Home office video conference setup 101

September 24, 2020

Home office video conferences define your first impressions. How’s your virtual habitus and setup from the viewers perspective?

Before you start to browse through video conferencing equipment it is good to stop and think what you are really trying to accomplish. It’s always possible to upgrade and improve later and not everything needs to be perfect from the beginning.

Priorities

Audio

Without good audio everything else is for vain. It’s a good practice to separate the input and output audio sources so they don’t interfere with each other.

If you have a headset that is a good start. Even your phone’s headset might work. Maybe you can connect that to your computer via Bluetooth? If you don’t like the aesthetics of having a headset Apple iPod Pro‘s are relatively small but their audio quality is not good enough for high-quality presentations or productions.

A step-up is to have an external mic such as Blue Snowball (or Yeti), Rode NT-USB or similar.

If you’re using an external mic that is not omnidirectional (e.g. cardioid) from its pickup you could even use external loudspeakers to hear the output voice in videoconferences. This requires a bit more advanced understanding and testing to work properly.

A more advance option would be to use a lavalier mic such as Boya BY-M1 or even Rode Wireless Go (+Lav).

Lights

Lighting is for video what audio is for the overall experience. Even if your camera is not exceptional most of them work good in well-lit environments.

This is the easiest way to improve your video quality. You could start with your existing lights and even crank up the backlight of your computer screen to illuminate your face better.

External lights range from small devices such as Aputure AL-M9 or YONGNUO YN300. Ring lights are another option too but just be aware that the ring reflection in the eyes is rather distinctive.

When you’re getting more serious with your setup it becomes evident that it’s good to have 2-4 external light sources that have the same colour temperature and are adjustable for your needs. This is where LED-studio lights become handy and there are relatively cheap options (such as Neewer’s kit) to accomplish the basic needs.

When you’re using a green screen (e.g. Elgato Green Screen) or other backdrops then shadows and uniform illumination become more important for a better overall outcome.

Camera

Almost all mobile phones have high-resolution cameras that are better than your computer’s built-in equipment. As you should not use the internal mic in your computer it’s a very good idea to get an external camera.

The cheapest option is to use your mobile phone as a stand-alone camera or as an external camera for your computer. For example, Kinoni offers software drivers and apps that turn your existing mobile phone into a webcam that your video conferencing software recognises.

If you add a small tripod (e.g. Manfrotto PIXI Mini) or other mechanisms to adjust your mobile phone angle that is a considerable improvement. Notice that usually the best recording angle is where the viewer perceives that you’re at their level.

Recording from a below angle projects authority and power but also may show up some qualities such as double chin that may not be your best angles. Setting the camera higher makes the presenter look smaller and diminutive. A neutral cam angle makes you more approachable and friendlier.

An external webcam is a step-up. Logitech C910 and its upgrades have been the popular choice for many years.

An external cam frees your mobile phone to other uses and it is definitely a better option than your built-in cam if not for anything else than the fact that you can adjust the angle more freely.

If you are wondering how to get an awesome blurred background (or bokeh effect) then you’re entering in the world of lenses. This is an endless topic itself but you can start small and upgrade later when your understanding and budget allows the improvements.

Screen capture from a video feed with an example of bokeh effect

Mirrorless cameras are inexpensive and with interchangeable lenses the options for improvement become almost limitless. You could start by getting a cheap mirrorless camera such as Sony A5100 or A6400. It’s a good idea to start with the basic lens kit (e.g. 16-50mm in Sony’s case) that allows you to experiment before committing serious money to other lenses.

For the desired bokeh effect you need to understand your studio setup, limitations and budget. A Sigma 30mm F1.4 lens is a good start but keep in mind that there is no zoom (but there is auto-focus) so your video framing needs to be considered carefully. Lenses cost easily even more than the camera so it’s better to tread slowly first. Not all lenses mount to other cameras but often you can find adapters. Make sure you are buying the right type of lens before hitting the purchase button.

How do you connect your mirrorless camera to your computer? Some of the camera manufacturers have USB-webcam drivers so it is as simple as plugging in the cable to your camera and you’re good to go. However, this is not evident and obvious so you need to double-check that.

Another factor to keep in mind is that if you have an older camera or you’re not sure whether your camera outputs clean HDMI video signal without any display information this can be a deal-breaker for your video feed. Especially, older cams do not have the option to turn-off display info options for HDMI output.

For older cameras with HDMI output and without a USB-webcam driver you can use a hardware converter such as Elgato HD 60 S or even more advanced options such as Atem Mini (Pro) (ISO).

Atem Minis take two audio inputs and four separate HDMI signals in. This allows you to do more advanced operations such as screen sharing, mix two video streams together either to show a screen sharing and camera or two cam sources at the same time (picture-in-picture). Also, audio level mixing, adjustment and advanced controls enable to use EQ, compressors, limiters and other tools that may become handy later when you become aware of other issues to improve (e.g. echo, audio levels, background noise, mixing or adjusting two separate audio sources).

Accessories

A green screen (or chromakey) enables you to control better the overall visual appeal and experience. This also allows you to standardise the environment and the look when the physical environment may change or go through adjustments.

Zoom allows to use your own green screen but you can also control the overall video feed with external devices (such as Atem Mini) or software such as OBS that is an open-source alternative. Alpha channels are used to add layers to the feed such as logos, lower thirds and other elements to the output video feed. There are so many ways to make your feed customised that it’s easy to get distracted with possibilities. If you want to find some inspiration I suggest you head to Twitch and visit some popular gaming or chatting channels for ideas.

The more experience you gain you start to pay attention to more refined issues such as the environment with background noises, echo and other artefacts that disturb and distract the overall experience. These may require physical changes to your environment such as acoustic paneling or soundproofing.

Also having the ability to move more freely, change camera angles and view the other participants in a videoconference in a larger screen(s) are something to consider as well. We are spending many hours talking to people who are not in the same room so why not make it as pleasant as possible? A single skipped business trip or conference can fund a long way towards your home office videoconferencing experience.

How much does it cost?

You can start for free with what you already have and make it to work first. From a few hundred to a few thousand euros can give you a setup that serves you well for years. Just keep in mind that the most important thing is not the looks but the content and the context. We are also entering the AR/VR era soon and then the whole setup will change again and become more immersive with new challenges and opportunities.

Open: The Story of Human Progress

September 22, 2020

Why have we progressed more in the last few hundred years than in the previous tens of thousands before?

Johan Norberg has written a magnificent book that gives insights into our current world, the state we are with all the polarisations and conflicts but also how fragile our success is, and why it is not guaranteed to last.

He discovered that the traditional way of studying history from the reverse-order, starting from the present and going backwards, also called as “a golden nugget theory of history”, does not give the proper explanations for our current state of civilisation.

There are periods in history where different cultures with different religions, ethnicities and locations had rule of law, rapid economic growth and scientific progress. These upturns were often sudden, unexpected and very expansive with population and income growth.

There are examples from the Phoenicians, Athens, the Hanseatic League, the Dutch Republic, the Muslim world before the Mongol invasion, India under Ashoka the Great, Singapore, Hong Kong, China in the Song dynasty era and after Mao’s death, among many others.

All of them have commonalities that are the basic message of the book: people were open to new and different ideas, innovations, cultures, habits, foreigners, technologies, business models and more importantly to the uncertainty that the opening up to something different and strange bring.

We have our current Western development because those things happened, and as Nordberg illustrates it was not because of lack of trying to prevent them from happening but because of failure to keep those elements away unsuccessfully. Europe was too fragmented for any single ruler to impose strict controls over the whole continent unlike what happened earlier with China after the Song dynasty.

The battle between open and closed does not happen between people or institutions. That is too easy an explanation. It happens within all of us, every day.

The flourishing eras were the result of open borders, open societies where people were free to experiment, argue and exchange without permissions from the top or controlling agendas that tried to shape the society or pick the winners.

Our societies are too complex for any human to comprehend. We cannot control complex systems and this makes us uncomfortable. We don’t tolerate well uncertainty and it is perceived as a risk. Therefore, the natural instinct is to close up and try to impose restrictions and controls to change. This bottling up does not remove the uncertainty but it can make us feel more comfortable that we are handling the situation.

Ruling classes, elites, and incumbent institutions have always tried to slow-down or prevent progress to happen. They have much to lose with the change, and the current status quo enables them to stay in power and enjoy their privileges.

In times of turmoil, societies tend to close up in order to seek stability and security. This vicious cycle feeds itself with populists and those that gain from the current stability. Often, those, who will lose the first and have the most at stake, are the very people who are enabling the closing up process en masse.

Protectionist measures will hit the hardest the low-income and unskilled people when their productivity cannot be sustained by the slowing down or even reversing of economic growth.

People have always cooperated. We have trucked, bartered and exchanged at least the last 300 000 years. Homo sapiens have unique traits that make us different from Neanderthals: intelligence, language and cooperation. The game theory experiments have shown that less time we have to make a decision the more we cooperate. Homo sapiens had an advanced division of labour from early on. Raw materials and goods were exchanged from great distances.

The more people trade between each other the less ruthless they are. Big cities are examples of this in practice. They are the wealthiest and the residents are more open to globalisation and new ideas. The interaction between different people and ideas is seen as mutually beneficial, and we extend our openness and cooperation to new, strange people.

Why are the earliest found written records transactions, prices of goods and ownership titles if they were not crucial to humans? First things first, and all the rest including philosophical and religious writings came afterwards. It may not be the most thrilling moments to realise that the first written historical records are written by some ancient accountants.

The paradox is that the only way forward is to tolerate uncertainty and hold back the controlling urges for the unpredictable and unforeseeable to happen. Progress happens when many people do individual decisions and experiments and someone gets through with new discoveries and solutions, often by lucky coincidence like Matt Ridley has described recently in his latest book.

The more people we have in this complex system interacting in unpredictable ways the greater the total outcome for the whole society. The benefits are distributed unevenly between the original innovator and the rest of the populace. On average, a new innovation benefits the founder only around 2,2 per cent and the rest of the social value goes to the society. Just think about the iPhone, the Internet or any other wonders we have now but that did not exist a few decades ago.

The reverse is also true. The less people we have that can gain insights and knowledge, be productive and creative the less opportunities there are for progress, well-being, and total advancement in society to happen and materialise.

Norberg argues that because we have so strong tendencies to tribalism by our very nature we need an open world to counter-balance those forces within.

The economist Bryan Caplan has concluded that trade and immigration are some the most polar opposite topics among the majority of people from the conclusions of economic scholars. They are perceived as zero-sum games instead of generators of vast mutual gains for parties involved.

Voluntary interaction and open economy are complex systems that we cannot perceive. It is impossible to keep track who has contributed what and how everyone is getting their share of the wealth created. Most of our human history the zero-sum has been the norm when we did not experience progress, innovations and economic growth.

False instincts come in many forms. The physical fallacy states that objects have constant and true values instead of subjective values based on people’s preferences. This feels wrong to our equality-matching brain that does not perceive things as fair when circumstances have changed, and valuations as well. What was valuable yesterday may not be in demand today. 2020 has provided many examples of this after coronavirus effects have totalled many industries that flourished before.

It is easy to repeat human history and close up after hardship and yield to the fight or flight response. It’s harder to acknowledge what Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek once said:

“Humiliating to human pride as it may be, we must recognize that the advance and even the preservation of civilization are dependent upon a maximum of opportunity for accidents to happen”.

And it takes even more wisdom to appreciate the fact that we cannot stop the clock or stay still. There is no one who can come and rescue us from our current predicament but us, together. The less we cooperate the bigger the challenges in future, and more chances there are that we will lose what we have and even forget some of the knowledge and wisdom we have attained so far.

Progress is a messy process of continuous problem-solving that can be easily curtailed. The prevention of progress to happen has been so successful that there is only one experiment left, our current one. Will it last or end like all the previous ones is for us to decide: Open or closed?

Startup Community Way

September 18, 2020

The Startup Community Way builds on the previous book Startup Communities. It dives into the world of complex systems and their operations.

It explains why some communities thrive where information, talent and capital flow freely, and social capital or “networks of trust” are plenty. Social capital is based on virtuous and high-trust relationships where quality is more important than quantity, and the results are non-linear and highly impactful.

Do you want to seed a startup community? Richard Florida’s thesis is that the creative class attracts technological innovation and increases employment. Instead of building new incubators how about invest in 200 rock bands? Sounds counter-intuitive but you need to create the right environment in order for the other desired activities to happen. Welcome to complex systems that you can influence but cannot control.

Ideas, talent and funding are key inputs for a startup community. They are served by network and cultural capital that are supporting the entrepreneurial drive. These represent five of the different capital classes based on the Seven Capital framework (i.e. intellectual, human, financial, network, cultural, physical and institutional).

When you focus on improving one aspect in isolation you’re causing changes elsewhere. Often, these are becoming issues and trouble in other parts of the ecosystem. Good intentions can run havoc where a holistic approach is missing. This is especially problematic with feeders who can take decisive action only from their perspective.

Considering startup communities as complex systems instead of just complicated ones opens a new line of thinking. Complicated systems are still predictable, linear and knowable but complex are totally different. Realising this difference helps to be more humble and fine-tune the approach when dealing with an evolutionary and bottom-up type of development.

Adaptive systems are interactive and startup communities are in the ever-evolving state of change and transformation based on the interaction of the participants.

Like in Startup Communities there are several myths that are present. More of everything is a very persistent one. In complicated or simple linear systems inputs are correlated with outputs. More you put in more you can expect to come out. In complex systems, this is not the case.

A single unicorn exit can do more to a startup ecosystem than many years of other activities. Outlier not-very-likely events can have huge impacts that are not statistically predictable, and they can take a long time to show up. Entrepreneurial success reinforces and recycles more success. Often, the wealth from a successful exit ripple around the startup community in various ways from new investments, angels to inspiration and resources. This can supercharge the community to a totally new level.

Healthy startup ecosystems are anti-fragile by their nature. They are resilient, seek a degree of randomness and disruption that inflict crucial learning and evolution. In contrast, bureaucrats and communities that are against change are fragile.

When you let go of the notion that you can control the system (and that it’s just complicated) the interaction becomes more relaxed and meaningful. It’s futile to impose top-down measures to something that works differently.

For this reason, startup communities cannot be replicated either. They are unique. Nobody has managed to xerox Silicon Valley. It’s not possible. Even SV was over a hundred years in making, and the foundations were poured decades earlier than the actual silica started to become a hot item in tech.

The only way to succeed is to focus on becoming a better version of oneself. This empowers the community and puts it to look further ahead and helps to keep things in perspective. Learn from failures and do better. Rinse and repeat. Take risks and don’t get too comfortable or otherwise you’re not taking enough risks and exploring new avenues.

The Rainforest by Victor Hwang and Greg Horowitt gives some explanations and descriptions for successful startup communities. Among the key findings is the fact that the community should be very open to new ideas and people with high networks of implicit trust and social contracts with strong values and leadership combined with social feedback loops and face-to-face interactions. Social interaction needs to be cultivated and embraced. It does not happen by itself. There is a lot of natural friction for people to come together and open up with a supportive mindset.

In summary, the point is to help entrepreneurs succeed and this is at the core of any startup ecosystem. What’s your role and contribution it’s up to you but only by action you can have an impact.

Second-order business effects of adapting to changes in physical meetings

September 15, 2020

Second-order effects (or consequences) can impact your business and result in massive changes in your business model or operations. If people avoid physical proximity what are the implications that are harder to see at first?

In this video, I continue the theme of adapting to changes this year. The previous video questioned whether you still have a business model. This one tackles the issue of second-order consequences that are harder to pinpoint. I wrote about the topic more extensively in the spring (about second-order effects and about physicality).

Timestamps
00:00 Changes in your business environment
00:26 Physicality
00:39 Business implications
01:51 Second-order consequences
02:21 An example of second-order consequences
04:49 Reasons why you don’t have customers anymore
06:28 Adapting to the new situation
07:56 Bonus – why this topic?