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Building ZAPs!

Since I recommended you build an API into your service that integrates with Zapier, I figured I might as well give it a try myself, and not just talk theory

I was shocked to finish the integration without having to write one single line of code

But I am getting ahead of myself. 

Part of my skill up plan is to take a deep dive into automation. What a better way to study than looking at what the masters are doing? Or, in this case: Zapier. 

I’ve fired up their tutorial and was getting ready to crank some code! 

I have integrated APIs before, and if the documentation was clear and with relevant examples, I could get the hang of it pretty quickly and then extend it easily. 

As I am progressing through the tutorial, it dawns on me that this integration will be created entirely online, in the Zapier UI, by answering some questions and filling forms! 

My mind was going: “it cannot be that simple! Each API provider has its own interface or authentication mechanism… you would have to write some adapter for that!” 

No, sir! Not so! 

If the APIs follow the standards when it comes to authentication and passing data around using JSON, then Zapier has you covered! 

You answer the questions, you fill out the forms as instructed… and you’re done! No code required! And since there is no code required, there is nearly zero chance of having a bug in your integration. How cool is that? 

Needless to say, I am impressed. And I got another confirmation of why following standards is a good idea. 

Not quite like building with Legos

Even though I did not write any code, it did not feel like building with Lego blocks. But more like solving a jigsaw puzzle. Because the APIs are very diverse, you need to spend some time to connect the right pieces in the correct order. But since everything is built via filling forms, you have validation available and tests. There is immediate feedback if what you are making is not working as you’d expect.

I did spend two hours getting the final step to work. I almost contacted Zapier’s support to inform them that their builder is broken, but in fact, the problem was with me :). 

I had a typo in one of the data fields, and the error message I was getting from the API I was using at the time was very misleading (apparently on purpose). So it took me two hours to find that typo in my configuration and get the Zap to work. Take away here: please make your error messages clear; it will save you time in the future!

Just as with finishing a complex puzzle, seeing the success message was so satisfying. 

Why all the fuss?

Building a Zapier integration is so simple and straight forward that I can easily see AI building integrations and ZAPs in the (very) near future. This means that if you decide to provide an API that can integrate with platforms like Zapier, your service may be used in ways you cannot even imagine. The pieces can be interconnected in infinite ways to create something new, exciting, and why not: disruptive!

Keep on creating the new paradigm. 

New Normal – Collaboration Tools – Trello

Trello – The playful and pretty way to manage a project

If you are a fan of using post-it notes to organize your projects, you will love this next tool!

This post is part of the “New Normal – Collaboration Tools” series, and we are going to look at Trello.

Trello is so simple that it can be explained with just the picture below:

The idea is to use cards, organized in lists, to keep track of what is going on in the project. And the most simple version is to have the three classic lists:

  • To do 
  • Working On In
  • Done 

As you have guessed, you choose a card from the “To Do” list and move it to “Working On It” and when you finish, you move the card to the “Done List.”

So why is this so powerful, and not just use sticky cards on a real board? 

This series is called “Collaboration” tools, so that is where the power is. The Trello boards can be shared with teams of people. Now everyone can see the lists and move the cards around. This way, you can easily coordinate. For example, two people cannot pick up the same card to start working on it. Everyone has a clear picture of the status of the project by looking at the board. 

And the goodies don’t stop here! 

Each card can have its own comments – keeping the discussion always linked to the correct context.

The cards can have checklists – those can be used in very creative ways. For example, you can fragment the work further in sub-tasks, you can have a list of prerequisites that you are waiting to be fulfilled, and so on.

And the cards also have attachments. Attachments allow you to link relevant files to the card so the team can easily find them and access them as needed.

You can assign the card to someone, and you can set a due date

The interface is very friendly, playful, and easy to grasp! But make no mistake, Trello is not a toy. If you have time to dig into it, you will discover that it is an amazingly powerful tool. 

How to choose between Trello and Asana? 

If you are just starting with project management online, go with Trello. The free tier will serve you well for a long time. Asana is more complex and not as easy to learn. The only reason I am using Asana over Trello is due to my own resistance to change :). 

Automation with Zapier

What do you value most? I hope that your answer is: “TIME.” 

Time is our most valuable resource because it is non-renewable. Wasted time is lost forever. And it could be argued that the reason we work so hard is to have enough resources. Resources that will allow us to spend more time doing the activities that we enjoy: activities like following your dreams, working on your business, spending more time with friends and family. 

I don’t know of any better time-saver in the online environment than automation.

Automation means to identify and formalize processes for the flows that make your business work and then use various tools to set them on “automatic.” This way, they can work even when you are not paying attention. It is like having an employee that is almost free and never sleeps or rests. 

In today’s world, the leading tool for automation online is Zapier

The idea behind Zapier is quite simple and yet profound because of the market they are speaking to. 

What happens is that in the online world of business, you have your website, your store, your payment gateway, customer engagement, webinar, emails, and so on. All these components need to talk to each other. What used to happen before, is that you, as the business owner would have to create and manually maintain this communication, usually based on email notifications you would get from various systems. 

The alternative was to hire someone to do it for you or hire a developer to write a custom program that would automate these processes. Both options could get pretty expensive.

There has been a shift in the past few years. Each of these services exposes an API. This API allows them to talk to each other in a clear and standardized way. With this option available, you would need somebody to integrate these APIs. To connect them in ways that make sense for your business. 

Here in comes Zapier! The beauty of it is that they have put together a platform that allows non-developers to visually express their processes and to connect all these components in a way that makes sense. This flow is testable (which is very important, you want to make sure that your automation works as intended), and you have analytics and an overview of what is happening.

There is a free tier for Zapier, but I want to get into the paid one because I think that is where the power is. You may shy away from paying them the monthly fee. So let’s explore that a bit. 

The way to think about choosing a paid plan is to make a business decision. Would paying Zapier a monthly free enough time and generate enough sales to cover for the costs and then some?

If you get their $20/mo plan, you need to only generate an extra $20/mo in sales for this option to make sense to you. But not only that. Also, consider the free time you now have to do something else, and how much you value that. Consider the money you would spend on a developer to set this up for you and then have it maintained. (By the way, I am not an affiliate for Zapier, I am just using them as an example to talk about automation)

In conclusion, we live in exciting times, where with a bit of patience and thinking through your processes, you can build your website and connect the required components with no need for a developer if you use a tool like Zapier. And this excites me because it enables even more people to express their creativity cost-effectively!

If you are reading this and you are a developer, then seriously consider exposing and API for your services and products and have them seamlessly integrate with Zapier. 

Using Visual Builders for your website

I used to hate visual builders!

They looked great on the demo page, but as soon as you would like to do something somewhat different and custom, you would end up fighting with all the constraints put in place.

Because of this issue, I would almost always design my pages from scratch in HTML code and CSS style. Oh, the power and flexibility!

In recent projects, I have been forced to use visual builders because the end client wanted to be able to update the design themselves later on. They insisted that it had to be easy, so I had to go the visual builder way.

What I have learned is that the builders have come a long way since I have first looked at them, and they offer great flexibility within the constraints of their design.

And the constraints are a good thing. It keeps your look consistent and makes it a breeze to create layouts for various screen sizes. That is always a big challenge when writing code from scratch without any design system in place that limits your choices but maximizes compatibility.

The Builder I like the most so far is the one that comes with DIVI, the WordPress theme. Once you get to know it, you can build exciting layouts pretty fast.

There is a problem I have with it, though. That is performance. And sometimes, the output code seems to be unnecessarily complicated, making the size of your page bigger than it needs to be.

So there is always a trade-off.

How do I choose between one or another?

For large projects, I prefer to create my custom template and design systems for the performance and flexibility benefits.

And for smaller projects, I will use DIVI or something similar to create the design faster and visually.

We go back to the saying: use the right tool for the job 🙂

Can I get some time back, please?

I am bored, and I want to kill some time! Let’s binge watch Netflix or YouTube!

I used to think like that in the past. But in the last few years, I don’t remember a time when I could get bored! 

There are so many things I would like to do, to explore, to learn, to create! So many things… and so little time. How can you get bored?

When I look at where does boredom come from, for me, it had to do with something that I did not care for: like learning in school about a subject that was not interesting to me or having to do chores around the home. Then I would get bored. 

How does this apply to web apps?

Sooner or later, you will have this realization. No matter how much money you make, you cannot buy more time or lost time. You can lose money, and you can make more money. But lost time remains lost.

Once I had this understanding paying for coaching and mentors and specialists made much more sense. I was living with the illusion that I have an infinite amount of time. That I can do it all by myself, that I don’t need help, that I can eventually learn! But that is so very slow! 

If you do enjoy learning, then, by all means, do that in some areas of your life. But when it comes to realizing your goals, it is much more efficient to pay for help. You cannot buy more time, that is true, but you can use the money to save some of the time you got.

Get a coach, find a mentor, hire a specialist. And if you can, outsource the tasks that are boring for you. 

A note about outsourcing 

It was challenging for me to imagine that someone else might want to do the thing that I am bored with. But I have discovered two things:

– some people still prefer to trade their time for money, even if they don’t like the job (and if you need to keep the lights on, I understand, do what you need to do)

– and, more interestingly, some people find boring the things that I do with excitement and gusto (like dealing with complex online systems) 

I am glad we are all different; we each enjoy different things. This diversity means we can collaborate in projects where we do what inspires us, so we don’t feel like we are wasting our time, but we are fully living our lives instead.

Spend your time wisely!

The Importance of Architecture and following best practices

As a young programmer, I was eager to dive in and get my fingers dirty as quickly as possible—no need for a plan or a direction. I knew I could figure it out as I went.

Fast forward some years, add higher project complexity over a more extended period, and the lesson became clear: sometimes if you want to run for long, you need to run slower and have a plan!

Figuring it out as I went worked fine for one-day projects or one-week prototypes. But when bigger projects came my way, I got to a point where I could not remember anymore what my initial think was, where was I headed and why, and how to present my idea to new members on the team.

Although nobody likes to write documentation, I began to make a habit out of it, and I knew it would come a day when I will thank myself! By now that day has happened many times 🙂

What would I tell my younger self?

Writing docs and making plans is not sexy, and in general, your clients do not care for them. They need working software, not documentation. But if the project is longer than six months, a few problems will begin to crop up:

– you forget why you took the decisions you made with the initial design

– if you will need to refactor your code, and if it is not well documented (and if it lacks automated testing) the job of refactoring will take a long time, and you run a high risk of breaking functionality

– by using best practices, you future proof your code – you make sure that you at least don’t make the same mistakes that others made before you. You will make new ones, for sure, but your overall code will be much more stable, easier to maintain, and upgrade.

In conclusion, there is a time to be quick and messy (when you are prototyping), but then you need to slow down and think things through.

Business Monitor App

If you spend long enough taking care of websites and making sure they work, you will begin to do the same things over and over again. Is the online store working? Can Google access the website? Do the emails go out as expected? Is the newsletter signup box working? Is my website up or down? 

If you have to monitor only one website and it is relatively simple, then you can do this manually, and it is also likely you will quickly notice if something gets broken. But when you need to manage tens of websites, all these tiny checks add up and eat away at your productivity. 

We live in the era of automation.

We live in the era of automation (possibly the age of AI), so there must be a better way, right? 

Yes, it is. 

Any repetitive action can be programmed. To help me out, I have created a web application that I call the Business Monitor App. 

This web app runs independently of all the other websites, and it is programmed to “keep an eye” on them. 

When an unexpected event happens, it sends me an email alert so I can take action if needed. 

I quickly realized that I could go beyond simple server monitoring and do some business monitoring as well (hence the name of the app). 

This improvement means generating a daily report with what has happened on the website in terms of sales, traffic, sources of traffic, subscribers, and social media activity. All this compared to the previous day. It is a handy tool to make sure that you are on track with meeting your business goals. And if any monitored index drops all of a sudden, that is a clear sign of a problem. That becomes highlighted, and I know I need to take action. 

The business monitor takes the guesswork out of how much revenue to expect at the end of the month. Or if the current promotions are working or not. It has made everything more predictable, and you know to intervene soon if it the trend shifts, and it looks like you will not meet your goals at the end of the month. 

On top of the daily report, the app generates a dashboard called “The Business Pulse.” Looking at that page, you can see at a glance where you’re at with what is important to you. Revenue, traffic, user activity, subscribers churn rate, best-performing products. 

Next, I have created some reports that go deeper into the data and link together more websites into aggregated reports. 

Why not just use Google Analytics for this? 

Simply because I like the flexibility of building the reports that are relevant to me and generate the kinds of alerts that I need to take action on. Also, because some of the monitoring cannot be done through the Google Analytics data, and finally, because most reports aggregate data from multiple sources: website databases, google analytics, social media and newsletter service.

This app gives me peace of mind that if something goes wrong, I will find out quickly. And not only that, but scanning the dashboard and looking at the historical trends, I can usually spot instantly what the problem is, saving me a lot of time in having to debug. 

How do you monitor your business to make sure you stay on track with your goals? 

Innovation is messy

A hard lesson I have learned recently. 

I like to be right. I like to be efficient. I like to do things the correct way the first time around. I would like to believe that my experience would allow me to do so. 

But some projects present an interesting problem. To understand the problem, let’s imagine we are the architects of a tall and spectacular building

We know how the building is supposed to look. We know what purpose it will serve and who will use it. With this information, we can start making our plans starting from the ground up. We design a solid foundation, and then we layer on top of that floor after floor until we finish. 

However, this is not innovation. Is following a well-established workflow where there are little to no unknowns. We can make good decisions about what materials to use where and a reasonable estimate about when the job will be done. We don’t expect many surprises along the way. 

But what if we have this idea to use a new material, and design this building to serve some innovative purpose that no one has done before. Now there is no way to lay down a solid foundation because you cannot answer the question: “solid for what?”. 

You may discover halfway through that most design decisions do not help you achieve your vision due to some unknown limitation that was invisible right until you got to this point. So you have to dynamite the whole thing, learn your lessons and try again. 

Large, innovative software projects are like that. The architecture you started with may have looked great in the beginning but ends up feeling very limiting when you suddenly realize you need to make a dramatic shift in your project, and your “foundation” does not allow for it. Tearing down a software project is free, compared to dynamiting a building, but you still won’t get your money back from all the work that you cannot use anymore. 

But not all is lost. Because in this process of trying and failing, you learn and you grow into your idea. You stumble into the things you didn’t know that you didn’t know. And drip by drip, you make the unknown, knowable. 

This “failing often” is a challenge for me to accept and work with because it feels wasteful. In hindsight, “I could have done better!”. But thinking like that is a trap, and it suffocates the very creativity required for innovation. You need to be ok with failing often. 

Now that we can agree that innovation is messy and it feels wasteful, what can we do about it? 

1. Don’t start with a big spectacular thing. Instead, try to come up with an MVP (minimum viable product) that you can build on (or next to) in the future. 

2. Budget for the messiness and the learning process. Make sure you have enough money to make the mistakes required to get the learning experience you need to bring your idea to life.

3. Aim for many small mistakes, so you don’t make one massive “end of game” mistake. This idea expands on (1) above. Move fast, but take small steps. This approach will make it easier to backtrack and change direction. Significant commitments are giant leaps forward that give you less flexibility to turn around. 

4. Don’t worry about optimization and edge cases in the beginning. If you do, you may end up doing tedious and lengthy work on a feature that may not even make it into the final product.

5. Try again tomorrow. Some days it may feel like you are getting nowhere, and this is all doomed to fail. That is normal. Take a break, go back to the original vision that got you excited and try again tomorrow. 

6. Be patient. You are playing the long game.

7. Once you have your MVP, you can start again and “do it right” this time. It will no longer be innovation because you have learned your lessons. Now is the time for the polished, optimized, and secured product. 

How do you deal with innovation in your projects?

Say No, so you can say Yes

My son was born two months ago. It feels like time got compressed. I used to be able to do so much and still have spare time.

But these days, I often find myself not able to finish doing what I set out to do. It often happens that I feel overwhelmed.

The new situation has forced me to look deeper at the concept of prioritizing your day.

A to-do list does not work.

Prioritizing is hard. It is hard because it is emotional work.

It is easy (and lazy) to say: everything on this list needs to be done today. It is hiding from the hard emotional work of prioritizing.

When you think about your priorities, you need to get clear with yourself about what is truly important for you. Where do you want to get, what do you want to accomplish, whom do you want to spend your time with.

You have to say “No” to many things on your list so you can say “Yes” to the most important one.

If I say “yes” to more computer time, I have to say “no” to more rest time, or I have to say “no” to more family time.

The truth is we all get 24 hours a day, and saying “yes” to everything is a trap. You are not being honest with yourself, and you are not brave enough to say “no” to distractions and to other “world emergencies” that have nothing to do with you.

When you work on a project, it is easy to want to do everything right from the start. From week one, if at all possible. But I have discovered that breaking down what I want to do in a list of priorities helps me ship the project faster and with the most impact. It also removes all the distractions I would hide behind. It shifts my thinking away from “what would be cool and pretty” towards “what has the most value and how can I deliver that most effectively”?

How about you? Does prioritizing come easy, or is it something that you avoid?

You have a great idea? Make sure your audience thinks that too :)

Some time ago, when predictive text typing was a “thing” on mobile devices, I had this great idea of adding the exact same features on desktop computers too. Just type in the first few letters, and the computer will make suggestions to help you finish the word. You would type faster and make fewer mistakes. What a great product, right?

I have spent one year creating and polishing the product, building the website for it, and also spent some money to have magazines review the product. 

What was the net result of all this effort? 

It was exhilarating to build this thing and overcome the tech challenges, but in business terms, it was a disaster. I sold just about three copies of this software. 

There is a valuable lesson I learned from this: test your ideas first, before actually building the product and service.

The good news is, in today’s world, you can test your idea for free and with very short setup time. And this post, I will share some tools to get you started. 

Social media

Social media is the most accessible medium to use and the quickest to get feedback on. Write a post about your idea, and ask for comments. Do you get any engagement? Are there any enthusiastic fans? Does it make sense to start a group around this on Facebook? Before you know it, you have your cohort of fans that will support you in building the “real deal.” And you will also have some precious feedback about how to build your service to serve your audience best.

A free website

Before investing thousands of dollars for a pro website, test it out with a free service.

WordPress.com is a good tool to use. Start with their free plan. WordPress is the one I use the most for myself and my clients.

Wix is another platform that has a free plan. I haven’t used it myself, but I’ve seen it working. If what you need to test out requires you to show some sort of design and less text, then I would go with Wix because of their powerful design editor that is not available in WordPress.

WebFlow is new to the game. It has a free plan, and it is aimed more at designers who what to greate outstanding pages without having to write code. If you are a designer, you will love WebFlow over the other options. 

Some important tips to consider

Intellectual propery

If you do not want to test your idea because you are concerned, someone else might steal it consider these: maybe your idea is not different enough, and that makes it super easy for anyone else to replicate? In which case, you may be better off pursuing a more innovative idea. Also, even if someone “steals” your idea, they don’t have you on the team with your insight, thoughts, and experience. There is a long road from an idea to a mature project :). 

From testing to an actual service or product

Regardless of what platform you choose, think about how will you grow if the idea turns out to be viable? You need to be able to export the content you have created for your tests. And it could be images, articles, or the design itself. It is always a good idea to document what you are doing for two reasons: if it has not worked, you will be able to learn something from it. And if it does work, you will have built a library of resources to help you launch the mature website/product/service.