Separation of Church (Web Site) and State (Email)

STOP using Gmail. I don’t mean, literally. But definitely stop using @gmail.com email addresses for your business. I mean, really. It’s like a grown man wearing shorts, you know, all the time. Ok, since most of you read this because I blasted this to all 618 Facebook friends and 3528 LinkedIn contacts (I hope that proves to you, ex-boss, that I spend way more time at work than fun), you’re probably already tech savvy and asking if it’s necessary for me to… gasp… write a blog about how to get your own custom email domain, like, LeaveMeAlone@Extroverts.com.

I’d rather be smelling flowers like the guy above than have to go through the ordeal of working with custom email addresses, Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365 again.

Truth is, if you’re a tech startup, you get that you need to have your own email address, i.e. an address like vik@dossier.work. However, many (non-technology company) small business owners start with – and stay with – emails like MolokaiStaycations@gmail.com. My dad is a good example – he owns the best known Indian restaurant in the Baltics (to get there, start in Helsinki, Finland, take the ferry over to Tallinn, Estonia, where Skype was started, then drive what feels like hundreds of miles of flat terrain to Riga, Latvia, and then Vilnius, Lithuania). In fact, Nik Zennstrom and his Skype team would often eat at his Tallinn restaurant, and if only my dad had taken shares instead of Estonian kroons. The business is Sue’s Indian Raja, and has a website, but check out the email address – it’s a Gmail email. As it turns out, dad’s visiting us this week, and we’re going want him to change his email to raj@suesindianraja.com.

So that should be pretty easy, right? Wrong. It’s pretty difficult to do for your average business owner, or even her fledgling IT staff, which usually happens to be a high-school student recruited to keep things running for the tech-challenged owners. Getting a professional email setup is similar to setting up a business phone system – you could buy a home phone from Best Buy and put it in your office, but soon you will run up against its limitations and wish you had gotten a business phone. Need to have call forwarding when you travel outside the office? Send voicemail messages as email? You can’t do that with a home answering machine. Similarly, with email, you need to do it right to establish credibility with your customers and efficiency in your team.

So here’s how we did it at Dossier, our startup that’s on Day 21 today. We wanted our web site and our email to be hosted by two different service providers. Our website https://www.dossier.work is hosted at Linode. Our email is hosted by Microsoft Office 365. I’ll provide step-by-step instructions on how you can do the same thing, so that you can send and receive email at a custom email address.

The next step for us was to separate church and state – our web site would be hosted by Linode, and our email would be hosted by Microsoft Office 365.

Set Up Web Hosting on Linode

This may be obvious, but if you haven’t already, you must register a domain name, e.g., onboardify.com. GoDaddy makes it really easy, so I recommend getting started here. Then, you should sign up for a trial account with Google Apps for Business, or Microsoft Office 365. Next, you want to setup your web site to point to your web hosting provider. The web hosting provider can be GoDaddy, and that’s the easiest thing to do if you are non-technical. Since we’re techies, we decided to setup our web site on Linode, which I do not recommend for anyone who wants their next three evenings free. To tell GoDaddy to translate the address http://www.onboardify.com to fetch the content from Linode’s servers, we need to configure DNS name servers in GoDaddy.

  • Go to Godaddy and click on Log In on the right hand side of the page.Godaddy1
  • Right where it says “Hi, <your name>”, click on the down arrow.
  • Click on the Visit My Account button.
  • Click on the Launch button on the right hand side of Domains.
  • Click on your domain name and scroll down to the Name Servers section.
  • Click on Manage, and then enter Custom values as shown below.

linode

Set Up Email on Microsoft Office 365

Microsoft Office 365 can manage your entire web site including email, but we didn’t try that. We explicitly wanted our web site hosting and our email hosting companies to be separate. For one, we didn’t want our web site to be hosted on Microsoft technologies like Sharepoint, preferring to use our own – this makes our technology choices more flexible. For example, if we decide to scale the ability of our web site to handle traffic, we could use cloud services like Amazon Web Services. Keeping our web and email hosting providers separate made sense for us, at this stage.

  • Log in to Microsoft Office 365.
  • Click on Admin and then on Domains.
  • Add a domain name, such as onboardify.com.

Next, login to your web site hosting provider, Linode in our case, and go to the DNS Manager for your domain. Create MX, TXT and SRV records exactly as you see it in the examples below, except where it says “onboardify” replace it with your domain – e.g., if your web site is http://www.mysite.com, then the domain would be “mysite”.

MX records

cname

Once you make these changes, wait about 15 minutes or so. Sometimes, the process of DNS changes takes a little longer. If you have set up email addresses such as myname@mysite.com, test that emails sent from/to it are received/sent. With any luck, your brand new, custom, email domain should be working fine in Microsoft Office 365.

Microsoft Office 365 email addresses cost $6/mo, and a little less if you sign up for an annual subscription. One of the advantages of Microsoft Office 365 over Google Apps for Business is that with Microsoft, you can create shared mailboxes such as support@onboardify.com and admin@onboardify.com, and you are not charged $6/mo extra for such mailboxes. These are extremely handy when you want your customers to email you at these corporate email addresses, but you want the mail to be received by a number of people.

If you are interested in having a similar set of instructions for setting up custom email in Google Apps for Business, let me know, and I would be happy to rustle up some instructions.

About Vik Chaudhary

Vik Chaudhary is the CEO of Dossier (http://www.dossier.work) in San Francisco. To business professionals and teams, Dossier is an app for organizing communications with customers. In his spare time, Vik runs all site operations for Dossier, and recommends that startup founders don’t hire an IT Ops guy until Year 3.

Dossier is an app for organizing customer conversations, no matter where it happens, with zero disruption to the ways you already communicate. Based in San Francisco, Dossier is helping business owners, business professionals and teams around the globe intelligently sync their customer communication channels and organize documents, tasks and more. Welcome to a new way to build better customer relationships and a better business. Sign up for a free account today at https://www.dossier.work.

Mirror Mirror On The Wall, Who’s The Fastest Web Host Of All?

Every business needs a website fast website. If you’re like most small business website CEOs, you have outsourced the decision on how your website is hosted. “Ah, the tech guys at the agency I hired to build the website decide that, I don’t really spend time on stuff like that”. Oh, but you should. The infrastructure behind your website – i.e., the data center, power, computers, software, and people that make it possible for your website to run – can make your business hum online, or jitter uncontrollably.

The Web host – a company whose job it is to run your website software – provides a “hosting” service to you. Hosting is like dialtone – when you purchased phones for yourself and your employees, you probably had some say in whether it was AT&T or Verizon. You made the decision based on reliability, price and options like making conference calls. This article is about choosing a host that ensures that your website is F-A-S-T! According to Econsultancy, a market research firm that looks at digital marketing, 67% of consumers cite slow websites as the reason they abandon those sites. According to a New York Times article on website speed, “Remember when you were willing to wait a few seconds for a computer to respond to a click on a Web site or a tap on a keyboard? These days, even 400 milliseconds — literally the blink of an eye — is too long, as Google engineers have discovered. That barely perceptible delay causes people to search less.”

Keynote, a company that monitors the speed of websites using a cloud of computers and mobile phones, has tools to help you measure your website’s speed, and make the right decisions about hosting. Companies like Yottaa also provide a free service to help you keep an eye on your website, and Google engineers have built a free service called WebPageTest to help you measure your website speed. We used Keynote to test the speed of the exact same food website, hosted on two different Web hosting companies’ servers – Bluehost and Linode. Bluehost charges a paltry $6.99/mo to host your websites, and this cheap price means that your site shares the same computer as thousands of other sites. This means traffic to your site can affect other sites, or vice versa, causing frequent congestions. What this means is that your site begins to appear sluggish. To be fair to Bluehost, they have great customer service, and it is rare to have your site completely offline. Linode plans begin at $19.99/mo, and uses a more advanced technique called virtual private servers, essentially a “sandbox” that separates your websites from that of other websites running in the datacenter. We tested the exact same website – one that was written in HTML, JavaScript, PHP and uses Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP (what developers call the “LAMP stack”) by hosting them on Bluehost and Linode. Early results show a dramatic increase in website speed, as the graph from Keynote below shows. The top graph line shows that the website takes between 2-4 seconds to load when hosted on Bluehost, and between 1-2 seconds when hosted on Linode.

Bluehost vs Linode website measurements
Your website is significantly faster on Linode than Bluehost (source: Keynote Systems)

This was all the proof we needed to know that Linode was a much better choice for a small business website (one where you want to spend less than $100-200/mo in hosting costs) than Bluehost. Note, however, that Bluehost takes on much of the technical configuration issues, and their customer service is superb, which means that you will spend less on having your outsourced IT staffer debug technical problems. Linode essentially gives you an empty box, and you have to, as their tech support person said to me, “configure every little thing to make it work”. And if there’s a technical problem, you will need to get an IT person involved. For instance, this website’s order cart refused to function, and it took an entire day of tinkering and then posting on Linode’s community forum, before we were able to discover and fix the problem. Time is money, so be prepared to have a top technical person on your team, or available on call, if you host with Linode.

At the end of the day, though, you should make the decision based on who is the most reliable and fast Web hosting company, because your customers who visit your website are the ones that matter. Having a fast website makes a real difference to your business, as it improves the perception of your brand, makes visitors breeze through the pages, and causes them to do business with you, online or offline.  Choose the Web hosting company with the fastest site speed characteristics – this is dialtone for the Internet age. In a later update to this post, I hope to be able to compare many different hosting companies and give you some guidance on which one is the fastest Web host of them all. That’s for another time, but for now, Linode is a winner.

Test Your Website Using Cloud Testing From CrossBrowserTesting.com

Cloud Testing Your Website

If you run any business today, chances are that you have a website that helps you bring in customers. Creating a great experience for your website visitors – your customers – is both an art and science that you usually leave to the experts. Unless you are a trained web designer and programmer, you want to give the task of building your business’ website to people you hire. In this post, I highlight an excellent tool that gives you, the business manager, the ability to direct your website designers just so, so you can have them build a great website. This is a Cloud service called CrossBrowserTesting and it helps you understand how your website operates for users on computers, smartphones and tablets.

When you hire home construction experts, you need to hire or yourself play the role of the general contractor. The general contractor – in addition to finding the right professionals and overseeing the project – ultimately is the assessor of quality. The general contractor ensures that what’s being built works for the many people who will visit the home – you and your family who use it daily, your friends when they come to visit you briefly, or family who stay longer. Sometimes this simply means looking at the proposed design through the eyes of the people who will use the home – and making adjustments to make their experience better. In the kitchen, for instance, the general contractor might observe that not just adults use the amenities, but also kids who enter it to forage for snacks. For example, lowering the shelves in the kitchen just a little can make a big difference to their experience.

It is the same with your website – you can play the role of the general contractor to ensure that the site is being built so that its visitors have a great experience. When designing your website, a question you must ask your website designers is: will the site work acceptably for visitors using different web browsers, mobile phones, and tablets? Let me give you a real-world example. A local San Francisco foodery, Indian Bento, just redesigned its website after a year so that it was more usable on smartphones and a variety of different computers. When you look at the website before and after screenshots on a typical web browser, the results look pretty good:

The good news is that the Indian Bento website works well on most web browsers, or at least the popular browsers – Internet Explorer on Windows 7 PCs, in this case. However, the Internet Explorer, or IE, browser has a worldwide share of about 50%. The other half use browsers like Chrome, Firefox, or the browsers on the iPhone or popular smartphones. That means that half your website visitors may be arriving on one of the other browsers.

So how well does your site work on other popular browsers? For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area, Firefox is commonly used by the technology crowd, and around the world, the Google Chrome browser is rapidly gaining in popularity. Also, it should be no surprise that, with more people owning smartphones like the iPhone, Samsung, or even the latest Nokia phone, website visitors fire up the browser that’s on their mobile phone and visit your website. This is where CrossBrowserTesting comes in – it helps you understand the consistency of experience of users on popular browsers and mobile phones.

We tested the same website, above, to see how it works for users using a smartphone (an Android phone, not an iPhone, in this case), an iPad, and using a PC running Internet Explorer versions 6 and 7. Here are the abridged results from CrossBrowserTesting:

The same website on an Android phone, the Apple iPad, IE7, and IE6.

While the Indian Bento website looks good on an Android smartphone and on the iPad (the first two screenshots on the left), the site looks definitely inconsistent, even broken, on older Internet Explorer browsers (see the screenshots on the right). Those browsers are older versions of Internet Explorer – versions 6 and 7. The latest version of Internet Explorer is version 9, IE9, but large segments of the population are using older browsers like IE6 and IE7. One reason is that people are not necessarily upgrading their Windows PCs or laptops to the latest version of Windows, Windows 7, which is required if you want to use IE9. And of course, if you have visitors from parts of the country or world where computer replacement happens at a slower pace, older PCs, and therefore, older browsers, will proliferate.

Once you have determined that there’s a problem on a particular browser, your website designers can do a deep diagnostic. For example, they can fire up the IE6 browser on Windows XP running Service Pack 2, and see if they can replicate a problem. This will help your designers fix these problems, and ultimately result in a better experience for all users.

CrossBrowserTesting is a remarkably easy service for non-technical users. You can sign up for a plan that starts at $29.95/mo that allows you to test your website on dozens of browsers:

CrossBrowserTest tests websites on iPhone, Android, iPad, Windows and Mac browsers.

Not every business owner needs to have a monthly plan to test a website, so there are other options you can look into. Browsera has a free service and a $39 plan for 14 days, for instance, Mogotest is $35/mo, and Browsershots.org is free. Use a service that fits your budget and skills – some of the services can be harder to use than others. And like me, if your time is money and better spent in other areas of your business, having a reliable, fast, and easy to use browser compatibility testing service like CrossBrowserTesting is priceless.

A good user experience with your website builds your business brand, and a bad experience can work against your brand goals. Your website must operate consistently and well for your customers on smartphones, Windows PCs and Mac computers. You can win crucial business if your website works for every one of your customers, and, conversely, if even that one experience on your website is bad, your competition is just a click away for your customers. At Dossier, we wholeheartedly recommend using CrossBrowserTesting to understand and optimize your users’ online experience across three screens – smartphones, Macs/PCs, and tablets.

Cash Flow Management In The Cloud With Indinero and Outright

Outright Financial Dashboard

In the early days of operating your business, you don’t need to worry too much about managing your cash flow. Soon, however, managing cash inflows, outflows, accounts receivables and payables becomes a herculean task. It’s tempting to file all receipts in a shoebox (or, in my case, stacks of shoeboxes and extra large ziplock bags), and then wait until quarterly or annual tax filing deadlines to reconcile them. Then, I would sit at the dining table, muttering about the tedium that lay before me, counting up and categorizing all receipts. The problem was, I had no real-time visibility into my business’ cash flow, customer spend, or vendor expenses. I needed to answer questions like – “Who are my most profitable customers?”, “How much is this customer likely to spend in the next 12 months?”, “Which customers have not bought from us lately?”, “What is the cost of goods of the business?”, and “How much cash am I generating every month?”

Bookkeeper or QuickBooks Software?

To answer these questions, a business owner or office manager typically needs accounting help, or lots of time spent wrestling a spreadsheet to the ground. As far as I knew, I had two good choices – hire a bookkeeper/accountant, or purchase Intuit QuickBooks software to manage the books by myself. Hiring a bookkeeper seemed appealing because it was hassle-free, but I had the feeling that the costs would add up over time – at anywhere from $25/hr to $75/hr in San Francisco, estimating 8 hours a month, would cost between $2500 and $7500 a year, not counting first time setup expenses, which could be just as much. While not a terribly large amount, I wanted to explore more cost-effective ways of solving the problem. Hiring a bookkeeper doesn’t allow business owners to get immediate answers to the questions previously posed.

The other option was buying QuickBooks software – the mainstay of accountants everywhere. However, Quickbooks was designed for accountants/bookkeepers, not business owners/managers. Moreover, traditional QuickBooks software runs on a single computer – a PC or a Mac. If you are sitting in a cafe, or using a different computer than the one where the data is stored, or in a hotel while on the road, you may not have access to that computer. And what if your computer got stolen, or, as it happened to me recently, fried completely because my kids accidentally poured water on the keyboard? Even after being diligent about backups, it could be days before you had a replacement computer with all the business’s financial data on it – and that’s if you’re lucky. And you’ll always worry that your entire business finances and accounts were now in the hands of some unsavory character.

Cash Flow Management Software in the Cloud

There is, fortunately, another option: the Cloud – always-on, available-everywhere, browser-accessible, online software to manage your cash flow. This is software that is designed for a business owner, not a finance type. It runs on any computer, wherever you are. The data is stored securely, always backed up, and cannot be easily stolen. I narrowed my search to four companies that deliver cash flow management software that is 100% Cloud software. Cloud software runs entirely in any major web browser of your choice (Internet Explorer, Safari, Chrome, and Firefox, for example), which means you can access your financial data from anywhere, even if you are on vacation and obsessed about how your business is doing. That’s not you, right? Right. Me neither.

The nominees for cash flow management software in the Cloud were: InDineroIntuit (QuickBooks Online), Kashoo, and Outright. These are a few of the companies trying to solve the problem of managing your business cash flow online, but I chose these either because I recognized their brand, because they appeared in Google search results for phrases like “cash flow software”, and had websites that were intuitively designed. The last criterion was important to my evaluation, because a company that has a well-designed website indicates that the company takes the online channel seriously, and it makes you more productive to navigate through the site information, e.g., if you want technical help or support.

Outright Financial Dashboard
Outright’s Dashboard Shows Your Business Cash Flow Snapshot

Outright emerged as the winner in my evaluation of cloud-based cash flow management software. Outright’s web application was fast, the product easy to learn, connecting to bank accounts and credit cards was both easy and accurate, technical support was excellent, and the resulting graphs and reports gave me rapid insights into my business cash flow, customer spend, and expenses.

A close second was InDinero, which in fact had a more intuitive and flexible user interface, with many of the same features as Outright. Business owners will prefer Outright because it is designed from the ground up to answer the questions that business owners/managers have – e.g., “Which customers are spending more or less over time”, whereas inDinero was designed from the bookkeeper’s perspective, e.g., “What does my income statement look like?”

Detailed Review of Outright and inDinero

I evaluated the cash-flow-in-the-Cloud software products on these capabilities:

Bank/Credit Card Account Sync. To use Outright effectively, it really helps if you already have bank accounts and credit card accounts from which you can easily download your transactions, e.g., from Wells Fargo/Citibank or American Express/Visa, though practically any bank/credit card today has these online sync capabilities to connect with products like Quicken. Outright connects to your online accounts with these financial services providers and others, and synchronizes your Outright register with your credit card/bank. The synchronization is very sophisticated and accurate – e.g. my American Express Gold card account has 5 different credit cards – three for business, and two for personal use. Outright was able to download all my transactions and allow me to exclude credit cards that were not used for business expenses. inDinero worked almost as well, but was not as robust in connecting to my Amex credit card account and sorting through the different cards. inDinero’s customer service suggested that I delete the Amex account I had created, and reimport the transactions – but this had no effect; it correctly read one card’s transactions accurately, but another card’s transactions were intermingled with the personal card, and this caused a problem. If you have a business account, say with American Express OPEN, with several corporate credit cards for yourself and employees, I would not recommend inDinero. On the other hand, if you have separate business credit card, not an account with multiple cards, such as a second Visa card that you use just for business, inDinero’s account sync features will work very well.

Transaction Register Management. Like with any software, it takes time in Outright to massage the data into a format that makes it useful. For example, your bank deposits might be imported as “Deposit #22546”, and you would manually need to change these to indicate that it’s a payment by a customer, e.g. “Acme Manufacturing”. Once you edit the name of a customer or vendor, Outright remembers this, so that, next time, it automatically does the renaming for you – a very useful feature. inDinero has a better interface for managing all your transactions – it has a great Filter view that allows you to only view transactions from one or more accounts. inDinero’s transaction register was well designed, and more modern than Outright, with a fast, snappy feel that promises to make you very productive.

Importing Data. In Outright, I should caution that importing financial data from a spreadsheet is tricky, and prone to errors if you are not careful, so be prepared for the pain you must go through to make your data useful. Some banks, like Wells Fargo, don’t allow websites like Outright to download more than 90 days of transactions; so it’s likely that you will need to go to your bank’s website, and manually download your older transactions to a spreadsheet, which you can then import into Outlook. In my tests, I made the error of importing the same spreadsheet more than once, resulting in many duplicate transactions. However, it was confusing in Outright to figure out how to delete recently imported transactions, and I ended up deleting legitimate transactions as well; this all took some time to figure out. inDinero‘s better transaction register makes it very easy to search for the transactions you just imported, and delete or edit them if you need to.

Business-Oriented Reports. In all of the evaluation factors, above, Outright and inDinero were mostly evenly matched. Outright has more robust account sync, while inDinero has better transaction register management, for instance – and in the end there was a tie. The tie-breaker went to Outright, for its excellent business-oriented reports. Outright has reports such as Best Customers that show the income from your top customers, sorted by revenue, and Biggest Vendors, which shows which vendors you spend the most money on. These reports really speak the language of business owners, and my wish is that Outright add more such reports, such as “Who are my most profitable customers?” and “Which customers haven’t bought from us in some time (and therefore, those we should call)?”. inDinero had perfectly good reports, but these answered standard accounting questions such as Income, Cash Balance, and Spending, but nothing that specifically answered the questions most business owners have about their customers’ spending, profitability, and recurring purchase patterns.

Price. All in all, Outright was an excellent business financial management application, and for $9.99/mo, a Web app that I recommend to small business owners or managers. You can try Outright by signing up for a 30-day trial. inDinero has a free version (FREE is a very powerful marketing message), and pricing begins at $19.95/mo for a full-featured version that allows you more than 3 months of transaction history. You can try inDinero by signing up for a free account.

For the other contenders – Intuit (QuickBooks Online) and Kashoo, let me explain why I do not yet recommend them over Outright or inDinero:

  • QuickBooks Online‘s web app made me feel like I was living in the 1970’s – it has a very outdated user interface that had not changed very much from the familiar QuickBooks software (that you install on a Windows or Mac computer). Though QuickBooks Online was more “web-ified” than it’s Windows/Mac-based versions, I realized that it would take me days to learn how to use the product. QuickBooks Online is clearly designed for a bookkeeper, but not your average business user who is not an accountant by training – and this is why it’s just not suited for most small business owners. You should be able to cost effectively understand your business’ cash flow without spending loads of time, or hiring accountants. As the newspapers say, Intuit did not return our calls for comments – and this itself tells you something about the company; it has grown so big that it’s management doesn’t make it a priority to help small businesses uses its products to its fullest.
  • Kashoo doesn’t yet allow you to connect to your bank accounts or credit cards, so it’s not yet a very useful cash management application for businesses. All businesses run on credit card transactions and bank checks, so Outright and InDinero had the right idea – to make you very productive by automatically importing these transactions from your financial services provider into your accounting books. Kashoo’s customer support team tells us that bank/credit card account syncing is coming in October 2011, so it’s great that they have anticipated a much-wanted feature.

For business cash management and accounting software that works brilliantly in the Cloud, Beta Program highly recommends both Outright and inDinero!