8

DEC 2009

Modern business has gone very far leveraging technology to market, promote, and produce their firms and products. It stands to reason that the arts could easily do the same, even with comparatively fractional technology budgets .

Several organizers of your first Hollywood Fringe Festival happen to hail from technical backgrounds. It’s been fun applying these skills to our first love (the arts). Key to our strategy is this thing called “cloud computing”. Without getting too technical, all applications supporting the festival – accounting, project management, email, etc – are provided through a number of small, web-based services.

Making our strategy a reality took a lot of time, thought, and trials – so to save those of you seeking technical solutions some time, we have provided this little post with the hope it will help you streamline and modernize your arts organizations.

Enjoy!

Ben

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THE WEBSITE
the website at www.HollywoodFringe.org that we use to book shows, match venues and projects, collect volunteers, and promote the festival is a custom-built system using Ruby on Rails, a popular website development framework. We have big plans to export this technology to other festivals as well as provide a year-round service for venues seeking interesting projects to book. The website took two full years to develop and a lot of love, thought, and time. We have a many plans for it so keep your eyes on coming developments. In the next few months alone, you can expect

  • A Fringe bulletin board
  • A significantly enhanced volunteer section
  • The ability to sell tickets directly form your project
  • Enhanced features to market your project on other social networking platforms

…ideas are always welcome, so feel free to email us with your thoughts.

TICKETING
We made the decision early that we would not reinvent the wheel in the area of ticketing – instead we partnered with the good people at OvationTix. Plans are afoot to develop a few customized integration features between the OvationTix and Fringe systems. Ideally, you will be able to run pre-sale reports without any hassle whatsoever.

PROJECT MANAGEMENT
We would be nowhere today without collaboration tools. As this is the first year, ideas come at a lightning speed. Plans require buy-in and assistance from our staff, advisers, board, and core company members. There are millions of to-do’s, deadlines, musings, and digital assets. Where to keep track of them?

This is the job of a project management tool, and ours is one of the best available. Meet Basecamp. This little program has been the key to the organizational success of many a project. Working collaboratively with others online, you can post messages, mark and organize tasks, collaborate on documents/lists, track milestones/dates, and keep track of files.

And most importantly: It reduces your meeting/conference call overhead. I personally hate big, regular meetings and basecamp renders them mostly unneeded; if you keep on top of basecamp and the emails it generates, everyone is in-the-know. Easy.

CUSTOMER RELATIONSHIP MANAGEMENT (CRM)
CRM is a big, ugly term. In a nutshell, it is a way of keeping track of everyone you know and meet that could help you. To do anything of worth, generally you need more than just you and your ideas, you need to leverage the many stake holders in your community interested in your cause. You want to keep track of conversations, email addresses, phone numbers, job titles – and ideally you want to share that information with your whole organization. So if the director of the NEA needs to talk to someone in your organization and you are on a beach in Nice, France – someone local can come up-to-speed quickly by researching the history of that relationship in your CRM system.

There are tons of solutions to fulfill this problem – many of them are expensive and clunky.

We went with Batchbook.com – about which I can’t say enough nice things. This is a very flexible and open system, and they have been known to give discounts to nonprofits. Using batchbook, you can keep track of contact information for humans and organizations, log communications, and create lists of contacts that have something in common. For example, we maintain our press list in batchbook. Thanks to its handy integration with other popular applications, when we want to send a press release, it is as simple as exporting our list of press to our email newsletter application. It take 3 minutes and the moving target of press contacts becomes much easier to manage.

EMAIL
If you are starting company ABC Theatre, and you are still sending emails from [email protected] – you may want to consider using your own domain name instead. Not using a custom domain name in your email address is an instant signifier of a non-professional organization. Good news is that it is free and relatively simple to create custom domain emails…so you can send emails from [email protected], for example.

The solution is Gmail – in our humble opinion, still the greatest online email client on the market. Our friends at Google have provided a service (no charge) to use their popular Gmail interface for any non-gmail domain to which you have the rights. Check out this link for more information, I think you will like it.

CALENDAR
Along with email, users of Google’s service also have access to branded, dedicated, organizational calendars using the popular Gcal application. When you sign up for your email account (above) you will also be able to pass around a calendar you all can share. For those of you who work in the business world, you might be used to creating an event and sending invitations to members of your organization. Google’s calendar solution provides this service (free!).

DOCUMENTS
And yes, we also use Google’s document service. For those users signing up for the above service – good news is that you, too, can have a custom space for your organization’s documents. For example, if I needed that press release we sent a few weeks back, it is sitting in docs.ABCTheatre.org waiting for me. Our budget worksheet is handles thought Google’s online spreadsheet application. As a personal hater of MS Office and its significant limitations when it comes to collaboration, this is a godsend.

WIKI
We don’t host a “public wiki” – like wikipedia, but you’d be surprised how useful a private, organizational wiki can be. For example, say you are working on a big proposal to close down Wilshire Blvd. for your huge arts event. You want a lot of people involved in that proposal – your Exec Director, your Dev Director, your outreach guy, your Producing and Artistic Directors. How awful is passing around a word document for everyone to edit? I shudder at the thought. Changes are lost so very easily.

Your private wiki can help. Have your principal owner for the project create a new wiki page and take a stab at a first draft. They can then post on your project site (basecamp, for example) that they need all-hands to help bring the proposal home. Everyone can make their changes and additions on your wiki page. If your wiki tool is any good, all changes will be tracked…so you can see who changed what, and easily revert any unwanted amendments.

There are millions of wiki solutions out there, here’s our favorite: WikiSpaces.

NEWSLETTER
Still sending your organizational emails to a bunch of contacts in your email program? You may want to check out some of the many email newsletter solutions out there waiting for you. Our favorite is Mailchimp. Using this program, you can manage lists, expose sign-up forms for your website, create beautiful, graphical emails, handle unsubscribes, and keep ahead of spam laws. You can even get a list of who has opened your newsletter and how many times they read it. There are about 10,000 features in this program, 9,986 you will never need. Still, it is very affordable, easy to use, and designed to give you a professional edge.

SUPPORT DESK
We take support very, very seriously at the Fringe. Key to grassroots community building is making sure people know where to go when they have a problem and ensuring they receive prompt guidance when they need it. There are scads of solutions out there, here’s our hands-down favorite: ZenDesk.

Using ZenDesk, you have a beautiful solution to email support. Support seekers can go to a url and fill our a form with their query, or simply send an email to an email address you specify (Zendesk will suck up that email and create a support ticket for them). You can run a myriad of reports and develop zillions of business rules if you want to get complex. At its simplest, it shows you what tickets are open, and gives you a chance to respond and close them.

As a fun aside, both Mailchimp and Zendesk talk to Batchbook. That’s something we call “convergence” in the tech world, and it’s a very good thing.

ACCOUNTING
Quickbooks (a non-cloud application running on your computer) is the default tool for small business accounting. It’s good, don’t get me wrong – but sharing data with others in your organization and your accountant can be a pain.

Enter Xero. It’s all online (“in the cloud”) and very simple…even fun to use. Who thought accounting could be fun? It is simple enough for a layperson to use, but provides the business-class accounting framework your CPA needs to do your taxes. The folks behind Xero are just getting their act together for US service – we have been using it for a bit and loving it!

So there it is. There’s much more, for sure; this is a great start. Almost all of the services listed here are free or have free trials so give them a spin!