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Tools continued: Be careful when you buy from Amazon

As a follow-up to our last post about tools we use, we’ll offer a cautionary note about buying equipment from Amazon. I’ve had several bad experiences with Amazon and we now only purchase generic items and books from Amazon. We try to buy from the manufacturer, because Amazon often ships fake or counterfeit items; the problem has been widely reported, but Amazon appears not to have done much about it. Slate has written about the plague of cheap knockoffs on Amazon. Buy from Amazon’s third-party sellers at your own peril.

If you do buy from Amazon, try to buy products fulfilled directly by Amazon, since that will at least facilitate the complaint/return process. Avoid third-party sellers, which are more likely to ship fake and/or used stuff with complex or nonexistent return policies. For example, I’m fond of fountain pens and tried to buy a Montegrappa NeroUno Linea Fountain Pen from two separate third-party sellers on Amazon.* The first turned to not actually have the pen; I waited a week for a pen that never arrived, then cancelled and bought from another Amazon third-party seller, but that seller sent an obviously used pen in a damaged box. Like Apple, Montegrappa has elaborate product packaging that is fun to open—and also makes used or damaged products obvious.

That pen went back and I eventually bought one from a reputable online pen seller. Recently, I ordered another item from an Amazon third-party seller; it was obviously counterfeit. I’m still trying to resolve the issue, so I’ll keep details on the down low for now. Significantly, however, Amazon’s front-line customer service people read from scripts when confronted with damaged/wrong/possibly fake items. They’re impenetrable and unhelpful.

Amazon also seems to forbid reviews that include words like “fake” or “counterfeit,” and I couldn’t find any system that Amazon uses to police this practice. But Amazon doesn’t control the whole world yet, and it doesn’t control this blog, so we’re issuing the warning here. We won’t buy any computers, computer parts, or computer accessories from Amazon because of these problems. Many Apple products, for example, that Amazon sells are fakes.

We’re adjusting behavior more generally and now prefer buying from the original manufacturer, if possible.

* Jake likes extra-fine Sailor 1911 pens (the link goes to one of the only American sellers), which are made in Japan, or Sakura Pigma Micron pens, which are also made in Japan (Japan seems to have strong pen game). He also covets a Pad & Quill messenger bag, but because he uses an iMac as a primary computer his bag isn’t that important.

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Tools of the trade, updated: What a grant writer should have

Nine years ago I wrote “Tools of the Trade—What a Grant Writer Should Have.” Since then we’ve written several other posts about our adventures in hardware and software upgrades. Readers like stories about tools, so we keep writing updated versions.

By far our biggest “tools” upgrades in recent years has been a shift from shrink-wrapped software to cloud-based software. We now use:

  • QuickBooks Online replaced QuickBooks Pro and is the standard accounting package for small business bookkeeping. You’ll still need a bookkeeper or someone who understands the mysteries of double-entry bookkeeping to use QB Online effectively, or you will quickly turn to drink—QB remains unfriendly to the uninitiated.
  • Gusto HR, formerly known as Zen Payroll, is far better than the local payroll service company we once used. Gusto is very user friendly and handles the myriad of federal, state, and local requirements deftly. Most importantly, it produces payroll on-time, which makes for happy employees. Additionally, we have employees in two states, and Gusto integrates both state reporting systems with the federal system flawlessly. It’s less expensive than traditional services like ADP, as well as being more fun and hipper to use. Gusto has a complex setup process, but that’s true of all payroll systems.
  • Highrise is a great Customer Relations Management (CRM) solution for small businesses. We use HR to track inquiries, clients, and vendors. It’s enables collecting all contact info, emails, notes, etc., in one place that accessible from any device by authorized team members. Jake wishes for an ultra-fast HR desktop system, however, because logging into the website in the heat of a new client pitch can be too much slower than entering the client’s data into Textmate, then copying into Highrise later.
  • Dropbox is a terrific system for file sharing. It’s easy to set up folder sharing permissions, including temporary shared folders for clients. Synchronization happens near-instantaneously and ensures that any one of us can access any work file immediately and seamlessly.
  • Adobe Acrobat Pro DC has a better interface than Acrobat Pro 9, which we used for many years. This version is a subscription service, which means Adobe is going to draw blood money out of you every month until the end of time. Eventually, this version will end up costing far more than conventional versions used to.
  • MS Office 365 is another subscription service. Both Adobe and MS, however, price their subscriptions so much lower than the download versions that one is really forced into the subscription model, whether you like it or not.

Most proposals today are uploaded rather than submitted on paper, so we’re less dependent on printers/copiers and have jettisoned complex printer hardware. Some of our clients still like to fax, so faxing remains important. We use an HP LaserJet Pro MFP M521DN, hydra-headed printer/copier/fax, which is easy to configure and very reliable.

Our back-up printer is a Xerox Phaser 6280 color laser, which uses expensive supplies but produces good color prints.

We also use a Fujitsu ScanSnap IX500 Scanner. It’s the best small officer scanner on the market.

For phones, we’ve finally wrangled Ooma Office system into functioning. After much tribulation, I was eventually able to get Ooma to fax properly through the HP LaserJet MFP. Ooma also now sells IP phones and sold us proprietary versions of the Cisco 504G. Ooma claims you have to buy IP phones directly from Ooma or they won’t interface with the Ooma black box. I use the phone with a Jabra Pro 9740 bluetooth headset and Jabra GN1000 handset lifter. The phone system works well enough and costs about one-third what land lines did. Telcos don’t want to provide land line service and have priced land lines so high as to make the transition to VoIP inevitable.

With respect to computers, we use a mix of recent iMacs and MacBook Pros. By now PC hardware is boring and pretty much any PC made in the last couple years will work fine. Windows and MacOS are more alike than different; if Microsoft ever makes Office for Linux, that operating system will become viable for grant writers. You can see a picture of Jake’s desk on his blog, but the short version is that he uses a 27″ iMac much like mine. We like the Dell 24″ UltraSharp Monitor as a side monitor, but monitors of that size are now so cheap that pretty much any one will work.

EDIT: See also the second part of this post, “Tools continued: Be careful when you buy from Amazon.”

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The Ooma Office Business VoIP Phone System: Trials, Tribulations, Frustrations, Fiascoes, Success (sort of), Or, Our Review


After two months of frustration, we’ve finally figured out how to get the Ooma Office VoIP system to successfully send and receive faxes. Here’s the hack, which works with a HP LaserJet Pro M521:

You must have a fax machine that allows users to change the fax or “baud” speed. Most newer fax machines default to the v.34 fast standard. Change this to v.29 slow. Next turn off ECM (error correction mode). Then connect the fax machine phone line directly to the Ooma desktop device, not a Linx wireless device. Voila, faxes work, albeit slowly. You’ll have make some effort to find the speed and ECM settings, which will be buried in your fax machine’s menus. In my case, the info is not in the project manual, but I found a 160 Trouble Shooting Guide for the M521 by googling, which explains how to do this. Our previous fax machine, which was about seven years old, a Xerox 4250 Workcentre, does not have controls for speed and ECM that can be changed by the user. My guess is that newer fax machine have these changeable settings, due to the increasing popularity of VoIP, which is not inherently compatible with the high speed fax protocol, but sometimes work with the slowest setting and ECM turned off.

The Ooma Office VoIP system works well for people in single offices who don’t need a fax machine. If you have more than one office and need a fax machine, Ooma Office may be a nightmare to set up, maintain, and get working consistently and properly (as it has been for us). Still, it does mostly work as of this writing, and we ended up teaching Ooma about a segment of their market that they didn’t know existed—so maybe they’ll improve over time.

About two months ago we decided to finally replace our fairly old, but very reliable, Avaya Partner Mail VS PBX POTS phone system with a VoIP system. Based on a very positive user survey from a large tech magazine, we picked Ooma Office.*

Ooma boxAlthough many of you will feel your eyelids get heavy around the time you finish this sentence, we’ll start by saying that replacing our Avaya landline phone system with Ooma Office turned out to not be one of our better equipment/vendor decisions. Several times during the setup process I screamed with total primal rage (not a good thing). Our tale likely won’t interest you unless you’re a) trying to pick a VoIP system for your small business, or b) starting a startup, in which case the company-client interaction dynamic should interest you greatly. We’ve written before about the “Small Business Blues: Trying to Get and Keep the Attention of Equipment Vendors is a Challenge.” This post is in its own way a continuation of that saga.

First, the good.

Ooma Office’s sound quality is high, albeit it after much struggle to find the right phones. In addition, the initial hardware costs are modest and our monthly phone bills are much lower than the old Verizon, landline-based Avaya system. A cautionary note is that the Ooma Office basic service (not including 800 number changes, other frills and taxes) is $10/line or extension, while telcos only change per line, often with unlimited long distance bundled. A complex Ooma system can easily get fairly expensive quickly compared to landlines.

The design of the Ooma Office desktop box is also excellent. So excellent that I have little to say about it apart from the fact that it could be made by Apple. The design of the wireless “Linx” devices that plug into wall outlets to extend the number of extensions, is similarly excellent, as is the Ooma Office Manager administrator web portal.

Ooma’s customer support is very good if you have a common problem that their front-line people can handle and is pretty good if you know how to work your way into the real support people found at “Level 3.” We’ve spent an incredible amount of time on the phone with Ooma’s tech support as we attempted to get our system working correctly.

To finish off “The Good,” Ooma has a fairly reliable iPhone app that allows an employee without an Ooma box in their office, or any employee on the go, to receive and make Ooma calls, without call forwarding. While the app is a little buggy, we view it like the dog playing the piano: It’s not that the dog plays well, it’s that he plays at all. In addition, software can be rapidly improved through updates, and we expect the app to get better over time.

The challenges.

Most of the online reviewers of Ooma Office have a single office, which might be home-based or not. If you have a single central office, with up to 20 employees/extensions for each Ooma box, Ooma Office should work well for you. Most online reviewers aren’t set up like Seliger + Associates: we have two offices, one in Santa Monica and one in New York City, as well as other staff who never come into either office. But we need a single system dispersed across two separated offices and roaming staff, so that anyone who calls any of our numbers can get any of us. Ooma Office doesn’t do that by default because of arcane telephony regulatory rules. It’s possible through dark arts to make this work by “merging” or remote linking of two or more Ooma boxes, but it’s not easy. It’s not possible for a user to set up more than one Ooma box, unless both boxes are in the same location, without a lot of Level 3 tech support.

Let’s talk too about the phone instrument issue. Most VoIP providers either sell compatible phones or provide a list of phones that have been tested with their system—RingCentral, for example, has a page with dedicated phones listed. For no apparent reason, Ooma does neither. Most VoIP systems also use modern IP phones, but Ooma Office is oddly incompatible with IP phones and instead only supports analog (or POTs) phones.

In a low moment after tech support struggles I sent this to Ooma’s support and to Ooma’s CEO (some cursing to follow, but hey, that was my mindset at the time; I like to think I’m moderately eloquent even when frustrated):

We’ve been trying to get an Ooma system set up properly, and the process has been, charitably speaking, a fucking nightmare. I’m sitting here and seething with rage and frustration at the latest problem.

We bought two generic random Panasonic landline phones to use with Ooma. They sound terrible. Consequently we’re trying to find phones that don’t sound like OEM equipment Alexander Graham Bell might have used. Ideally, that equipment should also have a 3.5mm headset port, but that is apparently impossible with this class of phone. Even a 2.5mm headset port would be an improvement.

Unfortunately, finding phones that aren’t terrible is itself like searching through a needle in a proverbial haystack. There are hundreds of phones, all of which appear to have been designed in 1980 and made for people who are more than willing to buy the $21.96 phone over the $22.23 phone because one is seven cents cheaper than the other. That is not us. We want phones that actually work. Trying to find phones that actually work has proven to be a gigantic hassle. At one point, many moons ago, Avaya was the standard. Or AT&T. Now there is no standard.

What I’d really like is a page on that says, “These handsets aren’t terrible.” Do you notice how, if you go to, say,, you’ll only find stuff that actually works? That’s what I’d like. Digging through these fucking Amazon reviews for phones all of which appear superficially identical is making me nuts. The word “curated” has been debased by millions of bloggers and morons on Facebook, but it is nonetheless what I seek in this domain because I know nothing about the domain.

I called a support person who suggested I find something at Wal*Mart or Target. I live in Manhattan. This is not a helpful suggestion. You deal with phones every day. What I’d like is for someone to sort through the crap on the Internet, give us three or five good options, and then let us pick between them.

Let us consider Ring Central by comparison. There is a page, right here, that lists phones, none of which are (allegedly) shit. I could find a list of phones here, but only after much work. This shouldn’t be so hard. I can’t even find a support email address. At the moment I’m tearing out my hair and yelling at my computer in frustration. I don’t want to become a professional phone reviewer, buying and returning these things. I’m already a professional writer. One occupation is enough.

One page, with five good phones. That’s it. I can’t find it. Not on, not anywhere. Any ideas?

(A side note about companies and organizations: In medium and large companies the head of the organization often doesn’t fully know what’s going on at the feet of the organization. A CEO and other C-level people also only have so much attention. Sometimes politely and intelligently bringing a problem to the CEO’s attention is a way to get that problem fixed not only for the person sending the note but for everyone else who is having the problem.)

We know that Ooma is aware of the phone problem: conventional analog phones are stuck in the 1990s, when real companies and engineers were last interested in selling analog phones. Today is 2015 and the models still being sold are going to grandmas and legacy users and very occasionally to small business users like us. The people at Ooma are smart enough to realize this and smart enough to realize that they need to get their system working with IP phones or lose customers. IP phones are really just specialized computers, much as your iPhone is a specialized computer.

Analog phones, as I said previously, have not been of interest for a long time; one model we tried is so old that its default date is 2002! Think about the world of 2002 and the world of 2015 and you’ll quickly see the problem. There are no good modern analog phones. Zero. Zip. They don’t exist. Not anymore. All the R & D and product development today goes into IP phones. We did eventually find some Panasonic phones that aren’t offensive and that claim to support “HD Voice,” which is important because the increasing digitization of the phone system means that we’re moving towards a world with better audio quality.

Audio quality is more important to us than price because garbled or messed up words can cause us to lose important jobs. We’d rather spend more for quality than get the cheapest possible system.

Then there are fax issues. We heard an enormous amount of BS about faxes from Ooma support. The simple truth is that Ooma is not compatible with any fax machines. Virtually no VoIP systems are. This has to do the fax protocol itself, baud rates and other arcana. To use a physical fax machine, one needs a device called a Fax Bridge or ATA that converts the incoming and outgoing faxes to VoIP. Ooma Office does not support a Fax Bridge or ATA, so reliable and easy faxing remains an unsolved problem for us. Ooma finally gave us a free Virtual Fax extension, which is worth about what we pay for it. Like the Ooma app, the Virtual Fax software more or less works, but is very hard to use (I won’t bore you with the details).

Essentially, Ooma support told us to use their Virtual Fax, install land lines for our existing fax machines or buy a cloud-based fax solution from some other vendor. As of this writing, Ooma Office does not offer a reliable integrated fax solution. This is really hard to fathom as many small offices, like doctors and CPAs, still need faxes. Don’t even think about Ooma Office if you send or receive more than a couple of faxes a weeek.

Ooma and the modern tech world.

Working on the Ooma Office problems is a reminder of Apple’s tremendous influence over the last decade of change. I’m just old enough to remember portable music players before the iPod. They were terrible, and they were terrible in the exact same way the Panasonic phones we bought are terrible. They were designed by someone more like me—that is to say, with no design sense—rather than someone like Jonathan Ive (that linked article is great, and if you get lost reading it and don’t come back I wouldn’t blame you one bit).

The amazing thing about contemporary life is not how many products work incredibly well but how many work shockingly poorly, or, even more commonly, almost well. That “almost” is a key factor in frustration and is probably the driving force behind consolidated review sites like The Sweethome and The Wirecutter. Just figuring out what the good stuff is can be a full-time job. The Internet has in some ways made this better—everyone starts with a Google search—and in some ways made it worse—how authoritative is the person on the other side of that search? Among Amazon reviewers, the absolute worst products tend to get trashed, but almost every other product has a mix of positive and negative reviews. Crapware like analog phones are a great example of this.

Ooma Linx deviceOoma Office probably works well for people in a single office. For people like us, the system doesn’t quite work, and things that don’t quite work can be highly frustrating—especially when it’s obvious that Ooma has taken some cues from Apple and has done some things extraordinarily well (the wireless “Linx” extenders are an example of an elegant Ooma Office solution).

One of the most-read things I’ve written, ever, is a review of the modern Model M keyboard. It’s been so read in part, I think, because I a) know what I’m talking about, b) I know the problem domain well and exist in it every single day, and c) whatever my personal flaws may be, I can write a coherent sentence. Actually, I should also add “d)”, no one is paying me to write the review. I found a product so good that I had to write about why it’s so good and why it’s better than the sea of crap keyboards out there. Professional writers and programmers are not a large segment of the keyboard-using population but we are a segment that has particular needs that until recently weren’t being well met.

One way to read this piece is as a review of the Ooma Office system. A second, Straussian way is as an essay about the pervasive influence of Apple. There may be others.

I’m not the first person to wonder why phone quality still sounds like crap. The best quality I’ve heard is via Apple’s Facetime Audio feature, but that requires two people on iPhones (or other Apple devices) and for Facetime Audio to be specifically selected. Still, Jeff Hecht describes the larger issues in “Why Mobile Voice Quality Still Stinks—and How to Fix It: Technologies such as VoLTE and HD Voice could improve sound quality, but cellular carriers aren’t deploying them fast enough,” which I encourage you to read.

We’re not sure Ooma is going to last as a company. Ooma’s IPO appears to have failed (see also here). The company has a couple of serious problems: at the margins, many people who once would’ve bought dedicated phones are using cell phones. Archaic regulatory BS around legacy telephony means that Ooma can’t sell and configure distributed systems in a way that really makes sense. As noted above, the Ooma iPhone app is impressive in that it sort of works, but it’s not really how we want to use the system most of the time.

Perhaps the most obvious thing we’ve learned is that one should never buy a system like this if the vendor doesn’t sell all the parts. Ooma doesn’t sell any instruments. Avaya did. Ring Central does. That’s a key issue. Maybe Ring Central would’ve been no better than Ooma, and just as difficult to set up. We might yet find out.

* Don’t confuse Ooma Office with Ooma Telo, a low-end VoIP solution for the home-like Magic Jack.

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A Great, Quiet Keyboard: The Matias Quiet Pro

Faithful readers will know that those of us who toil in the grant writing fields at Seliger + Associates are very picky about our office equipment. As writers, we’re particularly fussy about keyboards. Unlike U2, I finally found what I’m looking for, as least with respect to (free proposal phrase here) to keyboards. It’s the Matias Quiet Pro. Here it is, in black and silver Mac livery:

Matias Tactile Pro Quiet

For those of you still computing in the dark ages, this gem is also appropriately available for PCs in funereal black.

Over the years, I went through about a dozen keyboards, all of which were mushy, clunky, ugly or all three—like this old-world Apple keyboard. About five years ago, based on the sage wisdom of Jake*, I looked for a mechanical keyboard. Unlike the typical cheap PC keyboards—which have a membrane system underneath all the keys, or rubber domes that grow brittle with age—mechanical keyboards have individual switches under each individual key. There are various kinds of switches, analogous to different quark flavors, but all mechanical keyboards provide a solid clicking sensation when you type. For those of us who spend hours typing, this is sublime. And, unlike membrane and rubber-dome keyboards, mechanical keyboards are durable.

Five years ago I bought a Matias Tactile Pro, on which I clicked away happily until I dumped a cup of coffee on it last week. Not surprisingly, the Tactile Pro gacked, particularly the spacebar. So I used a trusty butter knife** to pop off the spacebar, which ruined the keyboard. The Matias website, however, showed that they’ve produced new models, including the exquisite Quite Pro.

The main problem with using mechanical keyboards, like the Tactile Pro, is noise. They sound like a popcorn maker. Since I usually wear too-cool-for-school Parrot Zik bluetooth noise canceling headphones listening to music at high volume when I write, and since I don’t share an office, this wasn’t much of a problem.

The exception is when I was wearing my Jabra Soundtube wireless telephone headset to scope projects with clients and they wondered why there’s a machine gun sound in the background, despite the fact that I’m based in Santa Monica and not Afghanistan.

The Quiet Pro somehow solves the noise problem, yielding a satisfying tactile feel, without loud clicks. This is easily the best keyboard I’ve ever had. Matias is also a terrific company. Headquartered in the Great Frozen North of Canada, their tech support and responsiveness are first rate. When you call, a live, friendly and interested person answers, which is a rare experience with computer products.

A couple of years into my original Tactile Pro usage, I got a stuck key. I called Matias, and a replacement keyboard was sent overnight, even though the official one-year warranty period had expired (try that with Apple). Last week, when I told the Matias rep about the spilled coffee/butter knife fiasco, I got a chuckle and a 25% loyalty discount on the new Quiet Pro. Matias is great. Joe Bob says check it out.

* Jake should really not be trusted for keyboard advice, since he uses an extremely odd and alien-looking bowl-shaped keyboard called a “Kinesis Advantage“. Watching Jake type on this device is disturbing and possibly a crime against humanity. Of course, he also has a standing desk and wears Vibram Fivefingers shoes, which are equally disturbing (to those of us with conventional minds), or, to be charitable, eccentric.

** I keep a butter knife in a pencil cup on my desk for such purposes. It was purloined by a college roommate of mine about 43 years ago. He was a busboy at the long-closed ritzy Flame Room at the flagship Radisson Hotel next to Dayton’s Department Store in Downtown Minneapolis. As a poor kid growing up in Minneapolis, I never went to the Flame Room, home of the “Golden Strings,” but I treasure this small remembrance, which is embossed with “Flame Room.” If I had only stayed roommates with this guy, I’d probably have had a service for eight, as he boosted silverware for all of his starving college buddies.

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Small Business Blues: Trying to Get and Keep the Attention of Equipment Vendors is a Challenge

Faithful readers will remember previous posts we’ve written about “Tools of the Trade—What a Grant Writer Should Have” and “Tools, Grant Writing, and Small Businesses: How to Buy a Phone System,” both of which offer advice for finding great equipment. After 20 years in business, I’ve learned the hard way that it’s not always easy for a small business or nonprofit to get the attention of many equipment vendors.

I was reminded of this weird reality once again, as I struggled to get our new main office in the People’s Republic of Santa Monica functioning. The main challenge was our phone system. Over the past 15 years, we’ve had two Partner Mail systems. This system was originally made by AT&T, then Lucent, and eventually Avaya.

When we entered the movie in about 1998, Lucent vended these systems. Originally, however, Lucent refused to sell us a system because our business was “too small.” That’s right: sizism. I had to move up the Lucent food chain over several weeks to find a manager who understood that we wanted the Partner system because it would make up look bigger than we were at the time; it’s unusual for the client to beg a business to sell a product. The whole startup / small-business romance hadn’t saturated the media. Nonetheless Lucent eventually relented and deigned to sell us a system, cost about $6,000—a huge investment for back then.

We made the investment because the Partner Mail system was the gold standard of smaller PBX systems. While they have largely been replaced by VOIP systems, Partner Mail remains very reliable and valued in the used market. Our current system, a Partner Mail ACS 509, was part of the last generation ever made. We bought it new about five years ago for $2,000, demonstrating how the cost of technology has fallen over time. The Partner Mail system serves us well and I saw no need to change when we decided to move the office.

The downside of the Partner Mail system, however, is that it requires a skilled tech to install the interface with the telco landlines, and to program the system and phones, if needed (file this under “obvious foreshadowing”). It’s easy to get caught between the telcos—our old carrier was AT&T and the new carrier is Verizon—and the installer. The system can be installed by Avaya or by an Avaya “partner,” who are small telecom consultants.

When the time came to hitch up the wagons and mosey down the road to Santa Monica, we had to preserve the continuity of call forwarding and “800” service. I decided to use Avaya’s direct employees or contractors, rather than a partner, because I didn’t want to spend the time researching partners. I called Avaya two weeks before the move to ensure that their tech would be in our new office the same afternoon that Verizon got the dial tones working.

The Verizon guy showed up on time and did his thing. Then. . . nothing happened. No Avaya tech. I spent an hour on the phone with Avaya trying to figure out what went wrong. Talking to Avaya is like talking to HUD—the phone reps are bureaucrats, who are uninterested when they learn the caller represents a small business. It turned out that somehow the installation order was held, but no one called to let me know. The process would have to start again, which would mean a two-week delay in getting the system operational. I politely told them to piss up a rope and tried an AT&T 1080 all-in-one system sold by Amazon. That system, however, didn’t have properly functioning voicemail and useless, outsourced tech support.

I returned the 1080 phones and found a local Avaya partner who got the job done immediately. Not surprisingly, it turns there there is an “I hate Avaya” Facebook page, which I have so far declined to friend, but I’m thinking about it.

This also illuminates why most contemporary small businesses are probably better served by VOIP systems, which more companies vend and which doesn’t require tangling with a nasty organization like Avaya.

The Avaya experience reminded me of another negatory experience with a large technology vendor, Xerox, which also happened about 15 years ago. We had an old-world analog Xerox, a stand-alone fax machine, and various low-end printers. Xerox introduced a revolutionary hydra-headed networked digital high-speed copier, fax, printer and scanner, with lots of paper tray add-ons, a finisher and expresso maker.*

I read about this wonder in the Wall Street Journal: it was called a “Docucentre” and code-named “Hodaka,” as the machines were made in Japan. I immediately contacted Xerox sales, who told me. . . wait for it. . . our business was too small.

Another round of phone calls and meetings took place, during which I patiently explained that this device was perfect for a small, document-centric business like ours. The local Seattle reps eventually checked with Xerox central in Rochester and found that, not only would they lease us a Hodaka, but they would make Seliger + Associates the small business national test site for the product roll-out.

We went from “No” to free use of the machine for about six months and overwhelming in-person tech support. It was fun to visit focus group meetings with reps from other demonstration test sites, including Boeing and Weyerhauser. After the test period, we bought the machine at the then-astronomical price of $25,000. About five years ago, we put our Hodaka out to pasture and bought the new version, a WorkCentre 4250. When configured with four trays and a stand, the price came in at about $4,000.

The moral of these tales is simple: a small business or small nonprofit should be ruthless in acquiring the technology they need, even if vendors have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the party.

* The bit about the espresso maker is made up, but I want to see if you’re awake.

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Small Business Focus: Our Workstation and Computer Setups

Judging by the popularity of posts like “The Workstations of Popular Websites” on Webdesigner Depot, and Writers’ rooms on The Guardian, people really like to see other people’s workspace.* A brief warning: following those links might inspire techno lust. Still, the diversity of setups is amazing, ranging from aesthetic minimalist to complete anarchy.

In the tradition of the posts above, we’re going to indulge that fascination in more depth than in “Tools of the Trade—What a Grant Writer Should Have,” which didn’t get the derisive “this post is worthless without pictures” (“tpiwwp“) comment it might have deserved.

If enough of you send in pictures of your own workstations, we’ll amend this post to include them or put up a second post on the subject, in the fashion of the Webdesigner Depot post linked to above.


Isaac and I have new chairs.

Both of us used to use the Aeron. This chair is so famous that, for example, most posters on a Hacker News thread asking about cheap alternatives to the Aeron agree that there is no alternative. One person says that he (or she) worked as an office liquidator and found that Aerons and Steelcase chairs held their value. I’ve quoted Joel Spolsky on the subject before, but let me do so again:

“Let me, for a moment, talk about the famous Aeron chair, made by Herman Miller. They cost about $900. This is about $800 more than a cheap office chair from OfficeDepot or Staples.

They are much more comfortable than cheap chairs. If you get the right size and adjust it properly, most people can sit in them all day long without feeling uncomfortable. The back and seat are made out of a kind of mesh that lets air flow so you don’t get sweaty. The ergonomics, especially of the newer models with lumbar support, are excellent.

They last longer than cheap chairs. We’ve been in business for years and every Aeron is literally in mint condition. They easily last for ten years. The cheap chairs literally start falling apart after a matter of months. You’ll need at least four $100 chairs to last as long as an Aeron.”

Re your comment: “That damn plastic bar running across the front creates a horrible pressure point and probably increases the likelihood of DVT.”

The plastic bar on mine seems to create a natural pressure release because it curves downward. It seems that such a feel should occur if you’ve got the right height.

(Notice that Alain de Botton also uses an Aeron.)

Now we both use a different Herman Miller chair: the Embody. It’s not exactly a successor to the Aeron, but it is a different sort of chair; it doesn’t have conventional plastic edges. The shape is supposed to shape itself to your body. As far as we can tell, it does so. The biggest challenge is its infinite adjustability. Nonetheless, like the Aeron, I can sit in mine virtually all day without problems. That being said, you probably shouldn’t sit in a chair all day; I do get up to do pushups occasionally.

The big challenge is getting them adjusted—a challenge whose description will have to wait for future posts.

Isaac’s Gear

In 2006, Isaac bought a Mac Pro because you still needed one to operate three monitors. By now, monitors have gotten so large and Mac Pros so expensive that he’s replaced the setup with a 27″ iMac with a SSD and a 24″ Dell side monitor. He reports plenty of screen area for multiple open windows and that both are crystal clear. He also has switched keyboards, from a garden variety wireless keyboard that was the subject of “What Three Years of Grant Writing Looks Like” to a very clicky Tactile Pro 3 keyboard.

Jake’s Gear

Like Isaac, I’m using a 27″ iMac with an SSD. My side monitor is slightly smaller, at 23″, but still offers lots of space for secondary documents. It’s not unusual for me to have as many as five text panes open at a time: an RFP, a web browser, a main document, an “extra space” document, and client background material. With virtually every successive computer I’ve owned, I’ve looked at the massive screen size and thought, “I probably can’t use more than this effectively.”

The Kinesis keyboard I use is ludicrously expensive and takes about ten days to really acclimate. At that point, it’d hard to imagine going back to a standard keyboard. It’s not merely more comfortable; it’s so much more comfortable that I don’t get the hand aches I used to. I began using mine as a review unit. The “review” has lasted two years and will probably last forever.

Those speakers are Bose Companion 20s, which deliver nice sound without having a bass box. They aren’t going to sound as good as speakers with a bass box, but they also reduce desktop clutter some.

Although I don’t have one pictured here, I’m also fond of carrying around notebooks; these days I like the Rhodia Webnotebook, also called the “Webbie,” which doesn’t have the durability problems of Moleskines. In pens, I rather like the Sigma Micron, which offers thin lines that bond to paper and won’t wash out or fade over time.


The desks took hours and hours to find, but they’re incredibly sturdy, don’t shake, offer great ergonomics when combined with the keyboard trays, have lasted for years, and weren’t ridiculously expensive to buy. The writer Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote “I moved into this room 20 years ago and spent the first five years fighting desks that weren’t right in some way.” Five years with the wrong desk? That’s terrible, and it explains why we invested so much time in finding the right desks.

The nice part about finding the right desk is that they a) fade into the background and b) don’t bother you. In fact, they’re almost a pleasure to sit at and use, as with any well-made tool. They also don’t create “accidental” barriers to working, which I write about in the next section.

In our case, we’re using black Maxon Series 1000s. They can’t be bought retail; you have to go through a dealer, wait four to six weeks, and choose a keyboard tray too (we’re using Humanscale ones). But the result is a desk that doesn’t wiggle. Wiggly children are fine, but wiggly desks will give you eyestrain and make you want to get up and go somewhere else—anywhere else—as soon as possible.

The keyboard combined with the Embody means we sit in nice ergonomic postures, like the lady in the picture, which means that when we’re in a state of Flow while writing we’re not going to stop because of agonizing wrist pain.

Removing Accidental Impediments to Grant Writing

Our experience so far has been that OS X lessens the accidental—in the sense of “incidental, or appurtenant,” as Frederick Brooks says—aspects of writing by being more stable and providing more useful productivity features than other operating systems. Many people have almost religious views on this issue, and their opinions are scattered about the Internet like excrement on a poorly tended lawn, and we don’t want to contribute to that particular mess.

The basic goal of any equipment is probably to make life and/or work easier for the user of those tools. As Brooks also says regarding software engineering, “… motivational factors can increase productivity. On the other hand, environmental and accidental factors, cannot; but these factors can decrease productivity when negative.” So it is with any kind of intellectual tool, and OS X seems to help avoid making environmental and accidental factors detrimental to the production of proposals.

In addition, anyone in charge of grant writers’ offices should read Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister’s book Peopleware. Like anyone who works in a modern office, you should read this. Too few people understand the needs of “knowledge workers,” which is an obnoxious term that nonetheless describes what a lot of people whose job is to turn raw thoughts into information do.

In the future…

The GeekDesk is a height-adjustable desk that allows you to work standing or sitting. Various researchers have argued that sitting for long periods is bad for you; see a summary of that position in “Your Office Chair Is Killing You: Meet public enemy No. 1 in today’s workplace.” (Philip Roth, by the way, writes standing up.)

We also have a question for you, our readers: what, if anything, are we missing?

Offices and Improving Productivity

This post might appear frivolous, but I suspect it isn’t as much as it might appear at first glance. As Paul Graham says in “What Business Can Learn from Open Source,” “This proves something a lot of us have suspected. The average office is a miserable place to get work done.” That means there’s a lot of possible improvement in the average office. If reading this helps people realize those productivity gains, I’ll call a victory for grant writers and others who spend long hours staring at a computer monitor.

In the end, of course, none of this matters unless you’ve got proposals to write and are willing to sit down and write them. If you do, however, the value of good equipment becomes steadily more obvious to you, even if it isn’t necessarily obvious to the managers who are above you.

* I’m still astonished at the number of writers who use laptops, especially without external keyboards and mice. What of carpal tunnel syndrome and ergonomics? What of tiny screens that force you to flick among the main document, research, RFPs, background information, and data? Unless you’ve installed a Solid-State Drive (SSD), what of slow, low-RPM hard drives that make opening programs a drag? Perhaps these writers don’t spent eight or more hours straight writing at a time, as we sometimes do. To be sure, some people hook up external keyboards, mice, and monitors to their laptops, as I did in college and immediately after, but once one does all that the question becomes… why not just go desktop?

In addition, notice the disproportionate number of Macs in use both by writers and web designers. Yeah, yeah, Mac users are jerks, or, in John Scalzi’s formulation, Apple Fans Are Status-Seeking Beta Monkeys, but we’ve drunk the Kool-Aid and think there’s more than a little to OS X.

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The Nonprofit Blog Carnival is Here: Tell Us About Your Tools

We’re hosting October’s Nonprofit Blog Carnival, which means that we’re inviting you (the reader and possibly writer) to contribute posts about the tools you use in your life working for a nonprofit. What hardware, software, items, or techniques have made your life substantially better, easier, or more interesting? We (and others) want to know; think of this prompt as being like Cool Tools, but for nonprofits.

Submit your links here, send an e-mail to me at, or send a note to the carnival address:

You can interpret the topic as broadly or as narrowly as you choose. We’ve written about this previously from a grant writer’s perspective—see, for example, Tools of the Trade—What a Grant Writer Should Have and Tools and Organizing Organizations: How to Wrangle Information and Databases for Grant Writers—but want to hear what others are doing and how they’re doing it. If you have a post that you think is valuable but doesn’t fit with the theme, let us know and we may include it anyway.

If you don’t have a blog but still want to contribute, leave a comment on this post.

You can see an example of a previous carnival on Katy’a Nonprofit Marketing Blog; I like her definition of what this is about: “I should explain the carnival is simply a monthly roundup of themed blog posts hosted by various bloggers in the nonprofit world.” Right. It’s supposed to be a fun, easy way for nonprofits and others to share thoughts and ideas. We hope to hear yours no later than October 25.

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Federal Naming Conventions, EDA’s i6 Challenge, the Future of Innovation, and the Ministry of Silly Walks

Carefully study this screenshot of EDA’s website for the i6 Challenge:

Bear in mind that the purpose of the i6 program is “to support groundbreaking ideas in science and technology,” and ideally to fund really innovative stuff (in this respect it’s like i3 or any number of federal programs). But you might notice something funny about the screenshot: whoever designed the website either didn’t test it in Firefox or didn’t test it in Firefox for OS X. This is pretty funny, since Firefox is the web browser of choice for geeks and basically restarted the development of web browsers in general after Microsoft decided they’d won with Internet Explorer 6 and didn’t have to do anything anymore. And, as Paul Graham points out, lots of hackers are using Macs again.

In other words, lots of people at the forefront of technology are probably using the very tools that aren’t being tested for by a program designed to appeal to people at the forefront of technology.

The other funny thing about this program is the name, especially because we just had the the Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) program from the Department of Education, to which i6 is completely unrelated, despite sharing a similar name. It raises a number of questions, like whether there is any limit to the number of programs with “i” in them, whether those programs must be a multiple of 3, or why the letter “i” is so much more popular than its close siblings “h” and “j.” We’re also apparently missing i1 – i2 and i4 – i5, which is a bit like HUD’s Hope VI. What happened to the rest of the HOPE programs, like V?

Anyway, this mixture of numbers and faux acronyms and what not makes me think there should be a ministry of federal program names, related to the ministry of silly walks:

(Sample dialog: “I have a silly walk, and I’d like to obtain a government grant to help me develop it.”)

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Tools, Grant Writing, and Small Businesses: How to Buy a Phone System

When Seliger + Associates moved its intergalactic headquarters to Tucson, we also decided to buy a new phone system under the assumption that prices were relatively low and hiring someone to set up our old system again would prove sufficiently difficult and expensive to justify buying a new one.

Doing so is harder than it looks—just like buying a copy machine, which I explained at the link. Most of us, if we’ve worked in institutions or large business, are used to having a phone magically appear on our desks. But if we’re suddenly in a group of, say, five or ten, someone has to buy the phone system. This time around, that person was me.

There are a few basic strategies that small organizations can use for phones these days: (1) they can use their existing cell/mobile/home phones, (2) they can use Internet lines through outfits like Vonage, Skype, and Google Voice, (3) they can buy a Voice over Internet Protocol (“VoIP”) “box” through companies like Digium, or (4) they can buy a box that works with copper lines through Nortel, Avaya, and the like.

One of the biggest problems is simply understanding the difference among these approaches. Another is understanding the differences between a) the manufacturers of these systems and b) the vendors who actually sell / install them.

We ultimately went with option 4 and purchased an Avaya system that runs through plain old telephone system (POTS) lines. We did so largely because it’s probably the most reliable. In addition, we previously owned an ancient Avaya system and already had the mandatory, very expensive proprietary handsets. Here are the issues with the first three alternatives:

1) It’s tempting for small businesses and nonprofits to use personal phones as their primary business lines as well. Don’t do that if you can avoid it; if you don’t believe me, go read Personal Phone Numbers For Business, Yeah That Was A Mistake… on A quote:

[T]hrough the magic of the Internet and networked computer systems, contact information tends to get syndicated to dozens of places when it is first entered. Often it does not get updated when the original source does.

Once you start using personal numbers for business, it’ll be hard to stop. That’s one reason to get an 800 number if you’re facing customers: it will be portable wherever you might move. Our 800 number—800-540-8906, for those of you wondering—has followed Seliger + Associates from northern California to Seattle to Tucson. If you use personal numbers, people will also be able to figure out that you’re primarily using cell phones, and you’ll look unprofessional or amateurish. Also, do you really want to field fevered phone calls from crazed clients at 3:00 A.M.?

2) Consumer VoIP outfits like Vonage, Skype, and Google Voice have problems of their own. Vonage customer service is notoriously terrible. Skype is okay, especially for international calls, but doesn’t transfer calls from receptionist areas to back areas easily, doesn’t have professional voicemail (as far as I know), and has no real customer service when something breaks. Google Voice requires existing phone lines. All of these problems can be overcome, but if the overriding goal is never to have to think about phones, this isn’t the way to go.

3) Outfits like Digium are okay, and its vendors sell boxes that sit somewhere in your office. You plug existing landlines in or set them up boxes with Internet access. These systems are slightly less expensive than the solution we went with, but it was harder to find vendors for this, and we didn’t want to have the same points of failure for Internet access and phones. In other words, even if there is a power outage that takes down Internet service, we still have an option, since phone systems using POTS lines like Avaya will still produce a dial tone at the point where the POTS lines go into the Avaya box.

That left us with copper providers.

Phone systems have a zillion features; look at some of them here, although beware that the link goes to a vendor website. As I said earlier, perhaps the hardest part of dealing with phones involves finding out who sells them: the big manufacturers are Avaya, Nortel, Panasonic, Toshiba, and Mitel. The best way to start getting prices is by searching for “Avaya Vendor,” “Nortel Vendor,” and so on in Google. Then call the manufacturer to find a local vendor. These pages are probably going to be hard to navigate and understand. Once you have a list of resellers, you’ll have to call each one for a quote. Some manufacturers have multiple vendors in your area. You’ll need to know things like:

* How many lines you want.
* How many handsets you need.
* How far you might need your system to expand—will you need four lines, or forty?
* How many voicemail boxes do you need?
* The number of technicians and/or service people the vendor has, along with their location.
* The cost of a 36 month lease, a 60 month lease, and whether it’s a regular lease or a “fair market value” lease.
* The bottom line cost of outright purchasing a system.
* Installation fees.
* The warranty.
* Timing—when can it be installed?

Once you start asking these questions, you’ll be inundated with information and quotes that are hard to compare. You should build a spreadsheet in Excel or another spreadsheet program. Mine has about 30 rows and 12 columns. In addition, almost all of this has to be done by phone: that’s why it will probably take at least a full day of work just to get bids, understand the systems you’re dealing with, and figure out who the vendors in your area are.

If you’ve read this, however, you at least have a place to start and know a few of the questions you’ll want to ask. Perhaps the best thing you can do is ask a lot of questions of your local vendors and preface those questions with, “I’ve never done this before, so explain the choices in terms a novice can understand.” (You can also ask questions in the comments section of this post.) Like car dealers, some vendors will try to upsell you, or tell you that you need more of a system than you think you do. By the same token, as with car dealers, patience and fortitude might be the difference of thousands of dollars. Like a car, you will live with your small business phone system for years, so take the time to get it right.

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What Three Years of Grant Writing Looks Like

Two days ago, Isaac told me his keyboard was broken. Yesterday, I stopped by the office to take a look and try cleaning it. This, gentle reader, is what I found; more sensitive individuals may wish to avert their eyes:


That’s three years of proposal-writing detritus beneath the keys, as well as a warning about the hazards of Diet Coke and Trader Joe’s trail mix. Hundreds of proposals have probably been written over the course of this keyboard’s life.

Consider yourself warned, and educated too: if you have a keyboard that isn’t functioning properly, you can pop the keys off using a butter knife. Submerge them in soapy water, agitate, rinse the keys, and leave them to dry overnight. Clean the board itself with a q-tip or paper towel, taking care not to get inside the key wells themselves. Don’t submerge the board, which might harm its electronics. Then reattach the keys.

In Isaac’s case, the keyboard works. This is doubly good because he likes the Apple wireless keyboard depicted, but Apple no longer sells this model. Now the company offers chiclet keyboards, so finding the older white ones isn’t easy.

(I, on the other hand, preferred the One True Keyboard, or the IBM Model M, until I tried the Kinesis Advantage. People who spend a lot of time typing are apt to have strong opinions about their keyboards.)