Earth Class Mail

Return. To. Sender.

By John Horton, Contributor @ Earth Class Mail

A package at your door doesn’t raise many eyebrows these days. Heck, the UPS guy in my neighborhood already knows where I leave my returns and where to drop off my wife’s HauteLook box – a rather frequent occurrence, might I add.

Lest we forget, that wasn’t always the case. Travel back to the 19th century and that package at your door is much less likely to contain a Three Wolf Moon shirt, and much more likely to feature a…kidney?

At least that was the case for George Lusk one evening in October, 1888, when he recieved a package on his London doorstep. Expertly wrapped, I presume, it included half of a human kidney. 

Umm… return to sender please.

Much like your Amazon Prime order, the box included a packing slip. This one was different though, bloodier. It was a letter from Jack the Ripper.

Lusk, a local builder, was the chairman of a group of volunteers known as the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. 

They patrolled the streets equipped with a police whistle and a stick, leaving no bustle unruffled, searching for the person responsible for murdering London’s ladies of the night. 

The kidney, preserved in wine, was half eaten and apparently “very nise” (sic). The letter, sent “From Hell”, is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors like these.

Despite many pop culture representations, evidence suggests Mr. Ripper was neither highly educated nor a skilled surgeon. 

History and Hollywood don’t always align. Ahem, Alexander.

No, this is the writing of an uneducated lunatic! Or, wait...

Those misspellings seem a little too sophisticated. An uneducated writer probably wouldn’t have included the silent “k” in “knif” or the “h” in “whil,” an indication that perhaps the author was trying to misdirect authorities. 

Investigators had received many letters claiming to be from Mr. Ripper, though most were considered attempts at dark humor. 

What made this letter different, more convincing, was that Catherine Eddowes – London’s most recent victim – had been found down a kidney. Coincidence? 

Well, maybe. It could’ve been a journalist, trying to milk a sensational story – although the source of the Kidney is still disconcerting. 

It could have been medical students playing a prank. To them, yanking out a kidney is just in a day’s work.

Still, many believe this to be the only authentic letter sent by Mr. Ripper. And this isn’t a dead case, either. Amateur and professional sleuths worldwide have devoted countless hours studying and analyzing this case. 

As recently as 2014, DNA evidence had been studied by scientists tracking down historical leads. The world still wants to know.

Or do we? I don’t, really. 

I like the murkiness, the unfinished, trailing tendrils of if’s and therefore’s. It’s exciting to have a pantaloons clad, high tea’ing, kidney snatcher that evaded police and the best efforts of the public. 

I don’t want an actual face for Jack the Ripper. I prefer the face I’ve created myself, a tall, lanky dude with a long face. Kind of Lincolnesque, but with a dash of pig farmer, you know?

I couldn’t think of anything more disappointing than finding out Jack the Ripper was really a stout, pathetic little guy with orange hair and mommy issues.

Then again, truth can often be stranger than fiction. Scarier too, perhaps. 

A Letter Is Worth 1,000 Songs - The 10 Best

By John Horton, Contributor @ Earth Class Mail

You can say a lot with a letter, and even more when you add a soundtrack to it. These ten just happen to be the ones I think do it best. Some are fun, some satirical, and some are downright emotional. 

10. An Open Letter to NYC (Beastie Boys) 

“Dear New York, this is a love letter,” rappeth Mike D. And a love letter it is.

This track appears on To the 5 Boroughs, their first album post 9/11. In the song, they give love to all five boroughs – Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. 

“Dear New York, I know a lot has changed/ two towers down, but you’re still in the game.”

I know a lot of artists have made songs about staying strong post 9/11, but for me, the Beastie Boys do it best. 

9. Strawberry Letter 23 (The Brothers Johnson)  

Strawberry letters 1-22 are better left as journal entries, but Strawberry Letter 23! The public needs to hear. 

It’s got a plucky disco thing going on, and it’s probably one of those songs you know, but you don’t know where from. That’s because it’s been sampled and covered extensively, and for great reason.

This is a strut down the street song – a head wobbling confidence booster, if you will. I would, if I were you.

8. Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis (Tom Waits)

Suspiciously hipster though it is, my number 8 slot goes to Tom Waits’ Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis. It’s a prime example of a song-title’s value, because I don’t remember a damn thing about the song itself. 

But that title! 

It’s really all we need to know. Fishnets. Snow. A lipstick smooched postcard. You get me Hype Williams on the phone, I’ll get you a music video. 

Actually, I am a Tom Waits fanatic. The guy delivers art in a singular way. His style is all his own, yet you hear the jazz, the rock, the gospel, the blues – all of which result in the voice of a uniquely American growler. Always worth a listen. 

7. Please Mr. Postman (The Marvelettes)

Where’s Marty McFly? Where’s the diner? Where’s the Porkpie hat? This jukebox hit is yesteryears version of an unresponsive texter (how could you be so cold).

She’s waiting “so patiently, for just a card, or just a letter” from her booface. She doesn’t know where’s he’s been, so if you have any information, please contact the local authorities.

This is a good starter song on YouTube, if you want some upbeat music to play while you and your kids clean the house, or if you want to scream at them and not have the neighbors hear.

6. Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours (Stevie Wonder)

The King amongst Kings, Stevie Wonder. This is a cross generational hit that gets played everywhere from bat mitzvahs to Chinese New Year parties.

Stevie Wonder is that rare combination of extremely-talented musician and astounding lyricist. If it was possible to trademark a sound, you could say Stevie is the owner of “yooowwww” and “ahhhhhh.” His music is up tempo and emotional. Easily a top-tenner on many lists.

5. I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter (Fats Waller)

If this song isn’t rolling over the opening credits of a Woody Allen movie somewhere, I’ll be disappointed. This American standard has been recorded by powerhouses like Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Paul McCartney just to name a few.

I almost feel like I’m at a lemonade stand when listening – like a Penny-farthing is cruising by in the background; like Mrs. Walden is tugging on the ear of her rabble-rousing son Tommy for throwing cherries at passing cars.

Of course, the song is really about a guy writing a letter to himself and pretending it came from someone else. 

4. Stan (Eminem)

Ever catch yourself nodding along to a song, mouthing lyrics about kidnapping and murder? You’ve most likely stumbled into Eminem’s reverie, Stan.

It’s a greasy, grimy toe-tapper that successfully nuzzles itself into its themes of isolation and detachment. The sampling of Dido’s song Thank You is one of the best in hip hop history, adding a powerful but suppressed beauty. 

Little known fact – this song is directly responsible for an uptick in celebrity replies to fan mail. That’s what my uncle told me, anyway.

3. The Letter (The Boxtops)

First of all, watch this live performance of the song so you can see Alex Chilton’s uncomfortable death stare as he sings. The whole band has this restrained groove thing going.

Kind of apropos for the time, I guess. It’s like their manager said, “No matter how poppy the song sounds, I better not see anyone dancing.”

I absolutely love this song. It’s catchy as hell and I dare you to listen without tapping your foot. This is blue-eyed soul at its best. Put this song on in front of your aunt and I guarantee you she’ll start doing the Mashed Potato. 

2. Mailman (Soundgarden)

No list is complete – scratch that – no list should exist without a Soundgarden song. “But John!” you say, notionally, “What about a country music list? Surely Soundgarden couldn’t exist there!”

I refer you to the above song, where, if you’d please, you will hear a clearly yodeling Chris Cornell. But I digress.

Mailman rocks your damn socks off. I was confused at first why it’s called “Mailman”, but then I realized he’s singing “I’m writing you all the way,” and not “riding you all the way.” Kind of makes a difference.

Classic. 

1. Death Letter Blues (Eddie James “Son” House)

This is quintessentially American music, and a damn fine representative if you ask me. Although I first heard this as covered by the White Stripes (also worth a listen), this song comes from the dustiest era the U.S. mail has ever seen, the 1920’s.

Death Letter is the lament of a man who receives news of his estranged love’s death. Son House’s unrestrained vocals and swift strumming guitar betray the sound of a man familiar with pain and suffering.

His twang is what your mind hears when you think Mississippi Delta.

His legacy was nearly lost to the Great Depression, but he was “rediscovered” during the 1960’s American folk music revival, and is deservedly recognized as a blues legend.

Spotlight: Meet Russ Perry and DesignPickle.com

Our customers rock. We love to share their stories, and are thrilled to introduce you to the next customer in our customer spotlight series. Russ Perry is the Founder of Design Pickle, the world's most helpful graphic design company - offering flat-rate, unlimited graphic design help to businesses large & small.

Thanks so much for sharing your story, Russ. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your company? What does Design Pickle do, and what sets you apart?

Of course! The long & short of it is this: Design Pickle is a flat-rate, unlimited graphic design service. We've got one monthly rate for unlimited requests and unlimited revisions.

No more wondering who's working on your request each time, or worrying about revisions and scope of work driving up the cost of marketing materials!

Design Pickle solves a lot of problems for just about everyone, from the small business who doesn't have an in-house designer to the entrepreneur who shouldn't be spending time trying to put Facebook ads together for hours on end.

Our mission is to be the most helpful design company in the world, and that starts with alleviating the daily stress for our clients. 

How did you get started and why?

After about a decade in the creative agency arena, I found myself needing a change. I switched to individual consulting, but realized I didn't want to be stuck designing business cards instead of getting to use my skills on a bigger level.

So I created a beta system of what would become Design Pickle - helping clients request their day-to-day production graphic designs. It kind of blew up after that!

Do you have an incredible customer success story you can share?

Is it a total cheeseball response if I say I have a million of those? Yes? Ok then.

ONE that really stands out to me, and I just shared this with my team, is from a client who co-founded a great online start-up helping people be the best version of themselves.

Before finding us, she would agonize over blog post images and Facebook ads, trying to do everything herself and losing sight of what she was really working so hard to achieve. Her big-picture wasn't in the picture because of the minutia.

It wasn't until we were at an event here in AZ when her husband (and biz partner) came up to me and thanked me for giving her back her time, and in reality, her life!

She's now able to focus her incredible talent & energy on growing their business and truly enjoy the "why" behind starting the business in the first place - building a community that will impact the world for good.

Bottom line, helping someone with a few simple graphics for marketing collateral can have a much bigger effect than I ever realized. I'm proud of my team for that.

Can you share a tip, trick, hack, tool or service with our readers that makes you better, or makes your days more effective?

I'm totally NOT a micromanager, but need to keep tabs on where my Pickle People sit on both big projects and daily dealings alike.  We use Trello for managing event plans and content strategy, and I Done This for the day-to-day tasks.

We get the satisfaction of checking off the to-do list each day in I Done This, but can keep big-picture plans moving via Trello boards.

What was the situation before you used Earth Class Mail, tell us how EarthClassMail makes you better at your job, or your company better at what it does?

I think we were in a pretty standard situation for location-independent teams. I had my home office, my team had theirs, and we'd convene regularly to calibrate our plans at the local coffee joint.

I didn't want my home address used for mail (read: my wife wasn't thrilled by the idea of our humble abode's location being broadcast to the world). Having a P.O. Box is the simple answer, but no street address lends itself to the "ehhhh, is this a legit business?" from clients & potential partners.

Plus you have to GO to a post office regularly to collect said mail (they don't mess around when you neglect to pick up mail regularly. The disapproving side-eye from the clerk is the stuff of nightmares).

I found ECM and immediately knew it was for us. Secure, consistent, reliable, friendly. It's kept me on top of the important mail and simplified the check deposit scenario for us.

What has Earth Class Mail been worth to your business in terms of $?

Let's see...by my calculations *carry the one*...Can I just say it's been "priceless"? Because seriously, the peace of mind knowing that no Design Pickle team member is spending their time sorting through pre-approved credit card offers and penny-saver ads is especially valuable to me.

What would you say to someone considering Earth Class Mail as a solution?

DO IT! Right now! How you wouldn't see the obvious perks of this service is beyond me. Until everyone on this planet goes green & moves to digital correspondence, this is your ultimate weapon against wasted time.

What feature can we add or improvement can we make that would make you say, "shut the front door, I need that!"?

Would you consider a service that sends thoughtful replies to Aunt Irene's annual family status letter? How about going through my spam folder so I don't miss out on that "Earn_thousands in ur sleep with this 1 $imple Hack" email?

Other than that, I think you've got all my needs covered!

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us today, any parting words or advice for our readers?

Thank you for having me! I think my honest advice would be to make sure you're systemizing or automating every task you can... just because it's important enough to do, doesn't mean you have to do it yourself!

Free up your bandwidth to focus on making moves and growing your business!

Also, pickle juice is an amazing option for relieving muscle cramps, so if you’re an active person, make sure you're stocked up...knowing is half the battle.

 

 

11 Mistakes To Avoid When Selling Your Business

Guest post by Greg Elfrink @ Empire Flippers

The majority of entrepreneurs build their businesses to, one day, sell them. You dream of the big exit, that payday that will line your pockets with enough cash to validate all your work.

Since selling a business is a complex process, there are many obvious pitfalls and mistakes that you can make.

Some of these mistakes can cost you a lot, as you’ll read below, but the good news is that the majority of them are pretty easy to avoid with a little advance planning.

What Are the Top Mistakes?

While this list is by no means exhaustive, below are some of the most common mistakes we see at Empire Flippers when people list their businesses for sale. 

#1 Don’t take your foot off the gas

Many entrepreneurs seem to check out once they list their business for sale. They put up the “For Sale” sign and wait around for a big paycheck.

This is one of the worse things you can do.

Unless your business is truly passive, this attitude will result in a revenue slump. You take your foot off the gas and the business starts tanking.

The next month, when you need to update earnings with depressed revenues, be ready for a wakeup call - the value of your business has fallen.

When a potential buyer finds sees the downward revenue trend, they’ll be much less open to paying the asking price. You’ve provided leverage for them to negotiate the price down, or simply deterred them from considering your business in the first place.

The lesson here is simple: Work on your business as if you are not selling it.

It’s common sense, but many entrepreneurs often forget this piece of advice while daydreaming about their big exit.

#2 Don’t wait until the last minute to implement analytics

Every digital, online business should have tracking installed to validate how much and what kind of traffic they are getting.

The two most trusted forms of analytics are Google Analytics (Free) and the third party analytics company Clicky. These are what we use.

The more analytics history you have, the better.

You’ll also want to be diligent about annotating your traffic and accounting for any huge spikes or dips in traffic.

For example, write clear notes if a spike in traffic from three months ago came from a Facebook ad experiment. That way, a potential buyer can understand the history of the business.

You need at least six months’ of analytics history, and the longer your track record the better off you will be.

#3 Don’t skimp on proof of income

Screenshots are great. They are also very easy to photoshop.

Depending on the business, there will be different ways to verify income. A seller should have a way to allow the buyer to see the business’ cash-flow, as well as the expenses tied to the business.

If you have an AdSense or Amazon affiliate site, for example, you could give a potential buyer view-only access permissions to your account.

This is an excellent way to help a potential buyer verify your earnings and build trust between you and the buyer.

Of course, how you show proof of income will vary depending on the monetization strategies you are using. An Amazon FBA business, for instance, would need a detailed P&L (Profit & Loss report).

Whichever monetization strategy you are using, make sure you have some sort of verifiable proof of income.

#4 Don’t list too soon

If your business has only been around for three months, it is unlikely anyone is going to purchase it.

Does it happen? Sure, but not often and the task of selling a business that young is very difficult.

Similarly, asking price and track record have a strong correlation. A business valued at seven figures is going to need a lot more history to attract a buyer than a business priced in the four or five figure range.

At the end of the day, the more history your business has, the better. Not only will it create more buyer confidence, but it can help improve your multiple as well resulting in a higher valuation — which is what we all want.

#5 Don’t overprice

With new sellers especially, selling a business on potential is a super common issue.

There is a lot of emotional investment in the business that doesn’t translate into actual value. It’s easy to overprice your business because of this, and could have an adverse effect on potential buyers.

It is best to sell your business based on what it is doing right now. You can feel free to highlight growth channels that a new buyer can use, but it shouldn’t be the main selling point.

Instead, frame your business so that the right buyer can imagine the potential growth channels themselves.

If you’re hung up on the potential, then don’t sell it yet!

#6 Don’t ignore your business’ shortcomings

One of the best ways to help a buyer realize the growth opportunities for a business is to highlight the flaws.

Many entrepreneurs shy away from this, but a lot of buyers find businesses with flaws extremely attractive - they see opportunity in the untapped potential.

You should be totally transparent with everything about your business, especially the parts where you feel the business is failing.

If you have a SaaS business that has a healthy cash-flow but no marketing whatsoever, then that is a huge opportunity for the right marketer.

If you have a giant content site where the majority of the articles have no internal links pointing towards them, then that is a huge win for an advanced SEO.

More often than not, your business’ flaws can become one of the greatest selling points.

#7 Don’t forget documentation

Running your business, any business really, requires some proprietary knowledge. The clearer the path is for a buyer to take over and get ramped up quickly, the easier it will be for you to sell.

One of the best techniques is to have detailed standard-operating-procedures (SOP) for every position and role in your company — the more detailed, the better.

If you have a team in place that you will be taking to your next project, this is even more important.

#8 Don’t dig your heels in during negotiations

Nothing kills a deal faster than a seller unwilling to work with a buyer.

Selling your business is all about how willing you are to make a deal. Think outside the box, with your end goal in mind. The higher your asking price, the more flexible you need to be with deal terms.

There are other forms of negotiations outside of price. It will come down to what you can get in exchange for the cash you’re asking for upfront. Here’s a short list of considerations in exchange for cash:

  • Equity - you can keep some equity or shares in the business in exchange for less cash.
  • Royalties - you can collect a percentage of every sale in return for a lower upfront price.
  • Monthly payment plan - you can spread out a chunk, or all, of the selling price over a set term.
  • Include less - you can adjust what’s included in the sale price to meet a buyer in the middle.

#9 Don’t neglect qualifying Buyers

You should have some kind of system to minimize “tire-kickers” who aren’t really qualified to buy your business.

You could have a deposit process like we do at Empire Flippers, where every buyer needs to put down a refundable deposit before they’re allowed to look at the intimate details of the business.

This will help get rid of the “lookie-loos,” and leave you with just the more serious potential buyers.

You can qualify buyers in other ways, of course, such as by having extensive Letters of Intent (LOIs) in place.

The majority of business brokers will take care of the qualification process for you, but if you are selling on your own, you definitely want to make sure you have some kind of process to weed out unqualified buyers.

#10 Don’t ignore professional brokers

Obviously, I’m a bit biased when it comes to using a professional broker. The broker industry can be a shady place, with a lot of fly-by-night brokerage businesses.

Despite this, a good, legitimate broker can make the entire process of selling your business far easier.

Here are just a few benefits worth considering:

  • Buyer reach – most private sellers will not have an email list of tens of thousands of hungry buyers looking for good deals.
  • Negotiation & deal structuring – brokers literally live and breathe the deal making process, which can take a lot of pressure off the seller.
  • Qualifying buyers – remember mistake #9? Pretty much all good brokers have processes in place to make sure only quality prospects are looking at your business.
  • Market valuation – not sure what your business is actually worth? Brokers are some of the few people around that have their pulse on the market and how much a digital business is going to be worth. 
  • Migrations – this is something we’re about to talk about below, so keep reading.

Every case is unique and this should be a decision you think critically on before selling a business — or buying one, for that matter.

#11 Don’t neglect the transition details

One of the most tedious aspects of selling a business is migrating everything over to the new buyer.

Before you sell your business, you should really consider HOW you are going to transfer the business over.

Create a checklist of everything a new buyer is going to need or want to know when it comes to taking over the business.

Outline everything — content, domain, hosting, product inventory, the various services you are currently paying for that will need to be switched over, etc.

You will also want a way to mitigate fraud here, especially in smaller deals where fraudulent activity is likely to be more common.

The last thing you want to do is to push your business’s website domain to the new owner and have him or her fail to pay for the business, while reaping the rewards of owning the domain.

One way you can mitigate this is by using an escrow service. Even then you want to be careful, because many escrow services will not be overly familiar with the online business space and could make some very bad mistakes.

To come back to our previous mistake about sellers not using brokers, most professional business brokerages have a migrations process already in place.

This takes a ton of weight off your shoulders and is definitely worth considering, depending on what kind of business you will be transferring.

Preparation Is Key

As you can see, these 11 mistakes can really make or break the business sale process.

That is one reason we created a totally free valuation tool, which can give you a rough estimate of what your business would be worth.

Have you sold a business before? Are there any mistakes you see other sellers potentially making?

Leave a comment below and share your wisdom with other entrepreneurs looking to make their big exit to a successful payday.

How To Move A Dead Body

By John Horton, Contributor @ Earth Class Mail

More than 50 million tons of cargo are moved across the U.S. every day and at least 200 pounds of that can be attributed to Grandpa Ole, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Moving things from point A to point B is how the world works, and every imaginable good from a mundane kids toy to radioactive waste ends up on a ship, train, plane, or truck at some point. Even some things that you wouldn’t necessarily consider a “good” can end up as freight.

Have you ever wondered what happens when you croak somewhere far away from home? How do they get your body back to its final resting place?

Now, back to Grandpa Ole. Imagine Old-Gramps kicks the bucket in New Mexico at the World's Largest Pistachio roadside attraction. Not the best place to be for someone with a nut allergy, in retrospect.

Let’s say he was born and raised in Ballard, WA, like so many other Norwegian grandfathers. Obviously you want to get him back to Ballard so he can rest in peace next to his self-reliant wife Lena, who died at 87 while reroofing the house.

You could, hypothetically, prop him up in the passenger seat à la Weekend at Bernie’s and take full advantage of the carpool lanes! Might be awkward at the toll booths though.

I also recall the USPS saying "if it fits, it ships...". Do they make a body-sized flat rate box? You’ll have to look into that on your own time. The easy choice is to cremate him in New Mexico and ship his ashes back to Ballard, which, is totally legal.

Alas, you don't want to cremate Ole because you think he's urned a proper burial. I don't mean to sound uncouth, but it's kind of a pain in the ass to kick the bucket out of state (let alone internationally).

Well, here's an example of how not to do it. We don’t drive fish cross-country, so we probably shouldn’t do it with a decomposing body, either. And definitely don't do this, unless you’re writing a 90’s comedy script.

If someone at the airport has to stop you and ask if your travel companion is still alive, there’s a problem.

Much like the second story, the corpse will need to be shipped via plane. However, it should not be propped up in a wheelchair. In fact, you probably shouldn’t be doing anything to the body at that point. Sicko.

The only people allowed to ship a corpse are those who are considered “Known Shippers.” That is a legal designation given by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Many funeral homes are considered Known Shippers, and usually they ship the body (via cargo plane) to another Known Shipper who collects it at the airport. However, you can personally escort the corpse on a passenger plane, if you’re in to that.

It will be stored with the cargo. Just make sure the body is embalmed. You don’t want to worry about all the inter-state embalming requirements. The cost of the shipment will be based on weight, so, let’s all keep that in mind during Oktoberfest.

Depending on the state, a funeral home may need to be at the airport to physically receive the body. But, if that isn’t the case, and you want to personally receive and transport the body from there, you can pick-up your “luggage” on the carousel.

Seriously.

It will tumble down that little ramp and gently glide around the room, as if on display, until you apprehensively wrench it off the conveyor belt. Fingers-crossed yours is the only one, or expect the uncomfortable exchange of “I think this bag is yours…”

Once you have the corpse secured in your Thule, you are free to do what you’d like, as long as it falls within the bounds of the deceased’s wishes. Personally speaking, toss me in a body farm. Or put me krumkaker-side down, next to Ole and Lena.

Just remember, even though Lena dug the grave and built the coffin, once the body is buried it is considered property of the state. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

P.S. read more Lena and Ole jokes. They’re hilarious.

5 Ways To Secure Your Small Business From Hackers & Identity Thieves

Guest post by Jennie Lyon, Founder @ jennielyon.com

Russian hackers, Anonymous, internet trolls with a grudge, independent criminals looking for a quick payday – the world is full of not-so-benign threats to your business.

When you get hacked, it hurts. Maybe not $5 Billion hurts, but it hurts nonetheless. It’s a distraction, it’s usually not free to fix, and it keeps you from focusing on your business.

There are a few free or cost-effective ways to mitigate your business’ exposure.

Preventing Fraud & Identity Theft

Not every scam is as obvious as receiving an email from a mysterious “Nigerian Prince”. More and more sophisticated phishing strategies and identity theft scams are being used every day.

Just ask the dozens of call center employees recently arrested for defrauding more than 1,500 people in an IRS scam. 

Be careful about following links from your email. Just check the URL to see if it matches the official website for any given company, it’s a simple step that could save you.

Never give your credit card information to anyone who phones you, and always phone the official bank or company telephone number yourself.

NEVER give your password to anyone, ever!

Password Management

Using weak or default passwords is one of the single biggest security holes in business today.

Trivia: In the 1995 cult-classic Hackers, what is claimed to be the most common administrator password? (answer at the end of the post)

Unfortunately, people choose passwords they can remember. These tend to be shorter, made up of dictionary words, and use only the letters of the alphabet.

They also re-use the same couple of passwords for every account they have, with services that have varying levels of security - and risk of being hacked.

Ideally, you should be using a password manager to generate a unique password for every website you use.

The longer the password, the harder it is to crack using brute force programs. Even harder when you include special characters and numbers in randomized order, avoiding patterns at all costs.

Services like LastPass and Dashlane will keep all your passwords in one place, secured by a master key that only you know.

Password managers add value by generating unique passwords for each service you store credentials for. Many also enable you to share your account access with team members, without revealing the password.

Encryption

Encryption dates back to ancient civilization. Put simply, encryption is the practice of obscuring information behind a method and/or key that will help the recipient make sense of it.

In modern terminology, you can basically think of encryption as a method of protecting electronic communications and data using complex algorithms.

Encryption is built into a lot of the processes and devices we use every day. Everytime you send an iMessage from your iPhone, it’s encrypted and completely indecipherable to hackers, unless they have your pin, password, or thumbprint.

Emails are encrypted when we send them, assuming you’re using a secure email service. You can encrypt and password protect documents such as PDFs or files in a ZIP archive too.

Encryption is a broad and immersive topic, and you should definitely read up on it some more.

The main lesson here is, do your best to use services that encrypt your information. Most of the time it’s just a simple decision to use iMessage instead of an alternate platform, sometimes you might have to pay for it.

A short list of encrypted communication services:

  • Signal (Free)
  • iMessage (Free, iPhone only)
  • WhatsApp (Free)
  • ProtonMail (Freemium)
  • SendInc (Freemium)

Document Destruction

If a document has personal or business contact information, contains signatures, proprietary information, or other sensitive material, you can’t just throw it in the recycling bin.

Unfortunately unscrupulous employees, trash pickers, and identity thieves often go through improperly disposed of documents for anything they can exploit.

This is another reason why digitizing documents is so useful, digital copies can be password protected and encrypted, while the originals can be destroyed.

This cuts down on the number of important documents which need to be stored in hardcopy, and limits exposure to unauthorized copying or outright theft.

It’s important to oversee destruction of documents yourself, or have it taken care of by a trustworthy company. HIPAA compliance is a strong signal that the service you’re using is up to the highest standards.

Multi-way shredding prevents simple piecing together of destroyed documents, and appropriate disposal or destruction measures should always be taken.

 

The Old-Fashioned Approach

For those documents which you need to keep hard copies of, there are always secure office storage and secure off-site storage. A good locking file cabinet would do the trick with contracts and other slightly less sensitive material that you might have in large quantities.

However, those are obviously not thief-proof. If there’s something really valuable inside it’s not hard to get past these limited security measures.

A modern, high security safe is a good step up in protecting your most important documents, like: personal identification, fundamental business records, intellectual property, and the like. Make sure whichever safe you invest in is fireproof and waterproof if possible, and installed correctly.

Whenever you’re looking at partnering with any kind of business services, it’s within your rights to investigate their security measures.

Many business-class services will have a page dedicated to their focus on security. Don’t be afraid to inquire for more information.

If you’re shopping for enterprise solutions, then a security questionnaire is par for the course. Your due diligence can end up saving you a lot of trouble in the end.

 

Trivia Answer: There were actually four - “God”, “Love”, “Sex”, and “Secret”.

Love, POTUS

By John Horton, Contributor @ Earth Class Mail

I struggled being President of the Lucy Lawless fan club, so I can't imagine how hard it is to be President of these United States. War, the economy, environmental issues – just a few of the problems they face every day. It's a tough job.

With so much on their shoulders, it’s not hard to imagine that their personal relationships would suffer. Luckily, the top banana has always had his wife to keep the presidential fire lit. Sometimes, he even had his mistress.

However, with such busy schedules, the President and First Lady don't get much time to spend alone together. Time that could be spent exchanging love-laden whispers…

"When we first met, I was just an Article of Confederation. Your love has made me a bona fide Constitution."

That’s why the President has often expressed his undying affection for his better half, or better third in some cases, in love letters.

Of course, the President’s love notes look a little different than yours or mine. I, for example, don't have access to Supreme Court gossip. 

I’m guessing you don’t either. Still, it's kind of nice to see this side of the President, all doughy and smitten.  

Yes there are some unofficial honeys on this list too, but love is love. Regardless of the recipient, the following letters are beautiful reminders that Presidents are just people.

It’s also a reminder of how far we've fallen in the love letter department. This really is some quality stuff.

Your entire, 

The (O)G. Washington

It’s only appropriate to start with a U.S. Original, George Washington.

If you’ve ever read one of George Washington’s transcripts, you know the guy was a phenomenal writer.

Reading this letter, which was written during the Revolutionary War, we can see two things about Washington: 1) he truly is an underrated writer, and 2) he had mad love for Martha.

“As I am within a few Minutes of leaving this City, I could not think of departing from it without dropping you a line…” 

I envision the General in a tent, guards waiting to escort him, quill in hand urgently penning what could be his last words to his beloved wife. 

Though brief, this letter is a tender contrast to the stately image one usually holds of Washington. A true romantic, he sign’s it, 

“Your entire, Go: Washington.”

 

Love always, 

Tomcat Jefferson

 

Reading this letter felt more like reading a philosophical treatise on love, but what else can you expect from a mind like Jefferson’s?

The letter begins with a description of the departure of his amour, Mrs. Cosway, with whom he had spent some time in Paris, leaving him “more dead than alive.” 

As he sits by the fire, a dialogue between the Head and the Heart pursues. The Head, appropriately, takes up a rational point of view, admonishing the Heart –

“This is one of the scrapes into which you are ever leading us.”, says the Head. 

The Heart, unable to control its pursuits, describes itself as

“…the most wretched of all earthly beings.” 

Odds in favor of the heart, every time.

 

Secretely yours, 

Hound-Dog Harding, Warren G.

Hello nurse! 

Here is a true Casanova. I almost feel uncomfortable quoting Harding’s poems, written to his side honey Carrie Fulton Phillips (I hope you’re not reading this mom). 

Here’s a little sample:

"I love you when

You open eyes

And mouth and arms

And cradling thighs…"      

Beginning with a lawsuit in 1964, the Harding family fought hard to keep these papers from public view. Finally, in July of 2014, the Library of Congress released the full correspondence between Harding and Phillips. 

It’s really no surprise the family wanted these poems and letters kept private. They don’t exactly feel presidential. But hey, I’m not judging.

I’ve even tried a few of these lines on my wife. They didn’t work, though. I must not be saying them right.

 

Yours faithfully,

Harry S.-is-for-sexy Truman

This letter reads like a normal conversation between a husband and wife of the 1940’s. Truman recites his day’s events, but strewn throughout are lines that remind us this is no normal couple. 

I like most the nonchalant quip about listening to gossip between a Supreme Court Justice and another government official, certainly more interesting than whatever your neighbors are babbling about. 

Then there’s Truman’s assertion that the U.S. was

“on the edge of a good old fashioned cleanup in the State Dept.”

Not exactly bedroom conversation, but definitely only something you would share with your closest confidant. 

One might not think of this as a love letter, but considering Truman wrote hundreds of letters like this to Bess, it’s a symbol of his love and devotion. 

Once again, Harry Truman shows me up.  

 

With all my love,

Ronald “The Romantic” Reagan 

Ok Dutch! These letters, written by Ronald Reagan to Nancy, are equal parts romance and humor. They just reaffirm why Reagan is considered one of the most charismatic U.S. Presidents, and why their love story stands out as one of the greats. 

On their 20th anniversary, Reagan explains that it doesn’t feel that long: 

"20 minutes maybe — but never 20 years. In the first place it is a known fact that a human cannot sustain the high level of happiness I feel for more than a few minutes — and my happiness keeps on increasing."

His wit is apparent throughout the letters, and the playfulness never ceases. This is another set of notes I won’t show my wife, as it highlights how much of a dunce I am by comparison. 

Never breaking character, he signs the letter,

“Your husband of 20 something or other.” 

Open Source Experiment: Chargify App for Zendesk

From Steven Maguire, VP of Tech @ Earth Class Mail

One of the key value propositions of Earth Class Mail is the ability to access important business information, the kind contained in your mail and physical documents, from anywhere in the world.

This same principle drives the development of internal tools that we use to ensure our customers have a positive experience with our services.

The Problem

Two of the third-party tools that we use a lot everyday are the Chargify recurring billing platform and the Zendesk customer service platform. They are “mission critical” and we couldn’t deliver the level of service our customers expect without them.

Each of those tools contains important information about each customer, their accounts, history, pending support requests, and the like.

We noticed that our own team members were switching between Chargify and Zendesk dozens, if not hundreds, of times everyday.

The Solution

We also observed that the primary reason for switching to Chargify’s web UI was to view read-only data within Chargify’s platform. That is, they were just looking at customer information, not taking any billing related actions.

That observation led us to a very natural and, it seems now, obvious hypothesis:

If we eliminate the need to switch between Zendesk and Chargify, then our team members would be more productive and be able to provide better service to customers.

Fortunately, Zendesk supports a third-party application development platform, that means we can build internal tools that will work natively in the Zendesk platform. So now we have a great opportunity to test our hypothesis.

We’ve also decided to make our Chargify Zendesk app open source, so that anyone can use it. The reasons for that are:

  1. Zendesk apps are not how we make a living.
  2. The more contributors there are to this project, the more we will all benefit from a better product.
  3. If we can make it easy for other businesses to provide better customer service, then we’ve done some good in this world.

We’ve built, tested, and released a minimum viable product of the open source Zendesk app, here’s how:

Development

After reading the documentation for Zendesk’s Apps Framework v1 we learned a few things:

  1. A tool to create and scaffold a new blank project.
  2. A tool to lint and validate the code that you write for your project.
  3. A tool to package your application code in a zip file that will be uploaded, unzipped, and installed within your Zendesk account.
  • Zendesk supports a third-party app marketplace where you can find and install public applications; some free and some paid.
  • Zendesk supports installation of private apps without going through the marketplace.

With these observations in mind we created a goal for the experience of our app:

Whenever a Zendesk agent is viewing a customer profile or ticket, we want to use the email address associated with that customer or ticket to display customer and subscription records from within Chargify.

After some research we discovered that a single email address can be associated with more than one Chargify customer record, and each Chargify customer record can be associated with more than one subscription.

This discovery drove the decision to include two views:

  1. A customer search results view, and
  2. A customer detail view.

Using the "app.activated" event emitted by the Zendesk application framework we attempt to load the customer search results view first.

During the creation of this view we use Zendesk’s Data API to fetch the customer's email if we are looking at a customer profile view in Zendesk, or the requester’s email if we are looking at a ticket.

With this value in memory we issue a customer search to Chargify to fetch customer results.

We introduced a few use cases here:

  • If no Chargify customer records are returned we update the search results view with an “empty results” alert.
  • If more than one Chargify customer records are returned we update the search results view with a list of each of those customer records as links which will load a customer detail view.
  • Finally, if a single Chargify customer record is returned we redirect the application to that customer detail view; we feel a search results page with one result is not valuable.

When loading a customer detail view we issue a couple other calls to Chargify to first fetch the fully hydrated customer record as well as a second call to fetch each of the subscriptions associated with the customer.

When all this data is available we update the customer detail view to display the data.In order to facilitate these API calls to Chargify our Zendesk application needs to know two pieces of unique information:

  1. The subdomain associated with our Chargify account
  2. The API key associated with our Chargify account

Fortunately, the Zendesk framework provides a way to ensure we can gather and securely store that information during installation.

In the unlikely event that the app begins running and that information has not been set, the app will display a third settings view with instructions on adding that information via the Zendesk API.

Installation

Another hat tip to Zendesk here as they have made the installation and management of third-party apps very simple and straightforward.

The process involves:

  1. Downloading the zip file of the latest binaries
  2. Uploading the zip file
  3. Accepting some terms and conditions
  4. Providing subdomain and API key

That’s basically it! Be sure to read the documentation on the project page for a more granular walkthrough.

Additionally, if you need to update your subdomain or API key, you are welcome to do so via the API or a point and click interface provided by the Zendesk App management tool.

Once installed the app will appear in a new pane to the right of a Zendesk user profile view and Zendesk ticket view.

The Future

We mentioned previously that this project was designed as a minimum viable product, and that’s what we’ve delivered here. While our team is really enjoying the current version, there is plenty of room for improvement.

Here’s a short list of immediate opportunities that we see:

  • Add client side caching to reduce API traffic to Chargify’s API
  • Add nested detail views for things like Subscription Statements, Subscription Invoices, etc
  • Add some update operations to push data into Chargify’s API
  • Add the project to the Zendesk App Marketplace
  • Minor enhancements designed to get novice engineers involved in open source; look for the “first-timers-only” label in the issues.

Contributions to the project are very much welcome in regards to any of the items listed above, or any other improvements you can dream up!

Will Your Idea Work? Claimsender Series, Part 4

In our last post we learned that people will potentially pay to file their health care claim forms online, enough to support a business at least. Wahoo!  

Now we build everything, right? Absolutely not. Hold your horses, buckaroo, and put that hammer down.

The data told us that a good number of people want this problem solved, and will pay enough to make it worthwhile for us. Now we need to make sure a real product can be built to support this business.   

In other words, I want to know: Is our core idea technically possible?

WARNING - PLEASE don't skip validating if a product and service can actually be built to solve the core problem. I made this mistake a few times in the past, and wasted months and years of time and money as a result.

ClaimSender.com requires a few things to work, some business related, some technical

Business items to confirm:

  • We need to make sure that insurance companies will accept our claim forms when we fax them in.
  • Since we'll be storing health information, we need to make sure our hosting is compliant and affordable.
  • Our app will fax in claim forms, and that process needs to be HIPAA compliant and affordable.

Technical items to confirm:

  • The main value proposition of the product is speed and convenience, so we need to collect information from user, and write it onto an existing claim form - then deliver it as a complete PDF.
  • We will also need to collect a digital signature from the end user, then write it onto an existing claim form PDF.

Let's walk through these issues one by one, and answer them with the least amount of time and cost.

Issue: Will insurance companies accept faxed in claim forms with a digitally-created signature?

Testing this turned out to be easy. I happened to have a few claims I needed to file. Remember, this is why we went down this path in the first place!

So I called up my healthcare company and asked if I could fax my claim form in. They said yes, and gave me their fax number.   

With that in hand, I headed over to HelloFax.com. I uploaded the claim form PDF, filled in the claim info, and signed electronically.  

I faxed the form in and held my breath. Ok, I didn't hold my breath, because claims can take 7 days to make it through the insurance companies' claims department.   

A few days after faxing my claim in I logged into my email and saw a "New claim processed" email from my insurance company. Boom! Success. Total cost? $0. Time spent? 20 minutes.

To make sure the digital signature would count as a legal signature, I pinged Earth Class Mail's Chairman, Jonathan Siegel.  He founded RightSignature, an electronic signature company, so he knows the space well. He gave a big thumbs up.

If you don't know any experts in the space, UpCounsel.com can serve as a good resource. VALIDATE.

On to the next issue... 

Issue: Do cost effective HIPAA web hosting solutions exist?

Storing people's health information requires the utmost security and care. This requires ClaimSender be HIPAA compliant. I won't bore you with the details of HIPAA compliance.

In general it means you follow a bunch of strict guideliness on storing and transmitting health information.  

A few hours of web searching turned up a few options, including HealthCareBlocks.com, which isn't too expensive. That works, on to the next issue.

Issue: Can we find a HIPAA compliant fax API?

ClaimSender will fax in healthcare claim forms. Healthcare claim forms contain a lot of of sensitive personal information. We need to make sure our fax provider sends this information securely.  

A few more hours of web searching revealed a few candidates, including Phaxio.com. After some back and forth with their excellent support crew, they confirmed their service can pass HIPAA muster when set up correctly.

Their pricing pleases too, so consider this answer a "yes".    

Issue: Can we collect information from users, and write it onto an existing claim form PDF?

I wrote code in a former life, and still fancy myself a developer. A "pretend" coder if you will. Real developers won't call my code pretty, but I can code enough to test a concept.

To answer this question, I wrote a simple ruby script (I love rails) to see if I could write fields onto a PDF. I tried a few different ruby gems, and landed on the prawn and combine_pdf gem.

I kept the script as simple as possible, just coding enough to confirm I could place text onto an existing PDF. After an hour or so, my script gave me the "yes" I hoped for.

Before we move on, notice what I didn't do.... I skipped creating a new rails project. I left data design for a later day. I bypassed everything except validating my core question.

My natural tendency is to start building the end app at this stage. After years of learning the hard way, I finally learned to focus on just answering the core question.

Issue: Can we collect a digital signature from the end user and write it onto an existing claim form PDF?

This question proved beyond my meager coding skills. To answer it, I created a small project on Upwork. Upwork runs a freelancer marketplace, and provides a great tool for one off tasks.

They have a ton of developers, which made getting this question answered quick and cheap (< $50). 

Do research before posting your project so you can specify as much detail as possible. For our project, I made sure I captured our key requirements before posting the job on upwork:

  • I knew the solution should use prawn and/or combine_pdf for the PDF manipulation.  
  • A little research led me to this github project to accept the end user's signature - https://github.com/szimek/signature_pad.
  • Using what I learned above, I wrote a specific job description with as much detail as possible.
  • I prefer to post my small projects as a set fee, instead of hourly. That gives me confidence on how much I will pay.

After posting our project, I read the reviews and explored the work history of any applicants.

I can't stress this enough - READ THE REVIEWS.  

If someone doesn't have reviews yet, proceed with caution. I like working with individual developers instead of companies. I find I pay less and get stuff done faster.   

I often ask applicants to write a tiny bit of code using the language & tools asked for in the job to make sure they know what they're doing.

This also shows you how responsive they are, and how they communicate. Make this something tiny, so you don't waste their time. I posted my project, chose a freelancer a day later, and within a few hours he delivered validation that things would work.  

Boom! That makes us five for five on our questions.

Now what? How can we find out if people will really buy this? Great question. Let's dive into that with our next post.

3 Keys to Social Media for Startups and SMBs

In many ways managing a social media presence has become just another thing all companies do, a mindless daily task to cross off your to-do list.

Partly that's because doing it well requires a lot of time and effort. The activities that tend to take up a bunch of time don't always result in value for the business.

Earth Class Mail is no different, so we took a lean and focused approach to managing our social channels.

There are a few basic fundamentals you want to build your social media presence on:

  1. Listening - tracking what others are saying about you, your industry, and your competitors.
  2. Engaging - communicating directly with others.
  3. Sharing - building an audience that can relate to and appreciate content that you broadcast.

To execute them effectively we had to make some compromises, be clever, and maintain control while allowing for applications to take over some of the tedious work.

Key 1: Admit your limitations, and focus on one or two channels

Yes, many will scoff at this compromise, but it's completely necessary unless you have a full-time resource dedicated to engaging across a lot of networks.

If you don't, then you're just turning in a half-hearted effort on many channels instead of a world-class effort on one.

That's the triage decision we made, to focus exclusively on Twitter where our largest and most engaged audience has been

Frankly, it was an easy decision. We have more followers on Twitter than any other network, we have been using it as a customer service channel for years, and Twitter is just easier to build an audience on than most other networks.

You may have a similarly obvious decision to make, or it may be more difficult. If you're not sure, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Where do I hear from customers most? i.e. customers reaching out to you, or mentioning your company by name.
  • Where are my competitors most active?
  • Which network am I the most comfortable with? i.e. if you're already a Facebook power user, follow many brands etc. and get the ecosystem then that could be for you.
  • Which network is most suitable for my skill set? i.e. each network has a basic premise that is hard to ignore. Twitter is all about short headlines and news. Facebook is extremely image and video heavy. Instagram is all about creating visual stories etc.

In the end, we decided to focus our efforts where we felt they could be most impactful - you should do the same.

Key 2: Automate as much as you can

Anything that you do on a set schedule or with a repeatable process can be automated. We decided on a basic toolset for our needs, here it is:

  • HootSuite - we use the Free version. There are more features in the paid versions, but we just need this to listen for certain keywords and occasionally reply to mentions or DMs. There are lots of alternatives: Sprout Social, TweetDeck, and Buffer to name a few.
  • SocialOomph - this is the foundation that everything rests on. It's the only tool we've found that allows you to recycle posts and inject spun content, so that the network doesn't bounce it back as duplicate. There are no great alternatives that we're aware of.
  • Flutter - a great tool, still early in development, but it really helps automate posting content that you can't easily get from something structured like an RSS feed.
  • Buffer - you can do a lot with this tool, but we use it primarily as a medium to post content that is being pulled from a structured data source like RSS feeds.
  • IFTTT - a great, free, conditional logic tool that lets you automagically post stuff to your social profiles via a tool like Buffer. (there's a lot more you can do with IFTTT)

It's critical that you take some version of this step to automate your workflow so that you can free up time for the activities that really need a human touch. Auto-replies to mentions and DMs always come off as robotic, so spend your manual time there and let the machines take care of the rest.

HootSuite, Buffer, and IFTTT are all incredibly well documented. We won't spend time detailing how we use them here, but there's lots of content already available with a quick search.

Get the most out of your existing content

Queuing up a bunch of content is day one of intermediate social media management, but we took it a step further by putting the content to work for us into perpetuity, or close to it. 

That means if we have a slow content month, we don't need to scramble to fill up our queue again or risk that deadly black hole of silence on Twitter.

SocialOomph actually makes it really easy. They use standard spun content schema, so if you've done something similar on the SEO side of digital marketing then you should be really familiar.

Basically, we load up the content of our post and format a bunch of alternate text variations that the program then randomly chooses to Tweet out. 

We then set a recurring schedule for posting the content and voila! Suddenly our entire content library is on permanent repeat with multiple unique variations of the post. If you've been managing social media for a while, this tool is a game changer.

Use third-party content to improve your profile

Automating re-posts of content from RSS feeds is really easy. That's how we use IFTTT and Buffer, it's actually a standard integration you can just plug and play.

Getting content from a non-RSS source posted to Twitter automatically was a totally different challenge. We struggled for a while before accidentally stumbling on Flutter.

Flutter is a pretty basic tool, still being worked on so it's rough around the edges, but extremely powerful for this use case.

It works by allowing you to choose a CSS selector (the id of an "element" on a page) that it will scrape on some recurring schedule and post to Twitter, or push to Buffer if you choose that option.

This is honestly amazing! You can scrape content from the web version of a newsletter, a subreddit, a blog without an RSS feed, and basically anything else.

Imagine how much more content you have access to that you won't have to pull and share manually anymore.

Key 3: Communicate with others in a real, human voice

Since you aren't wasting time with all those tedious tasks anymore, thanks to automation, you can start to have real conversations with others.

As a customer service channel, Twitter has been a great network for us. It's really easy to react to negative feedback quickly and correct issues, or find those customers that are primed to become brand ambassadors.

We also take the opportunity to just engage with others in a conversational tone. It's great for prospecting new customers, or simply developing a brand personality that's relatable to your target audience.

The best part about this approach is the freedom it provides to focus on growing you audience instead of constantly keeping up with maintaining the content. That by itself was worth the initial effort to set it all up.




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