A week in Scotland

Last week Sophie and I spent the week driving up to and around Scotland. We did this 8 years ago, traveling up to Loch Ness – and wanted to do it again. It’s a long drive up from Reading, but the scenery is great and if you share the driving it is not too bad. We decided not to book anywhere again and just to drive until we found somewhere nice or were tired. This is quite a fun way to explore somewhere and means you don’t have to be at certain places at certain times. You can also stay longer when you find somewhere nice!

This time we bought the Lonely Planet Guide to Scotland which made the journey more fun as you can read up on the places before deciding whether to stop.

Roman Camp Hotel

We wanted to stay in Killin, although all the accommodation listed in the guide book were full. We carried on up a bit further north and came across the Roman Camp Hotel at Callendar. Rooms were great and dinner was excellent. Also the gardens were pretty impressive.

http://www.romancamphotel.co.uk/

B&B in Pitlochry

We didn’t fancy driving all the way up to Loch Ness from Callendar so chose somewhere else to stop on the way up. We stayed at the Home from Home B&B which was very nice and 5 minutes walk from the main high street. We arrived at Makays bar to use their free wifi, but ended up staying till late to partake in their free whisky tasting session.

Pitlochry is a great place with a few good pubs. Also they have an impressive Hydro Electric Dam you can walk across and if it is the right season see fish jump up the fish ladder.

Inch Hotel and Loch Ness

8 years ago when we visited in August we managed to pull up at the first B&B we liked the look of in Drumndrochit and stay there. The ‘no vacancy’ signs being displayed as we drove around however made us realise this time it wasn’t going to be so easy!

After driving around the Loch for a while we came into Fort Augustas and the first main hotel we came across luckily had one double room left for 2 nights – so we quickly snapped it up. The hotel is very nice, with great views of the Loch from the garden and also from our room. The food was also great.

http://www.inchhotel.com

There is plenty to see and do at Fort Augustas, from Loch Ness tours to watching the boats use the 5 or 6 locks to get out of Loch Ness and into the canal. We enjoyed eating and drinking at the Loch Inn, their fish n chips and sticky toffee pudding were especially nice!

Abbey Bridge B&B

On our journey back from Scotland 8 years ago we wanted to stop off somewhere on the way back to break the journey up. Diving off the M6 to take a view of Hadrians Wall we came across a nice looking pub with accommodation called Abbey Bridge (Pub, Inn or Hotel – not sure back in 2003). Upon calling to make a booking this time the place had been taken over and turned completely into a B&B. It’s still a great place to stay with really nice rooms, an honesty bar for drinks, yummy breakfasts and lots of things to see and do close by. Lanercost Priory is only 2 minutes down the road, and Hadrians Wall about 20 minutes walk away. Brampton is the closest small town and is a £5 taxi ride away. We ate at the Howard Arms (http://www.howardarmshotelbrampton.co.uk/) which served really nice food and had a friendly atmosphere.

http://www.abbeybridge.co.uk/

Overall a fantastic week, hopefully we won’t wait 8 years before going back to Scotland. Don’t be put off by the long drive, the scenery makes it all worthwhile.

Starting an email newsletter

This week saw the first SharePoint Weekly email newsletter go out. After listening to lots of success stories of email newsletters on Mixergy and speaking to Peter Cooper about the Ruby Weekly and Javascript Weekly email newsletters he has running I wanted to get something up and going for SharePoint. There is so much content written about SharePoint each week by Microsoft and bloggers it’s difficult to stay up with what’s important. Dan Usher was the holder of www.sharepointweekly.com although he wasn’t doing anything with the domain name. Dan was nice enough to donate the url to the new project.

Last week I put up a couple of pages, a simple page allowing people to sign up and a sample page of SharePoint Weekly #1 which didn’t actually go out, but gave people a good taster.

Just mentioning the newsletter a couple of times on Twitter and asking people to re-tweet it has managed to grab 170 signups. From just a few tweets and no other marketing I think this is a good indication that people want a SharePoint newsletter.

What has worked really well is using the Click To Tweet service. When people signed up for the newsletter they were directed to a simple page that said ‘thank you’, but adding a link to Click To Tweet asking them to let their Twitter friends to know about SharePoint Weekly has helped people mention the newsletter on Twitter and go a little viral.

Next week I’m going to ask a few bloggers to mention the newsletter and hopefully get a new batch of subscribers. Putting together the newsletter should only take a couple of hours each week, and doing it helps me keep on top of what’s going on in the SharePoint world. The end game is tohopefully make a little side money from non-intrusive adverts in the emails, but we’ll see how that goes as the subscribed number increases.

How Come That Idiot’s Rich and I’m Not?

Also this week I quickly finished the book How Come That Idiot’s Rich and I’m Not? It was an impulse buy while shopping last weekend, which is unusual as I usually only get books recommended by others and after checking Amazon reviews.

The reviews and comments on Amazon for the book are a real mixed bag. I sped through the book which is a good sign, and although it doesn’t offer too many original ideas – it’s good to read them again. I’ve taken quite a few notes from the book and have put it on the read again shelf, so don’t be put off by the ratings and comments on Amazon. Never judge a book by its cover 🙂

Building a Facebook App – week 1

Building a Facebook App – week 1

With the newest release of the Facebook C# SDK I decided to revisit the Social Books idea I have been working on with a friend. Previously we had build the web app outside of Facebook – you could sign in with your Facebook credentials through Facebook Connect and we’d then grab the pages and items you liked in Facebook and try to make you some book recommendations.

I decided to try and build a much more simple version of the application that would allow you to post to your Facebook wall what current book you were reading, and also ask your friends for new book recommendations. I also wanted to build this as a Facebook Canvas Application rather than a standalone web site in the hope that more people would trust it and authenticate and allow their Facebook details to be passed in.

The Facebook C# SDK is a real joy to work with. It’s got some good sample applications and code snippets up on the site. With the existing code we already had using the Amazon web service to retrieve books I was able to put together something in 2 days and launch it.

You can try the application out here:
Social Books Facebook App

The hope is the app will be quite viral. By posting a short message to user’s Facebook wall when they select the book they are reading I hope their friends will be interested to click on the link and then sign up and post the book they currently have open.

Adverts

I’ve been running some adverts on Facebook to try and attract some initial users. I was hoping the viral effect of people posting the books they were reading on their walls would mean that one advert enticed member would lead to 3 or 4 eventually coming over. Last week I spent £33.91 on Facebook ads which got 46 clicks.

Overall stats.

Here are the stats for Social Books from week 1.

Users : 59
Books Added : 50

This is pretty good for a first week, although I had hoped the viral aspect of posting messages to your Facebook wall would have meant a larger number. It’s a good start though and something to work on and try to increase as we move into week 2.
I need to build in some better tracking of users so we can tell where new registrations are coming from – adverts, wall postings, friend invites etc…

Unfortunately the process in Facebook for submitting your App to the App Directory is broken! Hopefully they’ll get this fixed soon as I’ve read getting your site submitted can lead to an influx of new users (at least for a short while)

Week 2 Plans

This week I plan one new development feature, and a different attempt on marketing.
The new feature will allow you to add books to your ‘Shelf’ that you’ve previously read. Upon doing this you’ll get the choice as to whether you want to post the book to your Facebook wall. If you are going through and adding 50 books in one go that you’ve read over the past 2 years you might not want to let your friends know about every one of them.

I’ve switched off the Facebook ads and will now try a little bit of Twitter marketing. Also on Thursday I’m planning to send out an email newsletter to all the registered users to try and keep return usage of the site up and let everybody know about the new features for them to try.

If you’ve any ideas on how to do extra marketing around Facebook Apps please leave them in the comments!

Introducing ToDo Rewards

I was looking at the post-it notes over my desk last week and started thinking about how I manage tasks, and also about the things that motivate me to get tasks done. Sometimes I’m really motivated and the day flies by with all tasks accomplished by the end of it, other days I get virtually nothing done and the day drags.

I think there’s a pattern emerging that the days that are most productive are also the days I’m most organised. My tasks are written down, and broken into steps if necessary – and I feel a sense of accomplishment as I strike them out. Wanting to create something new last week I thought about how a web app could make me more productive each day. It would need to help me do a few things…

1, be more organised
2, get motivated
3, feel accomplishment when tasks are done
4, feel accountable – encourage me to get my tasks done!

So I’ve built something simple called ToDo Rewards – www.todorewards.com

Yes it needs a design implement – but the functionality is there 🙂

The idea is that each ToDo item has a number of points against it. As you complete it, these points are added to your daily productivity total. From trying this out for a few days you certainly do get motivated to improve your daily points total. Lets see how ToDo Rewards achieves the 4 original aims set out above.

1, Being Organised
My ToDo items need to be in ToDo Rewards for me to be able to complete them and get the points value for doing them. Also you can setup re-occurring tasks that automatically get created for you each day in your ToDo list.

2, Get Motivated
Seeing the points total rising each day as you accomplish more is a good way to get motivated. Also I’ve created ToDo Rewards so you have a public profile – so others can see how productive you are each day (this also covers accountability). Here is my public ToDo Rewards page.

3, Feel Accomplishment
You get points, tasks have a strike through line, what more accomplishment do you need? You can also share your completed task lists on Twitter of Facebook to brag to your friends/co-workers.

4, Feel accountable
There is a public view of your ToDo list showing the tasks, which you’ve completed and your total points for that day. This is good for sharing with friends and colleagues to show what you’ve already got done, and what else needs to be done. Not everything needs to be shared of course – if you mark a task as private it won’t show in the public view.

So through some simple openness, game mechanics and accountability – ToDo Rewards can help make you more productive and have a little fun along the way.

There are many ideas around tasks that could be implemented…here are a few…
1, Rewards – get rewards throughout the day as you hit certain productivity point scores
2, Analysis – track through weeks and months how productive you’ve been and spot trends
3, Social – find people who have similar tasks to do, help them out or share the workload
4, Team management – allow managers to set tasks and priorities for team members

Please give it a try at www.todorewards.com , and let me know your feedback…

To Don’t List

Dan Pink wrote a great article in the Telegraph this week:

Why we all need a to don’t list

Here’s my to don’t list for 2011 – let’s see how I get on…

Don’t open Outlook before 11am
Don’t drink alcohol
Don’t eat chocolate
Don’t drink caffeine
Don’t eat red meat

Oddly enough the most difficult one is probably keeping Outlook closed until 11am!!!

This week I’m going to be reading Sir Ken Robinson’s book The Element. I saw his interview on Mixergy and so got the book when I spotted it in the shop this week.

Started working on a new project this week – non SharePoint this time. Looking forward to discussing in a few weeks.

Embrace the ‘Not invented here’ attitude

I found the new podcast by Scott Hanselman and Rob Coneroy on Saturday called ‘This Developers Life‘. I’ve listened to a few episodes and have really enjoyed them so will be subscribing to it through iTunes. The podcast I’m referring to in this blog post is titled Audacity where they kick the podcast off with speaking to John Resig the creator of jQuery. John was mentioning at the time of starting jQuery there were some other good Javascript frameworks around such as script.aculo.us and Prototype, but he started jQuery because he just wanted to build his own tools to use.

This reminded me of the ‘Not invented here‘ attitude – which is usually frowned upon in the workplace. Companies or individuals do not want to use something because they haven’t built it, and they’d rather build there own. Rather than being looked upon as being a negative, I think people should embrace the ‘Not Invented Here’ attitude and go and build whatever they want – even if someone has done it already. If we all went with the same Javascript library John Resig would never have started jQuery. I feel embracing ‘Not Invented Here’ is key for innovation and changing things for the better! Now go out and start building…!

Block time wasters from your work day

I was feeling pretty burnt out on Thursday night so Brett suggested I take Friday off to make a long weekend. Three days away from my computer sounded like a great idea – so I willingly accepted his suggestion.

A number of weird things happened in a row. I saw Andrew Warner post on Twitter about a new eBook called ‘Get out of Jail Free Card‘. As I feel as though I’ve been drowning in email and todo lists I bought it and had a read. It’s short, to the point, and I’m going to implement quite a few things from it. I highly recommend it!

After reading the eBook I started thinking about the things I waste my time on during the day – email, Facebook, Twitter, BBC news/sport, Hacker News, Techmeme etc. I have a Windows laptop, Macbook Pro and iPad. I realized I need to limit all these time wasting activities (except email – need to just batch that) to my iPad! That leaves my 2 laptops as work devices for me to concentrate on being productive. I’ve edited the hosts file on my Win7 laptop now to block all these time wasters…

I wouldn’t ever claim to be as great a thinker as Seth Godin, but it was really weird how he posted a blog article suggesting exactly the same on the same day!

Are you making something

Looking forward to next week, I feel it’s going to be a productive one!

User Insights with Surveys

One thing I’ve always tried to do is make sure I listen to the people who are using our products or services. Having read Brad Feld and David Cohen’s book ‘Do More Faster‘ I printed out one of the signs mentioned in the book and stuck it on the Lightning Tools Office Wall:

You are Stupid – Listen to your Customers – Or you will have none.

Another good comment from the book is around never needing to have another original idea yourself. If you are listening to your users and people around you they’ll give you the ideas and feedback you need to build something useful.

Last year we sent out a survey to everybody who had downloaded something from Lightning Tools. We asked some general questions about what components of SharePoint they were using and various things like that. It was certainly a useful exercise, giving us some useful insights and also gave us a good blog post as we discussed the results.

We wanted to put together a survey again this year but as we wrote down the questions they were pretty similar to last years ones and weren’t particularly inspiring. Flemming Madsen, who’s a good friend, advised us to begin with the questions we want answered as a company. The components of SharePoint that people were using was interesting, but it wouldn’t really help us make decisions over the next 12 months at Lightning Tools. We wanted to be finding out:

‘Are people going to be using SharePoint Online?’

‘Are people’s usage of SharePoint going to increase over the next 12 months?’

‘What external APIs do people want to integrate SharePoint with?’

We called these our ‘Internal Questions’

These can really help us drive our decision making and help us figure out what to focus on. So we then created and based each of our questions in the survey so they would help us answer our Internal Questions.

We also needed to be able to filter the results coming back. Generally you can divide the visitors to www.lightningtools.com into two groups.

1, Those that use SharePoint in their business

2, Those that provide products or services around SharePoint

We need to be able to filter filter the results into these two categories because it is possible that they will give completely different answers. When creating your survey think about how you will want to filter your answers and create questions that will allow you to do this.

The last thing we asked on the survey was to rate Lightning Tools on a scale of 1 to 10, and also if they had any general feedback to provide us. The rating is good as it will give you an overall feeling for what people think of you as a company. If anybody rates you a 1 or 2 they have obviously had a bad experience with you and this is your chance to try and resolve it. The general feedback field turned out to be a real gem for us. People have written some lovely comments about how great our products are, how brilliant our support is etc… This is great to share amongst the team as it is real motivation and proof you are doing the right things.

Finally, people get bombarded by emails, questions and tasks every day. We wanted to give people an incentive to spend 5 minutes completing our survey so we offered a prize to one of the survey participants.

This helps with two things:

1, Include in the email what the survey is, and what they can win – this increases the open rate of the email

2, It will increase the number of people who will complete the survey.

You need to give something away that your audience really wants right now. At the moment for our tech crowd it’s the iPad. In 12 months time it might be something else. We were concerned that people would start the survey, enter their email address and not complete the rest of the questions. Thankfully this hasn’t happened though with the survey completion rate being 95% as of writing.

So here’s an overall summary…

Steps to create a great user/customer survey:

1, Create your Internal Questions

2, Create your survey questions and make sure each one helps answer the Internal Questions

3, Ask questions that will allow you to filter your results

4, Allow people to provide general feedback on you

5, Give away a prize as an incentive to complete the survey

What tips do you have for creating great customer surveys?

Focus – the word for 2011

I always struggle a lot with focus. Not only during the day to get my important tasks done while Twitter, Facebook, Skype and email notifications are pinging around – but also on the bigger picture stuff.  The main problem is I have too many ideas. Most of these ideas I think are going to be the next big thing – and so want to start working on them straight away. But before I’ve seen something through to a satisfactory level to call whether the idea is going to take off or not, quite often I am distracted by some other idea that is new and shiny.

This can also be reflected through my years when I was employed by other people doing software development. For 5 years I’d be swapping jobs every 6-9 months. Each new gig felt like the dream job with new projects and challenges but within 6 months it felt like the same old thing and I was ready to move on.

The biggest shame of this looking back is what could have been achieved over the last 3.5 years with Lightning Tools. I feel we’ve done really well growing the company organically and up to a team of 10 people. But if I hadn’t been distracted by a few side projects such as 3 Good Shots and Connect Via Books I’m sure we could have taken a few bigger steps forward.

Do other entrepreneurs act and feel the same way? May be it’s impossible to focus on the same thing 12 months of the year and these little side projects are a good way to free your mind a little and still keep up your development skills. I certainly have made sure I have learned new things with each side project I’ve taken on so it certainly hasn’t all been for nothing.

So this is the year of focus. I’m not going to work on anything other than Lightning Tools this year. Rather than setting goals for the year, I prefer a shorter timespan as it is easier to track and manage progress. Here they are:

1, 4 Marketing Partners signed up for Lightning Tools

2, Trial product download target set for March

3, 2 Press releases a month

4, 6 SharePoint PodShows recorded

5, 1 Office Admin Assistant employed

6, 9 Case Studies on the web site.

If you feel you can help with any of these, drop me an email! I’ll keep you up to date with how things progress.