Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Maybe it's you

Recently, I was involved in a somewhat heated discussion on Facebook of a contentious political issue. Heated, but not at all disrespectful. Actually, in many ways it was a model of what a discussion should look like. Ideas were clashing, there was disagreement (why talk if you already agree?) and mutual respect.

Right at the end of the discussion, a new party jumped in and said something like "some people just don't get it." I think this person was referring to me but it doesn't matter much.

That kind of comment is, to me, the epitome of an un or anti-intellectual perspective. The comment did not articulate a POV. It did not advance an argument. It did not create a new idea. It does not have the power to inspire or change minds. It does not lead to further discussion. Instead, it attempts to shut down a discussion by unilaterally declaring an individual or a group of people as simply unfit for inclusion in any discussion of the issue. In a way, it even says that no discussion is necessary. You either "get it" or you don't. Sort of a Calvinism for ideas and discussion.

If you find yourself thinking that some folks just don't get it, and certainly before you ever say such words, you might want to pause and think a bit more. Because no matter what issue is at hand and no matter what side you take, you will find that there are smart and well-intentioned people on the other side. Some of them will be even smarter and more well-intentioned than you.

It's not that they just don't get it. It might be that they don't understand your position. If so, explain it to them. It might be that they understand perfectly well but just don't agree with you. In that case, agree to disagree.

Or, it might be that you're the one that just doesn't get it.

If you're reading this blog, I hope you have points of view. I hope you think, explore, consider. I hope you engage in robust discussion and debate. I hope you advocate on behalf of your opinions and convictions.

But please, do it in a manner that is consistent with a respect for the value of ideas and intellectual activity. The (free) exchange of ideas is all that we have to prevent us from behaving like savages fighting over a hunk of meat. When you are discussing an idea, you are not only working towards a resolution of a particular issue, you are contributing to the legacy of intellectual exchange. You will either weaken or strengthen the institution of intellectual discourse. That contribution will likely have a greater and more lasting impact on the world than the particular issue you're discussing at the moment.

Please use your gift of words wisely. (And please help me make sure that I use mine in that spirit as well.)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

When your message is better than your product

I was sitting in the steam room after my workout this evening. Was not in a great mood. Had one of those de-inspiring days.

My workout was pretty good. The steam was doing its trick. I was feeling tired, but the good kind of tired. And when that happens - particularly when I'm feeling down - I get to thinking "it's Miller time."

I really thought that. In those words.

But here's the thing. I don't really drink Miller. It is basically not in my consideration set at all. Miller to me is cheap tasteless American beer. Don't get me wrong. There are times when I really want a cheap American beer. Hot summer days are a good example. And on those occasions if someone offers me a Miller, I will accept. But for the most part, Miller doesn't have a shot with me.

So I'm sitting in the steam room thinking "it's Miller time" and knowing damn well that I would either be drinking the Kasteel Rouge, Westmalle or Rogue Hazelnut that I had in the fridge.

Miller owns that little part of my mind that articulates the need for beer on certain occasions. But other brands have a lock on my palate and, therefore, my wallet.

If you like winning advertising awards, spend your time and energy on slogans and jingles. You can create an iconic line that will reverberate from the lips of consumers for decades. But if you have a need to make some money, better to spend your time developing a kick ass product.

A nice experience at the Apple store

I picked up a Macbook Pro for my Dad tonight at the Apple Store. On the way to my car, I'm carrying his old PC and the box with the Macbook Pro. It's about 9PM and the store was pretty much closing. I see one of the employees from the store in the parking lot. He was on his cellphone and headed to wherever he was going after work. I recognized this guy from the store and it seemed he recognized me. As we passed each other, we gave each other the standard guy nod.

And for a moment, it seemed that we would be but ships passing in the night. (I've always wanted to say that! Something tells me I just wasted it on a story like this that really didn't call for it.)

But then, a second after we passed each other, I hear "congratulations". I said "thanks" and that was it.

What a great little branding lesson. I doubt this is in any customer service manual for Apple employees. Maybe it is. But this guy was off the clock. Nothing was stopping him from continuing his cellphone conversation and heading home. Nobody was watching his performance. He was a free man. But he felt compelled to congratulate me for switching from a PC to Mac.

He believes in the product he sells. He stands by the brand. He welcomes customers into the family. It was a really nice warm touching little moment.

My friend Jeremy Epstein would consider this a case of
Never Stop Marketing. I wouldn't call it that because I'm not a marketing consultant and I don't need to call it anything. But I agree with Jeremy. This guy truly represented the Apple brand in a place and time when he didn't have to. And because it was optional, it meant that much more to me.

OK, I'm being a bit too maudlin. I'm not about to show up at the Apple store with flowers and a box of chocolates. But I am impressed that Apple has employees like that who go out of their way because they just feel it.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Check out

My 10 year old son recently moved into his own room. He had been sharing a room with his sister pretty much his entire life. And he was a bit sad about changing that arrangement. He and his sister are very close. She - at 12 years old - was quite happy to have her privacy. But he had mixed feelings.

So his mom and I thought it would be nice for him to get some decorations that reflected his unique personality. To help him make the room his own. Well they decided he would get a sign. First they thought a stop sign. So I searched on Google and found Build A Sign has all the standard street signs and lots beyond. Very customizable. Good online tool for customizing signs. But apart from the fact that the product seemed good and the tools were useful, they didn't seem remarkable to me. I had the feeling that there were many similar sites and that this was just the one I happened to click on.

I worked with my son and he decided to get a sign that warned people not to enter his room (his "realm" as he calls it) without Chinese food. Why? Because he said so that's why. He likes Chinese food. And he thought it would be funny. I agree.

He also really likes monkeys. And he and I designed a sign that looks like a typical crossing sign but says "Monkey Crossing."

Well finally the signs arrive. Two days before they said they would. OK, that's nice. Not a huge surprise for me because I know that many companies pad these dates to be safe. But my son was pleased.

One of the signs was perfect. But the other was bent. So I sent them an email. They responded quickly and and expressed an apology. They also asked if I could send them a few photos of the damaged sign and that they would be happy to send a replacement.

It took me a few days to get around to it. I finally sent them the photos this morning and within a few hours they had shipped my replacement sign.

These guys are great! Very courteous customer service. Very nice and pleasant. I feel like they are real people trying to make their customers happy rather than just following a customer service script.

I highly recommend Build A Sign! I have had few experiences with a company that were this positive.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Read it or weep

We've had a lot of game changing legislation over the past few months. Some of these bills are massive. Both in their effect on the nation and the number of dead trees and ink they consume.

And I've got to wonder whether our legislators are reading these bills of many hundreds of pages. OK, I'm being charitable. I think many of them are not. I think many of them are reading the Cliff Notes.

This is not OK. We send our representatives to Washington to change our country for the better. How on earth can they vote for or against a bill if they have not read it. Completely.

So I'd like to propose new rules for member of Congress. Well, basically it's one rule with a few subparts. The rule is: no read, no vote. That is, if you have not read the bill in its entirety and are not fully versed in its contents and implications then you cannot vote on that bill. How would we find out? Well, there would be a test. On their way to vote, they would have to take a test. If they got less than an 85% they would be barred from voting. The test would be written by some bi-partisan panel of experts.

But wait, there's more.

Three scores in a row of less than 85% and you get kicked out of Congress. One F and you get kicked out of Congress. Statistics on the scores for all members of Congress are made public and the members have to put those scores in large type on their website and in all future campaign ads.

Presidents get tested too. And if they don't pass the test on a bill they wrote, they have to run naked through the Rose Garden. Enjoy those thorns!

We deserve better people. You can have your opinion on various issues. And you can vote for whomever you like. (Once per election please.) But no matter how you feel about an issue, don't you want to be taken seriously and respected as an individual and an American by having the people that represent you take their sacred jobs seriously?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

No offense, it's just personal

"No offense, it's just business."

Why does that saying exist? Why do some people really believe that they get a pass if it's business? What happens here is that someone does something offensive in the business sphere and they try to excuse it by saying it's just business. That it has no personal content.

Would it make sense if the statement were flipped? What if people screwed others over in the personal domain and tried to eliminate their guilt by telling the aggrieved party not to worry. That it was just personal and no business issue was at play.

It seems that there's an assumption that the business domain is a special place walled off entirely from the rules of normal human behavior. Like it's some sort of parallel reality. If you hit people here it doesn't hurt...

Maybe "no offense" needs to be retired completely. If I feel offended then fix it. If you mean no offense, then behave that way. If you have to tell me that you mean no offense it's because you're doing something offensive. Why not just stop?

I'll admit that I'm guilty of this one myself. I think it's worth some more thought.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

You're way too old to believe in Santa Claus

I know, you're a risk taker. You're up for change. It's just that you want to take only the right risks. You're looking for an opportunity that is big, fast, very profitable and not too risky.

Well I'm looking for a supermodel-beautiful woman with Aristotle's mind, Bobby Flay's cooking ability, Edith Piaf's voice, who is wealthy, available and who would not be nauseated by me.

Now how about we both grow up.

It's not called risk if it looks great to you. I'm not saying you should just roll the dice or implement any damn idea that comes your way.

But stop thinking that you're going to be able to take risk and be a leader and still be comfortable. What makes most people comfortable is what they already know or have. If you want to lead, you've got to be willing to live with discomfort. And if it feels comfortable to you, it's because it isn't new or risky.

BTW, if you read carefully, you will notice that I have conflated risk-taking and leadership. Correct. I believe that leadership must always occur in situations of risk. People do not need leaders to lead them to where they have already been. They need leaders to take them where they have not yet been. Where they do not know how to go. To places they cannot even imagine. All of those are risky. If you will lead, you must risk and make yourself uncomfortable. All while comforting your followers so they don't freak out. Yeah, that's hard. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Don't say that

Here are some words you should never use when describing your product or service:
  1. Premium: If I don't have a sensory experience that confirms your premiumness then you telling me about it only makes you look delusional. And if I do have that experience, your telling me about it is unnecessary. If I eat premium ice cream, it has got to taste so much better than non-premium ice creams. If I attend a premium concert (sometimes they use the word premier) it has got to sound much better. The colors on that TV you're selling me have got to blow my mind. And your service better make me feel like a king. Of course, "super-premium" is even worse. Ditto for all those other modifiers: super, mega, ultra... Don't do it.
  2. Value: See above. If you've got a value offering, my reaction when looking at it and, even later, when using it has got to be: "holy &$#&! What a deal I got!" If that's not the reaction then you do not have a value offering. It may be cheap. But it is not a value.
  3. Finest ingredients: First of all, how much of the finest ingredients actually exist?? Isn't "finest" a relative term? Surely you all can't be using the finest. And seriously, let's be honest. Your $3 box of cookies sitting on a store shelf does not use the finest ingredients. The finest ingredients are used by the artisanal bakery, by the elite restaurants... You just look silly when you say these things. And just as important, see above. If your product doesn't taste out of this world, then I don't care about your ingredients. One exception: if you're talking about things like fair trade and other moral issues. Here, the result may not be perceptual. It's fine to talk about those things.
  4. Best: see #3
  5. Most preferred: This one is on it's way out. In a totally socially networked world, I won't need you to tell me this. I will know if the people I care about like your product or not. You can continue to use this now if you really need to. But think carefully about this. This is basically an admission that your product sucks. That its qualities will not be evident to me. That I need to take your word that other people like it. Or, maybe, you're just telling me that I'm an idiot. That I don't see the wondrousness of your widget but that those other, smarter, more perceptive people do. Either way, you can do better.
Basic point: Don't tell me what you're all about. Just be it. Do it. I will figure it out for myself. If I can't then either your offering isn't good or I am the wrong target for you. I think Ralph Waldo Emerson said it well: "Don't say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary."

Friday, July 17, 2009

There's only one scorecard

I've met a few people over the past months that are very nice face to face. They have reputations as nice people. Clearly, they're doing something right.

But then, I hear of - or witness directly - things they do in the workplace that are just shockingly mean, nasty, selfish or just unhelpful. I'm talking about backstabbing, stepping over others to get ahead, remaining steadfastly apathetic about others...

And I wonder, how the hell does this happen? How can someone be so nice and sweet when you're talking to them and then turn around and callously hurt others?

It seems to me that many people think they have a work life and a personal life and never the twain shall meet. Well, you can have as many different personas as you want folks. You can be prim and proper in the workplace and risque when you go out with friends. You can be very politically involved in your personal life and maintain a Swiss policy at work. You can speak to your friends one way and your family another.

But you are still one person. And if you're an asshole at work, you're an asshole. Being nice in your personal life, helping old ladies cross the street, donating canned goods at the food drive, etc. does not earn you a free pass to be a self-serving, egotistical backstabbing jerk at work.

Your work life and your personal life are not really separate lives. They are just separate personas or roles. The twain do meet. They meet at an intersection. You are that intersection. You are the nexus of all the different roles you play. You - the real you - is the constancy that runs throughout all of these roles.

When you act in a poisonous, toxic, evil manner while playing one role it's because you are a poisonous, toxic, evil person.

So stop.

Trick yourself into being nice

Have you ever had an experience where you behaved in a not very nice manner towards someone, only to find out later that they just lost a parent, found out they had cancer, got laid off...?

Feels pretty bad doesn't it?

To flip it, don't you feel an extra motivation to treat people well when you know they are suffering or experiencing some extraordinary difficulty?

What if you knew that everyone was suffering in some way? Wouldn't you want to be nicer?

Well I think we should always just assume that everyone around us is in some sort of pain. Or is just having a really bad day. It's probably true. We all have troubles and challenges in our life. Some people bear them well and others not so well. But most people are carrying some sort of burden and could use a little help.

I'm going to try this approach. I hope it will make me more patient and kind.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

You are not a bystander!

I ran into a senior leader from my company in the men's room a few days ago. We had one of those quick urinal conversations. He asked me how I was enjoying my new role in a line marketing position. I told him what I liked about it. He then said something like "those standalone innovation groups never work in big companies" - referring to my previous role on just such a group.

We then had one of those quick washing the hands conversations and parted company.

Oh, I did zip up in case you're wondering, but that is not an important part of the story. I'm only telling you because I don't want you to think I'm one of those guys who talks about innovation at urinals and then doesn't zip. You know the type...

Anyway, it occurred to me later what an interesting thing had transpired. This senior leader had told me about what doesn't work in the company as if he was not part of the very machinery that makes things work or not work. As if what works or doesn't work is a matter of destiny and cannot be determined- or even influenced - by the will of a senior leader such as himself. How astounding!

On one hand, I would point out that this fatalistic attitude is precisely what dooms us to mediocrity. I would argue that we all need to charge forward as leaders. To take risks in line with our passions. To constantly seek out excellence in ourselves and inspire it in others. I would argue that such an approach to our careers - and, more importantly, to life - is what should determine what does and does not work. And I love James Baldwin's quote on the matter: "Those who say it can't be done are usually interrupted by others doing it." We too easily acquiesce to the apparent impossibility of an objective.

On the other hand, there is a certain truth to what this leader was saying. Should passion require us to entirely ignore experience? Does success require this? I don't think it does.

The fact is that people and institutions learn habits. And habits are very hard to undo. Institutional habits become notoriously difficult to disrupt. And people who try usually end up headless.

I don't know where I'm going with this train of thought. It seems to me that institutions that cannot change their basic operating model are headed for extinction. For some reason, people at big companies find that hard to believe in a way that I think folks at scrappy startups do not. Even though the business landscape is littered with very big failed companies, people always think it cannot happen to their company. But happen it can. Mmmmmm. Very powerful is the dark side.

I think most institutions will eventually destroy themselves because they cannot change. Really change. They have too many things that just "never work". We should cheer the death of these institutions. When they pass, they clear the way for progress.

Of course, it would be much better if we all could learn to adapt better - as individuals and as members of institutions. I certainly would love to see much more jumping into the breach, much more heroism, much more refusal to accept the fundamental status quo. I am inspired by such people and I hope to similarly inspire others. I feel sad for people who have accepted in their hearts that they are merely spectators.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Authenticity 201

Last night I read about an iPhone app called Trapster. See here for a review. This application is part of a bigger offering designed to help people who - purely as a hobby - like to know where there are police, red light cameras or other law enforcement tools designed to catch drivers violating the law.

As a lover of law and order, I often like to know where such bulwarks against the decay of Western civilization might be found. So I downloaded the app. I also created an account on their website. There are all sorts of options you can set. Trapster can send you SMS messages to warn you. They can push warnings to your iPhone. They can send you emails... You can select a particular geographic area that is relevant to you and the days and times that you'd like to receive warnings.

I love the concept of this service. But I found the website a bit too complex. I sent a few questions to the company and they responded pretty quickly with an answer. The response came from At the end of my followup email to them (I had more questions), I offered a bit of feedback about their website and a suggestion on how they might improve it. I got another quick response - also from - that I thought was totally cool. Here is the text of that response:

"Hi Adam, I agree our Website is a disaster, we're completely re-doing it. Luckily no-one visits it! :-) Seriously ... we have over a million mobile users and only 45K or so visits a month to the site. 5%!"

And after this, they answered my question succinctly and with a helpful link.

I was so impressed by this that I wanted to blog about it. But I didn't want to let both of the people who read my blog know that Trapster has a bad website. I didn't want to reward their authenticity and coolness by trashing them online.

So I sent a note back asking if it was OK to write about their email. This time, I got a response from which is the email address of Pete Tenereillo, Trapster's Founder and CEO. Pete's response: "Absolutely - go crazy!"

I don't know Pete. I have no idea how old he is or how experienced he is. I don't know if he's an 18 year old entrepreneur or a 50 year old seasoned exec. And I don't care. Pete is a real person. He's honest. He's responsive. He's got a good offering and doesn't feel the need to puff it up with corporate blather.

So kudos to Pete. Now go check out Trapster. It works better if more people use it because it relies on users to report the locations of these very important law enforcement tools.

Oh, and don't speed or run red lights.

Or jaywalk.

Heck, don't do anything wrong.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Authenticity 101

I love this! We're all awash in a sea of slithering superlatives. Here's some authenticity for you.