CRM is your Startup’s Best Friend

I’ve gotten some advice on how to run a startup – but no-one has advised to start by selecting a good CRM (Customer Relations Management) system. I do! 

Since April last year, I’ve been using BaseCRM and it’s proven to be a truly irreplaceable tool to keep things going. I use it to track “customer” communications, and making a startup is all about that – communications. And “customers”.

Why do I have quotes around the customers word? Because CRM is useful way before you have any real customers. You always have stakeholders. You have leads. And you have communications with these.

Until taking on BaseCRM I used the normal mix of calendar entries, email discussions and various text files. It’s fragmented, and things didn’t get done. What BaseCRM does is combine all these into nice, FUN dashboard-centric approach to whatever it is you’re trying to get done.

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Before finding this solution, I tried some alternatives. Salesforce was way too smart (ehem – complex) for my needs. SugarCRM would have been my next trial, but BaseCRM got there first. And I never looked back.

 So what does the magic?

 I like things where reading a manual is not needed. Where the features – even if there are many – are easily discoverable in the normal use of the tool. Nokia phones were like this in the 1990’s. Good software *always* is like this! It’s called discoverability. BaseCRM does it right. And it’s neat to occasionally notice updates s.a. recently the possibility to attach files to contacts. No big fanfare, just a new tile that I instantly know what to do with. GREAT!

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The BaseCRM attachment tile that I noticed the other day. You always use the latest full version.

So what does it cost?

Another reason for the awesomeness of the product is that it’s essentially free. Well – if you use it as a startup. Their business model is based on taking a slight margin for each ‘deal’ you close. So when you make money, some of that goes to BaseCRM that helped you close the deal to begin with. I doubt there’s a more fair business model than this?

If you don’t close too many ‘deals’ you’re essentially forever in the full evaluation mode. I’ve got 115 deals to go. :)

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We’re often on the road. Needing contact telephone numbers ..well.. on the phone. No problem.

BaseCRM is the only CRM I know of (and probably the first?) that was created initially for both the web UI and the mobile App, simultaneously. For the bigger brothers, mobile apps are an afterthought.

Unlike some too-heavy iPhone apps (LinkedIn comes to my mind – completely useless) BaseCRM has nailed the design also there. 

Just one cool example. Need to call a contact? Look up the person in the CRM, press the telephone number. You’re on the call. … When the call ends, BaseCRM presents you with a menu to log the call with or without notes! This is the workflow I adore – do the notes and make new tasks Right There when everything is still fresh in your mind. 

 I’m risking overusing the word awesome. :) So do yourself a favor if you are using the combo of email, calendar, and some (sticky) notes. Move to CRM. I know an *awesome* one you can try. For free. Please thank me later. :)

 

BaseCRM on iTunes App Store (also Android and Windows Phone versions available).

I finished this blog entry on the train from Tampere to Helsinki. No wlan on this train – Edge/3G sometimes. Yet BaseCRM didn’t seem to have any issues (much less than WordPress, anyways!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

767 Meur / 7 km = 109,6 Meur/km

I love subway and trams myself. They are electric, efficient and convenient means of transport.

The Helsinki capital region is building a lot of rail expansion lately. There’s Länsimetro (western metro) extending the existing metro line by 13,9 km. There’s Kehärata (Ring rail connecting to the airport) – also conveniently called Vantaa metro because it runs more underground than the current metro rail does – due to open in 2015. There’s Pisararata (a small but expensive underground terminal system in the heart of the city for local trains) still in planning stage.

And then there’s the “Länsimetro extension”, a further 7 km of track in Espoo.

I came across the specifics of the Länsimetro extension plan, lately, and was disturbed by some of the figures. Thus this blog post.

1. The price per km

Current estimate is 767 million euros (Meur) for the 7 km extension.

That itself should cause alarm bells to ring. It makes a whopping 109,6 Meur/km which by any figures I’ve seen is really costly. Compare to 800Meur/13,9km = 57,5 Meur/km for the ongoing Länsimetro work (which I believe to be fairly usual price range for metro tracks internationally). Why almost double the price? It’s an extension – it’s supposed to be cheaper, right?

Also, the push for doing the extension right now (as a continuation to the ongoing digging) has been reasoned by a claimed “100 million eur cost savings”. So the *real* price should be 867 Meur?

Something in this smells.

2. The need?

The second figures that caught my attention were the estimated passenger counts. By 2035, the peak traffic is estimated to be from 1300 to 4700 passengers per hour per direction (morning hours towards the center).

Passenger estimates for 2035

Passenger estimates for 2035 between various stations [1]

For the first, that’s 20 years from now.

For the second, that’s remarkably little for subway, and especially such an expensive one.

For the third, even by the plans of the conservative HSL (Helsinki transport authority) by 2030 we should have automatic, light personal transport vehicles available.

Why make the extension?

3. Alternatives

During the planning phase multiple scenarios were drawn. Handling the extension with trams (which are cheaper) was considered, but turned down because of the problems incurred by passengers needing to switch transport modes. The thinking goes, too many people will continue to use their private cars, unless the metro by itself comes fairly close to their home door.

What was not noticed is that the problem in the transport chain (tram-metro-walk/train/bus/tram) is not incurred by having two modes. It’s incurred by having two timetables.

If there is a mode (which there is) that operates without timetables the uncertainties and much of the inconvenience of the “mode switch” disappears. You walk to the station near you, take the vehicle. Switch to metro (no much wait since they operate frequently). Deal with the mode switch at the other end, maybe.

I’ve used HSL extensively, and I know two mode switches is *not* good. Some days you are lucky – others not. But you must plan for the unlucky day, to reach in time. That’s why we need modes *without timetables* to extend metro systems.

So what would I have to offer?

Consider PRT [4]. There are three companies with ready-to-buy offerings out on the market. They will be able to cover this need, for a 10-20Meur/km price (dual-direction track). That’s 140 million. 627 million savings.

I find it peculiar that PRT was not even considered.

Or don’t do anything. Wait a couple of years. Better alternatives are being created. They will be smarter, lighter and – cheaper. Don’t waste 767 millions now to make a tube in the rock that no-one will need.

4. Capacity

To be frank, HSL probably thinks that 4700 pphpd (people-per-hour-per-direction) is over the top for PRT. It may be. There is no precise higher end to the PRT capacity, but it’s somewhere between 2000..5000 pphpd. Maybe the Finnoo-Matinkylä part really needs to be extended (for the 2035 time frame). Personally, I’m convinced that 3600 pphpd is completely reachable with the PRT technology. Without timetables. With operating costs not much higher than the metro’s.

Some initial proof can be received from the upcoming ULTra Amritsar [3] track in India which aims at 100 000 passengers / day capacity. That feels like extending PRT’s “roof” by some, but if they succeed, the Länsimetro extension can definitely be covered by PRT, by 2035. [Seems the Amritsar project is currently scrapped, due to complaints on its visual impact to the city scape and opposition from local taxi/rickshaw drivers. But we need not wait for India. 05-Mar-2014]

5. Service level

On the Länsimetro extension FAQ, the planners themselves admit that metro stations cannot be placed ideally, because of i.e. track layout issues. So it’s not even going to be optimal. In contrast, PRT tracks have rather small curvature (5-10m radius) and can be placed where it’s best for the passengers to enter them.

After all this, I was thinking hey what could be done with that 767 Meur if it’s used for something else than digging a tunnel?

This is what:

Coverage of an ultra light rail track (google maps sketch)

Coverage of an ultra light rail track (google maps sketch)

That’s covering *all* of Espoo below the Ring III and Rantarata train track. This encloses all the public transport concerns of the city: Espoo center, Suurpelto, Leppävaara, Tapiola, Otaniemi. It also covers the Sundsberg area on the Kirkkonummi side (the left end).

The blue line extends 172km in length. That gives a 4,45Meur/km price target if all that track was to be done using PRT. That’s an already reachable level. Much more so in the future.

Would Espoo city and its city-zens want this, or a 7km tunnel in rock?

Sources:
[1] http://espoo04.hosting.documenta.fi/kokous/2012231182-7-4.PDF (Länsimetro extension project plan 2012; in Finnish)
[2] http://www.lansimetronjatke.fi (Länsimetro extension web site; in Finnish)
[3] http://www.ultraglobalprt.com/wheres-it-used/amritsar-india/ (ULTra Amritsar track)
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_rapid_transit (PRT at Wikipedia)
 

WWF – Urban Solutions for a Living Planet

Been more than a year since the first posting. I’d like to think I’ve been busy, and I have, but startup life is often such that you meet people, have conversations and slowly but steadily progress towards what is then regarded as a “break through”. Those break-throughs don’t happen by chance, they are a combination of many chances and hard work.

This write is about one meeting I had recently, in the WWF (World Wildlife Foundation) Helsinki office. It’s a neat place, with a great view to the sea side occupied by a gigantic cone of coal. :) Really. It’s a good reminder we’re still in the early stages of transition. Transition away from coal, oil and carbon based energy as a whole. But we’ve started.

Hanna-Liisa, my host, gave me two brochures concerning their work. One was handling co-operation with companies (which is great WWF is taking that approach!) and another listed 13 Urban Challenges for the 21st century that they’ve identified.

The Urban Solutions for a Living Planet brochure is awesome. It has a nice layout and it merges both the challenges + some early solutions each on a single page. It’s understandable, and positive.

What immediately came to my mind, was how the BubbleMotion service would help with the suggested issues. How many of the 13 cases would it be able to help tackle?

Here’s the list.

( I actually created a neat graphical presentation of this, but the WWF Sweden copyright people essentially spat on it. We really need to transition also to a society that is more liberal of reuse of content. So here I’m not reusing any of their visuals, but the titles, their ordering and coloring is from the said brochure. )

1. Air

  • Zero local emissions (because we’re electrical)
  • No lifting of dust

    (because we operate in the air)

2. Water

  • Natural water flow and soaking into ground (since we are 0% asphalt)
  • No rain water contamination (because we don’t drop or leak oil)
  • Minimal (or no) water to wash (centralized vehicle cleanup allows to use the latest, most eco-friendly cleaning systems under a controlled environment; also, nano-coating on the vehicles makes dust not stick)
  • Extra: night-time ‘misting’ – smart irrigation of surrounding green areas can be integrated with the track

3. Food

nothing here

4. Ecosystem services & biodiversity

  • Compatible with natural flood buffering (since we can travel over wetlands, parks etc. without changing their ecosystem)
  • Compatible with preservation of habitats and biodiversity

5. Housing & Buildings

  • Low track and station CO2 footprint (since we use 0% cement and recyclable materials s.a. steel)
  • Low construction CO2 footprint (locally producable, transported in standard containers)

6. Mobility & Accessibility

  • As fast as a subway (since we don’t do interim stops)
  • Better coverage than subway (since we are cheaper, scale down and can fit in tighter spaces)
  • Always predictable (since we are immune to road level congestion; 10 mins trip is always 10 mins)
  • Personal for everyone (since we can be travelled alone – even by blind, deaf or motion challenged people)

7. Consumption

  • Shared use of vehicle maximizes their utility value (since the vehicle is yours only during the trip)
  • Better use of city space (since space under the track is usable for pretty much anything)

8. Wastes & Sinks

  • Only applied where it makes sense (since we’re sold as a service, and easily dismantled / moved / re-applied)
  • No waste. (since we’re fully cradle-to-cradle, with modularity and reuse of components in mind)

9. Energy

  • Low wheel resistance (since we’re rail bound)
  • No energy loss in stopping (since we don’t do interim stops)
  • Minimum vehicle weight (since we don’t need passive crash protection)
  • Electric (allows full utilization of renewable energy sources)
  • Smart (energy for vehicle lifts is routed within the track, saving the vehicles’ battery capacity for actual movement)

10. Climate Change Mitigation

  • So energy efficient (-80%) that carbon-neutral operation is sensible (this is really the whole goal; multiple design solutions lead to this)
  • Scalability (since we’re using modular technology and a franchising based business model, scaling of operations to volumes that matter for CO2 is at least theoretically possible)

11. Climate Change Adaptation

  • Tolerant to extreme weather (since the track is simple, round and repairable in parts)
  • Graceful degradation of service (parts of the system can be switched off, while continuing operation on unaffected areas; i.e. switch off flooded stations but operate over such areas)

12. Governance & Citizenship

  • Operated by locals – for locals (since the franchising based business model allows this, and it makes sense)
  • Initiated by locals – together (since our track simulator will be openly available for anyone and easy to use. We’ll help take peoples’ initiatives to professional transport planners – and to reality.)

13. Resilience

  • Fully self-sustainable system (since communications and electricity for the stations is routed within the track; immune to black-outs, Internet shortages and does not use GPS satellites in operation)
  • Anti corruption (putting power in hands of locals – with transparent money flows and real ”fair trade” principles should diminish the power of corruption in societies)
  • Earthquakes are ok (since we can detect Earthquakes some seconds before, and the track has been designed to endure them).

Is that all?

Nope.

There are also indirect benefits that were not listed above, s.a. the ability to sell vacant battery resources to a smart grid operator. Such business models come into play once there is an operational track and listing them here did not feel right (except for the misting case which was excused).

Also the passenger UI can be used for i.e. educational needs. But we’re hoping the above listed reasons would be enough to get strong support for the BubbleMotion project.

Are there any down sides?

Not really.

One may think of the added ”infrastructure” (tracks etc.) as a visual hindrance, but often it can be used to eliminate existing pillars (i.e. for lighting). The only alternative that has less of visual impact is restricting transportation by itself – or running it by human powered bicycles or steppers. Which we are proponents for, they are cool!

Taxi drivers losing their jobs? Not going to happen. Maybe their sons and daughters won’t be taxi drivers. And – two of the most eager proponents of BubbleMotion so far have been taxi drivers. They knew the daily transport problems best!

Self-driving cars? Sure. But they have a scalability problem, and it will take time for them to be able to drive in India, or the Finnish winter.

That’s my reaction to reading the WWF brochure.

Can we keep on ignoring plans like this? Or wish them ‘good luck’. Damn we’re a spoilt generation!

- asko

 

[added 9-May-2013]

One more thing.

Safety seems to be omitted from the WWF list. It is important. Transport i.e. in India kills over 100 000 people per year, also in cities. Each lost life is a lost opportunity, and waste also in environmental consideration. No people should die in traffic. Our aim is for zero passenger accidents. In practice, they should be comparable to elevator or aviation accident rates, not road side accidents. This means one or two degrees better safety above the roads than on them.

Future has enough risks already. And stress. We should be safe and relaxing.

Going (virtual) Proto in 2012!

Happy 2012, everyone!

Time to start real work on our automated PRT system. Since we’re a lean startup, here is the “Minimum Viable Product” that we’ll be focusing on during 2012 and 2013. It’s the smallest possible track that still tests all the necessary components and subsystems. The idea is to make a CAD model out of it this year.

Let’s take you to a little ride in the proto track (and explain the picture – my graphic skills are not my stronghold):

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To the right, there’s a light station (picture here), to the left a parallel station (picture here) and a vehicle stack (no picture). You will be able to travel between the two stations.

Light station

The light station fits 2-3 vehicles and is shared for both inbound and outbound traffic. It’s small in size and cheap in price. Pedestrians share the floor level with the vehicles; there are no safety doors. Within this shared space vehicles move extremely slowly and are observing their surroundings for obstacles (this is akin to how street-level automated vehicles move the whole way).

There are vehicle elevators both sides of the station. These take the outbound traffic up to track level and inbound traffic down to station. Electricity needed by the station is carried within the track itself; no connections to outside infrastructure is needed in the station.

The track loop behind the station works for both acceleration (outbound) and deceleration (inbound) traffic. This helps save space compared to having separate incoming and outgoing areas. Within such an area, the vehicles have track under both left and right sides. This helps in stabilizing the vehicle during “liftoff” and “landing”. Within “cruising” sections the vehicles would normally be supported only from left or right (this cannot sadly be presented in the drawing above easily; we’ll get graphics later which show this more clearly).

The track

It’s simply a big loop. That’s it.

The vehicle is supported by the right rail within the loop. You can see this from the positioning of the bottom-most vehicle currently, not from anything else.

Parallel station

This takes more space, and provides more capacity. In the picture, there are two inbound berths (vehicle slots) and two outbound ones. In between there is a vehicle “silo” – an automated storage facility that stacks empty vehicles out of the way and helps easily feed them into the outgoing station on demand peaks.

Traffic rolls on the outside loop anti-clockwise. There is a switching area for getting into or out of the parallel station. We’ll probably not do the acceleration/deceleration here, in order to affect the track traffic as little as possible. The switching happens in full speed. Only once out of the main loop, vehicles will slow down (the corners are too sharp for this currently; the track layout must be edited; but it’s good to test this real-world issue already here).

There are no vehicle elevators. Instead we’re sliding the vehicles down and letting them climb up on the track, on the outbound side of the station. This tests our climbing ability and may be needed for very high capacity stations anyways (though our elevators can take multiple vehicles at one time and essentially work as part of the track). Anyways, we’ll do slide and climb here.

Entering the station area, there are safety doors. This forms the borderline between automated and vehicle/human mixed mode areas. Again, we have no safety doors to keep passengers and vehicles apart.

The H-formed blocks are for the little carriage bars that move vehicles aside from the track and into their berths. First you have the incoming area, where people get off.

Then there is the vehicle stack, which is depicted with the same symbol as for the elevator in the light station. That’s because essentially it is an elevator. Only one that does not lead anywhere and which takes only empty, well charged vehicles.

Then there’s the outbound part, which is exactly like the incoming part of the station.

What’s missing?

A vehicle maintenance pit is not in the picture. We’ll need one but it’s essentially just a straight section of track. The most important part of the pit is the ability to change vehicle battery packs (similar to what Better Place or Rocla are doing with cars and forklifts). We’ll have to squeeze in a pitstop section to the layout.

Another missing piece is a lift for taking vehicles off the track and back on it. A simple portable crane with 1000kg capability will be enough (including the mass of passengers; the vehicles are intended to be around 350kg only). This is needed for emergency practice and simply to get vehicles off the track they are otherwise physically bound with.

Money

We don’t currently have any funding for this. We’ll make it anyhow.

Getting funding for the project is interesting, since on the one hand you have people who are saying “there’s one too few zeros behind the numbers” and on the other you have people wanting the budget to be smaller. This is because we’ve come to expect that things like this (“infrastructure”) are expensive. The challenge is to show, they need not be.

This is like making the Raspberry Pi of public transport (see that product, it’s an amazing credit-card size full-blown computer intended to boost a new generation of hackers).

2012

During this year, we’re making a CAD model of the above track. We’re also making a simulation software that allows for traffic control and capacity simulations.

If that goes well, and we get funding, we’ll make the actual track within some “garage” in 2013. Seems startups are back to garages. It feels good!