Time to ‘Mobilize’ Your Site?

September 30, 2007

By Ramon Ray

A few weeks ago, New Yorkers–myself included–experienced some severe thunderstorms, as happens to most of us from time to time. The result of a lot of rain is that often our transit systems break down, leaving riders frustrated, late and at times downright angry. While I was waiting for the train during one of these extended delays I used my new smartphone to check out the schedule of the local commuter bus company.

Until recently I had been using a basic cell phone combined with a PDA. But I got tired of carrying two devices and decided to purchase a Motorola Q instead.

I’m not alone in this transition. Millions of consumers and business professionals are ditching their basic cell phones in favor of more advanced cell phones and smartphones that combine the functions of a PDA, cell phone and web browser. In November 2006, Arizona technology research company In-Stat said that smartphone unit sales almost tripled from 2004 to 2005, and increased by 50 percent in the first half of 2006 compared to the same period in 2005. Mobile internet access is going to continue growing.

What It Means for Your Business
It’s time to consider updating your website and making it compatible for mobile web browsers.

Say you’re a florist. With your current website, you probably have big, bold and beautiful pictures. Maybe a video on the front page of your website gives your customers a weekly tip on arranging flowers for an office environment. After a few seconds a pop-up window displays, encouraging visitors to sign up for your monthly floral e-newsletter. Your website works well for your corporate customers accessing it from their high-speed telecommunication lines.

But the corporate event planner that typically accesses your website via his computer at work might need to access it in a taxi cab using his new cell phone or smartphone with internet-enabled connectivity. Or maybe a soon-to-be bride wants to share your flower selections with her mom while she’s standing in line at a mall.

Is your website ready for these “new” customers wanting to access it in a mobile environment?

If it’s not ready, now’s the time to consider who your audience is and how they access your site. Work with your technology professional to analyze your traffic logs and see what types of browsers are accessing your site. Do you see mobile traffic? Take the time to poll some of your customers about the likelihood of them accessing your website and others on their smartphones. Once you’ve decided a mobile site is right for you, it’s time to create one.

How to Create a Mobile-Optimized Site
If you have a very large website with thousands of pages, it might not be necessary to configure your entire site for mobile access. I would guess that many of your mobile customers visit your website for a specific purpose–perhaps to check on orders or search your inventory. Find out what they want from your site and work from there.

The simplest way to create a site compatible with mobile browsers is to use a website creation wizard tool, which will help you create a basic site from scratch. Choose the design you want, add pages and content, and you’re done. Unlike traditional website creation tools, this wizard is specifically designed to create mobile websites.

You can find a wizard at Network Solutions or domain registrar .mobi. Creating a mobile website using one of these wizards is simple and low-cost, however, you’ll have two websites: one for your mobile customers and one for your other customers. Keeping them both updated could be a hassle. But I would encourage you to test the waters with a dual website strategy.

If you don’t want to create a mobile website from scratch and want the benefit of having one website, work with a professional web developer to code your site so that when users access your main website, different content is served to web browsers depending on whether they’re mobile. If you visit Google on your PC or Mac and a mobile web browser, you’ll find two different screens. On your computer’s web browser you’ll find the full Google site. On your smartphone’s web browser you’ll find minimal content–a simple search box and not much more.

What’s Next
Think about your business, your website and your customers. Consider whether you have–or should have–content that mobile customers would want to access. If so, experimenting with a mobile website is probably worth the effort.

If you have a database of product information and want mobile customers to access it, you might want to try 4info.net, which offers a service that enables mobile users to search content on your website or retrieve it via short message service.


Site of the Week: Backpackit.com

September 28, 2007

Backpack is an incredibly easy-to-use Web-based organizational service. This deceptively bare-bones-looking app provides straightforward functionality you can use to organize a wildly varying array of projects.

Straightforward, intuitive, and versatile. Easy to set up and use e-mail/SMS reminders. Premium members can share and download calendars online. Easy to share your page and make it public. Easy to update your page via e-mail and allow others to do the same. Writeboards provide hassle-free online collaboration on text documents.

Nonpaying members get only five pages to work with and no calendar. You can find similar organizational calendars for free from other services.
$5.00 – $14.00

37signals LLC

By Errol Pierre-Louis

Backpack is a Web-based service designed to organize every aspect of your life. The site combines the ease of use that I loved in Cozi with the versatility and sophistication most users demand from a full-fledged personal information manager (PIM). The genius of Backpack is that it’s so basic. It’s like having an online loose-leaf notebook to use as you please.

This app lets you create Web pages using the tools in order to add to-do lists that can incorporate files, images, and, if you pay for a premium membership, a calendar service. You can even set up Backpack to send text-message reminders to your cell phone, so you can stay on top of things even when you’re away from the computer.

To brainstorm my weekend, I hopped over to my Backpack page and set up notes with links to event listings and possible venues I wanted to visit, along with reminders to make reservations. Backpack provided me with an easy way to keep my plans in order, and I set it all up in a couple of minutes, editing and formatting the page as I saw fit. Backpack includes a ton of sample pages showing off the site’s capabilities on its example page. With these simple tools and a little knowledge about HTML, you can arrange for your Backpack pages to organize pretty much anything: book collections, social gatherings, medical records, travel plans, school itineraries, garage sales, craft projects, and so on.

It’s All About the Pages

Backpack’s log-in differs from the typical protocols on most sites. Instead of just picking a username and password, you also pick a unique Backpackit.com URL. You use this URL to log in to your Backpack account. You’ll probably want to bookmark this URL for easy access to your Backpack page.

You start off with a blank homepage, and you can add pages by just clicking the Make a New Page button on the right-hand side of the page. A free account gets you five pages. A Basic account for $5 a month gives you 25 pages and 500MB of data storage, a Plus account for $9 a month gives you 100 pages and 1GB of storage, and the Premium account for $14 a month gives you 1,000 pages and 3GB of storage. Only paying members can upload files or images to their pages and use Backpack’s Calendar service.

The menu at the top of the page links you to everything you need to add to the page (mostly notes and to-do lists). Just click on the element you want, then title the list, note, or image gallery and begin adding content to your page. Backpack doesn’t have formatting tools, but with a basic knowledge of HTML you can easily add links and edit fonts.

You can add as many notes and lists as you want to your page. Paying members can add images and files until they hit their storage limit. You can title the notes, lists, and image galleries you create on the page. You can also add Backpack’s “dividers,” solid lines going across the page, to further organize and section off your page. To move or edit elements of your page, hover your mouse over them; a small pop-up will appear that you can use to edit, delete, or drag and drop the elements around the page, or from one of your Backpack pages to another. Lists and galleries have links within them to add items quickly to your list or pictures to your gallery. You can use tags to categorize your pages and group them together. Since free members get only five pages, this is a feature that paying members are more likely to find useful.

Backpack makes it easy to share and collaborate with others. Clicking the Share This Page link takes you to another page where you can choose to make your Backpack page public—publishing it as a read-only Web page with its own URL that you can share with friends. If you want to collaborate with other Backpack users, you can e-mail them links that give them access to edit your pages.

You can also edit your pages and collaborate with others via e-mail. Each Backpack page has its own unique e-mail address. Send an e-mail to this address to add notes, to-do lists, files, images, or post e-mails to your page. Anyone you share the e-mail address with can also contribute, and you can edit your page on the run by e-mailing from your cell phone.

Features Beyond Pages

Backpack’s Writeboards are sharable Web-based text documents, similar to Google Docs. You can save every edit, roll back to any version, and compare changes. Others can collaborate with you on your Writeboard documents by editing and leaving comments.

Click the Writeboard link to open up a new Writeboard document and give it a title. Each Writeboard has a unique URL, so you can access your Writeboard from any computer. Invite people to collaborate with you on your Writeboard using the link at the top of the sidebar to the right. The Invite People link sends e-mails to collaborators with links and passwords that’ll let them edit your Writeboard.

Whenever you save changes to your Writeboard, a new version of that document is created in the sidebar so you can easily review and compare different versions. The dots that appear next to each version indicate the degree of changes made to the document. The bigger the change, the bigger the dot. Viewing edits in Writeboard is similar to the “Final Showing Markup” option in Microsoft Word. Text deleted from a previous version will appear struck out in light gray and added text will be highlighted in green.

Backpack features a calendar similar to Cozi’s in its ease of use. Backpack’s calendar is a premium feature available only to paying members. It has the same kind of intelligent language programming that lets you set appointments by typing the dates and times into the Add Event field. For example, to set a doctor’s appointment for November 10 at 8 p.m., simply type “Nov 10 8pm Doctor Appointment.” You can set extended events—a weeklong event for instance—but you can’t type in recurring events, as you can on Cozi. You can, however, set recurring events via a drop-down menu.

Navigate through calendar pages by clicking arrows or by typing the dates you want to jump to in the Add Event field. Annoyingly, you can view the calendar only in six-week mode. You can’t expand to multi-month view or focus down to a weekly or daily view, a feature common to most PIMs.

The Add Calendar link lets you add color-coded event themes and schedules. One cool calendar feature is the ability to add iCal calendars to your personal Backpack calendar. For instance, I can easily add the Yankees’ schedule to my Backpack calendar by copying the Yankees iCal link from Apple’s iCal library and pasting it into my Add Calendar field. You can also share your own calendars with others by clicking the Share in iCal Format link of the calendar you want to share and sharing that iCal URL.

Backpack has a messaging service that lets you schedule e-mail or SMS reminders easily. You can either set up your reminders to be sent out at a specific time or use Backpack’s preset times. So if you just have a general idea of when you want to receive a reminder and not an extract time, just pick options like Tomorrow Morning (the next day at 9 a.m.), Tomorrow Afternoon (next day at 2 p.m.), A Couple of Days (in 48 hours). You can set up reminders from your calendar by checking off the Email/SMS options to get a reminder 30 minutes before the scheduled event. Reminders will be sent to whatever e-mail and cell-phone number you provided on your settings page. Charges may apply, depending on your carrier.

Backpack is just as accessible as Cozi but has the versatility and sophistication of the more complex PIMs. This is a great organizational tool for both the tech-savvy and people who just want an organizational program that works. The only downside I see with this is that nonpaying members can’t add files or images and can’t use Backpack’s calendar service. I can understand making people pay to add images and files because of bandwidth concerns. But I’m not so sure how Backpack justifies making its calendar a premium feature when Cozi and other services provide theirs free. That said, even with the basic functionality of to-do list, notes, and reminders, free members will still find this a powerful site. With enough imagination you can use Backpack to organize pretty much anything.

Visit www.backpackit.com

Smile, You’re on LinkedIn

September 27, 2007

By Aaron Ricadela

Business networking Web site LinkedIn is loosening its tie. Caught between a polished image as a nexus for professional contacts and the encroachment of Facebook and other networks, LinkedIn is taking a step toward informality. Starting Sept. 26, the site’s 14 million users will be able to post photos of themselves.

These won’t be just any photos, mind you. The company wants users to post serious-looking head shots of the kind that would accompany an executive biography. LinkedIn will “do everything we can to encourage it to remain professional,” says spokeswoman Kay Luo, lest the site “degrade” to the level of a less business-like destination. She didn’t name names, but it’s clear LinkedIn wants to avoid the informality of places like News Corp.’s MySpace and even Facebook, the social network that’s exploded in popularity and has become for some Web users an alternate to LinkedIn for keeping up with their professional contacts.

However limited, LinkedIn’s move satisfies users’ requests for a tool that can help jog the memory of a person’s face. It could also make the site more attractive at a time when traditional media and Web companies covet a slice of its affluent audience (BusinessWeek, 1/29/07), and the advertising money spent to reach it. Featuring photos “obviously seems critical for a social network,” says Barry Parr, a media analyst at JupiterResearch. “I don’t remember what all my business contacts look like.” The feature also puts starchy LinkedIn more in tune with the Web’s expanding social nature, which is blurring the line between professional contacts and friends.

Staying Relevant

More openness may be coming. LinkedIn is working on ways to let outside software developers tap into the company’s database to create applications that, for example, would let users keep tabs on their LinkedIn network from within an industry conference Web site, an Internet job board, or a business application like Salesforce.com. Making LinkedIn more accessible could be key to retaining value at a time when Microsoft and Google are reportedly eyeing investments in Facebook (BusinessWeek, 9/25/07) that could value the company at $10 billion or more. Facebook, which started as a hub for college kids who wanted to share beer photos and trade messages, has expanded to become, in Silicon Valley at least, a tool for keeping current (BusinessWeek, 8/6/07) with business contacts and planning conferences.

LinkedIn has hired a new chief financial officer, as well as vice-presidents of marketing, engineering, and operations, since June in preparation for a possible initial public offering in 2009, and may need to reassure investors that it remains relevant. “The challenge for LinkedIn is not only [that] Facebook [is] getting a whole lot more traffic, but in many cases people are using Facebook to pursue their business relationships,” says Josh Bernoff, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, who has used Facebook to find interview subjects for his research. “That’s what LinkedIn was developed for.” Facebook now claims 43 million members and is adding 200,000 a day. LinkedIn is adding users at a pace of about 36,000 a day.

A Different Kind of Club

Including photos isn’t a response to Facebook’s popularity, says LinkedIn’s Luo. “There is buzz about Facebook moving into the professional arena,” she says. But LinkedIn helps people expand their professional networks in part because of the participation of many higher-level executives who are unlikely to join other networks. “To be a useful professional network, you have to have the people above you on the network,” Luo says.

Indeed, LinkedIn has long debated whether to include photos, Luo says. As recently as an August interview, LinkedIn’s co-founder and president Reid Hoffman said “photos and business don’t go together,” partly because images could unduly influence recruiters. To lessen that threat, LinkedIn is letting HR reps turn off the feature so they can screen candidates without regard to age, race, and appearance.

Retention Concerns

Hoffman says the company for the past year has been working on an application programming interface that would let outside developers use some of LinkedIn’s data in their programs, and plans to release the technology by the spring of 2008. Hoffman gives the hypothetical example of a user of Salesforce.com’s customer management software being able to view the LinkedIn profiles for their leads without having to navigate to the LinkedIn site.

Whatever LinkedIn’s reason for adding photos, it will need to confront the bigger question of how big an appetite users and software developers will have for a proliferating number of social networks. Traditional media companies and Web outfits are trying to make social networking less of a destination and more of a feature. For instance, Yahoo!, Viacom’s MTV.com, and eBay are all adding networking features (BusinessWeek, 9/24/07).

The trend will likely accelerate in 2008, forcing users and developers to make harder choices about where to spend time online. “Social networking is going to be a feature in lots of places,” says Jupiter’s Parr. People are going to start picking and choosing where they make their home.” Amid the land rush, LinkedIn wants to make its high-earning devotees don’t stray too far from the cosseted quarters it’s built.


Y Combinator Inspires Imitators

September 26, 2007

by Kerry Miller

Paul Graham knows that most startups will eventually fail. But at Y Combinator, the hacker guru’s seed fund for young techies, they’re encouraged to fail fast and fail cheap—and then to reboot and start again. Designed with the new economics of Web-based entrepreneurship in mind, Y Combinator is a new type of venture fund—dispensing tiny amounts of cash but lots of hands-on mentoring.

Since its founding in 2005, Y Combinator has funded 58 startups—nearly all in software or Web services—bringing in a new crop twice a year (in Cambridge, Mass., in the summer; in the San Francisco Bay Area in the winter) for a three-month crash course in the Graham-ian philosophy of entrepreneurship (BusinessWeek, 9/26/07). Each team gets a small sum to cover basic expenses ($5,000, plus $5,000 per founder) and the chance to pitch their idea to a roomful of top angel investors and venture capitalists. The insider status of Graham himself—a Web software pioneer who sold his startup to Yahoo! (YHOO) in 1999 for $49 million—lends additional cachet.

“Cheaper Equity”

In return, Graham and his four partners get a stake in the company, usually about 6%. So far, Y Combinator investments like the social news site Reddit, acquired by Condé Nast in 2006, and slide show app-maker Zenter, acquired by Google (GOOG) earlier this summer, both for undisclosed amounts, are positive signs that the formula works. Because the sums Y Combinator invests are so small, even early-stage acquisitions can translate into relatively big paydays.

After two years, Y Combinator’s portfolio is still too young to fully evaluate the success of Graham’s strategy—but that hasn’t discouraged a growing number of investors around the globe from launching their own copycat programs.

One main reason? “It’s cheaper equity,” says David Cohen, the executive director of the most established Y Combinator counterpart, a Boulder (Colo.) program called TechStars, which ran its first three-month session in May, 2007. “If you look at the companies that are getting to an A-round, the model that we’ve created gives a significant discount to those valuations.” Critics say that makes the arrangement exploitative for the startups involved, but Cohen disagrees: “I think for a first-time entrepreneur, it’s actually an incredible deal.”

Both Cohen and Graham say money is actually among the least important things they offer to entrepreneurs, since drastically cheaper hardware, software, and bandwidth—among other factors—have made it much easier to start a company than it was a decade ago (BusinessWeek, 5/31/07).

Dating Before Marriage

But disappearing barriers to entry also make it harder for any one startup to stand out in the crowd—a challenge that’s as tricky for investors as it is for entrepreneurs themselves. Without a track record to go on, after all, how do you discern a future Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) or Kevin Rose (Digg) from a sea of equally fresh-faced, Red Bull-swilling computer whizzes? With a program like Y Combinator, investors get three months of hands-on experience with talented entrepreneurs—and an early look at their work—before reaching for their checkbooks.

Cohen says he’s already fielded inquiries from angel investors in 20-odd cities, all interested in starting similar programs of their own. “You’re going to see a massive proliferation of this model,” he predicts.

Graham, a widely read essayist who has written prolifically on topics like “What Business Can Learn From Open Source,” isn’t flattered by the unauthorized open-sourcing of his own model—including one clone in Vienna shamelessly named YEurope. (His opinion about such copycats is made clear on Y Combinator’s FAQ. Question: “Will you help us set up something like Y Combinator in our town?” The answer: “There already is a Y Combinator in your town: Y Combinator.”)

Why Reinvent the Wheel?

Many of Graham’s admirers, however, say they respectfully disagree. Among them is Web industry veteran Saul Klein (BusinessWeek, 6/7/07), a partner at London venture capital firm Index Ventures and a former executive at Skype (EBAY). Klein helms the most prominent Y Combinator lookalike in Europe thus far: the London-based Seedcamp, which launched in September. In a slightly novel twist, Seedcamp began its competition by bringing 20 startups—plucked from an application pool of 268—for an “unconference” (BusinessWeek, 5/14/07) before selecting six companies to participate in the three-month program. Each of the six companies received €50,000 (about $70,614) in seed money—a considerably heftier sum than other Y Combinator-like programs—with Seedcamp taking a larger, 10%, stake in each.

And bona fide venture hubs like London aren’t the only place the Y Combinator model is attracting interest. Cities such as Lexington, Ky., and Milwaukee are taking note, too. In Atlanta, a small group of angel investors hopes to replicate the Y Combinator model with a program called BoostPhase. Co-founder Wayt King says he envisions BoostPhase, set to launch this fall, as “a Y Combinator for the Southeast.”

“We have huge respect for Paul Graham and what he’s done, and we figured there’s not much sense in reinventing the wheel,” King says—adding that he doesn’t see BoostPhase as competition for Graham’s original. “There are a lot of entrepreneurs who don’t want to or simply can’t move to Silicon Valley or Boston.”

Standing Out from the Crowd

TechStars’ Cohen says he’s not worried about the competition. “There’s a pretty clear demand for this,” Cohen says, noting that the 10 startups TechStars funded represented only 26 of 302 applicants. Y Combinator accepted an even smaller number for its summer 2007 round—19 of 435 applicants—making an applicant’s chances of getting tapped for Y Combinator (4.4%) only slightly higher than those of the brainiacs vying for a Rhodes scholarship (last year’s acceptance rate: 3.6%).

For participants, the real draw of a program like Y Combinator isn’t the money, it’s credibility—and not just with investors. The traffic bump from an early mention about getting funded on an influential blog like TechCrunch can be just as crucial as a Series-A round in helping a Web startup gain traction over its rivals. And by adding structure to an otherwise nebulous pursuit, Y Combinator also makes a startup a less risky endeavor for entrepreneurs themselves—both practically and psychologically. “Y Combinator provided a socially acceptable way to drop out or postpone my college education and focus on the company full-time,” says Kevin Fischer, a 21-year-old industrial engineering student at the University of Pittsburgh who applied to both Y Combinator and TechStars. Plus, he adds, “It seems like even the people that fail still go on to jobs at Google—no one does too badly.”


How Y Combinator Helped Shape Reddit

September 26, 2007

by Kerry Miller

Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman, co-founders of the social news site Reddit, have become Y Combinator (BusinessWeek, 9/26/07) poster children since their company was snapped up by Condé Nast for an undisclosed (but no doubt, tidy) sum in 2006. Their success is one example tech superstar Paul Graham points to when he says Y Combinator, his ultracompetitive seed-funding program, is a better way of developing early-stage companies than traditional incubators, venture funds, or business plan competitions.

The difference, Graham says, is that Y Combinator picks people, not business plans—or even business ideas. “The idea is going to change anyway, so the most valuable thing about the idea is what it tells you about the people,” he says. Of course, picking people is easier said than done. In fact, Reddit’s co-founders were initially Y Combinator rejects—like 95% of the program’s applicants.

Second Thoughts

At the time, the two University of Virginia seniors had their own doubts about Y Combinator. Ohanian says it took several months to convince Huffman that “he didn’t want to take the very appealing job close to his girlfriend back in Virginia, and to instead try living with me in near-poverty for some indefinite period of time.” Even after submitting their Y Combinator application, the two debated the wisdom of picking up and moving to Cambridge, Mass. Why not just stay in Charlottesville, Va., where at least the rent was cheap? “Of course,” Ohanian says, “as soon as they rejected us, we desperately wanted to get in.”

After drowning their sorrows at a local pub, the two decided they’d go ahead with the startup anyway. Huffman would take the software development job he’d been offered in Virginia, Ohanian would do freelance Web design, and they’d live together and collaborate when they had time. It’s a strategy that, in hindsight, Ohanian says almost certainly would not have worked. Launching a successful startup, he says, “really does require nearly undivided attention.” (That’s another Graham tenet—and the rationale for insisting that Y Combinator startups commit to relocating for three months of full-time work.)

The next day, however, they got a second phone call from Graham—he’d changed his mind. While he hadn’t been crazy about their business idea (a mobile application), Graham said he thought Ohanian and Huffman had potential, and he was offering them a slot in the Y Combinator program. The two jumped on the first train to Boston.

Opening Wallets and Doors

When they got there, Ohanian says, Graham sat them down for a talk. “I believe his words were, ‘Let’s come up with something for you guys to do.'” At the end of the conversation, Ohanian and Huffman left with a $12,000 check and a brand-new business idea that would become the social news site Reddit.

Ohanian says they didn’t waste much time thinking about how they would make money from the idea, confident in Graham’s conviction that “if you make something that people want, there’s always some way to make money from it.” Soon after, a dinner conversation with another software guru, Joel Spolsky—who asked them to create a white-label version of Reddit for his own site—led the team to a business model and, indirectly, to a successful exit, when a licensed version of Reddit created for Condé Nast turned into an acquisition offer.

For Y Combinator, which had close to a 10% stake in what was likely a multimillion-dollar figure, the Condé Nast deal was a handsome return on the fund’s initial $12,000 investment, an amount Ohanian concedes he and his partner could have easily bootstrapped. But Ohanian says the valuable publicity—in particular, mentions in several of Graham’s widely read essays—that he credits with jump-starting the site’s popularity would have been harder to achieve. While the Y Combinator model isn’t the best fit for every startup, he says, “For what we did with Reddit, it was definitely worth it.”

NYT: Simple Software Solutions From Those Who’ve Been There

September 26, 2007

WHO better to understand the software that a small-business owner needs to run a company than another small-business owner?

Such thinking was the inspiration behind NetBooks, a software company introduced this month by Ridgely Evers, the owner of DaVero Sonoma, a farm in Healdsburg, Calif., that produces olive oils and artisanal wines.

“Most larger companies don’t understand this market,” Mr. Evers said. “They don’t respect it. How in the world can they serve it?”

With the design driven by Mr. Evers, NetBooks, of Rohnert Park, Calif., has released software applications for what it calls “true small businesses,” the 5.1 million or so owner-operated, self-financed companies that employ 2 to 50 people.

His own experience running DaVero shaped Mr. Evers’s conviction that small businesses need something other than watered-down versions of applications designed for much larger companies by executives and developers who have never been entrepreneurs themselves. It helps that Mr. Evers is the brains behind the original QuickBooks accounting software, giving him experience as a software entrepreneur.

“The companies we’re targeting are profitable from Day 1 because they have to be or they’re gone,” he said. “If you’re designing a service for the true small business, you choose ease of use. You don’t choose simplistic. You choose simple.”

Easy use was behind Mr. Evers’s decision to deliver NetBooks applications through the Internet rather than sell them at office-supply stores. The service is tailored for entrepreneurs who do not have the luxury of turning to staff technology experts to get set up and who need access to their financial and operating data from virtually anywhere.

Among the day-to-day tasks that NetBooks addresses are sales and customer relationship management; inventory, production and shipping tasks; and bookkeeping and financial reports. The service costs $200 a month for up to five users.

“The process of learning about the service was very interactive and positive,” said Paul Rosen, who owns Paromi Tea in Bethesda, Md., and is a NetBooks customer. “I saw that it could do everything I needed it to do. The customer service is amazing.”

The fact that the application was Web-based was a major reason Mr. Rosen chose it. “It allows me to be completely mobile and stay on top of everything,” he said.

NetBooks is not alone in thinking that small-business owners are more likely to buy services developed from their perspective and that the Internet is an efficient way to deliver them.

Take YourCostCenter.com. Brian Drucks, the president of the service, developed the application to determine a more precise way to price jobs for his fourth-generation contract-painting business in Mendham, N.J. As he began describing the application to business contacts, they helped him realize the service could work for accountants, contractors, architects, graphic designers and other professionals.

“Many people set prices at the beginning of the year, but when their expenses change, they don’t adjust them,” Mr. Drucks said. His service “allows you to recover those variable expenses that slip through the cracks,” he added. “You can make an educated decision versus making a decision based solely on your gut.”

YourCostCenter.com will calculate adjustments in job costs to offset possible losses. It costs $199 a year for one to five people and $399 for six or more. Mr. Drucks said he offered the application over the Internet for two reasons: first, most small-business owners he knows rely on getting their e-mail this way and are comfortable paying a subscription; second, it is easier for him to add features. “As a Web-hosted package, it never has to be complete,” he said.

For Arnie Bellini, the chief executive of ConnectWise, an information technology services company in Tampa, Fla., the decision to offer his own operations management software to peer companies was a revelation.

While discussing the possibility of selling his company about 10 years ago, Mr. Bellini spoke to potential buyers who said they were astonished by his 40 percent profit margin. They told him that many of his competitors said they earned average profit margins of about 5 percent.

He and the potential buyers realized that the difference was the business methods that ConnectWise had adopted because of its software, Mr. Bellini said.

“We started going to our friends in the industry to tell them about it,” he said. “They literally demanded that they get a copy of our software. They told us we had to sell it.”

The result was ConnectWisePSA, which the company sells as an Internet service for $50 a month per user, or as a $750 packaged product.

Analysts say software companies like NetBooks and ConnectWise play to the diversity of small businesses by avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach.

Michael Speyer of Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., who focuses on information technology issues affecting small businesses, said that many high-tech companies segment potential customers by the number of employees they have, overlooking the concerns of entrepreneurs versus those of corporate managers.

By contrast, NetBooks considers factors like how active the owner is as a manager, how much daily control he or she requires, the owner’s attitude toward using technology and whether a venture capital company has invested money in the business.

“I like the fact that NetBooks has taken a psychographic approach to finding out who their customers are and what they really want,” Mr. Speyer said. “This is really what counts. I think the way they characterize the market is spot-on. Stages of development are really what counts.”

Sonal Gandhi, an analyst with JupiterResearch in New York, said that small businesses were more open to using an application developed by one of their own. “There is certain functionality they crave,” she said.

Yahoo Tries Social Networking… Again

September 19, 2007

Bob Hof of BusinessWeek just got an invite from Mike Speiser, Yahoo’s VP of community, to join its newest social network, called Mash, which have an interesting wrinkle: Other people can add stuff to your profile. The service seems aimed at young people. Many people are suffering from social-network overload. Facebook for a general-purpose network and LinkedIn for strictly professional stuff. People will add more if the social networks are really focused on small, discrete groups.


  1. You can make starter profiles for your friends. Think: “first round’s on me.”
  2. You can leave your profile open to contributions by trusted friends.
  3. You can customize your — or your friend’s ) — profile with modules from a growing gallery of apps

And of course, there are extensive privacy controls in Mash and you set the boundaries that you’re comfortable with.”

Other features:

Not only can you customize your page and add modules, you can also edit your friends’ pages (with their permission). That means if you were my friend, you would be able to pimp my profile and ‘Mash Pet’, move and add modules on my page, contribute to my ‘about me’ and ‘my stuff’, and vice versa. But again, this is only if I let you ). You also can keep track of all the activity that occurs on your profile.

The Blurt is like a status…Your My Stuff is basically a blank, html-friendly module that allows you to you put as much *whatever-you’d-like* in there—images, videos, music and all. You can also click and drag modules to rearrange them on your page.

Module Gallery allows you to see other modules you can add to your page and your friends’ pages! (PimpMyPet, Translucency and YouTube are some of my faves).

There’s no search by names yet, so the best way to find your friends on Mash is by email.

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Flock: Social Network Aggregator?

September 19, 2007

The key features of Flock :

* People – Flock automatically integrates the user’s friends from services such as Facebook and Flickr, and pulls them into the browser so they can be accessed at any time. The user can see when their friends have updated their profiles and media, access their shared media, share web content with them, and communicate with them effortlessly across services.

* Media – Flock’s Media MiniBar presents a scrollable filmstrip view of photo and video streams from YouTube, Flickr, Photobucket, Piczo, Truveo and other services that provide a feed of media content. Users can drag and drop items from the media bar onto friends, blogs or email for immediate and effortless sharing.

* Share and Discover – Flock also helps people to discover photos, videos, feeds and people by detecting them on supported services where they can be activated or shared in some way. When any of these items are available, an icon in the browser lights up to show that Flock has sensed them, allowing the user to collect, favorite or share items of interest.

Flock essentially provides a layer on top of potentially many social networks so you don’t have to go to each of them individually to find out what your friends are doing. That alone could be very valuable in a time when there’s literally a new social network or two launching every day. It could even potentially change the game in social networking, which seems to depend on the old gambit of persuading people to flock, as it were, in a single walled garden.

MySpace to Discuss Effort to Customize Ads

September 18, 2007


Members of the booming social network Web sites treat their individual profile pages as a creative canvas for personal expression.

The social networking companies see those pages as a lush target for advertisers — if only they could customize the ads. Although Internet companies have talked about specifically aiming their ads since the inception of the Web, so far advertising on social networks has been characterized by mass-marketed pitches for mortgages and online dating sites.

But MySpace, the Web’s largest social network and one of the most trafficked sites on the Internet, says that after experimenting with technology over the last six months it can tailor ads to the personal information that its 110 million active users leave on their profile pages.

Executives at Fox Interactive Media, the News Corporation unit that owns MySpace, will begin speaking about the results of that program this week. They say the tailoring technology has improved the likelihood that members will click on an ad by 80 percent on average.

“We are blessed with a phenomenal amount of information about the likes, dislikes and life’s passions of our users,” said Peter Levinsohn, president of Fox Interactive Media, who will talk about the program at an address to investors and analysts at a Merrill Lynch conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday. “We have an opportunity to provide advertisers with a completely new paradigm.”

MySpace’s rival, Facebook, also says it is experimenting with ad customization with the help of Microsoft, which signed with the up-and-coming social network last year to provide display ads on the service. To the consternation of privacy advocates, who say Internet users are unaware of such activity, the social networks regard these detail-stocked profile pages as a kind of “digital gold,” as one Fox executive put it last year.

The companies hope that customizing ads to their members’ stated enthusiasms will improve the effectiveness of the ads and recruit new advertisers who want to pitch their messages to refined slices of the online audience. Fox executives also hope the technology can help MySpace recapture some of the momentum and attention that has recently gone to Facebook.

Richard Greenfield, the managing director of Pali Research, predicts that MySpace’s fledgling program will help increase MySpace’s current revenue to $70 million a month from $40 million a month by next year.

“This is a critical evolution of the MySpace business model envisioned from the day News Corporation bought it,” Mr. Greenfield said.

A 100-employee team inside the Fox Interactive Media offices in Beverly Hills, Calif., called the “monetization technology group,” has designed computer algorithms to scour MySpace pages. In the first phase of the program, which the company calls “interest-based targeting,” the algorithms assigned members to one of 10 categories that represents their primary interest, like sports, fashion, finance, video games, autos and health.

The algorithms make their judgments partly on certain keywords in the profile. A member might be obvious by describing himself as a financial information enthusiast, for example. But more than likely the clues are more subtle. He might qualify for that category by listing Donald Trump as a hero, Fortune magazine as a favorite publication or “Wall Street” as a favorite movie.

The system also looks at the groups members belong to, who their friends are, their age and gender, and what ads they have responded to in the past. “Our targeting is a balance of what users say, what they do and what they say they do,” said Adam Bain, executive vice president for production and technology at Fox Interactive.

MySpace evidently does not completely trust the technology. Every two weeks, teams of five “relevance testers” come to Fox Interactive’s offices to manually check member profiles against the categories they have been assigned to.

The company said that several national advertisers are trying out the service, though they declined to name them. Fox Interactive executives say that some kinds of ads benefited more than others. Clicks on tailored auto ads more than doubled and clicks on music ads jumped by 70 percent.

For the last two months, Fox Interactive has also experimented with the second phase of its targeting program, called “hyper targeting,” in which it further divides the 10 enthusiast categories into hundreds of subcategories. For example, sports fans are divided into subgroups like basketball, college football and skiing, while film enthusiasts are further classified by their interest in genres like comedies, dramas and independent films, and even particular actors and actresses.

For now, Fox’s advertising sales representatives are selling the new kinds of ad abilities. In November, according to Michael Barrett, Fox Interactive Media’s chief revenue officer, the company will set up an automated online system to allow smaller companies to aim at MySpace users with their ads without ever talking to a human being at Fox.

A punk band performing in Seattle, for example, could publicize a performance by looking up all the people on MySpace who live in that area who are punk fans.

MySpace also plans to give its advertisers information about what kind of people its ads have attracted. “We want them to leave knowing more about their audience then when they came into the door,” Arnie Gullov-Singh, vice president for product management at Fox Interactive Media.

That is precisely the goal that worries some privacy advocates. They argue that users of social networks like MySpace and Facebook are not aware they are being monitored and that current ad-targeting is only the first step in what has become a huge arms race to collect revealing data on Internet users.

“People should be able to congregate online with their friends without thinking that big brother, whether it is Rupert Murdoch or Mark Zuckerberg, are stealthily peering in,” said Jeff Chester, executive director at the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington.

His organization will ask the Federal Trade Commission, during a planned hearing on Internet privacy in November, to investigate social networks for unfair and deceptive practices, he said.

MySpace and Facebook executives argue that they are harming no one. They say that they are using information their members make publicly available, and contrast their ad targeting with efforts by Yahoo, America Online and Microsoft, whose advertising technologies follow people around the Web and try to deduce what they are interested in based on what sites they are looking at.

Fox executives also say they are planning on letting users opt-out of the ad-targeting program on MySpace, though it means those members will see fewer relevant ads.

At least one MySpace member has no problems with the new technology. Mark Gong, a 26-year-old photojournalist from Washington, runs the 3,000-member Wanderlust group on MySpace and on his profile expresses an interest for foreign films like “Lost in Translation” and “The Spanish Apartment.” Not surprisingly, that has defined him as a prime target for travel ads on MySpace from companies like ShermansTravel.com, a travel deal site. “I’m not opposed to advertising,” Mr. Gong said. “They have got to make money.”

But he also says he hopes MySpace spends the extra cash on making the site more reliable and fending off the Facebook threat. He says many members of his group have flocked to Facebook in the last two months and that even he is logging into Facebook more often.

“Everybody I know is switching to Facebook,” he said. “MySpace has its work cut out for it.”

Make Your Web Site Pay: Google AdSense

September 17, 2007

By Richard Morochove

If you run a popular, information-rich Web site or blog, you can earn money from the growing online advertising market. You don’t even need to approach advertisers. Simply run pay-per-click ads provided by search engines such as Google and Yahoo on your Web site. You’ll earn money every time a visitor clicks on an ad.

If you use the Google search engine, you’ve probably noticed the text ads that run along the right-hand side and sometimes across the top of your search results. These are placed by advertisers who participate in the Google AdWords pay-per-click program. Google AdSense lets you earn a share of that money by running those ads on your site. There’s no guarantee that you’ll actually attract clicks and get paid, but it costs nothing to sign up and try it out.

PPC vs. Affiliate Marketing

AdSense is a pay-per-click service, not an affiliate marketing network. While both PPC ads and affiliate marketing networks allow you to earn money from your Web site, there are some significant differences in how they work.

Affiliates typically earn money only when a visitor referred from their site purchases the advertiser’s product. (I discussed affiliate marketing in an August column.) But Web publishers can earn money from PPC ads when a visitor simply clicks on an ad. No purchase is necessary.

To maximize affiliate earnings, you must carefully match the interests of your site’s visitors with the products and services that you advertise. That can be relatively easy if you manage a tightly focused site. But if your site discusses different topics on different pages, it can be time-consuming to find the most appropriate products to advertise for each topic.

AdSense automates that content-product matching process. Google crawls your site to examine your pages, using content analysis technology to find appropriate ads. The technology is similar to that used by Google’s search engine. Most of the time, the process works well and serves up relevant ads.

AdSense Basics

To use AdSense, you start by signing up for an account at no cost. You then insert Google-supplied advertising code into your Web pages.

AdSense supports a number of ad formats that should suit virtually any page layout in your Web site or blog. You can adjust the color of the text and background, if you like. In addition, you can run up to three ad units per page.

Initially, you may see public service announcements displayed on your site. These PSAs earn no click-through money. Google says that in most cases relevant ads will display within 72 hours.

AdSense Limitations

The automatic ad matching process doesn’t always work as smoothly as one would like. When I first put AdSense on one site a couple of years ago, the ads it served were rather generic. This resulted in a low click-through rate and poor earnings. I decided to position the ads closer to the site content. Almost immediately, I noticed that the ads changed, becoming more relevant, and my earnings soared.

Google won’t accept every Web site. It won’t, for example, place ads on sites with pornographic, gambling, and other controversial content.

Earning Money From AdSense

The amount of money that you earn from AdSense depends upon several factors, including the number of visitors to your Web site or blog and the nature of your content. Some content is more popular with advertisers, who will pay more for ad clicks. Google doesn’t disclose how it splits the money it earns from advertisers with the publishers on AdSense. Google accumulates your monthly earnings and pays out after the balance exceeds $100.

I’m generally pleased with my earnings from AdSense. However, I know other Web publishers who don’t believe it was worth the effort needed to enter the ad code. You risk only the investment of your time, however, so I recommend trying out AdSense to see if it earns money for you.