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ZipRecruiter.com: Hire faster, better, cheaper

Just yesterday I stumbled across this New York Times article describing how over-qualified people are taking any job they can get, cuz hey, the economy’s in the tank, and you gotta pay the bills.  This particular story has a happy ending: the candidates bring their MBA-honed skills to smaller firms, and get a paycheck in the process, their ego firmly in check.  It’s good news for everyone, except for, perhaps, HR departments: in this day and age, with former Silicon Valley CFOs applying for the “Animal Style Sauce Maker” job at In n’ Out Burger, the resumes are piling up.  Thousands of resumes.  Millions, – no, BILLIONS – of resumes.  Towering towers of teetering resumes, threatening to tip over and bury HR ladies in their cubes, such that they’re only discovered two weeks later, frail but cheery, having cheated death by subsisting on wild berries and stale tortilla chips from their bottom desk drawer.

This is a very really and very costly problem that ZipRecruiter addresses.  ZipRecruiter is an online tool that eliminates “resume spam” (a real problem, not a condiment) and enables hirers to focus on high-value candidates efficiently and cost-effectively.

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ZipRecruiter articulates the process succinctly on their home page:

1.  Create a brief online candidate interview
2.  Post to multiple job boards with one submission
3.  Review candidate answers and resumes online

So I started ZipRecruiting for free by creating an account.  I could Create a New Job listing or set up my branding (where I essentially customized the interview template.)  I decided to create a job.  Here were the steps:

  • I entered the job title
  • I was provided an interview url that I could send out via emails, etc.
  • I was prompted to enter an interview question type (e.g. Free Form text, multiple choice, Yes/No.)
  • I chose “Free Form text” and entered my question (“When have you thought outside the box?”; see below)  And that was the gist of it.

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From my Job Page I could “Close the job” (it was currently “Active”), post it to Job Boards, and View the Candidates who applied.  Though I didn’t create a thoroughly robust interview (SlapStart, after all, has hiring freeze until we “re-align” our off-shore financing issues), I imagined a future-state and it was pleasant: more than a third-party hiring agency, employers know what they’re looking for in a candidate.  And they can craft interviews that reflect this.  And better yet, if crafted properly – say, by using multiple-choice answers; particularly around specific business knowledge and terminology – the tool does all the work by sorting responses accordingly.  It’s an automatic vetting machine, and the cream, I imagine, will rise to the top pretty quickly.  It also cuts out the middle man – namely, a hiring or temp agency – as the tool is free.  Why pay for someone to ask a candidate about their “greatest asset” over and over again, when you can yourself, once, for free?

OK, some quick navigation thoughts:

  • Initially when I registered and was prompted to set up my branding, I wasn’t immediately sure what it meant.  That screen could perhaps have additional copy to provide guidance (e.g. “Customize your interview template here.”)
  • I also wasn’t sure what step was first – is it better to Create a New Job listing first or set up my branding first?  Did it matter?  Does anything really matter? (I learned it didn’t really matter, but for me, I think setting up the brand should go first.)

So in closing, I ask you to think about how many times a poor hiring professional asked these following questions:

  • What skills can you bring to this organization?
  • When have you thought outside the box? (fyi: correct answer is “thinking outside the box is actually thinking inside the box.”)
  • What would you say is your greatest weakness? (fyi: correct answer is “I love too much.”)

It must get old.  Day after day.  Every day.  Like a cruel version of Groundhog Day. And then the resumes pile up.  Towers upon towers of resumes (as I mentioned), threatening to tip over and kill you.  Or perhaps you throw all the resumes in a big vat or trash compactor.  But then one day on your way to the pantry, you take a wrong turn, and accidentally fall into the vat and suddenly the walls start closing in, like the scene in Star Wars, and you’re going to die.  Literally killed by too many resumes (and trash.)

ZipRecruiter prevents this.  ZipRecruiter can saves lives.  Not bad.

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Fixr: Find a contractor, name your price

Let’s play a role-playing game.  You own a sweet 15-person passenger van, and you have big summer plans: you’re going to live in this van, man!  Perhaps by the beach, or by the river.  You have your Doors tapestry picked out, the patchouli is tantalizingly propped on the dashboard, and you bought a lot of those pre-made, microwaveable Trader Joe’s Indian dishes.  Just one problem: the loft from your apartment doesn’t fit in the van.  This is critical, because man, once your loft is in the van, there is no stopping you.

You can go to Craigs List and look for help, but the prospect is shady; how can you gauge their reputation, prices, and previous work?  Where is the EBay or Amazon analog for this?  Well, just like your soul-mate in the adjacent cube, it’s been right under your nose all along, and it’s called Fixr.

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Fixr is a simple, elegant site that places contractors with customers (or visa versa.) And while it’s current focus is on construction and remodeling gigs, any type of work is fair game.  It makes a ton of sense for contractors, because they can easily access a large pool of would-be clients that they normally wouldn’t have access to.  (I mean, if you’re a contractor in Sacramento, you’ll happily take a job in Oakland; but how would you find out about it otherwise?)  And as the aforementioned role-playing game articulately indicated, it allows contractor-seekers to name their price: let them come to you.  And it’s free.

First-time user will not be confused.  Trust me.  Fixr makes it simple:

1.  Describe your project and post it for free
2.  Get estimates from qualified professionals nearby, and
3.  Pick the best based on quality, reputation, and price

Simple enough.  So off we go.  In the upper-right hand corner I entered my email, “job to be done,” and a “detailed description,” as I was err, y’know, just posing as someone – theoretically, mind you – who needs to repair his loft.  I next chose the category, zip code, and my screen name.  I could also say if I had a budget, attach images, and enter my phone number.  Once I entered the information, I received an email.  The email instructed me to click on a link to activate my job, and there you have it.  Oh, and what was especially cool was that the email contained something you don’t see much of nowadays: a human’s name, with the human’s phone number!  I could actually talk to a live human being if I had questions.  I mean, what’s next, free kittens?

To bring the experience to life, here’s an example of a project that was brokered through Fixr.

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You’ll have to take my word for it, but the screen shot includes the kind of contractor wanted (structural engineer), the location, the end-time of the gig, a description, a picture, and most importantly, a budget; Fixr only posts estimates that have a dollar amount attached to it.  To the right, we see the two contractors who have made bids so far, and their comments.  This is really neat, because, almost like an auction site, it will force contractors to drop their prices accordingly.  Now, of course, cheaper isn’t better, so you can click on each contractor to find out more, so choose wisely.  Here’s an example of the contractor overview page.  We see reviews within the last 30 days, 90 days, and year, plus Past Jobs.  The contractor review page, however, is gold.  This is where user-generated content comes into play, and in a very useful way.

Folks in New England are particularly lucky; Fixr has many contractors in that area, specifically Massachusetts, and it’s not uncommon for a proposed job to receive five bids within 24 hours.  This project in the Jerz’ (New Jersey), meanwhile, received multiple bids and a ton of comments on the bottom that reads like Soap Opera Digest.  So the people have spoken, y’know?  And why not?  In addition to providing a useful service – particularly in these tough economic times – the site itself is clean and simple.  No distracting bells or whistles.

The only functionality, nit-picky comment I have otherwise is this: though I realize talking on the phone with a contractor is critical, I would suggest not initially making phone number a required field for people looking for contractors.  Just make it voluntary, but perhaps supplemented with some text explaining why it’s important.  Worst case, folks will just enter a dummy number (which I did; 831-VAN-LIFE, btw.)

Fast-forward six months.  Your van is epic.  The loft is just low enough so when you lie on your back, you don’t feel like you’re buried alive.  You’re now known as “The Van Guy” by the locals, and that fills you with pride, because you always an outsider.  Little children run away from you and every now and then Bill the Sheriff pays a visit to see “what’s up.”  You still have half-a-bottle of body wash left, you accidently married a Wiccan priestess, and you’re now an expert at making “Hobo Pizza.”  You are living the dream, all thanks to Fixr.  (Camera pans to your smiling, slightly-dazed face.  You give the thumbs-up and say, “Thanks, Fixr!!”  Fade to black.)

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BreweryFans: Dank-brew nirvana

Sometimes the universe just drops things in your lap.  Things so natural, so easy, so effortless that you just sit back and enjoy the ride.  Like today’s feature: BreweryFans.  Yeah, you read that correctly:  I have the Herculean task of reviewing a website devoted to fine, craft beers.  Oh, universe, there you go again!

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BreweryFans connects fans of really, really dank brew with dank breweries and dank brew they love.  In the world of folks providing good social services, I put them up there with the Salvation Army and that stuff Mother Teresa did.  First-time users will find all the beer they want from their ever-growing database, receive email alerts, learn about upcoming events, and of course, review the brews themselves.  Reviewing the “Most Popular Breweries” on the right-side of the homepage is like reading the roster of the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame or Hall of the Coolest US Presidents.  There’s the incredible Brooklyn Brewery (got drunk on their tour), the incorrigible Abita (drank it in Baton Rogue; got drunk), and the irrepressible Yuengling (we call it “lager” in Philly), and the stately, incandescent gods of West Coast brew: Sierra (love it), Lagunitas (love it), and Russian River (love it.)  My point: this is site has its act together.  This is serious beer business.

Users can register, or if you wanna hold off, you can playing around with the search functionality.  I entered “Boont,” as in Boont Amber, my official “Northern California Honky-Tonk” beer, and lo and behold, up it popped.  I clicked on the result and was taken to an elegant – and shockingly accurate – overview page of the beer. I could “Map This Beer,” meaning it’d show me “beerspots” where they serve it; I could also “Become a Fan” and “Get Alerts” about it.

"There's gold in them thar hills!"
“There’s gold in them thar hills!”

Now for a couple quick navigation suggestions:

  • On the home page, in the main text, I’d add some hyperlinks.  For example, I’d hyperlink “ever-growing database” to the database; the underlined text made me think they were links.
  • Also, at least for the time being, BreweryFans may want to let visitors check out the BeerFolio page without registering, just to give them a taste (get it?  sorry) of what’s out there.  People are lazy, y’know?

Now if I may ruminate on the business model.  For beer-lovers and brewers alike, it’s a no-brainer.  When I lived in Portland, I’d frequently patronize Amnesia, an amazing, yeast-y smelling brewery and bar.  Every now and then I’d pop in and see what was new.  Did I ever call and ask, “What’s your new beer this week?”  No, I didn’t.  (Was too busy writing my screenplay.)  However, would have it been helpful to sign up for and receive an email saying, “Hey man, we just rolled out our new 7% Brown Steel Unicorn IPA?”  You bet it would!  And as sophisticated, intelligent, and well-manicured craft-brew lovers, market research shows we are willing to shell out a little extra for something better than PBR with a lime wedge (hate it.)  We are pretty passionate about this stuff, and in addition to buying the stuff, are move than happy to provide feedback on the stuff, which BreweryFans also allows.  Also, during a recession, people spend more money on alcohol than food, medicine, and diapers combined.  Look it up.  Breweries, take note.

A few weeks ago, I was listening to NPR’s Marketplace, and hear a nifty little story about how “foodies” are flocking to Cleveland, OH.  Restaurateurs are fleeing the high-tax, high-pressure crucible of New York, setting up shop in “The Mistake by the Lake,” and making a killing doing so.  It’s endemic of the “Starbucks-ization” (my word, not NPR’s) of niche segments of society, which means this: say what you will about Starbucks, it certainly taught consumers to enjoy coffee, to treat coffee as an experience, rather than commodity.  To that effect, NPR noted that networks like The Food Network are spreading a higher cultural element into backwoods inbreeding towns like Cleveland.  In other words: good stuff isn’t just relegated to city slickers anymore, and this trend bodes well for BreweryFans.  BreweryFans captures this Zeitgeist by providing an invaluable resource for people for whom good brew is a way of life.

With that note, I have to run and, eh, go make myself a nice glass of…um, Ovaltine.  Yeah.  Ovaltine.

BreweryFans is currently displaying the rather attractive Ruby on Rails internal server error page. As far as server errors go this is best of brand, top of the class. For those interested in connecting with like minded imbibers they’ll have to go the old fashioned route and head to the bar.

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Yubby: Drag n’ drop video aggregation, man!

True story.  Just this morning I was shopping for a flight, and what was the first thing I did?  No, I did not call Linda, my travel agent; rather, I went to kayak.com.  Why?  Because Kayak is an aggregate site – it reaches its spindly tentacles out into the subterranean depths of the Internet and pulls from various travel sites to find me the best deal.  This is nice.  If the squiddish and/or arachnid-like analogies frighten you, consider this: the Internet is like one long corridor with endless doors on each side – what’s behind this door?  Or that door?  It’s enough to drive you nuts.  So this is why aggregate sites are nice.

Aggregate sites that burrow for content are especially nice too, because while flights are finite, content seems pretty darn infinite.  And one of those nifty burrowers is Yubby.com, a site that finds, collects, and publishes videos from over 30 of the most popular sites.  How do they do that?

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As a first-user checking out Yubby, my task was made clear:

1.  Find video from over 30 popular video sites
2.  Gather the videos in my own channels
3.  Share my channels and publish them on my favorite websites

So I began by entering a search term in the box.  For some reason I entered “Credence Clearwater Revival.”  I think it’s because there was some guy drivng a truck cranking CCR and the whole scene was awesome, so it stuck with me.  A bunch of videos popped up in a table format: three columns and seven rows.  (I could also have them formatted like a YouTube-like list.)  I clicked on one.  A smaller screen popped up and conveniently provided a description of the video itself.  Luckily for me it was their video of “Looking Out My Back Door.”  Epic!

What happened next was pretty neat.  Back at the search results page, I could drag and drop the thumbnails of the videos into a separate column on the right of the screen – my new, un-titled channel.  So I did, and there it was.  Next I entered another search term (“Jerry Brown”), and dragged a video over too.  CCR and Governor Moonbeam: together at last.  Yubby passed this test with flying colors – my channel on the right remained frozen still housing the CCR video.

After I assembled my channel I wasn’t intuitively sure what my next step should be.  On the upper-right hand corner was a box entitled “Videokanaal”  (they may wish to re-title that), with “Play Channel,” “Video Overview,” and “Embed Widget.”  I clicked on “Play Channel,” (below) and my videos popped up.  “Video Overview” provided a list of my two videos, and “Embed Widget” gave me the HTML code to paste onto my (non-existent) webpage.

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Not surprisingly, Yubby can also be used for businesses as well as individual fun.

So, having gone through the guts of the site, I had a few comments/suggestions:

  • On the home page, I was a bit perplexed, initially, by the “Check out what others made” at the bottom.  It was supplemented by video screen shots on the bottom; once clicked upon, I was taken to the video itself, and it seemed just like a normal video.  I’d encourage Yubby to re-examine the copy (“Check out what others made”) to make it a bit more descriptive and concrete.
  • Additionally, while experimenting as a user, I was expecting at some point to be able to save my channel (though I may have missed this.)  Perhaps that option, and the prompt to sign-up and be a full-time user, should be more upfront and obvious.

Ultimately, Yubby employs two neat things currently lacking from other video sites like YouTube: 1) again, it’s an aggregator; there’s simply more depth and breadth, and 2) it employs drag-and-drop functionality making it fun and intuitive to use.  Tons of fantastic possibilities for both individual users and businesses alike.  And don’t just take my word for it; check out what the folks at Blog World had to say.  (Note: SlapStart restricts me from providing similar video commentary as it may dilute the “SlapStart Mystique Clause” as stipulated in my contract.)

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Earthtunnel: Burrow below the planet, one image at a time

The first thing I liked about Earth Tunnel is its name.  It sounds like a really cool Swedish 70s prog rock band.  All its members have beards and they have songs about fairies and deep, inpenetrable forests.  So needless to say I was intrigued.  And in a way, the Earth Tunnel I’d like to talk about today is similar: Earth Tunnel is a virtual project aimed at the creation of a 3D tunnel whose ends meet at the end of a 35,500 km journey, the approximate distance of one trip around the world, 500 km underground. One pixel is equivalent to 1 cm.  The tunnel is constructed thanks to images embedded in its walls.

Psychedelic!earthrunne1

As a first-time user, can’t help but being interested, if not mildly confused, initially.  After all, in this day in age, most – not all – Web sites have some sort of agenda.  And sometimes that agenda is commercially motivated.  As someone who writes for a commercially-motivated site, I can speak from experience.  So at first, you may say, “What’s the catch here?”  And soon you realize it’s simple: a literal tunnel of images burrowing around the world.  And once accomplished, it can prove that we, the users, are able to build something together in the same direction.  The purity is refreshing. There’s no limit to how many pictures you can upload, and there are supporting Twitter and Facebook pages that help track the ongoing journey.

Meanwhile, the design itself is interactive.  Users are encouraged to click arrows in the middle of the tunnel.  So off I went.  And it was really cool.  There I was, zip, zip zipping through the tunnel, with walls of images on my left (there’s the “PC guy” from the Apple ads; there’s a mid-rift, there’s something that looks like a mushroom cloud) and my right (there’s a strange photo of couple, a huge crowd, and what looks like a mug shot.)

You can basically cruise around forever (unless there’s a big wall of dirt when the tunnel ends?); no blips in the navigation, all very smooth.  And when you feel like it, you can pull up, and click on an image.  I clicked on a photo of the Virgin Mary, which took me to a page with the larger image, and its source url.  I could also click on “I Like It,” and the site automatically added my vote to the tally.

There are other pages besides the tunnel itself, all of which are pretty self-explanatory: Last Added, Last Watched, Most Viewed, Top 50, Random (below), Blog, and Add Picture.  And there’s an additional, cryptic teaser: according to the FAQ, “Each image has a story but that will only be revealed when the construction will be is finished.”

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Initially the navigation prompts confused me a bit.  I was instructed to click an arrow in the middle, which I did, but then the arrow disappeared.  It was only after fooling around with my “up” and “down” arrow buttons that I started cruising through the tunnel.  So the trick, if I’m not mistaken, is “click the middle of the tunnel, then press the ‘up’ button to move through the tunnel.”

Earth Tunnel, to me, is in the emerging school of sites that attempt to establish order out of the randomness of the Internet.  The most popular analog that comes to mind is Chatroulette. (You may have heard, it’s a site where you randomly video-chat with someone, anyone, anywhere.) I like Earth Tunnel because not only does it establish order from these random images circulating in the ether, but for the love of God, it constructs them into a tunnel that burrows under the earth!  There’s a no-nonsense art-iness to it that I am afraid I am too unsophisticated to articulate, but even for the most provincial user, it’s pretty neat to cruise through that tunnel and become absorbed in the experience, surrounded by bizarre and clickable images.  I mean, really, who needs fairies?

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Ben’s Outlet: Gadgets For Geeks

When it comes to websites, I like simple. I like my websites to be like a glass deli counter: everything’s right there in plain sight, front and center. You don’t have to hunt around for anything, there’s nothing else “in the back”, and the interface is pure WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get). Simplicity implies honesty and integrity.

If popularity is any judge, then many people agree with me that simpler websites are better. Geeks, in particular, tend to dislike having to click through a bunch of pages to find what they want. It’s why many of the most popular websites out there (Google, IsItChristmas, etc.) are simple and straightforward. And if you share my sentiment for simplicity, you need to check out Ben’s Outlet.

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Basically, Ben’s Outlet is a website with twelve items on the front page, arranged in a grid. The items are updated several times per week and they range from headphones to digital heart monitors to video game peripherals. When an item sells out, it’s replaced with another item. Each item can be clicked on for a detailed description, or you can simply click “add to cart” if it’s something you know you want and can’t go on living without. Such as anything that is radio-controlled and costs less than a pair of pants. Seriously, Ben’s Outlet, you had me at BB-firing R/C tank.

Thankfully, the prices are rock-bottom. This is because Ben’s Outlet buys overstock and closeout items directly from sellers around the world. The product quality is top-notch and, unlike many other “hot-deals” websites, they keep the shipping cost reasonable and flat-rate. They charge about what it costs to ship the item; no more, no less.

The deals you’ll find on Ben’s Outlet are available only for a limited time. Once they’ve been removed from those twelve boxes on the front page, they’re no longer available for purchase. They’ve got an area on the bottom of the page where you can see items that are no longer available, which is, quite frankly, rather cruel. They’re right there, just out of reach, so close yet gone for good. I can understand how this provides motivation to visit the website every day, but it’s still be pretty torturous.

Something I really enjoy about the site is that the product descriptions are written by real people, not faceless advertising drones. This really sets Ben’s Outlet apart from similar sites and gives you the impression that you’re dealing with real people who are just trying to get you a great deal. The product descriptions tend to be passionate, interesting, and somewhat revealing. They’re written much like how the average person might write a description after getting to play with a really neat gadget. Whoever this “Ben” character is, he’s a lucky guy.

Ben’s Outlet is a great place to shop for holiday and birthday presents for the geeks in your life. Aside from the R/C vehicles and spy-toys for the man-children you know, there’s also audio gear, GPS devices, crazy-cheap netbooks, USB gadgets… the list goes on and on. The best part is that many of them are priced just right for stocking-stuffers or neat token-of-appreciation gifts. If I chose any one item randomly from the products that are currently available on the Ben’s Outlet homepage, I can think of at least two people I know personally who would love it. And, if for some insane reason those people didn’t like their gifts, well, I wouldn’t feel too badly about keeping them for myself.

If there’s one thing that Ben’s Outlet could use, it’s an RSS feed for new products. It would be a welcome feature that could keep potential customers updated on the latest products, without having to visit the page every day. Easier said than implemented, but it’s really the only fault I can find with the site.

Ben’s Outlet is a great concept executed flawlessly. Sure, there are other sites out there that function similarly, but I’ve never been quite as enthusiastic about their products as I am about these. Similar sites tend to be hit-or-miss, while I can’t find a single item on Ben’s Outlet that I wouldn’t love to have.

It’s a perfect site for geeks on a budget, really. The prices are low, the shipping is reasonable, and their product selection is right on. If you’re into great deals on cool gadgets, you should count Ben’s Outlet among the sites you visit every day.

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Vyoopoint: Online collaboration gold for designers

I have a friend who is a graphics designer, but is also somewhat of a procrastinator.  Her design home page has been “under development” for years now.  And who can blame her?  Making a web site is a pain, but I’d imagine it’s doubly hard for a designer: you have to upload your portfolio, which can be constantly changing, and then if you are fortunate to get work, you’re in front a computer shipping files back and forth with your client.  The latter piece – interacting with you client – is probably the most stressful activity of all; the last thing you want to do is come across as disorganized and blow up the project budget.  In this age of collaborative, Web-based tools (Google docs comes to mind for this neophyte), designers need a way to seamlessly interface with their clients.  Which brings us to Vyoopoint, an online tool build by visual artists for visual artists, that lets designers simply collaborate with their clients.

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Now, I am not a visual artist (though I’ve played one on t.v. [note: that’s a lie]), but I imagine the process of interacting with clients is much the same as, say, a writer, a journalist, or anyone involved in collaborative work.  For those stuck in the stone age, you send over documents or files, edits come back, and you engage in a back and forth until version control issues emerge, and you’re not sure which is “live” and which isn’t.  It’s a total time-killer, and it’s mildly depressing, especially once your client realizes you are flustered and mildly depressed.  Not good.

At the platform’s core is its ability generate review galleries with uploaded files.  In other words, an easy way to get visuals in front of one’s clients.  But, at its essence, that is really no different than e-mailing stuff back in forth; what makes the tool sing (yes, I wrote that) is its notification and editing abilities.  Because if you think back to my earlier case study – you remember, the one where you and your client got confused over version control issues – the root case of that problem wasn’t the content itself; it was confusion over the content.  Namely, who edited what and when.  That’s where the misery comes from.  That’s where the mild depression kicks in.  Vyoopoint address this but allowing you to automatically notifies all parties or published galleries and gallery updates and comments.  Most importantly, in opinion, it provides commenting markup tools that enable annotations on images and video, which saves time.  Check out the sample screen shot below.

vyoopoint22

Clients get an email notification taking them to a screen similar to this.  In it, they can cruise around, adding or reviewing comments in the Comments panel, easily navigate through the frames, and check out the presentation in full-screen view.  And if you’re a client or a designer under an hourly arrangement, this stuff can add up.  Vyoopoint acknowledges this, and in a rare display of cost-savings acumen, puts their money where their mouths are; this page illustrates potential cost savings opportunities using the tool.

Check out their pricing plans here. You can start with a free arrangement with one active project, or scale accordingly.  For example, it’s only $12 a month for a three-project portfolio.  Not bad!  (Either way, all paying plans include a 30-day free trial.)  And there is no limit to the number of users, either clients or colleagues, that can access your account, which is true for all the account plans even the free one.  What’s also nice is the aesthetically-pleasing quality of the interface.  This is because the Vyoopoint designers are visual designers themselves.  They’ve been on the “designer” end of the collaborative process, and have brought this experience to bear in its user-friendly interface.

All in all, a flexible, intuitive platform.  My only question or request – and this may be my ignorance here – surrounded the ability to track changes at a high-level.  I imagine there are ways to save each presentation, and each version, so that you can track the edits over a longer period of time.  It would be nice insurance – an audit trail, if you will – should any he-said-she-said business emerge between designer and client.  The designer can just say, “see?  On March 25th you told me to do x, y, z.  Ah ha!”  So I would accentuate that feature more on the site: anything to simplify the or solve the perennial version-control issue.

Otherwise, I may have to shoot my designer friend an e-mail and tell her to join the 21st century.  Static Web sites, documents being sent back and forth, making comments in Word – I mean, get real grandpa!  Collaboration is where it’s at, and Vyoopoint is more than up to the challenge.  In fact, if I may be so bold, I’d like to make a prediction: In the future, it’s all about the Internet.  Yep, you read it here first.

You can quote me on it, even.

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Bccthis: Twitter Better

Like 19 million other people out there, I use a micro-blogging service called Twitter. Unlike 75% of them, though, I use it a lot, meaning just about every day. I tweet things that I find online, what I made for dinner, haikus, ruminations on the weather, and upcoming events I’ll be attending. A lot of supposedly “hardcore” Twitterers will say that they are addicted to Twitter, but I don’t think they understand what that really means. If I think of something witty or take a picture of something interesting out in the real world, I need to find a computer and update Twitter fairly soon. If I can’t, well, that’s when the shaking and the cold sweats start.

Since I don’t have one of those fancy new cellular smartphones (my cell phone is so old it’s got a rotary dial), I have to use a computer to spread my inanity. I started, like most users, with the Twitter website (twitter.com), which is cumbersome and requires you to load a new page whenever you want to see you mentions, direct messages, and lists. After a few months, I moved on and began exploring Twitter desktop clients, webmail plugins, and online alternatives. These provided more functionality, but ultimately I could never get into them. They were, for the most part, hit-and-miss. Some had greater functionality than other, but were lacking when it came to the interface. Others had a great layout but were completely missing even the most basic features. Eventually, I would end up back at Twitter.com, feeling dejected. Forlorn, even.

Let me cut to the chase; if I had the programming knowledge to create my own perfect Twitter client, it would look and perform just like Bccthis. It provides the same functionality that their laudable Outlook plugin does, but also functions as its own stand-alone Twitter client, and stands strong.

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The main feature that Bccthis developed is the ability to send out tweets with an additional message tacked on that only certain followers will see. In essence, you’re giving a select group of people an aside that the main audience can’t hear (or read). For example, I can tweet something like “I just ate dinner with some friends at Sushi-Hana. It was great!” and then I can attach a note in Bccthis that says “Josh totally didn’t pay his fair share. Kick him in the shin next time you see that jerk.” As long as I don’t include Josh’s Twitter name in the Bccthis list, he’ll receive his punishment and won’t have a clue who masterminded it. And if any of the people you’re bcc-ing don’t use Bccthis, that’s okay; a direct message is sent to them with the hidden message content in it, along with the original message.

Aside from this feature, which is incredibly useful, there is the matter of the layout. The interface is a 3-column design that is packed with useful features. You’ve got the normal Twitter links to your mentions and favorites, but there are also links to your direct message (DM) inbox, DM outbox, BccThis messages box, lists you’ve created, subscribed lists, trending topics, and support.

Aside from the BCC message box link, which takes you to your main Bccthis dashboard, everything else loads in-line, meaning that you don’t have to wait for a whole new page to load up when you want to check your mentions (which most users do frequently). Next to the search bar, lists, and trending topics, there are handy refresh buttons, and photos from TwitPic (the most popular way to share pictures on Twitter) can be viewed within a tweet.. Also, below the main Twitter content box, is an in-line URL shortener that inserts a shortened URL right into your message.

The design aesthetic is pleasant and the site’s colors make things easily readable without being bland. Bccthis might not win any awards for graphic design, but they’re also not distracting me from the content I came to see. Bccthis saves you time by keeping everything on the same page, while still somehow managing to not seem cluttered.

While reviewing Bccthis, I found myself wondering why seemingly simple features (like the URL shortener, in-line refresh functionality, and in-line photo-viewing) aren’t found in other Twitter clients. I can name a few that include one of these features, but Bccthis is the only one that has all of them. It’s not as if there’s not room on the screen, it just seems like the other developers lack the common sense, imagination, or motivation. When it comes to features, I can think of nothing that Bccthis left out. It just makes other Twitter clients pale in comparison.

I could continue to gush about Bccthis, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll simply say that if you’re not using Bccthis, you’re missing out on some great features and just not getting the most out of Twitter. Try it, love it, and spread the word.

Bccthis has regretfully but decidedly removed itself from the internet. Its passing came with nary a sound. Except that of the sad, lonely tears of the broken dream it became.

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Youtellyou: Unlocking the power of photo-stories

One of the most stirring things I’ve seen on the Internet in a while (besides this) was a photo-story of a young Army recruit in Colorado.  A photographer followed him from enlistment at the age of 17, to basic training, to combat in Iraq, and a tearful homecoming.  Something about the medium resonated far more than mere video.  It was compelling, heart-wrenching, and inspiring.  I think it’s because in our instant-gratification techno-world, we often times simply don’t have the time to appreciate nuance, texture, and context, particularly across a narrative arc (I blame Google.)  The medium of photo-sharing, at its essence, is conducive for deeper more rewarding immersion.

Bottom line: I gained an appreciation for such photo-stories, in that I, rather than a director, controlled the tempo of the experience, and like a good drive down Rt. 1, had the ability to proverbially pull-over to the side of the road and check out the view.  This photo-story – and the question, “That was cool, why aren’t there more photo-stories out there? – immediately popped into my mind the minute I checked out YouTellYou, a wonderful site that streamlines and expands the photo-story creation and viewing process.

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In short, YouTellYou is a crowd-sourced photo-story magazine. Anyone can create and publish photo-stories in minutes linking to his/her Flickr, Facebook, or Smugmug account or uploading photos from a PC or a camera. Stories can also be published from a mobile phone via email.  The stories are presented in an online magazine, according to number of views, ranking, category, publishing date.  Let it be known that YouTellYou is not just another photo hosting service.  Photos don’t sit there in a vacuum; rather, the emphasis is on creating and sharing stories via pictures.   Of course, the stories you wish to create are up to you: travel diaries, family or sports events, vision quests, etc.

So I signed up. YouTellYou conveniently lets you voluntarily enter your Flickr or Smugmug nickname (I figured that’d come in handy down the road.)  Upon signing up I was informed that I had no stories…yet.  So I clicked on the New Story link, where I entered the date and time, the title of my story, a summary, location, category (e.g. music, family), and tags.  I entered some information about the fine Italian dinner I’m about to have, and upon hitting save, learned that “A Fine Italian Dinner” (my story name) was story #767 in their library.  Next it was time to enter pictures.  Which did not exist yet.  What was cool was that each story is comprised of smaller sections.  I figured the first section could be, say, about my first glass of wine (specifically, Arbor Mist.)  I chose the layout the photo and was prompted to upload the photo, by accessing my photo library, which pulls pix from my computer, Facebook, Flickr, or Smugmug.  I uploaded a dummy photo from my computer, and then entered text to the left.  And there you have it.  I could also manage My Stories from a dashboard-like page called – brace yourselves – “My Stories.”  It was there I could view the story in its final form, delete it, or make edits.

Naturally the other neat part about the site is, as a user, the ability to browse other stories.  Due to my former and sordid past as an office guy, I couldn’t resist the urge to check out “30 Years Working at NTI,” a photo-montage of Leonie Hall’s last day at work.  What I liked most about it was the commentary provided by each picture and the fact that the flow was horizontal (up/down) not vertical (left/right), unlike other sites.  There’s a reason by newspapers are comprised of columns that flow horizontally, right?  It’s more natural to read it that way.  So it was cool.  And you, as a user, could also add comments.

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Ever, say, stare at a big apartment building in New York and look into the windows (legally – no funny business; just, y’know, checking it out)?  In one window you may see a man making dinner.  In another a couple is arguing.  In another a cat is sitting on the fire escape.  Each has a story.  Now, were you to try to take a closer look – say, with a high-powered telescope strategically propped in some bushes across the street – you’d be rightfully hauled away.  So spare yourself the embarrassment of a ragtag court-appointed defense attorney and check out YouTellYou, which enables you to peek through the proverbial blinds and escape into peoples’ worlds at your own pace and at the time and terms of your choosing.

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Anveo: Flexibily and deliciously configure your voice platforms

OK kids, so remember you met that cool Finnish guy in a VW last summer in Big Sur?  And now you’re “dating” him over Skype?  In a nutshell, you’re using Voice-Over IP technology – talking over the Internet.  OK, you’re rolling your eyes again, which means you already know that.  But you may not know that as we speak, many, many people are taking that technology to the next level.  One of those is Anveo, a hosted PBX VoIP provider that allows businesses and developers to flexibly configure their systems to suit their needs.  Many folks talk big about flexibility; Anveo walks the walk.anveo-home

First, it must be said that a hosted PBX service is a communications system that solely serves a business, rather than relying a telephone company.  OK, that little tech-y preface may call attention to the face that say, I’m not the sharpest knife in the draw when it comes to, say, hosted PBX configuration (unlike, say, aikido.)  That said, as just an average dude who heard about VoIP many, many years ago, when it was but the gleam in the eye of a drunken Silicon Valley sailor, and as a former and-perhaps future worker, I can conceptualize the value of technology for a business.  In fact, we all can.

Anveo’s site is helpfully broken up across three buckets: solutions for Consumers, Businesses, and Developers.  Consumers and Businesses brought me to the same page, where I was greeted with a host of features, such as Web calls, online faxes, international phone numbers, and disposable phone numbers.  I was particularly drawn to Anveo Communicator – perhaps because its text box was blue (the rest weren’t) and there was a nifty “free” call-out next to it.  The site provides a helpful menu of Communicator’s features on the bottom-left portion, showing screen shots of each.

From that initial feature-overview page, I was also drawn to Anveo’s Visual Call Flow.  This technology allows developers, to visually configure phone calls, from simple PBX management to more advanced Voice 2.0 communication platforms.  And that’s why it’s cool: it’s flexibility, allowing you to change with your situation.  After all, business interactions are rarely static in these go-go times.  Back in the day, Joe’s Widgets would sell a ton of widgets to Tom’s Hardware, and that was pretty much it.  Transactions and cash flow were predictable.  Not so much anymore.  Simple phone calls are not enough.  We have multiple channels of communication: voice, data, video, etc., but for many companies, it doesn’t make sense – economically, or in terms of time commitment – to, say, have a full-fledged, end-to-end multi-channel platform live at all times.  But what if you do need it, for those rare instances?  What if, as the Anveo example articulates, rather than a traditional phone line, you  need said phone line, plus a more complicated routing arrangement, linked go Google Calendar?  Anveo Visual IVR Call Flow allows you to configure your incoming calls on the fly with, better yet, drag-and-drop tools such that you can visually create your call flows. The screen shot below doesn’t do it justice, but it gives you a taste of the drag-and-drop dashboard:

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Which brings me to the Developer’s piece of the site.  The platform seems like a developer’s dream; Anveo allows anyone to visually create internet-enabled Voice 2.0 applications without writing a single line of code.  Taken in its entirety, it’s like a integrated data communication Mongolian BBQ.  You know those, right?  You roll up, and there’s a bounty of vegetables, sauces, and tender meats just lying there.  You pick your favorite, throw it in a bowl, and hand it off to your chef who cooks it up all delicious-like.  Same idea here.  There’s no shortage of proverbial tender meats – voicemail, caller ID, fax, video, Google calendar integration, mid-conversation call transfer, text-to-voice capability, etc. – for developers to choose from.  So those are the meats.  And the intuitive, user-friendly drag-and-drop interface is the wok.  The Mongolian chef is Anveo.  So it’s your choice: go ahead gorge yourself on a gluttonous Voice 2.0 feast (see if I care), or show some uncharacteristic restraint with a streamlined Atkin’s dish of basic phone and fax services.  Anveo’s flexibility and ease of use speak for itself, and I actually have to stop now because I’m famished.