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I will be out of the office for most of June.

This is for various reasons. Partly, we’ve been struggling with a few tricky, long-term projects recently, and we need to focus on these in order to finish them off. (I’ll post a longer blog post about these at the end of the week).

Partly, my wife goes back to work next week after taking four years out to have our three kids, and I’ll be juggling childcare while we get used to the new arrangement.

Mostly, though, I’m feeling burnt out. As some clients will know, I’ve recently had testicular cancer, requiring surgery and chemotherapy, and while it’s all relatively minor as these things go, I’ve only taken four days off work in total. That’s not ideal.

So, I’m taking June off, which means that we’re pretty much closed. This will allow me to recharge, and also to spend some time thinking about where the company goes from here.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past six months putting a very robust support system in place for clients who want it, so no existing clients will be inconvenienced. It will still be possible to raise support tickets, and these will still be addressed in due course.

It will also be possible to book in future work, although we obviously wouldn’t be able to start anything until July.

Otherwise, I’ll be back in a few weeks.

Thanks,

Chris

This is a post inspired by the “Red Matter” Content Creation Club, from our buddies at Burning Red.

This week, we were challenged to come up with a simple “list” piece, choosing the top five to ten “things” that are related to our business.

This has inspired me to finally put together a “top five web apps” list, which is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while anyway. This is the whole point of Red Matter, to encourage you to make time for your blog, and I highly recommend it.

So without further ado… these are the top five web apps that we’d genuinely struggle to run the business without.

1. Nirvana

nirvana

This is a simple GTD task manager, based in the cloud so everything synchronises nicely between devices.

I use this application constantly. Everything I do, is listed in this application. If it’s not listed, it won’t get done; it’s as simple as that. If someone emails me and asks me to do something, I immediately create a “to do” item for myself (usually with a link to the Gmail URL for that email, which is very handy). I start every day by arranging my outstanding items into order of priority, reschedule those that won’t get done, and so on. It’s not a collaborative tool — you don’t assign tasks to others, or review group progress — but it’s not designed to be. This allows me, as an individual, to better manage my own time.

Nirvana is based on GTD, so it comes with all the features you’d expect to see; a “Focus” list, a “Someday” list and so on. Fundamentally, though, I just find it absolutely vital to have a task list to work through. I’ve tried many, many solutions, but none has worked as well and so seamlessly as Nirvana.

2. Passpack

passpackThis is a secure, online password manager, and another tool that I find vital. All our passwords — all of them — are stored on this site. Again, the fact that it’s based in the cloud means that all our devices automatically have access to the latest data, and all team members can access or add passwords whenever necessary.

Passpack only store encrypted data, using 256 bit encryption, so even if data was lost there would be very, very little risk.

I’m always amazed to see agencies relying on Excel documents saved on shared drives to store passwords, or individual developers running their own password applications and accounts locally. It’s essential for us to have a centralised password database, accessible remotely, and Passpack fits the bill. It’s not perfect; the website could do with a bit of an overhaul, and using it on mobile is a bit clunky. Still, this is definitely something we’d struggle to live without.

3. Bitbucket

bitbucketA technical one, this, and one that all developers will have heard of and almost certainly used themselves.

Given that we usually have more than one person working on a website build — either concurrently, or just picking up various tasks at different times — we need some way to ensure that the codebase is kept consistent, and that it’s impossible to overwrite each other’s work. This is where Bitbucket comes in, as it allows you to host as many private “code repositories” as you want. (If you have no idea what this means, there’s a nice guide to version control here).

Once you get used to working this way, it’s impossible to go back. No more synchronising files over FTP, or asking someone what files they’ve been been working on. Just pull files from Bitbucket, make your changes, and push them back in.

There are lots of other people offering the same service, of course, or you can host your own repositories quite easily. Bitbucket works very well though. It also allows you to maintain a small Wiki for each project, which is useful for setting out the key information about a website that everyone needs to know. They also have a very simple “issue tracker”, which has actually replaced more advanced alternatives (such as Basecamp) for our internal task management. Even better, it’s free, although to have more than five users (as we do) you have to pay a small monthly fee. It’s still extremely affordable, though.

Bitbucket actually had a few very brief network issues the other day (a rare occurrence) and we were literally struggling to get anything done.

4. Deploy

deployAnother technical one. Code repositories, such as those hosted by Bitbucket, allow us to maintain a consistent, shared, protected codebase for all our projects. However, there’s no automatic way to transfer those files to a web server (ie, deployment); at the most basic level, one individual user still has to checkout the latest version of the code, and then FTP everything to the server.

This is where Deploy comes in. Essentially, you give it the name of your Bitbucket repository, and you tell it how to connect to your server. You can then click a big button labelled “Deploy”, and it will automagically copy all the latest files from the repository directly to the server.

This is such an efficient way to work, we couldn’t ever go back to using FTP. FTP is a faff. It’s slow, clunky, and actually synchronising files — working out what’s newer, what’s been changed, what can be overwritten and so on — is a nuisance. Theoretically, of course, code repositories help with this, as you can be confident that the files you’re uploading are the very latest ones. However, you’re still unsure which files to upload, so unless you upload the entire codebase each time — which would take ages — then FTP is still fiddly.

Using Deploy, the process of uploading website changes to a site is quick and painless, so much so that it pretty much happens behind the scenes. (Indeed, for “client preview” sites, we usually configure deploy to automatically copy files as soon as we commit them to the repository, which removes any manual steps completely). Reverting to FTP would be a huge retrograde step.

5. Crunch

crunchNot a technical one, this, and arguably not even a web app. However, it is another online service that has removed a huge amount of time-consuming administration and legwork from our normal working day.

Crunch are online accountants, meaning that they provide a full accountancy service. If you have a full Crunch account, you don’t need a separate accountant (indeed, we moved to Crunch from our previous accountants some years ago). However, not only do they manage your accounts, they also give you access to a very comprehensive website that allows you to:

  • Issue invoices
  • File expenses
  • Pay your VAT, PAYE and Corporation Tax bills
  • Review your income, outgoings, tax liabilities and so on

For us, the ability to issue invoices and file expenses directly from the website is brilliant. We no longer have to create an invoice separately, and then make sure that we’ve sent a copy of that invoice to our accountant. Because we issue invoices directly through Crunch, they’re automatically filed with the accountant, so they’re automatically added to our tax record and so on. Crunch then makes it easy to see what invoices are owning, which are overdue and so on.

Similarly, recording expenses in the system means that there’s no separate paperwork, no envelope of receipts to stuff and send off by post. Crunch even have an app called “Snap” that allows you to take photographs of your receipts using your phone, and file them automatically.

Managing our accounts with our old accountants was painful, a slow system of updating an Excel spreadsheet like it was 1996. Crunch’s web app makes everything really easy.

Note: the link to Crunch here is a referral link, which rewards us if anyone happens to subsequently sign up. However, this has no bearing on my recommendation; Crunch are excellent and I don’t know why anyone would use anyone else. If you want a standard link with no referral code, though, it’s http://www.crunch.co.uk/.

OK, hands up. When it comes to Twitter, agencies in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. I’m not massively happy with our Twitter feed as it stands. It’s an odd mix of industry news, technical PHP tips, and a few random non-work things that amuse or interest me. I also find it hard to strike the balance between tweeting as “the company”, and tweeting as an individual (I think this is quite a common problem for small agencies). I’m working on it.

Having said that, these are the top five tweets from marketing agencies that always make me think, “Oh, come on — you really should get Twitter by now”.

1. “Morning! How was everyone’s weekend?!”

A schoolboy error: you have confused Twitter with “text messaging”, or perhaps, “greeting your co-workers”. What is the point of this tweet? Are you actually interested? Really? Are you expecting a hundred different replies? Mine was fine, thanks, quite busy running around after the kids but all good fun. You? Will you then reply with a summary of your own weekend? Nobody gains anything from this exchange. Nobody follows you in order to be asked how their weekend was, unless they’re extremely lonely.

Invariably, no-one replies to these tweets. I always want to respond after a few hours with a photo of some tumbleweeds, but never dare.

2. “Today’s Google Doodle”.

Last I checked, Google was the world’s most popular search engine by a huge margin, with about eight trillion searches a second. It’s probably the first page that 90% of your followers have looked at when getting online that morning. They have already seen the Google Doodle. Plus, Google have doodles all the time now, it’s not even news. You may as well tweet, “The sun is in the sky”. Yes, we know. We’re looking at it right now. Cheers.

3. A popular meme, posted about five days too late.

“Check out this baby being snatched by an eagle!!” Yeah, we checked that out on Monday, when every other man and his dog tweeted the same link. Then we found out on Wednesday that it was faked. It’s Friday now. This is the Internet. Today’s news is pretty much today’s fish-and-chip wrapper. You may as well retweet your equally pointless “How was everyone’s weekend?” tweet for all the relevance this has.

4. “Great week last week, two big client wins!”

This is maybe a bit of a harsh one — after all, what is Twitter for if not self-promotion? — but to me, this always just sounds a little too smug. If you’re working with some nice clients, or have started an interesting project, tell us what it is. Even if you can’t name names, you can add some substance. Whooping about your latest wins tells us nothing; for all we know, you’re making it up and you haven’t won anything for months.

Tweeting “Yay for us!” is the Twitter equivalent of the Facebook status “Rubbish day today :-(“. It’s designed purely to elicit a response (“U OK hun?”), to which you can tap your nose and appear mysterious, secretly hoping people will ask more. We won’t.

5. “Don’t miss our latest TV advert tonight!”

This one is baffling. “Make sure you tune in for our latest dog food commercial, 7:15 tonight during Cowboy Builders on Five“. Seriously? Newsflash, no-one enjoys watching TV adverts. I’m not sure people even enjoy watching TV much nowadays. One of the many benefits of downloading TV shows is that you’re not interrupted every 15 minutes by idiotic adverts for toothpaste. (Hey Sensodyne; if you’re going to pretend that you’re interviewing a dentist live, and wiggle the camera around as if it’s a handycam, that’s fine. Rapidly cutting through multiple camera angles is pushing it a little, though).

Either way, no-one — absolutely no-one — is going to purposely tune into a TV show halfway through, to watch an advert you have produced. OK, you will. Your colleagues will. And so you should, you’ve produced some work that you’re proud of. Really, though, this is an internal memo. Not a tweet.

A quick client update!

As many clients will already know, I have a baby due in about four weeks. This means that at some point in the next six weeks, I will be taking paternity leave.

The office will remain open, and any ongoing projects or existing commitments will be unaffected. I will also be checking my email from time to time.

However, given that I’m still very involved on the technical side of things, we will have to limit the amount of new work we take on during this period.

If you feel that this might affect you, please do get in touch so that we can help to reduce any potential impact on your business.