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Happy Links

July 29, 2005 in Happy Links

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July 27, 2005 in 4 out of 5 stars, Free, Hosted software, Productivity

What is it?

SideJobTrack:  Side Job Track is an easy way to track and manage project-related information for small, single person jobs.


Who makes it?

R. Marie Cox

Why is it the killerest?

Side Job Track allows you to store a set of default information for services and/or materials you commonly use performing your side-work. Simple entry screens give you the flexibility to be as vague or detailed as you desire and a reporting system gives you the information you need to expand your side-work. It is an easy way for anyone to track and manage his or her side projects quickly. Why spend hundreds of dollars on complex software when you can save that money and take advantage of a system you will actually use? Supports multi-currency & currency format.

What could be improved?

More support multi-currency for big-10 major currency. Indonesian Rupiah - IDR already support.

How much does it cost?

Free / Gratis / Cost-you-nothing


Reviewed by Viking KARWUR

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Interview with Josh Williams of Firewheel Design, IconBuffet and Blinksale

July 25, 2005 in A person, An interview

Firewheel_1Unless you've been under a hibernating bear you're aware that the brilliant chaps over at Firewheel Design are about to release something that should have every freelancer/entrepreneur drooling. The product is called Blinksale (our review) and looks poised to take the headaches out of invoicing. I can't wait. (Rumors have it that Blinksale will be released this week).

Josh graciously agreed to offer some wisdom and thoughts here for us. So without further babbling...

1. First, tell us a little bit about how you got started as an entrepreneur. You've built a very impressive and successful company in Firewheel Design and IconBuffet and now you look poised to conquer the world with Blinksale.

Ha ha, well... world domination wasn't the number one goal with Blinksale, but we'll see how it does. I'd be fine with domination of north Texas. But seriously, both of my parents were entrepreneurs, and I grew up working in the family business (a landscape company and retail gardening shop).

My parents split the business when they divorced, and shortly after I was out of highschool my mom lost an eight-month battle with cancer. So I ended up with her company at the ripe, old age of 18. Gratefully, as the company had been around my entire life, it was pretty much a machine. The core employees all knew me, and were able to handle the day to day operations while I got my bearings with the ins and outs of the business.  My mom also did an unbelievable job of bringing me up to speed on most of the business details before she passed away.

When it was all said and done, I ran the landscape company for another three years before selling it off. That time was invaluable, as I was able to learn so much about running a corporation. It was like getting thrown in the pool and being told to swim. When I decided to start Firewheel, a lot of the details that can be a bit unnerving when you're starting a business, like contracts, taxes, and balance sheets, were already old hat to me.

2. Branching from a services oriented company to a product/software-oriented company is something you've done before with IconBuffet. I think it's probably every service-oriented entrepreur's dream to "go 37signals" and do that. So what prompted you to build Blinksale besides perhaps wanting it for your own use?

IconbuffetBoth IconBuffet and Blinksale have been born out of some flavor of necessity. A few years back, we realized that there was no way we could keep up with all the requests for custom icon design work we were receiving. We also realized that a large portion of the requests we were receiving were for the same kinds of icons (email, copy, paste, music, etc.).

So it made a lot of sense to launch a stock icon site. If we weren't able to take on someone's job due to our schedule, at least we could offer them the opportunity to still purchase icons with the same Firewheel quality, albeit stock images. Of course, for a lot of software developers and web designers, the stock work was perfect for them.

The idea behind Blinksale came to fruition early this spring (2005). The idea bluntly grew out of my frustration with the current small-business financial offerings as it pertained specifically to invoicing our clients. We've used MYOB to manage our finances at Firewheel since we got started and it has its place. I used to use Quickbooks for the Mac back in my landscape company days, but when they dropped payroll support, we jumped to MYOB.

All that to say, regardless of what you think of its other features, MYOB is downright crappy when it comes to creating invoices. It's extremely difficult to layout custom templates, and then you're forced to take those nasty-looking invoices and print them out or attach them as a PDF to an email.

Then, if a client goes AWOL on you, or accidentally throws away your invoice, you have to repeat the entire process. Attach a new (crappy looking) PDF, send a new email, and then follow up again if the invoice is still past due. I guess at some point in February or March I finally snapped. There had to be a better way... only I couldn't find it. Sure, there are other invoicing apps out there, but none were easy to use, and none solved my problem with crappy looking documents.

So one evening I'm at home with Rachel, my wife, and I grab an orange pen. I start drawing out my ideas for how I would design my ideal invoicing application. A handful of hours later I had finished mock-ups for about 80 percent of the primary pages in Blinksale. And I looked at Rach and said, "We need to do this." And she looked back and said something like, "Uh, yeah, hello?"

I had been to 37signals' Building of Basecamp workshop last fall to help solidify some ideas for IconBuffet (which are still coming, mind you). I knew that a lot of the work that went into Ruby on Rails, the framework that Basecamp and Backpack are built upon, would definitely ease the development of our yet-unnamed invoicing app.

So I looked at my pages of orange-pen sketches and said, "Yeah, let's make this happen." At that stage, it wasn't necessarily about creating a salable web-application. It was simply about a challenge to see if we could actually solve this problem. So Scott Raymond of redgreenblu came on board the project as our developer, and here we are, about five months later. Blinksale is ready to go 1.0 in a couple days, and we have huge running list of ideas for taking the application forward in the weeks and months to come.

3. The question I'm dying to ask is in reference to the way you're marketing Blinksale. You've managed to foment a frenzy like few I've seen. And maybe it's because I'm in the froth of frenzy myself, but it seems pretty genius. You've given beta slots to some pretty high profile members of the community, and now you're all scratching each other's backs in public about it. Was that a deliberate marketing move? And what else are you doing to help spread the word?

We definitely wanted people to know what Blinksale was before it hit the public. To be honest, the Firewheel website, having been through three revisions in less than 2 years, wasn't the ideal venue to initially spread the word. We're largely known for our icon and UI design, but not for our blog. With the most recent redesign, we're hoping to change this a bit. That said, we're really grateful for the handful of bloggers who have helped us build interest in Blinksale.

Regarding the beta, we pretty much went straight to a small handful of people we know personally who, to one degree or another, either manage their own business or engage in freelancing on continuing basis. Small businesses, freelancers and contractors have been the primary focus of Blinksale since day one. We knew that these individuals would be a good measuring stick on whether or not we've created a solution to the invoicing problem.

It's a risk. We're certainly not paying these folks anything to beta test Blinksale. If it works, they'll hopefully tell their friends it works. If it sucks, they're going to tell them it sucks.

4. What can you tell us about how you built Blinksale and your development philosophy? You'll have to forgive the inevitable comparison to 37signals, but it's quite interesting to read how they built Basecamp with Ruby on Rails, their "quick, solid, less features, fewer buttons, easy to use, 'get real'" philosophy. Any thoughts you care to share about your approach/technology/philosophy?

I have a tremendous amount of appreciation for 37signals and the Get Real philosophy. Basecamp did a ton to educate the masses on what a web app could be. We certainly took some cues from the usability of 37signals' products.

Regarding our own approach and philosophy, I'm a firm believer that if it's not fun you shouldn't do it. When it came to building Blinksale, this was a huge principal we kept in mind. I wanted it to be clean and usable and whatnot, but I wanted it to bring a smile to people's faces. I mean, let's face it: Making money should be fun. Getting paid is a good, happy thing.

Blinksale2Billing clients and creating invoices can be a bit anti-climatic. You've spent all this time and effort to finish a project for a client. You should feel rewarded at that point. You shouldn't feel like creating the invoice to bill that client is a project in and of itself. Blinksale aims to be fresh, quick, easy, and fun. And as the application matures, this will only become more and more apparent.

5. What advice do you have for other aspiring Josh's out there who want to build a business with the kind of following and success that you've created?

Ah, advice... that's always a tough one, because everyone comes from different backgrounds and circumstances. For me, I was very fortunate to have had a lot of people pour a lot of time and energy into my life, especially while I was in highschool. The landscape company experience was extremely invaluable as well. All that said, there are definitely a few key things that stand out as reasons why Firewheel has become a success.

First, we've focused on a few core niche-type services. If you're a small shop looking to get started in design, web development, or whatever, it's a lot easier to sell yourself if you're an expert at one specific discipline than it is to sell yourself if you're semi-competent in a variety of disciplines. If you only focus on one or two core services, you're more likely to become highly regarded as that expert that people seek out. There are a ton of design companies out there. What specific service is going to set yours apart?

Second, we've developed a visual brand that people know and recognize.  People know Firewheel because of the name itself, its flower-like logo, and the orange and black color scheme. Crafting your visual brand isn't always easy to do, but it's crucial for people to know where to place you in their mind. Khoi Vinh's Subtraction website is a wonderful example. It's stark black and white visuals stick in your mind. Greg Storey's Airbag is another great example. That Zeppelin and the hula girl are really hard to forget. It's difficult for me to see a blimp now and not think of Airbag. Cuban Council is a final great example. Their single page portfolio with the somewhat kitschy (and often updated) San Francisco street scene speaks volumes about their attitude. You have to have a strong visual brand and persona, and you can't rip that off of someone else. You have to look down deep inside, discover your style, then stick a giant magnifying glass over it for the world to see.

Third, learn everything you can about business. This usually means reading a lot. I'm speaking a lot to designers here, but it applies to anyone. Us creative types tend to suck when it comes to business stuff. We can make things pretty, but we don't know much about contracts, business communication, or managing our finances. And if you need to get help in this area, get help! Find a business owner or entrepreneur who is willing to mentor you a bit in the finer things of business. Join a professional organization like AIGA. You can learn a ton from the people you'll meet.

Finally, if you grow the the point you have to hire additional talent, hire the best you can find. Gratefully this is not a mistake we have made with Firewheel. A couple years ago when we hired our first outside employee (besides Rachel and myself), we went straight to the person I felt like possessed the best skills for the job. Even though John Marstall, our first hire, lived hundreds of miles away in St. Louis, I knew he was the man for the job. Gratefully he was up for the task. Now, there's a caveat here... the best person is usually not the cheapest. But remember, you get what you pay for. If you're looking to hire someone just for the sake of hiring somebody, you should take a step back and reevaluate your needs.

Ok, 3 quick fire questions:

Speaking of Firewheel Design, IconBuffet and your existing business success:

6: What advertising or marketing venture has been more successful than you anticipated?

Word of mouth... and that includes direct referrals from clients as well as people who stumble upon our website because they randomly found a link somewhere else.

7: What advertising or marketing effort has been less successful than you anticipated?

Certain types of paid banner advertising. It depends on the site—some sites work well with banner ads and some don't. We've paid money for a handful to advertise IconBuffet, and they'll turn out to be bombs.

8: Do you come by all your smarts naturally, or do you read any magazines/books/etc that you might recommend?

I do naturally like to read, and I read quite a bit.  I've enjoyed reading both Seth Godin and Malcolm Gladwell recently, but really my list of books could go on a while. In terms of magazines, we keep the usual suspects around the office (Communication Arts, HOW, Step) but lately I've been enjoying Metropolis, a great architecture and design publication. Dwell is also a staple here. For business periodicals, you definitely need a subscription to Creative Business. And that about rounds it out.

Thanks Josh!

You're welcome Carson. It's been fun.

Well, as mentioned by Jason Fried when he threw down the guantlet about Side-Business software the time certainly seems ripe for an application such as this. We wish you all the best Josh!

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July 25, 2005 in 5 out of 5 stars, A service, Hosted software, Invoicing, Productivity

What is it?

Blinksale: Blinksale is an online invoice creation and management tool.


Who makes it?

Firewheel Design

Why is it the killerest?

Blinksale makes creating, sending and tracking invoices very simple.  Going through the process of creating an account, setting up clients and sending the invoice takes just a few minutes.  Blinksale isn't overloaded with a bunch of useless, confusing features. As a designer, I appreciate flexibility to customize invoices to my liking.  For non-designers, Blinksale offers a nice array of standard invoice templates. The best thing about Blinksale is that it allows business owners to do one very important thing - get paid.  These invoices will not only make it easy for you, it will also help your client.  Blinksale invoices have a very professional look, but are also very easy to read and understand. When Blinksale becomes available to the public, it will be a must-have tool for business owners.

What could be improved?

Blinksale is in beta testing right now, so I'm sure some of these kinks will be worked out.  But one feature I was looking for is the ability to preview invoices which I have custom designed using CSS.  I have been told by the fine folks at Firewheel that this is something their looking to change, however. Other than that, its killer!

How much does it cost?

$6 / month for base plan


Reviewed by Chuck Mallott

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Happy Links

July 22, 2005 in Happy Links

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July 20, 2005 in 4 out of 5 stars, A piece of software, Free

What is it?

PrimoPDF: A free PDF converter. Turn anything you can print, into a PDF.


Who makes it?


Why is it the killerest?

Turns anything you can print, into a PDF. Word documents, web pages, photos, spreadsheets, younameit. And it's free. No need to cough up $450 for Adobe Acrobat, when you can use this for free. It does what most of us would do with Acrobat anyway.

Phil Gerbyshak also sends along word of another free one called pdf995 if you have trouble with PrimoPDF.

What could be improved?

While it's free, they try to force you to register after 45-ish days.  Update:  Tim Sullivan of ActivePDF lets us know that in version 2.0 of PrimoPDF it no longer asks for registration. Nice move guys, and this means I've got no improvements to suggest.

How much does it cost?

Free like Michael Jackson


Reviewed by Carson McComas

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The Game is Afoot

July 18, 2005 in 5 out of 5 stars, An article, An idea

What is it?

The Game is Afoot: A brilliant diatribe/lesson/article written by Eric Sink, a quite successful entrepreneur running his own ISV. The industry is software development, but the principles are universal.


Who makes it?

Eric Sink

Why is it the killerest?

Because Eric gets it. And he is a superb teacher. As you read through this, he makes important points, then backs them up with stories and analogies. This article will make you think, and hard. It's brilliant.

Example: I've totally changed my thinking about competition (and how much I hate it).

So as you daydream about starting your own company, you search for product ideas, and you discard all of the ones which would already have a known competitor.  Eventually, you find an idea which is completely unique.  Nobody is selling anything like it.  Finally, the path before you is clear! So you proceed to build your killer app.  Of course, you are terrified that somebody else will discover your amazing idea, so you keep everything a secret.  You setup a small office in the corner of your basement and paint the windows black.  You tell your wife you are downstairs looking at porn so she won't get suspicious about what's really going on.  Not a single human being on earth gets a glimpse of your product until you are finally ready to unveil your 1.0 release.  You emerge from stealth mode and wait for the world to overload your web storefront with traffic. But the orders don't come in.  Several months go by and eventually you realize the truth:  The reason nobody else was selling this kind of product already is that nobody really needs it.  If any substantial number of people were willing to pay for the solution you created, then somebody else would already be trying to relieve them of their money.

What could be improved?

It's a tad lengthy (and ugly), but it's all so good this is a minor quibble.

How much does it cost?

Free like bad advice (only this is good advice)


Reviewed by Carson McComas

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The business magazines I won't be reviewing here

July 14, 2005 in A magazine

This is a dangerous move on a blog this young. I'm going to ask for some reader feedback to help me out.

I originally wanted to review a good business magazine or two. But as I reflected on what rating the ones I read should receive, they all came in at about 1 star.
So my question for you: are there any good magazines out there?

My favorites, over the years, have been Fast Company, and Business 2.0. Both of these, at various times, have been superb. Business 2.0 was my first love. During the dotcom mania, this magazine spoke to me in a way no other did. When I started reading Fast Company I actually let my B2.0 subscription lapse. Fast Company was so good, so inspiring, so useful, helpful and relevant that I read every single word, every single month.

B20 I just don't have that feeling about any business magazine any more. I still subscribe to both B2.0 and FC and read them monthly, and occasionally find jewels, but they aren't the must-read material they used to be. Both magazines have managed to lose their way, meander and bore, neglect the principles that made them great, and ultimately slip into mediocrity.

I've also had subscriptions to Fortune, Inc., Entrepreneur and a few others so unremarkable I can't remember them now.

Wired The only magazine I truly get excited to read each month is Wired. For many of the same reasons that I used to like B2.0 and FC. But it's still more pop than business and aside from being fun, isn't super relevant to my entrepreneurial aspirations.

So, are there any good magazines out there? Do you have a different opinion of B2.0 or FC? Can you relate with my experience? Can you help me broaden my magazine world?

I'd love to fall in love with a business magazine again.

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Happy Links

July 12, 2005 in Happy Links

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Scoble interviews Ballmer

July 7, 2005 in 4 out of 5 stars, A person

BallmerYou know what? Ballmer just impressed the heck out of me. He is one goofy mother, but seriously, he owns his goofiness and who can argue with the results? I love this guy. (That and he's hilarious, I'm not sure if I'm laughing at him, or with him, but I'm laughing.)

Things I dug:

  • First question Scoble asks? What's with "Developers, Developers, Developers!" (Scoble, you win for asking that first). Ballmer repeats it, and owns it! I love it.
  • His take on employees blogging en masse - in a nutshell: It's no different than an employee out talking to folks in person, just that they'll reach more customers that way. Duh, yeah, exactly. Listen to the rest of his take -- great model for any company.
  • Gives Google their due. i.e. they're doing some innovative stuff!
  • His resolve about "winning" is inspiring (and interesting, they're slipping! Interesting to see him resolute.)
  • His optimism and excitement about the future are contagious. (The goofy mother). Encouraging us to set "big bold goals." Who doesn't love that?
  • Mostly wants to be remembered as a great dad and husband. K, that's cool. :)

Man, what a case, but what energy and enthusiasm.

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