‘Tis the Season of Giving…

As I’ve often said, the Internet is an amazing place. Not only has it created so many more efficiencies for us as a society, but it’s helping to build bridges to less fortunate individuals and places. It’s especially nice to see evidence of this during the holiday season, of course, but it’s astounding to see the way it’s growing in leaps and bounds, no matter the time of year.

A recent article in Forbes profiled the portals that are making it easier for businesses big and small to donate to the cause of their choice. Traditionally, causes have been so fragmented, and sometimes there are so many, it can feel overwhelming and a little time-intensive to figure out what you want to give to whom. Sites nowadays are acting as an easy to use portal, while still giving the option for people to donate to a specific cause they’re interested in.

Take DonorsChoose.org as an example. It’s specifically a site built around the concept that teachers need specific things to help enrich and lives and minds of their students. They can list what it is they need, and donors will specifically pick the case they’re interested in helping. It’s these kind of connections that can help make the donation more personal rather than just writing a check.

Of course, if writing a check is your thing there are always options in that regard. NetworkForGood.org provides numerous options to either donate or volunteer. If you’re a conscious consumer wondering what companies have done for the environment lately, check out OnePercentforthePlanet.org. This handy site is comprised of businesses from mom-and-pops to Sony that have pledged to donate 1% of their yearly profits to eco-conscious charities. (They have a pretty nifty auction system going too…if you’d like a one-on-one surf lesson with the founder of Patagonia clothing, you’d do well to check out some of their other items!)

In the spirit of holiday giving, it’s nice to know that as the technology times keep evolving, so can the good of mankind the world over.

Happy holidays!

Sometimes Easy Gets Complicated

There is a blessing and a curse with all of the great tools that we can find online to help us be more productive. Great because we have access to some really neat and generally cheap/free things to keep us organized….but bad because it seems like each program just does one thing. Harvest is really great for time tracking. Basecamp is really great for project management. Something like Highrise can help you organize your contacts and clients.

I’m sure you’re seeing the issue with this: multiple websites, multiple logins, and sometimes a lot of repetitive information-entering.

So imagine how nice it was to come across a program like Creative Pro Office. Truly, it’s one of the few products I’ve seen that integrates all those things you need a laundry list of apps for into what seems to be an easy interface. You have a main office dashboard, which feels a little like an iGoogle module set up, complete with feeds of your choosing, snapshot of project progress, tasks, invoices and more.

You can drill into the Client Manager section, which lets you see not only their contact information, but also past projects, invoices and job quotes. What’s even better is they can have their own secure login to view the same information. There’s a time tracking tool to help you bill accordingly, as well as invoicing and expense tracking to go with it.

And, of course, there is a calendar and project management feature to help keep your machine humming along.

With technology and web applications exploding thanks to programmers and designers that focus greatly on user interface, there’s no shortage of tools out there. The biggest problem is that they put so much time into making each one great, it doesn’t leave time to put them all together into one deserving product. Finding something that takes programs designed to make life easier and goes on to make it, well, even easier still is something worth praising and encouraging.

Virtual Meetings Give Us Unbeatable Service

Meetings and collaboration used to be a pretty big production by today’s standards. There would be travel involved, or telephone calls plagued with comments like, “Wait, what page are you talking about?” Plane tickets would be booked, cars would be rented, and board rooms would be reserved to review information and close deals. That was the way it was done, but nowadays it sure does sound like a lot of trouble thanks to the tools that exist today.

Conducting business virtually might have seemed like a fad at first, but thanks to tools that keep human collaboration alive and well over sometimes thousands of miles, companies are seeing a huge benefit. They save all the trouble of traveling, but can still meet with customers, conduct meetings, show demos, and brainstorm together in a team setting. What started as communication via e-mail and instant messaging to provide a quicker method of communication has evolved into a completely new toolbox for running a business. Some are free for simple solutions, and others come with a price tag that can wind up giving you back time you could never buy for solving more complex needs or issues.

A free tool that’s been indispensable for me in helping to fix bugs on others’ computers or showing someone how to use a program (sometimes for family members in need, of course) is Crossloop (http://www.crossloop.com). The virtual access portal it provides gives you total control over the desktop on their PC. You move your mouse, and it performs the action on their side. Particularly for things like training, it is one tool that closely resembles a side-by-side training session without anyone having to go anywhere. However it is a Windows-only solution.

A similar application that can give you access to a PC anywhere in the world is GoToMyPC (http://www.gotomypc.com). If you do make the trip to a client and forget a file or have a program to run that is a little too much for the laptop you have with you, GoToMyPC will do the trick for a mere $20 a month, allowing you unlimited access to one other computer. If you want to kick up the collaboration aspect, you can use their tool specifically for meetings with multiple folks using their similar GoToMeeting application (http://www.gotomeeting.com). Hosting your meeting with their easy interface will let several people in very different locations all view your desktop as you go through your PowerPoint or do a product demo. You will find it especially helpful if there is often discussions on the phone that include, “I’m looking at the PowerPoint you sent at 9:03am…is it that one, or the one from 1:23?” No more of that, everyone will literally be on the same page.

The big owner of the category GoToMyPC has set up camp in is virtually dominated by WebEx (now owner by Cisco Systems). A similar interface, along with their MeetMeNow feature provides another reasonable priced alternative to conducting meetings online.

Maybe you do not need a desktop sharing tool, though. Let’s face it, no matter how great an application is; sometimes it is still all about good, old-fashioned face-to-face communication. Futuristic as it may sound; many applications also have this covered for a regular chat in-person…well, almost. Video chat has helped many business owners is this area as well, providing that personal touch which is easily lost in email and desktop sharing. A great program that combines the video teleconferencing feature with document sharing is Adobe’s Acrobat Connect. Providing an easy and always-on URL makes it easy to jump into a virtual meeting room, invite others, assign permissions to people and label them as a host, presenter, and participant. A feature to also note is that it is compatible with both Windows and Mac, something to stay aware of when you are using a tool to connect people.

My business does so much work for our customers in the Internet realm; it is easy to stumble on many tools that help us do our business virtually. While nothing can completely replace the value of personal meetings in helping potential customers to understand our capabilities, we’ve been about to provide amazing service once an account comes on board thanks to tools like these. Customer service takes on a completely new meaning when we are available to our clients this quickly and efficiently, providing a robust level of accessibility that was once impossible. As these programs continue to evolve it is conceivable that clients may never have to see me post-sale…though I will miss those frequent flyer miles.

Google Growing into Online Storage?

It’s probably sad to admit, but most of us have been there…tapping away on our PC, and suddenly there’s a blue screen. Or a frozen picture in front of you. Frantically, you bang on the keyboard, jiggle the mouse, and the next thing you know, you’re restarting and saying, “Please, please, please let my work still be there.”

There is always that nagging thought in the back of your head when this happens, too: What if the computer didn’t stay away from the light and it’s passed away for good? It’s scary to think about, but the thought races through your mind while you hold your breath, waiting to see if your desktop boots up to see the light of day once again.

There are companies out there which have been offering online back-up services for your files, safely stored away where they are untouched if your computer dies. Web Worker Daily posted a very comprehensive list some time ago on this very subject, which you can read here. Things have changed since then, however, and now the rumor mill is churning that Google is eyeing this as its next opportunity to offer another service to its clients. Thanks to its success with online storage programs like Google Docs, combined with their friendly and easy-to-use reputation in online applications, it would certainly make them a formidable competitor.

The biggest hurdles in that kind of endeavor are privacy issues, of course. The idea would be for people to ultimately have the option to rely solely on their online repository of files, without having to rely on their personal computer to store it. It’s a little strange to think of the things we rely on daily floating on a separate server. I know that I, for one, would want to make sure I was the only person who accesses it.

When a College Becomes a Client

Once upon a time, being young meant being irresponsible. It was a given that you’d screw up sometimes, or do something you shouldn’t…your parents would find out, you’d be grounded, and only a select group of people might know about it.

With the advent of sites like MySpace and Facebook, it’s making it easier for bad taste or questionable public information to make the rounds. That’s definitely no secret. But what does it mean for the legions of high school kids that might not have a sense for the long-term impact of posting last Saturday’s festivities on their MySpace page? And what does it mean if they do that with college admissions offices that can Google the name on every application that comes their way?

It means there’s a whole new industry flowering for getting into the best colleges: student branding.

A recent article in the New York Times described this burgeoning phenomenon among college applicants, who are seeking professionals to help them market themselves to the university of their choice. It’s almost like a public relations campaign when you read some of the recommendations kids have followed in order to spice up activities they can list on their college applications. It’s creating a very interesting debate about kids doing things like volunteer work for the wrong reasons, or jumping through hoops because it’s what a college would like, and it’s not necessarily something they’re interested in or are good at.

While part of this seems like a natural evolution given the increasing mindset and ability among the younger population to strike out on their own and understand how the world works, it also serves to show how integral technology has become. Self-branding would have little impact, say, 10 years ago…but with so much information accessible about every person of any age, it almost feels like you have to be proactive about your external image so you’re not fighting fires later. Apparently, this isn’t one of those rites of passage that won’t start until someone turns 18.