stepwise

Nov 12

Stop being so selfish when you present.

Concentrate on your audience, not yourself.

Don’t picture them in their underwear, but focus instead on what it is that you’d like them to know. (This is from The Actor’s Institute training on public speaking, which I recommend.)

Nov 08

What has investors all a-Twitter?

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Following its IPO, the value of the social platform stands at around $26 billion — for a money-losing company. This goes to show that in times when pervasive optimism prevails, speculative possibility can be more valuable than a sure thing

Launching a business and executing in such a way as to grow revenue requires two different skill sets. Companies that have successfully rolled out many innovative new businesses have learned this: the talent management team must develop separate hiring, performance management, and promotion criteria for “launchers” who exhibit very different behaviors, aptitudes, and capabilities than the “scalers,” the types of individuals their current systems were designed to support. 

I’m curious to see how Twitter makes the transition from a company of launchers to one of scalers. 

Nov 05

Do Successful Entrepreneurs Blog? -

Yeah. What marksbirch said:

I read with amusement the other day a point Keith Rabois made regarding entrepreneurs and blogging:

@hunterwalk @AlexBangash I don’t know of a single successful CEO or entrepreneur who blogs regularly.

— Keith Rabois (@rabois)
November 3, 2013

After what must have been well over a…

Nov 01

Are we creating an informant society?

In his WaPo Op-Ed today, former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff argues that with the ubiquitousness of recording devices the debate around privacy needs to be as much about our culture as our law.

Hmm, I wonder if the Chertoff Group, “a global security and risk-management advisory firm,” counts any one of the security agencies as a client.

There’s a problem with blaming government spying on us. What Chertoff fails to point out is that individuals spying on one another in Fascist regimes was a consequence of heightened information asymmetry between government and its citizens.

In many ways a transparent society is a more responsible one. Cheap and omnipresent technology assures that the citizenry is able to protect its interest against those who use information asymmetry to their advantage, which is why the NSA’s extensive spying is doubly intrusive: it uses our technologies against us.

Image: Spy v. Spy (obvi)

Oct 23

SEC To Announce "Equity Crowdfunding" Rules! -

(Source: lionstigersandbulls)

Oct 18

Is that blood or ketchup? (A VC case study)

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I just paid for a Fortune Magazine subscription to read this fabulous case study, er article, on 3G’s takeover of Heinz.

Jennifer Reingold’s magnificent study of the inner workings of a VC takeover (in this case by Brazilian private-equity fund 3G Capital), reveals the negative implications on a company, its people, and its brand. 

Reingold describes how”The 3G way” prizes efficiency above all. “People are relevant, but explicitly as a function of what they contribute to the bottom line. This philosophy holds that employees are motivated by an ownership stake in the company rather than a feeling of purpose. 3G slashes nonstrategic costs to the bone and plows some of those savings into marketing and acquisitions.”

As she notes, you can take cost cutting so far that it chokes off a company’s ability to innovate. I would add that quality at all levels (particularly with suppliers) can suffer from arbitrary cuts. But the biggest potential loss to the organization is the insight of all of those individuals who are dismissed en masse (many because of their seniority), and those who jump ship because they don’t feel connected to the new mission of squeezing more and more out of less and less. 

Finally, nobody loves runny ketchup.  

Oct 17

Taking note in a new role

With anything new, taking time to notice, absorb, and reflect lets us be more thoughtful before we seek answers. 

If you’re new to an organization, jot down every idea or question you have about how things are done, and then stick it in a drawer. Just whatever it is (e.g., why is this done this way? who owns that?)

It doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad; you don’t even need to talk it out with anyone. Just write it down and put it away.

At the end of three or four weeks, look at your notes. Maybe you will understand certain things in a new way, or maybe some things still won’t make sense. At that point you should sit down with your manager to talk about these things. It may be that your perspective is what is needed to make a change, or it may be that there are other things at play that aren’t apparent.

Oct 16

Project design basics for meth-eyed ringleaders

We just lost a week of build time on an app endeavor I’m working on, and it was perfectly avoidable. Here’s the short story of how we lost our way.

My role on the team is to make meetings happen, keep us on schedule, manage relationships, and generally play the meth-eyed ringleader who (undeservedly) earns deference and attracts offers of Xanax. 

I take responsibility for this because of my role, and my failure to engage passive partners. Here are the critical actions/decisions we failed to foment together:

Before you start, set your compass: The very first thing is to determine who the platform is about (e.g., advertisers v. users, etc.). It’s not a bad idea to create a mission and vision for your project to keep everyone on the same page. We did this early, but then we strayed. 

Defining the value prop, and everything else: Since the app we’re planning is a build-to-fit endeavor, we ignored the key action steps to building/designing.

Basically, we hit about two of the squares on the lean canvas… the lean canvas, which is basically sets you up to build a relatively shallow product.

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My advice? Don’t skip this step, or you will pay with your time and your company’s money because when you get to the whole build part, you get foggy on how information should be prioritized and how layout should work. Suddenly everyone wants the app to do everything.

User streams and use cases dictate what you design: It seems obvious when you’re building a business or designing a platform you should primarily and consistenly consider how it will be used.

This means sketching out in the most minute detail how users will flow through the system/app and access information, and what’s immediately visible and available to them (e.g., do they have to sign in, what details do we need from them, what is the most important information for them to access first, second, etc.).

A former VP of strategy of a car sharing company I met on this project advised me that when you’re building an app, they determined the most important thing they could do was direct users to available cars — so they led with a map view.

Seems intuitive right? Well, it’s not always. This is why process matters more than project management right out of the gate. 

Oct 15

How to sense a mega-trend

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A client asked us: ”How should we be sensing mega-trends in our industry, tech, and politics?” 

***

Here’s the thing about mega-trends: To be one, it has to hit all of the areas you listed: economy, tech, life, politics, etc.

It may be that the mistake that we make is they look to hard for trends in one or another of these categories, but not broadly. And when we do this we end up with mini-trends, or premature investment (e.g., John Deere’s turbine business).

Here’s what I suggest for sniffing out mega-trends.

Ear to the ground: There’s no trumping talking to people. Where I tend to learn the most interesting info on what’s popping is from conversations with people who work in different fields (e.g., an NGO strategist, investment banker, and art school professor).

Also, subscribe to publications across industries: financemuseums, and journalism are a few good ones. 

Non-obvious influentials: I seek out the blogs of people who are leading the conversation like designers and theorists (not business people — though I do peruse WSJ and WaPo daily).

Here are three: 
http://eskokilpi.blogging.fi/
http://emergentbydesign.com/
http://stoweboyd.com/

Watch some social media sources: Quora streams are a wealth if you follow the right people (aside: social media channels tend to suck for innovative ideas and emerging trends):  http://www.quora.com/

I would add — because I think it’s really important — that to fully comprehend a mega-trend, you have to write about it. Writing enables clarity of thought. This last part pretty much sums up why I write here — to collect and catalog what I think and read so I can access it later.

Image cred: Daily Mail 

Oct 10

Perhaps HP isn’t sinking because Jane works from home, avoids the commute, and has more time to spend on hobbies and family? Perhaps HP is sinking because of strategic and managerial mismanagement? Perhaps morale won’t actually improve until the beatings stop?

It’s sad when you see once-great companies reduced to this smoldering mess of mistrust and cargo culting. But hey, at least we know now the pitch of the whistle that says its time to abandon ship. It’s “all hands on deck”.

” —

HP does away with remote work, following the dubious strategy that Yahoo and Best Buy have ascribed too. Perception is everything, and removing structures that engender trust and goodwill can have severe negative implications for collaboration and productivity (and company growth). 

Stowe Boyd presciently wrote about Whitman’s announcement recently at GigaOM:

The real, deeper push at HP isn’t intended to make people more collaborative, productive, and knowledgeable. This shift in practices is so that first-line managers can monitor people’s work more closely, and find out who is most — or least — aligned with the stress factory culture that HP has become. That will make it easier to decide who to cull in the inevitable rounds of layoffs coming in HPs next few quarters, as it sinks toward the bottom of the abyss that once was the enterprise server and PC market, and which — for all intents and purposes — is effectively dead, at least as an area of growth.

(via stoweboyd)

(Source: 37signals.com, via stoweboyd)

Oct 08

Help your people write themselves into the story of your company

What we forget working at a startup is how hard it is to bring everyone along. We think that because we’re small everyone’s naturally pulling together, but even at the smallest companies people disengage, resist, and give up.

We have lost a few people at various pivot points in our company’s 2.5 year history, and we have lost as a company because we didn’t enable these individuals to serve our mission, values, strategic priorities, and customer value proposition. 

Looking back, we could have had many more conversations about the larger philosophy (serving businesses and organizations to help them improve communications and their own effectiveness), and spent time agreeing on the steps it would take to get there. Most importantly, we should have asked them to sketch out how they saw their skills and value delivering on the goals of our new company. 

At CEB (my former employer, which has been only so-so on communicating its mission and value), we were asked to write down how we saw ourselves, in our roles, facilitating multi-year strategic priorities (I recently found my notes for this exercise):

1) Drive large customer loyalty through high-value personal engagement. 

I will deliver insight to member services on members and prospects to help them tailor their communications to distinct needs.


2) Invest globally in our strongest brands.

Support through data analytics.

Etc. You get the point, but are you doing this?

Pic: Cascadilla Falls, Ithaca, NY (August)

Oct 07

Entering the era of conservation

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Full disclosure: am wearing purple Birkenstocks while writing.

Economies can’t expand forever, according to this Stephen King — though the dire scenario he describes might as well be the brainchild of the other Stephen King.

The great waves of global growth (e.g., trade, consumer credit, and expanded education), will subside and we will be left with economic stagnation and decline. Sounds Malthusian, right? 

King says: "The end of the golden age cannot be explained by some technological reversal. From iPad apps to shale gas, technology continues to advance. The underlying reason for the stagnation is that a half-century of remarkable one-off developments in the industrialized world will not be repeated."

Yes, given current economic assumptions, we cannot replicate the growth of the last 50 years, in U.S. and elsewhere.

The biggest and most wrought of those assumptions is that of low-cost energy being the most important driver of growth. All one has to do to get a sense of its holy standing in economics and politics is watch Obama dance around the realities of fracking in his effort to cheerlead on natural gas drilling, ignoring its real costs to all of us. 

We can create nothing but marginal growth if we continue to plumb the earth looking for lower and lower quality fuel sources. Tar sands excavation and fracking for shale gas mark a new level of desperation to drive growth. We are like alcoholics drinking the contents of our medicine cabinets.

The first step is admitting there’s a problem with our models, with our growth assumptions. And recalling this: “The future is not shaped by people who don’t really believe in the future.” — John Gardner.

We need to untether ourselves from gas to grow, adopting a new outlook re: renewables, and cast off capital market models that serve the whim of giant pools of money seeking higher and higher returns, and we need to do so in favor of new investment models and expectations around social as well as financial returns — it’s time for more Grameen banks and new models for reducing poverty.

What King’s essay appears to be saying is that global growth is over for everyone and, as such, capital resources will be reapportioned but not expanded significantly in the coming years and decades. With this in mind, we are entering an era of global conservation, and we will be saving what we would have spent, drilled, mined, and taxed.

Beyond our basic order of needs — food and shelter and such — there is the risk of inequality. If we can control for that, we can soften the landing from previous high-growth eras. So long as we continue to be creative in how we reduce poverty and inequality around the world, a slowdown won’t be apocalyptic. So, let’s plan for that and stop trying to squeeze out every last drop of growth having only short-term gains in mind.

Photo: Demonstration in Angelica, NY where the landfill is trying to fast-track a permit for accepting fracking waste from Pennsylvania.

Oct 04

The new mega-trend is transience: adapt assumptions, policies, and business practices

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I reread the Grapes of Wrath in the Great Recession, but only now am I seeing the parallels. Our country was on the move in the Depression, and that’s quickly becoming the new reality for many of us.  

Construction workers have long been a mobile class — moving from boom town to boom town, many in RVs as their homes. And now, even academics are viewed as disposable (or readily replaceable, to be exact).  

My sister recently bemoaned her mobile life in academia, calling herself a “migrant laborer”. She quickly refined the statement, saying that her life was much more comfortable than that of a fruit picker, but that the reality is academic jobs are treated more as short-term roles.

Indeed, research from Northwestern shows that non-tenure track professors are better teachers. Of course they are, the pressure to perform is much higher. Watch for schools using this as a cudgel against those seeking tenure track jobs. 

We’re becoming a nation of freelancers. While that may sound, um, freeing to some people, negative implications abound.

If we’re all to be in business for ourselves: who insures us? Who covers for us when we are sick? What entities help us keep our transaction costs low? And, who enables our mobility.

This last point is where I’m fixated now.

Government is working on the first question via Obamacare (all politics aside). Our social networks and relationships will enable us to effectively cover our risks, for those of us lucky enough to be a part of strong professional communities. Nonprofits and professional groups will have to fill in for others, figuring out how to support those that don’t have strong networks to protect against free-rider problems such as professional under-bidding, which erodes our earning capacity (but that’s fodder for another post).

What truly has me worried (mostly because I’ve just moved twice) are the logistics of a mobile nation: 1) tax law prefers we be homeowners — even if it leaves individuals less mobile or even “under water”; 2) finance expects an enormous downpayment on a home when we may be least able to afford it (e.g., when we are moving for a new job); 3) renting has absolutely no financial benefit, and even leases can be expensive to leave, and renters are often vulnerable to horrible and abusive landlords (I’ve suffered through two psychos). 

The rules of the game need to change in response to this new economic reality. Lawmakers need to figure out how to support those of us who move with frequency for work, and stop putting the tax emphasis on stasis, and finance executives need to figure out how to support shorter-term home ownership (if that is indeed better), with lower upfront costs that don’t carry much higher down-the-road risks, particularly if it’s indeed true that home ownership is truly beneficial to communities. Finally, companies that support us in our move need to be much better at helping us get from place to place (current moving and storage solutions are often very expensive and painful to manage — ahem, PODS).

There is a real shortage of support structures and businesses to support a more mobile nation of workers. Time to get on it!

Image: from HomeOwnerNut blog

Oct 02

"Shutdown" news: when objectivity rings false

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So-called journalistic objectivity has been a dealt a one-two punch from the press gallery.

One: “The political media’s aversion to doing anything that might be seen as taking sides — combined with its obsession with process — led them to actively obscure the truth in their coverage of the votes. If you did not already know what this was all about, reading the news would not help you understand.” — Froomkin for Al Jazeera.

Two: As Ross Douthat of NYTimes suggests, ”the press’ efforts to remain neutral/balanced while also acting as a medium for surfacing underrepresented voices and investigating the powerful actually undermines good coverage of real issues as the two aren’t entirely compatible.”

Much of our current narrative is filled with stories that increase polarization. In response, editors cling to so-called objectivity — even where it’s not warranted.

As the industry formerly known as the newspaper business evolves, we will see more non-traditional editorial models cropping up, and that’s a good thing for democracy and individual agency

Examples:

Image: The Birmingham News (today’s edition) 

We get smarter when we write things down.

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Writing enables clarity of thought.

Researchers have found that when students were asked to write for a real audience, their essays had better organization and content than. When asked to contribute to a wiki—a space that’s highly public—college students more carefully checked sources.

The central goal of a company or organization should be to nurture and plum the depths of good ideas, but it can’t be done unless these are effectively documented. Consider asking employees to spend more time writing their thoughts down, and then airing those ideas publicly.

To get them going, give ‘em a Molskine, or even encourage them to try other creativity boosting tools (e.g., Molskine + Paper app = a beautiful match made in heaven)

Image: designed by Paperless Post, my go-to stationer.