Rob Z. Is Going to SXSW!

The Austin Convention Center / SXSW by Amy Price

I will be here. I can not wait. You will come with me.

The totally awesome company I work for (who you should TOTALLY partner with to resell email marketing to your small business customers) is sending me back to Austin for a second year at the SXSW festival. I’ll be boots on the ground starting the afternoon of March 12 and dragging my tired butt back home on March 17th. During this time, I fully intend to see and experience some seriously cool geekiness, just like last year.

Unlike last year, though, I’ll be bringing the geekiness to you LIVE. Last year, I sort of just flitted through everything all starry-eyed and wild. This year, I’ve got my phone, Flip and digital audio recorder all charged up and ready to capture all that I encounter. If you can’t make it to SXSW and would like to live vicariously through me, or if have no idea what SXSW is, you should do the following:

  • Keep an eye on this blog. I’ll be posting periodically with some of the cooler stuff I see, plus following up with a more long-form discussion.
  • Follow me on Twitter (you *really* should be doing this anyway). I’ll be snapping pics, making insightful/snarky comments and generally letting my geek flag fly.
  • “Like” the TechKnowMe Facebook page. You can track updates to this site there and get even more general snarkiness.

Hey, are you heading to Austin? Booya! Let’s hookup. My number is 925-609-4335. Call or text me and let’s see if we can’t connect. I would love to see your smiling face in person!

Why Your Web Site Sucks

Ship Wreck, Fraser Island by NeilsPhotography

Ship Wreck, Fraser Island by NeilsPhotography

A web site without a goal is like a rudderless ship. You have no idea how to improve the site, you have no clear vision of the site’s purpose and you wind up throwing money into a hole that adds no value to your business. Your small business website needs a goal – preferably one in line with your company’s goal. And, what is your company’s goal? I’ll go out on a limb and guess “to make money.”

Most small business websites don’t achieve this goal. In the rush to get a site live, make it attractive and fit the needs and desires of the business owner, the whole purpose of the site can get lost. When planning your small business website – whether you’re launching it for the first time or working through a redesign – you need to start with this goal, figure out how to measure it and plan all improvements and tweaks to your site with the purpose of achieving this goal. Being able to measure how well your site is achieving its goal is the most important indicator of the success of your site.

This measurement is called the “conversion rate”. You can calculate the conversion rate by dividing the number of people who have converted into customers because of your site by it’s total unique visitors.

But how can you tell if someone has converted?

Continue reading Why Your Web Site Sucks

The Purpose Driven Website

The blank canvas by xinem

the blank canvas by xinem

Starting from zero with a website can be intimidating. Certainly, you can look at similar sites and competitors and get ideas for design, purpose, etc. Without experience, though, design seems so subjective.

What makes a web site’s design successful? For small business web sites, good design is never subjective. If the site achieves its goals, it’s a successful site. And a site can always be more successful in achieving its goals.

The fatal flaw in web site design is that too many sites are not designed with these goals in mind. In fact, you can break down most web site designs into three categories:

Continue reading The Purpose Driven Website

Does Your Website Listen To Your Customers?

"Listen to ME!" by Jonathan Powell

"Listen to ME!" by Jonathan Powell

The best marketing asset I have is myself. Whenever I go to trade shows, I bring a fat stack of business cards (complete with my phone number, email address, website and – yes! – my Twitter account name) and freely hand them out. I engage directly with everyone I meet at the trade show booths, during sessions and at all of the mixers. I’m there to get more business, true, but I don’t thrust my hand at someone and immediately begin my pitch. The first words out of my mouth after an introduction are usually, “What do you do?”

Listening to someone talk about their job, their company, what they value and what their goals are is the best way to win them as a customer. You should be listening for their pain points and immediately develop strategies to fix them, preferably with the services or products you sell. The best sales people aren’t the ones who convince someone to buy a product, they’re the ones who actually solve a customer’s problem. If you gain a reputation as a problem solver, customers will not only keep coming back, they’ll send their friends and colleagues your way as well.

Continue reading Does Your Website Listen To Your Customers?

Why Web Developers Flake

"Flaking Paint" by Bart Everson

Whenever I speak to small business people, I always hear the same story – they found a web developer or web designer, contracted with them to develop their business site, then quickly became disenchanted with the results. Either the site took too long to build and wound up nothing like they had imagined, or the web developer simply up and flaked on them, never to be found again. This tale is almost always followed up by a request to take on whatever work the previous developer left behind. Never one to turn down money, I almost always used to accept.

I soon understood that I could take on this work full time and start my own business. In the Fall of 2006, I quit my full time job to start TechKnowMe: designing, developing, marketing and maintaining web sites for small businesses. Getting work was easy – I simply hit all of the local Chamber of Commerce mixers, introduced myself as a web developer and waited for the inevitable stories to be told. I marketed TechKnowMe as the company that would stick around. I was dedicated to building web sites for small businesses – nothing else. It wasn’t something I did in my free time; it was my job.

I soon found myself with far more work than I could handle on my own, so I sought the help of other local developers and designers to ease the load. For a while, things looked fantastic, and business was booming. But soon, due to a number of personal and economic factors – along with a rash of first timer mistakes I made – things began to fall apart. Before I knew it, the freelancers I worked with were no longer available, and I found myself stuck with half a dozen unfinished projects and practically zero cash-flow. With a new baby in our house, I had to improve our financial situation fast. I finally had to face the fact that I would need to take a full time job outside of TechKnowMe in order for my small family to survive. I explained this to my remaining clients and, though extremely frustrated, most understood and agreed to allow me to finish the outstanding work in whatever free time I had.

It’s been a year since all this happened and I’ve either completed most of that outstanding work or simply had to let it go. For some of my clients, I became just another guy who flaked on them.

Continue reading Why Web Developers Flake

How to Read The Google Chrome Cookies File on a Mac

I ran into a situation today where I needed to export the cookie data from my Chrome browser on a Mac. In other browsers, cookies are typically saved either in a human readable format like XML or plain text or in a series of files, one per cookie. Chrome, however, uses SQLLite to store its data.

On a Mac, the Chrome cookie file can be found in <username>/Library/Application Support/Google/Chrome/Default/Cookies. To view the data in this file, I grabbed the open source SQLLite Database Browser. The cookie data can be found in – you guessed it – the “cookies” table.

I’ve found that the Google team uses SQLLite frequently for data storage – it’s even the system of choice for data storage in Android. Having the SQLLite Database Browser installed ought to help those situations where you just want to dig through the data Google is storing on you machine.

Your Website is Your Hub

Your Web Site is your Online Hub

Your business website is your hub - the center of your online marketing universe.

When you’re spreading the word about your business online, all roads must lead back to your website. Tweeting all day, building a heavy Facebook following, even handing out business cards at a trade show – if they don’t lead the people you meet back to your site, you’re wasting your efforts.

You should consider your business website as part of your sales team. Prospects who have decided they are interested enough to become part of your sales funnel are already talking to you. The rest still need to be convinced, and your website is the way to make it happen. It should provide enough information to allow prospective customers to do adequate research about your products or services and provide clear, concise ways for them to indicate their further interest.

Social media is a great way to drive interested people back to your site, but I see too many people just post for the sake of posting. It’s actually a great idea to intersperse your marketing messages with the occasional personal update and to engage in online conversations – social media is all about personalizing the communication – but you need to provide consistent links back to your site and encourage your followers to visit. If they don’t visit, how will they get into your sales funnel?

My HTC Hero for Sprint Phone Sucks Less

HTC Hero by Sprint

I am impressed with the new Market. But the phone makes my hand look HUGE.

You may recall an angry diatribe from a few weeks ago when I had just about had it with my HTC Hero from Sprint. It seemed both HTC and Sprint were coming out with great new Android phones on a weekly basis while my poor Hero languished in version 1.5 hell. From the beginning, Sprint had promised to update the phone to at least Android 2.0, then to 2.1.

After months of waiting, I finally got the update. I’m definitely happier, but it has only temporarily satisfied me.

It turns out the Hero – far from living up to its name – is not quite so powerful as to handle some of the more advanced features of the Android 2.1 update. I don’t really need the nifty animated backgrounds I’ve seen on the Nexus, but I have noticed that some apps – in particular, the new Twitter app built by Twitter – have a tendency to groan within the limitations of the Hero hardware.

Other than that, though, there is definitely a noticeable increase in the speed of the UI, and switching from app to app seems a lot smoother. Google Listen would occasionally drop to a crawl on 1.5, but I have very few issues with it in 2.1. The new menus are much cleaner and attractive and the new store and settings windows are far easier to use. It even seems that the camera takes better pictures, which is an odd thing as I assumed the problems I had with the camera were due to the hardware.

The phone function, ironically, still sucks. I still haven’t figured out how to negotiate two calls at once, and the screen goes black during a call, which is frustrating when I have to key in numbers using the software keyboard. Although everything seems a wee bit zippier, I can’t help but think the experience would be so much better on a more powerful phone, like the Evo 4G. In other words, the 2.1 upgrade definitely improved my experience, but it has also highlighted to me the real potential of Android if I had a better phone.

That still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. I bought the phone in November. The 2.0 and later versions had already been announced by Google. Rather than build the phone with its full two year lifespan in mind, it seems that HTC cheaped out, built the minimum to support it for a while, then put all their focus on newer phones. I realize this is not unique in the mobile market and that they do it to create a certain built-in obsolescence, but it sours the experience. I like my phone, but I definitely don’t feel the fetishistic love for it that iPhone users feel.

I’m definitely sticking with Android for the long haul, though. It’s openness and support for developers guarantees that it will have longevity, and we’re already starting to see some amazing apps come out on the Marketplace. I’m in the process of completing a couple myself that may eventually get ported to the iPhone if they become successful. In the mean time, I’d rather develop the apps I’d like to see on the market without having Steve Jobs or anyone else breathing down my neck to ensure it fits their brand.

My HTC Hero for Sprint Phone Sucks

My wife and I switched cellphone plans and bought HTC Heroes back in November with the explicit promise straight from Sprint that, yes, Android would be upgraded from 1.5 to 1.6 or better within just a couple of months. Eventually, news came out that HTC would be skipping 1.6 and jump all the way to 2.1 – the most recent version. At that time, we were promised Q1 of 2010, then late March, then early Q2 and the most recent rumors had it going out April 9th, which came and went yesterday. So, where’s my update?

I’ve been aching for this for a while because every day seems to bring another disappointment with my Hero and Android in general. For the most part, it works fairly well and definitely lets me do a lot more than I ever could with a phone. But I explicitly chose Android over an iPhone because of its openness. The fact that I can program my Android using an open and free SDK using the relatively open and free Java language is incredibly appealing to me. I’ve already written a couple of small applications and have several more ideas percolating in my notebook.

But every time one of my friends pulls out an iPhone, I’m reminded of just how limited my phone is in functionality. iPhones are incredibly zippy – I touch or sweep and it responds right away. It seems that all of the cool apps come out on the iPhone first and only some of them of them ever get ported to Android. I can live with these limitations, though. Android is still a reasonably new platform, so I can understand why some software developers have yet to commit.

But during my most recent trip, I discovered a heretofore undiscovered limitation of my phone that has completely dropped the bloom off the rose. I have a few movies in an open video format that I have been dying to watch, so I loaded them up on my Android. Then, I went to the built-in video player to watch them. This is when I suddenly realized – what video player?

That’s right, my HTC Hero on Sprint can’t play most video formats off the SD card. It handles YouTube – most of the time – but nothing else aside from the format it’s built-in camera uses. This is a fundamental flaw in a so-called “smartphone” and a completely unforgivable oversight. I assumed it played video just like my old Blackberry, which preceded the iPhone.

Android 2.1 is supposed to alleviate this issue, as well as some others. Here is a list of the things that annoy be about my HTC Hero from Sprint that I expect Android 2.1 to fix, either because that’s what I’ve read or because, if it doesn’t, it continues to make my phone a third-rate player in the market.

  • Doesn’t play many video formats. C’mon, folks – this is supposed to be a smartphone that’s heavy on the media. The fact that I can’t just play my videos on it like I can with most other devices is pretty inexcusable.
  • Its responsiveness to touch and sensor inputs is slow. When I turn my phone from portrait to landscape, it can take as long as 45 second to register sometimes. The fact that I frequently have to the screen several times before something happens is also irritating. I use Advanced Task Killer to knock off unnecessary tasks and such, but it’s incredibly irritating that I have to do that at all.
  • I am constantly fat-fingering on the keyboard. My fingers are actually thinner than most people, yet I feel like a hamfisted sausage digit whenever I try to type anything longer than a Tweet. The iPhone doesn’t seem to have this problem.
  • The actual phone functionality sucks. Half the time when someone calls, everything pauses and it takes several seconds before the call comes up on the screen. By the time it does, the caller is already on their way to voicemail, giving me just one ring to answer. Ironically, the phone feels like an afterthought.
  • Flash sucks. I get it that I’m lucky to have Flash at all, but I’d say that two thirds of the sites I have tried to access using the built-in Flash player are incompatible. So why bother with Flash at all?
  • The camera sucks. It takes a good minute for the camera application to load, then it takes about a second after hitting the button for it to actually capture the image. Often times, the subject has already moved by then, so most of my pictures are either blurry or have not captured the moment at all. Not a problem with still lifes, but trying to photograph my fidgety 18 month old is all but impossible.

When – or, I’m beginning to think, if – HTC updates the Hero with Android 2.1, I’ll revisit this list and let you know whether they’ve met my expectations. At this point, though, I can no longer recommend the HTC Hero for Sprint to anyone – or any Android phone, for that matter. Until I can see what 2.1 can do, my recommendation for buying a new phone is to just keep whatever you have. I strongly believe in the Android platform as the long term winner – an open interface is always better than a closed garden, and Android will only get better with time – but I’m decidedly against anyone dumping a beta product on an unsuspecting public and calling it production ready. This is clearly what HTC did with the Hero, Moment and every other phone they have released with a pre-2.1 Android OS, and I feel deceived. That’s not the best feeling you want to leave with your customers.

HipHop: Transform Your PHP Into C++

This is a VERY interesting post from the Facebook Engineering team. Tonight, they’ll be releasing a project they call HipHop to the open source community. HipHop generates semantically compatible C++ from PHP code and compiles it to machine code using the g++ compiler. This results is significantly faster and more efficient code running on a web server.

Aside from this announcement, I know little about the project, but you can be sure it’s something I’ll be checking out as soon it’s released.