Two paths from DabbleDB

Over the past few years, my company has become very dependent on DabbleDB, an online relational database run by a Canadian startup — since sold to Twitter.

We run our workflow systems, our accounting and billing, our recruiting, and our customer relationship management on DabbleDB. We use it as a back-end database for the China Speakers Bureau website. And, of course, we also use it for its intended purpose — to set up and manage data sets quickly and easily.

The interface is so easy and intuitive — and the cost so low — that we’ve grown to rely heavily on the platform.

With the purchase by Twitter, DabbleDB will either be closed down, or sold off to another company. We’re getting ready for a possible forced migration to another platform. We looked at a few alternatives, but none measure up to what DabbleDB offered.

But what we discovered as part of the process was that we’ve gotten too comfortable with DabbleDB, and that there are other platforms that do a better job for certain tasks.

WordPress 3.0

For the China Speakers Bureau, we needed a way to keep track of information about 300 speakers. We needed their names, bios, contact information, photos, areas of expertise, websites, blogs, videos, and plenty of other info, both public and private.

We use DabbleDB internally, to access and edit every bit of this information. We use JSON exports to pull selected data to a website.

Adding new speaker info is easy, using the DabbleDB interface. The website is updated on a scheduled basis with pre-scheduled scripts.

However, changing the website is difficult, and requires editing custom-coded templates, and often requires a programmer.

With WordPress, we can do all this and much more. WordPress is an open source content management system that you install on your own server (we use Dreamhost, and have been pretty happy with them for the past few years). With the new Custom Posts, we can define custom post types — not just the standard Pages and Posts, but, say, Speaker Profiles. In this custom type, instead of having the usual data — post title, post author, post text, data, and exerpt — we can define our own, unique data fields. Like biography, photo, website, and languages.

We can set up a page where the public can see some of these data fields, and administrators can see all of them. In addition, all the blog posts related to the speakers will also come up on the speaker profile page. On the front page, we can pull in latest video posts, spotlight individual speakers, promote new books by our speakers, or post a calendar of upcoming appearances.

For the basic layout, we plan to use a standard “magazine-style” or “news-style” WordPress template, tweaked a bit to fit our custom post types. Two that we’re looking at closely are Antisnews and MyMag. Other magazine-style themes we’ve used in the past or considered using include Mimbo, Magazeen, and Monochrome Gallery.

I notice that each time I check, the selection of free magazine-style themes changes. One of my favorite themes, The Stars, for example — which we used at Hypergrid Business, is no longer available as either a free or paid version. I’m also a big fan of the themes at StudioPress, including their Magazine Theme.

The best thing about WordPress — other than the thousands of available themes — is the broad range of plugins and widgets available, and the ease with which the site can be rearranged and reconfigured on the fly. We can add new fields for example, add new categories, add new post types… it does take some CSS and PHP knowledge to take full advantage of this, but we’ve got that in-house, as a result of creating several new sites over the last couple of years.

We’ve actually written about before, for our editorial clients. Large companies like Merrill Lynch have been adopting the software-as-a-service platform. It originally started out as an online tool for sales reps, then evolved into a multi-purpose enterprise software platform for customer relationship management, recruitment, project management — even accounting.

I had not even considered using for my company. The $50-per-user pricetag made it prohibitive, as did the complexity of the platform. That was then.

Now, starts at just $5 per user. That’s pretty good, for their best-selling sales application. But it gets better. Their general-purpose app platform,, lets you build your application for free, with access for up to 100 users. From what I can tell, that’s ten tables, with up to 1 GB of data.

Now, is a lot of overkill for a company our size. And it’s a pretty complicated platform.

But, first, our company will grow. We’ve already grown to the point where we’re having to build a lot of scaffolding around DabbleDB in order to keep using it for our operations.

And, second, after trying it out, it seems that isn’t as difficult as I initially expected it to be. Most everything I needed was pretty clear from the interface. A couple of things that weren’t — for example, clicking on “setup” to create email templates — was easy to find in the help materials. There are video tutorials as well, dumbed-down to the point where they’re almost painful to watch. Just my speed! I’ve been holding off on watching them until I really get stuck, and I haven’t needed them yet. But it’s nice to know they’re there.