Bojago Philip James's Blog

14Jan/142

Customer Service

I posted an extract of this on Facebook this evening, and enough people have emailed me that I'm posting, as best I can remember it, the entirety of the exchange.

Background

I've been with Citibank for over 10 years, and am a Citi Gold member. I believe this is their highest tier of high street relationship that they offer. I recently moved and tried to update my address on file. Here's an account of how I ultimately achieved that.

0930

I actually phoned originally to track down a wire transfer that had gone missing. It was sent on the 30th December 2013, and while it was debited from my account, it had not yet arrived at the destination bank. I knew from experience of rejected, held and missing Citibank wires, that the only people who could help me were the "wire transfer team" and they only worked during normal business hours, so at about 9.30 this morning I called them.

The lady who initially answered asked what I was calling about and I asked to be transferred to the wire transfer department. She tried a couple of times to give me some generic information about wires ("wires are occasionally held due to the Frank Dodd act" [my favorite line], and that "wires do take some time to arrive", and that "sometimes there are money laundering issues" [thanks for the subtle accusation]) but I persisted and was quickly transferred to the only people I knew who could help. Just before I was transferred, I asked the lady to update my address. She said no problem, and that she had updated it across my banking and Citi credit card accounts. Fantastic, and I thought no more of it.

The lady from the wire transfer department who answered looked up my wire and said that it was being held by the recipient bank, as they were unsure if it was fraudulent. This was at least the 5th wire I have sent to that account. This wire was 1/10th the size of some previous wires that had been sent to the same account, and yet it was the one held. I asked why no one had called me to get my authorization, and the lady said that they were only notified on the 6th January that my wire was being held, and quote "they hadn't got around to calling me about it". She said they call people chronologically, and they hadn't got to me yet after 5 business days.

I've had similar issues in the past, and Citibank has never called me to verify a wire. They are either rejected, or sit in limbo until I start phoning to get it released. I asked the lady to instruct the recipient bank to release my money, and will know tomorrow if this was done correctly.

1400

I use one of my Citi credit cards to add money to my subway card, punch in my zipcode and the transaction is rejected. Realizing that my address was never actually updated I type the old zip in and complete the transaction.

2100

Back home, and ready to tackle this issue again, I go online to Citibank's website to try to update my information manually. I log in and see that much of my information is woefully out of date, and try to update it all step by step (try this, its extremely cumbersome). First, my email addresses - I try to switch each credit card's association to the correct email address, and am asked to verify the card number as security each time. The process is extremely brittle and after several mis-tries, I get this to work. I then try to update my phone numbers, and delete the out of date numbers. The system will not let me delete my out of date work number, as that is a required field. I have the same struggle with my home number - like most people I only have a cell phone, and no landline. I then go through the same security process to associate each credit card with my cell phone, which I ended up typing in as my home phone.

Then the addresses. Same process - each time I try to associate one of my three Citi credit cards I have to complete the same security information. I'm not yet fully unpacked, and can only find two of the cards, so realize I'm unable to compete the process properly and so am forced to call Citi again.

2130

I call Citiubank and after going through the prompts get to speak to a man with what sounds like a case of whooping cough. Every few seconds he breaks into such a terrible hacking cough that I have to position my cell phone at arms length and wait for a pause before I can answer his questions. The conversation goes essentially like this:

Citibank: "Whats your mothers maiden name?"
Me: "Fowler"
Citibank: "Welcome Mr Fowler"
Me: "What? No, thats my mothers maiden name, my last name is James"
Citibank: "Thank you for calling us Mr James Fowler"
Me: "..."
Citibank: "As part of our security procedure, I need to ask you some more questions."
Me: "Go ahead"
Citibank: "Do you know your date of birth?"
Me: "Yes"
Citibank: silence...
Me: "Was that really the question?"

Eventually the rep agrees that I am indeed Philip James, and not James Fowler, and he asks why I called. I explain that I want to change my addresses on file, as well as to remove some other outdated contact information. The rep points out that I could do this online. I explain that no, unfortunately, some of the information is in required fields, yet is still no longer valid, but the system will not let me delete these fields. His system is apparently not constrained like the website, and he is able to remove the errant phone numbers quickly. At this point, I have the website up and am checking in real time. I verify that he has indeed removed the work phone number, and I then ask him to update my mailing address for all my accounts. He does this for my bank account, although I had just done that myself only moments before. He points out that I need to be transferred to someone in the credit card department to change the credit card addresses.

I get transferred and go through part of the ID process again. This conversation goes thusly:

Citibank: "Can you give me your credit card number?"
Me: "I have several credit cards with Citibank, which one would you like me to give you?"
Citibank: "I need your credit card number to identify you."
Me: "I understand that, but I don't know which is the primary card. I have three Citibank credit cards, which one do you want me to read the number from?"
Citibank: "What are you calling about today for?"
Me: "I'd like to update my address on file"
Citibank: "For which card?"
Me: "All of them"
Citibank: "Can you give me your credit card number?"
Me: Sending that I needed to try something different. "OK, I have three credit cards. I am going to read you the numbers for each one at a time." I read the first number.
Citibank: "Sir, you are an Elite customer, I need to transfer you to an Elite representative who will handle the change of address for you, let me put you on hold."
Me: "Please no. I just need my address updated. I don't want to get transferred again. Can you just please update my address?"
Citibank: "I'm sorry Sir, you are an elite customer. I must transfer you to an Elite Customer Agent who will be able to assist you"
Me: Cursing the fact that I ever became Citi Gold "OK, I'll hold"
Citibank: "Transferring you now"

Followed by a dial tone, as they hung up on me.

I waited a few minutes to see if anyone would call me back, and eventually decided it would be faster to root through tens of shipping boxes to find the errant credit card, go through the whole online re-verification process and change the address myself.

By 10.30pm this was done.

Citibank finally checked off, I called American Express. Less than 60 seconds to get through the automated system, and a well spoken man answers. I explain that I'd like to update my address. He does this, I verify it online while he politely listens to me explain how much easier this was than my last call, and my 10.34 my address with American Express is updated. Ironically, as I'm about to hang up, the gentleman from American Express points out that I may have had less trouble if I had just updated my Citibank mailing address using their website...

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23Nov/111

Thanksgiving Eve

It's 6pm on Thanksgiving Eve, and here's the view from my desk out across the office. We're busy, we're in the final ramp up to the three biggest food and wine days of the year: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year and we're still working.

I'm not from here, and my family all still live back in the UK. Thanksgiving has never been a special day for me, but I know its one of the biggest US holidays. I'm humbled by the dedication the entire team has shown again and again, putting our members and producers interests before their own every time. Our employees care about what they do, and this is just another reminder of how proud I am to be a part of Lot18.

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8Nov/111

Expanding the Office

Lot18 started in a Starbucks (there were 2 of us back then), from there we graduated to a cube rented from Snooth (6 people), pretty soon it was 2 cubes and a satellite office for the dev team and myself - generously loaned by Ziff Davis (that saw us to 20). After that, and having reached 25 people, we moved to our first proper office.

A whopping 8,000 square feet on East 32nd St in Manhattan. That was in March. Now with nearly 90 people that averages out to less than 100 square feet per person and its become untenable.

Last night we formally broke through the wall to the rest of the floor, which we've just signed. That takes us to around 16,000 square feet. We'll see how long that lasts.

 

Samwoo E breaking the seal

 

Josh Mohrer saving money by doing his own demolition

 

Convergence

 

Perils of dust

 

Part of the new space with a better dust barrier in place

 

The other half of the new space

 

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6Nov/110

Responsibility

Yesterday we announced (here and here) that Lot18 raised a Series C financing of $30m. This is the third round of capital we've raised in 12 months, and it brings the total we have raised to nearly $50m.

We're incredibly excited by what we've been able to offer so far and this additional funding will allow us to double down in our core areas: wine, gourmet, and experiences. We work very hard to take these complicated industries and present the best they have to offer to the consumer in a simple and enjoyable way. Providing access to the best in food and wine is our mission, and you'll not see us stray outside of that.

One thing that does not go unnoticed by us (I talked about it when we raised our $10m Series B) is that the last time companies in the wine space raised this much money it was the 90's and it was a disaster. Hundreds of millions of dollars were poured into companies including Wine.com, Virtual Vineyards and Wine Shopper. These coalesced into Wine.com and New Vine Logistics, the former announced its first profitable quarter this year (after 10+ years in business) and the latter went bankrupt last year.

In every single meeting we've ever had with a VC we've been asked "Why will you be different?". Our answer is simple: the laws are different now, and as Snooth nears 1M registered users we proved it was possible to build a wine community online.

These prior failed investments cast a pall over the industry, companies couldn't raise money and tech innovation was stifled over the first decade of this millenium - many VCs won't go near the category, even now. Like music after Napster, wine had a stigma. However, today, a decade later, just as Spotify is doing with music, we're trying to tell the same story a different way.

The food and wine industries are massive, but the road is littered with corpses, and we're acutely aware that there's a heavy burden on our shoulders now, as if we fail, funding for future companies will likely dry up for much of next decade. We take our role in this seriously.

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1Nov/110

Clarifying things

The governing body for California's wine industry (the Alcohol and Beverage Commission / ABC) released a seismic document today. In it they clearly defined how third parties could work with wineries to help them sell their wines. The advisory is here and the press release here.

Lot18 was quick off the mark, emailing our trade partners here, and putting out a press release within 90 minutes of the original release.

It's pretty deep technical stuff that the advisory covers, but its effect will be felt by everybody. A lot of companies are going to be scrambling to rebuild their systems to be compliant, but I'm glad to say that Lot18 invested from the start in a system that accounted for these requirements and then some, and we're happy to report that there is no interruption in service.

The net outcome of this will be that a larger variety of wines will be available online (including via Lot18), and that's good for everyone.

 

Here's additional coverage:

Wine Industry Insider

Vintners Alliance

Wine Business

ShipCompliant

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23Oct/110

Its the little things that count

We work hard to deliver an experience for our members, and in doing so the details count. Even if many of the subtleties of what we do go unnoticed by our members, we're confident that overall people will enjoy their time on the site.

I got to see the site as a user would the other week, when during the lead up to our 1 year anniversary, we had a whole line up of surprises to offer. I was not part of the planning of these, so each day I'd have the pleasure of seeing what was new.

One little piece I wanted to highlight, was how the Lot18 logo treatment varied across the week. First the 1 was transformed into a candle, and then on the anniversary itself the candle was lit, only to die down to a flickering ember a few days later.

For anyone who noticed this, there was another easter egg in store for those that moused over the candle, as the flame would snuff out. You can see it in the movie here: Lot18 Candle.

I'm sure some people think that focusing on such a small element of the site is a waste of time, but for us its representative to the care and attention we apply to everything we do, and I was amazing proud of the team for this.

Thanks to @catlo and @vinceallenvince for coding this up.

EDIT: @iconsam belongs on the list above

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8Oct/110

Its the little things that count

Yesterday our office internet went out for an hour. Despite the fact that we pay for multiple redundant lines and have a router that is supposed to offer seamless failover, we lost connection. There's not much work we can do without the net, and pretty soon we had 100 people wondering around the office chatting.

I used that time to nip downstairs and grab a snack, and when I came back I found the whole office was engaged in some impromptu spring cleaning: tossing out the trash, tidying desks, and generally smartening the place up.

I was taught that as an owner, I should lead by example, and that others would follow. We've put in place several initiatives that help everyone feel like owners, from the fact that everyone has equity in the business, to the management policy of radical transparency around the company operating data, we treat everyone like adults. Employees set their own start and finish time, their own dress code, and even their own vacation policies. A lot of work has gone into creating the culture.

To actually see the whole team pitch in like that, though, made my day.

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30Sep/111

Don’t Flatter Me

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery? Then consider Lot18 collectively flattered...

This one makes the short lived 'Lot18 doppelgänger' BeyondTheCellar site pale in comparison. By the way, Lot18 is on the left in each case.

 

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29Sep/110

May you employee 100 people

I just finished reading Business Stripped Bare by Richard Branson, and he references an ancient Chinese proverb: "may you employee more than 100 people". The idea being that it's a double edged sword. On one hand it means that you've built a successful business, or at least a big one, but on the other, with that many people, creativity dips, progress slows and problems spiral.

Whether the key number is exactly 100, as per the proverb, or 150, which is commonly known as the Dunbar Number (the theoretical limit of personal connections that a person can maintain), its clear that there's a quick transition from a nice little cozy startup where everyone knows each other, to a sprawling corporation complete with inefficiencies, under-performers, politicking and worse.

As Ben Horowitz bluntly puts it:

"If you manage a team of 10 people, it’s quite possible to do so with very few mistakes or bad behaviors. If you manage an organization of 1,000 people it is quite impossible. At a certain size, your company will do things that are so bad that you never imagined that you’d be associated with that kind of incompetence. Seeing people fritter away money, waste each other’s time, and do sloppy work can make you feel bad. If you are the CEO, it may well make you sick."

Between all the businesses we have about 120 employees. Most people report into me, so worst of all is that every mistake, every bad hire, every failure is ultimately my fault. It has taken me a while to come to grips with that, but now that I have, my focus is on the three levers that I control. My job now is to slow the decline as much as possible.

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29Aug/110

What I do all day

People often ask me what I do all day. Or, more specifically, they are often surprised at how many things occur in the company that I don't have direct control over, or, in some cases, don't even know about.

I was standing in the Lot18 kitchen the other day foraging for snacks, and one of my engineers was surprised to hear that I didn't know exactly what our regular FreshDirect food order contained. I told him that I probably had less idea than him of what treats lay inside which kitchen cupboard. And that as much as I love Swedish Fish and Triskets, it's not my job to manage purchasing that closely.

"What do you do all day then?"

I spoke for an hour at an Executive Education event at General Assembly last week. The topic was leadership.

I speak at a lot of events and conferences about either the wine industry, or starting a company in New York. I'm pretty confident I have something to add on these topics, but leadership is so nebulous, and with people like Ben Horowitz saying: "If CEOs were graded on a curve, the mean on the test would be 22 out of a 100." I wondered if I should be IN the audience, rather than in front of it.

I was taught that a CEO needs to be good at three things: money, people and decision making, and my talk revolved around what exactly occupies my time:

- Money: Put simple, don't run out of it. Startups die when cash reaches 0. To me, this means two things: raise financing and manage spending. Fund raising is only done periodically, but can be a 2-4 month whirlwind each time. Updating financial forecasts, setting budgets by department, and tracking return on invested capital, however, are ongoing.

- People: Hire and retain those better than you deserve. Part of this is recruiting, but a lot of it is cheerleading. Convincing the best and brightest to leave their high-falutin' jobs to come grind it out in the trenches with the rest of us, then convincing them that they didn't just take on a job, but a mission. I'm always recruiting, and I'm always speaking to the team, as many of the 100+ people as I can on a weekly basis.

- Decisions: Sales people make sales, engineers make code, managers make decisions. Part of that is "strategy", but I'm still not sure what exactly that word means, the rest is execution. To me, that's listening and learning as much as I can about our evolving and mutating organization, so that when presented with a choice I know which direction to push for. The reality is that I'm often wrong, but the key is to be nimble, to back off mistakes once the picture resolves sufficiently to see. CEOs are forced to make a lot of decisions, in rapid order, and with imperfect information in each case. Its the opposite of a Business School case study - those were complete and may as well have been wrapped in a bow. My day to day is much grittier, layered with real world consequences and emotion, and uncertain.

That's it. That's what I do all day. Given the mean score above, I'm glad there's no easy way to be graded on this.

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