Business musings

Articles and thoughts about Technology & Web

12
Feb

From The Guardian to Cisco, big business to small, it seems that everybody is talking about the Internet of Things — but what exactly is IoT and why does it matter?

In our latest SlideShare, we take a deep dive to explore the many faces of IoT in Healthcare. Technology research and advisory company, Gartner currently place the Internet of Things at the peak of inflated expectations and there are certainly challenges. But IoT also holds real promise for healthcare and it is already making an impact today.

We demonstrate why the Internet of Things has a far reaching impact across all determinants of health and how it could lead to a broader model of healthcare. We look at some of the technologies that are available to buy or that are already in development today, whilst also exploring some of the very real challenges that integrating such technologies into healthcare presents. Finally, we offer some ideas about how you can get involved, whether you are a healthcare professional or not.

Find out more by viewing the SlideShare below.

Coventry MakerSpace
A couple of months ago, Coventry MakerSpace opened for business at the Koco Community Resource Centre in Spon End, Coventry. A really exciting addition to the local community, there are already some great projects underway, including MakerKids and a hand built Arcade Machine. If you fancy joining, membership is just £25 per month for unlimited access.

Back to my design roots

Debbie spotted Coventry MakerSpace via MeetUp a little while ago, and having persuaded me to go along to one of their Maker Open Nights (held every Thursday), I got the design itch again. In the last month or so, I finally made the leap to join.

Before my Management Sciences degree at Warwick, my original intention was to be an Industrial Product Designer and I completed the first year of an M/Des BSc in Industrial Product Design at Coventry University before transferring to Warwick. I don’t regret my degree or career change in the slightest, but I do still love design.

I love the way design trains you to think. How it teaches you to visualise ideas and bring them to life practically; to prototype, test, scrap stuff and start again. I love the constant learning as you challenge yourself to fuse ideas and concepts together into a cohesive whole. Once you’ve learnt to think that way, I don’t think it ever leaves you.

So having decided to join MakerSpace, all I needed was something to design and make! Given that we work with a lot of technology and software businesses, I wanted to choose a challenge that would be relevant, that would develop my skills and understanding, and that would, of course, be fun.

My other requirement was that I wanted to write a series of articles both on the project itself and on some of my thoughts about the design/creation process. I’d like to include some of the interesting technologies I come across along the way too.

A good excuse for a Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi (portrait)Having been hankering after a Raspberry Pi for a while, I decided to base whatever I designed around that. In some ways it feels like a cliché—make something, use a Raspberry Pi, post it on Instructables. Even so, I loved the potential flexibility of the Pi—it is essentially a blank canvas, albeit with certain constraints. With the arrival of the Pi—the new B+ revision with 512MB RAM and micro SD card—at the Stocker Partnership offices, I really had no excuse!

Given that the main reason I was drawn to the Pi was its flexibility, I wanted to create something that didn’t hinder this and that stayed true to the blank canvas approach. The issue with failing to narrow the scope adequately, of course, is you can end up with something that does nothing very well—not unlike the new F-35 Fighter Jet, although my project is admittedly significantly less expensive! A Frankenstein of design, if you like.

In narrowing the scope, I did know that I wanted whatever I made to be audio focused and to have a touchscreen interface. I also knew I didn’t want it to look like spaghetti junction with wires sprawling in all directions, unlike most of the Pi creations I’d seen. I knew I wanted the project to be my own creation and that I didn’t want to just follow someone else’s instructions—ideally, I’d like to do something a bit unique. Finally, I wanted to 3D print, and potentially laser cut, the case to explore these technologies in a product design/prototyping context.

So I wouldn’t say the above counts as a ‘clear brief’ as such. More, a creative direction in which to explore further. This outline was certainly good enough for me—and given that I am both the client and the designer, I’m pretty confident that I can clarify more further down the line when I know more about what’s actually feasible!

Watch this space for more updates as I work on the project…

MakerSpaces are creative spaces in which people can gather to create, invent, design and learn. Typically, these community spaces provide access to opportunities and technologies, such as 3D printers, computer-aided design (CAD) software and wood working tools, that would otherwise be inaccessible or unaffordable for many. 

Coventry MakerSpace has been set up to support the makers, engineers, designers, artists, programmers, computer scientists, modellers and all the other people who like being creative in Coventry. It’s an organisation run by members for members in a relaxed and safe environment. To find out more about Coventry MakerSpace, visit @CovMakerSpace
Facebook Coventry MakerSpace
Meetup www.meetup.com/CoventryMakerspace
Wiki Coventry MakerSpace Wiki

Photo of a well lit, walk-in wardrobe with clothes hanging on a rail, whilst bags and shoes are neatly arranged on shelves

Wearable technology is an evolving marketplace. Although some would argue that the market is not new—Thomas Stuermer, senior executive with Accenture’s Electronics & High-Tech group, observed that the term ‘wearable device’ was used as early as the 1990s and the first watch with a digital display was unveiled in 1972—advents such as Google Glass are thought to be the start of a present day wearable revolution.

Earlier this year, Credit Suisse predicted that the wearable technology market will increase tenfold to as much as $50 billion USD over the next 3 to 5 years. Others also believe that wearable devices will explode in popularity over the next year. Whether you agree with the figures or not, it’s inevitable that wearable tech is here to stay.

That said, I read an interesting article earlier last week in which John Holt Ripley, Front End Developer at Linney Design, wrote:

Wearable technology—things like Google Glass and the Nike FuelBand—have a bit of a problem in that they’re not particularly wearable. They’re designed as devices rather than accessories to clothing.

Even the Samsung Gear isn’t that big an improvement on the calculator watch I had in the eighties.

Ripley instead showcased the new, and rather beautiful, Shine by Misfit Wearables.

Shine is a waterproof, wireless, activity and sleep monitor that can be worn as a discrete accessory anytime, anywhere. In Misfit’s words, it has been “built to last a lifetime,” in a “timeless, award-winning design” that is “precision-crafted from aerospace grade aluminium”.

Stylised photo of a woman wearing a bright yellow, tasselled dress, standing in front of a theatrical mirror applying lipstick. She is wearing a Shine necklace.

What impressed me as I flicked through Misfit’s website is that, in many photos, Shine is almost imperceptible—it’s a button hole, a necklace (above), a brooch, a badge.  Admittedly the bracelet form is more similar to other devices, such as the Jawbone UP, but in its essence, Shine seems more akin to jewellery than another wristband.

Many consumers no doubt embrace wearable devices in a recognisably technological form—Peter Brown observed that an estimated 8 million Britons already don some form of wearable device and 39% intend to use wearable tech when it becomes more widely available. Some consumers even wear the technological form as a statement in itself. However, it is likely that wearable technology will not become a day to day reality until it becomes a subtle and integrated part of our lives.

Do I like the idea of a smart watch? Potentially but I’d rather wear a time piece that suits my style and femininity. Several commentators have similarly pointed out that Google Glass is great but they don’t wear glasses. Rosella, who worked as a designer for Valentino, observed that: “Google Glass is asking us to change the way we look on a daily basis…It might be fun in a work environment, but why would you want it to become your everyday style?”

Three photographs of different people wearing Google Glass. From left to right: 1) A man with a beard wearing a black leather cap, light grey cardigan and dark grey T-shirt; he is standing on a street and holding the index finger of his right hand to a white Google Glass. 2) A woman with short, reddish brown hair, wearing a red dress and standing in an office environment; she is wearing a blue Google Glass. 3) A young man and woman, both with blond hair and wearing grey T-shirts. He has his arms folded and she is holding a cup of coffee.  Both are wearing blue Google Glass'.

Does that mean that we’re not target market? Perhaps but wearable tech also faces other, more practical challenges. For example, if I purchase an item of wearable clothing, inevitably the technology is only embedded into that particular piece. Say this item is a jacket, to avoid wearing the exact same jacket day after day, I need to purchase more than one of the same wearable device in different colours and styles. But even if I do this, I’m still locked into buying the same brand.

In contrast, my wardrobe today contains only one such item and that is a pair of Tommy Hilfiger jeans in two different shades—everything else is unique. Different brands, different styles, different colours, and even vintage. Understandably, this is why many devices are sold as an accessory but this returns us to the fact that they’re not very wearable.

Innovations in sports and cycling, such as the truly brilliant Hövding (described as an invisible bicycle helmet), the Sporty Supaheroe (a cycle jacket embedded with LEDs that sense body movement and directionality), and NuMetrex’s range of heart monitoring apparel (sports bra, men’s cardio shirt or women’s racer tank) seem to be a little more wearable but these devices are not designed for everyday activities or use. Several still also require additional transmitters.

 Three photographs of people wearing sports technology. From left to right: 1) A woman holding onto a railing and standing astride a white bicycle. She is wearing a black and white striped dress, a coffee coloured smart jacket and around her neck she is wearing a Hövding airbag. 2) A man sitting on a stool wearing sunglasses. He is also wearing a Sporty Supaheroe jacket and the white LEDs are lit either side of his chest. 3) A woman standing with her hands on her hips. She is wearing a blue NuMetrex sports bra.

In the longer term, and as argued by Liat Clark in Wired, it seems likely that for wearable tech to survive and thrive it will need to become as much a part, if not more, of the fashion industry as it is part of the technology market today. But again, for wearable tech to become truly mainstream, it needs not to get stuck in haute couture but to transition into something that the everyday (wo)man on the street is happy to wear.

As technologies both advance in capability and shrink in size, such a future becomes increasingly likely. At a recent Internet of Things Midlands Meetup, Neil Chilton, Technical Director and Co-Founder of Printed Electronics Ltd, shared that circuit boards can now be printed on some fabrics. With some such circuit boards being wafer thin, I imagine a day where I could pick out a dress and embedded in its fabric is imperceptible tech. Would I wear such a dress…just because it has tech in it? No. Because it looks fabulous? Oh yeah!

Image credits

Custom open dressing cabinets by ANYWAY doors on Flickr
Shine by Misfit Wearables

Google Glass by prae on Flickr
Google Glass and Future Health by tedeytan on Flickr
Google Glass OOB Experience by tedeytan on Flickr
Hövding Airbag for Cyclists
Sporty Supaheroe Jacket
NuMetrex Heart Rate Monitor Sports Bra

01
Mar
Posted by Matt Stocker, stored in: Cartoons & Illustrations  Technology & Web  

Cartoon showing a stick man leaning back in his chair in front of a computer with the Google web page open. He is on the phone and his speech reads, "Liz, Hi, Trevor here! You don't happen to know what time it is in China do you?" The caption below says, "Trevor sometimes failed to grasp the power and potential of the internet to answer his own questions"

 

24
Aug
Posted by Matt Stocker, stored in: Leadership  Strategic Planning  Technology & Web  

Earlier this month, I was contacted by Yisi Lu, a Masters student in MSc Marketing & Strategy at Warwick Business School. For her dissertation, Yisi is considering design thinking and, in particular, its role in education. She asked me some very interesting questions and I would love to share my answers with you today.

To explain a little of my own interest in design thinking…

I tend to live with one foot firmly in both business and design. For those of you who know me, you’ll know that my graduate studies first began at Coventry University where I completed the first year of an M/Des BSc in Industrial Product Design. While I love design, I gradually realised that what really interested me was the strategic management and business of design.  In 2001, I therefore transferred to Warwick Business School to study their BSc Hons in Management Sciences (now known as Management).

Both business and design remain my passions. Much of my spare time is spent reading technical and design blogs. An A3 pad is a firm fixture in my note-taking armoury and something with which clients will be familiar. I was privileged to attend the 2012 Design Summit earlier this year. I’m a strong advocate of the collaboration between the Design Council and WBS. And, on a lighter note, Debbie will happily recount times that she has lost me in a store only to find me looking at the construction of their shelves!

All in all, Debbie and I work hard to integrate design and business throughout our approach to consultancy. We believe that, particularly in this day and age, the two are firmly intertwined and an integrated approach offers much greater value than one or other alone.

Question One

What do you think is the essence of “design thinking” and how does it lead to better education?

For me, there is not one single thing that defines or is design thinking. Certainly, design thinking is about creation and it always involves a symbiotic relationship between problem and solution. However, part of the essence of design thinking is its synthesis of a multitude of elements; you could say that design thinking is many or all of the following things…

A solutions-based process. Creative. Iterative. Agile. Responsive. Holistic. Needs focused. User focused. Visual. It employs feedback loops, prototyping and testing. It involves creative synthesis. Design thinking holds all elements and ideas in creative tension before a solution emerges. It is about broadening out and narrowing down; zooming in and zooming out. Design thinking ‘stores’ work and solutions visually whilst they are in process to ensure that previous iterations can be referred back to, learned from, revised and improved. People who employ design thinking are not afraid of failure or mistakes—they will often do something deliberately ‘wrong’ to find what could be right; they accept that solutions rarely emerge ‘right first time’. Design thinking explores the whole system and encourages people to step outside of the ‘problem’ in order to discover whether the broader environment is the real source of the issue. It encourages people to look at the bigger picture. It handles complexity without drowning; synthesizes knowledge and understanding; and looks for patterns and links between non-related elements. It frequently employs ideas from other sources, cultures and disciplines. Design thinking is playful and curious. It actively involves people and stakeholders; it is a collaborative process that looks both out and in. Design thinking always demands a clear brief.

With regard to education, design thinking moves people away from a narrow view that is based on their existing knowledge and personal opinions, toward a more expansive, curious, multidisciplinary perspective. It allows people to create and form ideas and solutions in a more creative and flexible way. Design thinking encourages students to look at the world differently. It helps them to understand that, with a defined brief, it is almost always possible to discover an effective solution, even if that solution takes time and numerous ‘failed’ attempts. It moves students away from a linear, analytical, detail-oriented approach toward a more creative, open perspective—away from believing “We first need to know everything about this problem to find an answer” to asking “How do we create a solution, even in the midst of ambiguity?” For me, this is more representative of situations within real-life organisations: often problems and solutions emerge together; the implementation of interventions informs both a further understanding of the problem and its solution; more often than not problems and solutions are continually being worked on in parallel. Design thinking enables students to better listen and engage with those around them. It teaches them to be creative in thought: by learning how to visually represent thoughts and ideas, students add another dimension to their problem solving approach. Many problems, models and ideas are not linear and do not lend themselves to being defined with the lined notepaper approach. Similarly, complex situations often involve many interdependent problems that cannot be solved individually. Use of visual tools enables a shared understanding to be created; it draws people together to debate and create solutions or outcomes that otherwise would remain opaque and poorly understood.

If I had to sum it up more succinctly, design thinking in education is about equipping students with an array of tools that enable them to deal much more effectively with complex situations; teaching them to embrace curiosity and failure; and opening their minds to new ways of thinking and doing.

Question Two

What do you think is the nature of a design thinking process?

There are many potential processes and theories that could be used to define the nature of the design thinking process; however, to get to hung up on defining the process itself is to miss the point.

A design thinking process is about creation. Making and doing. Testing and breaking. Seeing and responding.

Designers have done it for centuries. It starts with an idea, a brief, a desired outcome. The designer then starts to create and, in order to do so, they must pull together ideas and get a better understanding of the challenges that stand in their way. They must implement ideas to see if they work and, also, to discover if they and others like them.

The designer is happy with uncertainty because the process of creation is often messy, unpredictable and, at times, frustrating. However, they drive through towards their goal. They like an idea but then find it doesn’t work. They do more research; they look at other options; they push boundaries. The designer turns around and examines those problems that stand in their way—they look at them from a different perspective; they need to find out if the problems vanish or change when viewed from a different standpoint.

During the process, the designer will sometimes work on their own; at other times, they will open up the process to others—to users, to staff, to colleagues, to the people around them.

Sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly, the designer will arrive at a solution, the end outcome. The solution may be an amalgamation of a number of ideas. Sometimes, a single moment of insight may finally bring the answer.

And yet, however good the outcome, however great, it could be better. The designer may need materials or technology to catch up with what is in their mind’s eye—their ideas are not yet possible with today’s tools. Or, they may learn everything they should do or should have done differently once their completed piece ends up in the marketplace.

All in all, the design thinking process is about a journey from start to finish; from problem to solution; from idea to implementation. But this journey is not linear. It is iterative, recursive and looping. It could take hours or it could take years. But it is always a journey toward a desired objective, travelled with grit, determination and an open mind.

Question Three

What do you think is the best way for universities to teach design? (Should design schools create more business-focused creatives, or should business schools foster creative thinking in their MBAs?)

Ultimately, design thinking is about creation—of ideas, of products, of solutions, of outcomes. And yet, much of the university or business school approach is about the opposite—breaking things down, taking them apart, analysing, critiquing. Always the critic, never the creator.

I am a strong advocate of critical thinking and would never negate its value. However, while theoretical and case-based learning are a vital part of the business school education, I have noticed that students are often not very good at creating. There is a disconnect between their role and that of others—creating is left to ‘the creatives’. Students have rarely experienced the design process for themselves. Few students have ever created a brand; designed a website; designed or created a product, service or a building; created something out of nothing. And yet, in business, the only way that an organisation exists and survives is if it actually creates value; creates a product or a service; creates a market; creates demand. We teach students how to get the most out of what they have but never really to create something new. We leave that to chance, hoping that their innate creativity and drive will enable them to do this on their own. In this sense, we let both our students and their future employers down.

Design schools themselves are however often no better. They teach their students how to create but not how to truly exploit their creations. Creatives and designers can often be left floundering in a business world they do not really understand. They lack the management skills to bring their creations to life and to capitalise upon the value they know their creations contain. They do not know how to build a business structure around their creative process.

The obvious solution would be to bring business people and creatives together. However, with both failing to understand the other, tension begins to emerge. Designers and creatives are reluctant to relinquish business control for fear of what will happen to their creative direction; business people are unable to truly support a creative process they do not fully understand.

This is compounded by the fact that neither business nor design schools teach their students how to manage others in the creation/design process and how to get the best out of those who may ultimately work for them. Gerry McGovern (Design Director of Land Rover) has strong views on this and believes that nobody teaches either business people or designers how to manage other designers and creatives to get the best out of the creative process. Similarly, creatives are rarely taught how to manage their commercial employees to best capitalise upon their creative ideas.

So, in the middle exists this divide. With business people having little or no design, creative and visual literacy, and designers having little or no business literacy, there is a missed opportunity to create real value.

Thinking about organisational ambidexterity, it seems that we find ourselves in a situation in which design schools are teaching their students to explore, whilst business schools are teaching their students to exploit. In reality, as is the case in organisations, students must have the ability to do both—to explore and exploit—for real, long-term value to be released.

Ultimately, I believe it is the responsibility of both design schools and business schools to bridge this divide. Business schools should be embracing design thinking across their programmes, not only at MBA level, but also within their Undergraduate and Masters courses. Design schools should similarly be teaching their students (at all levels) about the commercialisation process and how to exploit the value within their creations.

Question Four

What do you think is the future of design thinking?

I believe there is a strong future for design thinking. With the recent and continuing economic environment, along with the diminished reputations of those who helped create it, the analytical approach has been shown to have significant weaknesses when it comes to solving global issues and discovering appropriate answers. As a result, we are seeing a move toward different approaches, both in how to create real value and also in solving problems. The Singularity University is one such example of how to embrace a multidisciplinary, creative approach. Although design thinking is certainly not the only alternative approach, I believe it is gaining increasing awareness, in part through those higher educational establishments that teach it.

Interestingly, within consultancy, clients also seem to be realising the limitations of the analytical approach and are increasingly resistant to, and jaded by, consultancies that charge high fees, do a lot of analysis, but, at the end of the day, fail to deliver effective solutions and outcomes that create real, practical value where it matters, on the ground. As a result, clients seem to be particularly open to value-based pricing, where the outcomes are clear and the costs are fixed. We ourselves have found that such an approach is hugely effective in facilitating design thinking and a solutions-led approach. As the objectives are clearly defined (the brief), along with measures of success and the value that the outcomes will bring, there is a clarity that rarely exists otherwise. There is also significant flexibility to embrace the complexity and creativity needed to solve the trickiest problems, without worrying about day rates or utilisation. The end outcome: fair compensation for the consultant and a great outcome for the client.

Similarly, in our own experience, design thinking opens up solutions to a multitude of problems that seem intractable with traditional business approaches. Visual problem solving and creative thinking enables simplicity to emerge beyond complexity and solutions to be found.

Moreover, while scientific and theoretical breakthroughs will continue to drive change, many of the most influential breakthroughs of the last century have been design-oriented in nature. Think the automobile, the home computer, mobile phones, the iPod, iPad, and more. Design is literally changing our lives, the way we think and the way we live. Many of the most influential and successful businesses in the world today have, at their heart, design. Their success is not due to either design or business alone but a healthy symbiosis of the two. People are increasingly recognising the power of design and embracing its success. This year alone within Britain, the Design Council hosted the Design Summit 2012; The Founders Forum hosted the Creative Industries reception; the British Business Embassy hosted the Global Business Summit (focused on creative services); various UK Trade & Investment regions hosted Creative Services Summits; the Olympics showcased British creativity and design; and MADE Entrepreneur Festival is focusing on businesses made in Britain, many of which are creative. There seems to be an increasing move toward supporting creative and design-led businesses and design thinking is fundamental to this future.

That said, for design thinking to be truly embraced in academia, I believe there needs to be a change in attitudes. Design thinking by its very nature is often very accessible and can be easily embraced by the populace. It also tends to dislike words. Historically, academia has tended to shun that which appears simplistic, even if at its heart it is rooted in research and grounded in experience. Similarly, design itself has not traditionally had a strong relationship with peer-reviewed journals nor has it taught or encouraged a critical, scientific approach. Gradually both sides of this situation are changing and multidisciplinary approaches are being embraced but such change will need to continue if there is to be a true meeting of minds between business and design.

30
Jul
Posted by Matt Stocker, stored in: Finance  Technology & Web  

Logo for Float. Image shows an illustration of a folded, brown paper boat floating on blue waves. The boat is flying an orange flag that reads, "£loat," in white lettering.This post is long overdue! Having been using Float—a fantastic cash flow forecasting tool—since late 2010 (first in beta and now in its full release), I have been meaning to blog about Float’s awesomeness for some time now.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’m proud to be a Founder Member of Float. This means that I believe in what they do and have voted with my feet by supporting them.

Float describe their vision as:

To make forecasting accessible for small business owners. Helping them avoid sleepless nights, painful spreadsheets and ultimately running out of money.

Whether big business or small, we all know how many headaches cash flow forecasting can cause but also how vital it is. Ultimately, cash flow forecasting should facilitate strategic and tactical decision making; it should allow you to accurately plan for the future because you know what the business can and can’t afford. Establishing a clear view on your finances also enables you to rapidly respond to changing scenarios because you’re able to see exactly how these changes cascade throughout your financial situation.

Such a perspective is vital. In start-up and bootstrapping environments, the necessity to manage your cash flow is clear (although, I have to say, I’ve met many businesses who remain remarkably complacent about cash flow management even when their backs are against the wall!). Possibly less evident is the importance of cash flow management even when a business is doing very well.

When profits are good and margins are high, it’s easy to become content about making hay while the sun shines—your finances seem to take care of themselves and managing the detail seems like an unnecessary chore. Inevitably however, overheads begin to creep and your expenditure starts to bloat. Your perspective on the future also becomes increasingly shortsighted. Where you were once planning budgets, investments and new ideas months, or even years, ahead, you begin to leave yourself open to surprises.

Why Float?

Back in the day, cash flow management typically relied upon spreadsheets and more than a little Excel wizardry! For those of us proficient in the world of formulas, functions and charts, this is doable but still incredibly time consuming. For others, it opens up a whole world of hurt!

Float aims to change all of this by making cash flow forecasts “easy, painless, and maybe even fun!” Seamlessly integrated with FreeAgent“heavenly online accounting”—Float removes much of the complexity and manual labour involved in the whole process.

There are “no formulas to understand, type in, or break!” and Float’s clean, intuitive, Web 2.0 style interface makes it a breeze to use. Unlike Excel, Float is online, so you can access it anytime, anywhere. It’s also quick to set up and, unlike many other financial planning tools, you don’t need any training or financial qualifications to use Float, so you can literally get started straight away. Colin and Phil (the founders of Float) are always on hand if you’ve got any questions too.

Image of an open Apple Macbook displaying Float on its screen. Float has a menu on its left-hand side, a graph of cash flow projections at the top and a table of numbers at the bottom.

 

Float particularly comes into its own when you consider the point at which future projections meet current reality. Using a cash flow forecast in Excel, you would need to constantly check that your spreadsheet figures match those of your bank account—does the theory match reality? Float, on the other hand, removes the need for manual checking. All of your transactions, balances and other accounting figures are imported directly from FreeAgent and categorised. This, combined with FreeAgent’s automated bank feeds from Barclays, means that you have streamlined, realtime financial planning at your fingertips!

Float, FreeAgent and Barclays

“But what if I don’t use FreeAgent or bank with Barclays?” I hear you cry.

To answer the first part of that question, part of the beauty of Float is its reliance upon FreeAgent. Much of the frustration inherent in using Excel (aside from the need to understand its functionality) is the amount of time involved in entering data manually and the mistakes that can creep in as a consequence. Float deals with this by pulling its data from FreeAgent and, personally, it’s one of the reasons that I love it most. There’s no way I’d have the time to keep an offline spreadsheet up-to-date and I’m a firm believer in using technology to improve efficiency, so why would I enter data manually when software exists that will do it all for me?

And, if you haven’t ever heard of FreeAgent or don’t yet use it for your accounting, I would highly recommend it! In the words of Ryan Havoc (Boagworld), “FreeAgent is a fully featured online accounting tool wrapped in a sleek, comprehensive and easy to use interface.” Kevin Partner of PC Pro also wrote, “It’s rare that I feel able to recommend a product unreservedly: this is one of those occasions.” Similarly, as I’ve written before, FreeAgent is a pleasure to use, makes life so much easier, and their customer support is second to none.

Float are also working towards integration with other cloud-based accounting packages, so further integration and availability is something that should be on its way.

Similarly, FreeAgent are working hard to support banks other than Barclays and, in the long term, they hope that all FreeAgent users will have automatic feeds no matter whom they bank with. Watch this space!

Planning for tomorrow and keeping an eye on today

Here at Matt Stocker Ltd, we’re passionate about helping organisations to plan for the future and Float’s philosophy very much fits with our own approach. As strategy consultants, we work with clients to build long term success; this includes minimising surprises, reducing risk and helping organisations to allocate their resources effectively.

Screen shot of the Float blog showing the article, 'Founder Focus #1: Matt Stocker'Back in April of this year, Float asked me to explain why I love Float and how I use it, and I was thrilled for my answers to be featured on their blog.

Float themselves say, “There is still so much more we can do to help business owners see into the future—and we are still hard at work.” As always, I’m excited to see what else is in the pipeline. Float has already come so far and, even since April, they’ve rolled out several new features.

Longer term, I’d like to see Float enable best practice for turnaround situations by providing a week-by-week view on an organisation’s cash flow. In the meantime, I know that they’re currently working on handling credit card transactions more effectively and several other ideas are underway.

Float really does have the potential to transform the world of cash flow forecasting in the same way that FreeAgent and Xero have transformed small business accounting.

RIP Excel! Long Live Float!—the start-up that’s making waves!

Sign up for Float and FreeAgent today

If what I’ve said has piqued your interest, why not sign up for Float and FreeAgent today…

Float offer a 30-day free trial, no credit card required.

And grab yourself 10% off at FreeAgent with our referral code 314yalfc or by clicking the link below:

FreeAgent Small Business Online Accounting

 

It might sound somewhat geeky but I love software! By software I mean the programmes that sit on our computers, mobile devices and in the cloud that have been designed to make our devices useful and our lives easier. We live in an age in which there is unprecedented access to high quality software, both at home and in business. Software is a growing, thriving market, with low barriers to entry, and the fact that investors are willing to back software is only increasing the availability of great solutions.

For me, I love comparing and choosing software, using it, getting to know it and learning about the efforts and ideas that developers have put into their baby. I love the power that software has to transform an action, a process or even an entire organisation.

The trouble is that choosing and using software can be a bit of a Marmite process—especially in a business environment. You’ll either love it or hate it. Software inevitably transforms your life one way or another—for good or for bad! Generally, the more core a software solution is to key business processes, the more this is true. Choose and commit to the wrong software solution and you can bring a business to its knees very quickly. I’ve seen this happen a number of times to unsuspecting organisations and it’s not pretty!

Think of selecting software as a little like marriage—it’s easy to commit but hard to get out of. When you achieve the perfect match, life couldn’t be better. But get it wrong and separation tends to be a painful, messy process.

So what are the rules of software commitment that minimise the risk of marrying in haste and repenting at leisure?

1. Understand yourself and what you are looking for

If you don’t understand yourself, your organisation, and how you work, you won’t be able to decide what you’re really looking for and whether there is a good fit or not. Most people have some sort of list for ‘My ideal partner is…’, based on their own understanding of themselves and what they feel would work in a relationship. Choosing software is not much different. Although ideal partner lists aren’t always 100% correct and you may later discover that certain assumptions were wrong, developing an ideal software list is a great start to the selection process. Before you begin to select any software, it’s vital that you first understand your business, the core processes that make your business tick, and what success looks like for you. What features can you really not live without? What are you happy to compromise on? What are the end objectives that you want to achieve? These are the criteria that will help you to find your ideal partner.

2. Work through stuff together

Looks aren’t everything, right? While aesthetics are obviously important in the attraction process, there is a strong case for the ‘It’s what’s inside that counts’ perspective to gauge how well you will get on as a couple over the long term. And the only way to really find out what’s inside is to work through important stuff together. You need to find out whether your individual approaches to life are remotely on the same page. Committing to software is much the same. It’s vital to work through real business scenarios with the software yourself and you should always insist on both a demo and trial that uses your own case studies, data, processes and tasks. Don’t just rely on standard demos and don’t let a salesperson do it all for you—they are practiced at making their software look brilliant and easy to use, even when it’s not! By working through practical scenarios and day-to-day processes, you’ll soon begin to see whether you have an attraction that goes beyond the first few clicks!

3. Dig deeper

With software, as with people, sometimes not everything is as it appears on the surface. That’s to be expected—we don’t always like sharing our weaknesses, especially when they make us vulnerable. A software sales person is even less likely to be completely open and honest with you as it’s in their best interests to make a sale. The website of a software product is also unlikely to list everything that the software can’t do. That’s why it’s up to you to ask the right questions and dig deep. Software sales can be a case of ‘truth by omission’ so it’s your responsibility to find out what they haven’t told you. Unfortunately, this courtship tends to be a bit more one-sided than is ideal but, with software selection, I’m afraid that’s the way it tends to be. Caveat emptor—let the buyer beware!

4. There is no such thing as the perfect partner

As Debbie may occasionally tell you on a bad day, there is no such thing as the perfect husband—I know, shocking right?! And likewise, there is no such thing as the perfect software. Unless you buy a bespoke solution, no software will have been designed for you personally but rather for someone a bit like you. This means that it’s highly unlikely you’ll find software with a perfect fit. You therefore need to look for best fit solutions—software that most appropriately fits your processes and that you can live with on a daily basis. Of course, each solution will have its own strengths and weaknesses but inevitably you’ll be able to live with some, whilst others are going to drive you insane! The secret is choosing the former and avoiding the latter.

5. Know where to draw the lines

Different relationships work in different ways—it may be that you’re responsible for the admin and your partner looks after the garden. Maybe you co-parent your kids. Wherever the responsibilities lie in a relationship, it’s always an idea to play to your strengths. If both of you suck at housework or DIY, you might hire a cleaner or a handyman. Knowing where to draw the lines between software works in a similar fashion. It isn’t often that one piece of software can be all things to all people. Indeed, software that claims to do everything is, in reality, often unwieldy and mediocre at most things, whilst being excellent at few. You will therefore need to decide which software solutions will best look after which processes. You’ll also need to consider how the solutions will effectively integrate with one another without things dropping through the cracks. Making these decisions often requires a bit of juggling as you work out what fits where and the boundaries will, on occasion, require reworking and renegotiation. But, as with any successful relationship, that’s all part of the fun!

6. Don’t think you can change them

Starting any relationship with the aim of changing your partner into something they are not is a dangerous plan and one that’s doomed to failure. The fact is, people don’t change easily. Evolve? Yes. Change? No. Established software is similar in its inability to accommodate significant changes. The sales people or developers may promise change but in reality it’s not that simple. Software tends to be built around a fundamental concept, philosophy and envisaged use scenario, so promising change is the equivalent of an architect promising to create a mansion out of a bungalow. Yes, it’s technically possible but only if you knock it down and start again. In most cases, you might as well have bought a mansion in the first place! As a rule of thumb, tweaks are fine but you should be very sceptical of promises for deep changes to core functionality. Such changes are usually risky, expensive, create more problems than they solve, and are often no more effective than putting lipstick on a pig! Software as a service (SAAS) solutions tend to be even more inflexible. By its very nature, SAAS offers a one size fits all solution—the entire business model hinges on solutions for the masses. Whether software as a service or boxed software, whatever you do, don’t commit to it based on a vague promise of added functionality sometime in the future.

7. Ask the children

I’m not for one moment suggesting that your staff are your children or that you should treat them as such! However, much like parental decisions not only affect the adults but also influence the children, you need to realise that a software partnership isn’t just between you and the software provider—others within your organisation are going to have to live with your decision day in, day out. Get your colleagues involved at an early stage. Involve them in developing the statement of requirements, invite them to meetings, and ask them to test the software themselves. Be conscious of those people who will be most impacted by your decision—they will usually be the ones who get shouted at if they can’t do their job properly due to poor software and they won’t thank you for a poor choice! Where possible, make a business-wide decision as to which solution to commit to. Remember, unlike children, your colleagues can walk out if you get it really wrong. Businesses have lost good staff through poor software selection and implementation because dealing with bad software on a daily basis made their jobs nigh impossible.

8. It’s not just about the wedding

Long-term marital success is as much about life after the wedding as it is about your partner selection and promises of commitment. You need to give each other time to settle in and adjust. Make time for one another, continue to talk, resolve differences, and put one another first. In a successful software partnership, continued commitment following the initial selection process is vital. Surprisingly, choosing your software is actually the easy bit of the process. Without a full and proper implementation, you could in fact create a failed project even if you have selected the right partner. In rolling out the software you should be aware that staff will need training; an effective transition from the old way of working to the new will need to be made; and there are likely to be teething issues that will need to be resolved. Longer term, adjustments will need to be made to ensure that the software continues to evolve with you. Of course, you can’t do this on your own. Both you and the software provider need to remain completely committed for the long haul, even—or should I say, especially?!—after the initial honeymoon period is over.

9. Trust is important

Trust is important for any relationship and especially for one in which there is a long-term commitment. Without trust, a relationship can be at best difficult and at worst impossible. Likewise with software, the concept of trust is critical. You need to trust the software’s security, its resilience, your backup of the data, the service level agreement (SLA), and the fact that the future road map of the software is going where you need it to. After all, you are entrusting your business to this software. Not only that but you need to remember that you are not just choosing the software itself but also the people and the organisation behind it. You will be reliant upon the competence of the team who develop and build it; the responsiveness and helpfulness of those people who answer your urgent support requests; and the wisdom of the owners and managers who determine the long-term direction and success of the business. Can you trust them to do good by your organisation? Do they really understand your needs? Are they consistent and congruent in their relationships? Are they people you’ll enjoy working with well into the future? By doing your due diligence upfront, you’ll reduce the risk of being disappointed and heartbroken later on.

10. Money matters

Research suggests that money is one of the topics most argued over in a committed relationship. Differing expectations and differing priorities have to be worked through, compromises made, and a shared understanding developed if money isn’t going to become an issue that gets in the way of a relationship. If this kind of understanding can’t be reached it begins to suggest the partners might indeed be incompatible. Likewise with a software partnership, financial priorities and budgeting can be an issue. Knowing how much to spend on software is not always obvious, especially when price is not directly correlated to quality or even value. In reality, you can only ever really make a comparative decision between differing software options, balancing the complex mix of functionality, best fit, price, licensing model, consultancy and training fees, ease of implementation and upgradability. In the end, you’ll need to choose the solution that you feel provides the best return on investment. It may be that you have a natural tendency to spend very little or to spend a lot. At the end of the day, it’s not about your personal spending preferences but about the business case, the range of software options available to you and, ultimately, what will be best for your business—even if it takes you out of your comfort zone.

Enjoy the process

Hopefully I haven’t scared you off either marriage or software selection after all that! As I said at the beginning, I love software and, as Debbie will testify, I get particularly absorbed during a software selection project largely due to the fact that I’m having so much fun! I’m also an advocate of healthy and happy marriages—after all, I found not only my wife but also my business partner too.

Whilst some businesses are happy to approach software selection with little more thought than a drunken and impromptu wedding to a stranger in Vagas, only to wake up the next day regretting the fact that they didn’t put a bit more thought into choosing a more suitable partner, there are some who are wiser and heed the call to approach software selection as you would a serious courtship. Hopefully, you, dear reader, fall into the latter category!

Also, do remember that, much like marriage, you need to go into software selection knowing that you’ll always have a lot to learn. So be willing and able to get stuck in. Grow. Make mistakes. And, most of all, enjoy the process! Sometimes, even if you follow all the rules and do absolutely everything right, it won’t always work out, but at least you’ll be able to look yourself in the mirror and say, “I gave it my best shot.” And, after that, you will pick yourself up and start over again.

29
Sep
Posted by Matt Stocker, stored in: Technology & Web  

Hello again – sorry for the rather long pause in blogging! I do have a number of excuses including a heavy work load, working on an updated website (almost ready to launch in the not too distant future) and the arrival of a rather high maintenance police sniffer puppy in training called Herbie. He has now moved to live with his new handler for his next stage of training and we have a new sniffer dog in training called Jess who’s a lot lower maintenance!  Anyway, excuses over, back to the blog!

I was musing the other day about the fact that I use rather a lot of web 2.o style applications for my business. As I find these applications so useful and have made my selections based upon fairly extensive research and comparisons between products, I thought I’d put a list together to give you a headstart if you’re looking for similar tools. (more…)

23
Feb
Posted by Matt Stocker, stored in: Technology & Web  

Traxia EVThe ‘app’ concept continues to gain ground not just within IT but also in industries such as automotive industry.

LSN Global featured the new Trexa ‘car development platform’ – a fully electric vehicle-development platform that provides designers and manufacturers with the capability to design and develop unique designs without incurring the expense of developing new platforms. The resulting ‘app’ designs dock onto the platform and are fully interchangeable (i.e car to van to flatbed).

Key challenge

Whilst this looks like a great idea, I think that the key challenge with this technology will be pricing. It is likely that vehicle ‘apps’ will be produced in fairly low volumes and as a result it may be difficult to achieve the economies of scale needed to bring the price down. This could well mean that the resulting vehicles on sale are actually quite expensive compared to traditional vehicles from the volume vehicle manufacturers, rendering the ‘app’ proposition uncompetitive.

It has often been the case in the past that for ‘interchangeable’ products the resulting ‘options’ are actually just as expensive as buying another, brand new, fully functional product, thus rendering interchangablity as pointless.

So the key to this product’s success?

For those manufacturers already competing effectively in the niche electric vehicle market, this platform could be very good news indeed, resulting in significant R&D savings, access to the latest upgradable technology and a faster, more flexible, product development cycle.

In terms of the ‘interchangeable’ aspect of the vehicles, the keys to success are likely to be innovative, high-quality products, produced using low volume, low cost manufacturing, thereby ensuring that the designers of vehicle ‘apps’ really do have a significant price advantage against main stream solutions.

Would I buy one?

Well, if I could design my own vehicle online that I could fully specify from modular components and that was delivered direct to my door, that would be very cool indeed. However, for me, an Audi R8 or Tessla might be slightly higher up my wishlist!

10
Feb
Posted by Matt Stocker, stored in: Performance Improvement  Technology & Web  

pile-of-papersChances are, if you are anything like most businesses, you have a lot of paper to deal with in your office and in your job. The fact is, we rely to a large extent on paper: to communicate, to record, to remind, to sell. The promise of a paper free office remains a technological fantasy for many.

However, it is important to recognise the scalability issues of paper as a technology: paper can only be in one place at one time so it doesn’t work well across multiple sites; revision control is tricky; and it can be hard to back up – do you have duplicate copies of everything if worst came to the worst?

Even if we cannot remove paper entirely, there are things we can do to consign it to a supporting role rather than the main deal within a business.

Steps to creating a paperless office

1. Analysing your processes

The first idea to grasp is the fact that paper usually relates to a process or processes within your organisation. Understanding this will provide a solid foundation for beginning to deal with the paper as the processes themselves provide the structural foundation for creating a paperless office. By analysing the papers for clues about the activities the paper itself represents and following this paper through the system, you can outline your processes, giving you an accurate view of ‘now’.

2. Revising your processes

The next step is to revise your processes in order to maximise efficiency. This includes:

  • Eliminating bottle necks and their resulting backlogs
  • Removing unecessary steps within the process(es)
  • Assessing crossover and interdependency of processes within the wider organisation to ensure integration
  • And, overall, designing as lean a process as possible.

Value stream mapping may be a good tool to use at this stage. The people involved in each process within your organisation will also be a vital source of information and feedback as they are the people on the ground who are involved in the processes day-in, day-out.

3. Integrating paper and technology

Having created a coherent set of lean processes, the next challenge is to reduce the use of paper where possible. This can be done by assessing the processes to find out which parts of them can be automated and then developing an IT and technology solution that has your best practice processes inherently embedded into its system. In other words, the IT and technology solution reflects and is built around your processes, rather than the processes being built around the technology.

4. Sustainable continuous improvement

Once you have found a solution that works for your organisation as a whole and that maximises your efficiency and effectiveness, it is important to maintain the momentum of improvement. Ongoing assessment and revision will ensure that as your organisation grows and develops your processes continue to support the delivery of your organisation’s objectives. New technology is also continually emerging that may provide a solution to paper based systems where a solution did not previously exist. Staying abreast of these developments allows you to continually improve organisational performance and efficiency.

5. Reducing risk

Although it is not always possible to eliminate the use of paper completely, you should not be relying on paper for mission critical functions. However, neither should you be relying on technology without a business continuity plan in place. Whatever system and solution you are using, you should always make sure that fail-safes and redundancies are built into the process(es).

If you would like any advice or support in creating a paperless office for your organisation, please contact me or call me on 02476 100 193 – I would love to help!