One of the biggest drains on time, effort and motivation in this business is the hell of arranging physical and virtual meetings with clients, prospects and podcast interviewees. Few of those people are in my timezone, we have no shared Exchange or Lotus Notes to endure rely upon, and I have absolutely no control over the calendaring solution that they choose to use in managing their own time. For all I know or care, half of them might still retain secretaries with quill pens to keep their paper diaries.
Over the years, I have tried a lot of tools with varying capabilities. Some were full-featured overkill that attempted to assert far too much control over my workflow. Worse, some of them tried to control the workflow of my invitees — people with whom I might only interact a couple of times — and that was completely unacceptable. At the other end of the scale, some were extremely simple and didn’t even understand the notion of timezones.
Of all these tools, I probably had most success with When Is Good, but still found myself tending to rely upon manual processes and a special iCal calendar called ‘Scheduling Hell’ into which I could record all of the appointments that I was in the process of confirming with people. The sea of red spread across my calendar most weeks — a mass of tentative appointments that would eventually resolve down to a far smaller number of actual events — is becoming a little ridiculous though; the waiting for invitees to respond means I’m often left unable to tackle new opportunities when they come up.
I’ve been trying a new tool for a little while, and am happy to report that I may finally have found the answer. The tool is Tungle, and it came out of beta this week to positive coverage across the blogosphere. I spoke with Marc Gingras, CEO of Montréal-based Tungle, this afternoon to hear a little more about the product and his company’s plans.
Tungle has come a long way since its initial alpha release of a plug-in to Microsoft Outlook two years ago. A $5 Million Series A investment led by Commonwealth Capital Ventures last year provided the wherewithal for the 18-person company to learn a lot from use of the Outlook plug-in and finish reinventing its tool for the Web, free of the platform and application limitations of their first offering.
Tungle now works with the major web browsers, and synchronises back and forth with calendaring solutions such as Google Calendar, Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Entourage and iCal. Earlier this year they also announced a partnership with IBM to bring the same capabilities to Lotus Notes, which Gingras suggests will ensure coverage for 99% of professional users of electronic calendars. I have experienced one or two glitches in Firefox 3.1b3 under OS X, and although the team at Tungle have not yet been able to reproduce my problems they are looking into it. The site works perfectly well in the latest beta of Safari 4.
As a Tungle user, you are able to painlessly import one or more calendars and then keep them in sync with Tungle itself automatically. Tungle doesn’t replace your chosen calendaring solution, and does what it can to integrate seamlessly into familiar workflows. You are also able to import contacts if you wish, making it a little easier to invite people to meetings (you can select them from your contact list in Tungle instead of having to cut and paste or type email addresses) but also making it possible to share calendars in a manner already familiar to enterprise users of Exchange or Notes; but in a software-agnostic fashion that extends far beyond the corporate firewall. I’m not sure that this feature helps with my requirements, and have not imported any contacts yet; I’m quite happy to paste their email addresses in from elsewhere when I need to, and I prefer being in control of the meeting organisation process and the sharing of ‘free’ time with others. This is actually one of the most useful things about Tungle for me; it’s not a take it or leave it solution that requires me to do a load of things that I don’t want to. The meeting scheduling capabilities were what I wanted, and they work perfectly well without me having to take the rest of the feature set (including a ‘Meet With Me‘ capability that would allow anyone with a confirmed email address to request a meeting with me) before I need it.
Scheduling is a breeze, with a helpful wizard (and a tour) to walk you through the process the first few times. After selecting a topic, duration and location (which, helpfully, can link out to search Google Local for all those meetings you want to organise ‘in the coffee shop nearest X station or Y meeting venue’) you add the names of contacts you wish to invite and are then shown a view of your synchronised calendar in which you are able to select a range of possible dates and times for the new meeting. Invitees (who don’t need to be Tungle users themselves) receive an email directing them to a web page on which your proposed times are displayed, and simply select the time(s) that suit. Once the chosen time has been agreed it is automatically synchronised back to the organiser’s own calendar software (iCal in my case) via Tungle’s connector. Non-Tungle users receive an email with details of the confirmed meeting, in a format that may easily be added to their own calendar.
Anyone who has tried to organise meetings with busy people knows that the best course of action is often to offer a lot of possible times, in the hope that at least one will suit all the people you want to meet. The problem, as I found with my ‘Scheduling Hell’ calendar, is that you end up having to hold huge sections of your week for tentative appointments in order to avoid double booking. An incredibly useful capability in Tungle removes this problem almost entirely, as the times offered for a meeting are dynamic and can change (automatically or manually) after the invitation has been sent. Say I send two separate meeting invitations for appointments tomorrow. In both cases, the invitation offers any time between 9am and 6pm. The recipient of one invitation is quick off the mark and selects a 10-11am slot. The recipient of the second invitation then clicks on the link in the email they received and visits Tungle to schedule our meeting. Despite the fact that I offered them 9am-6pm, Tungle knows that I am now busy 10-11am and automatically adjusts the invitation to only offer 9-10am and 11am-6pm. Brilliant. Maybe I can wave goodbye to my Scheduling Hell.
Tungle also offers a useful set of management tools, and I have high hopes that those will continue to evolve; it would be useful, for example, to be able to temporarily overlay all the time slots currently offered to people on my calendar (a quick and dirty equivalent to my old Scheduling Hell calendar), and to have easy tools for chasing non-respondents after a period of time.
Given all of this functionality, how will Tungle manage to remain free? As it becomes more successful, its costs are only going to increase, and the company has committed to providing free access to the current feature set moving forward. There aren’t any ads, and while Jim Courtney points to future integration with WebEx or GoToMeeting there don’t seem to be many really compelling pieces to hold in reserve for a future subscription-powered version. Location-based advertising by coffee shops keen to attract the meetings of Tungle-toting mobile workers who will buy a latte and then hog the sofa and the power socket for a couple of hours? Surely not…
Gingras and his team are clearly thinking hard about this, with plenty of money still in the bank to support their free growth for a year or more and concerted effort being expended to lower the cost of acquiring and servicing new users as the site grows. Conversations with various interesting partners are moving forward, and he suggested that there will be news of partnerships — and various optional premium offerings — when the time is right.
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