Microsoft is Waking up a Little

Last fall I found myself thinking about Microsoft and their strategy a lot…I really don’t know why I spent so much time thinking about Microsoft, I think it was because they seemed so utterly absent from the activity (Flickr acquisition, delicious acquisition, etc.)…I guess they were the elephant in the room.

Last week HighRoad – Microsoft’s PR firm – invited myself and about five other Toronto area blogger/developers to meet the director of Microsoft Live, Phil Holden.

I gave the team at HighRoad my feedback on the meeting which was basically, “Why invite us over to see a bunch of your ME TOO apps?” Part way through I asked Phil, “So what is Microsoft doing that is new or different?” The answer (“tightened integration across all our products”) was frankly lacklustre, though I can see how having your contacts simply managed across your email, your cell phone, your social network is compelling. But will Microsoft allow you to easily participate in non-Microsoft social networks? A murky answer was given…almost a “Why would you need that?” feel to it, though Phil was clearly listening.

I’ll give the reason why they should allow you to move freely between networks for your future reference. Social networks and communities are only as good as the people within them. There will come a day when any given person will need to be a part of a very specific community. Let’s use a niche/vertical knowledge network as an example and let’s assume the network is not based on a Microsoft platform. If I can’t easily take my identity with me to that other network, it’s going to piss me off. So much so that I will probably never come back to Microsoft once I leave. If they made it easy to move out and back in, well then, I’d probably come back.

So basically they still have not learned to LET GO. They still want to tell you who you can play with. I would not hang out with a person who told me who I could associate with and held me back from joining a new group of friends…at the end of the day, it’s not very social is it?

Anyhow, the reason for this post was actually something totally different. The reason was the one really positive thing I took away from the day. As I mentioned, in the fall I had got my head stuck thinking about Microsoft’s strategy. Here are some of my posts from that time:

Microsoft Getting Disrupted – What is their Strategy?
What Microsoft can learn from the Xbox
Microsoft and APIs – The Only Strategy That Remains?

The one thing that Phil Holden said that really caught my attention was some numbers Phil shared. Basically Microsoft has about 350 million MSN users and 350 million hotmail users and 300 million unique users between the two services. Phil said Microsoft is going to focus on serving those 300 million. As someone who believes deeply in serving his users, and from years of consulting knows that your current clients are your best prospects for new business, I think Microsoft has settled on a strategy I can live with for now. Well done.

By the way, Tom Purves did a good write up of the session there…you can see me (beardless) behind Phil in the photo there.

About Writing a Blog…

Stowe dropped by and wrote another great post on the FreshBooks Blog.  This one focuses on blogging and why small business owners should blog.  There is useful content in there for any blogger though, and that is why I am posting it here. He touches on some of the reasons to even bother blogging, and more importantly, gives excellent guidance on how to do it well.

In Zen Buddhism, there is a concept known as the sudden school: that it is possible to become enlightened in a single moment, without years of training, based on even a single interaction with the right teacher. Bam! One well-pitched Zen Koan — “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” — and you are shaken to your core, and the world never seems the same again.

I think the same thunderstrike of insight can happen — in a much more modest way — when someone “gets” what blogs are, and sees what they can do for a solo practitioner or small business. I don’t mean to suggest that in a single moment all of the labor and love involved in blogging gets compressed to zero, but that it is possible to grasp the dynamics of social media and its benefits in just one exposure to the right description. Which I am setting about to do, here, after blogging for six years or so.

Here is the whole article.

Ingredients for Successful Open Source Projects

As posted on the FreshBooks Blog:

I posted about PHP on Trax recently, and Daniel just came across this post about PHP on Trax. Brace yourself, it’s not a glowing review…but if you notice the date, and make your way through the comments, you’ll see the tune changes.

The post is interesting to me because it is a timely snapshot of an open source movement in its infancy.  It also highlights some key ingredients for successful open source movements:

1) open source projects demand excellent documentation (see DH’s comments)
2) open source movements need bodies (i.e. people to contribute)
3) open source projects can evolve very very quickly

Hopefully the PHP community will get behind a framework and make it happen.  If you know any PHP developers, encourage them to lend a hand.  There is no reason why PHP on Trax or some other PHP Framework can’t rival Ruby on Rails… as Mark Evans my friend and fellow co-founder of the mesh conference says, “it takes a community to raise a child.”

FreshBooks Gets 5 Stars

FreshBooks just got a 5 Star rating on WorkHappy.net.

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”.

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.

SAAS Feedback Benefits Benefit Us All

I was just catching up on Lars Pind’s software blog and I came across this snippet from John Gruber of Daring Fireball:

“Once software starts down this path of guessing what it is the user is trying to do, and then doing something special based on that guess, it must guess correctly nearly every time, because the times when it guesses wrong are so annoying that they far outweigh the extra convenience of the times when it guesses right.”

The fact that guess work is not necessary in SAAS feedback driven software developement is a boon for users and developers alike.  Now it’s common sense (i.e. “what do we build next?”) that is the x factor for many software services.

I went on to comment on Lars’ blog as follows:

“…this is the beauty of software development in the ASP/web2 landscape…you get so much – and such direct – feedback from users that you can make the right move almost all of the time.

Developing software pre a web enabled instant feedback loop was infinitely harder because of the distance between developers and users. SAAS closes that gap and benefits both parties.”

Updated: I elaborated on this post, over at the FreshBooks blog in a post called, “Why We Are Better“.

Introducing FreshBooks

From the brand new FreshBooks.com blog:

It is with great excitement that we make the following announcement:

After two years of dutiful service, we are retiring the NAME of our online invoicing service “2ndsite”, and renaming it FreshBooks.com.

We’re excited.  It’s a new name and a Fresh start.

To coincide (well almost…) with the release of our new name, we will be releasing a new version of our service in two weeks time.  The new release includes some excellent usability of enhancements, as well as the ability to send invoices by first-class mail for the US post (including a return envelope).  All existing FreshBooks/2ndSite users will have their ACCOUNTS UPGRADED in to include these features in two weeks time in the manner that we roll out our regular bi monthly upgrades.

[Note: If you can’t wait two weeks, you can try the new service,  but keep this in mind: don’t invest your time setting up a sneak peek account because ALL SNEAK PEEK accounts will be DELETED in two weeks.  Why?  Please don’t ask, just know that if you want to try the new service in advance, that your sneak peek account will be deleted.  Go here and you can create a regular account that will be upgraded in two weeks with everyone else.]

Why are really releasing a ground mail service?  Honestly, many of our users are confused as to why an online invoicing service would release a service that helps people send invoices in the mail.  The fact is many businesses want to do their billing online, but don’t know how to make the transition to online billing, or can’t afford to build their own proprietary online billing system.  FreshBooks is the solution for these businesses. 

Instead of having to build your own proprietary online billing system, companies can now create a FreshBooks account, import their clients and send their invoices [there is even an API so you can integrate FreshBooks with your existing accounting systems if you need to] – it’s easy and fast.  Gradually your clients who receive invoices in the mail will transition to online billing and your business will save the money it used to spend on postage and envelopes and fulfillment.

Billing is a pain – a costly pain for many businesses.  FreshBooks is the painless billing solution and it’s low-cost.

That’s the news for today.  A new name.  A new release [coming very soon].  We have more news coming – lots of it in fact –, so stay tuned and we will fill you in on the details.

Well…there it is folks…I hope it was worth the wait…