Bad Business

We knew when we got into this business that, well, we were getting into business. In business, honest competition is good and necessary. It helps companies fight complacency and results in better products for consumers. But just because competition is good doesn't make everything done in the name of competition good.

We recently did a demo for a fellow claiming to represent St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas, which he said was shopping around for a new information system. The demo was just a low fly-over, nothing intensive or detailed. During the demo, our salesman got a funny feeling about the guy on the other end of the call. After it ended, we did a little research.

The guy had nothing to do with St. Mary's. We gave them a call—they'd never heard of him (and they weren't shopping). A little Googling, a little LinkedIn-ing, a little review of our notes in Highrise, and we figured out that the guy is the Sales Manager for one of our competitors. The company in question offers software similar to ours, and we've bumped into them during the sales process with some colleges. They've won some, we've won others. Fair enough. They're cheaper than Populi, and from the sounds of it, you get what you pay for—less-than-straightforward salesmen, development and support outsourced overseas, K-12 software shoehorned into a college setting...

...and, apparently, their Sales Manager is willing to lie about representing a college.

Now, we're not put out that a competitor saw Populi. That just means that we're the ones worth imitating. We honestly couldn't care less about seeing their software. We're just rather aghast at the willingness of this company to lie about representing an institution our industry is supposed to be serving. What must these guys think of their customers?

When we got into this business, we knew we were getting into something that had made itself obnoxious to a lot of colleges. This episode has hardened our resolve to be different—to just serve our customers, simply and honestly.

Recent Tidbits

A student at Visible School of Memphis, Tennessee wrote to us about how he—and many other students there—are using a Mac program called Fluid, which creates desktop "apps" for websites. Fluid is a "site-specific browser" that serves up one particular website; it's a great way to dedicate a spot for a web app like Populi on the Mac desktop or Dock and launch it separate from your browser. We use Fluid around here, too—it's nimble, lightweight, and stays out of the way. We like it. Anyway, the student wanted to see if we had a desktop icon he could use. Fluid defaults to use a website's 15 x 15-pixel favicon (you know, this thing) for the desktop icon, but when you blow up an icon that small, it looks pretty poor. Adam Sentz took a few seconds and provided him with this 512 x 512 icon, which you're free to download yourself to use with Fluid.*

Dennis Hixson, Vice-President of Pacific Life Bible College of Surrey, British Columbia, is easily our most-caffeinated customer. To show his appreciation for our development and support teams, he sent us three pounds of Intelligentsia Coffee from the roasting lab in Los Angeles, California. UPS dropped off a pound of Intelligentsia's invincible Black Cat espresso blend and about two pounds of a really beautiful, jammy Guatemalan bean. We love coffee around here—some love it as fuel, some love it as a culinary experience—and we're really grateful to Dennis for gifting us some of the best.

Our trickle of features continues. We released a Student Loan Clearinghouse report; it accompanies various IPEDS series in our preset reports in Academics. We added the ability to charge Bookstore tax and shipping charges to student accounts. Populi Accounting now accommodates foreign currencies. And Payment Plans have been slightly re-tooled to make them easier to use.

All the while we're still working on some bigger-ticket items, interface updates, and numerous other projects.

*Fluid, of course, is Mac-only. Google Chrome lets you do something similar for Windows PCs by creating "Application Shortcuts" for individual websites—check the Chrome documentation for full particulars.

What we've been up to

Wow, it's been busy here lately. So busy, in fact, that we've barely had time for this poor ol' blog. So here's some news about what we've been up to...

Since May, we've brought on some 25 new colleges, seminaries, and other institutions. We have another 5 ready to launch in the next few weeks. As I write this, almost all of our current customers are in the midst of course registration for the Fall 2010 Academic Term. At any given moment during the day, Populi is handling hundreds of users and thousands of students, much more than ever before.

This is a thick time of year for our customers—and so it is for us, too! We spent the summer training registrars, bursars, other staff, and faculty. Thanks to Adam Sentz's constant scrutiny and improvement of the interface, many of our new users have just logged in and figured it out themselves. Meanwhile, further improvements are in store for the look and feel of Populi, making it easier to use (and easier on the eyes).

Aaaand... we've been very busy designing, testing, and releasing new features. The past two weeks we've trickled out several items of note and numerous back-end improvements, constituting almost a mini-release. The new stuff includes:

Google Calendar Integration Improvements: Having built out Populi's integration with Google Apps, we're happy to announce that it now supports full Course Calendar syncing. When you add a course to an Academic Term, it automatically creates a corresponding Course Calendar in Google. As you add faculty and students to that course, they're automatically subscribed to its Calendar. The Calendar feeds directly into the Events on their Populi Home pages, and even includes assignment due dates, special meeting times, and so on.

Payments/Refunds Report: Thanks to feedback from some of our most thorough financial users, we built a report in Billing that gathers together all Payments and Refunds in a single table. Filter it to see different types of payments, amounts, and date ranges—and print the receipts with a single click. We also added receipts to the custom Layout options in Communications.

Online Application Enhancements: In addition to an email verification field, there's some new Javascript on the back-end of the Online Application that lets you connect it to an external, online marketing campaign (say, your Facebook page). It lets you (among other things) track "conversions" from your campaign to the application, giving you a better sense of how your marketing efforts are working. We're eager to see what our customers come up with for this—this, too, was based on a customer's suggestion. If you want to put it to work for you, the complete details are in the Populi Knowledge Base.

Our work hasn't been the only thing keeping us occupied. Isaac recently ran a triathlon (and check out these wild pics from his trailcam!), Mark's two bands have been gigging around town, and Toby recently welcomed a son into the world. Some of us have gardens, others are finishing their degrees, and one has a motorcycle.

We've been busy, we're busy now, and there's no sign of the busy-ness letting up anytime soon. Thanks to all our customers for keeping our days interesting and full of stuff to do.

Populi iPhone App Updated

The App Store just approved the updated Populi iPhone app and it's available right now.

Though anyone with a Populi user account can use it, the app is primarily aimed at students and instructors. The general idea is to give you access to the Populi stuff you'd want to see on a phone—calendars, contacts, and courses—and link it up to some of the neat stuff iPhone lets you do. For instance, you can look up your Populi contacts—and tap to make a call, send an email, or map their address. Instructors who take attendance on the iPhone get to use one of the simplest, most intuitive interfaces out there. Anything you update using the App shows up in Populi in real-time, and vice-versa.

The updated app includes support for iOS4 and the Retina Display, access to your To-Dos, and the inclusion of Lessons with your Courses. Go get it! It works on all iOS devices (iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad). And if you want more out of your mobile Populi experience, the built-in Safari browser apps on those devices can access the whole program. What's more, our last major update introduced a new, more mobile-friendly layout that we'll be rolling out to the rest of the program in an upcoming release.

Feature Requests

Feature requests inundate most any software company. Populi is no exception. While we bring a certain expertise and understanding to college management software, there are still needs we don't anticipate. Consequently, we might miss certain features or approach something from the wrong angle—and so one of our users has to tell us that something's off. We love that kind of feedback. We're not perfect, and some of our users have really good ideas that we're privileged to hear about.

Of course, there are things we don't develop because they just won't solve a problem—or might create a new problem. Some features might complicate the workflows we're actively simplifying and streamlining. Sometimes our customer requests fall into this category—for a variety of reasons. Their old software might have forced a workaround that they "can't live without" now. There could be an administrative procedure that Populi doesn't directly support. They have staff who need particular access to this thing but not that thing. And so on. While we're sympathetic to their needs—and we do all we can to figure out how to make it work—oftentimes we reject the request because it would mess with how thirty other colleges do something.

To cope with the deluge of suggestions—through our support system, over the phone, random emails from customers, other correspondence—we're now steering our customers to the new Feature Requests forum on our help desk. The forum, made possible by some enhancements to Zendesk, our web-based help desk software, lets our users submit feature requests, vote for other requests, and weigh in with their own comments. It's a great way for us to not only hear about what our customers need, but also to gauge the demand for a particular request. Further, it's an opportunity to be a bit more transparent about our decision-making process. What we do with Populi affects a lot of people, and this forum, we trust, is another way for us to communicate clearly with the people who have a stake in our development.

Our users can get to the Feature Requests Forum by clicking the orange help icon in Populi and going to the Knowledge Base. Adding new requests, voting for others, and leaving comments is all pretty self-explanatory... and our users who already know about it have dived right in. We look forward to hearing from y'all.

Does spam... work?

A friend's email account was compromised, and this morning it sent out the following to everyone in his address book:

I find a good website:
On this website ,you can find many new and origianl electronic products .Now they are holding sales promotion activity, all the product are sold at a
low cost and good quality ,and the delivery is on time .
It is a good chance that you should not lose.
If you need some, visit this website .
Let us enjoy the happiness of shopping.

Now, before you run off to that website looking for great deals, please note that something about this seems, uh, shady. Spam usually attempts to look somewhat legitimate, but this one doesn't even try. And even if you're one of those people—presumably such folks exist—who compulsively clicks whatever blue text you see, that double-dotted .com would crash your party real fast, perhaps giving you time to think about what you're doing. This really is a stupendous piece of work.

But it got me to wondering... does this stuff work? Now, this isn't the Federal government, which freely spends money it doesn't have on things that don't get results. Somewhere behind this email there's some sleazy organization or business or... something... that's paying people to write this stuff, hack email accounts, and put some kind of site or malware on the other end of that sloppy URL—and, oddly enough, is turning some sort of profit. True, avarice motivates some strange and cynical doings, and the kind of undiscerning malice at the heart of most internet scams could care less about looking attractive. Still—somehow, someone is getting something out of this, and it's probably money.

All that spam in your junk e-mail folder, all those Viagra/Acai Berry/Weight-loss pop-ups, all those dodgy animated loan offers—those most hated and reviled features of the internet, loathed by everyone we know of (including, especially, us)—they're of a piece with this poor little email because, for some reason, people will go for it. It's a depressing thought, but something about spam... is working.