I just watched this interesting 60 Minutes piece about scientists who are actually trying to determine whether we, as humans, are predisposed to being good or evil. Or, do we learn our good and bad habits from our environment. I found it pretty interesting and as a new dad, it gave me a little more insight into how The Dragon might be viewing the world around her. Check it out if you have a few minutes
- Kevin

As a company trying to be lean and mean in these tumultuous economic times we have had to be pretty creative in finding ways to perform many of the functions that for larger companies are simply handled by someone on the payroll. Using companies like Elance.com to hire help, usually at a fractional cost, from far off corners of the world has allowed us to remain productive while keeping budgets in check. While the economic benefits of using freelancers, especially from overseas, are obvious, they often come at a cost. For example, employing an in-house designer means expectations for such things as quality, delivery and adherence to our companies overall style are already understood, so a new project can be created with a just simple conversation and minimal hassle. In contrast, hiring a freelance designer means all of those efficiencies and the continuity from working together day-after-day are no longer present. Hard dollars are saved but something that is just as valuable is often spent in exchange: your time. That said, we've had some success hiring freelance designers, illustrators, programmers and musicians. We've hired companies and individuals from India, China, Argentina, and right here in the USA. While we think using freelancers is an important way for small, start-up companies like ours to survive and access a universe of talented people, we know it can be daunting to trust your next project to a faceless company thousands of miles away. We have a few tips that will help those of you looking to hire freelancers, especially those companies overseas. Much of what we've learned has been the hard way... through trial and error so we hope this can help save you time (and money):

1. Plan. Plan. Plan. And then Plan some more! With employees it can be easy to change gears midstream after having started a project. When you hire a freelancer, it's much more difficult. We've learned it's a must to take your time, go through the planning process very carefully, and make sure you have included everything you think you're going to want or need into the project description before posting a job. While freelancers we've used are fine removing things from the project's scope (of course!), we've run into problems adding things to a job without reluctantly adding to the budget too. Or, sometimes worse, wasting days determining if the vendor you've already hired can actually handle the new scope you require. In the end, it's best to do all of your work upfront before hastily sending out your RFP. It will pay off on the backend!

2. Build in extra time. One of the few limitations we've had with hiring companies from overseas relates to project delivery. Everything takes longer than forecasted. While I'm sure this isn't always the case for everyone, it has been for us. So, we build in the extra time into our planning and budgeting. As it relates to programming, we've created websites & apps with overseas companies, and in every case the development process has taken much longer than initially projected. One way to combat this is to include delivery bonuses for finishing on or before deadline; we haven't tried this yet, but would recommend doing so if time of delivery is especially critical. We hired an Indian developer to build our first educational iPad app, Letter Buddies AlphaBooks, and saved $20K from what we were quoted to have it programmed here the U.S. While that's a lot of money to save, it took our programmers nearly 3 times longer (6 months) to create the app than it should have. It can be frustrating when this happens, especially when you're midway through a project. I recommend setting your expectations correctly and going into any project with your eyes wide open. Be wary of companies promising an extremely short delivery period for something you know should probably take longer. Also, try to backload payment milestones so that companies are only paid as the project gets closer to completion. This has been one method we've used to align our goals with the company we've hired.

3. Vet. Vet. Vet. Take the time to look through portfolios. Some jobs we've posted have received 70+ proposals. It's a little daunting to go through so many different potential vendors, but you have to look closely at as many portfolios as you can. We generally avoid using vendors without a track record or vendors that propose something too good to be true (too cheap or too short a delivery timeframe). Elance does a good job of showing you details about how many projects and how much each company has earned. As a general guideline, we start vetting the more established companies first. That said, the more experienced companies may not always be the most appropriate for your job, so always try to find a company whose portfolio seems most relevant. We've worked with some of the higher rated companies, and while you feel comfortable your job will be completed, it doesn't mean it'll happen on time. Be vigilant!

4. Over communicate. Once you've chosen a vendor, stay on top of the project. Pretty obvious, right? It's easy to ignore a project for a few days when it's being worked on in another part of the world and there's a 12/13hr time. Don't take your eye off the ball though. If you're not asking questions or getting status reports, then assume your project might be moving slower than it could be. Our advice: be willing to IM/Skype regularly and be available late in the evening if your vendor needs to touch base. Working through emails is sometimes not as effective as a 5min Skype session. We've had more success 'managing' vendors who know we're around to answer questions and keep the things moving forward. When we've been laissez faire, our projects have dragged on. 

Some of what we've learned is common sense type stuff, but sometimes when you're trying something new the most obvious things are the easiest to ignore and most difficult to overcome. We've had mostly good experiences hiring freelance vendors and we will continue to do so. The price and quality just makes it too compelling to ignore. But you have to be willing to manage your outside vendor as well, if not better, than any employee you might have!  Good luck!

- Kevin

KidTech is our new a monthly series of interviews with key "Influencers" in children's technology & early childhood education. From authors of our favorite children's books to influential minds in children's digital media, we endeavor to discuss what's happening in technology, and how the digital revolution is affecting our children and their education.

For our inaugural post, we interview Carisa Kluver – the editor and publisher of Digital-Storytime, a review site for iPad picture book apps, and The Digital Media Diet, a smartly-written blog discussing kids, technology, and digital publishing. Carisa is a trusted voice for parents who are balancing technology and education, especially as it relates to storybook apps. You can also find Carisa on Twitter, Scoop.It, and Facebook.

1. In late 2010, you and your husband, Marc, launched an app review site, Digital-Storytime, and your blog The Digital Media Diet. What inspired you both to go on this adventure?

We were both at a turning point in our careers and Marc, who had previously been working for Microsoft, was very interested in app programming. He decided to learn to program for Android and iOS as well as take classes in web development and database management. I was spinning my wheels a bit ... having worked in research that was no longer being funded, so after getting the first iPad when it came out in April 2010, I found myself rather obsessed with book apps.

I'd always loved picture books, even before I had a child, so it was a natural transition. But the ecosystem for book apps seemed a bit too 'unsupervised' by real adult curation and the kind of vetting process that assures parents of high quality. 
I wanted to create a site that could give parents an easy way to get good titles in digital, just like they could trust that the local bookstore or library would only carry well-crafted & well-produced books in print for young readers. 

Marc, was (and is) a creative programmer ... he's been writing code since he was 9 years old, so he is also very versatile. I think my website ideas were an engaging challenge for him, worth the many hours of custom design for that reason alone. And I had no other idea of what to expect from a website, so I just naively asked for everything I could dream of in the perfect book app review site. We've grown a lot since then, but that was and is still the heart of our business plan to this day. Be challenged and dream big. I'd add that it's also better to be good at what you do, rather than be fast or big or even first. Being there for your readers consistently is worth a lot over time. We also were relatively fast, ambitious and among the first in the market, which didn't hurt a bit.

2. You’ve been at this nearly two years, how have you established yourself as a go-to resource for parents?

I didn't initially wonder about how to 'establish' myself, but instead tried to focus on having the highest quality content and largest number of reviews for book apps anywhere in one place online. I think we may still be ahead of everyone else on this measure. I took a leap of faith, hoping that this combination, in addition to a willingness to explore social media promotion and website development would be enough. Because we were among the first to cover book apps exclusively, we were able to make a name for ourselves early in the development of the industry; but it was as much luck and good timing as anything else.

I also assumed, based on the sheer number of hours it was taking me to review and keep up with the growing market, that no one had any real advantage over me, unless they spent more waking hours reading book apps. I was willing to spend what amounted to 18 hour days working, for nearly the first full year of our site in order to really establish it, which is basically what it takes to break into a new arena online. I have been gradually weaning myself off of this schedule, now that our site is more mature, but the real secret is being willing to eat, live & breathe your content niche on the web. It's a very busy business and many people start out with sites and then abandon them when they realize how much work it really takes to be heard above the noise online.

Overall, I try to be authentic in all my interactions on social media sites, remembering that real people trying to get good information for kids' media are my main audience. I am particularly inspired to be of service to the librarians and educators who use my site, since we are on the same page philosophically. For this reason, I made sure my site had clear info about who I am and our site's mission, not trying to hide my personal identity behind a website or random url.

I also partnered early and often with others I met online, from forums like MomsWithApps to Twitter & Facebook connections. I found a lot of people doing inspirational things around book apps and soon was part of a team co-hosting a regular twitter chat (#storyappchat, Sundays at 6pm PT). In the process, I also met other reviewers who could advise me about best practices and eventually collaborate on projects.

Both having a peer group to chat with about the industry and also understanding my audience, have really helped me make a name for our site. We couldn't have gotten this far without the support of a lot of people. Anyone as small as us with a website this popular, owes most of the credit to fans. I spend a lot of time being grateful that anyone is reading or listening. It's a great honor to be trusted with the important job of curating book apps for other people's kids.

3. How many storybook apps have you reviewed to date? With our background in educational publishing, we would like to hear what elements you think make a strong educational storybook app.

I have reviewed over 600 book apps to date. We have a 9-point rating system that includes 'educational value' and this category impacts our overall reviews a lot. I look for solid production values that include easy navigation and ideally no links that leave the app, especially for titles aimed a young children. I also highly recommend highlighting word by word for storybook apps in general, as an option.

Ultimately, the story itself needs to be enhanced with digital options very carefully, since one too many interactive elements can tip the scale in such a way that you loose the youngest readers entirely for story comprehension. It's fun to add 'bells & whistles' to an app, but for reading, these things can get in the way if not done thoughtfully. Sometimes my son will read a new book and when it's over he can't tell me what it was about, only that it was 'fun to play with'. This is one of the things I look for most ... can a young reader understand the story on the first read, or are they more focused on the enhancements?

4. For parents who are interested in using storybook apps to help their children learn to read, how can they get the most out of these products?

I would recommend for pre-readers, that parents & educators look for book apps that have simple stories with narration and highlighting at first, engaging kids with more interactive apps slowly along the way. These 'first stories' are not going to be rich narratives, but more like the 'early readers' found in print. I would also strongly encourage parents to read with their young children as often as possible. Spending time discussing a story and doing activities to extend the learning can be a lot of fun and communicates to young kids that reading is special and important.

Also, I recommend that parents & educators always preview a book app first before sharing it with a child, especially if you are unfamiliar with the publisher. There is still a lot of inappropriate material in the app store when it comes to children under 10. I used to put my iPad in 'airplane' mode when my child first used it, to be certain he didn't end up in my email or buying things in the App Store. Now that my child is older, he knows not to open windows that pop-up, but before he was school-aged, this was a big issue.

5. How should a parent balance the relationship between storybook apps and real books?

I think this is one of those 'more of an art than a science' situations. A lot of what parents do is 'balance' or 'juggle' things, to keep all the different needs their kids have on their radar. Media use adds a new dimension to this and I recommend that parents set clear limits on not only the amount but the type of media their kids use during their 'free time'.

For book apps vs 'real' or print books, I am personally a bit ambivalent. My child is now working toward 'fluent' reading, which requires quite a lot of time reading without narration. It is hard to enforce this on the apps, but easy with our stack of library books, so I make sure we always have 20-30 new print books every few weeks on the coffee table, where my son can be directed when he says, "I'm bored ... can I play on the iPad?"

6. How do you use technology (devices and apps) with your son to foster learning? How much screen time is he allowed to have?

We are very careful with the kind of media our son is allowed to use. We have no commercial TV connection at all, so everything he watches (TV & movies) is from Netflix or the PBS Kids App, primarily. We are especially averse to anything that advertises to our child, which includes much of the mainstream media for kids. I'd like my son to form his own organic attachments to media characters, if he has any at all, based on his interests, not on who advertises the most.

Our child is allowed an average of 30-90 minutes a day of screen time, depending on homework and other activities. This includes about an hour of book apps that he reads before bed. We end our bedtime reading with a few print books or I choose the least interactive or most relaxing book apps, for the very end of our routine each night. Marc often will just go to my website & sort by bedtime to find good titles. Everything there is 'mommy-approved'. But we aren't perfect, sometimes letting him read these bedtime stories by himself now that he's school-aged.

On weekends & holidays, our 6 year old son is also allowed to 'earn' screen time with chores around the house or by playing educational game apps I've pre-selected. We have a rule where 30 min of an educational app earns 15 min of 'free' play on his new iPad mini. We won't buy games for him, but he is allowed to use iTunes giftcards from his birthday & Christmas to buy the games he wants for this free play time.

I also download free apps, including games, for him to try a lot, while stocking my deal page. The games I approve are primarily physics based, where some critical thinking skill is required to solve a puzzle or challenge, rather than 'platform' games where it is just about quick reflexes and remembering a map. Overall I want my child to engage his mind with media, not dis-engage, as much as possible. We only get to have this level of influence over our kids for a short portion of their lives, so I guess I'm eager to make the most of the time I have by being very involved.

7. Do you have a favorite educational storybook app that you like to recommend?

I have so many favorites, it would be very hard to choose just one. I often get asked this and have a 'Sophie's Choice' feeling of panic, knowing I have so many very favorite apps. I love 100s of them! Overall, the ones I usually mention for questions like this are the book apps I consider serious 'sleeper hits'.

My first year reviewing I absolutely fell in love with "A Fine Musician" - for instance, but most people have barely heard of this lovely app. My other favorite sleeper hit is one without any sound at all, no interactivity & just a splash of animation, but it charms your socks off with a simple story and illustrations. It's called "RobotSquare" or "Little Robot Lost His Square".

8. Finally, tell us who your favorite Letter Buddies character is.

We love the Letter Buddies! My son is now reading fluently most of the time & not as interested in those cute little guys as he was in Kindergarten & Pre-School, but we definitely have a favorite. The letter "Z" of course. My son's name starts with "Z" and "Zany" is something he does well. ;-)

Thank you so much to Carisa Kluver for taking part in the first ever KidTech interview!  Also, check out Carisa's review of the Letter Buddies AlphaBooks iPad app on Digital-Storytime - you can see it here (4.5 Stars!) and read our recent take on balancing technology and learning, here.

- Kevin & Yun