Friday, June 27, 2008

Be careful, what you see is blinding you!

I visited one of my company's field sales offices this week for a customer call. After the meeting, I had lunch with some of my sales colleagues and we got into a really interesting discussion.

I maintain that in the not too distant future, the retail industry will undergo transformational change. And the bricks and mortar incumbents will disappear (unless they radically change).

Here's why:

Shopping sucks. Even if you like shopping, it usually sucks. You have to drive to the store which has gotten pretty expensive lately. You often fight traffic just to get where you're going. Then you have to deal with stores that are poorly laid out and deal with salespeople that don't know anything about the products they supposedly sell. And you sometimes have to go from store to store until you find what you want.

I think much of what we buy does not need to be bought in a bricks and mortar store. Apparently I'm right because billions of dollars of goods are bought online every year and the number is rising rapidly. But I argue that this will continue to happen ever more rapidly and here's where it gets interesting: that this will happen in product categories that many people today don't think will ever be sold in large quantities online.

When I say this to people, they usually tell me "well, you have a good point but there will always be a need for stores. People are always going to want to..." and then they tell me about some product category or another that simply is not amenable to online sales.

This is where you have to watch out! This is just people assuming that the accidents of their current life are essential to the human condition. And most of them are not. Some people like to go clothes shopping today. But that does not mean that this is essential to the human condition. What is essential is that people crave experiences and the company of others. But they don't have to satisfy those cravings with shopping. In the future, maybe there will be alternate outlets and shopping will be a solitary online experience.

You must remember two things:
1) You are not everybody. You see your own condition. You see your friends. You do not see everybody. And you do not see the future. If you're my age or older, you did not grow up with the internet. You have no idea what it feels like to be someone who did. They have a different mindset. They are far more accustomed to defaulting to the online world.
2) Technology will improve. Visual technology will improve so online merchants can post much higher fidelity pictures of their wares. There will be smell technology so we can experience food online. Sound technology will improve. Maybe there will be devices that actually allow me to test drive a car online...

When you catch yourself saying "people will always/never..." stop yourself. You are probably just projecting your own needs and wants. You are blinded by what you see. And your blind spot is my opportunity.

Indiana Jones movie review

I just saw the latest Indiana Jones movie. I used to absolutely love these movies. And I recently bought the DVD trilogy to share with my kids. I still love those movies. But I just don't know about this latest one.

It was enjoyable. Good action and all. A few good lines.

But the end? Are you kidding me. An alien movie. They lost me.

I don't understand why, after all this time, they resurrected this great franchise for this.

What do you think?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Don't win at the expense of the consumer!

I'm staying at a hotel in Minneapolis. I find that, like at home, I need to eat when in Minneapolis. You'd think the funny name of the town would be more than enough nourishment but I still get hungry. Go figure. Anyway, I called room service to order some food and wanted to order some Coke Zero. But, alas, this is a Pepsi hotel.

This ticks me off. Pepsi has made me a prisoner here. Now instead of basically forcing me to buy your product, why not just make it so damn good that I would never think of buying Coke? But they haven't done that.

I bought two Diet Pepsis. Pepsi earned a few cents. But they have now pissed me off. And I am considering adding them to the banned list. This is my list of companies or brands who have so ticked me off that they will never get any more money from me without a major act of restitution on their part.

Do you think taking consumers hostage is really a good strategy?

[Note: Coke Zero is the best all-purpose mass-produced diet soda. It kicks the ass of anything that Pepsi produces. In fact, it should make regular Coke obsolete. I cannot think of any reason for regular Coke to exist anymore. And although I oppose government regulation in nearly all cases, if we're going to tax cigarettes and the like with an eye towards reducing smoking, we should disproportionately tax regular Coke to encourage people to switch to Zero.]

Monday, June 23, 2008

Other than the cross-burning episode...

You've got to read this article. It's about a science teacher fired for preaching his religion to other staff members after repeated complaints and burning the image of a cross on students' arms (the image only lasts for a few weeks).

In his defense, his friend said: "With the exception of the cross-burning episode. ... I believe John Freshwater is teaching the values of the parents in the Mount Vernon school district".

With the exception of the cross-burning episode?! How funny is that?

Friday, June 20, 2008

A good photographer

Two years ago, when my eldest son had his bar-mitzvah, we hired a photographer. It was a great experience, she was fantastic to work with and I was very pleased with the results. Yesterday she asked me to write a recommendation that she could post on her newly redesigned website. I was happy to do it.

But I really found her to be so fantastic that I want to post here as well.

Her name is Audrey Lee. She has a real artistic eye which I think is a nice addition to the usual humdrum approach to taking portraits or doing events like weddings, bar-mitzvahs... She is super nice. And she made it from Manhattan to Jersey during a monster blizzard when a third of my guests couldn't.

She is awesome. If you need a photographer you need to talk to Audrey.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Kudos to the guitar guy

I have to tell you how pleased I am with Dave Neabore the guitar guy at Sam Ash music store in Paramus, NJ. When I called to see about replacing my boy's guitar, I asked if they could cut me a price break given that I had just purchased a guitar, amp, etc. and had to repurchase only because the guitar was broken.

He was very understanding and was able to give me a discount. Not much given that the guitar is already very reasonably priced. But he did what he could and I appreciate it.

So if you live in the neighborhood and have a need, go shop at Sam Ash and ask for Dave Neabore. He's a good dude.

Sam Ash
East 50 Route 4, Paramus, NJ 07652
(201) 843-0119

I don't know if it was right but it felt good

I got a call on my way to the gym today (I work out after work). My 9 year old son had accidentally dropped his new electric guitar and he was beside himself with grief. Apparently there was nothing functionally wrong but there was a big gash in it. My little guy is very fastidious and he was so upset by this that he decided he would never play again nor would he join me and his siblings to see The Incredible Hulk.

He was so upset and crying so much that he couldn't even talk on the phone.

Needless to say, this broke my heart. First of all, he gets his anal retentiveness from me. I would have been upset as well if my new whatever got a scratch. And besides, he's my little guy and I hate to hear him cry. To top it all off, my wife and I are in the midst of a divorce and my kids don't need additional grief.

At first I thought he'd just have to deal with it. But
I couldn't deal with it. So on the way home, I bought him a new guitar. I figured we could sell the scratched one on eBay and at least get some of our money back. It wasn't even an expensive guitar. I paid $150 for it brand new.

I was so excited to get home and bring a smile to my boy's face. I paid for the guitar and just got out of the store when I got a call on my cellphone. It was my little guy. He sounded much better and he told me that he had decided he would continue to play the guitar and join us to see The Hulk and that for his bar-mitzvah (4 years from now) he would want to get a better guitar.

I was in a rush to get home so I could gather the kids and head to the movie, so I didn't return the new guitar on the spot. Instead, I brought it home. I wasn't sure what I would do with it. I left it outside the door and went inside. My son showed me his scratched guitar. It wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be. Not bad at all. And he seemed OK.

I then went outside and brought the new guitar inside. I showed it to him, told him what it was. He lit up and hugged the box. But before he got too excited, I asked him whether he thought we should keep it or return it and save the $150 for something else in the future.

He opted to return the guitar and save the money. I was so proud of him!!

Anyway, I was in conflict a lot about whether to get him the new guitar. He should learn a lesson to take better care of his stuff. And this was a great learning opportunity. On the other hand, maybe learning it with his cherished guitar is too costly a lesson. And, of course, the whole divorce thing has me extra sensitive to my kids' feelings.

So what do you think? Did I do the right thing?

Monday, June 16, 2008

It's time to rethink the business book

I've just started a new business book (x-teams by Deborah Ancona and Henrik Bresman) and, sadly, I've got to give it a big thumbs down.

I'm really disappointed. I heard Deborah speak at a conference a few weeks ago. I thought she was a very engaging speaker and her topic (same topic as the book) is very relevant to me right now. I was so interested that I bought the book at the conference and was very excited to read it.

But this book is pure torture. Now before I explain, let me just say that I still believe there is a valuable lesson in this book. So I am going to continue reading it till the end. But in the process I'm going to get even angrier at the authors and Harvard Business School Press for forcing me to go through this just to extract what I need.

So here's the deal:

This book is very repetitive
It says the same thing over and over and over again. I mean that it says something once and then says it again. And again. It's redundant. It repeats itself. You're getting annoyed aren't you. Well this book is like that on every page.

I've read 60 pages of this book and I feel like I got one page worth of value. I understand that a small degree of repetition in a book may be warranted. But this goes way beyond that. It feels to me as if the authors are getting paid by the page. Or that they read a canned "how to write a business book" book which told them that repetition is very good because you need a very simple message and the human brain learns better with repetition, etc.

Someone has got to stop this madness. Perhaps business books should be rated by the public based on the number of new insights they offer per page. And let us all agree that we will pay more for books that have a higher insight:page ratio. After all, my time is valuable. (Well it is to me anyway.) And if you can give me the benefit of your brilliance (and please have some if you're writing a book) in 5 minutes vs. 50 then I value that more.

Honestly, why do we really need business books? Most of them have a pamphlet's worth of value. The rest is fluff, nonsense or repetition. But what's wrong with a pamphlet? Somehow, people's egos get a bigger boost if they write a book than if they write an article. But why? A powerful idea can usually be expressed in a sentence. So write a bit more and you have a pamphlet. It will take me just a few minutes to read and I'll be blown away because in just a few words you will have enlightened me.

This book sets up a straw man which it then proceeds to knock down. Again and again and again (see point #1 above)
This is the formula for a business book. Lay out the "old" way of thinking in some area. And explain why the dynamic world has made that obsolete. Then show how your way is so much better. Maybe it takes so many pages because the new way is usually not that different from the old way and after 200 pages I can no longer tell the difference. Maybe authors are hoping we'll just figure we were too dumb to get it.

This book sets up a straw man showing how the old way of thinking about teams no longer works. Apparently the old way was for teams to be very internally focused and not that aware that they need to listen to the customer. The new way is for teams to add external focus with fluid membership and processes for reaching across silos... I would have been very excited by this book a few decades ago. But this book was published in 2007. And the old way they describe seems pretty old to me. So old that I have never seen it. The new way seems to describe fairly well the way I have been working since I joined the workforce.

I still think there's value in this book. But I'm 60 pages into a 240 page book and I have seen nothing that is really earth-shakingly new.

So why can't publishers just drop this ridiculous formula? It's OK that this book doesn't have a radically new idea (at least not in the first 60 pages). I get the sense that they have some tools for creating and managing effective innovation teams and I'm looking forward to getting to that part of the book. That's useful. I would much rather they just started off by saying that they're not here to offer a new paradigm but just to help me better execute within the current one. Of course that book wouldn't get published. It's not new enough. Imagine if cookbooks were the same. Imagine no cookbook could ever get published if it used an ingredient or technique that had already been published in another cookbook. Damn! I was really starting to enjoy braising...

One book that illustrates this point for me is the new Johnny Bunko book by Dan Pink ( There is not a single original idea in that book. But I enjoyed it a lot. It was a good reminder of some things I already knew and it presented the ideas in a compelling format. Plus, it took only 20 minutes of my time. I recommended this book to others and even bought 5 copies for my team.

There are very few new ideas. Aristotle already got to most of them. But that's OK. There is still plenty of need for explanation, tools, reminders...

So hopefully, we can start to see more varied forms of business publishing. Let loose the pamphlets!

BTW, did I mention the book is repetitive?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The best family

I was just in Israel for my cousin's wedding. I have seen these cousins only a few times in my life. But we really clicked. They were so welcoming to me and my brother and it felt like we had been friends for a long time. Same with my cousin's new wife. We had never met before and we all just got along.

Family is an accident of birth. Other than a spouse or adopted child, you don't really get much say about who makes it in the club. And for that reason and others, I don't attach a lot of importance to family per se. I don't believe people are valuable simply because an accident of birth and a culturally dependent kinship system decided that you and some other person are related.

But friendship to me is very important. This is something you choose. It reflects your values and interests.

I was grateful that my Israeli family - both those I have been related to for some time and my new cousin X - immediately felt like friends.

To me, that is the best family.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Gravity usually wins

There are so many things we do in business and in our personal lives that are just attempts to fight gravity. On the personal side, we try to change the people we're with. Now I'm not saying that people don't ever change. But you've got to be clear about changes that are fundamental and those that are incidental. People don't typically make fundamental changes. They do happen, but do you really think that someone who didn't make that change for internal reasons will make it for you? Probably not. You're fighting gravity there. And gravity usually wins.

We do the same in business. The music industry was in trouble because people were (are) illegally copying and distributing music. So the industry decided to sue its consumers. Now I don't condone breaking the law. But get real. Do they really think they're putting that genie back in the box? They're fighting gravity. Instead, they should find a way to make money by aligning with and facilitating consumers in their efforts to live the way they want to live. I don't have the answers for them. But I'm pretty damn sure they're not going to win by fighting gravity.

Apple did the same thing with the iPhone. They blocked people from installing non-Apple apps on their phones. People who did it, had their phones fried by Apple. I was in an Apple store and saw a guy trying to work it out with Apple and he basically found out that his brand new iPhone was toast and could not be fixed. Not a happy dude. Apple wised up (at least partly) and is opening up the iPhone to other applications.

See Jeremy Epstein's blog post on consumer marketing and my comment. He makes a great point that I think we all need to consider.

An idea for Amazon

I always need lots of reading material when I travel. I usually don't read it all but I like to have it with me. I prefer traveling with newspapers and magazines because I don't have to carry them back home with me. And somehow dirty laundry is heavier than the clean stuff it used to be when I packed it (go figure). So it's nice to throw away my reading material and have a lighter bag (or room for gifts) on the way back.

For this trip, I didn't have enough magazines I liked so I took 2 books. It's clear by now that I will finish neither.

So I think it would be nice to have an Amazon Kindle for rent. I could load it up with what I want and it wouldn't weigh any more no matter how much I put on there. Maybe Amazon could work with airlines, travel websites and hotels to have that offered when people make a reservation.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Do you really want to know?

I had lunch at a nice Brasserie in Amsterdam today. The meal was OK. Not good. Just OK. Anyway, at the end of our meal a young woman came to clean up our table. In a sweet voice she said "was everything OK?" or something like that. But she said it in a perfunctory sort of way. It said "I want to display the basic courtesy of letting you know we care, but I don't really want your feedback."

I think it might be better not to ask at all.

Ask yourself: do I really want to know what my customers think? If so, ask them and make sure to get an answer. Most people will want to tell you. And make sure you respond to their feedback. Right there on the spot and then later on by addressing it if need be.

And if you don't really want to know what they think, think again! You're going to find out one way or another. Unless you have a monopoly on a basic necessity, you will find out what your customers think when you look at your declining sales. I submit to you that this is not the best way to get feedback.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Don't ignore your urges

I'm in Amsterdam now with my brother. We were walking around town enjoying ourselves and my brother started feeling like he might want to avail himself of a WC. Since we were only a few blocks away from the hotel, he asked me if I would mind heading in that direction. Of course I never want to stand between a guy and a clean bathroom, so I agreed.

On our way to the hotel, we passed a store with a nice looking beer selection in the window. I walked in and found myself staring at a wall of branded beer glasses. I collect these glasses so I was in seventh heaven. The store was full of Belgian and Dutch specialty beers. Including a Belgian Trappist that is notoriously hard to get - even in Europe.

Naturally, I proposed to the woman who owns the store. She graciously turned me down. That hurt. But she helped me pick out a handful of fantastic beers. Some I will consume here. Some will follow me home to the U.S. and join my growing collection.

So what have I learned:
1) Carry flowers with you when in Amsterdam. My proposal lacked something. If I had offered flowers I think I could now be married to the woman who knows more about beer than anyone else.
2) Don't ignore your urges. If my brother and I had pressed on with our touring rather than indulging his early warning of a need to use the restroom, I would never have passed this fantastic beer store.

BTW, if you love beer and you plan to go to Amsterdam, make sure to head to De Bierkoning on Paleisstraat 125 behind the Royal Palace in Dam Square.

It's nice to meet interesting people

I'm in Amsterdam now. Will head to Israel tomorrow. I'm traveling with my brother and we came to Amsterdam via London.

On my flight to London I had the opportunity to sit next to a very nice, interesting woman. We had a few minutes of laughs and then I asked her what she did for a living. She told me she sells apples. I thought that was sort of a weird way of saying you sell Apple products. But she actually sells apples. The fruit.

Somehow I thought apples just magically appear on display in my local grocery store. And I would have gone on thinking just that if not for this flight. She also told me something very interesting and disappointing about apples. Destroyed a fundamental part of my belief system. But she swore me to secrecy so I can't tell. (Don't worry, they do keep the doctor away.)

I'm not going to post her name for obvious reasons. But if you read this, interesting apple lady, thanks for a very enjoyable flight. [OK, I just re-read that and it sounds like I had a way better flight than I did. It wasn't that enjoyable :) We just had a few interesting conversations.] And by the way, next time I take a chance and strike up a conversation with someone sitting next to me on a flight, it's probably going to go real badly. I'm going to get several hours of hearing about someone's hemorrhoids. And I will blame you!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Turn your weaknesses into strengths #2

Waiting at the gate in airport terminals while your flight is delayed is more the norm than the exception now. While you're waiting for your flight, you're getting pissed off at the airline for failing to do its job. Meanwhile, the airlines are cutting service, adding to your cost, etc. Seems like a broken business.

So why not turn the weakness of making you wait, into a strength?

What if the airlines offered entertainment at the gate? Movies are easy and not a bad idea. But why not take it a step further? What if they offered lectures, concerts... They know who is flying on their planes. If they collected a bit more info they might know if an author, lecturer, business guru, poet, musician, etc. was waiting for a flight at a particular gate. They could have people who belong to their mileage club fill in their interests (what they would like to be entertained with) and their areas of expertise (how they can entertain others). They could then match people who have entertainment to offer with people who are looking for a specific form of entertainment. Entertainers could be induced to participate by offering them a free flight.

If I showed up at the gate and found my flight was delayed but got to listen to a brief concert or hear a comedian, I wouldn't be as annoyed.

They could take this even further by offering related items for sale. For example, strike a deal with iTunes so that if a concert is played at the gate, related songs could be purchased on the spot via a coded card. Or Amazon could have a similar deal to sell books.

There are probably many ideas that could work. The point is that I'm sitting around feeling mad. Find a way to turn that idle time which degrades your brand equity into value-added time for me which enhances your brand equity.