More than ever before everything is data and data is everything. Regrettably, managing data has become a black art involving Microsoft Excel VLOOKUPs and highly individualized spreadsheets. Though there has been a push to move data to more robust systems such as SQL Server, a large portion of data ends up at the opposite end of the software spectrum—in scary spreadsheets that are emailed and cut and pasted and generally lack the validation necessary to maintain data integrity.
The reasons for this misuse of software are numerous, but the most common are a lack of resources and limited skills. In both small businesses and large institutions (particularly those whose IT budgets have been slashed in the current recession), individuals often find it necessary to go it alone and come up with ad hoc methods for entering and retrieving data in programs they are familiar with—usually Excel. Overreliance on spreadsheets occurs when other options seem prohibitively difficult or expensive to implement. It can also be the result of a bunker mentality that sets in or when IT enforces the use of specialized, tightly controlled databases, driving some users to go rogue.
The spreadsheet solution seems great at first. You are empowering yourself and getting over on The Man. But over time a spreadsheet tends to turn into a mess of workbooks and worksheets that starts looking more like game of Battleship as your data sinks in a grid of B9:Z88 cells. Ultimately each one evolves into a hopelessly idiosyncratic contrivance that only one user understands. And then you go on vacation and someone renames a worksheet and all your VLOOKUPS and calculations fail. Or worse, you work late one evening and distractedly sort your columns—and scramble your data. Sometimes the spreadsheet solution is flexible to a fault.
Most people hate receiving long emails. In fact, some people think emails should be no more than 3 lines long (or 2, or 4, or 5). This is not my personal style. I like to give recipients everything they need in one email. I believe that doing so optimizes my time and theirs. One of two things happen when I send a long, detailed email to someone: either they never read it and drop off or they appreciate having all of the pertinent information in a single reference document. Either way, it amounts to one focused episode in my life versus scattered smaller ones.
Let’s look at the first case in which the recipient never reads my email. Maybe this person is a contractor, vendor, employee, friend looking for advice, or my mom :). If the person is not detail oriented enough to read and process my long email (my nice way of saying they are lazy), then they simply are not a good fit for me in terms of communication style (sorry, mom). And, most likely, working together is not in our best interest. In the case of friends or relatives seeking my advice, many simply move on and get the advice elsewhere if a long reply is too much of a hurdle for them. Simply put, long emails can serve to weed out lazy and needy people—a real time saver in the long run.
In the second case, in which the recipient of a lengthy email is appreciative, the flow of information is optimized to reduce the likelihood of lots of back and forth dialogue. This is a good thing because the fragmented nature of lengthy email exchanges makes them hard to follow and too often results in offhandedness. Providing a single, thoroughly informative document to which the recipient can refer as needed is much more efficient.
The first phone app I ever downloaded was Magic 8 Ball. Technically, the app is called Fortune Ball for trademark reasons, but the ersatz legalistic name does not obscure its identity. (Just as a freezer pop is a popsicle and sparkling wine is champagne, trademark and terroir issues be damned.) I was thrilled to have a digital Magic 8 Ball to help me make decisions, in no small part because it is much more portable than its analog cousin.
Magic 8 Ball had been a trusted guide of mine since childhood. My older sister had one that I borrowed when she was not around. I became enthralled and decided that she did not appreciate its true value, so I neglected to return it. In its physical form the Magic 8 Ball invited contemplation. It had the heft of a scaled-down bowling ball and the gravitas of its dark horse namesake and was filled with a mysterious liquid that concealed the answer on the icosahedral die until it floated into view in the circular window.
That Magic 8 Ball was eventually dropped one too many times, developing a crack and losing an alarming quantity of its inky lifeblood—which led to its confiscation by my mother. I didn’t buy or pilfer a replacement, but its power as a decision-making tool stayed with me. And then, years later, some magical thinking programmers developed the Fortune Ball. The app lacks the comforting solidity of the original, but it is surprisingly satisfying as so many physical things that we once believed could not be replaced digitally are. (Not that long ago I couldn’t imagine buying shoes online. I now buy shoes online almost exclusively. Sorry, shoe stores.)
Most people building software these days have heard of the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) strategy: construct only what is necessary to get a few users onboard and worry about the rest of the planned features later. The problem is, most of us suck at figuring out just how much is enough for a product to be minimally viable. As a result, we often times err on the side of too much. Cloudmanic Labs has launched a variety of products, and I like to think we are pretty good at gauging an MVP feature list. So recently I sat down and looked at the numbers to see how accurate we were at building an MVP release of Photomanic, our photo application for Evernote launched about a month ago.
We measure the usage of all features, which helps us determine whether we should invest more in a feature or not. One feature I insisted on was the ability to rotate images. I was convinced that without this feature users would not consider Photomanic viable. As it turns out, only 0.84% of the images uploaded to date have been rotated. Yet this feature is the one our development team spent the most time building—and one for which we generated a laundry list of upgrade ideas. Even I rarely rotate images, and I was the biggest proponent of the feature. Clearly, our perceptions of what is important are not always accurate.
Summer is winding down. The light is shifting and a hint of autumn wafts on the breeze. If you haven’t taken a summer vacation yet, odds are you are a small business owner. Sure, you can work on your laptop outside in the dog days and cut back your hours, but those small concessions to the season do not yield the same benefits as same as taking a true break. One of the drawbacks of being your own boss is that the demarcation between work and the rest of your life becomes hazy: the dreaded schedule creep. Somehow the clear advantages of being able to match your work style to your natural circadian rhythms (I’m looking at you, night owls) and accommodate the inevitable tasks that need to be completed during standard business hours are offset by a tendency for work to expand to fill all of the nooks and crannies of available time. And with the intertwining of social media and enterprise it’s hard to tell what’s work and what’s not anymore.
Does it even matter? Common sense suggests that it does, and research confirms it. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for the small business owner to close up shop, hop in the roadster, and head for the hills. At least, not to any vacation destination that doesn’t have high-speed internet access. Part of the problem is that the demands of your business don’t stop just because you’re on vacation, and many entrepreneurs don’t have anyone to cover for them. But for many, those facts obscure a deeper, darker truth: they can’t get into vacation mode. Much ink has been spilled over our collective inability to unplug, and groups like Digital Detox, based in Oakland, California, have formed to lend support to the tech-tethered seeking to break the habit.
At Cloudmanic Labs we have built a variety of software applications; some for customers and others for internal use, some that are bleeding-edge-brand-new and others that are more mature. In the past decade scaling our applications was never much of an issue. Our growth pattern was pretty linear, and we always ran our applications on the same collection of servers. To manage growth we simply added another server or upgraded the specs of our existing servers.
But over time, collocating newer and older applications on the same servers created a major problem. Before running new libraries (such as upgrading Node.js or PHP to the latest versions) we needed to make sure that our older software was compatible. Meaning we could not release new software as fast as we wanted to due to the risk of causing issues with our older products.
About 2 months ago we set out to solve this problem. Before making any changes we profiled our applications. In the past they were similar in terms of memory, CPU, disk I/O, and network usage: serve up some HTML, make some calls to the database, and support some Ajax calls. No more. Our new world is very real-time and mobile, and these factors stress our systems in different ways. Profiling helped us realize that each application has unique requirements and each needs to be on its own collection of servers. We see managing multiple server configurations as a small price to pay as we mature as a company.
Before we investigate this thought-provoking claim, let’s do a quick review. Conventional wisdom holds that the fundamental difference between business to business (B2B) and business to consumer (B2C) sales is the purchaser. Furthermore, although in both cases the marketing goal is to guide customers through the purchasing process, the tactics employed with businesses and consumers differ significantly. But things change, and the line between B2B and B2C is blurring.
Traditionally, B2B has been associated with old school sales techniques. Think dealmaking between a salesperson and a business representative—over golf and martinis, maybe. In contrast, B2C entails advertising across a variety of media to cultivate brand awareness and loyalty among individual consumers. Making the B2C sale has historically involved retailers and salespeople—but in many situations these intermediaries are fast becoming relics of the past. (So is the 3-martini lunch.) Social media and the troves of information available online now empower consumers to become well informed before making purchases. They are also more comfortable with—sometimes preferring—a self-directed role in transactions. Think self-service. At home in your pajamas at midnight, if you like.
In recent years B2B has begun to look a lot more like B2C. Although Skyclerk, Cloudmanic’s bookkeeping application for small businesses, is essentially a B2B product, we do not have dedicated salespeople. Instead, we market the product in the very same ways we would a consumer product. We use mobile apps stores, social networks, and online promotion to bring attention to Skyclerk and acquire customers. The product itself is our golf-playing salesperson—meaning it has to be designed to effectively sell itself.
We at Cloudmanic Labs recently launched a sweet new product: Photomanic, the best way to upload, organize, store, and enjoy your photos using the Evernote platform. But when I initiated the building of Photomanic some of my closest advisers were puzzled, asking questions along the lines of “WTF are you doing, Spicer?” Now, I’m the first to preach staying focused on your core, and Cloudmanic’s core is small businesses. Every other product we have launched has been geared toward helping small businesses thrive. So why build a photo application?
Well, when you are the leader of a company you are sometimes your own worst enemy. You have a team of people who can build whatever you want—and it’s up to you to decide which ideas to chase and which to drop. The thing is, the notion of Photomanic had been kicking around in my head for a few years. I would stay up late building prototypes, and daily I pondered how I could justify building Photomanic as a Cloudmanic product. Frankly, it was becoming a distraction. Maybe I am crazy, but I just had to build Photomanic to free my mind to focus on Cloudmanic’s core small business efforts.
The Cloudmanic Labs team built Photomanic, our new photo application for Evernote, in a month. Actually, the time from introducing the concept to launching Photomanic was less than 30 days. I am very impressed with the polished product that resulted from our hard and fast work. But why the rush, you ask? Well, on a whim we decided to enter Photomanic in the Evernote Devcup 2013 competition—a month before the deadline. Consequently, we learned a lot about building software under pressure. And as many of you know, I am not a big fan of deadlines.
I have always believed that any first release of a product requires about 500 hours of work. This estimate includes time for planning, design, programming, integration, and bug fixing. If realizing the feature set takes more than 500 hours, the plan for the 1.0 release is probably too ambitious. But we had only a fraction of 500 hours to build Photomanic, and we did not have time to explore many different ideas. In this case we deviated from our usual development process in some key ways:
I appointed myself the decider. Although we bounced ideas back and forth, I often had to cut discussion short and make a decision. Given the time crunch, the team understood the expediency of this dictatorial approach. Before the next release we will revisit those ideas we were unable explore fully.
We adopted a deadline-driven attitude. After listing everything we wanted Photomanic to do, we prioritized that list and set a deadline for each phase. Features that were not completed in time were shelved for the time being. Normally, we start with a list of tasks necessary to build a minimum value product and launch when all of those tasks have been completed.
We leveraged our existing infrastructure. One reason we succeeded under such a tight deadline is that over the past 5 years we have built a scalable platform for our products. Had we not made that early investment, we could not have built Photomanic so quickly. Even we were surprised by how smoothly things went. This experience confirmed my belief that building infrastructure should be a strategic objective of any young company.
If you are an Evernote user you probably know that its purpose is to be your external brain (and who couldn’t use one of those?). In fact, Evernote’s tagline is “remember everything.” Meaning, of course, everything you want to remember. The moments I most want to return to are often caught on camera: trips, parties, big events—including, recently, the birth of my first child. But there’s been a disconnect: that is, I store everything in Evernote except photos, which I manage with a different application.
Correction: I used to. Because I am pleased to introduce Photomanic, our new photo gallery app for Evernote. Using the simple yet robust Photomanic web interface (and soon mobile apps), you can easily upload your photos and organize them into albums in Evernote to enjoy whenever, wherever (and share, if you like).
Beyond keeping virtually all of your memories in one place (finally!), Evernote is the perfect place to store your photos for eternity (give or take). Because if you are an Evernote Premium user you get 1 gigabyte of storage per month—it’s a use-it-or-lose-it sort of thing so you might as well use it—and if you ever stop subscribing to Evernote, the storage you have paid for remains yours. With other services, if you stop paying you lose your storage space. Not cool.