lives and they were left with interesting and challenging problems to solve. That’s focusing on solutions and not features.

Our business plan is “spend less than you earn”. My diet plan is “eat less, exercise more”. There are no easy solutions to either, but at least I’m doing well with one of them.