In my recent century ride — which took me an embarrassing length of time — and the day-to-day of startup life, I’ve learned to appreciate the paradoxical truth that “blindness may operate more vigorously than prescience, and the short-sighted effect more than the far-seeing; that limitation and not comprehensiveness is needed for striking a blow.” — Thomas Hardy (Far from the Madding Crowd).
In other words, best not to consider the full distance or calculate the exact length you’ve gone, but take a fuzzy math view and keep pedaling.
Photo: bike in repose following its 100 mile workout.
Moving’s a drag, so my ire is piqued by the terrible experience I have had with PODS — you know, the pack it yourself storage capsule? The idea is elegant: a container dropped at the place you’re leaving, delivered to you where you’re going.
In reality, it’s a broken model in need of a serious customer service revamp.
Challenge 1: First of all, the service is only kind of automated (and definitely not mobile), so I had to rely on someone inputting my information, which they did incorrectly. Needless confusion ensued.
Solution 1: Go mobile, immediately! And fix your site so people can actually effectively order and manage their PODS online.
Challenge 2: The POD showed up, albeit hours late — whatever, woo hoo! But the pickup I scheduled (via phone) was never put into the system. Oh, human error! Luckily, I called to confirm or all my things would still be sitting on the street in Washington, DC with $1.1 million in parking tickets adhered to the forgotten POD.
Solution 2: Automated system for alerting someone that they are missing their pickup info (seems obvious).
Challenge 3: Next stop, Ithaca, NY! Yay! Except my POD went to a city two hours away — though the destination zip on all my receipts and paperwork was for Ithaca. Only when I called did I discover that my worldly possessions were hours away.
Solution 3: Arm and enable your people to use Google maps. It is not a good situation if you are effectively misleading your customers about your service. Also, all relevant details (including addresses should be on all receipts and correspondences).
Challenge 4: Want to pick something up? Better not come on Sunday. Nope, PODS is closed >50% of weekend hours.
Solution 4: Creatively staff the facilities so people can access their things on the days they are most likely to want to. Taking a customer centric view of your business means not saying: “our team needs a day off.” My response: it doesn’t need to be Sunday.
But the biggest and baddest issue for PODS is not what I just described. It’s that their customer service people are happy to talk with you about these things ad nauseum; multiple people repeating themselves, but offering no solutions or appeasements.
How about a month off storage costs to compensate for the distance and time required to access their facilities? Now that would improve things (slightly). You could even model it to distribute costs. But no, the poor saps on the phone only repeat the same sad true facts: “yes, your things are very far away, and no you cannot access them >%50 of your weekend time.” Or, how about offering to meet you half way — literally, taking the POD to a better location for you to unload it? Now, that would be creative problem solving. But no, they only repeat what they can’t do for you, and that is deliver to most zip codes in the U.S., as it turns out.
Ah, PODS, the good idea that wasn’t. I stand regretful. Consider yourself warned.
When it comes to who you spend your time with when you’re starting a business, your friends matter more than most new people and investors you will meet. While the experts can help you answer key questions, they can’t help you keep your thinking straight — not like old friends.
My close friend from home who keeps me right, and is also starting his own new thing, wrote this to me after a long chat we had. He’s the very best.
"I want to apologize for name dropping the other day and several other times!
One of my biggest emerging talents is partnership building and understanding how people can form new positive linkages by getting to know each other (sometimes through my work). But I don’t want to become a social network whore as is so common. So for that reason I am acknowledging the dangers of my emerging talent.
The reason I like to work with [home town] folk like you guys is that you remind me that friends and deep community is more important than being connected to influential people and the perceived power I might derive from partnering with them. Instead of course real community is much deeper and always fragile.
Always your ‘trying to be more humble’ friend”
Photo: home town trees
Tech entrepreneurs occupy their time punching numbers and making connections. But we risk becoming automatons when we fail to consider how we are actually allocating our personal resources, like time, attention, and social capital.
So how do we get smart about personal resources? For starters, by avoiding non-worth-it networks and focusing instead on communities of support. Seek out those places (online and in real life) that actually help move our thinking and our businesses forward.
A quick litmus test shows that the best communities for entrepreneurs are open and engaging, while also being contained and self-serving.
Here’s are some criteria for assessment:
Meritocratic — All entrepreneurs need access to senior people with money and connections, but disregard Groucho’s advice about not being a member of a club that will have you. Look for places where ideas win out, and senior people are engaging, like Quora.
Reciprocal — The best groups enable reciprocity. The YEC, by the way, does a fabulous job of connecting questions with the people who can most help, while also helping promote its members outwardly.
Equivalent — The best communities (online and in real life) have figured out that network activation relies on creating a trusted space for people to share with peers who have complementary skills/expertise/interests. By creating a structure that allows for self-defined groups to connect based on experience levels, platforms help communities be more resilient and lasting. (Look to niche LinkedIn groups to engage, or proprietary groups managed by consulting firms or venture capital firms.)
Resilient — Finally, any good group, network, or platform should allow its members to break groups apart into new communities when they reach a certain size or scope/purview to ensure that the sense of individual responsibility to the group doesn’t decline as it evolves.
If you aren’t finding groups that meet these criteria, perhaps it’s time to start your own. I promise to check it out!
Image: Benedict Morgan’s “White Falling on Blue”
WaPo’s coverage of the Black Budget, revealed by Snowden, provides insight into top national security strategies for obtaining information about emerging risks. We can learn a lot about objectives and procedures by seeing how money has been allocated.
It reminds me of this gem from a former head of strategy for a fortune 500 company who advises our startup:
"When guiding a large organization, having clarity on where you are going to act, and where you are going to watch is important. In some ways, you can determine any organization’s strategy by following the money and the time of the people. Tell me how you allocate resources and how you allocate human capital, and I will probably be able to back in to your strategy, whether you made it explicit or not."
This summer my goal is to exorcise more; that is: reviewing my social habits and removing the ones that aren’t helpful.
Thinking back to the moments in recent history that make me want to hide my face in shame, I can identify two anti-social tendencies that I want to exorcise.
1) Being a life leaker: I need to stop telling other people’s stories, especially before they have a chance to. Even a well-intentioned reference to another’s promotion or good news spoken too early removes that person’s agency in creating their own narrative and owning their own good news. Even prompting them to do so in a social situation is less cheerleading than story-stealing.
2) Engineering information asymmetry: Information gives us an edge, and it can be traded for other information in the form of gossip, which strengthens our social ties. So, it’s not all bad, right? Well, it is if you’re sandbagging, or constantly putting yourself in the middle and dealing out information to build up your power and fortify your position. My goal is to stop centralizing myself where it doesn’t make sense, and enable others to connect and exchange ideas on their own. It means that I have to be honest with myself about why I want to introduce two people, or learn how a project is going on another team, etc. and use information for good and be expedient about sharing it when it comes my way (without being a life leaker, of course).
Photo: Athens, this summer.
Endicott, NY is the birthplace of IBM, the second largest U.S. firm in terms of number of employees (433,362), the fourth largest in terms of market capitalization. IBM once employed 10,000 workers in this upstate, NY city.
Now, about 700 employees remain. Jobs have been cut or relocated overseas.
Investors in IBM, however, have fared much better. The company has given them a ~25x return on their investment in as many years.
Jia Lynn Yang wrote a great piece for The Washington Post this week describing this disconnect:
"The pressure to respond to the short-term demands of Wall Street has paved the way for an economy in which companies are increasingly disconnected from the state of the nation, laying off workers in huge waves, keeping average wages low and threatening to move operations abroad in the face of regulations and taxes."
But this wasn’t always how business was done in Endicott.
The city has another legacy that’s worth recalling. It was home to Endicott Johnson Corp. (E-J) — at one time the country’s leading shoe manufacturer. An estimated 20,000 people worked for E-J in the 1920s, and an even greater number worked there during the war boom years.
E-J’s owner George F. Johnson was one of the nation’s great welfare capitalists.
Johnson believed it was the responsibility of the modern, progressive employer to provide for the workers’ welfare. His generous labor policies were known as the Square Deal.
In recognizing the importance of providing for his employees, Johnson may have been the first to institutionalize the drivers of employee loyalty in the modern corporation (and now we see Wal-Mart extending benefits to same sex couples — we’ve come a long way).
According to NPR interviews, E-J workers felt “taken care of”, and "when the remainder of the country was boiling over at the end of the 1930s with strikes, riots, labor violence, Johnson could proudly say, ‘It doesn’t happen here.’"
Though parts of E-J still exist — though they’ve been broken up and sold off — the Endicott-based company effectively died with Johnson.
Though many more companies provide employees with health care and other benefits, the Square Deal model is an anachronism today. It’s not personal, it’s just business.
I am not suggesting that companies should not pursue competitive advantage or that the tides of Wall Street influence aren’t really rip tides, but it is important to recognize where we were and where we are now, and it should make one wonder what else is lost in the pursuit of earnings per share above all else?
Image: A postcard of the Square Deal arch in Endicott, N.Y.
Read this: The Ultimate Cheat Sheet For Starting And Running A Business, by James Altucher
Out of his 100 Q/As, my two favorite are:
"16) What do you do when a customer rejects you in a B2B business?
Stay in touch once a month. Never be angry.
"92) I’m in business now for 6 years and my business doesn’t seem to be growing. It’s even slowing down. What should I do?
Come up with 10 ideas a day about new services your business can offer. Try to get a customer for each new service. I know one business in this situation that refuses to do this because their VCs are telling them to focus more. You’re going to go out of business otherwise.”
This v v smart blog applies the theories around innovation and growth stalls to the news business.
The news industry is ahead of many large companies in terms of building and engaging communities (read: marketing), but behind in terms of strategy and innovation. Curious to see what the future holds.
I anticipate one future model for the industry will encourage more individual agency and group advocacy, connecting people with ideas and even action items. And for this both individuals and organizations (read: advertisers) will pay.
“Price hikes on content — and then what?” By Steve Gray
"[The newspaper industry] exhibiting the classic behavior of all disrupted industries [with paywalls]. As the competition gets tougher, the disrupted business retreats up-market by focusing on its best customers…"
"In every disrupted industry, the business gets tougher and tougher as low-end competition increases. Revenues decline, boosting the pressure to raise prices and improve quality just to stay profitable at expected levels.
"If the revenues are used just to stay alive another year, it’s a dead-end street…
"What we need right now, while there’s still time, is a disciplined dual strategy: 1) Use part of the revenues to sustain the business, and 2) Use the rest of the revenues to develop the next-generation business models that will be needed to replace the declining revenues from the core business."
On the one hand, the idea is the sort of wrong-headed solutionism we’ve come to expect from Silicon Valley and its players. But on the other hand, Patrick McConlogue has a point — albeit one that’s not very well hewn.
Here’s what I’ve seen in my six years volunteering with NY- and DC-based StreetWise Partners: 1) you can’t ignore people’s basic needs (and so far, there’s not an app for hunger and malnutrition, poor health care, and shelter); 2) helping someone escape poverty is a very heavy lift.
To help someone escape generations of poverty, you have to change their circumstances and their outlook. Organizations like StreetWise that pair underemployed and unemployed individuals with people who have social reach and skills that are completely different from their own, and who can provide individualized support to help them get a career-track job, have proven to be most effective.
It’s not fast. It takes months of individualized attention to build skills and grow self esteem. And the jobs they get? We’re not talking flashy jobs at tech startups, but ones that provide consistency, a safe environment, opportunities to learn, and (most importantly) health care.
Patrick McConlogue’s right in that he accepts that there’s not a scalable way to help people out of homelessness. It requires someone to take notice and take action. He’s right about social challenges inherently being solved on an individualized basis (as well as with structures of support created through government policies and programs).
I hope he has the attention span and energy and time to see his project through and do good.
The news last week that U.S. prosecutors charged two former JPMorgan employees with fraud in the “London Whale” scandal underscores the challenge companies (and banks in particular) face with trying to manage risk at all levels of the firm.
Hidden pockets of sociopathic resistance are one thing, but even honest, lower-level employees can introduce risk for two perfectly understandable reasons:
To be “efficient”: They misunderstand their job, or are overwhelmed and start doing things in a such a way as to save themselves time (e.g., robo-signing at a bank, key word searching for “Tea Party” at the IRS).
To be “expedient”: They are protected or insulated by a manager who condones behaviors that create long-term risk, in favor of positive short-term gains (e.g., betting big on derivatives at a bank).
Because of this, companies that have a higher potential risk profile like banks should look to go smaller — downsizing from “too big to fail” to “small enough to effectively manage.” They should also consider new models, like returning to a more traditional partnership model to create more individual responsibility for integrity at the individual employee level.
The past five years has shown us that the corporate partnership model exists in name only, with “partners” having little personal financial stake in the business entities they oversee. Personal wealth rises with its successes, but does not fall with the business’s failures. Examples of this disconnect abound, in both the pre- and post-financial crisis eras.
Photo credit: “Occupy” art created by Adbusters.
"[H-P CEO] Whitman decided against jettisoning H-P’s PC business" — A Dellish Experience for H-P, WSJ
Probably wise for a CEO of a company vulnerable to Wall Street’s whims and fears. H-P’s former CEO Leo Apotheker found himself out of a job for tacking toward software, and away from hardware, too abruptly.
Apotheker was tapped to implement the company’s strategic shift to software, which seemed to be a good idea since software is higher margin, higher up the value chain, and doesn’t involve hard to manage volatile commodities and distribution systems and all of that supply chain fun.
The problem for Apotheker is the same that Whitman faces, the company has squarely resided in the hardware camp, switching sectors takes some finesse, and leaders have to have a lot of control to manage the shift effectively. Apotheker learned the hard way that implementing a major change with little buy-in is pretty much impossible.
The abruptness with which Apotheker led the company in this new direction gave shareholders whiplash, and showed a distinct lack of selling skills (surprising for a CEO), but in his defense if the software strategy was one that the board is “directing” (as is their role), then they needed to show more follow through.
Whitman appears to be more savvy in that she’s following a middle of the road strategy of hardware + services. Indeed, she had a lot of cleaning up to do in the aftermath of Apotheker, which she has done, and she’s had to level with shareholders about poor near term growth prospects. Her approach and forthrightness has paid off, it seems. What’s unclear, however, is if the strategy is aggressive enough to beat out competitors in a low-margin business and get ahead in this market turn.
It’s a simple two-step process: (1) include the copyright mark on all published material, such as PowerPoint, marketing materials, websites, etc. The mark is ©followed by the year (2013); (2) register the work with the Copyright Office, which can be done through its website—www.copyright.gov. There is a two page form to be filled out, and a registration fee. Cake!
“There is no reason that data brokers and firms that use consumer data cannot coexist with a system that empowers consumers to make real choices about how our privacy information is used. ” — Julie Brill, Federal Trade Commission (Op-Ed in The Washington Post)
The key is always transparency, right? We will share just as long as we know what we get for doing so. Oftentimes the value is implicit, and companies aren’t doing enough to make it explicit. There should be a clear tradeoff — e.g., if you share your location, then we will direct you, and we will only access your information when you want directions.
Not all intrusions into are data are bad, of course. David Brin, in his 1996 Wired article and subsequent book, envisioned a society where everyone becomes a watchdog with access to all information — and they are able to detect abuse.
In his worldview, cheap and omnipresent technology assures that citizens are able to protect their interest against those who use information asymmetry to their advantage (read: government and large companies).
This seems utopian to us when we know so little about what others know about us.