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030: Virtual Tip Jars – Leveraging Technology and Teamwork to Serve Others During a Pandemic
Unstoppable Talk Interviews

 
 
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The team at Unstoppable Software; Sam Schutte, Nathan Stuller, Scott Harrison and Valerie McDonough, came together for this episode to share about their recent project, covidtipjars.com. The project generated much needed support to members of the service industry out of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This idea went viral and was picked up by many local Cincinnati news outlets, as well as ABC News and several other news sources nationally. The team talks through the project timeline from concept and development to publishing and promotion.


Sam Schutte 0:06
Okay, tonight, the four of us got together from Unstoppable Software here to talk a little bit about a project we’ve been working on, which is our virtual tip jar site. So we have Valerie McDonough, who is our executive assistant at Unstoppable Software, and he works in marketing and sales, a lot of other areas. And we have Nate Stuller and Scott Harrison are both developers, and myself, Sam Schutte. And so we’re going to talk about this project we did and kind of what we’ve seen.

Announcer 0:35
If you’re ready to learn how technology is driving business innovation in Cincinnati and beyond. You’re tuned in to the right podcast. Join us for interviews and discussions with business leaders, innovators, and visionaries. With our host, Sam Schutte, CEO of Unstoppable Software. This is Unstoppable Talk

Sam Schutte 1:00
First off, welcome everybody to our show. Hello, hello. I’ll give the backstory here a little bit. So a few weeks ago, I guess when things were really kind of getting bad with this Coronavirus, you know, disaster that we’ve all been facing. I think I was kind of, you know, watching a lot of the charts go up and the numbers go up getting worse and worse and worse. And I just kind of felt like, I was tired of I don’t know, I was I was getting kind of wrapped up, and I wanted to do something about it. And, you know, I think one of the some of the folks that are suffering the most out there right now from the economic crunch of this are people in the service industry, right? restaurants and bars and you know, salons and so, at the time, there was a little bit of a couple people out there making virtual tip jar websites, which basically were just Google Spreadsheets out on the internet and So I kind of put one of those together, threw together some WordPress pages for it, and started kind of promoting it. And then I pulled the other members of our team here together to help us kind of work on it and, and build it out a bit more improve the technology, get the word out there and market it. And it’s really short a lot of success. Because I mean, we’ve, you know, we’ve probably gone from 40-50, maybe 100 visits a day on, on average our website up to, you know, thousands and thousands of visitors a day. So it’s really expanded a lot. So maybe a place to start. I thought we’d talk a little bit about kind of the where the technology is of the site is around the site right now. And then also just sort of the some of the exposure we’ve gotten, and how we promoted it. So maybe we could start with talking about some of the front end technology. So Nate, you worked on a lot of the JavaScript for the the site, I guess, can you describe sort of The way the site works and some of the features of it and how you were able to get that JavaScript to work.

Nathan Stuller 3:05
Yeah. So there were some constraints that we had with the design of this, we didn’t want to make a brand new, full featured application, because I think we wanted to get this up quickly. And a lot of us were volunteering some time on this. So we just wanted to get as far as we can on a small amount of effort. And the website for unstoppable is already on a WordPress platform. So I think that was one of the key factors in it. And so once we had all these great pages on there, and then we’re inserting this tip jar functionality, we had to kind of ask ourselves why or how do we do that? And and basically have forms and application type features within the WordPress site itself. So I think that was the main constraint that we were dealing with you have anything that you feel like was a constraint. We were Working with.

Sam Schutte 4:01
Yeah, no. I mean, I agree. Because I think, you know, the thing with WordPress normally is it’s kind of all. I mean, it’s a content management system. And it wants you to use its own forms and page structure everything right. And we sort of had to kind of completely hack that to get that to work. And then, you know, and then sort of, I think you mixed a bunch of different types of JavaScript in there at least like you know, I think use some Ajax and stuff to make it kind of like, Yeah, not at the refresh the page all the time.

Nathan Stuller 4:30
Yeah. So but we, we kind of had to do a little research to figure out because we’re not WordPress, theme developers or anything. And we just were trying to figure out, well, how can we just get some JavaScript to execute within our whole WordPress platform? And so you did a little research and set up some WordPress theme page templates, I think would maybe be the way to say it. So that was pretty cool. Once you got that set up, and we had a little playground where we could just insert some HTML and some JavaScript and just start filling the page up. I mean, that’s basically where we started, we kind of had to go iteration by iteration and just prove this stuff out. Because again, we were trying to get things up as fast as we could.

Sam Schutte 5:19
Yeah. Well, it’s kind of neat, because I don’t think we’ve ever really had a reason before to build, you know, real like from scratch software before inside of WordPress, you know? Yeah. And but I think doing what we, and I, you know, I know, other WordPress developers, I know when I’ve asked them in the past how we would do this, they didn’t know because a lot of times, it’s sort of like, they’re within their sandbox, and that’s it. Right? But I mean, really doing sort of the approach we did I mean, you could build anything you want it, you know, an ASP NET MVC application. Within WordPress, if you wanted to mean anything with HTML, or any kind of JavaScript could just live within it, which is kind of ugly. Just to kind of make that sort of hybrid solution.

Nathan Stuller 6:03
Yeah, there’s definitely some drawbacks. If you’re not technical, you’re not really able to update it, except for maybe some searching and replacing some HTML text pretty simply. But other than that, it’s pretty tough. pretty tricky to figure out where to go. And yeah, so but we were able to figure out how to get some job, some jQuery in there, and include that, so that we had a little bit of extra help on how to quickly call back out to some of our services that we were building. And yeah, and over time, we were able to get it to be functional.

Sam Schutte 6:37
Yeah, and basically, right now, it’s a it’s a really kind of mobile targeted app. It’s very trimmed down, you know, but but I mean, we added some indexes and some searching in there and we’ve got it so you know, if, because basically, the, you know, the purpose of the site, I guess, we should say, and hopefully everyone understands that our virtual tip jar is by this point, as you go on there. And, you know, service industry workers are able to register their name their place where they work. They got laid off from and then they’re PayPal or Venmo some other electronic payment gateway information like that. And it actually just from their phone they can you added it, Nate, that they can tap the Venmo icon or tap a PayPal icon. And we kind of push them out to those sites so they can people can tip you know, their favorite bartender favorite server. So like myself, you know, since I recognize some of the people places I frequent, I could go and look at their PayPal page and see Oh, yeah, that’s their picture. That’s, that’s who they are. And, you know, and help them out.

Announcer 7:40
Let’s take a quick break.

This podcast is sponsored by Unstoppable Software, a Cincinnati based technology consulting firm. At Unstoppable Software, we bolt onto your company’s team and accelerate their ability to deliver custom software development projects with our deep experience. in manufacturing, engineering and healthcare, we can tailor systems for process improvement, data analytics, machine learning and document workflow. So they become a user friendly, perfect fit for your employees and the way they want to work. To learn more about how we make our clients unstoppable, visit us at Unstoppable software.com or call us at 513-382-8499. And now back to Unstoppable Talk.

Sam Schutte 8:39
And Nate the the front end that you built talks to a back end server back end that Scott hill so Scott, can you describe a little bit just kind of what that server back end looks like and and how, what you kind of had to learn along the way to to make that.

Scott Harrison 8:55
Yeah, so you brought me in because you had already got Cincinnati page up. And that was working fine just with the with Google Sheets. And it was just one sheet, you know, you just read it and display it on any kind of form. And you had the input form using Google Forms. And that was working just fine. But then you had the idea of how do we add cities? How do we add cities? And how do we not make a bunch of work for ourselves? So that’s where we started brainstorming said, let’s go ahead and just put all the cities in one Google spreadsheet and be one giant flat table. And then where I come in, I put together an ASP core Web API that runs on Linux. And we were able to get that up really quick because we use digital lotion and, and was spun that up, got it installed, I think it took me about an hour to get it provisioned and get the first part of the application out there is really fast. It’s a great environment to work with. And so the idea was to take this Google spreadsheet and treat it like a database. So pretty much what it did was just read the whole Google Spreadsheet into memory, and then serve it out as the request came in. So if we wanted to see all of the people on in one city, I built a request for that, you know, give me all the people for one city. And then Nate would call that through Ajax, and then display that in one page.

Sam Schutte 10:52
Yeah, newer, and I think you also got your kids out in Colorado Springs and Denver. I think we’re both affected by layoffs and such right with all this. So then they’ve sort of been pushing and getting people out there signed up on on the Denver and Colorado Springs pages to write. Right. Which is cool. And I think it’s I mean, it’s kind of interesting like from a sort of like, I don’t know, I find it interesting from a software development approach standpoint. Like we really are being very iterative with this, right? Because obviously, like, just throwing a Google spreadsheets and Google Forms and all this stuff out there is like the simplest possible solution that really universal any of our customers could just go do themselves, right? But then it’s like, okay, now we want to make this dynamic. So people can self register their own cities. And and we can, you know, more quickly add cities, rather than having to manually copy things. But we were we don’t want to invest a ton of time into it. Because frankly, it’s all on our own dime, right. And so, we didn’t we didn’t make a real database yet. We, you know, we kept those Google Sheets we just made the multi city right Yeah, that’s kind of a hack. And it’s not like super duper scalable. But it was quick. You know

Scott Harrison 12:06
It was very quick. We had to get it out there because, you know, people wanted a place to sign up. Yeah, within a couple of days. And we got it up within a couple of days.

Sam Schutte 12:16
Well, and we’re my last count I checked earlier today, I think we have 460 cities, in the database that people submitted, those are all, you know, city super requested, and we’re over 5000 people now, in the sort of users for those cities, you know, we have at least what is that at least 10 or 12 people per city, something like that. And of course, it’s more like, you know, 2500 in Cincinnati, and then 2500 elsewhere, right? It’d be kind of interesting to see how that changes and how that grows. So then we kind of once we kind of got that all built and put together. We wanted to kind of get the word out. And it’s interesting because, you know, we’ve gotten a good amount of links that are driving some traffic, but really probably 60 or so. percent of the traffic is coming from Facebook still. And Valerie, I kind of had you take over and kind of run the the Facebook campaign and we’re and we’re working on that as well. So how did you kind of talk a little bit? I guess what you did there and some of the reaction you got from people?

Valerie McDonough 13:18
Well, the biggest thing with pushing anything out on any kind of social media is getting any kind of graphic. Because, I mean, that’s just the society we’re in right now is you put a picture out, you’re gonna get a lot more traffic than you are with just words from a social media standpoint. So the first step was just to create that quick graphic for the COVID-19 dollar challenge that Sam came up with, so you know, just putting that out there. And then from there, it’s just a matter of tagging a bunch of people that you know, in the industry, and then they start Sharing tagging their friends, and then it kind of grows exponentially from there. So I’m just much more familiar with Facebook than I am most other social media platforms. So it’s just easier to share from from that avenue than it is maybe from like a Twitter and Instagram or whatever. So

Sam Schutte 14:22
well, it was interesting because I mean, you’re right that it does seem like it was sort of exponential when you tagged people that cared about it, and people that were good sort of targets. I mean, that was, that was a real effective way to do it, rather than if you just shared it and that was it. And and, you know, you kind of went down in the comments of that post and would tag people and write a sentence saying, hey, check this out, so and so and so forth. Now, that was pretty interesting to see how many people wrote I mean, a lot, you know, a lot, we got a lot of like real good personal stories out of this, you know, that, that are pretty moving, you know, people that are laid off and they’re a single mother and, you know, young young girl or something that, you know, sort of having to move back in with their parents or something like this, and there’s a lot People. And I saw a lot of that in the comments of your posts, you know. So, I mean, it’s just good to see that. And I think that and you know, over time, then you start to see more people that we didn’t know, sharing it, and post it. Right.

Valerie McDonough 15:14
Right. Right. And that was really cool to see too. Yes, you know, Hey, who’s sharing that? I don’t even know them. How do they even know? How did they find my post? And then they’ll share it. So that was really neat, I think.

Sam Schutte 15:26
Yeah. I mean, it’s definitely the most viral sort of campaign, whatever I’ve ever really been a part of, just in terms of going from zero to, you know, I don’t know how many shares total and stuff on Facebook, but quite a lot, quite a lot of traffic. You know. And then we what kind of happened then is once people were sort of seen on Facebook, you know, and we had emailed a couple press outlets, and we got written up in the Cincinnati Enquirer by by a reporter. And of course, once that happened, I mean, the very next morning, I got an email from ABC. news out in New York and Good Morning America, and some others. And then they wrote us up on their websites, which led to more because then it was channel 12, Channel 5, Channel 9, channel 64 all the TV stations did videos with me. And then that, you know, every one of those links we got really kind of expanded it more and more from like other organic traffic coming in. And it was kind of wild to like getting interviewed by these, you know, these TV reporters anchors, whatever you call them, because they’re all stuck at home too. So I mean, we were all facetiming and stuff you know, it was kind of a it was a really easy way I guess rather than having to like go down to the studio and stuff like that which I would have been much much less comfortable with, you know, and then passes then you know, we started we got you know, we got some links from like food and wine magazine, some sort of coffee, coffee shop, trade magazine, Self.com, you know, so a lot of other pretty big name website started linking to our site. And it’s it’s really interesting to me like from a business case to like how many in this little micro eco chasm, some of the bigger sites that evolved quickly, you know, because there’s like three or four others out there that are doing what we’re doing. And then, so websites started saying, here’s the three big ones in the space. You know, there’s these guys at Unstoppable Software. There’s one called tip your server, there’s one called service industry tips. I think it is all doing kind of similar stuff, you know. So it was interesting kind of seeing that and we got one of the bigger groups that we formed was for the San Francisco Bay Area. And so we got tweeted by the mayor of Oakland, California, which is kind of cool. And that was because people out there in Oakland that some some stranger I don’t even know who asked for the site to be set up, was emailing her telling her about it, you know, so I’m very grassroots type thing. Pretty interesting.

Nathan Stuller 17:58
Yeah, can I share just a Little bit as kind of an outsider perspective on this, because I think, in some form of the evolution here, you had the idea, Sam, and worked with Valerie to start thinking about how to get the word out. And then it was when you realized you needed to scale it to the other cities that you asked me and Scott about early sets, my remember memory of the history of it. And so it was kind of neat to see that COVID-19 dollar challenge that was already put out there. And I found out about a couple days later, and you could see the ball was rolling already. And it was just extra motivation for us, for the developers to try and get this out there. Because I, I could feel like if I can get this out, and we can add more cities, and then I can ask any of my friends that are in that are more likely to contribute if they’re in these other cities. And that was one of my main motivations. Like if we can get up St. Louis and Cleveland and other places I’ve lived To know people, like that’d be really cool.

Sam Schutte 19:02
Yeah, and it’s pretty neat. Like, because we have Destin and Pittsburgh and of course other places, and so you can go there. And like, I was looking at Destin. I was like, oh, I’ve been there. Like I know that place, you know, ajs oyster bar or something. And I think we have Gulf Shores as well, I know, Valerie has been there before I think it is. And you know, so it’s neat just to see all these places and these brands that we know across the country and and you’re definitely right that you know, we kind of got like a toehold using an easier technology before kind of expanding it to make it more multi city. And now you know, when you when you look at the sort of map of traffic coming in, I mean, there’s people from cities all over the place. And, and I’ve had a lot of like small towns, reach out to me, call me email me that that want to just have, you know, just 20 the 20 restaurants in their little downtown area. And they just want a little webpage for it. That’s it. And so I got credit One four Salem, Ohio, because that’s what they asked for, you know, and if it’s useful to them, and it helps them fine. You know, it’s not Chicago, but but they are. Because she said, Well, I’m going to take this link and put it on fliers and then go hand it out, you know, or put it on the front doors, the stores and stuff like this. No, because it’s hard for people to just like whip together a website if they don’t have to do it, you know. So, it’s definitely interesting to see that. Yeah, it’s kind of funny because we I kind of feel like we were all going a little crazy sitting at home in this Coronavirus, insanity. And I asked Nate and Scott, you know, Hey, you guys have to do this. And we dove in, probably worked, I don’t know, two or three hours the first night, and then you know, whatever we called her night. And then the next night, you know, it was probably about 10 o’clock at night and I think Nate or Scott emailed me like, Hey, can we do something you wanna hop in and, and so for probably, I don’t know, two nights in a row three nights in a row. We hopped in and did these late night zoom meeting sessions and I mean, we were gone until two in the morning. Yeah, maybe even later just pounded out. And I mean, for me personally, it was just kind of nice not to think about all the bad stuff happening. It was a little bit therapeutic for me to just actually, like, work together. You know, I don’t know if you all felt that way as well. But sometimes, like

Nathan Stuller 21:16
You know, it’s nice to be able to take some action in what could hopefully help.

Sam Schutte 21:22
Yeah, yeah, exactly. Kind of rolling up your sleeves and doing something as opposed to sitting here and feeling feeling helpless, right.

Nathan Stuller 21:28
And even, it’s just nice to we don’t even always get to work together. So it was kind of nice that we’re pretty familiar with remote tools, and threw up a zoom meeting and we all had video of each other while we’re working and just kind of extreme programming. Basically, we’re all working on stuff at the same time talking when it makes sense. Asking Hey, Scott, do you have this for me? I’m ready for it. Yeah, things like that. It’s pretty cool.

Sam Schutte 21:57
Yeah, cuz I mean, we, you know, just, for whatever reason, the way that We usually work, we’re split between a lot of projects, you know, we’re not usually all working on the exact same code base or anything. And, and I don’t know it, it reminded me of back in the day when we, when I did while work with teams of developers late at night like that quite often, you know, earlier in my career. And like I said, we don’t often a lot of times, we might be working on something by ourselves, you know, as consultants and stuff. So it’s nice to do that occasionally, kind of nice little hackathon. environment. I certainly appreciate all the effort that you guys put into it. And Valerie as well, to get the word out there. And, you know, we’ll see kind of what the future holds for it. I know we’re, we’re working on, you know, right now, as Scott kind of mentioned, the data is living in a Google Sheet. And so Scott had to learn to sort of be a Google Sheet DBA, which we’re teaching them about. And it’s surprisingly fast is the thing like, it’s obviously not stored in a Google sheet in Excel sheet cloud, like,

Scott Harrison 23:03
I did some metrics on it. And the difference between the Postgres database that’s over on Digital Ocean, and, you know, reading in, you know, doing a query on the entire database of all the people it took in the database is always going to be a lot faster, but I was really surprised how long it took to read the entire spreadsheet. And it took, like, you know, sometimes under a second, a little over a second, you know, like 830 milliseconds, or 1.3 milliseconds would be the top, the top end, but that’s still really, really fast. Yeah, so that’s in the server world. You know, in the, where, you know, it’s hooked up to threes and, and more network links, you know, just on my machine at home, and usually Takes about 20 seconds to download the entire spreadsheet. So that just gives you an idea of the power of that you can with a Google spreadsheet as a database,

Sam Schutte 24:15
Yeah, it’s funny, because I mean, obviously, like behind the scenes, it’s storing data in some kind of big, no SQL, super Google power database, right like that they had programmed on their custom OS that they wrote, right? Because just the scale that that system has to deal with. I mean, who knows? I’ve never really seen any statistics about like, how many Google spreadsheets and Google Docs get created in a day. But I mean, it’s a lot, right. It’s far more than you would guess. And it’s interesting, because we’re slamming it pretty hard. With all the calls we’re making, and occasionally we started getting we started hitting our limit, and getting error messages and stuff. And I, you know, I emailed Google to sort of say, Hey, can we request it To increase on how many transactions we try to process and stuff, and this, basically kind of were like, Oh, you really don’t want to do that. Like, why, like, Is it expensive? Or is it fake? Make sure you really need it first. Right? So, I mean, obviously, it’s not a long term solution. It was, it’s just like, you know, how do we get there quickly? How do we get something out quickly? So, so yeah, I mean, I think as long as the system is helping people, and we can make some enhancements, I mean, I think there’s other things we could do. I’ve got other ideas, you know, at a certain point, hopefully the system won’t be needed anymore. Right. And hopefully, people will, you know, restaurants open back up, far as open back up, and we can kind of regain our sanity. But I will say like, if you go through and you look at a rant, you know, random Venmo accounts in there. You’ll see people writing in the Venmo transaction, you know, virtual tip, blah, blah, blah. So I mean, people are doing this people are using it. Don’t have any ability to know how much or you know, dollar amounts or anything like that, because those are all internal and external to us, or, you know, external systems. But I mean, it’s definitely getting us. So I think it’s a good thing to have built and gotten the word out there about.

Nathan Stuller 26:17
Yeah, I just hope people, I hope it is helpful, and I hope people are interested in going on here to help those out that aren’t able to work and are on here as volunteers to put their information out there to potentially receive those tips. That’d be nice.

Sam Schutte 26:35
Yeah, and, you know, I’ve gotten I get a lot of emails every day about the site, people asking for help, and every single person is super appreciative. You know, thank you so much for building this. This just means so much. And in the people I’ve sent tips to even if it’s five bucks or two bucks or whatever, because I’ll just sometimes just go on and do it. I mean, it’s not it’s not an amount of money that’s gonna change your life, but I think it makes people feel noticed and appreciated, you know, and that matters. And I’ll tell you, because I joined a lot of groups for restaurant industry and stuff like that to help kind of post links to this out there. I’m in those groups on Facebook, and I mean, none of them are getting unemployment yet. I mean, you know, there’s a lot of people trying to get that system even to work. So I mean, there’s still a lot of people are still a lot of pain out there because they’re not getting, you know, weekly checks and stuff yet. So if people wanna check it out, the website is COVIDtipjars.com or COVID19tipjars.com also works. So we’ll have a link to that in the show notes. And, again, thank you all for your help with this project and coming and speaking about it. You know, we will look forward to doing more with it later.

Nathan Stuller 27:54
Yeah, absolutely.

Scott Harrison 27:58
Yeah. Thanks, Sam. For coordinate Yeah,

Sam Schutte 28:01
Absolutely. Thanks. See you.

Announcer 28:03
Thank you for tuning in to Unstoppable Talk. We hope you enjoy today’s podcast. If you did, be sure to support the show by leaving us a five star review on iTunes. And learn more about this show by heading over to Unstoppable software.com. Until next time, keep innovating.

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