With Brooklyn Cookin', the workshop that I held together with Chef Mark, this year's season is now over, and what a great final workshop that was. Both Mark and I found that we'll have to do a workshop along the same lines again next year. The concept is perfect: the target audience is couples where one half is into cooking and the other half is into photography, and here they have a way to learn and spend time together.
Even though this year is over from a workshop perspective, it actually isn't. At least not for me. I am going to spend most of November preparing everything for a smooth 2010 launch. My goal is to have everything ready by December. And there are a lot of things to be worked on. Luckily most of my workshop locations are already nailed down, some helpers need to be briefed, and then there's the whole registration process. I have looked into offers in the cloud, but there is no workshop/seminar management system that even remotely seems to fit the bill.
All I need is to manage the registration process and payments for about ten workshops. Internationally. With deposits. And limited number of seats. For a decent price. And no, in an economy where everyone needs to think twice before spending anything, I consider taking 10% of the workshop fees *not* decent, because that would eventually increase the workshop price by that same amount.
So in short, I haven't found a good and easy way to automate this yet. Which is why I've taken things to the cloud in a different way for 2009 and why I'm going to go even further in 2010. In short: I'm using online services and forms to handle the sign-ups, I have simplified the confirmation and registration process using Services on Mac OSX Snow Leopard, I use PayPal to handle the bulk of the payments, and I use my own time to keep it all together. Not ideal, but workable. The KISS principle applies. Keep it simple, stupid. I don't need a full-fledged database to handle a couple of hundred participants. Every participant ends up in a spreadsheet with a status field depending on where in the registration process they currently are, and if I need to send out a bulk mail to all participants of an individual workshop, a simple copy/paste of the email address column for that workshop will do just fine.
The biggest item are the workshop pages on the web site. This is where everything is supposed to come together in a nice and easy to navigate way. I have spent hours and hours to design something that ties together everything from basic information about the workshop ("why would I want to come to this workshop?"), the agenda ("what are the workshop details?"), timing ("when does the workshop start and end?"), accommodation ("what hotel is near by?"), navigation ("how do I find my way to the workshop?") and pricing.
Obviously I design this once and duplicate it for all the workshops, but the content will be different for each workshop. The overview, the detail description, the example images, the example video, the FAQ. And the language.
So I guess I better get busy and finally start tying all those lose ends together to bring you not only an excellent 2010 workshop season, but also a great experience when it comes to finding the right one for your needs and going through the registration process.
If you want to be notified as soon as the 2010 workshops are ready, please make sure you are on the newsletter (get the newsletter here).
Got a way to help me simplify the registration process? Leave a comment!
Warning, this is another iPhone post. No photography here. Move along, nothing to see here...
Every year I reach the point where I need to start planning the workshop schedule for the next year. This usually takes place after summer. And every year I find myself trying to find an application that helps me do that. A simple year planner. One that allows me to see the entire year on one screen, and where I can define time blocks and move those around on a calendar. Preferably it integrates with the calendar on my Mac. Shouldn't be too hard to find, right?
This is the third year where I've spent hours to try and track down this software. I would happily pay for such a software. But no luck. I've looked into project management software. Too bulky or too expensive, not elegant enough, or simply too big and complex for my purposes. I've looked into calendaring software. None that offers me a decent or usable year overview. Or if they do show the entire year, they really only show you the year but they don't populate it with any of the calendar information.
The situation is even worse on the iPhone. The built-in Calendar app is nice, but if you want to get more serious, it's pretty much useless. Look at the month screen for example. Just a dot on the days that have entries, and the day overview hidden away in a tiny portion of the window on the bottom. This would be a perfect opportunity for app developers to come up with great calendars, but Apple has put the kibosh on that by not providing a calendar API. That's right, no iPhone app can directly interface with the iPhone's calendar data, so all of them have to be isolated applications.
Google Calendar to the rescue!
And that's where my recent research weekend where I found the solution to unfreeze my iPhone 3G 3.1 helped in a way.
Apparently Apple doesn't mind iPhone apps to sync with Google apps, and that's true for Google Calendar too. So there are quite a few iPhone calendaring apps out there that work just fine using Google Calendar.
And as I have already moved my calendar subscriptions over onto Google Calendar and as it's working flawlessly so far, why not go he whole hog and move my main calendar over there too?
So my next steps were to a) find a great iPhone app that syncs with Google Calendar and b) move my main calendar over to Google.
Twitter to the rescue!
What a great community! Just a few tweets later, and @stke was there with a great app tip: Pocket Informant. Thanks for helping trigger one of the biggest calendar reconfigurations I've done in a long while.
Admittedly, it doesn't really solve my year-view issue, and it isn't necessarily a planner, but it solves a host of other problems that I've been having with the built-in Calendar app and it throws in some new and awesome todo features on top.
Introducing Pocket Informant
Where its previous versions seems to have had some issues, version 1.1.0 of Pocket Informant is one of the best mobile calendars I have seen in a while. It's not for everyone, it will require some level of configuration, but when it comes to my personal preferences, I believe I have found a keeper here. It will happily run in its own little sandbox, but if you are ready to switch to Google Calendar and set Informant up to sync that to your iPhone, you will unleash its full potential by enabling iCal sync functionality, albeit indirectly through Google. This way you can see and edit the same data on both the iPhone, iCal, and even online in the Google Calendar web interface while you're away from your beloved gadgets.
Pocket Informant gives you an agenda, a day view, and a month overview. Nothing special so far, until you see everything in action. Where the iPhone's Calendar app does its job .. well, in a doing-its-job kind of way, this one is on steroids. What I haven not mentioned yet is the week view, and for that view alone I would have made the switch. Why? Simple: Apple's Calendar app doesn't offer that. And for the way I work with calendars, a good week view is essential. In the month view, Informant will even give you tiny little time bars on every day that show you which portions of your days are booked. You can even opt for small text entries. And these are just a few of the cool things it does.
Generally Pocket Informant is highly configurable. Actually it might be even too configurable for some. Luckily there's a free light version of the app to find out.
But what really blew me away is its todo integration. It allows you to keep a todo list GTD style. With projects, contexts and the whole thing. Or do you prefer the Franklin Covey style, giving you the active, in progress, overdue and due items? It can do that too. If a todo item has a due date, you can see it on the calendar. And if that isn't enough, get this: this is not an isolated solution. It syncs with the cloud, or more specific with the Toodledo service. All you'll need is to get a free account there and you're set. Even better, Toodledo itself lets you integrate your todo lists with other things, such as Twitter. When I'm in Twitter and I all of a sudden I think of something I'll need to do, I can just send off a direct message to @toodledo and it'll end up as a new todo in my list. In Pocket Informant. On my iPhone. I have also added Toodledo to my iCal, so now I can even see (but not edit) the todo directly in iCal on the Mac.
There is a free version of Pocket Informant [App Store link]. The full version [App Store link] isn't cheap (€ 10.49 as of writing this), but after working with it for a day, I can say it's worth every cent.
Just for disclosure: I'm not affiliated with these guys.
What's even more interesting: After I have moved my high-volume calendars to Google and now syncing my calendar(s) from Google back to the iPhone using Pocket Informant, I can all of a sudden use all of them again without running into the low memory issue that killed my iPhone experience since the upgrade to 3.1 - something that I believe has to do with how efficient this app manages its memory. And it has to do with the fact that the Apple Calendar app stays open in the background - something that only a few Apple apps are privileged to do - and thus permanently uses a lot of memory if you have a lot of calendar entries, while Pocket Informant doesn't run in the background and frees up the used memory once you leave the app.
Calendar alerts are provided by making use of the push notification feature. Or you can opt to use Google Calendar notifications via text message, web alert, and so forth. Or in my case, I have added my main Google Mail/Calendar to the iPhone as an Exchange account, which syncs the calendar entries of my main calendar (and only those) with the iPhone's Calendar app and therefore gives me the alerts this way. I know I know, things could be a bit easier, but this way works just fine for me.
Shake to sync
The app is pretty smart about how and when it syncs with Google Calendar and Toodledo, but if you want to force a sync, you can enable the shake to sync feature, something that I initially thought was just a gimmick, but that I have come to like quite a bit during testing of the app. I'll probably disable it though after the honeymoon is over and I go on to use the app as a simple every-day work-horse.
No, this isn't the year planner that I was hoping for. If you know an app for the iPhone or for the Mac that provides that in an elegant way, please please please let me know about it.
What it is though is a really powerful calendaring and productivity application that - used correctly - will put a lot of oomph at your fingertips.
Integrating it with Google Calendar and Toodledo allows me a lot of flexibility about how and where I use calendars and todos, and keeping that data in the cloud makes it much easier for me to access everything.
And using the pretty well integrated GTD part of Informant, I will probably stop using Things, which I sill love, which I think looks much nicer, but which simply isn't as fast and integrated as Pocket Informant is.
Here's my very short one-item wishlist for Pocket Informant:
Please think about year planning, if anyone can pull it off, it's you guys. I'd love to be your guinea pig! But whatever you change in the future, please don't sacrifice speed and integration.
Do you use an alternative calendar on the iPhone? Let me know in the comments!
I just got an unhappy (or even upset) email from a fan. I won't user her real name here, so let's call her "Liz". She was complaining about the amount of promotion vs. content on my show. I assume she meant Tips from the Top Floor.
"It takes 30 to 40 minutes to download and listen to your podcast and read your website. Unfortunately for me, I have found that about 75% of your content is advertising for donations and workshops and less than 25% provides information about photography... therefore, I waste a lot of time to get little content. Also, I hear the same promotions over and over about your workshops when I am sure that I am not going to them. I try to skip through them on my ipod, but usually, I just lose interest and shut it off. Even though I have learned from you, I am coming close to cancelling your podcast."
Getting feedback like this always slightly gets to me. On the one hand it's great to hear from the audience, and this kind of feedback is worth more than any "great job" type of mail (please keep those coming too though, as my ego likes them ;)) because it almost always comes from a person who is passionate about what I do and who has the guts to speak up and voice their opinion.
I hear you, Liz, and believe me, I don't like promoting stuff on my shows. I listen to a lot of podcasts, and one reason I do is that I get more than enough advertising on the old media. If I listen to podcasts I want them to be clutter-free too, unless the clutter is a part of the show that I like.
There is one exception where I truly love talking about things: An example would be the Everest Trek. Things that I am personally involved in, things that are a part of me, things that I'm very very (very!!) proud of.
Then there are sponsors. Apart from the current Squarespace campaign I haven't had a sponsor worth mentioning in almost a year. I'm not sure how you get to 75%, I can only assume that's what it felt like to you as opposed to that's the actual amount of time you've measured. I am über super cautious in who I allow on the show as a sponsor. The only way I believe I can make this work for both sides is to only advertise things that are of interest to my audience. Only then will it be perceived as being more of a value than a burden. Believe me, I have been offered quite a few campaigns in the past year, and I have turned down almost all of them because of this very reason: they just weren't relevant to my audience.
And let's be honest, being self-employed and spending well over 20 hours a week (probably much closer to 30 actually) producing free content in various forms doesn't really pay the bills, so I don't always have choice in that matter.
But let's get back to Liz and her email:
"Regarding your last blog about "geeks," what does that have to do with photography? My career was in Information Technology and I get a lot of content about IT from many sources. Why would I want your opinion about who is a geek? I want to learn about photography from you!!!"
In the header of this blog it used to read "This is the place where I post my thoughts on photography" but I'm not only about photography. I'm a geek, I'm a musician (I'm actually in the middle of producing a CD for a local band), I'm a podcaster, and I've chosen this place to be my personal blog where I talk about anything that interests me, anything that comes to mind and that I think it worth sharing with you: my soapbox. Tips from the Top Floor is the photography place and the photography posts here usually get linked from there.
To better reflect this, I have now changed the copy in the header of this blog to "This is the place where I post my thoughts. Usually on photography."
And this is where I open this discussion up to you, the readership. Do you think this blog should be exclusively about photography? And has my show content really gone down the drain in favor of promoting stuff?
Let me hear your thoughts in the comments!