Brief Encounters with Artificial Intelligence

I’m preoccupied with how artificial intelligence will impact society even though artificial intelligence isn’t very smart or common yet. A couple of recent observations (the type that come with the metaphorical light bulb over the head1, not made with binoculars from a shelter hidden in the shrubbery) brought me to a greater understanding of how artificial intelligence may fit into everyday life.

First encounter: I picked up my phone and thumbed to my favourite cab company. I hadn’t called them in a year and a half, and was surprised to hear an automated attendant answer instead of the woman with the gravelly voice who called me ‘dear’. It said if I wanted to be picked up immediately at the address I was calling from, I could push ‘1’ and it would happen. I did and did and was (want to be picked up at the address, pushed 1, and the cab arrived shortly thereafter). As we cruised towards my destination, I chatted to the driver, telling him that while the call seemed very efficient, I felt odd about it.

What was lacking? Why was having a machine arrange to pick me up, when that was the very reason I’d called the cab company, disconcerting? If the dispatcher had asked if I wanted to be picked up at home, or the usual place, I’d be glad of the personal service.

For me, the missing link was someone who actually cared if the cab came to get me. Someone who wanted to do their job well and understood that if I was going to the train station it was to catch a train, and being late could have a ripple effect: missing the train, then maybe being late for a job interview and therefore mortgage payments. The gravelly-voiced lady may never have given a rat’s ass if I got where I needed to go on time, but generally, people can empathize with the consequences of being late. Yes, a machine can list the potential consequences, but it can’t remember the time it got a flat tire on the way to a wedding rehearsal where it was the best man for a nervous groom who needed his best buddy’s support.

My second encounter is more subtle. I’m knee-deep in business theory, pondering what gives companies like Harley Davidson and Tim Horton’s their competitive advantage. Causal ambiguity is a thing, which I’ve always liked the sound, and the meaning, of. It’s rather similar to the idea that the sum of the parts is less than the whole. Sure you can make motorcycles growl and sputter in an outlaw kind of way but what makes a Harley the motorcycle of choice for everyone from rock stars to the pastor of an upwardly mobile flock? Why is Tim’s a thing half the Canadian population will wait in line for when the competition across the street has the same product (coffee)? Casual ambiguity. Don’t know how – but it works.

The best explanation we have right now is that casual ambiguity is the sum of a vast number of elements, each subtly different than the norm. Will artificial intelligences be able to dissect casual ambiguity into its multitude of components? It’ll be interesting to see what the AIs come up with to explain the appeal of Hello Kitty or the allure of certain notorious socialites.

On the same topic (competitive advantage), but a more mundane level, human nature dictates we develop processes, or rituals. These get passed down through generations, whether it’s a ham recipe or a manufacturing process for golf balls. Scholars of Operations Management know that the best processes morph overtime because every little detail can’t be recorded, so instructions are interpreted and revised. Will AIs eliminate this natural drift, detailing processes with an infinite number of stepwise instructions? Me, I take detailed instructions, read them until I understand the concept and then construct the functional details.

Humans make mistakes. Sometimes the mistakes are good and we discover something new. Sometimes they’re neutral for many cycles and get propagated through the system then someday turn out to be of benefit.

AIs won’t make mistakes, so there will be no drift in the processes they oversee or serendipitous finding of new things. AIs follow instructions with a precision that leaves nothing to the imagination.

So, we humans, with all our squishy emotions and random actions, are useful after all. We care – who can deliver good customer service without caring? And we err. To err is human, not to err – divinely artificial.

1Does that metaphor still work with a compact fluorescent bulb?

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Big Data – So Glad I’m not Alone

How many businesses are based on the collection of user data? Could be all of them, soon.

Having done just enough reading about the Internet of Things to be dangerous, I’ve surmised the time is coming when we’ll have the capacity to collect and store a ridiculous amount of information, perhaps down to a level of minutiae (does that word rhyme with nausea?) whereby we could track each step the family pet takes, every day, as it wanders around the house. I have to admit, I’m curious what my cats do while I’m not home, but suspect that information would interest me for 0.8 minutes. And I’d pay less than what a cup of coffee costs to know.

If I won’t pay, maybe a maker of veterinary products will. And discover a cause to displaced aggression, an increasingly common syndrome whereby cats get all snarly because they can see another cat outside their home, making them uber-aggressive to anything inside their home. Perhaps a new line of pet-food would counteract the cause. Depending on what the cause is, maybe the manufacture of air-fresheners, refiners of natural gas or growers of gourds should get involved.

It may seem I’m being silly but that is the potential of big data. Everything may be connected to everything else in previously unsuspected ways. A world where every object (including people) sends frequent signals about its position, temperature, or movement isn’t so far away. And while that may seems like an innocuous set of variables, much can be determined. Knowing where a person is at all times says a lot about their habits and interests. Go to the corner store each night? – there’s some kind of habit brewing – smokes, junk food, lottery or maybe just an attraction to the clerk. Already sounds like too much person information.

Add a little more, like your purchasing habits, co-location with other objects (people) provides much information about your relationships. A speedometer, GPS and accelerometer is enough to reveal your driving habits – do you break quickly or a lot? Knowing your speed and where you are tells if you are a habitual speeder. Aggressive driving can be spotted by proximity to other vehicles.

So there’s another rub. Things we are buying now come with embedded information gathers. Never mind the electronic device (mobile phone/tablet) we use to communicate that snarfs down a mountain of information about us – there are others, such as cars. Appliances will soon want to be in constant contact with retailers (or maybe the other way around) so the fridge will refill itself with all your favourite foods (at your expense). The washer and dryer will order refills of detergent and fabric softener if you don’t stop them.

The electric utility monitors my consumption of power by the minute but also may soon link that information to all the appliances in my house to suggest which are being left on too long or could otherwise be used more wisely. That’s information I can use to decrease my power bill, or may be the information will be used in another way.

Oops.The pessimist woke up.

What about personal privacy and associated rights that various businesses may want to stick their nose into? Like say, Insurance. There’s a data loving industry. Wouldn’t my home insurance provider like to know if I was in the habit of leaving electrical appliances unattended, risking a fire. Or maybe they’d be more interested to know there was no power drawn from a home security system even though I ensured them I installed one.

And this is just one example that sprung to mind. There’s cars and driving habits. Food and eating habits. How hot I heat my home compared to everyone else in the neighbourhood. How many fruits and vegetables my family buys each week and how many end up in the compose bin. The household consumption of entertainment – bringing a blush to everyone’s cheeks. You get the idea. Personal privacy is at stake.

Many businesses assure us that our information will not be used except to ‘provide us with service’ – that sounds like a can of worms.

When I saw the title ‘The Need to Embed Big Privacy in a World of Big Data – by Design’ a talk by Ann Cavoukian, I was thrilled because it seemed to echo my sentiments exactly. Dr. Cavoukian is the former privacy commissioner for Ontario who has created a system called Privacy by Design to protect privacy (all kinds, individual, corporate, organizational).

I went to the talk. I liked what I heard. The key principles. Privacy should be:

  • Proactive
  • By default
  • Embedded into design
  • Positive sum – not a trade off with security, we get privacy and security
  • Full life cycle protection
  • Visible and transparent
  • Respect for user choice – no service denial because you decline to provide information

The last one won me over completely. Too many online sites are binary (yes, the irony is intentional). If you don’t agree to provide information required, you can’t get in. After all, it’s a web interface and not capable of understanding explanations.

Hence my love of the privacy by default idea. If I don’t want to provide my birthdate, I can still get an account. This is where privacy by design is important. Yes, it you need to ensure users are above a certain age. Currently, you build the user account system to verify this by asking for their date of birth, then of course they are rejected if you refuse to provide that information. But if you did it differently from the beginning, asking people to warrant they were of age and sending an email to confirm, you might design a system that protected the provider and the consumer equally. Squeee.

One of the suggestions was that we should be routinely reminded that data was being collected. I’d love it if Facebook popped a window to tell me I’d watched 65 cat videos in a month and they were escalating my profile to ‘cat lady’. Or Twitter said I was following enough grunge-rock bands to qualify as a metal-head groupie. It might be fun.

I applaud the Privacy by Design initiative, to boldly embrace privacy and see how easy it is to incorporate it if it’s done from the beginning. I can see it as a competitive advantage, providing customers the option of how much of their data is used and what kind of information they get back from sharing. Sigh. Oh for the day when we’re secure in what we communicate freely, without fear of our messages being used against us.

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Innovation without Technology

Can a new product, a new service or application, be commercialized without new technology, without inventing a widget or writing new code? It can, when it’s based on knowledge, know-how, or understanding an old thing in a new way.

Remember the phrase – all the buzz ten years ago: ‘the knowledge economy’? While it certainly seems like machines are getting smarter ( but that’s another story), new knowledge has been translated into ICT, social media and the emerging IoT (internet of things). Billions of burgeoning new businesses (ok I’m exaggerating) became because people invented new hardware or software. Which is good. And of course, based on knowledge.

And while some of us were busy creating the new knowledge all those electronic, interconnected, disruptive technologies are based on, many others were discovering other new knowledge. In the past week, I’ve come across five new useful products, businesses or services or practices, that are based on knowledge. Not new technology. Just people being able to help more people because we’ve learned some stuff. And this too is what comes of research and translating research into a form that can be used to benefit society.

In no particular order, this is what I’ve learned about:

1. Understanding Childhood Behaviour. A medical condition can effect children – ODD1 – oppositional defiant disorder. Sometimes, putting a name on worrying behaviour makes it easier to deal with. This disorder is associated with excessive anger and vindictiveness in children towards authority figures, including their parents. Recognition helps people get coaching to facilitate positive ways for children and parents to interact. New ideas. New perspectives.

2. How the Body Changes in Pregnancy. The hormone relaxin2 is secreted, making all joints more flexible. There is a growing hypothesis that some women will secrete more than others and that the excess flexibility throughout the body can cause long term complications like arthritis. Awareness of the possibility can help woman take care, through exercise programs, to strengthen their msucles in such a way to protect their joints.

The other things I’ve learned about recently were at a wonderful event put on by Durham Sustain Ability on indoor air quality.

3. Knowing What’s Harmful in Indoor Air. Caroline Barakat-Haddad, a professor from UOIT, reviewed the scientific literature on indoor air quality, pointing out what had been found to be the most harmful types of indoor air pollution. Our bodies have adapted to deal with some particles in our environment but not others. It’s important to know what to guard against and to pinpoint causes and effects. And use this knowledge to create better indoor spaces.

4. Practical Approaches to Improving Indoor Air. Gail Lawlor presented us ideas for addressing common indoor air problems based on standards for air circulation in buildings. Such a nebulous concept – when is the air in a building good? Such a practical definition. If 80% of the people are comfortable, it a good start. Mould Get rid of the moisture. Old homes have a variety of benefits because they are built of materials that don’t interest mould But they aren’t air tight, which is both good and bad. While it avoids ‘sick building syndrome’ because there is natural air circulation, they lack optimum circulation to clear away the inevitable byproducts of our material things.

5. Living Walls – more than just a beautiful facade. Anyone who has seen one of these knows they are awesome. Alan Darlington, from Nedlaw Living Walls gave us an overview of how these storeys high, vertical displays of lush greenery are constructed and function. Something about an expanse of plants rising into the sky, dominating a foyer or other indoor open space evokes the feeling of calm, like you’re in the sunshine, in a forest or jungle, yet going about your daily business. Really, these wall are feats of engineering, horticulture, microbiology, and artistry. A serious combination to make a light-hearted atmosphere. And while there may be proprietary technology in the construction, what I heard was primarily a new way of putting together existing technology. The genius is in the creation of the whole.

There’s nothing I like better than learning new things. My recent experiences are a reminder that new knowledge, useful knowledge that can be delivered by business to make all of our lives better, comes in many forms, not just new gizmos or apps (although those are good too).



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Where Are We Going in Self-Driving Cars?

If ever there was a disruptive technology, it’s self-driving cars. Imagine a world full of autonomous vehicles, and the ripples through all aspects of our lives.

Visionaries see a time when our roads will be filled with computer-driven cars, cars that completely control navigation – selecting the route, setting the speed, obeying traffic signals. Artificial intelligence systems in the vehicle will sense road conditions and surrounding objects, people and animals and integrate this information with data from other systems such as weather reports and traffic conditions, to get from point A to point B safely and efficiently.

To make this a reality, two major areas of technology have been advancing for the past two decades and will continue for decades to come:

1. Car technology. In broad categories, this consists of automated sensing, integrating and controlling. Automotive components and systems have been developed to sense the environment (a current example is the camera that shows what’s behind the car when backing up, and the detector that beeps more frantically as the car approaches an object). The next step is a system to integrate various information and control a subsystem of the car, such as breaks that automatically engage when the car is about to run into something. Subsystem control is available now and truly self-driving cars are being tested on the streets of California. Various sources¹ suggest we are ten to twenty years from truly self-driving cars dominating the roads.

2. The Internet of Things. The capacity to coordinate cars and traffic relies on a level of connectivity of many things, including each car, the traffic lights, community events (for examples a few thousand vehicle trying to exit the stadium parking lot after the game or a road closure for a charity event). This capacity is growing, perhaps exponentially, but I believe is still in its infancy.

Self-driving cars are anticipated to bring all manner of benefits, such as:

  • safer roads. No more human driver error.
  • more accessibility. Anyone can sit in the ‘drivers seat’ of an autonomous vehicle, regardless of their age, mobility, visual acuity or what they’ve been doing previously, like sitting in a beer tent.
  • more leisure time. The time we all spend driving becomes time to read, chat, or catch up on our communications (safely).
  • less traffic congestion. If the cars control the traffic, they can optimize the volume, distributing the traffic so there are no jams, rerouting around accidents long before everything comes to a halt, except…
  • fewer accidents, because the cars should be better at avoiding them. So, that’s even less congestion and more efficiency.

Depending on how the system evolves, we may stop owning cars and call them on demand. This could eliminate the need for parking, further easing congestion and freeing up a lot of real estate. When ready to go for groceries, send a text and the car appears. The cost will depend on the distance travelled, number of passengers, other items carried, whether we are willing to make a slight detour to share the fee. The fee would encompass maintenance, fuel, license fees and insurance.

What will become of taxi drivers? Other industries are likely to be effected. If there are fewer traffic violations and accidents, we’ll need fewer police, ambulance workers and tow-truck drivers. Auto insurance could be a thing of the past. If the cars are centrally dispatched and maintained, then there’ll be less need for fuelling stations and auto-mechanics. There may be less wear and tear on the roads and less construction.

All this efficiency and safety sounds very appealing, even if it has the potential to impact many industries and professions. Cars are a big part of our lives. People like to to drive. Think of the family tradition of loading everyone into the car, with no specific destination, and going for a drive. There are parents, at wits end to comfort a crying child, who bundle the infant in their car seat knowing that just ‘driving around’ is a sure fire way to send the little one into silent slumber. I get in my car to see new places, turn down roads I’ve never been down to find out what’s there, and take the long way because there’s a breath-taking view or tricky curves where I can put my steering skills to the test.

I’m sure we all hope autonomous vehicles will make road rage go away, but I’m skeptical. Impatience and feeling a lack of control seem to fuel road rage. The driver of the car that fills my rearview mirror who can’t get home fast enough to the icy cold beer he/she needs after a day of being scrutinized by the boss may not appreciate a self-driving car. An autonomous vehicle is unlikely to break speed limits, totally unsympathetic to the rider’s need to get where they want to go faster (although I can imagine that if we develop a safer automobile transit system, speed limits could increase).

When I was a kid, getting your driver’s license at 16 was a significant rite of passage. With self-driving cars, there may be no more licenses. With luck on my side, fully functional driverless cars should fill our streets about the time I’m too old to get my license renewed.

As a new technology, self-driving cars have the potential to deliver enhanced safety and efficiency in our transportation systems in an environmentally positive way, but they also have the capacity for profound social and lifestyle effects.


¹ As examples:

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Beyond the Internet of Things (Already!)

Can Moore’s law – that computing capacity expands exponentially – be extrapolated to the Internet of Things (IoT)¹? This is one of the questions that went through my mind at the MedEdge Summit (#MedEdge)  – a half day with the tag line ‘disruptive innovations in healthcare’.

It was a really good meeting. For me, a memorable meeting makes you think. I met interesting people, from diverse backgrounds in healthcare-related industries. I learned new things. Healthcare is a good example of an area at both the forefront and tail end of technology innovation. Perhaps that’s why the themes of change and connectivity resonated for me.

Here are some of the observations and predictions I had after attending the Summit. I’ll end with some thoughts about Moore’s Law.

For medical care, this initiative is going beyond the Internet of Things, to the Internet of Healthcare. The Internet of Healthcare includes people – updates from and to all the medical professionals – combined with data from other sources. The pilot project was presented at the Summit by collaborators from Mackenzie Richmond Hill Hospital, Thoughtwire and Blackberry. Blackberry has some interesting inputs, especially in security, a significant challenge in the IoT, and even more so in healthcare.

This is the forefront of technology, beyond the internet of things to the internet of all objects, devices, information, and people involved in caring for patients. And yet, at the MedTech Summit, there were reminders of the challenges in the business of healthcare and particularly to commercialization or adoption of novel products. I learned about OHIC (Ontario Health Innovation Council), an initiative of the Ontario Government with a mission to accelerate the adoption of new technologies into our healthcare system. I particularly liked the diagram, a motif in this OHIC report , with a hustling Innovation Broker in the centre of a mesh of the myriad stakeholders in healthcare.² This is a connectivity of a different type. Different forms of communication are required for the connection between patients, their families, medical practitioners, healthcare organizations, businesses, regulatory bodies, academic institutions and investors. This abundance of stakeholders makes commercialization particularly challenging in the healthcare sector, compared to others, like manufacturing, consumer goods or consumer software (apps).

I suspect we’ll see a rise in innovations in home and consumer-based healthcare but the business environment for this sort of product can be challenging. Physicians can prescribe outside medical care, such as oxygen therapy, physiotherapy or massage. Suppliers of these sorts of services or goods can’t actively recruit customers, since the physician decides who needs the product. They can’t set the price, since reimbursement, from either the government or insurer, controls pricing. Product innovations and features are limited by regulatory bodies. New offerings in this area will need creative business plans to flourish.

How fast will we see change in healthcare? The revolution in the IoT is the exchange and compilation of information from, and about, many things. Not all the things communicate like computers. People, animals and other complex phenomena like the weather use hard to model processes to make complex and random moves or subjective decisions. Objects like furniture and cars, especially those manufactured in the past, have no ability to communicate electronically and while newer versions can do so, the world is still full of old ones.

Connecting people and inanimate things into the Internet of Things is no easy task and will take more than just advanced computing power. It will require completely new ways to make connections and this will take time. My prediction for the Internet of Things is that it will bring policy and policy reform in many iterations and this will slow its growth. Thus, the creation or formation of the IoT is going to depend on a whole lot of other factors than the processing speed of a semi-conductor. Moore’s law is going to need a few amendments that take people into consideration before it can be applied to the IoT, because people, after all, is what healthcare is about.


¹ The Internet of Things is a concept that encompasses connecting all objects, – books, pill bottles, pets, cars and everything else -, on the world wide web or through other electron communication systems. The internet of everything doesn’t exist right now and probably will never, but just might. However, currently there are internets of a subsets of things, for example the connection of everything in your house.

² It reminded me of why I have ‘spider’ in the name of my business. Here’s the blog post.

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Pop Up Shops as Business Development Tools

Can retail entrepreneurs use the Lean Startup approach? Popularized by Eric Reis, many companies in the tech sector embrace this approach which uses customer feedback to guide product development. I think there is a way for retailers to have a lean startup : pop up shops.

Pop up shops are a recent phenomena, perhaps inspired by a desire for spontaneous action or the ‘just do it’ approach to entrepreneurship. “A pop-up is a shop, a restaurant, a collection of shops, or an event that opens quickly in a temporary location and is intended to operate for a short period of time” ¹ I’ve recently become aware of pop up shops because the Downtown Oshawa BIA (business improvement areas), of which I am a member and volunteer for, is considering an initiative to facilitate them.

Established brands may use the pop up concept to test new products, do a promotion or generate interest. E-retailers also may find it useful, for similar brand promotion reasons, to have a physical presence for a limited time. For examples, this article  mentions Target as a traditional retailer that tried a pop up to promote a new line of clothing, and e-retailers, and Frank & Oak, have used pop ups. Pop ups may also be useful for seasonal goods or time-limited markets.

For entrepreneurs looking to start a new venture, launching the business on a temporary basis through a pop up has many advantages, which include:

  • obtain valuable information about target market and direct feedback from customers
  • start earning money while in the planning phase
  • use current business techniques like lean startup
  • gather information to help you decide how to optimize your business model, test your assumptions.

Here’s why property owners might want to provide pop up space:

  • allowing vacant retail spaces to be used for pop up shops provides some income
  • having a temporary tenant gives potential permanent tenants a better feel for the space in a low pressure environment – it’s like a month-long open house for the premises
  • pop up tenants may become permanent tenants, paying full rent
  • the pop up initiative, as it builds vibrancy in the local business area, increases the value of all the properties in the area.

Pop up initiatives can be used for economic development, pairing vacant storefronts with entrepreneurs – to the benefit of all involved. Such programs can be a positive experience for property owners, entrepreneurs, existing retailers and supporters such as local governments. One great example of a local success for pop up shops in a retail area that was in need of revitalization is Danforth East in Toronto. Organizations such as Renew will assist towns or areas within cities to establish a pop up program and report successes. Local BIA’s and other economic development groups may support a pop up initiative because:

  • to support mandates to promote the area as a business and shopping district, for urban renewal, to refresh the image of an area
  • the infusion of new, temporary retailers should draw additional visitors to the business area, benefiting all resident businesses
  • providing a novel, fresh approach to retail in the area will generate additional interest in the area

For the entrepreneur, pop up shops provide opportunities for aligning products with customer needs and building brand awareness. A facilitated pop up initiative, lead by a group such as a BIA or town, can provide benefits to all business owners in the community, through increased awareness and the attraction of a more diverse audience to the area.

If you are an entrepreneur interested in a pop up shop in downtown Oshawa, the Downtown Oshawa BIA would love to hear from you. Let them know if you are interested, what kind of facilities you would need and any questions you have about a pop up initiative. Email here: .


¹From this Forbes article, quoting Pop Up Republic.

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Convergence 2015

OCE Discovery is one of the largest innovation/commercialization conferences in North America. Inventors, commercialization professionals, investors and emerging companies participate. I attended this year for the fifth time in six years. The main show floor, in the Metro Convention Centre in Toronto, is like a sparklingly bright nightclub full of all of your favourite business colleagues: past, present and future (minus the cocktails, until an appropriate hour).

While my time at the conference was invigorating, chatting to folks about new trends in government support, and seeing emerging business models from new entrepreneurs, back in the calm of my office, I ruminate about what I learned about the evolution of tech-based businesses. It all comes down to this:


Convergence was a buzz word when I was in the investment industry in the late 1990’s. The internet – its anticipated impact – was the shudder running down everyone’s spine. Then, it was a tool for the academics and those in the tech industry. The prophecy – that this communication platform would change the way we obtained all our information: text, movies, music, mail and news. Guess that was a pretty good prediction. Sharing of all content converged to one platform. The internet was disruptive and many business models evolved because of it, but few have become extinct.

Enough nostalgia. Let’s talk 2015. At the conference, the keynote speakers included Eric Ries, of Lean Startup fame, representatives of Uber (the app to let people get rides with other people), and Airbnb (a service that hooks up traveller and those with accommodations to share). There were other companies I met, like the Innovation Concierge, with a skills-to-need matching concept for small, unusual projects, or FreePoint, a company with an innovative perspective on monitoring production on the factory floor.

What’s converging in 2015? Everything we do. The term work-life balance emerges frequently in water-cooler conversations. Is it possible we are moving away from any distinction between work and life? Uber allows people to share rides, turning a personal trip into revenue potential. Similarly, Airbnb provides a way to let people earn a little extra cash by sharing their living quarters with travellers. But each is more than that. Both sides of the transaction can gain something personal, new friends, companionship, new perspectives.

The lean startup model encourages incorporating ample user feedback into product development. The Innovation Concierge solves business needs by looking at the full spectrum of a person’s skills, not just their business experience.

A keynote speaker, Chad Hurley, cofounded YouTube with the goal of allowing individuals to share their videos. We are converging to a global collection of a billions of individuals. Individuals with individual interests, needs and abilities. Uber puts individuals together for car rides, Airbnb for accommodations. FreePoint lets the individual factory worker participate in manufacturing efficiency.

The convergence I see involves loads of interaction facilitated by technology, interaction between buyers and sellers, creators and consumers, those who have and those who need, those who know and those who would like to. At any given time, each of us may fall into several of these categories at once, because of our business, personal or social experience.

When I headed to the conference, I was thinking about making connections for my clients and with new clients. And I did. But I also found connections for my family with businesses, for clients with potential suppliers and partners, and for colleagues and friends.

This is what I discovered at Discovery: Life is converging – business is personal and personal is business. Technology ties it all together.

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Growth Hacker Marketing – a Real time Book Review

I finished reading a book about marketing and 24 hours later implemented one of the new strategies I learned. Is this too slow to call real time? I’m old enough to remember black and white TV commercials, so it seems fast to me.

The book, by Ryan Holiday, is simply titled Growth Hacker Marketing, after a business strategy that is often applied in high-growth, emerging tech companies and is as an iterative approach to incorporating customer feedback to promote the product. The hacking aspect comes alive as an immediate, just do it and amend on the fly mentality, rather than through traditional, highly planned marketing approaches which employ much testing such as with focus groups before launch.

The author describes the concept elegantly in these two excerpts from the book’s Glossary:

‘the growth hackers’ main task is to build great marketing ideas into the product’
‘growth hacking… customer acquisition techniques that are testable, trackable, and scalable’

Not too far into Growth Hacker Marketing, Eric Reis’ ‘Lean Startup’ philosophy came to my mind, which was fine because in another few pages, it was mentioned by the author. Similar ideas underpin the two – get lots of customer feedback. Get a product out into the hands of users, see what they think and modify the product accordingly to suit their needs. In Growth Hacker Marketing, this goes a little further, to incorporate features into the product so that the users themselves will build awareness of the product and recruit additional users. From here, it’s easy to see how this kind of strategy can lead to a ‘viral’ market campaign – the penultimate goal of many marketing folks.

Ryan Holiday provides may examples in Growth Hacker Marketing of familiar companies that have used growth hacking and even his own experience with promoting a book launch. As he states, this approach to marketing can be applied to anything. I’ve seen examples too. Wattpad is platform to bring readers and writers together. The writers like it because they have access to a number of readers to raise awareness of their product and the readers benefit by finding new fiction. Readers provide feedback to the writers on their stories. Since the writers find benefit in Wattpad, they talk to their writer colleagues who then join, providing more material for the readers.

A related example is Inkitt, an organization (not sure of its structure) which, like Wattpad, is based on a social platform where writers submit their stories and get feedback from each other. The editors at Inkitt then select the best stories to publish on their website, where readers can consume for free. The philosophy espoused by Inkitt is that better reading material can be created as a communal effort, with many eyes on the early stage product, that is adapted and amended based on user (reader) feedback. I became aware of Inkitt because a fellow writer sent a link to me.

How did I use the principles I learned about in Growth Hacker Marketing? I am working on building the membership in a not-for-profit organization. It’s easy enough to articulate who the target audience is but the most efficient way to reach them is less clear. After reading Growth Hacker Marketing, it came to me: the existing members are likely to know who would be interested in joining. Let the existing users draw in other users. And we’ll make it easy for them to do so by sending messages they can simply push out to their friends.

This is an odd sort of a book review, maybe a good example of Growth Hacker Marketing. I’m not sharing a critique of the book so much as my enthusiasm about how I see the book’s message in practice. Perhaps if you read my review, you will be inspired to read the book because this user had a good experience with it, and you’d like to have that sort of experience too.

Well designed and marketed, Ryan Holiday.

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Good Friday News

This post is a little more casual than a business blog but since it’s a holiday, I’m exercising a little artistic license.

Good Friday News

On a lazy holiday Friday1, I peruse the news. I’m struck by how many stories there are about emerging technology, even scientific findings, and how they might effect our lives.

So, first, kudos to the CBC for a front page that I think is full of interesting, innovative stories. There’s home DNA tests, Facebook following everyone, Apple getting a patent on using a selfie as a password and full moon myths. Where to start – perhaps with this scientist’s favourite.

In this article, Howling at the Moon and at Scientific Myths, I particularly like the theme and could hug Bob McDonald, the author, for the statement ‘But I haven’t done that experiment, which is exactly the point.’ That is one of the points I try to make in my opinion piece Comic Book Science. Proving things, like the influence of the full moon on human behaviour is BORING. Urban myths are more entertaining. But so too is experiencing an awesome natural phenomena, like the blood moon. No theorems, laws of man or media hype can equal goosebumps thrilling down the back of my neck as I watch a wonder like an eclipse or full moon.

How many posts will there be on Facebook and other social media of tonight’s resplendent moon? The story that Facebook is tracking people who don’t even have Facebook accounts doesn’t surprise me. I find the internet is becoming creepy. All sorts of apps and software want to store my documents, photos and everything else in their cloud. Why? Am I a cynic for thinking it’s not an altruistic desire to help me out? There must be an agenda.

And speaking of access to personal information, this article asks if it’s appropriate for an insurer or employer to ask about your genetic makeup. There are kits now available to individual consumers to identify their genetic traits. I could write books about what these might mean (but not today, it is a lazy day). But it is another point to ponder at the intersection of business and biology.

The story about the Apple patent is interesting because it is a thing as old as Homo sapiens (that is how we decided who we’d let into the cave and sleep beside – by looking at their face and recognizing them), but figuring out how to get a machine (iPhone) to do it is not trivial.

Thanks to the news, my brain’s been politely woken from my mid morning slumber, nudged into gratitude for living in such thought provoking times and still able to experience the wonder of our earth, governed by natural laws, which we can only study and appreciate, not alter.


1. Despite my lack of observance of Christian religious dates, I harbour a lingering ‘feel’ for them. Good Friday is solemn day, not meant for the exuberant hoopla of say, May 24 (pronounced two-four) weekend.


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Watching an Industry Evolve at The Book Summit 2014

The book publishing industry is a great example of a traditional business that is evolving as a result of new technology. My reflections from a recently attended conference on the subject are below.

The program of the Toronto Book Summit 2014 promised an event that would amuse, engage and challenge both the author and the business person. When I attended this past Thursday, I was delighted. The conference was great. All of the sessions were very current. The information reflected what is going on this very moment (or at least last week) in the publishing industry. And there’s a lot going on.

I am going to highlight four sessions and then provide what I think the implications are for the authors and the publishing industry at the end. All of the conference speakers gave thoughtful, thought-provoking and absorbing presentations. The interpretation presented below is my own.1:

1. Evolving Business Models for the Publishing Industry (extracted from suggestions by Mike Skatzkin):

  • The subscription model, like Scribd  or Oyster, where users pay a fixed fee for as much content as they can consume.
  • Combining book sales with provision of other items. Amazon does this, as do bookstores like Chapters/Indigo, with a coffee shop and gift-store like items in their bricks and mortal (or cement and plywood) stores.
  • Publishers become more like literary agents. Mentioned examples were EReads, Rosetta and Diversion, that might look to accelerate the publishing process and provide comprehensive service to their authors, publishing back titles etc.
  • Book pricing, both of the paper version and ebook, will remain under pressure, from each other and from indie publishers. It was acknowledged that price erosion does signal a decreased value for the content, which to me, is sad. The value of intellectual property still isn’t fully recognized.
  • Celebrity imprints. Much to my surprise, this is already happening. Folks like Johnny Depp lend their reputation to attract certain authors and titles to a publisher.
  • A less unified book industry, where various business models co-exist.
  • Continuation of the used book market

2. Big (or small) Data and Marketing Strategies (inspired by Peter McCarthy’s talk)

If you are squeamish about the use of information that is culled about you from your use of the internet (with or without your knowledge), this talk might have sent you running for a dark cave and isolation from the rest of humanity. On the other hand, if you embrace the new normal in privacy (little to none) and believe it will deliver better, personalized information, products and everything else, then this talk would have delighted you.

We were treated to various examples of the predictive power of social media, such as Twitter. Academic models have achieved some success using tweets about movies to predict box office sales.

One theme of the day (also see #4 below) was the difference between surveying and observing people. Or, what we say isn’t necessarily what we do. From a marketing perspective, this means that social media has the potential to deliver added information not available from other sources.

Plenty of consumer data is readily available from Google, Twitter and Facebook. Combined with postal code (or equivalent) data, with comprehensive demographics2, it’s incredible what can be learned. Different forms of social media provide different information. Facebook is a good source for personal information. A google search history provides a behaviour profile, while Twitter supplies current information and location information.

Peter McCarthy showed us how readily available this information is, and how it could be used in something that resembled a stream of consciousness guided wander through the internet. Like many brilliant technological advances, he made the incredible look easy and in the end showed how this analysis could develop new marketing strategies. An example is arranging for an author signing/reading in an area where the author is relatively unknown but the demographics of the population are similar to the demographics of the author’s loyal followers.

3. The Use of Social Media in the Publishing Business (based on a talk by Evan Jones)

This is a challenging topic, since social media is so pervasive in all of our lives. We all have preconceived notions about social media. The presenter, Evan Jones, should be commended for delivering some sage messages about how social media can be used for business, and where business intersects with personal life.

This is my distillation of the presentation:

Even though corporations are legal people, they cannot form social networks the same way people can. Corporations are pressured to use social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, to promote their brands and corporate image. However, likely the best approach for this type of activity is to have them act as ‘Broadcasters’ or providers of content, rather than use social media to form peer networks.

On the other hand, individual authors can promote their own brand, which is likely to be closely related to their own interests and personality. By creating their own social network, they build a community of followers who are likely to be interested in their writing.

All use of social media is not marketing. Marketing can be a distraction on social media.

4. Matching Readers with Content (based on the talk by Sara Critchfield of Upworthy, an organization that provides reader content)

This topic resonated with me. Under the pressure of the digital age, the publishing business must evolve. I think those that survive (the fittesr) will be those that use technology to help readers find the content they most enjoy, or to cut through virtual forests of material to find the trees of wisdom that they seek.

Sara Critchfield suggested that asking readers what they want to read and then looking at what they are reading often leads doesn’t have the same answer. Knowing how readers find what they want is key to getting publications in the hands of readers. The message I took away from the very edifying presentation was that we don’t have the analytics yet to model all of human behaviour. We are missing the emotional component. Thus the recommendation was to include the intuitive emotional information is creating marketing strategies which make use of the aforementioned demographic and social media data (#2 above). Also, testing, by looking at the number of ‘like’s, or equivalent, on social media, provides good approaches to identifying media that people want to see.3

There were other sessions I attended and folks I chatted to, and I learned something from each one.

So, what do I think the implications are for writers and the evolving publishing industry?

Traditional business theory (or maybe it’s economic) suggests that the broadening of the industry, including the rise of many smaller publishers, the introduction of new business models (or new incarnations of older ones, like subscriptions), and the revision of product themes (like selling of books paired with other items), is typical of a growth industry. Compared this to the consolidation and reduction in number of corporations in a mature to declining industry. Does it go without saying that its better to be in a growth phase than a mature phase? I think so, at least for business, as it suggests good stakeholder support, a lower risk of disappearance, and an increase in competition which leads to stronger business and happier customers.

I think industry evolution is a good thing for writers. A more robust industry means more of us can find markets for our work. More variety in publishers means more flexibility in finding a ‘fit’ with a publisher. There are some who fear that price erosion will make it impossible for writers to earn a living. I can see how this is logical, and frightening, but the publishing industry needs writers, so an evolved system must support writers.

Most importantly, I think evolution this is good for readers, which ultimately is what both publishing and writing is all about. We all strive to make our readers happy and I think a healthy, diverse industry will do that.

1I’m going to provide my reflections of what the speakers presented. The full program is here, along with links to the speaker’s bios. If you see yourself misinterpreted, please comment or send me a message.
2Try it. This is for the postal code of the area I grew up in, right there on a government of Canada website for all to see.
3This makes me think of Wattpad, a platform for writers to get active feedback from readers on their work.
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