WordPress Developer Needed

uncanny-eyeRight now we’re really busy at Uncanny Owl, so we’re building out the team to improve our capacity and capability. That means we have an immediate need for a part-time WordPress developer, ideally in the Toronto area.

We need someone who’s done a lot of work with WordPress customizations. Great PHP and CSS skills are critical, but we need someone who’s comfortable interacting with clients and who can work independently too. If you or someone you know wants to work with us, check out all of the details at http://www.uncannyowl.com/contract-wordpress-developer/.

Top Study Skills Program Goes Free

Grade HacksWe recently made the decision to adopt an open education model for Grade Hacks, our study skills platform. The program combines elearning courses, videos, downloadable resources, calculators and more to help high school, college and university students improve academic performance. The 30-day program has already helped hundreds of students achieve better grades in school.

The shift to a free model was made for 2 reasons. First, we want it to help as many students as possible. Making it a paid program proved a significant barrier for many students (more so than expected) and we didn’t want financial means to stand in the way of students reaching their potential. The program covers many important strategies that aren’t taught in schools and we knew we could help more students than we were reaching.

Second, the program ended up being a driver of consulting business for us. As a showcase platform on the LearnDash website, we’ve received quite a bit of traffic from organizations interested in building out their own LMS solutions. What they could see without registering, however, was very limited. By opening the site up we hope to further expand interest in Uncanny Owl consulting services.

Even though we’ll take a financial hit from opening the site up, we know it was the right move for a program geared to students. This email from a teacher (right after we issued the press release) certainly confirmed it:

I just came across this your website and it looks absolutely fantastic. I am so glad that it is free and I will be using it to help my students (at-risk students including ADHD etc.) with their study skills and learning styles.

We hope you enjoy Grade Hacks too.

Pitching eLearning to Small Businesses

small business elearningI’m still new to elearning consulting and marketing my business. My partner and I have a really broad set of skills, so we started off by saying we did “everything”, which of course meant that nobody knew what Uncanny Owl did. Worse, our networks aren’t that big (I was at the same company for 9 years) and we quickly discovered that all of the big corporate projects we could do in our sleep weren’t interested in an unknown company with a small team. Forget Google; they only found companies through word of mouth and existing relationships. Of course, even though we knew that, we continued to pitch to the big companies in big company language because that’s all we knew.

That changed a few days ago. I went to my first networking workshop hosted by our regional chamber of commerce. My original plan was to make an appearance and find out what they do, knowing that there are very few big companies in the region and even fewer doing elearning. How much benefit could there really be in talking to small business owners? So I started the morning talking about what I thought I did (“I create online training for large corporate audiences”) and had some awkward discussions. But I kept talking to people, and I kept listening to figure out if there was a way I could help them.

As it turned out, there was. The small business owners I met shared some similar traits: they had a lot of expertise, they wanted to grow, and they were open to new ideas. Some of them actually offered training and coaching locally. Others had products or services that weren’t easy to understand. These were all problems that we could help with! We can sell expertise and make things simple with elearning. Our big local competitors weren’t targeting this market at all and, as luck would have it, we’re one of the few companies with a lot of expertise in learning platforms that integrate an LMS with WordPress, which many small companies use for their websites.

So I changed my pitch. And now we have a few leads, a few new contacts, and some new opportunities to pursue. We even have a new services page to try to reach out to this market (we’re still tweaking it!). The projects and budgets may not be as big, but it’s an interesting market that not many elearning companies seem to be targeting.

Of course, maybe the other elearning companies know something that we don’t. We’re just hoping it’s the other way around.

Introducing torontoelearning.com

torontoelearning.comWe’ve decided to try our hand at connecting Toronto’s elearning community and local businesses. We’re not the first, but we are the first that isn’t either national, behind a paywall or out of date.

Torontoelearning.com is a community site where anyone interested in elearning can  share and connect. On the business side, there’s a vendor directory and boards for elearning jobs and projects. On the social side, there’s a calendar with Toronto’s latest elearning events and a news feed that captures everything Toronto’s elearning pros are saying in one location. Everything is completely free and there are no ads. We created the site as a networking experiment, not a source of income.

If you’re an elearning provider, we hope you’ll drop by and submit (or claim) your business profile. While you’re there, check out the postings and submit your social news URLs to info@torontoelearning.com. We’ll make sure they’re included in our consolidated Toronto elearning feed!

If you’re a business, check out Toronto’s rich selection of elearning providers. Post your jobs and projects to connect with the region’s experts!

If you’re a student, check out the discussion to learn more about the industry and what’s happening in Toronto. And if you want a professional-looking email address that shows your industry affiliation, claim your free @torontoelearning.com email address!

We really hope the Toronto elearning community finds the site useful. It’s still new, so there may be some issues, and we would love to get your feedback on what we’re doing. Let us know how we can improve and help you better connect with Toronto’s elearning community!

Click here to visit torontoelearning.com

How We Created Grade Hacks

Grade HacksNow that Grade Hacks is live, we’re excited to tell you more about what went into it. It wasn’t easy setting up a learning platform that lets us deliver engaging courseware at negligible monthly cost!

Grade Hacks is built on WordPress. Cost and ease of maintenance were certainly big considerations as a bootstrapped venture, and we wanted to do as much work in-house as possible (at the time of writing, Uncanny Owl did all of the Grade Hacks work independently). Since Grade Hacks is a paid course, we used Woo Commerce to handle payment processing. LearnDash is the Learning Management System behind Grade Hacks. No WordPress LMS could do everything we wanted, but LearnDash came closest and Justin (the creator) was a big help when we ran into issues. We also tried Sensei but it didn’t have the functionality we needed and the Woo Themes support team wasn’t responsive enough.

Of course, WordPress, Woo Commerce and LearnDash weren’t enough on their own to create the platform that we wanted Grade Hacks to be. We turned to WordPress plugins (over 40 of them!) for things like analytics, achievements, permissions, profiles, email, spam, performance, gift certificates, and much, much more. And even then we had to customize some of the code to make everything cooperate. Updates can be a bit tense!

For the courseware, we needed an authoring tool that we could use to quickly build interactive and engaging material. We selected Articulate Storyline for most of the courseware and used assets from eLearning Brothers and several stock photo sites. By using templates and applying lesson models, we were able to build the elearning materials quite quickly.

Grade Hacks is mostly served from a dedicated server here in Canada. To improve performance for visitors, especially those outside of North America, we use MaxCDN, a Content Distribution Network with peering partners all over the world, to serve many of the static files. This approaches ensures that everyone has a great experience while using Grade Hacks.

Best of all, we created Grade Hacks in under 3 months on almost no budget. Platform, courseware, downloads, calculators, screencasts, everything. We spent a few hundred dollars on tools and assets, and our only ongoing cost is the price of hosting. If 2 people at Uncanny Owl can create a large-scale elearning program and the technology to drive it in under 3 months while working on other projects, imagine what we can do for your company. Contact us today so we can tell you!

Introducing Grade Hacks

Grade Hacks logo

Uncanny Owl’s first product, Grade Hacks, went live this morning. Our experience suggested that schools focused too much on teaching information rather than teaching students how to learn and succeed, so we created Grade Hacks to address this learning gap. Using interactive e-learning lessons, videos, downloadable tools, calculators, progress tracking and much more, we’ve created an engaging learning platform to help high school, college and university students reach their academic potential.

We’re offering Grade Hacks at a special introductory price of only $25 until December 31, 2013. Check out the free trial to see what Uncanny Owl can do with e-learning. Everything – from platform integration to content development and tool programming – were performed in-house by Uncanny Owl.

When “Minimum” Trumps “Viable” – Risks of the MVP

Uncanny Owl is working on several new projects, and as a small startup, the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) model certainly has appeal. By creating and launching a basic product, companies are able to assess market interest, leverage the community to shape its future into something marketable, and minimize their risk exposure. It’s an inexpensive way to test new ideas and make sure you’re on the right track.

Unfortunately, what we’re finding is that companies are overlooking the “viable” part of the equation. The “minimum” part is certainly important to limit risk exposure and test ideas early on, but if the product doesn’t focus on the “viable” piece too, you’re going to alienate your customers and potentially kill your product while it’s still in its infancy.

sad-manWithout naming names (since we’re clients and want to develop industry relationships), we’ve noticed this a lot lately in the learning-related products we’re using. We’ll buy products with interesting feature sets, only to install them and find out they’re not working as expected or are missing key components that make the tools useless. When we follow up, we’ll get answers about how what we need is coming next month or it’s on the roadmap but there’s no ETA. It’s extraordinarily frustrating to be caught up in someone else’s MVP and only realize it’s an extremely limited MVP after cash has changed hands.

We discovered the same thing recently when we tried to standardize on a mail client for Mac. We gave Airmail a try first. Sure, we understood it was new, but it wouldn’t go up in the app store and get decent reviews if it was broken, right? Only after using it for a few weeks did we realize just how broken it is. Random crashes, disappearing emails, missing basic functionality in all other clients, etc. Weekly updates on their website with change logs for new betas further confirmed that the product just wasn’t production-ready. Rather than a loyal, engaged client who got in at the ground floor, we’re just a frustrated – and likely former – product user.

If the games market is a signal of what’s to come in the enterprise, a lot of businesses are in trouble. Until recently, game companies would give time-limited betas of their products away to get customer feedback and iron out bugs before launch. It was win-win: companies got valuable feedback and real-world data, and gamers got to try out the latest and greatest at no cost. Now, however, game companies (especially indie developers) are getting away with charging launch prices for customers to play around with alpha products. People are expected to pay for early access to broken, incomplete games that may be years away from launch, if they even get to that point. The scary thing is that the model has traction. What happens when more companies start adopting the model and releasing broken software is the new norm? After all, apparently everything is online and patches trump pre-launch QA.

If you’re a developer, please consider waiting until your products actually work before launching – broken products are only going to annoy your early users, and they tend to be the most vocal and have the most potential to help your product succeed. Give careful thought to whether the earlier cash flow is really worth risking your product’s long-term viability.

Experimenting with Explainer Videos

In further efforts to drive traffic to our site and increase search engine rankings, we’ve started to create and post explainer videos. The research certainly backed up the concept. Forrester Research says video on a website is 53 times more likely to drive a first page search result; simplified.tv says videos in search get 40% more clicks than text, visitors stay 2 minutes longer and are 64% more likely to convert; Techcrunch cites informal feedback of 15-75% increases in conversions. Moreover, we’d get a few more external links pointing back to our site and maybe a few views from video services.

To minimize risks associated with cost and effort for what really was an experiment, we started off with template-based videos. With under $100 in spending and maybe 12 hours of work, we launched videos for Canada Translates and Uncanny Owl. They may not be exactly what we wanted, but the impression is still very professional and the messaging works reasonably well.

Here are the videos:

So what are the results so far? It’s only been a few days, so we’re not seeing any traffic increase yet. It’s performing well on Facebook though, with over 10 times more views than our typical post. The Linkedin presentation also helps to advertise our services, and it’s led to more people liking our Facebook page and some inquiries about how we did it. Even with a marginal traffic increase, the $100 and 12 hour investment have certainly paid off.

Now how can we justify creating even more explainer videos?

An Experiment in Guest Blogging

offline ipadLast week I decided to write an article on e-learning and see if a popular e-learning news source might be interested in publishing it. Even if it didn’t work out, I thought I might be able to get some feedback and insight on how guest blogging worked. And if it was accepted, maybe we’d get a little more traffic and recognition for Uncanny Owl.

Because it was just an experiment, I didn’t put much work into the article. This may have been a mistake, because the article ended up taking off and getting a lot of unexpected attention. Viewed by over 1500 people in the industry, shared over 125 times on social networks, and heralded by the site editor as one of the most exciting things he’d seen for months, the response was overwhelming. It’s kind of exciting to see industry heavyweights cite your work.

The experiment was undeniably a success. We’ve had almost 50 visitors check out our website as a direct result of the article, we’ve established more expertise and the quality backlinks will help our search engine placement. I guess it also means we need to write more… Any suggestions for new topics?

If you want to check the article out, it’s available here: http://elearningindustry.com/the-state-of-offline-mobile-learning. It’s admittedly rough, but now we’re better prepared for next time.

Update: My second attempt at an article had similar results and is available here: Positive Feedback – Lessons from a 2-Year-Old.

Finding the Right Tools

We’re still on the hunt for the right tools for the right workflow – and we’re failing miserably. With so many SAAS products on the market today, it should be easy to find something that fits our needs, right?

Needle in a haystackSurprisingly, we’re struggling. We’ve spent the better part of 2 days looking for the right tool to manage client projects. It shouldn’t be that hard, right? Set up some tasks, organize them into a project, distinguish between billable and non-billable hours, track time, invoice clients, and maybe even give clients access to see what’s going on. But apparently nobody can get it quite right, and to find out what’s missing, these services need me to give them credit card info just to check out their products in more detail.

So what have we found? A supposedly great project management tool doesn’t handle time tracking. Task managers don’t allow planning future tasks, and forget about durations, dependencies and non-billable time. Easy invoicing built in? Not if you’re in Canada. Another seemingly great tool won’t let us see all of our tasks at a glance – we have to drill down into 5 potential projects to figure out what’s going on at the company level.

All of the niche products showing up now are also relying on “integrations” to fill in the gaps with their offerings. Rather than offer a complete product, we’ll let you hook up your XYZ subscription which does a great job! So instead of finding one complete service, we’re paying hundreds a month for lots of little incomplete services and still winding up with gaps. Is this really the future of SAAS? And why isn’t anyone doing project management in a way that fits our needs? Yes, we’ve checked out Basecamp, Harvest, Copper, Planscope, Toggl, Copper, Tempo, MinuteDock – you name it.