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As you age, you begin to understand the truth in the old adage “you don’t miss something until it’s gone”. This past week, another similar phrase has rung true in the Bowler household: “you don’t miss the water until the well runs dry”.
We’ve been having some issues with our water for the past couple of months. Mostly a low amount of pressure. After a lot of consultation and investigating, it all came to a head this week when our well pump died completely. Such is the way of things when you live in the country. A 30 year old electric motor 300 feet underground only lasts so long.
4 long days later, and several thousand dollars, we have running water again. Yay!
So many truths in our lives are ones we can appreciate from afar, but do not truly understand until we experience them. For me, this week has shown me the importance of having water available on demand and just how much I’ve taken that for granted all my life. Hardly an earth shattering realization, but it’s been profound regardless. Here in Canada, clean, fresh water is in such abundance that we can use 300 gallons a day without a blink.
But once you are forced to live on a limited supply, your appreciation grows. This has been illustrated multiple times over the past three days. Melting snow in the bathtub. Brushing the teeth of our four children with half a glass of water. Heating water to wash dishes in water three inches deep.
I despise myself when I experience a situation like this and fail to make change. So I’m focusing on two ways to live differently going forward. One is to use less water (and to be more mindful of consumption overall), an obvious change. The second is to give more support to those who are focused on bringing clean, accessible water to those who are living without it.
An example of this second change is organizations like Charity:Water. Cameron Moll has worked a lot with them over the past few years and I’ve donated to an occasional campaign. But many times I’ve let it pass by and our family has focused on other missions. Going forward, clean water will be a bigger focus of where we put our dollars to work.
In North America, we are blessed in so many ways. I have to remind myself to make use of these blessings in such a way that people with less can also benefit from the wealth of our countries. I encourage you to do the same!
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Since it’s introduction in 2003, Apple’s Safari has changed a good bit over the years. It’s a web browser, obviously, but it’s grown to be more than that. It’s actually an application for which browsing the web is the primary feature. But it’s the secondary features that keep me using Safari as my main browser, and enjoy using it.
Of course, all the major web browsers are now applications that allow you to browse the web as well as many other things. But what makes Safari most attractive to me is the overall design of these secondary features. For me it started last year when Instapaper was sold and I gave Reading List my first look. And after several weeks of using Mavericks, I noticed that I’d begun to use — and quite enjoy — some of the new additions as well.
It starts with the Bookmarks Bar. Or, what used to be the Bookmarks bar. Now simply referred to as the Safari Sidebar, this is where you can access your saved bookmarks, Reading List articles, and browse links that have been shared by those you follow on Twitter.
What I quite like about this change in the Mavericks version of Safari is that it’s now very consistent across devices. The design is more aligned with iOS and the consistency gives a pleasing experience … familiarity is something that should not be underestimated!
To expand that last point, one of the main draws of Safari is that I’m a loyal Apple fanboy. And with 3 devices that are all used in slightly different contexts, having all my information available one application that is consistent across the devices is an advantage over other options.
Of course, this is not exclusive to Safari. Chrome and Firefox offer bookmark syncing as well. The advantage for Safari is that as a part of the operating system, it can tie many other items together with iCloud syncing. Passwords via Keychain, Twitter & Facebook accounts, and contacts all make sharing and other tasks easier with Safari.
When Mavericks was introduced at WWDC earlier this year, the ability to have automatic updates from websites in the notification center caught my attention. With Google Reader shutting down, I wondered if there was potential to replace it with this new feature in OS X.
It’s still early, but both the lack of web sites using this feature and the fact that I dislike notifications overall have left me not using this at all. But to my surprise, the Shared Links option in Safari has really grown on me.
With no intention of ever using it, I found that several times opening the sidebar would result in the Shared Links being in view rather than the Reading List. And it turns out that it’s a fairly pleasant way to find new items to read. Of course, I can do the same in my Twitter client of choice. But I find Shared Links is a quieter, more peaceful way to look for a good article. It gives you the discovery aspect of Twitter, but with less noise.
Now I find myself accessing Twitter in two different ways. If I want to engage in conversation, or even simply read along conversations and see what people are up to, I open Tweetbot. But if I have a few spare minutes, I find myself opening Safari and perusing through the Shared Links to find a good read. As a discovery mechanism, Shared Links has been a great addition, one I did not expect, nor was even looking for.
The mechanics of the feature may need some tweaking over time. If you click a link in the sidebar, it opens in a tab, but includes a header on the top with the details of the tweet. You can also read the article, then continue scrolling to automatically visit the next item in the Shared Link.
I’m not sure yet if I like this treatment, or would simply prefer the link to be opened in a new tab with the details left in the sidebar. But I’ll admit, being able to click the person’s avatar, which then opens a page to their Twitter account, is a nice tough.
Overall, Shared Links has been a welcome addition to my browsing toolset.
One nice thing that has changed since I posted my thoughts on Reading List in May is the adoption it has seen in other applications. One item of friction was that apps like Reeder and Tweetbot did not include Reading List in their Read Later services.
But now Tweetbot has Add to Reading List baked right in. I assume other apps will follow as Reading List gains popularity and this simply makes it all that more attractive to me.
At it’s core, Safari is still a web browser, a tool for viewing content available on the web. But having other aspects packaged in with this viewing tool is ideal; saving items to read at your convenience, storing items you want save permanently, and finding new items of interest are perfect uses for a tool that can view them all.
Viewing. Saving. Discovering. And all available in a well designed application … a sign of maturity.
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In the past several years, I have worked on several side projects that have never seen the light of day. For those who are not familiar with my story, I cofounded Fusion Ads and ran that business for several years before selling it late in 2011. While I was running Fusion, I launched several other projects … some to mediocre success, some to no success at all.
When you start a business that does well, then move on, there is a constant internal pressure to repeat your success. The purpose of the business can be a completely different direction, but you have this expectation that you will make it work.
For me, the pressure is partly from my own expectations, but also partly because there is a following of people who you still want to impress. We could debate the whether that’s a valid motivation, but to deny its existence would be foolish. We all like to be at least a little Internet famous.
But what happens when a couple years pass and you still haven’t launched the next thing? Here’s what I’ve been learning.
It was November 2011 that I completed the six figure sale of a successful business that I helped start from the ground up. Two years later, it’s so very easy to look back and say to myself, “What have you accomplished since then?” In terms of replacing a business that made more than $30,000 each month, the answer is, “Not much!”
But I have worked on several ideas that were eventually scrapped, put on pause, or are still in progress. I’ve learned to take some satisfaction in these, even the cancelled ideas, because of one truth: my skills have grown by working on these ideas. I’m reminded of this importance every time I start a new project. My skills in design, UX, typography, and front end code would be much weaker were it not for spending the time on these projects.
Some great scenes end up on the cutting room floor. Some photos never make the spread. And some projects never see the light of day.
Our current state of business in web circles is still very focused on the startup mentality and business plan. And while this has a lot of problems, there are some things to learn from it. One key lesson I’ve learned from watching the start up culture is that a lack of clear direction and a valid business plan from the start is a great way to have an unsuccessful idea!
The lack of a valid business plan can lead to a successfully launched product or service that will fail due to a lack of profit. A lack of clear direction can lead to jumping around from one project to another. Knee deep into the hard work of one project is exactly when inspiration for another idea will strike. The temptation to change focus or to “pivot” is always strong at this point. Starting a new idea is very often more exciting than completing the last 20% of the current project.
How does this apply to a one man team? Simply this: I only have so much time to allocate to my own projects, so I’d better have clarity with what I’m doing. Otherwise, hours are wasted and side projects remains just that … projects rather than businesses.
Last, I’ve also learned to take comfort in the idea that side projects are not the most important part of my life. There is much more to life, something I’ve talked about before. There are too many books I want to read, experiences I want to share with my children, and skills I want to learn that don’t involve a computer … these each have to compete for the time I’ve always given for side projects.
To explain this, I have to back up to the time before Fusion Ads when I was working in corporate IT. I was tired of the politics and glacial progress found when working for a large, faceless entity. I knew that if my situation was ever to change, I needed to make this happen outside of my regular work hours. And so early mornings and writing became my normal method of operating.
Even when the change was complete and I worked for myself running a successful business, I still kept up with this habit. Early mornings were most often spent on work, tinkering away on client work or side projects that were not related to my main income stream. A habit that has been in place for more than five years is a habit that is hard to break!
The current landscape in the web encourages this movement. Even when employed in a position, designers and developers are not truly employees, but hired guns. How often do we see a talented designer hired by a company leave in under two years? I’m not sure if dissatisfaction is the cause, but the “grass-is-greener” mentality seems alive and well in our industry.
Now that I’m a position where I don’t necessarily have to do this, I’m trying to be at peace with where I am. It’s so easy to always be looking to the future rather than being thankful for what you have now. And for the entrepreneurial type, it’s hard not to focus on when you’ll be running the show once again.
What I’m finding is that having a great job can help so much. If you’re in a place where you earn a good living, are empowered, and have the opportunity to work on projects that grow your skills in areas that interest you, this internal pressure starts to lessen. Maybe I can just relax and work a normal work day, rather than always putting in those extra two hours in the morning.
Side projects are still in my future. I have a very clear focus on what kinds of products and services I’m willing to work on. And progress is being made, slow though it is.
I’m okay with that.
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A major factor that drew me to the Apple and OS X (pre-iOS) was the strong community of independent developers. The applications and utilities that were available because of these devs were so far from what I was used to in corporate IT and the Microsoft dominated, locked-in-licensing environment. Making the change in my career was partly due to my desire to pick my own tools.
And so I have always believed in the idea of paying for these wonderful tools made available by 3rd party developers in the Apple community. Paying for great tools is a no brainer, especially in light of the way free web services treat their users (the currency). I am happy to pay for good software. And iOS coming on the scene did not change that.
At least, not at first.
I must admit, I’ve felt a bit of what I term app fatigue in the past year. What is this? Simply the lack of desire to either a) pay for another version of an app I already own or b) go through the steps required to update this app and become accustomed to the changes.
It could be that this (slight) change of heart on my part arose because of iOS7. Since Apple made the biggest change the operating system since its inception, many developers decided to do the same. And rather than just update their apps and keep them at the current version, they have mostly embraced the opportunity to launch a new version, one that is in line with the conventions of iOS7, and charge for it.
And the developers should not be blamed for this, not in most cases. A few examples of great apps from talented people whom I enjoy supporting are examples of this upgrade: Tweetbot 3, OmniFocus for iPhone, Fantastical, and 1Password4 on OS X.
On the flip side, there were a handful of great apps that were updated but only made the update available to current customers rather than charging for a new version. Day One on the iPhone is a good example here.
For me, the desire to upgrade a tool I use does depend on who is making the offering. I have no trouble spending $2.99 on a new version of Tweetbot. But some companies of shown less regard and proper planning over the years and this keeps me from upgrading and continuing to use their products. The entire history of Littlesnapper/Ember from RealMac software is the freshest example for me.
The cyclical pattern of Apple’s refinement of current products is certainly astounding. Only the most hardcore Apple hating tech pundits with their head in the sand cannot see this. Even if you don’t like Apple, you have to appreciate their operational efficiency. And their balance sheet.
But if there’s one thing I do not appreciate about Apple, it is their drive – and ability – to promote perceived obsolescence. My Twitter feed is a testament to this during and after each Apple event in the year. People are happily buying a brand new phone every year despite the fact that their current phone should last at least five. At least!
Upgrades themselves are not an issue. If there is a legitimate need, then making a purchase is a justifiable decision. For example, I’ve long planned to sell my current iPad when an iPad mini with a retina display was available because I do most of my blog reading on my iPad. But upgrading for the sake of always having the newest … it’s simply not sustainable environmentally.
And this cycle has spilled over in to the software side, where indie developers treat each new version as an opportunity to refine their own product up the version number, and charge for it again. Not that this is wrong; in order for them to continue their business, they have to.
But as the consumer, I have to admit I grow tired of paying for the same app three or four times.
Before you tear in to me hard, please hear me out. There are some apps for which this makes sense. And the cup of coffee argument we have heard so often does stand up to these types of apps. Like Fantistical or Tweetbot … paying $2.99 every year or two is obviously not a big deal.
Where I noticed my fatigue kicking in however, was with OmniFocus. Search through the archives here and you’ll see I’m a big fan of OmniGroup. But when I first heard that even though I’ve already paid over $100 to have a version of OmniFocus on all of my devices, I would have to purchase all three again to keep up to date, I definitely started to question this cycle.
Not everyone is rolling in disposable income. So even with cheap applications, we each have a limit for how many apps we can purchase each month.
One positive from this change in development cycle is that the previous versions of many of these tools work alongside the new version. When Tweetbot 3 was available on the App Store, you could purchase it and have it living beside Tweetbot 2. So if you have no desire to change it, you can just keep using the old version.
This is not a long term strategy of course … Apple keeps improving the hardware and at some point, your old app won’t work on your device. But that’s technology in a nutshell anyway.
Another option is to stop using the app, completely. Does that sound foolish? Perhaps. But I’m always looking for opportunities to untie myself from my devices and this is one way to do it. Put a little more pen and paper time back in my life!
The best option for me, one I have been moving towards the past couple of years, is to use the tools you already have. I mentioned at the top that the indie dev community was a major factor in my move to using Apple products. But the biggest factor, one that simply should not be overlooked, is that OS X is the most enjoyable, refined operating system available.
Although OS X was a lot rougher around the edges in 2006, that was still a true statement. And even more so today. Every time I find myself experiencing friction or frustration with a software choice, or notice a lack in my toolset, I start looking for options with Apple’s free software that I already have in my possession. This strategy has served me well.
The common refrain is to compare these complaints with coffee purchases … then to stop complaining. And for a $2.99 app, this holds water. But for some cases, not so much. I love OmniFocus, but I have no plans to upgrade the iPhone version anytime soon. It also has me reconsidering how I manage tasks and whether or not OS X (or pen and paper) can meet my needs.
I hold nothing against OmniGroup or other developers for their choices. From the sounds of things, it appears that running a profitable business via Apple’s App Stores is getting harder all the time (maybe 7 billion apps available isn’t such a good thing after all?).
I’m simply trying to be honest about how I’m feeling as a consumer. The current cycle of software availability and updates has me considering how I can simply my toolset and use what Apple gives me on my devices. There will always be those holes to fill and I’m still happy to pay for a good tool. But I’m starting to be a little more discerning of where my app dollars will go.
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Along with a handful of coworkers, I spent the past week in San Francisco. Our primary reason for being there was to attend Userconf, a one day track focused on support. Admittedly, I had very little expectation for this event. Not low expectations, but simply no expectations at all as my attention is usually on conferences that focus on design, development, and creativity.
But as someone who provides support for a SaaS product, I must say I was pleasantly surprised.
Providing support for a SaaS product, especially one that offers complex features, is an interesting thing. It’s entirely possible to staff your front line support with the typical call centre staff, people who can read from a script and pass you through a gauntlet of options. But you may not stay in business for long with type of support.
If you want to show your customers that you care, it starts with your support team. And giving good support for a SaaS product means you need talented, intelligent, and experienced people doing the support. To illustrate this, my own teammates are the perfect example. The following are some of the problems we help customers solve every day:
This is just a small sample of the issues we deal with at Campaign Monitor. On top of this, you have your typical password resets, “how does this feature work” questions, and lengthy sales inquiries. Oh yeah — we offer our service as a white label opportunity as well. Variety is the way of life for a Campaign Monitor support team member.
Further, knowledge is not the only requisite for the job. You have to be able to be a good listener (reader) and ensure you understand what the customer is asking. And of course, you have to effectively communicate with the person who needs the help … and so the ability to write with empathy and clarity is the most important skill in this type of role.
It takes a unique individual with a varied background to have the right skill set for working in support in the current state of the web.
And yet, despite having a unique skill set, support staff are rarely viewed in the same light as the creators: designers and developers who build SaaS products and services. You don’t usually see the same type of respect afforded to these people. And even in an industry where service is given a little more attention, you only need to look at the average salary for a support member to see that most companies do not value this role as highly as others.
And yet, the case could be made that these people will have the biggest impact on the success or failure of a SaaS product. They interact with the customer. Every. Day. They’re the first interaction most customers have with your brand after the sign up process.
So many support teams see members come and go. It’s the stepping stone for “more respectable” jobs. This can be okay in certain organizations, but most of the time it simply results in lower quality of support for the customer. High turnover means training, re-training, and undocumented processes … your customers suffer, and usually the bottom line does as well. Keeping support members who are good at the job is vital.
So how do you ensure this happens? From my experience, three things help a lot. First, pay them accordingly. If the support team is vital to the success of your business, then make sure they are paid well for what they do. Specialists, like designers and developers, are paid for their depth of knowledge in several key areas. But a support team member should be compensated for their required breadth of knowledge … they are the purposeful generalist who has to have a good level of understanding of a lot of different things.
Second, give them ownership in your team. Make support a part of the process of building your product. By the nature of their role, they have a great understanding of the pain points in your software, the areas where customers are feeling a lack. Each team’s process might vary, but include your support team in it so that they feel validated in their contributions to the company and that they have a hand in the final product. They’ll want to give the best support possible when they’ve had a hand in the creation of what you offer.
Last, give them autonomy. This happens a little bit by default in a remote team, but treat your support team (your entire team) like responsible adults. Give them direction on how to do their job, certainly. But then just get out of the way.
I’m very thankful to work for a company with founders who understand the importance of support to the customer experience. There’s always room for improvement and we can always do better, but our support team is paid well, treated well, and have insight into the future of our product. I am blessed in this job!
Back to the subject at hand, Userconf. Created by Sarah Hatter, founder of CoSupport and former member of 37 signals, and the folks at UserVoice, this is a conference that is focused on the people who grease the wheels of most SaaS companies and startups. The repeated refrain of the conference was, “You are awesome!” And they believe it.
It’s good to have people recognize the importance of the role of support workers. You simply have to think back to the support you’ve received from large organization like your bank or ISP. There’s nothing good to say about those experiences and no one wants to have them. A good support experience stands out!
After one year at Campaign Monitor, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed my time here in support. Primarily, this is due to the enjoyment I get from working with this team. Quality people with talent and a passion to do the job well makes for an infectious work environment.
I hope you all have (or give) leadership that allows this type of team to grow and thrive.