Escapia Launches ClearStay.com

Since January of last year, I’ve served as chairman of Escapia.com, the leader in the web-based vacation rental software business. 

This month has been a big one for Escapia, with its launch of ClearStay.com, a consumer site for the booking of vacation rentals. 

Bill Furlong, Escapia’s President & CEO, summarizes the important milestones:

The last several months have been incredibly busy and rewarding ones at Escapia.  My apologies for a long email…but there is a lot to tell!

By far the biggest milestone we hit was launching the beta/preview of our consumer site, www.clearstay.com.  We’ve launched ClearStay.com with a great selection of inventory, with several thousand homes. All of those units are fully integrated with Escapia’s property management software and therefore have real-time availability information, rate quotes down to the penny and are bookable online.  There’s no easier way anywhere to book a vacation rental than on ClearStay.com.

·  How about Spring Break on the Big Island of Hawaii?  Maybe you want to bring the neighbors and the kids so you need a place for four adults and two kids?  And you want to go from 3/15 to 3/21?  No problem.  ClearStay.com has five pages of homes on the Big Island that can accommodate your crew and are available for those exact dates.  You’ll see on ClearStay.com that the cost ranges from $788.32 to $11,045.94 (a four bedroom home in a Four Seasons resort!).  No back and forth on email to find that out.  No phone calls to managers in Hawaii during business hours.  No wondering whether the availability information is right because on ClearStay it always is.  No wondering what the total price will be when it says $2,500 to $3,500 per week on some web site because on ClearStay you get exact and complete price quotes.  And when you are ready to book, no need to call the owner or manager and send a check for thousands of dollars to someone you don’t know.  With ClearStay.com you can book the place at 11 p.m. on Saturday night if that’s when you’re ready to book.

·  Want to head to Central Oregon with the kids to ski at Mount Bachelor over New Years weekend this winter?  ClearStay has 7 pages of rental homes in Bend and Sunriver that accommodate 2 adults, 2 kids and are available from 12/28 – 1/1.  The total price for those four nights ranges from $1008.25 – $2054.38.  Ready to go?  Book it online at ClearStay.com.

·  Thinking that skiing in Tahoe over President’s Day is a good idea?  ClearStay.com has 20 pages of condos, homes and cabins in Tahoe that are available over President’s Day weekend from 2/15/2008 to 2/18/2008.  Absolutely have to bring your dog along for the trip?  Good news…20 of those units are dog-friendly!  Wondering if it will cost extra to bring a dog?  The price quote automatically includes any additional pet fees.  And you can book online at the click of a mouse!  That was easyJ


ClearStay.com is the first site powered by EscapiaNET, our API.  EscapiaNET makes it very straightforward for web sites to include Escapia clients’ units.  Several other sites are in discusssion and should be launching over the next few months.

Part of the ClearStay.com launch is introducing a new way that property managers can work with Escapia.  Until now, the only solution we have for managers is our complete property management software suite.  It is a phenomenal tool for managers and the linchpin to providing a better consumer experience.  But it is a big decision for managers.  So we have introduced EscapiaNET Express – a way for managers to take advantage of our distribution network without adopting the whole platform.  At launch, EscapiaNET Express is a quick and easy way to list on ClearStay.  In the months ahead, we expect to add additional distribution points.  You can see more about that new program at http://clearstay.com/JoinClearStay.aspx.

While launching our consumer business is the biggest and most visible product milestone in the past several months, we have also released a number of enhancements to our core property management software.  Most notable is the service order accounting module.  Letting managers track the charges and billing for maintenance projects and integrate those into their accounting and owner statements has been a needed addition to the platform and we’re excited to have it.  We’ve also released a new feature that lets managers produce multiple pieces of correspondence (e.g. welcome letters) and print them at one time rather than individually.

Are You the Next Rachael Ray? Star in Your Own Online Cooking Show

Press release went out this AM:

Are You the Next Rachael Ray? Star in Your Own Online Cooking Show

BigOven.com adds user-to-user cooking videos to rapidly growing food social network.

BigOven is all about sharing great cooking, and this is a terrific way for family members to document and pass along their time-honored recipes and tips this holiday

Seattle, Washington (PRWEB) October 30, 2007 — BigOven.com, a rapidly growing social network about food with over 160,000 recipes and 60,000 registered members, announces the immediate availability of BigOven Video.

"BigOven is all about sharing great cooking, and this is a terrific way for family members to document and pass along their time-honored recipes and tips this holiday," said Steve Murch, founder and head chef of BigOven.com.

Videos can be uploaded for free to BigOven.com in one of four popular formats (.AVI, .MOV, .WMV, .FLV). Alternatively, if the video is already posted on YouTube, one need only provide the YouTube URL, and BigOven’s servers will fetch it. Videos can be tagged with an unlimited number of keywords for flavor, cuisine, technique, ingredient list or more, just like the recipes in the 160,000 recipe archive.

Unlike other video sharing sites, BigOven is exclusively focused on food, and all videos are reviewed by an editor before going live. The result is much higher quality and more focused content. There is no charge for the video hosting service. BigOven reserves the right to accept or reject videos.

About BigOven.com:
BigOven is a rapidly growing and innovative social network about food. With traffic up 400% year-over-year, and over 160,000 recipes now on the system, it’s a great place to go to find virtually any recipe. BigOven brings innovative features like tagging, Try Soon Queues, RSS Feeds and more to the world of food. BigOven’s unique "Leftover Wizard" (
http://www.bigoven.com/leftoverwizard2.aspx) lets any cook enter up to 3 ingredients from their fridge to use up what’s on hand.

Unlike other recipe sites, BigOven also offers an optional, award-winning desktop recipe organizer for Windows which seamlessly integrates with the online archive. With BigOven for Windows™, cooks can instantly import any recipe from the archive with a click of the mouse, then drag and drop it onto a shopping list (complete with resizing), to generate a grocery list sorted by aisle. Meal plans can also be created with similar drag-and-drop ease, and a grocery list can then be created for any date range.

BigOven’s unique "Try Soon" Queue™ helps get users unstuck. All free members of BigOven.com have an online "Try Soon" queue, letting them build a step-by-step list of what to try next. Further, other users can place suggestions directly onto the Try Soon Queue for others, making it easy to suggest a recipe for a friend for family member.

About BigOven by Lakefront Software, Inc.
Lakefront Software Inc., makers of BigOven (
http://www.bigoven.com), is focused building the leading social network in the food category and is headquartered in Seattle, WA. Founded by Steve Murch, an executive from Microsoft, Expedia, and VacationSpot.com, Lakefront Software Inc. is passionate about making software and the Internet work for consumers at home.

Save money with BigOven.com’s new Coupons section

Another week, another fun new feature for BigOven.com. 

Last week, we launched BigOven.com Cooking Videos,  an important new area of the site which lets you share your favorite dishes with friends and family via video.

Today, we’re soft-launching BigOven.com Coupons (http://www.bigoven.com/coupons), an area of the site where you can select and print out coupons for dozens of popular household products.   

I believe that we’re in the very early stages of coupon delivery via the web.  While this is a pretty cool way to save some money at the store, there are lots of opportunities to improve it with better narrowcasting and integration with your meal plan.  This area went live last night, and was launched in partnership with Coupons.com, Inc. 

Share a Cooking Video on BigOven.com

I am very pleased to report that BigOven now has Cooking Videos!  Since 2004, BigOven has let cooks around the world post recipes and photos, and to date there are about 160,000+ recipes and several thousand photos that have been posted. 

The next natural step is to let people share cooking and food-related videos with each other.  Want to document the way your relative makes that cherished tradition in yur family?  Want to show off your knife skills, or your time-honored method of carving a turkey?  Do you have a favorite restaurant you’d like to review?

There’s no better way than video.  You can post your video free of charge to BigOven.com, then share the permanent link with the world.  While YouTube is a great video sharing platform, sometimes its broad focus makes it very hard to find the best cooking video content.  On BigOven, every video is reviewed before going live and not all videos will be approved.  Further, we’ll be linking the videos into the recipe content itself over time. 

The back-end work to enable this was fairly substantial, but we started this project in early September, and I’m pleased to see it’s now live.  I now know pretty intimately how YouTube was built, from the ground up.  The database part is pretty trivial, but there are some tricks of the trade to get video streaming to work — and there are new roadblocks to the User Interface because of the embedded objects / IE patent suit.  Anyway, it’s great to see it live, and people contributing videos!

Moved production environment from NJ to Texas… from Seattle

I just finished a major "kitchen remodel" of BigOven.com, moving the entire production environment (that’s business-geek-speak for "all the electronics that that run the site") from New Jersey to Texas.  The old host was UplinkEarth, and the new hosting provider for BigOven is Rackspace

The time had come to make the switch, because UplinkEarth’s reliability and responsiveness on the dedicated hosting side had suffered.  I wanted expanded storage capacity and a whole lot of bandwidth and backup.  While I was happy with UplinkEarth when I first started with them 3 years ago, I became increasingly disappointed in their fault-tolerance (there was a 4-6 hour site outage last year for many west-coast users due to their lack up backup connectivity).  Service responsiveness was suffering as well — if I logged a ticket with them on Friday evening, it sometimes wouldn’t be until Monday morning that I’d get any kind of response.  Simply put, banker’s hours don’t work for Websites, and I needed an alternative.

After much comparison and consideration I went with RackSpace, which has many locations worldwide but is headquartered in Texas.  They were roughly triple the price, but in the migration, I’ve also dramatically expanded the hardware and software configuration, and they offer a level of ticket-response, hardware setup, and customer service that is exceptional.  (They call it "Fanatical" customer service, and have implemented a very good ticketing system whereby I have to close out every service ticket with a grade.  So far, I’m about 92% "Fanatical", 8% "Very Good" in my feedback.)

My oh my was the transfer itself a hassle.  (But worth it.)  The basic method was to:

  • Get the new boxes up and running with SQL Server 2005, ASP.NET, all the various code and all the third-party tools I’ve used to create BigOven.com
  • Test the new boxes against the (old) live production server environment, to ensure the code worked
  • Lots of firewall configuration issues on the new site
  • Make a backup copy of the (old) SQL Server 2000 databases that run BigOven.  This includes all the recipe, ingredient, photo, and member data.  It’s a modestly large set of data now, since BigOven has 60,000 users and 160,000+ recipes, and thousands of photos, etc. 
  • FTP the data to the new server farm.  (This took forever, because it’s several gigabytes of data.)
  • Get the new SQL Server 2005 servers running with the snapshot of the data. 
  • On the actual cutover day, we took the production environment offline, did a differential backup of the data, then moved this data to the new servers. 
  • Put a "we’ve moved" sign on the old environment, with instructions on how to update the HOSTS file (while DNS takes a week or so to catch up across the Internet)
  • Transfer all the photos to the new site
  • Redirected all DNS servers for www.bigoven.com and the mail servers, etc. to the new site

During the transfer, there were lots of niggly little steps that had to take place.  For one thing, the SQL Server "Copy Database" wizard seemed like a good idea, but was useless because it did INSERTS on the data, and many of the BigOven tables have "identity" fields.  This kind of migration technique means that all the primary/foreign keys in the database get orphaned (e.g., because on the production environment, recipes, ingredients, users, etc. might have been deleted, so the primary key might be 1..2..3..6..8..9, and it would try to insert them into the new database as 1..2..3..4..5..6).  The right way to transfer the data turned out to be the backup method, and the production site needs to be shut down so that no new data is added to the database in the process.   

Another major hassle centered around deploying my SMTP/POP (email) server in the new location.  I was relying upon a shared SMTP server of UplinkEarth.  It’s amazing how many settings have to be just right in order for inbound and outbound email to go through.  (Thanks, spammers!  You’ve created a fun world.)  Now, although I have a masters in computer science and worked for Microsoft and Expedia (for a total of more than a decade), I’ve never had to deal with things called SPF records, reverse DNS lookup entries, PTR records in a "zone file", etc.  What  a hassle!  Can’t you just set up a server, tell it to be "bigoven.com", and you’re done?  Nope!   Here’s a very, very useful site to make sure your DNS entries are up and running:  http://www.dnsstuff.com

But it’s all starting to settle in.  The result of this migration is a much faster and higher capacity site with much better 24×7 service levels.  I’m happy as a clam, and happy to see the site being very snappy.  One new feature that wouldn’t have been possible without this migration is BigOven Video, coming soon to the site.  In all, the site was down for about 3 1/2 hours on a Tuesday late afternoon.  Longer than I would have liked, but not disasterous.

The fact that I could accomplish this entire migration without a plane ticket, managing it all from Seattle, when the production environments moved over 1,000 miles from NJ to Texas, is absolutely amazing to me. 

BigOven.com climbing in traffic

I was pleased to see the progress BigOven.com is making in climbing up the traffic ranks.  Marcelo Calbucci of Sampa keeps a ranking of the top Seattle "Web 2.0" startups; BigOven climbed 11 spots to rank #31 on the list for October.  BigOven.com outpaced multi-milliondollar-backed startups like Avvo.com, SecondSpace.com, TripHub.com, Cozi.com and others for the month.  Several more interesting features are on their way over the coming months… stay tuned!

Killer Music Combination — Rhapsody + Sonos + Sensa

With all the hubub about the new iPods, I stopped into the Apple store.  The iPod Nano, Classic and iPod Touch (as well of the iPhone) are superb — beautiful to touch, and astonishingly small, and simple to operate.  Tempting…

But you see, I’ve got this "lock-in" problem.  For the past year, I’ve been a very happy owner of 4 Sonos players for my home.   These wireless babies let me play songs in whatever room I’m in, and I can even nail them all together with a click of the button for "party mode" — and they are all synched on the beat.  They work flawlessly and cost thousands of dollars less than inferior home audio systems — I’m a huge fan. 

So a few months ago I added Rhapsody to it; I’m now paying about $13 per month — the cost of one CD — to play any song I’d like from over a million choices.  If I want, I can buy them for 10% off the iTunes price and own them permanently.  I’ve got playlists that I use at home.  To me, Sonos players plus Rhapsody is really the "killer app" platform for home audio.  If I’m in the kitchen, or my office, and want to hear any song, I can dial it up and 3 seconds or so later, I’m listening to it.  Pretty amazing.

If I had an iPod, I’d be locked in to the AAC format, I’d have to physically move the iPod device where I wanted to play it, I’d have to plug it in, I’d have to fetch the song and download it or rip it, etc.  Further, if I get a guilty-pleasure song that I’m happy to hear once or twice, but know I’m gonna hate in a couple weeks (e.g., Umbrella or What goes around comes around come to mind), I don’t have to buy it to hear it all.

So if I bought an iPod, as great and elegant as they are, I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this impressive service.  So I decided to pick up a "lesser" product, a simple $129 Sansa e280R

It’s an amazing little device for jogging — I can simply drag and drop any song I’d like (ok, not Beatles, but just about any other song!) to the Sansa player icon.  Each song takes about 3-4 seconds to transfer over USB2.0. 

What’s more, I can just tell Rhapsody to always copy over my key playlists, as well as a great "Recommends" feature that automatically loads my MP3 player with recommended choices based on other highly rated songs.  Voila — I’m ready for a run, with my favorite music and a few more options too.  It’s pretty remarkable, and incredibly low-priced.  It also has an FM tuner and an audio recorder, two things iPods don’t have.