Frustrated with Zvents

[This has been appended]

I’m not typically interested in taking the time to talk about my frustrations with companies who I’d like to work with, but this is very annoying. Over the past few months Citysquares has been working on building some nice partnerships. Some are content providers offering a unique niche offering that would fit nicely into our site, and provide the users, or businesses, with some nice value-add.

One example of this is Constant Contact, the well known eNewsletter company. I’ve had the great pleasure of getting to know one of their co-founders, Randy Parker, over the past several months. Randy has actually become an adviser to Citysquares, and an immensely helpful one at that. He put me in touch with Alec Stern, their Vice President, Strategic Market Development. Immediately, I was impressed with the care and attention Alec gave to Citysquares. Are we a massive account for them? No, not yet anyway. But see, that’s not the point and Alec understands that on many levels. That’s his job. And it’s my job to make sure these kinds of deals get done, so that we continue to provide more and more value to our audiences.

That is an example of a good partnership, already. Even though I haven’t signed the docs yet, it’s just a matter of days, and Alec and I ping each other often just to keep the momentum.

Here’s a bad example:

Citysquares is about to launch some nice new features, things we’ve been talking about for a few months but have finally invested some dollars into. These aren’t world changing features, but they’re big additions for us. The work we’re doing now is going to lay the groundwork, technically speaking, for some pretty exciting features. But we need to lay the concrete first, which is what we’re doing now. So, before we can launch, eh hem, “user generated” features like events, activities, even our own twist on citizen journalism, we need to pull in some content in the meantime, RSS feeds. Standard stuff. I happened to be doing some homework this past weekend on who’s pulling events and news feeds, and from where. Upcoming is a big one, for events. Townonline.com used to provide feeds for their many papers, but they don’t seem to anymore. Undecided

Boston.com is yanking events from a site called Zvents.com. I spent some time on Zvents this weekend and was quite impressed with the content they seemed to provide – a lot of it. They’ve got some pretty nice filtering abilities too. And best of all, I can pull that query/filter from their site in a feed. Oh, well, that’s what I should be able to do. After spending about 2 hours going through the painful process of running queries, sorting them, and noting the RSS URLs, it turns out – they don’t even work.

So ok, they don’t work. Not the end of the world. They’ll fix it, right? Won’t they? 24 hours later, not fixed yet. I send them an email. No response. Still not fixed. I send them another email. No response. Still not fixed. I send them yet another email, and test again, nope – still not working. So at this point, I honestly don’t even care if they fix it. Why would I want to use them now? No thanks. Looks like Upcoming is our choice for now. Not a bad choice, especially because at least those work.

My point? Don’t offer a service that’s broken. And if it’s a technical glitch, people will understand, but at least have the sense to respond to their emails. That’s just business 101 – talk to your customers and users.

A few days ago we had a user go on Citysquares.com who added six reviews within a very short period of time. And let me say – she is not getting paid for that (at least not by us). I made sure to send her a personal thank you email, welcoming her to Citysquares.com, thanking her for using the site, and for her content. I did not hear back from her – but that’s ok. I did what I know is the proper thing to do. Recognize that a user not a “user” – they’re a person, with a pulse. And that person can very quickly impact our brand.

Anyway, enough. I think I’m a little sleep deprived. I’m getting testy. Good night.

Update on 2007-03-06: I have been exchanging numerous emails with Tyler at Zvents. It’s been a total pleasure working with him, and I can say that I am now a happy Zvents user. Although we haven’t yet launched the Zvents features on our site, I am comfortable moving ahead with them and Tyler has given me some confidence that these technical matters, as well as the communication matters, should not resurface again

My Truth about Entrepreneurship

You know, I’m a pretty high-energy, go-get-em kinda guy. I’m not lacking in confidence, hope, motivation, and dreams. I’ve been to the bottom before, and it sucks. I’m a little bull-headed. A lot of people have learned not to get in my way when I’m on a mission. It’s just how I’m wired. I have to tame that energy, harness it too. It’s also partly how I was raised. My folks were very good about supporting my dreams, no matter how strange they were. Although, at times, they questioned my sanity, and they were usually justified! So I learned some valuable lessons.

I remember, as a kid, probably about 10 or 11 years old, I wanted to earn some money – probably for a CD player or a new album, who knows. So I started a company called Helping Hands with some friends in the neighborhood. We were actually quite organized. I went door to door handing fliers to home owners offering to mow their lawns, rake them, shovel snow, whatever the task, we’d do it. Ultimately, my friends didn’t stick to the ‘business plan’ and I was left to do it alone, and I did, for a few months, earning some good cheddar. I kept some of those clients for a couple years, pushing my Dad’s lawn mower around the neighborhood. That sucked. Believe it or not (and it might sound silly) but that taught me some early lessons about pricing, selling and delivering the goods. After high school I worked retail, I shoveled driveways and parking lots for an entire winter, third shift. I painted houses. I worked as an insurance appraiser. I sold cars for a good while – selling new and used cars. That taught me a lot about sales, a LOT.

Ok, so fast forward to modern day Ben (do I sound pompous? Eh, too bad). The story of how Citysquares came to be has been told, and I won’t obnoxiously start on about my hopes and dreams for a better day, and a vision for a better future for me, my wife, my family, my community, my spirituality, and my time on this planet. Even I get tired of hearing it, even though I believe it all in my heart of hearts and that’s what this is all about.

Back on the point: 90% of the average Joe and Suzy Q can’t really understand this entrepreneurship thing. If you are an entrepreneur reading this, you’ll understand either from past experiences or from your current situation. Most people just don’t really get it. Some even see entrepreneurship as greed. As much as our society and capitalism makes entrepreneurship within everyone’s grasp, it’s only a vague concept to most people, it’s not something that can be lived by reading it in the headlines, or in a schoolbook. It has to be experienced. My wife is constantly amazed by it, and frightened by it, because she wasn’t raised in an entrepreneurial home. I was. My father was an entrepreneur, a small business man for many years, and long before I was an idea. His father before him was an entrepreneur, running a successful print shop in lower Manhattan for many years. My father and uncle ultimately took over that business. My mother was an entrepreneur. She was a court stenographer for many years, a grueling job, but she was the best and courts and judges all over requested her. She did this on her own, through her own little business. After she retired from court stenography she kept up with her entrepreneurial activities. So anyway, like I said, I grew up around it. Most people did not. Most people don’t understand it. They’re fascinated by it, and talk like they want to do it – but most never do and many live to regret it. Everyone has an idea, everyone has the spirit. Not all have the guts. Guts can be confused with foolishness, haste, even mental illness.

As a startup entrepreneur, who’s been at it for 15 months, boot strapping, grinding it out, with Bob, with Chris, and with my supportive family and amazing wife, I know all too well the pain that comes with it. Where there is a ton of hope, vision, passion, energy, motivation, inspiration, there is trepidation, doubt, depression, panic, hopelessness, and fear. Those later emotions are few and far between, for me anyway. But as the clock ticks, life goes on around me, those wonderful, elating emotions can sometimes become diluted, almost muted by the monotony of the days, the weeks, the months, and those big question marks stamped on every rising sun, and every rising moon. Thoughts of starting a family come flooding in, and sometimes I wonder if I’m just being selfish. Those negative emotions start to bubble up because a bill isn’t being paid, or sales isn’t going as planned, or morale is low, or that investor hasn’t called me back yet, whatever it is. There are those moments. There are many, many, sleepless nights. There are health issues too – really, there are.

Then there are moments that remind us what it’s really about – that refresh us, validate the vision, and bring it back into perspective. Those moments are rare, and they have nothing to do with dollar bills, or to do with any technology. They have to do with people, relationships. Events, like WebInno, or people who you choose to surround yourself with, who buy-in to you and the vision, and passion, and want to be part of it. Those people, the really valuable ones, are hard to come by. Very hard to come by. There are people who where the mask well, they talk the talk well, the say all the right things, but it doesn’t take long to see that they’re full of shit and they don’t really have it, like you want to believe they do. The real ones out there don’t really want anything – they just want to be involved, help, and see you succeed and even be a part of that success. But they’re willing to take that chance.

The passion we have here is contagious, the energy and spirit and tangible, and the future is bright and attainable! Sometimes these special people come along, they walk into your life, and in one conversation they can make it all better – put it all into perspective.

Ok, I’m speaking so figuratively that I’m starting to get annoyed by it. Look, it’s like this: Entrepreneurship is not easy. If it was, in the words of my father, everyone would be doing it. So true! No one ever can say that entrepreneurship is easy. Fun? Exhilarating? Wild? Fantastic? Oh hell yes! I love every moment of it and wouldn’t trade it for any other job. I mean that. But entrepreneurship has a dark side. It can be totally scary, frustrating, and one can feel hopeless at times, panicked, and uncertain of what tomorrow brings. I mean that literally – you just don’t know what tomorrow may bring. You can plan tomorrow, but you can’t plan for what tomorrow may unexpectedly bring in an unfunded, bootstrapping startup. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been blessed with 10 working fingers to type with, eyeballs that can read and understand code and the english language, very active and well exercised vocal chords, and a brain that just won’t stop buzzing – all – the – time. As a guy who loves technology, but doesn’t live and die by it, but also as a guy who understands people, what makes them tick, how to converse, how to sell and make friends and relationships, I’m truly fortunate. With these skills, I’ve managed to assemble what you hopefully see today – a startup Internet business that has a ton of potential and a very bright future. My colleagues Bob and Chris, my hombres, are still here – trusting me, through it all. We trust in each other, through dark times and bright times. With supportive family, friends, colleagues, advisers and mentors, I’m really quite humbled.

There is an old Chinese proverb, I believe, that goes like this:

The temptation to quit will be greatest just before you are about to succeed.

I have felt that temptation, I think I just went through it, over the past couple of weeks. I believe that I’ve just turned that corner and I’m now staring success straight in the face.

User Reviews

I’m going way out on a limb here, and surely many of you may disagree with me, but I feel pretty strongly about this, as a serious consumer and as a serious business person running a startup that connects consumers with local merchants.

Greg Sterling posted an interesting piece on his blog today titled “Opportunity: Online Reputation Management.” I can’t debate the logic here and the basic point that it makes, but I think that the reality of user reviews and how they may or may not influence consumerism is much deeper than indicated. I also think that the user-review value proposition for small, local merchants is not a strong one.

Citysquares.com offers users with the ability to write reviews for local merchants. An interesting example of this is for a new coffee house in Central Square Cambridge, called Andala. It’s probably the best example you’ll get in any urbanized area of the typical small business just getting off the ground. They’re not a Citysquares.com customer (yet). I’ve been there, with my wife, and Chris has been there a few times. I really enjoyed my experience there, and I posted a review. Why? For two reasons: 1, because I truly enjoyed my experience so much, I found the atmosphere, the coffee (I’m a coffee fanatic), and the pastries and so forth very good and it reminded me of my visit to Beirut Lebanon a couple years ago. My wife also really enjoyed it. That experience was, on a scale of 1 to 10, a 9. That’s how strongly I felt about Andala so I posted a review, once I returned home. The second reason is because I want their business and I genuinely want to help them succeed.

Here’s the problem. I am founder and CEO of Citysquares.com, and for better or worse, I only post reviews for local businesses when I feel strongly compelled. I think I’m a typical consumer too – discerning, choosey, but reasonable. I believe that I am like the vast majority of consumers, of all ages.

Ask your friends, ask your family – how many of them add reviews for local businesses? How many of them make a choice to shop at local merchant A vs. local merchant B because of some stranger’s review? I think you’ll find the answer, as we have found, to be not too surprising – that it plays a very insignificant role in local consumerism. But let me stipulate one very significant factors: I’m speaking about local merchants – not products! I’ll get back to that in a moment.

Here’s what I’ve concluded about reviews for local merchants: For the most part, their nice to have, their moderately helpful for a small slice of the consumer market, but by and large, most consumers don’t find reviews of local businesses really all that relevant or meaningful. However, that whole reality gets flipped over on it’s head with one simple difference, and that difference is the almighty dollar. How much cheddar do I plan on spending? That’s the critical factor here.

Whether it’s for a local shoe store, pizza pie, a bar, or for the closest Bank of America, user reviews just don’t carry much weight with the typical, and more importantly, LOCAL consumer.

Now, let’s say I was going to take Ali out for a nice dinner, perhaps within a 30 minute radius of home, somewhere we’ve never been? I plan on dropping a little more loot, having a bottle of wine, in a quiet, romantic atmosphere. Suddenly what other people have to say means more to me. Even still, for me, unless the reviews are dramatically, and powerfully positive or negative, they don’t really impact my decision that much. I can’t think of any situation that user reviews would have a really big impact on my local shopping behavior. Ultimately, I’m looking for X, and I’m looking for it here.

Additionally, part of the fun I have shopping locally is having my own experience – not basing my decision on a stranger’s opinion. Ah, now that opens up a whole new topic doesn’t it – Trust. That’s where this is going? Well, not today.

Back to products. This is interesting because here’s where user reviews take front row – here’s where they take center stage. Product reviews!

Just this weekend I had to find a new boom microphone for my digital camcorder. I didn’t want the stock Canon boom mic, I wanted something else. But I read some reviews on CNET, and sure enough, I made my buying decision.

Take my BlackBerry Pearl for example – a huge jump for me. I went from being a long time and loyal Windows Mobile user to BlackBerry. Before I spent the moolah and made the jump, I wanted to know what others had to say – many many others. I wanted a big sampling of user reviews.

Take my Creative Zen, a new refigerator, humidifier, bicycle, pair of skis, golf club – you name it. I want to know what others have to say – really badly. I bought some new golf clubs this past summer – let me tell you – I probably spent 15 hours or so reading what others had to say about a wide variety of drivers and irons. I’m not exaggerating – just ask Ali, and my brother and father.

Ok, what’s the point here? The point is this: I think user reviews are important for every form of consumerism, whether products, services, local retail, you name it. But ultimately it’s all about the mighty dollar and the impact on me or others around me. How much money I’m going to spend, and how much that decision has an impact on me or others around me. High spend? High impact? Reviews matter. Low spend, low impact, reviews don’t matter.

So if I had a formula it would be:

Total Spend $
—————— = Relevance of user reviews
Total Impact
(distance, pleasure/pain)

That looks more impressive than it really is. Cool

Amendment: Greg and I exchanged emails after he read this blog post and he reminded me of an interesting point that I forgot to address, and that is as follows: In our many many conversations with local merchants, be them in sales calls or for other reasons, local merchants are not terribly big fans of user reviews. They don’t want bad reviews written about them. Surely, they also need to understand that they have a job to do – and that’s to please every customer. Yet some customers simply can’t be pleased, and some use the Internet or a user review platform as a sort of anonymous soap box. Ultimately, user reviews will be a big part of local search and online advertising for the foreseeable future, and certainly that is true for Citysquares.com. But we respect the needs of the local merchants, and while we allow user reviews, we do need to take an editorial approach to them sometimes. Take Andala for example. The user jlobel actually used a word that we could not approve. We did not bar his review, we merely edited the word. If a local merchant believes we’re on their side, and trust us to take user reviews and that sort of content seriously, especially if they’re a paid advertiser, than everyone is happy.

Lastly, on Greg’s point about there being an opportunity for online reputation management for local merchant reviews, I totally agree. Whoever figures that out is one clever person!

User Experience

So my father sent this to me today, it’s a funny little bit about a book – the introduction of the book actually, and how it compares to the user experience of, well, the old reliable scroll. It’s very funny, and very well done. But what it really makes me think of, in the context that I live in every day, is website user experience.

It seems to me that with this web 2.0 transition that we’re all going through and adapting to, some developers and designers are trying to reinvent user experience. Citysquares.com isn’t the perfect example of a flawless user experience, but over the last year I’ve heard many more compliments and praise than negative. And over the past many months in my daily blog reading and in meeting with many other local startups, user experience is a big issue that many engineers struggle with. And let’s face it, most innovative web 2.0 startups are built by engineers. That’s a problem. Engineers are focused much more on function than form. That’s their nature. That’s not a bad thing, not at all. But without an intuitive user experience, startups are only creating more challenges and hurdles for themselves. A recent startup that I met with comes to mind. I won’t single them out, but they’ve got a moderately clever idea and have already gone to market. But their user experience leaves much to be desired. It was a big problem even for me – I like to think that I can adapt easier than say, my mother (who’s a great test case). If I can’t figure it out, my mother will only get frustrated and say “to heck with this!”

My partner and good friend Bob Leland is going to be launching his blog soon. And I can’t stress just how excited I am to see him join the blogosphere. Bob is a very very talented UI and UX guy. That’s his specialty and that is what his blog will be focused on. Again, although Citysquares.com is not the best example of his abilities or our vision (it’s a result of the limitations of our platform, for now anyway), Bob has done amazing work with the site and it’s only going to get better.

So without further delay, here is the video. Enjoy!

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Play Phonographs in Your Car!

Holy crap! Play records in my Chrysler! That's just too cool. Technology is moving way too fast.

I just love old technology like this. I'm always comparing these jaw-dropping inventions of the way-back years to things today that might be considered just as humorous and sometimes absurd. Someday TiVo will seem hysterical to us. Same with traditional keyboards, 1 dimensional monitors, web pages, wired telephones. Ok, you get the point. I'm not exactly profound – but this is fun stuff!

I cannot take credit for this picture:
http://crave.cnet.com/8301-1_105-9687999-1.html?tag=head

Brightcove Campaign Test – Add your own video now!

So another feature with Brightcove is that we can open up our syndication account to allow users to add their own videos, and we have the ability to approve or deny the videos. Naturally Citysquares wouldn't want just any random Joe Blow adding a video of himself flexing in front of a mirror for prospective young ladies, right? We want to make this a bit more niche, for our communities. So if you go to Redbones in Davis Square for a birthday party and you end up video recording some part of the experience with your cell phone, you should be able to upload that to the Citysquares Video channel. That's the early concept anyway. So knock yourself out, add a video – I don't care what it is, just keep it Rated G.

Click this link, and please report your experience back to me.
User Generated Videos

Update at 12:06pm on Feb 15, 07: Well, I am very impressed. I was able to easily add a user generated video using the above URL. Then I was able to add that video to a new custom lineup within the player. So when you go to the player now, you see two tabs at the top, a Citysquares lineup, and a UG lineup. I see much potential!

Brightcove Player Test

So now I've created and customized a Brightcove syndication account and all the nuances of the service. I have to say, I'm very impressed so far. I'm totally aware that it's in beta stage, so it makes the bugs a little more acceptable. Funny how a word like “beta” keeps my blood pressure in check. Their publispod application is slower than molasses. I consider myself to be a pro-am video guy. I've got Sony Vegas and I like to make home and family movies and get all fancy and slick. Publishpod is a client-side application that I must use with Brightcove to add videos to my player. And it took well over 2 hours for me to publish 2 videos. Granted, one of them was a 1+ GB AVI file, but that one actually seemed to take less time than a 24 MB wmv file. Anywhere. Here comes a test of their player in a pop up window. (I just tried the iframe version and it worked in a blog post preview, but it stretched my window much wider than I like. So Im doing a pop-up.) Hope it works! Here goes it! Click the link below. And please add a comment if you have any difficulties:

Citysquares.com Video Player

Daylight-savings in March, and You're an Hour Late for Everything!

Folks, if you use a Windows PC and use Outlook for calendaring, or any other calander application that can send/receive meeting requests, than you are fortunate enough to be facing some time-zone problems.

As you may have heard in the media recently, Congress decreed that this year (next month actually) daylight-savings is set to start earlier. This poses some interesting software problems, specifically for calendaring applications.

If you're like me, you're life is in Outlook. So, you need to pay attention to this. Read the article and then install the Windows/Outlook patch. I just did, took 2 minutes and voila – I'm fixed right?

Apparently other devices may have trouble. From clocks, to mobile devices, to who knows what else. 

BrightCove Video Testing – Feedback welcome

This is just a test of BrightCove's video technology. We're exploring a potential partnership with them and so far I'm pretty impressed. But I'm starting to dig a little deeper so I wanted to post a video and now I'm running a few basic tests. If you don't mind, let me know if you experience any bugs or flakiness. BrightCove's technology seems pretty solid, but I've come across a few little quirks here and there. I'd like to know what your experience is too. Of course, you're more than welcome to watch the video below – its about a year old now. WGBH Boston featured Citysquares.com on one of their programs, Greater Boston with Emily Rooney. I had 10 minutes to prepare! Let me know if you experience any difficulties.