Interview with the founder of Bonzer’s electric car service

Earlier this month I met Ivan Li Huang, a fellow graduate of the MIT Sloan Fellows program, at a continuing education class at Sloan. We chatted, and I found out that after graduating from the program a few years after me, Ivan had subsequently founded a fascinating venture: Bonzer, a car-sharing service based in Kendall Square.

The timing was fortuitous. Ivan had just completed several bureaucratic steps, including getting approval from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to drive Bonzer’s small electric cars on local streets. The cars were ready for a demonstration, and I was there at the Cambridge Innovation Center a few days ago when Ivan and his team let testers take the cars for a spin around the block. I have video interview with Bonzer’s founder below.

I also took a few pictures of Bonzer’s fleet, which currently consists of cars manufactured by Zhejiang Rayttle, a Chinese company. They are electric cars, with a range of 60 miles and a maximum legal speed of 25 MPH on local roads. Believe it or not, the cars actually have 3 seats, although the two people in the back will have a tight fit if they are big. Here are some photos of Bonzer’s fleet:

Bonzer founder and MIT Sloan Fellows graduate Ivan Li Huang in his car
Bonzer founder and MIT Sloan Fellows graduate Ivan Li Huang in one of the cars.
One of the many passersby who stopped to look at Bonzer's cars
One of the many passersby who stopped to look at Bonzer’s fleet
Bonzer driver's view. Basic but standard controls.
Bonzer driver’s view. Basic but standard controls.

Bonzer car front Bonzer car Rayttle img_3694

The cars got a lot of looks, with some people even stopping to take a picture or selfie. And no wonder: They not only look cool, but they also small enough to fit sideways into a parking spot. Three Bonzer cars could fit into the space occupied by a standard car!

Ivan hopes to start a one-way car-rental service, kind of like Hubway for cars, in Cambridge in the next few months. Here’s an interview with Bonzer’s founder in which he discusses the cars and the business model. You can also see one of the cars driving at about the halfway point of the video:

 

Crowdsourcing book design vs. using experienced professional book designers

Earlier this year, I started a project to redesign the In 30 Minutes book series. There were several reasons for this, including:

  1. Dropbox GuideThe existing design, while eye-catching and effective, was beginning to look a little dated.
  2. There were some issues around placement of template elements, such as the large clock taking up too much space to fit in a long subtitle (see the inset sample).
  3. A desire to have a new, more modern look in preparation for expanding distribution of the series to retail and other outlets.

Every publisher knows that relaunching or redesigning a publication is a big deal. That’s true for books as well as websites, magazines, pamphlets, and other types of media that have a visual identity. Oftentimes there are restrictions or requirements associated with the redesign that require special attention, such as wanting to preserve a color scheme or design element. Think of the Apple logo, which has undergone several iterations over the past 40 years. For much of the time, the apple symbol has remained constant even while the colors and depth have changed.

For my books, the existing designer declined to take on the job — it would take a lot of effort, and as a full-time graphic designer with a well-known magazine publisher he did not have the bandwidth to devote to the project on nights and weekends.

So I tried using a design crowdsourcing service called 99designs. The idea is the customer pays a flat fee for a design template, and then designers all over the world compete by submitting bids. Here are some of my observations about choosing 99designs from last May:

The concept is not without controversy, and many experienced designers don’t participate — it goes against their beliefs about the client/designer relationship, the prize doesn’t come close to their standard rates, and there’s a real chance they may not win. But it opens some doors for younger designers, as well as designers from other countries who otherwise would have a tough time recruiting clients outside of their regions.

I liked it because it gives me the chance to see ideas from lots of different designers, and moves fast — the contest can wrap up in about a week. So I decided to give it a shot.

There were a lot of submissions and ideas from the designers participating in the contest. I eventually chose a winner … but decided not to use the design. It was good, but it was missing depth. It also did not seem so flexible for books with longer titles or subtitles.

Friends in the publishing industry were helpful in giving feedback and also recommending some professional designers. I eventually chose TLC Graphics and have been very happy with the results. You can see the new look in the design for one of the first books that will carry it, iPhone 6 & iPhone 6S In 30 Minutes:

iPhone 6 and iPhone 6S BookThere are other color combinations in the works as well:

Four new book cover designsThe old covers are gradually being switched out. For some books, the interiors are being completely revised, including LinkedIn In 30 Minutes. I hope to have the entire process done by spring 2016.

In summary, while I am glad I tried a crowdsourced service and the price was reasonable, for the series designs a dedicated professional book designer has worked for me each time I have updated the look and feel of the books (first in 2012, and now in 2015). Besides looking better, I feel that the designs also had the necessary flexibility required for this type of series.

I am happy to discuss my experience with 99designs and working with professional designers in the comments section below.

 

 

 

 

 

An action plan for telecommuters and their managers

Mary Meeker’s latest report on Internet trends was recently released. While many observers are pondering the some of the big stats relating to the size of the digital economy and the big companies that stand to benefit, I was interested in a data point that pretty much slipped beneath the radar. Buried on page 126 of Meeker’s slideshow was this finding, relating to freelancers:

Freelancers = Significant & Growing Portion of Workers @ 53MM People, 34% of USA Workforce

She broke down the numbers further, relying on data from oDesk/Upwork:

Mary Meeker Internet trends freelancers vs telecommuters and virtual office action plans

If these numbers are correct, it represents a huge change in the way Americans are working. Certainly, the data shows that freelancers are ready for virtual work, if tens of millions are already doing it.

But are companies ready? The slide did not break out the telecommuting workforce. Millions work from home on a full-time or part-time basis for employers located elsewhere (ranging from across town to the other side of the globe). But it’s a drop in the bucket, compared to the numbers of people who could be telecommuters if their companies allowed it.

As author Melanie Pinola pointed out in her book The Successful Virtual Office In 30 Minutes: Best practices, tools, and setup tips for your home office, coworking space, or mobile office, most jobs that take place in front of a computer screen are candidates for being done remotely. But not all companies are on board. She cited the example of Yahoo, which killed its teleworking program in 2012 because its new CEO thought collaboration and innovation were suffering.

As Melanie noted, “Good collaboration and innovation don’t require you to be within touching distance of your coworker.” If companies have the right team in place, and the right tools, telecommuters can not only be productive, they can successfully collaborate and innovate, too. Melanie’s book covers many of the tools and best practices that can help a virtual team — as well as individual contributors, their managers, and their freelance partners — operate at peak efficiency. She has also written Virtual Office Action Plans, which describes strategies and approaches for telecommuters, freelancers, and business managers.

What’s the best home office setup for a virtual office?

I’ve worked out of three home offices in the past ten years. I’ve been able to get a lot accomplished in these offices, including writing a graduate thesis, managing a virtual team, and starting my own publishing company. However, if Melanie Pinola’s The Successful Virtual Office In 30 Minutes had been available at the start, I would have been able to get a lot more done in terms of getting the best possible home office setup. This blog post will serve as a review of the book, albeit a biased one — while I really did get a lot of useful information from Melanie’s guide, I am the publisher of the In 30 Minutes series.

best home office setupMelanie is the author of a top-selling LinkedIn book and writes about home offices, telecommuters, and virtual work for Lifehacker. She’s also About.com’s mobile office expert. As a virtual worker for decades (she started working from a home office in the 1990s) she knows the virtual mindset and what’s required to have a successful virtual office. It’s not just a matter of wanting to work from home, or assuming a Wi-Fi connection and laptop is all that’s required. She methodically works through the different aspects of setting up and maintaining a high-performance virtual office, starting with legal and technical requirements and finishing with a list of Top Tech Tools for home offices. Specific topics include:

Finding the best place to work and creating an efficient home office or remote workspace (Chapter 1)

  • Recommendations for setting up the ideal virtual office, based on the latest research.
  • How to use alternative offices such as coffee shops and libraries to get more done.
  • Four elements of a productive home office.
  • Ergonomics (or how to stay healthy)
  • Must-have supplies for your home or mobile office.

Learning strategies to help you work more effectively on your own and as a virtual team member (Chapters 2 & 3)

  • How to ward off roommates, spouses, children, pets, phone calls, and other daily distractions.
  • Crucial time-management tips.
  • How to work well with other virtual team members.
  • Best practices for effective communication across a distributed team.
  • Dealing with resentful coworkers.
  • Coping with isolation.

Using technology to help you stay productive and connected (Chapter 4)

  • Useful apps for real-time collaboration.
  • Software that can make you work more efficiently.
  • How to secure your digital data.

Applying the tips for the best home office setup

Reading Melanie’s book, I immediately picked up some tips that I could apply right away to my home office setup. They included installing a door to keep out family distractions (especially in the evening, when I am most productive) and dusting off an old space heater to keep my home office warm in the winter months (much cheaper than cranking up the heat for the entire house). The recommended applications included a few that I want to explore further, including Slack. There was also an extensive list of tools and apps relating to coworking spaces, which is a popular mode of work these days (see my review of the Cambridge CIC).

This new book practically pays for itself, in terms of the increased productivity and better insights into virtual offices. Whether you are a freelancer, consultant, small business owner, or are interested in telecommuting, this is a wonderful and effective guide for getting the most out of your home office.

Zuckerberg can speak Mandarin. Why can’t Rupert Murdoch or other foreign expats in China?

Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder and CEO of Facebook, did something remarkable at Tsinghua University this week. He had a 30-minute Q&A with faculty and students, and most of it was in passable Mandarin (the video was posted on Facebook, unfortunately I can’t embed it here). His example raises the question of why other foreign expats — including high-profile CEOs such as Rupert Murdoch – can’t speak Mandarin.

I learned Mandarin as a young adult, living in Taiwan and taking classes for about 10 hours per week. It took about 6 months to get to the level of vocabulary that Mark is using, and another 6 months to get to the point where I could handle a job interview.

Mandarin syntax is surprisingly easy, with no articles or weird things like irregular verbs or messy conjugations. The tones throw people off, and the written characters are extremely difficult to learn (at least for Westerners; Japanese, who have exposure to Chinese characters, do quite well at reading and writing). Fortunately, there is a Romanization/phonetic system called pinyin that makes it quite easy to get started with pronunciation and tones.

Zuckerberg can speak Mandarin. Why can’t Rupert Murdoch or other foreign expats in China?
Mark Zuckerberg speaking Mandarin at Tsinghua University

Yes, Mark is speaking with a very heavy accent and needs to work on his tones. But the fact that Mark was able to get to this level without living in China (he says he’s only visited 4 times, although it sounds like he’s able to practice with family members, including his wife’s paternal grandmother) is very impressive. According to the LA Times, he started learning Mandarin about five years ago:

Several news accounts at the time said he took morning lessons at his kitchen table with a tutor. Zuckerberg’s wife, Priscilla Chan, whom he met at Harvard University and married in 2012, grew up in the United States as the daughter of immigrants and spoke Cantonese at home.

I think many Chinese citizens would be right to ask, if the busy CEO of a major American company who seldom visits China can learn Mandarin, why do many foreign businesspeople who have lived in China for years fail to learn the language?

Expat business leaders in China who can’t speak Chinese

Case in point: Rupert Murdoch. He was married to a Chinese woman for years, owns (or owned) a house in Beijing, and had significant business interests in China. Yet he did not learn how to speak Mandarin, according to his ex-wife, Wendi Deng.

For that matter, there are millions of foreign expats living in other countries who never bother to learn the language, despite having opportunities to take classes (or study with a tutor) and practice every day with their colleagues, neighbors, and shopkeepers.

Certainly, there are circumstances which may make study difficult. The ones that I heard a lot when I lived in Taiwan were, “I am only stationed here for a few years” or “I don’t have time.” However, practically anyone can make the effort to hire a private tutor for a few hours per week. And even if you are only in-country for two or three years, why wouldn’t you want to make a real effort to learn at least basic conversation, to better communicate with the people around you, including employees, partners, local officials, etc.?

Solving the Twitter retention problem

Solving the Twitter retention problem, one reader at a time

This week, I released the second edition of Twitter In 30 Minutes. It’s a Twitter book that covers the basics, starting with registration and working its way up to more advanced features such as hashtags and lists. In this post, I would like to talk about a surprising research finding about Twitter retention data that I stumbled upon while preparing the latest edition.

This Wall Street Journal blog post from April highlighted the Twitter retention data, which had been gathered by Dutch firm Twopcharts:

A report from Twopcharts, a website that monitors Twitter account activity, states that about 44% of the 974 million existing Twitter accounts have never sent a tweet.

An earlier WSJ blog post based on Twopcharts data noted that only 11% of the Twitter accounts created in 2012 were still tweeting more than a year later. Twitter subsequently restricted Twopcharts’ access to Twitter data, and a senior executive later claimed Twitter was “happy” many users decided not to tweet — in other words, Twitter viewed some of this inactive population as passive consumers of Twitter, rather than active participants.

Regardless of Twitter’s spin, Twitter has had a problem for years getting people to participate in the service after they’ve signed up. Despite adding tips and constant reminders to tweet and follow other accounts, lots of users have trouble figuring out what to do once they are plunked down in a firehose of short messages, random photos, trending topics, and mysterious Twitter syntax. As the WSJ blogger indicated, millions simply give up.

Solving the Twitter retention problem, one reader at a time

Some of them ended up coming to my Twitter guide. While the first edition of Twitter In 30 Minutes targeted totally new users, I found out that many of my readers already had accounts, and had trouble getting the hang of Twitter. They used the guide to boost their efforts and figure out the more confusing elements of the service.

For the second edition of Twitter In 30 Minutes, I wanted to make sure that I served these two audiences (totally new users, vs. people who already have an account). I tightened the focus around these three elements:

  1. The importance of a good network on Twitter.
  2. How engagement takes place, using examples from real life.
  3. Best practices for creating Tweets, posting photos, and participating in discussions

I also completely redid the screenshots. Many of the first edition screenshots were rendered obsolete after Twitter updated its interface earlier this year.

Google support falls short when it comes to Google Blogger custom domains

Google blogger custom domains support
Earlier this year I published a short “how-to” blog post titled How to renew a Blogger custom domain through Google Apps. I’m mentioning it here, not only because it’s a useful resource for anyone who purchased a custom domain through Google’s Blogger service in recent years, but also because it points to a problem with Google support.

Google has a myriad of wonderful products, ranging from basic search to advanced tools such as Google Earth. I use many of them every day, and even wrote a Google Docs for Dummies substitute. But the fact that I even had to write such a title indicates that Google’s interface design and online support resources don’t work well for everyone.

For instance, Google Blogger has thousands of support articles and forum posts scattered all over the net, as well as related resources from Google Apps and other tools that interface with Blogger. But when it came time for me to renew a Blogger custom domain that I had purchased through Google in 2012, these help resources were useless. I simply couldn’t find what I was looking for to help me access the control panel for my domain.

Contacting a live Google employee for Blogger custom domains support

As described in my blog post, I eventually found a contact form and asked how I could proceed with the renewal. To my surprise (Google has a reputation for limiting contact with actual Google employees) someone responded within 12 hours, with an answer for my problem. It worked! I posted the solution on my blog, so other people in the same predicament could help themselves.

Some people might say that the fact I got a response from a real Google employee so quickly is a sign that Google support is actually quite strong. But I suspect the only reason I got any support was because I was A) using a paid feature (custom domain purchase) and B) it was tied to Google Apps, a premium service aimed at small businesses. The New York Times summed up Google’s attitude toward human support in this 2012 article:

Google, which at 14 years old is a relative ancient in Silicon Valley, is one of the few companies that publishes phone numbers on its Web site. Its phone system sends callers back to the Web no less than 11 times. Its lengthy messages contain basic Internet education in a tone that might be used with an aging relative, explaining, slowly and gently, “There’s nothing Google can do to remove information from Web sites.”

Note: Google has a new process for registering custom domains. See How to use Google Domains to register a custom domain on Blogger

Releasing the second edition of my Dropbox guide

A few months ago, the second edition of Dropbox In 30 Minutes was published. It’s one of our most popular guides in the In 30 Minutes series. In fact, some people mistakenly confuse it with Dropbox For Dummies. This post will get into the thinking behind the second edition of the guide, from content to production to marketing.

Dropbox on a mobile device

Dropbox In 30 Minutes was the first guide published in the In 30 Minutes series. Released in the summer of 2012, it quickly began to sell in channels such as Amazon and Apple’s iTunes store. The paperback edition, released in the fall of 2012, also was a hit. The first edition was downloaded or purchased as a paperback thousands of times over an 18 month period. It currently is listed as one of the top Software Utility guides on Amazon.com.

Not long after making the title available, I recognized a problem: Certain information tended to quickly become outdated. While the core concept of Dropbox — software that helps you sync files between computers and mobile devices — has remained the same, specific aspects of the software have shifted. For instance, the Dropbox logo has had several noticeable tweaks in the past few years. Of a more practical concern for readers, the interface for mobile devices — iPhones, iPads, Android phones, etc. — has been completely overhauled. The desktop program for Windows PCs and Macs has also changed, albeit in a more restrained manner (for instance, right-clicking on a file brings up different options for sharing or manipulating the file in question).

For a while, I made incremental tweaks to the text of the guide and simply updated the content files for the ebook and paperback editions. But then I became aware of two additional issues that needed to be addressed:

  • The “publish date” for the guide, which was listed on the product pages on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple and Bowker’s ISBN database began to look old. For fiction books, “2012” is considered “new”, but in the world of how-to manuals for popular software programs, a two-year-old title starts to look a little long in the tooth.
  • Older versions of the paperback guide were being resold on Amazon. I don’t blame readers for doing this, but the problem is a reader in early 2014 purchasing a used edition from July 2012 would be getting a fair amount of outdated information. This resulted in understandable frustration.

The second edition of the Dropbox book hits the market

Because of this, I decided to issue a Dropbox In 30 Minutes, Second Edition. I hired a review editor to go through the original guide and flag bits which needed to be rewritten and have new screenshots. I also redid the annotated screenshots of the Dropbox mobile application, and added new sections relating to Camera Uploads, security, Dropbox for Business, and more. I’ll continue to do small tweaks as conditions warrant, but I already have my eye on Dropbox In 30 Minutes, 3rd Edition!

If you are interested in downloading or purchasing a copy of the guide, please see the options on this page.

Startup publishing and managing early growth

At a certain point in the lives of most product-oriented ventures, founders confront a slew of growth-related issues. In this post, I am going to talk about growth in the context of startup publishing, and the challenges that my own publishing company i30 Media has faced over 18 months of growth.

Startup publishing example: In 30 Minutes guidesA bit of backstory: i30 Media publishes how-to guides under the In 30 Minutes® imprint, as well as several fiction titles. The most recent release is Windows 8 Basics In 30 Minutes. The venture started in mid–2012 as a Lean Media experiment with just a single title written by myself and distributed on Amazon’s KDP self-publishing platform. Since then I have incorporated the venture. I30 Media has released about ten In 30 Minutes guides in various ebook formats as well as in paperback, and distributes to every major ebook platform (Kindle, iBooks, Nook) as well as growing platforms (Google Play Books, Kobo).

In the first six months of the venture, I was occupied with figuring out the publishing landscape, expanding distribution channels, cranking out early releases on my own. While I was new to book publishing, I am not new to the media industry, and applied domain knowledge from magazine/news publishing, online media, and the mobile app space.

Startup publishing: scaling production

One of the first growth lessons was being forced to give up the “one-man band” idea. That guy attracting a small crowd on the local town common with a drum pedal strapped to his foot, a tuba around his waist, a harmonica in his mouth, a xylophone in one hand and maracas in the other is technically able to mimic a real band. But he will be limited in what he can do with his instruments (e.g., the xylophone sounds better using two hands than one) and quality ultimately suffers. Actually, let’s not beat around the bush — one-man bands sound terrible. Can you imagine listening to their stomping, honking tunes on the radio, or downloading the music to play at home? People enjoy one-man bands for the spectacle, not for the music.

I was a one-man band in the first month. I did everything, from writing to setting up the websites to designing the cover image. And I wasn’t doing it for the spectacle. I did it because it was cheap and I could do everything. But I could see there was a quality gap with the competing titles available on Amazon and elsewhere. The covers looked amateurish, and I was worried about the quality of the copy. I began to look for things to outsource, and one of the first was cover design. I contacted Steve Sauer, a graphic designer I used to work with, who was happy to take on the freelance work for his consulting firm Single Fin Design. His first cover, for Dropbox In 30 Minutes, was a big success. I decided to have him do new covers for other In 30 Minutes guides going forward, starting with the Google Drive and Google Docs guide and our Excel Basics book.

I also found people to handle other tasks, including copy editing and market research. But the big growth impediment was writing. It was quickly apparent to me that I could not grow In 30 Minutes guides into a successful brand unless I found other authors. While the guides don’t take long to write (I tell prospective authors that the first draft of a 10,000–15,000 word guide typically takes 5 or 6 weeks, writing on nights and weekends) there is so much other stuff to do when it comes to growing a business — marketing, expanding sales and distribution, accounting, dealing with production issues, etc. As i30 Media grew, I knew that I would have less time to spend on writing. The only way to keep growing and strengthen the brand was to find other authors to write new titles, including topic areas in which I had no expertise.

The impact of my recruitment efforts is apparent when looking at the In 30 Minutes catalogue. Of the first 5 titles, four were written by me, including the Dropbox book and the Google Docs for Dummies substitute. Of titles #6 through #10, only one was written by me.

Startup publishing: scaling sales

Besides production, the other side of growth relates to sales. As mentioned earlier, I follow Lean Media principles when it comes to marketing and sales. That entails lots of experimentation with everything from advertising to sales calls to potential enterprise customers. But it’s not just about identifying opportunities, and then measuring the impact of pilot experiments. In order to expand growth, it’s also necessary to identify which opportunities not to pursue.

One area which I have stayed away from so far is bookstore distribution, based on early discussions with (mostly disinterested) bookstore managers, an evaluation of visibility and competition within B&N and Staples, and the industry standard requirement that demands 55% discounts and the right to return or destroy unsold copies. I haven’t completely written off the opportunity (in fact, I have made many titles available through the back-end ordering systems that bookstores use) but I don’t want to spend loads of time fighting to get In 30 Minutes guides in a channel that may ultimately be unprofitable.

I have also avoided ebook platforms that have too much overhead, are weak on terms, or look like they could undermine or cannibalize other sales channels. I stayed far away from Sony’s ebook platform, owing to the way it basically demanded that independent publishers beg to join. I have also been a skeptic of Scribd’s ebook subscription service.

What does the future hold for i30 Media? Certainly, more guides and more sales. In addition to the Windows 8 user guide, I have a new title about jQuery plugins in the works as well as a non-technology title (still in stealth mode). I am also planning growth of the company itself. Already I have begun thinking about hiring my first employee. The numbers aren’t aligned yet, but we could see action on this front in 2015.

Harvard Extension School ALM in Management vs. full-time MBA

I received an email from a prospective student asking about the Harvard Extension School’s ALM in Management program. He wanted me to compare the ALM in Management vs. a full-time MBA.

In my reply, I noted that I have never taken any ALM in Management classes. My ALM concentration was history. But I have followed the Management program since it was introduced and have a full-time MBA under my belt, and feel qualified to make some comparisons.

Harvard Extension School ALM in Management vs. MBA: Where the programs differ

From my point of view, while the ALM in Management has a price that’s hard to beat, it does not compare with a full-time MBA. Here’s where I think the ALM in Management program comes up short:

  1. There is no cohort experience, vital for building a network that can serve you long after after the program concludes.
  2. Even though many of the classes are similar to those you would find in a business school, the ALM in Management degree is technically not an MBA. It’s a liberal arts degree in management (!). This fact may cause skepticism among some potential employers.
  3. Most instructors are not Harvard faculty, and there is no affiliation with the world-famous Harvard Business School.
  4. While online classes are a lot of work for students, they are not a substitute for in-person learning experiences. Extension School students have complained about some of the deficiencies in the past.
  5. Recruiters either don’t know about the ALM program, or don’t regard it as a good program because it’s part-time, mostly online, etc. Note that some recruiters view any part-time business degree with skepticism.
  6. Among recruiters, the reputation of the school has been damaged by HES graduates who have omitted their Extension School background on their resumes. In some cases graduates have innocently followed the Harvard Extension School resume guidelines, but in many cases there have been deliberate attempts to portray themselves as graduates with a Harvard MBA or Harvard College degree.

In other words, it’s a mistake to assume the ALMM is like a Harvard MBA lite. That said, I think there is real value in some of the on-campus classes that expose students to important business concepts. There are takeaways that can be brought back to the workplace, or help students shift their careers in a new direction. For students who cannot enroll in a full-time MBA program, ALM in Management classes are an attractive alternative.

Harvard Extension School ALM in Management vs. full-time MBA program
Harvard Business School has a full-time MBA program.