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Archive for June, 2007

What am I up to?

The short answer? A LOT! Seriously, I’m overloaded with things to do. There’s a lot going on here alone at LandlordMax. Lots of things going on behind the scenes, lots that’s already been publicized here through this blog, and a lot extra curricular items as well. Today I’m going to make a list of it all. Mostly the reason I’m writing it here is because I’m asked so frequently that it gets too long to say it all. “Lots” just doesn’t work anymore as an answer. So here goes:

LandlordMax – Version 3.11d

We’re planning to release an updated version of LandlordMax (version 3.11d) later this week. This is an updated version of the main 3.11 version and includes a few bug fixes.

The first and largest is a fix for Windows Vista and user access control (UAC). UAC is a new feature introduced by Microsoft for Windows Vista that is causing a lot of people grief with a lot of software, including LandlordMax. This update is going to specifically address this issue. It’s not a complete solution, we’re working with Microsoft to “properly” code where the database of LandlordMax should be stored on your computer. but for now this will correctly deal with this issue.

As well, this release also fixes a few other minor issues. For example one is a small error in the vacancy report when you have an evicted tenant assigned to a unit at the same time as a “current” tenant (the unit appears as vacant when it has a actually has a “current” tenant).

This update is already finished, we’re just in the final testing phase. I suspect it will be available within the next few days.

LandlordMax – Website Re-Design

We’re working very hard on redesigning the LandlordMax website to make it friendlier as well as better selling. I’ve been reading (and re-reading) a lot about web usability and sales & marketing. and there are many improvements we can make. For example we’re going to move away from using so many colors on the main page to instead using whitespace more effectively.

Don’t Make Me Think Call To Action

As well we’re hoping to address many of the same pre-sales questions we continually get. One of our most common question is how to implement re-curring accounting entries (rents, mortgages, etc.). Although the software does a great job of it, it’s not always obvious to everyone (especially if you come from another software and expect us to behave in exactly the same way). We currently have an animated tutorial that walks you through the process but it’s only available in the View new features in version 3.11c. With the re-design all such pre-sales animated tutorials will be available on the home page. Basically we’re doing a lot of cleanup to try to answer as many of our pre-sales questions on the home page as possible (without cluttering up the page). All at the same time trying to make everything easier to do.

We’re also hoping to add a lot more screenshots on the main page. Or at least what we call “shorts”. These are cut-outs of screenshots which showcase something. At the very least, if we can’t put a screenshot, we’ll put a link to one or an animated tutorial, whenever we state something. So for example if we say “Easily show a list of tenant’s that are late paying rent” we’ll either link it to a “How-to” or an animated tutorial.

The re-design is going to happen in three phases. The first is going to be a large revamping of the website, especially the home page. In phase one, we’re not going to really change our shopping cart, that going to be pushed to phase two. I’d rather release phase one sooner than wait for phase two to be done. Why wait? So phase one is all about the home page and the new look and feel.

Phase two will be all about the shopping cart. We’re hoping to drastically reduce the number of choices, go from six choices to one with a few “options” (for example shipping). We’re also hoping to refactor the shopping cart for some future additions and options.

Phase three will be the completion, cleaning up the rest. This includes updating the user manual the FAQ, and so on. Adding a lot of animated tutorials. Basically enhancing the content.

LandlordMax – Version 4.xx

We’re also working on the next major release of LandlordMax! We’re hoping it will be available before the end of the year, at least that’s the plan.

The list of new major features for this version has changed quite substantially since we initially started working on it. For example, we anticipated offering QuickBooks support but that’s been postponed to another future version. The costs to benefit just doesn’t align right now. Integrating with QuickBooks is just too expensive and time consuming as compared to the number of requests. We even looked at purchasing third party components to alleviate this but we’ve only had limited success. We’ve already spent a significant amount of time and money on this feature and its unfortunate to have to postpone it again. I’m just glad we’re able to avoid the “sunk cost effect“.

One feature though that’s looking like it will make it into the next major version is check printing. Although its not official yet, and nor will it be until it’s completed (remember our QuickBooks experience), we’re making some good progress here. Another major feature that we’re pushing for is integration with Outlook. Being able to pull out your contacts, put in new ones from LandlordMax, send emails, etc. There’s obviously more, but for now that should give you an idea.

We also have quite a large list of smaller changes we’re planning to implement. Simple things such as having the lease automatically fill in the tenant’s building for you rather than having to re-input it when possible. In other words many many UI improvements. My feeling is that this version will have fewer new major features and instead it will overwhelm you with sheer number of significant UI improvements. Things that will make your life simpler all around.

LandlordMax – Mac version

This version has currently been postponed. We use to get a lot of Mac requests but recently they seem to have fallen (not sure why). We did have a large push for a Mac version, we bought all the necessary Mac hardware to go forward, and so on. We got quite a ways forward but then we hit a few roadblocks (code and image conversion costs). Nothing insurmountable, but enough that I’ve decided to postpone this effort because of the cost to benefit ratio. I really do like the Mac, I’m actually working on a Mac right now that was purchased specifically for the Mac version. Unfortunately Mac support has been postponed. We just have too many other higher priority items. I don’t have the time to manage an outsourced resource to solve our remaining issues. So for now this is on hold.

LandlordMax – Real Estate Analyzer

On the LandlordMax website we currently offer a free real estate analyzer as a traffic generating tool. When we launched it I mentioned on this blog that I’d like to expand it, possibly offering a more advance paid option (maybe even integrating it with LandlordMax). We’re looking into this.

LandlordMax – Browser Based Version

Probably the biggest item here today! We’ve been really really wanting to do this for over a year now, almost two really! We actually almost started the whole thing as a web application. Anyways, our interest in offering LandlordMax as a web application or online service has been increasing with time as more and more people keep asking us about it; they love the software but need a networked multi-user version.

So far we’ve done a lot of research and prototypes to see which path we want to take. My personal training and experience is with J2EE, so I’m a little biased this way. Before I start a holy programming language war, I’d just like to say that J2EE done right can perform very fast and not hog all your resources. The problem is many people don’t do it right, they often try to over engineer everything which is bad.

In any case, just because I’m J2EE biased it doesn’t mean it’s the right solution for us as a produce or company. The reality is that we’re probably going to build it as a PHP based web application. This decision wasn’t easy, it took a lot of time and effort.

The quick of it was that J2EE let us share the current code base (huge factor). It gives us an amazing path to AJAX support (IceFaces – if you’ve worked with it you know what I mean by how impressive their AJAX support truly is). And I know J2EE very well.

The downside is that if we offer it as a web application rather than just as a service, hosting will be an issue for many people (few hosting providers offer J2EE hosting). We looked at Ruby on Rails and decided against it for this very same reason. PHP removes this very large hurdle (don’t try to downplay it, hosting options are a very important factor). PHP is pretty much available everywhere. We can re-use a decent percentage of our code base (at least the SQL queries which are often times pretty complex to figure out). But what really got me excited about PHP is CodeIgniter and their framework. I’m very impressed by it!

Of course just looking at a framework is not the same as really using it. So we’ve since built 3 small trial web applications. This is where WhichJar.com came in for example.

In any case, offering LandlordMax as a web application is not a small effort. It’s going to take some time. We’re working on it simultaneously with the other items listed here today. It’s going to take some time, no doubt about it. With limited resources choices have to be made. It will be available, and right now my suspicion is closer to 2008 than 2007. But we’ll see…

WhichJar.com

As I’ve already mentioned, we’re expanding our reach beyond just property management software. I truly believe a business should focus on it’s core competency, no doubt about it. I’m a strong proponent that businesses should spend a certain amount of their time and energy on other endeavors to expand themselves. For us, that’s about 10% (1 day every other week) on side projects. This is where WhichJar.com came from.

Right now WhichJar.com is stable in terms of code base. What we’re trying to do is grow its database by adding more Jars. For this I’m looking to outsource the database population. The only issue is that I don’t have the time to manage it as I initially anticipated. So right now it’s moving pretty slow. Hopefully this will accelerate sooner than later.

FindYourWeddingDress.com

FindYourWeddingDress.com

Another project that’s about to go live soon because of our policy to spend 10% of our time on side projects. This is a simple site that lets you search for and look at wedding dresses. It’s a large database where you can filter out the information (or browse through it all). The site will not sell anything (other than put ads on it when I get a chance) so it’s really about getting pictures and information of wedding dresses to upcoming brides.

Right now this site is somewhat live online (very small database but that’s changing). It hasn’t been marketed at all because we’re in the process of filling it with real data to showcase to perspective companies/designers. That is to say, we’re seeding it with real wedding dresses so that we can show how it works when we contact companies/designers for permission to display their dresses (and get updated information on their wedding dresses). I believe that if they can see it live they will be interested, otherwise it’s a hard sell.

So right now we’re at the stage of getting someone to populate the database with real data. As it’s still in the “side project phase”, this is moving along slower than any of our LandlordMax efforts. However I’m hoping that by sometime next month we’ll have enough data to start contacting designers.

So please feel free to go and check it out. Let me know what you think.

Online Sales and Marketing Book

And you thought that was it! I really am a busy entrepreneur. On top of all this I’m working on a book for smaller online businesses to help them better market and sell themselves. I’ve started writing it, I’m almost done the second chapter now. I was hoping to allocated more time but the Windows Vista UAC bug I just mentioned has really been taking up a lot of my time. This and some other personal things I’ve had to take care of.

FollowSteph.com

As well as the usual article writing like today, I’ve been looking at ways to enhance this blog. One item I’ve really been considering for some time is podcast interviews. I’ve already lined up one person who’s willing to do a podcast interview with me about his online company (it’s a company that offers a different type of service, so it’s interesting). All that remains is making this a reality (figuring out the details). So hopefully you’ll see that sooner than later.

That’s All Folks

I have no doubt I’m leaving something out, maybe even a few items, but at least this gives you an idea of what I’m up to. Yes, I’m definitely keeping busy and I’ll continue to be busy for some time. But as you can see from the list, there’s quite a lot of diversity in everything I’m doing. And that’s why I love being an entrepreneur!






Telus Customer Service

A little over a month ago I wrote an article entitled “An Example of Horrible Customer Service by Telus” describing my recent experiences with Telus and my cell phone. Today I’m writing the follow-up of what actually ended up happening.

Palm Treo 700wx Cell Phone

Many of you may not know this but a long time ago there was a small company called Clearnet that had excellent customer service and I was proud to be one of their customers. I referred a lot of people to them. It didn’t take long for them to grow and get acquired by Telus, another up and coming company at the time. They too had great customer service back then. However today things have changed a lot. Telus has grown into another large telecommunication company and changed its ways. It’s now acting more or less like all the other large major telecommunications company which is unfortunate. I’m only mentionning this because I want you to know that I didn’t always think this way about Telus.

Getting back to my adventure, and without re-iterating it (you can find it here), I phoned them again to get another reimbursement on my second data payment which was coming due. I initially thought it was suppose to be around $300 but it ended up being $430. The good news is that Telus did reimburse that amount because of the precedence from my previous reimbursement and the fact that I completely turned off my internet (data) access. That’s the good news.

Sadly the story doesn’t quite end there. They did admit that they can’t cancel my data plan (even at a penalty) because I bought the phone at a discount (with the data plan). Ok, I can understand this but I wouldn’t have bought this phone or the data plan had I known ahead about the issues I would have faced. So I really lose out here to the tune of about $250 because I can’t cancel a plan I can’t use!

The worse part is that Telus customer service couldn’t help me terminate the data plan no matter what. The problem is that every time I shut off the phone and restart it, the data plan re-activates itself automatically and the phone tries to reconnect! So if I don’t pay attention just one time, I’ll get hit with all kinds of bandwidth charges (approx $12-25/day based on the previous charges). Telus customer service said they couldn’t prevent this, I just have to be vigilant with my phone. What!?! You will continue to charge me for a plan I can’t use and on top of that you can’t disable it from my phone so that it doesn’t accidentally come back on and charge me. I’m not impressed!

This is nowhere near a win-win situation. This is a clear lose-lose. Sure Telus might make some money now ($250 for the data plan over a year). But once my plan is over I will never use their service again. Not only that but I will never refer them. This article and my prior one have already reached a large number of people who will never use them either because of this situation. On top of that as my company LandlordMax grows and the need to purchase more cell phones increases do you think I will use Telus? Not likely. Yes they made $250 today but they lost a lot of money over the total lifetime of their customer (me). Had they correctly resolved this issue they could have made a lot more money. Not only that but imagine the value of my publishing a very positive experience with them on this blog…

Let me push it one notch further and give you an example of the value of customer service. Recently we had a customer that purchased LandlordMax but didn’t receive their license information by email. What happened is that it was sent to a Hotmail email address and was probably incorrectly sent to the junk folder where it was easily missed. On top of that this customer thought they purchased the shipped version rather than the download only so they were getting annoyed when nothing was coming in the mail. Three weeks after their initial purchase they contacted us asking what’s happening as they’ve never heard anything from us. We immediately replied explaining the situation. Our reply doesn’t make it through, same issue.

We do post the following warning on our support page (as illustrated below):

Important Notice: Some email providers may wrongly filter emails from LandlordMax as spam/junk email and automatically move them to your spam/junk/bulk folder. If you do not receive a response within 1-2 business days, please look into these folders as this is probably what happened. This is currently especially true for email accounts with Comcast, Yahoo, GMail, and Hotmail.

But not everyone pays attention to this (I can’t blame anyone I don’t always either). So who’s at fault here? The customer, Hotmail, us? Who really knows, it’s not important, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the customer didn’t get their response from us. PERIOD! So two days later we get an irate email (very understandably). It now appears that we’re ignoring their support emails as well. We reply again. Same issue.

At this point I also personally contact him from another domain, from FollowSteph.com rather than just LandlordMax.com. The email finally makes it through to them. We’ve now established communication. I personally explained what happened send them bookmarks to our prior responses so that they can themself see that we did respond and how.

Through our further communications I also find out that they meant to select the shipped CD rather than just the downloadable version. At this point I could have simply instructed them to send us the regular $15 shipping and manufacturing charge so that we could ship them the CD. I decided otherwise, instead I told them because of all the difficulties we’ve had communicating the least we could do is send them the CD free of charge (whether or not it’s our fault). A simple gesture of positive goodwill but it’s very positively received:

“Thanks so much. I’ll definitely utilize it and refer you business.”

This is how you turn a customer who has had a negative experience into one that really appreciates your company and the effort you go through to help them. Understand your customer and think past today, think about how valuable they are for the total life of your business and beyond.

Telus customer service missed this simple step with me. They instead decided to get the most they could from me today and forget about my value to them tomorrow. This is the not the company I used to know from before. And unfortunately I believe this type of behavior will eventually catch up with them.

And that’s the end of my story. I eventually got reimbursed for all the data payments I didn’t use. I cannot cancel the data plan on my cell phone, even at a penalty (I asked). I also cannot turn off the data plan so that it doesn’t accidentally turns itself back on. I might no longer be extremely upset, but I’m not happy either. I doubt I’ll ever get a cell phone from Telus again, nor will I refer anyone. But at least it’s over.






Windows Vista Read-Only

Since we released LandlordMax with full Windows Vista support, we started to notice a certain level of error reports coming with messages stating that the software couldn’t write data to database because the database folder was read-only. Obviously, if the database folder is set to read-only, it can’t write, but the big question is why are any database folders being set to read only? Was it specific to Vista?

At first it was only a few read-only errors so it was harder to nail down. But it didn’t take us long to isolate it to Windows Vista. Although we support Windows Vista, only a small percentage of our customers use it. I believe the current market share is somewhere in the the single digits percentage wise. But as time passes and we add more and more Vista customers, not to mention Vista growing their market share. It’s a growing issue for us and all other software vendors as you’ll soon see if you aren’t already experiencing this issue.

After a lot of investigation we discovered that the “read-only Vista issue” is very prevalent. It’s frustrating a lot of users! To give you an example of just how big an issue this is with Vista, I just did a Google Search and found these threads here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here within seconds. A lot of people are complaining, it’s affecting a lot of software. But worse, it’s not just affecting the software applications but also the users data folders. For example a lot of people are also complaining that they can’t even edit their pictures.

Delving further into the issue, what’s happening is that Microsoft is trying to add extra security to prevent “Malware” from getting onto your computer. Whether or not this is the right approach is an entirely different discussion, but the downside is that it’s definitely causing a lot of frustration to their users! As I’ve already said a lot of people are complaining. Software vendors are getting hit with a lot of extra “support” costs to deal with this issue. After all, if the software doesn’t work, it’s probably the software vendor. Not in this case, but you can’t blame the customer. I initially had the exact same reaction. Windows Vista is still too new that most people haven’t yet figured out this is a Windows Vista issue.

On top of this, something we’re just starting to experience, sometimes if you change the file properties from read-only to read/write (ie uncheck the read-only file attribute), it comes back as read-only!!! What? I uncheck the checkbox, close the folder properties dialog window, and re-open it only to find the read-only checkbox selected. And yes I’m in Admistrator mode. I myself am confused and I’m nowhere near a novice user. I can only imagine the storm that’s going on as most people would have no idea what to do.

Up until recently all our customers could resolve this issue by just changing the folder permissions (at least as far as I know). Now this doesn’t always work. There’s no indication of what to do anywhere within Windows Vista. It changes your settings without you wanting to. I’m personally at a loss and will be contacting Microsoft on Monday to see what’s going on.

I have no doubt that they will have to revisit their decision on this aspect as they gain market share and it becomes more obvious what’s happening within the community at large. I can only imagine the scale of the storm that’s already brewing…






Why I Love Being an Entrepreneur

Because everyday is different! It’s as simple as that. You never really know what to expect tomorrow. For example, a couple of days ago I wrote an article about how the downward trend of the USD dollar versus the CDN dollar has affected our revenue. Then today I found out we’re on pace for another record month for revenue! We’ve already beaten last month’s total revenues (although May is not a good benchmark because it’s never been a good month for us). At our current pace it looks very good that we’ll beat April’s sales record.

For a lot of people this would be nerve racking, especially the ups and downs in revenues. For me I really enjoy this. You always have to be prepared for the unexpected. The more challenges you face, the easier it seems to get. And this is why I love being an entrepreneur.






The Effects Of Currency on Pricing

You would think that a smaller company like LandlordMax would be immune to international currency issues, but quite the opposite is true. You see LandlordMax is a Canadian company where the majority of our customers come from the US. And because of this, the currency values between the two countries, that is the difference between the Canadian dollar (CDN) and the US dollar (USD) has affected our bottom line.

Over the four years since we’ve been in business, the USD has steadily declined in comparison to the CDN. In the past we used this difference as a competitive advantage over our competitors where for example if the USD was 20% more valuable than the CDN dollar, we could then sell the software for about 20% less to make the same profit (assuming the same costs). Although this isn’t entirely accurate, it’s a good enough example for today’s discussion (in reality most of our expenses are also in USD).

Up until today, we use to charge $147 USD and $170 CDN for LandlordMax. Initially the difference between the two currencies was higher, but over time as the USD has dropped in value this difference has gotten closer and closer. Today, we’ve adjusted it to $147 USD and $155 CDN. Almost no difference at all. At this point the CDN and US dollars are almost equal.

What does this mean for our pricing strategy? Quite a lot actually. We no longer have the luxury of using the currency in our pricing model. Actually if we look at just the trend over the last five years in the graph above, we really have to consider the probability that the USD will continue to decline below the CDN. Therefore there are really good chances that our USD price will have to increase. We won’t do it today, but with the next release I highly suspect that we will somwhat increase our prices to cover the currency difference (especially if the CDN overtakes the USD).

The good news is that although our income has decreased because of the currencies, so have many of our expenses. Most of our advertising, server, etc. costs are USD. So although our profit margins have decreased along with the currency, they don’t match up exactly (it’s a much much slower downtrend on a per unit basis). However our margins have decreased enough that I believe it’s time we increase our price to compensate when we release the next major version of LandlordMax Property Management Software. I don’t know by how much just yet, but you should expect to see the price of LandlordMax go up to at least match the currency changes over the next little while.






WhichJar.com

In the last two days I’ve created and launched a brand new website aimed at Java developers called WhichJar.com. The site is now live even though the database is pretty empty (I’ve only added a couple dozen Jars so far). I’m working with someone to fill it up with lots of data very soon.

What does WhichJar.com do? For those of you who program in Java, often you run into what I call “Runtime Jar Hell”. Basically what this means is that you set up a project and everything compiles, but suddenly when you try to run it (your J2EE app, Swing app, etc.), you’ll get class not found exceptions. What’s happening is that one of the Jars you added to your project also requires other Jars for it to run (they are only required for runtime, not compile time). It’s very easy to miss these, and all you get back from the runtime engine is the name of the class it can’t find. If you then try to Google it, often all you’ll get is the API, from which you then need to do some sleuthing to actually find the right jar. This is extremely annoying and boring!

One of the newer tools out there that’s supposed to help minimize this is Maven, but that’s also got some issues. And not everyone uses it. So for those of you who get caught in Runtime Jar Hell, I’ve created WhichJar.com. All you do is enter in the fully qualified class name and it will tell you which Jar it belongs to, where to find it (the website and download URL), the version, release date, etc. Instead of spending a lot of time trying to find it online from the API (which is not always obvious), it’s all right there for you in an instant! Click here to see an example result page.

Again, as I’ve said before, the database is pretty empty right now but that’s going to change with time. We’re adding about 100 new Jars a week and I’ve hired an outside source to generate me a much fuller and larger list for the very near future. So hopefully within a month or so it will be full of data and extremely useful.

So please go ahead and try it. It’s very handy and it can save you a lot of time!






 
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