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Office Tools for Starving Startups

Yes, we’re a starving startup. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s actually quite good: we don’t have any venture capital investment, and we’re running purely from savings out of our own pockets. On the flip side, we have full control over our company, and we can decide what do do and how to run it.

Of course, we’re far from loaded with money, so keeping expenses to a minimum is definitely a top priority. It’s not coincidence that one of our most popular lunches is sharing a gigantic $5 sub at Manhattan Giant Pizza or the $3.50 Kealani’s chicken teriyaki sandwich (fortunately, they’re actually delicious too!).

Whenever it makes sense, we’ve opted for the most inexpensive options[1]: plastic workbenches from Costco for our desks, lights from Ikea with unpronounceable names, an outdated P3 that became our file server given to us by a friend, or a free scanner/printer donated by my girlfriend.

So when it came time to set up our office tools, we also looked for the most inexpensive solution that met all our needs.

Email

Our requirements for our email solution were:

  • Minimize costs. Not just the software, but the hardware needed to run any severs, support, etc.

  • Minimize maintenance. We’re our own IT staff, so the less time we have to spend screwing around with severs and updates, the more time we can spend coding and designing the game.

  • Reliable. This, after all, is going to be used to send company emails, contracts out to outsourcing companies, responses to publishers, etc. We don’t want to be missing any emails.

  • Good search capabilities.

  • Available from any location. I guess that implies a web front end.

  • Fully integrated with our domain powerof2games.com.

In the past, the companies we had worked at all used Microsoft Exchange and Outlook or the god-awful Lotus Notes. Apart from having to endure the torture of using these day in and day out, they’re quite expensive, so we looked for alternatives.

We could use the email server provided by our web hosting company. It would give us the bare bones functionality that we needed, including some form of web front end. It could work, but after using Gmail for personal email for several years, it felt like a major step backwards.

Since Charles and I were already using Gmail for our personal accounts, we thought of creating a new account for Power of Two Games, but having pow2games@gmail.com in all our business emails doesn’t exactly look very professional.

That’s when we found out about Google Apps for small business. It’s a free service offered by Google that allows integration of Gmail into your domain and use it as your corporate email. That seemed too good to be true. Gmail is hands down the best email web interface I have ever used, so the thought of using it as the company email was extremely tempting.

Setting up Gmail took a bit of messing around with some DNS advanced settings. All email sent to powerof2games.com had to be routed to Google somehow, so we had to set up a custom MX record in our web host and point it to Google’s servers.

We also wanted to access our email through a nice URL like mail.powerof2games.com instead of some long (and hard to remember) default URL going through Google. For that, we had to add a CNAME record pointing the new mail subdomain to ghs.google.com.

Once all that was set up, Gmail was up and running and fully integrated with our Power of Two domain. Not only that, but it was totally independent of our personal Gmail accounts, so we can even have them both open in different tabs in the same browser. Good job, Google!

Calendar

Gmail was just the tip of the iceberg. By going the Google route, we also get Google Calendar for our domain. And Google Calendar totally rules. It’s not like we were planning on scheduling company meetings at all hours of the day (although, technically, since we’re in the same office I guess we’re in a permanent meeting). But Calendar comes in really handy to put down big milestones, remind us to pay the rent, or keep track who we’re having lunch with this week.

Calendar works out of the “box” without any extra set up. The only thing we did was to create a custom subdomain to access it through calendar.powerof2games.com, so we did the same trick as for our mail subdomain with the CNAME entry.

I can even share the Power of Two Calendar with my personal Google Calendar account and see all my events combined in a single place. My whole life in a single web page. Very handy!

Extras

But wait, there’s more. We’re not always working at the office at the same time. Sometimes we’ll work from home for a few hours in the morning before walking down to the office, or maybe I’ll do some work from E Street late in the evening with an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie and some live music. At those times, it’s very helpful to be within easy reach of communication, and since we’re using Gmail, we get Gmail chat for free.

Documents

I’m usually very hesitant of “integrated solutions”. I always prefer to be able to mix and match programs, components, or whatever instead of going the route of vendor lock-in. And the truth is that the different Google components are totally optional, but it’s curious that we’re biting, hook, line, and sinker all the way into Google’s office suite.

I was thinking we would end up using OpenOffice.org, which is a great Microsoft Office clone. But we gave a try to Google Documents and Spreadsheets and we were totally impressed.

Not only has Google Documents reached point as far as features and user interface that they’re usable for real-world situations, but they offer a lot more functionality.

  • It’s a web-based app, so we can edit the documents from any computer with web access.

  • We can collaborate on the same document at the same time, which came in very handy when we were both working on the Sony Developer Program application document.

  • Because it’s a Google product, you can search through the contents of all your documents and spreadsheets very easily.

  • Tagging and sorting. You can tag any document with any set of labels and then sort or filter by them. I’m glad the days of hierarchical trees for organizing information are coming to an end.

  • Exporting to a variety of formats (MS Office, pdf, etc) comes in very handy when we need to send a document to somebody else who is not using Google.

There are only a few things we wish it did differently, like being able to upload a pdf document (even if it’s just in read-only mode for archiving and searching purposes). The other odd quirk is that we can’t make all documents and spreadsheets shared by default between the two of us. Instead, we need to explicitly share them. Oh well. I guess they have bigger companies than us in mind. I don’t blame them.

It’s very encouraging to see these applications grow and get better week after week. Just a few months ago, Google Spreadsheets couldn’t do plots, but they added that functionality since then. They’ve also improved the whole front end with the tagging and listing of documents.

Voice communication

How the times have changed. When we started Power of Two Games, we didn’t even bother with a phone. Even though we ended up contracting a DSL Internet connection and getting a voice phone line would have been extremely easy, we simply didn’t need it. We were simply using our cell phones for the few times when email communication or chat wasn’t good enough.

But as we started outsourcing art and talking to console manufacturers, we started having the need to do voice conferences and calling internationally. After a couple, very uncomfortable, conference calls using the speakerphone on our cellphone, we decided that we really had to look for a better solution.

For once, Google didn’t have the solution for us (although wait a couple of years and see). I have been using Skype to call internationally for quite a while with great results, so it was natural that we would look at it as our first option. Again, we were pleasantly surprised: not only could we make very inexpensive international calls (with great voice quality), but for a small yearly fee we can get SkypeIn and have anybody call us from a regular phone.

Conclusion

We’re extremely pleased with how Google Apps and Skype have been working for us so far. They fit our needs perfectly and the cost is right. We were able to set things up in about a morning and never have to fuss with it again. How good is that?

I really don’t see why Google Apps wouldn’t work for a larger company. But companies seem to be stuck in the Exchange/Microsoft Office (or some other heavyweight and expensive server solution) choice. I wonder if there’s a good reason for that other than inertia.

We’re certainly happy to have these services available for free and being about to spend our time and money in what really matters: Creating a kick-ass game and getting it out the door.

Notes

[1] There are some things where going rock-bottom cheap doesn’t make any sense though. The $7 desktop speakers we bought online were quite the surprise. I wasn’t expecting top quality sound, but they sounded like those two way radios that security guards use. I didn’t even know they made speakers that bad! Also, we have “splurged” on 24″ LCD monitors and comfortable chairs (and even so, always trying to find the cheapest price point for what we want), because those things make a world of difference when you’re using them many hours every day.

  • I’d like to add as reasons against the google way:
    – Your company might be required by law to a) keep personal data confidential and b) ensure archival for a given period. This is the case here in germany. I doubt, google would like to sign the neccessary contracts with every user over here. These requirements are quite broad, basically you have to keep every bit of information for at least two years, all tax related stuff for ten years.

    – No reliable offline usability. As pointed out before, POP and IMAP have some severe issues. I don’t know, if it’s possible to sync google docs or spreadsheets to offline storage, but the basic concept of it makes me assume, it’s a tedious and error prone process. I haven’t found a reliable way to do a two-way sync with google calendar with any client. gmail was painfully slow and for some days even unusable in the last two weeks here, since i only use it casually, i haven’t investigated, why.

    – gmail doesn’t support contacts sharing nor synchronizing. You can’t have an always up to date company wide adress book nor can you keep your offline contacs db in sync conveniently.

    – google calendar’s multiuser feature lack a couple of features or makes it inconvenient to use them, e.g. setting up multiple users or groups with different access levels to different calendars or moving people between these groups.

    Some of these points only apply to larger companies but i think migrating later on might cause severe pain.