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 BLOG >> March 2015

Resilient Living [Permaculture
Posted on March 30, 2015 @ 06:02:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Happy Dancing Turtle is a project of the Resilient Living Council. The term "Resilience" is a word that comes up more and more each year - perhaps as an antidote to the perceived fragility of our current manner of living.

The mission of the Resilient Living council is:

The Resilient Living Council is a catalyst for sustainable living, renewable energy, and high efficiency housing. It fosters entrepreneurship, innovation, and locally resilient economies; ultimately supporting a healthy quality of life.

What I find interesting about this mission is that it puts sustainable living, renewable energy, and high efficiency housing all under the same concept of Resilience. If you think about it a bit, each of these ideas and technologies can help to create communities that have a greater ability to weather whatever comes our way in the future. The council also adds the ideas of entrepreneurship, innovation, and local economics to their mission because having secure employment is another big factor in having resilient communities.

The reason I discovered the Happy Dancing Turtle is because they published a number of YouTube videos that I found interesting, a few of which I'll share with you in this blog. These projects are interesting as examples of projects that increase community resilience that are also entrepreneurial enterprises (the high-performance housing project is more research-oriented at this point but has alot of market potential). They illustrate that designing for resilience is not just nice, but can also be profitable for all concerned.

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Appropriate Tech Resources [Design
Posted on March 25, 2015 @ 07:24:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In my last blog, Appropriate Technology, I defined the term and played with an application of the definition to computing and came up with an idea for labor intensive computing (or bicycle-powered computing).

Since then I have done more research on the topic of appropriate technology. I want to share with you three additional resources that I found useful.

The Shumacher Center for New Economics publishes articles and videos on appropriate technology. Their YouTube Channel publishes presentations taking place at the institute and you can also access old video footage of Fritz Shumacher presentations. Fritz Shumacher wrote the founding book, Small is Beautiful, and this is the first of three short clips by Shumacher on how he arrived at the idea of Appropriate Technology.

The sustainability wiki Appropropedia.org also has a good section on appropriate technology. It was here that I encountered Paul Polak and his two critical articles on Appropriate Technology efforts to date.

Paul Polak appears to be one of the leading thinkers on appropriate technology today even though he is critical of the business approach used to date. Paul has a website PaulPolak.com where you can learn more about him and his efforts to combat poverty using a for-profit approach. He publishes interesting blogs, videos, and books. Paul is designing technology for people who make under $2 a day, however, the market for his technology is massive which means it has the potential to be profitable at scale. Paul is doing a type of design that many of us are not familiar with, design for radical affordability, and he claims that this type of design involves adherance to 8 principles. This collection of principles he calls "Zero-Based Design" and you can read more about it on his Design page.

One aspect of Paul's character that intrigues me is that he appears to be incredibly business-saavy. What he has to say about design and product development apply not just to designing products for his target market of extremely low income earners, but to designing products for any market. Here is Paul discussing the importance of designing for a market. It is worth watching.

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Appropriate Technology [Design
Posted on March 23, 2015 @ 06:22:00 AM by Paul Meagher

The Wikipedia page on Appropriate Technology defines it as:

Appropriate technology is an ideological movement (and its manifestations) originally articulated as intermediate technology by the economist Dr. Ernst Friedrich "Fritz" Schumacher in his influential work, Small is Beautiful. Though the nuances of appropriate technology vary between fields and applications, it is generally recognized as encompassing technological choice and application that is small-scale, decentralized, labor-intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and locally controlled. Both Schumacher and many modern-day proponents of appropriate technology also emphasize the technology as people-centered.

These are a nice set of attributes for technology to have.

We can apply this definition to various technologies on the horizon and ask ourselves whether the proposed technology is an "appropriate technology" or not. Given the pace of technological development in A.I related-areas, it can be useful to invoke the "appropriate technology" definition as a way to evaluate technology. Or shall we just accept that if it is new it must be appropriate as well?

We don't have to look into the future to find examples of inappropriate technology, they are all around us. Many would argue that farming has many inappropriate technologies like pesticides, reliance on synthetic fertilizers, and heavy machinery on the landscape, and so on. The design of our urban and suburban landscape also has alot of inappropriate technology such as an over-reliance of cars for transit, methods of heating, methods of building, dedication of productive landscape to lawns, wastewater management, and so on.

The fact that we have so much inappropriate technology represents a large opportunity for entrepreneurs to create appropriate technology. The problem is the solution.

If you create appropriate technology you will have the ability to market that technology using on a long list of favorable adjectives. So appropriate technology is arguably very marketable.

The way of the future is towards appropriate technology as solar and wind technologies continue to supply local capacity to our power grids. The future of renewable power generation is to become more appropriate. The fact that it is renewable energy makes it appropriate, but how the power, money, and employment associated with local power generation is distributed in the local community is where another level of appropriateness comes in.

I want to conclude this blog by zooming in on one aspect of the definition of appropriate technology, namely, the idea that it is "labor intensive". This aspect of appropriate technology can be understood in the context of farming practices and the observation that in countries like India they did not benefit much by adopting modern Western agricultural practices that included big machinery and dependence on non-local sources for pesticides, fertilizers and GMO's to plant (unsustainable debt loads). In the Indian context, smaller scale labor-intensive technology makes more sense and is more sustainable (smaller debt loads). That is not to say, however, that Indian farmers want their work to be labor intensive. It is that you cannot currently avoid it if you want more sustainable systems of food production.

Using computers to make a living involves using a technology that is not labor-intensive unless you count keystrokes as being labor intensive. I wonder if computers could be made more "labor intensive" and therefore more appropriate? The standing desk computers are one attempt to move in this direction, but a more labor intensive computer would be one that you had to generate power for through your own physical exertion. So I googled "bicycled powered computer" and found a few images that I'm sharing with you below.

Are these "appropriate computers"? Perhaps "labor intensive computing" will be the next big thing :-)

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Coursera and SXSW [Entrepreneurship
Posted on March 19, 2015 @ 10:03:00 AM by Paul Meagher

It has never been easier to formally learn about entrepreneurship. There are loads of YouTube videos, online lectures, and websites that you can access for free or for a reasonable fee.

One online learning resource that I like to regularly check out is Coursera. Coursera has a few entrepreneurhsip courses that it now offers on a regular basis for free or for a fee if you want to get a certificate of completion. They have recently started re-offering three of their core courses. All three have started on March 16 but it is not too late to register now and start doing the coursework.

Innovation for Entrepreneurs: From Idea to Marketplace

Develop insights on navigating the innovation process from idea generation to commercialization. Build knowledge on how to create strategies to bring innovations to market. Develop an innovation portfolio and business model canvas for your venture.

Developing Innovative Ideas for New Companies: The First Step in Entrepreneurship

Explore how to identify and develop great ideas into great companies. Learn how to identify opportunities based on real customer needs. Take the first steps to creating a successful company.

New Venture Finance: Startup Funding for Entrepreneurs

Learn how to get your new venture funded. Understand capital structure for new ventures. Develop an understanding of investor pitches.

I would especially recommend the latter course to entrepreneurs as it covers alot of questions you might have about the process of raising funds.

Coursework, however, can only take so you so far. You eventually need to put the books down and try to get your business launched. Informal education is required as well.

Another place where you can increasingly learn about startup culture is at large Arts Festivals. The South By Southwest (SXSW) Festival is on in Austin TX until the 22nd of March. You can follow what is happening at SXSW through their live streaming channel ON at http://sxsw.com/on.

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Attitudinal Principles [Permaculture
Posted on March 16, 2015 @ 09:57:00 AM by Paul Meagher

You might have heard the compliment that so-and-so has a good attitude. Or the criticism that so-and-so has a bad attitude. One's attitude has a significant bearing on success in business and life.

What is an attitude?

An attitude would appear to be some type of filter or bias that is used to process events. We probably develop some of these filters and biases from people we want to learn from as we grow up. Some might consider attitudes to be hardwired in and not subject to being trained or trained very little. That may be true, but it is also true that we may lack a good set of attitudinal principles that would guide us towards more successfully processing events. Perhaps if we had a good set of attitudinal principles that we could frequently invoke or meditate upon than we might begin to assimilate them into how we process events and that could result in more success in business and life?

The following are a set of attitudinal principles that Bill Mollison, one of the co-founders of Permaculture, claims that he uses:

  1. Problem is the Solution
  2. The Yield is Theoretically Unlimited
  3. Work with Nature, Not Against
  4. Everything Gardens
  5. Least Change for the Greatest Effect

You can probably figure out for youself what he means by each of these mantras, however, if you want to find out what other people think they mean than you can find out more by googling each attitudinal principle.

I don't want to claim that these are the best set or only set of attitudinal principles you want to consider but they are a starting point to developing your own set of mantras or attitude adjusters.

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Wealth Report 2015, Funding Trends, and Ellen Pao [Useful Links
Posted on March 11, 2015 @ 07:32:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Here are 3 links to reports and news stories that came out this week that might be of interest to you.

The Wealth Report 2015

KnightFrank has released it's 2015 Wealth Report. KnightFrank tracks everything it can about where UHNWI's (Ultra High Net Worth Individuals) live, what they buy, and more. It is all packaged up in a nice 36 page PDF report that can be found here:

http://content.knightfrank.com/research/83/documents/en/wealth-report-2015-2716.pdf

What the Seed Funding Boom Means for Raising a Series A

Because Seed Funding is comparatively easy to obtain lately, entrepreneurs are being mislead into thinking the next round of funding, Series A, will be a cakewalk; however, the glut of Seed Funded companies means fewer of these companies are succeeding in obtaining additional rounds of funding. Read more here:

http://firstround.com/review/what-the-seed-funding-boom-means-for-raising-a-series-a

Let’s Talk About What the Ellen Pao Case Really Means

Ellen Pao worked at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, one of the top venture capital firms in the world. She is now taking them to court claiming discrimination in not promoting her within the company. The case is drawing some attention for a couple of reasons: 1) It is giving us some insight into the culture of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and it is not all coming up roses, and 2) it is bringing to light issues of gender bias in venture capital firms where only 4% of females achieve the level of partner in these firms. You can read more about this case here:

http://recode.net/2015/03/09/lets-talk-about-what-the-ellen-pao-case-really-means/

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Silent Feedback [Design
Posted on March 9, 2015 @ 11:55:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Most people have experienced the "silent treatment" from a friend or partner. We all know that even though the person is silent they are giving us some strong feedback about how they are feeling. We might understand that they disapprove of something but may be at a loss as to what exactly is wrong. We might try various approaches to getting them talking to us again.

We might want to keep this in mind the next time we release a new product, service, or concept to the public. Instead of getting constructive feedback to improve this or that feature, we might instead to get no response at all. It is important to recognize that no response is still feedback and can be very valuable feedback if you accept it as such.

If you release something new and share it with some people and you don't get any feedback, chances are it did not hit the mark with them and rather than burst your bubble, maybe they prefer to say nothing. Perhaps your idea does not really solve a pain point they experience or it does not solve very well the problem you claimed it would help solve. If the person you shared your idea with is not a friend or family member, then it is just as easy for them to say nothing as to provide any negative or constructive feedback.

In various startup books we hear about the importance of releasing early and releasing often and using the feedback to create a better product or service. One problem with this idea is that we are all busy and unless the product or service is solving a real pain point and looks to be on the right track, why would I want to engage in the process of providing ongoing feedback about that product or service? What is in it for me? Maybe that sounds selfish but if you don't respect people's time by releasing half-baked ideas and expecting them to correct you, then you shouldn't be suprised if your efforts to gather feedback are met with a deafening silence.

In some corporate settings we may have a set of "users" who are required to provide feedback and help a designer create a better product or service, but for many projects we don't have this luxury. Instead we might share our product or service with people who would theoretically benefit from the product or service but who are not our friends. In these circumstances we have to actively listen for silence as it may be the only cue they provide as to whether our product or service is worth their time to discuss.

The process of using feedback to help guide you towards developing a better product or service is not as easy as it sounds. Of course there will be customers who will complain about your product or service and you can use that to improve your offerring, but when you are putting something new out there you might not even get complaints as these often arise out of some economic or emotional investment into a product or service that your tester probably does not have at this point.

So if you are putting something out there and expecting some feedback and don't get any, you might think that nothing happened. Alternatively, you can you can view the lack of response as critical feedback that something is amiss. Lately I ran into this situation and gradually understood that the lack of feedback was signalling a problem and proceeded to make an adjustment in my concept and sent the revised concept out again. The second time I did so I got some positive feedback suggesting that I was on the right track. Sometimes the best feedback is no feedback provided you interpret this situation as feedback and take corrective actions. When you can get people talking to you is when you know you are on the right track again. It may not even matter much what they are saying, just whether they are engaging with you or not.

In conclusion, don't interpret an absence of feedback for your concept as no feedback. It is probably negative feedback and can be just as useful in telling you what to do as verbalized feedback. Your ultimate objective is to get some verbalized feedback, but until you do something worthy of some positive feedback, you might not get it.

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Importance of Side Projects [Entrepreneurship
Posted on March 4, 2015 @ 01:37:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Where do new businesses come from?

In one version of the story, the founders have an idea or a market opportunity, pursue that idea/opportunity with a lean methodology, and eventually, if they were correct and the market responds, they will be on their way to launching a successful company.

In another version of the story, the entrepreneur starts a side project for whatever reason while continuing with her bread-and-butter work, but that side project starts to evolve and appear like a bigger opportunity than she initially imagined. Because it is an ongoing side project, some research and development work is ongoing and work is mostly geared at creating a minimum viable product. This happens naturally because it is just a side project and who wants to invest all that time into developing something with too many features that no one will use. The entrepreneur involved in the side project wants to use it and maybe a few people she feels inclined to share the idea with. The idea is shared and the feedback helps the entrepreneur figure out things to add and remove and the feedback gets better. The entrepreneur sees more possibilities in her side project and decides to launch and make it available to a wider audience. The wider audience responds, the entrepreneur devotes more time to her side project, and a new company is born.

In the first version, the company is more of a planned undertaking while in the second story the company is more of an evolved side project that may adhere to lean principles by necessity rather than through conscious adoption.

From this observation, one could draw the conclusion that learning a startup methodology is not really necessary to creating a successful company. We've been starting companies for a long time now without any Learn Startup theory and principles. One of the ways we have been doing this is by launching side projects that morph into a main line of business. These side projects operate under a different set of constraints than our main projects, they get done when there is time, there is very little to no budget directed at them, if they get shared with a small circle of people then there is the opportunity to collect feedback and better adapt the product or service and perhaps receive encouragement to share your product or service more widely with people they know, and so on.

I'm involved in a Permaculture side project right now. I have to complete a design project as part of the requirements for my Permaculture Design Certificate so have been mulling over what might be a feasible Permaculture-related side project for awhile now. I'm now in the second iteration of a concept and have shared this new iteration with a close network of people who might participate in my scheme. As part of my project requirement, I am now tasked with explaining how my design adheres to various Permaculture ethical and design principles. This exercise seems like a rationalization of the actual design process, except that the discovery and justification of some elements of the design were inspired by the directive to include a social permaculture element into my design. My design is also constrained to be in harmony with Permaculture principles although I am only now trying to fully commit these principles to memory.

I have reached the stage in my side project in which I think I may be able to launch a minimum viable product with no cost except some domain names and my time to develop the site. I'll be able to use code I developed in another side project to get something up and running fairly quickly. The 3 other people who I have contacted might agree to use the website for its intended purpose. The side project might achieve launch status within the next month. Spending time on planning instead of coding right way appears to have been a good way to manage my time for this side project. The planning work means I'll waste less time when it gets to the development stage of my side project. In the video below, Colin Ta'eed talks about just doing it and getting the initial version of your side project out there in less than 10 hours. In my own experience, spending time in planning and discussions can also be very productive way to evolve your side project, however, you need to eventually get something out there. If you can forsee issues before you begin, perhaps it is better to spend your time solving those issues than implementing a half-baked idea just to get your side project out there. In my own case, my thinking, planning, and discussions led to me pivoting to a new idea that seems more feasible and realistic to begin with.

The purpose of this blog posting is to highlight the importance of side projects in the process of developing new lines of business. There is no recipe for choosing what side project to work on, they often arise out of ideas and experiences that you are interested in pursuing for an extended period of time. If the ideas and experiences involved in your side project are intrinsically interesting to you, then monetary rewards do not have to be the motivating aspect of your side project. By working on a set of ideas for an extended period of time, and sharing your ideas with others, you may get to the point of launching your side project for the greater benefit of others. Seeing that others want to use your product or service may be the main goal of our side project. If that is achieved, however, then other possibilities open up. If your side project has some traction in your niche then that is a good foundation for seeking investment to further the evolution of your side project. It is not theoretical anymore.

So if someone asks you "How do I become an entrepreneur?" you could advise them to take a class in Lean Startup theory and learn how to pitch and do all the stuff that startups have to learn how to do. You could also ask them if they have any side projects they are working on or are thinking about working on. If they don't, maybe you should tell them that is not a good indicator so far.

I searched on "side projects" on Youtube and found this recent keynote on the topic. The keynote is by a CEO and co-founder of Envato, Colin Ta'eed, and was delivered at a recent Ruby development conference. He reinforces some of what I have suggested and makes the interesting additional observation that involvement in side projects is a good way to learn some of what is required to be a startup.

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Saving Seeds [Agriculture
Posted on March 2, 2015 @ 07:50:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Last Friday I attended a full day workshop on saving seeds. We went through some concepts such as annuals, bi-annuals, open-pollinated, minimum separation distances, and minimum viable populations (latter two required to ensure seed integrity). We applied these concepts to how we might design the grow out of different species of vegetable plants for seed production. Then we discussed seed processing methods for different types of seeds and finally methods of seed storage.

There were around 20 people in attendance. All were experienced gardeners of one sort or another. We were quite a diverse group of people coming together to satisfy a niche interest. Some were wanting to bathe in thoughts of growing plants again, some were community gardeners, two were operating a CSA, one was operating a market garden, one had kids that were happily involved in her gardening and she wanted to learn more so she could teach her kids more, another couple believed harder times were coming and wanted to be better prepared, one was managing a seed saving library and wanted to enlist us, and there were others, like me, who are interested in becoming better gardens and wanted to learn more about an important topic in master gardening, namely, saving your own seeds.

The population of gardeners is quite diverse. People come to it from a variety of backgrounds and motivations. We all perform many of the same actions but when we consider why we perform these actions there are a huge variety of reasons.

The diversity made me think about how I might segment home gardeners into different customer groups. Imagine that I have a new gardening product or service and was wanting to target the market of home gardeners with my product or service. The size of this market in North America might be around 25 to 35 percent of households. That could also include those just growing flowers; neverthess, it is a good size market. If you mow your lawn are you still a gardener? That might raise the household gardener estimate even higher.

According to Peter Thiel (see strategic small monopolies), it might be a mistake to initially target the home gardener market as a whole with your product or service. He would advise some further segmentation of that market so that you can establish a small monopoly in some segment of it. Ideally you would also not face too much competition for your product or service. When I consider the diversity of reasons people come to home gardening, I don't think it would be hard to imagine that the market of home gardeners can be segmented into finer tuned categories.

One category of gardener you could focus on would be the seed saving gardener. This might only represent 5% of all home gardeners but given the size of the overall home gardener market, that would still be a large target market as home gardening is the most popular hobby in North America.

If you decide to target seed saving gardeners with your product or service, you might continue to ask whether this category can in turn be subdivided in finer categories that you should target first. For example, there might be seed savers who are mostly concerned with maintaining a healthy and diverse seed supply given the many threats to it from large industrial seed producers who mostly sell hybrid seeds that, by design, can't be harvested for seed plasm that will be true to type. So you have your germ-plasm seed savers who are into seed saving for the good of the planet or perhaps just to ensure their own families food supply into the future. They might also want to get more in touch with nature by saving seeds. They are not into it to make money and perhaps believe that to be in it for that reason might be corrupting.

Another group of seed savers are into it for commercial reasons (which does not also preclude them from being in it for other reasons). Open pollinated seed research stalled after the 1970's and hybrid seeds came into popularity for a variety of reasons. Today many people view open-pollinated varieties as outdated compared to newer "hybrid" methods of plant breeding. That, however, is not necessarily true. Open pollinated seed varieties can potentially be bred to adapt faster to local climate, soil, and pest conditions than hybrid varieties. To retain intellectual property on these open pollinated varieties, smaller seed growers are increasingly using open-source forms of licensing to seed distributors. All of this is to say that an open pollinated seed breeder might be a market an entrepreneur could target for a gardening product or service.

When segmenting your customer into a niche you want to target, the process often consists of a filtering operation where you start with a large category and then apply filters to that category that make sense in order to get down to a target market where there there might not be too much competition for your product or service and you might be able to make some inroads quickly.

You might also consider inverting the process of product development by finding a customer segment that you think is growing and potentially profitable to target. You could then design a product or service for that market rather than trying to find a market for your product or service. If my research indicated that interest in seed saving among home gardeners was going to take off, that they might be willing to spend a good amount of money on a seed saving product/service, I might think about solutions I might provide to them for pain points they might experience as they get into it.

I'll probably experiment with saving some seed this upcoming growing season. I've tried it before with barley seed but my seed got contaimated by weed seed that I wasn't able to properly thresh and winnow out. Some of the weed seed also came from soil that was not properly prepared to be free of weed seeds. I gave up on that experiment but I think I might have better luck if I focus on a couple of vegetable plants first that won't be so hard to properly monitor, harvest, and process for seeds.

Seeds should be saved in the exact opposite conditions they need for growth: No light, no moisture, no heat. Putting you seeds in a properly sealed glass jar in the fridge (not freezer) is often a good spot to store them. Having a store of selected seeds that you can use to plant out productive and nutrient dense vegetables in your climate and conditions is a good insurance policy to have and saves any home and commercial grower a large input cost.

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