Thursday, January 27, 2011

Small business does not need enterprise software (because it sucks)

Graph of typical Operating System placement on...Image via Wikipedia
I've been getting really involved in applications for small and medium-sized businesses (SMB) over the last few months. And a constant eye opener for me is the importance of making business applications as simple and intuitive as feasibly possible, while retaining a huge number of options and configurations to fit every need. Why is it an eye opener? I suppose I had never needed to consider the usability of software that could be used by a regular consumer -- the enterprise software space is different. Again, I ask myself why?

It seems to me that enterprise software has things easy when it comes to usability for end users. The natural assumption is that the software is complex, and that large companies will invest extra in training their workers to use a new system. The fact is that enterprise software is complex, but at a technical level. The problem is that the technical pieces of the software tend to show through the cracks in the user interface, leading to strange ways of working and difficult memory tests for end users as they try and remember what they have to do next to get their tasks done. 

SMB software is often technically simpler for the simple reason that it hasn't been growing for 20 years, through a range of technology trends and software languages. It tends to have less churn to deal with, so the complexity of its functionality doesn't have to compete with the complexity of the code that makes it run. SMB software and especially newer software as a service (SaaS) products can spend more time considering how the end user needs to use the system.

So there are no real surprises. Enterprise software has become lazy, and IT buyers who are rightly most interested in the technology that makes it run help perpetuate this laziness. Enterprise software can focus on tech buzzwords, not usability. My challenge for today is how to make an application so blindingly simple that a user logging in and using it for the first time knows exactly what to do, without hiding the options that allow it to be used by more than 0.0001% of companies that might want to use it.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Email marketing - sending my first newsletter to myself

My trial of email marketing from Constant Contact continues after a short delay. Last step was to chat to an email marketing consultant, who provided me with a lot of information to get me started. The next step was to try and put together my first email, and send it to the enormous mailing list of one person, me! I did start to read some of additional resources that I was sent as well, but frankly I'm more in a "get on and do it" mood, so I'll be making a lot of mistakes along the way. 

To get started you have to pick a template for your email from all the categories presented. It feels like hundreds, so you'd think there would be one that jumped out at me. But this turned out harder than I expected. In the end I rejected the typical "business people around a PC" styles, opting for something more bright and friendly. Hey, I don't have to get it right first time, and hopefully nobody is judging Consected services on my aesthetic tastes. Just as long as the template is not clearly obnoxious or pink and flowery I think I'm okay.

So, a green template picked, now its time to start editing. For users of the Google Chrome browser, you'll get a warning that the editor is a Beta version currently. Which means presumably that the engineers haven't really had a chance to validate that everything works correctly, although for me it seemed to work alright (better than the editor I'm using to write this blog to be honest). 

To make it obvious that it is a newsletter you are writing, the editor is split into the major blocks of the page:

  • Title
  • Table of contents
  • Greetings
  • Articles
  • etc, etc...
You get to edit each block independently of the others, which prevents you from completely screwing up the layout of the email if you delete something incorrectly. It also really helps to guide your thought processes, rather than starting from a blank page. 

One gripe is around the simple image upload facility, which worked fine generally. Although I'll say that is seems kinda backwards to have to resize your images where you upload them into the library, rather than where they appear in the text. Maybe I'm missing something, but even this Google Blogger editor manages to be a little more intuitive in that regard.

Now, the big challenge. Something that no service can help you with really. What on earth do I write about? So my current areas of interest are barcodes for information management and marketing, and travel expenses. Woohoo! This is going to be exciting fodder. So let's get creative.

So I start writing, and find that the conveniently small article blocks that you start with really help you keep your thoughts concise and to the point. I want to capture people's interest in the email, not write War and Peace. So that part of it is easier than I expected. But I want each teaser article to lead to more useful information, on my blog or website. But I don't want this to just look like an obnoxious ploy to get people to my website to sell them something. This is about engagement, after all. So the hard part I realized is having some content already published somewhere that I can point reader of my newsletter to. The really valuable stuff that the newsletter teaser leads to.

Well, that's where I've got myself stuck. So I sent the test email anyway, just for the hell of it. And it looked pretty good, I must say! But I now need to put some thought behind what is going behind the scenes. Writing good content, that I really want to publish on my website takes a little time. This blog, well you can already see that this is a different story. But it would be nice for people to get something useful from the website. So it seems I have another item for the to-do list. Which gives me a perfect opportunity to sign off until the next installment of my email marketing story.

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Friday, January 14, 2011

Concur acquires TripIt - expense your itinerary?

Travel organizer TripIt sold to Concur for up to $120 million is the headline I just read. The aim of this I believe is for Concur to get into business travel earlier in the cycle, rather than just dealing with expensing it, they can persuade you to buy it from them as well.

In my previous corporate lives I've been forced to use many travel booking services for business travel. All charged a hefty fee so that the CFO could get a better handle on what services were being used, and to hopefully be able to achieve better negotiation with preferred hotels and airlines than trying to work blind. The reality for those of us traveling was that we would typically find the airline routes and schedules we wanted with Kayak, then book with the travel service for the same amount, while paying the fee for the privilege. As an outsider to the benefits (we all assume that the CFO and CEO get million-miler platinum rewards kick-backs from the service), it seemed like a waste. And worse still, not once did it help me with the travel expense reporting process. Will Concur be any different, given that they control travel expenses for some large firms? Possibly, but given previous performance of most companies doing this, unlikely.

For the rest of the businesses out there that won't be negotiating lock in travel booking deals, travel expenses continue to be easier to control if you put the process online, capture receipts electronically, and import transactions directly from credit card electronic statements. Do you really need your employees to sticky tape every receipt to a piece of paper, so they can fax it or FedEx it to your accounting team? Or do you want them to email the receipts directly to an electronic expense report that can be reviewed rapidly, signed off by supervisors or project managers, and passed for payment, without a single piece of paper being generated, Excel spreadsheet being emailed, or travel booker and expense processing vendor trying to lock you in to another deal that only benefits them?

Congratulations to TripIt and Concur on their new togetherness!

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Barcodes - bigger than beans

Barcodes are on virtually every product we own, from cans of beans and iPhone boxes to airport boarding passes. Even look in hidden parts of your car like door sills and you'll even find them there. They are everywhere, so we ignore them. But they are everywhere for a reason. For a business to organize information, the humble barcode is invaluable. 

With the advent of the 2-D barcodes such as QR code and Data Matrix, we have seen people start to embed carefully encoded URLs, which will allow your smart phone barcode app to take you to an individual web page. Incredible for marketing. Equally incredible for business information.

The examples in the image show exactly what I mean. Starting at the bottom image, the lowest common denominator is a simple URL. Point your smart phone app at that, and it will take you to a very special web page. Marketing at its best! 

In the middle we have a UID sticker, a printable label that describes all the relevant details of an imaginary aircraft component, allowing the supply chain for aircraft parts to be managed more carefully. Scan this and you'll instantly know what this part claims to be, and where it came from. Then at the top, let's manage people in the same way. The secure visitor's pass goes one better than the old sign-in book on reception desks in traditional offices. Have a person greeting visitors enter their information, capture a photo with a webcam and click GO to print the visitor's badge. Better yet, the next time the person visits the information is already in the system (unless they want a new photo with the much improved hairstyle!)

There are many ways, outside of just scanning stuff in the supermarket that barcodes allow businesses to run more efficiently and control their products and information (check your electricity bill, I bet it has a barcode on it). We have many ideas from experience (both ours and the 120 customers already using Consected Barcode Templates). Many of which of these ideas we have already, or are planning to put into ready to use templates. If you have something you need, just let us know.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Email marketing for small businesses - the trial continues

Krúpova hoľa, Low Tatras. Information tableImage via Wikipedia
Yesterday I chatted about my quest to try out email marketing for the first time. Not spam, but the idea of sending really engaging to contacts and customers about not only my products, but many things that may interest them and their businesses.

Here we are almost half way through the first week and I need to give a little more feedback. Constant Contact throws more ideas, information and educational materials at you than you can possibly consume. This is a good thing, since they lay it out in a way that allows you to understand what you can do with the service, so you can pick the way that you absorb information best. Want to just play? Your email marketing service is there, and a quick document walks you through how you can send a test email to see it in action. Want to read some more about the concepts? Pick from a range of relevant information. Want to see an online walk-through? 2pm ET will get you that (plus some other options I don't remember). Just need a little personal Q&A? Well, my friendly Constant Contact Consultant, Jon, can help me with that. I might need him to guide me a little when it comes to our next check in at the end of the week. He knows my aims and what my company offers, and I'm sure he'll have his notes in front of him when we chat next.

So far, I have to say that I'm impressed with the amount of information available, and the non-pushy service that I've been receiving. Remember, this is all part of my 60-day free trial. I'm not paying for all this yet. Obviously, its all part of a cunning sales-ploy, but who cares when you get this type of service?!

Check in tomorrow to see what progress I'm making. Later in the process, I might even sign up for a competitive service or two, just to see which one really works for me.

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Monday, January 10, 2011

Reviewing how to keep customers and prospects engaged

What a challenge it can be for small businesses to find new customers. I know, as I have to struggle with it, just like everybody else. So after all the effort of getting people interested in your products or services, keeping them interested is essential, and equally tricky. Over the next few weeks I'm going to review a tool that claims to help: email marketing.

I recently signed up for a 60-day free trial with Constant Contact, to see if email marketing is a valuable supplement to my other efforts to keep customers interested in what Consected offers, and how we can work together in the future. Can an email newsletter every few weeks work better for me than this blog, Facebook, Twitter, etc...? I think there may be a chance, since this blog is a broadcast and despite my best efforts to generate some discussion, frankly I have no idea who reads it, when or why. An email, with equally valuable content, but aimed at my customers and contacts seems surprisingly more personal.

So I will confess at this point that my wife works for Constant Contact. That's why I picked them over services. I'm a technology guy at heart, so I might have enjoyed tinkering with other options out there, and would probably have wasted loads of time. But what I need is the support that Constant Contact touts, around supporting small businesses in understanding what email marketing is, how to create effective content, and just how to use this "email is sexy again" approach to keeping in contact with customers.

For small businesses out there who are interested in my experiences, which I promise to keep fair and balanced, please sign up for this blog's RSS feed or the email, and I look forward to hearing your comments and experiences too.

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Friday, January 07, 2011

A refreshingly honest acquisition message

Image representing Salesforce as depicted in C...Image via CrunchBase
Some of you may have heard of DimDim - a free alternative to WebEx and GoToMeeting type web conference services. I have used it myself, as it made sense for the limited screen sharing requirements I had. Well, DimDim has announced that it will be acquired by [CRM], in a surprisingly blunt email message sent out yesterday:

Dear Customer:
Dimdim has been acquired by free Dimdim account will remain active until March 15, 2011. After that date, you will no longer be able to access your free Dimdim account.
Please see the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) for additional information.
We appreciate your understanding, and we thank you!
I understand that free is free and therefore nobody really has any obligations either way. It is kind of refreshing to not hear the regular corporate language that DimDim's customers are the most important thing, and that everybody will be embraced and adored so maybe a few more people will be signed up into the Salesforce services. Salesforce obviously wants the on-screen collaboration technology to accompany its Chatter capabilities, not the probably fairly minimal paid subscriber-base that DimDim has acquired.

To DimDim - thanks for your free service. It has been useful and helped set expectations at WebEx that no small business is going to pay $30 a month for something they use very occasionally. Good luck making the technology an integral part of the Salesforce collaboration set. And even better, thanks for not blowing smoke and telling us customers how wonderful we are, when we all know that we were just a tool to you guys making some big money on an acquisition! 

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