May 142015
 
HEXO+_ autonomous drone front view

An old saying is necessity is the mother of invention and nowhere is this shown better than walking the exhibition floor of the Internet of Things World conference in San Francisco today.

The Wallflower is a good example of this, thought up of after the founder had to rush home when his partner thought she’d left the stove on (she hadn’t), he thought there had to be something that could monitor this on the market and when he discovered there wasn’t, he invented it.

Snowboarding needs

Probably the sexiest device on the floor is the Hexo+, an autonomous drone designed for video shots. Use the app to tell you what shot you want and it the drone will take off and video you.

Hexo+ was founded by Xavier de Le Rue, a French professional snowboarder who wanted to get shots of his maneuvers but couldn’t afford a crew or a helicopter to do so. The preprogrammed flight patterns represent the most common camera sequences optimised for the GoPro camera.

Probably the most trivial is the MySwitchMate, a mechanical device that fits over a wall light switch. Set it up and you can use its app to flick your lights on and off.

The device was born out of the founder wanting to remotely control his college dorm lights from his bed. While the market seems to be those who don’t want to get out of bed, its main market are those who would like remotely controlled lights but can’t install a smart lighting system.

A niche from a need

What all three of these devices show is how a need by an inventor spurred a  product’s development, in that respect the Internet of Things is no different from any other wave of innovation.

So if you wonder “why doesn’t someone sell this?” it might be an opportunity to set up your own business or invent an IoT device to meet that need.

May 102015
 
Microsoft-HoloLens-MixedWorld-RGB

A few weeks ago the source of all wisdom for micro-businesses, Flying Solo, and I did a webinar on Future Proofing Your Business.

During the presentation we looked at the big trends that will affect business over the next decade with a focus on some of the demographic, economic and technological changes that are happening today.

The technologies are evolving rapidly and some of those we focused on as being business changing are the driverless car, automation, robotics, the internet of things and cloud computing.

As with all good presentations we took as many audience questions as possible and the feedback was particularly pointed on one topic, “given the degree of automation, where do the jobs come from?”

Finding the jobs of the future

While to some it might be surprising to hear this from a business audience, it’s very much a valid question given most of the solo operators tuned in are in consulting type roles that will probably be eliminated or affected by algorithms or robotics, if not outsourcing through o-desk, Airtasker or similar services.

Exactly what will be the jobs of the future is a difficult question to answer as predicting what tomorrow will look like is a fraught task, predicting in 1990 that web designers and online analytics would be a growth field ten years later is a good example.

A changing economy

What we can be sure of though is that business and employment does change and evolve around technological advances. The third slide of the presentation shows Sydney’s Circular Quay in the 1920s.

The economy though was still predominantly farm based, in Australia around a quarter of the workforce were in agriculture – in the US 27% of the population were farmers – in both countries today it’s below three percent.

All of those displaced eventually found jobs, although the transition costs were great as John Steinbeck documented in the Grapes of Wrath.

Free your mind and the rest will follow

So the key to future proofing your business lies in not being one of Steinbeck’s Oakies and that requires a mental shift, we need to be data literate and deploy the tools that mean our companies are more responsive to changing markets.

One of the keys to business survival in a changing world is to use the right tools, particularly cloud computing services some of which I’ve listed below.

We only touched on a small number of ways that the world is changing, for instance the image illustrating this post is Microsoft’s Holo Lens and we haven’t mentioned Virtual Reality at all. The key is to keep an open and flexible mind.

Office applications

One of the biggest costs for business is the software for writing letters and working on spreadsheet. There’s free and paid for services that you can use on the cloud that cut your costs and increase your office productivity.

Google Docs
Evernote
Zoho Docs

Website platforms

There’s plenty of free, or cheap, tools to get your name out on the web. Don’t forget to register you business name’s domain though.

WordPress
Blogger
Wix

Design software

In a crowded world good design matters, Canva is a good quick way to get a good looking logo and graphics for your business.

Canva

Accounting services

One of the greatest challenges for small business is doing their books and accounting software is a must have for every commercial operation. Online services reduce costs and increase flexibility for businesses of all sizes.

Saasu
Xero

MYOB Business Essentials

Customer Relationship Management

CRM software helps you monitor and understand who your customers are and what you’re doing for them.

Salesforce
Sugar CRM

Backups

Backing up is critical for your business. Having an online automated backup helps you ensure essential data is safe.

Carbonite

Shared storage

Sharing files with others helps your business be more efficient as teams can get work done without using the same computer.

Dropbox
Box.net

Communications

Voice over IP, or VoIP, is a massive cost saver and most of them are cloud services.

Skype
MyNetFone

Project management

Running and managing projects is a complex task made much easier with a good project management program to keep track of tasks and time.

Basecamp
Zoho Projects

Outsourcing

Cloud computing and online services are making outsourcing possible for small businesses. With a browser and a credit card, you too can be in the outsourcing business.

Upwork (formerly O-Desk
Freelancer

Mar 012015
 
The Australian wine industry has problems

The crowd is as smart as wine experts claims review app Vivino in a blog post comparing its users’ ratings of wines against the long established industry standards of Wine Spectator and Robert Parker.

Crowdsourcing’s advantage claims Vivino is “the experts can’t rate everything. But 8 million (and growing) Vivino users just about can. Will a 4.0 wine on Vivino be the new ’90 point wine’?”

Although Vivino are talking up their book on this, the message here is that the wisdom of crowds – or the Cult of the Amateur as author Andrew Keen described it in 2007 – is taking the place of all but the highest profile experts’ opinions.

Removing the informed commentator

This is true in almost every critical field from journalism to food and travel writing, if you don’t have, or a can build, a big following in your chosen niche then you’re just one of the crowd punching out a blog, Facebook posts or Instagram feed.

Wine writers and experts are in the same position, if the aggregated opinions of eight million users can give you an informed opinion about a vintage then why spend good money to consult someone who has spent years studying and working in the industry?

In some ways this is the downside of blogging; suddenly anybody with an internet connection can hold themselves out as being an informed critic. A case that stands out is an Australian food blogger who criticised a Sydney cafe for it’s ‘weird sushi sandwiches’ and strange Japanese fusion food without realising he was eating a Scandinavian open sandwich.

One of the effects of the web is that it’s both diffused and concentrated influence – a vast array of informations sources meaans small international group of high profile experts find their standing grows as they become more accessible while most of the industry is drowned out by forums, apps and social media sites.

The challenge for many of us is how are we going to stand out from the crowd.

Jan 292015
 
Windows Phone 8 is essential for Microsoft

One of the challenges for parents in connected households is managing how kids use their screens, a survey released by Telstra this week is a good reminder of how parents create an example for children when it comes to computer usage.

In December last year the telco ran an online survey asking Australian adults and children about their use of technology devices with 1,348 parents and 507 Australian children aged 12-17 responding.

Sadly the survey isn’t available online however the parents were scathing of their own performance with two thirds of the parents believing they’re not good role models when it comes to device usage. Interestingly, half the kids believed their parents were.

A generational shift

If anything, this survey describes the shifting generational changes with parents unsure about how they should be managing computers in their home, something that isn’t helped by inconsistent messages about internet and technology use coming from schools – “I need it for my homework” is the constant cry from teenagers when the computer or router is shut down.

More concerning is how many kids are on the computer late at night with the survey showing 74 per cent of children use their device between 9pm and midnight on school nights, with 39 per cent falling asleep while using their device.

How we use our computers is setting an example to our kids says Telstra’s Cyber Safety Manager, Shelly Gorr who points out the survey is a reminder to parents that they’re a key influencer on their children’s online behaviour.

“Children model their parents’ behaviour so it’s only natural for them to copy the example set by their mum or dad in relation to the way they use their device,” Gorr said. “So, for example, if it’s important to you that mealtimes are device-free, make sure you put your mobile away during dinner because children are happier if everyone in the family follows the rules.”

Gorr suggests the following tips to help manage kids’ computer time;

1. Agree limits

Talk to your children about the amount of digital time they’re living and then, based on what you agree is a healthy balance, set ‘switched off’ times of day. Help your children create a media use roster allocating blocks of time for homework, chores and their screen time.

2. Be an offline supporter

Support and encourage your kids in activities that don’t involve a digital device. A ball game or reading a book are all great ways to show kids how they can enjoy themselves without a mobile, tablet or computer.

3. Set family rules

Make sure you’re seen as a positive example. Do you want the dinner table to be a device-free zone? If so, then have everyone (including Mum and Dad) turn off their mobile phones and devices during dinner, or when taking part in family activities. Children are happier following rules if everyone in the family plays by them.

4. Turn off devices before bedtime

Lack of sleep can affect alertness, concentration and memory. For a better night’s sleep try encouraging children to switch off at least one hour before bedtime. Create a charging station and charge all household devices in the one spot overnight.

5. Make the most of parental controls

Many parental controls tools allow you to set time-of-day restrictions on children’s device usage. We recommend Telstra Smart Controls® for mobile devices and Telstra Online Security for your home network.

6. Consider the difference between types of screen time

Not all screen time is created equal. Think about the differences between using a device for homework or creative expression versus using it for passive entertainment.

One of the things that becomes clear when talking to researchers about household computer use are the changes in the family dynamic and the differences in the way age groups use technology. It’s not surprising we’re all struggling with this given the magnitude and speed of change.

Dec 182014
 
How can we save costs using cloud computing and online tools

One forecast about 2015 that’s very easy to make is businesses with high costs are in for a tough time.

As competition steps up, global forces puts pressure on prices and technological change allows new competitors into marketplaces, the companies that aren’t flexible and keeping an eye on where they are spending money are going to find 2015 will not be a happy year.

For the tech industry the predictions for next year are easy – there will be more security beaches, governments will want more powers to access our data while proving they can’t be trusted with what they already have, a new hot social media network will appear, well known brands will collapse, the net will get faster, more devices will be connected to Internet of Things and prices will continue to fall.

It’s the falling prices that will be what defines business in 2015 as we enter deflationary times; not the economists’ nightmare of prices falling in the face of collapsed demand – although that’s not out of the question – but in the more positive sense of business inputs being cheaper.

Things are going to get cheaper

A few weeks ago I wrote of futurist and academic Andrew McAfee speaking about the accelerated rate of change in business at the Gartner Gold Coast Conference. One of the immediate effects of that changing world McAfee describes is that a lot of thing are going to get cheaper.

Part of this is driven by newer cheaper sources of energy and labour, other driving factors are increased automation in fields where wages have historically been the biggest cost and  manufacturing processes are putting pressure on prices for most goods. The commodities prices collapse may also be a key factor in 2015.

For some industries, such as the IT industry, falling prices aren’t a new concept. Any computer superstore or local PC repairer who holds inventory gets a nasty reminder of the sector’s economics every time they do a stocktake. However many businesses operate on the assumption prices will always rise overtime, a not unfair assumption given the inflation we’ve seen over the last fifty years.

Getting costs down

With falling prices, it means businesses have to be more aggressive in cutting costs; whether it’s telephone or power bills through to professional services or banking fees, the onus is now on managers to squeeze as much value for the dollar as they can.

In the technology field the targets are obvious; are your old computer preventing you from using new software? Do cloud services offer a better deal than your old server based systems? Are your service providers charging too much?

For the wider business looking at how newer technologies affect your workflow could well prove rewarding, it may well there’s whole range of areas your company can become more efficient through adopting new systems.

A good candidate for slashing costs and improving flexibility is transport where too many companies are still paying Cabcharge’s overpriced fees when apps like Ingogo or Uber are cheaper and better. Why have company vehicles when car sharing services like GoGet can offer more value. Do you still need an expensive Yellow Pages listing when a free Google My Business entry will get you in front of more potential customers, particularly on the all important mobile platforms?

Then there’s the whole outsourcing question where it’s becoming easier to hire knowledge workers on an as needed basis through the various online platforms like O-Desk and Freelancer.

Over the break, it’s worthwhile reviewing your operations and seeing where you can use technology to cut costs and become more flexible in face of a rapidly changing marketplace. One prediction is certain; those with bloated costs and inflexible management are in for a tough 2015.

Nov 162013
 
sometimes things don't seem to be what they are

The notorious “419 scams” have been around since the early days of the consumer internet.

419 scams are the elaborate internet frauds that try to convince people they unexpectedly come into money. Once a gullible victim takes the bait, they are duped into paying a range of ‘facilitation fees’ and costs that drains their saving.

The term 419 scam comes from the Nigerian criminal code that covers this crime, which was appropriate as most — although not all — of these emails originated from the country.

For a while in the early 2000s, internet users became used to receiving a few 419 scam emails every day but by the middle of the decade they largely dried up as the even the most gullible and greedy idiots became wise to the schemes.

That’s not to say they have completely vanished, this morning quite a distasteful one landed in my inbox.

Greetings,
I wish to seek your assistance to execute a business deal. I am Paul Williams a Contract Agent based in London. I require your consent to present you as next of kin to a client of mine, who died along with his wife and Two kids in the Asian Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines leaving behind a large sum of money without a next of kin. With your co-operation and information available to me you can make a claim on the funds as the next of kin to my deceased client. After release of the funds to you by the financial institution where it is lodged, we can share according to a percentage we agree upon. If you may be of assistance, please reply for further co-operation.
Best Regards,

Paul Williams.

It’s unlikely that Paul Williams exists and even if he did it’s unlikely he’d have anything to do with this unsavory scam that most people would immediate bin when they receive it.

Binning the message was my reaction as well, but as I was about to, it occurred to me that there are enough venal, stupid people in the world who would agree to be involved in such a deal.

No doubt if you asked them they’d say defrauding the deceased family’s estate is a victimless crime as the money would only end up with the government anyway, these people would swear blind they are honest, honourable folk and no doubt they would think they are rather clever.

It’s worth reflecting that dishonest, venal and somewhat dim people do occasionally get their come-uppance in today’s world.

Nov 172012
 
investors run on a Berlin bank at the outbreak of World War I

Despite their self proclaimed belief in thinking different, many of today’s internet entrepreneurs tend to travel in flocks and follow the whichever business model is currently being hyped by Silicon Valley’s insiders.

From the original dot com boom in the late 1990s to today, web entrepreneurs and their investors jump onto the bandwagon of the day – it could be online shopping, photography applications, group buying services and taxi apps which are the flavour of the moment.

The latest taxi app is Click-a-Taxi, a European venture which has raised a stingy $1.5 million in second-round funding, which joins a legion of taxi and hire car apps following in the wake of market leader Uber.

Unfortunately for the investors in these taxi and hire car apps, these services are making some pretty powerful enemies.

Around the world gatekeepers such as taxi companies and booking services do their best to keep drivers in poverty while over charging passengers for a poor service.

The new apps disrupt that business model by offering a better service for customers and a better deal for drivers – most importantly it deprives the gatekeepers of their cut.

Predictably, the backlash is fierce with 15 US and Canadian cities proposing to tighten the rules on the use of GPS and smartphone apps.

These backlashes are going to prove expensive to the investors as Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have a habit of under-estimating the power of regulatory barriers. How the current crop of taxi apps deal with this will determine which lemmings go over the cliff* and which ones survive.

One group of Silicon Valley lemmings lying dazed at the bottom of a cliff face are those who invested in the group buying hype of the last two years.

Market leader Groupon is now reportedly moving away from daily deals to ‘always on’ deals, which kills the whole point of group buying sites. Most of the copycats are already dead.

Former Cudo CEO Billy Tucker predicts that in the Australian market – which was flooded by a wave of Groupon imitators in 2010 and 11 – will only have a dozen survivors out of the top 50 listed earlier this year.

Investors in these look-a-like services had a gamble that a greater fool would buy the operation, usually a big corporation run by executives with a fear of missing out. The ones who missed out quietly swallowed their losses and moved on to the next mania – which appears to be taxi apps.

For the taxi applications, the buyers of the apps will probably be the incumbent gatekeepers, who aren’t really fools at all.

It wouldn’t be surprising to find the smarter look-a-like operators are already talking to the taxi companies about an app which will, miraculously, comply with all the requirements of the local regulators.

As for the rest, they’ll do their dough.

What is going to be interesting though is the battle between Uber and the various taxi regulators around the world, particularly in countries where politicians jump to the whims of their business cronies.

*lemmings don’t really throw themselves off cliffs, that myth was invented by the Walt Disney Corporation. Sadly Australian, particularly NSW, politicians favouring ticket clippers and rent seekers is no myth.