Monthly Archives: August 2006

News at Life Speed

One of the big airlines I rarely use offered a great way for me to cash in my dormant frequent flier miles–a promotion to trade my miles for magazine subscriptions. It was a total freebie, so I signed up for BusinessWeek, Time and the Wall Street Journal daily newspaper. I already read these publications online, but I haven’t subscribed to the print issues in years. Who needs another pile of paper with old news when you can get the latest information for free at the click of a mouse?

A little note of irony here. I converted to reading news online back in ’95 when Nando News launched online. At the time, I was the editor of a print magazine, one of more than a dozen I’ve worked or written for over the years. My dad was a journalist and newspaperman. My first career job was as a print journalist. But I get 95% of my information digitally. Go figure.

So I order these publications with what suddenly feels like a nostalgic binge. It’ll be nice, I think, to sit on the porch swing with my coffee and read WSJ. And that’s exactly what happened. I found myself kicking back at various times to relax and absorb the news and insight I’m so addicted to. And that eventually led to an unexpected, but not very surprising insight. I’m getting more value out of the print journals than I am online. Why? A simple side effect of psychology: it’s not only the data that matters, but the environment–the experience in which the data is collected.

I’m amazed that it’s taken me 10 years to figure out that print magazines and newspapers really should not die. When I gather information on my computer, I’m firmly rooted in the same environment and attitude I use for so many action-oriented tasks. I communicate through my computer. Think on my computer. Entertain myself on my computer. It’s all so…functional, and rigid. I sit up straight in my chair, staring at a single point in space, processing.

When I read a magazine–just like when I read a book–I can kick my feet up, relax, and absorb. And I’m finding it makes a difference. I read deeper into the stories. I think about them more. I enjoy the experience more. But more importantly, I’m finding that I retain a lot more. It may sound a little strange, but I have the impression that I’m not emulating a computer with my brain–processing so many bits of data–but feeding my brain with ideas. It’s not a function of the information I’m gathering, but the environment I create to gather it. And what a sublte, but effective difference it seems to make.

The Dell Lemon-ade

I’ve been offline for a couple of days doing a long overdue computer upgrade, and remembering just how bad Dell’s customer service can be. My workstation had been on a long-slow death spiral, and finally crapped out. I ordered one of Dell’s high-end XPS machines to replace it, and received assurances it would ship in a week. That’s a long time to go without a machine, but it was my fault for waiting too long. So a week passes, and at the end of the day my new machine is supposed to ship, I get an email saying it was delayed and wouldn’t be shipping for another week. I do a quick Google and find out that Dell has had problems shipping other machines in the XPS line, and a lot of customers are annoyed with the unexplained delays. Hmmm. Wish I’d checked that sooner.

So I decide to contact Dell and find out why the order was delayed. There was no reference phone number or link in the failure-to-ship notice, so I go to  When I get to the site, the option at the top of the contact list is "chat". Cool. I won’t have to wait on the phone, or wait for an email response. I click on chat, and they ask me to put in a customer number or order number. No problem. I dig out my customer number, enter it, and get a reply that says "The Chat Service is Not Available to You At this Time". Excuse me? You just charged me over $2k for a computer, failed to ship it, offered no explanation or support number in the notice, and now you tell me I don’t qualify to talk to a service rep online? I’m instantly pissed off. I go on to the next option, email, and send a succinct query asking them to explain the delay so that I know whether I can rely on the new date, or if I need to make other plans. Dell never responded.

The computer did ultimately ship 2 weeks after the order, and I’m happy with the product. But man, I hope I never have to rely on Dell’s customer service.

So I’m telling this story to a buddy of mine who runs IT for a mid-sized company. He has a lot of Dell machines in his organization. Like me, he’s pretty solid on the product, but he has a very jaded view of the organization. Recently, he’s had to deal with the laptop battery debacle–if you haven’t heard, you may be at risk of spontaneous combustion. Although the problem with the batteries originated with Sony, Dell was complicit in waiting out a recall of 4.1 million batteries until there was real, live evidence of catastrophic danger.

My friend, who isn’t usually prone to conspiracy theories, but as an IT manager is over-exposed to aggressive marketing, perceived a marketing agenda in Dell’s recall program. The way he describes it, enterprise customers with a lot of laptops were instructed to pass the recall notice on to each end user. Dell would handle the inconvenience of desktop support for the recall by dealing with each end user directly. I wouldn’t have thought much about that, but my friend immediately balked. Why, as a responsible IT manager, would he help open up a direct channel  to his entire company’s staff for Dell? I kind of marveled at his paranoia for a moment, but then I thought about the numbers. Millions of users hidden behind a corporate IT firewall, and a recall campaign financed by Sony. Maybe that’s how you make lemonade out of 4.1 million lemons.


Speed-of-Life Friday

Wow. It’s Friday again and I haven’t posted all week. I’m in crunch time leading up to the launch of my new company in a few weeks. I’ll talk more about that when the t’s are crossed and the i’s dotted. In the meantime, another heartwarming tale of bucking the system and inventing reality.

I started my first business with a guy named Tony Westbrook. Somehow we had both washed up on the shores of Santa Maria, California, an agricultural suburb of nowhere. I had dropped out of school to wander as aimlessly as I could, and after winding up on a sailboat in the Red Sea, I got hungry again to learn. I came home to find my parents had retired to Santa Maria, and I slept in my dad’s home office while taking classes to get back into school. Tony had just abandoned his life as a promising Mormon missionary. He’d had an epiphany at breakfast, and was gone by lunch, with nothing to fall back on and no one to rely on. He found a job at a donut shop on the swing shift, followed an ad to a room for rent, and signed up for the same college class that had grabbed my attention: "Death and Dying". 

Tony and I were instant friends. We were 20, ambitious, fearless, and totally unplugged from the traditional grid. Tony was the first to start a business, cleaning houses. He filled his car up with cleaning supplies and just went out and made it happen. There were a few setbacks, like the time he brought a garden hose into a filthy kitchen and hosed the whole place out. But he won loyal customers and built a channel with real estate agents and housing managers, prepping houses and apartments for transfer. After I went away to school, I’d come back on breaks and help out from time to time, and watched as he expanded into painting, and adding staff.

When I finished school, I came back and got my first job as a journalist with the Santa Maria Times. Tony’s business was cranking, but we both had much larger ambitions. We started looking for role models, reading Tony Robbins, Stephen Covey, and more esoteric stuff like Richard Bandler and Erik Erikson. Eventually, we came to the conclusion that all the popular gurus promising to unlock the doors to success were just hacks. But rich hacks. We knew we could do better. We started researching all the various frameworks of motivational psychology, and came up with a plan for a series of software tools that would help users consistently develop and track effective behaviors including goal-setting, problem-solving and decision-making.

Our three-year launch of Scribe Software didn’t end well. It’s hard enough to launch a software company with a simple product, but add a complex curriculum requiring lots of R&D, and an industry in the first early throes of the Internet revolution, and even seasoned executives would have a challenge on their hands. We went our separate ways, and didn’t talk for years.

When I caught up with Tony a few years ago, he had moved to New Hampshire, and in typical Tony fashion, he found a niche and built a business. This time, he had gotten into the real estate boom as a title searcher and abstractor, a crusty line of business in desperate need of new energy. Tony and his wife brought new technology, customer service, and an unflagging willingess to canvass the state every day on their abstracting routes, to what quickly became a lucrative business. He bought an old colonial farmhouse in a picturesque village and settled in with his wife and daughter.

What makes this a "Speed-of-Life" story is what Tony’s doing now. He could have dumped his money into a Ferarri–like the one he had a poster of on his wall when we first started Scribe–and just enjoyed his success. But he invested his time and money in something else. Cameras. Some really nice cameras to photograph the areas where he liked to walk. What started as an interest became a passion, and now, in typical Tony fashion, a business. Somehow skirting the odds that weigh against anyone trying to enter the commodity business of photography, Tony’s creating his own reality: his images are selling, and he’s making a business out of what he loves to do. You can check out his work at, it’s well worth it–and a lot to show for working so hard to go your own way.

As Tony always tells me: Keep smiling.   


Speed-of-Life Friday

David Michael is my hero today. The only thing I like more than the software he produces is the story about the software he produces. It’s not so much about pursuing some lofty impossible dream as it is about just pursuing what you like to do and seeing where it leads you.

I’ve been using David’s software, The Journal, for almost 4 years. I discovered it during a desperate search to find something to organize my writing. If you’ve ever tried to organize a writing project in Word, you know how quickly it can drive you insane. Do you keep everything in one Word document, or do you distribute it across multiple documents and folders? How do you keep track of where things are, much less search through them without having to open a stream of documents? I tried everything, and invented a lot of dumb tactics for trying to keep everything together.

When I came across The Journal, I was pleasantly surprised. Even though it’s positioned as a journalling app, it’s really just a simple and flexible tool for organizing data. I started keeping my articles and columns in it, and then I started filing my ideas and business plans. Before long, I was using it to organize and track my business projects, priorities and research.

When I bought The Journal, it wasn’t hard to figure out that it was a small company. When I downloaded the software, I got a note from David, the CEO. He’s also the programmer, the marketer,  the customer service rep, and I’m sure the CFO. What surprised me is that he’s on top of all this stuff. Somehow he keeps the software up-to-date, adding new features and functions every few months. He responds to support questions quickly. And every time I’ve upgraded, the transaction has gone off without a hitch. I can’t even get that kind of experience with Dell.

So I dropped a note to David a couple of weeks back, asking him about his business. This is what he told me:

The roots go back to why I wrote The Journal in the first place. There were 2 main reasons. One was to learn how to use Delphi. The other was to replace MS Word as my journaling tool. Which is to say, I built The Journal originally for entirely personal reasons. I did, of course, have in the back of mind that it *might* result in something I could sell, but that wasn’t a motivator back then. After all, I had a full time job doing work I enjoyed (mostly).

After I finished The Journal 1.0, I posted it to some Delphi-oriented Web sites just to see what would happen. Feedback was positive, so I expanded it and started selling it as shareware.

Since then, a large portion of the motivation to continue to develop and support The Journal has come from the users. I like making software that people use, and I like hearing from the people that use my software. Making money at it is a nice motivator too, of course. I was the same way back at my full time jobs in the 1990’s. I loved interacting with my assigned users (other parts of the corporations) and making their work faster/better. I never liked it when I was just another programmer in the back room.

I’ve been more conscious of more traditional business goals the past 3-4 years.
Like maximizing revenue, reducing costs, improving marketing, and so on. Before that, I didn’t do much planning.

The growth of The Journal has allowed me certain options to pursue other creative outlets. Like writing, photography and game development. But even when those other activities take front stage in my life (for example, I have an indie game project in the works that is my current focus), The Journal is still a large part of my day.

So why do I find this business story so inspiring? It isn’t rags to riches. It isn’t David and Goliath. It isn’t even Profits Beat Analyst Expectations. It’s much simpler than that, and accessible for anyone on the planet. It’s one person pursuing what they love to do, and creating value for others in the process. And I’ve got to say, it really shows up in the quality of the product and the experience.

Mobile Marketing Mindlessness

This is the kind of thing that just drives me insane–that proves to me just how stupid and short-sighted businesses and marketers can be, or worse, how cynical.

A few years ago, when the complaints about spam reached enough of a pitch to reach the ears of legislators, many businesses, and associations like the DMA, took positions that did not reflect what consumers (their customers) wanted. At first they said we don’t need no stinking regulations, there is no problem with spam, and then when it was obvious congress had to do something to look like it was listening to constituents, they got into the lobbying act to craft regulations that still let them send unsolicited mail. (And boy, did that CANSPAM act hobble spammers…)Today, the estimates are that 80% of *all* email is spam. Market-research firm Ferris Research tallied the cost of spam in 2005 at $17 billion in the
United States and $50 billion worldwide, reflecting lost productivity, costs to purchase and administer anti-spam systems,
and time wasted dealing with spam with legitimate
messages mistakenly tagged as spam.

Now, spam is reaching into Text Messaging. But there’s a twist. You pay for it. Since most mobile carriers charge by the text message (often 10-cents per message), unless you buy a bulk texting plan, you have to pay for every spam message you receive. And guess what? The carriers don’t think this is a problem. Not only do they not have robust systems in place for blocking spam, they don’t have other, more obvious systems in place to let you determine who gets to send you a 10-cent COD text message.

Here’s an outtake from David Lazarus’s column at the Chronicle:

Most wireless companies focus their filtering efforts on known spammers.
Customers are typically given the option of blocking messages from specific

This, of course, leaves the door open for other spammers to get through 
—  at 10 cents a pop for cell-phone customers without costlier plans that
accommodate more text messages.

The more consumer-friendly approach would be for all text messages to be
blocked except for those from senders given a green light by individual
customers  —  a "safe list" that could be regularly updated online by the
wireless customer.

That way, you’re charged only for the messages you send and the ones you
want to receive. Everything else falls by the wayside.

Not one major wireless company gives customers this option, although
Cingular offers a service that blocks all text messages except those sent to a
separate address created by the subscriber. 

Laura Marriott, executive director of the Mobile Marketing Association, an
industry group, said such a system is unnecessary because of various safeguards
already in place, such as spam filters and guidelines for association members
that consumers "opt in" before receiving any text messages.

"We have done an extraordinary job as an industry to protect consumers
from spam," she said.

It’s nice to know the MMA cares so much about consumers. Let’s take a little walk over to the Mobile Marketing Association Web site, shall we? If we go to the "About MMA" page, we find a mission statement:

Mobile Marketing Association is an action-oriented association designed
to clear obstacles to market development, to establish standards and
best practices for sustainable growth, and to evangelize the mobile
channel for use by brands and third party content providers.

members include agencies, advertisers, hand held device manufacturers,
wireless operators and service providers, retailers, software and
services providers, as well as any company focused on the potential of
marketing via the mobile channel.

And if we look at the board of directors we find a nice representative sample of major carriers, entertainment companies and agencies. Browse the rest of the site, and you’ll find tons of case studies, research papers, and statistics that show the tremendous potential of reaching out to customers on their mobile devices. The MMA has been very busy. And oh, hey, here’s a section for Consumers! Whoops. "Coming Soon". Consumer Information? "Coming Soon". MMA Consumer Initiatives? "Coming Soon". Yes, consumers carry a lot of weight at the MMA.

So here we have a problem that we have seen before. Spam. It causes us enough headaches that we have created a very successful industry that gladly accepts our money to stop it. It took us 7 years to get that far. Now we have the same problem cycling up to tackle one of the fastest growing new messaging platforms. But instead of building an industry to block text spam, we’ll now pay the carriers directly for every message they don’t see the need to filter. Hmmm. Is that an incentive for the carriers to get into the spam business themselves? And finally, we have an industry association that in the press proclaims its righteous dedication to protecting consumers, even while saying that implementing measures to protect you and me from paying for ads we don’t want is not really very reasonable. I’m so glad they’re thinking of us.

Look. If you’ve read my columns or blogs long enough, you know I’m pro business. I’ve done a lot of work with carriers, and I love the products they develop. You also know I’m pro marketing. I see tremendous potential in Mobile Marketing, and think a lot of the work the MMA produces is fantastic. But I’ve also seen plenty of stupidity from carriers and marketers, and you always know it’s coming when you hear them pronounce what is good for customers. Because it never is. When. When. When will these people figure it out?

If the MMA was half the industry association it should be, it would not be bowing down to the carriers and carrying their water in the press, but would be challenging them to create a sustainable market practice that would not be blowing up on the front pages of major newspaper a year down the road, with calls in Congress to establish "Do Not Text" lists. This is called self-regulation, people. It’s how we avoid having customers sue us, governments regulate us, and competitors eat our lunch with an alternative that, ~gasp~ gives consumers what they actually want.

I know, I know, that takes discipline and the sacrifice of all that cash they can make today by charging customers for spam. So instead, we’ll get to watch this whole thing play out like it always does. I predict class action law suits emerging in 8-12 months. Major news coverage of Text Spam in 12-18 months. Calls for legislation in 18-24 months, just in time for the next major election cycle. And accurate tallies of all the money we’ve wasted beginning in 2 years. That’s when the investment will pick up in anti-text-spamming products. Buy your domains now.   

Speed-of-Life Friday

It’s Friday. It’s summer. What better time to slow down and look at life in perspective?

It’s now two months since I jumped out of the daily grind, and the number one question I get is "so, what are you doing with all your time?" Let’s see. Monday I went for an epic ride on my Mountain Bike through the Mt. Tam watershed. Tuesday I spent the afternoon at SF MOMA, enjoying their Klee collection. Wednesday I took my son across the bay by ferry to the Giants game and watched them break their 7-game losing streak. Thursday I  read The Time Traveler’s Wife. Today, I’m heading out for a hike.

It feels a little manic, since only two months ago I was spending 70-80 hours a week either at the office or in transit. But it’s amazing to watch the clarity return. I have a lot more focus and interest in my work, and my productivity is accelerating. I’m up every day to write at 5:30, working on a theory about the next stage of marketing’s evolution. In the past week I designed and developed a blog for a friend’s business, wrote a brochure for a conference during New York’s Advertising Week, and wrote a project brief for a Product Roadmap gig I’m taking on. Most importantly, I’m now in the final stages of defining a business plan for the launch of my next business. I feel better, and sharper, than I have in years.

So with all the talk about global sustainability–now more than ever with everyone freaked out about the weather–I’m thinking a lot more about the concept of sustainability in my business life. I’ve done my time running 100mph in first gear, and I’m sure when I launch my new business I’ll have a lot of long and difficult hours. But it’s clearer to me now how critical it is to maintain a competitive edge by maintaining sanity. It’s too easy to come unglued in the grinding pace of daily life and bury the disconnection every night with a couple of beers and TIVO.

Yeah, I know you’ve heard it all before. Stop and smell the roses. But it’s true. You can only be at your best under fire for so long. When you live like so many of us do under constant fire, you can’t maintain perspective, clarity or energy–which is just as bad for your company as it is for you.

So what’s the solution? Personally, I highly recommend quitting. It’s not profitable, but it’s inspiring, and it forces you to think creatively and make things happen instead of letting life paint itself by the numbers. But you tell me: what do you to stay inspired and sane? Does it work?

The Impact of MTV

A lot of people were talking about MTV’s big 25-year anniversary this week–though not MTV, since they don’t want to remind their 14-year-old prime audience that they’ve been around so long…

If you didn’t catch it, NPR’s Talk of the Nation did a great show on the meaning of MTV and it’s impact on society and culture. You can find a link to the story, with an audio file and lot’s of supporting information at this link. It’s well worth the listen. Two of my favorite snippets:

1. MTV, despite its name, has perhaps had a greater impact on society with its introduction of Reality shows, than its music videos–notwithstanding its music successes, including its service as a vehicle for rap to hit the mainstream, along with black pop artists.

2. MTV doesn’t age. Every year they spend a lot of resources researching their 12-18 year-old target audience and tweaking their content, such that every 4-year cycle of high schoolers will no longer resonate with MTV by the time they graduate from college. They of course have launched parallel channels to hold on to some viewers, but at the core, they have a single-minded focus on their primary audience.

There are some troubling aspects to MTV’s success, exemplified today by the disturbing implications of the runaway success of shows like "The Hills". But that’s another thread. What’s interesting to me, good or bad, is the ability of a media institution to have such a tremendous impact on our culture, and this is a decent overview by NPR.

Speaking of which, I’m quite impressed by NPR’s production quality. They make very effective use of the Internet to augment their stories, by adding useful supporting content and outtakes they can’t fit into the broadcast. It’s not the fluffy crap you usually find as extra material–like on most DVDs–but information that expands the experience. Great stuff.


Measuring Marketing Performance

I’ve been
digging in to Victor Cook’s new book about marketing finance, "Competing for Customers and Capital" and in there’s a
lot to chew on. The essential premise of the book is that marketing adds value
not only to customers and the bottom line, but that marketing performance has a direct and measureable link to shareholder value. The more investors can measure the investment a
business makes in marketing, including the efficiency with which marketing
dollars return revenue and market share, they can develop a much clearer
picture of the company’s health and relative risk.

Cook describes
some of those measurements, and a number of differentials and derivatives, that
spotlight critical performance metrics such as a company’s marketing
efficiency, the ratio between a company’s share of market value and share of
market revenue, and the maximum earnings a company can profitably generate from
its market share. You may need to brush up on your accounting fundamentals to
fully appreciate the financial mechanics, but that’s pretty much a given if you
want to advance in marketing these days. Even if you’re rusty at numbers, the
implications of Cook’s emerging framework are stark and easy-to-understand
reminders of how marketing is being reshaped to respond to the growing
pressures for accountability.

managers’ P&L statements] are not charged interest for the capital invested
in product markets. There are two important implications of this practice.
First, marketing managers will quite properly think money is free. If you’re
spending ten million bucks on an ad campaign in a company with a 12% weighted
average cost of capital, the cost of that capital does not appear on your
P&L statement. But, you say, you didn’t actually borrow the money. True,
but someone
is paying the $1.2M cost of that
capital. If the bank isn’t paying for it, then your shareholders are. Second,
if marketing managers were charged the cost of the capital they use, you would
find them giving much more serious attention to “return on investment” (ROI).
And senior managers would take their plans more seriously.” 

If that’s
not a wake-up call, let me put it in clearer terms. We’re not talking about how
well your latest campaign performed—cost per click, cost per lead, etc.—we’re talking
about how effectively your campaigns have delivered market share and profit. If
the emperor has new clothes, you can think of this as a production line of

More to come…