Review App

Internet Entrepreneurs Blog

Why I hate Kinko’s (and other businesses that don’t get technology)

September 10th, 2008

Sometimes businesses get confused by the latest technologies. Take movie theaters for example: Sure, theater owners have realized that selling tickets over the internet is a great idea because it means shorter lines at the box office, fewer ticket rolls to purchase, and convenience for the customer. But why charge customers for the privilige of saving the theater owners money? Most consumer would agree the price of a movie ticket is already pretty high (over $10 in most cities) and adding a $2 “convenience” charge per ticket is simply highway robbery. Theater owners can put a dollar amount on their savings due to internet sales but customers can’t (time is tough to value, especially when we’re talking minutes in line rather than hours at our jobs).

I can’t help but imagine how much MORE revenue theater owners would realize if they simply made online tickets the same price as box office purchases. I know I’d become a user and I’d certainly give preference to those theaters that offered free online ticketing over those that don’t. Lines at box offices would be shorter meaning theater owners would need fewer cashiers. Theater owners could also capitalize on increasing website traffic by promoting coming attractions while building brand exposure in the minds of some of their most affluent customers. That’s the internet for ya – cheaper, faster, more effective – but movie theater owners seem to think it’s just a novelty for the rich.

Which gets me to Kinko’s. Sure, Kinko’s allows you to upload your documents from your home computer to be printed in store but good luck setting a pick-up time for anything sooner than 4 hours from when you send your files (eons in internet time). The website is also missing important options like lamination, binding, and other services that go along with printing but that’s another story. No, my real frustration at Kinko’s is with the walk-in service.

Last weekend I needed to print and laminate some maps I had saved as PDFs on my flash drive. I only needed a couple copies so I stepped up to the print services counter. The gentleman informed me the turnaround time would be the ‘standard’ 4 hours but that I could use the ‘self-service’ area to make the prints myself. And here’s my problem: The computers in the ‘self-service’ area charge you $0.20 per minute to use them. So to print out two copies of a PDF I had to insert my credit card into the reader beside the computer, open my file, hit ‘print’ in Adobe Acrobat, and logout. The process took 2 minutes – $0.40 on a $4 order (or a 10% surcharge for doing it myself).

If I had given the files to the print services team it would have cost me $0.40 less and would have wasted 5 minutes of a worker’s time (which, at $8 an hour costs Kinko’s $0.67). So Kinko’s clearly has an incentive to steer customers to the self-service area but they’re providing a DISINCENTIVE to customers to actually make that choice. Of course a 4 hour turnaround time is usually enough of a deterrent for most folks but this isn’t how savvy business owners treat customers.

It’s as if the grocery store with self checkout lanes started charging a ‘convenience fee’ for scanning and bagging your own groceries. In a sense customers are already paying for self-checkout by doing the work store owners used to pay their employees to perform.

Technology and in particular the internet have the power to improve efficiency in all types of businesses – but customers shouldn’t be double charged for such improvements. Business owners: Improve your bottom line AND improve the customer experience at once by making convience free!

Yes, the tech blogosphere is crowded

September 9th, 2008

Maybe I need to start following my own advice. A couple weeks ago I wrote about finding opportunities in the blogosphere where I referenced a study posted on SEOMoz showing the topical coverage of the top blogs. It turns out that 57% of the top blog are, like this blog, technology related – a crowded marketplace to be sure. I recommended that aspiring internet entrepreneurs focus on building blogs covering subjects that are underrepresented in the blogosphere – things like sports, religion, hobbies, etc.

Yet I myself continue to write daily posts on this tech-related blog. Fortunately I rarely spend more than 30 minutes or so each day writing for the Review App blog and building a base of useful online content is a long term endeavor. But look at it this way: would a venture capitalist be interested in financing yet another tech-related blog? Probably not.

Of course we’ll continue to post here regularly on entrepreneurial and internet related subjects because we think there are plenty of areas still not being covered in the marketplace. At the same time we’ll be investing in our other blogs covering subjects outside of tech and we’ll keep you posted on how those other blogs fare. Stay tuned!

Digg: Social news aggregator opportunities

September 8th, 2008

One website I look at virtually every day is Digg, a social news aggregator that allows members to recommend (or “dig”) content from all around the internet. Each day the Digg algorithm selects the top stories based on member recommendations and displays links to the articles on the homepage. Members can also comment on the recommended articles and oftentimes the comments are just as interesting as the content itself.

Digg started out as a site used mostly by internet ‘geeks’ and as such the top stories tend to reflect the tastes of the members (which is perhaps why I like it so much). It’s not uncommon to see articles on Apple, web design, and the latest XBox games make it to the front page, though as the user based becomes more diverse these types of articles are becoming less popular on the site. Still, Digg is dominated by a specific demographic that tends to recommend articles that are not necessarily ‘mainstream’ and those users continue to fight for their voices to be heard on the site.

The whole idea of a user-generated ‘news’ site is a great one but it still hasn’t really hit the mainstream like Facebook or even YouTube. Unlike Facebook or YouTube, where I argued niche version of the sites are counterproductive, a niche version of Digg could make sense for certain user groups. Take politics for instance: It’s safe to say the majority of Digg users are left-leaning and as such the top news on the site is chock full of articles sympathetic to the Democratic cause. But what if you’re a Republican? Where do you go to find the best articles on John McCain (other than Fox News ;) )? You need like-minded members to help you find the articles that fit your interests and unfortunately, Digg is not the place. Digg is working on integrating social features to help solve this problem but it’s still a long way from working the way it should.

I suspect that some news sites like CNN.com are already employing ideas gleaned from Digg like using news item popularity to populate the home page. For instance, an article on Brittany Spears may start near the bottom of the page but after CNN editors see the story is receiving more views than ‘hard hitting’ news stories they may decide to ‘promote’ the article.

Is there a large demographic that’s being ignored by Digg that should have its own social news aggregator?

New iTunes social features?

September 5th, 2008

According to the latest rumors Apple is set to unveil the newest version of iTunes next week with some interesting features, most notably, something called ‘Genius.’ One description we read had this to say:

iTunes 8 includes Genius, which makes playlists from songs in your library that go great together. Genius also includes Genius sidebar, which recommends music from the iTunes Store that you don’t already have.

Of course to make a feature like this possible iTunes would have to start aggregating user playlist and purchase information much like Last.fm already does to provide recommendations (though I’m not sure if this fits within the current iTunes EULA). Assuming the legal hurdles can be cleared it’s only a matter of time before large companies like Apple (or perhaps Amazon) crash the Last.fm party.

As an entrepreneur it’s always important to consider how you business might be affected if a large industry player simply added your “product” as a “feature” to one of their own mega-products. In a marketplace where business eco-systems and feeder products are becoming more common, having a solid contingency plan and exit strategy are key. We’ll be watching to see how Last.fm responds to the iTunes social integration threat…

Digital magazines / catalogs are a bad idea

September 4th, 2008

A friend recently asked my opinion on building an online version of her company’s print magazine – a virtual “flip book” or “e-magazine” that would look just like the print version. Of course I told her it was a bad idea for all these reasons:

  • People read magazines because they sometimes prefer a more portable, tactile experience than what is available online. At other times people prefer the online experience because it’s fast, interactive, and ultra current. Trying to bring one experience to the other medium is a losing battle – and don’t think folks haven’t tried to go the other way as well. Anyone remember Business 2.0 magazine? Shortly after they redesigned the print edition to look more like a web 2.0 site the magazine folded.
  • Most online magazine / catalog implementations are simply scans of printed pages meaning rich text content is locked away from search engines in big image files. Without search engines reading your content it’s unlikely anyone else will ever find it.
  • Some digital magazine / catalog implementations require a browser plug-in just to view them meaning you’ll be limiting your audience right away. A PDF version is probably the most innocuous (though still annoying) but we’ve even seen some e-magazines that require a special browser plug-in that no one has ever heard of. Internet browsers weren’t meant to act as magazine readers – though perhaps the Kindle will one day fulfill that need. Until then, build the online version of your magazine using web standards.
  • The most successful print publications that have added digital distribution (NY Times, Wired) are good examples of what an online magazine should look like. For digital catalogs just consider this – what is an e-commerce site other than an interactive, digital catalog? Check out Amazon.com just to get an idea of the possiblities!

In 2008 the whole idea of a digitized version of a print magazine or catalog is pretty laughable. The internet is here to stay and the existing base of web standards is amazingly flexible for doing pretty much anything you can imagine. Don’t waste time making a literal translation of your offline publication for the web – embrace the medium and watch your business grow!

Google’s new web browser: Chrome

September 3rd, 2008

There has been good media coverage of the new web browser Google launched yesterday but most of the articles I’ve read focus on the user interface – like tabbed browsing (ho hum) and an integrated search / URL bar (a little confusing but ok I guess). With talk of a renewed browser war heating up the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Netscape v. Internet Explorer it’s important to understand what is at stake this time around.

The first browser war was essentially about server software sales. The thinking at the time was that if consumers used the Netscape browser to access the internet that corporate IT managers would purchase Netscape server software to handle those browser requests. Microsoft won that round and today its Internet Information Services package powers a significant chunk of the internet servers online (pretty good considering the competition is FREE).

The next round, Internet Explorer v. Mozilla was more of a grudge match. As a non-profit, open source contender Mozilla really sought to improve the internet browsing experience since Microsoft’s own browser development seemed to have stagnated. Programmers from all over the world contributed to the project and put out a pretty great browser that made designers and programmers alike rejoice for its web standards compliance. This effort has basically been about taking back the keys to the web and giving them to the people – a noble effort for sure but so far it’s been a losing battle as Microsoft continues to dominate the market.

In the latest round, Google, unlike Mozilla, is a private, for profit company that is seeking to overthrow the Internet Explorer dynasty. The real innovation in Google’s browser (called Chrome) is what it can (or will someday) do when it’s NOT connected to the internet. You see, in order for things like Google Docs, Gmail, and other web apps to work a user typically needs to be connected to the internet. But with a browser like Chrome users could potentially run web apps without an internet connection and upload their work to ‘the cloud’ the next time they’re connected. In order for this to work a web browser needs to include the ability to execute scripts, database calls, etc. – basically it needs to be a local version of an internet server. Whether or not this is the case with Chrome, only time will tell. Perhaps this feature (if it exists) could simply be a hedge to Google’s other goal of Internet access everywhere.

I’ve already downloaded Chrome (on my PC – sadly no Mac version yet) and it’s definitely zippy. Whether or not this and the other incremental features offered will be enough to get folks to switch is another question entirely – just look at how many people still use Internet Explorer despite the HUGE advantages offered by Mozilla…

Cuil bot is slowing websites

September 2nd, 2008

Just thought I’d follow up my first post about Cuil by adding more fuil to the fire (get it, fuel?). TechCrunch is reporting that some webmasters are experiencing crippling web traffic from the Cuil spider. We haven’t noticed anything on our sites yet but we have had problems with poorly crafted web spiders in the past.

Last year it was the Limelight Networks spider that was causing problems with our analytics, logging unique visits hundreds of times each day and only viewing a single page at a time. This went on for weeks (if not months) before we caught on and we contacted the company to fix their spider. Of course this didn’t happen and we eventually just filtered it from our analytics while the spider continued to suck server resources.

Anyway, sounds like it’s one more nail in the Cuil coffin – who needs a new Google anyway?

Last.fm: Web 2.0 for music

August 29th, 2008

If you think iTunes is the Web 2.0 way to find and listen to new music think again. Instead of simply delivering music to consumers in a new way, Last.fm uses the crowd to deliver targeted, streaming tunes for free.

Admittedly I didn’t get it at first. I had installed a precurser to the Last.fm software called ‘Audio Scrobbler’ that tracked which songs I listened to in iTunes and created online lists of the tracks and artists I played the most. Interesting but not terribly useful. After Audio Scrobbler was merged into Last.fm the website gained some social features that allowed members to view profiles of other members who had similar musical tastes. This meant if I found another member who liked Josh Joplin I could browse to see what else that member listened to in hopes I would like that music as well. Again, interesting information but not addictive by any means.

But the feature that I initially dismissed as useless is actually the reason I use Last.fm now: streaming stations. With the free Last.fm player you can listen to ‘stations’ made up of artists similar to the artist you search for. For example, if you listen to the New Pornographers similar artist station you’ll hear the lesser known Mates of State, Destroyer, and Camera Obscura. The similar artists are determined by other members’ listening patterns and a tag-based system that is frighteningly accurate. Since becoming a Last.fm addict just a few weeks ago I’ve already purchased several CDs of artists I had never heard of before Last.fm.

Of course the streaming music player is limited in that you can’t rewind songs and can only skip forward (you can’t get everything for free, now can you?). The player even integrates information from Amazon, iTunes, and the Wikipedia to give you artist and song information in one location – how’s that for a mashup?

I’ve pretty much stopped listening to my iTunes library at work altogether in favor of Last.fm – now that’s disruptive!

Creating user surveys: Surveymonkey

August 28th, 2008

Once your website is up and running it’s important to get feedback on aspects of the customer experience that just can’t be quantified by analytics alone. An online survey is even a great tool for folks thinking of starting a business to gain important market intelligence before jumping in. We run surveys on our sites from time to time when we have specific questions – like what our paid members think of our service offerings or user interface tweaks – and our tool of choice is Surveymonkey.

You can use Surveymonkey to create simple to complex online surveys and it’s free if you have less than 10 questions and 100 respondents. Otherwise most businesses can get by with the $20 a month plan that lets you send unlimited surveys to a predetermined number of respondents. Unfortunately there’s no ala carte option so if you run surveys infrequently like we do you’ll want to cancel your survey subscription once you’ve gathered your responses.

Surveymonkey even provides email tools to help you send out a survey link to you customers – just upload an excel file with your email addresses and it’s done! The analyticial tools provided online are adequate but if you want to do in depth statistical analysis I recommend popping your data into Excel. Even the online interface at Surveymonkey.com is superb – one of the best we’ve used.

A well designed survey is a great way to gather market intelligence that can give you a leg up on the competition while improving your online business. With powerful and easy to use tools like Surveymonkey anyone can get results quickly and cheaply.

YouTube for (fill in the blank)

August 27th, 2008

Along the same lines of social network ghettos I wrote about a couple years ago, there are still thousands of  websites trying to be the YouTube for fill in the blank. “The blank” could be adrenaline sports (BroadbandSports.com) or Christian values (GodTube.com) and everything in between. Heck, there’s even a pornographic YouTube that’s actually one of the few successful incarnations but that’s another story ;)

In this analysis I’ll stick to discussing BroadbandSports.com since it’s the video site I’m most familiar with but the lessons here are applicable to all the YouTube wannabes. The idea behind these sites is that niche audiences want their own place to share videos with like-minded viewers, something that isn’t possible with YouTube. Or is it?

YouTube already allows members to tag, rate, and comment on videos, making it easy for anyone to find what they’re looking for. For example, a mountain biker doesn’t need to go to BroadbandSports.com to find mountain biking videos – just type in ‘mountain biking’ and you’ll see YouTube has more than 39,000 videos (compared to a lower but respectable 800 videos on BBSports). Of course there is also a social aspect to sharing videos and YouTube has that covered as well with channels and groups which help segment viewers and videos into niche specific mini-sites.

BBSports faces an uphill challenge on the technical side as well. Processing and distributing online video isn’t trivial and the associated bandwidth costs can be excessive. The latest press releases from BBSports tout new features that allow folks to embed BBSports videos on MySpace and other social networks – a feature YouTube has included since its beginning years ago!

On the business side online video is still a fairly new concept and advertisers are still trying to figure out how to reach video consumers effectively. Even YouTube, owned by the internet advertising Goliath Google, isn’t a profitable endeavor on its own – not to mention the fact that it’s practically a lawsuit magnet for copyright holders. It seems the best finanical outcome for sites like BBSports is that someday they will be purchased by YouTube since all the money is in acquisition these days rather than in meaningful ad revenue.

For me video, like pure social networking, is an opportunity that is quickly vanishing for smaller internet players. While it’s still possible to start up a blog or a rich online community for your niche, I’d say stay away from video unless you’re prepared to slog it out with the big boys or you have a killer technological innovation up your sleeves.