Category Archives: Productivity Software

Pricing IQ Test You’re Sure to Fail

I admit it. Pricing is often baffling to me. Test your pricing IQ by answering these 10 simple questions.

1. Why is an iPhone application expensive at $4.99 but a magazine can sell for $6.95, and a no-frills 20-ounce cup of coffee for $2.50 without anyone getting up in arms?

2. Why is a gallon of gas expensive at $3.00 when a gallon of bottled water costing $4.00 isn’t an outrage ?

3. Why is a Sunday newspaper just fine at $1.00 and up but a news website way too expensive at $2.99 per month?

4-5. Why are great applications like Google Earth or Evernote free? My generation was taught to mistrust the man in the trench coat offering free candy. Should we worry?

6. Why do we accept advertising without question in newspapers and magazines and most television, but not in an iPhone app we paid $2.99 for?

7-10. Why do we assume email is free? Why do we pay hundreds of dollars for one productivity suite, or nothing for another? Why do we assume content has no value, and why do content providers give it away? Why do we assume anything we can copy has no value, or that copying isn’t stealing?

Pricing is magic. And baffling. And to score this test, make something up. I have no idea.

Goldilocks, Three Bears, and Productivity Software

You may remember that fairy tale in which Goldilocks got herself locked into a repetitive rut about choosing her optimal rocking chair, porridge, and bed softness settings. Every time, for every choice, first it was too little, too much, and then just right.

There’s a lot to say about Goldilocks (and all of her consumer friends) related to business offerings and product development; particularly, software product development. Think about business productivity software.

In productivity software, what most of us want is simple. Easy to use and understand. Hooray. Except that we don’t buy simple. We don’t even buy just right. We buy too complicated. Too hot.

Sure, there are exceptions. Most of them are old-timer exceptions, like the original QuickBooks (vastly simplified checkbook data entry) and VisiCalc (vastly simplified business financial analysis). Maybe there are some this-millennium exceptions too, like possibly Basecamp, Skype, and what else? There aren’t a lot of them. Not when we stick to simple.

I get choosing the big and complex stuff for database management, accounting, even for graphic design. But in productivity software, no. Simple is probably better.

Here’s a problem: we don’t buy simple, at least not easily, not for productivity software. Worse still, we don’t even buy just right. We buy too big, too tall, too hard. We don’t want software companies talking down to us. We don’t want a simple word processor, we want that big word processor that can scrape names off the web and read data and do mailing lists and footnotes and color coding and tracking changes and versions and write from right to left too. We want it to absorb graphics and resize and reshape, and, if we click the right place, add and subtract and tell us our horoscope too.

And then we don’t like it. Everybody wants simple, but nobody buys simple in productivity software.

Am I wrong about this? Is there successful productivity software out there that’s taken the simple and effective strategy, instead of adding everything including the kitchen sink? Tell me, please.

(Image credit: Rob Byron/Shutterstock)

Technology vs Productivity vs Expectations, Oh My

This post title should be recited to the tune of “lions, tigers, and bears, oh my;” that is if you’re old enough to remember The Wizard of Oz, or young (at heart) enough to have seen it as a rerun. It’s rhythmic and its cyclical and it never stops.

Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn are potential business advantages right now. Believe it or not, Twitter offers me real productivity gains. If you don’t see it yet, you will, later on. Facebook and LinkedIn do that for others (not me, but only because I can’t deal with too many different media). Businesses that manage these facilities well are ahead of the game, for now. If you don’t believe me, look at Zappo’s valuations when bought it.

Soon, though, they’ll be expected. It won’t be that businesses operating on the leading edge get credit. Instead, it will be that businesses operating behind that edge will suffer.

That’s the cycle: technology boosts productivity, and that boosts expectations, so we go back to the start again.

I’ve seen that same cycle for a long time now, over and over. When I started with spreadsheets, in 1980, they were so new that my use of spreadsheets gave me competitive advantage in business school. (That image to the right is a 1979 ad for VisiCalc, the first mainstream spreadsheet). Not any more; everybody assumes spreadsheets. Complicated spreadsheets don’t buy anybody competitive advantage. The same was true, believe it or not, with word processing (yes, there was a time when business people didn’t all understand word processing). Now we all assume that. There was a time when an early personal computer and WordStar software and a daisy wheel printer was a huge competitive advantage. No longer. And the same thing happened with desktop publishing. First it was competitive advantage, but then the bar was raised, and it became merely expected. And with email, and Internet websites. Technology to productivity to expectations to back to the start again.

True, we got better output. Spreadsheets give us better business analysis, word processing gives us better writing tools, and desktop publishing gives us better output. But we don’t spend less time. We just expect more.

(Photo credit: Woosa Rosa/Shutterstock)

10 Emails That Shouldn’t Have Been Sent

Oh dear. How would you like to be the sender whose name I’ve blocked out here? Charged, apparently, with emailing a press release to bloggers, and struggling with a technical problem, he ends up creating this blight on my inbox (and probably doesn’t even know he’s done it):

I count 11 repetitions, the same message, the same sender, and even the same sending minute (although you can’t see that in this view).

And I wonder … do you think one of the 15 absolutely important things recommended is to test all email list sending utilities before hitting ENTER? Or would that be the 16th?

Invention vs. Necessity, Upside Down

You know the phrase:

Necessity is the mother of invention.

Right? You hear it a lot.

But what if, in fact, invention is the mother of necessity. Once the technology exists,  we then complicate things, demand more, and use up the productivity gain in raising the quality bar.

Take budgets, for example. I realize it’s hard for most people to imagine a world without ready access to spreadsheets (you’d almost have to be a baby boomer, since spreadsheets and personal computing burst onto the scene in the early 1980s). But spreadsheets changed what we expect of budgets and budgeting. The invention changed what we define as necessity. We can do the numbers now, so we demand more numbers.

Or word processing, and then, a few years later, desktop publishing. The combination completely changed what we expect of business correspondence. You’ll probably find this hard to believe, but there was a time when we wrote letters and memos and mailed them. Yes, I mean using the post office, and postage stamps. Back then, we didn’t get hundreds of letters to answer every day. The invention changed the necessity. We can email now (or tweet, or blog), so the world demands more communication.

And cell phones.  Ah yes, lots of us remember the world before cell phones. We didn’t bug each other nearly as much, back before cell phones, as we do now; we didn’t expect phone calls checking in, updating each other, nearly as much. Less communication was acceptable.

Are we more productive? Who knows? Do we have a choice on the matter? No. Technology goes one way. Whether we like it or not.

True Story: Good Idea, but Hard to Explain

Almost 20 Years ago I developed a software product called Forecaster. You start with an empty chart. Then you assign values to vertical and horizontal. Then you draw a line with your mouse, and Forecaster generates the numbers that correspond to the line.

It was built as something you could use in a business plan. Grab the chart as an illustration, put the numbers into your clipboard, and paste them into Excel (or Lotus 1-2-3, because this was 1989).

But: it took three sentences to explain Forecaster.  And that, I’m sure, was the problem.

Forecaster wasn’t successful in the market. It didn’t sell itself. On the contrary, it took me explaining to sell it. We didn’t have a marketing budget; in fact, we back then was just me and my wife, with no outside financing. Not even the reviewers understood what it did.

One comment that came up a lot: "but that’s cheating." As if getting the numbers from the line was morally wrong. You’re supposed to draw the line from the numbers, and vice-versa. Say, what? Why? 

The Moral of the Story

  1. It’s very hard, and expensive, to market something that you can’t explain in a simple sentence. It’s like rowing upstream.
  2. Competition can be good for you. It’s nice to have competition to help you explain what you’re doing.  Jeff Atwood had a good piece on that earlier this week, riffing on the idea of the arch enemy.
  3. With that next great new thing you want to build a business around, test yourself: can you explain it in a sentence? No? That’s a worry.

The Rest of the Story

  • I took it up to a small exhibition of Excel add-ons up in Redmond, WA. Microsoft product managers saw it and liked it. It was built into the next version of Excel. (And, lest you read this as an accusation, there was no violation of copyright, nothing illegal or immoral, they just liked the idea and added it in. It’s called progress.) And, as far as I can tell, nobody got it. Nobody used it. I never saw it commented in a review, or in some expert lesson.
  • Years later, we built Forecaster into Business Plan Pro. It’s still there, still as powerful as ever; and still hard to explain.

Watch your Back

I just read The Corporate Survivor’s Guide to Email on the Huffington Post. Thank God, at least this isn’t true in my world. I don’t think. I mean … is it? Is that what you meant? Here’s how this Nicholas Weinstock post starts.

Now More than Ever

Thank you!

Translation:  F**k you.  Generally found at the end of emailed instructions, as in "Please let me know, in the future, anytime you’ll be occupying the conference room during an hour when my team is scheduled to use it.  Thank you!"  An expression of outright hatred.  Probable indicator of an assassination attempt to come.

By the way, just to clarify, the asterisks there are mine. He and Huffington Post are not so squeamish.

So I’m thinking to myself, as I read this post, "nah, not my world, that can’t be … but then, the very next thing:

No Exclamation point. Translation: Thank you.

Now that’s getting more interesting. Does he have a point, maybe?

A short response in all lowercase ("no" or "never "or "no way" or "ok" or "I don’t think so" or "yes", for example) means:

I’m more important than you are.  And busier.  In fact, I’m so important and busy that I don’t have time to write more than a word or two – unlike, say, you, Wordsworth – or even take the care to capitalize the few words that I can manage to eke out as I hustle off to an airport / heliport / underground bunker / secret strategy session you wouldn’t know about / meeting with other more important and busier people than you.  Generally intended as a reminder of your lowly, vulnerable, and tenuous status at the company.  You’re not important or busy enough.  And it just got noticed.  Take steps.

Nicholas offers several other translations: forwarded email with no added message, self-addressed email with you BCC’d, LOL. It’s good stuff. He finishes with the following:

Thank you!

Seriously.  It does:  it means F**k you.  Look back through your emails.  He or she absolutely hates you.  That exclamation point is a f**king dagger.  Watch your ass.

Good post. Is he right? I hope not. But then …

(note: reposted from

Time to Unlock Shared Email

I had a worrisome email today from one of my favorite people, a colleague in many ways and a very influential blogger, in which she asks:

Hi Tim, are there any changes planned to Email Center Pro soon?  Such as permissions to view/handle certain messages?

The first thing that worries me about the question is that I’d love to just say "yes, that’s coming" because that’s by far the best way to answer any user request. Pleasing the user is a great way to lead software development. However, in this case at least, the real answer is "no, we’re not going to, and for some very strong reasons."  And it’s not just the real answer, it’s also the right one.

Email Center Pro has a mission: better business email management. And that means, for us, doing some things different than what most people expect, not because we want to, or because we think it’s cool, but because there’s a deep business background to it. It’s simply about transparency; and accountability.

We think we do a lot of people a favor by making the distinction between shared business email accounts, like the famous info@ or sales@ or help@ email addresses; and personal email. There’s Hotmail, and Yahoo! Mail, and Gmail, and many other providers to manage your personal email, and, more importantly, your employees’ personal email. Furthermore, Email Center Pro doesn’t need to replace the normal email server that has everybody’s "sort-of" personal business email — the [email protected] and [email protected] email addresses.

It’s not just transparency, either; it’s also a matter of managing information and communications and contacts with customers. What happens in the real world, with email management, is emails relate to issues and customers and projects and such, and should be managed as bits of information, and messages in communication that are part of the whole business process. And in the business process we shift things from one person to another, frequently, as a matter of getting things done.

For example, think of the email triage function, which comes up quickly even in small business. An email that comes in to [email protected] or [email protected] needs to be dealt with by Ralph or Mabel, depending on content, context, and function.

Email Center Pro includes the function of assigning emails to people, and moving the responsibility. If things were locked, that wouldn’t work.

And, then, on a more theoretical level, whether we like it or not, our business email isn’t really private. The system operators can see it, if they want to. And it’s come up in court cases. And given that email isn’t really private, is it good management to make it look and feel private, even when it isn’t? Sometimes I think — as a person, not as a developer or publisher or employee of the publisher of Email Center Pro — that our users are very much better off managing their business email in an environment that keeps it plainly clear and obvious that email is business documentation, public by definition.

It reminds me of some email I sent, many years ago now, to several of my children who were then still in college. I reminded them that email felt private, but really wasn’t. That they should always remember that it can be forwarded and, potentially at least, misused. Given that this is the case, maybe it shouldn’t feel private.

So it is my personal opinion that it’s a good thing if more people get comfortable with matching the metaphor of email — business email, transparent, accountable, and manageable — to the email interface. That’s one of the missions of Email Center Pro.

The Business Email Problem of Unanswered Emails

Yesterday I had a not-entirely-comfortable conversation with somebody I very much respect about my email habits. There are emails left unanswered in my email account, and she was suggesting that there shouldn’t be. People who write an email to a company address should be answered, she said. You can choose not to with a personal email address, but this is business email.

Hmmm, that’s awkward. I find I frequently leave emails in the main inbox because I intend to answer them. Time passes. They get a week old, and then two weeks.

"But I leave them there because I intend to answer them," I said.

"No, that’s not right. People are offended when they send an email and it goes into blank space. It doesn’t speak well for the company. It’s like unanswered phone calls, with the phone just ringing. It makes us look bad."

"But surely you don’t mean all the emails I get," I answered, "even unsolicited emails?"

"Well of course not spam," she said, "but yes, I do mean unsolicited email when it’s an individual, a person. You can’t just leave it like dead air."

This I admit was kind of a new thought to me. I’ve been thinking that I can leave emails, try to answer them, and if time passes and they fall down below view in the inbox, oh well. I mean I’m not rude or impolite to people I know — I would answer your email for sure — but these are just strangers.

"But that’s just rude," she said, as I was beginning to waver. "All you have to do is send an email — you can use a template — something like "’Thanks for your email, I’m swamped right now, but I want you to know I did receive it and I intend to look into it.’"

"And besides, you can have so-and-so manage that for you, send quick responses to some and alert you to others."

"After all," she said, finally, "that’s one of the main reasons we developed Email Center Pro. Business email is about the business, and it reflects on the business. So use the templates facility, have so-and-so help if you have too many to manage, but don’t leave emails completely unanswered."

And then she had me.

And, for the record, if you read this blog regularly you know I don’t do plugs and promotions in it, but the new management team of Palo Alto Software released Email Center Pro earlier this year, and I’m proud of this new Web app, and proud of the team. Every business should do something — and I think that something is with Email Center Pro — to manage its business emails.

Disappearing Competitive Advantage. Is This Productivity?

Technology and competitive advantage. Sometimes it’s like one of those shell games. Does technology make our work better? Does it make it easier.

I have a theory. A lot of technology we work with (as in personal computers, etc.) gives us competitive advantage over a short term, until expectations catch up.

For example, hard as this will be to believe today, in the late 1970s and early 1980s working with word processing was an easy way to get competitive advantage. Some of the very big companies had it, and it was available in the university basements, but clients and professors didn’t take it for granted. So knowledge of, and access to, word processing was a huge competitive advantage. I was early on that curve, and it helped me a lot.

Soon that competitive advantage disappeared. The world got it. You can cut and paste, and move paragraphs. Fine. So write more. Write better. Has productivity increased?

And spreadsheets? Does anybody here remember financial modeling languages, such as Empire? Before spreadsheets boomed in the early-to-middle 1980s, I personally gained a lot of consulting mileage on pouring financial analyses out of a DEC TOPS-20 computer running the Empire financial modeling. The rest of the world assumed a whole lot of work was necessary to produce a whole lot of outcome, even when varying just a few of the input factors. It was easy to produce quantity output without much effort. And people were impressed. I had a real early adopter advantage.

But soon after that people in business recognized the power and utility of VisiCalc, SuperCalc, and then, in 1983, Lotus 1-2-3. Then came Microsoft Excel in 1984 (amazing fact: Excel was not always the market leader in spreadsheets; it was originally the upstart, dwarfed by Lotus 1-2-3).

So that competitive advantage disappeared. In a few years everybody in business assumed spreadsheets. Where the spreadsheet was a competitive advantage early on, it became an expectation. Now we want budgets. Lots of budgets.

In 1975, most of the business world did budgets on yellow pads with calculators. By 1985, we were all working with spreadsheets. Has productivity increased?

I was also an early adopter of desktop publishing. I had one of the first Macs. In 1985 McGraw-Hill took one of my early books straight to press from LaserWriter output, which we thought at the time was a first. I used desktop publishing for consulting reports, early documentation of software, marketing literature; and it, too, was clear competitive advantage.

But that too got old. It became second nature. Everybody took it for granted, so the bar went up, expectations were raised, and soon we all expected documents to look better. Has productivity increased?

And yes, slides. During my brief stint at McKinsey Management Consulting, in 1981, there was a whole department full of artists who did nothing but create the slides to go along with the consulting. The early Persuasion software on the Mac was a huge competitive advantage for me when it came out, about 1986, when I was on my own in consulting. Is PowerPoint (or Keynote) a competitive advantage anymore?

I was on CompuServe and the Source and AppleLink by 1984, and email was a competitive advantage. And it was faster, easier, and better.

I did Palo Alto Software’s first website at in 1985, and that was competitive advantage.

I could go on with this theme.

Did the work get easier? Yes, for sure; but expectations got higher too.

Did we end up spending the same amount of time, just doing more of it?

Did productivity increase?

And, with that in mind, let me ask you: what about cell phones? What about my iPhone or your Blackberry, giving us both instant access to email at all times? What about instant messaging? Blogging? Facebook? Are we working today with equivalent new things that give us competitive advantage, but that will eventually raise the bar and become commonplace?