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Embracing the Tortoise

bunnybonesI‘m doing a Webinar today on Surviving and Thriving in the Economic Downturn, along with Thor Muller from Get Satisfaction and Scott Wilder from Intuit, moderated by Bill Johnston from Forum One, who also manages the fantastic Online Community Unconference. Working on my thoughts around this topic has been a great opportunity to reflect on why SocialRep is still plugging along quite well, in the midst of all the economic doom and gloom.

There are a lot of factors at play. But when I stand back and think about the meta frame for why SocialRep is still tooling along instead of flaming out or getting pummeled, there’s a pattern that interests me. In Startup World, especially in the valley, the dominant imperative is speed. Organize quickly. Raise money. Get to market fast. Grow fast. Run, baby, run. But for us, the focus palpably shifted last August when we stopped chasing money to focus instead on customers and product quality. Sure, we’ve grown much slower, but today we have a much more solid product and a base of revenue, which is perfect for a slow economic environment.

In short, we’ve embraced the Tortoise. We’ve taken a long view of the market, and marshaled our resources to move deliberately and steadily, holding ourselves in check when hares seem to pop up and speed away in front of us. It’s nerve racking sometimes to see a new competitor jump up and sprint away, but by now we’ve seen a couple of those hares further down the road, flattened like roadkill.

What does it mean to Embrace the Tortoise? It means to find and focus on your vision, and find your own pace in the market by being true to your customers and your product. A long term vision is not just stringing short-term results together–if you’re always sprinting, you eventually run out of steam. You need a solid sense of direction you believe in enough to plod toward, without being driven to waste your energy every time a competitor makes a move. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

It also means to take a long-term view in understanding your market–and this is especially important in marketing and social media. If you want to make it further than the next turn in the road, you need some strategy to anticipate what’s beyond it. The best way to do that is to be a student of history, which is something in short supply in the marketing profession. I talk frequently about the historical context of the social media phenomenon and the bursting media bubble. If you want a synopsis, I wrote about here.

It’s been a busy few weeks, but I’m happy to say I’m finally circling back with Jonathan Knowles to continue the discussion on Social Media and Marketing ROI, and we’re launching a survey together to measure marketer’s experiences with social media metrics. If you’re a marketing professional, please join us and take the survey. We’ll provide the results to everyone who participates.

In a Recession, Tourism Goes Local

A few weeks ago, my wife and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary. We were lucky enough to get away for a few days prior to our anniversary, but I wanted to do something special on our actual wedding date, which was mid-week this year. All I had in mind was a nice dinner in San Francisco, until I met Michael Hraba at the first SF Social Media Breakfast. Michael is a marketing consultant to hotels, and he encouraged me to think about doing a marketing event at Cavallo Point, a brand new resort right next to the Golden Gate on the historic grounds of Fort Baker. That sparked the idea of taking my wife away just a few miles from home, and launched what I’m certain will be our new anniversary tradition.

Since we would only be gone overnight, I didn’t need to tell my wife anything until the last moment. I set up a sleepover for my son at a schoolmate’s, booked a room and dinner reservation, and casually told my wife to pack for an overnight on the morning of our anniversary. After work, I picked up my wife and we drove 10 minutes to Cavallo, checked in to a breathtaking suite under the Golden Gate, and opened a bottle of champagne before the 101 commute was even underway.

Cavallo Point

I love to travel, but I have to say, local tourism has a big attraction for me now. We had none of the stress of dealing with major packing, or airports, or house- and pet-sitting. Everything–including our son–was only minutes away in case of an emergency. Instead of spending the better part of a day making flights and connections, we checked in and checked out to the rest of the world. And for a fraction of the cost of leaving town, we enjoyed a spectacular resort and an amazing dinner. The next day, although it was bittersweet to stay only one night, we shared a nice breakfast and slipped right back into our lives without the huge re-entry price you typically have to pay for being away. The unexpected result was the sense of relaxation you usually only get on the third or fourth day of vacation.

I suspect we’ll hear a lot more about local tourism as the recession grinds along. You’d be amazed how easy it is to get away for just a night during the week, and mid-week specials make it a steal, even for the best rooms. Not only is it a nice way to see home in a new light, the memory refreshes every time you drive past the places you visit as a “tourist”.

If you’re in the Bay Area, Cavallo is phenomenal–the food, the hospitality, the view–they’ve really made a magical place. It’s well worth such an easy trip.

Social Media Breakfast on ROI

The second San Francisco Social Media breakfast was a great success, despite the competition with Web 2.0 down the street not to mention spring vacation for many people. Jonathan Knowles flew in from Toronto to join us in a discussion on Social Media Metrics, and as always he did not disappoint. Jonathan’s rare ability to bridge the gap between marketing and finance provided a lot of wit and wisdom for marketers struggling to justify an investment in social media. There were so many worthwhile takeaways, from insights into the mindset of the CFO to suggestions on how to frame marketing metrics for social media.

We’ll have video of the breakfast from MinerPro available shortly, and you can get some snippets of the discussion from the Twitter feed. We’ll be kicking off our book discussion of Jonathan’s Vulcans, Earthlings and Marketing ROI next week.

In the meantime, I’ll set the tone for the discussion by calling out one of the key insights from Jonathan’s talk. Jonathan pointed out the fact that ROI as a specific metric is a short-term measurement of efficiency. In the CFO’s mind, any time you discuss ROI, the financial assumption is that the expense and the resulting revenue occur in the same quarter. So when marketers use the term ROI in the context of social media, they’re explicitly limiting the frame of discussion to short-term revenue generation, taking off the table any longer benefits to brand equity, improvements in customer satisfaction, and long-term reduced costs of marketing.

As Jonathan pointed out, there are three domains in which CFOs measure value: Revenue, Growth and Risk (reduction). While there are some avenues to short-term revenue from social media campaigns, primarily in retail, for the vast majority of social media efforts today the real value will be seen in longer-term Growth and Risk Reduction. When, to a CFO’s ears, marketers clumsily speak about “ROI” as a catch-all phrase for poorly defined “value”, they’re missing a critical opportunity to communicate the value of social media and to set expectations for measuring success. That simply isn’t a mistake most marketers can afford in this economic climate.

Join us for the online book discussion to dig in more deeply into this topic.

Jonathan Knowles addresses the Social Media Metrics challenge.

Jonathan Knowles addresses the Social Media Metrics challenge.

An ROI story: The metrics were thiiiiiiiis big

An ROI story: The metrics were thiiiiiiiis big

Photos: Thanks Bill Johnston!

Social Media and the Cult of Marketing ROI

Mr. Kool-AidOver the past few years, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to write about marketing finance and metrics. Like many marketers of my generation, my understanding of marketing performance metrics was transformed by the 2000 recession. At the time I was president of a marketing agency in San Francisco, and as the economy plunged, I watched as clients mercilously slashed marketing teams and budgets. When the economy bottomed out, Marketing ROI became an obligatory mantra recited in every new business meeting. Marketers got swept up in the cult of ROI, accepting an unassailable truth that dictated their behavior, without question or true belief. Few marketers had the training to put ROI in a real financial context–our business schools don’t like to worry creative minds with accounting requirements–so Marketing ROI was interpreted in myriad ways, which often meant little more than a vague definition of “success”.

With a vacuum of financial acumen among marketers and a rising imperative for accountability, CFOs gained ever greater dominion over marketing programs by holding tighter purse strings. Marketing gurus responded with all kinds of new marketing formulas featuring pseudo-financial concepts–Return on [Your Concept Here]–instead of promoting basic financial fundamentals so marketers could connect with the CFO on common ground. This only distanced marketers further from the boardroom, as I wrote a couple of years ago:

Marketing loses all credibility with the board room suite when it twists and bends financial metrics designed to measure value creation into concepts that skirt the issue of accountability for actually creating value.

Even before the new financial crisis hit, I could see the ROI shackles hobbling marketing organization’s and their ability to innovate. It wasn’t the concept of measuring peformance that was the problem, but the inability of marketers to effectively argue a compelling business case that challenged whatever rigid ROI framework they felt imposed on them by the CFO. As social media surged, I sat in many dozens of new business meetings where marketing executives stalled out in their enthusiasm for innovation when it came to justifying any new program without a proven ROI. The irony was stunning: on the one hand, businesses and board rooms were buzzing with the new wisdom of Innovation, and yet they couldn’t execute anything innovative because there was no appetite for risk–and this was when times were good:

I don’t want to be flippant about this, but I think marketers need to bring a little balance to the justifiable demand for performance accountability. We do need to be accountable, and we do need to show that we’ve thoroughly vetted the investments we’re making. But when you’re in a competitive market that demands innovation, you have to get in the trenches to help innovation along, instead of just throwing up knee-jerk stop signs to every project that doesn’t come with a business case tied up in a neat bow. It makes me think of a prehistoric fish in a receding inland sea saying to an amphibian “so, what’s the business case for legs?”

With the new economic crisis deepening, this is going to be a critical test for marketers. A steep recession drives a natural imperative for immediate returns. But we’re not just in a recession. We’re at the apex of a global cycle of creative destruction. GM, CitiGroup, New York Times–representative samples of the titan industries of manufacturing, finance and media–are all on the edge of bankruptcy. The businesses that survive this destruction–and the marketers that support them–have to find new ways to drive returns, and those new methods are not going to come gift wrapped in a mature ROI model. In fact, ROI may be entirely the wrong financial metric. But marketers with no grounding in finance, and with no common ground to share with the CFO, won’t be in a position to make those arguments, or to critically challenge the happy case studies offered by vendors.

Fortunately, there are some ports in this storm. There are a few marketing thought-leaders that can not only bridge the gap between CMOs and CFOs, but they have the talent to make marketing finance accessible to mere mortals. One of my favorite lights in this small pantheon is Jonathan Knowles, a banker by training and a brand consultant by trade. Jonathan has written extensively about marketing finance, including an entertaining book on Marketing ROI. I interviewed Jonathan for BusinessWeek back in 2005 and we’ve maintained a friendship ever since. Jonathan has opened my eyes to a number of financial concepts that illuminate marketing trends, including the critical rise of intangible assets as we’ve shifted away from a manufacturing economy.

I’ll be writing a string of posts in conversation with Jonathan over the next few weeks on marketing finance and social media, focusing on the fundamentals marketers need to understand to escape the Cult of Marketing ROI and develop a strong partnership with their CFO. We’re jointly fielding a survey on Social Media Metrics, and Jonathan will be my guest this Friday at the San Francisco Social Media Breakfast. There are a few seats left for the breakftast, which you can pick up online.

Photo credit: allspice1

Hacking Firefox to Improve Motivation, Productivity… and Sanity?

I’ve been truly slammed for the past few weeks, with a new SocialRep product release in the works, new customers, and the San Francisco Social Media Breakfast coming up next week. But as they say, if you want something done, give it to someone who’s busy. And this week, I finally found a resolution to a problem that’s been bugging me for months.

If you’ve joined this crazy productivity revolution, where you can run a couple of companies, half a dozen blogs, and a string of online personas, then, like me, you’ve probably reached a point of virtual schizophrenia. I’ve been working for months on finding a strong thread of singularity and simplification in the things I do, without losing the rich variety of channels to connect and create value. I’ve noticed that just the fragmentation of logging in to various separate blogs, social networks and websites has created a very real psychological resistance. I forget which bookmark to follow, which site I’m posting on, which idea was supposed to go where, which means that instead of managing these things on autopilot, I have to actively think about the most mundane tasks continually. Which sucks.

So after searching for more complex ways to simplify–like multi-tenant blog networks, and complex syndication routines–I finally came across a less perfect, but vastly simpler solution. Instead of trying to centralize everything, what if I could create connection “pods” that would segment and automate many of the connection tasks? And I’ve figured out how to do it with Firefox.

Here’s the skinny, and a disclaimer. I’m describing a conceptual routine that I’ve successfully implemented on my computer. I’m not offering a service or technical support. Proceed at your own risk. 🙂

The premise of this concept is simple.

  1. I want to segment various common web connections and routines: Blogging, Networking, Business, Finance.
  2. I want to be able to click on one icon, and have all the related connections opened in browser tabs, ready to go.
  3. I want to customize each browser for each segment so that the working environment is visually distinct.
  4. I must be able to have multiple segments open simultaneously.
  5. Sorry, bookmarks won’t cut it. Not even close.

My solution is based on an aspect of FireFox that Web developers rely on–the ability to run multiple instances of the browser, under different user profiles, at the same time. If you have a home computer you share with your family, you might already have separate profiles for logging in to FireFox so that your bookmarks and history are yours alone. But if you take this concept up a notch, you can turn it into the solution I’m running now. The idea is to create a separate profile for each segment you want to manage (e.g. blogging), but then to use an obscure FF parameter to allow that profile to run simultaneously with other profiles. Each profile saves its own preferences, including bookmarks, themes, and session data, so you can customize a work environment for each group.

The result is a set of distinct icons on my task bar. When I click the “blogging” icon, an independent instance of Firefox with a slick Aero Theme opens, and automatically pulls up the admin pages of all my blogs in separate tabs. I use a password manager that assures that all I have to do is click “login”, and I’m ready to post on any blog in seconds. I’ve also customized the admin screens of each blog so they look like their respective blogs. When I click on Finance, a completely separate instance of Firefox opens, in a conservative theme, with my banking and accounting sites automatically opened in separate tabs. It’s awesome. I feel ten pounds lighter.

Here’s how to do it in Windows XP. Other systems may vary, but the concept is the same.

  1. Click on Start, Run, and type in “firefox.exe -ProfileManager”
  2. This brings up the Profile Manager. Create the Profiles you want. (Not sure how scalable this is, so be prudent.)profile
  3. Unless you want to be forced to select a profile every time you run FF, check the box “Don’t Ask at Startup”
  4. Now go to your desktop, right click on the desktop and choose “New > Shortcut”. This will be your launch icon.
  5. Right click on your new shortcut, and choose “Properties”properties
  6. For your “target” you need to enter the path to your “firefox.exe” file, probably in your Program Files, Firefox directory.
  7. In the same text field after the path to “firefox.exe”, type “-P Name” (replace “name” with the name of your profile, e.g. Blogging), followed by ” -no-remote”. The “no remote” part allows you to run simultaneous independent instances of Firefox.
  8. For clarity, you should “Change Icon…” in order to easily distinguish your launch icons. You can find lots of free icons on the web.
  9. Drag the icon to your task bar.task
  10. Customize each instance of Firefox to suit your segment. I’ve made sure each theme is a different color, so I know immediately where I am.

Once you have your instance of Firefox up and running for different profiles, use the Firefox preferences tab to establish the pages you want to load when you launch Firefox. If you want to simplify things, just open each of the pages you want in a separate tab, and each time  you reopen Firefox, choose to renew your old session, and all of those pages will reload. You can use Firefox password manager to remember logins to simplify it even further.

I’ve also added some Tab add-ons from Firefox to color and organize tabs, but that’s a whole playground unto itself. The bottom line for me is that I now have a set of buttons to launch dedicated working environments in a way that clarifies and automates many of the mind-numbing tasks that I shouldn’t be wasting RAM on. I hope you find the same result.

Here’s my dedicated blogging instance of FF, with the slick Aero Theme, with all my blog admin sites ready to go in separate tabs.


Sales 2.0 at the SF Social Media Breakfast

SF Social Media BreakfastI can’t tell you how pleased I was with the launch to the San Francisco Social Media Breakfast. We sold out our tickets and had a great turnout of about 50 people–which is pretty remarkable for a 7:30am event in the city. But hey, the traffic and parking was a breeze. We moved the event a couple doors down from Cafe de la Presse to The Wine Bar, which was a much better venue both for networking, and for the presentation with Anneke Seley.

We kicked the event off with an hour of networking over coffee and breakfast, and I did a an interview with Anneke Seley, sort of in the style of Fresh Air, before opening up the conversation. We talked about Anneke’s background and depth of experience in Silicon Valley–she was employee #12 at Oracle and launched their highly successful inside sales group–and used that as the backdrop for talking about the industry trends that have led to Sales 2.0, and how that’s reshaping the way businesses build sales organizations.

SF Social Media Breakfast
SF Social Media Breakfast

We’ll be book talking Sales 2.0 in the next week or two, so I don’t want to steal the thunder from the discussion, but one concept really jumped out at me that I’ve been thinking a lot about the past few days. It builds from Anneke’s discription of the way the environment for selling in Silicon Valley has changed over the past decade, and how the change has impacted Web 2.0 adoption.

As Anneke tells it in Sales 2.0, back in the day when she joined Oracle, there was a major shift just getting underway in the valley. Traditionally, companies like Oracle sold only extremely expensive enterprise products and sales focused on developing large accounts. Sales people were at home in the field, wining and dining clients and racking up huge expense accounts. As Oracle started selling cheaper products that could load onto desktop PCs, smaller companies became viable prospects, meaning smaller accounts that couldn’t sustain the huge costs of an enterprise-focused sales force.

That trend has only accelerated. We now have companies of all sizes buying products online, and in the case of software, often for a monthly subscription fee with little or no switching costs. What this means is that the cost of selling has to be dramatically reduced. We need efficient ways to meet customers online, attract, inform, educate, and persuade them to buy our products, and the cost of that sale has to be well within the falling margins for product revenue. This is a business driver for social media that goes beyond the red herring of how trendy Web 2.0 may be, and whether or not it’s a passing fad.

If you want to follow the Twitter conversation from the event, you can pick up some good bits of dialog, not to mention some good follows. Also, Jeff Weinberger has a post up about an aha social media moment that happened during the breakfast–which is exactly what it’s all about.

Stay tuned for the book discussion. I passed out a half-dozen books to people who committed to reading it this week. We’ll check in on Friday and start the ball rolling.

San Francisco Social Media Marketing Breakfast

This Friday I’m kicking off a new event for marketers in the San Francisco area, in conjunction with the national Social Media Breakfast group. The bi-monthly breakfast will provide a forum for enterprise and social media marketers to get together and talk about emerging trends and challenges. Yeah, I know, there are already plenty of meetups and forums around. The difference here is a focus on the integration of social media into enterprise marketing and sales programs, rather than a focus on the latest Web 2.0 technology.

anneke_seleyOur first breakfast, at Cafe De La Presse in San Francisco, will feature a conversation with Anneke Seley, author of the new book Sales 2.0, Improve Business Results Using Innovative Sales Practices and Technology. Anneke was one of the first employees at Oracle, where she started what may be the best-performing and widely renowned inside sales forces in the software industry. Today, Anneke is founder and CEO of PhoneWorks, a group of the industry’s best sales consultants, where she helps companies achieve revenue acceleration from professional inside sales teams.

I’m hosting this event under the MotiveLab banner, with production and video support from my long-time partners at Miner Productions. Seats are limited and moving fast. Tickets are $20, and are available online. Join us if you’re a social media marketer in the San Francisco area. I guarantee the conversation will be well worth your while.

One Step Ahead of The Unexpected. Two Stories.

The Big Cat-hunaWhen I was in college, I was living the California dream. I was at UC Santa Cruz studying poetry, I had an apartment on Ocean a few blocks from the beach, and I had a beat up old Karmann Ghia with a ragtop and an East Cliff surfboard. I used to go out to Steamers and surf really badly. There was a grandma who used to surf out there in a pink wetsuit and a straw hat who could shred circles around me. But I wanted to learn.

Most of Steamers is pretty tame. It’s a long cliff line running into a small bay where the break comes in long and slow. A great place for learning. But at the mouth of the bay near the lighthouse, where it’s more exposed, the break can get a lot rougher. It’s out of my league, but it took me a good lesson to figure that out.

I was paddling out into the first set of the day, and it wasn’t until I was getting into the waves that I realized how big the surf was. The waves were suddenly looming, and I was right in the crash zone, not far enough out to roll under the wave, and too far committed to back off and ride the whitewater. When the wave came down the concussion was surreal.

I remember first the sound of the explosion in my head, and the muffled bubbling groan of having the wind knocked out me. I remember the sensation of pinwheeling end over end like a thrown doll. I remember that somehow the rushing underwater light looked like stained glass. And I vividly remember fighting against the overwhelming weight of water, being pushed further down until I realized I just needed to relax and let go. And almost immediately I came to the surface, gasping for air, wiping the water out of my eyes. My board was floating nearby on the leash, and I grabbed it reflexively before looking around to gain my bearings. The next wave was just coming down over my head.

Wild OatsA few years later I had gotten my first job as an editor and I was living with my wife in Santa Barbara. We’d traded the Ghia for an old convertible Mustang, and I was driving along the back roads off Highway 1 in the North County south of Pismo. It was an early summer morning just after sunrise, and I was following the fenceline along a stretch of wild grass, the sunlight burnishing everything gold and bright.

Some distance ahead, a deer burst through the grass to the left, leaped across the road and launched into a high arc to clear the fence on the right. The scene was a snapshot of perfect flight, the deer fully extended, spun from gold in the summer grass and sunlight, and I remember thinking in that moment, this is as close to God as you can get on earth. And in the next moment, the world flipped over. Another deer emerged behind the first, just a few feet ahead of the Mustang, and I didn’t even have time to hit the brakes. Time compressed into frames of film. The deer just ahead. The deer bending into the front of the car. Shards of glittering light. The body arching away in a parody of flight.

The car slid sideways and stopped in the middle of the road. The engine was dead. Coolant poured onto the asphalt, smelling hot and sweet. Paul Harvey was pitching from the radio to an empty country road.

I hold both of these stories in mind in turbulent times like these. When you’re flying high or struggling to survive, the milestone you’re focused on next, just as you reach it, can be one step ahead of the unexpected. Don’t forget to look ahead.

Photo credit Wave: SuziJane

Photo credit Grass: fa11ing_away

Do Social Media Laggards Suffer A Competitive Deficit?

Snail after the rain,  chiocciola dopo la pioggiaI need your insights. I do a lot of social media scanning in my business–literally hundreds of conversations per day across many different industries. I’ve noticed certain business sectors where a competitive advantage for social media adoption is apparent–consumer electronics, for example. But I’ve also noticed some surprising sectors where industry incumbents are not on the social media radar, and I haven’t been able yet to clearly define the competitive disadvantage that may, or may not, exist.

Some laggard sectors are obvious–does a cement producer serving a fairly non-technical market need to be active on social media to beat the competition? Not today. But other sectors are surprising. In marketing, for example, many of the traditional heavyweights in media and consulting are not on the social media radar for topics that define their market position. In some cases, the lack of presence is truly astounding–due to incredibly poor website optimization for SEO, no relevant content production, no participation in industry dialog. But it doesn’t appear to be hurting their business. At least not yet.

Now, let me state clearly that I personally believe it will hurt, enough to move the marketing industry inexorably toward social media integration. I know many, many examples of substantial projects going to social media boutique shops and consultants that in the past would have gone to some of these firms now lagging behind the social media curve. And yet, there’s still enough business to go around that the laggards haven’t been compelled to move faster to close the social media gap–and there’s a large enough market of buyers who are content with traditional approaches, and similarly unsure of how fast and how far they should step into social media. If it becomes enough of a compelling issue, the acquisition engines will surely heat up.

But. My question is about today. To what degree are companies that are lagging in the adoption of social media marketing techniques suffering any real competitive deficits. I’m not asking for an enumeration of competitive advantages for social media, but real examples of competitive disadvantage for laggards. Sales lost. Customer defections. Revenue declines. Do you have any first-hand anecdotes, examples or insights?

Why does this matter? I’m trying to step out of the echo chamber and get a sense of where we are on the social media adoption curve. Clearly social media offers many new market approach opportunities, and in some sectors a true competitive advantage. The question is whether those new opportunities replace existing opportunities in most sectors, or whether they are simply additive at this point. Simply stated, when lagging hurts, adoption will accelerate. So, where does it hurt?

Photocredit: pizzodisevo

How I Lost Everything in a NY Cab, And Regained More Than I Left Behind

cabI don’t know about you, but I have a mental ledger of the dumbest things I’ve ever done. It’s been under a layer of dust after I somehow survived my twenties: evading arrest on a motorcycle; walking into Kingston’s Trenchtown alone, white, and carrying a camera; stashing my emergency cash in the sole of my shoe, only to learn on the outskirts of Marrakesh that a few months of humidity and abrasion under foot will wipe the ink clean off the faces of twenties and hundreds, leaving them worthless.

Well, last week I had to dig up the ledger and add a new line. I left my backpack in a New York taxi. It was late, I was tired and in a rush, so when the cab pulled up to my hotel, I paid in cash and didn’t wait for a receipt. By the time I realized what had happened, the cab and my backpack were long gone. In horror, I inventoried everything that was lost. A laptop, a camera, a digital recorder. Costly but replaceable. The real losses could never be recovered. The pictures of our family Christmas that I hadn’t had time to download. A journal with years of writing, including poetry I wrote about watching my father die. A 1908 translation of the Bhagavad Gita that I treasured for its amazing lyricism. And of course, countless hours of work in the form of business documents and presentations created since my last backup.

I won’t belabor the anguish or self-loathing. Suffice to say I don’t need much help beating myself up, especially for something monumentally stupid. The real story is how I got everything back. Miracles happen.

The first mistake I made was assuming that I would never do something so idiotic. When my backup software started bugging out a few months ago, it wasn’t a top priority to get it fixed. I remember thinking before this trip that I should back everything up, but I was in too much of a rush setting up meetings and writing presentations. It’s amazing how much of the essentials of our lives we carry around with no safety net. If you travel with a laptop, backup should always be a top priority. In fact, my strategy now is to turn my laptop into a thin client, and avoid storing any permanent files on it.

The second mistake I made was failing to put a blindingly obvious tag on my pack with my contact information, including my contact while in New York. I had a big stack of business cards in the outside pocket, but they weren’t obvious, so they were useless. Tag your bag. Label your laptop. Put your name on anything you want back.

The third mistake I made was failing to get a receipt. A taxi receipt in New York carries important information, like the taxi medallion number, that will help you track down the taxi and driver if needed. If I had a dollar for all the people I called along the journey of tracking my stuff down who said “What? You don’t have a medallion number? [You poor fool!] I can’t help you.”

Okay, so I’ve lost a pack with thousands of dollars of electronics in a cab in New York, with no receipt, no cab number, no nothing. What are the odds of getting it back? Where do you even start? It took me a week to figure it out, but I’ll cut to the chase and tell you what to do if this happens to you.

  1. Immediately write down everything you can remember about your cab ride. It’s crucial to figure out exactly where you were picked up, where you were dropped off, the pick-up and drop-off times, and the amount of the fare with tip. Any other details are good, but you need times and locations within a block or two and a 10-minute window.
  2. Immediately Dial 311 to reach the Taxi and Limousine Commission of New York and file a report. The TLC is your best hope of recovering property, and you can’t do anything without a report.
  3. The TLC has a list of police precincts in NYC. Precincts are the drop-off point for property lost in cabs. Unfortunately, as I learned, many immigrant cabbies don’t want to deal with the police if they don’t have to. So this is hit and miss. Also, some cab companies collect lost property at their office, and only drop it off at the precincts once a week, so you have to call back daily.
  4. Get a list of the taxi brokers in New York City. There are 13,000 taxis in New York, but there only about 75 brokers that manage the vast majority of independent drivers. I called every one of them and got their fax number.
  5. Fax a reward sheet to every broker, with a picture, if possible, of what you lost, a description, and contact information. Many brokers will reflexively say they can’t help you without a medallion number, but when you offer to send a reward sheet, they’re always responsive.

That covers the bases, but it wasn’t enough to get my stuff back. The next step I took was to track down the vendors of GPS payment systems in the cabs. It turns out that every licensed cab in New York has a GPS system that tracks the basic details of each fare. I found out there are three main vendors of GPS systems for NY taxis. A company called DDS, a company called CMT, and Verifone.

They’re not set up to do customer searches, but I weaseled my way through the phone tree and operators to find a technician that could do a database search. And this is where having the details of your cab ride are crucial. I was able to pinpoint my pickup and drop-off locations to specific addresses. I was able to pinpoint my pick-up and drop-off times to within 5 minutes. I knew the fare and tip give or take a couple of dollars. The technician can look the data up, narrow down the hits to specific records with cab numbers. It can take hours to do one of these searches, so you have to be exceedingly nice when you connect with someone in a position to help. I struck out the first two times, but on the third try I hit gold. They found the fare, found the medallion number, and the TLC called the cabbie and connected me.

I was incredibly lucky. The cabbie had my backpack and everything in it. He was an independent driver, not a native English speaker, and it turns out he works two jobs back to back, and hadn’t had the time to track down my contact information in the pack. He put the pack in the trunk and figured I would find him. He was kind of enough to drop the pack off at a UPS store, where I’d arranged packing, shipment and payment with the manager. I’m sending a reward to the cabbie, and a letter of thanks to the supervisor of the technician who helped me recover the pack.

I’ve learned a lot from this experience, other than my capacity for doing dumb things and the tactics of navigating the taxi system in New York to access data. Even while diligently tracking my backpack down, mentally, I wrote it off, assuming I wouldn’t recover it. How was it even conceivable? In that process, I mourned for what I’d lost, but realized it didn’t define me as much as I thought. I’m a writer, but I’m not what I write. A mountain of writing can be a trap that’s hard to escape.

I also learned, again, that people are far more helpful and honest than we’re conditioned to believe. I made more than 200 phone calls to track my backpack down. I talked to cabbies, policemen, administrators, technicians. I remember only one person who was somewhat less than pleasant, but even this person provided the little information and help that they could. I’ve learned that far more people will help you than won’t.

Finally, I’ve learned that miracles happen. But sometimes you have to help them along.

Photo Credit: Fiat Luxe