Best (and sometimes free) Tools for the Mobile Professional

A few weeks ago a long time friend asked me to find a free tool to enable his small home office team to share contacts and other valuable information.  He didn’t need a CRM as they were already using SalesForce.

Having left the corporate world in December 2007, I’ve had an opportunity to explore the computing environment beyond the secure walls of Microsoft Exchange and Sharepoint.  I don’t know what Microsoft is thinking, but my thoughts are with Google and a host of smaller third parties you can pretty much do the same thing as most of the Microsoft tools for tens of thousands of dollars less.

Let’s examine the instrumentarium most working professional use in their business week:

  • Calendar
  • Contacts
  • Email
  • Bookmarks
  • Word processing
  • Spreadsheet
  • Presentations
  • Document storage / management
  • Collaboration Tools (teleconference, telephone, web presentations, white board)
  • Data backup

And if you are a mobile professional, then you’ll be needing to take the tools portable onto laptops, telephones and PDA’s.  I’m going to assume that you probably have at least one PC or laptop.


If you don’t have a domain, I recommend that you pick one up.  They’re less than $15 at and comparably priced via Google.  I use the Google Apps web portal for all of my email access.  This service, while not free, will only set you back $50 per year per user.  It gives fast, easy, ad free, and nearly unlimited storage email.  In addition to email it gives you a host of collaboration tools — including Google Site which is remarkably similar to the collaboration tool Sharepoint from Microsoft, word processing, spreadsheets, calendar and contacts.  Recently added features include an online PDF viewer which means your email can now literally be used anywhere and anytime on any machine.

In addition, Google mail will allow you to pick up email from other services.  Sometimes on consuting gigs the customer prefers I use their email system.  When I need to do that all I do is temporarily add the email server settings to my Google mail account.


I recommend the Google Apps Calendar.  You can have one to many calendars which can be private, shared and public.  In addition a freeware application called GooSync can be used to synchronize your Google calendar with your PocketPC PDA.  The only major downside that I’ve seen on the Google calendar is that you can’t start an appointment in one time zone and end it in an other…this would be especially useful for travel.


I am currently evaluating a contact sync from the same company that publishes GooSync.  It has been working great except for one little bug — for which I have received an email indicating they are addressing it — which does not adequately categorize a business name lacking a contact name.  

Ignoring the only bug that I’ve found, all 1,900 of my contacts are syncing accurately with my Google Contacts wirelessly over T-Mobile’s GPRS/EDGE network.  Unlike the GooSync calendar, this software costs around $80 (exchange rate dependent) for a lifetime subscription.


You’ll probably be seeing a theme here — I use Google Bookmarks.  Once you’re signed into your account all the bookmarks you save as well as history are stored online.  Once your information is online it can easily be classified, cross referenced and searched.  Google has a great tool bar in Internet Explorer; oddly enough it is missing in their new Chrome Browser.  So when using Chrome you have to use the Links Java Quicklink to add files.  The advantage of using the Java Quicklink is that you can add comment information to go with the link.

Word Processing, Spreadsheets and PowerPoint

For seamless editing, I recommend the Microsoft Office 2007 office suite.  It can be pricey but in most cases you can find it on sale for less than $100 with just the basic components.  I’ve not been able to adequately use the freeware tools for redlining and other editing.  If you need to go free, then I’d recommend Google Apps, OpenOffice and ZoHo as good alternatives.  Or if you can’t afford a license for every PC in your office, then I’d recommend the basic suite for the working computer and the freeware suite to present the documents when traveling.

When you are on the road, KinkosFedex has a great online printing service that prints and binds your documents.  This can get pricey but in a hurry or showing that professional edge this is critical.  If you join the US Chamber of Commerce — they’ll give you a variety of discounts at FedEx.

Document Management Systems

As reported in last month’s blog, the Fujitsu ScanSnap S510 with their Rak2U software is my system of choice.  Our consultancy has helped several businesses acquire and deploy this system.  

Synchronizing Files Across PC’s

I’ve been using Syncplicity.  This is a freeware tool for up to 2GB of storage.  It is a quick download, easy to install and receives great support/updates.

Backing up files

I’ve been using Mozy.  Can’t beat $5 per month per PC and if you have less than 2GB of data it’s free.  Several of American Special Projects clients have implemented this tool.  A cool feature is the backup function triggered when the machine is idle — this software is a time saver.


Vyew, DimDim, Yugma, FreeConference, Vonage — take your choice.  My preference is FreeConference for telephone bridges and Yugma for collaboration.  Vonage‘s 12 months plan for phone service is reasonable.  A runner up is Skype — however they do not offer an e911 service and no local telephone numbers for Maine.


I believe that T-Mobile at $99/mos + $19/mos for Internet access…offers the cheapest monthly plan.


We use Linksys for our private network and offer WiFi for a fee through Meraki.  In beta Meraki was reasonably priced, at the moment they appear to be the lowest priced for fee package provider.  We’ve examined a number of alternative WiFi mesh services.  At the moment Meraki’s $149 per access point is the cheapest — at $100 increase over the beta price it caused an uproar; but compared to competitor prices which can run $39 per month they are the Yugo of pay per use WiFi.


SnagIT is our all time favorite for the Prnt Scrn button.  You got to try it for free — you’ll end up buying it.


We hope this helps you.  Happy Holidays and Healthy New Year.

American Special Projects (a Madison Connections Inc. company)

SOHO Document Management Systems

This month I was preparing to write on the wonders of the free web tools available from Google and other vendors.  The review of essential freeware is going to have to wait until next month.   This month I had an opportunity to research the various types of document management systems available for home and small home offices.  I have arrived at this point because a number of my clients have asked me to help them find ways to save money while streamlining their offices.  

Let me preface that this entire blog is about one product and will not be a review of the experiments I took along the way.  That said, so we’re clear, I researched a number of systems — public domain and licensed.   And I happen to have a bit of experience in this area.  Back in the mid 90’s I worked for a Big 5 accounting firm’s government consulting division as the head of the Solutions Lab.  One of the projects I was working on at the time was a document management system.  In those days scanners were big, slow and expensive.  Software was hugely proprietary.  And while it was functional it was not graceful nor easy to implement.

I decided to give the Fujitsu S510 package a try.  It was purchased from for $419 (and through the end of the year subtract another $50 for a rebate.)  It comes bundled with a 30 day trial of Rack2-Filer software from PFU a Fujitsu company.  The licensed version of the software will set you back $249.  Other software included in the bundle is Card Minder, ABBYY OCR and Adobe Acrobat.  The ABBYY and Adobe software will cost $400 combined without the scanner (by the way the other DMS systems I researched require you to buy ABBYY and Adobe to make their systems work.)  I’d recommend picking up a Maxtor 1TB drive at the same time for $139; and to be safe you should back it all up using Mozy which is free up to 2GB.  Cost at the end of the day I’d expect you to be around $757.

Rack2-Filer software is capable of digitally archiving the equivalent of 2,520,000 digital pages in up to 2,520 e-binders. A maximum of 1,000 pages can be placed into each ebinder.  Needless to say most SOHO’s won’t max out the capability of the software.  For example, in the American Special Projects offices we typically file around 2,500 to 3,000 documents annually.  We track every document and email which comes into the offices.  

The scanner advertises 18 pages per minute and it delivers; however I decided to go with the full OCR scanning for best indexing of the documents.  Running the full OCR package can add up to a minute onto each scan depending upon how many words are on the document.  All told, I spent less than 12 hours to scan in the entire year’s worth of documents.  The software is very easy to use and I was able to duplicate our manual system and add a whole bunch of features.  After loading up all of the documents which included text, color and graphics the entire drive footprint was less than 1GB.

I’d anticipate that we met our return on investment (ROI) in the system already.  Here’s the head to head cost comparison

ROI DMS versus Traditional

Beyond ROI, we picked up a number of additional features which simply are not available with a traditional system, including: portable filing, OCR of all documents, a searchable index and encrypted off-site storage. 

I think the system is easy enough to set up yourself.  However if you’re feeling technically challenged feel free to give us a call.  We can help you get started.



Some helpful links:

Why I am not sold on VOIP PBX

A customer, a local landscaper, called me up a couple of weeks ago looking for advice on a pending telephone system acquisition.  He had a limited budget to work with and needed less than 9 extensions (which included 2 fax machines.)  While he’d sought a number of bids, only one had come back.  He thought the vendor’s proposal was over priced and that the sales agent had not paid attention to his needs as a customer.

In all fairness to the proposed vendor, he selected Iwatsu which is a 70 year old vendor with many firsts with regard to telecommunications.  Their recent claim to fame is their VOIP capabilities for business PBX.  The issue is that it is a lot of phone system (in terms of cost) to address the needs of a small landscaping business.

In the past, I have bought, deployed, installed and maintained for the other major vendors: Panasonic, Nortel and Avaya.  A while back I was ‘certified’ to work on the Nortel systems.  And personally, I happen to think that Avaya makes the best quality VOIP system.

But I am not sold on VOIP PBX. 

There is “something” about the quality of VOIP when it comes to PBX replacement which I don’t believe any company had adequately addressed; nor with existing technical limitations do I believe that it will be addressed soon. 

Let me clarify — I am sold on VOIP for basic telephony services such as Time Warner Cable Business Class and Vonage.  These local/long distance services use simple application specific devices over the traditional Internet connectivity and work excellent.  Their cost is low — so low that as a shareholder of both AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZ) the current dominant market leaders I am almost embarrassed.

What gets me riled up is when I talk with the lawyer, accountant and business partners on their VOIP PBX, connected to their outbound VOIP carrier, connected to my inbound VOIP carrier, and finally to me.  “Something” happens…we all talk just a little slower and sometimes entire syllables of words go missing.  This isn’t acceptable quality to me on a cellular phone and it certainly is an unacceptable quality in a ‘landline’ conversation.  My bottom-line is that I haven’t seen a VOIP PBX work well with either a VOIP carrier or another VOIP PBX. 

Ultimately, the customer needed to make a PBX decision and it came down to price.  The Iwatsu system came in at over $5,500 for parts & labor.  We were able to find a Panasonic 824 Hybrid small office PBX with all of the components for $2,200 dollars plus my estimated labor of 8 hours (at the industry published rate of $45 for the 1st hour and $60 for the 2nd hour — and of course no charge for the recommendation) came to a grand total or $2,665. 

The Panasonic was the best choice because of the availability of CO ports and extension ports.  The base system was configured 3 CO x 8 EXT and the 2 x 8 expansion card costs $273 (compare this to $173 for just 2 CO’s on the Iwatsu card EXT ports cost extra.)  This PBX has a built in voicemail option, but we wanted auto attendant; so we went with the Panasonic TVA50 that supports custom menus and voicemail.  The TVA50 $498 integrates automatically with the PBX using APT integration — it took all of 10 minutes to install and about that long to program the auto attendant.  Another nice feature about the Panasonic system is that the proprietary display phones are cheap at $143 — about half price compared to the Iwatsu.

Panasonic now bundles the software for PBX and voicemail integration with their systems.  And the systems can be administered via a locally connect USB cable or over a LAN — all very cool features for a small business switch.

By the way, included in the $2,665 price tag are a couple of extra features.  We saved so much money by going ‘traditional’ that my customer was able to add a couple of features he hadn’t planned on – music on hold with a custom voiceover $168 and a loudspeaker for his shop $125.

So if you are considering a VOIP PBX, I hope this posting helps you to consider a traditional PBX.  And as always, give us a holler — the first 15 minutes are free.


The Value of Monte Carlo Simulations in Financial Analysis

Back in my days at The George Washington University in Washington, DC I had a number of professors who espoused the values of statistical analysis.  In those days which were at the cusp of transitioning big iron computational capabilities to the desktop PC it meant spending a ton of time programming data into the mainframe computer in the computer department’s lab.  It also meant that you had a limited amount of available time to process your data, so you couldn’t examine the data or tweak the numbers to wring out the fine details.

In these early statistical analysis days, if you wanted to run basic statistics on your PC it could be done with Lotus.  This was a basic spreadsheet where you’d punch in a data table, then generate sufficient random numbers (by recalculating the random numbers on the spreadsheet using a macro) to examine potential outcomes of business decisions influenced by expected market outcomes.  After the data was generated, you’d enter the lists into formulas to compute basic statistical information such as average, standard deviation, min, max, etc.

A few years later SAS (the mainframe based statistics program) ported over to PC’s; and several commercial competitor for statistics software hopped into the market.  Also, our good buddy Lotus now faced a formidable competitor — Microsoft and their spreadsheet package, Excel.  (As a sidenote, am I the only one who recognized that the Excel logo is a cross across and “L”?)

As the PC’s continued to evolve and when I ditched my Mac for a real PC, I started using Decisioneering’s Crystal Ball (I think they are now an Oracle company.)  The software package worked great and integrated with Excel.  I could perform all of the statistical function I could imagine on the spreadsheet data.  But for me the problem remained that like SAS, Crystal ball came with a high price tag relative to the number of times I’d use it over the course of the year.  Also, I found that the ever evolving Window’s software often outpaced the ability of the Crystal Ball programmers…this resulted in all too frequent bugs stopping up the software.

At American Special Projects, we recently took on a pro bono job for a startup client in the petrochemical industry.  As you might imagine given the state of the US and world economy between finances and fuel, now more than ever there remains a need to be able to accurately build and model financial outcomes.  We built a complex spreadsheet for this client which considered a significant number of independent and dependent variables that drive the financial outcomes.  By changing some of the independent variables we could begin to identify basic min, mid and max numbers.  However, the model consists of 20 independent variables so the task of changing the variables to reflect different market circumstances was burdensome.

We performed a quick Google search and found a number of Monte Carlo simulation packages.  By the way, Microsoft has an excellent write up on their website ( that introduces how to use the RAND function in Excel.  And of course our old friends SAS and Decisioneering show up at the top of the searches and in the Adwords bars thanks to their big budgets for search engine optimization (SEO.)  However, the best tool turned out to be the free tool from two professors at Wabash.EDU.  The URL is  ( which is a website written to supplement and support “Introductory Econometrics: Using Monte Carlo Simulation with Microsoft Excel” written by Humberto Barreto and Frank M. Howland.  The MCSim Add-In for Excel is free to use and is compatible with Excel 2007.  I haven’t read the book although, if it is as well documented as the website tools, it is probably excellent.

Using the Microsoft samples as a guide to building the independent variable tables, industry knowledge and the MCSim Add-In was very easy.  Within an hour we had a model up and running which generated data with a high degree of confidence. 

The MCSim Add-In has some limitations compared to the commercially available packages — namely it only computes basic statistical information and the built-in report generator only reports on two dependent variables.  On the plus side, if you are willing to compute your own stats, then the functionality includes the ability to track up to 256 variables and iterate the outcomes up to 65,000 times.  The built in statistical functions in Excel allow you to easily work with the data generated by MCSim.  I also noted that sometimes the MCSim had a problem handling names, so I tended to use the cell references instead.

Overall, I’d rate the MCSim Add-In as a 9 out of 10 for functionality, ease of use and most certainly because it’s free .  A big thank you to the creative minds and generosity of Dr. Humberto Barreto and Dr. Frank M. Howland.


This blog is not a first for the industry.  Although it is a first for American Special Projects (AmSpec to our friends) and a personal first for me.

I’ve been in technology a while now.  And while I am trained in finance, technology is my real passion. 

Keep checking back on this blog.  No doubt I’ll rant and rave about finance, technology, business and product ideas that should be used by business.