New PayPal Checkout Page

Old Cash Register

I was just making a payment via PayPal and discovered that PayPal have a new checkout page.

Here it is with the payment via PayPal option showing (this is the default for people who already have a PayPal account):

As before, those who don’t have a PayPal account are instead prompted for credit card details:

The pages have a slightly more up-to-date feel than the previous PayPal pages and there are now some slick javascript transition effects as you toggle between PayPal and credit card payment options and step through the rest of the checkout flow.

It’s good to see PayPal making some small steps forward with their user experience.

Let’s hope they update their back-end admin site next. (In my opinion, it’s appallingly slow and cumbersome.)

Creative Commons License photo credit: Jo Jakeman

Realities of Small Business Websites

One Man Band Street Performer Ann Arbor Art Fair July 24, 20103

I spend a lot of time with people who know a lot about the web. They’re either building online businesses or they’re 30-something friends who live in London and who use the internet frequently in their day-to-day lives. That’s why I found it interesting recently to work with someone who’s outside of that circle, to help him put a website together, and explain to him a few of the things I’ve started to take for granted.

The guy in question is a joiner, working with wood to install doors, stairs and cupboards, repair furniture, etc. He is looking to develop his business increasingly into antique furniture restoration and uses the web, but wouldn’t claim to know about any technical details. He wanted a simple, affordable website as he knew it could help his business, but at the same time he was a little worried as he’d heard stories from other people about their bad experiences with having websites built.

Working with this small business owner was a good reality-check for me and along the way I realised three things about small business websites that I’m sure many designers of small sites will have discovered before me:

  • Getting good photos is a pain – photos from stock photography sites can feel very cheesy and may not be representative of the business. Meanwhile, amateur shots taken by the owner or a friend are likely to be relatively poor-quality. How do people normally approach this?
  • How to market their website isn’t obvious for a small business owner – a small business can get themselves listed in various local directories and perhaps ask some friends for links. Beyond that, most other techniques need a fair amount of knowledge and are likely to represent a larger investment of time and/or money than a very small business will to want to make.
  • WordPress is a good small business CMS platform but it’s hard to find a good CMS theme – in my opinion, WordPress is a wonderful platform for a small business website. It’s stable, relatively simple to set up and use, and has a fantastic range of plugins. However, the selection of CMS themes that is available is relatively poor. There are a few people providing paid-for premium themes designed for CMS use, but I can’t help thinking there’s room for more. Perhaps the majority of people still don’t realise how effective WordPress can be for this sort of thing?

Creative Commons License photo credit: stevendepolo

How to Speed Up Web Development Using a PSD to HTML Service

PowerBoat 0510 0929

Could you be saving yourself time and money with a PSD to HTML service?

PSD to HTML services allow you to send in the design for a web page as a PSD file (the kind of thing your web designer will create in Photoshop) and give you back a set of HTML and CSS files that can actually be served up as a website or, more usually, integrated into whatever platform you’re using, e.g. a website built in Ruby on Rails. In theory this saves you or your web developer time in doing the conversion work.

From what I’ve seen, PSD to HTML services can save you time and money in your web development process in some cases. They can free you or your web designer from the rather tedious chore of converting PSD design files to HTML and CSS. But they’re not always a good choice.


  • They save you or your team time for other things.
  • They’re fast (turnaround is generally within a few days).
  • They’re good for achieving support across browsers.
  • They’re easy to use.


  • The markup may be harder to maintain as you and your team may not be familiar with all the techniques used.
  • The markup may be more brittle than if developed in-house.
  • The markup may not be as well-labelled as if developed in-house.

In general, I can see PSD to HTML services being particularly useful when you have limited resources in-house for such work and in cases where you’re unlikely to need to make a lot of changes to the design.

I think they’re likely to be less useful in cases where you have a team of in-house designers or developers familiar with the conversion process and you’re going to be iterating frequently on the design. In these cases it’s probably better that your team be as familiar as possible with the HTML and CSS they’re going to be working with.

If you do decide to outsource your PSD to HTML conversion, here are a few simple tips I’d recommend:

  1. Use a reputable service. Consider how much time you are likely to spend working on the HTML and CSS that you get back. It’s generally worth spending extra money to use an established service provider with a good reputation. I’ve used and have been happy with the service.
  2. Include examples of error and alert messages. If you have error or alert messages that can sometimes appear at the top of a page, include one of each within the page designs you submit.
  3. Clarify your site’s requirements before placing your order. Some services allow you to specify whether, for example, you need IE6 compatibility. Take the time to get the specifications right. Extra options will typically bump up the price, but if you need them it’s worth paying as it’ll be harder and more expensive to change things later.
  4. Ask that the use of extra tags be kept to a minimum. Ideally, you don’t want extra tags polluting your nice, clean mark-up as they’ll make it harder to maintain and it’ll be harder to create new content using the same styling. (In practice, limitations of today’s technology mean that extra tags are necessary to achieve some effects, so just ask that they be used as little as possible.)

If you’ve tried one of these services, do share your experiences in the comments. I’d be interested to hear how you’ve found it.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Ross Elliott

Group-Buying Deals for London

Analysis of a Korean meal

Very soon, together with my co-founders, I’m going to be launching a new venture.

Like VouChaCha, it’s going to offer local deals. And like MenuLover, it’s food-related. This time, though, there’s a new twist: group buying.

The group buying bit works like this: When you sign up for our service, we use the bargaining power of our large group of members to negotiate special deals for you.

Business owners, in return for lots of lovely new customers (like you), agree to offer discounts off their usual prices. They grow their business. You enjoy a good time out at a fun new place and save enough money to do it again very soon.

We’re focusing on food and drink-related offers so, for example, we might offer you 50% off a cookery class or half-price meals at speciality restaurants.

An important rule is that, if you sign up for a particular deal, you only actually get the deal if a certain threshold number of people sign up. e.g. you might get the half-price cookery class only if another 29 people also sign up. If not enough people sign up for a deal, you don’t get anything (or pay anything).

I’m really excited about this and can’t wait to see the site live and people getting deals.

The more people who join us, the better the deals we’ll be able to bring you, so if you like discovering great new places in London (and enjoying special discounts when you get there), then do head over to DealBunch now and be a part of it. Invite your food-loving friends, too!

You and your friends will get £5 of free credit if you sign up with the invite code M2777017 (a thank you for kindly reading my blog, and limited to 35 people, so get in quick.)

Without further ado, follow this link for some delicious London group-buying deals.

Nearly forgot… if you have any feedback on the site or any suggestions for us, then do let me know in the comments below. Thanks!

Creative Commons License photo credit: Mendhak [???]

Launch48, October 2009

Take off of Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-117)

130 assorted programmers, designers and business folk; 6 eager teams; one crazily ambitious goal.

Launch48 was back.

The goal? Launch a web startup in under 48 hours.

I attended the first Launch48 event back in February. It was great fun and a fantastic way to meet people with entrepreneurial flair. That time, the local voucher idea I pitched was chosen as one of the projects to be worked on and I ended up leading team VouChaCha for one very hectic weekend and a couple of months afterwards.

This time around, I was keen to help organise the event and, hopefully, help edge it further towards something sustainable over the long-run. So I joined Adil, Ian, and the rest of their new organising committee, to help put the event together (this time with a one-day conference), publicise it, and make sure it ran smoothly.

So how did it go?

Well, as the last few attendees filtered out of the PayPal offices in Richmond (West London) 9 days ago, tired, yet still buzzing with the excitement of a weekend of hacking, business planning, logo drawing and generally pitching-in with a dozen or so enthusiastic teammates, I was happy.

The conference had gone well. In my opinion, the speakers were, as a rule, extremely good. The members of the six teams had worked together well. And six good presentations were given on Sunday afternoon. Best of all, it was great to see new connections made and people energised and inspired by what they’d taken part in.

Like with anything like this, there were a few glitches and issues along the way, but nothing too serious. We can learn from them and make the next Launch48 even better.

I’d like to say a personal ‘thank you’ to all the sponsors, speakers, mentors, organisers, and participants for making it such an enjoyable event.

If you’re interested in start-ups, looking for a co-founder, or just fancy meeting some interesting people and creating some cool stuff over a weekend, look out for the next Launch48.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Kenny Miller

How to Choose an E-Commerce Shopping Cart

Urban Shipwreck*

I recently spent some time comparing current e-commerce platforms (a.k.a. shopping carts). It’s a complicated area, so I thought I’d share my findings here in case they can be useful to others.

These are my opinions and analysis based on my own research and experimentation and are biased towards sites targeting a UK market.

First Things First: What is an E-Commerce Shopping Cart?

The name can be deceiving. E-commerce shopping carts are actually complete online shop sites. They allow you to set up various categories of products, set prices, calculate postage, tax and total costs, and send email confirmations to customers. More advanced systems provide features to help with marketing and customer relationship management (CRM).

To actually take payments you also need an account with a payment gateway such as PayPal or SagePay.

Hosted E-Commerce Platforms

Using a software-as-a-service (SaaS) e-commerce platform hosted by someone else is a good idea if you want to avoid the technical nitty-gritty of installing something yourself. A number of companies offer hosted ecommerce services allowing you to get going very quickly.

The downsides of hosted ecommerce solutions are the monthly fees and limited customisation options.

EKM Powershop

  • UK-only
  • Tends to produce rather dated-looking sites with table-based HTML
  • Easy to get up and running
  • Good range of features
  • Has been running for a long time, so should be stable
  • Approx £50 setup + £20 per month

Tiger Commerce

  • UK-only
  • Looks easy to get up and running
  • Approx £20 per month

Internet Retailer

  • Appears to be a fairly small company
  • Looks to provide smart and simple e-commerce sites
  • Recommended for good customer support
  • Approx £20 per month

Install-it-Yourself E-Commerce Platforms

If you want lots of flexibility and don’t mind getting your hands dirty with technical details (or getting someone else to do it on your behalf), installing and customising an open source e-commerce platform can be a good choice.

Bear in mind that if you’re not familiar with them, these do all require a considerable learning curve to get a shop up and running correctly with the various add-on modules you may want. Current shopping cart software tends to be written in php, so it’ll help if you know your way around that.


  • Open source
  • The most popular open source e-commerce platform for many years
  • Much of the community of this classic php shopping cart software has now moved on to other platforms

Zen Cart

  • Open source
  • Originally derived from OSCommerce
  • Now seems to have a greater following than OSCommerce
  • Plenty of add-ons available
  • Keeping core platform and add-ons up to date can be messy

Cube Cart

  • Open source
  • Seems less popular than Zen Cart


  • Open source
  • Based on a more modern architecture than Zen Desk, Cube Cart and OSCommerce
  • Supports multiple stores from a single installation
  • Has become one of the most popular open source ecommerce platforms over the last year
  • Still quite new, so may still have a few issues to iron out

Note: Magento is developed by a company that sells an expensive ‘enterprise’ version, however most users will be fine with the free version.


If you want a simple e-commerce site and don’t want the hassle of dealing with the underlying technology, go far a hosted e-commerce solution with good support.

If you want more control over things, the increasingly popular open source Magento platform looks like a good bet. Although less mature than OSCommerce and Zen Cart, I think Magento’s more up-to-date architecture and sizable, growing community make it a good choice for someone starting out with e-commerce today.

Have you looked into e-commerce solutions yourself? If so, do you agree with my findings? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Creative Commons License photo credit: MiiiSH

ReceiptFarm – Easy Way to do Expenses

I’ve been working on a new service lately, called ReceiptFarm. The idea of it is to take the pain out of doing expenses.

It works like this:

  1. You send us your expense receipts once a month.
  2. We scan and input them.
  3. You get a report about your spending and a digital archive of your receipts.

We’re looking for beta testers at the moment, so if you’d like to be one of the first people to try it out, head over to the site and sign up for free. Save me from my expenses!

How to Test a Business Model

I’ve been researching some new business ideas lately and it struck me how rarely people seem to discuss quick and cheap ways of testing the critical assumptions upon which business models are based.

Often we’re keen to play with Excel, but less keen to check that the numbers we’re typing in are grounded in reality. The result, I believe, is that people end up taking far more risk than they need to when starting out.

Fortunately, there are some smart people out there who do recognise the importance of testing your assumptions and having a toolkit of techniques to help you do so.

Here’s a nice presentation on the subject from Steve Barsh:

Launch48 – Launching a Start-up in a Weekend

Making Stuff Happen in 48 Hours

The last couple of days I was involved in another “build a website in 48 hours” event. This time, it was Launch48, organised by a couple of friends of mine, Ian Broom and Adil Mohammed. Thanks to lots of great work from Ian and Adil, some generous sponsors who provided important things like office space and free pizza and drinks on the last night, and the boundless energy of around 70 enthusiastic participants, it was a great weekend.

We started on Friday night with a vote for our 4 favourite ideas out of a series of rapid-fire elevator pitches by anyone who fancied suggesting an idea. Excitingly, my idea was one of the four that was chosen. 15 or so people duly signed up to work on the idea over the weekend, and a whirlwind 48 hours was underway.

Local Vouchers

Our idea was to let people find vouchers for local retailers using their mobile phones. So you might, for example, be out in cental London and decide you want to get lunch somewhere. You pull out your phone and our service tells you that the cafe round the corner is offering a free dessert with their lunchtime menu. Great. You ignore the Starbucks next to you and head off to claim your bargain.

It didn’t take long for our team to get stuck into the problem at hand, figure out everyones’ talents and get to work. Luckily we found that we had a really nice spread of skills and abilities. Two intense days of design, coding, business planning, market research, PR, sleep deprivation and burrito-consumption later, VouChaCha was born, destined to bring local vouchers to your mobile phone.

A million thanks to the VouChaCha team for your immense efforts over the weekend. You were amazing! It was an incredible couple of days and a pleasure to work with you all.

What’s Next?

Well done to the other three Launch48 teams, CharityPie, DecisionsDecisions and ILikeUCoz, too. It was inspiring to see so many people come together (some having traveled very long distances to be there) and producing such neat things. What I liked best was the simplicity of all these ideas. I think they all have the potential to go somewhere.

A follow-up meeting is planned for 6 weeks’ time, so it will be exciting to see where we can all take these ideas between now and then.

Can You Help an Exciting New Startup?

If you think you might be able to help VouChaCha out in some way, we’d love to hear from anyone with experience/contacts regarding:

  • partnering with retail chains, especially restaurants, cafes, pubs and bars
  • vouchers, especially mobile vouchers

We’d also love to hear from any companies interested in sponsoring us by providing a few hundred pounds to cover our costs for the next 45 days. This is a fantastic sponsorship opportunity for somebody and you’ll be really helping us out.

If you think you can help with this or anything else, please get in touch. Thanks!