tech, simplified.

Ever wondered why John Gruber started his site Daring Fireball, and how he managed to make it profitable enough to be a great job on its own? At the 2014 XOXO festival in Portland, Oregon, Gruber told his full story from site inception to going full-time to the different things that, together, steered him to the business model he has today.

It’s a fascinating talk that’s a must-watch for anyone who publishes on the web, or who’d just like a peek behind the scenes at how a successful business model can be formed and grow over time.

Upgrading to a new OS isn't for the faint of heart. Years ago, it meant waiting up until midnight to buy a boxed copy of the latest OS for $100 or so of your hard-earned money. You'd likely opt to reinstall all of your software and restore your files manually just to make everything work better.

Now, a couple clicks and and hour or three to download and install is all it takes to get the latest OS X. Apple's simplified it so much, everyone can upgrade mostly without fear these days. With recent versions like Mavericks, one could almost upgrade and notice nothing different.

OS X Yosemite continues the trend of simple upgrades—my upgrade from a beta went without flaw, and that seems to be how it's going for most people. Make sure you have a backup, and you should be fine to upgrade.

But you can't upgrade without noticing it this time. Yosemite features the largest visual overhaul of OS X in a decade, borrowing designs from iOS 7 not entirely unlike what many of us had imagined. It works the same for the most part, but there's tweaks and changes everywhere. And, there's new features, including new Extensions and Continuity which lets your iOS and OS X apps swap info and handoff what you're doing almost seamlessly. There's also iCloud Drive, Notification Center widgets, and more. It can be a lot to take in.

You could just dive in; I'm sure you'd learn your way around quickly enough. But if you want to know what's really changed in any new release of OS X, John Siracusa's in-depth OS X reviews for Ars Technica are second to none. This year's review of Yosemite is no exception. It's a must-read if you want to get the most out of Yosemite. You'll learn about hidden features and new tricks—I did while reading it, and I've reviewed software for a job for years.

This weekend, if you'd like some geeky reading, it's Siracusa season again. Enjoy.

Why Press Releases Don't Work — a Review of "The Burned-Out Blogger’s Guide to PR"

I jumped into blogging—dare I say tech reporting?—without any preparation. I was an IT major, "that guy" everyone asked for help with tech, and seemed to have a knack for fixing little problems (really, it was just persistence until I got something to work, and a willingness to move fast and break stuff). And so, I'd figure out how to get stuff to work that really should have just worked in the first place, then blog about how to work such magic.

Somehow it worked. A guide about how to get a specific HP printer to work over a network with Windows 7 x64 (yes, it was that specific) was among my most popular pieces. Specific, boring, and yet it helped people and Google rewarded that. One thing led to another, and I've been employed writing words, in one way or another, ever since.

I wasn't a journalist, and wouldn't have ever thought of myself as such at first. Even when I switched to primarily reviewing apps instead of writing tutorials about them, I approached them like iFixit, tearing them apart to see what features and fonts and frameworks made them tick. That's what's always driven my tech writing.

When I wanted to improve, I devoured books on copywriting (Erin Kissane's "Elements of Content Strategy" from A Book Apart is a great place to start there, by the way), trying to learn from the best on how to best phrase my writing and organize content to help people learn from it. That, and not "covering the tech beat", was my passion.

And yet, soon enough, PR pitches were filling up my inbox, informing me of this "great new app" with "groundbreaking new features" that's "already been downloaded millions of times" or that's "launching with a 1 week discount on Tuesday". Boy were they exciting at first. I'd arrived. Someone had "noticed" my writing, liked it, and wanted me to cover them.

Until I got nearly the same pitch tomorrow. And the day after. And a dozen over the weekend. Very soon I had a nice set of email filters, automatically marking PR emails as read and stuffing them in a folder for the days I had nothing else to write about. I'd rather hand-discover an exciting new app—and yes, for those of you who've followed me a while, I'm particularly excitable about apps that simplify something far more than it's ever been simplified before—or teach something about an old favorite than rehash a press release.

And yet, some pitches worked. Sometimes a founder—or a really nice guy at the company that does almost anything—would write a friendly email just saying they'd launched something and thought I might find it interesting. No PR fluff—or at least not much of it—and just a personal, non-demanding tone. Even to my jaded eyes, that'd at least get me to open their site and see if it kept my interest for half a minute. And that's the way your app would end up getting covered.

Of course, I'm on the other side now, and am the guy that'll be trying to get you to cover Zapier because it really is awesome. But I digress.

The reason I wrote this down is because I just finished reading former Techcrunch writer Jason Kincaid's book "The Burned-Out Blogger’s Guide to PR". In a book that'll take you just an hour or so to read if you read fast, he explains the basics of what PR is all about, and what you should do if you want people to cover your business. And it's great. No, really.

See, I know the pitches that have gotten me to pay attention and make them into a story, and the ones that instantly get deleted even if they're from Famous Corp Inc. Every writer does. Perhaps that's our trade secret, perhaps it's just hard to express, and perhaps we all just think it's so obvious anyone could see why a bog standard press release is worse than just a waste of time.

But Jason Kincaid went ahead and wrote it down, spelling out what you need to do to get covered, and how to make the most of it. And then, at the end, he veers off course, lamenting over becoming jaded and even mean, and helps you see just why yet another press release or broken embargo can be so soul crushing to a writer.

If you're building a product or business, go take an hour and read this book. Really. It may not be "the best" book on how to get press coverage and market your product, but it's real. So real it'd make tech writers have flashbacks. This is really how the modern business news process works, and you should understand it.

And if you're a budding writer, go read this to see what you'd otherwise learn by hard knocks over the coming weeks and months. You'll read it now, and then in a few months think "oh right, that's what Jason said." I wish I'd had something like that when I started.

So there. "The Burned-Out Blogger’s Guide to PR". Highly recommended.

Spreadsheets are the original killer app for computers, and they’re still a rather powerful tool for everything from crunching numbers to making outlines today. But they can still be rather confusing. Even if you know the basics, there’s likely tons more about spreadsheets that you could benefit from knowing.

As one of my last projects at Tuts+, I had the privilege of working with instructor Bob Flisser on publishing an introductory course about spreadsheets, and it’s finally been published. If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about spreadsheets, be sure to check this course out—it’s $15 to buy, or free with a Tuts+ subscription.

Also, of course, don’t forget about the Spreadsheet for Finance series of free tutorials that we’d ran on Tuts+ earlier this year as well.

Ever wished you could have a phone number in any country, and then have it ring on your local phone? Now you can.

Here’s how to put together a phone number in any Twilio-supported country that’ll forward calls and txts to your local number, and then how you can do even more awesome stuff with that phone number thanks to Zapier automations.

It’s how I’ve now got a US number that rings on my Thailand phone, and how you can build the phone you’ve always wanted.

The Best Storage Services, Reviewed at Zapier

Yes, it’s the most obvious thing in the world to review: what’s the best place to store and sync my files. And honestly, everyone’s going to have their own opinion on that. But with Dropbox’ recent plan updates (giving you 1TB and extra sharing features for $9/month), reviewing the big 3 storage apps—Dropbox, OneDrive, and Google Drive—seemed like a great way to test out our new reviews pages at Zapier.

And so, here’s a review of what’s great about each of them, with a short summary:

As it turns out, I use all 3 for different purposes. But that’s a post for another day.

The Chromecast is great for streaming Netflix and YouTube to your TV, but it’s also the best alternative to taking an HDMI cable with you on your next business trip. Here’s some tips on how to use the Chromecast to present anything, anywhere.

Your Mac Has Something Better Than Siri: It Can Write For You

Your Mac has dictation and screen-reading built-in, with the same voices (and many more) that you’re used to from Siri. Google, Wikipedia, and the calculator are only a keystroke away in Spotlight. Yet there’s still no Siri for Mac.

There is, however, a bit of artificial intelligence in your Mac. Open a new text document, in TextEdit or your favorite plain text writing app. Or possibly make a new email. Now, press the esc key on your keyboard. Tap enter, then press space. Now tap esc again. Rinse, repeat. Add punctuation as needed.

And, voila, your Mac has just written for you. Automagically.

autowrite

My Mac has a penchant for saying it wants to “have a good day” or “be a good day”. Which is nice.

And so we should let my MacBook Air have the closing words. It said:

I love you so much fun and I was just a little bit of a new one is the best thing ever is when you have to be a good day.

***

Yes, this is just the default OS X spellcheck’s word suggest, which you can use to help you complete a word you’re unsure how to spell. And it apparently learns from what you type—and since I close most emails with “Have a good day!”, I guess it learned that phrase from me. Anyhow. Still a fun trick.

2 weeks ago, I started my latest adventure: doing marketing at Zapier. Here’s the story that started it all—and my last post, “It Takes a Story”, was the presentation I gave at Zapier when I got hired. And that—crafting the stories that’ll help people get more done with Zapier—is exactly what I’ll be doing.

Here’s to the future.

It Takes a Story

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In the beginning, it was dark. Very dark. It’d get light for half a day, long enough to find food and explore a bit, but then, it’d be dark again. But then, it’d be light again—until it was stormy, and there was no light for days on end. Those were the days you’d wish for a way to capture the sun.

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And then, somehow, a piece of the sun fell out of the sky, and turned a tree into a mini-sun—or so it seemed to you. Here was your chance. Everyone else was terrified, but you walked to the tree, picked up a branch that had caught some of the sun, and figured out that it was fire.

Take it back to the camp, and everyone would think you were insane. You were literally playing with fire. So you’d have to convince them why this fire was good, how it could keep you warm and break the darkness. You’d tell a story.

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Fast forward a bit, and you’re tired of walking. You’re doing a lot more walking now with light, and it’s getting tiresome. And so, you notice a rock rolling down a mountain one day, tumbleweed rolling across a field in the breeze, and pebbles rolling under your feet. And suddenly, you’ve invented the wheel in your head.

You chisel and carve and craft the perfect wheel, but then what. Time for a story again. You’ll have to find a way to convince people this wheel is something important, perhaps by describing the tumbleweed and rolling stones.

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Centuries pass, and fire on sticks (or in glass lanterns, or on wax candles) has gotten a bit old. There’s this new-fangled thing called electricity, which turns out was what caught that tree on fire way back when anyhow, and if electricity can light up the night sky, surely it can light up your home. You’d just need to capture that new version of the sun in a bottle, again — and this time a stick wouldn’t cut it.

So you’d experiment and try and finally find a way to make a light bulb that works. It’d take forever, but finally, you’d have something. Ding.

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But then, you’ve got to convince people to switch—to spend money for seemingly unproven technology. And that wouldn’t do. And so, you’d wire up a whole section of the city to show that electricity won’t burn everything down, and you’d shower the World’s Fairs with lightbulbs so people would see the whole world, brighter.

If you’re Tesla, you’d run a lightbulb off current passing through your body just to prove it was safe. Real-life stories, perhaps, but stories all the same.

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Time passes on, the whole world runs on electricity, and it’s time for a new revolution. There was this not-so-little thing called computers, machines that’d take up whole rooms and solve math. Not exciting.

That is, not until the microchip came along, and made PCs possible. Even still, what normal person in their right mind would spend nearly $3k in today’s money for a computer when you didn’t know what it’d do for you? Math isn’t that exciting.

But someone saw more to them than that, and told us stories. He said the computer was a bicycle for the mind—it could let your mind do much more than it could do on its own. It could enable anything.

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It was the time when full-page magazine ads were all the rage, and no one saw the need to skimp on words. And so, Apple—and really, so many others—would tell stories in their ads, tell us how we’d put their products to use, and why we weren’t crazy for wanting one. They’d explain what electronic mail was, and how it could save us postage and speed up our communications. They explained what BASIC meant, and how we could make stuff with it.

They told stories.

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Sometimes, it just takes a story.

The App Store is filled with apps that have a vague name, an even more vague description, and a few random screenshots. There’s little space for much else. And if that’s all you rely on, you’ll be lucky to get any customers. If the app solves a basic problem—email, notes, or any of the dozens of things people already understand—people won’t know why to try it over the app they’re already using. And if it solves a unique problem, they won’t even begin to grasp what it’s for.

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Ed Catmull said in Creativity, Inc. that “We humans like to know where we are headed, but creativity demands that we travel paths that lead to who-knows-where.” And those paths need stories. People won’t understand what we’re doing—if we’re doing something new and meaningful—unless we explain it. They need be able to see what we meant that thing to do. They later may find other, better uses for it, but it takes that first story to capture their mind and start seeing the possibilities.

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That’s why the best apps tell stories. Dropbox’ intro video told us that it was the place to put all of your stuff, and then described how exactly that made sense with examples of people traveling and more. Their homepage had little else—and it needed little else. The story was what mattered.

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Basecamp the company, in its previous incarnation as 37signals, found that using a story from a customer increased their signups over 200%. Their initial long-form story, with a signup button far below the fold, increased signups over 100%, and further tweaks of adding a picture (so people could put a face behind the story) and tighter copywriting double that stat again.

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And it’s not just fancy apps. More boring services like Draft Revise, a design optimization service, have found that a wall of text that in-depth explains what their service is all about helps prompt signups. Nick Disabato, the guy behind it, says that he’s told people the site address in a coffee shop and seen them stop talking just to read the page. All of that, for a $650/month service that’s inherently boring.

And yet, a story is what helps it work.

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“History bears out that people with clear ideas and strong points are the ones we remember,” writes Scott Berkun in his book Confessions of a Public Speaker, after mentioning mistakes in famous speeches and the various speaking problems thought leaders had. That didn’t matter. They told a story, and that’s what we remembered.

That’s how the simplest tools can win: a solid story. No amount of design and features—or lack thereof—can make or break a product like a story. A solid story will win hearts and minds, and help people see how they can achieve greatness with what you made. No story will only let them see your sun captured on a stick, and they’ll wisely run away.

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Adapted from a presentation I gave recently. Slides designed in Deckset.