Archive for September, 2008

Turning away free business

September 28, 2008

One of the things I love about the iPhone is the integrated Google maps application. It’s great for local search. Although the content is pretty poor in the Netherlands compared to the Gouden Gids, it’s readily available on the phone and once you do find something, it’s easy to add the contact into your phone with name, address and telephone number all in there.

Recently, I was looking for a fridge for three months, so I thought I’d call up Boels Verhuur. These guys rent out almost anything. Although they focus on the B2B market, they do a lot of business for consumers too. So I search for Boels Verhuur and get a few hits near my house. I call up the first one and he says “Boels in Leiderdorp. Ohhhh – you’re probably looked for us in Google, right? No, this is Boels in blahblahblah, you need to call this number”. I call that number, and I get the answer “Yes, we’re Boels in Leiderdorp, but we don’t rent out fridges, you need our affiliate Party Business”. Well, to cut a long story short, it takes five different phone calls and two mistaken website searches before I find the affiliate which rents out fridges. I reckon 5% of the business leads that come in this way will get through the funnel before they even look at the products and services available.

It has become a small and medium business imperative to have a single place that lists correct uptodate contact information alongside the most important brand, product and service information. To ensure that it is really uptodate and correct, the control of the information needs to be in the hands of the only people who really know that: the business itself. The business will automatically be ranked more highly because the information is unique and fresh. Ideally, this page will also list out aggregated opinions on the business and opinions on the products and services that the business delivers (which is what people will often be searching for), and do so in a way that allows the growing volume of people searching semantically to find the reviews and contact details directly.

Perhaps this will also be the page that paid search traffic is directed to and for which the business gets regular and clear reporting. But these are secondary to having a single place for your uptodate business information that is easily found organically.

It’s a small investment to get lots of free business leads. It’s also a small investment to avoid the Boels Verhuur experience above. It was particularly frustrating that the business itself knows and recognises that it has an issue — probably from the volume of leads coming in to the wrong place — but has not taken the simple steps needed to fix it.

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incSpring: new identities from old logos

September 28, 2008

incSpring was a great idea, waiting to happen. The bidding process for graphic designs and digital identities is a wasteful one. Often two or three agencies or graphic designers are invited to bid, and they may each develop a logo, alongside other brand elements. Once one is chosen, they may often develop three possible choices, which may be iterated a few times. Along the way, work in progress builds up and is simply thrown away, once the final choice is made.

What happens to all those brand identities? They wind up for sale on incSpring.

If you are a hardcore brand process person, you probably feel very strongly that logos must fit closely with digital identities, and that digital identities must created for companies. The success of incSpring suggest that not everyone agrees. Often, a logo and a brand can be applied pretty successfully to a young company, especially when viewer of the logo is given some room for interpretation. And are the brand values of a new tech start-up really that different from each other?

incSpring has mostly logos for sale, although some include names, brand variants, domains and other brand elements. Compared to what you would pay for a fully designed logo (think in the tens of thousands of €s), these are dirt cheap. They range from a few hundred $ to as little as $2500.

Here is a simple logo — neatly incorporating a globe with the letters ‘M’ and ‘V’:

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A snip at $2400.

One of my incSpring favourites:

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A lot of logo joy there for just $500.

A new way of using a lightbulb for a creative or consulting company:
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There are a few hundred logos to browse and play with.

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What not to call your blog

September 27, 2008

I thought long and hard about the name of this blog before I started it. Well, not very long. And if I am completely honest, hardly at all.

I figured that I’d be posting about project management, agile software development, money management, line management — I think you see the theme.

After I’d written a few posts I started to get feedback about the name. First subtle (“it’s a bit bland”) then less so (“crap name”) and it only got worse (“what the **** did you call it that for?”). But I reckoned it was not worth changing until I could come up with a better name. Which is where you come in, dear reader.

What do YOU think I should call this blog? I like writing about agile and lean projects, iPhones, mechanical investing, search, crawling, iPhones, software development, natural language processing, machine learning, gadgets, SEM, new business models and … er … iPhones but I’m trying to cut back on the iPhones.

Answers on a postcard or in the comments, please.

Queen’s Birthday

September 22, 2008

Queen’s Birthday is a Facebook app, built with Zembly.

When I was a kid, I always wanted an extra birthday — a whole year seemed like way too long to wait. It is a little known fact that the British Monarch, the Queen of England, has two birthdays: an official one and the day that she was born. Now you can find out which of your friends has either a birthday this month or a Queen’s Birthday. Twice the parties, twice the presents and twice the fun!

Zembling the best of the social web

September 20, 2008

I’ve been playing with Zembly and I love it. Zembly is a simple and social way to a-zemble (get it?) the best widgets and mash-ups. Zembly partners with other great services that I love (like Dapper) to enable you to extract information from your favourite websites and use them to build widgets, mash-ups and apps for the iPhone, Facebook and meebo amongst others. It’s quick and it’s easy and because Zembly comes with a whole lot of infrastructure baked-in, you don’t need to think about hosting, or scaling the architecture, because it is all in the cloud and taken care of.

Zembly is proving a breakthrough by really thinking through usability for developers: how do you make it really simple for developers to socially build social apps, and remove all the things that typically block them from doing that?

As you code your widgets (yes, you do need to hack a little to make the apps), you can clone other widgets that Zemblers have made, and tailor them to your own purposes. Zembly is part of Sun, and as you’d expect, there is some great scalable in-the-cloud infrastructure behind it. It has competition in the likes of Sproutbuilder (not to be confused with Sproutcore, which Apple used as part of the MobileMe rollout).

You can find an interesting interview with Zembly’s CTO, Todd Fast. He mentions the exponentially growing number of Facebook apps, going from 24,000 to 30,000 and above. He says that Zembly is looking at building niche applications for interesting special-interest groups — long-tail applications — by bringing the threshold for building these applications down. He also says that most social platforms, even the open ones, are very hetereogenous and fragmented. Zembly’s answer is to try to build small re-usable pieces, that you can play, standing on the shoulders of giants. He also explains why he feels that most developers don’t want to think too hard about how to scale their applications, whether it be in the form of databases with millions of rows or allowing tens of thousands of users or the analytics that measure the success of the applications. The latter functionality allows developers to measure social statistics: what kinds of users are installing the application and how, alongside measures of how virally the application is being installed.

All pretty cool and a lot of fun to play with. Zembly is currently in private beta, but if you put your name down, I think you’ll find you don’t have to wait long.

Arbitraging Microsoft

September 10, 2008

Great post in Think-Through on an arbitrage scheme using Microsoft’s recently introduced cashback approach.

 

I love the very idea of arbitrage — ‘risk-free money’. Anywhere else, this would be called a scam and the would be overtones of theft. But in the world of finance, where it is understood that markets are (mostly) efficient and that there can be no such thing as a free lunch (mostly), nobody seems to mind if you happen to find a lunch that’s free because they are safe in the knowledge that it won’t be free for long. Interestingly, some of the thought leaders in capital markets theory do describe a number of free lunches. But because they know that free lunches are not possible, they describe it as reward for extra risk taken.

 

I spent a year or two working with a treasury derivatives trader building treasury derivative arbitrage models. These were humungous Excel sheets loaded to the gills with add-in functions, some custom C code, and pulling in realtime data, detecting small differences in pricing between synthetic and real securities. An example: if you take a euro-swiss franc swap and a swiss franc-dollar swap you can create synthetic euro-dollar swap. This has (just about) all the characteristics of a real euro-dollar swap but it might have slightly different cost. Where the difference exists, it’ll be tiny but if you have a billion euros on your books overnight, it may be something you can take advantage of ‘for free’. Most of this simple type of arbitrage really does not exist in the markets any more, but when we used more complex treasury derivatives, and worked out all the permutations across a basket of ten currencies, there were more opportunities.

 

I still remain interested in financial arbitrage, and on the lookout for simpler ways of consistently making money — but that’s for another post.

Why I like only having a 2Mp camera on my iPhone

September 7, 2008

I could have titled the last post “Why I love having a 2Mp camera on my supposedly cutting edge iPhone” or “Why I’m so happy about not being able to shoot video on my ostensibly state-of-the-art technology gizmo”, but the battery life seems to be getting the most whining so it seemed a good place to start.

Assume Apple has a little positive intent. That is, assume that they chose not to give us a 5Mp camera or video, and then ask the question “Why?” (if you need, ask five times).

Let’s take a quick comparison lesson with the old standby, my Blackberry. The camera quality is a good deal better, but I end up very rarely using it. Firstly, although it’s just one key press away, I find it very hard to review the images. Each one takes a few seconds to load. There’s a little hard-to-find menu to zoom in and out but it’s little use because the screen is virtually unreadable. I still haven’t worked out how to email a photo. I did try but I never received the mail. I think I can take video but I never would because of all the hassle with getting the photos to work.

The iPhone’s camera is basic but browsing photos is easy and works flawlessly. The phone works great as a presentation device with a variety of fun transitions for moving between photos and easy hand gestures to get around.

Making usability your key constraint and then subordinating everything else to that is very smart thing to do. It’s the single move that has consistently won Apple new users and kept them. It’s a defining quality of their brand. If my iPhone had a 5Mp camera on it, it’d be able to take higher resolution pictures, but I would not be able to view them as I do now. I’d have to wait a few seconds to move from picture to picture (much as I do on other camera phones). If I were a betting man, I’d guess that we won’t see a significantly better resolution camera or video before the processor inside gets a lot more powerful.

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Why the iPhone 3G battery is wonderful

September 6, 2008

OK. That headline was unfair. It’s not that the iPhone 3G battery life is wonderful. It’s not. It’s diabolically bad. I’m lucky if survives a full day without a charge and that’s assuming I keep the GPS out-of-sight. But I am nonetheless happy about it. (A bit like my NLP teacher who would frequently ask ‘the meta-question’, e.g. “I feel unhappy” – “How do you feel about feeling unhappy?” “Oh, I’m pretty contented”… but I digress).

I like having one single constraint with my device of choice. The battery lasts a little longer than my MacBook Pro (but only a little), but it fits in my pocket, allows me to make and receive calls and I have a web experience pretty similar to an average ADSL connection (much like the speed of the web at my work). I don’t need to think about horrible charges for downloading data because all data is included in the subscription. I don’t need to wait for days to download my data. The screen is bright and detailed enough for me to read my Safari Books subscription in the train or while waiting for someone in the pub.

Compare this to my BlackBerry Pearl. Battery is better but only marginally. I can make and receive calls (but the Bluetooth actually pairs with fewer devices). Email works well, but although the network speed is the same as the iPhone, the browser is horrific. For most pages I want to read, it spends a few minutes trying to process the stylesheet. The screen is too small to read most attachments, and about the only webpage that is interesting and easy to read is at techmeme.com. Basically, it does email and it phones and that’s about it. Web browsing, battery and the screen in general means that I have three things to deal with, two of which are completely immutable.

With the iPhone, it’s just that one. So, I make sure I have a few chargers around the house, at work and in the car (USB chargers only of course) and what is left over is an almost perfect device. Instead of a phone that does email, I think of it more like a laptop that fits in my pocket and does phone calls.

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