How Are We Doing?

It’s been about a year now since we started using a Help Desk platform for inquiries and support, and besides being an invaluable tool for managing all of our conversations, it’s given us real insight into how our clients feel about our performance. The Help Desk has allowed us to capture a lot more feedback and we thought it might be interesting to share some of the metrics and feedback we’ve collected with the public.

A year later, we’ve received 3,300 emails and conducted 1,100 conversations with 620 people. Whew! Without the Help Desk system I don’t know how we would have managed. Crunching the numbers, that’s about 12 incoming emails per working day about new projects, support requests, plugin questions and more.

What’s even more interesting is that across all of those thousands of emails, approximately 20% have left feedback about the interactions to let us know how we’re doing. That’s huge! And we’re so grateful for the extra time people have taken to give us that insight. Here’s what our numbers look like over the past year:

Uncanny Owl Satisfaction

Yes, there was one comment from a random person who wasn’t happy at all (after I pointed out that we weren’t the company he was looking for and telling him we couldn’t help). There’s always one; we can’t make everyone happy. But we do try, as evidenced by the Great ratings above!

Many of those people also took time to leave us comments about how we did (if only we had that kind of response rate for Toolkit reviews!). Here are just a few of the comments that were left for us:

Clearly there's a reason you're not taking new clients -- you're rockstars!
- Jennifer B
Ryan was great, very helpful and patient. Thanks again!
- Marco M
Great support and very much appreciated.
- Michael S
Thanks Ken for your great help!
- David G
Thank you for being so responsive and helpful.
- Larry T
Quick and complete!
- Valerie E
Fantastic support all the way from Twitter to here. Refreshing to get some tops customer service for a change, it's a rare commodity.
- Adel D
Prompt responses and addresses the issues correctly.
- Shyam C
Perfect clarity on how TinCanny limited xAPI/LRS functionality for the sake of simplicity
- David G
Ryan has been super helpful with answering my questions and ensuring that I have a solid plan in place for moving forward with my project. Looking forward to working with Uncanny in the future.
- Tricia S
The help I received from Ryan at Uncanny Owl is impressively quick and very kind and attentive to my needs/issues.
- David N
Ryan is fantastic! He is knowledgable, clear, precise, and really easy to work with as a human being. Good soul! I look forward to working with him more in the future.
- Stephany Y
Ryan, Thank you so much for taking a look at my site.
- Mark M
Great support; Ken really did a great job of fixing the issue, and in a very timely way. Thank you!
Worked like a charm… Thanks Ken!
- Steve D
A perfect reply! Thanks
- Jon
Spot on support. Thank you, Ryan!
- William R
I continue to be impressed with Uncanny Owl. Very fast response.
- Brian P
Thanks for the very detailed answers!!!
- George
The support I have received has been phenomenal. Thank you very much!
- Abena E
That was super helpful!
- Kevin
A well crafted and thoughtfully considered response, full of useful advice. Thank you.
- Colin W
I’m so thankful for the support I’ve always found at Uncanny Owl. You guys are the best I’ve seen.
- Leah M
Seriously fantastic and prompt customer support. Literally looking for more ways to do business with your company.
- Heidi K

We’re pretty proud of how we perform and how we support our customers, and we really appreciate the time every person above took to leave us their thoughts on how we’re doing. The bar is set pretty high for our performance over the next year!

We’re Hiring!

wordpress-workerUncanny Owl is looking for an experienced WordPress Developer to join our team on a full time or contract basis. We need help with all development stages of WordPress projects, including creating and customizing complex plugins, modifying and styling themes, and even some front-end design. Experience developing large membership sites and previous work with WordPress LMS tools (e.g. LearnDash and Sensei) would be a huge benefit. A Toronto-area candidate is preferred but your skill set is more important than your location.

For more information and to apply, click here.

No agencies or companies, please.


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

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.

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.

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: 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.

Hypothesis Testing – Finding Participants

People talking

Further to the last Uncanny Owl post, we’re finding it more difficult than expected to get certain groups to complete our surveys. We’re trying to collect data for our Canada Translates project, and to do that we need feedback from 2 groups – translators and businesses that need translation. Finding translators was easy. We just found a board that’s used by translators, posted a compelling offer, and waited for the responses to trickle in. That part was pretty easy.

But where do you find random people who need translation? We’ve tried Google ads, our networks, targeted landing pages and more, but we’re still not getting submissions. Here’s one of the pages that’s not attracting interest or converting: How can we improve our participation rate?

On a related note, here’s an important lesson that we learned: Be very careful with Google’s “Broad Match” option in adwords. The scope was far too broad to be of any use and we spent more on advertising than we should have. Multiple, targeted ads were much more effective.

Hypothesis Testing – A Lesson in Hacking

Last week we recovered from a catastrophic data loss with one of our hosting providers. This week some of our hypothesis testing attracted the interest of a rather clever script kiddy looking to mine Amazon gift cards. We’re having lots of fun online. 🙂

We’re currently trying to get feedback from translation customers and providers over at To do that, we’ve got some links and ads directing potential clients to surveys to collect some of the data we need to validate our business model. As an incentive to participate, we offered professional translators $5 gift cards to complete a 5-minute survey. A few people participated the first day the site went live but it wasn’t popular.

Overnight on the second day, 40 surveys trickled in. This was pretty shocking – how did we go from 1 every 8 hours to 6 per hour? I looked closer and the submissions didn’t make sense. Values weren’t aligned with what we expected, email addresses didn’t match names, submission times weren’t too far apart… the data was just too suspicious. I took everything down while I investigated. Whoever tried to mine the gift cards did a pretty good job of trying to make the submissions look legit. Entries came from Canadian IP addresses from different parts of the country, and unique Canadian addresses accompanied each submission. After adding a captcha and some mandatory fields that required valid text input, I broke our visitor’s script and made it easier to identify false entries. It was a pretty annoying less to learn though, and I had to manually clear out all the bad data from our records.

stop sign

Lessons Learned

For our next surveys, he’s what we’ll watch more carefully:

  • Make several text fields mandatory that require unique submissions and at least a sentence or 2 of text
  • Include a captcha
  • Block multiple entries from a single IP address

Luckily our survey was small and we had few submissions. If our work was more popular, our guest’s interference would have cost us $200 PLUS made our research data invalid.

Hello World

Welcome to Uncanny Owl’s official blog! This is where we’ll informally talk about some of the things we’re working on and some of the things we’re learning. It’s also where we’ll ask for help from you.