Friday, 29 February 2008

A Tale of Orders and Invoices

Taking a break from my more usual blogging activities, I wanted to get down my experiences of corporate virtual land purchase so that I could find out from you where I went wrong, and how I can make things better next time. If, by some chance, I did not go wrong, then let this stand as a salutary lesson for us all – and poke in the direction of Linden Lab to sort out their B2B procedures.

My story starts with a successful business case, which led to the allocation of a small(!) sum for an initial presence in Second Life and the creation of an internal project code against which this money could be allocated. Hurrah!

So what to do? The first thing is for the company to order the island, right? How does that work? This sounds like a job for our global purchasing system. I went into this huge web-based system, created a shopping basket and added "1 virtual island + 6 months' tier", along with as much information as I could.

Wrong move. The order recipient must be set up as a supplier before creating the basket. Our Purchasing Team cancelled the basket, even though it had been through the full approval process, and waited while I started again.

There then followed an exchange of mails with the folks at Linden Lab that led to them being approved as a supplier. Oh Joy... I was able to re-create the order and get it approved. Success! A bit glitchy – but we got there.

So that's one thread of the tale - the raising of the corporate PO. While this was going on, there was also another thread in play - raising the order with Linden Lab.

I had already discovered that corporate users (and others, no doubt) do not have to wade through the nonsense that is the Second Life website land purchase. Instead I was able to use the "Special Estate Purchase" option of the second life grid website. This "special" option exists "if you require an invoice (payments by wire transfer, check or credit card). This form is specifically for business entities requiring a formal invoice/receipt or PO# type process; all orders placed through this form require 6 or 12 months payment for maintenance in advance." Sounds like a corporate user to me. [ Little tip: despite what it says on the SL website, you don’t need a premium account for this. ]

Now I must confess that the term "wire transfer" worried me. It produces in my mind images of the Wild West, with telegraph operators desperately tapping out messages warning of impending disasters - natural or man-made. In terms of modern Business-to-Business (B2B) commerce it seems to be particularly archaic terminology - and so it proved in practice too. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I used the excellent, easy-to-use special orders website to specify the type, name and location of the island, and also supplied any extra information required (I can't recall the detail now) that enabled Linden Lab to set up my company as a valid customer, with 30 days' payment terms. Marvellous, at the end of this thread I had an invoice number for a new island and my company was set up as a customer. It was all coming together...

Or was it? There were a couple of worrying signs. First, I did not see a mechanism for recording my company's PO# in the order I raised with Linden Lab, so any invoice I then printed off would also be devoid of this information. In effect, I couldn't force the connection between the invoice and the PO - not something to delight auditors.

The second worrying sign was the difficulty in pinning down Linden Lab's bank account information. My company (in common with every other one I have ever known) expects a purchase to work something like this:
1. Supplier is approved
2. PO is created
3. PO is sent - nowadays electronically - to Supplier
4. Supplier supplies the goods (assuming company is a valid customer)
5. Supplier sends invoice to company, referencing PO
6. Company accounts payable validates the invoice against PO
7. Company accounts payable authorises bank to make inter-bank transfer to pay it

We had done 1 and 2... We'd kludged 3... Linden Lab did 4 and 5 (but missing the PO#)... we did 6. So we weren't far off.

Now, how to pay? The Special Estate Purchase surprisingly, given its use for corporate customers, only supports the concept of an individual, identified by email address, paying by credit card. This is not of much use to a company, where an Accounts Department wants to pay by inter-bank transfer.

What about this "wire transfer" then - the only other remote payment option that appeared to be open? The problem here is that to pay by wire transfer, one first needs to login in the Second Life website. Actually, this is 2 problems: first, access to the Second Life website is barred by our networks people (it is classed as a games site) and second, our Accounts Department, consisting of several hundred people, does not have an avatar and hence does not have an account in Second Life. And it seems a ridiculous farce to have to create one. Even if they could login, they would then have to go through some excessive rigmarole - involving the unplanned expenditure of a further 25 US$ - to actually make the payment. This is just... not... going... to... happen.

So there we were: stymied. We had the PO; we had the island; we had the invoice; we had the money. We just had no way of working with Linden's processes, which seem incredibly unfriendly to business. With only days now left before our 30 days' grace ran out, and no prospect of finding a method whereby my Accounts Depart could actually pay Linden Lab, I had no option but to pay the invoice myself and claim it back. And trust me... you don't want to have to claim back that amount of money, for the purchase of something you can't even touch or put away in a safe. That saga is still in progress.

And… ladies and gentlemen... that's the whole sorry tale. Given that this trauma will repeat itself every 6 months, as tier falls due, I am more than a little curious to know what I did wrong and what I should do next time.


david.jukes said...

I read your post part smiling at the humerous tones and part grimicing as we too have experienced similar difficulties in paying for the privilage of an island.

I have recieved so much complicated hassle over this venture that as the tier fees come up for renewal again I am seriously considering not bothering anymore as I just dont need the hassle.

Aleister Kronos said...

Hi David.
Sorry to hear you've had the same fun & games. Perhaps if there's enough of us, we can actually persuade Linden Lab to become a bit more B2B savvy.

HatHead said...

Although it is Linden Lab's best interest to facilitate the process better, my latest corporate client is paying me via credit card and expensing it to avoid this very problem. I would recommend you get your manager to agree to this approach and save yourself the hassle.

This way, if corporate comes back to you over the expenses, you can dump the whole mess in their lap.

Aleister Kronos said...

Hi Hathead
Interesting... While this might work for my corp for amounts less than about 500 USD, there is a strictly enforced (and costly!) process for authorisations above this (in the "miscellaneous" category).

I had VP approval... but we now find that there's more to it than that. To be fair, I don't anticipate any problem (naive???), but even so, I am confronted with: "How many vice presidents does it take to approve an expense claim?"

All this would be unnecessary, of course, if LL had a proper B2B process.

Aleister Kronos said...

In response to my own question, by the way: The current answer looks like "3" - tho' that is a minimum figure only.

BCKing said...

You might contact one or more of the folks associated with university builds, as I know they usually have to go through a similar (but even worse!) process for large purchases. I'm at UCSB, and our little patch of land is not big enough to worry about (they can just use the department card), but I used to sell software to universities and dealt with this all the time. I was with a small business, so we were able to be very flexible when dealing with various schools' processes, but there may be someone with experience who can help you in that sector.

Ninoramai Hax said...

I am in the process of of researching to do just this very thing.

...after reading this and sighing, I think I will be most persuasive in my plea for a credit card purchase.

david.jukes said...

What was really scary was that I purchased the island im May 2007 ans we thought it had all gone through. 6 days before christmas Lindens emailed me saying we had not paid the invoice and would close the sim in 7 days if this was not paid. Just before christmas when most people were taking holidays from work was the most oppertune period of the year to bring this to our attention ... not. It transpired that Linden Labs had not actually issued the invoice in the first place. I had this vision of thousands of hours work disapearing as fast as the festive turkey. Fortunately we did manage to sort this mess in a few days.

I think it was better when I only had to worry about paying the bills for my First Life.