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Happy Quote

October 26, 2006 in Happy Quotes

"From excitement and bold moves, great things often happen"
- Evan Williams, founder of Pyra Labs who created Blogger which was bought out by Google. He later launched Odeo - the full assets of which he just bought back so he could start something exciting. (Go Ev!)

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October 26, 2006 in 4 out of 5 stars, File uploading services, Free

What is it?

MediaFire: Another service offering simple file uploading/downloading through a web site as an alternative to emailing large files (as well as essentially offering free bandwidth for file downloads).


Who makes it?


Why is it the killerest?

There are several players in this space, these guys are the first to hit a home-run.

The service is ad supported, so it's free but should still survive.

The interface is near-perfect. No signups required, no maximum file size to worry about, and a host of simple delivery options when you're done uploading. It has a sexy upload meter showing you your progress.

If you'd like an account to manage your uploaded files, it offers that too.

All that, and it's free.

These guys are a testament to the power of doing something right. They're getting oodles of press, attention, and business.

What could be improved?

I'd like them to do a slightly better job of selling the benefits of their service and facilitating their use for novices (e.g. the "don't email large files, use us" approach that DropSend has taken). This would make it easier to unceremoniously refer clients, family members, etc. without having to help them understand why or how.

I must admit some slight nervousness about how they'll handle crushing bandwidth bills when this starts being used widely as free hosting/bandwidth for popular files. Will AdSense revenues be enough?

How much does it cost?



Reviewed by Carson McComas

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Happy Quote

October 18, 2006 in Happy Quotes

"Make something happen today, before you go home, before the end of the week. Launch that idea, post that post, run that ad, call that customer. Go the edge, that edge you've been holding back from... and do it today. Without waiting for the committee or your boss or the market. Just go."

-Seth Godin

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Relenta CRM

October 16, 2006 in 3 out of 5 stars, CRM, Email newsletter management, Hosted software

What is it?

Relenta CRM: A new CRM tool (customer relationship management). Includes email, contact manager, shared calendar, email newsletter marketing/autoresponders.


Who makes it?


Why is it the killerest?

They claim, and employ a (now familiar) "Less is more" approach. They call it the  "90/10 rule"

"Designed for usability and efficiency, Relenta CRM achieves 90 percent of the functionality commonly required by small business users with only ten percent of the application weight."

They integrate email, contact management, calendar, and email newsletter marketing software into one application.

The free plan offers quite a bit for the starting-out entrepreneur trying to determine if this software is right for them.

They've obviously put a great deal of effort into this offering. The interface is attractive and fairly well conceived and it includes many of the features you'd expect from a CRM.

It will be interesting to see how it evolves (it needs some maturing still) and how it stands up to the imminent Sunrise (CRM product) from 37signals.

What could be improved?

A detailed user guide/help/knowledge base is really needed (they are working on it). The support is decent in the meantime (although the support form is cumbersome to fill out). They do have a PDF "user's manual" you'll find in your Relenta inbox after you create an account, which is helpful.

They need spell check.

HTML email templates would be nice (right now offers only plain-text email)

They require 3 credentials for login, not just the normal 2 (i.e. username/password).

The initial starting experience still needs some polish. I had that bewildering "what do I do now" moment when I started.

The free account allows only one user, but you are offered the form to create another user. Only after you attempt it does the application tell you can't add one ("user limit exceeded"). Then the statistics on my dashboard reported 2 out of 1 user, but I still only had the one.

The application response feels a bit sluggish (and no AJAX in sight, which could alleviate some of that feeling).

It feels like they may have rushed to launch it. It's certainly usable as it is and (I have reports from a very happy user), and it's an impressive application, but we've come to expect more from web applications in the last couple years, and this one isn't quite there yet.

How much does it cost?

From FREE to $50 per user per month


Reviewed by Carson McComas

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Google Docs and Spreadsheets

October 11, 2006 in 4 out of 5 stars, A service, Hosted "Office", Hosted software, Productivity

What is it?

Google Docs and Spreadsheets: From Google's acquisition of Writely coupled with Google Spreadsheet comes Google Docs and Spreadsheets. A hosted, Gmail-like service which provides (you guessed it) a hosted document and spreadsheet editor.

Just login with your Google/Gmail account to get started.


Who makes it?


Why is it the killerest?

Google is hit and miss on interface design (or maybe we just need to get used to their approach). This one is done quite well. The options are simple - and happen to be the only ones I think most of us care about anyway. The upside? No bloated confusing morass of menu options.

All your documents are in a nice, clean, hosted centralized location allowing you, or colleagues to access them from anywhere. You can even upload existing doc(Word)/rtf/xls(Excel)/csv etc documents to the repository.

The collaboration stuff really is nice. Send invites, track revisions, chat (IM-like, right in the window) while you work together on a doc, etc. (It's similar to Writeboard only with richer collaboration tools). You can also invite folks to view, but not edit.

You can also export your creations to common formats (doc/rtf/xls/csv/pdf/html/open office). PDF export is a pretty darn cool feature.

Has a very nice spell check.

The spreadsheet (doc too?) allows you to autosave periodically to keep you from losing work (nice touch).

You can also post word docs to your blog (nice clean drop-down+click setup for Blogger, WordPress, LiveJournal, SquareSpace, BlogHarbor, Blogware). And you can manually set up other services, including TypePad and Moveable Type, but it takes a bit more finessing.

Works in IE and FireFox (haven't tested others, although I suspect all modern browsers work.)

What could be improved?

I'm not sure how comfortable we'll be having our documents hosted such that without a connection (read: airplane, vacation, etc.) we don't have access to them. Do rich collaboration tools and a hard-drive-crash-resistant hosted repository outweigh the annoyance of that?

They are quite simple in functionality - probably 90% of what we all need, that last 10% may be a deal breaker for power users, especially the spreadsheet side. It's not as eerily omniscient as Excel, if you rely on that.

How much does it cost?



Reviewed by Carson McComas

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Interview with Michael McDerment, President and CEO of Freshbooks

October 2, 2006 in An interview

Mike Freshbooks (an online billing service company) recently announced that they have more than 80,000 users. Not a shabby accomplishment for a "web 2.0" company with an active and working revenue model. CEO Mike McDermont agreed to share some insights with us about their success.

1. So Mike - tell us a little about how you got started. What prompted you to start Freshbooks?

Carson, I think my story is not unlike many other web 2.0 start-ups in that it all started with my web design and internet marketing consulting business called Anicon. One big difference from many others is that we were around before this whole Web 2.0 phenomenon started (our service was released to the public in early 2004, around the same time as Basecamp, but that’s a little known fact). 

Freshbooks_1I started doing consulting gigs in 1999, and after a few years struggling to keep up with my invoicing I desperately needed something better to manage my receivables.  I hacked something up online for myself and to show my clients that this could be done online and that we were "eating our own cookie".  After showing it to my co-founder (Joe Sawada), he asked it he “could play with it”.  Shortly thereafter Joe started coding and the two of us working part-time managed to get the first edition of FreshBooks up and available to the public as a web based online invoicing service.  The rest shall we say, is history...

2. You recently announced that FreshBooks crossed the 80,000 subscriber line. Congratulations! You're facing more and more competition as the web 2.0 mania gains steam, what do you feel has been the strongest factor in helping you achieve your growth?

Thank you for the props, we are very proud of our growth to date. The biggest factors in achieving our growth has been word of mouth, organic search, blogging and spending in strategic online advertising. This has been limited to banners on targeted sites and newsletters and well as Google and Yahoo pay-per-click.  From very early on, we made a decision to have a budget available for spending on online marketing.  We have had varying degrees of success, but even when the conversion results were low, we took solace in the fact that at the very least our brand was gaining awareness. 

For those of you out there who are thinking about launching a web app, blogs and word of mouth are a great way to generate buzz, but I strongly recommend building visibility with some targeted marketed spends… trying to reach people who have not heard of “Web 2.0”, but who do know they want to save time invoicing… there are many more people like that out there than there are people tracking Web 2.0 and I think it can be easy to overlook that fact.

3. You've also done a smart job of marketing using your blog and other outreach like your current free tele-seminar series - how well do those work at bringing you new business?

To be determined!  Blogging at FreshBooks is something we only got serious about this spring, and we have seen a lot of positive impact from it (readership growth, and increasing number of comments).  I love blogging though because it lets us give back to and add value for our users. 

Giving back to entrepreneurs is a core value for our business.  We have a policy in place where we direct 1% of our profits to support entrepreneurs in the third world.  Giving back is also why we are doing things like the “Build Your Business Fall Tele-seminar Series” where we have invited experts with knowledge that web professionals need (as they make up the majority of our users). Topics like advice on Pay-Per-Click advertising and getting the most out of web analytics are topics that are relevant to many web professionals.  In many cases this knowledge is not only useful for our clients and their business, but also to their customers’ businesses.  We really want to see other businesses succeed.  That is one of our core aspirations and we help anyway we can. 

4. What advertising or marketing efforts have been less successful than you anticipated?

Last year we embarked on a PR campaign with a well established technology PR firm here in Toronto.  Although we learned a great deal from the experience (I like to say Levi and I earned our Masters Degrees in Communications), and it really helped us focus and strengthen the message we want to portray, we were certainly not ecstatic with the results.

5. What can you tell us about the technology behind FreshBooks, how did you build it? What approaches/philosophies drove/drive your development?

Our product has been developed very organically over a number of years.  From day one, our user community was given the chance to use it for free (although we also had paying users shortly after releasing) and we had a very open feedback loop for everyone to provide their ideas and comments on the product. 

The technology we are using is Linux, PhP, MySQL.  We chose this technology early on because it is open-source, and it has a good reputation for performance, stability and ease of use.  For example, Flickr is built using the same technology. 

On a side note, last year after seeing a lot of new and exciting products pop-up, we almost decided to re-architect FreshBooks using new technology like Ruby on Rails.   As it turns out I am glad we decided against this because it would have been a mistake for us.

6. Are there any mistakes you've made that we can learn from?

One mistake we can share with you is our approach to a referral program.  We put a lot of design and development resources into building a referral program right into our product.  Our mistake was that we miscalculated what those people who use our product would want as a referral incentive. We thought by offering cash incentives (25% of the fees your refer) people would want to refer our service and we could also attract professional affiliates that were strictly interested in making money referring FreshBooks. 

What we have since learned is that our customers don’t care about the money – they just want to refer us because they love the service.  And the professional affiliates are either far fewer than initially thought, or not interested in referring a service like ours where each referral had a relatively small monthly value to them. 

In hindsight we should have designed a program that gave our real users (not professional affiliates) the ability to tell their friends about FreshBooks and get a simple reward for it, such as a month of FreshBooks for free.  That is not to say our affiliate program was a waste of time, because we actually get a lot of value out of it as we use it to track our marketing indicatives these days.  But I think that if we were to do it again, we would focus on giving our users a break on their fees if they refer us to a new paying customer.  Right now we give people the choice.  By default we send them money, but before we cut a cheque we send them a note and see if they’d prefer to get a discount on their fees and that is what most people choose.

Another obvious mistake was our brand name.  You may or may not know that our product used to be called 2ndSite.  Now, at the time we chose the name, it seemed very cool, and with our initial intentions of the product, to be a second website for a small business kind of like their own intranet, it was fairly well named.  However, right away we struggled getting a dot.com for the name and quickly realized there were far too many ways to spell 2ndSite (secondsite, 2ndsight, secondsight, ...).  As much as our original branding was a mistake, the decision to re-brand and the way we went about it (check out www.brandmurder.com) was a big win for our business.

7. What pithy advice can you give other aspiring web-software-as-a-service moguls about getting their offering up and going?

  • Build What You Know – for authors it is often said that to be successful with your first novel you should “write what you know”.  When building a business, the same rule applies.  Build something you already have an intimate understanding of.  Solve a problem you already have and “scratch your own itch”…it makes decision making much easier. 
  • Observe the Holy Trinity (of Web Services that is) – product support, development and marketing are all interrelated with web services…they feed one another.  Be sure to include a good feedback loop in your product so your users can tell you what they want.  Build what your users want and they will market you through word of mouth.  At some point you may choose to develop a feature you believe has a significant “vision” behind it like we did with our ground mail service …then selling that vision will become part of your marketing and in this scenario your marketing drives your development.  You get the idea.  Support.  Development.  Marketing.  The holy trinity of web services.
  • Collect Advisors - we have a great set of advisors with extensive expertise and experience, and we are always on the look out for the “next one” to further round out our resources.
  • Finesse Your Pricing – getting your pricing right is vital to your success and to ensuring you promote uptake and don’t leave money on the table.  Don’t be afraid to rejig it over time.  We are on our third pricing model and we have increased our rates every time and each time we do more people sign up and pay more.  Here are two articles (one, two) with more of my thoughts on pricing.
  • Invest Your Time in the Design of Your Product - in this age, design and usability really do matter - don't let the ugliness of myspace.com fool you.
  • Don't be afraid to Make the Leap of Faith - if you are building your product part-time, there will come a day when you think about dedicating someone on your project full time.  Make the leap and do it.
  • Get Some Love Money if You Can - don't squander it on overhead, find a relatively inexpensive office to operate out of, and spend the money on salaries and marketing exclusively if you can.
  • Search Out Government Grants and Funding for R&D - they are out there.  Find them.  Get them.
  • Expect to Have to Pay for your Paying Users, but not Your PR - don't expect a blog or great website to carry you through.  Yes there have been success stories, but the reality is they are few and far between and that is what the Web 2.0 hype tends to leave out of the story.  The blogosphere is a great place to generate buzz and get free PR, but most of your potential customers are not tracking web 2.0 – believe me.  So, find a marketing mix that works for you. Even if it’s only a $1,000 per month, spend it somewhere smart and closely track the results.
  • Measure Everything – read this article for some tips on how to track your success.
  • Think big (…in terms of your Market) - go after a big consumer market if you can. Our market is big, but the amount of people who need our service is actually a very small percentage of all potential consumers out there.  Think about it.  Everyone is a consumer, but only a small percentage of people actually own and operate a business.  A smaller percentage of those are the very small businesses FreshBooks serves.  With a consumer facing service…adoption will be even bigger and faster, like Flickr or FaceBook.  That said, everyone is talking about serving a niche these days.  That is what we have done and it’s a good strategy too.

8.  As a successful entrepreneur and businessman, you have many important demands on your time, yet you still manage to get stuff done. What's your secret to time management? What methods/tools do you employ to manage your time well?

Thank you Carson.  I’ll tell you sometimes I feel like I’m treading water, but you just have to push through those times. I can recommend a few things. First of all, don’t burn the candle at both ends.  We work a very regular day about here.  Granted I usually go from about 8:00 AM till about 7:00 PM, but I almost never work a day that is longer and we never (well did once) work on weekends.

Another big thing I think helps my time management is knowing what I do and don't do well, admitting it and passing it off to others.  For example, writing...often I spend too much time on writing assignments, generating documents etc. Whenever possible I pass those tasks on to Levi, he writes really well and he is much more efficient at it than I am. 

Another important thing I do is I constantly decide what not to do.  I spend a lot of time deciding what not to do because not all opportunities are equal - and we have passed on some biggies.  By passing on opportunities (about 80% of those that come up I’d say) we have remained focused and we have been able to free up the time we need to do the other 20% of activities that are worthwhile pursuing (like writing this interview :) ).

9. Are there any books/magazine/blogs that inspire you that you would recommend?

Here’s a great reading list (not unlike yours Carson!):

Thanks Mike, I really appreciate your time and willingness to share.

Mike has agreed to answer any questions you may have, in the comments to this thread.

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