Open Source Communications

I’m in the Call For Help TV studio right now… I just did a segment on Tech TV about FreshBooks and I am about to do a segment on marketing software online.

In preparation for the show I did some research on the host, Leo Laporte, and came across this interview on Mad Penguin.  Leo talks a lot about open source platforms vs. Windows platforms and the IBM platform era that came before.  He does a nice job of explaining how the sheer POWER of having people working at something they love for all the right reasons (READ: open source developers) creates a better product than people who are working for someone else while someone else benefits big time (READ: Microsoft employees).  Okay… nothing new.

What got me going was how he equated the platforms to government (i.e. Democracy vs. totalitarian rule).  In this scenario he describes how countries like China are going to extraordinary expense to restrict their peoples’ access to the internet, and thereby not allowing them access to masses of information.  Allow me to reiterate: they are going to EXTRAORDINARY EXPENSE.  AND he points out that that carrying on like this is unsustainable: the model will break.   I agree.

So… let’s switch gears and think about corporate communications for a moment.  Traditionally corporations have been totalitarian states.  Remember when the only source of news was a newspaper?  Remember when the radio came around?  Then TV?  Gradual change.  Each of these are broadcast media where companies can control their message and basically their message was the God’s truth because…well…there was no other message…and they had TOTAL CONTROL over that solitary message.

Then the internet happened.

What is the significance?  The corporate message is now being shaped by users/consumers/fans/participants much like open source software.  Why is it like open source software?  Because people not companies are using tools like blogs and podcasts and web sites and email to create the message and shape the message…and there is no stopping them from doing it.  In fact you shouldn’t want to…you should be thrilled they are taking their time to even bother with you.  You should support them as much as you can, engage them when it’s natural and LISTEN to them – that is the big thing.

I was on a call with one of our customers the other day (we set up calls to talk to them because we value their input and take it to heart every day).  This caller referred to our users as our “virtual board of directors”.  Perfect, and absolutely right.  They are that valuable (i.e. like advisors).  They have that kind of influence (i.e. like a board).  The feedback they give us and the blog posts they write shape our direction and help us sculpt the communications we do. So…like the open source movement, which relies on remote software developers to craft the software, our remote users sculpt our communications in a very natural and organic way.

Open source communications is the way from here on in.  That’s a good thing.

Adwords Help from the Master

As part of our initiative to deliver helpful resources to our FreshBooks users, this Thursday at 1:00 PM I will be hosting a tele-seminar with Andrew Goodman.  Andrew is THE Google Adwords expert and the author of “Winning Results with Google AdWords“.

Any start-ups who are thinking of using Adwords, or looking for some guidance running a campaign, can join in on the call.  The call is free to attend (but you have to pay your long distance rate if one applies).  Feel free to tell any small business owners or web designers or service providers that you know about the tele-seminar, all that we ask is that you sign up in advance so we can gauge our numbers and buy the correct number of phone lines.  Thanks.

Here are the details and more information about Andrew.

Use Your Application, Eat Your Cookie

As posted on the FreshBooks blog:

One of the things I like to see when I subscribe to someone’s service is that THEY use their own service.  I call this “eating your own cookie”.

We are in the process of redesigning our timesheet.  It’s a great design project to sink my teeth into.  How to we start something like this?  We USE THE TIMESHEET.

Starting this morning everyone around here is responsible for tracking their time in 10 minute  intervals – this is going to force us to use the timesheet regularly and get in touch with the painful activity of accurately tracking your time down to the minute.

If you are building web applications, using your own product is KEY.  We built FreshBooks to help us manage our web design company and we still use it to manage the billing of a handful of clients we have not let go of…. And after three years, the cookie still tastes good, but with our upgraded timesheet, it’s about to get sweeter.

FreshBooks Gets 5 Stars

FreshBooks just got a 5 Star rating on

I found WorkHappy a while back…Carson (the man behind the site) has posted application and excellent literature  recommendations for entrepreneurs…I’ve read the majority of his literature recommendations…Anyway, it’s pretty sweet to get five stars from Carson and his users as I’m an entrepreneur and FreshBooks users are entrepreneurs…peer validation…very nice.

What is Social Software?…

As posted on the FreshBooks Blog:

What is social software?  It’s software that deepens relationships between human beings – at least that is my take.

I started thinking about this last night because of a conversation I had with a FreshBooks user.  He has a design studio and I was interviewing him as part of our on-going client outreach initiative.

I told him that we are going to socialize our timesheet.  He said, “Socialize your Timesheet?…Like put tags on it?”

This client is a regular reader of websites and blogs like Signal vs. Noise and A List Apart… He knows what social software is, but clearly it has lost its meaning.

Social software is not tags [you can go here to see some reasons why I think tags suck].  Tags facilitate a relationship, but hey do not deepen it. Presently, FreshBooks does an excellent job of facilitating relationships and streamlining billing and time tracking.  When we socialize our timesheet we are going to embark on a new era whereby we help people work and communicate like people, not like users of software.  We’re excited.

Go here if you want to learn more about how we are going to socialize something as mundane as a timesheet.

PHP Framework: PHP On Trax

As posted on the FreshBooks Blog:

Ruby on Rails has been getting a lot of attention lately – for good reason.  It provides a programming framework that saves developers huge amounts of time and helps them leverage useful technologies like AJAX and various JavaScript Libraries.

The trouble is, many developers have invested themselves in one technology or another (PHP, Java, Cold Fusion, ASP…) prior to the breakout of Ruby on Rails.  Switching programming languages is not something most developers want to do.

We have been primarily a PHP shop since 1999.  So, I was delighted to come across PHP on Trax recently.  Turns out one of the principal developers in a FreshBooks customer (he wrote us a note shortly after we could Trax).

Check it out, and if you can, spread the word and/or get involved with building up the technology – it’s open source.

Your Sexy/Unsexy Mix

It’s funny how once you start thinking about something you see it everywhere.  This morning I woke up thinking about how “soft” all this web 2.0 stuff is and how bubbley things seem to be getting.  Established execs are leaving industry leaders to pitch in at start ups.  Google is madly going after low hanging fruit.

SO, with this in mind I logged into BlogLines today to create a new account and I saw this:

Those titles are not the titles of the early majority – they are the titles of the early adopter.  The hype is building in the technology world, which is at once exciting and scary.  It’s a small world and you can wrap yourself in it like a blanket if you want to….I would not recommend that though.

I know we have always brought a slightly “old school” mentality to how we run our business.  I don’t even have a cell phone.  I think our old school thinking may prove to be a competitive advantage in time.  With things like customer acquisition and driving trial we have focused on unsexy little niches, not as much on the blogosphere and the TechCrunch 50,000.  As a start-up you want a mix, because the unsexy clients are the ones who actually PAY for your service, the others ones (for the most part) just talk about you.  The unsexy customers also act as YOUR PRODUCT VALIDATION because they prove you add value.

So here is some guidance to start-ups that I have said before: don’t expect hype to pay the bills.  Find your marketing mix – your sexy/unsexy mix.  Why?  Because as Paul Kedroksy mentioned in his keynote at mesh “it takes a lot of bodies to fill a swamp”, to which I’ll add, “and corpses are decidedly unsexy”.

Small Companies Do it Better

As posted on the FreshBooks Blog:

It’s ironic…when you are small you control your own destiny – but most people would not agree with you.  They think success in the market place is determined by bigger players who have deeper pockets and wield a bigger club.  There is truth to that.  But when it comes to projects, I’d say little guys have more control.  

Right now we are running a little behind with the delivery of our upcoming ground mail invoicing service at FreshBooks.  In software it is common that things arrive late.  At FreshBooks it is UNcommon.  Why?  We are in 100% control of our development process.  I get calls to off-shore our software development all the time.  No thanks.  I like being on time, and I like great design (the downfall of off shore development in my humble opinion, but that is another story), so I’ll pass on the “cheaper” labour that WILL COST ME more time and energy.

Anyhow, ground mail is late.  I admit it.  Without going into the details, our partner (read “larger company”) has recently experienced some turnover.  No problem, these things happen, but from my vantage point it is a bummer when the lead developer on your project checks out when your project is 98% complete.  As a fairly seasoned project manager I know that one of the best ways to make a project FAIL is to change the team leaders part way.  I also know you have to roll with the punches and that’s exactly what our partner is doing.

Things are under control and their staff is competent…At this point it is really only a drag that we’ll deliver late – tough pill to swallow when not 10 days ago we were tightening the final screws and looking forward to kicking ground mail out the door last Monday.  C’est la vie. 

If you are following at home I’d say ground mail is now about two weeks away which will be three weeks late.  The good news is we have been adding more goodies to the upcoming release.  Thanks for your patience – it will be worth the wait.

FreshBooks Goes Social

I guess technically we are going postal before we go social <grin>, but that’s beside the point.  The real point is we are solving REAL problems for businesses.  I am excited because we are shaking things up.

Here is a lengthy post of mine from the FreshBooks blog (I posted it this morning):

TITLE: Software Should Be Social Because No One Works Alone

Nobody works alone.

We have about 30 years of consulting experience here at FreshBooks and we’ve never worked alone. About eight years ago I started out as an independent consultant. Back then I worked with my clients. Gradually I built up a network of freelancers who I contracted work out to. Sometimes they contracted work back to me. Very quickly these relationships became complicated. The money we owed one another was hard to track. The time spent on each others’ projects was not clear. 

As the consultancy we built up moved from web design and internet strategy consulting into pure product development, we have kept a few of the relationships alive. Today I am busy running FreshBooks. Now more than ever I feel the pain of not knowing how much I owe a contractor or what amount of time has been applied to a specific project. That is about to change.

FreshBooks is going to redesign time management for these complex relationships – we are going to shift the paradigm of time tracking. How? We are going to facilitate time tracking amongst individuals by allowing them to plug into groups – seamlessly.

Let’s use an example. Let’s say a web designer, a developer and a copywriter – all independent practioners operating their own companies – work together at some point during the course of Project A and let’s assume each one has a FreshBooks account. In today’s FreshBooks environment the three parties would have to choose a FreshBooks account to use to track their time (let’s say they choose the web designer’s account because in this case she brought in the work).

Throughout the life of the project, each “freelancer” logs into the web designer’s FreshBooks account and enters their time. To do this, each one needs to remember a username and password and a URL. They then need to login to the web designers’ FreshBooks account and track their time. At the end of their project the developer and the copywriter will have to tally up their time spent on the project and invoice the web designer – from their OWN FreshBooks account. This is a problem. It’s wrong. Why can’t the developer and the copywriter just work from within their own FreshBooks account for the life of the project? That would be natural, no? YES. We’re going to make it happen and you are going to love it.

FreshBooks is about to introduce a new era for freelance and contract workers. In this new era each independent practitioner will have their own FreshBooks account and they will be able to SHARE timesheets with other FreshBooks account holders IF they choose to. What is the significance? Now each of these independents can stay within their own FreshBooks account and share a timesheet for the same project. Simple. Tidy. Afterall, they each have their own office from which they share the work load…it’s the same principle.

When you can collaborate on your relationships from within your own account, it really helps. Think about Project B – the one no one expected to come out of Project A. It’s a second project that involves only the copywriter and the developer (and not the web designer). Within the new FreshBooks paradigm, the copywriter and the developer can stay inside their own FreshBooks account and simply share a timesheet with one another, while seamlessly working on BOTH projects. Sounds about right, doesn’t it?

We at FreshBooks are going to help you run your business in a very natural, social way. That’s one of the reasons we design software. We believe it should help you work naturally. We believe that software should help you DEEPEN your relationships. You don’t need to log into 3 different accounts to work on 3 different projects so you shouldn’t have to.

You stay in your account. Simple. Hallelujah.

Levi At FreshBooks Has An Issue With AMEX

This post about the struggle with accepting AMEX in US funds was posted by Levi today on the FreshBooks blog, the title is: Why Operating a Web Service in Canada Sucks – Part 1: AMEX …

Okay, I admit right off the top that the title of this post is intentionally contentious to get you reading….I’m busted.  It doesn’t really suck to operate a web service in Canada, but there certainly are some limitations and difficulties.  One of which I came across earlier after many moons of back and forth with the “other” credit card company, AMEX.   

To put some context to this story, I should give you a bit of background on our business.  We are based in Canada, but have the majority of our customers in the USA.  We try to apply the 80 – 20 rule for everything we do online; in this case we wanted to make paying for our software very easy for 80% of our clientele.  Therefore, we decided to only accept payment in US dollars. 

As many of you out there know, getting set up to accept credit cards online is hard enough as it is just for Visa and MasterCard.  You need to first get an online merchant account which involves a long list of forms that require everything from your credit history to the rights to your first born.  After that, you need to decide and get set up with an appropriate payment gateway.  In our case we chose VeriSign because of its good reputation and the flexibility of its API.  Finally, you have to get your merchant account and your payment gateway talking.  Since we are based in Canada, we ended up having to get another account with an intermediary called Global Payment Systems.  Please don’t ask why our merchant account couldn’t deal directly with VeriSign in the US, and also please don’t ask how long it took for VeriSign to get setup properly with Global Payment Services.  Let’s just say I don’t think they deal with too many Canadian customers.

Okay, so after all the work we put into getting setup to accept Visa and MasterCard in good old-fashioned US dollars and get the money deposited into our US based Canadian bank account, we started getting a number of requests to accept AMEX.  I then started the application process with our merchant account to accept AMEX assuming it would just be a matter of adding AMEX onto our account. 

Remarkably in my first conversation, I was given an impression that it would be just that simple after filling out a few forms.  In a few days I realized it wasn’t going to be that simple.  Our merchant account came back asking for our AMEX account number, which of course I didn’t have.  After some wrangling I realized the AMEX is a completely different animal than Visa and MasterCard and I would have to go through an entirely different application process: AMEX Canada.

So, I started the process and everything seemed to be going fairly smoothly until I introduced the “dirty” acronym in the AMEX Canada vocabulary: “USD”.  Of course no one actually said that they wouldn’t accept USD, they started by saying that the money will be converted to CAD and that they only work with Canadian dollar bank accounts.  I thought “that kinda sucks because we will end up getting dinged with the AMEX conversion rates, but it’s worth it to make our customers happy”.  However, after about two weeks of getting everything setup just right, I then started the process with our gateway to introduce them to AMEX Canada assuming they would speak the same language. 

For some strange reason, I didn’t recall one of my first lessons I learned working as a young engineer in Calgary, never ASSUME anything! 

VeriSign insisted that their system will work as long as I could get them some ID number that they needed.  AMEX Canada said everything will work and eventually got me the number that they initially thought was not needed.  At this point I should have given up, but I thought it would all be worth it, once we are accepting AMEX.  I managed to get a small transaction to go through with Kathy’s AMEX card and after a week, AMEX Canada actually came up with the transaction in their online reports.  The only kicker was that it was the exact amount I charged except in CAD not USD.  I thought maybe it just had to settle before it was converted properly.  When it finally settled, sure enough the total converted amount was not in our bank account.  After sorting it out with AMEX Canada who initially thought I was disputing the charge and wanted the money back, I eventually talked to THE person who told me beyond a doubt that AMEX Canada does not accept US transactions.  It is not just that they convert it to Canadian, they just don’t do USD, period.

To make a long story short, my quest for AMEX was over. Unless I could get approved with AMEX USA, our business could not accept AMEX. 

Perhaps when Google expands their payment services, none of us will need Visa, MasterCard or AMEX.  Check out what Mathew Ingram had to say in the Globe today about Google’s payment services.