What’s in your stack?

Stack of pancakes

Stack of pancakes

You may have heard various computer people throw around the s-word. A stack, in IT terminology, usually refers to a solution stack. Any software application, whether it’s your website, email client, favorite iPhone app, or your online CRM, is developed and run on top of a set of standardized, prebuilt, building blocks. These building blocks, each running on top of another, together define a stack. Application builders have a choice of different stacks, and usually choose based on the type of application, the target device(s), cost, and personal preference.

The archetypal stack consists of Linux, Apache, MySql, and PHP, and is therefore known as LAMP. The LAMP stack has historically been used for many of the most popular web applications including the original Facebook!

This simplified diagram is the LAMP stack that ran the original Facebook site. In this stack, which is all open-source and free to use, the servers are running an operating system known as Linux. On top of Linux, runs Apache, a web server that was responsible for “serving” your Facebook pages to your browser. MySQL, which also runs on Linux, is a general-purpose database, in which Facebook stored user names, posts, pictures, etc. Finally PHP is a scripting engine, that when run on Apache, can interpret code in order to customize web pages by using the information stored in the MySQL database.

In order to build the first Facebook, our young Mark Zuckerburg only had to design his database and build dynamic web pages using HTML and PHP. The stack would then allow the Facebook web site to run on practically any hardware, and work on any standard browser. Before publicly available stacks like LAMP were built, programmers had to create all the building blocks themselves, which greatly increased the time and effort required to bring a product to market.

Today, typical stacks add many more blocks and layers, and usually reside in the cloud. Some stacks, such as AWS Lambda, completely free application developers from worrying about servers, operating systems, or databases, and can even provide drag and drop interfaces that empower users to build complex business processes without even knowing any code!

Even Presidents Need Tech Support

rtr_bernie_sanders_phone_jc_160201_12x5_1600Everyone of a certain age, or with an aging parent, knows that adapting to new technology doesn’t always come easy to our country’s seniors.  But what about to our presidential candidates? Let’s take a quick look at our front-runners, and see how they would fare juggling the demands of running the country while keeping up with technology. Enjoy! Oh, and Happy President’s Day!

Hillary: When someone says “technology” around Hillary these days, she probably winces, expecting an attack on her sketchy use of a private email server. The truth is, Hillary’s always struggled with technology. A look at some of her emails while she was Secretary of State show her, at various times, frustrated with her Blackberry and trying to figure out how LinkedIn works.  Hillary however clearly has her pulse on how technology is affecting everything from our kids to ISIS, and would easily comprehend and adapt to anything thrown her way.

Bernie: His campaign is clearly winning the social media battle, and his staff was even accused of hacking Hillarybut what about Bernie himself? In an interview, he admits he’s not a techie, but considers himself “smart enough to hire excellent people.“ Hmm, that doesn’t sound very convincing to me.
Grade: C+

The Donald: The only one in this group who’s spent most of his life in the private sector, Trump is still frighteningly behind in his use of technology. In 2007, while many of us were transitioning from emails to texts and tweets, the mega-mogul didn’t even own a personal computer or use email.  Even by 2013, when asked about his email use, he replied  “Very rarely, but I use it”.
Grade: F

Ted Cruz: Younger than Bernie by about 30 years, you’d think Ted Cruz could walk the walk when it comes to technology. Not quite. A Facebook post in November revealed his cluelessness about Net Neutrality. Still, between his youth, and the savvy use of data and social media, he’s clearly in touch with technology.
Grade: B-

Wired to Believe

Being Robbed By A ScamAlthough the Internet as we know it is now approximately 25 years old, with an entire generation born into a plugged-in world, internet fraud continues to grow. Whether it’s mind-numbingly stupid rumors (no, Mark Zuckerberg is not giving away $4.5M to 1,000 users), mildly convincing pleas for help from abroad, (But wait, isn’t Aunt Bess dead?), or well engineered spear phishing attacks, we continue to surf with our collective head in the clouds. It’s estimated that in the U.S. in 2014, almost $1B was lost in online scams.

Educating users, while important, doesn’t always help. Is it because, as PT Barnum famously quipped , there a sucker born every minute?  (oh, wait, he actually didn’t say that) Perhaps. Or maybe we’re just wired that way.

A recent New York Times article, “Born to Be Conned” explored the idea that humans are simply wired to believe a story, and will fail to identify obvious red flags, what researchers call Pinnochio Circling, in order to fulfill a narrative. The more “transportive” the story, the more easily we’re fooled. This makes the Internet, which can easily conjure up fantastical stories, details, and images, a great medium for a con.

Can technology help? Many security researchers and big-data analysis firms think so. The hope is that using algorithms to examine data for patterns, inconsistencies, and unusual behavior may neutralize our biased thinking. However, even these systems are ultimately subject to human manipulation, and I think we all know that there’s a new con artist born every minute too.


Friends with Zenefits

Human Resources ConceptWe’re always exploring various services for small to mid-sized businesses. This helps us stay on top of time and money-saving technology options for our clients.

Last week, we decided to try Zenefits, a relatively new HR product. Labeled “The Fastest Growing SaaS Company Ever,” Zenefits is only 2 years old and claims over 2000 business clients managing 50,000 employees.

Zenefits aims to disrupt (2015 New Year’s resolution – stop using that word) the HR software industry by offering the functionality of larger HR software providers (e.g. Oracle’s Peoplesoft) to small and mid-sized business, at a fraction of the price. How small a fraction? Well, you can’t really calculate $0/$x. That’s right, it’s free. Completely free.

Well, sort of. Zenefits is actually a freemium product. Freemium, a term coined on the venerable Fred Wilson’s blog, is a marketing method of offering basic functionality to a large audience with the goal of charging for premium services to a fraction of your customers. When done right, with the right software, it’s a very successful way for start-ups to enter markets or create new ones.

For Zenefits, the premium offering seems to be a combination of basic functionality (e.g. time tracking is $8/mo.per employee), and an attempt to sell various HR related products, especially insurance. On closer inspection (http://www.zenefits.com/licenses), Zenefits starts looking like an insurance agent dressed in HR software clothing.

Back to the software itself. Zenefits is slick and very easy to navigate. However, during set-up, you quickly run into limitations. For example, while Zenefits will sync with the large payroll providers, you still must log into both systems to manage and enter your payroll. Another example is setting up a PDO (paid-days-off) policy. Our PDO policy is not cookie-cutter, and didn’t fit into Zenefits predefined options.

Still, I think Zenefits addresses a real pain-point for small to mid-sized businesses, especially start-ups and fast growing companies. If they focus on that space, they can turn Zenefits into a must-have for any small business. However, it’s my guess that their business model will quickly lead them to the enterprise and its gigantic insurance commissions, leaving small businesses like ours behind.

The Dropbox Badge: Is there a new Sherriff in Town?

Authentic Deputy Marshall BadgeOne serious drawback to using Dropbox in a business environment is the potential for collisions if users edit the same document simultaneously. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to know if another user has a document open. This limitation is not exclusive to Dropbox, and is found in all synchronization tools including Box.com and Google Drive.

In December, Dropbox released the Dropbox Badge to certain Dropbox for Business accounts. This feature is a result of Dropbox’s partnership with Microsoft. The idea of the Badge is simple. If two or more Dropbox users have the same Microsoft Office document open, the badge will inform all users that others are working on the same document. This feature, available on both PCs and Macs, goes a long way in avoiding collisions.

In addition to warning you if another user has the same file open, the Dropbox Badge offers to incorporate others’ changes into your version. This is where, in our opinion, the Badge overreaches. There is a big difference between open file notification and simultaneous editing. In simultaneous editing, which is available in Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365’s online applications, multiple users can make real-time changes to the same document. This Badge feature is attempting a type of semi-automated collision management. Collision management is tricky, and can easily cause loss of work – we were able to break it easily.

Still, the Badge is a huge step forward for Dropbox, and if used properly, can limit the number of collisions for Microsoft Office documents. It is especially important for distributed teams that don’t have the luxury of yelling across the office.

NOTE: The Badge is still in its early stages of release, so we’re not rolling it out to all our clients yet. If you’re a client that uses Dropbox and want to discuss it further, please reach out to your account manager.

Is Marketing a Waste of Time and Money?

Exclusive Special Offer Sale Stamp

This is the time of year when many small and medium-sized business owners, myself included, look carefully at their finances to see where they’re spending money, and what they can do to increase revenue and decrease expenses. For many small and mid-sized businesses, deciding if and how to spend marketing dollars is an ongoing dilemma.

A notoriously difficult number to ascertain is return on investment (ROI) for marketing initiatives. This is especially true for companies that sell to other businesses (B to B) or that have a relatively small group of clients. For example, the success of a mail campaign or a booth at a conference can rely on one potential sale. The same can be said for social marketing. It’s just too small a sample size to be useful.

For many years, we’d taken the “throw a bunch of things at the wall and see what sticks” approach to marketing. We tried direct mailing, cold calling, conferences, and networking. Sometimes we got decent leads, maybe even a client or two. Sometimes we got absolutely nothing. Although we never had enough data to measure ROI, we didn’t really need it. It was clear that the cost and effort of these endeavors were simply not worth it.

For us, there is only one lead source that mattered. Our clients. We’ve met virtually all our new clients through a referral from an existing client. I would guess that the same is true for many small and medium-sized B to B businesses.

This is nothing new. Many marketing books tout the “referral” as the magic bullet to grow just about any business. But for B to B businesses, asking your clients for referrals is unlikely to produce useful leads. It’s not that your clients don’t want to help you (assuming they think you’re doing a good job). It’s that they’re uncomfortable recommending you unless a friend or colleague is actively looking for your service or product. Financial motivation probably won’t make a difference, and if anything, can make people feel cheap.

We decided to redefine what marketing means to Cartwheel. Marketing to us isn’t about producing leads or closing deals. It’s about treating our clients really well. We know that if we treat them well and meet their needs, they will recommend us when it matters; when a friend or colleague complains about their technology issues.

Now, instead of spending money sending out postcards to strangers, we spend money making sure we have enough people to always pick up the phone. Instead of sitting at a booth giving away stress balls to bored executives, we give gifts to our clients. Instead of planning an ad campaign, we spend time meeting and surveying our own clients to see if they’re happy. SEO? No thanks. Facebook ads? Never.

So even though we still have no way to measure ROI, we don’t care anymore. We know that even if a client doesn’t refer us, every effort we make to treat our clients better is money and time well spent.

Protecting Your Digital Reputation

Marketing Business Strategy Word Cloud I’m always amazed at how the internet has given us all a global voice.  Everyday people join debates, publish information, and connect with communities all over the world.  Businesses have the advantage of social media to engage with the public and customers in ways never before possible. But what happens when there is a bit too much information, or the wrong kind of information, posted online?

As many now know, there is a dark side to all this.  A digital past can impact employment, business, educational and social opportunities.  Surveys show that at least 64% of employers check a candidate’s digital presence before hiring.  Employees’ negative reputations can harm employers, and 8% of employers have terminated employees for inappropriate internet behavior. For businesses, digital reputation has become increasingly important as potential customers turn to the internet to vet companies before making even small purchases.  For small businesses or startups, even a few bad reviews can have an effect on sales.

The quest to delete embarrassing photos, remove a regrettable opinion, or simply undo over-sharing of information may not be as easy as you think.  The troubling fact is that deleting what you’ve posted isn’t always enough.  Information is never static and many will be surprised that the picture or comment they deleted has been re-posted, archived, reused and permanently embedded in a complex web over which they have no control. In the United States at least, there is no “right to be forgotten” law that will eventually lead to data removal.  So what can you do to control your internet reputation?

For businesses,  removing bad reviews may be impossible. Reverse SEO and digital reputation monitoring services (e.g.  Reputation.com) attempt to manage this information by populating the web with positive information that can tweak search engine results, thus  burying negative reviews and thereby diminish their impact. These services can aren’t cheap, and aren’t always effective.

The best approach may be try and avoid the problem in the first place.  Giving customers an avenue to resolve issues and air complaints directly with your business  is a great way to not only minimize the odds they complain online, but can even lead to a positive review.  Monitoring your digital reputation using Twitter and Google, and personally contacting an upset customer can help too. The internet can feel impersonal and anonymous. The customer who felt comfortable criticizing in a rant online may have a change of heart and delete or modify a damaging comment after dealing with a hearing from a person at the company.

Does the End Justify the Means? OKCupid’s Experiment

Red heart shape broken Though I’ve never used OkCupid, I can imagine what kind of feelings are involved. Meeting someone, putting yourself out there, can be a scary thing, even under the best circumstances.  I was troubled when I read that OKCupid had secretly used its customers for a social experiment, deceiving them with bad matches, hiding photos, and deliberately suppressing good matches in order to “see what would happen.”

Facebook recently admitted to a similar experiment in which users were exposed to emotionally charged messages to elicit reactions and drive mood. The backlash was swift. Users felt betrayed and manipulated, as though their privacy had been invaded. In fact, after many months of users’ anger, Facebook was compelled to finally change its policy.  What will the backlash be for OK Cupid, if any? What should it be? To me it raises a larger question about the relationship between providers of digital services and their customers.

The executives at OK Cupid were unapologetic, glibly stating they needed the information and claiming it happens all the time. That’s not reassuring. When we use such services as OK Cupid or Facebook, isn’t there a minimal level of trust involved? An assumption that there is no ulterior motive? If not, then what, exactly, are we signing up for? Shouldn’t users be informed or compensated for becoming test subjects?

In the “real world” such things are not acceptable. Most businesses are held to a higher standard.  Intentional deception of that nature would inevitably lead to loss of business, or worse. For example, what if food manufacturers lied about ingredients or calorie content of products in order to test the affect on its customers’ future purchases? This information would, no doubt, be hugely valuable to them. It would also lead to  lawsuits and severe legal action. If businesses can’t play with customers’ bodies to achieve a hidden agenda, how is it OK to play with their minds? Further, I would argue that something as personal and important as an individual’s feelings and states of mind is about as “real world” as it gets.

Perhaps because it is the digital world, and the users made no payment, somehow real world expectations and ethics are not applicable?  But users already pay with their attention, and without its base of attentive users, OkCupid and Facebook wouldn’t exist.  Don’t these services owe their users the product and experiences they have been lead to believe they are getting?

Deception on the internet is nothing new.  I understand the thinking behind OK Cupid’s and Facebook’s experiments, but I don’t think that end justifies the means. I also worry about the nonchalance with which such betrayals occur, and how the feelings and trust of customers is a non-issue.  With so much of our lives connected to our digital world, I wonder if, in a larger sense, a foundation of deception is being created that will ultimately have an impact many will come to regret.

One mistake you make all the time, and how to stop

Money Down The DrainThat stock was a sure thing! Now that’s it down 40%, you’re still holding onto it; thinking that you need to make your money back before getting out. Feeling down about your trading losses, you remember that you have tickets to the ballet that same night. You really just want to stay home, but since the tickets are nonrefundable, you force yourself to go and have a miserable time.

These are two example of the Sunk Cost Fallacy, a common reasoning mistake that almost everyone makes, and that can cost people a lot more than a bad theater experience.

To act rationally, we need to ignore costs that we’ve already paid, and make decisions based solely on future prospects. Unfortunately, it’s very hard for people to act this way – it’s just not the way we’re wired.

At Cartwheel, we see the Sunk Cost Fallacy in action all the time. For example, we meet a new client that recently bought a server that isn’t meeting his needs. After learning about his workflow, we find the business would run best if all his documents were moved to the cloud. Unfortunately, this costs money, and since the client already spent money on the server, he decides to continue using it – to the detriment of his business.

In this example, the rational thing to do is forget the sunk cost of the server, and evaluate the new solution based on a future cost/benefit analysis. But despite ourselves, many of us tend to assign value to sunk costs.

So how do we overcome this irrational bias? Unfortunately, it’s very difficult. Economists suggest making a hard-headed cost/benefit analysis, ignoring the sunk cost. But in many of the decisions we face, it’s hard to put a dollar amount on perceived benefits.  Psychologists suggest we separate the sunk cost from other factors that may be affecting our decision, for instance emotions like regret – another difficult task.

One thing that works for us is to seek advice from an unbiased friend, advisor, or accountant. Since the sunk cost isn’t theirs, they won’t be affected by it, and should be able to process the future cost/benefit better. So next time you find yourself saying things like “I really should X, but I already did Y”, stop, and call a friend.

Why you should still trust the Cloud

tornado forming from wall cloud in central floridaThe recent celebrity nude pics are being used by the media to expose (yes, pun intended) the cloud as “fundamentally insecure.

These types of sweeping generalizations show a lack of understanding of what the cloud is, what it is not, and most importantly, good old statistical logic.

To illustrate the problem here, I’ll compare storing data in the cloud to flying.

Let’s say you want to travel from your home in Cleveland to Boston. You can drive your car, or you can take a commercial jet. You’re about to order plane tickets, and then hear that a terrorist blew up a plane in Indonesia. You read an article that calls flying “fundamentally unsafe”, and so you choose to get into your car and drive all the way to Cleveland, whistling happily in your safe, controlled vehicle.

As most of you know, this is a bad decision. While you may feel like you can control your car and are an above-average driver*, the driving environment is significantly more dangerous than the flying environment.

In your driving environment you have thousands of cars, unlicensed drivers, drunk drivers, sleepy drivers, poorly maintained cars, and bad road conditions, just to name a few of the dangers. The plane, on the other hand, has an open highway, maintains its engines, performs security checks, has backup systems, has professional pilots and navigators, performs drug testing, etc.

Storing documents in the cloud is similar to flying in a plane. The well-known cloud providers do a much better job of protecting your data than you can by storing it on your own PC and backing it up to a hard drive. Do they get hacked sometimes? Yes. Should you be smart about using all the proper security features? Of course. But that doesn’t mean you should stop using the cloud. You’re better off letting experts secure your information than trying to do it yourself.

Unless of course, you want to stay in Cleveland forever.

*Coincidentally, this is another statistical boo-boo. Because of the way we’re wired, most of us think of ourselves as “above-average” drivers. In a famous 1981 study,  93% of us consider ourselves above-average drivers. This is known as Illusory Superiority.