PhotoSpace: A Private Instagram for Personal Cloud

And why we built a photo app where users control their data

Link to the app

Like the millions of other millennials out there who document their infatuation with food, puppies and babies, I love Instagram. But sometimes I’d like to filter my photo to death without the world seeing and keep that photo in a safe place where I can access it later. We envision a different paradigm of photo editing apps, one that’s more private and built on top of personal cloud.

Why on Top of Personal Cloud?

  1. Control of where your data goes: Users of the app are able to choose which personal cloud- Google, Dropbox or Box- they save pictures to. Once they snap photos within the app, they can view them from anywhere they can access their personal cloud. This means that not only can I see where my data is, but I can also easily delete it or share it if I so choose.
  2. Private vs. Public: Public photo storage is great- Facebook and Instagram do a great job of it. However, I want to share only a portion of my pictures, not every single one. Personal cloud fits my requirement well since private is the default setting.
  3. Storage and access: My iCloud, while great for default photo storage, is annoying for exporting and sharing photos. Personal clouds already do this extremely well and in a user-friendly way. Storing my photos across various personal cloud also gives me a lot more storage (Drive gives 15GB for free, Dropbox gives 5 GB, Box gives 50GB!) .

The actual app

First you login with your provider of choice and then snap a photo.

Next, you can add different filters and sticker effects or meme-ify your photo (powered by Aviary), and add a file name to store.

Now you can see the picture both inside the PhotoSpace app (first image) and your personal cloud (Google Drive mobile app in the second image)!

Apps on top of personal cloud can work for anything

There are many other apps in the same vein as PhotoSpace where ownership of data is valuable to, perhaps even a requirement for, the user. Private messaging apps like Tinder or Whatsapp, apps with sensitive healthcare information, apps that contain personal finance information and password savers are all examples of apps where storing the data in my Google Drive or Dropbox, where I can easily delete it and it’s harder for hackers to access, is highly preferred over the app’s external server.

Hosting app data on personal cloud is the wave of the future. I cofounded NimbusBase to help create an SDK where any developer can effortlessly store their app data on their user’s personal cloud. This vastly simplifies the backend process for developers and gives users the privacy they want. Check out our site,, and drop me a note at if you want to be part of the revolution.

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Editor, Product Manage Thyself

I’m a rookie at product management. But I’m a pretty experienced journalist, and before that, I was a passable designer and coder. My active work with code ended in the early 2000’s. It’s still hard to say why I left web development for the world of journalism. I think one reason is the development work, and the tools available to do that work, just weren’t capturing my attention or interests at the time.

Little did I realize that the tools available to coders, especially ones like me, who tried to be holistic about design and code, were about to get way better and way cooler to do stuff with. And that journalism was about to undergo a secular shift away from print to digital, though massively downsizing, trading dollars for dimes along the way. On the face of it, I made a pretty horrible mistake in trading careers. I should’ve buttoned down, learned the languages I needed, and built cool new stuff. But I’m not unhappy with my choices. Here’s why:

1. Content management and product management are converging. You see it in places like The Verge. In GDGT. In The New York Times’ Snowfall. This is the unavoidable reality of the transition to digital media. It’s no longer good enough to blurp a blob of text onto a screen and expect readers to find it. Whether it’s machine-readable metadata that subtly drives readers to engaging content, or intensely pretty graphics and CSS animations, readers are being trained to expect simple yet elegant complexity in their online experiences. Woe to the media company that is not scrambling to deliver both. Therefore:

2. Content editors need to also be product managers. It’s true, today’s editors are overworked and underpaid. And many thought they’d just be pushing copy around, or fixing clauses, or maybe telling a graphic designer how to lay out their page, not deciding how much parity each mobile client should have with the website, or extracting something interesting from a pool of data. Well, tough.

An editor or writer who gets to file her copy into the system and forget about is an editor who is being alienated, in the most Marxist possible way, from the fruits of their labor. That journalist has lost contact with his or her consumer. Editors need to help craft the way their content gets presented to their readers. They themselves don’t have to be designers, coders or even, strictly speaking, ticket-moving product managers. They do need to have a seat at the same table as those other people, and explain the way their content will be most valuable, come to consensus, and then work with those other colleagues to help spec out, design, build and release the code that can bring that value to the reader. But how can they be sure about what will bring their readers value? Well:

3. Digital media needs to reconnect to readers. For the past few years there’s been a bit of “oh, we’ll build the automagic content parsing widget, turn it on, walk away, and slap ads on the page” = digital media revenue school of thought. That’s never going to work. On the other hand, most analytics media companies use today are a big old mess. The don’t out put data in a valuable way. Further, if a big media company has something approaching benign neglect for its online commenting community, it’s actually ahead of the curve. Sure, old media is starting to embrace the conference business as a valuable community-building exercise (see the recent NYT Dealbook) and not just a marketing-budget line-item, but most opportunities to connect with readers online are being ignored or off-shored to Facebook.

For all of the hype around interactivity, big media is still primarily a one-way street. And the rise of programmatic ad-buying will only reinforce that trend. Most old media revenue officers aren’t going to care about connecting to their online audience, beyond understanding their aggregate profile and average value to an ad network. Yet cultivating those reader relationships on an editorial level can unlock all sorts of value, understanding, and yes, even revenue. But only an editor who understands how to demand that data, from a team willing to provide it, will ever get it. Then she has to figure out how to use it. Which leads me to final point:

4. It’s not publishers or companies that have to save journalism, but journalists. Sure, no media titan wants to go out of business, but make no mistake: they will if they have to. Journalists have only a few options here, to keep their masters happy. They are:
-make money;
-be the best, at least in one particular area of coverage;
-be novel.

Achieving any one facet will keep a company listening to its journalists. Two and perhaps the hacks and their hackers even get the chance to try new, innovative things. Three and they’ll never go out of business. But in the media business, let’s be honest, it’s rare that a company comes close to achieving even one of those goals. The competition is too steep, the talent pool too deep, and the costs to achieve even one of those aims are not, unfortunately, cheap.

As an editor who gets to work on the product team, I’m empowered to help determine what I think other editors need to tell the story the right way. And when I’m wrong, I’m empowered to go back and try again. This is all quite new at my company, especially when it comes to the Internet, and there are a lot of other pieces to the puzzle I’m still learning about. But it feels like the right direction.

I feel lucky to understand enough about web development to know what’s possible, even if I wrote my last line of code before jQuery was ever released. And I believe that technology has a huge role to play in keeping real, heavy-duty journalism alive. But that will only be true if we journalists can tame technology to do what we need, and not the other way around.

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10 Questions to Ask When Collecting Customer Data

BY | February 18, 2014|

10 Questions

10 Questions to Ask When Collecting Customer Data

Image credit: Shutterstock

When your customers disclose their personal and financial information to you, they’re taking a leap of faith that you won’t lose, abuse or otherwise mess with it — accidentally or not. Your customers don’t want you to spam them every two minutes, hawk their info to third parties or, worse, expose it to cyber attackers.

Collecting customer data has been notoriously loaded with a tangle of privacy pitfalls. But when done right, the benefit to your bottom line could outweigh the risks. Leveraging customer data can lead to happier customers, reduced client churn and bigger profits.

Gathering sensitive customer information isn’t something business owners should just jump into and make up as they go. Get up to speed with these 10 essential questions to consider before you ask your customers anything:

1. I don’t have time to get anything from my customers but their money. Do I really need to collect data from them, too? 

Without customers, you wouldn’t be in business. Knowing who they are and what they want, particularly from you, can lead to more effective marketing, increased brand loyalty and the holy grail — more sales.

“Collecting customer data helps you know each customer more individually and treat them that way,” says Jeff Tanner, professor of marketing at Baylor University and director of the school’s “Business Collaboratory.” And the info you glean from them can empower you to “craft offers that increase purchase rates at higher margins while also delivering better value to the customers because they’re getting things they want,” he says.

2. What types of personal data should I collect and why?

Start with the basics, such as customer names and mailing and email addresses. These allow you to personalize your communications with them, directly market to them and follow up with them if there’s a problem with their order. Other data points to collect for an overall demographic snapshot are age, profession and gender.

As you develop trust with your customers, Tanner suggests going deeper and asking them for certain psychographic data points, like details about their personalities, values and lifestyles. For example, if you own a furniture store and find out your customer has children via a customer questionnaire, you might consider marketing children’s furniture to them.

3. What types of transactional data should I collect and why? 

Recording and analyzing each customer’s transaction history — what they purchase from you, when and how often — helps you know which products and services to offer them in the future. Companies like Amazon, and Zappos are some of the best at this powerful marketing practice, also known as “basket analysis,” automatically delivering sometimes impressively personalized product recommendations based on past purchases.

4. What are the best ways to collect customer data?

You can start by accumulating customer data every time they interact with your company — on the phone or in online chat with customer service, in-store with a salesperson or via online survey or contest, Tanner says.

It’s important to note, though, that the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 prohibits procuring email addresses from certain online sources, including blogs and internet chat rooms, without the permission of site users and owners.

5. How should I organize and store it?

Once you obtain the customer data you want, dumping it into a basic Excel spreadsheet won’t do you much good. The best, most time- and cost-effective way to store, track and make sense of customer data, Tanner says, is to use an all-in-one customer relationship management (CRM) solution.

He suggests trying CRM packages for entrepreneurs from Pipeliner ($30 per month with a 30-day free trial), Zoho ($12 to $35 per month with a 15-day free trial) or Teradata (prices available by contacting Teradata sales).

Read more:

6. How can I best protect my customers’ personal and financial data?

Encrypting all of your customers’ data is your first step in safeguarding it. This includes their names, email and physical addresses, credit card numbers, spending habits, social media logins and any other sensitive data points you’re privy to.

Best practices for data encryption vary from industry to industry. Here’s a guide to creating a strong cyber security plan for your small business, complete with expert encryption tips. You might consider hiring a data security specialist to take on the task for you.

If you hire a third-party to collect and store your customer data for you, be sure that they use the highest encryption standards available.

7. How can I be sure what I’m doing is legal?  

All that’s legally required of you when collecting customer data is to create a customer information privacy policy and give your customers access to it, Tanner says.

In an ideal world, your privacy policy should closely follow the Federal Trade Commission’s Fair Information Practice Principles, which are guidelines for securely collecting electronic consumer data, though they aren’t enforceable by law.

Clearly state in your policy exactly who is collecting which types of data, how it’s used and with whom you share it with (and if you intend to share it at all). You also have to allow your customers to opt out of receiving marketing material from you.

Specifically, if you own a business in the healthcare industry and gather patient information, you have to abide by Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) laws. Or, if your company’s target demographic is children and you interact with them online, compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is mandatory.

8. Should I sell my customer’s information to third-party marketers?

The choice is yours and plenty of companies do — and profit from it. But Tanner warns that doing so could alienate your customers. And they generally don’t come back once they’ve gone.

“If [business owners] use customer data like a mailing list, then they spam,” he says. “If they use data to have an intelligent conversation that includes relevant offers, then they become a preferred partner. You might be able to sell access to your customer list, but no customer will want to stay with you once they figure that out.”

If you decide to sell customer data to third parties, clearly say so in your privacy policy.

9. What’s the best way to benefit from the customer data I collect? 

Leveraging it to offer added value to your customer is the biggest advantage. Customer data helps you paint a clear picture of who your target customer is and how to best communicate with, advertise and market to them.

When you know your ideal customer better and really understand their needs and wants, you can better craft offers to entice them, which should in turn boost sales.

10. What are some common mistakes to avoid?

Perhaps the worst in the bunch, Tanner says, is asking for too much at one time and overwhelming your customers. Other common faux pas Tanner suggests steering clear of are not using the data at all and making assumptions about customers based on collecting transactional data only.

Kim Lachance Shandrow is a senior writer at

How a national sales tax could solve America’s inequality problem

If the U.S. uses a national sales tax to bolster the social safety net — programs like Medicare, Social Security, food stamps, and Medicaid — it could reduce income inequality, argues a new study.

Original Article URL:


FORTUNE — You may think you’ve been hearing a lot about income inequality lately, but just you wait. The November elections aren’t going to be fun for Democrats, and the bad hand that the middle and working classes has been dealt is one of the few topics where Congressional Democrats will have an advantage with voters.

The problem for these politicians is that it isn’t exactly clear how government power can address inequality, at least in a way that’s politically palatable. Income taxes on the wealthy have already gone up significantly since the beginning of President Barack Obama’s first term, while increasing entitlement benefits is dangerous given the already unsustainable path those programs are on.

MORE: Tom Perkins: Taxes will lead to ‘economic extinction’ of the 1%

So what’s a left-leaning politician to do? Institute a national sales tax, argues Reuven S. Avi-Yonah, a professor of law at Michigan State University. In a new paper, he lays out a case for taking action on inequality, providing this illuminating chart, which shows the differences in income inequality levels among several of the leading economies since World War Two:

gini index income disparity since world war ii

As you can see, the U.S. has seen a rise in income inequality, as measured by the Gini Coefficient, and ranks as one of the most unequal developed economies. What separates the U.S., with its high levels of inequality, from countries like Germany and Japan, which are more egalitarian? Well, one thing is a national sales tax, otherwise known as a value added tax. This is a bit counterintuitive since sales taxes are thought to hit the less affluent harder than income taxes. That’s because sales tax rates are the same regardless of your income, and low-income earners spend more of their total income than the wealthy on sales taxable purchases.

MORE: The depressing reason you’re about to get a raise

But Avi-Yonah argues that what’s done with those sales tax receipts is more important. If we use a sales tax to bolster the social safety net — programs like Medicare, Social Security, food stamps, and Medicaid — then even a regressive tax could work to reduce income inequality. Stronger social security will help the baby boomer generation, which has lived through an era in which private companies have abandoned guaranteed pension schemes yet members of this generation have not saved for retirement by other means. Other programs will help those on the lower end of the income spectrum, who have been left behind amid a rapid transformation of the U.S. economy and the disappearance of medium-skill, middle-class jobs. In fact, such measures may be necessary to maintain social cohesion and an open economy, Avi-Yonah writes:

Strengthening the social safety net is important to sustaining growth. Open economies tend to have stronger safety nets, because the gains from having an open economy tend to impose risk on the people who lose from globalization, so that a strong safety net is in a democracy a precondition to obtaining widespread political support for openness, which in turn produces growth.

Why use a national sales tax, rather than a progressive income tax, to finance an expansion of the welfare state? First of all, it’s easier to avoid income taxes than it is to avoid sales taxes. Wealthy Americans have all sorts of ways of sheltering their income, and such deductions make financing government spending difficult. Second, sales taxes are paid by all segments of society — working and nonworking people alike — giving it a broad financial base. Meanwhile, the current system for financing the safety net requires taxing young and productive workers to help older and unproductive workers, which Avi-Yonah argues is fundamentally unstable. Third, a sales tax is much cheaper to administer than income taxes.

The only catch, of course, is that enacting a new tax isn’t exactly popular. But Avi-Yonah believes the example of countries like Australia makes him hopeful that it’s possible to build this system in the U.S. “Good politicians like John Howard of Australia have managed to build a broad legislative coalition to enact a VAT even after promising not to do so, and win reelection decisively.”

Then again, John Howard didn’t have a Tea Party to deal with.

What Lego has in common with Apple

The blockbuster box office results for The Lego Movie underscore the Danish construction-toy company’s success. And it shares a key quality with Apple — one that more companies should emulate.

By Geoff Colvin, senior editor-at-large

Original Article URL:


FORTUNE — The startling success of The Lego Movie probably didn’t make you think about Apple (AAPL), but it should. In their widely different worlds, the Lego Group and Apple are succeeding in the same way, with lessons for the rest of us.

The Lego Movie is a 3-D kid flick in which the entire world is apparently made of little plastic bricks (“the greatest movie ever assembled,” as the trailer wryly puts it). The description may not make your heart beat faster, but in less than two weeks it has grossed an estimated $140 million at the U.S. box office, nearing or maybe setting a record for a film released at this time of year. Considering that the movie cost only an estimated $70 million to make, and that its global prospects are extremely strong in light of Lego’s globally popular brand, the film is a major win for both Lego and the film’s producer, Warner Brothers, which (like Fortune‘s parent company) is part of Time Warner (TWX).

So what’s the link to Apple? In one word, integration. Apple has conquered the world in large part because it’s the best company anywhere at integrating all the parts of the business into a knockout customer experience. Hardware, software, product aesthetics, online experience, even packaging — at Apple they’re all created simultaneously in ways that reinforce one another. Consultant Ram Charan, who leads the field in analyzing and understanding integration, explains, “Core decisions are made by integrating inputs from experts simultaneously and largely without the filters of the administrative managers of the experts.”

But doesn’t every company do that? Far from it. In fact, most large organizations find this kind of integration almost impossible. That’s why Sony (SNE) notoriously failed to defeat or even match Apple’s iPad, though it was a far larger company at the time. It couldn’t get the necessary divisions to work together, as then-CEO Howard Stringer later admitted. Steve Jobs made integration work at Apple, and he realized its importance. As he said, “Integration is the only way I could make perfect products.”

MORE: Can Samsung do fingerprint ID better than Apple’s iPhone 5s?

Lego is integrating. It’s building a machine that creates an extended customer experience with its brand, in multiple media and physical spaces. This isn’t old-fashioned ancillary marketing for Lego construction toys; Lego is making money at every step. Characters and products that show up in the movie may also play roles in programs that Lego creates with Cartoon Network, in video games, at six Legoland theme parks around the world, and at 11 smaller Legoland Discovery Centers.

The company fuels this network of businesses with more than its own creations. It has proven extraordinarily persuasive in getting companies that compete with one another to license their characters to Lego. The company has toy lines featuring Batman, which is owned by DC Comics, part of Time Warner; Iron Man, which is owned by Marvel, part of Walt Disney (DIS); and Yoda and other Star Wars characters, owned by LucasFilm. They all cohabit peacefully in the Lego-verse, as it’s called. The whole system grows and prospers as one organic unit.

Integrating isn’t easy because companies naturally generate siloes as they grow. Integrators tear them down, and the results are impressive. The rest of us had better figure out how to do it in our own organizations.

Research & the Novel: The Art of Everyday Awareness

In July of 2003, I found myself in the Central Highlands of Costa Rica, sequestered away with five other writers and artists in a small colony situated on a hill above the small town of Colon. I arrived in Costa Rica with little more than an idea for a novel, the first impressionistic strokes of an opening scene. As it turned out, my second-floor studio was too beautiful, the setting too sublime, my fellow colonists too interesting.

I ended up doing more walking and wandering than writing. I also took a few side trips, most notably to the small surfing town of Hermosa, where I rented a filthy room on the beach for twenty dollars a night. During the day I hung out on the beach, watching the surfers brave the spectacular waves. Nighttime was less pleasant. My room had bugs, my sheets were grimy, and the communal bathroom was a few hundred yards away up an unlighted staircase. One night a wild storm came through, soaking the bed and floor beneath my small, screened-in window. But the window looked out to the ocean, and it was a beautiful sight. I’d be staring out into darkness, the wind and rain whipping at my face, and suddenly a flash of white lightning would rip through the sky, transforming day into night, illuminating the wild gray water.

Well, you see now, as I sit here writing this, I’m getting all worked up by the surfers, and the beach, and dirty room, and the storm. And that’s just what happened a few months after I returned home to San Francisco from the writers’ colony. There I was, typing away in my fog-bound house, having arrived at a point in the novel where I didn’t know where to go, or how to get there, or how to get myself out of the mess I’d made, and, quite without intent, I found myself writing about Costa Rica.

The novel that I was trying, and failing, to figure out during that month in Central America finally made its way into the world in 2007. Since then, many readers have asked me if I went to Costa Rica to conduct research for The Year of Fog. In fact, I went to Costa Rica to write a novel about San Francisco. And I did, in the end, write a novel about San Francisco, which happened to take a pretty lengthy detour to Costa Rica. I file this in the Happy Accidents drawer of my writing life. Truth be told, some of my most rewarding research didn’t feel like research at the time I was experiencing it; it just felt like life.

Take, for example, a bus ride through China a decade ago. I was in China for a couple of months on business, but ended up doing a lot of solo traveling. As my bus limped into Xian, I found myself talking to a Chinese geologist who was very concerned about the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Several months later, at home in New York City, I began writing a novel set on the Yangtze River, against the backdrop of the Three Gorges Dam. Dream of the Blue Room would never have come into being had I not found myself alone in China, eyes and ears open.

Not all of my research has been quite so unplanned. In my most recent novel, the narrator is a coffee buyer. When I was choosing her occupation, my reasons were not purely literary. I happen to love coffee. I mean, really love it, with a deep and sometimes irrational passion. In the interests of verisimilitude, naturally, I had to drink vast quantities of the stuff and hang out at every coffee shop I could find. My research also involved visiting a coffee warehouse in South City, participating in a cupping, perusing William H. Ukers’ classic 1922 text The Story of Coffee (all 800 pages of it), and rereading my notes from a small coffee farm I visited in—yes, Costa Rica—several years before.

Ideally, the research you do, whether accidental or intentional, will deeply inform your story, but it will feel as if it comes from the characters, not the author. Perhaps the most useful piece of advice I can give about research is something I heard from a fellow San Francisco writer during a panel discussion, which he, in turn, had heard from another writer on another panel some years before. “Do a lot of research. Then put almost none of it in the book.”

Michelle Richmond has published four books of fiction. She is the founder of Fiction Attic Press and the creator of the Guided Workbooks for Writers Series. She offers private coaching and manuscript consultation through Bay Area Book Doctor.

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The Danger of an Arrogant Valley

I arrived in Silicon Valley in 1997, in time to witness the dot-com boom. By the end of 1999, the Nasdaq was up around 400% from the time of the Netscape IPO just 4½ years earlier. Palo Alto restaurants were crowded with people talking about their startups and flaunting their paper wealth. While waiting for a table at Buca di Beppo in Palo Alto, I saw a man hit on a woman by pointing to his friend and saying, “Do you know who this guy is?” It turns out he wasn’t anyone notable, but he did have pre-IPO shares in a dot-com! That alone, in 1998-1999, was considered success. There was a sense of entitlement and arrogance—that, simply by showing up, you had won.

By 2000, the inevitability of wealth came into question and stocks plummeted. The Nasdaq had its largest single day drop in April 2000, falling almost 10%. It then fell a devastating 75% over the next several years. Fucked Company, a site dedicated to chronicling the demise, had daily reports about layoffs and bankruptcies. Friends who had millions of dollars on paper lost everything, sometimes bankrupted by tax laws that wanted to tax them on gains that had evaporated. People with impressive sounding VP and CEO titles were out of work and moving back into their parents home. The good times ended as quickly as they started.

The people who stuck around Silicon Valley after the crash loved technology, loved building businesses, and didn’t care so much about getting rich. Many of the people who were looking to get rich left for finance jobs in New York (yes, they left one bubble and walked right into another).

The era of opulent parties and people bragging about their paper wealth was over. In its place was an era of thrift. It was a return to the garage culture that existed when Silicon Valley first began. People were bootstrapping their companies. Flickr famously avoided outside financing and sold to Yahoo for what at the time seemed like a terrific exit (in retrospect it was a humble amount, about 5% of what Instagram was able to get from Facebook in 2012).

That sense of thrift has receded in recent years, replaced by a mood of unlimited money and easy wins. There is a dangerous sense that arrogance is replacing prudence. Startup salaries have increased 50% from the humble days of 2003. Startup CEOs are asking for $200,000 a year to run a company that has only a few million in the bank and no revenue. Parties are being thrown to celebrate funding announcements rather than product milestones.

Would you spend money this way if you knew raising your next round would be difficult? It’s easy to raise money until it isn’t. Paul Graham put it best: “Apparently the most likely animals to be left alive after a nuclear war are cockroaches, because they’re so hard to kill. That’s what you want to be as a startup.”

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