Monthly Archives: October 2008

Finding Free Time

A couple of weeks ago I had a panel at the Churchill Club talking about the differences between Exporters and Global Operators. One of the speakers was Simon Baker (he was great), recently of REA Group who had bought multiple on-line real estate operations while building REA into a global player.

Anyway Simon and I agreed to catch up a week or so after the event to chat about the Churchill Club member offerings. Fixing an exact date with Simon’s assistant proved to be a little difficult though. Simon had left an environment at REA Group where he was supported by lots of technology (read run his diary), and now operated in an environment where his assistant needed to have a chat with him first to confirm availability.

So I said, “why don’t you just use Google Calendar?”, and she said, “Brendan you are brilliant” – or that’s what I heard anyway.

Since moving my IT infrastructure over to be web based, I have been using Google Calendar as my calendaring system. What I like about Google Calendar is:

1. You can own one or more more calendars in your account which you view through a web browser.
2. You can natively view other people’s calendars or even public calendars in your account.
3. You can keep your calendar private or authorize others (or the public) to view or even edit your calendar, making it great for collaborating.
4. It can seamlessly sync to other devices, including Outlook, Thunderbird and even my iPhone, making it 24/7 solution.
5. Because it uses web 2.0 technology, the calendar is quick to respond to changes you make.
6. Its supported by Google, not a pimply IT geek. Which means it doesn’t end in tears and missing appointments.
7. Its free.

Inside my Google Calendar, I have:
– My own calendar (which my wife has the right to edit)
– A calendar I own for each of my kids, so I know where they are/where they are supposed to be :) .
– Visibility (and the right to edit) into my wife’s Google calendar. So I can enter in “date night” if I feel up to it. My wife uses a closed diary system at work but the detail of her day doesn’t interest me anyway. She uses her Google calendar just for the stuff that is of interest to me such as “I will be late home because we are having drinks after work”
– Public calendars such as “Victorian Parliament Sitting Days”. So I don’t try to book time with Ministers when they are guaranteed to be unavailable.
– A separate calendar I own with information of interest – eg when business partners are away.

Depending on what view I want, I then make calendars visible or invisible. Because I want this information on the move and have an iPhone, I use Nuevasync to synchronize my phone with the calendar. My wife has an HTC touch phone which uses Windows Mobile 6 as the operating system so she uses Goosync to synchronize the information.

I generally don’t sync the calendar with my email client because I always have a phone with me. However I have done this in the past but the sync process with Microsoft Outlook tended to slow things down and pissed me off (alot). Because of that experienced though I know there are good sync options for both Outlook (my old email client) and Thunderbird (my new email client). A quick search shows that syncing to a Mac isn’t a problem either with plenty of solutions on offer.

This concept of using Google as your backend, isn’t just for small business either. Serena Software of California has just transferred all its staff over to the enterprise version of Google Calendar and GMAIL. It was forking out around US$500,000 in licence fees to Microsoft. The new costs from using this solution are around $40,000 a year.

But for a small operation, using Google Calendars is a powerful but free solution. I hope Simon’s assistant convinces him.

Skinning Cats on the Internet

After email and web browsing, the number one tool I use on the computer would have to be the standard office suite. You know; Word, Excel, Powerpoint. But if you have read any of the previous weeks blogs, you would also know that I have just moved over to a Linux based Netbook .   And in the world of Linux; Word, Excel and Power point don’t exist. So I had a problem to solve.

Being a good technologist, I had to come up with a conceptual framework first that dealt with the different ways I would need to generate documents. Answering questions like whom am I creating it with, sharing it with, in what content and in what format. Once I had figured that out I went looking for answers.

Bugger me though if I didn’t come up with more than one solution.

No. of Documents Creator Reader Final Format Solution Chosen
Single Me Private Individual PDF or Microsoft Office. Open Office
Single Me & Private Individual Me & Private Individual Web Google Docs
Many Me & Private Team Me & Private Team Web Wiki
Many Me Public Web Blog

Probably best then if I explain each solution I decided to use.

Open Office

Open Office is a full blown Open Source office suite that runs on Linux and Windows. It is now fully compatible with Microsoft Office, that has all the same functionality plus a bit extra. Therefore its the obvious choice for when I want to whip up a document, spreadsheet, drawing or presentation. A couple of other cool things about Open Office.

  1. Its Free – a saving of $200-$600 per user.

  2. You can get it in Linux, Windows & Mac flavours, so I can use the same product at home and at the office.

  3. The user interface now looks a hell of a lot like Microsoft Office (making a really low learning curve).

  4. Open Office natively stores its document in ODF format , the open standard, rather than Microsoft’s proprietary standards. So I am unlikely to get stuck with document I can’t read in a couple of years.

  5. Open Office can save documents in Microsoft’s proprietary formats if you need to (you know .doc, .xls, .ppt). This interoperability is seamless in all but the most complex documents.

  6. Open Office natively prints to PDF format , so you don’t have to purchase PDF generating software. Another cost saving.

  7. Did I say its free?

Google Docs
Sometimes though I realised I wanted to communicate something with one of my Flinders Pacific clients, but didn’t want to get caught up having to constantly resend a document that was changing. For instance when I arrange a dinner, I normally get harassed for the minutiae of what’s going on, “has so-and so got invited yet?” , “what did they say?”, “how many are coming now?” etc. things get worse too, if I create a spreadsheet but leave it on the wrong computer. The solution therefore was Googledocs . For small lists, I create a spreadsheet, then share it with the client. I can then update it from wherever I am, and the client is satisfied that they can get up to date information simply by checking on the internet.

Wiki
Sometimes though its not just one document I am collaborating on but a whole suite. For instance the operations manual for the Churchill Club is a whole series of documents covering accounting, marketing and event management. These documents are always a work in progress as we add new bits as we run into them. In fact sometimes they’re just a couple of dot points. I say we as there is a small geographically dispersed team building and using them, however they are not for public consumption. Since there is a suite of documents, I decided a Wiki is a much better solution as its:

  • Native web format (html)

  • Searchable

  • Pages can be edited by anyone (just click the edit button at the bottom of each page).

  • Can be secured or made private (just turn on security and authorise users).

  • Natural environment for developing documents that are always changing

  • Lends itself to a team constantly editing, rather than two individuals going back and forth.

I chose dokuwiki as the wiki solution as its just too easy to deploy, it doesn’t even require a database back end, and it is designed for small team document collections.

Blog
Finally I decided that the blog format (web pages through a blogging engine) is best suited for the blogs I write for Smartcompany. I realised its just silly to write a document in say word format, the have it edited to be suitable to be printed as a web page. Why not make it a web page in the first place. So I set-up a WordPress Blog at http://wordpress.l2i.com.au. Its where I keep all my completed articles, and partially written ideas as drafts (note you won’t be able to see anything there that you can’t already see on Smartcompany).

So I have now solved my documentation problem and all the other major problems other than accounting software.  Next week I will cover off the new Accounting solution implemented and the benefits I have discovered from moving it off the desktop.

Newslettah!

2000 I was running a multimedia business called Carradale Associates and had the opportunity to vend it into a new IT support business. I pretty much let all the contractors I was employing go, other than the oldest one who I really wanted to look after. Unfortunately he and I had a difference of opinion. I wanted to make a lot of money, and he wanted to work in a New York style loft office, with a cool coffee shop downstairs.

Slight disconnect.

Anyway fast forward 8 years and my friend now has his own IT business. Amongst the product set he has developed is an email marketing solution. And everyonce in awhile when we get together, he suggests I should be using it to send out my Churchill Club emails (at about $200 a go). Traditionally I kind of wanted to, but the CRM system I was using on my windows based laptop was working just well enough and it was free.

However, now that I have moved to a linux based netbook (as discussed in previous weeks blogs), I had to come up with a new solution.

Unfortunately for my friend, a quick look around the open source solutions, and I came up with a free product called PHPlist . PHPlist seemed to be the goods, and when I compared it to my friends solution, I knew I had to give it ago. (My features comparison table is below).

Feature

The Mates Paid Solution

The Open Source Free Solution

Expected cost PA

$5,000

$0

Send HTML & Plain text emails

Yes

Yes

Send attachments?

Yes

Yes

Reusable templates?

Yes

Yes

Personalised emails, eg: Hi Brendan

Yes

Yes

Track emails opened?

Yes

Yes

Track click throughs to links?

Yes

Yes

Bounce management

Yes

Yes

List cleansing

Yes

Yes

Scheduled deliveries

Yes

Yes

Throttled delivery

No (Not Necessary)

Yes

Inifinite users

No (but over 100K+)

No (but over 100K+)

Infinitie Lists

No (one at a time)

Yes

User subscribe

No

Yes

User unsubscribe

Yes

Yes

Languages

English

English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Traditional Chinese, Dutch, Vietname and Japanese

Automatically send updated content from websites to your list?

No

Yes

Integrated into your website? no Yes

Getting it going was easy and took me around 10 mins to setup (note the more you mess with this stuff the easier and quicker it gets). The steps (using only a web browser) were:

  1. Download the zip files from http://www.phplist.com/download (actually it flicks you across to sourceforge then automatically downloads the product).
  2. Logged on to one of my unix based webhosting services Bluehost (www.bluehost.com) and used the graphical control panel there to upload the zip file.
  3. Used the control panel to unzip the PHPlist package and install the files into their own subdirectory (which I cleverly called /phplist ).
  4. I then went to the website I used and typed in the address for the installed phplist package. In this case it was a work area I happened to call http://churchill.l2i.com.au/phplist
  5. I then followed the instructions on the screen which involved creating a database (sounds scary but that the graphical control panel made this easy to do).

This PHPlist appears to be pretty cool and the concepts behind using it are fairly easy to understand.

  1. You have email templates that you can put content into.
  2. You have users whom you can put on one or more mailing lists.
  3. You send the email (template & content) to a mailing list and chack the stats fior what happened.

So, I can now send out the fortnightly newsletter from a web based solution which costs me nothing. The best things is though that other directors of the churchill club can now add or delete members from the list with out me getting involved = forces me to be a better collaborator.

And in regards to my friends email marketing solution? Sorry mate– but at least you’ve still got the funky office.

Next week I thought I might go through how I am handling documents: without paying for software, freeing up my time, and becoming a better collaborator.

Moving email into the cloud

Last week I advised that I had decided to try out a netbook as a replacement for my dying notebook. And to make things a little more interesting, try it with a Linux based operating system rather than my usual Microsoft Windows. (Note – The notebook has now died – bugger)

The rationale is to substantially reduce my costs (say 80%) and force me to be a better collaborator (because I can’t really store that much locally).

So first up is moving over my email since its the tool I use the most. Over the last couple of years I have amassed a couple of Gigabytes (Gb) of email and I want to take it with me. I feel there is nothing wrong with being a hoarder when it comes to data. Storage is meaninglessly cheap.

Previously I have been using trusty old Outlook with a number of different POP 3 mailboxes. Pop 3 is the basic type of mailbox available on the internet. With POP3 you point your email client to your mailbox, enter your password and download your email. No rocket science here and no issues. Unless of course you want to do something a bit cleverer.

If you do, then its time to look at IMAP. IMAP keeps your email on the mail server. When you look at your email, you download a local copy (header first, then the rest when you open it). This is incredibly handy, because it means amongst other things, you can look at your email from more than one computer. Because of this, I chose to move all my emails over to IMAP email. Luckily, my hosting provider offers the ability to connect to my mailboxes with either POP3 or IMAP.

So changing my email over took 5 steps.

1. Checked I had details of all my email accounts; Username, password and servername.
2. With my old notebook, I went into the Account settings and deleted my mailboxes (Not the old emails, just the connection to the mailboxes).
3. I then went back to the account settings, and recreated the email accounts, but this time as IMAP mailboxes.
4. I then checked to make sure the new accounts worked by sending an email to each.
5. I then transferred (dragged and dropped) all my folders full of emails into the inbox of each relevant IMAP account (this wasn’t quick mind you – I’m talking hours on a fast connection).

Voila, I now have IMAP email accounts which:

1. Keeps all my messages on the mail server so backups get done by others on a nightly basis.
2. Ensures my email client doesn’t store a copy of the emails permanently unless I want it to. And thus doesn’t chew up storage space.
3. Allows me to access my email without synchronisation issues from the three different computers I regularly use.
4. I can allow my bookkeeper to simultaneously access the IMAP email account that keeps event registration information in it.
5. Happily connects to the webmail systems I use so I can check my email accounts at an internet chafe if I desire.

The next step was to access my email on the new netbook. Since the netbook was running a linux distribution, Microsoft Outlook wasn’t an option. Instead I chose Thunderbird (free), which is a familiar looking email client that comes from the same people that make the Firefox Web Browser. Thunderbird comes in both Windows and Linux flavours was incredibly easy to setup, however getting onto my notebook was a nightmare, which I will deal with later.

On the netbook, I set up the new email accounts, the 8 Mailboxes as IMAP Accounts.

I can now access all my email, including sent emails, from my netbook, my desktop PC and even my iPhone. Life is sweet.

Next week alook at the other applications I setup and the rationale.