Amazon Web Services – Take it to the Cloud

Should I use Amazon Web Services (AWS)?

If you don’t have already have an AWS account, now is the time to get one.  New AWS accounts are eligible for one free year of running a micro EC2 instance.  Specifically, it allows you to run one micro instance for 750 hours a month for 12 months.  Will this allow you to run a website that gets 10,000 hits a day everyday?  No.  Will it allow you to test (and break) micro EC2 instances all day every day until you get the hang of using AWS?  YES!

 

EC2, EC3… whatever it takes…

So what is EC2 and why would I want to use it?  EC2 stands for “Elastic Compute Cloud” and, in general terms, is where you can take a virtualized server and run it in the Amazon Cloud.  Amazon provides many virtulized servers (they call them “instances”) to choose from.  If you are going to take advantage of the free tier of service you will need to look at the available micro instances.  Anything larger than a micro instance you will be charged hourly for.  There are instances available for Windows (server 2008 R2) and Linux (Redhat, Ubuntu, SUSE, etc).  You do have the option of uploading and running your own instance… but that will require configuration to meet the definition of a “micro” instance and is out of scope for this post.

 

So what’s next?

This is the first of a series of posts on this topic.  To get yourself ready for the next post (finding and starting an instance) go out to AWS and get your account setup.  Go to http://aws.amazon.com/ and click the Sign Up button, as shown below.  Feel free to examine some of the online documentation and familiarize yourself with the AWS console.  In my next post we’ll walk through the console, open up EC2 and start that micro instance.

AWS Signup
Sign Up for Amazon Web Services

 

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Social Media Toolbox: Tweriod

Here’s another tool for your Social Media Toolbox: Tweriod.  As it’s tag line states, it helps you start tweeting when your followers are listening.  It’s simple to use and simple to implement. From the home screen all you need to do is sign in with your existing Twitteraccount.  Once you are signed in, the service will analyze when your followers are online and provide you with the 4 most popular times for you to tweet.

Social Media Toolbox: Tweriod
Tweriod

That’s the short of it.  Now, you can perform a “free” analysis once a month.  You can also buy credits in order to perform Premium Analysis.  Each credit is only $2.50.  One credit will get you an analysis of up to 5K followers, 2 credits will get you 10K followers analyzed, 3 credits gets you up to 15k followers analyzed.  The initial free report analyzes up to 5K followers as well. n order to produce the report, the service fetches a list of followers from your Twitter account and analyze their last 200 tweets.  Based on when they tweet everyday, the reports are generated.  This takes a bit of time, so when you generate your report it could take a bit of time to fully generate.  You will be emailed with your results.

Now, if you are using Buffer, this analysis is priceless.  You can then go back to your Twitter channel on Buffer and make sure it’s in alignment with your Tweriod results.  I’ve just started using this new tool and have adjusted my Buffer accordingly.  I’ll be tracking how well this works and reporting on that later.

 

 

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Buffer – Scheduling Your Social Media Stream

I’ve been using Buffer for a few weeks now and while it’s not the be-all end-all solution, it’s great at what it does.  And, for me, what it does is provide consistent flow in both my Twitter and Facebook Fan Page streams.  Once you set up your account and connect it to your twitter account and Facebook personal page or Fanpage, you are ready to start posting.  You can post from the web interface itself.  It’s straight forward, clean and easy.

Buffer: Enter your post
Buffer: Enter your post

You can see in the screen shot to the left, I have both my Twitter account and Fanpage selected.  In the center box, you enter your text.  You can add a link, you can have Buffer suggest a post (which occasionally include a little self promotion… but at least you’ll get added buffer slots for anyone who clicks on your link), and when you are ready, you can post now or send the post to your buffer… so what is “your buffer”?

Your buffer is like a funnel.  With the free account you can add 10 items to your funnel (if you keep things in sync, that’d be 10 tweets and 10 Fanpage posts… basically once one account hits 10 items your buffer is “full”).  Now, how often those items go out is something you set up.

You can configure each media account separately and all the times that buffer will release information.  You can see in the next image the settings I have for my Twitter account.  I have it set to release a tweet 5 times a day, and I’ve set the specific times of those 5 tweets.  Those times are based on the time zone you have selected.  I am located in Denver, so I’ve set all my times to be relative to the local Denver time.  Another nice setting is the ability to use your Bit.ly account as your shortener.  This allows you to collect analytics for each URL that is shortened. Buffer provides some analytics on it’s own… but Bit.ly is a nice addition.

Buffer: Twitter Configuration
Buffer: Twitter Configuration

Now for me, adding posts from the website is the last thing I do. There’s way more convenient ways to add content to your buffer.  The major browsers all have plugins.  Each plugin allows you to surf the web as you usually do… and as you come across content you like, you can add it to your Buffer right then and there.  This is how I add most of my content.  You can also setup Buffer as a channel on If This Then That (note: the one limitation with IFTTT appear to be you have to select a single stream – so you can’t post to Twitter & your Fanpage at the same time.. read more to see my work around.)  I have another post about IFTTT that you can read if you wan to know more about that service.

You can also send updates to your buffer via email.  So, prior to the recent iPhone app release, I could still post to my buffer from my iPhone by using the email address provided by the service (it’s long & ugly, but by adding it as a contact and giving it an easy name to remember, like BufferApp MainStreet, makes it easy to use).  This is also my work around for IFTTT.  Since you can setup a task that can use your email account, I setup tasks that are triggered from RSS feeds, twitter feeds or Facebook updates and email then to my Buffer.  I can’t tell you how easy this makes “spur of the moment” posts.  I can be in a conversation on the street and if someone gives me some information that I can look up on my phone… I can be posting it minutes later.

As noted before, you can use the service for free.  For $10/mo you get the Pro account.  It increases your buffer size to 50 along with a few other benefits.  .  In the next few weeks I’m pretty sure I’ll be upgrading.  The next (huge) jump is the Premium account.  It’s $99/mo, but you get an unlimited buffer… so you certainly get a lot for what you’re paying for.

There seems to be a little flack regarding the “impersonal” nature of scheduling your posts.  I just don’t see that as an issue.  I’m still searching for content myself.  I’m still picking out what I’m sending out.  What buffer give me is a steady stream of posts at regular intervals.  It also allows me to test what times of day will work best for me.  By manipulating my settings and re-posting a few tweets, I can check my analytics to see what times of day work best for me and my followers.

It’s a great service with tremendous potential.  Sign up, start using it, and learn from your analytics!

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If This Then That

Pretty straight forward & pretty simple to use, If This Then That allows you to own your online information.

If This Then That - Dashboard
Dashboard

So how does it work? Simple. Go to the website and setup your free account. Once you’re in, add channels. Your channels are the various social & online accounts you have such as:

  • Facebook
  • Gmail
  • Evernote
  • Twitter

There are plenty to choose from.  My list above is a small list to give you an idea of what we’re talking about.

Once you have some channels setup, you can start creating tasks.  A task is built by selecting a triggering channel as well as the specific trigger that can be executed on the channel.  You then select the action channel along with the action event that can be executed on that channel.

Flow
Basic Flow of IFTTT

In the example above, if I post a picture to Facebook (triggering event) I can have that picture saved to a notebook in my Evernote account (action event).  So you can create a variety of tasks that will be performed over & over again without complaint.

I’m only scratching the surface with this stuff.  There are “recipes” out there (tasks created by other users that are offered up for you to use) that do a variety of things.. some that I can’t even comprehend at the moment 🙂 The big thing is to go out there, check this out, let your creativity flow, and see what this service can do for you.

Otixo – online storage savior

As someone who tries just about anything and everything technical… at least once… I have a lot of online storage floating around cyber space… with a lot of duplication.  Enter Otixo!

Otixo allows you to have a single interface to a lot of your online storage (depending on how much stuff you have tried).  From their website:

Use Otixo to access files across all your favorite online services like Dropbox, Box.net, Google Docs, etc from a single interface and then share them with your colleagues and friends no matter where your files are stored in the cloud.

But it’s one thing to access them from one interface… but Otixo allows you to copy files between services, move files from one service to another and, for me, get things cleaned up between my services.  Their web interface works much like Windows Explorer or Apple Finder where you can drag and drop items.  Oh, and the other big deal – nothing has to hit your local machine.  You don’t need to copy files locally in order to move them onto another service.  You just perform the drag & drop and Otixo does the rest, online, in the “cloud” (a marketing term I’m beginning to hate – but I digress)

For me personally – I have my 2 S3 buckets connected, my 2 Google Apps accounts, my personal Google account, Dropbox, PicasaWeb and my Box.net account.  In the first 30 minutes I had completely cleaned out the duplication in my S3 buckets, cleared out the documents in one of my old Google Apps accounts and now I’m looking forward to maximizing the use of each service.  I’m also hoping they continue to add services (ZumoDrive please!) so I can clear out all my testing accounts and move everything to where I permanently want it.

I’ve only be working with it for 24 hours, but I’m very much hooked already… especially since it’s web-based and I can use it on my Ubuntu box to get all my Linux files backed up to the cloud as well.

******** UPDATE 10/24/2011 ********

Things didn’t go so well this past weekend using Otixo.  There were clearly some issues.. but the good news is that they appear to be getting addressed already.  As of this morning, Otixo is offline for maintenance.

Here’s what took place:

  • Box.net started giving away 50GB accounts (SWEET!)
  • My Dropbox account was getting full
  • Let’s use Otixo to move 4GB of files I have on Dropbox to Box.net
    • Initial issue was that my Box.net and Dropbox accounts kept going on & offline
    • Once the accounts seemed to be active, anytime I started a move process, they disconnected

This lasted most of the day.  Late in the evening (roughly 9pm MST on 10/23/2011) I was able to at least move my files in batches.  It seemed to be size dependent.  When I tried moving all 4GB, it would bomb.  When I attempted a large single folder, it would start and move a few files, and then bomb.  If I chose no more than 1GB of data to move, it seemed to work just fine.  Not sure if that means there are time-out issues between services or if it’s more of a code issue, but it was a bit frustrating.

It was NOT as frustrating as having to upload everything to Box.net and then remove it from Dropbox.  THAT was tedious for the few files I performed it with.  Using Otixo and it’s move functionality was mush easier.

 

Simple CRM – Contacts

What would CRM be without some way of tracking your clients? But getting your contacts INTO your CRM is the hassle, right?  Not anymore.  Highrise, the CRM product of 37Signals, has an incredibly flexible contact management solution.

Getting your contact into Highrise:

There are a few ways to get your contacts into Highrise.  There’s the old faithful data entry method.  As far as data entry goes, I find it to be pretty easy & hassle free in general.  There are nor real “required” fields, so you fill out what is pertinent and go from there.  You can also import your contacts from another source.  The available sources are:

  • Upload a vCard file
  • Upload a CSV file
  • Upload an Excel file
  • Import from Basecamp (another 37Signals product)
  • Import from Outlook
  • Import from ACT!

As a side note, if you’re a Gmail/Google apps person, you can export your contacts as a CSV or vCard to get them into Highrise.

The final method of getting contacts into Highrise is my preferred method… email.  By using the system supplied “Dropbox email accounts” (not to be confused with the online file storage Dropbox Service) you can simply email or forward email to Highrise and it will parse the address fields in the email and attempt to add the contact to Highrise.  To best describe what dropbox email account is, here’s the copy from 37Signals themselves:

How does the dropbox work?

FORWARD an email to your dropbox and Highrise will find the contact who wrote the email and attach the email to that contact’s page. BCC your dropbox when you send an email and the email will be attached to the person receiving the email.

What it doesn’t mention there is that if the user doesn’t exist in Highrise, it will create an entry for you.  This is an incredible time saver and a great way to start tracking your communications with your contacts.  You never have to wait to get back to your office again… you don’t even need someone to give you their business card.  All you need is their email address and you can get them added to Highrise via your laptop or smart phone.

Contacts are in… now what? Getting your data out…

Now that we have some contact information to work with, there are a few more things that we can utilize within the app.  First, you have a default view that you can select.  Your options here are:

  • All People
  • All Companies
  • Recently Viewed Contacts
  • Recently Added Contacts
  • Recently Imported Contacts
  • Filter by People without notes in the last 30 days
  • Filter by people without tags

Ever go into Outlook and try to find someone you just viewed or just added.. good luck, especially if you have a large contacts list.  But these simple views allow you to find things quickly and easily with little effort.  The last option, in particular, I find to be pretty useful.  By looking for people without tags I can them tag them appropriately.  Tagging is just another level of grouping or filtering your data and each contact can have multiple tags.  Tags are user created, so you can also sort your data in ways I’ve probably never imagined – but you have.

Once you select a view, you can still further filter the data presented to you.  Just under your view selection are a series of filter selections:

  • Name
  • Title
  • Email
  • City
  • State
  • Country
  • Zip
  • Street
  • Phone
  • Background

There are all partial match filters.  For instance, phone, you don’t need to know the entire phone number.  Just say you know it’s a 303 area code.  So just enter 303 and your contact list will contain those contacts with 303 in the phone number field (eg: 303-555-5555 or 555-303-5555 or 555-555-3033 would all match)

So that’s the basics of getting your data in & out of Highrise.  There still more to this app and there will be more posts coming up that will go over Tasks, Cases and Deals.

Check out other posts here on the Main Street blog:

Simple CRM

Simple CRM – Latest Activity

Comments & questions are welcomed.  Hope to hear from you soon.

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37Signals Highrise: Simple CRM

37Signals is a company that produces Rails based websites that I believe can help small businesses grow.  From their website…. “Making collaboration productive and enjoyable for people every day.”  Highrise is just one of their web based applications… and the one we’re going to talk about today.

There are plenty of CRM options out there.  You can go with old favorites (Goldmine & ACT! for instance), or heavier hitters (SalesForce.com or NetSuite).  While they all have their pluses and minuses, I’ve settled into Highrise for the following reasons:

  • You can start out on a free plan… and it’s not dumbed down.
  • It’s incredibly cost effective even for the paid plans..
  • You can bundle it with other 37Signals products to save even more.
  • You don’t need to be “in it” to “use it”.

The last point is where I’ll start, because you can find information for the rest of the reasons on their website – specifically the pricing & plans page.

In order to “populate” Highrise all you really need is an email account.  That starts the ball rolling.  I can be in Outlook, Thunderbird or Gmail and as long as I have some basic information loaded for myself I can simply BCC all of my email communications to Highrise.  This is accomplished by what 37Signals calls a dropbox email address.  It looks fairly ugly, something like dropbox@99999999.YourName.highrisehq.com.  When you BCC an email their system parses that email looking for either who you are sending an email to or, in the case of forwarding sent emails, who the email was sent from.  Based on the email address it will attempt to 1) associate that email with the proper customer account or 2) create a new account based on that email address.  All of this without needing to be logged into their site.  You can also create additional dropbox email addresses for specific “Deals” or “Cases” and you can BCC more than one dropbox email address at a time.  Additionally you will have dropboxes for entering tasks.

Why is this so important to me?  Because I can do all of this from my iPhone…and I never have to load an app other than email to do it.  (37Signals does produce an iPhone app specifically for Highrise, but that’s another blog post.)  I can be away from my home… my desk… my office and my computer… but as long as I have my iPhone a some sort of signal I can stay connected and keep my communications logged in Highrise.

Next post we’ll go into the app – which is slick and provides all the options I need to keep things up to date.

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RightSignature: Get your contracts signed right now.

Use RightSignature to get your contracts & agreements signed fast.

As I begin my journey with Main Street I’ve decide that I want to make as much of my business as “electronic” & “online” as possible.  I’d been looking at online electronic signature offerings for a little while now, but I ended up actually trying out RightSignature and I’m glad I did.  It is slam-dunk easy to get your contracts, tax forms, agreements, etc uploaded, edited & ready for signatures.

RightSignature.com
user login page

So how did I get to RightSignature?  It was pretty easy actually.  Since I’m trying to be 100% online I’m also testing out Freshbooks.  Freshbooks integrates with RightSignature, so it was an easy choice to make.  Since RightSignature offers a 5 document free offer (literally zero risk – no credit card needed) I jumped right in.  I had a contract that I was working on and instead of doing the FedEx/UPS thing it was easier to load the document, describe the area’s that needed input, and send it out for signatures.

Dashboard
A Typical Dashboard

You start off on your dashboard.  The interface is clean & simple which makes this jump less intimidating for the novice user.  You basically have 2 main options from this screen.  You have the Dashboard itself or you can click a button to create a New Document.  The Dashboard tells you what you have out for signature as well as what’s been signed.  The New Document view, however, is where the rubber hits the road.  Not only can you upload your documents from your computer, but you can integrate into:

Preparing a new document
Send a Document

Initially I thought this was pretty cool.  So I saved my contract to my Dropbox folder and then setup the integration on RightSignature.  Within seconds… literally seconds… I was able to pull that contract into RightSignature and get it ready for processing.  The setup for processing is straight forward and easy.  Whether you are uploading form your machine or pulling from one of your integrated areas, it’s all point & click. There are buttons at the top which allow you to select from you local drive (browse), your existing files on RighSignature (library), or one of your integrated products (Google, Dropbox, etc).  Once the document is picked you then setup who you are going to email.  There are 2 choices here.  You can email someone requiring they are a signer, or you can simply CC them so they are aware of the contract, but aren’t a signatory.    The selection is as simple as clicking the pen icon (signatory) or the CC icon.  At the bottom you simple enter your email subject and a message so the people you are emailing now what this is all about.

There are a few document options that you should be familiar with.  You can set an expiration date for your document.  I find this to be good with my Freshbooks integration.  I can send Invoices from Freshbooks that require sign off which then starts the clock ticking on payment.  If the client doesn’t sign within the designated time, the doc will expire… which in the case of invoices will allow me to re-create the invoice with a penalty fee and the process starts all over again.  I’ve never actually had to re-generate an invoice, but it’s nice to know I can set those financial reminders.  Signature Locations & Form fields is where you will be setting up your document for processing.  This pretty much needs to be turned on all the time.  It allows you to drop overlay objects onto your document so the end user can properly fill out the documentation.  Another options is Signer Sequencing.  Think “workflow” with this option.  You can designate who needs to sign first, second, third, etc.  This will allow you to have your clients sign first, allow you to check their submission, and then sign yourself.

Overlay
A sample document with Overlay tools

Once you have set all your options click Next Step to continue.  This takes you to the screen where you have the ability to designate where people need to sign as well as where they made need to make text entries (very important for your tax docs – like W9’s).  It’s called the Document Overlay screen and you have the ability to drag and drop various items onto the document you just uploaded.  You can drag a signature box, an initial box, a date box, a text box and/or a check box.  So you can drop an initial box on each page to confirm that your client has read each page of the agreement.  You can drop a text box into the signature area so the end user can print their name & their title.  Once you are done with your formatting, that’s it.  You are ready to send out your document for signatures.

For me, the next observation I had was what made me think this product rocked.  I sent an NDA/IP agreement to a contractor for signature.  As I was going about my business I noticed that Dropbox was performing a sync and that I was getting a new file.  To my amazement it was a copy of the signed NDA/IP agreement… right back into my Dropbox in the same folder where I had placed the original.  For me this means once i send out docs for signature, I really don’t have to go back to the RightSignature site to grab my copies.  As long as I’m using Dropbox (and most likely Google Docs) the signed copies will be placed out where they need to be.  No user intervention required.  How sweet is that?!?!?

There is still some work to be done on the response times of the website.  It was definitely workable, but there were times when I simply needed to close the site out entirely & start from scratch in order to get things running smoothly again.  It wasn’t anything that would keep me from using the product, but I felt it had to be mentioned.  These delays were usually encountered when I was trying to sign a document, not prepare it though.  And, of course, don’t expect beautiful signatures on your documents.  Most of us will be using our mice/trackballs to sign these documents… so the signatures are pretty scary looking.  Most important though… they are legal & binding.  If you want to check out the legalese just go to their page “Legality“.

Let me know what you think about this app in the comments below.

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