Recipe: Cacao Coffee

Cacao Coffee

Not to be confused with cocoa, this recipe uses raw cacao to add a nutty, slightly bitter flavour to the coffee while it’s being brewed in the French press. Adding raw cacao isn’t like adding sweetened chocolate, and won’t make your coffee taste chocolatey. But with the right blend of ingredients along with the raw cacao, the outcome is a fresh take on your morning joe (or jane).


  • French Press (the coffee oils make it into the brew intact and deliver a richer flavour)
  • Blender (hand / bullet blenders work great!)
  • Coffee Grinder (seriously, grind your own beans)


Core Ingredients

  • 4 tbsp freshly ground coffee
  • 2 tbsp raw cacao nibs
  • 16 oz hot water (not boiling)
  • 1 tbsp organic butter
  • 1 tbsp coconut oil (or MCT oil)
  • 1 tsp stevia (Truvia is one of the purer stevia blends readily available)

Optional Ingredients

  • 1-2 tbsp protein powder (I prefer unflavoured, cold-pressed whey isolate)
  • Kelp powder (if you’re like me and are trying to get high-quality iodine into your diet, but hate the taste of kelp and seaweed)
  • Ground vanilla, from whole or de-seeded vanilla pods (toast in a saucepan and grind in a mortar and pestle – do it ahead of time and store in a cool, dry place)

Butter in my Coffee? Gross! And, Heart-Attacky?

Give it a try. The butter imparts a rich, creamy flavour to the coffee and a shot of high-quality fat. Also, saturated fats aren’t the harbinger of coronary destruction that we thought they were. Why organic butter? It tends to lack preservatives, hormones or antibiotics, and has a better nutrient profile than regular butter. Why stevia? Also no preservatives, it comes from natural sources (a plant found in South America and Southeast Asia), and it’s calorie free. Why MCT oil? This fat is medium chain, and more easily converted into energy by the human body. Start small if you’ve never ingested pure MCT oil before – it takes a week or two for your body to get used to digesting it.

Also talk to the relevant professionals if you have a health condition or specific concerns. Or don’t want to take some random dude’s blog for gospel (ie these words don’t constitute medical or dietary advice of any kind… so don’t get your lawyer all up in my grill, ffs).

Makin’ It

This isn’t a beverage, it’s a meal. If you regularly have cacao coffee alongside other breakfast foods, don’t be surprised if you pack on a few pounds. Depending on the combination of ingredients you choose, this recipe will deliver between 450 and 600 calories per 16 oz serving. Seriously, it is breakfast. I’ve found that this particular combination of healthy, saturated fats and caffeine delivers food satiety and mental clarity well into the early afternoon. But hey, that’s just me.

In the Kitchen

Heat the water and brew the coffee in the French Press with the cacao nibs. Add the remaining ingredients into the blender, and combine on low. Once all the ingredients are blended and a bit of foam starts to form on the top, you’re good to go. Pour it in a travel mug and enjoy with the rising sun or during your morning commute.

Like this recipe? Share on the Twitter. Or Facebook. Or Google Plus (wait, is that still a thing?). Or hey, just take a picture of this post and get it on Insta.

Elevate Your Copy Game: The Content

Anatomy of a Great Ad

Like a great work of art, a great ad has a rather predictable set of elements. In digital and technology-based mediums, they just look or are ordered a bit differently. What doesn’t really change is the characteristics that make up the content.

Photo Selection: The Best Foot

Is there a photo or other visual element to your ad? If so, make it a good one that supports your message.

<rant>Creatively, I loathe text-based AdWords. 35 characters? Suck it, Google. The layout should adapt to the content, not the other way around.</rant>

Anyway, pick your photo or visual element carefully. Your fellow humans won’t read your headline or copy before looking at the photo. We’re just wired that way, much to the dismay of every tormented, genius novelist who died a century ago.

A great ad is a pitch. Is your photo relevant to what you’re pitching? That doesn’t mean that you have to show a picture of a cutely staged apartment if you’re renting apartments. The emotional objective of pitching an apartment rental is to get the audience to visualize themselves living there, and like it. What if you showed a picture of an adorable dog napping on a couch in an apartment?

Pets are family, and that would drive [a major subset of] your audience to that emotional objective… just along a different vector than you might have thought about.

The Headline

Short. Memorable. Just a tickle.

The headline’s job is to convince the audience to keep reading. Nothing more, nothing less. Society in the 21st century is more ADD than at any point in history (#FirstWorldProblems, am I right?). You’ve got five to seven words to win here. Any more, and half your audience will drift off.

The Copy

For self-identified wordsmiths this be the main show, yo. The copy is where the action happens, and communicates your message. It’s a vehicle to create the desire needed to take action. For content developers, it’s one piece of the puzzle and is used strategically to support the other elements of the ad. The approach that you take with copy doesn’t really matter, as long as it all plays well together and you get your audience to the goal post.

Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing wrong with long copy. You just have to know how to make long copy more usable for your audience. Some people won’t want to read your copy, work of art or not. Don’t take it personally. Adapt, and be a rockstar for those people too.

Copy Heads

Copy heads are pretty important, particularly with long copy. Use copy heads to break up your copy into more digestible pieces, which will help keep your audience engaged. Here’s a little known secret about copy heads… they should be strategically written and placed in such a manner that they can be scanned by the audience, and gift the full context of your copy to them. If you can read only the copy heads in an ad and understand what it’s about, the copy heads are solid.

Features vs. Benefits

This is probably the least understood concept in advertising. The consumer electronics industry is particularly guilty of packing ads full of features and ignoring the benefits completely (though you could make the argument that a key target demo of CE, young and male, responds better to features-based advertising).

Typical CE ad:

NEW! 2336.017px x 4840.694px Ultra WXXGUASLPRDMNU 4X High Definition Tempered Glass, Low-e Display! BUY NOW!




Who gives a fuck?

Here’s what the majority of humans need to know: the display will be sharp, bright, and anti-glare. Your eyeballs won’t hurt after staring at it for six minutes.

Benefit: what your audience can do, feel, or experience with your offering. How it contributes to their happiness.
Feature: the characteristics of your offering.

benefit is about your customers. A feature is about you. Don’t be self-absorbed… make it about them, not you. It’s their money, after all.

Call to Action

The call to action is the final element, the piece that directs your audience to take the next step and identify their interest in purchasing (or just to purchase). CTAs are important. A good CTA is clear about what the audience should do next. A great CTA is clear about what they should do and what to expect after doing it (trust-building).

Particularly amusing is how a lot of industry people explain what a CTA is to non-industry people. I’ve heard jittery copywriters and go-getter media sales types describe CTAs as the killshotthe bomb, the closer and a host of other overly aggressive, idiotic descriptions.

Here’s what I think a great CTA really is:

An invitation.

This is part three of a three part series. See the rest:

Part I: Getting in the Mood

Part II: Understanding Your Audience

Recipe: Buttered Coffee

Canadian Buttered Coffee (or… “Heated Awesomesauce”)

This recipe is based on Dave Asprey’s recipe for Bulletproof Coffee, but localized with ingredients available in Canada that can be found at most (non-discount) grocery stores. I’ve been looking around for butter from grass fed cows, but it doesn’t seem to be available in Canada (likely due to our goofy import ban on dairy products combined with Canadian grass-fed herd minders not wanting to navigate the equally goofy barriers to entry for dairy producers). The purest, most healthful organic butter I’ve run across in Ottawa is Organic Meadow’s unsalted variety. It’s available at the larger Loblaw’s stores here in Ottawa, and some other higher-end indies.


  • French Press (the coffee oils make it into the brew intact and deliver a superior flavour)
  • Blender (hand / bullet blenders work well)
  • Coffee Grinder (once you start grinding your own beans, you’ll never go back to instant or pre-ground)


Core Ingredients

  • 4 tbsp freshly ground coffee
  • 12 oz hot water (not boiling)
  • 1 tbsp organic butter
  • 2 tbsp coconut oil (or MCT oil)
  • 1 tsp stevia (the purer, the better – look for erythritol and stevia leaf extract as the primary ingredients)

Optional Ingredients

  • 1-2 tbsp protein powder (I prefer unflavoured, cold-pressed whey isolate)
  • Kelp powder (if you’re like me and are trying to get high-quality iodine into your diet, but hate the taste of kelp and seaweed)
  • Ground vanilla, from freshly roasted vanilla beans (45mins @ 325 F in the oven provides a good roast – do it ahead of time and store in a cool, dry place)

Why organic butter? It lacks preservatives, hormones or antibiotics, and has a better nutrient profile than regular butter. Why stevia? Also no preservatives, it comes from natural sources (a plant found in South America and Southeast Asia), and it’s calorie free. Why MCT oil? This fat is medium chain, and easily converted into energy by the human body. Start out with a small amount if you’ve never ingested pure MCT oil before – it’s really strong and will churn your innards until your body gets used to it. Also talk to the relevant professionals if you have a health condition or specific concerns. Or don’t want to take some random dude’s blog for gospel (ie this recipe doesn’t constitute medical or dietary advice of any kind… so don’t get your lawyer all up in my grill, ffs).

Makin’ It

Canadian Buttered Coffee is breakfast unto itself. If you prepare this alongside your normal breakfast meal, don’t be surprised if you pack on a few pounds. Depending on the combination of ingredients you choose, this recipe will deliver between 450 and 600 calories per 16 oz serving. Seriously, it is breakfast. I’ve found that this particular combination of healthy, saturated fats and caffeine delivers food satiety and mental clarity well into the early afternoon. But hey, that’s just my experience.

In the Kitchen

Heat the water and brew the coffee (an electric kettle will take far less time than a box of matches or stirring really hard). Add all of the ingredients to the blender, and blend on low. Once all the ingredients are combined and a bit of foam starts to form on the top, you’re good to go. Pour it in a travel mug and enjoy with the rising sun or during your morning commute.

Enjoy, and share on the Twitter. Or Facebook. Or Google Plus (wait, is that still a thing?). Or just take a picture of this post and get it on Insta.

Recipe: The Cube

The Cube (or… “Homemade Chocolate”)

I prototyped this recipe on some unsuspecting co-workers recently, and am proud to report that the reviews were positive. Or that no one wanted to risk permanently shattering my fragile ego.


  • Saucepan
  • Silicon Spatula
  • Silicon Ice Cube Tray (Important!)


This recipe has been designgineered with ratios, to afford maximum performance and scalability.

In a 1:1:1:0.5 ratio, you’ll need organic butter, almond butter, cocoa powder, and stevia (or erythritol, preferably sourced from North American hardwood).

Why organic butter? It lacks preservatives, hormones or antibiotics, and has a better nutrient profile than regular butter. Why stevia? Also no preservatives, it comes from natural sources (a plant found in South America and Southeast Asia), and it’s calorie free.

Makin’ It

Each cube (serving) is about 2 tbsp and contains around 150 calories (depending on the size of your ice cube tray, of course). The majority of these calories comes from healthy, saturated fats from the butters.

Want one serving? You’ll need 1 tbsp of butter, 1 tbsp of almond butter, 1 tbsp of cocoa powder, and 0.5 tbsp of steve. Want two servings? Double the recipe. Three? Triple. You get the idea. Like bitter chocolate? Reduce the amount of stevia. Like sweet chocolate? Increase the amount of stevia.

In the Kitchen

On the lowest heat setting, melt the butter in the saucepan.

Once melted, stir in the cocoa powder and stevia until dissolved.

Then, add the almond butter and stir until combined.

Remove the saucepan from heat before the mixture begins to bubble.

Pour the mixture into the silicon ice cube tray and overnight it in the freezer.

Enjoy, and share on the Twitter. Or Facebook. Or Google Plus (wait, is that still a thing?). Or just take a picture of this post and get it on Insta.

Elevate Your Copy Game: The Audience

Understanding Your Audience

Writing copy is more than putting fancy words on paper. Clever alliterations and an onomatopoeia or two thrown in won’t entertain the masses anymore.

Great copy is about creating a connection with the folks who are reading it, and increasingly that involves design thinking. Understanding your objectives, how they add value for your audience, and how your audience interacts with the medium your words are written in are all… well, pretty critical.

Beginning with the End in Mind

What are you trying to accomplish with your copy? And “I want them to click this big red button” is a cop-out answer. Take the long view. How do you want your audience to feel after they’ve read your copy? What do you want them to do not only in the seconds after they finish, but the hours or days? What’s the bigger picture? Orient your copy around that… not around a single, specific action you want them to take in the next five seconds.

I’m a digital marketer by trade. To the industry crowd who read that last sentence and cringed, I apologize for not hawking the hyper-fast click-the-button mentality that permeates the conversion-driven thinking of our industry.

Here’s where my headspace is at: sell your audience on what’s in it for them that’s lasting, and they’ll come back for more over the long haul. Don’t fuck and chuck. Be generous in what you give, and save something for next time.

Understanding Medium Context

In most digital mediums, audience behaviour is as much driven by the interaction elements and experience design of the platform as it is the content. What’s that mean? The placement and colour of the buttons, size of images, and animation elements work together to draw attention away from your words. Not by choice, of course… [most] designers aren’t evil like that.

What’s that mean for your copy? Examine the visual layout of where your copy will live. Map out what catches your eye, and use that knowledge when you’re writing. The most important things that you have to say will be more effective near the design elements with the highest visual priority. Writing in a responsive design context can make that incredibly challenging, because your words will move around based on the size of the device. If you want to get ultra data-geek on that problem, look through the analytic data for the medium you’re writing in. Pick out the most popular screen resolution amongst your visitor traffic stats, and view the page layout at that resolution. Not perfect, but it will give you a sense of how to plan the structure of your words.

This is part two of a three part series. See the rest:

Part I: Getting in the Mood

Part III: Anatomy of a Great Ad

Elevate Your Copy Game: Mood

Getting in the Mood

Writing great copy starts with creating the conditions required to optimize your mental and emotional state for creativity. The best creative thinking is engineered while the creator is in a state of high-performance, and feels on top of the world.

That might not always be your Monday morning, but eliminating anything that takes you away from your happy place is crucial when you’re smithing words and creating a memorable experience for your audience.

The Pre-Game

  1. Be rested. Creativity takes a lot more mental energy than you might think, and it’s nearly impossible if you’re tired or mentally distracted.
  2. Be nourished. Have a good breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, or whatever meal comes before the time block when you plan on being creative. The human brain functions at its best when healthy, saturated fats are readily accessible as a source of energy. Have these with a meal or snack before beginning your work (almonds, coconut oil, and fish are all naturally high in saturated fats – but skip the deep fried varieties). If you need a tasty snack that fits the bill, try out my recipe for The Cube.
  3. Be inaccessible. Being creative requires your complete attention. Wherever possible, block yourself out in the calendar for a few hours. Put your phone on ‘do not disturb,’ and turn off audible and visual email notifications on your workstation and mobile phone.
  4. Be undistractable. Yep, that’s a made-up word (I’m claiming creative license). Remove yourself from environments that are distracting whenever possible. If you’re located in an open concept workspace, go somewhere quiet where the movements and conversations of co-workers won’t blow your creative ‘mo.

Use Your Environment

Where you’re at can affect what you do, for better or for worse. We all take subconscious cues from our surroundings and the interactions that are going on around us. Understanding how our environment affects our individual emotional state is an important part of creating an environment that fosters creativity.

  1. Get comfy. Minimizing physical distractions is key. Get yourself in a chair, on a couch, or even a hammock if you need to. You want to be able to have a clear mind, free of the cricks and cracks associated with being still too long. Have water, tea, or whatever you like to sip on close at hand.
  2. Get a rhythm. Slip on some headphones and put on something with a predictable, pleasing rhythm. For some people, this means music. For others, it means a white noise generator (I’m a huge fan of Noisli). Whatever floats your boat – just make sure that the volume is low enough that it doesn’t become a distraction.
  3. Get clarity. At this point, your brain could benefit from a synaptic reset. Try this: close your eyes, and conjure up a mental image of something serene. An empty beach, forest with rustling leaves, or clouds drifting through the sky. Then, steeple your fingers and breathe in for four seconds (completely filling your lungs). Exhale at half the rate, so expelling the air from your lungs takes seven to eight seconds (focus on the sensation of the air entering and leaving your lungs). Repeat a few times as needed to clear your mind, then:
  4. Get at it.

This is part one of a three part series. See the rest:

Part II: Beginning With the End in Mind

Part III: Anatomy of a Great Ad

Fickle Fad or Smart Investment: Group Buying Promotions

Groupon is ALL over the tech newswire, and has also been getting surprisingly robust coverage from finance journalists in the US and Canada. Why?

It went public yesterday. In the biggest tech IPO since Google’s 2004 entrance on the Nasdaq (Google’s valuation on that IPO was something like $23B, Groupon’s by comparison was $12.7B).

There’s a lot of hoopla about Groupon, and the first day of trading mirrored the volatile press coverage the company has received over the past six months (shares were sitting around $26 in after-hours trading, up $6 from the offering price when the bell rang in the morning). Of course, any investor worth their salt will tell you that the first day of trading is meaningless. So is the second. And the third. It will be months before the market fully prices in the inherent risks and potential rewards of the group buying space- and indeed, the unique things about Groupon’s underlying business. Heck, they tried to use the non-GAAP accounting metric ACSOI in their first SEC prospectus filing. That alone makes me somewhat suspicious about the viability of the company. A friend of mine (@richardburcher) asked earlier today on Twitter what I thought about Groupon’s prospects, so let’s touch on that briefly before we move on to how Group Buying actually works.

Groupon has first-mover advantage in a market segment that they essentially created (LivingSocial may have launched first, but they didn’t adopt the current product-market fit until well after Groupon had conquered Chicago with its current business model). Groupon has a massive direct sales force, servicing 500 markets in 40-something countries. Groupon is now publicly-traded, and tends to annihilate or acquire smaller competitors when it moves into any new, localized market (by smaller, I mean the nondescript players that no one has ever heard of; and there are plenty of them around- a study by Business Insider suggested that there are around 500 firms competing in the group buying space right now).

There are some big threats to Groupon’s continued success though: there’s practically no barrier to entry in this space. Anyone with programming skills can design a group buying system for the web (web-based startups have very low overheads). Consumer fatigue in the deals space is a threat (what’s your threshold for deals that you aren’t interested in? Five irrelevant emails a day? Ten?). Without millions of people subscribed and using the Groupon service, the core value-added component of the company falls apart. Additionally, without retail partners signing on and initiating group buys, there’s nothing of value to offer the consumers who are using the service. Essentially, the entire business model (as currently operating) relies on a huge subscriber base (consumers) to feed a large client base (retailers). Group buying is also a very fractious space (LOTS of players), and some competitors with very deep pockets have or will be launching competing services (Google, Amazon, and AT&T are some examples). Groupon also doesn’t turn a profit. The company has taken an operating loss every year since its launch in 2008 (but their CFO claims the company is very, very close to profitability). For Groupon to be sustainably profitable, their marketing expenses need to shrink substantially while revenues remain constant or grow (which is very difficult to do with this business model- Groupon has to maintain a large marketing budget to attract new subscribers, and to keep existing ones from migrating to competitors).

Personally, I think the biggest threat to Groupon’s future success is retailer fatigue. There isn’t much process support for retailers from Groupon about how to actually run a successful group buying promotion at the store level, and how to make them work for the individual businesses which come aboard. The owner of the small corner bistro who gets slammed with 100 new customers in a single day (and takes a loss on every single one) will never initiate another group buy- and those hundred customers who were most likely pissed off with the wait times/poor service (if the owner didn’t beef up staffing and service capacity) are unlikely to ever return. It’s also likely that a percentage of them took to social media and shared their dissatisfaction, which harmed the brand equity of the bistro (consumers tend to offer public praise very rarely, but are lightning-quick to share criticism and anger).

My bet is that Groupon completely implodes inside of three years, and the creditors pick it over to try and recover some of their losses (which they won’t, because internet firms rarely have significant assets to liquidate in a chapter seven action). Unless their business model evolves significantly, through innovation of their core product and the addition of related revenues streams.

Let’s talk about how group buying actually works in practice.

Do you own or manage a small business in retail goods or services? Yes? You will not make money on a group buy promotion. The group buying company which you partner with will take a commission on the value of the deal in the range of 40-70%. Let’s run through a simple example: your selling price at retail on a widget is $10. You initiate a group buy through a firm that operates in your area, and they charge a 50% commission on the post-deal value. Your promotion is 50% off that widget ($5). So, right away you’re collecting $2.50 (Company X took $2.50 in commission) for an item that normally sells for $10. Here’s the real kicker: for you to break even (before your facility/staffing costs) on that widget, your markup has to be quadruple keystone (400%!).

Knowing this, why would any small business owner initiate a group buy promotion? Are they nuts??!

No. The value proposition of group buying is that it brings a larger-than-normal traffic count into your store, and that many of these people will become new, repeat customers: thus, you have the opportunity to wow these new bodies on service (or whatever else your defensible/unique selling proposition may be). In essence, companies like Groupon and Living Social incent a bunch of new customers to visit your store, and it’s then the job of you and your staff to upsell them on related products or services and (most importantly) convert them into return customers.

Easier said than done when it comes to discounts. Personally, I think that growing a customer base with discounts or deals is a fundamentally flawed strategy. You know your customers: think about who your most profitable repeat ones are. Think about who you enjoy serving. Is it the guy who comes in every so often, asks for your help/advice and then pays the bill… or is it the guy who comes in with a coupon clipped from the weekly flyer AND tries to haggle?

Put simply: do you want deal loyalty or real loyalty?

But if you’re really into the idea of running a group buy promotion for your business, here’s a quick guide for making the experience successful, or at least not a complete write-off:

Assumptions to make before initiating a group buy (be prepared!)

1. You will not make money on the promotion, you will eat a loss.
2. You will have higher-than-normal traffic counts, possibly during non-peak hours.
3. You will be serving customers with psychographic and/or demographic profiles that are unusual for your store.
4. Few of the new customers will convert to repeat customers for your full price offerings.
5. You’re essentially subsidizing advertising with your inventory (but you have little control over the targeting and have no access to the reporting metrics afterwards).

Process changes to support your business during a group buy

1. Control the promotion as much as possible (make the promotion valid only between certain hours and set a short expiry date).
2. Staff for the deal, especially if you’re in food/hospitality (if the deal is valid for the next 30 days between 4pm and 6pm with 600 sold, you need to staff for an extra 20 transactions each day between 4pm and 6pm- and that’s assuming perfectly distributed traffic gains; more than likely the gains will be lower at first and higher near the expiry date).
3. Have extra inventory on hand equal to each confirmed coupon plus 110-120% of your normal inventory for that item and time period (the group buy, plus your normal demand, plus a safety margin to account for extra word-of-mouth buzz floating around or walk-ins who saw the group buy advertised but didn’t purchase a coupon).
4. Be wily about what product you put on a group buy– choose an item that encourages repeat business, ideally a product which requires service/maintenance that you provide or can be enhanced with add-ons that you sell (if you’re in CPG retail) OR a house specialty/signature dish that’s quite unique (if you’re in food/hospitality) OR a high-quality service that you specialize in and that your brand is known for, which has an extremely attractive unique selling proposition (if you’re in services). Don’t initiate a group buy for something that every retailer and their dog carries (like toilet paper).
5. Have a customer relationship management system in place, preferably one that includes a brand loyalty program of some sort. Do your absolute damndest to get every single group buy patron into that system- you need to be able to track the effectiveness of your group buy promotions with some kind of metrics system in order to plan and refine future group buys, and this is the best way to do so.


[Disclaimer: I do not own shares in Groupon, nor do I intend to place a short position on its stock; additionally, I do not currently own shares in Amazon, AT&T, or Google]

Content Curation. I Say Again, Content Curation.

Curating content isn’t something that we normally associate with business. Heck, curating content isn’t something that I normally associate with anything. But let’s talk about it- informatics are growing in importance for businesses small and large, every single day.

Before we get into this, I should point out that I’m hoping to join Thoora on a temporary basis to fill in for their community manager, who’s going on maternity leave shortly (yay!). As part of my tryout, the company COO asked me to write a short descriptive article (not specifically for my, or any, blog) on Thoora’s potential role in the workplace. I could just as easily have emailed the article to him, but after really diving into Thoora’s features over the past few days, I decided to post the article here because I feel the service has significant value to offer the small business community.

Shall we begin?

The internet is a raging nightmare of stuff, too large for any of us to digest individually- videos, pictures, tweets, posts, IMs, and written words in a hundred languages and a million contextual situations. Back in ’94, the web was a simple place with only a handful of big content publishers. Now, not so much.

We no longer find the news, the news finds us.

Problem is- with the massive wash of content now available online (some 30 petabytes will be accessed this month alone), it’s getting real tough to find what you’re looking for on your own terms. Simple keyword searches return some relevant results and other not-so-relevant results. Enter Thoora.

The concept behind Thoora is a simple, yet powerful one: management of keyword results by real people. The platform features a smooth social layer, allowing individuals to share the topics they curate through their own social networking accounts and feeds, essentially contributing to the personal authority conversation in a very relevant way.

Great, but why does that matter for business?

Environmental scanning.

The big boys of the corporate world have been throwing money at research firms for decades in order to stay on top of market and industry trends. This helped to ensure the dominance of large MNCs. Since the rest of us don’t have much in the budget to spend on outsourcing market research, we tend to handle it on our own. Using Thoora to filter the vast quantity of information on the web allows a single person (or team) to effectively curate relevant information- which Thoora then uses to refine the search results that it delivers. The algorithms in use are very intuitive; I found increasingly relevant information being returned after sifting through and rating a single page of search results.

Not only does Thoora quickly begin to deliver increasingly relevant search results, it can also serve as a single content access point- quite valuable in ensuring that a department or working group is consistently on the same page regarding industry news.

But, don’t take my word for it- go try it our for yourself. If you’re into mobile technology like I am, also check out Chul Lee’s curated topic on the subject.

Food Goes Vertical

This is a bit of a detour from our regularly scheduled programming, but it’s a topic of such importance that I think it deserves a voice. Though little information is available about the economics of such projects (most are concept-phase), I’ll attempt to tackle the cost/benefit angle and provide some insights into economic viability where possible.

This article is about growing food. More concisely, about growing food in vertical structures (like a skyscraper). Sounds a bit wonky to the uninitiated, but bear with me.

The problem: the world, she is a-changing. By 2050, around 80% of the earth’s population is projected to live in urban centres. Very conservative demographic estimates also suggest that the global population will increase by 3 billion people (to 9.8 billion), mostly in emerging markets (many of which will qualify as ’emerged’ markets by 2050). With current agricultural methods and yields remaining a constant, the additional population will require a swatch of new agricultural land roughly equal to 120% the size of Brazil in order for basic needs to be met on a global scale. However, 80% of the world’s current arable land which is suitable for agriculture is already in use, and typically 15% of this land is unusable at any given time due to poor land-management practices.

Sources: IMF/World Bank, UN:FAO, Vertical Farming Project

Put simply, in thirty-five years there just won’t be enough farmland to produce the food required to feed us all.

Thirty-five years isn’t a long time. Ceteris paribus, there are several scenarios which address this problem.

Climate Change

Kind of a nasty label. Climate change is supposed to be a bad thing, right? Yes. On a global scale: overwhelmingly, disastrously so. But there will be pockets of isolated positive development inherent to climate change. As the global climate warms, the concentrations of farmable land in the northern hemisphere will expand northwards (primarily in Canada, Russia, and parts of Europe). In fact, Environment Canada has produced several papers suggesting the possibility of a net positive change in agricultural production capacity for Canada. However, there are serious flaws with any strategy which relies on this theory:

  1. The newly-warmed land area will not be immediately productive
  2. As the available farmland in the northern hemisphere increases, available farmland in the tropical regions (slightly north and slightly south of the equator) will decrease as the climate becomes hotter, reducing the ability of the soil to hold moisture
  3. Extreme weather events will become more common, reducing the overall global food yield as droughts and floods destroy crops at increasing frequency

Increased Yields in Traditional Crops

‘Traditional’ is a bit of a loaded word. Some may think of it as usage of the same crops and species that were cultivated centuries ago, using time-honoured methods passed down through the generations. In this context, I refer to ‘traditional’ as the status quo for mass-agriculture which is prominent today (this is a forward-looking article, after all). Large swatches of land, chemical fertilizer and pesticides, artificial (constructed) irrigation systems, genetically modified/hardened crop species, and global food distribution networks. Using this perspective, the ‘traditional’ methods of food production are on a global scale quite harmful to the environment. The act of human beings nourishing and sustaining themselves does incredible damage to the natural biomes of the planet. The possibility exists that continued advances in GMO farming will increase crop yields enough to offset the gap in the future food requirements for a growing global population (Monsanto and Cargill in particular are heavily invested in R&D for this area). As with climate change, there are some severe problems with relying on this strategy:

  1. GMOs are not strictly regulated on a global scale, and are banned outright in some sovereign states (which is perhaps a bit alarmist). Genetically modifying a living organism has side-effects; the positive ones are highly publicized, yet the negative ones are largely unknown as they typically do not apply directly to human beings. One hypothetical example: inserting a new gene variant into a wheat crop increases its tolerance to temperature extremes, but makes the stalk toxic to bacterial organisms which normally have a net-positive benefit to the local biome. With the positive effects of this bacteria eroded, total net yield per acre falls.
  2. The safety of GMOs for human consumption is to some degree a crap shoot. Safety studies of GMO foods are largely based on pharmacology concepts which are applied to genetics (that which has been previously observed as a cause/effect relationship in a similar case is assumed to be a constant in the current case). Some sovereign states carry out human safety trials in a limited clinical setting (such as in Australia), but the global regulatory system is very patchwork, with varying standards.
  3. In most cases, crops with enhanced yields require greater volumes of resource inputs (water, fertilizer, carbon dioxide, sunlight). The larger an organism grows, the more caloric sustenance it requires (plants convert CO2 into simple sugars via photosynthesis, so they’re effectively consuming calories too as they burn the sugars for energy- just not in the same manner that animal life does). Theoretically, the energy requirements of an organism can be reduced dramatically as the organism increases in size by artificially increasing the efficiency at which the organism converts energy from sunlight into sugars (according to the Law of Energy Conservation, energy is lost when converting from one form to another). However, this still means increasing requirements for pesticides and fertilizers (overuse of chemical fertilizers leaches essential trace minerals from the soil, requiring a reclamation process to restore the land’s fertility).

Changing the Culture of Consumption and the System of Production

This tends to be the preferred solution for supporters of local agriculture and organic growing, and is perhaps viable from a production standpoint if the food shortage problem was going to affect Canada and the United States the most prominently (sadly, this is not the case- Africa, the Middle East, and South-East Asia will be the hardest hit by the projected production shortage). In this idea, the supply/demand gap is eliminated by simultaneously reducing food consumption in the west (ie, we start to eat less- which would be a good thing), and converting families into micro-producers of food (every family begins to grow their own vegetables and where possible, livestock). There are many benefits to this system: increased health via reduced rates of obesity, increased nutritional value of our food (produce loses nutrients during flash-freezing/preserving, and transportation over long distances because it is picked before fully ripening in order to arrive at the supermarket in a palatable state), decreased health hazard from residual chemical pesticides and fertilizers which remains on the produce, and increased disposable income for families who now pay less to eat (though only marginally so). From a quality-of-food standpoint, this is simply the best solution. And in a simple world, with a simple economy, it might just be a viable one. However:

  1. People are natural consumers, but producers only by necessity. This is partly due to societal conditioning, but mostly due to biology and primordial instinct. Early humans (think post ice-age) had a rough go of it. They had to forage for food (agriculture had yet to be invented) by hunting and gathering (in fact, this is how all animal life forms get by absent human intervention). Naturally, because humans evolved from hunter-gatherer animals (sorry, Creationists) over millions of years, our biological makeup is designed to hoard energy. Ever wonder why it’s so easy to pack on five pounds after Thanksgiving, but burning it off is such a bitch? That’s why. Our bodies want us to store fat in the good times, so we can survive the lean times. Problem is: evolution hasn’t caught up to modern society. Comparatively speaking, all times are good times now- but we’re still hardwired to consume as efficiently as possible (why expend energy producing food if you don’t need to?) Of course, being sentient and all, we’re capable of overcoming our biological urges. But, it’s not easy. Put ten randomly-selected people in a room who have the means to buy food at the supermarket and try to convince them they should start growing their own food. You’ll see what I mean.
  2. The tragedy of the commons is an economic principal which states that when resources are plentiful and commonly-available, humans will overuse them to systemic collapse. I discussed this concept before, as it applies to utilities-inclusive rental units. It also applies to food production- when food is readily available, people will consume it via increasingly wasteful systems (no matter what you say, factory-farming beef to supply a national chain of fast food restaurants is ecologically inefficient). The epidemic of obesity in many western societies lends credence to this concept, and suggests that voluntary conservation adopted on a massive scale is not a realistically-achievable goal. Ergo, telling people to eat less because it’s good them individually (and for all peoples of the planet) will be about as effective as trying to refrigerate a litre of milk with a single snowflake.
  3. This solution does not effectively address the food needs of increasing populations in arid areas. If arable land is scarce in nations which are net-importers of food, how can those populations grow their own food? Hydroponics systems are quite simply too expensive and too complex for an average family to operate without significant knowledge transfer (also; they require water inputs which might not be readily available). Aeroponics systems are similarly too expensive for small-scale production (though are operationally more cost-effective than hydroponics), and also require specialized knowledge transfer. A reduction in western food consumption could theoretically free up food resources for increasing export to these countries- but considering the current quality of life standards in western societies, this is an economically non-viable scenario, absent a very large government subsidy program (to maintain their quality of life, farmers would have to charge more than consumers in poor countries could afford to pay).

Relying on Science and Technological Innovation

A common theme among technology-focussed sociologists is that of the Malthusian catastrophe and how human civilization has cheated its inevitability by enabling greater food production volumes through technology. Such an occurrence was averted in the last century when the green revolution enabled drastically increasing crop yields through the development of synthetic fertilizers and the creation of superior crops through cross-breeding. For some, scientific and technological innovation remains the greatest hope for averting the next Malthusian catastrophe. Today, 3D printers allow for the rapid manufacturing of prototypes using stock inputs as thin as a few millimetres. Could this technology system evolve to include organic stock inputs at the molecular level, over the next four decades? Perhaps; this would give rise to the creation of food on a near-molecular level (I’m not convinced about the taste though), and would enable on-demand production which would virtually eliminate food waste. In vitro meats are another technological innovation currently being researched. Relying on future technological development has inherent top-level risks though:

  1. There are no guarantees. The future problems may be averted, and they may not be. Meanwhile, carrying on with the status quo could set our civilization up for an even more catastrophic failure in the future; a far less risky approach is to work to mitigate the future risks now.
  2. Side effects: health products have long safety-efficacy cycles. It takes 10-15 years to bring a newly developed therapeutic drug to market due to a rigorous clinical testing methodology (though sometimes not rigorous enough). If an innovation like in vitro meat was commercially viable by 2020, and a rigorous clinical safety trial was imposed, the meats would not be available until 2030 or 2035. Then the economies of scale and distribution systems required to make new products affordable for the masses would begin- perhaps another five to ten years. Such an innovation may arrive too late to head off the problem (especially if there is political or consumer resistance to consuming petri-dish meat, which is a near certainty).
  3. Western civilization is currently not very efficient at technology transfer and commercialization of concepts from the basic research level. The process is slow, convoluted, and often involves disputes about the ownership of IP and the division of royalty structures in technology licensing deals. Not to mention that there is significant investment risk in taking on technology which is newly emerged from the basic research space, due to significant and plentiful unknown variables in the commercialization process. [We are making progress in this area, however- Peterborough’s own Innovation Cluster is an example of the private/public partnership structure which plays an important role in streamlining this process]

The Vertical Farm Concept

As a term unto itself ‘Vertical Farm’ is a bit ambiguous. In its simplest and most universal form, a vertical farm involves increased land-use efficiency by expanding agricultural space upwards, or vertically instead of outwards, or horizontally. The stacking of agricultural space is not a new idea- James Douglas’ 1976 work on hydroponics describes a hydroponic farm integrated into an old tower which existed in Armenia prior to 1951. Additionally, literature dating back to 1915 suggests the use of an inverse vertical farm concept, where farmers increase their yields by increasing the depth of their fields as opposed to the width (presumably involving vertical holes or pits and tuber or climbing vine plants such as tomatoes or cucumbers).

The vertical farm concept as most popularly described today dates back to Dickson Despommier’s work at Columbia University in 1999. In this concept, agricultural production is shifted to vertical structures (skyscrapers, towers, etc) which are hermetically sealed in order to prevent toxins and contaminants from entering the growing environment (an earlier incarnation conceptualized by Ken Yeang involved open-air structures and agricultural production for personal or community use). As the availability of arable farmland decreases and the demand for food increases, this concept is becoming more attractive. Especially when paired with aeroponic production methods, which considerably reduce the water inputs required throughout the growing process.

Benefits of the Vertical Farm concept:

  1. Fewer Food Miles: Produce can be grown in population centres with high density, decreasing reliance on fossil fuels and global transportation networks to provide for local food needs
  2. Pesticides and herbicides would be unnecessary, or significantly reduced: since the environment is controlled and artificially regulated, contaminants and pests would not enter the growing area (in theory). Though in practice, outside contaminants in the form of pests/disease would occasionally enter the constructed environment, necessitating corrective action
  3. Traditional synthetic (chemical) fertilizers would be unnecessary: in both hydroponics and aeroponics, soil is not used as a growing medium- nutrients are delivered directly to the plant’s root system via water or mist
  4. Increased production yields: in an artificially-controlled climate, food could be produced year-round, and extreme weather events such as droughts or floods would not directly impact production
  5. Improved land-footprint management: assuming a vertical farm with a footprint of 1/2 acre (21,780 sq’), a twenty story facility would allow for the rehabilitation of 10 acres of traditional farmland (utilizing this space for woodland or wetland would also increase the planet’s CO2 processing abilities on a net-positive basis)
  6. Conservation of resources: farming in controlled environments with hydroponics and aeroponics eliminates the need for soil preparation and harvesting using farm machinery, most commonly powered by fossil fuels (yes, this number is significant: ask any farmer how much diesel fuel they burn through using a combine harvester on a 20 acre plot during any given season). Additionally, the water inputs required for production would decrease drastically if aeroponic methods were used (as plants are ‘fed’ via a nutrient-enriched mist)
  7. Increased nutrition and food quality: since the produce is grown and consumed locally, flash-freezing and other preservation methods which strip produce of vital nutrients would be unnecessary.
  8. Integration of farming into urban labour markets: Labour shortages on rural and family-run farms are a potential production constraint (in North America, often solved by seasonal workers transported in from other countries). Integration of food production into the urban economy would add a valuable diversification to the labour market, and eliminate the production constraints caused by labour shortage (young people tend to migrate from rural to urban areas; under a vertical-farm production system, the new-age farmer could also be an urban-dweller).

Food production utilizing the vertical farm model isn’t all sunshine and roses, however. Two primary risks call into question the suitability of the model. Let’s tackle them one by one, shall we?

Increased energy usage

Like any other artificially-constructed environment, vertical farms would require electricity to operate- thus causing a significant demand increase on an already taxed electricity grid. However, there are ways to offset this electricity increase using renewable energy sources (perhaps by as much as 70-80%). A combination of renewable technologies would be the most efficient: solar PV film applied to the exterior of any windows (particularly effective if the vertical farm exists in a renovated skyscraper), rooftop wind turbines (such as the Honeywell WT6500), and biogas/biomass (organic remnants from the growing process could be burned as biomass, or methane from decomposing organic matter could be captured and burned in a digester as part of a composting system).

Due to the substantial reduction in fossil-fuel consumption, net-energy consumption with a vertical-farm production model would likely decline. Electricity usage would increase, but this would be offset on a net basis by reduced fuel consumption (fossil fuels typically have a 30-40% efficiency). Though the efficiency for solar PV is lower (in the vicinity of twenty percent for film laminates), the primary input (sunlight) is plentiful and free. Using high-efficiency lighting, such as fibre-optic or LED, would also significantly decrease the energy requirements for the structure.

Increased security risk

With an increased focus on combating terrorism, shifting to a regionally-centralized food production model would appear on the surface to increase the vulnerability of society to food supply disruption (for instance, setting off a bomb in a large city’s production tower could be catastrophic if supply was critically disrupted and shortages widespread in the aftermath). A single structure or group of structures would make for a much easier target than sprawling agricultural fields. However, if you consider the system as a whole, the likelihood of catastrophic failure due to a terrorist plot is rather low. Even if the food production structure for a given city was destroyed, food could still be transported from another area or from a strategic reserve while production was rebuilt (the concept of food reserves dates back to the early Roman republic, where excess grain was stored in granaries during high-yield years to offset emergency needs in drought and flood years).

Additionally, the incidence of terrorism has decreased steadily since 2001. Prior to the 9/11 attacks (and arguably, after as well), deaths and economic loss due to terrorism were negligible when compared to the whole (more people die in traffic accidents every year than terrorist attacks, and economic loss due to extreme weather events is higher than loss due to terrorism).

Clearly, there are downsides and unknown variables to the vertical farm model (not the least of which is that it is economically unproven). Many think the idea of growing food inside a building to be foreign; as food should naturally grow outdoors in fields. After all, we’ve produced food this way for over 9,000 years (agricultural science first appears in the known historical record around 7,000 BCE, in the fertile crescents of Egypt’s Nile River deltas). But, modern agriculture is essentially an artificial construct. The manner in which we as a society produce food doesn’t occur in nature, nor do any other life forms on the planet utilize such a system. The defining hallmark of human existence is that we as a species have the ability to shape the natural environment to suit our collective and individual needs. Perhaps it’s time that we freed ourselves from the notion that growing crops in a field is a more natural (better) way to farm, and begin to examine alternatives that have a chance at solving the looming food crisis.

Metrics, Metrics, Metrics.

Data rules, guessing drools.

If you’re using social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook (or… shudder… Google+) for professional purposes, you need to get a handle on what works and what doesn’t.

First, what are you trying to do? Attract followers/fans? Improve click through rates? Gauge your social reach?

You should be doing all of these, at the very least. And to gauge your success, you should be using a metrics package. After all, you’re much more advanced than that guy over in the corner trying to divine ROI by waving a wand at his pet rock… right?

I’ve evaluated a few social media and metrics packages in the past year: HootSuite, SproutSocial, and an as-yet unnamed package using the Viralheat API.They’re all great. Detailed, and cost-effective for small businesses that are invested in social media in a big way. But what if you don’t need multiple people managing multiple accounts tracking the effectiveness of every letter inside your Tweets or Facebook posts over the past month?

Easy answer: Buffer.

Buffer is built on a simple, but powerful principal – there are no shortcuts to social media success. That resonates with me. I shun the gain-followers-by-praying-for-a-followback strategy (you can identify these people easily: they often have 10 or 15 thousand followers, and are also following 10 or 15 thousand people). They also tend to mark their profile with #TeamFollowback or something similar.

Aside: if I don’t follow you back, it’s nothing personal- I use Twitter primarily for business networking and self-promotion. If you’re not from my city, don’t tweet about business, finance, or communications (and no, teaching regular joes to make millions with Google AdSense isn’t real business) OR you’re a mouthy celebrity (sorry, @piersmorgan), then odds are I won’t follow you back. I’m sure you’re a lovely person. It’s not you… it’s me!

Anyway, back to Buffer.

If you’re a freelancer, SME, or startup with severely-limited resources (and really, they all are), check out Buffer’s free plan. That’s right… they have a free plan. In addition to being able to schedule your tweets for self-autonomous launch into cyberspace (yeah, I’m old-school Gen-Y and remember when people used that word), you can add tweets to your Buffer directly through the handy browser extensions (I’m a Chrome user, and it’s a pretty slick experience). Plus, you can now integrate your Facebook account with Buffer (it started out as a Twitter-only tool).

Simple analytics are also included directly in the account dashboard (# retweets, # clicks, total reach). Will you be able to tell what kind of Kawartha Dairy ice cream @mdhiggs prefers? Or count the daggers coming from @ChefBrianHenry’s eyes when you tweet about sprouts? No. But, why do you need to know that anyway?

… unless you work for Chapman’s. Or the National Sprout Picker’s Association.

The basic (free) package includes management for one account, analytics, space to hold ten tweets in your buffer (which you can increase by signing up friends), and native link shortening. If you’re more serious about social media marketing and need additional features and buffer space, you can opt for the Pro ($10/month) or Premium ($30/month) packages. I hear that the $30/month package guarantees you direct contact with the founder, Joel (presumably using a method more advanced than carrier pigeons or smoke signals).

Nothing’s perfect, though. What’s missing from Buffer’s service? Native mobile apps (for me, BlackBerry). Personally, I’d pay a premium for that- about 70% of my social media time is managed via mobile while I’m on the go. There is an email-to-buffer mechanism in place (I hope it’s just an interim fix while native apps are under development), but it doesn’t fit into the social media workflow on mobile all that well. With a native app, I’d switch from UberSocial in a heartbeat to gain mobile integration into Buffer’s platform (if the UX and UI were as good as the browser extension, anyway).

That being said, I’m inclined to cut Buffer some slack on native app development- they’ve constructed and are managing a fantastic tool considering that the team is only two people strong… and are bootstrapping it like rockstars (I presume, anyway- I haven’t seen anything about venture funding for them in the startup media).

Give it a go. After a gentle learning curve, you’ll be glad that you did.