Monthly Archives: November 2008

Unique Books for Browny Points

According to Lifestyles of the Rich and Tasteful I am a member of the Australian middle class, and I am either driven by money or cultural attainments. I reckon cultural attainments push my buttons. My wife clearly sits on the cultural attainments side as well as she values a unique experience much more than a new car (eg. her favourite pastime is making cheese).

So at Christmas, I wanted to get her a unique gift. Applying my usual methodology of staring at the wall, I came up with brilliant idea. A book. But not just any book though, a one of a kind book written just for her.

Enter digital printing on demand. Getting a book printed and bound today is cheap and easy. You’ve probably noticed that plenty of shops now offer a service where they turn your digital photo’s into good looking album. The same works for the printed word.

The problem was that I am way too busy to write a book just for my wife, so I thought I’d cheat a little bit.

Step 1. Get a book
Surf over to http://www.gutenberg.org and grab a book. Project Gutenberg is an online collection of books. Around 100,000 titles of which 25,000 are free. Note the word free in the English language does not distinguish between free of charge and freedom of use. However for this purpose the book I downloaded is in the public domain and was free of charge and had no restrictions on its use. Because my wife enjoys a good vampire story, I grabbed Bram Stokers Dracula. Bram Stoker died in 1912 so his books are in the public domain.

Step 2. Edit the Book
Since I grabbed the text version of the book, I needed to tidy it up a bit. Using the global find and replace functions in my word processor to remove necessary carriage returns and make sure its laid out nicely. I also had to remove the Project Gutenberg licence (which I am allowed to do) because the licence doesn’t allow me to edit the book.

I then did a global find and replace changing the heroine’s name. Mina Harker becomes Simone Lewis, and just Mina became just Simone.

The Title gets changed from Bran Stoker’s Dracula to; Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the Simone Lewis Edition.

Yes I know someone will think that this is sacrilege.

Step 3. Get it Printed
Now there is a variety of Australian organisations that do digital book printing on demand, but I couldn’t find one that offered what the American website Lulu does It has an interface that allows me to upload by book, design its cover and commission printing for a run as small as one book. So for US$38 plus shipping I get my unique book printed (hardback with jacket) and shipped to Australia. Printing takes 24 hours but shipping can take weeks.

Step 4. Accept massive browny points
I’m thinking I might do Treasure Island for the boy’s birthday in February.

I’m also thinking it could make for an interesting corporate gift. I know a couple of Count’s of Monte Christo and Long John Silver’s.

Anyway, Happy Christmas.

mobile drinking

This afternoon I popped into a corner coffee shop in the city to have coffee with a friend of mine. She was, in her own words, “super excited” as she had just launched (yesterday) her first iPhone application.

She of course hassled me to download it, but apparently it wanted to download via the internet, not via a GSM network, so I thought I couldn’t get it.

Surprise, surprise though, the café we were in had a free WiFi connection, so I had no excuse. I suspect that I was fixed up, but I was pleased with the outcome anyway.

Her iPhone application is called Drink and was simply fascinating. It wasn’t just some silly game, but a useful tool that took advantage of the natural attributes of the iPhone.

Not too many applications do this; normally they are just an idea dumbly ported to as many platforms as the developers can find.

Anyway my friend Michelle publishes decks of cards with titles such as Bar Secrets Melbourne/Sydney/Brisbane. Her company Shopping Secrets now has heaps of titles, for cities all over the world. It’s likely that you’ve seen them on a book store counter or own a deck yourself.

Her format is basically 52 cards, each on a different interesting bar she has picked out. But that’s not what’s important here; what’s important is her innovation.

She could have just provided an iPhone version of her cards, but instead she integrated it with other applications on the phone.

  1. With a press of a button, you can add a bar to your contacts, then give them a call.
  2. With a flick of a finger, you can enable the GPS function which will tell you which bars are closest to you and their distance (useful at 1am in the morning).
  3. With a wipe of an unsteady finger, her application will use Google Maps to give you graphical directions from your current location to the bar in question (we all know why that’s going to be handy at 3am!).

This completely changes her business. She is now in a position where via the Apples iTunes store she can sell to millions of people in every country in the world, and regularly give them updates. She is no longer constrained by existing distribution channels.

The platform of course is easily reusable so all her other titles (24) can easily be uploaded.

The more I think a about it, the more I like the iPhone model. All that information easily available in a simple, interactive mobile device.

Makes you wonder why Australian organisations aren’t jumping all over it to push out their brand. For instance:

  • Australian Universities could be building apps that have clever models for calculating statistics or trigonometry.
  • Engineering firms could push out “ready reckoners”.
  • Accounting firms could be publishing out financial calculators.
  • Parking firms could offer GPS linked parking guides (that let you know how many places are currently available, and how to get there).

Anyway, Michelle’s Drink application really impressed as it took advantage of the attributes of the platform. Two words, “useful” and “smart”. And since I bought the application, she felt obliged to pay for the coffee. Not sure if everyone can access that deal though :)

If you have iTunes installed, click here to get the ap.

http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewSoftware?id=296494896&mt=8

Sith Lords & Mentors

My 5 year old son is addicted to Star Wars. He and I have sat together for hours either watching the movies or endlessly playing Lego Star Wars. It may be bad parenting, but one of my current tools to get him to behave is to say “you can’t start your Jedi training unless you’re being good”. Now for those that don’t know, to become a Jedi you have to have the right stuff. And if you have it, you can go to the the Jedi Training Academy where you, along with hundreds of others, spend years learning before you become a Jedi Master. Going to the Jedi Training Academy is held out to be the pinnacle of society.

The Jedi’s of course have their Arch enemies which are the Sith Lords. The Sith Lords have the similar powers, but use them in a different way (i.e. the Dark Side of the Force). However the Sith Lords training is completely different. They have one on one training in a Master/Apprentice model.

So why am I talking about Star Wars? I’m not, I am actually talking about learning models for entrepreneurs.

I’m starting to feel quite strongly that Australian Universities are over rated as the right training model for most careers. Certainly it can have value, but its not the be all and end all. Every institution seems wants to get the coveted University status (and funding) and other training environments such as TAFE’s are generally looked down upon.

I recently I did some mentoring for an undergraduate entrepreneurship student. His course was focussed on areas such as business plan development and opportunity analysis, it had some nice models (abstraction from reaility scares me) butI started to wonder what value it provided. In fact looking around I noticed an interesting point – “entrepreneurship courses” at different Universities didn’t have as much overlap in content as you would expect. I then looked at what I believe are the skills, knowledge and attributes entrepreneurs need to have and came to the conclusion that it was not stuff being taught at University. It was areas like:

  • Sales Skills (because you are always selling, yourself, your product or your business)
  • Creativity (understanding different deal models and creating & negotiating new ones)
  • Credibility (to buyers, sellers and bankers)
  • Persistence (emotional robustness and self belief)
  • Networks (because most opportunities come from people)
  • Street Smarts ( because a dice that roles 99 sixes in a row, just has to be loaded)

You note I haven’t put professional skills in the above list. Thats because accountants, lawyers and analysts can be purchased easily (and normally at a discount in a recession!)

From my point of view then, entrepreneurship training at University is unlikely to have much value in the real world (especially undergraduate level training). Now I am sure that every lecturer would shout at me, and call me a fool. I know there are lots of arguments why their course has value, but they doesn’t necessarily make them right.

What sticks in my mind is this. Every single Entrepreneur I have ever met would happily swap a fully paid for MBA at Stanford University for 12 months apprenticed at no pay to the likes of Kerry Stokes or Jamie Packer, or even more so with internationals like Britain’s Sir Richard Branson or New Zealand’s Graeme Hart.

I believe that that in itself is the strongest argument against University training in Entrepreneurship.

My point is that if you want to be an Entrepreneur, getting yourself a quality mentor or mentors will do a hell of a lot more for you than a piece of paper on a wall.

But anyway back to Star Wars. Apparently Sith Lords, draw upon strong emotions as the source of their power, only care about themselves, and crave power above all else. I might have to figure out how to get some Sith Lord training for the boy.

unknown, unknowns

I’m currently reading The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb [pls link to  ] . Its a fascinating book that discusses why the improbable seems to happen a lot more than people expect. There was a section in the book that talked about the military and how they talk about “Known, Unknowns” and “Unknown, Unknowns”.

This got me thinking about the crew brief you five to your driver when before you move an armoured vehicle. Eg.

Driver your next move will be to the ridge 500m directly to your front. Follow the line of the hill down to the river crossing, then position the vehicle turret down on the right hand side of the large tree you can see on the crest. If attacked by heavy fire before you get to the crossing, reverse back to this position, anything else – keep on going. Do you understand?

Its the kind of briefing that is verbal, off the cuff, but still high quality. It covers:

  1. The desired outcome

  2. The process

  3. Actions on completion

  4. Dealing with risks

  5. Confirmation

What I am interested in today is the part dealing with risk. You see when conducting military operations, you only attempt to forecast risk at the beginning of an operation. When actually conducting the work you don’t try to forecast risk again, you simply accept that the unexpected might happen and plan to deal with it.

In this case the “Known, Unknown” is heavy enemy fire that may occur. Ie the risk that you know of. However there is also the “Unknown, Unknown”. Experience shows that stuff will regularly happen that not only that you don’t expect, but that you don’t even conceive of. You don’t waste your energy at a tactical level trying to forecast, it, just get on with the job but include being surprised in your plans.

Next time you give instructions to staff, try thinking about simple rules for dealing with the completely unexpected. And remember that the unexpected can also be opportunities you want to take advantage of.

small stuff

Over the last couple of weeks I have written about moving all my systems online, so that I could take advantage of a low cost light weight (linux based) netbook. This project had the added benefit of forcing me to be a better collaborator.

In previous blogs, I’ve covered off all the major items, so I thought I’d finish off with the minor ones. These solutions I didn’t manage to get online, although I’m not stressed about it.

Instant Messaging an Telephony

On the old windows Notebook I had been using Skype for messaging and VOIP phone calls. Surprise surprise, Skype also works on Linux. So no problem downloading it and logging into my new account. Skype of course is free software and the instant messaging is free. The way I use the telephony though causes a minor charge of around $15 a month.

Audio Editing

Because I release podcasts of Churchill Club events to attendees, I need a audio editing program to tidy things up and convert the recording to MP3 format. Enter Audacity which is a free program that runs on windows and linux. I was using it before so it was easy and familiar to use on the new system.

Image Editing

There is no standard format for profile images of people. But a variety of different shaped images of speakers looks stupid on the Churchill Club website. Consequently I have to use an image editing program to trim them all down to 100 pixels wide. Traditionally I used an old copy of photoshop but with the netbook I decided to use Gimp . Gimp is a free but full featured image editing solution that runs in both Windows and Linux environments so it will work on the Linux based netbook as well as on windows.

Antivirus

Viruses aren’t as much as a problem for Linux based computers but the threat is still there. I came across Avast which is a free product I am currently trialling.

Video Player

I still have friends who flick me a funny video rather than a link to Youtube . So I wanted a decent Video player. I downloaded a free product called VLC which will play virtually anything. Including the formats I don’t really understand but sometimes don’t work in Windows Media Player such as DivX and Xvid.

These packages along with the solutions I have written about in previous weeks means that I now have the virtually all my software for free (I’m paying for the accounting system and Skype for Skype out calls) on a $500 laptop. A good chunk of my information is now also online so I can access it from any office as well, making me much more effective whilst I am mobile.

And Finally…

Two problems I didn’t solve though. The first was getting labels to print out. There wasn’t any Linux native software to drive my Dymo label printer and my workaround (using Open Office Writer for Printing) just isn’t pretty. I haven’t figured out a good solution yet.

The other problem I am faced with is that in my heart I don’t think Linux is ready for non-technical users yet. I am constantly running into problems and having to deal with foreign concepts. An example of this is the automatic update software no longer works as its detected a conflict. I have no idea how to resolve this and have had to scour user forums to look for clues. So far I have invested around 8 hours trying to resolve the issue without success. Time I didn’t have to waste. Linux looks good for tomorrow though, just not today.

Cloud Money

In 1998 I stopped getting paid to be an Accountant. I came to the conclusion that being a scorekeeper wasn’t satisfying enough for me, I want to be kicking goals, not cheering from the sideline. I called it – Getting in touch with my inner salesman.

I said “stopped getting paid” rather than “stopped working” as I always seem to be keeping a closer eye on finances than anyone else, and always end up being company secretary in my ventures. So as part of my “Moving into the cloud” project, I took a particular interest in the accounting system I was going to use.

Because I am a tightarese, I looked decided to take a look at open source offerings. I started my search at www.osalt.com which is a nice website that offers up open source alternatives to commercial software. The software available seemed to be : Grisbi, jGnash, GnuCash & GFP. All of them nice packages, but much more along the lines of personal finance managers, not accounting packages. Apart from that they were all designed to run on your desktop, not on the web,

Next off to Freshmeat where a search on accounting came up with 208 hits. A closer look brought up 2 candidates: Accounting & GnuCash. Both of which were just personal financial managers Damn.

Finally over to Sourceforge. I tend to search Sourcforge last for software because you have to really know what you want before you get there. With 135,000 Projects registered, its easy to get bogged down. Under Financial | Accounting Systems there was over 1200 projects. Flicking through (90 pages) I came across some interesting prospects such as WebERP which runs in the envirnoment I want and does everything I want plus a whole lot more. A google search for “WebERP Crap” came up with some interesting comments on it though. But at the end of the day, I didn’t like its usability as you need to to do an awful lot of configuration work before you could make anything happen.

SQL Ledger also looked promising, but after having a closer look I decided my bookkeeper would absolutely hate it and be massively inefficient for the first couple of months.

Time to broaden the search and just have a look around the web. And that’s where I ran into SAASU. SAASU is an Australian (tick) Web based system with lots of users (tick). It has a nice interface (tick) and comes preconfigured (tick). It also has some nice features such as auto generating invoices as PDF’s and emailing them off (tick). You can use it for free if your doing under 15 transactions per month, or have the unlimited versions is $59 a quarter. I went with SAASU as it was an easy choice. And now I don’t have to fart about emailing the myob files over to the bookkeeper and holding off invoicing until I get them back.

I also got to configure the chart of accounts so that I could get really useful information out of the system (people who don’t customize their chart of accounts drive me mad).

I didn’t end up getting a free a solution, but close to it. My banking and accounting now all happens online. My finances are in the cloud.

Life is good.