12 Hacks for Picking Web Apps

The world of web services has mushroomed in the past few years. This is great for buyers, except the vendor selection process has become more time-consuming.

You can easily build a comparison chart in a spreadsheet with feature comparisons, integrations, support and prices, but you’d miss the qualitative part of the story.

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Two Excellent Web Apps Connect: Solve360 and Xero

solve-big1File under “two great tastes that taste great together.”

Solve360 is a web-based CRM, built by a small self-funded Calgary company called Norada. It’s a terrific tool for managing your customer list and nurturing prospects. It’s similar to Salesforce.com, except much less painful to use and without the features that only big companies need.

Xero is a web-based accounting system, built by a much bigger New Zealand company. Generally, Xero does what QuickBooks does but in a more web-native fashion.

xero-logo-hires-RGBI evaluated Xero earlier in 2012 for a customer, but we elected to use QuickBooks since Xero didn’t have a Bank of America feed.

Xero has added a lot of US bank connections since then — and none too soon, since so many firms are transitioning to a cloud-based business systems infrastructure.

Anyhow, last week Norada announced that Solve360 users could pull Xero-based customer invoice data into the Solve360 contact profile views.

This gives your sales and support teams a fuller context when communicating with customers. Read about the feature here — page 3 shows the payoff.

Strategically, this makes it easier to include the two apps as part of a full “recipe”. We think they are solid tools for most small businesses.

Dropbox, Sugarsync and Box.com: The critical differences

Cloud storage services are a terrific tool for small business. They address 90% of your backup needs, make collaboration easy, and are pretty cheap.

Using one goes basically like this: create and pay for your account, install their software on your computer, choose which folders on your hard disk to sync, and then the program begins silently copying your files to their servers. If you make a change to a document on your computer, the system automatically pulls the newer version into the cloud.

Your files can also be pushed down from the cloud into a second computer. This makes the two-computer lifestyle a whole lot easier, and nearly eliminates the need for USB flash drives.

Even if you’re at a public computer, you can still access all your documents, by logging in to your account online. Each of these services also has apps for smartphones and tablets, and using them is typically a lot faster than opening your laptop.

Our three favorite cloud storage services are Dropbox, Sugarsync and Box.com.

Each are about $15/user/month, and each makes sense for a certain type of situation. Let’s review the critical differences.

 

Dropbox

On the downside, the service was built for individual users, and the corporate sharing features do not compare well with Sugarsync or Box.com.

 

Box.com

  • Box-logo-box.com-box-net-newThe best sharing and permissioning tools. You can give someone different permissions for different folders, and allow them to upload-only or read-only etc.
  • Pleasing web interface for user and file administration.

However, their sync software for Macs is fluky and occasionally needs a restart to trigger a sync. Box has promised an April 2012 fix.

 

Sugarsync

sugarsync_250At this writing, Sugarsync is the service which gives you the most control over where to keep your synced files. Dropbox and Box.com both make you bless a single special folder on your computer. There are two reasons for that. It is intuitively easier to understand: “Look, this folder is the one that gets synced.” Second, most people in the Windows and Mac worlds will use the default “Documents” folder for their files.

But this single-blessed-folder approach breaks down if you don’t use the default “Documents” folder, or have a second hard disk with shareable material. Perhaps you don’t want to sync everything in your “Documents” folder. This single-blessed-folder approach also leads to having two copies of a file on your computer, which means sharing an important spreadsheet requires an extra step.

Sugarsync lets you choose which folders get synced. It means a more complicated setup, but one better suited to the power user or someone picky about where they put their files.

 

No Bad Choices

I don’t think you can go wrong with any of these services. Perhaps the best thing about cloud storage services is that the switching costs are so low: you can just uninstall one service and install another. In a multi-user company, that will require some individual handholding, but there is no need to change file formats and no risk of losing data.

Final word: The elephant in the next room is Google. Today there was another leak about Google Drive, which will probably compete directly with Dropbox, Sugarsync and Box.com. I wonder how well the first iteration of Drive will integrate with the Google Apps platform. UPDATE 17APR2012: Yep, here it comes.

Sending Client-Billable Expenses From Expensify to QuickBooksOnline

Expensify is a very slick and lightweight service for handling business expense reports.

QuickBooks Online is the cloud/Saas version of QuickBooks. It’s not pretty, but rather is a safe choice with a large ecosystem of bookeepers who understand the QB way.

Expensify and QuickBooksOnline have for some time been able to talk to each other via an API. QuickBooksOnline sends customer and account data to Expensify, and Expensify sends individual expenses to QuickBooks Online (hereinafter QBO).

Yet that connection only covers situations where your company recognizes an expense on the Expense side of QBO’s general ledger.

What if your company needs to bill customers for its expenses? You can do this with regular installed-software QB (as detailed here) but not with QBO. The basic Expensify-QBO connection puts expenses into a liability account, and it should ideally go into an AR account.

The good people at Expensify tells me that they’re working on a solution.

Here’s the workaround, in abridged form. I am skipping some steps.

You’ll need to purchase a $20/month middleware app called Transaction Pro Importer, obtained from Intuit’s QBO app store. Plus, you will of course need to establish the data connection between Expensify and QBO.

 

1. In Expensify, prepare a CSV export format that resembles the following. You are mapping Expensify data to Transaction Pro Importer’s “Credit Card Charges” schema.

expensify-1

 

2. Still in Expensify, export your completed expense report to your customized CSV. It will look like this:

TxnDate,Payee,ExpenseAmount,ExpenseAccount,ExpenseClass,
ExpenseDescription,CreditCard,Msg,RefNumber,LineBillableStatus

02/14/2012,"Small World Coffee (princeton)",21.00,
"Reimbursable Expenses:Meals-Reimb","zzz Test Customer",
"Crucial Meeting.","Credit Card","Princeton Meeting 14Feb2012",660287,1

 

3. Now in Transaction Pro Importer, upload the CSV file you created.

expensify-2

 

4. Still in Transaction Pro Importer, confirm your field mappings and select records for importing (shown below).

expensify-3

 

5. Go to QBO to see your expense transaction. Note that Billable is not checked, even though we tried to force that with “LineBillableStatus” set to 1. That’s an annoyance we’re working on fixing.

expensify-4

 

Note that this post is just an outline, not an exhaustive help document. If you’re clever enough to connect Expensify and QBO, then you can bash your way through the entire process with Transaction Pro Importer. Their detailed help is here.

Hat tip to Angela Yeager for her help.

Four Great Remote Training Tools

As more companies use web-based apps to power their sales and marketing campaigns, we have become acutely aware of the need for good user training.

This winter we have rolled out installations of Solve360 (a CRM), SugarSync, Expensify, QuickBooks and various Google products.

The canned help for these services is generally good, but usually not enough to fully engage everyone. Personalized handholding and troubleshooting goes a long way towards full user adoption — which is the key to a project’s success.

If we’re not on-site, these are the four tools we use most often to help coach individual users along the learning curve.

chrome-remote-desktopChrome Remote Desktop

This is a free add-on app for the Google Chrome browser, which allows someone to give total control of their computer to another person in a remote location.

This is most useful for a “tech support” situation, e.g. if someone is having trouble understanding where to click in a new app, or has gotten lost in a web-based app.

Making a connection is pretty simple. The user opens Chrome, goes to the Remote Desktop page, and initiates a sharing session. Chrome provides a unique twelve-digit code, and they repeat it to me over the phone. I punch that code into Chrome on my computer, and the connection is made through Google’s servers. I can now “see” the user’s desktop in my version of Chrome, control their mouse, and make keyboard entries.

The above startup sequence takes about ten seconds. Screen lag is very minimal. Security is good: the code expires after a few minutes, and an inactivity timeout closes a connection automatically.

Webinar tools like GotoMeeting and WebEx have a similar function to “give desktop control” to a remote person, but Remote Desktop is vastly easier for ad-hoc use.

meetingburner1Skype and MeetingBurner

On the other hand, I may want to show my screen to someone else.

Skype allows 1:1 screen-sharing, and doing so is pretty convenient if you’ve already established a Skype voice connection with the remote party. Also, the Skype IM window permits you to share chunks of text like URL’s or a set of bullet points. However, if Skype gives you a dodgy connection, the display lag can be significant.

MeetingBurner, at this writing, is the freshest entrant in the webinar world. I use this app when broadcasting my onscreen actions to more than one person, or to a non-Skype user. Startup of MeetingBurner consumes about a minute of the broadcaster’s time.

MeetingBurner has a free tier of service, and a paid tier that enables the recording of webinars.

The latest beta of the Skype program for Windows allows 1:many screen-sharing. Yet the more attendees you have, the more likely it is that someone doesn’t have Skype. Better to use MeetingBurner.

Screenr

So far, we’ve covered how to train people remotely in real-time. To convey basic usage of a web app to a group of users, we use Screenr to build canned tutorials.
screenr_logoScreenr records a portion of my screen, plus a voiceover. The resulting video is available for viewing online by the user, and even plays well on iPhone/iPad. Private sceencasts (which might show proprietary information) are possbile with Screenr’s paid tier of service.

We find Screenr most useful for demos that introduce a new app, or brief “skills” videos that coach someone through a particular feature.

Since these screencasts are recorded live and can’t be edited, they should be brief and introduced as informal tools.

 

Monitoring web page changes with Page2RSS

Monitoring what your compeititors and partners are doing can give you the occasional edge in selling, a negotiation, or product decision.

Here’s a relatively simple way to monitoring what your compeititors and partners are doing, by learning when their web site changes.
page-2-rssA free service called Page2RSS will automatically scrape a web page every six hours, and compare it to what it saw earlier. If anything on the page has changed, the alteration is noted in an RSS feed. That feed can be added to Google Reader, or as a bookmark in your web browser.

It’s true that many websites have an RSS feed built-in, but that usually only offers a stream of their blog posts or press releases.

Use Cases

  • Competitors: the Management page, their FAQ, their press release page, etc.
  • Partners and Vendors: When they listed a new client, or added a capability.
  • Customers: Management, office locations, events etc.

Google Reader used to have page-watching built in, but they curiously withdrew that feature in September of 2010.

Other similar screen-scraping services are Feed43 and Feedity.

Webinar tools – the state of the market

I’ve been doing a lot of remote training this month, and quickly surveyed the landscape of webinar services.

For someone who needs to share their computer screen with someone out of the room, it’s a good time to be a buyer. There are a number of viable services which make it easy for your viewer (no downloads!), offer integrated audio conferencing, and have a good system for inviting people.

All prices approximate.

$50/month

  • Webex and GotoMeeting are the market leaders, and both offer a very polished experience for the viewer. If webinars are important to your business, you can’t go wrong with either.

 $10/month

  • YuuGuu. Requires you download a browser plugin, which is pretty standard for this space.
  • Zoho has been around for a while, and  “Meeting” is one of their suite of apps. It’s pretty effective. Screen redraws seemed a little slow when I tested them.

 Free

  • Skype. Only allows you to share your screen with one other person. Requires that the viewer have Skype installed; many people do already, but it’s not worth asking them to install it just for a webinar.
  • CRM gorilla Salesforce bought free webinar app Dimdim in early 2011, but shut it down in March. So cross Dimdim off your list. In its place we have…
  • Anymeeting. Formerly Freebinar, this is a relative newcomer in the space. Your viewers see ads alongside your screen.  My current favorite for one-off meetings.

 

 Update – January 20, 2012

Meetingburner, which was creeping out of Beta in 2011 and is now getting play at a Lifehacker bakeoff, is the new hotness. Free, no ads, and a somewhat more polished UI and design than Anymeeting. The two services are quite comparable, which is good because they will push each other for the near future. Consumers win.

Is your firm running uphill?

Have you got that intimidated, guilty feeling? About how much better your competitor ranks for the good search terms, has more Twitter followers and Facebook friends, and has more online “gravity”?

This post is for you:

The Rich Get Richer: True in SEO, Social + All Organic Marketing

The writer is an SEO expert, but his main point touches on why online marketing needs to be thought of holistically.

High search rankings can earn you lots of visitors who might subscribe to an email list. Thousands of Twitter followers can mean direct SEO benefit and second-order effects like more links and branding. A popular LinkedIn group can drive traffic that turn into more RSS subscribers, getting you noticed by industry lists, which then feed into more media attention and links, which delivers higher rankings. It’s a virtuous circle — unless you’re sitting on the sidelines.

Or running uphill. Read the whole thing.

Forget the guilt of “I should have begun all that online marketing earlier.”

Take heart because of these things:

  • Online marketing tools are getting cheaper and work better together. This means a small or midmarket company can have big-company infrastructure for lead generation and development.
  • Customers may slow down their buying during a recession, but search engines don’t. Crank out good content, get people linking to you, and you’ll be better-ranked when spending conditions improve.
  • Competitors make mistakes, even when they are running downhill*. How often have you heard of a company getting more nimble and efficient as they grow?
  • Knowing what will engage customers is critical to marketing, but is always changing. If you find out what your buyers are interested in right now, you’ll have a more accurate perspective than your competitor.

Start Now! You can catch up. Interview customers, come up with a content strategy, integrate your marketing, and measure it all.

*True story: The first cross-country race I ever won was when the guy in front of me took a wrong turn and ran off the course.

Transcribing Services

My favorite transcriber, an ex-IBM programmer in Rhode Island, retired not long ago. This left me without a proven way to turn customer telephone interviews into text.

Then, while reading the SEOMoz blog, I note that each of their Whiteboard Friday series of instructional videos has accompanying transcription. (This is wonderful on its own – scan the text before deciding whether to watch the video. And it helps a little bit with onpage SEO.)

Anyhow, there is a credits link to speechpad.com…

speechpad

Speechpad

The Speechpad website is schizophrenic. On the one hand it has easy registration and several ways to send them your audio.

It almost seems like this is a slick new web app.

On the other hand, it does a half-baked job of converting visitors into buyers. Visit their site and the guessing begins. Who are they? What does it cost? What is the turnaround time? Where are the FAQ? What are they writing on their blog? (“Coming Soon.”) What guarantees do they offer? None of this is present.

It is a very mysterious experience.

speechpad-logo

Despite that, I took a flyer and voice-recorded two minutes of From Poverty to Prosperity (recommended! by Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz at AEI). I sent it over to Speechpad and within a day I had a very accurate transcription. Cost? $0.00. They treated it as a spec job, I gather.

A followup email from them said their rates were flexible, and to for future transcriptions to email them regarding budget and turnaround.

On also learns that SpeechInk is the company behind the Speechpad service. The SpeechInk website has all the missing pieces, most notably rates. Simple transcriptions begin at $1.75 a minute, a rate which goes up with the complexity of the recording and down with the volume of transcriptions.  This is somewhat less than what I paid the ex-programmer in Rhode Island.

Speechpad seems worth a go with future transcriptions — I just wonder what they were thinking when they set up a half-finished brand and website.