Anyone home?

I often talk about the importance of having a system and policy in place for when you publish that email address or email form on a website. You set expectations as to when you will reply and you stick to it as much as possible.

This is such a basic thing that I think many don’t even think about it any more, which is perhaps why the problems is still so persuasive.

But what about phone numbers.

Sometimes I think dusting off the Phone app and calling is a more efficient way of finding the info I need. So when a particular department at UPEI publishes the phone numbers of those who I wish to call, I expect at some point someone might answer. Except out of the the 16 listed numbers no one has answered all week.

And to make matters worse, when trying to leave a voice mail message, I get an error stating that they don’t subscribe to the service!

Does this have any real world effects? In this case, likely not. But under other circumstances, like if this was a business, I would have taken my business elsewhere long ago.

So I’m back to email. Maybe that will work. Or not.

Opening a business account

I spent an hour last week – much more than that if you consider shoulder time – opening a business bank account at TD. Most of that time was spent with the banker filling out the forms on her terminal and looking up our details on a website. There was nothing to be sold on, nor was there really anything I needed to be informed of.

There is real cost in 3 people sitting in a room for this length of time, and yet there was nothing that we did that couldn’t have been done online or even automated.

What a waste.

Buster mirror shot

When we finally moved to a house amongst the hills and valleys of the countryside we developed a habit of rescuing street dogs. Buster was our first and he in all his glory exemplified our naivety and inexperience.

The color of his coat hid ticks well. This resulted in a first floor infestation – every one had to take their clothes off before going upstairs and have their body checked. Sleeping with ticks became a theme of my dreams and it took over a month to rid our house of the pests and return to my usual nightmares.

Buster spent his life before us grossly mistreated. Spending his life up to this point locked up in a small cage, his hips were in bad shape and climbing stairs was a slow agonizing process. He was possessive which meant we got bit a lot until I got the whole you don’t “bite the hand that feeds you” under control. Feeding a dog like this raw hamburger from my hand and fingers everyday for a month helped me develop the ability to be calm.

In the end he became a gentle lion and my daughters protector. It was like Moses parting the sea when she walked Buster amongst the crowds of people out walking at night. People had an irrational fear of large black dogs. I miss these walks through the hills of Xiangshan.

In the end I had to send Buster over the rainbow bridge. His liver had exploded and he was in terrible pain. This was his last lesson, the powerful experience of being with someone as they transition from this life to whatever happens next.

Overcast AD results

Our ad run on Overcast app. came to a close on the 21st and by their standards it was resounding success. They state an average of 20–30 subscriptions with a $5.20 cpa (which changes depending on the floating cost of the ad).

We ended up with 57,913 ad views, 603 taps (1.0%), and 57 subscribers (9.5%). As far as I know, it’s not possible to track how many subscribers became listeners, or if they unsubscribed immediately after. This makes it difficult to determine the efficacy of small ad spends.

With our current monthly downloads on Sleep Tight Stories north of 550,000 per month, 57 new subscribers won’t have any marketable immediate effect. Having said that, I do see this as a far more effective use of a limited advertising budget than say Facecrook, or Google. Google Adwords is a complicated morass of options that requires time to understand.

Displays of abundance

I’m curious how the food is displayed in these photos effect purchasing behaviour. You won’t see food often displayed in this manner locally, where we focus more on the presentation of the product. Higher end or specialty grovcers in Taiwan and elsewhere had more upscale presentations, but few shopped there for anything other than a few items.

Monsieur VRAC

I took Sheryl to Monsieur VRAC yesterday enroute to Walmart, which though a horrid store has a selection of goods we often like to buy.

We walked out of Monsieur VRAC without buying anything. The store is clean, brightly light, sparsely populated with goods*, and with polite sales people who are there to guide you through your experience in the store. The only fault you might find is the quantity of goods is too small.

And yet though we had need, we didn’t buy.

For us the reasoning was simple. The pricing of all the goods we looked at were far higher than what we would pay elsewhere and with no indication that what we would be purchasing is of better or even equivalent quality. This isn’t the Bulk Barn who advertise falsely that by buying in bulk from them you save money. But they are still selling commodity goods at premium prices. So why would you pay more for something, in one instance twice as much, than what you pay elsewhere?

The in store experience might be a factor, but ordering goods via my mobile, exactly when I need them is a better experience for me in this case. A good shopping experience is more akin to discovery, and the joy of being in a store is an activity in itself. A good bookstore might have helpful staff (who recommend things), a calming environment, a rotating selection of interesting items to find, and good coffee to drink while you consider your purchases.

I think more likely what you purchase from Monsieur VRAC is the belief that you are doing something positive. That by buying from them you are making a difference in some small way – reducing packaging waste, participating in a “zero waste lifestyle.” It seems more emotional, then tangible. You feel connected with something.

It’s an interesting study in creating an experience based business around commodity products.

*which generally means the goods will be more expensive.

Selling experiences

Commodities are fungible, goods tangible, services intangible, and experiences memorable.

The entire history of economic progress can be recapitulated in the four-stage evolution of the birthday cake. As a vestige of the agrarian economy, mothers made birthday cakes from scratch, mixing farm commodities (flour, sugar, butter, and eggs) that together cost mere dimes. As the goods-based industrial economy advanced, moms paid a dollar or two to Betty Crocker for premixed ingredients. Later, when the service economy took hold, busy parents ordered cakes from the bakery or grocery store, which, at $10 or $15, cost ten times as much as the packaged ingredients. Now, in the time-starved 1990s, parents neither make the birthday cake nor even throw the party. Instead, they spend $100 or more to “outsource” the entire event to Chuck E. Cheese’s, the Discovery Zone, the Mining Company, or some other business that stages a memorable event for the kids—and often throws in the cake for free.

Talking to my banker yesterday she asked, “Is this a non-profit venture?” I laughed and said that it wasn’t supposed to be.

Our current problem to solve is how to sell more of an experience, or how to get people to pay for an experience that was once free.

The audio stories we create fill a real need but it’s an emotional one, one that is currently being fulfilled by a free product. Our strategy thus far has been something akin to public radio – to support the continued development of the pod, please subscribe to our Patreon or donate a one time sum. In return you get ….. These CTA’s we developed were criticized as being amateurish. Though true, I think the real problem is that it appeals to their good will versus realizing that they are getting something of value in return.

But I am still not clear how to communicate this value.

We are now switching our focus to selling a premium feed but the problem remains. How to sell our value when the paid version is simply more, even though it fulfills a need stated by our listeners (more stories please!). I’m stuck on commoditization as a strategy, we give you more of the same, and we remove some pain points (ads).

How to sell experiences? How to create more value for listeners, so that it’s worth it for them to pay? How to sell this?

So many questions and so few answers.

Hearing but not listening

In moments of exasperation I’ll say to my daughter, you hear me but you are not listening. The meaning is clear, while I may have her attention she is not truly absorbing what I am saying.

I am an old uncool man in his 50’s and as such though there is a great deal of trust between us, my message gets lost in a sea of other more interesting messages that enter the teenage brain. Why try my advice, which may involve discomfort, when the lure of immediate satisfaction beckons.

People in general do not know how to listen. They have ears that hear very well, but few have acquired the necessary skills which would allow those ears to be used effectively for what is called listening. Perhaps in part because what you learn might not agree with what you want to hear.

How many conversations have I had with entrepreneurs that included: it’s a great idea, but the scope poses challenges in execution. Before investing equity you should really iterate on who your customer is and their problems and needs, by actually talking to them in a structured fashion.

If given time I might continue and explain yet again that I see 2 ways of creating a product: you can 1) go out and talk to people and understand their needs, pain points, or 2) invent a product and figure out a way to manufacture a need (marketing). Do you have enough runway to last long enough to pay for sales and marketing until you can create this need? Is this money well spent?

Usually this talk is followed by smiles and nods of agreement. Then they go right back to what they were doing.

Because if you actually talk to customers about your “world changing Facebook should really buy this” product, you may find out that it only solves a problem for you and no one else. Which is uncomfortable (but is also an opportunity).

I’m not a good teacher, leader or advisor, so this could be an issue with my delivery. But I think more likely is the fact that truly listening uncovers new knowledge that may lead to actions involving discomfort. It’s easier to keep your listening skills undeveloped so that you can hear what you want to hear.

Turkey tip

Don’t multi-task browning meat, cooking vegetables and siting at your desk editing audio.

On Sunday I cooked a turkey we had in the freezer as a protein hedge in case the world came apart at the start of the pandemic. Cooking a turkey in of itself is nothing special, I cook most meals, but trying to multitask while browning a turkey proves yet again that multitasking is largely a myth.

With headphones on I heard a strange sizzling sound and came out of my daze to realize that I was actually cooking something. Water was boiling all over the stove. And the oven had been set to broil. A minute longer and we might have been met with disaster. Luckily the turkey, despite some charing, was moist and as delicious as turkey can be.

Lunch in elementary school

For the later part of elementary school we took Camren out of local private school to attend the Science Park school with Catriona. This was how they spent part of the lunch hour, eating at their desk, like many of their parents who would eat at their desk while at work. They start preparing them for work life early.

At lunch time most students had a hot meal prepared at home. Box lunch’s could be delivered, but they were, in elementary school at least, infrequent. Not all kids ate well of course. Parents are overworked in Hsinchu, and often squeeze as many hours of sleep in as possible. Last minute trips to the convenience store for whatever was available at breakfast, sometimes somewhat healthy, often times not, was common.

This was their first big adjustment upon moving here. Eating fresh whole food here at school time is difficult. Food allergies rampant, industrial and fast food preferred. At Birchwood they have a whole cooler devoted to chocolate milk. They have microwaves at the schools, but the kids complained of long line ups and the inability to have time to eat and socialize.

The new healthy food program has helped us divert their diet from the monotony of the sandwich, and all its carbs and salty meats. But we do miss the ability to be less restrictive with our food.

Spark mail

I recently switched back to using Spark mail for Mac and iOS. It was always a toss up between it and Outlook on mobile, but I had decided to stop using it due to privacy concerns. So I tried to settle with Apple’s built-in mail clients but their iOS versions astonishing lack of proper “swipe to delete” made that impossible. Outlook’s Mac UI follows the Office heavy handed approach which make using software a chore.

After the recent server intrusion and the resetting of all passwords related to mail, db, WordPress, and accounts at Pair. I decided to get all our email in order – was always finicky about smtp and Apples handling on adding mail accounts is confusing. You can add it in Mail or in control panel, but my experience is that one does not always influence the other.

What prompted the change back was that after finally getting all our email addresses working in Mail, I found out that I would have to repeat this exact same process on each device that I use. Mail login information is not synced across devices.

Spark does sync, but they aren’t Apple which is in part why they elicit concern about privacy.

The Spark UI on Mac is a mess. It’s heavily influenced by mobile interfaces which place major actions where the hand can easily reach them. With a mouse and a large screen we are more concerned with hierarchy – major actions should be at the top on the window. Spark puts them everywhere.

Spam handling is lacklustre, and there is no ability to filter mail or perform certain actions.

I do like the shared templates and delegating of email. That makes it a (very) lightweight CRM, perhaps good enough until we can graduate to a tool like Daylight.

I’ll give it a month to see if I can get used to the UI on Mac.

Short two days

I like trying different ways to organize my day. My current system using Omnifocus is getting tired and I’m now somewhat blind to the ever increasing list of tasks tagged “today”. So I have been having fun, as much fun as you can writing lists, trying different analogue ways to capture my attention and decrease the cognitive load associated with having to remember to do things. I saw this nifty little pad at Staples and almost purchased it until I realized that it was missing two days. Obviously this pad was created for people other than myself.

Hojo’s Revisited

Sheryl and I went to Hojo’s last night for dinner, her first visit and my first since the endless pandemic began.

The food was well prepared. My “mixed fish on top of rice” was tasty and her “fried pork and egg” was filling. We also ordered Miso soup, which was nice, and a spicy salmon roll which was not. I could eat this food just about everyday, though unfortunately the prices charged for Japanese food locally would might speed us towards bankruptcy.

Seeing as we were out to dinner sans children it would seem like a perfect opportunity to spend some time in the downtown. Go for a walk, visit some shops, and enjoy a treat. But I was suddenly cold and there really is no where to go. A walk around the block in the dark perhaps, Charlottetown really is quite dark at night, but there is nothing much of interest for the non-bar hoppers like us.

It’s a shame, but the effects of the pandemic and lack of new influx of PNP store owners have left the downtown to the point of dereliction. Without tourists Charlottetown has always been somewhat lifeless. It’s much more so now and if the tourists ever have the opportunity to return, they may be shocked to see nothing but boarded up windows.

So we did what many others do. Drove in our car to a big box store and bought a few groceries before heading home.

Spring flowers

As I suffer through our first real week of winter, friends abroad are sharing images like the one above that I took during this month a number of years ago. No matter the time of year, or how gray the weather, there was always a splash of colour to be found.

I tried

The first real day of winter happened today and after the plows had their first pass at the streets it was somewhat safe to drop Camren off at Bluefins. As is fast becoming tradition, while he is swimming, I run on the trail that so conveniently intersects the town. Unfortunately after about 4 km I decided to pack it in and head for the grocery store, the only real shopping experience I enjoy. The trail was cleared quite well and the temperature was agreeable, but unfortunately they had the snow packed down so smooth that parts of the trail were better suited for skates than running shoes. After a few close calls I decided to err on the side of not fracturing a hip and stopped.

The Scent of Green Papaya

As was the fashion at the time, I picked up this movie amongst others at a local market, likely a VCD, completely unaware just how great the film was. I think I watched it a dozen times afterwards. In later years this movie market would require trips to out of the way stalls in tourist markets after the police were starting to loosely enforce piracy laws.

Vietnam 2003

Best wishes have been trickling in and a lovely piece of art is in the mail but we won’t be celebrating the lunar new year this year. The kids were deeply invested in the holiday but Sheryl and I were at best interlopers. For much of our time in Taiwan we were stuck in the middle of 2 cultures and seemingly never really fully invested in either.

Though the time stamps on the photos say 2000, it must have been about 18 years ago that we spent the lunar holiday in Vietnam. I took an interest in their political posters of the time and a few I’ve shared below.

It wasn’t as much of a holiday as we had hoped. Sheryl was pregnant with Catriona at the time and developed complications which necessitated a trip to the women’s hospital nearby. Though the hospital looked like any other and the doctors treated her well, we didn’t place much faith in their medical system but it all worked out fine, as Catriona is with us today. Unfortunately it meant for the rest of the vacation Sheryl was confined to bed rest in our hotel room.

We never returned, but hopefully in the future we can grab our backpacks and explore the country again.

Changes in diet

3 pieces of imported salmon for $10 CAN

Our diet has gone through a lot of changes since returning to PEI – some good, some bad. If there was a measure called the healthy quotient than I would say overall the quality of our diet has declined. Particularly the kids, as preparing fresh healthy food to take to school for lunch and snack is much more difficult due to the rampant food allergy problems in Canada. As such their diet is far more reliant on easy foods like bread and such.

One missing ingredient in our diet is fish, particularly salmon. We would have salmon once or twice a week in Taiwan, either for breakfast or dinner. It’s a mystery to me how an island with a thriving fishery has such a poor selection of fish in the grocery and at prices far higher than what we paid before. But then, it was also (not so much) a mystery in Taiwan why a product manufactured a 20 minute walk from my house was cheaper in the US and Canada, than it was locally.

New friend

Here I am about 18 years ago with my new drunk friend, drunk because the village was having a party, and also likely due to having to perform some ceremony for the benefit of backpackers.

Taken somewhere in the wilds of Northern Thailand. I remember being nervous about our over night accommodations. All the men in the village seemed to be getting drunk, and at the same time were taking an unhealthy interest in Sheryl. Luckily it was just paranoia.

Tip: don’t buy fancy leather hiking boots with glued on soles while hiking in hot humid SE Asia. My feet were a mess and the soles came off a couple years later.

Midday break

When I worked in Zhubei I would at each lunch time head out for a walk and at the beginning or the end my hour, enjoy a nice latte at the cafe nearby. My boss thought it was cute, or insane, depending on her mood, but for me it was an essential mental break. Some walking after sitting all morning also helps the body alleviate the damage accrued from sitting for hours.

With that in mind I have recently taken advantage of noon time workouts at a nearby gym to see if it helps break the monotony of the day and help my physical health. I’ve been finding CrossFit at 4:30pm or later less than ideal due to the onset of January. There is something about winter, even in balmy Taiwan, that makes me want to stay inside and hibernate. Maybe I was a bear in my past life.

So far it has been a challenge. This new gym has a faster pace and good coaching but working out midday has the unwanted side effect of making me tired. I come home afterwards, hungry, which leads to eating, and tiredness necessitates a nap. Next thing I know its after 2 and I still have a lot of tasks to accomplish.

A 2 hour lunch seems like a bit of a luxury, but I’m going to give it another couple of weeks and see if I can keep this up until the sunshine returns.

Breakfasts in China

During the brief period I worked in China I had an Instagram devoted to the meals I ate in the company cafeteria. The food was generally tasty, safe (!) and clean but getting enough protein in my diet was always a challenge. It wasn’t uncommon for me to have 6 eggs for breakfast to make up for the lack of meat in my diet. When I first arrived I found it interesting that all these completely unathletic colleagues had giant buckets of protein powder at their desks. The lack of protein seemed to be the reason.

Trail condition

This blurry paint-like photo was taken while still moving last night on the part of the Confederation Trail forbidden for use during winter. Our recent weather has been such that the trails are unsuitable for snowmobiles which is unfortunate for the snowmobile association but good for everyone else. I didn’t stay on the trail long as it was muddy in places and I didn’t want to make a mess of what is a solid smooth path. If the lack of snow continues and the ground hardens, I’ll be back, headlamp in tow.

Calm It Down

American pianist and composer Chad Lawson talks us through how to find calm as we navigate the ups and downs of life, to help make what we think are big problems, much smaller.
Happiful Magazine

I attended a workshop by Chad Lawson and found it to be incredibly useful and pertinent to the work I do now. But much of my learning has come after by listening to his own personal podcast Calm It Down. I admittedly don’t listen as much as analyze. The sound of his voice along with his original compositions is superb. It’s a sonically calming.

Even if you don’t prescribe to this thoughtful approach to self-help/care, I don’t, it should still warrant adding to your playlist.

Calm It Down Podcast

Filter phase

9 years ago I was knee deep into using filters to try and recreate the effects I would have when I used certain black and white film with my various Lomo cameras. This was taken during a day trip to Taipei.

Up to

I was inspired some time ago by Peter Rukavina to keep a running log of the sort of things I am working on, or interested in during a particular month. A public pronouncement of sorts, in an effort for accountability. Unfortunately, I haven’t really been paying attention to it since last March and haven’t changed the updated date since July of 2019 (I just updated it now).

But much has happened since then, and since I shared a short progress report on our Instagram, which by the very nature of Instagram must be entirely positive, I thought I might give a slightly longer update here, and include some of our challenges.

🎧 In the past year I have almost completely pivoted to audio. I still do the occasional product consulting, and I try to approach all the work I do with the same approach I advise to others, but my hands on design and design research skills have been set aside. I’m not sure what the future will hold for me if our venture isn’t able to produce revenue but it’s often great fun.

🧑🏾‍🤝‍🧑🏻 Our company is now called Minzoo Studio Ltd, and I hold no title, other than what is required on the legal document. I cringe when introduced as CEO or some other nonsense.

🎙️ We currently have 4 podcasts with others under development. Of these 4, Sleep Tight Stories has proven to be the most successful, at least in terms of listener growth. Sleep Tight Relax passed the 1,000,000 download mark a few months ago, and Sleep Tight Science finished its’ 1st 10 episode season. We soft launched Sleep Tight Premium in the past month as a paid product.

💯 Sleep Tight Stories is currently ranked in the 0.5% of all podcasts according to Listen Notes and is consistently ranked highly in kids & family and stories for kids. Unlike most podcasts we share our data on our website.

💯 Our growth this year has been phenomenal, thanks in no small part to The Startup Zone. Sleep Tight Stories continues to grow and now has over 530,000 downloads per month and close to 4,000,000 downloads this past year alone.

💯 Audience measurement and its’ meaning continues to be a bit of a mystery. And downloads ≠ money.

💯 Numbers make for a great talking point, but don’t really expose the true value that this project brings to us and hopefully our listeners. Creating a product that resonates with children and has a positive effect on their lives brings us great joy.

📚 We continue to feature local independent authors on Sleep Tight Stories as much as we can. Authors generally are enthusiastic, but publishers, especially local ones, are less so.

🗞️ At the behest of an advisor, we created a press release, which resulted in a bit of local coverage.

🐝 At one point we (the 2 of us) were producing 6 episodes per week. It was 7 days a week, with our heads in front of Logic Pro amongst other tools. We’ve now managed to make the workload a little more manageable so that we can focus on creating more products for children.

🎨 Content creation as a business, despite the stories of successful YouTubers and Instagram influencers, is not a path to riches, and yet all my life I have found myself drawn to this type of work.

💸 Our original plan to be advertising free wasn’t sustainable as we had little time left to develop other products that people might pay for. It’s proven to be difficult to get people to pay for what was always free in the past but Patreon, private feeds and ad revenue is growing, albeit too slowly.

📚 Our first attempt at being a sponsor of the Island Literary Awards fizzled – this the idea of a generous Island teacher who offered to donate the prize money. For some reason since I have arrived on PEI every attempt to either volunteer or donate my expertise, or in this case our platform, has failed. For now we will focus our attention off-Island, but may revisit helping the local community in some small way once I understand what I have been doing wrong.

💸 Startup Zone has been the only source of government assistance we have received. We are an outlier in this regard, so it seems, as I don’t know any company in the StartUp Zone who isn’t actively pursuing money from the government. Some get government money to hire someone to help them get more government money. Without outside financing we rely upon our own sweat equity which slows growth but I think creates a more sustainable enterprise over the long term.

💰 We find living and working on PEI expensive, so if we grow, and we are able to freely travel again, we might start looking to work and hire from elsewhere. I miss traveling immensely.

🦹‍♂️ The hardest decision which is always waiting in the shadows is deciding whether or not to stop. The fact that we have worked so long on this project shows how lucky and how financially disciplined we are. It helps when you are bootstrapping to be cheap. There are many measurements of success, and I feel great about what we have accomplished to date, but playing the starving creative was never a role I ever was fully committed to – otherwise I would still be working in music today.