Cheap, easy to customize PBX

I recently stumbled across an amazingly awesome set of tools: Twilio and OpenVBX. I’ll tackle each one separately.

First, Twilio. This service lets you purchase local telephone numbers from almost anywhere in the country for just $1 per month, 1¢/minute inbound, and  2¢/minute outbound. This may sound like a lot, but it is actually quite cheap. For $10/month you can talk for 15 hours inbound. And you get a $30 credit when you sign up, so really you can have months of service without paying anything.

If you want a toll-free number, it is only $2 per month (standard pricing for most providers), 3¢/minute inbound, and  2¢/minute outbound. Again, this is very very cheap for low-volume usage. I’m currently using Kall8.net and paying 6.9¢/minute inbound.

To make it even cooler, all the local numbers have SMS capability. This means you can configure your local number to accept and reply to SMS messages, or you can configure your system to send SMS reminders to you, or forward inbound SMS to your cell phone, or whatever else you want to do with your SMS capability. SMS is only 1¢ per message (inbound or outbound).

So now you have this local or toll free number, and you want to make it do fancy menu stuff. This is where OpenVBX comes in. This super easy to install software lets you set up all sorts of menus, text-to-speech, voicemail, call forwarding, whatever. So I could have a number that when you call, it checks if it is 8am-5pm, and if not sends it to voicemail. If it goes to voicemail, the system will do voice-to-text and email me the text of the voicemail. Otherwise the call will go to a menu that lets you pick whether you want to talk to me or my wife, and then forwards the call to the correct cell phone.

I’m pretty excited about all this. I’m porting my toll free number over which should save me a few bucks a month, and am working on a whole new website that relies on Twilio. The ability to programmatically make outbound calls (without dealing with the tediousness that is Asterisk) is pretty exciting.

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Half-birthday investment gift

My baby girl had her first half-birthday yesterday. It is crazy to think that it has been 6 months already since my first “holy cow I’m a dad” moment.

Anyways, my wife and I have a lot of goals for how to raise our daughter. We want her to have the resources to go to college, start a business, buy a car, go on a mission, or do whatever she wants when she leaves the nest in many many years. We also want her to be excited about investing, to understand how it works, and to see the benefits of it.

So tonight, after a few months of pondering, we settled on a plan: for Anna’s half-birthday each year, we’ll invest $250 into GE for her (keeping it in our name until she is old enough to really understand it).

Why GE? It pays dividends every quarter. She’ll get to see returns from the investment several times a year, even if the stock prices are down. We’ll reinvest the dividends, so she’ll also get to see her number of shares going up each quarter, even when it isn’t her half-birthday yet. GE is also very stable and diversified, so the likelihood of it disappearing is slim. It also tends to be cheap enough per share that we can get a decent number of shares.

There are a few cons to going with GE. Its performance hasn’t been phenomenal over the past decade. There are definitely stocks that have done better (and many that have done worse). It also isn’t a very exciting stock. A kid today would be much more excited about owning some Apple stock than they would about GE.

Why not a mutual fund? Well the goal is to teach Anna about stocks, investing, and to get her excited about it. It is hard to see why a mutual fund’s price has gone up or down. With an individual stock, like GE, we can look at the news or read press releases to find out why the price has changed. We can also talk about how the policies and decisions of our elected leaders can affect the price. I imagine her coming to me and being like “oh my gosh dad the GE earnings report is out!”, and then we’ll sit down together and look over it. (A father can dream…)

We plan on investing $250 each year and, unless she has a dang good reason, we won’t let her take it out until her 18th birthday. This means we’ll invest $4,500 for her over the next 18 years. If my parents had done this for me, then I would have had about $22,000 on my 18th birthday (and that isn’t even counting dividend reinvestments). Of course $250 was worth a lot more back then, and past performance doesn’t guarantee future performance, but I still think Anna will have a very healthy chunk of cash waiting for her.

Of course, I’m not sure how we’ll afford this once we get up to 8 or 9 kids…

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How to go from a pricing error to lost customers

JCPenney.com recently had an amazing deal on Melissa & Doug block sets. These sets are regularly around $50, but with this deal you could get 2 sets for around $24. I immediately placed an order. One set for my baby, and one set as a gift.

Sadly, my order arrived yesterday with just one set in it. I waited for an email letting me know where the other set was, but none ever came. Today I got an email saying that my order was complete. Odd, considering I ordered 2 sets but got only 1.

Knowing that mistakes occasionally happen, I go to JCPenney.com, hit up their contact page, and see that they advertise 30 second response times on their CS toll-free number. Great!

I call them up, wait on hold for 10 minutes (hmm.. seems a little longer than 30 seconds..) and eventually get a guy that decides to blatantly lie to me. Instead of telling me the truth (that it was a pricing mistake and they were only honoring one set per person), he decided to tell me that it was UPS / “the factory’s” fault that I only got one set, and that they were no longer available (despite showing “in stock” at a higher price on the website). I was given a 50% refund on my order. Keep in mind I wouldn’t have gotten refunded for the unshipped item if I didn’t waste 25 minutes on the phone calling them. They would have happily and knowingly stolen my money.

So I started out thrilled that JCP had a great deal that would help with my Christmas shopping, and now I’m so upset with them that I’m not likely to ever shop there again (with the exception of amazingly good deals that probably lose them money anyway).

So what went wrong? How did they go from a simple and common pricing mistake to losing a customer for life?

  1. First, they had a pricing mistake. It happens. Some companies choose to honor pricing mistakes (yay!), and some choose to cancel orders before they ship (oh well). Shipping half an order really isn’t acceptable. You either ship it all or you cancel it all.
  2. Then they didn’t notify customers that their orders weren’t going to be fulfilled.
  3. To make it even worse, they didn’t refund customers for the parts of their orders that weren’t shipped without requiring a lengthy phone call. They knew they only shipped me part of my order, but they were going to keep my money and pretend that they shipped the full order.
  4. They told some customers the truth — that they weren’t going to honor the price even though the item was in stock — and those customers posted about their experiences on the internet. Telling customers the truth is a good thing. The problem is…
  5.  They told some customers a lie — that the item was no longer available and that their system claims both sets were shipped — after wasting 25 minutes of their time on the phone.

So what should they have done? In my opinion they should have honored the pricing mistake and shipped the units at the agreed upon price. They could have put the loss in the advertising budget, because you know JCP got a lot of positive exposure from this.

Alternatively, they could have cancelled all the orders before they shipped, and reversed any credit card charges that had already gone through. This would have been disappointing, but wouldn’t have hurt their reputation in any way (people anticipate great deals getting cancelled before they ship).

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Replacing the hinges on my Lenovo IdeaPad Y530

There I was, minding my own business, doing something uber productive (like stumbling or something), when suddenly the screen on my laptop went *smack!* against my legs. In other words, the screen decided it was tired of being told where to be and it was going to just flop around wherever gravity would take it.

Needless to say, it isn’t easy to use a laptop screen if it doesn’t stay up on its own. So I ran to my good friend eBay and found some replacement hinges for $7.40 shipped.

Next, I found this awesome post on replacing the hinges on a Y530 (or Y510). An hour or so later, I have brand new hinges in my laptop and am happily aimlessly browsing the internet. Seriously though it took a lot of effort. Not the easiest laptop repair I’ve ever done. It didn’t help that my replacement hinges were bent (insufficient packaging).

Anyways, I always feel a sense of accomplishment when I manage to beat planned obsolescence. I’ve had this laptop a couple of years, and I could easily have just bought a new one, but for $7.40 and a little effort I’ve saved my laptop from the landfill and my bank account from a hefty transaction.

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Phone charger caddy thing

Phone charger caddy thing

A few months ago my wife and I got a bad case of insomnia, so we decided to create a cell phone charger caddy thing. Basically it is a little phone holder that sits on your phone charger plug, so you don’t have to set your phone on the floor.

We used a piece of cardboard from the back of a pad of paper to give it some strength, and created a loop to hold the phone. Some designs use a pocket, but we decided a loop would allow it to hold my phone, my wife’s phone, or a friend’s phone, without having to worry too much about how big the phone is.

We also found that phones are heavy and the plug didn’t hold the whole thing up too well, so we added a small piece of velcro to the pack to attach it directly to the outlet.

Anyways, it was fun to make, looks great, and lets us charge our phones in the living room without taking up any extra space.

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