Running the Entire Business from an iPad An exercise in deliberately contrived minimalism

My wife had the laptop in the back of her car.

I realized this about 10 minutes before the start of my workday


Uninterrupted work time is scarce as the father of 2 toddlers, so I was completely unwilling to give up a 6 hour stretch at my favorite coffee shop just because I didn’t have a computer.

Minutes later I was parked at the bar, armed with a notepad, old school pencil and sharpener, (really important to pure mathematicians) a fresh Americano, and the iPad 2.

“What the hell did people work on before they had computers?” I asked myself after finishing 10 minutes of “planning” on paper.

Answering e-mails on the iPad took up only another 45 minutes. Five more productive hours to go, and I was feeling desperately in need of a stick and something to swing it at.

Then I wondered how many of my normal tasks I could get done on the iPad. This was the right thing to wonder, it turns out.

Five hours, one wireless keyboard and $35USD of apps later, I was running the entire business from my iPad!

The Verdict First

I can only think of a few mediocre arguments for anyone else attempting this experiment.

  1. You appreciate / are energized by the ascetics of minimalism
  2. You like looking out of place at your favorite coffee shop. It looks like everyone else could afford ‘grown-up’ computers, but you are stuck with this little thing your mom bought you
  3. It’s kind of fun, and you feel a brief sense of misguided accomplishment / early adopter technological prowess
  4. Carrying around 5 pounds of modern laptop is just too heavy for you, iPad + keyboard is much more manageable
  5. This sounds interesting, and you’re energized by trying something new (my story)

That said, I have found some genuine value to exchanging my usual laptop setup for the iPad.

Mostly it comes from the clarity / elimination of B.S. that forced minimalism can bring to you.

I find myself markedly more deliberate in my actions, focused on completing the short list of productive things I have to do, and less prone to distraction. Also, I feel a strange sense of nakedness, despite making sure that I was, indeed, still wearing pants.

Maybe it’s just my own psychology, but shifting the man / machine balance away from the machine leaves me focused on MY capabilities and what MY mind can produce.

The Nuts and Bolts of It

Delivering digital content through the web is a fantastically easy fulfillment model to administer in the first place, but the iPad initially seems ill-suited for the task, since it was specifically designed for “consumption, not production”

With a handful of apps, and a few simple workarounds though, I can do everything related to selling my NumbersForStartups financial model right from the little touch screen.

If you’re not a customer or familiar with my product, it’s just a financial model for startups and businesses built in Microsoft Excel. Customers purchase it directly through my website, Paypal.com takes care of the money and E-Junkie.com takes care of the download. I host the site over at Bluehost.com, with simple (and sloppily hacked) HTML and CSS that I borrowed and tweaked from other places. The Blog portion runs on WordPress with a hacked theme. Mailchimp.com for newsletters, USBank and Quickbooks for accounting/finance, and all e-mail forwarded/masked through gmail.

Here are the tools / workarounds I found to get the job done. (***note, I am NOT an affiliate marketer or in any way financially connected to any of these products, this is simply the actual setup I’m using):

FTP-On-The-Go:

Used to access and edit all the files on my server. This allows me to administer everything on the website. *CRITICAL* this app allowed me to CREATE NEW FILES and copy old ones. Some of the apps that I found allowed you to access and edit EXISTING FILES ONLY, which is only marginally useful.

Paypal app:

This is the only thing I have set up to notify me of a completed sale. The first time I hear about a new customer is when Paypal chimes in that beautiful tri-tone sound and announces "You just received $39.99 from (Awesome Customer Name)!!"

I've set up the iPhone and iPad both to use a different noise for all other notifications, so in the spirit of Pavlov, I've trained myself to get excited every time my phone makes that glorious tri-tone sound. Even my three year old son has learned it, and says "Daddy, you got some money!" whenever he hears it.

Beyond the sale notification, this app also lets me confirm the transaction history (useful for customer service) and transfer money to/from the primary business bank account.

Wordpress app:

The free app from Wordpress lets you compose and edit blog posts from the iPad. The app is a little rough around the edges (for example, the bottom line of a composition is hidden by the toolbar, so you have to use a surplus of "return" strokes to move the active text into view) but all the functionality you need to compose a complete post is here.

You can write posts off-line and save them locally until you're connected again (useful on an airplane...) The process for this is not intuitive, but if you just keep the status on "Draft" instead of "Published", it will successfully save your work until connectivity has been re-established.

Wordpress native admin page and code editor:

The familiar admin control panel for a Wordpress site seems to be fully supported in the iPad version of Safari. Log in just like you would on your laptop, and do all the things a laptop would.

I primarily manage plugins and comments with this, but have extensively used the "Editor" feature under the Appearances menu to tweak my custom theme. It's certainly not a fancy IDE, but every bit of PHP, CSS or HTML you'd like to do with the Wordpress portion of a site is accessible here.

While you can compose and edit posts from here, I found the (free) WordPress app to be easier and more responsive than composing a post through the browser. Also, the workflow seemed easier using the four finger left/right swipe to switch between the WordPress app and other stuff, rather than having it all up on a single tab in Safari

USBank, app or mobile site:

Your bank may have a satisfactory iPad app, but USBank does not. They seem to have licensed a third party to do their official banking access app, but the execution was clumsy enough that I didn't end up trusting their app to keep my info secure. I wasn't convinced that my login info was truly being purged when I signed out or was inactive. That might be okay for a game, but with banking, I don't mind entering all of my login info every time I access it. In fact I insist that it work that way. Paypal gets this right.

Fortunately the "mobile" version of the USBank site is perfectly functional (although quite visually spartan) through the Safari Browser. This is what I use to access the business bank account.

***update, they released their own app now, it works great***

Photon web browser for E-Junkie.com access

The only element in my business workflow that makes extensive use of Flash (and therefore can't render on an iPad) is my digital delivery platform E-Junkie.com

It's a fantastic service, and easily worth what I pay them. On a daily basis, I have to log in to check transaction / download histories, re-send the occasional download link, update prices or change product offerings and reconcile the transaction history with PayPal

I paid for the Photon Web Browser app, which has a mode where they host your browsing remotely and push the interface to you in an iPad friendly manner.

This allows me to use the original Flash based site exactly like normal, albeit with the delay of a slow VPN or remote desktop connection. For the non-intensive tasks I tend to do with E-Junkie, this delay is perfectly acceptable

Built in Mail app / Gmail tweaks:

The iPad's built in mail app is perfectly adequate for all things e-mail. I'm even told by people who don't use Gmail (who ARE you people?) that it's easy enough to configure for almost any e-mail service.

The only hitch I found was in SENDING mail from multiple addresses via your gmail account. I have my gmail account setup to send mail FROM either my personal or various business addresses.

On the standard browser interface on a laptop, a handy little drop down menu in the From: field takes care of selecting which account an outgoing e-mail will come from.

On the iPad, however, if you used the built in G-MAIL button to configure your account over in Settings, then it will default to your primary gmail address, and WILL NOT give you any other options.

The workaround is to delete your account on the iPad (don't worry, you won't lose any e-mails) and create a new one using the generic "other" e-mail account type. Use the IMAP/POP settings for gmail, and enter all the addresses you'd like to send from separated by a comma.

Once you've configured it correctly and the account is live, tapping the From: field in an outgoing e-mail on the iPad's native mail client will bring up the familiar "rotating drum" selector with all your addresses available as an option.

Math Bot Latex equation editor / Jetpack for Wordpress

I know it's nerdy, but I like to include formal mathematical equations for stuff when I can.

The Math Bot app proved to be an entirely functional LaTeX editor, with a visual preview of your equations and a reasonably well organized and extensive library of symbols and functions on tap.

the "export equation to pasteboard" option allows me to cut and paste an equation into another app, which brings us to...

The Jetpack Plugin for WordPress. It has a plug-in available which will render LaTeX typesetting on your blog posts.

Install it and wrap any relevant LaTeX compositions with the [latex]...[/latex] tags, and voila! Instant nerd cred on your blog, straight from your iPad.

$latex \frac{1}{2\pi i} \oint_C f(z) dz = \sum_{k=1}^n \underset{z=a_k}{\mathrm{Res}} f(z) &s=4$ Nobody keeps it real like Cauchy! (complex number joke! Boom!)

Mailchimp.com site:

I manage my newsletter with Mailchimp.com, which is a generally well executed service.

The mobile experience was no exception, and accessing it through the iPad version of Safari is 98% of using it on a laptop. It seems ever so slightly slower to use, but that's the only thing.

Skype app / Facetime app

Pretty straightforward apps and usages. I don't think you can multitask in the background while on the call, but quite honestly I prefer to be entirely present for the conversation anyway, and pull up facts, figures and documents after the call anyway.

And on the off chance that a call produces more actionable things than I can remember and write down afterwards, I simply ask the other caller to send me an e-mail with a quick list later.

OmniGS graphing app

Especially with a Stylus for the iPad, you can make fantastic looking graphs really quickly, and then drop them into your content.

It's no MatLab, but I'm using graphs for effective communication of concepts, not analytically perfect visual representations of mathematical phenomena. I love this app!


Twitter app

For composing tweets on the iPad, the basic Twitter app is entirely sufficient.

Plus, when you upgrade to iOS 5, you can tweet photo's and such directly from the native Photo app, which is at least 7% cooler and more convenient than loading them in from the Twitter app.

Bamboo Paper

Even though I have absolutely miserable handwriting, there are still some times when I prefer to sketch out my ideas by hand.

With a stylus pen and the Bamboo Paper app, I can indulge this need and still leave the paper at home.

If there is one thing that makes me feel a little less "Naked" about using the iPad only setup, it's the ability to still do handwriting with this app.

Bluehost.com

Some of their widgets run Java or Flash, and won't render on the iPad, but most of their CPanel admin is easily accessible with the iPad version of Safari.

Managing domains and configuring e-mail accounts or ftp accounts is what I've used it for, and it performed just swimmingly.

Google Analytics

There are a ton of options for apps that bring your Google Analytics data to your iPad, but I found this one to be perfectly acceptable.

To me, Analytics is one of those things that "looks and feels" productive, but is usually just a responsible looking time waster. It's somewhat rare to use the data to make an actual decision or change some course of action.

That does happen sometimes, but more often than not looking up how many people in Finland have purchased from me recently (37! Woot!) doesn't really have a positive impact on today's to-do list.

This is probably the least used business app for me because of that.

The mechanics of the interface

After the first few days of success with this setup, I rushed out and bought some aluminum from Home Depot, and built a crude iPad stand to elevate the device to eye level and keep the wireless keyboard down low. As a standing desk convert, I felt the height difference between hands and screen would be crucial.

It really hasn't been that big of a deal, and the folding leather cover that you can get stock from Apple has been entirely sufficient. My custom aluminum stand sits at home now...

As far as workflow is concerned, you've really just replaced a mouse or trackpad with a touch screen. The keyboard setup is identical.

While there are less workflow oriented keyboard shortcuts to use, they are largely replaced by the multi-finger gestures on the iPad. Four finger swipes take the place of Apple-tab or Apple-~ etc...

With a little practice, I've found that the touch screen is roughly equivalent to the trackpad for ease/speed of use. And while I'm sure that this setup is not practical for designers, I've found that all the navigating and configuring that we usually use a pointing device for is just as accessible with the touch screen.

In fact the only real difference is that instead of lifting one hand from the keyboard to interact with the visual interface, I lift two. One to stabilize the iPad, and one to tap the screen. After an initial adjustment, this seems to be a negligible difference.

The Conclusion

It's lightweight, it was fun to setup, the minimalism is appealing and somewhat rewarding, and the endeavor was an overall entertaining conversation piece.

Will my enthusiasm for working from an iPad in lieu of a laptop wear off eventually? Probably.

Can I claim any earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting, performance-enhancing life hack benefits from running this kind of setup? Not really. Well, sort of, if you count the zen like focus that forced minimalism can sometimes impart.

Nonetheless, I've performed an entirely normal workload, carried around a much smaller amount of stuff, and feel a certain sense of additional freedom knowing that I can administer and manage my entire business from such a device.

I'll be traveling with this setup for the first time in a week, and I have to say the minimalism of it is especially appealing in that context.

Also, since I've now setup the device to be backed up with iCloud and can remotely purge everything with the FindMyiPhone app, my replacement costs for a lost / stolen / broken situation seem lower. In theory, I just have to find an Apple store, buy a new basic model, restore the device off my backup on the cloud, and I'm back in business. Somehow that feels more approachable than replacing a MacBook Pro. Hopefully I'll never find out...

And if you're wondering, yes, I composed this entire post with the iPad. (well, the photo at the top of the post was taken with the iPhone, but still...)


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