Monthly Archives: August 2007

Family Community Experimental

After having a discussion with my daughter, I realized I didn’t really have the right words to explain the difference between “my new family” and “my old family”. My new family being the wife and kids, the old family being my Mum, Dad and siblings. Describing the people that I live with as my “new family” just seemed wrong/weird.

The technology I use to improve my work/life balance for my “new family” mostly consists of mobile phone and an online calendar. But when I thought about technology supporting the work/life balance with my “old family” it was just an occasional email. Really a bit p*ss weak when I think about. So I set myself a little challenge, why not build an online community for my “old family” that was actually useful.

Step 1 – Setup the domain name (costs me nothing as I already own the domain ).

Step 2 – Setup an Open Source, Content Management System called Joomla at the domain name. This cost me nothing as my hosting provider allows me to have lots of websites on my account. Open Source is software that I am allowed to use for free. A Content Management System is a type of website that allows authorized users to easily update the content of the website, without having any knowledge of HTML. Joomla is a popular Open Source Content Management System that is reasonably easy to use and very extendable.

Step 3 – Create Accounts on the website for every member of my “old family”. Because this is a private website, I have switched off the ability for visitors to register. 10 minutes work, no charge. I did download a free component for Joomla called Community Builder , which allows me to create a much more flexible environment for the users.

Step 4 – Add a Gallery component, which allows every member of the website to upload and view each others digital photos. Joomla can be extended for free by adding the Zoom Gallery component which is another piece of open Source software.

Step 5 – Add a blogging capability so that the family can write little snippets of what they are up to. This is especially useful for the younger brother whom is a commercial pilot in far north WA. Joomla can be extended with a blogging capability for free by adding the Mamblog component which again is another free piece of Open Source software.

Step 5 – Add a forum so that the family can keep a record of every position, commitment and argument in regards to what we are going to do for Christmas. Joomla can be extended with a forum for free by adding the Fireboard Forum component which is another piece of open Source software. There’s thousands of other free bits available.

Step 6 – Let everyone know what I have done and sit back and wait for the applause.

Okay, there was silence. However I did notice that my siblings are cautiously starting to use the website, uploading interesting photo’s of what they have been up to. No one has requested any new functionality as yet though.

Its an experiment. I don’t know where this small defined community will go, but my risk is minimal as its cost me no dollars and around 8 hours of fiddling. It is reasonably secure, but not perfect; is any system? It will never be Facebook, but communities don’t have to be huge and growing to be an effective online community, the members just have to get value.

If it works I will definitely be setting another one up to build a sense of community within my businesses.

Deploying Open Source

Normally when we go to the supermarket, my wife normally doesn’t like me unpacking the trolley at the register, in case I put things in the wrong order for the checkout chick to pack them (who would have guessed that washing powder shouldn’t be in the same bag as red meat?). So normally what I do is flick through the magazines: checking out whether Jennifer Hawkins and Megan Gale have secret angst, or what recipes are “must do’s”, or what’s the current list of must have free software.

Normally the list of “must have free software” starts with – replace Microsoft Office with Open Office . The list then normally goes on with a whole lot of other bits and pieces, normally cool but useless tools. Now since Microsoft Office can cost you around $850 for the full box and dice, a free alternative isn’t something that should be ignored.

I’ve had a go at replacing Microsoft Office with Open Office in one of my businesses (30 IT staff = near of $25,000 of software), and made some interesting discoveries that I thought I should pass on. Effectively, I discovered 4 rules for a successful change over, all of which are kind of obvious in hindsight. These are of course on top of the standard change management principles, such as getting buy in from staff, plenty of discussion etc, etc.

1. Make sure all your templates are created in Open Office. Obvious yeah? You would be surprised how many templates and base documents we forgot to change over. Any excuse to go back to the bad old ways and people will.

2. Audit peoples computers. When you have a company full of IT literate people, you will be surprised how many will load unlicensed software on their computers if they think they can get away with it (the managing of licensing is a completely different discussion).

3. Make sure you have Microsoft Office on at least one computer. You may think you can go without it, but your business partners probably can’t. There will always be someone whom wants a presentation or spreadsheet in Microsoft Office format. Additionally, you will find that some documents just don’t cleanly transfer from one format to another. “Compatibility with all major software suites” doesn’t necessarily mean that your open office document will look identical if opened by Microsoft Word.

4. Only ever send out text documents on email as PDF’s. Apart from this being good practice, from a layout point of view, it means that your customers won’t know/won’t care whether you are using Open Office.

Now I didn’t have the issue of having to retrain people on the new software (techo’s remember) but I did have a lot more trouble with staff thinking I was wrong and simply wanting to do their own thing. The major lesson was that you may not have to pay for free software, but that doesn’t mean there’s no cost.

Quote Layout

Last week I got a quote from a caterer for a dinner I am running. A round table affair to discuss water technology. It was fairly standard fare, a word document with the bare minium of information.

The quote P*ssed me off though as it was hard to read. What the author didn’t realise is that word documents can appear differently for different people.

When you open up Word (for most people) a new document starts with whats called the default template. This means that the page is a certain shape and your words are written in a certain font at a respecified size. There are also a number of other settings. It also sounds easy, but where it gets tricky is when your default template and my default template differ.

For instance, I like a 2cm margin on the left and a one cm margin on the right, as compared to Words default margin of 2.54 cm all round. The impact of this is that sentences wrap around at a different point, which can cause issues when spacing information by using tabs.

Another issue is that I like to use verdana 10 point as my standard font. If your using times new roman, it’s a skinnier font, which means paragraphs will appear bigger to me (more lines).

The solution to this problem, which I like best, is to print out quotes as a PDF document, before sending them out. The advantage of this is that my style and formatting is locked in to the document. An additional bonus is that my documents then become hard to alter or copy, providing less opportunities for future disagreements.

The best-known PDF generator is of course Adobe Acrobat. However there are plenty of other cheaper options in the marketplace, such as PublishPDF Pro, Scansoft and Robot PDF. In the past when feeling tight, I have used PDF995 . It’s a free job that generates irritating pop-up advertising when you use it.

Quotation layout made easy.

a date with my wife

Yesterday I met with an MBA student from Monash that I mentor. One of the topics we discussed was how to achieve work life balance. His issue is that he works around 70 hours a week as well as study. Unsurprisingly his 3 kids are starting to wonder where he lives.

I don’t have exactly the same issue, however I do have the problem that both my wife and I work, plus our children always have activities that we need to coordinate. There’s nothing worse than your Childs eyes, when you turn up to school, rushed as usual, and find everyone else is in the class is wearing jelly bean colours, and yours is in school uniform.

Anyway, the solution we came up with a family calendar that’s online. Since I have Google as my internet home page, I use the Google Calendar , and have it displayed on my home page. I have setup calendars for myself and kids, the Churchill Club and other important dates.

The Google Calendars are of course free and full featured. They work pretty much the way you expect them to, adding events that are all day or for a short period or even recurring. The other nice thing is that you can invite other people to view your calendar. For instance my wife, whom has her own calendar that I view, can see exactly what I am upto and make entries as she sees fit. For instance she can see that we are free on Sunday for lunch so can accept an invitation. Alternatively, my mother can see my calendar but not make any changes. Also, for obvious reasons, she can’t actually see any of the detail of my calendar, only that I am available or unavailable.

The nice thing about my Google calendar is that is available anywhere, which mostly means at work and home. However it’s also available to me when I’m out for coffee. Using another free (kind of) product called GooSync, I can synchronize my mobile hone with my Google Calendar, no matter where I am. I say kind of because the data transfer on my mobile costs me, plus I can subscribe to an advanced account if I want to synchronize lots of calendars.

The Google Calendar also allows me to view lots of other calendars as well. Such as Australian Holidays, Sitting days for the Legislative Assembly and Council in Victoria, Farmers Market Days in Melbourne, and lots, lots more.

Finally, there’s a whole lot of other functionality I can use with my Google Calendar, invitation to parties and free updates by SMS. I’m not using it yet, but its useful to know there is room to grow. The result of all this? I’m happy and can negotiate “date night” with the wife with much less stress.

Blog Now

Blog now.

So you have been reading about blogs and your thinking about getting one going as part of your marketing plan because authentic communication is hot. So I thought I’d cover off on two really easy ways of creating a blog.

1. Go to This outfit is owned by google. Create your account, Give your blog a name and pick a template to use. You can then list your blog amongst all other blogger blogs and third parties can subscribe to your blog as a news feed. 30 seconds, Job done.

2. Go to This is the most popular bogging software in the world. Its open source (read cost you nothing) but will create a couple of headaches, not so much setting up your blog, but preparing the space for it first. WordPress requires the Apache Webserver to be running, with PHP and a MySQL database available. This kind of hosting can normally be picked up for around $100 a year.

Once you’ve got your bog, have a search for effective bogging techniques. On of the main things to do is regularly update your blog, two paragraphs a week is vastly better, than 5 articles, then nothing for a month. Another thing to do is ensure you have plenty of links to other things you might discuss. Hyperlinking is one of the things that separate blogging, from a series of opinion pieces, or straight diary.

Something else that’s interesting to consider, try consolidating blogs into an intranet page or news page. Wouldn’t it be great to know what business partners are up to, by getting their blog feed onto a page.

Blog Comment Badness

I decided to keep a record of all my blog postings at a website I setup called I used the free (that’s open source license) wordpress software on one of my servers, a quickly setup a site. No costs involved and took me around 5 minutes to get the basic site up and going.

All good, started pasting copies of all my articles in there, so I have a record of what I have talked about. This has been fairly useful to me as the archive is searchable, so I can quickly find out that the cool idea I have just had, was the same cool idea I had 6 months ago when I wrote about it.

Then something weird happened, I started to get some comments on my blog, that sounded strange. People that I had never heard of, started giving pointless feedback on my articles. Comments such as “thanks for the article”. Strange I thought. Then I noticed that many of these people have the same IP address. An IP address is a numerical notation for where someone connects to the internet from. These people weren’t trying to flog Viagra or Casino’s but it struck me as strange they were commenting on my archive. I have left a copy of spam comment here so you can see what I mean.

So I went back to the wordpress site, and discovered what they were really up to. The comments were known as “Comment Spam”. The authors make comments on your blog that appear to be innocuous, but what’s actually going on is that they have their name or other word, hyperlinked back to a website.

This takes advantage of Google and many others search engine’s ranking engine system. One of the ways a website gets a higher ranking for a search term is by getting lots of other websites, to link to it via a relevant linked piece of text.

So what’s happening is that the person making the comment on your blog is doing it for the sole purpose of creating a link back to their website. In effect getting a free ride from you.

Luckily the WordPress software I am using allows me to not only moderate (approve / delete) comments but also mark the comment make as a spammer. This reduces the number of spammers allowed to comment on my site. At this stage is seems effective.

Fingers crossed.

Building your very own Steam Engine

I have a mental image of a large long brass tube, covered with lots of dials, hand wheels and little valves that spurt steam. That’s the business I am building. Not the Churchill Club particularly, but any business I have ever built, plus the businesses I will build in the future. This image I call “the machine”. In one end I pour the raw materials and out the other end float large bubble like dollar signs. The most beautiful thing about the machine, is that it runs when I am not there.

Its that difference I have mentioned before, when you go from “People supported by systems” to “Systems supported by people”. But building a business that runs without you being there, is a slippery uphill slope, full of false turns, and the path is littered with the bodies of the incompetent.

Now almost every other company I have worked in that has tried to turn itself into the machine, has usually started with someone building a user manual for “how we do stuff”. I would argue that the problem with this approach, is that its normally a work of passion by one person (and therefore exclusive). Additionally the manuals are a burden for one person to update, and they quickly become disillusioned once the manuals become out of date and no one seems to care.

There is another approach, a new hope if you like, and it involves using a Wiki. Yes that’s Wiki as in Wikipedia. Wikipedia defines a Wiki as “a collaborative website which can be directly edited by anyone with access to it.” So what I am saying is use a Wiki to build your user manuals. A Wiki can be a collaborative work (everyone adding their two cents worth) and much easier to maintain because everyone authorised can update it. It also has some cool inbuilt functionality for rolling back changes that aren’t agreed on.

Easy for me to say “Use a Wiki”, but how do you actually do it? If you’re reasonably computer competant, its not that hard. Here is an overview example of how I have done it before.

1. If you are not going to use a computer in your office, get a web hosting account with a service provider that will host your Wiki. I won’t actually recommend anyone (because all providers can be absolutely terrible). But I can say I have used in the US and in Australia for this service. Annual Fees will be somewhere between $100-$200, plus you are going to probably need a domain name, which may cost you another say $50 for two years. The Wiki I have chosen can be setup on a Windows, Unix or Mac OS-X computer, as long as its running the Apache Web Server with PHP.

2. Download some Wiki software, and then upload it to your new account. I have happily used a free (Open Source) product called Dokuwiki, which can be found at Dokuwiki is a full featured Wiki, that doesn’t use a database. This makes it fantastic for small business as its easy to setup and powerful, but not so fantastic for large businesses, as the lack of database means it gets slow where your Wiki gets very large (thousands of pages).

3. Create a subdomain at your hosting company and upload your Dokuwiki file there. I created a subdomain called for my Greypath business. Once your file is uploaded to the new website (via FTP or using your hosting company’s file management tools), you then need to extract the Dokuwiki files from the .tar file you uploaded. If you don’t know the appropriate unix commands (me included), have a look at the file management tools your hosting company offers, there is normally an extract function.

4. Install the Wiki by going to the “install.php” page at your new website. In my case this was found at Information on the install process can be found here.

5. That’s it. However, I do recommend that you Enable ACL when setting up the website. (ACL means Access Control List. Effectively you secure the website my making only authorised users being allowed to make changes to your pages). If you want to make your Wiki look just like Wikipedia, install the Monobook theme which can be found here.

Interestingly enough its not unknown for Wiki pages to be printed out. In fact there is more that one company in Europe actually printing out the pages of Wikipedia, binding them, then selling them as the offline version of Wikipedia (ie an Encylopedia). Looking at it this way, its another reason why a Wiki is natural candidate for a system to build user manuals.

Here is another interesting thought to consider, maybe your customers would like to help you build your user manual. Try opening your Wiki up and see what happens. It worked for Wikipedia….