How Adaptive Learning Could Change Education Forever

Adaptive Learning - Brain Cap

There’s a famous quote that’s been doing the rounds for a few years from the US Department of Labor.

 65% of the kids at school today will end up in jobs that have not yet been invented

Accurate or not, there’s no doubt that those responsible for designing education systems are facing some real challenges. After all, how do you teach students effectively if you’ve got no idea of the skills they need to be successful?

With an uncertain future, the one thing that is clear is that there are opportunities for us to improve the system of education that’s in place and which hasn’t, in many cases, changed for decades. I’m coming across increasing numbers of articles online about the challenges – for example here and here. Now, I’m far from an expert in this area. But as a keen advocate of the disruptive potential of Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOC’s, as they’ve become known) (tip: check out Steve Blank’s excellent ‘How To Build A Startup’ course on Udacity) and the author of an MBA dissertation on open access publishing, I’m pretty certain that removing the barriers to learning that currently exist can only be a good thing.

Knewton And Adaptive Learning

When I was in Glasgow at the Digital 2013 conference last week, Tom Hall (@tomjhall) from Pearson introduced me to something that had – somehow – passed me by so far. Knewton is an adaptive learning platform that provides personalised educational content. It accumulates data from students as they move through the learning process and then uses that information to make the process more effective by personalising the experience for each individual.

The net result is that the curriculum adapts to the needs of each user directly and then pieces together the perfect individual bundle of content for each student. To put it simply: if it works well, more people will be more engaged and therefore successful at learning as they will be presented with the information (and subsequently tested on it) in a way that suits them, as opposed to the ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality that we’ve been forced to adapt up until today.

Big Data And Education

To me, it sounds like a no-brainer. It’s a fascinating use of Big Data (there’s that buzz word again) that has the potential to create significant change for the better on a massive scale. What’s great is that the success should be organic: the more students that use the platform, the better the experience should become. In the same way that search engines benefit from critical mass, the more information there is, the more accurate the personalisation to each student. Check out the video below for a bit more information.

Losing The Human Touch?

Of course, not everyone agrees. After digging around a little further online for information, I came across a fascinating and incredibly detailed blog post by Phil Macrae, a Canadian ‘explorer in the field of education’. Please do give it a read for a far more insightful commentary on the area than I could ever provide here. It provides a considered warning to such tech-evangelists (…guilty) against the simple replacement of the human dimension of learning with a ‘teaching machine’.

I’m relatively new to this subject so I have to remain open to persuasion. But it’s clear that Knewton are making waves. So far, they’ve attracted the notice of some pretty heavyweight players, including Pearson and investment from the Founders’ Fund and they’ve been recognised as a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum in Davos (following in the footsteps of companies like Twitter, Firefox and Paypal).

The Potential Of Personalisation

It’s hard to say what education will look like in the future. Information is increasingly become simple to store and retrieve, disrupting the traditional methods that have been employed for many years. So it’s easy to believe that, like so many other areas of real life, personalisation must come into play whilst technology continues to drive down the costs. And that – surely – can only be a good thing.

Regardless of whether it’s likely to succeed or doomed to failure, as both a bystander and a parent, I can only be in favour of Knewton and what they’re looking to achieve. Whether they are the ones who actually succeed, by going after such an audaciously large goal, or simply prove to be the first of a new wave of technologies however still remains to be seen.

Do you think that technology will ever replace the need for classroom-based teaching entirely? Or would relying on technology too heavily within a learning environment actually damage the process? I’d be interested to hear your comments below.  

photo credit: University of Maryland Press Releases via cc

Creativity And The Growth Of The Remix Culture

Remix - Larry Lessig

As a huge music fan, it’s been fascinating to watch the music industry try to figure out how to preserve the rights of its creators (and, by extension, its own revenues) whilst harnessing the efficiencies of digital distribution. We live in a very different world to pre-1999 and it’s been clear for a long time that a new approach is required. Yet the industry has collectively shown itself time and again to be either incapable or unwilling to turn that particular oil tanker around to take advantage of new possibilities.

A Lawsuit Waiting To Happen

One area that it has always struggled with in particular is how to deal with the remix. I came across a great article earlier last week on Girl Talk. Greg Gillis is a guy who plays live in big venues in front of a passionate fanbase ‘simply’ using uncleared samples of well-known tunes mashed together via a laptop. Of course, the record industry don’t usually take too kindly to this kind of thing and his mashups have been described as ‘a lawsuit waiting to happen’. And yet Greg Gillis doesn’t simply play live – he also releases albums with the material and, to the best of my knowledge, the record industry has yet to act.

Why Sampling Is A Creative Act

Here’s a question that divides some: do you think sampling is merely the theft of another’s content and has no individual artistic merit of its own? If so, how about a fairly innocuous six-second drum break from a funk track by The Winstons back in 1969. That one piece of drumming was sampled and “spawned several entire subcultures“. If you’re not familiar with it, just take a listen to some of the tracks that have used the ‘Amen Break’ (as it became known) over the years.

Look closely and we are increasingly surrounded by examples of existing content having been spliced together to create something that, for better or worse, didn’t exist previously. The past few years have seen an explosion in Remix Culture, across all forms of creative content, driven by the collapse in the cost of technology required (no longer do you need a film studio to edit footage), the increasing availability of digital content to be manipulated and the simultaneous growth of file-sharing and platforms such as YouTube which facilitate the frictionless distribution of the end-product.

Yet more fantastic examples of the way in which modern popular culture stands in many cases on the foundations of past creativity can be seen in filmmaker Kirby Ferguson’s series of ‘Everything Is A Remix’ videos (see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4).

You might also have seen another great talk on the subject recently that was given by Andy Baio (@waxpancake), the former CTO of Kickstarter. Andy was on the receiving end of a high-profile copyright action when he co-ordinated the creation of ‘A Kind Of Bloop’, a chiptune remake of Miles Davis’ classic LP ‘ A Kind Of Blue’. Somewhat surprisingly, the case arose not as a result of the music itself (he diligently secured all the necessary clearances before the release) but when the owner of the rights in the original LP photograph took objection to the pixellated cover art image on the final CD. A thought-provoking talk, I recommend you watch it and check out his blog post also which he fought to be allowed to publish as part of the settlement which ultimately cost him a serious chunk of his savings.

As Andy points out in his talk, exactly how should we be dealing with so many youngsters who are growing up believing that they are fully protected from any legal liability when uploading protected content to YouTube simply by adding the words ‘No Copyright Intended’? Let’s not forget that this is no small issue when the total numbers of individual uploads are north of 500,000 and continue to rise daily and the current system acts to classify each of those members of society as criminals.

Something isn’t working.

How The Law Isn’t Helping

It’s a big debate, with many engaged interests and it’s prompted me to dip back into ‘Remix: Making Art & Commerce Thrive In The Hybrid Economy’ by Larry Lessig, a guy I have a huge amount of respect for. Often described as the net’s most celebrated lawyer, he’s certainly the only lawyer I’d invite to one of those fictional dinner parties you get asked about from time to time. I’ll not go into the details about the book here as I intend to revisit it in the future but if you want a quick summary of the issues surrounding remixing in a modern world within 18 minutes or so, check out his TED talk from a few years ago.

For those that fancy getting into the issue in more depth, here’s the book in full (published, as you’d expect, under a Creative Commons licence from Bloomsbury Academic).

It Shouldn’t Be A Zero-Sum Game

I suspect that we’ll see a significant change over the next few years but to get there, society will need the input of as diverse a selection of interests as possible. Not simply the established music industry stalwarts nor the copyright abolitionists, but everyone in between those two extremes. Only then can we protect ourselves against the risk of the very real benefits arising from the creative process (financial and artistic, for individuals, organisations and society itself) being damaged to the extent that no-one wins.


(Photo of Lessig: photo credit: evmaiden via cc)

Why Google Glass Is Only The First Step


Ready For Take Off
Ready For Take Off

The Start of Something Big?

On the week that the first Explorer editions are being shipped to developers, I’m hardly alone in my excitement about just how important  Google Glass could turn out to be. Not only for the applications that we can imagine here today, in April 2013. But more importantly for the potential that this type of technology brings for advancements across areas that we haven’t yet considered.

If you view it as a building block for the re-imagining of almost every daily activity, from work, sport  or just basic methods of human communication, we can have no idea at this stage of how significant this next move into mobile computing/augmented reality will prove. However, I’m betting on it being a huge jump forwards.

I’m sure there will be issues with version 1 but we’ve got to be careful not to have unreasonable expectations. Bleeding edge products always lack the initial crucial customer feedback that can only come once you’ve let third parties loose on your product. And it’s precisely in that area, where people start to see how the technology could be used in their every day lives and make the necessary adaptions, that will drive a steep growth in its popularity.

…Or The Green Light For Conflict?

But putting the optimism to one side for a minute, it’s obvious that the path towards widespread adoption is not going to be straightforward. Moving past the geek-attraction phase (ooh, it’s shiny, I want one of those…), the technology unearths a whole raft of issues that will inevitably cause tension between different groups.

By far the best article that I’ve read recently about the impact of Glass is by Jan Chipchase, Executive Creative Director of Global Insights at Frog. It’s well worth taking the time to read through this, particularly given the calibre of the author. For a product that’s both “on your face and in your face”, he argues that Google is the right company to bring this technology to market as:-

[a business with] a recent record of genuine innovation that stretches/defines social and behavioural norms with a strong revenue stream and deep enough pockets to have a fighting chance of medium to long-term success.

Privacy And The Invisible Impact

Positions are starting to be taken on either side of the privacy debate around Glass. Yet amongst such high profile posturing, few hold solid research about how the human condition will be affected, consciously or otherwise, when we become acutely aware of someone wearing technology which can record our every move. How many of us would think twice before making a statement in the future if we knew that it was to be recorded and retrievable by a company whose goal was to index that data for the purposes of serving ever-more relevant advertising to you? As Chipcase writes:

Any idiot can collect data. The real issue is how to collect data in such a way that meets both moral and legal obligations and still delivers some form of value.

An Argument For The Wider Public Good?

One way to ease the widespread adoption of Glass is to enable anyone to access on demand the video feed being recorded by others around them. Transparency of information will no doubt help ease a few concerns whilst crowd-sourcing views to make them collectively useful is likely to convince people of the wider public good in certain situations, with emergency situations or entertainment events being the most obvious.

Regardless, It’s Happening

The issues surrounding the introduction of Glass – whether in terms of privacy, the ownership of data, legislation or the evolution of basic body language in a social setting – are only just now starting to be considered. But I for one can’t wait to see how things move forwards. There are bound to be mistakes but progress demands failures along the road.

You may not agree with Ray Kurzweil et al about his predictions about the approaching singularity – the point when technology and humanity are will no longer be separate (current predictions point to 2040). But this looks very much to me like a significant jump forwards along that path. And, one way or another, whether in Google’s hands or elsewhere, it’s going to happen. And it’s going to be a helluva ride.

photo credit: vyxle via cc

Filling In The Gaps With Tim O’Reilly

Halloween EyesTim O’Reilly is a guy that you should really pay attention to. He’s been a leading commentator around key technology areas such as publishing, Web 2.0, open data and the burgeoning Maker movement for a number of years. The organisation he founded, O’Reilly Media, lives by the mantra of ‘changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators’ and he’s viewed as something of a master at both identifying trends and amplifying them.

Despite this reputation, he claims that he’s not very good at predicting the future. Instead, he simply talks about things that are happening today that seem interesting to him. As William Gibson once said, “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed” and O’Reilly’s mission is to help smooth that process.

He recently gave a talk to the Stanford Technology Ventures Program which is well worth checking out. Here are a few key themes from the talk:-


The importance of mobile computing is clear to anyone looking at website analytics. Yet we’re still very much in the early days of mobile and the change that’s coming is much more fundamental than simply a shift in the way that people access your website whilst on the move. Why? It’s all down to that piece of technology that you carry in your pocket which increasingly knows more – and better – information about you as an individual.

Why do applications like Foursquare or Runkeeper, for example, still need us to take an active part? Why do you have to check-in or click a button to tell your phone that you’ve started running? It already knows this information. There’s a revolution coming as businesses get built on the foundation of information that individuals don’t even have to go to the effort of submitting themselves. It’s all being done for them.

You’ve probably heard of Square. Set up by Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter, it lets users accept credit card payments on their mobiles. But the clever thing is that if you have the App open on your mobile, you can walk into a shop that’s using it and the cash register already knows that you’re there. That connection’s already been made – it’s live and waiting, ready for you to use it.


Too often, we’re still thinking about software as being something that lives inside a device. A good example is Linux. For many, it’s at best some kind of mysterious operating system that tech folk discuss and has no relevance to the laptop they use for work. Yet if you’re searching on the web, the chances are high that you’re using Google – which is powered by Linux.


Think about how to update the work of employees to make use of the fact that individuals will increasingly be connected with the internet in more powerful ways in professional settings.

Who doesn’t love the videos of skydiving prototypes of Google Glass? But whilst the current excitement (and concern) is currently focused on the consumer applications of this technology, once you start thinking about  how these technologies could potentially impact workflows, a new picture emerges. Give people ready access to the indexed knowledge of mankind and it’s fairly easy to imagine how certain low-level jobs can be turned into high-level jobs. After all, why train for years to learn something when you can simply follow live instructions?


The phrase comes from a 1960 research paper by JCR Licklider that foresaw the development in cooperation between men and computers. The technology businesses (such as Google and Amazon) that survived the crash before moving on to further success did so, at least in part, because they worked out how to get their users to contribute to what they did. Take a bow, Web 2.0.


Peter Norvig, Chief Scientist at Google once said: “We don’t have better algorithms. We just have more data”. Look at Google’s self-drive car. In 2005, the winner of the DARPA Grand Challenge, a competition for American driverless vehicles, drove 7 miles in 7 hours. Yet only six years later, Google has designed an autonomous car that has driven hundreds of thousands of miles in ordinary traffic. So what changed?

Google had access to the data behind Google Street View. Or, to put it another way, the recorded memory of humans who drove those roads, stored in a global brain.


Investor Chris Sacca has been quoted as saying “What I learned from Google is to only invest in things that close the loop”. That is an incredibly important principle for startups who should always be trying to discover the loops in the world that their business can close.

For example, Uber is a taxi business that connects individuals with luxury cars for hire. The app knows the location of both the passenger and the driver and makes the connection so that you always know precisely where the vehicle is. Uber has closed the loop.

Think of just how powerful the business becomes when combined with the rating mechanism that I mentioned in an earlier post has been integrated. A relatively small change now has the potential to completely disrupt the traditional regulation of taxi cab services. No longer does a cab driver just need to be trained and certified. In the modern world, he or she must also display social validation in the form of positive customer feedback – a bleak future no doubt for those drivers who drive carelessly, treat customers rudely or even play music too loudly in their vehicle.


O’Reilly argues that the concept of a business that exists solely for the purpose of making money for its shareholders is fundamentally flawed. Every business has an obligation to create value.

Current high-profile tech businesses (see Etsy, airbnb and Kickstarter) are successful precisely because they’ve focused on building an economy around their business. It is not simply about making money for themselves – they want other people to succeed on the back of what they’ve created in building an ecosystem.


To paraphrase a poem by Rilke:

    What we fight with is so small that when we win it makes us small; what we want is to be defeated decisively by successively greater beings.

Find hard problems. Take the example of a guy who quit a well-paid role with a hedge fund to work for a high-altitude (and high-risk) wind energy company. When asked why, he had one simple answer. He’d wanted to work for the startup was because ‘the math is harder’.

People who want to work on a hard problem are the types of individuals you want with you in a startup. If you can get people to work on things that matter and inspire, it will carry far more weight than being driven by simple monetary gain.


So – how hard can it be?

Simplify, move to the cloud, automate, enhance intelligence, collect better data, help other people succeed and set goals worthy of your efforts.

There has to be a business idea or two in there, don’t you think?

(photo credit: Patrick Hoesley via photopin cc)

Welcome To The Internet of Everything

RobotIf you held a gun to my head and forced me to make a prediction about the shape of our future society, the one forecast that I could make today with absolute certainty is that I’d end up rambling on about the possible impact of technology until you were either bored or agreed. However, it’s a safe bet that almost every issue duking it out at the top of my list would relate in some way to the increasing impact of the deepening networks between people, objects and ‘big data’.

The Growth Of Networks

The increased power of connectivity has been most visible to most in the explosive growth of social media. Most of us are gradually realising that individuals are increasingly being tracked whilst simultaneously being presented with greater opportunities to make a significant impact by presenting themselves favourably online. But to my mind, simply taking offline communication and rehousing it on a digital platform has in many ways simply been a diversion so far (albeit incredibly an powerful, and essential, one).

It seems to me that networks are only now starting to show what they can achieve – both at scale and (just as importantly) at high speed. Not agree? Just have a think about the impact over recent times in areas such as file sharing, user-generated content, communicable diseases, the wisdom of the crowd and financial contagion.

The chances are good that you will have heard the growing buzz around the ‘Internet of Things‘. If the phrase at least is new to you, here’s my (very) simple explanation. The internet to date has relied on humans to input the necessary data. But, as Kevin Ashton, the RFID pioneer once wrote, “The problem is that people have limited time, attention and accuracy”. The answer? Let the computers find out everything that they need to know about things in the real world by gathering data directly without the input of humans. Let them then use this increased and continual tracking for the benefit of all, whether it be to reduce waste, loss and cost.

(Aside: I’ve just realised that I’ve used the word ‘let’ above twice, unintentionally implying that computers are somehow sentient beings… that’s another post entirely …)

Connections Are Everything…

It’s not a new idea but it’s gathering pace like never before. Millions of new devices are regularly being connected to the internet and the potential for advancement goes far beyond simply having a Robonaut sending tweets from space.

So what could that mean in practice? Well, Evrythng is a company that I mentioned in a previous post – here’s a quick example of how their business fits into the picture:-

Let’s just think about this for a second. Connecting things that were previously silent within a network of networks with billions (or trillions) of connections on a global scale? The potential impact of this is so significant that it is guaranteed to eclipse even the massive disruption that the internet has already caused within the worlds of communication, education, business, entertainment and simple information retrieval amongst others.

The ‘Internet Of Everything’ Economy

So I was intrigued to read Cisco’s new report in which they have re-branded the concept into ‘The Internet of Everything Economy: How More Relevant And Valuable Connections Will Change The World‘. With a vast subject, they’ve helpfully split the concept into four separate areas:-


Currently, we mostly just connect to the internet via devices and social networks. In the future, people will connect in far more flexible ways – think of the implications for healthcare where a pill or clothing sensors will report back on your vital signs directly to your doctor via a secure internet connection.


We’re used to devices gathering and transmitting data somewhere for analysis. Increasingly, the ‘things’ will combine and analyse that raw data before transmitting far more valuable information, which in turn enables us to make faster, more intelligent decisions.


Sensors and devices will be able to sense more data and increasingly understand the possible context in which that data can be useful.


Critically, processes are still to develop which will add value – effectively working to ensure that the right information is delivered to the right person at the right time in the appropriate way.

Clearly, whilst we might initially moan at the loss of sleep, few of us would refuse an alarm clock that wakes you up ten minutes earlier on a morning when the traffic is congested. We may even be increasingly interested in being able to track our groceries from field to table, if only to guarantee that our meat hasn’t had a past career in racing.

But once we start to apply this understanding at a greater scale, we have the potential to discover a means by which we can monitor, understand and manage our environment more effectively. Saving energy, regulating and distributing agricultural output and helping to provide access to clean water starts to tick a lot of boxes which bluntly need massive action given the current challenges that we are all facing.

The Internet Of Everything: Tomorrow Starts Here.

Clearly Cisco have a business point to make here also and I recommend reading the blog by Cisco CEO John Chambers which makes a number important points about the economy that is predicted to grow around the Internet of Everything. After all, there are some chunky numbers involved in the predictions (which they are, it should be said, in a great position to capitalise upon commercially).

Increased Connectivity Comes At A Price

But let’s not be naive. It’s not going to be plain-sailing all the way home in our automated cars to our self-filling fridges. If developments continue – and there’s no reason to think that we will face anything other than developments occurring at a rapidly accelerating pace – we could soon be facing challenges in relation to security and privacy that could place us in a very dark place indeed within society.

Governments, businesses, organisations and individuals need to get involved – and quickly. Not to slow it down or even simply to prevent any mistakes being made – there will always be wrong turnings in any attempt to innovate. But to ensure that we use the unprecedented opportunities that we will soon be faced with for the most effective purposes for us all – in business, in our communities and on a global scale.

Think it’s all pie in the sky? Or are we walking blindly into disaster by arming inanimate objects with the capacity for (limited) intelligence? There’s a sci-fi plot or two in there, that’s for sure. I’d love to hear from you in the comments below if you have any thoughts about future developments.

(photo credit: B.Romain via photopin cc)

And The Final Scores Are…

Exit SignI came across an interesting article by Om Malik earlier this week that’s worth checking out entitled, ‘Uber, Data Darwinism and the Future of Work‘.

The founder of GigaOm is known for his incisive writing in the tech field but this post caught my attention in particular, as it flags up just how far-reaching the potential impact of increased connectivity could be as it spreads across all levels of society.


Om’s thoughts are provoked by a recent story involving Uber, the US-based startup that lets customers book private cars with drivers via a mobile app. It’s a hot startup in the US and for good reason: it’s genuinely disruptive.

The company hit the news recently when a number of drivers were ‘let go’ as a result of customer feedback. To be clear, the drivers are self employed and following each trip, both passenger and driver have the opportunity to rate the other. Losing your livelihood because you failed to deliver your side of a deal is hardly new. But the concept of a company acting on the basis of unvalidated low ratings does introduce a new dynamic into the equation.


We’re all increasingly happy (and in some cases incentivised) to rank, rate and share our experiences in the digital world. This means that we’re starting to build a ‘Quantified Society’, where each individual is being assessed and scored. Fine. But who judges what is a good (or bad) score and how does the law back that decision up?

For example, what is the magic customer score at which you can ‘sack’ a worker fairly? And, however it might be assessed in the future, what can an employer do if the score that represents an individual’s reputation takes a hit? The rules of society are going to have to try to keep up with the allocation of points when the rules are unclear.

You also have to wonder how individuals might modify their own behaviours as they become increasingly aware of what the potential impact might be of the scores that they allocate. Will feedback be restrained for fear of someone losing their job? Or, instead, will people hide behind their perceived online anonymity in order to criticise aggressively simply because they can?


It might be the future and driven by technological advancement but, as Om writes, the range of challenges within a Quantified Society are likely to be “less technical and more legislative, political and philosophical”.

The human race evolved over time to reward the fittest with survival. Society then developed to ensure that other more desirable attributes were sufficiently rewarded. We’re now moving into the next stage however which introduces another form of competition. The only thing that’s clear at the moment is that the rules haven’t been set – and are unlikely to be for a long time yet.

(Photo via: konstriktion under 2.0 Creative Commons Licence)

The Making And Breaking Of The Creative Industries

Making & Breaking The Creative Industries

Any event that sets out to discuss the opportunities and challenges that creatives face in digital production and distribution is guaranteed to do two things – attract my attention and court disaster by attempting to cover a subject so vast that a week-long conference might struggle to do it justice.

Yet I’m happy to say that Thursday’s event organised by Creative Edinburgh, ‘The Making and Breaking Of The Creative Industries’ managed to achieve exactly what it set out to do. By balancing a fascinating range of speakers, each holding significant sector experience, the event successfully provided the attendees with a broad overview of how ‘digital’ is currently affecting the creative industries, a summary of the key themes and a glimpse into what the near future might just look like.

Whilst each speaker focused mainly on his or her different area of expertise (including gaming, publishing, music production, film distribution, advertising and product design amongst others), common themes emerged throughout many of the talks. So, rather than breaking the record for the world’s longest blog post in detailing each talk in great detail (which I’ll happily do if anyone really wants me to), here are my takeaways from the event:-


Whether it’s with your colleagues, customers or, in some cases, even your competition, continue to look for ways to collaborate. Or, in the words of Andy Payne (@PercyBlakeney63), 1 plus 1 always equals more than one – just ensure that you collaborate with the right people.


Don’t resort to simply cold-selling to customers. As Seth Godin says, “The idea that someone can program our consumption is becoming obsolete, and fast“. The driving force behind the explosive growth in social business has been the simple fact that a business that understands – accurately – what its potential customers need will (all things being equal) always be better placed than its competitors to deliver something of value that people are willing to pay for. There are very few business ideas that are truly unique – it’s often the delivery of that idea alone that makes the difference between success and failure.

My view is that there’s nothing wrong whatsoever with simply producing what you feel driven to create for artistic purposes. However, if you’re looking to monetise that into a viable business model, then you still need to understand where the demand lies – in other words, track down and delight those 1,000 true fans.


In the pre-digital era, most of your time and money would be spent in preparing the perfect product or service for launch. Nowadays, driven in part by the developments from the Lean Startup Movement, the luxury of front-loading that expense on the basis of assumed demand is increasingly unsustainable in a competitive environment. The digital world provides you with analytics as to what works and what doesn’t – if you want to be successful, the onus is on you to use them and effectively.

Regardless of the nature of your content, get it out into the marketplace, seek immediate feedback and be prepared to put the majority of your efforts into analysing and reacting to the response – whether this is in gaming, advertising or product design.


An oxymoron perhaps but ‘closet anthropologist’ Stephanie Rieger’s (@stephanierieger) point about the speed of technological advancement in society was well-made. Change is occurring so quickly today that a ‘generation gap’ no longer refers to the relationship between parent and child, but in many cases to the relationship between siblings within the same family. In other words, devices are advancing so quickly that people two, three or four years apart in age are having completely different experiences with technology.

The power of the crowd is now so great that you can’t assume that you know how people will use your products. The way that you intended your product to be used might simply be ignored by the consumer – from the comical example of one mother using her Kindle as a bookmark to the slightly-more innovative ideas for enhancement, such as the camera button for the iPhone .

I didn’t catch who the quote was by but it was mentioned that “the best product designs should merely set the stage whilst always falling short of fully setting the experience for the user”. The age in which a business could set the agenda for its customer has long since passed. That privilege now belongs to the ultimate consumer who has in many cases the ultimate power in the digital world – the power to simply delete your content whilst instantly moving on to a better (or more convenient) alternative.

Aside: I feel compelled to mention Larry Lessig’s ‘Remix’ book here for anyone who wants to get into this subject more deeply – a fascinating examination of how the law is struggling to keep up with the speed of technological advancement (and a topic for another post – or series – here in the future, I suspect).


This can’t be overemphasised enough. Unsurprisingly, every single talk focused to some extent on just how important data is becoming to the modern business, regardless of sector. The digital world has afforded us all with an unparalleled opportunity to research, monitor, analyse and improve every aspect of our businesses. As a result, the businesses that will succeed are those which are able to maintain high quality and relevant data and use this vital information as the foundation for designing the content of the business.


Jim Wolff (@jimwolffman) of the Leith Agency wound up the day with a hugely entertaining talk about further themes for all creatives to be aware of in the future, including the growth in visual content, the demand for personalised content, the development of the Internet of Things (see Evrythng which lets you tag real items to make them smart by being able to ‘talk’ to each other) and – surprise surprise – the growth of social business.


I understand that the talks will be going online soon (I’ll add the links just as soon as they’re available) and I’d encourage you to take a look at that stage. Hopefully however the summary above has given you a flavour of the sort of discussions that took place. Of course, the conference couldn’t answer questions about what the future might bring in great detail. But, then again, the one thing that is certain is that that accurate predictions are for the most part impossible – and I guess that’s exactly what makes it all so much fun…!

The key instead is to:

  • Adopt an agile approach
  • Be passionate about discovering developments (wherever they occur in the world)
  • Connect and engage with the growing online social community in which your customers are active
  • Equip your business (creative or otherwise) with the tools and capacity to become as responsive as possible to your potential customers

All in all, a fantastic event and a list of brilliant speakers – well done to Creative Edinburgh for bringing it all together. If you were there, or have any thoughts on any of the points raised above, please do let me know in the comments below.


Andy Payne – AppyNation
Stephanie Rieger – Yiibu
Brendan Miles – The List
Hannah Rudman – AmbITion Scotland
Peter Gerard – Distrify
Devon Walshe – The Journal
Dougal Perman – Inner Ear
Jim Wolff – The Leith Agency
Murray Buchanan – Cargo Publishing

PS A different presentation but I’m a sucker for a good show – and Yiibu’s ‘Everything Old Is New Again’ is exactly that, well worth a look

How Influential Are You Going To Be?

Gathering Moss?
Gathering Moss?

Influence has always been an important factor in society. From our romantic notions of the ever-present skullduggery deep within the smoke-filled corridors of power to the simple mobilisation of support of numbers in order to maximise donations towards a worthy cause, the influential can and do wield their power for any reason along the spectrum from good to evil.

And it is precisely this relationship with power that continues to fascinate me as I watch digital networks continue to strengthen, increasingly coalescing around all manner of personal interests, both personal and business. Some people clearly understand the way that the world is moving. Others don’t. Yet both groups are experiencing the effects, whether they are aware of it or not.

Today’s interesting read comes from Mark Schaefer who is well-known for writing two recent books in particular (The Tao Of Twitter and Return On Influence). If you are interested at all in the notion of how individuals are extending their influence on a digital level, I’d recommend reading the second in particular.

I’m in no doubt that this issue is going to become increasingly important. We can’t second-guess the way that search algorithms will develop over time of course. But the move towards personalisation of your search results shows that the Google(s) of the future will increasingly take account of a range of other signals that you leave in your forays on the web. Bluntly, if you leave a significant digital footprint and can command plenty of engaged ‘social’ followers who freely share the content that you create, search results will increasingly view you as ‘high quality’. Meaning? Your face will pop up more frequently in th search results that other people carry out.

Rolling stone gathering lots of moss, anyone?

I’m not going to debate the merits and weaknesses of Klout, Kred, Social Authority  or any others at this stage. But I do agree with the point Mark makes about the fact that we are in the early days of understanding how things are developing – which invariably means startups will get it wrong at times.

Have a read and let me know what you think.

photo credit: aurelio.asiain via cc

Global Ambition: 10 Lessons For Entrepreneurs

Ken Morse_Global Ambition

It might sound great to say that you have global plans for your business. But what does global ambition actually mean?

Last Tuesday, 200 members of the local high-growth startup community congregated at the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Gogarburn Conference Centre for the ‘Global Strategies for Ambitious Entrepreneurs’ workshop in order to delve deeper into the nuts and bolts of growing your business to the next level.

Speakers Joe Lassiter of Harvard Business SchoolKen Morse and Joe Tree, CEO of Edinburgh-based photo-sharing website Blipfoto took to the stage during an afternoon designed to spark a healthy discussion amongst those in attendance.

Focusing initially on the early days of disruptive business Airbnb, it was no surprise to find a variety of conflicting opinions around the room in certain areas. It’s impossible to completely remove any knowledge that you have, either of a business that has been shown to be an outlier or the development of the business environment over time, when assessing historic decisions made by the founders.

But whilst the lens may change, most agreed that there are valid lessons for us all from recognising common patterns from companies that will all face similar challenges at an early stage.

On that basis, here’s ten lessons from the workshop that you might find interesting:

  • 1. To be globally ambitious, all you need is ambition.

In a nutshell, for most businesses, your current location doesn’t matter. Clearly, for those home-grown entrepreneurs based in Scotland must both have a passport and be willing to use it. In some industries, consider establishing a second base in a key location. But…

  • 2. Don’t rule out relocating entirely.

When questioned “Why do you rob banks?”, notorious US criminal Willie Sutton (supposedly) replied, “Because that’s where the money is”. Do you truly want to be dominate your sector? If so, you may have to move to where the action is concentrated in your industry in order to access both the necessary funding and, critically, the talent.

  • 3.  The dream of building the next Google must always be balanced by the need to survive the day.

An entrepreneur does what he or she needs to do to keep the show on the road (and the money coming in). Speaking of which…

  • 4. “I don’t make pictures just to make money. I make money to make more pictures” (Walt Disney)

Be passionate about what you’re doing – making money should never be your primary motivator. If you enjoy doing something, there can be little downside. Only once you’ve finished with a business can you answer the question that acts as every entrepreneur’s own personal metric: was the time you spent worth it? Financial rewards can only ever form a small part of that answer.

  • 5. Observe the Rebel Alliance: hope is important.

In Ken’s view, the number one reason that people give up on their businesses is not because they run out of money – it’s because they run out of hope.

  • 6. Always ask for help and always go straight to the best.

In Joe Tree‘s experience, he’s never been turned away yet.

  • 7. Every investor listens to the same radio station: ‘WIFM’ (What’s In It For Me)

Do your research – in depth – before you contact an investor and answer that question clearly. You only have one opportunity to make an impression. Ten hours of reasearch per investor is not unreasonable given how important they are will become to your business.

  • 8. Understand the differences between incubator models.

There is a tension between those who provide tailored mentoring (such as theTechStars model) and more in-your-face trainers (such as Y Combinator). Joe Lassiter spoke of there being an incubator bubble and that it’s now more critical than ever for any aspiring entrepreneur to research the value of the network of a potential incubator before committing your time. After all, time is the only resource, according to Stephen Hawking’s view, that is ever truly irreplaceable.

  • 9. Never bounce ideas around in a vacuum.

Test everything that you develop on your cohort. You can never speak to too many customers (actual or potential) to get feedback on your product or service.

  • 10. Remember the lesson of the pig and the chicken in the kitchen.

Question: in making a ham omelette, what’s the difference between the chicken and the pig? Answer: the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.

The crucial turning point in Airbnb’s history was when the founders committed to throw everything into making the business a success. Commitment is non-negotiable for entrepreneurship (defined by Prof. Howard Stevenson as “the relentless pursuit of opportunity beyond the constraints of the resources currently controlled”).

So there you have it – ten takeaways that I hope at least give you some food for thought if you couldn’t make it along. I’d like to thank Andrew Mitchell, for expertly arranging yet another valuable event and also for inviting me along. He consistently brings speakers with world-class entrepreneurial knowledge to Scotland and we all get the benefit of his hard work in doing so.

What are your thoughts? Were you at the workshop and found any other points more useful than those I’ve summarised above? Or perhaps you disagree with some of the observations – if so, what’s your experience? As ever, I’d be delighted to hear from you in the comment section below.

Note: This blog post originally appeared on the MBM Commercial LLP Startup Blog. Ignoring the SEO implications, I wanted to post it here also as the session raised a number of lessons that could be useful for entrepreneurs.   

Scottish Startups: A Great 2012 – But A Better 2013?

Hogmanay Firelight

With normal service resumed following the festive break, I wanted to take a couple of minutes to reflect on some of the highlights of 2012 from the startup community in Scotland, and within Edinburgh in particular.

2012 was a busy year with some headline high-profile events taking place – in particular, the official launch of TechCube, the second Turing Festival and the Startup Summit 2012, organised to tie in with Global Entrepreneur Week. Back in July, it was great to see the local startup community turn out en masse for the Edinburgh leg of the European Pub Summit web crawl, as a pre-cursor to the massive Dublin Web Summit, a key event for many who travelled across the water to the conference.

Meanwhile, the EClub continued to run a consistently valuable series of events up at the University of Edinburgh Business School – in my view, essential events for anyone involved in starting businesses here, both for the quality of speakers and, just as importantly, the network of attendees. Particular favourites that stand out for me during the year include the talk by the entrepreneur and conqueror of Everest Justin Packshaw (‘Five ingredients for extreme startup success’) and the informative Funding Ladders conference that was held back in May (‘Funding Ladders: How to Fund Your Business As It Grows’).

Here at MBM, as ever, we’ve continued to run events, including our popular ‘Meet The Entrepreneur Events’, with the first talk being given by PJ Darling, the founder of Spark Energy (the next event is on 23rd January with Sandy McDougall) whilst we also worked with the Business School to arrange what turned out to be a standing-room only debate ‘An Independent Scotland: What Do The Entrepreneurs Think?’. It’s worth mentioning that our Chair for that event, top journalist Bill Jamieson also launched a new website last year to focus on the startup business sector, Scot-Buzz.

On a personal note, I’ve been enthused by regularly meeting even more of the individuals who have taken the decision to make things happen. I really enjoyed being on the judging panel for the annual Innovation Cup Finals 2012 organised by SIE back in June and relaunching the ever-popular Tech Law For Startups towards the end of the year which we tied in with the launch of free Equity Guide for startups in association with Salient Point.

Further (!) afield, Michael Hayes and the Rookie Oven team continued to work hard at promoting entrepreneurial tech startup activity in the West of Scotland, with regular meetups and an active blog. It’s important that we don’t lose sight of events within the wider environment that took place in 2012 that have a direct impact on the startup scene also – the rebranding of the British Business Angels Association to the UK Business Angels Association earlier this year tied in with the important launch of “Be An Angel”, created to attract more business angels into early-stage investment – more than ever, a critical issue in 2012 with thetime-limited Seed EIS benefits available.

So – a pretty busy year! But how do we top it in 2013?

Well, the major event on the horizon in May is Engage Invest Exploit 2013 – remember that applications remain open for companies wanting to exhibit at Scotland’s premier annual investor event. Before then, the monthly iVTuesday events organised by the team at Informatics Ventures continue whilst the burgeoning Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Inovation will make its move into impressive new premises in order to continue to support the growing demand from entrepreneurs who want to build the green sector. In the meantime, we’ll continue to run Tech Law for Startups together with a series of other events aimed at engaging the entrepreneurial community within Scotland and beyond. If you have any ideas for events that you might find useful, just let me know.

One thing’s for certain: 2013 is unlikely to be any quieter than 2012. But there’s no doubt, with the closer connections continually being forged across the startup communities, driven by digital engagement, between the universities, the incubators (such as TechCube and ESpark), Informatics Ventures, the Entrepreneurship Club, the ECCI and the BioQuarter amongst others, there’s plenty of progress on the horizon over the coming twelve months.

How much can be achieved in twelve months? You can either create it or watch it happen – which one do you prefer?

Have a great 2013.

(Photo: Hogmanay Firelight via pjhunter under 2.0 Creative Commons Attribution Licence)

Note: This blog post originally appeared on the MBM Commercial LLP Startup Blog.