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Think Different

A few years ago, Firewheel Design (www.firewheeldesign.com) got out of the line of fire by creating Blinksale (www.blinksale.com), a web-based invoicing system. The simple application contains only the features that are absolutely necessary for the largest percentage of its users to successfully create, submit, and track invoices.

Firewheel’s decision to minimize Blinksale’s feature list might look like a mistake because it seems as if it won’t be able to compete in the rat race with the big boys of invoicing systems. But the small crew at Firewheel did something the big boys hadn’t done: it created something that stood out.

Blinksale is aimed at contractors who don’t need to do anything fancy with their invoices. Many people who need to submit and track invoices need only a few basic tools. These include a way to create the invoice, submit it, mark it as closed when payment is received, and perhaps send a receipt confirmation to the client. When the folks at Firewheel Design set out to create Blinksale, they realized they could keep it simple and satisfy the vast majority of user needs. They may have even realized that making it more complicated would decrease their chances of satisfying user needs. So they designed a web application that does one thing, and does it very well: it gives people a fast and effective way to create, submit, and track invoices.

(See how easy it is to explain? That’s a good sign.)

Since Firewheel created Blinksale, it’s been taken over by Doublewide Labs. It’s even been completely redesigned. Amazingly, it’s still one of the best applications around.

The system can be used by plenty of people besides contractors because it’s so stripped down that a trained monkey could use it (assuming the trained monkey could type). The application contains just a few key features.

The dashboard and New Invoice screen

When you sign in, Blinksale shows you a summary of your recent activity (open invoices, past-due invoices, and so on) so you get a quick, at-a-glance, dashboard-style view of the state of your invoices. It also offers an easy-to-spot New button, to start creating a new invoice.

You simply choose the client the invoice is for or create a new one—right there, on the same page—and hop over to the New Invoice screen. This page actually looks like a real invoice, so you maintain context the whole time you’re creating it. All the fields you need to complete are displayed as form elements, so you can simply edit the invoice onscreen and click the big Save button.

When you’re done, you see the final version of the invoice and a few new buttons, which let you send the invoice, edit it, or delete it. One click of the Send Invoice button produces an in-line form in which you checkmark all the people in the client company to whom you want to send the invoice and write an optional message.

The finished invoice

The invoice itself is an HTML-formatted email that looks great right out of the box (well, the browser), and you don’t have to configure anything at all to send off a professional invoice to a client in five minutes or less.

Simple as that.

Blinksale offers a few basic templates from which to choose how you want your invoices to look. You can also send reminders to clients about late payments and create thank-you messages to send to clients who pay their bills on time.

The whole application takes less than 30 minutes to learn inside and out, and just about pays for itself every time you create an invoice (at the time of this writing, Blinksale offers a $6 per month plan for up to 6 invoices, with plans of up to $24 per month for 250 invoices.)

Firewheel built only what was absolutely necessary for most people to successfully handle the activity of invoicing clients. And Doublewide Labs has lovingly maintained that tradition. There are no obscure configuration options, no redundant functionality (there’s exactly one way to complete each task in the tool, which makes it easy to learn), and no fancy interface widgets to figure out. It just does exactly what it should, and does it within a simple, clean interface that somehow makes invoices seem friendly, like someone you’d want to take to lunch. (We’ll talk more about software personality in Chapter 10.)

The result

Josh Williams, one of the creators of Blinksale, was justifiably proud of how things turned out. Back in 2004, he told me:

Firewheel could have designed Blinksale to be chock-full of features that did everything from integrate with Intuit QuickBooks in 12 easy steps to preparing tax information and letting you export it to Intuit TurboTax at the end of the year. They could have built a product that rivaled its competition feature for feature. They didn’t. They built the 20 percent people actually need. Nothing more. Nothing less. Even after a change in ownership, with Doublewide Labs at the helm, Blinksale is still hyper-focused on only the most essential features.

While there are a few extra gadgets thrown in for more computer-savvy users, Blinksale keeps things simple and focused. If all you want to do is create an invoice and send it to a client—the single task most people will spend most of their time completing in Blinksale—you can do it in just a few minutes and be on your merry way.

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