Sunday, December 31, 2006

Branding and Politics

Branding gadfly Rob Frankel has a post on the three leading Democratic presidential contenders that is both uproarious and sadly true. Hopefully he'll do the same for the Republicans. There are plenty of lessons here for businesspeople as well as politicos.

Here's what he had to say about Hillary, Barack, and John Edwards:

Hillary Clinton: By not stating and implementing a clear brand strategy, Hillary is doomed to forever be perceived as a mean, ambitious and somewhat condescending bitch. She can coif her hair any way she wishes, but unless she reins in that pompous arrogance that radiates from her like a lighthouse beacon on a moonless ocean night, she's hosed.

Barack Obama: Just as William Goldman once observed in Adventures in the Screen Trade, "In the future, there will be no more movies, only deals," Obama is not a man. He's a package. Crafted carefully to crack the all white veneer of presidential politics, he is conveniently mixed race, which plays well to our media-driven society. Everywhere you see him, you never hear anyone talk about his policies or opinions. Instead, you hear comments like, "He's so bright and charismatic." The translation: "Maybe this is a black guy we can vote for."Obama is smart. And charismatic. And trades well on his racial appearance. But then again, so is Halle Berry and you don't see her tossing her hat into the presidential race.

John Edwards: To me, Edwards is the Christie Brinkley of presidential politics. Nice to look at, but you'd never take him seriously. Throughout the country, talking heads jabber on about how appealing he is to women. Of course he's appealing to women. He's a good looking guy. But on that premise, George Clooney should be running for president, not some ambulance chaser who got rich off other people's misery.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Seriosity and the email conundrum

One of my pet peeves about working in an email-oriented company is the fact that I receive a flood of emails with no prioritization whatsoever.

In the end, my de facto priority system is a function of the sender and the recipient (hint: frequent senders to mailing lists end up at the bottom). But I've always wanted something more elegant.

Now I've discovered that my friend Helen Cheng and her company Seriosity, have an actual product, integrated with Outlook, that brings virtual world economics to the workplace. Employees receive a virtual currency, Serios, which they then use to bid for their co-workers attention.

That's pretty darn cool.

Of course, I suspect that many companies will also suffer the ravages of inflation after certain senior managers discover just how many Serios it will take to get their employees to read VP-level emails!

Book Summary: The Pursuit of Happiness

The Pursuit of Happiness
by David G. Myers, Ph.D.

While this book, which came out in 1992, is not as up to date as recent texts like Seligman's "Authentic Happiness," it is still an excellent primer on the question it asks in its subtitle: "Who is happy--and why?" It is well-written, and definitely a good read, especially for its section on religion and happiness. The author is a devout Christian, and makes a very personal but well-written argument for the importance of faith in happiness.

Myer's final sentences are themselves an eloquent summary of his book:

"Well-being is found in the renewal of disciplined lifestyles, committed relationships, and the receiving and giving of acceptance. To experience deep well-being is to be self-confident yet unself-conscious, self-giving yet self-respecting, realistic yet hope-filled."

For the full summary, visit the Book Outlines Wiki.

Book Summary: The Pursuit of Happiness

The Pursuit of Happiness
by David G. Myers, Ph.D.

While this book, which came out in 1992, is not as up to date as recent texts like Seligman's "Authentic Happiness," it is still an excellent primer on the question it asks in its subtitle: "Who is happy--and why?" It is well-written, and definitely a good read, especially for its section on religion and happiness. The author is a devout Christian, and makes a very personal but well-written argument for the importance of faith in happiness.

Myer's final sentences are themselves an eloquent summary of his book:

"Well-being is found in the renewal of disciplined lifestyles, committed relationships, and the receiving and giving of acceptance. To experience deep well-being is to be self-confident yet unself-conscious, self-giving yet self-respecting, realistic yet hope-filled."

For the full summary, visit the Book Outlines Wiki.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

5 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Me

My new friend Isabel Wang tagged me with Jeff Pulver's latest blogosphere craze. I'm assuming that if I break the chain, I'll contract some hideous disease, so without further ado, here are some things you might not have known about me:

1) When I was growing up, I was labeled a disruptive influence. In comparison to my well-behaved, straight-As sister Caroline, I got mediocre grades and was always the one the teachers warned each other about.

2) I am a huge military history and hardware buff. Together with my old friend Alvin Fu, we must have watched every war movie that ever existed. I can still identify nearly every plane, ship, and vehicle in the US military, and in most cases, tell you the defense contractor(s) responsible and operational history.

3) I once took a baseball bat and went after a friend for damaging some books that I loaned him. My friend JP from Geometry class had borrowed some of my science fiction books (can't recall all of them now, but one of them was my Stainless Steel Rat omnibus edition), and returned them folded, spindled, and mutilated. Fortunately for JP, this happened while a bunch of friends were over, and they prevented me from doing any harm.

4) Continuing my history of violence, in the 7th grade, I made a bomb threat to my science teacher. She had developed quite a grudge against me for all the times I had embarassed her in class by correcting her errors, and when she finally had a chance to take revenge, she went for it. We were taking a test, and I zoomed through it even more quickly than usual. As part of her pettiness, my teacher didn't allow me to read or leave the room after finishing, so I had to twiddle my thumbs while I waited for my classmates to finish. When she finally called time, I was horrified to see that the test had two sides, and that I had only finished one. When I asked for 2 minutes to finish the other side, she gleefully refused. So naturally, I told her, "Watch out for car bombs."

Thank goodness this took place in 1987. Today, I'd probably be expelled. As it was, I had a stern lecture from the principal, and an offer of voluntary counseling, which naturally, I refused.

5) I am a fan of country western music. One of the presets on my car's radio is set to 95.3 KRTY. Alas, today's country is too poppy for my tastes. We need to bring back George Jones and Merle Haggard!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Book Summary: "Satisfaction: The Science of True Fulfillment"

The latest book I've finished is "Satisfaction: The Science of True Fulfillment."

As you've probably realized by now, I'm a sucker for any book that combines science and the pursuit of happiness. Satisfaction delivers by examining the biochemical underpinnings of satisfaction. Here's the quick summary. If you want more, visit the Book Outlines Wiki and check out my full outline.

Satisfaction comes from the combination of experiencing novelty (which stimulates the release of dopamine), with enough challenge to induce cortisol release, while still maintaining a sense of control. (Editor's note: This is very similar to the concept of flow, but provides some of the biochemical underpinnings for why the theory works).

You can experience happiness or pleasure without working for it, but you cannot experience satisfaction. Winning the lottery may make you happy, but you will not feel satisfied unless you use the money in some way that provides novelty and challenge.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Does Racism Against Asians Count?

Before I add my commentary, I thought it would be useful to present some background. Here are the facts, as best I can determine them:

1) On the December 5 episode of "The View," Rosie O'Donnell decided to illustrate the global interest in discussing Danny DeVito's recent drunken television appearances by performing an "imitation" of a Chinese newscaster. Here is the transcript:

"The fact is that it's news all over the world. That you know, you can imagine in China it's like: 'Ching chong. Danny DeVito, ching chong, chong, chong, chong. Drunk. The View. Ching chong.' "

2) Several organizations and individuals, including UNITY (an umbrella organization for minority journalists that includes the associations of Asian American, Black, Hispanic, and Native American journalists) and New York City Councilman John Liu, criticized O'Donnell's actions and asked for an apology.

3) O'Donnell's publicist Cindy Berger's initial response was to downplay the incident:

"She's a comedian in addition to being a talk show co-host. I certainly hope that one day they will be able to grasp her humor."

4) O'Donnell added on her blog: ""I do many accents and probably will continue to. My mom in law impression offends some southerners. What can u do? I come in peace."

5) O'Donnell later responded to the criticisms on air:

After running a clip of the offending segment, which originally ran Dec. 5, she said, “This apparently was very offensive to a lot of Asian people. So I asked Judy, who’s Asian and works here in our hair and makeup department. I said, ‘Was it offensive to you?’ And she said, ‘Well, kinda. When I was a kid people did tease me by saying ching-chong.’

“So apparently ‘ching-chong,’ unbeknownst to me, is a very offensive way to make fun, quote-unquote, or mock, Asian accents. Some people have told me it’s as bad as the n-word. I was like, really? I didn’t know that.”

Chris' Commentary:

Where to begin...where to begin.

1) Let me first state that I'm a firm believer in free speech. If Rosie wants to make jokes that I feel are distasteful, that's her right. Just like it's my right to respond as I see fit. Restrictions on free speech, even on hateful speech like Holocaust denials, are wrong.

2) Ultimately, the actual offensive "joke" is less virulent than many of the recent Celebritard outbreaks (Michael Richards and his n-word tirade; Mel Gibson telling the police that Jews start all wars). Rosie didn't intend to hurt Asians, she just didn't care enough to think before she spoke. Or apologize.

3) That being said, what really bothers me are the second-order events--not the event itself, but the reactions to it.

First of all, I'm pretty shocked by how little attention this has received. Sure, it's been in all the celebrity gossip blogs, but these people cover Angelina Jolie's parking tickets. It would be a shock if they didn't cover Rosie O'Donnell insulting Asians on "The View." No, I'm talking about attention in the mainstream blogosphere.

I use to monitor the four horsemen of mainstream social news: Digg, Slashdot, Reddit, and This gives me a pretty firm handle on the pop culture of the Internet. When Michael Richards had his tirade, it was big news. When Mel Gibson spewed his drunken hate, it was big news. Hell, when racist former Senator George Allen used the word "macaca," it was big news.

But when Rosie slurred Asians? Not a peep.

Nor did I pick it up from any of the other blogs I read, many of whom pointed to the other three episodes I list above and quickly condemned the offending parties.

In fact, I found out about the O'Donnell non-traversy on the radio (usually the last place I expect to learn something new)!

To me, this is much bigger news than an aging comedian making a tasteless joke on national television. The blogosphere (or at least the corner that I frequent) has spoken, and apparently it doesn't think racism against Asians is postworthy.

As an American of Asian descent, this bothers me.

It bothers me because while I don't have to deal with the especially virulent racism that other minorities like blacks face every day, I do have to deal with the insidious racism that those with Asian appearances put up with: That we're not going to stand up for ourselves.

A simple question: How many times have you ever had to wait for a checkout clerk to change the roll of receipt paper?

My wife (who is Puerto Rican) tells me she's never experienced it.

I've had it happen to me well over 30 times.

Now I've thought about this. Figure that a roll of receipt paper can print about 1,000 receipts before needing to be changed. Therefore, every time you get in line, you have about a 1/1,000 chance of having to wait.

To have experienced as many waits as I've encountered, the expected number of checkout visits would be 30,000. Or roughly 1 visit per day for 85 years. I guarantee, I have not gone shopping 30,000 times in my life. Twice a week for the last 10 years is more like it, or about 1,000 visits.

My theory is that checkout clerks, consciously or unconsciously, make the decision to change the paper when they think the customer is patient and/or less likely to make a fuss. Let's see...that fellow is Asian, dressed neatly, wears glasses...I'll bet he won't yell at me or complain--better wait until it's his turn to change the roll.

Think I'm crazy? I'm open to other suggestions.

Of course, the horrible thing is that they're right. I don't complain. Those checkout clerks have a hard enough time as it is without people yelling at them for doing necessary maintenance. But dammit, why do I always have to be the one that suffers?

People don't think that racism against Asians counts because it doesn't result in negative consequences. We don't make the bastards pay. We don't make a fuss. Sure, it's embarassing when someone overreacts (like when Rosie O'Donnell plays the homophobe card at the drop of a hat, as she did when called Kelly Ripa a homophobe for telling closeted singer Clay Aiken, "I don't know where that hand has been," after Aiken jokingly put his hard over Ripa's mouth in an effort to get a word in edgewise on Ripa's show), but it does tend to discourage the next guy.

If Rosie had performed an imitation of colloquial Ebonics, there would have been a firestorm of controversy. Had she taken a Tonto-style swipe at Native Americans, she would have been booed. And I guarantee that if someone had made the same joke using the cruel "flamer" stereotype of gay men, O'Donnell herself would have been up in arms.

Silence--our silence--the silence of the blogosphere--is part of the problem. I've done my part. Will you do yours?

Friday, December 15, 2006

Fast Food U

People who have known me for a while have probably heard me talk about my desire to work in fast food.

Someday, when I'm rich and have plenty of time on my hands, I'd like to spend a week working at In-N-Out Burger (I would have to limit my experiment to a week for fear that the free food would result in an unhealthy weight gain and/or being turned off In-N-Out forever, which might be an even worse side effect).

I've never worked a traditional job, and I think the experience would be insightful.

That's why I was excited to learn about the forthcoming book, "My Secret Life on the McJob."

Business professor Jerry Newman went undercover at McDonald's and Burger King, and emerged with a set of "Supersized Management Principles" based on the difference he observed between good and bad managers.

Animal style, baby!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Newsflash: Pay Good Teachers More

"A new study by education researchers concludes that the best way to improve the quality of teaching is to pay teachers more. And to pay good teachers even more.

Critics aren't so sure, notably teacher's unions. They warn that merit-pay systems are notoriously subjective and unreliable."

I guess that's why companies like General Electric, McKinsey, and Google rely on seniority-based pay.

Anyone who can provide a reason why the teacher's union leaders should not be drawn and quartered, please speak up.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Quote of the Day: Genius and Mediocrity

"Jealousy is the tribute mediocrity pays to genius."
--Fulton J. Sheen

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Inequality Tax

What would you say if the PGA decided to penalize Tiger Woods by 5 strokes every tournament to prevent him from winning "too many" tournaments?

Or how about taking half of Stephen Hawking's papers and assigning them to less fortunate scientists?

Should Snoop Dogg be forced to donate to struggling rappers whenever one of his shows sells out?

No one in their right mind would agree with those decisions.

So why should we think any differently when it comes to using the tax system to reduce economic inequality?

The normally sensible Robert Shiller has suggested that we adopt a tax system which would automatically increase tax rates on higher income brackets based if measures of economic inequality worsened.

This is madness of the highest order.

Equality of outcome can never be legislated without severe cost to the overall well-being of society. Taken to its (il)logical extreme, this sort of policy might simply mandate a uniform wage for all types of work--the ultimate equality.

Excessive economic inequality is not the problem. The problem is a lack of opportunity for the economically disadvantaged (or, as I like to call them, "the poor"). Making the rich poorer won't change the situation for the better.

There are policies that can have an impact, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, affirmative action for the poor, and school vouchers to improve the school systems. I don't necessarily agree with those policies either, but at least they attempt to solve the root cause of the issue.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

When I Grow Up....

How can anyone know what they'll want to be in the future?

When I was 8, I wanted to be a submarine designer.

When I was 12, I wanted to be a science fiction author.

When I was 16, I wanted a girlfriend (a goal that was hampered by the fact that I was already a sophomore at Stanford at the time, and that my taste ran to sexy 21-year-old seniors, making my objectives both unlikely and illegal).

When I was 21, I wanted to be a millionaire.

When I was 25, I wanted to take my company IPO.

Now that I'm 32, I want my kids to be happy, and to be able to take a nap when I'm tired.

Plans change. We change.

Originally posted as a comment on Ben's blog.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Correlation, Causation, and Character: The Dangers of Storytelling

Humans love stories. They're how we make sense of the world.

Yet storytelling can be a dangerous thing when we allow the simple narratives to seduce us into false conclusions.

As we seek meaning in the events we observe, we often fool ourselves into taking correlation for causation, and causation for character.

Let's take a simple example.

Right now, I'm reading Judith Harris' "The Nuture Assumption," a groundbreaking book that persuasively argues that the stories we tell ourselves about parents and children are dead wrong.

Specifically, researchers have found that healthy, happy children tend to come from families that allow freedom, yet set limits (gee, isn't that an easy prescription to follow!). Harris shows her humor by dubbing this the "just right" approach, as opposed to "too strict" and "too loose."

Based on this research, we generally conclude that this enlightened parenting style is the cause of the children's success (correlation to causation), and that this means that the people who practice the style are "good" parents (causation to character).

And we'd be wrong.

As Harris points out, "environment" is critical to child development, but "environment is not synonymous with "nuture." In fact, there are two equal factors that account for child development: genetics, and their peer group, and the data bears this out.

Yet despite the evidence, parents (and I am no exception) have continued to obsess about our role in our kids' development. Why? Because it just sounds right. Because it's something we can do something about. And because we'd like to believe that we have more influence on our beloved son or daughter than that annoying twerp from across the street, even if it means taking the rap for any problems they might develop. (Side note: This is why we should be really really worried that Britney Spears is now hanging out with Paris Hilton. But I digress....)

The same danger applies to business as well. How many times have we seen how wealth and success lead people astray?

Let's say you read about entrepreneurs who hit it big, and you see that lots of them are Stanford dropouts. You might therefore conclude that the entrepreneurs succeeded because of their intelligence (correlation to causality), and that Stanford dropouts have the "right stuff" to be entrepreneurs (causality to character).

Never mind the fact that Stanford's proximity to the world's single largest source of venture capital and the world's leading technology cluster might have something to do with it.

Or perhaps more pointedly, think of the many ballyhooed entrepreneurs who were feted as geniuses after a freshman success, but never delivered a sophomore hit. Did Mark Andreesen and Sabeer Bhatia suddenly lose 50 IQ points because LoudCloud and Arzoo were duds?

The true answer is that neither is a genius or a bum (Note: I do not personally know either of them, so this is largely supposition). When Netscape and Hotmail made them millions, it simply made them rich, not smart. And when later companies failed to generate the same results, it simply made the less rich, not stupid.

Stories continue to be powerful. You should employ them in your business (claiming you started a company to sell Pez dispensers? Brilliant PR!), but recognize that our very human nature is to give too much credit to causes and character, and too little to chance. Never believe that a fat wallet makes you smart, or that a lack of funds makes you dumb. Chances are, the wheel will turn again before too long.

P.S. This post is a sidebar to a future essay I plan to write on the evil of righteousness, the morality of doubt, and why religions are so tragically easy to turn into tools of evil. Watch for it in the next few weeks.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Minimum Wage Controversy

My recent post on economic creationism drew a brisk response, including some offline debates about the validity of raising the minimum wage.

Now I am not an economist. I never took any economics classes in college, so all my economic knowledge comes from either HBS (where we didn't do much theoretical work) or my ancient Econ class with the icepick-wielding Mr. Richards (a great story for another time).

As a result, when I take a stance that raising the minimum wage is probably an unwise move, it comes from little more than reading The Economist in the bathroom. Not a strong leg to stand on.

On the other hand, I do know delegation, so I will cheerfully turn the debating over to Nobel-prizewinning economist Gary Becker and Judge Richard Posner (one of the founders of the law and economics movement).

Posner's Take:
As a means of raising people from poverty or near poverty, the minimum wage is distinctly inferior to the Earned Income Tax Credit, which compensates for low wages without interfering with the labor market. EITC is of course not devoid of allocative effect, because like any other government spending it is defrayed out of taxes; but it is probably a less inefficient tax than the minimum wage. And it is a more efficient device for spreading the wealth, since many, perhaps most, minimum-wage workers are not poor.

So why are the Democrats pushing to increase the minimum wage rather than to make EITC more generous? Three reasons can be conjectured. First, unions, which are an important part of the Democratic Party's coalition, favor the minimum wage because it reduces competition from low-wage workers and thus enhances the unions' bargaining power and so their appeal to workers. This would not be as serious a problem for unions if minimum-wage workers were organized. But the fact that most minimum-wage workers are part time makes them uninterested in joining unions. Second, increasing the EITC would mean an increase in government spending and hence in pressure to increase taxes, and the Democrats wish to avoid being labeled tax-and-spend liberals. And third, genuinely poor people vote little. The number of nonpoor who would be benefited by an increase in the minimum wage, when combined with the number of nonpoor workers whose incomes will rise as a result of reducing competition from minimum-wage workers, probably exceeds the number of nonpoor who will be laid off as a result of an increase in the minimum wage. Teenagers, moreover, will be among the groups hardest hit, and most of them do not vote.

Becker's Take:
Most knowledgeable supporters of a higher minimum wage do not believe it is an effective way to reduce the poverty rate. Poorer workers who are lucky enough to retain their jobs at a higher wage obviously do better, but the poorer workers who are priced out of the above ground economy are made worse off. Moreover, many of those who receive higher wages are not poor, but are teenagers and other secondary workers in middle class and rather rich families. Poor families are also disproportionately hurt by the rise in the cost of fast foods and other goods produced with the higher priced low-skilled labor since these families spend a relatively large fraction of their incomes on such goods.

A recent petition by over 600 economists, including 5 Nobel Laureates in Economics, advocated a phased-in rise in the federal minimum wage to a much higher $7.25 per hour from the present $5.15 per hour. This petition received much attention, and the number of economists signing is impressive (and depressing). Still, the American Economic Association has over 20,000 members, and I suspect that a clear majority of these members would have refused to sign that petition if they had been asked. They believe, as I do, that the negative effects of a higher minimum wage would outweigh any positive effects. That is one reason I would surmise why only a fraction of the 35 living economists who received the Nobel Prize signed on to the petition--I believe all were asked to sign.

My Take:
Obviously, I can't add much to the discussion other than this: These two very smart economists believe that the ostensible reasons offered in support of the minimum wage increase are either a) false, or b) inefficient in comparison to other options.

I realize that authorities are often wrong, but in the absence of a compelling alternative, I'm happy to throw my lot in with these two.

Adios, Meatspace!

Cyberpunk fans rejoice--according to the USC Annenberg Digital Future Project, we are getting closer to the day when the majority of people prefer virtual worlds to RL (that real life for you n00bs).

Of course, we still have a ways to go before we reach the Matrix, or even Jim Cameron's upcoming Avatar (curses, thanks to Cameron finally getting the mojo to make the movie, the famous unproduced script has been yanked). Here's the actual quote from the USC Annenberg Digital Future Project:

43 percent of Americans who belong to online communities say they feel just as strongly about their virtual worlds as their real-world counterparts.

Nonetheless, that's a pretty striking statement. Close to half of those who participate in virtual worlds feel as strongly about their online life as their meatspace one. Which tells me that while the current wave of Second Life stories are definitely overhyped, the underlying direction is dead on. There's gold in them thar virtual hills!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

More on Barack Obama and Insane Troll Logic

Two points I thought about, but forgot to include in my last post:

1) Despite my disappointment with Barack Obama's recent stance on Wal-Mart, I still think that the Democrats would be insane not to run him in 2008. When people like Steven Levitt are swooning over his eloquence, you know you're on to something. Besides, monkeys would fly out of my butt before Hillary ever won a national election. The entire religious right is convinced that she IS Satan, you don't think they'd turn out in an election?

2) What gets me about Insane Troll Logic is the fact that many of the same people who oppose the scientific madness of creationism and intelligent design on the grounds of logic then turn around and support trade unions, protectionism, and economic idiocy like rent control.

Logically, if you oppose one, you should oppose the other. Proponents of creationism receive the ridicule that they so richly deserve, yet proponents of economic creationism get a free pass. What's up with that?

Virtual Race and Teaching Racism

One of my hopes for virtual worlds has been that the ability to arbitrarily change skin color and appearance would reduce the pernicious evil of racism in the offline world.

Unfortunately, for most of its history, the MMOG industry has followed the tradition (established by lazy fantasy writers) of light-skinned=good, dark-skinned=evil. (Actually, perhaps it would be even more accurate to say that light-skinned + big-breaster = good, based on the cover art for most of the games....)

I'm not a scientist, but my guess is that if you spend 40 hours per week slaughtering dark-skinned foes, it probably has some negative impact, however unconscious.

That's why I was glad to see that the latest edition of Guild Wars would use a North African setting with African and Arabic heroes (the first two editions have European and Asian settings).

It will be interesting to see if this third installment, Nightfall, achieves the same commercial success as its predecessors (over 2 million players). Otherwise, the forces of big-breasted racism may once again prevail.

Dammit, Barack, I thought you were different

Democratic hopeful Barack Obama recently joined in the chorus of critics slamming Wal-Mart. It never ceases to amaze me that the political party that claims to be the friend of the poor panders to prejudices by attacking the nation's single-largest private employer which has also brought huge price savings to millions and millions of lower-income customer.

I can understand when folks like Barbara Ehrenreich employ insane troll logic, but I expect better of Mr. Obama, who holds degrees from Columbia andHarvard Law School, and should understand reasoning.

Let me bottom line this for them. Wal-Mart's net income is about 3.5% of sales. It's basically a very efficient conduit for funneling savings from suppliers to consumers. Mandate that the company increase what it pays its workers (who, by the way, aren't being forced to work there!), and Wal-Mart will have to either raise its prices or lower its already slim profit margins.

In other words, there is no magical supply of money that Wal-Mart has sitting around that the good Mr. Obama can appropriate for the underprivileged. Any money or benefits that get directed to its workers will end up coming from its (low-income) customers, or by appropriating that value from its shareholders.

In the first case, there is no net benefit to the poor. In the second case, the government is effectively taxing the shareholders.

If politicians want to give themselves the ability to appropriate private property and redistribute it as they see fit, that's fine, but let them at least have the honesty to do it openly.

Friday, November 24, 2006

What is up with TypePad?

Is it just me, or is TypePad choking on comments recently?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Quote of the Day: Guns and Ideas

"Ideas are more powerful than guns. We don’t let our people have guns. Why should we let them have ideas?"

--Josef Stalin

Let people have ideas, and they can change the world. Hat tip to

Headline of the Day

I just can't add anything to the perfection of this headline:

Well-fed Crickets Seek Sex Incessantly, Die Young

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Star Trek Dating Site Offers New Hope

In a world of niche dating sites, it's nice to see someone tackling the underserved market of hard-core Star Trek fans.

After all, without any new Trek movie premieres to sleep out for, where is the passionate Trekker going to find a mate?

On most dating sites, being a 5'4", 210 pound, 47-year-old man with an income of less than $25,000 per year would mean certain doom, but on TrekPassions, friends like aldeygirl and vixi can help him get a life.

I kid because I love. After all, I can name almost every TOS (that's The Original Series, full of Shatnerian glory) episode--there but for the grace of circumstance go I!

And all joking aside, this kind of niche dating is a great business model. If you can identify another such audience, you could build a pretty nice business.

Three Questions About Your Life

Lee Eisenberg's book, "The Number," contains an interesting exercise which I thought I'd share with you. Eisenberg describes his time with financial planner George Kinder, one of the pioneers of "life planning," a discipline that tries to go beyond simply helping you figure out how much money you need, and into why you need it. The climax of his training occurs when he asks three simple questions:

1) Assume you have all the money you could ever need. What would you do with it? How would you live?

2) Your doctor discovers that you have a rare illness. You'll feel perfectly fine, but you will die within 5 to 10 years. What would you do?

3) Your doctor tells you that you only have 24 hours to live. What did you miss? Who did you not get to be? What did you not get to do?

According to George Kinder, who asks these three questions, the first two questions produce long lists and concern material wants. The third question is almost always about something qualitative, and that is the answer that really matters.

How would you answer these questions?


I noticed that nobody has answered the questions yet. To provoke some thoughts, I'll give you my answers:

1) If I woke up rich, my life would be pretty similar except for three things:
a) I would take a nap every day.
b) I would never wash a dish, mop a floor, or pick up dog excrement again.
c) I might actually blog more often.

2) If I discovered that I was going to die in 5-10 years, I would put two things at the top of my priority list:
a) Spending time with loved ones
b) Writing and otherwise securing my legacy
Of course, I would probably also try to funnel billions of dollars into research for a cure!

3) If I discovered that I had only 24 hours to live, I would miss not being able to help my children grow up. I would miss not being able to see my grandchildren. I would miss being able to spend the time with my wife that we always assumed we'd be able to spend later in our lives. And I would regret all the things that I'd have to leave undone, including a number of things that I hope would have had an impact on making people's lives better (as opposed to just increasing shareholder value).

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Cats and Dogs

My wife received this email, and I couldn't resist passing it along. I hate cats.

A Dog's Diary:
7 am - Oh boy! A walk! My favorite!
8 am - Oh boy! Dog food! My favorite!
9 am - Oh boy! The kids! My favorite!
Noon - Oh boy! The yard! My favorite!
2 pm - Oh boy! A car ride! My favorite!
3 pm - Oh boy! The kids! My favorite!
4 pm - Oh boy! Playing ball! My favorite!
6 pm - Oh boy! Welcome home Mom! My favorite!
7 pm - Oh boy! Welcome home Dad! My favorite!
8 pm - Oh boy! Dog food! My favorite!
9 pm - Oh boy! Tummy rubs on the couch! My favorite!
11 pm - Oh boy! Sleeping in my people's bed! My favorite!

A Cat's Diary:
Day 183 of my captivity.

My captors continued to taunt me with bizarre little dangling objects. They dine lavishly on fresh meat, while I am forced to eat dry cereal.

The only thing that keeps me going is the hope of escape, and the mild satisfaction I get from clawing the furniture.

Tomorrow I may eat another house plant. Today my attempt to kill my captors by weaving around their feet while they were walking almost succeeded - must try this at the top of the stairs.

In an attempt to disgust and repulse these vile oppressors, I once again induced myself to vomit on their favorite chair - must try this on their bed.

Decapitated a mouse and brought them the headless body in an attempt to make them aware of what I am capable of, and to try to strike fear in their hearts. They only cooed and condescended about what a good little cat I was.

Hmmm, not working according to plan.

There was some sort of gathering of their accomplices. I was placed in solitary throughout the event. However, I could hear the noise and smell the food. More important, I overheard that my confinement was due to my powers of inducing "allergies." Must learn what this is and how to use it to my advantage.

I am convinced the other captives are flunkies and maybe snitches. The dog is routinely released and seems more than happy to return. He is obviously a half-wit.

The bird, on the other hand, has got to be an informant and speaks with them regularly. I am certain he reports my every move. Due to his current placement in the metal room, his safety is assured.

But I can wait; it is only a matter of time.

Entrepreneurship and Parenting

This mini-essay was written for Ben Casnocha's upcoming book.

Entrepreneurship has long been synonymous with long hours and tunnel vision. Reporters delight in noting when the unimaginably wealthy still keep a sleeping bag in the office for pulling all-nighters (Dave Filo of Yahoo) or work 14-hour days (Marissa Mayer of Google). But what happens when the culture of workaholism meets the reality of parenthood?

If entrepreneurship requires reaching deep into your bank account of effort and energy, becoming a parent involves emptying that account, taking out a second mortgage, and then borrowing an extra $50K from that guy named Fat Tony who hangs out downtown in his always-empty dry cleaning business. How do you balance two seemingly all-consuming pursuits?

Historically, the answer has been the "starter family." The spouse (usually a wife) you divorce and the kids you never get to know, but whose therapy bills you cover. Then, once you’re rich and successful, you find a younger spouse and raise a second set of children whom you shower with wealth and affection.

Increasingly, however, parents are unwilling to pay this price. I know I’m not. We’re looking for that magic solution that will allow us to have both startup and family, and the techniques we’ve adopted might just help everyone (yes, even you Ben) improve their work-life balance.

1. Multitasking

Whether it’s bringing your computer into your son’s room and lulling him to sleep with the gentle clacking of the keyboard, or bottle-feeding your baby during a board meeting, a willingness to incorporate work into family and vice versa allows you to double-book without cheating either.

2. Compartmentalization

When you’re not explicitly multitasking, compartmentalize. Establish that every day includes periods for work, and periods for family, and keep those buckets sacred. This will also force you to focus on your top priorities in both categories, rather than allowing one or the other to run away with your life.

3. Meaning

Find meaning in your work and family, rather than seeking it in golf or other hobbies. There just isn’t much room for frivolity when you’re committed to a 28-hour schedule in a 24-hour day. But that doesn’t mean you can’t recharge your batteries. Your work and family should be rewarding enough so that you don’t need to sneak off to the golf course or a bar to derive enjoyment.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Quote of the Day: I Can

There are so many people out there who will tell you that you can't. What you've got to do is turn around and say, "I can. Watch me.'

--Layne Beachley, Australian champion surfer

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Quote of the Day: Entrepreneurship is like Heroin

For better or worse, entrepreneurship is like heroin. It's risky, it's dangerous, and you may end up in the street, but it's almost impossible to kick the habit.

--Chris Yeh (yeah, I'll quote myself if I want).

For the context of this quote, see Ben's post on the tradeoff between stability and stimulation.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

In Other News, Sky Blue, Ocean Wet

I thought I'd weigh in on what is clearly the most important news of the day:

Britney Spears Divorcing.

But does this critical event benefit the Democrats or Republicans? Over to you, Tim Russert.

Of course, the real losers in all of this are stand up comedians and late night talk show hosts everywhere! So long Federline, we hardly knew ye.

Oldies but Goodies, and Blogger Help

Dear readers,

I recently had cause to look back at some of my old articles on marketing and entrepreneurship, and after waxing nostalgic, decided that I should start reposting some of my old favorites (2001/2002 vintage) now that I have a wider audience.

My old articles on ClickZ:
My old articles on SitePoint:

The question is, how can I do this easily? I want to be able to cut and paste from either an HTML page or Word document into Blogger, and I'm not sure how to do so and preserve the formatting.

I think I might be able to do this using the Blogger for Word, but it sounds like a pain. Someone, please help!

Monday, November 06, 2006

Special Gift for AiC Readers: Free Pass to Cyber|West 2006

Dear faithful readers,

It's time for the second annual HBS Tech CyberWest conference, and once again, my role as chairman of HBS Tech allows me to share the wealth (or at least the free conference passes) with my friends.

This year's event will feature tons of networking time, plus discussions on the future of digital music and Web 2.0 (that's my panel, with Mike Arrington, Jeff Clavier, and other Web 2.0 bigshots).

The event will once again be at SAP Labs in Palo Alto, starting at 8:30 AM on Saturday November 11, and lasting until 1 PM. I look forward to seeing you there!

You may pass along this link to your friends on one condition--they must become either an AiC or a MyWay subscriber.

Election Special: The Fake Steve Jobs

I love Fake Steve Jobs. He's the funniest valley blogger out there (it helps that he's not bound by reality), and he really seems like he could be Steve Jobs.

Fake Steve had a great election post--I'll simply share with you my favorite line:

Can you imagine if companies were run like our government? If they were just cults of personality? Can you imagine a world where someone with no experience in finance, business or engineering could become CEO of a huge publicly traded corporation just because they're charismatic, look good on stage and know how to stab people in the back. It makes me shiver when I think about it.


On a more serious note, I don't believe in the autocratic style many companies adopt--it is important that all members of an organization feel engaged. But perhaps a market-based system would be superior to a vote-based system.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Custom Search Engines: Stealth Local Search

My "My Way" colleage, Tom Evslin, has an enthusiastic post about the possibilities of Custom Search Engines (CSEs). Google's CSEs let you specify which Web sites are a part of your search universe.

At first, I thought Tom was getting a little carried away with his enthusiasm, but upon further reflection, I think he's right on.

You see, CSEs are the perfect answer to the local search problem. By setting up a CSE for a specific community, and allowing community members to add sites to the list of searchable sites, you can quickly build an extremely robust local search engine.

I can easily see every city council in America setting up a CSE.

Or for the more entrepreneurial, how about a network of CSEs for different cities? Sure, there's not that much sustainable advantage, but there should be some degree of lock-in, and the call option value far exceeds the out-of-pocket cost ($0).

George Zachary is on the ball

Earlier, I wrote about the CRV QuickStart program, and suggested that if CRV wanted to take it beyond marketing, they would adopt my "frictionless" VC concept and promise a decision with one week.

Much to my surprise and delight, CRV GP George Zachary posted this as a comment:

Actually, that's exactly what we are doing. We are making a decision after 2 meetings and 1 week. Not kidding! Thanks for mentioning and thinking of us at Charles River Ventures.

George Zachary (CRV site) (my blog)

I haven't worked with George in the past, but any VC who is this on top of the blogosphere is worth keeping an eye on.

Quote of the Day: Intelligence and Genius

“A really smart person will come up with what you would come up with, only faster. A genius will come up with something that you would never come up with, no matter how long you worked on it.”

--Kevin Murphy, Economist, University of Chicago (and a certified genius with a MacArthur grant)

Being really smart lets you effortlessly excel; being a genius lets you change the world.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Latest Health Craze: Sex

In the public interest of my readers, I'd like to point you to this Forbes story on the health benefits of frequent sex.

Men who reported the highest frequency of orgasm enjoyed a death rate half that of the laggards.
But that's not all--frequent sex has also been proven to confer these other benefits:
  • Improved sense of smell
  • Reduced risk of heart disease
  • Weight loss
  • Pain relief
  • Less frequent colds and flu
  • Better bladder control
  • Better prostate health (for men)
  • Increased happiness (duh!)

Go find your partner and tell him or her that you've got a great new doctor-recommended health plan!

Cookie-Cutter VC

The blogosphere is full of buzz about Charles River Venture's new QuickStart program, which lays out a cookie-cutter approach to small investments via convertible notes.

Folks have been quick to point out that convertible notes are nothing new; I took a $250K convertible when I started my first company.

What would really take some guts is for CRV to commit to the second half of the "frictionless VC" concept I outlined in 2005, which is to render a go/no-go decision after 1 week and 2 meetings. This would take much of the hassle out of raising money and enable faster entrepreneurship.

Convertible notes are nothing new--if it takes 3 months to negotiate a deal, what's the benefit? But getting a decision in less than a week? That's something that benefits everyone.

Friday, October 27, 2006

School Daze: LA Unified Blasts Charter Schools For Giving Parents What They Want

I have many very smart friends who oppose charter schools and voucher programs. I disagree with them, but I respect their view.

After reading this news story about how the LA Unified School District's school board is reacting to the charter school movement, I may have to reconsider my willingness to live and let live.

Allying oneself with such unreasoning choice deniers is like joining forces with opponents of gay civil unions.

"But the explosion of charters concerns the Los Angeles Unified board. The growth in the number of charter schools has caused enrollment to drop in the nation's second-largest school district, which has to compete with the independent campuses for students - and funds.

District officials, as well as the president of the teachers union, bristle at assertions by the Charter Schools Association that middle and high school charters are significantly outperforming their district counterparts.

A fairer comparison would be with the district's magnet schools, which outperform charters, school board member Jon Lauritzen said.

"I think it's basically unfair to compare an entity that is able to take their entire budget and focus it entirely on their own schools," he said. "They have some real advantages over our schools in the flexibility of actually providing the type of education that a particular community wants, whereas we are trying to provide a curriculum that works for everyone all across the school district."

Not only does Mr. Lauritzen invoke an apples to oranges comparison of charter schools to magnet schools, he then states that it's unfair to compare charter schools to public schools because charter schools A) Can focus their entire budget on the school itself, and B) Can provide the type of education that a particular community wants.

What kind of bizarro world do these public school officials live in, where it's considered standard practice to spend education funds outside the schools (administrators outnumber teachers in many school districts), and where schools are not supposed to provide the kind of education the community wants?

I fervently hope that the voters are paying attention and will turf out Mr. Lauritzen and his insane troll logic in the next election.

Thanks to the libertarians at Coyote Blog and the Cato Institute for pointing me to the original news story.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Quote of the Day: Accept The Truth, And Make It Good

The quote of the day comes from the very cool Janice Fraser, one of the founders of Adaptive Path.

I think it's an important lesson to learn for entrepreneurs. Often times, reality isn't the way we'd like it to be. The best response is not to expend one's energy trying to deny the facts, but rather to accept them, and figure out how to make reality work for you.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Portfolio Company Jobs

I'm not a VC, but I've always wanted to do one of those postings about one of "my" portfolio companies.

As it turns out, thanks to a ready supply of entrepreneurial friends I do have my own portfolio of startup investments (although the amounts I invest have 3-4 fewer zeros than your typical VC), and some of them are looking for great people.

One of these investments is Siteler, which provides on-site services like car washes to the employees of companies like Google. Siteler is growing gangbusters, rated as highly as Southwest Airlines in customer satisfaction, and recently raised a first round of funding from Tugboat Ventures.

The two founders are looking to bring on their first business hires. Mike and Tom are great guys, and these are great opportunities for recent grads.

Senior Marketing and Product Manager
You will report directly to our Co-CEOs, and be responsible for crafting and executing our marketing efforts. You will study and refine our understanding of our customers, hone our products, and lead our marketing programs.

New Partner Acquisition Team Manager (traditionally known as Sales Operations)
You will report directly to the Co-CEOs, and be responsible for managing and refining our highly successful, proprietary sales process, from lead generation to close of sale. You will use your creativity and analytics to drive innovation and efficiency into every aspect of this process.

Interested parties should send their resume to

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Quote of the Day: Inhabit life gently and add more beauty than ugliness

In the end, you know, we are very minor blips in a cosmic story. Aspirations for importance or significance are the illusions of the ignorant. All our hopes are minor, except to us; but some things matter because we choose to make them matter. What might make a difference to us, I think, is whether in our tiny roles, in our brief time, we inhabit life gently and add more beauty than ugliness.

--James March, Stanford University

Friday, October 20, 2006

PageRank and PageRankr

My fellow member of "My Way, The Entrepreneur Network", Dharmesh Shah, has some useful thoughts on the importance of Google's PageRank for Web 2.0 startups:

If you’re running a web-based startup that in any way depends on web traffic and high volume user acquisition, you need to be tracking your Google PageRank. It’s ugly, coarse and infrequently updated – but it’s important. All things being equal, a startup with a higher PageRank is worth more than one with a lower one.

I could agree more. Last night, I was at the Advisory Board/Shareholder's Meeting for one of my investments, and the management team had determined that they were getting about 1.5 million pageviews per month directly from from search engines!

To find out your PageRank, I use a nifty little site that a friend of mine created called PageRankr ( I can put in a domain name and get back the PageRank, Alexa Rank, number of indexed pages, and number of incoming links. If you're trying to sell your site, it also includes a little widget you can use to display your PageRank on your site.

PageRankr is one of those sites that is clearly a feature, not a product, but since it's so cheap to run Web sites these days, I'll bet the proprietor is still making some beer money. As I often say, thank goodness for the Internet!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

CrackSpace: The Urban MySpace

Back in 1999, I used to joke about new business models crawling out of the primordial ooze every couple of minutes. One of my friends said he could probably raise money for "the eBay of garbage collection."

I'm not even going to bother joking about this one, other than to say it is soooooo wrong on so many levels:

Urban MySpace/YouTube Hybrid,, Set to Launch Nov. 1 with Unreleased Content from Ludacris, Diddy, T.I., Lloyd Banks and More

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Book Summaries: Learned Optimism and 21 Others

Inspired by this summary of Learned Optimism (thanks for the pointer, Ben), I decided that I should let me readers in on my personal collection of book summaries, including my summary of Learned Optimism.

My new Book Outlines wiki contains 22 different book summaries (21 of my personal summaries, plus one from another writer) in categories ranging from Business to Parenting to Psychology and Writing.

Enjoy, and feel free to add your own!

Monday, October 09, 2006

Books: Why Do I Love These People?

"Why Do I Love These People?" is the most recent book from novelist turned social commentator Po Bronson.

After writing two excellent satirical novels ("Bombardiers", an absurdist comedy about bond trading, and "The First $20 Million Is Always The Hardest", a novel of Silicon Valley that appears a bit dated because it centers around the concept of a Java-based network computer) and a trifle of a bubble-era survey of the Valley ("The Nudist on the Late Shift"), Bronson made an abrupt shift into writing about the big questions in life.

I did not read his best-selling "What Should I Do With My Life?" (though I admire the chutzpah of the title!), but recently picked up "Why Do I Love These People?", which is his examination of family.

Bronson rips apart the common tendency of Americans to believe that the institution of the "Leave It To Beaver" family endured for countless eons until the hippie 60s, disco 70s, greedy 80s, and grungy 90s. With careful statistics, he shows that on most measures, family is as strong as ever, and in many ways, is stronger than during the mythical "golden age" of authoritarian parenting, unwanted pregnancy, and repression.

He illustrates his points with 20 tales of successful families that managed to overcome tragedy, circumstance, and their own stupidity and stubbornness to find some kind of working love. The stories include abandonment, death, and hardship as well as redemption, love, and understanding.

It is a masterpiece. I found it hard to put down, and ended up devouring it in less than two days (pretty tough, given my busy schedule!).

One of my conventional summaries is impossible. Just take my word for it, and read this book.

P.S. Don't be turned off by the mixed reviews on Amazon. These books are polarizing because of their emotionally sensitive topics. Either you believe in what Bronson is trying to do, or you think he's a namby-pamby girlie man who churns out "huggy-lovey-touchy-feely sugar-coated" garbage (an actual quote from an Amazon review--I'd hate to think of what they'd have to say about Mitch Albom!).

Quote Of The Day: Making Mistakes

"A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful than a life spent in doing nothing."

--George Bernard Shaw

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Indie Bookstores, Part XXII

Since Ben is busy in Japan, I'll have to pick up the slack.

One of the more interesting business conundrums is that of the independent bookstore. The indie bookstore is threatened on all sides--giant chains like Barnes and Noble blanket the landscape. Discounters like Wal-Mart offer books at extremely low prices. And of course, there's Amazon and a host of online booksellers.

The last time this subject came up, it sparked a lively debate. For the lazy, I'll post the heart of my own commentary below:

The indie bookstore exists to reflect the personality and biases of its owner. In other words, it judges its own success on non-economic factors. So it is not surprising that in optimizing for non-economic factors, it finds itself unable to compete economically with the capitalistic superstores.

Making money selling books is hard enough. If you priortize things other than making money, what are the chances you'll actually succeed in turning a profit?

What book lovers want from their indie bookstores is not selection or prices, but an experience. In many ways, a good bookstore is like a fine restaurant. It may not serve as many varieties of food as a Vegas buffet, but you'll probably place a far higher value on the experience.

The problem is that indie bookstores deliver experiences, but make their money selling books.

The solution is to find a way for indie bookstores to make their money off the experience that they deliver.

Therein lies an interesting business proposition. There is a market for non-commercial, "authentic" experiences. But how do you tap that market without ruining the authenticity?

I'm not sure of the answer, but there may be ways to re-engineer the indie bookstore. Charge membership fees. Partner with complementors that do have a way to make money (like coffee shops). Set up shop as a book expert with a virtual store, by showing people interesting books and then ordering them for the customer online.

Once you define the problem differently than "why can't indie bookstores compete with superstores," a whole array of possibilities opens up.

Lo and behold, the AP recently ran this story on how independent booksellers are dealing with the realities of the Internet age.

And what are they doing?

But Brent is also part of a growing number of independent bookstore owners refusing to give up. He's closing his store this month but plans to reopen as a discount book store. Others are luring customers by putting in cafes or opening specialty shops that cater to a specific audience, like mystery lovers. Some are following the lead of public television and selling memberships. Or they're being saved by investors who can't bear the idea of losing these local institutions.

There may be life in the indie bookstores yet.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

San Francisco, Berkeley, Hell

Since I've been hating on San Francisco for a while, I thought I'd toss in a changeup by quoting my buddy Seamus on Berkeley:

San Francisco is that unstable, self-obsessed friend of yours that you can't ditch because she's fun and crazy and so damn HOT.

Berkeley is her schizophrenic, funky-smelling brother who long ago ceased his futile attempts at carving out a place in civilized society, in the belief that society was really the crazy one.

To which I'd add that Santa Cruz is their bearded, hallucinating, transsexual uncle who happens to live in a sweet beach house.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Quote Of The Day: Childish Things

“When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
--C. S. Lewis

Thanks to Gretchen Rubin for the pointer!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Wanted: Super-Designer

My company is looking to refresh its Web GUI, and needs a super-designer to give us the sizzle to match the steak of our functionality. Any recommendations? Normally, I love using Rentacoder, Elance, et al, but this time we really want the best of the best.

Fox News and Your Target Market

The LA Times has an interesting opinion piece about Fox News' 10-year anniversary. I'll let you judge for yourself whether or not you feel the piece is biased, but regardless of your political persuasion, you should read the following paragraphs:

Fox's real ethos is not Republican but anti-elitist — a major reason it connects with so many Americans and annoys so many coastal elites. "There's a whole country that elitists will never acknowledge," Ailes once observed. "What people resent deeply out there are those in the 'blue states' thinking they're smarter."

This anti-elitism shows itself in Fox's pro-U.S. stance in covering the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and its broadcasters' use of terms such as "terrorist" instead of "militant" to refer to … well, terrorists. Since the Vietnam War era, mainstream journalists have tended to see such blunt language and side-taking as unsophisticated, a betrayal of journalistic objectivity.

Another aspect of Fox's anti-elitism: Christians, far from being seen as lunatics or curiosities — as too often is the case in the mainstream media — actually get some respect.

The first marketing lesson to draw from all this is simple:
Market to your customers based on how they view the world, not how you think they should view the world.

The second is a little subtler, but is still valuable:
Find a market where customers feel disrespected by mainstream practices and cater to those disaffecteds. There's gold in them thar hills.

An great anti-example is the RIAA. Their customers don't think that downloading music is stealing. It doesn't matter how many PSAs they run or how many 8-year-olds they sue, they are not going to chang their minds.

This provides a great opportunity for new entrants to offer free music (either free as in beer, or DRM-free) and find other ways to make a buck.

I feel for the RIAA (well, sort of). People are breaking the law and destroying their business model. But guess what? You're better off accepting reality for what it is than closing your eyes and hoping for a change.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Cocaine, the Follow-Up

So you're marketing Cocaine Energy Drink, and you start to hear the following from the politicians:

“There are only two reasons that you would seek to use this infamous and insidious name to market your so-called energy drink,” said Councilman James Sanders Jr. of Queens, who organized a news conference at City Hall. “Either you are woefully ignorant of the horrors of cocaine addiction, or your god is the dollar bill and not even human life is more sacred.”

Joseph A. Califano Jr., chairman and president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, used five adjectives — insidious, disgraceful, irresponsible, reprehensible and disgusting — to describe the soft drink.

“This is a salted, heavily caffeinated, sugary drink with extra calories that nobody needs,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, after reviewing the nutritional label on the beverage.

“This is the height of irresponsibility for any company,” said Assemblyman Karim Camara of Brooklyn. Councilwoman Letitia James of Brooklyn called the beverage “a legal precursor to an illegal product,” while Councilman Larry B. Seabrook of the Bronx compared it to “imitation cigarettes, which caused generations upon generations to become smokers.”

Do you A) express contrition and change the name of the beverage, or B) pop the cork off a handy champagne bottle, then call you suppliers and triple your order while uttering a silent thanks to the knuckleheads who just got your little energy drink in the New York Times?

The last paragraph of the story tells you all you need to know:

Rupert Jee, owner of Hello Deli in Midtown, one of the five retailers listed on Cocaine’s Web site, said, “They did, in fact, list our name without authorization.” But Mr. Jee said he was inclined to continue selling the beverage.

Frickin' brilliant. Note to self--be sure to send a press release about Crystal Meth Energy Bars to every Congressman in the country who is up for re-election.

Quote Of The Day: The Doing

The reward of the doing must be the doing.
--Maya Angelou

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Grumpy And Dopey On The Supreme Court

A recent Zogby poll revealed the following about the American people:

3/4 of Americans correctly identified two of Snow White's seven dwarfs
1/4 of American can name two Supreme Court Justices.

74 percent were familiar with the Three Stooges — Larry, Curly and Moe
42 percent could name the three branches of the U.S. government — judicial, executive and legislative

23 percent were able to identify "American Idol," Taylor Hicks.
11 percent could name the Supreme Court Justice confirmed in January 2006, Samuel Alito.

I'm reminded of the classic SNL sketch, "Common Knowledge" (alas, not on YouTube, though this is).

Of course, while some might see this as yet another sign of the apocalypse, I see it as an indication of an opportunity. Make political science as entertaining as Snow White, the Three Stooges, and American Idol, and maybe the numbers would be different.

My old history teacher in high school, Mr. Cady, used to spice up his lectures with sexual innuenedo ("The life of the medieval peasant was long and hard...much like the anatomy of many of your friends, Bethany.") and by making it relevant to his students' lives.

While doing so today would probably land him in jail, perhaps alternate methods would work. And I'll bet there's a huge business opportunity for someone to shake up the textbook industry with "History Idol."

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Quote Of The Day: The Price

"There is a price for everything you want in life. And the price is always paid in advance."
--Steven Barnes

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Cocaine Marketing

This is frakking brilliant. Redux Beverages is completely sold out of their new energy drink, Cocaine, after spending $37.50 on marketing (they delivered a case of the stuff to the New York Post, which immediately wrote a story about the brand).

What does it taste like? Who knows! All you need to know is that it has 350% more caffeine than Red Bull, and that it's called "Cocaine!"

This is a Hot Pink Cow in spades.

The frightening thing is that the founders may have gotten the idea from Max Barry's satirical novel, "Syrup."

In it, the hero creates a hot new cola with a six-word pitch:

"New cola. Black can. Called Fukk."

Are you crazy enough to market a product named after an illegal substance or obscenity? Maybe not, but you can certainly think about ways to use this tactic in your business.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to hurry up and file for a trademark on Crystal Meth Energy Bars.

Monday, September 25, 2006

No Sex Please, We're British

With apologies to my fellow English speakers on the Eastern side of the Atlantic, I just have to relate this piece of research:

A recent survey of 10,000 English men revealed that 48 percent actually fall asleep during sex.

The amazing part is that particular factoid is only part of a larger musing on the age-old question of why men fall asleep after sex.

It turns out that sex releases high levels of prolactin, a hormone which induces weariness when injected.

Even better news for you insomniacs out there, masturbation only releases 25% as much prolactin as intercourse, so you now have a scientific basis for requesting sex from your partner. You can thank me later.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Yet Another Sign Of Being Old

This morning, when I read this post about the most embarassing fashion trends of the past 25 years, I found myself asking, "What about all the fashion atrocities from the 60s and 70s?"

Then I realized that 25 years ago was 1981. Damn I feel old.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Comment of The Day: Bill Joy, Ignorant Slut

There were a lot of great comments on my post regarding Bill Joy's agita over consumer-generated media, but I just have to highlight this one from Matt:

"Maybe Mr. Joy hasn't noticed that the company that's putting his out of business was started by a college drop-out?"

5 Things Leaders Should Do To Promote Creativity (and 3 Things They Shouldn't)

Good stuff from Frans' mentor, Teresa Amabile:

I found that there are five leader behaviors that have a positive influence on people's feelings, and the daily diary method allowed us to identify these behaviors at a very granular level. One of these is supporting people emotionally. The second is monitoring people's work in a particularly positive way, and that has to do with giving them positive feedback on their work or giving them information that they need to do their work better. The third behavior is just plain recognizing people for good performance, particularly in public settings. The fourth is consulting with people on the team—that is, asking for their views, respecting their opinions, and acting on their needs and their wishes to the extent that it's possible. And the fifth category was a grab bag of things. But the most important aspect here was collaborating—that the team leader rolled up his or her sleeves and actually spent time collaborating with somebody on the work.

We found three leader behaviors that had negative impact. One was the under- or overspecification of assignments. Much of this has to do with giving people either too little guidance or too much guidance by overconstraining the assignment. The second one is monitoring in a negative form—that is, checking on assigned work too often or not often enough. Or, checking on it for too long, like hanging around and going too much into the details of what people are doing, and giving unconstructive feedback. The third negative has to do with problem solving—either avoiding solving problems that crop up in the team or the project, or creating problems.

I believe it's important for leaders to understand the power of ordinary practices. Seemingly ordinary, trivial, mundane, day-by-day things that leaders do and say can have an enormous impact. My guess is that a lot of leaders have very little sense of the impact that they have. That's particularly true of the negative behaviors. I don't think that the ineffective team leaders we studied meant to anger or deflate the people who were working for them. They were trying to do a good job of leading their teams, but lacked an effective model for how to behave.
So, I would say sweat the small stuff, not only when you're dealing with your business strategy, but with the people whom you're trying to lead. I would encourage leaders, when they're about to have an interaction with somebody, to ask themselves: Might this thing I'm about to do or say become this person's "event of the day"? Will it have a positive or a negative effect on their feelings and on their performance today?

Bottom line summary:

  • Support people emotionally
  • Give positive feedback
  • Recognize people for good performance
  • Listen to your team
  • Roll up your sleeves and collaborate

  • Under or over-specify assignments
  • Be negative
  • Create or ignore problems

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Bill Joy: Ignorant Slut, Crotchety Old Man

My friend Ben Casnocha sent me this excerpt from The Atlantic Monthly, a great publication that I refuse to read because I am too cheap to spring for a subscription. (He also suggested that I continue to use the "ignorant slut" them, so blame him if you're tempted to flame me!)

In it, ubergeek Bill Joy rubbishes games and blogs as a gigantic waste of time:

Bill Joy, the cofounder of Sun Microsystems, dismissed the suggestion that the online communities formed around Internet games and LiveJournal pages could provide an educational boost for America's young people

"This all sounds like a gigantic waste of time. If I was competing with the United States, I would love to have the students I was competing with spending their time on this kind of crap. People are fooling themselves that they're being creative in these spaces. The standard of creativity in the world, to be competitive and be a great designer, is very hard: you have to go to school; you have to apprentice; you have to do hard things.

...The real problem is, by democratizing speech and the ability to post, we've lost the gradation for quality. The gradation of quality was always based on the fact that words had weight. It cost money to move them around. So there was back pressure against junk.

Ultimately, not everyone can have a million readers, because all the readers have run out of time. So it's a false promise to people, that they can get the big audience. Because in the end once you've gotten to the years when you've got a job, you've gotta raise your kids, you're not gonna have time for this."

Joy's arguments are so wrong in so many ways that I'm reminded of a VC friend who once admonished me not to play any rap music at an event because he couldn't "make heads or tails of any of that dip dap dip dap stuff." It's sad to see a man become crotchety before his time.

Bill makes a couple of important and completely blockheaded assumptions.

1) To be creative, you have to go to school, apprentice, and do hard things.

First off, you certainly don't have to go to school. Going to school helps, but is far from a prerequisite. The number of great artists who have a degree in Creative Writing or Studio Art is embarassingly small.

Apprenticing is important, but there are many different forms of apprenticeship. For a writer, simply reading the great works of the past is a wonderful apprenticeship. There is no requirement for a formal, in-person apprenticeship.

I do agree that doing hard things is essential to creativity, but I disagree with Bill's assumption that blogging and creating and playing games are easy tasks. Doing them well requires just as much discipline and skill as coding in Java.

2) By democratizing speech and the ability to post, we've lost the gradation for quality.

Another absurdity. Why not just say that by democratizing the right to vote, we've created a dumbed-down electorate that can't be trusted to make the right decisions, and that we should go back to only allowing the landed gentry (or digerati) to vote? (though a frightening number of people agree with that last statement...)

It is true that barriers to entry help filter out bad content, but they filter out good content as well. A transparent market without barriers is fairer, and ultimately, more efficient. Bill may be disappointed that outsiders have a better shot at finding an audience...I view it as progress.

3) Not everyone can have a million readers, so for the majority of content creators, creativity is a waste of time.

This may be Bill's most pernicious argument, for it has an important grain of truth. As I've written before, anyone can be a star, but everyone can't be a star. However, who ever said that creating content was about becoming a star? Creation is its own reward. Young people have more opportunities than ever to experience flow, and that's a great thing, even if few of them go on to sign record deals.

Bill's right--I have a job. I have to raise my kids. And I probably don't have time for this. But that's not going to stop me. Not because I plan to make millions, but because I don't plan to make millions.

Ask any true writer why they write, and the answer is probably, "because I can't not write." The same holds true for any other creative activity, including coding.

Shame on Bill for forgetting that.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

God Bless Weird Al

The nerdcore revolution is ON, and Weird Al, bless his freaky heart, is already rolling:

First in my class there at MIT
Got skills, I'm a champion at D&D
MC Escher, that's my favorite MC
Keep your 40, I'll just have an Earl Grey tea
My rims never spin - to the contrary
You'll find that they're quite stationary
All of my action figures are cherry
Stephen Hawking's in my library
My MySpace page is all totally pimped out
Got people beggin' for my Top 8 spaces
Yo, I know pi to a thousand places
Ain't got no grills, but I still wear braces
I order all of my sandwiches with mayonnaise
I'm a whiz at Minesweeper, I could play for days
Once you see my sweet moves, you're gonna stay amazed
My fingers movin' so fast, I'll set the place ablaze
There's no killer app I haven't run
At Pascal, well, I'm number one
Do vector calculus just for fun
I ain't got a gat but I got a soldering gun
"Happy Days" is my favorite theme song
I could sure kick your butt in a game of ping pong
I'll ace any trivia quiz you bring on
I'm fluent in JavaScript as well as Klingon...

Perhaps the world will finally be receptive to my old buddy Larry Walker and his Silicon Valley law firm gangsta rap...

Friday, September 15, 2006

Living and Dying in America

Dr. Christopher Murray of the Harvard School of Public Health has just released a study that shows that the life expectancy of Americans varies wildly depending on geography, race, and socioeconomic status:

Murray analyzed mortality data between 1982 and 2001 by county, race, gender and income. He found some distinct groupings that he named the "eight Americas:"

Asian-Americans, average per capita income of $21,566, have a life expectancy of 84.9 years.

Northland low-income rural whites, $17,758, 79 years.

Middle America (mostly white), $24,640, 77.9 years.

Low income whites in Appalachia, Mississippi Valley, $16,390, 75 years.

Western American Indians, $10,029, 72.7 years.

Black Middle America, $15,412, 72.9 years.

Southern low-income rural blacks, $10,463, 71.2 years.

High-risk urban blacks, $14,800, 71.1 years.

The differences are stark and astounding. I would speculate that most people have some intuitive sense of their likely lifespan, and act accordingly. If I'm likely to live to be 85 or 90, I'll probably save like a madman. If I'm convinced that I'll die by the time I hit 70, it would be irrational to do so.

9 Books

At Jackie Danicki's behest, here are 9 books from my life:

1. A book that changed your life.

"Why We Do What We Do" by Edward Deci. It's the subject of what's still probably my most popular blog post ( If greed and hubris are diseases, living in Silicon Valley is like giving myself daily injections of typhoid, and reading this book is like taking antibiotics.

2. A book you’ve read more than once.

"The Great Brain" by J. D. Fitzgerald. A great children's book, and one which helped fuel my lifelong admiration for dirty rotten scoundrels with redeeming qualities.

3. A book you’d want on a desert island.

"The Worst Case Scenario Handbook."

4. A book that made you giddy.

"Act One" by Moss Hart. An incredible book for anyone who has tried to write a book or start a company. You must read this book.

5. A book you wish you had written.

"The Happiness Hypothesis" by Jonathan Haidt. I'm a huge fan of the emerging field and positive psychology, and this is the best book in that field.

6. A book that wracked you with sobs.

You know, I try to avoid sadness whenever I can. I do remember being very sad after reading "Where The Red Fern Grows." I didn't even bother trying to read "Old Yeller." Any time a dog dies, I fall to pieces.

7. A book you wish had never been written.

Any book that features mutilation. Gives me the willies. I have an insane phobia of maiming.

8. A book you are currently reading.

"Authentic Happiness" by Martin Seligman. An uplifting work of staggering genius, and I actually mean that.

9. A book you’ve been meaning to read.

"Success Built To Last" by Jerry Pooras. It just came out, and I'm eagerly awaiting the copy I ordered on Tuesday.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Ponytail Power

When I describe what my company does, I'm fond of invoking the mythical ponytailed IT guy.

As it turns out, he's not so mythical.

In this link-baiting press release from Exchange host Intermedia.NET (brilliant marketing tactic, by the way), the following stereotypes are now officially proven:
  • IT types are 34% more likely to sport a ponytail
  • Black jeans are 63% more popular among IT types than other workers
  • IT people are “twice as likely” to wear heavy metal t-shirts
  • IT workers are 32% less likely to wear clean clothes every day of the week than business managers
Of course, these are just prejudiced stereotypes. As Austin Powers' dad remarked, "There are only two kinds of people in this world that I hate: The prejudiced, and the Dutch." (apologies to my Dutch readers!)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

How To Manage Outsourced Software Development

If you're considering outsourcing your software development, get your ass over to my buddy Dave Feinleib's blog and check out this post and his slides.

I've already written about Dave in the past, and my admiration for him continues to grow. I wish all VCs were as hands on (Dave actually builds his own Web 2.0 businesses--for kicks--so he can better understand potential investments).

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Quote of the Day: Alain de Botton

"Blessed with riches and possibilities far beyond anything imagined by ancestors who tilled the unpredictable soil of medieval Europe, modern populations have nonetheless shown a remarkable capacity to feel that neither who they are nor what they have is quite enough."

Tip o' the hat to O'Reilly Radar for pointing to this.

There are two ways entrepreneurs can take this; we can either figure out ways to sell into this anxiety, or we can find ways to relieve it. Which path will you choose?

Monday, September 11, 2006

Dems To Middle Class: Drop Dead

In my continuing quest to provide this nation's major political parties with unsolicited advice that they'll simply ignore, I'd like to draw the Democratic Party's attention to the following article in the National Review.

It summarizes some of the arguments made by Anne Kim and Jim Kessler, who are moderate Democrats and members of Third Way, a new organization dedicated to helping Democrats appeal to moderate and conservative voters.

I'll simply quote the two key paragraphs:

How does the Democratic message fall flat? Kim and Kessler count the ways. The public doesn’t buy heedless pessimism; 80 percent believe it is “still possible to start out poor in this country, work hard and become rich.” It prefers opportunity over economic security; only about a quarter of Americans say that they prefer a low-income, high-security job. It doesn’t like corporation-bashing; only 27 percent say big business is the biggest threat to America’s future, compared with 61 percent who say big government is.

Programmatically, Democrats essentially offer the middle class a nullity. Kim and Kessler run through the greatest hits of Democratic policy. The average family income for Pell Grant recipients is $19,460. Head Start is for poor children. A married family of four can make a maximum of only $37,263 to still be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (to the tune of $1). Only 2.7 percent of American workers make the minimum wage, and half of them are under age 25. Giving health care to the uninsured affects only 15.7 percent of Americans, and many of them aren’t middle class.

Bottom line: Many Republican policies and programs are similarly narrow in their scope (albeit at the other end of the income curve). But issues like family values and tax cuts affect everyone, and the Republicans do a great job of hammering on them. There's an old expression that people vote with their pocketbooks. If only 2.7% of American workers are affected by the minimum wage, why try to make that an electoral issue?

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Racism and Pessimism

My wife and I were watching a re-run of Black/White, the show where a black family puts on whiteface to explore the white world, and a white family puts on blackface to explore the black world.

At one point, a black man explains how white people seem improbably curious. "When white people hear a strange noise, they go to see what's making it. When black people hear a noise, they try to get as far away as possible."

It struck me that this is fundamentally the difference between optimism and pessimism. When I have time, I'll post my summary of Marty Seligman's "Learned Optimism," a true classic. For right now, I'll content myself with two of Marty's observations.

One, optimism is *generally* a more productive strategy. Optimists are happier, healthier, and more successful.

Two, pessimism has an important role to play, because pessimists perceive reality more accurately than optimists. If your pilot is deciding whether or not to cancel a flight because of ice on the wings, you probably want a pessimist in the cockpit! When the cost of failure is high, pessimism is the more effective way of thinking.

This maps very well to race and racism. If racism makes the cost of failure higher for black people, pessimism is a logical and effective strategy, albeit one which comes at the cost of some happiness. If research shows that African-Americans tend to be less happy, perhaps this is because their cost of failure is higher.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

I Am Old, I Am Old, I Shall Wear My Trousers Rolled

Warning: Yet another post with no business content. But if you're old like me, you might find it an amusing walk down memory lane.

As much as I try to deny my geezerhood, this blog keeps tripping me up.

A few months ago, it was being accused of being homophobic for using the phrase "flame away" in my post on why I hate San Francisco.

Now I'm a chauvinist pig for calling Barbara Ehrenreich an "ignorant slut."

A quick history lesson.

"Ignorant slut" is a reference to the classic Saturday Night Live bit with Dan Ackroyd and Jane Curtin.

Saturday Night Live was a great sketch comedy series that debuted in the 1970s, and launched the careers of people like Bill Murray, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Dan Ackroyd, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, and Will Ferrell. For those of you who don't recognize the first eight names, let me reassure you that they were once big stars, and very funny.

If none of this still rings a bell, SNL is also the show that did the "Lazy Sunday" rap on the Chronicles of Narnia.

Side note for all you geezers out there: For the current generation, Bill Murray is that old guy in all the Wes Anderson movies, John Belushi is Jim Belushi's brother, Eddie Murphy is the guy who does all those family comedies that aren't funny, and all the other folks are random people from the caveman days, along with Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle.

At any rate, back to "you ignorant slut."

In a classic Weekend Update bit, Dan Ackroyd and are two dueling news anchors. As they debate issues,, they lob insults at each other, culminating in Ackroyd's famous line, "Jane, you ignorant slut."

Now Barbara Ehrenreich is ignorant, but I had no intention of implying anything about her sexual practices. I was simply tipping my hat to a classic take on the absurdity of this kind of debate.

By the way, where are all the troll's rights protesters? After all, trolls have feelings too!

P.S. For bonus points, identify the reference in this post's title.