Six awesome services I discovered last year

I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for cool new online services. I remember getting excited when SaaS became the prevalent payment model for software. It promised to give me subscription access to high-quality software which I could cancel if I didn’t need it any more.

I got excited again when everything else in the world (food, clothes, razors etc) became available via subscription services. In 2015 I discovered Pact and HelloFresh. I wrote about them, and some of the other services I use to automate stuff, in February ’16.

During 2016, I started using a bunch of other services and online tools. Some of them are pretty geeky and will likely only be useful if you work in tech. Some of them are more generally useful.

Here are the six that got me the most excited or have been the most useful (in no particular order)…

1. Thriva

I discovered Thriva in September and was immediately intrigued. They offer a selection of blood tests to check your liver function, Vitamin D, cholesterol, iron, thyroid function and testosterone.

I’ve always been fascinated with the quantified self movement in the UK it’s been almost impossible to get blood tests done without actually being ill, having a very expensive private doctor or being friends with someone who works in a blood lab.

Thriva aims to solve this. Here’s how it works:

  1. You pay for a beautifully packaged kit, which they post to you.
  2. You stab yourself in the finger and bleed into a little pot, which you later post to their lab.
  3. The lab runs the tests and sends the results to Thriva, who analyse them and put them online for you.
  4. You log in and view your results alongside explanatory notes and, where necessary, notes from one of Thriva’s doctors.

I’ve used the baseline kit a few months ago and found the report to be interesting reading: my triglycerides were slightly raised but my cholesterol was otherwise not too bad, my liver is all good and — interestingly — my Vitamin D is at the bottom end of the normal range despite daily supplements.

If you’re a doctor or seriously into biohacking then Thriva might not provide enough detailed data. If (like me) you’re just interested, then they make the whole process as easy as possible and provide tons of explanatory notes alongside your results.

2. Bulb

Unlike most of the companies on this list, bulb provide a service that none of us can do without: power to the home. We switched to them about a month ago and have seen three main benefits over more traditional suppliers like EDF:

  1. Bulb are a good company. Not only do they provide 100% renewable energy which is good for the world, they are also a B Corp and a living wage firm.
  2. They charge on a fixed per-month basis. This tops up your credit, and your electricity bill is paid from that credit. This is great, because it makes electricity a predictable (and therefore automatable) monthly bill.
  3. They’re modern. Not only does their user interface feel modern, they also use tech to help keep their operational costs down — one of the reasons they’re able to keep their prices so low.

3. DNSimple

I’d wanted to move my domain and DNS management for ages. At the beginning of 2016, I had about forty domains under my control. Half of them were either for long-defunct projects or variations on my name which I’d bought eons ago. The other half was a mixture of small, old client projects and domains I actually use. After much emailing and logging into random domain providers’, I ended up with about ten personal domains to move over to DNSimple.

The process of switching was very easy. Right now I’m mostly pointing my domains at the DNSimple nameservers, but as they come up for renewal I’ll move the registration over too.

Why am I a fan, then?

  • The alternatives are horrible. It’s all clunky interfaces and confusing navigation. DNSimple really does live up to it’s name. It’s simple.
  • It’s a joy to use, and that’s deliberate.
  • Their API means I can automate with tools like Terraform.
  • It’s insanely easy to use with Heroku and GitHub Pages.

They also provide SSL Certificates at a half-decent price, although Let’s Encrypt is probably a better option for Domain Verified certs — it’s free after all. If you need an EV Cert that won’t break the bank, CertSimple seem to be best-in-class at the moment.

My DNSimple personal plan costs $7.50 a month for ten domains. It’s well worth it for the savings in time and mental anguish.

4. Monzo

Where do I start with Monzo?

Anyone that knows me can tell you how much I’m into this company. I am a certified FanBoy™. I even have a T-shirt.

It would take a whole article to explain why I’m such a fan, but here are some of the reasons:

  • They are a good company with a clear vision: they want to make the best current account going.
  • Their app is the best banking app out there. Instant notifications, emoji, readable merchant names, transaction locations and maps, currency conversion etc. It’s everything a banking app ought to be in the age of smartphones. They have a great UX/design team, and it shows.
  • They’re very transparent in what they do — something unusual in banks. I genuinely believe they’ll change the face of consumer banking.
  • Their tech stack and infrastructure is absolutely awesome and they have an API!

While I was gutted to miss out on investing in their March ‘16 crowdfunding round, using Monzo as my main payment card for the last year has made me far more aware of where my money is going. Because most of my friends have Monzo, sending money and splitting bills is almost a pleasure.

I’m super excited to see the ecosystem of apps and services that will surely develop once they launch their current account and v1 API later this year.

5. Audible

This might seem like a bit of a weird choice, since Audible has been around for years. Sadly, I only discovered it last year. It’s amazing.

I’ve always loved audiobooks and thanks to Audible I now have a bunch of them saved on my iPhone so I can listen to them on the tube. Even better, I can pause my book as I walk in the front door and shout “Alexa, read my book”. Boom. It’s now playing in the house.

The only issues I have are:

  • Long books that come in multiple sections don’t play properly on the Echo.
  • It’s owned by Amazon, so the user interface and experience are predictably terrible.

6. Keybase

Without a doubt, this is the geekiest service on the list.

Keybase is a free service that aims to make encryption and identity management available to everyone. Being a massive geek I’ve always had a vague interest in PGP, but I’ve never really found much practical use for it. I think that’s because a) It’s ridiculously complicated and time-consuming to set up, and b) the people I communicate with regularly aren’t all massive geeks.

At it’s core, Keybase offers two main features:

  1. A way to tell if some online person is actually who they say they are.
  2. A public encryption key, verified against their keybase identity.

They also provide a bunch of other cool stuff, including a very clever File System and Chat.

Instead of trying to explain how Keybase handles identity, I’ll let Sidney San Martín explain:

Identity is a hard problem. When two people meet in person they can observe hard-to-fake attributes — face, body shape, voice, height, hairstyle, type of clothing, and preference for Star Trek or Star Wars, for example — and remember them to recognize each other later.
Recognizing someone is more complicated when technology is involved:
1. It’s impossible to talk to someone “face to face”. Someone sending an email hands it off to their email provider, which relays the message to the recipient’s email provider and then to their laptop. An SMS goes through the phone network. There’s no way for the sender to know if the recipient’s email provider has been hacked, or if they have a new phone number and the old one has been assigned to someone else.
2. When two people meet online, an email address, Twitter handle, or Reddit username may be each other’s only point of reference. None of these are as reliable as face-to-face identifiers (for the reasons above) and meeting in person to exchange new contact information doesn’t help reestablish identities if they’ve never met before.
Keybase’s solution is to represent an identity as a series of statements. (Nothing stops one person from having multiple, separate identities on Keybase.) Statements might say…
“This Twitter account is mine.”
“This device (phone/computer/tablet) is mine.”
”This device is no longer mine, I lost it.”
The list of statements is represented in a way that makes it hard for Keybase to lie (each one references the last one, so a missing statement would leave a noticeable hole.
When someone adds an online account to their identity, they also publicly post a link back to their Keybase account. This stops anyone from claiming someone else’s online accounts as their own.
All of the posts and statements are checked by Keybase whenever two people communicate. The checks are done by sender’s and recipient’s computers, not Keybase’s servers, and the program that does the checks is open source so that anyone can verify that it works.

Keybase is an awesome piece of technology, though it’s still not immediately useful to me. I’ve included it here because, while it might not be useful on a day-to-day basis, I think it’s really important that we retain the ability to communicate securely via standards like PGP.

Every other service on this list is a profit-making company that can collect and store information about me. Collectively, the services on this list know my blood test results and medical details, my home energy usage, my detailed spending habits and income, the books I listen to and the domains I own. I’m okay with those companies holding and using that data, and with the exception of Amazon, I trust them not to share it without asking me first. I use all of these services by choice.

I do not have a choice in the tools I use to communicate in writing. iMessage, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Slack are all owned by large profit-making companies, while SMS and email are generally unencrypted.

No matter how rarely I use it, I think it’s important we retain the ability to send encrypted private messages over the internet. Where Signal provide an awesome IM app to support this, Keybase provides a place where I can verify an unknown person’s online identity, and then chat and share files with them securely.

One day, I hope it’ll provide non-geeks with a gentle introduction to privacy and encryption, but while it’s a thousand times less geeky than any of the alternatives, it’s a long way off being accessible to people like my mum.

You can see my Keybase profile here:

Last Words

There were a whole bunch of other services I got excited about in 2016: Github launched some brilliant new project management features; there was a veritable explosion of interesting FinTech startups; genuinely innovative HR and BizOps startups began to appear.

Since most of those are related to work I’ll leave them for another article, except to mention that these guys all look really interesting right now:

  • Echo — Repeat prescriptions, delivered to your door.
  • Cuvva — On-demand car-insurance (and “parked up only” insurance for people who don’t use their cars often).
  • Coconut — Banking specifically for Freelancers.
  • Juro — Automation for Sales contracts (and probably other contracts too).