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 BLOG >> September 2016

Appropriate Technology for Lean Startups [Entrepreneurship
Posted on September 29, 2016 @ 08:59:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In my last blog I discussed the beginnings of my garage mini-winery project. I consider this to be, in part, an exercise in appropriate technology so in today's blog I want to discuss the idea of appropriate technology in relation to starting a business.

Wikipedia defines Appropriate Technology as:

... an ideological movement (and its manifestations) encompassing technological choice and application that is small-scale, decentralized, labor-intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and locally autonomous. It was originally articulated as intermediate technology by the economist Dr. Ernst Friedrich "Fritz" Schumacher in his work Small is Beautiful. Both Schumacher and many modern-day proponents of appropriate technology also emphasize the technology as people-centered.

There was a time when most wine was made using appropriate technology. It didn't cost you alot of money for a wine press and you could legally sell or barter your wine product. When I look at some wineries now I marvel at the large stainless steel variable-capacity fermentation tanks and the rows of oak barrels used to age the red wines. One of the steel tanks probably costs around $20,000 a unit and each oak barrel can set you back $1000. Considering that you don't make any money for a few years when you are putting in a vineyard, to then have to shell out the massive amounts of money for the winery equipment makes the prospect of becoming a profitable vineyard/winery operation a longer term goal than I would like.

I used to think that I would have to go into significant debt to get my winery operation started but reading a book by Sheridan Warrick (2nd Edition, 2015) helped to convince me that I could produce quality wine in my garage using cheap wine making equipment you can find in a local wine store (which I already have from making kit wines).

The stainless steel fermentation tanks are not a requirement for making wine and don't necessarily produce a higher quality wine than you can in a garage with plastic and glass carboys, but they are nice when you have lots of grapes to process. I'm not in that situation now so what is appropriate for me is quite different than what is appropriate for a more established winery. I could shell out lots of money for a mechanical wine press but my own wine press, while not as efficient, can still effectively extract wine out of my grape harvest. Next week my wine press will be powder-coated around the collection tray so the pressed grape juice is not in contact with any rust/oxidized metal.

It is easy to have equipment envy when you are starting any business. You see all the images of supposedly successful people with their expensive equipment and you think you have to have the same equipment. Resist the urge because it is often a business fault to lose your leanness too early in the startup game. If you buy expensive equipment you don't have the benefits of being lean anymore and your future actions are more cash constrained and determined. You should be trying to define what the appropriate technology is for your current situation, not what the appropriate technology is for a more established business that can afford the shinier new equipment.

Another meaning of appropriate technology is that it can be appropriated by most people without having to spend a lot of money. The concept finds wide usage in developing economies where western technologies are either too expensive, not locally maintainable, or not sustainable. If you find yourself in a situation buying equipment that is too expensive or not maintainable by you then you should be asking yourself if you can find a technology that is more appropriate to a lean startup that will still get the job done. Perhaps you have to trade more manual effort for the automation and motors that might be used in the higher-end equipment. That is a tradeoff we should be expecting and making when starting a business as that is often the nature of appropriate technology (see definition above).

One more reason to focus on appropriate technology for your startup is because it is generally a good idea to start small. In Permaculture, we don't put in an acre garden unless we know how to manage a much smaller garden first. Gardeners make the mistake of going too big too fast all the time, myself included. The concept of "appropriate technology" can help put the brakes on a similar mistake that startups make when selecting technology for their business.

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Garage Mini-Winery: Part 1 [Design
Posted on September 27, 2016 @ 11:35:00 AM by Paul Meagher

A project I'm working on this week is to convert a section of my garage into a mini-winery space. This project is necessary because I hope to have some grapes to harvest in the next month and I want to have a space dedicated to fermenting and storing the wine under controlled conditions. There is a tradition of using a garages as a launch pad for ideas and businesses and I hope to honor that tradition in this series of blogs on my garage mini-winery.

There are three ambient conditions that I'm hoping to control in my mini-winery:

  1. Temperature
  2. Humidity
  3. Air Quality

The main variable I'm concerned with first is Temperature. There are three temperature zones that I want to control:

  1. The ambient winery room temperature.
  2. The red wine fermentation temperature.
  3. The white wine fermentation temperature.

In most of the wine making literature I've read, red and white wines are supposed to be fermented at different temperatures. Whites around 13 C (55 F) and reds around 30 C (86 F).

My first objective, however is to better control the ambient winery room temperature and then I can differentiate into controlling fermentation zone temperatures.

To control the ambient temperature of the mini-winery I'm building a room into a section of my garage. Yesterday, me and my son installed an 8 ft. x 12 ft. insulated floor. I chose this particular size so I wouldn't waste any wood and because it was close to the room dimensions I want. The actual dimensions of the room will be 7 ft. x 12 ft. because I don't want a window in the winery room. This is what the project looks like right now.

My son helped me with the mini-winery project when he got home from football practice. We got two walls insulated/vapored and linoleum down.

I'm thinking of going with thin plywood on the wall. I want to be able to easily remove panels if I have to. This project does not involve messing with the existing electrical setup of the garage which is non-ideal but workable.

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Loss Prevention [Farming
Posted on September 23, 2016 @ 09:43:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I implemented a security upgrade to the farm this morning. I installed an outdoor video security system so I can remotely monitor the farm when I'm not around. The farm is not my primary residence.

I felt the need to add the video security for two main reasons:

  1. Reports of an increased incidence of summer cottage break ins as people are spending less time in the countryside.
  2. I stand to lose alot of invested money if there is damage or theft. This would be a business fault of my farming enterprise if I did not address the risk.

One way an asset-owning business can suffer catastrophic loss is not to secure their assets. Failure to protect those assets could be considered a business fault if their loss results in a major impairment to that business. See my discussion on the importance of avoiding business faults in my last blog. This is a relatively cheap way for me to help insure against potential theft or damage. Health insurance, proper legal documents, limited liability company structures are other measures we might take to insure against other forms of potentially catastrophic loss of income/investment.

The incremental cost of adding video security to the farm was $120, which is the before tax cost of a refurbished DCS-2330L D-Link Outdoor HD Wireless Network Camera. I purchased it at Walmart via their online site with free shipping to my post office box. I previously used all D-Link components to deliver internet connectivity through the farm so adding the camera to the system was not difficult. I just had to press the WPS buttons on the D-Link router and D-Link security camera to sync the camera to the farm network. I used 2 D-Link Powerline Adapters to create a hardwired route from my house where the router resides to my barn where the security camera is mounted overlooking the house and driveway entrance.

The house and barns run off the same power meter so I can use powerline adapters to deliver "hardwired" internet connectivity to every outbuilding. The security camera is not using wireless to deliver AV signals to the router as I found it easier to directly connect the security camera to a dumb D-Link Powerline Adapter via a CAT-5 cable. The CAT-5 cable and a power cord are coming out the back of the camera and through a cut in the window screen. I would have had to cut the power cord coming from the camera and then repair the power cord to neatly wire the camera into the building via a small drill hole. This ugly hack will suffice for now,

I'm currently testing the outdoor performance of the camera. It is raining today, heavy at times, but the camera lens is shedding the water ok. I intentionally angled the face of the camera down a bit so this might be helping it to shed water. Could have put a box around the camera to help keep rain/wind off it but I'd like to see what it does out of the box. Haven't tested nighttime performance yet.

My D-Link based network would allow me to easily add more D-Link cameras to my D-Link Cloud Camera login. In my D-Link cloud login I would see tabs for each installed security camera and click on the relevant camera name to see what is going on from that viewing perspective. I could also be monitoring bird pressure on the grape vines I planted to see if flocks of birds are eating my grape crop. I put up some bird netting on some of the older producing grape vine rows but there are lots of unnetted berries for birds to eat. I might be ordering another D-Link outdoor camera soon... Maybe a loud horn.... Hmm.... Remote-controlled farming...

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Don't Screw Up! [Entrepreneurship
Posted on September 21, 2016 @ 04:55:00 PM by Paul Meagher

I recently picked up a short book called Wine Faults (2010) that also contains some lessons for thinking about startups and business in general.

The book discusses a litany of flaws and faults that can occur when making wine. A flaw occurs when your particular style of wine does not live up the expectations of that particular style of wine. A chardonannay that lacks any fruity character might be considered a flaw for that particular style of wine. A fault on the other hand makes the wine mostly undrinkable. Faults include letting your wine oxidize, wine that is too acidic or not acidic enough, cork taint, unfinished fermentation, too much residue in your wine, etc... The book discusses ways to detect these flaws and faults and measures you might take to prevent or correct these flaws.

Flaws can arise at any point in the process of making wine:

  1. How you grow your vines.
  2. When you harvest them (e.g, wet versus dry weather, hot versus cool temperatures, etc...).
  3. Post-harvest handling of your grapes.
  4. How you press your grapes.
  5. How you manage your must at the beginning of fermentation (e.g., kill wild yeasts, yeast selection, cleanliness, etc..).
  6. How you manage your must during fermentation (e.g., punch down frequency, temperature control, measuring fermentation progress, etc...).
  7. How you cellar your wine.

If you don't have any major screw ups, or if you are able to appropriately remediate any screw ups, then the end result is often a good and drinkable bottle of wine. Indeed, one common way vinters think about wine making is that their goal is not to create a superior wine but rather to produce a wine without any obvious faults or flaws.

It might be useful to think about launching a startup or running a business in a similar way. You may be tempted to think that your job is to create a highly successful and disruptive enterprise when in fact you might be more successful if you focused more on the negative goal of not screwing up too bad. Like wine, there are are host of flaws and faults that businesses can exhibit some of which can be fatal to its success. A bad business structure, a bad partner or employee hire in the early days, inadequate cash flow, no insurance against catastrophic loss (e.g., health or legal problems), not running a lean operation, poor or inadequate tax planning, poor business planning, inadequate venture capital, poor market research, etc... Less fatal issues, called flaws, occur when we run a particular type of business (e.g., car dealership) but don't do some of the things that businesses of that type do to be successful (e.g., offer financing). This may not kill the business but it will make your line of business less successful than businesses of the same type. Business flaws are industry specific whereas business faults are industry-agnostic issues that businesses in general have to overcome to be successful.

There is the view out there that you should expect to make lots of mistakes when starting or running a business or defining what features your product or service should have. That is true but it is also true that some mistakes can be faults that sink your business. You can be so fixated upon producing a great business (or a great wine) that you make rookie mistakes when it comes to running your business (or making wine). You don't measure or address seemingly minor issues that can potentially be fatal to your business (or wine). Some of the "little things" can make a big difference in the end and can't simply be blown off as "mistakes".

So one lesson we might take from successful wine making is that it is often a matter of looking out for and addressing common flaws and faults that often happens to wine. Sometimes you can end up with a superior wine simply because you watched out for and addressed all the potential flaws and faults that could have ruined your wine. Likewise, a highly successful business can happen by taking care of the boring fundamentals rather than actively striving to create a great business. Success can be the result of not making too many major screw ups or quickly detecting a screw up and fixing it before it becomes a big problem. So the lesson from wine making is that a focus on not screwing up can produce a good wine and that the lack of a faults and flaws is a pre-requistite to producing a great wine. Sometimes a great wine happens without striving to produce a great wine. It is the absense of faults and flaws, not the presence of something.

Business has a Yin (what you strive for) and a Yang (what you avoid) side. Today's blog is about the Yang side of business and wine making. Cheers!

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Stacking Functions Pattern [Permaculture
Posted on September 8, 2016 @ 06:25:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I am enjoying a new book by Shawn Jadnricek called The Bio-Integrated Farm (2016).

There are several reasons I like the book:

  1. He offers up new Permaculture designs for greenhouses, ponds, food growing systems, pest control and more.
  2. He goes into rigorous detail on how to implement these designs, often involving some math.
  3. He is practicing/teaching permaculture concepts in an academic context at the Student Organic Farm at Clemson University. The co-founder of Permaculture, Bill Mollison, was often reluctant to partner with universities for a variety of reasons; however Shawn has found a way to make Permaculture practical and innovative in an academic context.
  4. Shawn puts the principle of Stacking Functions at the center of his approach to Permaculture design. This is just one design principle in traditional Permaculture; however, it is interesting to see it being used as the central design principle.

Stacking functions is sort of like designing things so they can be multifunctional, however, the multiple functions are not so much a property of the thing itself but how it inter-relates to other aspects of a system. A pond, for example, can be designed as an aesthetic feature of the landscape but there are a host of other functions it could serve and when we design ponds so they serve multiple functions then that would be considered a good permaculture design or bio-integrated design as Shawn likes to call it. Shawn argues somewhat mysteriously that if your design serves 7 or more functions then it often takes off - requires less maintanance and leads to greater abundance. In the case of a pond, we could also design it so that is used to harvest rainwater. If we position it right we can also use the reflection as a source of heating to another building. If we populate it with fish we can harvest those fish for eating. If some of the fish we include are good at catching mosquitoes then it can help reduce mosquito populations. We can of course use the pond as a source of irrigation for crops. If there is fish poop in the water it can also be a source of fertilization as well. We can also use the heat from the water, run through hoses on a grow bench, to germinate plants. These are just some of the functions a pond can have and which they do have in Shawn's pond designs.

In my last blog post on Patterns of Innovation I discussed 3 patterns used to create innovative designs. I think we can add another innovation pattern called "Stacking Functions". Whenever we are confronted with a design task there is always the opportunity to consider whether we can add more functions to our design and when we do so we might hit upon a combination that leads to greater utility and less maintenance work and for that reason might be a design that is copied as a new innovation. I think we can go overboard and sometimes we just want a toothbrush to brush our teeth. Our tendancy, however, is probably in the other direction. We often underdesign by not considering other functions a design element might have. We don't place it in a wider context and consider the other functions it might have in that context.

To learn more a bit more about Shawn and the Student Organic Farm he manages you can watch this YouTube video:

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