PowToon: Making my AppSumo addiction worth it


I admit it.  I’m an AppSumo addict.  For those of you that are unaware, AppSumo is not precisely a daily deal website but they push out deals on things that would be appealing to entrepreneurs, creators and technology oriented folks. I admit I am a complete sucker for a lot of these deals.  I have bought courses on marketing, I’ve bought Piktochart (which I’ve covered previously to rapidly develop infographics) and a whole host of other things here and there.  Recently though I had a deal on an app called PowToon.  Powtoon is a web based tool much like Piktochart, only what it does is it enables you to build out fairly professional looking cartoons that you can then use to drive home messaging.

One of the things that got me to pull the trigger was a conversation that we had recently. We were doing a review of our marketing materials with the product marketing director for Salesforce and while he was very impressed with our infographics, a lot of which was developed right out of Piktochart, he said we really didn’t have anything that spoke to the emotional side of people. Everything we had was very data driven. We didn’t have anything that was funny, or inspiring, or made people care for reasons other than sheer weight of the numbers.

Timing is everything sometimes and so when we got offered a deal to buy a year’s subscription to PowToon, I did. I thought I’d share with you my first draft of what we developed and then I’m curious what other people’s reactions ire.  It’s really kind of a unique way of presenting things and very user friendly. To put it in perspective, my first time out with what I’m about to share took about two hours to make on Independence Day eve while we were sitting around with family watching TV. So it’s really easy to use and there’s not a lot of ramp up time in developing it. I’d love to hear what everyone thinks.

Thanks as always for reading my blog, I hope you will join the conversation by commenting on this post.

If you liked this post, please consider subscribing to this blog and following me on twitter @jmillsapps. I regularly give talks via webinar and speak at events and other engagements. If you are interested in finding out where to see me next please look at the my events page on this blog. If you would interested in having me speak at your event please contact me at events@joshmillsapps.com.

If you are interested in consulting services please go to MB&A Online to learn more.

Alternative Tools for Creative Problems

I was thinking the other day about how I’ve really, over time, changed the way that I develop the different things that I’m trying to communicate. Whether it’s through the web, in a presentation, report, or whatever it is, I’ve developed specific tools for specific things. So I thought I’d share a little bit of that with folks. Now I know that as a Mac guy some of these tools are not necessarily available on the PC but if I happen to know a PC equivalent I’ll pass that along. Unfortunately I’ve become a bit of a Mac cripple and so I apologize in advance for those of you that are living in the PC world and are wondering that OmniGraffle was. Maybe that is a good place to start.

Over the years I‘ve started to use PowerPoint less and less. So many people have an axe to grind about PowerPoint and PowerPoint presentations. Either they come down on the side that it doesn’t convey enough information or people have started going to 70 slide PowerPoint decks. There are all these reasons people hate PowerPoint but the biggest thing that I don’t like about PowerPoint is the template driven nature.  I feel that not being able to start with a clean slate so to speak puts unnecessary boundaries on how you think. I know that because it’s so template driven they’ve got a lot of nice things that allow you to make things quickly. The SmartArt has gotten really good. There’s a lot of flexibility to it but I think on some level, it kind of constrains your thinking. As a result, I’ve gone to OmniGraffle to make presentations. (Probably the closest PC equivalent to OmniGraffle is Visio.)

OmniGraffle is a nice drawing tool that has a lot of stencils available from a lot of different makers. This helps you with the ability to create things quickly because there’s a lot of these ready-made tools but there’s a much broader stencil set that you can pull from. There’s also no sort of constraining template that you’re bound by. Now sometimes that can have a little bit of a downside because a blank sheet of paper can be intimidating but that’s why I think one of the most underutilized productivity tools today is the pen and paper or the whiteboard.

I so often start with pen, paper, and a doodle before I touch any other tool because I think that when you get in and you’re using your productivity tools on your PC, there’s a sense of permanence in it.  You don’t want to un-build things that you built once you’ve gone through the trouble of drawing a bunch of lines, grouping them, sending things to the back, and moving things forward so on. You don’t want to break anything. Whereas with a pen and paper, you just scratch things out and spend another three minutes hacking something new together. I think sometimes, especially at the beginning of the creative process, being able to throw things away is important because you’re going to have a lot of bad ideas before you have a good ones. At least, that’s what I’ve found. Your mileage may vary there. I know there are a lot of sharper people than me out there and so it might be that you’re able to knock things out without the number of iterations that I have to go through. I personally find that the easier I make it for myself to throw something away the better the final project is because instead of trying to take something that is halfway there and make it work, I can start over. So a lot of times my process will be pen and paper, or whiteboard if I’m working with a group, and then I’ll take it into Omnigraffle.

If we’re developing a website for somebody, I love Balsamiq.  Balsamiq you can use on the web, you can use it on a PC, or you can use it on a Mac and it allows you to frame things up really quickly. It’s a lot of sort of black and white fuzzy lines and it has the feeling of pen and paper but it allows you to do drill throughs and mimic web activities a little bit better. It’s really good for developing things quickly when you’re working with a client or a group to develop out websites and things like that. I’ve even used it a lot of times when we’re developing reports for people, business intelligence type things. I’ll go in and quickly put something together and mark it up. It allows people to get the idea of what I’m doing without having the focus in on colors and line thickness for the most part.  It really gets people to focus in on the informational elements, the content, and the placement which is incredibly important.  So that is another great tool for rapid prototyping and I really believe in it.

Finally, for graphics development I’m an Adobe guy.  Fireworks is something that I have used for a really long time. It’s just so accessible for people who may not be big graphics people but they need to be able to put together nice looking visual elements quickly without being a pro. Fireworks is a great solution. It’s also a lot cheaper than Photoshop. Adobe currently has a great offering right now which is Adobe Creative Cloud. With this you get access for $50 a month to all of their Creative Cloud offerings. I’ve actually gotten to where I use quite a bit more than just Fireworks but Fireworks has been something that I’ve always liked. It’s especially useful when you’re working with outside designers and you just want to tweak something up really quick. You can take and pull in whatever really advanced thing they’ve done and add in your little tagline, bit of text, or change a color without having to get down into 50 different menus to do it. That’s kind of the final piece of the puzzle for me. That’s where I’ll use Fireworks to pull together a couple of graphical elements and then drop them into OmniGraffle for my presentation or whatever it is.

So those are what I’m using for creative work for our clients. When we’re building info graphics and things like that we use a combination of OmniGraffle, Fireworks, and then oftentimes we’ll do the chart in in Excel or things like that. Then we bring it into Fireworks so that the graphics, the charts or whatever it is, really pops.  So hope that was useful for people and I’m curious if anyone else has any helpful alternative tools they use for creative problems.

Thanks as always for reading my blog, I hope you will join the conversation by commenting on this post.

If you liked this post, please consider subscribing to this blog and following me on twitter @jmillsapps. I regularly give talks via webinar and speak at events and other engagements. If you are interested in finding out where to see me next please look at the my events page on this blog. If you would interested in having me speak at your event please contact me at events@joshmillsapps.com.

If you are interested in consulting services please go to MB&A Online to learn more.

The undeniable power of a clean desk

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So I got into work this morning and I felt a little weird. I realized it was because when I walked in, I really felt on top of everything. I think some of it has to do with something that seems really simple. That is, when I came in my desk was completely clear and completely clean.  This newfound cleanliness stemmed from a conversation I had recently. We had Dray Wharton from the Wharton & Co. out last week to help us with a product launch that we have coming up in late June and one of the areas that Dray specializes in is personal productivity. So we got a little bit of value add in our visit in not only did he talk to us about our product launch, but he also talked with me personally. He gave me some executive coaching and other helpful tips.

One of the things he mentioned was really simple and it fit in nicely with some of the Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity topics that I’ve talked about in the past. It was the power of the clean desk.  So if you’ve ever had a chance to come through the MB&A offices, you’ll notice that for the most part our offices are very clean, very organized, and very professional. That has a lot to do with my partner Erik Ballinger. I’m not sure if it has to do with his military background or if it’s just the way he’s always been but he’s a very organized and tidy individual. This tidiness and organization has sort of carried over into every other area of the organization, with the exception of my office.

My desk for years has been a sea of papers. Now this total swampland that is my desk does have some advantages. I will tell you that one of the benefits is that I don’t lose things because everything is somewhere on that desk if you dig deep enough. I’m sure the answer to the mystery of the universe is somewhere within the depths of my desk, but those days are gone. My desk is now clean. By cleaning that desk off all the way every day, one of the things it has enabled me to do was create the action items, takeaways and things that I need to remember for the following day right there. As I mentioned in the past, one of the things that I do in the evenings is use some of the Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, principles to complete tasks.

I create lists at the end of the day, things that are outstanding that I can’t get done right now. What this has done is just move my priorities forward and it’s moved my work life back out of my personal life and into my work time space. It seems like a really simple thing but it’s been really powerful. It’s made it so that I do those things in the last 10 minutes that I’m at work and I don’t have to carry that mental baggage home. I’m not trying to remember things that I need to get done tomorrow or the rest of the week while I’m having dinner with my family and I’m not grabbing my smart phone right before I go to bed and punching in a bunch of tasks. So for somebody who has spent the majority of his office life in clutter, it’s been a little bit difficult but it feels good. So I think that this is something that I will be able to stick with.  We’ll see. Maybe I’ll take a desk photo now and one in 6 months and well see if I stuck to it.  I’m curious what other people think or if other people have tried to do this and succeeded or failed. All I can say is so far the early returns for me have been really good.

Thanks as always for reading my blog, I hope you will join the conversation by commenting on this post.

If you liked this post, please consider subscribing to this blog and following me on twitter @jmillsapps. I regularly give talks via webinar and speak at events and other engagements. If you are interested in finding out where to see me next please look at the my events page on this blog. If you would interested in having me speak at your event please contact me at events@joshmillsapps.com.

If you are interested in consulting services please go to MB&A Online to learn more.

Skyfall: Letting go of the “wow” and focusing on results

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I spent this past weekend lying in bed sick.  I don’t get sick that often so when I do, I’m just not that good at it. It seems like every time I do get sick I am flat on my back, immobile.  I didn’t do much besides watch movies, drink water, and take medicine.  I am actually feeling much better today but one of the things I did do this weekend was watch Skyfall, which is the James Bond movie with Daniel Craig. I love the new James Bond and I think it’s a perfect update. They touched it up just enough for people like me who have watched every single one and love it, to still connect it back with everything that came before it, but they’ve modernized it enough so it doesn’t come out cheesy or overdone.  One of the things that I noticed, and was actually they highlighted in the film, was a move away from the exploding pens and the fancy gadgets that you had in some of the older Bond films. Bond even makes a comment about it when Q hands him his special gadgets and it’s a Walter PPK and a radio device. There’s a little back and forth about him not getting these cooler gadgets and I thought it was interesting because there’s a parallel to that that’s happened more generally in technology today.

I think for a long time there was a lot of focus in technology on selling with the “wow” factor. The more you could make something look like a cross between Star Trek and The Jetsons, the better. I think that as a whole, there’s been a much bigger focus on results since then. People aren’t as blinded by the outward pizazz. People are less likely to be blown away by a really cool graphical display and more likely to ask you questions like: what are the critical factors that go to helping an implementation succeed and then focusing in on the data they have to gather.  I think people are a lot more aware that the glitz and the glamour only become important if you’re able to hit on the implementation details to make something work. This is a huge step forward and it’s forcing people in the software development community to come up with much more practical and functional implementation plans to make things work.

I think a great example of this is Troux. They have some great graphical user interface elements but they’ve paired it with what they call an “accelerator program.” This program is something that I think every software vendor should take a note from and follow. They essentially paired their offering with several plans that help you achieve specific goals and they provide you with a set of training wheels to get you to the desired result. I think it’s just brilliant in terms of helping them help their customers, as well as help their channel partners help their customers.  When you make it easy for people to get results, not surprisingly you end up with clients who get results. That leads to buzz, word of mouth, and all the types of things that make products really successful and that’s important. So not only is Skyfall a great movie that you should go check out but it also made me think about this movement. This movement, that at least from my vantage point, seems to be a step in the right direction. By that I mean a step towards only adding the glitz and glamour once you’ve figured out how you’re going to get where you want to go, or at least understanding that getting where you want to go is dependent upon more things than just the glitz and glamour.  I’m curious what folks have to say.

*Photo by Themeplus

Thanks as always for reading my blog, I hope you will join the conversation by commenting on this post.

If you liked this post, please consider subscribing to this blog and following me on twitter @jmillsapps. I regularly give talks via webinar and speak at events and other engagements. If you are interested in finding out where to see me next please look at the my events page on this blog. If you would interested in having me speak at your event please contact me at events@joshmillsapps.com.

If you are interested in consulting services please go to MB&A Online to learn more.

What’s more valuable: Listening to your Spidey Senses or your Statistics?

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I had a business school professor that said you had to be careful with statistics because it was like driving using the rearview mirror.  I’m reminded of that because one of the major things I’ve spent the last couple weeks working on is some financial projections and trying to build out a business case.  This work has primarily been centered on school safety. So we’ve looked at things like what is the overall size of people involved? Well it turns out there’s:

  • 77 million Americans that are involved in education in some way
  • There are about 100,000 K-12 public schools
  • There are roughly 6,000 colleges and universities
  • Finally there are around 35,000 private schools

Along with those statistics there are obviously demographic build outs and parent teacher association involvement.  Turns out that’s one of the areas where there’s still a strong showing.  85% of the people surveyed said that they had attended or participated in a PTA meeting in the last year.  This means that either that’s an area where we’re very strong as  a country or people feel bad saying that they didn’t go so they over reported saying they did go.

There’s also a lot of statistics around crime. For example, 27% of teachers in the District of Columbia in 2010 reported they had been threated or physically attacked at school. Also a student is more likely to be victimized in school than out of school. Now on some level that makes since given the amount of time that a student spends in school vs. outside of school and what types of settings those are but it’s also a little bit scary. It’s one of the things that we’ve been focused on trying to develop technology solutions for, going on the better part of two years now.  So it’s interesting as you look at all that and you try to draw meaning from it. You think about how you might work to change some of those statistics especially around the prevalence of crime and safety issues in schools. You think about what are the contributing factors and how can private industry engage to support better education environments.

Now as you try to build out a financial model that allows you to stay in business while also providing this socially redeeming service and encourage people to invest in the model based on financial projections; it makes me think of other times where I’ve been at something like this. Times where we’ve done a business case for a technology investment or for even looking at a large IT portfolio for a private sector or public sector organization.  You’re trying to build out a business case again based on different statistics and your understanding of the organizations ability to handle change. You’re looking at what types of numbers are out there for people who have tried to do similar things and all of it amounts to essentially a lot of guesswork, educated guesswork, but still guesswork.  The actual implementation and reality are almost always starkly different from what you originally thought. So I don’t say all that to discount doing the activity because I believe to this day that it’s one of the most valuable things that you can do as you look to build out even a small project. I believe it is vital to try to build out financial models, business cases, and return on investment because it forces you to think about things that you would otherwise take on gut feel.

So whether or not things go according to your projection down the road, I think you’re much more prepared to handle the twists and turns that are to come by virtue of having really thought through the data that is available. You learn a lot by forcing yourself to wade through things where other people have gone out and attempted similar things and succeeded or failed. You have the chance to think about what are the lessons learned from those previous success and failures. I think that for most organizations, and even in entrepreneurial pursuits, there’s huge value in doing a business case.  Also when talking about the case that I’m working on right now there’s huge value to be found in working  the financial forecast for a new venture because it forces you to step through that project piece by piece.

So I’m curious what other people think. Do you run through those types of processes around the projects that your organization is attempting to do and how often do people go to the numbers to back an argument vs. just using gut feeling?  Now I don’t say that with a strong feeling one way or the other because I believe that the best way to approach it is to have the numbers but not to discount gut feel. Particularly if you’ve been at it a long time, there’s almost a spider sense that develops about certain projects that gives you a hint to where things might be going that maybe the numbers don’t tell you. At the same time I’m also a big believer in having those numbers available because they can provide great cues to action that otherwise you may ignore. They also may point out areas where you need to stay focused on as you progress through a project to make sure that you don’t fall into a trap that could have easily been avoided had you taken the time to take a look at the data that is out there.  So again I’m very curious to know what other people’s experiences have been and how they balance gut feel vs. projections and spreadsheets and what they believe is valuable in terms of business case.

Thanks as always for reading my blog, I hope you will join the conversation by commenting on this post.

If you liked this post, please consider subscribing to this blog and following me on twitter @jmillsapps. I regularly give talks via webinar and speak at events and other engagements. If you are interested in finding out where to see me next please look at the my events page on this blog. If you would interested in having me speak at your event please contact me at events@joshmillsapps.com.

If you are interested in consulting services please go to MB&A Online to learn more.

ExAM: Putting security and safety first

Heiwa_elementary_school_18 One of the things that’s been incredibly exciting for me personally and for our company has been the development of the ExAM for Schools product.  As somebody who has three kids that will all be in the school system soon and a partner who also has three kids in school, safety is something that we take pretty seriously.  You’re expectation when you drop your kids off at the front door at school is that they’re going to be safe. You’re more concerned with are they going to learn the things that they’re supposed to learn? Are they going to make friends? Are they going to have fun today? Unfortunately, if you look at the statistics around what’s happening in our schools, you probably would be a little more concerned than you are even if you don’t have kids.  After all everyone here is stuck here with the kids of everybody else, those are the people that are going to shape the next generation.  If we want this place to be a better planet over the next 20-30 years, we need to get serious about what our kids are learning at school, what that learning environment looks like, and what are the lessons that they’re taking home every day.

Over the last two years we’ve taken the security expertise that we have and built out on top of Salesforce. We built a comprehensive school security operations platform with the flagship idea of it being security assessments.  This is something that we had a background in. We’ve done assessments for about 190 schools in terms of basic physical security infrastructure. This means we looked at things like how do they stand with regard to lighting? Lighting is an important part of being able to feel safe on a school campus because dark areas invite people to do bad things if they’re so inclined.  Bad lighting makes it so that CCTV is less functional which brings me to the importance of understanding how CCTV is deployed in your environment.  All of these pieces are kind of active monitoring things but just simple things like understanding whether or not the paperwork is up to date from a facility inspection standpoint or from a security officer certification standpoint are important too.

There are so many things that go into ensuring that you’ve done the appropriate amount of facilities and security planning. You need to know that you’ve done the right amount of work to secure the exterior of your facility with regard to fencing, parking, and visitor management and same thing goes for the interior.  How do we manage people within the facility?  What type of monitoring measures do we have in place?  There’s a huge amount of things that go into just the security assessment alone as we work to develop this more comprehensive security and operations package for schools.

As we’ve gone to look and gone into market, so many things have happened over the last two years including a lot of real tragedies. We had a lot of heated debate internally about how do we get this out into the market. We have spent a lot of time talking about it and we’d like to offer it out for free.  I think that as somebody who has a real stake in how we educate people this is something I don’t want to see people miss out on or understand how important this is. You don’t want price to be what keeps somebody from going there with this increasingly vital assessment. What I’m curious about and what I’d really appreciate feedback on from the people out there in the government community, is whether or not this is something that is going to be feasible?  Is free going to be ok given that it might have implications for how school systems leverage it?  Ideally what we’d like to see is everybody take the ExAM, go through and get their scores, and immediately begin addressing areas where they have deficiencies. Then we can come in and try to sell them on our larger approach to school security and operations but first and foremost, we want to start that process of gathering information and beginning to address security situations whether or not we end up with that school system as a client.  So I’m very curious what people think? Is free going to be a problem as a pricing model for us and do people have advice for how to best move forward in terms of trying to get something out there? How can we at least get people engaged around fixing some of the security issues while we work towards some larger set of objectives?

Thanks as always for reading my blog, I hope you will join the conversation by commenting on this post.

If you liked this post, please consider subscribing to this blog and following me on twitter @jmillsapps. I regularly give talks via webinar and speak at events and other engagements. If you are interested in finding out where to see me next please look at the my events page on this blog. If you would interested in having me speak at your event please contact me at events@joshmillsapps.com.

If you are interested in consulting services please go to MB&A Online to learn more.

Context: Looking beyond the obvious

One of the things that is pretty interesting as you spend some time talking to people about how they look at information to make decisions and what are the things that are really important is you hear about the power of context.  So to give a great example we’re working with an organization to create comprehensive security assessments. We want a way for them to understand, across all of their facilities, what are the critical factors in ensuring they were as secure as thy could be. This means what are all things that were directly related to the security of the facilities themselves like:

  • Are the fences in good condition?
  • What kind of fences do you have?
  • Do you have closed circuit televisions and where do you have it?
  • What type of policies do you have for people entering the building, background checks, and security planning

All of these different factors and an immense number of other things go into securing a facility. While those things are all important and this particular organization had specific standards, policies, and all these different things it had to adhere that went into how the organization was supposed to secure these facilities, it wasn’t taking into account some critical factors in how secure those facilities really were. So it was the contextual data that as they looked to plan what they were going to do in terms of shoring up their security, it couldn’t just be did they meet all of the standards alone.

While the standards are good and they help you get an understanding of how prepared you might be in a bad situation or if your existence is in a perennial troublesome state, it didn’t really give you a complete picture. To get a complete picture you had to understand the contextual data. You had to understand crime statistics. So if a facility that is in an area where, compared to the national average, there are an extraordinarily high number of homicides, violent crimes, assaults, thefts, and things like that, well all the sudden those physical security assessment characteristics take on a whole new meaning. It becomes a much more critical thing to have fences when those fences are the only thing separating you from an outside world that is very scary. So as the organization looked to prioritize where it was going to spend its physical security resources, the most critical factor wasn’t just the status of the assessment itself but it was the context at which that status existed.

Similarly it’s not just about the facilities themselves but also about what the value of the things in those facilities is. It’s hard to say that a facility with four people requires less security infrastructure than one with a hundred because everybody is important. On the other hand I think that for most people if you look at a facility that’s got 300 people, a daycare facility, a bunch of other high value assets, or just a mass of people, those are places where you might want look to secure them earlier. Other factors might be things like the age of the facilities themselves, the age and time of the last security assessment, or the last building upgrade. These area all factors that go into helping you understand just what the real status is as opposed to simply looking at do they meet the criteria or not. It just doesn’t give you enough information to make decisions.

Thanks as always for reading my blog, I hope you will join the conversation by commenting on this post.

If you liked this post, please consider subscribing to this blog and following me on twitter @jmillsapps. I regularly give talks via webinar and speak at events and other engagements. If you are interested in finding out where to see me next please look at the my events page on this blog. If you would interested in having me speak at your event please contact me at events@joshmillsapps.com.

If you are interested in consulting services please go to MB&A Online to learn more.