Author Archives: Lisa

How to Stand Your Ground in a Competitive Market

So, you’re a small fish in a pond full of much larger fish with sharp teeth that are ready to pounce on you.  All the while you’re watching your back whilst trying to get your fair share of food.  It’s a scary thing for a small company to stand up to the competition and risk loosing everything they’ve worked so hard to achieve.  But if you turn the way you think about your competitors on its head and see the advantages that a small business has that they don’t then not only can you make space for yourself and your product in a crowded market, but you can also make your business stronger in the process.

Here are some tips:

  1. Play to your differences – You’ll never be able to compete directly with large corporates. You just don’t have the same resources and budgets, so don’t even try and keep up with their activities.  When offering a similar product, price is often the area that most small business try and compete on, but many get involved in pricing wars that they just can’t win and this sometimes proves fatal. Find a differentiator other than price such as unsurpassable customer service. Corporates spend obscene amounts of money trying to create a more personal service but it invariably comes across as being forced and disjointed.  Small businesses naturally have the opportunity to offer this so look for the little things that make the difference to your customers.
  1. Embrace change and retain agility – Charles Darwin once wrote “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” The same is true for businesses and the smaller the business the more agile you can be. Don’t get bogged down with internal processes and procedures that constrain progress and use the opportunity you have to act quickly.“… Organizations that are good react quickly to change. […] organizations that are great create change.” Robert Kriegel, Sacred Cows Make The Best Burgers. Large organisations invest heavily in developing their products and looking for new opportunities so you should use the resources you have to drive change too and beat them at their own game using your ability to act quickly to get to the finish line and launch your product first.
  1. Knowledge and insight are gold – The more knowledge you have about your competitors, the market in which you operate, your customers and your target market the better. This information is what will fuel your ideas and carve your journey forward.  Don’t overlook your current customer base. Conduct some research to find out what their needs are and whether you are meeting them.  What do they look for in a product and a supplier? What do they think you could do better? What do they need for the future? Try and meet their needs as best you can so they have no reason to go elsewhere.
  1. Never get complacent – if you’re a big enough threat to your competitors then they’ll be watching you like a hawk. Another quote now from a man who seems to know his stuff: “Success breeds complacency.  Complacency breeds failure.  Only the paranoid survive,“ Andy Grove. It’s hard work keeping ahead but as soon as you stop or slow down you’ll be overtaken.
  1. Have confidence – Be confident in your products, your business and your team. It’s contagious so if you have confidence in what you’re offering and in the ability of your business to compete then your employees will too and you’ll all drive the business forward together.  One final quote for you: Experience tells you what to do; confidence allows you to do it.” Stan Smith, Champion tennis player

The Fascinating Future of Agricultural Farming

In my last article I explored the role that sensors are playing in revolutionising the agricultural farming industry by enabling precision farming techniques to be practised.  These technological additions seek to inject greater efficiencies into the industry by helping to refine planting, crop maintenance and harvesting techniques in order to increase productivity.  I was fascinated by the abilities of this technology and the way it is providing farmers with greater insight and control over their land and providing efficiencies in their farming techniques.  I’ll admit this is mainly due to my ignorance on this topic.  But if this technology is already being used then I was keen to find out what the future has in store and how its use will attempt to address the mounting pressures placed on farmers to produce a greater supply of cheaper crops with minimal environmental impact.

There are of course a myriad of different technologies that are emerging and being developed for use within agricultural farming, the majority of which utilise or are some way linked to sensor technology.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones themselves are not strictly sensors, however by applying sensors their use is set to play a highly vital role in improving the accuracies of obtaining land data for use in precision farming.  They allow images taken by sensors to be captured at a far higher resolution than satellites deliver.  They can access areas below tree level that would otherwise be hidden from satellite view, plus they allow images to be obtained even on cloudy days.  The sensors used in UAVs can be chosen based on the data required and options include RGB (red-green-blue), NIR (near infrared), RE (red edge), multispectral and thermal infrared.  Used on their own or when combined they collect highly accurate information on crop health, plant physiology analysis, land elevation, soil property and moisture levels, erosion analysis, yield forecasting and even plant counting.  All this can be done in a teeny tiny fraction of the time it would take a farmer to conduct this analysis manually.

This is fantastic, but what developments are being made to make use of this highly precise data?  The next step in the trail is to feed this information wirelessly into autonomous farm vehicles.  Automated tractors, harvesters and other farm machinery would then react to the data being sent to them to carry out otherwise manual and time-consuming tasks.  They are guided by highly accurate satellite navigation systems that enable absolute accuracies of an inch to an inch and a half. Farmers are then in receipt of real time information which allows them to apply a more strategic rather than reactive approach to their farming based on the statistical data and, in time, historical statistical data obtained by their sensors.

Another area of autonomous machinery where introductions to the industry are imminent is in the area of Agrobots.  These machines are being developed in order to bring dramatic changes to the way farming is conducted by taking labour intensive tasks away from people and passing them on to robots.  Agrobots are being developed in a wealth of shapes and sizes to address the requirements of applications including weeding, fruit picking, irrigation, planting, fertilising, soil maintenance, hay balling and harvesting crops.  Their size allows far greater speed and precision to be achieved than could ever be possible by farm workers or by larger more cumbersome machinery.

I couldn’t end this article without touching on another approach that is not only being explored but is also beginning to be practiced in certain areas of agricultural farming and seeks to address the biggest hurdle of the future – a lack of space.

According to data approximately 80% of the world’s land that is suitable for farming is being farmed, but with the world’s population set to increase by a forecasted 3 billion by 2050 will there be enough land to produce the crops required to sustain this growth? You may have heard of vertical farming, but if not, like the name suggests, it’s basically farming upwards and this could offer a potential answer to this increasingly critical dilemma.  The images on the web are truly futuristic, give it a Google and take a look – I particularly like the image of cows on the 20th storey of a building here  – now that’s one way to find out if they suffer from vertigo!  On a more serious note this concept would allow a certain degree of mass farming to take place in urban areas where space for crop cultivation is limited.  It’s not a new idea by any means and has evolved from the book Vertical Farming written by Gilbert Ellis Bailey in 1915.

Since then different people have taken the idea and tried to establish if the concept is commercially viable and how it would work in practice.  Some farms are already using this principle in a less sci-fi way, such as Green Sense Farms near Chicago, USA.  Indoor farming of certain crops such as salad leaves and herbs, like those produced by Green Sense Farms, are becoming more popular as they create a closed ecological system which allows the farmer complete control over the environment.  This almost eliminates the presence of pests and sensors can be used to monitor and adjust climatic conditions so that they are perfect for optimal harvest whatever the weather’s doing outside. In these environments, crops are grown in tiers to ensure the use of space is maximised.   This is certainly set to be an excellent solution to space availability in the future and provides extensive opportunities for urban farming.

It is an exciting time to be working in the agricultural farming industry and within the next decade or so farms could operate in a completely different way to how we’ve ever seen them before.

The Role of Sensors in the Rise and Success of Precision Farming

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much at all about farming.  Tractors and combine harvesters in my family are seen as a great ‘spotting item’ when out on a car journey as a way of keeping the kids occupied. But, I’ve spent a lot of time researching for this article and it turns out that agricultural farming is a pretty interesting topic and is far more state-of-the-art than I’d ever imagined.  Delving into this subject shows just how much we take the food on our plate for granted.

The pressure on agricultural farmers today is immense.  There’s an ever growing global population that needs feeding but less space available for farming.  There are greater pressures from governments on farmers to incorporate environmentally sound practices, such as regulations on the use of fertilisers and pesticides, whilst at the same time maximising yields. There’s pressure from supermarkets and consumers for cheap prices. And finally, there’s Mother Nature who ever increasingly seems to throw a spanner in the works more often than she used to.  With all of this it’s no wonder there has been such an influx into investment to try and assist farmers’ productivity and give them greater control of their environments.

Farmers have witnessed and have been crucial to the evolution, integration and success of precision agricultural practices.  These are a complex combination of technologies that when combined helps farmers gain a highly detailed understanding of their land and allows them to adjust their planting and make informed decision on crop maintenance.

Modern day farm machinery is practically ‘space age’.  They have steering wheels, pedals, levers; all the things you would expect (but you don’t necessarily need someone sitting in them – wow!).  What they have in addition are a multitude of sensors that constantly monitor and collate data on factors such as moisture levels, soil composition, density and nutrient content and even crop health.  All of this valuable information is then processed by mapping software to generate highly detailed prescription maps, which can either be done by the farmer or sent to specialist mapping companies who collate and process the data on their behalf.  This allows a targeted, prescriptive approach to be applied to defined segments of land.  It enables farmers to not only better plan what crops to plant and where, but also helps informed decisions to be made about when to harvest, when and where to fertilise and with what, which seeds to use and also to gain a greater understanding of the weather’s effect on crops.

Ok, so I’m very easily impressed by technology (mainly due to my avoidance of anything technology based) but the next step really amazes me.  This data can then be programmed into the machinery’s computer which it then uses to automatically adjust its work according to the data.  For example, it will use GPS to determine where it is in a field (within a couple of inches), access its data sources to check the soil composition and then automatically adjust the fertiliser or water distribution accordingly so that the correct dosage is given.  The prescriptive approach makes for greater efficiency and economies of scale.  Farmers need only use the exact amounts of water and fertiliser they need, instead of spraying the whole field, helps farmers to minimise the amount of chemicals that are introduced to the water table and saves on labour intensive jobs such as manually checking moisture levels across acres and acres of farmland.

Sensors

Sensors also play a vital role at planting time by allowing farmers to precisely space their plants/seeds and to plant them at the correct depth, no matter how bumpy the terrain.  You can find sensors on pretty much every piece of equipment.  The use of load cells within grain carts can provide farmers with accurate details of exactly how much grain has been applied to which segments of a field.  This can then be correlated later in the year with the amount of harvest each segment has produced so the farmer can analyse which parts of the fields are producing higher yields.

This technology has also had another hugely significant impact that is helping to secure the future of crop farming.  It is drawing back a tech-savvy youth who were previously deterred by the labour intensive farming practices of the past.  They are attracted by the intelligence that the emerging technology brings with it and we are seeing a new breed of next-generation famers ready to take on their family business.  These farmers will see exciting new developments in their practices brought by the sensors of the future that are already in development.  Look out for my next blog article to find out more.

Cyber Security Tips for Companies of All Sizes

Cyber security is an issue that affects every company, however large or small. Within the past few years, countless organisations have fallen victim to hacking and fraud. As hackers grow more sophisticated by the day, protecting your business against intrusion is more important than ever before. Safeguarding your online infrastructure is essential but many companies neglect basic security measures, allowing hackers through the front door. Here are just some of the ways you can secure your business.

Passwords

It may seem like an obvious suggestion but many companies are still failing to utilise password protection as a viable defence against hacking. Passwords should be as complex as you can make them, this includes the use of capital letters, numbers and symbols. Try to avoid words or phrases which could be easy to guess, such as names, dates or common words. A technique which has become popular in recent years involves the swapping of single word passwords for longer phrases. The phrase doesn’t have to make sense, in fact the more complex and nonsensical, the better.

Another typical mistake made by many organisations is the use of a single password for many accounts. This may make it easier to remember your login details but should your password fall into the wrong hands your entire infrastructure could be at risk. Use different passwords for different accounts and change them regularly.

Security Software

Protecting your company can also involve the utilisation of trusted security software. There are many types of security programs available, including anti-virus software, firewalls and anti-malware software. It may be simpler to install a comprehensive software package which incorporates all of these tools into a single program. These can be quite costly but there are many free trials available for businesses who are looking to save money. Some vendors even offer their security software for free!

We are all aware of some of the larger security software companies but there are many out there. Try to stick with the well-known vendors but you can use tools and programs from other companies as long as you do your research first.

Connections

The way in which you connect to the internet is also incredibly important to the overall safety of your company and its online assets. Establishing a secure connection within your main workplace is vital but this is not the only issue. Public Wi-Fi hotspots such as those found at coffee shops or on trains can be unsecured and therefore open to intrusion. This should be kept in mind when accessing company files outside of the workplace.

Utilising a VPN or virtual private network will encrypt your data and therefore allow you to access public hotspots without having to worry that your sensitive information is at risk.

Vigilance

One of the most useful tips for ensuring cyber security is simply to remain vigilant. Hackers employ many techniques and will take advantage of any situation they can in order to infiltrate your system. For example emails can often be used as a way to trick users into revealing sensitive information such as passwords, contact and financial information. With this in mind, make sure your email filter is set to high. Also be on the lookout for suspicious behaviour, for example emails which ask you to input private details or even spelling mistakes within the body of the text.

Vigilance can also extend to your hardware as lost or stolen devices can be just as problematic as virtual attacks. Keep your devices on you at all times and consider installing a remote wiping application, just in case the worse happens.