Awesome App Idea or Wishful Thinking?

Leave it to me to come up with a clever idea for an app revolving around donuts.  With some family in town this past weekend we were in need for a quick and easy breakfast.  Bagels lost out to donuts, and the next thing I knew my dad and I were at the local Dunkin’ Donuts grabbing some sugary goodness to take back to the house for everyone to enjoy.

Now here’s the idea for the innovative app: one which allows you to see what kind of donuts are available at your local Dunkin Donuts and actually place the order online.  Think about it: if you have a handful of visitors in town or the office is in need of a mid-morning pick-me-up, how easy would it be to pass around someone’s phone and have each person pick out exactly what they want based on what the store has.  You place the order in the app and it is filled while you are on your way to the store.  No more making lists of who wants what, no worries about a particular store not making your favorite type of donut.  All of the major pizza chains do it, why not donuts?  Sounds crazy simple, I know, but such an app would be sure to boost sales and increase repeat business.

Turns out Dunkin Donuts does have an iOS app already but it just allows you to send an email to your office that you are going to make a run and compiles a list of what everyone wants.  With my idea, logistically, it might take a lot for Dunkin to tie all of their stores into such a system but you would hope that they are using some form of business intelligence already; i.e. glazed chocolate are the bestsellers on weekends, vanilla longjohns are usually purchased with a cup or coffee, etc.  Online ordering at restaurants is becoming more commonplace and the trend will definitely carry over into mobile.

Pizza…donuts…what other types of restaurants should cash in on mobile ordering?

Group Communication Made Easy: My Experience With GroupMe

groupme logo

Over the past weekend I had the pleasure of attending a bachelor party with five friends in St. Louis.  We had all been to St. Louis at one point or another but ultimately we were in a unfamiliar city.  Technologies like turn-by-turn navigation and smartphone apps such as Google Maps and Yelp make navigating unfamiliar cities extremely easy, especially compared to a few years ago.  Imagine visiting a city with friends 20 years ago.  Plans were made and then followed by using parameters such as time and location…seems almost trivial today.  I knew our trip would be the perfect situation to put a technology to the test that I have been meaning to use for quite some time: mobile group messaging.  I would attempt to define it but the definition would only lead to the sum of the definitions of the three words.  The best way to describe it is through a use case, such as ours.
 
So here we are: 5 friends in an unfamiliar city who are already accustomed communicating with each other primarily by text messaging.  Without group messaging the communication scenario for our trip would have been to text each other back and forth and have 5 separate 1-on-1 SMS conversations that are closed to the rest of the group.  Instead we decided to use GroupMe, one of the more popular mobile group messaging services out there.  GroupMe allows any person with a cell phone to join, create, and use good ol’ SMS to chat with a group.  When a group is created, such as for a bacehlor party trip, it is automatically assigned a phone number.  This is the number that any group member can text and it will broadcast to the rest of the group.  For those with smartphones (5 out of the 6 of us on our trip) we can easily install an app (iOs, Android, or Blackberry) that automatically routes all of the group SMS’s though the app over your data connection.  The app also makes it remarkably easy to view the conversation in an IM-type format.  If someone in the group has a feature phone (i.e. non-smartphone), such as the lone wolf in our group, they can simply save the group’s phone number as a contact and text to the that number to achieve the same result.  It sounds like a really simply concept and truthfully it is.  But it just works.

What was our result using GroupMe for the bachelor party weekend?  It was awesome.  Everyone was on board right away when I sent the email out to the attendees the day before explaining what it was and how it worked.  We were all excited for the trip and it even allowed us to get some jokes in before we met to caravan to St. Louis.  We took two separate cars and it provided an easy means of communication between the two cars, keeping everyone involved (except the drivers of course).  Instead of one person, in car A, texting another person in car B, all you would have to do is text the group and everyone shared in the experience of the communication.  Again, it sounds really simple but really cuts down on people saying “What did they say?” or “Tell them…”  GroupMe worked especially well when we inevitably split up late into the St. Louis night.  Maybe a couple of the guys would head to one bar while the rest stayed at another.  Or we could even crack jokes at each other across a crowded bar while letting the group share in the experience.

GroupMe also allows pictures to be shared with the group which we used a few times but probably not as much as we should have.  If you are using one of the smartphone apps, there is also a location feature which allows you to add your current location (using your phone’s GPS) to any group message.  While this sounds good in theory, we never really used it.  It was just easier to text “Matt and I went to the casino” than to wait for our GPS to fixate on our location and choose from a list of places in a densely populated area.  You can also start a free conference call at any time with your entire group; a feature we never really used but could be valuable to others who use the service.

It was extremly easy to start a new group either on the app or from a dashboard interface on the GroupMe website.  The settings on the smartphone app made it easy to customize a number of options, including routing messages over regular SMS (in the event data coverage is non-existent).  One of our bachelor party participants using an iPhone had an issue receiving audible or vibration alerts when a new message was received which was a little quirky.  Also, on my Android phone I had to manually poll the service for new messages; I could not receive them via push notifications.  I believe this is a system limitation in Android 2.1, not the GroupMe app, but it could definitely hurt battery life if you are polling for messages every two minutes.

Overall, group mobile messaging, in particular, GroupMe is a valuable, (did I mention free) service that makes it extremely easy for groups to communicate.  I wouldn’t mind seeing a few things improved such as the option to share high quality (i.e. larger file size) pictures with your groups.  As of now, shared pictures are of very low quality and if I want to save a picture on my phone that a friend sent, I would like for it to be the original or at least a high quality compression of the original.  It would also be nice to have the option to auto-share your location with your group.  This would all depend on who your group is whether or not your situation for using GroupMe warrants members auto-sharing their location.  This would of made it handy for our close group of friends to have a general idea where everyone was at any certain point.  Hopefully these potential improvements are on the radar of the GroupMe team.

The two big things I would like to know is 1) what other some other (maybe not so obvious) scenarios to use GroupMe and 2) any other competitor products I should check out.  Please share in the comments!

Some of my best photos from the blizzard of 2011.

Bye, Bye Cable TV - Cutting the Proverbial Cord

A few weeks ago I did what some might deem impossible or unthinkable: I cancelled cable TV. In retrospect it was long overdue.  With today’s technology and high speed internet connections, I can watch most of my favorite shows on-demand with little or no extra cost. Ditto for movies, news, and even some sports.  In the following guide, I will tell you how I did it, the cost savings and my impressions so far.  

Pre-Cord Cutting Setup - Our house has two TV’s.  A 42” LCD coupled with a soundbar/subwoofer on the main floor and a 50” DLP with 5.1 surround sound in the basement.  The TV on the main floor has a DVD player and in the basement we have a DVD player and Xbox 360.  We also have been subscribers of Netflix’s 2-disc-at-a-time plan for years and use their streaming service to watch movies on the Xbox.  Our traditional TV package that we had for the past year was from AT&T’s U-Verse.  A great feature of U-Verse is Total Home DVR, which allows recorded shows to be played back on any TV in the house.  Our channel package for U-Verse was U200, which was a pretty good mid-tier option that included all the channels we watched (and more) with most channels in HD.  The pricing for the U-200 package is$69/month (effective Feb 1, 2011).  We have kept our internet through U-Verse: the 6 mbps package, for $40/month.   Before I made the call to cancel the U-Verse TV, I put together the following products and services for a seamless transition.

Antennas Direct DB4 Multi-Directional HDTV Antenna

 $45/ONE TIME - (Official Site, Amazon) - An antenna hooked up to your TV’s still allows you to get all of your local channels, over the air, for free, the good ol’ fashioned way.  Lucikly, my attic was already wired with coax cable from a previous owner who had satellite. This allowed me to easily split the antenna signal to both TV’s in the home without running extra wires.  To my surprise, all of the local HD channels look better when received over the air than they do on AT&T or Comcast.  However, a HUGE disappointment is that the local CBS station (channel 2-Chicago) doesn’t come in at all.  Doing some research online, it appears a lot of people in the Chicagoland area experience the same problem.  Once the snow melts and the weather gets warmer I may attempt to mount the antenna outside on the side of the house towards the transmitter.

Roku XDS

$100/ONE TIME - (Official Site, Amazon): If you haven’t heard of a Roku box then you should check it out.  It’s a set-top box with built in wireless that allows you to stream video and audio content on-demand to your television.  The most popular channels are Netlflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon On Demand (see descriptions below). Like plenty of other devices, you can stream Netflix, in addition to other popular “channels” such as MLB, NBA, Pandora, Youtube, Roku Newscaster, Mediafly, TWIT, and Revision 3.  Roku is always adding new content channels and their continued success is going to hinge on their ability to lock up more quality content deals.

Hulu Plus

$8/MONTHLY - (Official Site): You are probably familiar with Hulu but Hulu Plus is their premium service that recently came out of beta.  While regular Hulu only allows you to watch content in your browser, Hulu Plus allows you to watch content on the Roku Box, iPhone and iPad (other devices, including support for the Xbox 360 and Android-based devices are in the works).  Compared to its basic counterpart, Hulu Plus allows you to access full seasons of shows such as the entire Arrested Development series, every season of 30 Rock, etc.  One drawback is that some content that is available on Hulu is not available on Hulu Plus.  Summing it up, Hulu Plus allows my wife and I to keep up with most of our shows from NBC, ABC, and FOX.  (CBS is not affiliated with Hulu and sadly there is no CBS channel through Roku.)

Netflix

PRICE VARIES WITH PLAN/MONTHLY - (Official Site): Everyone is familar with Netflix’s red envelopes and most probably realize that select movies and TV shows can be streamed to hundreds of devices including set-top boxes, DVD players, TV’s and game consules.  Although new releases are noticeably absent from Netflix’s streaming catalog, there are some decent movies and TV series worth watching.  This combined with getting physical discs delivered in the mail fills our movie fix just fine.  Although Netflix’s monthly pricing increased earlier this year, they now offer a streaming only plan for $8/month if you don’t want to receive any DVD’s by mail.  Now that Netflix has distribution nailed down, it seems they are moving towards more content deals, such as offering new episodes of SNL a day or two after they air.  I would expect them to ink more deals like this in the future. 

Xbox Live

$60/ANNUALLY - (Official Site, Amazon): Xbox Live might just seem like an expensive online gaming platform but they have really come a long way the past several years to offer quality content through partners and their own store, the Zune Marketplace.  Zune allows you to purchase and rent movies and TV shows (similar to the Amazon Video On-Demand service offered on Roku).  Xbox Live also offers Netflix streaming and has long been rumored to get Hulu Plus (hopefully this means I can drop the standalone Hulu Plus monthly subscription since it will be included in the Xbox Live price).  A rather new, but interesting feature of Xbox Live is ESPN3, the sports giant’s solution for streaming and on-demand sports content.  While I’m not a huge college sports fan, ESPN3 offers dozens of games either live or on-demand.  There are also clips from other ESPN shows (but no full version of Sportscenter yet.)  I would consider ESPN3 still a work in progress but the intial version looks very promising.

Cost Savings Breakdown 

U-Verse Costs (Pre Cutting the Cord) 

  U-Verse U-200 Package - $70/monthly 

  HD Technology Fee - $10/monthly 

  HD Premier Fee -$5/monthly 

  Additional Receive - $7/monthly 

Total: $92 

One Time Costs to Make the Transition 

  HDTV Antenna - $45 

  Roku XDS - $100 

Total: $145 


Monthly Reoccurring Costs (Post Cutting the Cord) 

  Hulu Plus - $8 

  Netflix - $15 

  Xbox Live - $5 

  Amazon / Zune / Redbox Rentals - $12/month (estimated)

Total: $40 

Time to Make Up One Time Costs: 4 months 

Monthly Savings Thereafter: $52 

* As I mentioned in the beginning, I was already paying for Netflix and Xbox Live before I cut cable so really my true savings by cutting cable is $72/month.

** All prices have been rounded up to the nearest whole dollar for simplicity’s sake. 

How It’s Going So Far - We are now about a month into no cable TV and all Hulu/Netflix/Amazon On Demand/Xbox and we haven’t looked back.  We didn’t watch a ton of TV before we cut our cable and watch less now.  Yes, we have less content to chose from but we still are able to watch most of the shows we did before.  We have started to use one of the queues in our Netflix account just for TV series on DVD and we are currently catching up on past seasons of shows we just started watching.  The TV series on DVD in addition to Hulu Plus has been taking up most of our viewing time.  We were never big movie-on-demand people with cable but surprisingly we have already bought several movie rentals through Amazon Video-on-Demand on the Roku box and Zune on the Xbox.  Amazon runs daily movie rental specials and some choices aren’t that bad.  FOX and NBC have been great to watch football on over the air but since I don’t get CBS I have been forced to stream games through my laptop’s HDMI port through not-so-legal sources.  A DVR system is noticeably absent from our setup but its not too significant since most of what we watch is streamed on-demand.  The potential cost savings of cutting our cable and watching TV through alternative methods was never the primary motivating factor for doing it.  Don’t get me wrong, its great to save a good chunk of money each month by ditching cable but it was more about the dissatisfaction of paying a lot of money for a service that we really didn’t use that much anymore.

Thanks for taking the time to read it and hopefully you found it informative enough that it wouldn’t be so scary taking the leap yourself.  This type of change may not be for everyone but as technology progresses it is going to be easier and easier.  Please leave comments below to let me know what you think and if you any other tips and tricks you would like to share.

I have included some links of resources that I have found helpful when cutting the cord.  Let me know if I have missed anything. 

Roku Channel Database - Listing of all available Roku channels.  Includes some that are publicly advertised or that are in testing

Clicker - What specific services you can watch your favorite shows on.

AntennaWeb - Digital antenna installation and buying guide.

Cord Cutters - GigaOm - Video series detailing everything related to cutting the cord.

Hacking Netflix - Netflix news, tips and tricks.

Instantwatcher - What titles are available on Netflix streaming and when they are expiring.

Resolving Customer Complaints Through Social Networks

Recently my family and I enjoyed a nice dinner at a downtown Chicago restaurant to celebrate a birthday.  The drinks were good, the food was better but the service was far below average.

During the course of our visit, I happened to check into the location on Foursquare.  The following Monday I received a reply from the restaurant’s official Twitter handle thanking me for visiting.  I couldn’t help but publicly reply to the restaurant on Twitter and express my frustration with the service we received.  Later that day, the restaurant replied asking me to send them a private message with my phone number so that they could have a manager contact me.  I obliged, surprised but also secretly hoping that the restaurant would take such action.  The very next day, the general manager of the restaurant called me directly, listened to my concerns, apologized and invited me back by sending out some gift cards.  Now the manager’s solution to my customer complaint is standard for the restaurant industry.  The situation would have had the same outcome if I complained that evening or had called the next day to complain.  However, the real win is the restaurant responding and taking steps to get my complaint resolved through social media.

Every business in America needs to realize that social networks are word of mouth on steroids.  Really, super powerful steroids.  If a customer has a positive experience at your place of business, they are going to brag about it.  More people are going to talk about a bad customer experience.  If businesses aren’t actively monitoring their customer’s experiences from social networks then they are already putting themselves at a disadvantage to their competitors that are.  As social media plays a bigger role in our everyday lives, it is imperative for businesses to not only have a presence on Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, etc. but also to develop a two way communication between them and their customers.  That’s the big difference between traditional means of communication and social networking.

I mentioned to the restaurant’s manager that I was very impressed that my online comment received personal attention and actually turned into an “offline” conversation.  It was a big win for the restaurant in my book and is a great framework for other businesses to follow.