Wednesday, September 30, 2015

To Drone or Not to Drone?

This post is partly speculative in nature, since unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, colloquially known as “drones”) have yet to really proliferate in the business world. But at the very least, the evident trend toward employing drones for commercial purposes is one we all should keep an eye on. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos even announced in 2013 that his company would contemplate using drones for deliveries. Given the relative novelty of the technology from a commercial standpoint, entrepreneurs and managers have a great opportunity right now to position themselves ahead of the curve.

Commercial drones probably won’t fill the sky tomorrow. Rules around drone use are evolving, and have yet to catch up to the real potential of drones to become ubiquitous denizens of our airspace. Regulators must strike a reasonable balance between legitimate concerns over privacy and public safety, and the obvious advantages of UAVs for undertakings like police investigations, search and rescue, and various business activities.

Consider the following issues as you mull the drone question.

What use might you have for a drone right now?

Amazon’s vision of drone deliveries is still in its embryonic phase, but many commercial enterprises in North America are making use of drones already. Camera-mounted UAVs have proven useful for land surveying, recording flyovers of golf courses, taking photos from perspectives that might otherwise be inaccessible, and filming short snippets for television advertisements. Cable news outlets have assigned drones to cover perilous or hard-to-reach locations at a comparatively low cost, and without endangering camera crews.

UAV technology is rapidly improving, with features like extended battery life, greater cargo capacity, and solar panels. We can expect further technological change to enhance the versatility of drones in the years to come.

There are several conditions you must meet in order to fly a drone in Canada.

As in many other countries, recreational drone users are generally entitled to fly light UAVs (2 kilograms or less) in Canada without seeking certification from government regulators, provided they fulfill certain safety obligations—like yielding the right of way to manned aircraft, and keeping their distance from airports and restricted airspace. However, a more stringent set of rules applies to drone operators who intend to use mid-size UAVs for work or research purposes, and for users of drones heavier than 25 kilograms.

The key take-away here is, do your research before acquiring a UAV, let alone launching it. Make sure you have fulfilled all the conditions required for an exemption from Transport Canada’s certification process. Otherwise, you’ll need to apply for a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC).

Steer clear of animals.

When human beings introduce new, synthetic elements into the natural environment, animals often react by associating the novel entity with a concept they already know and understand—sometimes with decidedly negative results. One reason why sharks occasionally attack surfers, is because the shape of a surfboard resembles the familiar, corpulent physique of a seal. An owl in Oregon achieved notoriety recently for swooping out of trees to steal joggers' hats.
Likewise, UAVs can face considerable perils once they enter into a complex ecosystem. For instance, eagles tend to be highly territorial during nesting season, and will vigorously defend their local airspace against any perceived threat. (A drone-mounted camera in Australia recently filmed a midair encounter between the UAV and a wedge-tailed eagle. Let’s just say the eagle won.)

Other creatures—including alligators, primates, bees, and dogs—have also reacted adversely to drones and attempted to bring them down. Thus, it’s probably wise to give animals a wide berth whenever possible.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Balancing Work and School

If you aim to expand your knowledge of an area that interests you, learn a new language, or enhance your repertoire of professional skills, you’ll need to dedicate time and effort to that endeavour in order to make significant progress. But if you work full hours, and particularly if you’re an entrepreneur looking to grow your startup, your spare time is probably scarce. Thus, you’ll need to focus on managing whatever time you do have, while always devoting your full attention to the task at hand.

Take the following considerations into account.

Don’t underestimate the time commitment.

Even part-time schooling often involves homework or extra-curricular assignments. When you’re considering night school or part-time skills training, be honest with yourself: depending on the frequency of the sessions, you may need to set aside 10 hours per week or more. Unless you’re confident that your schedule can accommodate that, you may want to hold off on your academic or vocational ambitions for now, or contemplate auditing a course rather than registering as a full-fledged student. Aim for one course at a time, especially if the experience of trying to balance work and school is new to you.

Online courses may be more opportune from a time perspective, although you’ll perhaps have to forgo the considerable benefit of discussion with instructors and fellow students.

Let your boss and/or team members know what you’re up to.

If your boss and/or colleagues in the office are aware of your situation, they may be sympathetic and enable you to adjust your work schedule around your studies. If the skill you hope to cultivate is relevant to your current position, your boss may even be willing to help you with tuition. (You shouldn’t count on this, though.)

Even if you are the boss, be sure to communicate proactively with your team so that they know when you’ll be away from the office and why. Your studies may require you to leave early or arrive late on certain days; identify a team member to whom you can delegate the responsibility of holding down the fort while you’re away.

Get the most out of your time by planning and organizing in advance.

Set aside dedicated blocks for homework assignments, and isolate yourself from distractions like social media and your smartphone during those periods. Make lists of the assignments you need to accomplish, and populate your homework-area in advance with all the tools and materials you need. This will save you the trouble of hunting around for the requisite items while you’re trying to get work done.

You may experience some late nights/early mornings, especially if you have an exam or deadline coming up. Even if your studies occasionally keep you up until the wee hours of the morning, make sure you still get enough sleep during the week to maintain your performance at work. Avoid procrastination (the midwife of all-nighters) by budgeting your time, and get cracking on major tasks right away.

Reach out to classmates and instructors.

One of the most effective ways to fully grasp and retain information is by discussing it with others; you have to have some awareness of a topic before you can have a serious conversation about it. Group discussions also afford you the opportunity to explore areas where you feel your knowledge is inadequate.

Make use of the resources at your disposal within the educational institution, including your instructor’s office hours and contact information. These tools can save you time and energy, and help to make the learning process more fruitful and enjoyable.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

To succeed, persevere.

In an enlightening 2013 TED talk, psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth discussed some of the key personality traits that underly personal success. Duckworth’s research indicates that, while exceptional talent and measurable intelligence can help, neither factor is sufficient. More important is the combination of passion and perseverance that Duckworth calls grit. She concludes by recommending that parents and educators strive to instill this trait in children, but her findings are instructive for people of all ages.

However desirable it may be, perseverance is not necessarily easy to teach; it is equal parts skill and state of mind, and ultimately a quality that one must choose to embrace. In general, perseverant individuals hold the following beliefs:

  If I work hard enough at (name the activity or endeavour), I am capable of not only reaching the milestones I have set for myself, but exceeding them.

  (Name the activity or endeavour) is important and worthy of my time and dedication.

  The challenges I face at this moment are not guarantors of failure in the long term.

The role of faith.

By faith, I don’t necessarily mean religious convictions. Rather, faith in this context means the capacity to remain confident that the endeavour at which you aspire to succeed is not a waste of time. In other words, faith is a bulwark against the nagging voice of doubt that urges you to cut your losses and move on, particularly when you’re struggling.

Thomas Alva Edison—who patented the incandescent lightbulb in the 19th century after numerous unsuccessful attempts—once remarked that many people who accept failure don’t realize how close they were to success at the moment they decided to give up. Faith is neither rational nor irrational, but rather non-rational; it allows us to believe that our hard work will eventually bear fruit, even if an abundance of evidence suggests the contrary. It also produces a feedback effect: if you are convinced that you can succeed, you will tend to focus more intently on the steps that are necessary for success.

The power of dopamine.

The neurotransmitter dopamine is associated with alertness, cognitive and motor control, and motivation. A healthy level of dopamine in the brain is also a key driver of perseverance. Fortunately, the brain’s production of dopamine is responsive to external and internal stimuli, such as attitude, behaviour, and a healthy, balanced diet.

Regular exercise can both stimulate the brain’s production of dopamine and allow us to rehearse the feeling of perseverance. Over time, as our bodies and minds become accustomed to the sensation of physical activity, it tends to become an enjoyable habit rather than an unwelcome chore. The same is true of perseverance in other facets of our lives.

Dopamine is a central component of the brain’s reward circuit, and attitude plays a key role in determining whether we perceive the task before us as potentially rewarding. Instead of trying to grit your teeth and grind through a task by sheer force of will, set your sights on the satisfaction you will enjoy once it is finished, and then strive to attain that feeling.

Even mundane daily chores like flossing your teeth or unloading the dishwasher are opportunities to stimulate the release of dopamine.

Set and adhere to self-imposed deadlines.

Few things are less conducive to productivity than assignments with either no deadline, or a deadline that is too far in the future to have any discernible bearing on the present. The absence of an imminent deadline coincides with an absence of expectations, which for most people promotes a near-absence of effort. To overcome this problem, set a deadline for yourself, stick with it, and then reward yourself for exceeding expectations.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Tips On Making a Video Go Viral

In the realm of online marketing, few objectives are more desirable or downright elusive than the viral video. Like the vicissitudes of the stock market, the popularity of any online video depends on the personal tastes and sentiments of millions of unique individuals, and is thus difficult to predict. However, there are a few tactics you can employ to improve your chances of achieving virality.

Insights from past viral video trends

According to research by marketing technology company Unruly, some of the most important factors that drive video sharing are

1)  social motivations, including the desire to start a conversation, seek friends’ opinions,  offer useful information, or support a good cause;

2)  a positive emotional response to the video;

3)  the participation of “super sharers”—a minority of internet users who are responsible for around 80 percent of total shares; and

4)  timing.

On average, the greater the total volume of shares a video receives in the first two days of its existence, the higher its viral peak, which typically arrives 48 to 72 hours post-launch. Unruly’s data suggest that most sharing activity occurs in the latter half of the work week, and that Wednesday is the optimal sharing day. Marketers hoping to ride this weekly wave should post their video by Wednesday or sooner. Avoid posting on weekends or holidays.

Combine entertainment with a message.

Mekanism, an advertising agency with offices in New York and San Francisco, has produced and marketed several viral videos. Among the most famous was the 2012 offering Hovercat, designed to encourage adoption of cats on behalf of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

Mekanism sums up its philosophy on viral videos with the phrase “candy with the medicine”—in other words, entice viewers with the promise of entertainment, and complement that with a substantive message. In the case of Hovercat, Mekanism’s creative team began by identifying a theme they figured would make people smile (a zany cat often does the trick), and then developed their own creative take on a classic viral video genre. (Your feline companion may humorously knock items off tables or fend off alligators, but can it hover in the air like Superman?)

Hovercat concludes by noting that the cat in the video was adopted from the ASPCA, and links to the organization’s website.

Market and distribute the video actively

To achieve virality, you must fulfill two conditions: 1) content that viewers find engaging and worth sharing; and 2) widespread exposure.

Before you go through the technical process of recording a video, you should develop a clear marketing strategy, and consider how the video will help you reach your goal. Immediately after you post the video, intensify your marketing efforts.

Writing in Medium about her first big hit Girl Learns to Dance in a Year (TIME LAPSE), viral video specialist Karen X. Cheng explains: “I did a ton of marketing, and it started before the video was released. Going viral was not an accident—it was work.”

Cheng started by posting the video on Facebook and Twitter, then submitted it to Reddit and Hacker News. She asked friends and acquaintances to share it, and reached out to dancers and dance bloggers. Shortly thereafter, writers at Kottke, Mashable, Jezebel, and Huffington Post penned articles about the video. By day three, Girl Learns to Dance in a Year (TIME LAPSE) appeared on the front page of Youtube, and had achieved nearly 2 million views.

Cheng emphasizes the importance of a brief, catchy title, and—modern attention spans being what they are—recommends keeping the video short and sweet, preferably under two minutes.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Practical Advice For Reducing EmployeeTurnover

Employee turnover is a fact of life in the business world, and not necessarily a bad thing—particularly if new entrants are exceptionally skilled and qualified, and the rate of turnover is manageable. But if you’ve experienced higher-than-normal employee turnover, you know how
disruptive it can be to the day-to-day operations of your business.

Regardless of their experience, credentials, and expertise, new hires require training and time to both become familiar with the workplace and integrate themselves successfully into its social milieu. Whereas employees who’ve been with the company for a while have had ample opportunity to learn by doing and develop automaticity with mundane tasks, newcomers initially tend to perform these duties more slowly and less sure-handedly. At least temporarily, this can cause friction, encumber productivity, and detract from the bottom line.

Much of the advice that follows can be encapsulated in a simple axiom: If you want your employees to stick around, give them good reasons to do so.

During the hiring process, favour candidates who seem compatible with your company culture.

Begin with a list of “must-have” qualities for candidates, and narrow the search down to individuals who meet those criteria. Include not only professional qualifications, but social skills and personality traits as well. Is this person equipped to handle the unique challenges of your business? Does s/he seem like s/he would get along well with the other staff, and customers/clients?

Do some research into the job market. What kind of compensation are employees in comparable positions receiving elsewhere?

Search online job boards for positions requiring a comparable skill set, and pay attention to the compensation and benefits that other companies offer—especially your competitors. If you can’t match other businesses in terms of salary, you’ll probably need to offer non-financial incentives—such as a flexible work schedule, greater convenience, shorter hours, or legitimate prospects for upward mobility—to convince employees to stay.

Praise good work, and offer specific constructive criticism of not-so-good work.

Everyone likes to hear that s/he has done a great job. By taking the time to provide positive feedback and congratulate employees on their successes, you will both enhance their positive feelings about the company and encourage desirable work habits.

Delivering criticism of less-than-stellar work in a diplomatic manner, without provoking defensiveness or resistance, is one of the most delicate tasks that managers face. Begin by mentioning at least one thing you appreciate about the recent efforts of the employee in question. When you arrive at the substance of the critique, be very specific about what you would like that person to do differently. Avoid accusatory statements; instead, favour phrases like “In future, it would be great if you could (specific instruction).”

Offer opportunities for growth and development.

Ideally, a relationship between employee and employer is mutually beneficial: the employer garners an opportunity to elevate h/er business to new heights with the help of a talented professional, while the employee enjoys the chance to grow, cultivate new skills, and experience success in a business environment. But an employee is in no way beholden to your organization; at some point, s/he will consider moving on in search of greener pastures, especially if s/he detects a risk of career stagnation. By offering reasonable opportunities for learning, growth, and career advancement, you increase the likelihood that employees will remain with your company over the long term.

A raise or bonus can be a powerful motivating tool.

Even a modest salary increase sends a psychological message to employees that the company’s managers value their hard work, and would like it to continue.