Thursday, December 27, 2007

Working With The System

I just finished reading a post by a buddy of mine, Ross Johnson over at 3.7 Designs. He was talking about the need to develop systems in business. From what I've experienced, he is absolutely right.

In order to succeed and grow my business, the methods I used to use have had to evolve. For example, when I was only consulting part time, I could easily keep track of the jobs just in my head. Not long after I went full time, though, and more business started rolling in, I found that just trying to keep things in my memory wasn't going to work.

Now, I've got a two-tiered system to keep track of my various projects. I keep a brief status message on my white board for each client. It's just their name and a one-word status message ("discussion", "quoted", "approved", etc), but it keeps things much more organized and gives me a birds-eye view of the status of my company. The second tier is a spreadsheet where I keep track of the details of the project, including contact information, work specifications, and next steps.

I also have a system now which keeps me in contact with my business network. Making calls, attending networking events, sending out my ezine, and meeting with people one-on-one all fall into this system. Using it, I not only have the benefit of a daily blueprint of what I'm doing, but can also analyze my processes and make improvements.

I fully expect these systems to keep developing over time as my business continues to grow and its needs change. The old ones will evolve and I'll come up with new ones to streamline other activities with the ultimate goal of being as efficient and as effective as possible.

After all, the goal of my business is to support my life, not the other way around.

So, what parts of your life could benefit from developing a system?

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Remember The Milk Add-On

I just wrote about "Remember the Milk" in my e-zine this past week. It's a great tool to keep track of all of the tasks you might have to do in your everyday life. A number of folks who follow David Allen's "Getting things DONE" teachings apparently swear by it.

Today I found out about a nifty new add-on for RTM if you are also a Gmail user and your browser is Firefox. This tool displays your RTM task list right alongside your email in the browser window. No longer do you have to switch windows in order to add new items to your task list. Everything is right there.

I've already installed it. I'll have to let you know if it radically transforms my life or anything.

So, what tools do you use for your task lists?

Best Laid Assumptions

About a week ago, our area had almost a foot of snow fall on us. Flights were cancelled, schools had snow days. It was a veritable Winter Wonderland. With that much snow, we were pretty much guaranteed a White Christmas.

Now, due to temperatures in the 40's and the torrential rains we had overnight, I'm looking out on a landscape which definitely doesn't fit that definition.

Of course, the lack of a White Christmas probably won't kill me or even inconvenience me much for that matter, but it does put me in mind of more serious examples of counting on things staying the same.

I'm working on updating and upgrading the website for Bruce Donovan Construction. In talking with Bruce it was clear that he understood that he not only had to be on the Web, but he had to look good on his site and provide his visitors with what they wanted -- in this case a portfolio of current and completed jobs, including photos.

Bruce could have ignored the situation, but more and more people are making their decisions based on information they get from the Web. If he hadn't met the need, I'm sure one of his competitors would have.

Construction isn't by any means the only industry where the technology of the Web is changing the playing field. Think of the difficulties that travel agents have had over the last decade. Now, you'd better be able to plan my whole vacation for me (at ridiculously low cost), otherwise Expedia is waiting. Local booksellers? As if the 800-pound gorilla which is Borders weren't competition enough, the 80-ton dinosaur of Amazon might easily crush you and never even realize you were there.

Even in my own business of web-development, nothing is assured. Tools are coming out which could easily make me obsolete. Website templates, gadgets and widgets, high school students who can undercut me -- these are all factors which I must be aware of. What value can I add which can offset them (and, worse, offset those which I never would have expected)?

I don't really have any answers right at the moment, but you can be sure I'm keeping an eye out.

So, how has technology changed your business, for good or for ill?

Friday, December 21, 2007

More TV on Your Desktop

Yesterday I wrote about Hulu, a service which allows you to play high-quality streamed video of both current and classic television programs on your desktop. Hulu is in private beta right now, which means if you want to use the service, you have to sign up to be a beta-tester and then wait for them to sent you an invitation.

This procedure can take some time so, if you would like to test the offerings of Hulu while you are waiting, you can point your browser to OpenHulu. This is one of several services which are licensed to stream the Hulu content. The site is still a little rough -- they are openly asking for help to refine the interfaces -- but the content is the same as you will get on the main Hulu site.

As an aside, I am continually bemused by the variety and quality of services which are coming out on the Web. I've been using the Web since the days of the earliest visual browsers and I remember when streaming audio was choppy and difficult to listen to. Now we have remarkably clear video streaming and Hulu is already experimenting with high definition video.

Amazing stuff.

So, what Web stuff have you found to be the most surprising and cool?

TV on Your Desktop

I was fortunate enough to be reading TechCrunch today when the notice went up that there were some private beta invitations available for the much-anticipated service.

What? You've never heard of it?

Hulu is a site which provides premium content on the Web. "Premium content" includes both current and classic programs from a variety of providers, including NBC Universal, FOX and a smattering of others.

When I logged in I was able almost immediately to stream a recent episode of "Monk" to my computer screen. I checked out "The Office" and browsed through a number of clips from the Sci-Fi Channel, including their recent "Tin Man" miniseries. I was especially thrilled to discover that Hulu has the complete run of one of my favorite short-lived shows, "Firefly".

The video quality was remarkably good. Despite that, my desktop computer had no problems keeping up with the playback. My "so old that Moses must have brought it down" laptop was even able to do a fairly respectable job (though I didn't try to run it on full screen mode -- I'm not expecting miracles, after all).

The videos show with "limited commercial interruption". In the case of the hour and 26 minute "Firefly" pilot episode, this meant that there were 5 30-second commercials. Not a big deal, but if you really can't stand commercials, then you may have a hard time since there isn't any convenient way to fast-forward (though you can attempt to restart the video after the ad spot).

Some interesting features include the ability to "pop-out" the video to a separate smaller window, go to full screen mode, and even to embed clips or even whole videos in your content. The latter facility even allows you to specify a smaller chunk of the video if you wanted to make commentary on a specific part of the offering. I would have loved this tool back when I wrote about meeting Gil Gerard of 1970's "Buck Rogers" fame (Hulu has a selection of Buck's adventures in their library).

I'll be interested to see how this develops. Right now the catalog of videos includes whole seasons of episodes, but not usually the entire run of a show. Will they continue to add episodes until the entire run is available? Will the episodes expire? Do people even want to watch TV this way?

So, how would you use the Hulu service? Or would you?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

New Google Themes

iGoogle planet themeI've been meaning to mention this for the past few weeks, but kept getting distracted. Many probably already knew that iGoogle, the personalized Google homepage, has had themes for a while now. They recently added a whole new bunch of selections to the list.

They've got a few more with cute little characters going about their daily lives, similar to the Japanese tea house theme from the original batch. There are a family of raccoons in one, a tiger cub in another, and a giant monster in yet a third. One of my favorites shows images of different planets.

What makes these themes especially cool is that they change in various ways. The beach scene goes from dawn to dusk and eventually to full night. The planets change from day to day (the sun on Sunday, the moon on Monday, etc). Of course the cartoon characters do different things throughout the day. One of the more subtle ones, the bus stop, actually changes depending on the weather in your area.

Does any of this make me more productive? Nope, probably not. It does, however, amuse me and brighten my day, so I guess it does server a productive purpose.

So, which of the new themes catches your fancy?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

What I Meant to Say Was...

Careening out of control When I wrote that post about being back on track, what I actually meant to say was that I was careening hopelessly out of control.

Kaylie is an absolute angel of a baby. Oh, she gets a little fussy in the evening, but that's not unusual for newborns (or so I've been told). She does take up a little bit of my time -- time, of course, that I am glad to spend with her.

The other challenge in my life right now is also a good one.

I've got a lot of work coming in.

I'm cleaning up the last details for the big upgrade for Community Housing Network. I'm also in the middle of cleaning up the Bruce Donovan Construction website and adding a portfolio tool so they can highlight photos of their projects. I just finished fixing a response form for Pink Papaya Parties (using ASP.NET, no less!). Tomorrow is the big kick-off meeting for the project I'm working on with Defrost Design and today I got a call from my friends at the Michigan Venture Capital Association to add a new file upload facility to their site.

My cup runneth over.

In the meantime, I at least got the most recent issue of my ezine out the door (only 12 hours late). You can check it out in the archives or, if you prefer, you can sign up for a subscription.

So, what are the joyous challenges in your life right now?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Getting Back on Track

Getting on trackIt's a slow process to get back on track again. I remember even as a little kid, missing even a day of school made me feel like I was hopelessly lost and scrambling to get things done when I got back.

I only really took a single week off after Kaylie was born (and that was Thanksgiving week, to boot). Oh, last week was pretty light, too, but I did work. Still, this week I've been feeling like I'm scrambling. At least I finally got a new issue of my e-zine sent out this evening.

I'm sure, too, that as Kaylie develops a more stable schedule, we'll do better with that ourselves.

So, do you have a hard time getting back on track?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Make It Clear

SwaddleMeOK, I'm back.

My apologies for the two-week hiatus, but getting used to having the little one around the house has taken a little bit of doing. Oh, and just so you are forewarned, it's entirely likely that my posts may be in some way baby related for some time to come. I'll try to restrain myself as much as possible.

I did run into a situation with regards to being a new father that ties in with having a good website. In short: Make it clear.

Lisa and I received a wonderful little garment for Kaylie called a SwaddleMe. Imagine a T-shaped piece of cloth with the corners rounded and the center bar of the T is a little pouch. The function is pretty straightforward. You put the baby's feet in the pouch and then wrap the "arms" around her body.

The thing that confused us was that there were two pieces of velcro on the end of one of the arms. They were the "hook" half of the closures. The problem was, we couldn't find the "loop" half. They wouldn't even latch on to the fabric from with the garment was made. We were stumped.

No one should make any sort of baby product whose function is not immediately and obviously apparent to a sleep-deprived new parent! If I have to read the instructions then I'm going to get mildly grumpy.

In the same way, a website should be equally clear. If your users have to think in any way about how to traverse your site, then they will get grumpy and they will leave. The biggest challenge that many people face is that they want to put everything on their front page. They are trying to write the great American novel.

What they should be writing is the best billboard which your visitors can read at 60 miles per hour.

So, what products have you run into which could have been a bit more obvious?