Posts From April 2011
Though I love to snap photos I don’t pretend to be a photographer. I own two cameras: an older digital Kodak point and shoot with a dead battery and my iPhone 4.
I don’t know if this is a new trend or if I’m just one of a kind, but my photographs and snapshots seem to have a shorter lifespan than they used to. I don’t print out my photos anymore. Instead I text message them or email them to my friends and family. I upload them to Flickr and I share them on Twitter. It used to be a big deal to print out all your photos and archive them into an album. People do that digitally now using iPhoto I guess, but I don’t even use that.
They say the best camera is the one you have with you, and I always have my iPhone with me. In fact, I haven’t used the digital Kodak since June of 2007. This is fine by me because, like I mentioned above, I am at most just a snapshot enthusiast.
However, there is a huge shortcoming to using my iPhone as my best camera: some of the most memorable moments are also the ones where you do not want your iPhone anywhere near you.1
Anna and I are currently on vacation in Hawaii. Yesterday we spent the afternoon at Hapuna Beach which has been called one of the most beautiful beaches in the United States. Hapuna Beach is gorgeous. The water is all shades of blues and greens, and to the south side there is a gorgeous volcanic rock wall with several coves.
But our camera (my iPhone) was locked up in the rental car. There was no way I was going to bring my $400 iPhone down to the beach to get sand in it and risk it getting stolen while Anna and I were out bogie boarding.
If the best camera is the one you have with you then the worst camera is the one you refuse to take. Funny how that can simultaneously refer to the same device.
In many ways the iPhone punched massive holes into the inexpensive digital camera market. But there are some instances when the iPhone is the worst option for a camera. Because there is something to be said about the fact that there are some places where you really want a camera yet you are not going to take your iPhone into that situation.
This is why I think the Flip video recorder still had a good market and why digital point and shoots also have a place: they are inexpensive, easy to replace, and they don’t carry all your personal information on them.
- Not counting the fact that the iPhone doesn’t come close to using a high-end Nikon or Canon DSLR. ↵
News.me launched today. It’s an iPad app and an email service.
If you sign up for the free email service you get an email each morning with a handful of links to articles that News.me thinks you’ll be interested in. The list is based on a combination of your Twitter stream and what links are most popular on the bit.ly servers.
The iPad app is the bigger news, however. It’s free to download, offers a 7-day trial, and then will cost you a $.99/week subscription fee.1
Part of your weekly subscription fee will go directly to publishers — similar to how Readability works. Each time a web page is viewed within the News.me iPad app then that publisher gets paid by News.me. In order to get paid you have to sign up as a publisher and license your content to News.me.
From my brief use of the app today, the idea is quite similar to Flipboard (News.me even has similar “folding” transitions as you navigate between headlines and articles). I think it’s obvious that this is the direction things are going with news — as readers we want to know what our friends are interested in and what they are reading. But it’s not a Flipboard clone. News.me is bringing a few new ideas to the table:
Using some sort of bit.ly algorithm certain links and sites are given more weight and thus more likely to show up in your news stream. Meaning, it’s a bit more than just a list of the links in your Twitter stream.
You can scroll through the Twitter stream of others and see what their suggested reading list looks like.
Publishers get a kickback when you read their stuff.
So, in short, the advantages of News.me over apps which are similar to it are: (a) it’s supposedly smarter; (b) it lets you “look over your friend’s shoulders” at what they are reading; and (c) you’re financially supporting the sites you read.
What I like most about News.me is that it’s an amalgamation of two rising trends:
- Our desire to curate our own news feeds via our social networks.
- Our desire to support the sites we read.
- They say you can subscribe for a whole year at only $35, but I didn’t see that option. Perhaps the annual discount is only visible once you’ve tapped on the $0.99/week sign-up button. ↵
Developing an app is only half the battle. Once you’ve shipped it you have to sell it. And changing hats from developer to marketer can be hard.
Marketing is a very different skill set than developing. Marketing is much more than buying an ad or a sponsorship. Marketing involves storytelling, connecting with others, getting the word out, building conversation, and more.
Perhaps the biggest difference between developing an app and marketing it is this: control. When trying to market and promote your app you simply do not have the same control as you did when you were developing it.
As the developer you have 100% control of your app. The design, functionality, user experience, feature set — they are all within your control and are simply a matter of building and implementing. Some aspects of development come easier than others, but even if you hit a brick wall you at least have the confidence you can conquer it even if by sheer force and man hours.
Marketing, however, is not fully in your own hands. You don’t have that same control to get what you want or need in terms of exposure, sales, adoption rate, positive feedback, etcetera.
I remember the morning I published “Beginning” — the announcement that I was taking shawnblanc.net full time. I remember sitting there with my mouse cursor hovering over top of the Publish button for about 5 or 10 minutes. I just sat there. Because up until that moment my plans and ideas for taking the site full time had been 100% under my control; they were bulletproof. But, as soon as I made my announcement, then it was no longer under my control. It was in the hands of all the readers and potential members.
Shipping your idea is scary. Marketing can be intimidating, frustrating, and cold hearted. The best way to tackle it is with honesty and gusto. Stop worrying about what you can’t control, and go full-steam with spreading the word about your app in the most personal, thoughtful, and inviting way you can.
There are many possibilities, ideas, and dynamics that go into a successful marketing campaign for apps. So much so that entire books have been written about them.
I want to focus on just one element: emailing online media sites to let them know about your new app.
Once you’ve launched your new app, you should at least start by emailing your friends and family. Ask them to check it out, and let them know that next time they’re in town you’ll buy them lunch in exchange for them buying your app and giving it a good rating in the App Store.
The more downloads and positive ratings that your app receives from users then the better the chances of being automatically promoted from within the iTunes App Store. Also, new and potential new buyers will look at the average ratings and read the reviews before they buy.
Once your friends know about your new app, you’ll want to let blogs and online media know about it. This is perhaps the single best thing you can do in terms of marketing. And in my experience a lot of developers do it wrong.
I regularly get email from people letting me know about their new app or service. These emails can be summed up into three general types:
The Copied and Pasted Email
You can spot these from 30 feet away. The biggest giveaway is how my name (“Dear Shawn,”) will be in one font and then the body of the email is in another. These emails usually are too long, too impersonal, and are wanting me to do a review.
I understand that sending personal and specific emails, one at a time, is time consuming. But sending impersonal emails is flat out a waste of time.
The Personal but Shy Email
This is from the developer who feels like they are inconveniencing me simply by emailing me. They are shy about their app and a bit embarrassed to promote it.
To them, I simply say that it is okay to be bold and excited about your app.
The Sincere, Personal, and Bold Email
This one’s just right. The email is personal and thoughtful. They know who I am (or at least have done enough homework to fool me), and they are very excited about their app.
Here are my recommendations for best practices when pitching your new app to someone via email:
Start with your favorite bloggers and podcasters. Write personal, thoughtful, and specific emails to each of them. Give them a promo code (or two — one for themselves and one for them to give to a friend). Tell them why they might like your app and give a few quick points about why. Don’t give an entire feature list, simply mention some previous articles of theirs and touch on why you think your app would be interesting to them in light of what you know they have already written about.
Don’t shy away from pitching it to the seemingly small guys. A lot of the writers and editors who work for the mega-sites (such as Macworld, Ars Technica, Engadget, TUAW, Mashable, et al.) are just regular bloggers who happen to read the smaller guys’s sites.
In The Social Network the way Facebook got adopted by Baylor was by not allowing Baylor students to sign up. Instead they opened up access to the smaller, surrounding schools and once the friends of students at Baylor were getting access to Facebook then the Baylor students wanted in, too.
Once you’ve emailed your favorite sites, find the rest of the larger, influential sites. Write them specific and thoughtful emails as well. As Craig Mod suggests:
Be thoughtful. The goal is to appeal to editors and public voices of communities that may have an interest in your work, not spam every big-name blog. A single post from the right blog is 1000% more useful than ten posts from high-traffic but off-topic blogs. You want engaged users, not just eyeballs
Which is why, at the end of the day, the single best thing you can do is make an app that people will want to use.
Good marketing gets people to show up the first time; a good product will get them to show up the 2nd time and the 3rd time.
Using an app by Tapbots feels like a privilege.
There is this addictive cleverness and playful uniqueness to the way Mark and Paul build their apps. The sounds, the animations, and graphics don’t feel or act like a standard app, they feel more like a toy. A toy you get to use for work.
They say a man buys something for two reasons: a good reason and the real reason. And I have always thought that with Tapbots their apps cater to that. There is a good reason to buy an app from Tapbots, but there is also another (and perhaps, more real) reason. And the real reason is that you want to play with the app. Because, like I said, to use it feels like a privilege.
For the previous Tapbots apps the function of the apps has been very niche. Weightbot is for people who want to lose weight; Convertbot is for folks who want to know how many ounces are in a liter; and Pastebot, well, Pastebot is for nerds.
These are niche markets when it comes to iPhone apps. Weight-tracking applications, unit converters, and clipboard managers are not exactly in high demand on the app store when compared to games, news aggregators, or even Twitter clients.
Today, however, Tapbots has taken a plunge by making a Twitter client amongst a pre-existing sea of them. It’s called Tweetbot, and it is everything you would expect it to be.
There are too many Twitter apps to count; what is it that makes Tweetbot better than any other? Well, in some regards you could say that nothing makes it better. It doesn’t really do anything that [insert your favorite Twitter client of choice] doesn’t already do. I mean, it’s a Twitter client, right? It shows you tweets, lets you reply to them, save links to Instapaper, upload pictures, and generally get distracted.
However, you could also say that everything about Tweetbot makes it better. Tweetbot has more personality than any other Twitter client out there. Every single pixel has been hand crafted in order to build the most custom looking UI of any Twitter client I’ve seen. Moreover, the sounds, the animations, the actions — everything has been thought through with intent, care, and fun. It all adds up to create a Twitter Experience Extravaganza.
When I launch Twitter from my Mac, iPad, or iPhone these seem to be the most common things I end up doing or finding:
- Discover links that get sent to Instapaper for reading later
- Discover news
- Eavesdrop on conversations
- Reply to someone
- Post a tweet of my own
- Direct message people
I have been using Tweetbot since its early stages of alpha development and all that time it has been my exclusive Twitter client when on my iPhone. Now, I don’t beta test that many apps and having one find its way to my home screen and wiggle its way into my daily life is not common behavior. More often than not, when I am helping to test out an app I use it enough to provide feedback to the developer, but it doesn’t become one of my most-used apps.
There are three reasons Tweetbot has wiggled its way into my life: (1) I use Twitter far too often; (2) it seemed a disservice to nerds everywhere to not use Tweetbot when I had the opportunity; and, most importantly, (3) many of the ways which I most use Twitter have been extremely well integrated into Tweetbot.
Below are a few of the reasons why I find Tweetbot so fantastic.
Tap and hold a tweet
When you tap and hold on an individual tweet, a list of options comes up and you can instantly send to Instapaper, email the tweet, etc…
This is great because far and away I populate my Instapaper queue in Twitter more than any other place (such as my RSS reader or browsing the web). But this is bad because it is so easy to add items to Instapaper in Tweetbot that I get ahead of myself and am sending more items to Instapaper than I have time to read. And so, alas, my Instapaper queue is longer than my arm.
Using lists as the main timeline
Tweetbot does something that, so far as I know, no other Twitter client lets you do. It lets you use a list as your main timeline. Any list that you have created or that you follow can become your main timeline. Simply tap the center of the top bar in (where it says “Timeline”) and you’ll be presented with a screen showing all the lists you have created or that you follow.
For example, I have a list of sites who’s RSS feeds are available via Twitter. I tap that list and it becomes my main timeline.
This is also a great feature as you find yourself following more and more people on Twitter. Simply create a list — funny folks; best friends; awesome writers; etc. — and set the list as your main timeline. In short, you’re curating your own mini-timeline within your larger, Master Timeline.
Every other Twitter client I have used has treated lists as second-class citizens. But, thanks to Tweetbot’s treatment of lists, I’ve begun using them and am wanting to use them even more than I already am.
Moreover, you can edit your lists from within Tweetbot via Tab Bar. The two right-most buttons are customizable and can be set for bringing up the lists editor as well as your favorites, saved searches, or retweets.
Swiping left to right for a conversation view
This probably happens to you as well. I will often “walk in” on the middle of a conversation that is happening in Twitter between people whom I follow and I want to read the rest of the conversation thread. In Tweetbot you simply swipe an individual tweet from left to right and it will load the conversation view. I do this enough that having such a simple and accessible gesture for it has proven to be extremely useful.
Similarly, swiping on a tweet from right to left will show you all the replies to a tweet.
A Few of My Favorite Things
It’s the little things that make a good app great. As you use Tweetbot those little details pop out and give Tweetbot its personality. The animations are beyond cool, and as I said earlier, every single pixel is custom. There is nothing that is not custom except the keyboard itself, and yet it all feels familiar.
Below are a few of the little things about Tweetbot that really stand out as being extraordinary.
The falling dialog box: When you go to sign in to your Instapaper account, try using the wrong email address or password.
Finding a user: When you type the “@” symbol while composing a tweet a small little user profile icon appears. Tap on that icon and you’ll be brought to a list of all the people you follow and you can quickly search for and find users.
I absolutely adore this feature because I for one do not have all the usernames of the people I follow on Twitter memorized.
Direct Messages: The Direct Message threads are top-posted like your Twitter timeline, rather than bottom posted like Instant Messenger or the official Twitter apps. (Though the Twitter website has top-posted DM threads rather than bottom-posted.)
Technically, bottom posting the DM threads is the proper way to do it. However, I am jarred by it every time. I spend far more time in my main timeline and my @replies list than I do in the DM pane, and all the rest of Twitter has the newest tweets on top.
Success!: When using Twitter there can be a lot going on in the background, such as your tweets being posted or your links being saved to Instapaper. Most Twitter and even RSS reader apps will have a small, somewhat opaque box that spins while the link is being saved and then gives a check box once the link is saved successfully.
Tapbots already has their own version of this sort of feedback box that was designed and implemented in Pastebot. For example, when making edits to an image you get the little spinning lines while the iPhone processes the edits and then a checkmark and a ding once the edits are completed.
In Pastebot a success notification looks like this…
…and so I assumed that in Tweetbot the exact same element would be used for letting me know when my tweet had been posted or a link successfully saved.
However, Tapbots rethought even this bit of their Twitter client and instead of a box getting in your way and sitting over the top of your Timeline, a notification slides down from the top letting you know that your tweet was successfully posted or that your link has been saved to your ever-growing Instapaper queue.
For me, what makes a good app great is the little things — the small areas where attention to detail was given and where something that could have been normal was instead made extraordinary.
When I open up Reeder on my iPad I am always reminded by how many websites do not have a WebClip Bookmark Icon.
Fortunately, setting up a custom WebClip Bookmark Icon is quite easy. Here’s how:
- Create a 129×129-pixel png image titled
Upload it to your website’s root folder:
png file is the image that Reeder will use when listing your site in the feeds folder. And this is the image that iOS will use as the icon when saving your site as a web clip to the Home screen.
So why 129×129? Because that’s the size Apple uses. However, the exact size that the icon should be is debatable. Mine is actually 158×158 pixels (left over from when Nathan Borror suggested that size in 2008). Jeffery Zeldman’s is 120×120 pixels, Marco Arment’s is 128×128 pixels, and 5by5′s is 144×144 pixels, for example.
Last week Austin Kleon posted an article titled, “How to Steal Like an Artist (An 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)”. There are things you read where you learn something new, and there are the things you read which shed a new light on what you already know and believe in. For me Austin’s article is the latter. And it is one of the best things I have read all week.
However, keeping with the Wil Shipley analogy of farming vs. mining, a better title for Austin’s article would be something along the lines of “How to Be a Farmer.” Because Austin primarily discusses getting off your butt, ignoring your doubts and insecurities, and doing the work you love to do.
As I was reading it I was getting all sorts of little lightbulbs and connections going off in my mind. Here are a few of those items:
One of my Shawn Today episodes called “Aren’t we all just 8th graders” on the topic that many of us feel like we’re just faking it and that’s okay because we’re all just folk.
Wil Shipley’s article on Farming vs. Mining and the difficulty of plowing a plot of land and slowly developing a strong and profitable foundation rather than trying to make a quick buck and then moving on to the next thing before what you made falls apart.
Merlin Mann and John Gruber’s SXSW session: “HOWTO: 149 Surprising Ways to Turbocharge Your Blog With Credibility!”
John Gruber’s corresponding article to the above SXSW session: “Obsession Times Voice“
You see, there are those who look at a building a website (or a software program, or a business, or fill in the blank) as a way to make money. The project is simply a means to an end, and that end goal is bucketloads of money.
And then there are those who look at building something because they want to do what they love. And for them money is a tool. Instead of money being the end goal, money becomes the means to a goal — and that goal is doing things they love and creating something they’re proud of.
Six weeks ago I announced that I was taking the site full time and that to make it happen I would be offering a membership to the site. There was a month-long membership drive with the goal of promoting membership sign-ups before I started my first day as a full-time writer for shawnblanc.net. (Which was yesterday, by the way.)
Here is a quick update on where things stand as of today.
For starters, I’m sure you will be delighted to know, the membership drive was a success. There are two benchmarks I have for the membership subscription base:
- There is the minimum number of members which is needed simply to cover the necessities of life and the hard costs of running this site.
- There is an ideal subscriber base which would cover the additional expenses now equated with publishing this site full time.
Up until yesterday the income I got from this site was all “extra” income. I had a full-time job and didn’t need the income this site was generating. The Fusion ads and RSS sponsorships covered the hard costs (primarily hosting and my internet service provider) and then what was left over I used to pay for software, hardware, and the other things I write about here.
But now that I’ve quit my full-time job, the income this site makes has a new priority: food and shelter. Or, put another way, the RSS Sponsorships help me buy food to eat instead of software to write about.
Thankfully, the membership numbers have gone above that minimum level needed for me to sustain this site as my full-time gig. Moreover, people are still signing up — every day the membership base grows a little bit more. (Thank you!)
Once the membership numbers reach my ideal goal I will be able to budget for the purchasing of software and hardware as needed, and even set aside enough funds for things such as traveling to Macworld in 2012. I try to run a tight and frugal operation, but at the same time being involved in and writing about the design- and tech-savvy community isn’t exactly a free ride.
All this to say that the lights in my office will stay on, my internet service will not be disconnected, and if I skip lunch one day it’s likely out of forgetfulness rather than necessity.
I cannot express how very grateful to have this opportunity. I get to work from the comfort of my own home, keep my own schedule, and be involved in the things which I love and am passionate about. Not to mention I get to write for and interact with fine readers such as yourselves all day long. Thank you for helping make this a reality.
Regarding the Membership Drive Giveaway
For those of you who signed up for a membership during the membership drive, all the emails have been sent out to the winners. They were sent to the primary email addresses in your PayPal account, so if you don’t check that email often, you may want to.
There were 84 prizes in total, worth over $2,000. Many, many, thanks to all the writers, designers, developers, and friends who donated to the membership drive:
- Jorge Quinteros
- First & 20
- Brett Kelly
- Fusion Ads
- Michael Lopp
- Cameron Moll
- Idea Cafe
- Red Sweater Software
- Icon Resource
- Ryan Irelan
- Realmac Software
- Sky Balloon Studio
- Attachment Tamer
- Due App
Another Shameless Plug to Sign Up for a Membership if You Haven’t Yet
Membership subscriptions are still available and will be indefinitely. Membership to the site is just 3 bucks a month — like a good cup of coffee — and includes some very cool members-only perks. Primarily that you’ll be supporting the full-time writing and growth of shawnblanc.net, and you’ll get access to Shawn Today, the daily, members-only broadcast.
And, what the heck? So long as we’re at it… Another fantastic way to support this site is to sponsor the RSS feed. Sponsoring the feed is a win-win-win situation: you get your product or service promoted to a large audience of design- and tech-savvy readers, the readers in turn get to discover something new they may have not known about, and I get to put food on the table.
What do you write as the very first post on the first day of your new job as a full-time writer? I have no idea.
Ever since I can remember I have wanted to be a writer. And now that I actually carry that title it doesn’t fully seem legitimate.
C.S. Lewis, Jane Austen, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ernest Hemingway — they were writers. I, on the other hand, feel like just a guy who writes. Of course a guy who writes is, by definition, a writer. But where the aforementioned greats were ones who had such a wonderful command of words, I on the other hand always feel like I’m guessing.
Alas, Clive, Jane, Robert, and Ernest are no longer with us to answer the question when you wrote, did you feel in control or were you just guessing?
But if you ponder it for a moment, you can’t help but think that maybe they were shooting in the dark, too. And when you think of it like that, well then, you start to realize that perhaps it’s not so much about being a Good Writer as it is about being a Passionate Writer.
Writing should be about standing behind your work and truly caring about what it is you have to say. If you happen to be good with words then congratulations. Dispassionate beautiful prose, however, is still dispassionate. Or, as Anatole France put it, “a tale without love is like beef without mustard: insipid.”
Emotion, honesty, truth, passion. These are the backbones of writing. And these are the very things that can be the hardest to put into our writing. I often find myself caring more about how I say things than what I am saying. The how and the what are certainly important, but not equally so.
I can get more concerned about using too many semicolons than I do about putting my heart into every sentence. Because I can’t get criticized over a semicolon. Well I can, but so what, right? There are rules and guidelines for style that I can refer to in order to justify or correct my semicolon usage.
But when we put our heart into something and get criticized for it, that hurts. And so, in a way, we shy back a bit and we put just enough of ourselves into our writing to give it a hint of breath and no more. Or we shy away from emotion altogether and focus solely on other factors to make our writing garner attention.
Passion and emotion have always been my motivation for writing. I am a passionate person — we all are — and writing is one of the ways I’ve found to express those emotions. I’d like to get better at it, and slowly I am learning a little bit more every day.
And then there are the moments when words utterly fail me. Such as now, when I try to express the gratitude and excitement and nervousness I feel as I begin this new journey of writing full time. This is something I never saw coming that morning in Colorado over six years ago when I started that Blogspot account and wrote that first blog post talking about my vacation.
Today, as I write this, I’m sitting in the same place I usually sit when I write an article for shawnblanc.net: my office. Writing this article feels no different than the hundreds of other articles I’ve written over the years. But now, in this moment, the expectations are greater…
There are my own expectations of what will I publish today? What will come tomorrow and the next day and the next day? These are not just expectations of what the site itself looks like and what gets published to it, but also how I spend my time on the back end. A few thousand words published to the site can represent dozens of hours of work.
Secondly are the expectations of the readers and the members. Now that my full-time job is to publish this website, what does that mean to you? Only you know. I have tried not to think about it too much, but that is easier said than done. For years I’ve always tried to keep just a couple people in mind when writing here. But now that the economic success of this site hinges in no small part on the continued growth of a strong membership base, there is that sudden pressure to write for all of you at once.
You and I both know that is not a recipe for success. My goal is to simply keep on doing what I have been doing for the past four years. I have no plans to reboot this site, change its focus, or change what I’ve been doing so far that got me to this point. Though the pressures and expectations are new and different I am intent on staying steady.
The only thing that has drastically changed is that I now have many more hours in the week to devote to publishing this site. Which means the only difference you should notice is an increase in consistency and quality. I have many ideas that I am looking forward to starting on over the next few weeks and months, and I am very much looking forward to iterating, improving, and generally upping the overall awesomeness of this site.
Some of you have been here since the very first post. Some of you are brand new. And I am grateful that you chose to show up, sign up, and go on this journey with me.