How To Stay Passionate As An Entrepreneur

(As featured on Entrepreneur Middle East)

Last month, we celebrated five years in business. A landmark, really, when you consider the reality of what it takes to keep a company going today - it’s definitely not easy! Amidst all the celebrations, I found myself in a particularly reflective mood, looking back at how we got to where we are now - the ups, the downs, the incredible highs and the crushing lows, all shaping the business as a whole.

When the going is good you rarely question things, focusing instead on the euphoria that comes with running a successful enterprise, but when things don’t go to plan… well, that’s when you really find out what you’re made of. That’s when you find out how much grit you have as an entrepreneur.

There are times where you’ll find yourself staring blearily at your laptop at 3am wondering why you thought this was a good idea. Setbacks and hurdles become part of your daily life, but the journey to being a successful entrepreneur is rarely linear. We tend to concentrate so much on getting through the first year of business that we rarely talk about what comes next. How do you sustain the energy, the enthusiasm, and let’s face it, the passion, that you had at the beginning? It’s hard work, and something I don’t think we talk about nearly enough.

We’re all guilty of glorifying entrepreneurship and failure at times, focusing too much on the negative aspects, when really there is never going to be a perfect balance, and everyone can relate to that.

As Infographic.ly hit its 5-year milestone, the overwhelming emotion I felt was pride. Not just for the company and its success, but for myself and the team as well. In retrospect, the time has flown by, but during those moments where it was hard to keep going, we did and that is certainly worth celebrating too. So, as we enter our fifth year of business, here’s how to stay positive, productive and most of all, passionate…

Remember The Positive: This may seem like the easiest thing in the world, but it takes just one thing to make you feel like the world is caving in and you’ll struggle to remember the good. That’s why you need to focus on the positive where possible; a nice comment from a colleague, excellent feedback from your client or appreciation from your peers - it could literally be anything, however small, that keeps you going and fuels your motivation. It’s worth jotting these things down in a notebook as well, so you can refer back to it when you’re in need of a boost.

Stay Agile: Rarely has the economy felt so fragile and volatile, which makes for a challenging business environment. You’ll hear this advice a lot, but I think it’s important to reiterate the importance of agility if you’re an entrepreneur today, especially if you’re working to something like a 5-year plan. You may start off with one vision in mind, but be prepared to pivot as the market or client demands; you need to be able to answer changing needs at the drop of a hat. Staying rigid is a formula for failure, as we need to constantly adapt and learn to stay relevant, and being flexible is a big part of that.

Celebrate The Milestones: Celebrating company milestones, as you would any other big occasion, like an engagement, birthday or baby shower is important. Surrounding yourself with a community that will support you in this aim is key, whether that’s like-minded colleagues, friends that have been there from the beginning, or a fellow collective of entrepreneurs. There’s nothing like team spirit when it comes to being an entrepreneur and the thought of celebrating these milestones together makes a big difference.

Hit Pause: Every now and then, take a minute to collect yourself and pause. We’re so engrossed in the day-to-day of our job that we rarely step back and see the big picture, or look back at how far we’ve come. Aside from helping you to appreciate yourself more (and let’s face it, we all need to do that) it also validates exactly why you started this journey; remembering where you began and where you are now. Trust me, it puts everything into perspective.

While I could go on with an endless checklist to ‘success’, the most important thing to takeaway is that you’re not alone; we’ve all ridden the wave of happiness one minute, only to be followed by a disheartening defeat the next. It’s a rollercoaster, but one in which we’re all experiencing together. Remember that and you’re already halfway there.

 


U is For USER

For our February ‘Creative Industries’ segment, we wanted to delve into something we’re sure everyone has experienced at one time or another; the challenging and intricate world of UX/UI. First impressions are absolutely everything when it comes to marketing your business, which is why nothing pains us more than when we witness a poor user experience shatter every chance of success. You know the score - incoherent web layouts, unmanageable app navigation and slow loading times that leave the user frustrated and the brand wondering why their conversion rate is so low.

While the general adoption of UX/UI into the planning process has become almost second nature, there’s still a lot of misinterpretation or lack of understanding when it comes to understanding its many intricacies. For example, most consider UX/UI one of the same, which as any creative won’t hesitate to tell you, isn’t the case at all. Despite areas of overlap in the design process, they both serve different purposes and need to be treated as separate entities in order to be truly effective.

This is especially important as new mediums in the world of UX/UI open up, with voice becoming the much-lauded next phase of evolution. We’re already moving away from screens and shifting our attention to voice instead as advancements in AI make everyday tasks easier to conduct via command, rather than typing out a request. Beyond this, the next frontier of mixed reality will provide new and pioneering ways for people to interact as well, which is something brands need to be exploring and preparing for now.

It’s clear that the value of UX and UI design has never been more important today in helping to hit the bullseye of consumer confidence and loyalty. It’s something that we at Infographic.ly have increasingly paid attention to, recently opening up a dedicated UX/UI unit to deal with the increasing demand from our clients. We sat down with Tarek El-Khatib, our new UX/UI lead, to discuss the ins and outs of this masterful layer of design that we all take for granted.

Welcome to our Creative Industries segment, Tarek. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into the UX/UI field of design.
Hello! Well, my background is in Business Finance, which I studied at university and it naturally lead me into management consulting as a career. In this field, there’s a lot of process management and reengineering, which structures your brain into seeing operations and processes in a certain way. That experience gave me a firm grounding to go into UX, gathering requirements from clients for the software that they wanted developed, and gradually transitioning this into designing the experiences of these solutions as well.

In simple terms… what’s the main difference between UI and UX?
That's a great question and one that many people don’t seem to get! UX is about designing the users' experience with your brand. That includes user research, journey mapping and information architecture - basically understanding the users' needs, their pain points and the problems that we are trying to solve. UI is a problem-solving process on a different level. It's about design, branding, color schemes, typography and identity. There's a bit of overlap in areas like wireframes, but UX and UI are two different worlds and need to be treated as such.

What value does UX have on the bottom line of a business and how ‘necessary’ is it for profit/success?
There is a huge cultural shift needed to make organizations realize they should be user-centric in their approach and build solutions around their customers, not management needs. This is happening gradually, but we’re not there yet. In fact, there’s a nice statistic that I like to quote when I get asked this question - “For every $1 invested in UX, it saves $100 in software development” - so clearly, it does make an impact!  

When do you think the conversation about design shifted from one of ‘aesthetics’ to one of ‘functions’?
Post WWII, there was a mini industrial revolution in the US. Their factories were not affected or destroyed by the war and were continuing to produce consumer goods at a phenomenal rate.

As the free market evolved and started driving competition higher, the industries started making more feature-driven products instead. Rotary phones gave way to a digital future and fridge/freezers soon came with an added water dispenser. That drive for ‘feature bloating’ eventually subsided as companies realized this process made products more complex, and that that the majority of features (80% in some cases) were almost never used. I believe that this was one of the inflection points from where design, which was an afterthought down the production line, advanced and became central in making products, both digital and analogue.

What is the next phase in the UX/UI space going to look like in terms of skill set, industries, products/services?
UX and UI are a medium that separates humans from machines. Over the last couple of decades these mediums were predominantly visual: monitors, ATM screens and car dashboards, for example. Now, we are beginning to see a shift to voice, which uses the same fundamentals of design but in a new way. Mixed reality (Augmented/ virtual reality) is also a new medium with a lot of new and pioneering means of interaction. Designers will need to rapidly learn these skill sets to pioneer, and then keep relevant, in this space.

The world of marketing and communication, in general, is shifting to one that is screenless, leaning more towards to voice - how will that affect what you do from UX/UI perspective and what role will you play in the development/use of that?
I think there was a boom of early adopters in voice, but then, providers discovered its complexity. Usability tests show that users expect voice assistants to complete very simple tasks like setting an alarm, but they can’t understand and answer a two-part question. Having said that, as more resources are put into the AI that runs these assistants, reliance on them is likely to peak as the functionality becomes easier. Look at how people are already changing the way in which they communicate - walking around with their phones perpendicular to their mouths because they're sending voice notes instead of using their Instant Messaging apps. Therefore, the interaction of telling/asking your device something will become a lot more ubiquitous than typing out a request. UX/UI wise, it's still the same: users discover and learn, the device needs to provide feedback (blinking, light cues) and error messages should explain what went wrong and how to solve it. A lot of the basic principles are still applicable, but presented in a new way for voice.  

Who else, other than designers, need to have a sense of UX/UI and how does that relationship need to work?
Everyone needs to have at least a basic understanding of it, as it’s embedded in all industries, roles and services today. For example, If you're a doctor operating on a patient, your patient needs to know what is going to happen to them, what their surgery journey is and what the outcomes could be. Or what about if you’re an accountant - you need to be able to design a powerpoint presentation that your superiors can understand, with figures and calculations that are clear for the non-numeric audience. Thinking about your user/customer is important no matter what your job is, how large your organization is and who you are serving.

Design-led thinking is now turning into a business approach for a lot of companies. Being a designer, how can a different viewpoint and strategy, using creativity for example, positively affect a business?
Companies are starting to adopt a more agile approach. Products/solutions are thought of and released in small bursts, testing happens quickly and the product/solution is then refined and improved. This allows companies to fail fast and pivot quickly in the right direction. It also empowers the users to influence the design of the solution that is ultimately being shaped for them, creating huge brand equity in the process.

User experience is not limited to digital products, and can extend to services, processes, or space. Explain how, and if at all, the process differs for the different outputs.
It's absolutely the same. Here’s a true story for you… I once had to test an insulin pump to see if a senior citizen would comprehend the instructions, or if they'd use it the wrong way and badly affect their health! With non-digital products there's the additional senses: feel, smell, etc. to consider as well. Take Apple for example, they heavily invest in their packaging, studying each step a customer takes in unwrapping their brand new toy, or put another way, the build up to finally touching it. On a wider scale, supermarkets design their aisles in a way that gets you to spend more time in their stores and shop more. Despite their differences, the way in which they all go about this is the same: study the user, understand their needs, define the information architecture, map out their journey, design the solution, test it, release it and keep improving!

What geographical markets/industries, in your opinion, are breaking the most significant ground with UX and UI?
There are certain traditional capitals of design in the world, such as Copenhagen, London and Madrid, however the MENA region is seeing steady growth in UX as well. Staple dinosaurs, like the big consulting companies, are all creating digital departments that cater to the growing demand for UX/UI in sectors like telecommunication, banking and travel. There's still a long way to go, but in my experience, the problems of UX adoption in the region are still mirrored in the West too.

What can businesses do themselves to employ a UX approach /change to their current status for those who can and can’t afford the professional help. Where should they start as a first step?
The U in UX stands for user: customer, administrator, manager, seller, waiter, stakeholder. One way or the other, they are all users. Adopting a user-centric approach first requires talking to the users, understanding who they are, what’s important to them, their industry specific levels of expertise (how tech savvy they are for example), and what types of problems they are facing that the business can solve for them.

This information helps in creating user personas, such as ‘the overspender’, ‘the impulsive buyer’ or ‘the bargain hunter’ that represent real people. Therefore when a business has a meeting, a phrase like "our customers are unhappy with feature X" becomes "Mike does not like feature X because Mike does not have the time to learn how to use it." The personification of the user in this way allows them to become alive and present in design discussions, which helps progress the conversation from what the company wants to what the user wants instead.  This enables the organization to become much more user focused as a whole.

 


Why Microsites Are The Next Big Design Trend

“Why are you going in that room? The psychotic killer that’s been stalking you for half the movie is in there!” Sound familiar? We’ve all be that person as some point, sat so engrossed in a movie that we are entirely unaware we’re blurting out what’s about to happen next. Conjecture as it may be, it’s nothing more than human nature to want to be ‘involved’ and in some cases, in control of what is about to unfold before our eyes. Storytelling, while never faltering from its purpose of engaging an audience, has invited new format inroads for narratives to take shape, with one in particular set to reverse the roles at play.

For anyone who was a preteen in the 90s, you would have likely encountered the hugely popular ‘Goosebumps’ books series and it’s innovative format. It was the first mainstream attempt of its kind to give the reader back some control, offering up a list of scenarios for selection as to how the book should end. What's the big deal right? Well, think about how this kind of approach could apply to businesses today. Publishers were onto the power of design-led thinking way ahead of its time, delivering engaging entertainment and giving the consumer an ‘in’ simultaneously.

It’s both smart and necessary when you consider today’s demanding audience. Netflix, the original content powerhouse, has long been a proponent of this way of thinking. They’ve transitioned from a DVD mail service, to a streaming platform, to an original content hub in just a few short years. An impressive business story sure, but it’s what they have managed to achieve by willingly following the lead of their viewers to determine what’s next in their roster of big ideas. The latest thing to cause a buzz? Bandersnatch - Netflix’s new interactive content show. Rolled out as part of the popular Black Mirror series, they have introduced a layer of complexity we have unconsciously been hoping for; a means for taking control of the narrative by choosing our own ending. Netflix has proven there is no longer a linear way of telling stories, at least not for streaming, and for the sake of creatives and viewers alike, that’s news worth perking up for.

Not too far away in the world of business, a similar evolution is taking place. With attention spans waning and customer expectations of experience heightened, it’s no surprise that interactive design has pierced through to the way businesses are communicating with their audiences. As is the case with one of the most successful entertainment platforms, it’s about continually adapting methods to not only captivate an audience but engage them too. Businesses are starting to recognize that Netflix’s winning formula of dynamic interaction is one that can be replicated to sell, educate and inform better than any static marketing means ever could.

Intertwining the use of data and tech developments, we’ve seen an entirely new purpose for dynamic microsites in engaging with users in real-time on a living subject matter with branded content. Scrollable pages that shift with the user or react to certain clicks, taps or cursor movement are all part of the marketing aim to dispel information in a lively, and in some cases, gamified and interactive way.

A fantastic example of an interactive microsite that led to greater SEO benefits is Red Bull’s digitally interactive microsite for fans of famous ultrarunner, Karl Meltzer. The site offers its followers an engaging digital experience by journeying through the personal notes of the athlete's adventures. Another great example is one of ‘cause worthy’ content with an awareness aim. Waterwise created a very clever and colorful microsite in partnership with EveryLastDrop.co.uk to inform the public on water wastage in the UK and what to do to reduce it. As the user scrolls down, they’ll see an animated character moving throughout his day, along with useful facts and statistics about our current water usage. And let's not overlook the power of turning bland report copy into a simple, yet active alternative. One of my favorite examples is the Lucidworks' site revealing the scale and real cost of lost data. As you scroll to the depths of the ocean, you'll see how data is generated, analyzed, and where unused data goes. I could go on forever….Poppyfield, a captivating reflection on human life lost in war, and Peoplemov, an eye-opening look at migration flows across the world.

Whatever way you choose to narrate your brand, your offering or even your campaign, today’s business climate is one that requires a give and take approach with your audiences. Offer them a lively story that captivates their attention and delivers on that prime user experience they have come to expect, and you can be sure that the end will be one of your own choosing.

Infographic.ly creates live data visual materials in the form of Microsites, Dashboards, Interactive Infographics, and Motion Graphic Videos with the end user in mind.

 


infographiclyblog

The Entrepreneur Manifesto For 2019: Forget The Resolutions

(As featured on Entrepreneur Middle East)

Ah January. As any entrepreneur knows, it’s either a month that appears bleak or full of optimism. On the one hand you have those who look back on their choices of 2018, dissecting every decision and dwelling on what could have been, and then there are those that choose to look ahead and focus on what the next 12 months will bring, with that same drive and certainty felt the day they took on their own venture.

I admire people’s optimism and that deceiving calm that falls between December 24 to 31, where ambition seemingly knows no bounds and New Year’s resolutions take on a starring role. But as much as I consider myself a futurist, a new year shouldn’t be used as the only spark for change, it needs to happen alongside the natural evolution of your business.

Don’t get me wrong. Taking stock of past performance is a smart move, especially when giving pause to setting financial goals, but as far as anything else goes, that time has passed - it’s what’s yet to come that we need to set our sights on.  

We’ve all been guilty of falling into comfortable patterns or sticking to what we know, especially in times of disruption. It’s often the knee-jerk reaction in the fight to stay relevant and competitive, when in reality, what we should be doing is actively going against the tide and rediscovering that boldness which landed us the title of maverick in the first pace.

So, in true ‘less is more’ style of looking forward and not back, and more importantly, in the interest of actually practicing what I preach, here are three declarations every entrepreneur should make for the year ahead.

Don’t Make Resolutions - If they are anything like your personal ones, bold business resolutions will fall by the wayside sooner rather than later, leaving you with an unjust feeling of failure. Instead of creating the world’s longest and most ambitious checklist, focus instead on setting more manageable goals aligned with your quarterly business objectives - ones that will truly have a measurable impact on your bottom line.

Forget What You Think You Know - Because today, things are moving so fast that no one can claim to be an expert anymore. Disruption has been the buzzword for the past three years and 2019 will be no different. This is a year set to push people to redefine their positioning and stand apart from their competition. While it is tempting to stay still when all else is shifting around you, or pay lip service to the changing trends without any real conviction, the only way to succeed today is to be agile. Constant learning and keeping up to date with the latest skills, trends and programs that can help support business objectives is a must, although almost always an afterthought when things get too busy. But more importantly, it’s about tearing down what you’ve built, auditing your services and dissecting their relevance, to adapt to market demands. I’m sure we can all remember a time when digital services were few and far between - a ‘nice to have’. Who could have imagined that today such expectations would be a ‘must’? Take the time to see what is going on around you, be objective when looking at your offering and challenge yourself to use your instincts and insights to your advantage.

Get Uncomfortable - Now this one will take a bit of getting used to, but trust me, by throwing yourself into unfamiliar terrain, trying something new, finally doing that thing you have been putting off for years, will give you an incredible sense of clarity. Disconnecting is what helps us reconnect to our purpose in business and in life. There’s a reason why coworking spaces and entrepreneurial retreats are skyrocketing in popularity; we can easily get exposure to similar or contrasting industries, find new creative counterparts to bounce ideas off, learn more simply by sharing our stories and embracing some much-needed digital detox time. Breaking your usual pattern and seeking new ways to be creative will help you broaden your horizons in the long run and widen the focus beyond just your business. This is the time to get comfortable with being uncomfortable - some of your best work will come from it.

Here’s to 2019.

 

 


Design: The New Avo Toast Of The Marketing World

Chances are you are feeling intrigued right now. The title of this piece, referencing the beloved breakfast dish, isn’t something you’d normally associate with the field of visual design. Let me enlighten you with the connection I made long ago, but one that others are just now starting to get clued in on.

For far too long, design has been given the short end of the stick, looked at as the second-tier ‘nice to have’ layer rather than a key factor to driving business success. Yet, finally, this perception is changing. Much like avo toast when it first exploded onto the Insta scene a few years ago, design is experiencing a lively boost, as professionals and companies alike realize the power of utilizing visuals to spark demand and drive conversions.

Here’s the thing, the avocado toast movement (as I’ve now taken to calling it) wouldn’t have been half as successful if it wasn’t supported by the User Generated Content (UGC) that flooded social media. And it can be assumed that this is what also pushed brands to realize the potential in investing in professional ‘foodie’ shots, or more accurately, ‘food porn’, to convert loyal followers to loyal customers. When food looks good, the taste is almost irrelevant - you have already converted them.

As strange as it sounds, we eat, shop, and enjoy with our eyes, and if the visuals (both static and animated) aren’t up to scratch, you don’t stand a chance in attracting and retaining the fickle consumer of today.

Of course good design isn’t limited to a single industry or marketing channel for that matter. It now powers all verticals of a business, its value increasing most significantly in the realm of communication. Today, visuals supersede the written word and video above all else, positioning itself as the information conduit of choice. It’s not too surprising, given that more than 50% of people are visual learners and a majority of information transmitted to the brain is visual.  

However, simply being visual in your messaging isn’t enough. Cluttered, repetitive, or worse, boring visuals, are the three challenging aspects that marketers have to combat in engaging their audiences today. So, while I’ve harped on about the importance of good design for the majority of this piece, I wanted to narrow the focus now to one key design format that I know will offer the perfect means for brands and companies alike to make an impact - animation.

Animation, often overlooked due to misinformed ideas of cost and complexity, brings concepts and benefits to the surface in a way that no other output can deliver; with richness, realness, and distinction.  And what’s more, advancements in technology have helped reduce the cost and time, giving it a longevity that can be cut and tailored to suit different marketing needs – from online ads, explainer videos and corporate internal videos, providing incredible and varied storytelling opportunities. The reassuring factor is that for good design to prove good for business, affordability is key and the creative community is taking note.

With the end of 2018 quickly approaching, marketing teams are likely scrambling to get their budgets ready for the year ahead. With reports hinting at marketing spends remaining static, there’s a chance for some brands to offset costs with inhouse band aids, often in the form of a jack-of-all-trades individual, equipped in all likelihood, with a camera phone and a basic knowledge of Powerpoint and Paint. (Ah, memories…)

While we have all been guilty at one point or another of testing the validity of this statement, be it food, clothing, or otherwise, when it comes to the world of work, cutting costs and corners will only prove regretful. Fair warning, you get what you pay for and your audience can tell.

So, what’s the brass tax of it all, i.e. the purpose of my prose? Long gone are the days of hiring a production house to produce a six figure scope of work with animation proving what can be done with very little for very little to make noise for your brand.

As a business owner myself, I get the need to be conscious of spends, but all this means is being smarter and more critical on how to get your money’s worth, crucially understanding the difference between value and price. Make sure you are on the right side of it for 2019 and think twice before you hire Jack.

Infographic.ly creates data visual materials with the end user in mind


5 Essential Tools For Non-Designers To Bookmark

A few weeks ago, I hosted an interactive session as part of Apple’s collaboration with the Big Draw Festival 2018. This was my second appearance staging a public event in store, highlighting the importance of visual literacy for all ages and its application to all walks of life

I’m very passionate about the fact that everyone, no matter what their skill set, can learn the foundation of good and practical design.

Part of the Infographic.ly ethos is really centered around this, as we aim to educate and empower individuals to learn the fundamentals in design, sparking confidence and creativity along the way. It’s one of the main reasons I love the training element of what I do as well; there’s nothing more rewarding than imparting that knowledge and seeing someone really grasp what’s in front of them.

Our brains seem to be hardwired to assume we can’t do something before we even try, so much so that we are overwhelmed before we begin. This is especially true when it comes to professional design, often resulting in people overcompensating with an over the top piece of work, throwing every kind of stock visual, shadowgraph and mismatched icon they can download onto the screen.

I’m not knocking the free tools that have become more widely available, far from it - I’m all for self-tuition and continually being curious. Where I think there is a disconnect is in knowing how to use these tools to ultimately get the message across in a more simplistic and better way.

If you think how someone like Apple builds its products and apps, it consistently has the end user in mind, developing its tools to be intuitive and useful, merging both creativity and practicality together. That’s why they are so successful -  they made things SIMPLE.

It’s the same with learning.

We get intimidated when we have to learn something new, because the gap in our knowledge makes us cautious. What you need to remember is that no one is expecting you to become an expert overnight, it’s more about the journey to this new found knowledge and how you can apply that in an increasingly borderless working world.

When I first decided to work in information design, I needed to start almost from scratch. I taught myself Illustrator, watched every YouTube video I could find, and pestered all my graphic designer friends for any tips to start mastering my craft. The key is to be curious and determined enough to want to learn. It’s great to outsource the really detailed and complex material to the professionals, but the elation at being able to create basic design work in-house should be motivation enough to get you going.

Here are five tools I would recommend you bookmark…

  1. Adobe Illustrator: This is one of the easiest softwares to master on the Adobe suite. It’s intuitive and easy to navigate, helping you get to grips with the basics in no time.
  2. Noun Project: This website is a collaborative resource for designers to upload their icon work for others to sample, as well as celebrating the World’s visual language.
  3. Unsplash: Sourcing high quality and relevant imagery is key for any designer. While pinterest is great for inspiration, the resolution isn’t good enough for most formats. This resource offers you beautiful photography options that don’t scream ‘stock image’.
  4. Adobe Color: If you’re not 100% on which colors to choose for your design, then bookmark this site for some serious palette inspiration.
  5. Wordmark: Another great tool, this website helps you choose the font that will best complement your design with a helpful preview. Mastering the art of typography will make all the difference to how your design looks overall, so make sure you stay clear of the dreaded Comic Sans!

Once you’ve bookmarked the basics, check out our post on the do’s and don’ts of good design to start building up your skills. You’ll be a pro in no time.

Want to learn more? Contact us at Infographic.ly to stay informed about our next training session or to attend one of our free workshops.


7 ‘Not So Secret’ Tools for Productivity Success

Freeing up our time to do more of what we want is the ultimate goal of many, but for entrepreneurs and small business owners alike, time is an extremely precious commodity. Whether you’ve been at it more years than you can count or have recently taken the plunge into the deep end of business ownership, you’ve likely felt the pressure of too much with too little, at one point or another. There are many differences between entrepreneurship and employee-based careers, but by far the biggest one I can attest to is the element of support, in some cases, teams, to inject their expertise and skills or fill a gap in knowledge, which ultimately allows you to tackle that never-ending list of to-dos. Regardless of how organized or ambitious, being productive is a constant battle, one, believe it or not, that can feel a little more attainable with seven affordable, reliable, and effective tools and resources….trust me.

TOOLS

  1. Trello - The only project manager you need. I’m talking multiple clients, multiple steps, multiple people - you get the point. How do you keep it all straight? As much as I love a great graphic layout to keep my brain sane, that just doesn’t fly in today’s world of work. I came across Trello by accident and what a happy one that was. The visual list tool makes collaborating across teams, projects and borders incredibly easy. A Trello board feels like you’re looking at a website containing lists laid out horizontally on the page, so you can get a bird’s-eye view of your project. Items within the lists, called cards, can be dragged and dropped onto other lists or reordered within lists based on whatever methodology you have in place. It’s intuitive, easy, and manageable based on the way your mind works towards progression and completion.
  2. Slack - The communicator out of the inbox. Getting bogged down on email communication isn’t always something we can avoid when working with clients, but it definitely doesn’t have to be the same case when communicating among your colleagues. Yes, there’s Whatsapp but leave that for your personal chats and give yourself the separation you deserve when the work day is done. Slack is the perfect office solution, offering a messaging platform for teams (even clients in some cases), bringing all communication together. Not only does it help avoid that embarrassing reply all and ensure transparency, but it also decreases the number of meetings and allows a space for input on documents and designs throughout. If slack isn’t ‘slick’ then I don’t know what is.
  3. Later - The marketing tool for tomorrow. Social media has become synonymous with marketing, and with Instagram’s popularity rising, it's more common than ever to manage most of it on your own. That’s where Later comes in, like its name explains, allowing you to push your marketing for tomorrow. It’s the perfect visual scheduling tool, helping you to streamline a social strategy and simplify the process, providing engaging posts that in turn will grow a following, save you time, and ensure consistency in your marketing activity with no excuse of being too busy.
  4. EdX -  Education on your terms.  A lot of times the key to productivity is proactivity, taking on something unfamiliar that answers a business need, which leads to time-saving results. We have the privilege of being a part of a sharing economy which also includes knowledge, from various touch points, be it online or in person. Self-educating is one area I never tire of as an entrepreneur. I have come across several resources along the way that keeps that passion alive. EdX is perfect for all industries and interests. It’s an open-source platform with courses freely available with the option of certification upon completion for some. And let’s not overlook the power of books. OverDrive is another platform worth exploring for those knowledge seekers, making it easier than ever to ‘check out’ a book without having to buy it. OverDrive provides access to about 16,000 libraries and 10,000 school libraries in the U.S. In addition to e-books, the service also lets you borrow audiobooks and streaming video. The great news is it’s free - all you need is a library card.
  5. Upwork - Outsourcing the experts. From one entrepreneur to another, yes, you can do anything you set your mind to, but I’ve learned the hard way that there are just some things you should leave to the professionals. It’s nothing we’re not willing to try to do ourselves first, especially if that means a saving, but when the outcome doesn’t outweigh the hardship, reaching out to someone who knows best can make all the difference. Take design, for example; building a creds deck, creating a social ad here or there, it can make all the difference in landing the right client, and communicating properly to the right audiences. I’ve got the design covered (naturally), but when it comes to other tasks, such as accounting and IT, I’m a bit clueless beyond the basics. I’ve found a number of trusted resources over the years, with one, in particular, that has a little bit of everything for everyone. With Upwork, you’ll find a range of top talent, from programmers to designers, writers, customer support reps, and more. The process is straightforward and quick. Simply upload a job, review the freelancer’s bids, choose your favorite, and hire an expert.
  6. Grammarly - The grammar police you want on your side.  You are a representative of your business, and so are your ‘words’. If you’re communicating with customers or colleagues you want to be understood, which means you have to write well. There are plenty of tools out there to give you the support you need to be professional in your comms. Grammarly is just that with the essence of a teacher, pushing you to improve with every piece you churn out. The service is a facilitator to fixing spelling mistakes, comma splices, and subject-verb agreements, ultimately freeing up more time for you to do everything else.
  7. Google Drive - The online file-system to organizing your life - Organization, you either love it or you hate it, but as a business owner you have no choice but to accept it as part of your many tasks and to-dos. With a majority of work happening on the go and often from a remote location, keeping files organized and accessible for everyone at every moment is incredibly important. Sifting through emails for the attachment sent weeks ago, just doesn’t make sense and is not necessary. There are plenty of sophisticated platforms out there, but for businesses just starting out or smaller than a team of 100, Google Drive is the one you need. A user-friendly option that enables you to store files in the cloud, sync content across different devices, and facilitate collaborative editing of documents, spreadsheets, presentation, and storage.

These tools have done wonders for my world of work and while they will definitely help you make a dent to increasing your productivity, in the end, don't lose sight of why you are doing it. To be a successful business owner you have to have balance in your life as well - that's the best recipe for success and to give you that reboot you need to keep going. Enjoy what you enjoy and take solace in the fact that you are more than your productivity.


Training for Business Success with AstroLabs Dubai

At Infographic.ly we find inspiration in the success of others from across the region and want to share those incredible learnings with others with our ‘Creative Industries’ segment. This month we’re putting a spotlight on the increasing investment that companies are making in digital training to help equip their employees with the right tools for future success. Enter AstroLabs, the region’s premier learning academy, having established a thriving technology ecosystem across MENA and innovative approach to digital learning.

Founded in 2013, AstroLabs provides technology companies with a launchpad to establish a market presence in the UAE and KSA to then scale globally. They have also created an impressive coworking community, allowing like-minded people to share ideas and innovations under one (albeit fairly large) roof.

Yet, it’s the academy segment of the business which is most intriguing as the dynamics of business have changed. The company have designed their sessions with entrepreneurs and SMEs in mind, allowing the focus to be on practical solutions that they can then apply to their various industry professions. As technology continues to change, the training topics cover off all areas of digital business, from digital marketing, coding, analytics & big data, UX design, and business development, running open classes to the public, as well as custom-made curricula for corporate clients and incubators across the region.

Earlier this year, our founder, the eternal student, enrolled in a Digital Marketing Course at AstroLabs, connecting with Ahmad Abugosh, director of marketing and learning at the company. Inspired by the teachings and ambitions of company’s learning academy, we wanted to explore how the traditional working model is becoming obsolete and how shared workspace communities, are powering the way companies think, learn and react to stay ahead in today’s competitive market.

Welcome to our Creative Industries segment, Ahmad. Can you give our readers some insight on your background and what led you to both the industry and position you are in today?

I'm half American, half Palestinian, and have lived between the US, Saudi and the UAE.  I graduated having studied Computer Engineering at the American University of Sharjah, and since then I've been working in Dubai. When I entered the job market in 2011, I worked in web development for a while, then I found an opportunity to work at a new eCommerce company, Namshi, which is what got me into digital marketing. Since I had a technical background, the analytics and performance side of digital marketing came easy to me, as I found that most people that come from a more traditional marketing background, aren't that technical.

Let’s talk about the AstroLabs mission to ‘create a thriving tech ecosystem in MENA’. What is the ultimate goal of the business, how did it come about, and where do you see the brand expanding into next?

The ultimate goal of AstroLabs is to be the go-to hub for entrepreneurs in the Middle East for starting their companies, getting support and learning anything they want to help them grow in the new economy. AstroLabs started in 2014, created by Louis Lebbos and Muhammed Mekki, who also founded Namshi, when they saw the lack of support startups had in the region at the time. They started off by doing workshops and programs around helping startups scale, and then when they realized that the licensing process was too cumbersome, they decided to partner up with Google for Entrepreneurs and the DMCC (JLT) freezone and start the AstroLabs Dubai coworking space.

At the moment, our focus is to continue building our Dubai community and Academy training programs, and scale up in Saudi, where we have just opened a brand new coworking space in Riyadh that allows 100% foreign ownership for companies that want to set up shop in Saudi Arabia.

Given the types of courses that you specialize in, what kinds of people do you have attending your classes? Are there any industries that they come from which may be surprising to us?

At the moment our flagship program is our one week "Digital Marketing Track" where we go over all channels in digital marketing. For that one, we noticed there is a split between founders of startups that want to do their own marketing inhouse, marketing professionals that want to stay up-to-date and recent graduates that want to get into digital marketing. We've had several people take our courses that have a Masters in Digital Marketing, but they found their knowledge to be too theoretical, so they take our program to help them understand practically how things are done.

It’s clear that the traditional work model is in freefall - with companies shifting to accommodate a new way of working. The emergence of things like coworking has come as a result of this - what do you think will be the next trend companies will seek to capitalize on in a bid to stay ahead of the game, and what is AstroLabs working towards in this space?

Coworking is a major trend we have noticed, as well as remote work and having smaller, on the ground in-person teams. Many of the companies that work out of AstroLabs have at least a few freelancers, part-time and even full-time employees that work out of different countries and even continents, and with everything being online it's only becoming easier.

Traditionally, further education was the most obvious and in some cases, only, route to improving your skill set once you were in the working world. How do you find working adults cope with revisiting education and learning something completely new in a setting with like-minded professionals?

From what I see, the only way forward is to be a lifelong self-directed learner. It's no longer the case where you can learn a trade and expect that by the time you retire, things will stay the same. All of the modern occupational fields are changing too fast. If one was to take a four-year degree in digital marketing, programming or ux design, by the time they graduate, most of the knowledge they gained would be out of date, mainly due to the structure of traditional institutions; the need to have a fixed curriculum that has to go through several approval processes.

Not to say that college is completely useless, but the fact is, especially if you are in a digital or tech field, you have to keep learning if you want to stay relevant. I found the best ways most adults cope are by attending workshops, meetups and by joining online communities and taking online classes. It can be hard to stay up-to-date in any field, but luckily education has never been more accessible.

There’s an argument that we are unequipped to deal with the careers of tomorrow, as the tools we need haven’t yet been defined or even invented. As a tech incubator, how do you stay ahead of the curve and keep your curriculum as up to date as possible?

That definitely is a major challenge. One of the main ways we deal with it is by having instructors that are currently working in the field they teach, so they have to deal with the newest tools on a daily basis, hence they can impart that knowledge to students in a practical way. Besides the instructors themselves, we're always learning ourselves by connecting with smart practical people, taking courses ourselves, and following the new trends & tools. The thing that keeps us sane is knowing that everyone is in the same boat as us, and we all have to keep learning!

We’re on a rapid acceleration of tech enhancement in the region right now. What do you predict the MENA tech landscape will look like in the next five years?

I expect there to be a lot more talent in the region on-par with the rest of the world, which would feed into a lot more great companies and products that are produced locally. The region (especially Dubai) is already attracting a lot of interest from around the world, and I think the efforts all of us are doing together is having a positive impact of not only keeping smart people in the region, but making people want to move here.

What would be your advice to budding entrepreneurs on how they can scale their company efficiently - what would be the key areas of ‘training’ to invest in, in your opinion?

Of course, it depends on a lot of factors, but if I were to narrow it down to a few, I would say 1) Make sure you have a very clear understanding of your financials and what makes the business tick, and at the very least understanding how to read a P&L report. I found this is a surprisingly underdeveloped skill. 2) Digital Marketing is also important to test your idea, iterate and scale by focusing on performance marketing (making back what you spend right away) and long-term cost effective marketing (building out an email list and good word of mouth etc.) 3) Coding, to understandat the very least how your website / app works, even if you aren't a developer, so you can make quick changes or manage others. Even if your site is on WordPress, just knowing the basics of HTML, CSS and some JavaScript goes a long way.

There’s been a lot of talk about data in recent years, and big data in particular, the role it plays in shaping nearly every business decision. How do we ensure that we don’t get too bogged down in the nitty gritty and are able to look at and interpret it to see the bigger picture?

The main thing you can do when overwhelmed with data is to just focus on what matters. Don't look at vanity metrics (number of followers, likes, etc.), but instead focus just on the things that move your business forward (leads, sales, and customers). Everything else is nice to have and can be added later, but if you don't have the essentials tracked (the metrics that have a direct impact on your business) nothing else matters.

For those who may never get a chance to take an AstroLabs workshop, what’s one thing you would encourage they learn on their own, from a data perspective and with what resource?

Thinking about data as part of a larger goal is essential when thinking about how to prioritize data. A good exercise I would recommend is to think about starting a business. Choose an idea you feel you're passionate about that is solving a problem, and then look at what data points you would need to make it successful (profitable) on a granular level. For example, if I want to start an eCommerce business, I would need to look at data on my margins, delivery costs, marketing costs, licensing costs etc. That would allow you to put data into perspective and learn to ignore the unnecessary noise to further your larger goal.

 


An Open Letter: Why Time is the Most Valuable Currency Any Mentor Can Give

Having a mentor in business has become almost inevitable, especially if you are an entrepreneur or SME trying to navigate the corporate world today. We all appreciate having some form of support system in place, guiding us through tough decisions and early learnings - an inspiration in many ways, helping us to stay on track.

While these things undoubtedly help your business to grow, almost like a tick list to success, it’s the other, less measurable impact that I want to talk about today. There are some people who leave such a positive imprint on our lives and more often than not, they don’t even realize they have had this effect. We may quantify this by the hours clocked up, or the immediate influence that mentors have on the bottom line, yet rarely do we stop to think about how much actual time is needed to help you, both professionally and personally.

Time is an important part of the mentor/mentee relationship, yet we don’t give it the platform it deserves - and that’s the purpose of today’s post. While it’s true that a powerful influence can help shape any outcome, it’s the thought, the patience and ultimately, the time, that goes into being a mentor that we really need to be thankful for.

So, here goes. An open letter to my mentor, the one who took the time to notice, the time to talk, the time to be there. This is for you.

Dear David,

I was reminded of you today. Asked to recount my entrepreneurial history, I found myself thinking about who has inspired me along the way. On a day where I was intimidated by who surrounded me as I took to the stage for the first time, you were a friendly face in a sea of unknowns.

It’s true that mentors come in many forms, and while I know you would be reluctant to take on that official moniker, this is what you are to me. My friend, of course, an advisor without even meaning to be, a shot of validation that keeps me striving for better each and every day.

I don’t know if you ever knew this, but the day I met you was one of my first international speaking events. I was so nervous to speak after you; your reputation preceded you. The last thing I expected was for you to so generously give up some of your precious time and exchange more than a few words with me.

Yet, I’ve come to realise this is just one of the many defining characteristics that makes you such an extraordinary person. Your kindness first and foremost, which goes hand in hand with your trusting nature and intuition with those you meet. Your dinner salons, just one example of how you connect people from different backgrounds and disciplines, helping them along their journey, inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs. Your time is valuable and yet, you make the effort to relate to people, to nurture their talent, to genuinely take an interest. It’s a rare thing to find these days, which is why this sticks with me when I think of you. I feel very privileged to know you and count you amongst my friends, even though we don’t see each other regularly.

Our encounters have often centred on me talking and you listening; always making time to hear from me and discuss my news, clearing your diary just to sit across from me at Pret and listen. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated that. Having started out like most entrepreneurs with a burning passion for what I did, you taught me about balance and how passion alone wouldn't also be enough to sustain a business. You made me see that I needed to rethink things and prioritize. You helped get my drive back, refuelling my passion to succeed.

I hope that one day I can extend the same courtesy as you did to me, helping someone else find their way, being considered as a mentor myself. It’s clear that it’s not what you know, but how you act that sets you apart in this world. As soft skills still pale in comparison to cold logic at times, you should know that your simple act of kindness set me on the right path, newly emboldened and confident in my abilities.

I’ve never actually thanked you for the courage, advice, mentorship, and support that you have given me over the years. You’ve empowered me both as a person and as an intrepid entrepreneur.

The world needs more David’s in it. If you have one, let them know.

Carla

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‘Scandustrializing’ Dubai with The Bowery

It’s great to learn all about the creative work taking place across the region, be it art, music or even tech. At Infographic.ly, we find inspiration in the success of others and wanted to share that with our network. That’s why, each month we’ll feature a profile of someone, as part of our new ‘Creative Industries’ spotlight. Our first chat was with Christiane Daou, founder of The Bowery Company, an ecommerce site dedicated to Scandinavian furniture and home accessories for the region.

Daou was one of the first to break the predominant bricks and mortar mold in 2015, paving the way for fellow interior design businesses to curate and sell online. Her highly regarded ‘Scandustrial’ concept brought international and emerging designers to the region, offering affordable luxury paired with good design to her range of clients.

Also credited as being one of the first to bring the light box and letter board trend to the UAE, her impressive portfolio of designers from across the globe ensures a unique offering for those looking for eclectic and thoughtful pieces, as well as serving as an inspiration to entrepreneurs and designers alike, to make the leap into unfamiliar territory.

Starting your career in finance and then shifting to something more creative, seems to be turning into a norm in this region. How did you land on such a unique, hybrid concept of blending New York’s Bowery Avenue aesthetic to the preferences of the region as the core of your business?

I was in New York in September 2014 and walking along Bowery Avenue – an area that separates the East and West village - transitioning from industrial to posh and a prevalence of, ‘scandustrial’ pieces. I loved the idea of bringing the same aesthetic to the region; the unique blend of both industrial and Scandinavian. There were hardly any online concept stores at the time, as the focus was very much on having a physical space. So, when I came back to Dubai, in February 2015, I launched the idea with nothing more than a gut feeling, while still working my full-time job in finance.

In addition to the ecommerce business, you also added an offline extension to the Bowery offering; a free design service, where customers could use an interior designer to reimagine their home using Bowery products. How did this come about?

We had a lot of requests for advice, with customers sending in photos of their home, asking if they were to buy one of our products, would it go with what they already had, so it was very much driven by our customers’ needs. Once we saw the demand was there, it pushed us to expand the scope of the site and offer this service, which has proven very popular with users.

I think the process has a lot to do with its popularity as well. We work with an interior designer in-house, who will then do a site visit to see the space, following it up with a mood board and a few sketches of the concept they think will work for the consumer. 90% of the time they go with our suggestions, which is great. It’s very much a personalized service, driven by a tailored shopping list of items based on answers from a completed client survey.

The timeliness Scandinavian style has been embraced across the region since your company's launch. From your experience, what do you see as the emerging interior design trends for 2019 and beyond?

In the past year we have seen a lot of colorful palettes, however now we are returning to more earthy tones, with indoor greenery complementing this trend. Fabric wise, linen will be a popular choice, with consumers more committed to making sustainable choices, while in flooring, we’ll see terracotta and terrazzo taking the lead.

Interestingly enough, both ends of the color palette will be catered for next season as well, with the ‘all black’ look continuing in popularity, simultaneously with ‘everything pastel’ style. This is fast replacing grey as the tonal of choice, with pastels now considered the ‘new neutrals’, gaining in status with every season.

In terms of finishing touches, the sumptuous elegance from previous seasons surrounding art décor – the metallics, gold, brass, velvet and the roaring 20s - will be here to stay as well.

It’s clear that the region is flooded with extremely talented and creative individuals. We’ve also seen a growing interest from the younger generation to look outside of the ‘formal’ career paths using tech as a means for support. In your opinion, what should we as designers be doing in the UAE/GCC to support new, emerging local and international talent?

I think we need to create a stronger ecosystem that supports design. There is a lot of this already for tech in the region, but this hasn’t translated across to our industry, despite big initiatives such as D3 and the Design District, which have cropped up over the last few years.

Big groups need to support the smaller businesses, making access easier for emerging talent and start-ups to be able to afford to grow. There needs to be more initiatives from bigger companies to create scholarships and provide a platform that gives support to these smaller companies, which in turn will fuel this ecosystem.

Finding inspiration can come from anywhere. Where you do find your inspiration day-to-day?

Instagram and Pinterest are great sources of inspiration I find day-to-day, with the latter just edging ahead for me. Everything is so readily available online, so people have so much choice at the touch of a button to discover something new. On the flip side, you can easily get overwhelmed in the digital space, so being specific when you search, using the right hashtag or keyword, is great for filtering through the things you don’t need to see.