Trump Hangover

2016 November 10
by david

I sent this to the Gigmor team today.

Neil Young

I know we’re all still digesting what happened on Tuesday night. And I know we all fear what a Trump presidency means—for this country and for the world. Seeing someone as thoughtful and well-intentioned as Hillary lose to a narcissistic buffoon is really hard.

I think we’re in all agreement that Hillary was the far better candidate. (It’s great to have such unanimity. As we get bigger that won’t always be the case.) I share your grief and I know it’s not easy to stay focused on work. The implications of a Trump presidency keep washing over me in waves of fear.

Of course there have been so many post-mortems published already, it would take weeks to read them. I’m not going to presume to have any special insight when so many smart, well-informed people are weighing in. But it’s also impossible for me to stay silent about this election.

So at the risk of seeming absurdly parochial, I want to offer one key takeaway for us at Gigmor. Because at least that’s something we can control. It may surprise you, it may not be relevant in the long term but I can’t escape the similarities I’m seeing between Trump supporters and Gigmor members. Huh? WTF? It’s this: there are strong echoes between our customer support mails and what we hear from Trump supporters. The similarities are anger, resentment, suspicion, disillusionment. A sense of lost opportunities. The bitterness of broken dreams.

Obviously we’re trying to help musicians by connecting them with gigs and opportunities. And we can’t solve all their problems. But this election is a reminder of who is on the “other side of the screen,” as one tech entrepreneur put it.

Musicians are talented and creative. They put an enormous amount of work into getting good at their craft. They make a giant contribution to society. They’re trying to make a living doing what they love and mastering an art form that is universally loved. They deserve to be treated with respect—yes, even when they’re not civil or making bad decisions. Their lives aren’t easy—almost universally. This election is a reminder that, like so many others in this country, they feel left behind, deserted by the “establishment,” which in this case is the music industry in its various incarnations: labels, managers, bar owners, our competitors in music tech, etc.

We are trying to make a difference by making it easier than ever to find and book musicians and bands so there’s more music than ever in this crazy, fast-changing world. God knows, we’re all going to need it!

Why Live Music is the Growth Engine of the Music Business

2015 October 8
tags: ,
by david

The music industry is abuzz with talk about Pandora’s acquisition of Ticketfly. It’s a “game changer,” everyone is saying. It’s the biggest news story of the week and it’s great news for Gigmor.

 

Why? Because it validates what Gigmor has been asserting since Day 1: with recorded music revenues declining and live revenues growing exponentially, other music companies (think Spotify, Apple Music) will move into the live music space that was once the sole domain of Live Nation and AEG Live.

livemusicgraphTo give you a better idea, more than half (53%) of recorded music sales were generated from physical product in 2014. In the first half of 2015, vinyl sales alone generated more revenue than all of the free streaming services combined, including YouTube, which is arguably the largest music distribution platform on the planet.

Pandora’s acquisition of TicketFly is brilliant because TicketFly has been focusing on the market that, for everyone else (i.e. Live Nation and AEG Live), doesn’t make much economic sense: the small and mid-size venues. Clubs, bars, small theaters, etc.

So how does this tie into Gigmor? Simple. The music industry – every single facet – is a fragile ecosystem that relies upon a continuous supply of bands forming, musicians and songwriters creating and recording music and, most importantly, performing live. Talent is the lifeblood of the industry. Earning money by playing live is how musicians and bands keep the music ecosystem fresh, healthy and thriving. And according to a recent study by Vevo, Millennials don’t see music as a “desire;” it’s a “need.” Especially the shared experience of a live performance. Live music is a $30B business and it’s growing by 15% a year. It’s not the same old music biz any more.

Gigmor’s mission is to bring music booking into the 21st century by creating a live music marketplace. Today Gigmor announced an innovative partnership with Music Box San Diego, Southern California’s hottest new venue. This is the first step and it’s an important one. Because today’s Pandora announcement signaled what will become the music industry’s greatest land grab: live music.

Like TicketFly, Gigmor is strategically positioned to be the leader and we’re playing for keeps. Want to participate in our growth? Check out Gigmor’s Equity Crowdfunding Campaign and stake your claim today!

Important info about Reg A+ Equity Crowdfunding.

Steve Jobs: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward”

2014 March 17
by david

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path; and that will make all the difference.”

– Steve Jobs

1-steve-jobs

I’m a big fan of Steve Jobs—that’s obvious to anyone who knows me—although I’m sure I wouldn’t have liked working for him.

I read that there is now a web app (which was rejected by Apple for the App Store) that displays a new Steve Jobs quote every day.

This one felt particularly apt today as we’re about to launch a big enhancement to Gigmor. It sums up the challenge faced by entrepreneurs as we attempt to make a “dent in the universe,” to use another, more famous, Steve Jobs’ phrase.

You don’t know how it’s going to turn out so you have to have faith that it’s going to work out—somehow and some way.

Here’s another inspirational quote I came across the other day: Believe in belief. It was used by an Olympic swim team coach and it describes the power of positive thinking. You have to manipulate your brain into staying the course when times get rough. There’s no other way to accomplish something truly great because there are so many reasons to give up.

Keep the faith!

Let’s Walk to Ottawa! How a Marathon Hike Prepared Me to Be a Startup Entrepreneur

2013 August 24

When I was in high school we decided to walk to Ottawa. By we I mean 6 of us who were all in the school’s camping club, which was called Outward Bound and modeled after the Colorado-based program with the same name. We camped year-round, regardless of the season or the weather. One year a teacher drove us up north of Kingston, Ontario, my hometown, for a winter camping weekend with the windows down in her car to “acclimatize” us. It was close to zero outside. By the time we got to our destination, a frozen lake 30 miles north, we were thoroughly “acclimatized,” which is to say: half frozen.

Every June, we traveled to Algonquin Park for a 7 day canoe trip. Unfortunately, June happens to be the time of the year when there’s an overlap between blackfly season and mosquito season. Sometimes the air was literally black with swarms of bloodthirsty insects.

The year we decided to walk to Ottawa was the first year the Rideau Trail, a hiking trail between Kingston and Ottawa, opened. Ottawa is about 100 miles north but the trail is closer to 170 miles long.

rideautrailA few weeks before spring break, we met in the school library and started to plan our expedition. We got maps of the trail and identified locations where we would  camp at night based on how many miles we assumed we could walk each day. We had just enough time to make it over the break: 10 days from Friday to Sunday. We wrote lists for food and equipment. We arranged for a friend to drop off supplies halfway there. Another friend, who had his pilot’s license, said he would pick us up in Ottawa and fly us home if we made it. We knew he didn’t expect us to get there.

The weather was cold–even for Ontario in April–on the day we started. A few friends and family saw us off at the start of the trail. We set off, brimming with optimism and good humor, our backpacks heavy with food and equipment. We crossed the 401–the major highway between Toronto and Montreal–a few hours later and it felt like we were leaving civilization behind. Soon after, we lost the trail in a muddy field. We consulted our maps and circled back to find it. We ended up at a dead end in a field covered in snow and ice.

We followed a county road that ran parallel to the trail and tried to rejoin it a mile or so later. Same result: impassable mud, snow and ice. I think I mentioned: spring was late that year. As darkess fell, we set up camp within view of a lonely farmhouse. Late that night it started to rain. It was cold; the temperature was in the mid 30’s. The next morning we relit our sodden campfire and and ate a miserable breakfast in a steady downpour. This was not what the way we’d imagined it. After breakfast, one member of the group deserted and headed toward the farmhouse to call for a ride home.

We walked all day in the pouring rain as frigid water soaked through our hats, our jackets, our pants, our socks and shoes. Piers, a stocky giant, had borrowed his dad’s hiking boots. Turns out they hadn’t been used in years, possibly even decades, and the stiff leather chaffed his feet and ankles, causing severe blisters. It was only Day 2. We tried to joke about our naiveté as we’d planned the trip in the warm library.

That night we reached Gould Lake, which was in a conservation area where we’d hiked and camped many times. At the south end of the lake was a barn used by the conservation society. But the barn was locked. Someone remembered hearing about a hidden key. We found it and got inside. The barn had no electricity but it had large  propane heaters. We turned them on, emptied our backpacks and dried our drenched clothes and gear. We cooked hot food on a portable camp stove. We laid out our sleeping bags on the cold concrete floor, grateful for the shelter. We could hear the rain hammering on the tin roof. The next morning we ate breakfast and repacked our backpacks knowing that we would have quit if we hadn’t been able to stay dry that night.

ice11_13_06Outside we discovered that the rain had turned to snow overnight but the sky was clearing. We followed the trail for a while but lost it in an area of steep hills and swampy ravines and had to use a compass to guide us across the rough terrain. After a couple of hours of strenuous bushwhacking, we found ourselves on a promontory overlooking the frozen lake. To our left, the shoreline curved around a wide bay–several miles of ravines and dense bush. Across from us we saw a small dock about half a mile across the ice. Our map showed us that the dock was close to the trail. A discussion ensued. Violent disagreements about what to do: weighing the risks of crossing the ice versus bushwhacking for several hours. We put it to a vote: the majority was for crossing the ice. We each grabbed a long branch to use as a pole in case we fell through. The sullen minority of dissenters followed reluctantly as we stepped onto the ice. We spread out to distribute our weight and headed for the dock, hearts pounding. The ice was slushy in places and dark colored. The water below would be freezing cold–enough to kill you in a few minutes. We walked as fast as we dared and the dock loomed closer. But, as we approached the shore, we saw there was open water in front of the dock. It was probably only a couple of feet wide but it looked like ten. Turning back was not an option. One by one we took a running leap over the water and onto the dock.

I still look back on that as one of the riskiest things I’ve ever done in my life. It was a calculated risk but it could have ended very badly.

Why tell that story now so many years later? Because, as the founder of a startup, it seems totally familiar.

I conceived of Gigmor, my musician-matching website, in the warm library of my imagination and am now in the thick of all the usual, well-documented challenges facing unfunded startups: attracting and retaining real customers, building a team of people who believe in our mission, pitching investors, working on long overdue enhancements to the site, finding a path to profitability… Yup, it’s damn hard. It’s a roller coaster of emotion: from conquer-the-world-highs to 3 am panic attacks. But my years in the outdoors prepared me for this. You have to be able to talk yourself through the tough times, you have to pace yourself for a marathon, you have to deal with unexpected challenges. You have to ignore those who tell you you’re crazy, your idea sucks, you’ll never succeed. It’s like crossing that ice: failure is not an option. (And you need some luck too.) You have to keep going no matter how insurmountable the obstacles look. You have to have a lot of passion–enough to carry you through the tough times. Otherwise, the rational part of your brain that told you to quit a year ago would win the argument.

So back to the hike. Did we make it to Ottawa? The rest of that week is a blur. I remember our friend bringing us supplies of fresh food. He got out of his car and laughed at us. We must have looked pretty rough. I remember cold nights, interminable days of walking, Piers yelling, “Every step is pain!” But once we were past the potentially fatal danger of crossing that ice, everything else seemed possible. All we had to do was keep walking. Step by step, hour after hour, day after day.

So yes we made it. Our friend flew up to take us home. (He became a commercial pilot.)

Will Gigmor make it across the precarious spring ice and become the successful company I’m imagining? Damn straight. I’m betting on it.

Here’s a picture of us with the full article in the Richmond Review, March 29, 1973.

ottawa-article

What Kind of Need Does Your Business Satisfy?

2013 February 1
by david

Recently a business acquaintance told me about a website he’d invested in. In many ways, it sounded like a good opportunity. It addressed the needs of a large segment of the population, there was no clear leader among the incumbents, there were obvious revenue streams. I wondered if my lack of enthusiasm was just my habitual skepticism about most web startups. (A skepticism I’ve grown to mistrust because I haven’t seen the value in some great companies or sites until it slapped me in the face.)

But after some more thought I discovered what was behind my doubts. It was based on what I’ll call the duration of the need the site is addressing. No doubt this concept has been discussed ad nauseum by Harvard Business School professors but it was the first time I’d thought about business this way. Every business leader should ask him or herself the question: what is the duration of the need I’m trying to fulfill?

stk19951boj_152fb50I believe the most successful companies address needs that are long in duration, not short. Let me give some examples.

Facebook addresses a need that never ends: our desire to communicate with friends and family. It’s infinitely renewable. So until someone else comes along and addresses that need in a more compelling way, Facebook will be an awesome company. (I’ve been a sceptic about their stock but I think I’ve changed my mind. :-/ )

On the other end of the spectrum are companies that address a single need: retirement homes, funeral parlors, trips to outer space…you get the idea.

In between are probably the majority of companies: they address a short time need that recurs. The more frequent the recurrence the better the business. (Selling TVs vs. selling food.)

If I had the time I’d do a scattergram showing where various companies sit on a chart with two axes: Duration of Need and Frequency of Need. The companies at the top right would be the winners.

I’ve thought about this problem with my website, Gigmor, a musician matching site. What is our value proposition to musicians once they’ve formed their band? That’s definitely part of our challenge. But our mission is also to connect musicians with paying gigs. Now we’re talking!

Cat Cora iPad App

2012 August 29
by david

We’re thrilled to announce the launch of Cat Cora’s iPad app, “Cat Cora’s Kitchen,” designed and developed by Troubadour in partnership with Nimble ChefCat Cora is a world-renowned chef, cookbook author, restaurateur and TV host—most recently of “Around the World in 80 Plates” on Bravo. She remains the only female Iron Chef.

Cat Cora’s Kitchen, now available in the iTunes Store, is a revolutionary new app that takes the stress out of cooking and entertaining. We’re very proud of it because it’s much more than just another digital cookbook.

Cat Cora’s Kitchen features a patent-pending Scheduler that combines instructions from multiple recipes into one easy-to-follow Menu or meal planner. You’ll never have to worry again about what time your meal will be ready.

The app contains over 80 of Cat’s favorite recipes and 30 instructional HD videos showing Cat cooking individual recipes from start to finish. Each recipe displays total preparation time so you can easily select dishes that fit with your schedule.

 

App Features

• The Scheduler combines multiple recipes into one Menu and displays the steps in a graphical timeline
• Allows you to change the number of servings in each Menu and calculates the new quantity for each ingredient
• Alerts you to potential conflicts in the cooking process, i.e. two dishes require an oven at the same time
• Allows you to set timers for many of the steps
• Creates a single shopping list for each Menu that can be forwarded by email

Whither Facebook?

2012 June 19
by david

The tsunami of commentary about Facebook’s IPO has finally died down. So now what? I predict several quarters–or even years–of earnings “surprises.” But as Facebook meets the challenge of monetizing its site, I see trouble ahead.

like_4-30a

 

 

 

 

 

The User Experience

Facebook’s monetization strategy will inevitably end up degrading the user experience. We’ve seen this movie before. First the land grab then the rush to monetize.

Let’s face it: to be effective marketing tools, ads have to be intrusive. Facebook’s ads are currently very unobtrusive. Apparently, the value proposition to advertisers is the targeting. I’ve done (small) tests for Gigmor and found them to be very ineffective. In my experience, the ability to target musicians is almost nonexistent. Admittedly, I’m a focus group of one. But targeting based on self-reported data is questionable. Recently Facebook announced a new door to the walled garden where they will follow their members as they surf the web and then serve relevant ads when they return to Facebook. That could be highly effective for the advertisers but they’re going to face some real privacy issues. Here’s a new maxim: the more accurate the user data used for targeting, the greater the privacy issue.

I predict Facebook will have to enlarge the ads in the right column so they’re more visible. They’ll also increase the number of sponsored posts that appear on members’ walls. It’ll get harder to distinguish them from friends’ posts. You’ve probably already seen some of  them. They’ll clutter up that famously clean (but cold) UI. And that’ll piss off Facebook members.

Maze

 

Walled Garden

Facebook is a walled garden. As a former employee of one of the first walled gardens (AOL), I’m very familiar with the essential conflict between content providers and distributors in this model, as well as the tension between consumers and the owner of the walled garden.

Websites seeking an audience will go where the eyeballs are. And, grudgingly, pay for access. But they don’t have any loyalty to the owner of the garden. In fact, they resent that owner highly. The garden is nothing more than a tollkeeper, a necessary evil. The garden can offer them value but the content provider/merchant’s goal is to create a direct relationship with customers and ultimately bypass the garden. And when the garden’s growth slows, they’ll transition to the next big thing.

The consumer doesn’t really love the garden either. The consumer likes the freedom of the Internet. You’d think, given the vastness of the Internet, consumers would like the curation services of a portal but they don’t seem to–as evidenced by AOL and Yahoo’s well-publicized struggles. Consumers like communities, discovery (see Pinterest) and search. Huffington Post is the most successful portal these days but they specialize in one category: news.

Open Vs. Closed Systems

A walled garden is a semi-closed system. You are not prohibited from leaving but the owner of the garden makes the rules as long as you stay. This can create problems with the garden’s partners. We saw this again and again at AOL. We’d change something minor on the service and the phones would start ringing off the hook with partners complaining. The garden’s priorities don’t align with their partners’ priorities. This has already happened with Facebook. You hear of even big Facebook partners like Zynga having to adapt to changes in Facebook’s environment.

I experienced this recently with a client of my agency, Troubadour Digital Media. Facebook wanted our client to change from a Page to a Public Figure Profile (Facebook-speak). But when we made the change, we discovered we’d lost Insights, which provides valuable information on our clients’ audience metrics. Our contact at Facebook never mentioned this and stopped returning my emails when I asked about this. I’m sure Facebook recommended the change because it benefitted them in some way.

Facebook will take care of Facebook, ultimately at the expense of its users and partners.

Gigmor

2011 December 1
by david

Last month we launched GIGMOR, a new social network for musicians that matches players and bands based on location and musical compatibility.

I founded GIGMOR because after I moved to LA it took me months to find compatible musicians to jam and gig with. I know millions of musicians face the same challenge.

Our goal is to be LinkedIn for musicians–a global directory where musicians and bands can share music, photos and gigs with friends and fans and a social network that proactively connects members.

We’ve had a great response since we launched in October. It’s clear we’ve really struck a chord with musicians who need to find and connect with other players and bands! (Ba da boom.)

Here’s where you come in. If you’re a musician, please Join today.

If not, we need your help in spreading the word.

  • Please forward this post to every musician you know. We’re growing fast and need to reach critical mass so our matching engine can work its magic.
  • Tell friends, family and colleagues about GIGMOR.
  • Like our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter.

I think GIGMOR is a model for social networks in the future for two reasons.

1. It’s a community based on a shared passion. Facebook connects people based on shared experiences (e.g. college) or offline relationships. It’s become crowded and noisy. I think we’re going to see more niche-oriented networks that offer meaningful experiences for specific groups.

2. Like a dating site, we proactively notify members when they are matched with another band or musician. We do the work for our members, offering a huge savings in time and effort. While AI-based recommendations have a long way to go, I believe matching technology can create a huge value-add through filtering and making relevant, personalized recommendations.

I’ll update you on GIGMOR’S progress in future posts.

Music in the Digital Age

2011 July 27
by david

The decline of the music industry has been well documented. But music is as popular as ever.  So what gives?

I know I’m buying more music than ever because of price, convenience and availability. The cost of an album has gone way down and I can buy music 24/7 without leaving my house. In the old days I’d schedule a trip to Tower Records when I had a little extra money to browse through the racks of CD’s. It was always a thrill to take home the 3 or 4 I could afford (except for the agony of unwrapping since CD covers were designed by a malevolent fiend intent on making opening the package as frustrating as possible) and pop them into the player. Now I use Amazon, eMusic and iTunes for music purchases. Often I’ll hear something I like on WFUV, which I listen to on my Mac during the day, or on XM or the local jazz station and I’ll search for that song or album and buy it right away. Instant gratification!

So why is the music industry suffering? And is it really suffering? It turns out the answer is yes, especially if you compare the last decade to the previous one. First, it’s widely known that the emergence of the CD as the dominant form of music delivery was an unprecedented boon for the music business in the 80’s and 90’s because people bought music they already owned. Second, piracy is a real issue. Music fans today have grown up with the attitude that music should be free because technology has enabled them to share it.

How bad is it? Check out this chart from an excellent article on the Business Insider site:

music-industry

What does this chart tell us? Recorded music sales in the US have declined 64% from their peak in 1999. Digital music sales are growing but have not made up for the overall decline. Another chart in the same article shows that album sales have declined precipitously in the last 10 years. People are buying individual songs rather than albums. (Wasn’t it that way it was in the 60’s before the rise of the LP?) Enabling technology and public pressure have forced the business to unbundle music that used to sold in packages of 10 or more songs. When you think about it, the album was an artificial construct anyway. Great albums were best listened to in their entirety but, let’s face it, there weren’t many of those. Most people want to buy individual songs. So it looks like people are still buying lots of music but the units they’re buying are smaller, resulting in lower overall sales.

What about piracy? How much of it is hype? According to the RIAA, piracy is a big problem and one of the causes behind the decline in revenues. In 2001 the average American spent almost 3 times as much on recorded music as they do today. In 1985, they spent almost twice as much as they do today. (Turns out I’m an exception.) A recent study estimated that only 37% of music acquired by consumers in 2009 was paid for. Estimates on lost revenue range from $4 to $20B. Since these numbers come from industry groups, they can be taken with a grain of salt but there’s plenty of evidence that the industry is in distress. Music labels have laid off thousands of employees and even well-known bands are struggling to make a living.

It’s obvious we’re witnessing an industry undergoing severe disruption. So what’s next?

It looks like the industry’s expectations were set artificially high in the 90’s. The advent of the CD and the economic boom of that decade gave the business a boost that wasn’t sustainable. The industry needs to hit the reset button.

The good news is total music sales are up for the first time since 2004. And the industry now tracks sales of single songs, albums and “track-equivalent albums,” which aggregate singles into hypothetical albums. (A laughable concept. Shows how slowly the music industry is changing.) Sales of digital singles are up 11% according to the NY Times and sales of albums are either up 1% or 3.6%, depending on how you define them (see above).

Live music is a bright spot. Revenues are growing as more bands realize this is a key source of income for them.

Digital distribution is another reason for optimism. Bands are being forced to use alternative forms of distribution. iTunes, CDBaby and Soundcloud, among others, are creating platforms that sell music. Bands can reach fans directly by creating Facebook pages and websites. Soon, they’ll have Gigmor, our musician matching site as a great alternative to MySpace. (So we hope.) The result is a lot more choice for consumers and the opportunity for bands to bypass the traditional gatekeepers and reach a worldwide audience directly. The new world has millions of bands who can now afford to record and publish their songs without relying on the traditional gatekeeper system controlled by the music labels. They make tiny amounts of money from selling their music but have the bragging rights that they control their own destiny. The music industry can leverage this ecosystem to pluck out proven stars to minimize their risk (see #YouTube #JustinBieber). The decline in industry revenues is certain to level off—sooner rather than later, I think. And the direct-to-artist revenues will continue to increase.

Speaking of digital distribution, I’ve been using Spotify recently and think it’s a gamechanger. I’ll look at music subscription services and their impact in my next post.

Digital Media

2011 June 16
by david

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here but I’ve been swamped with fun projects at my digital media agency, Troubadour Digital Media. See our website for more information on some cool stuff that we’ve been working on. I’ve also been working hard on Gigmor, a new social network which will connect musicians, bands and fans.

A while back, I made some notes comparing traditional media and digital media. Like many of us, I’ve transitioned to becoming mostly a digital media consumer in books, music and, most recently, movies. I now use Netflix’s streaming service exclusively. No more DVDs and envelopes. So here are some thoughts on making that transition, which has had very few downsides.

Advantages of Digital Media

steve-jobs-3g-iphone1Portability

“A thousand songs in your pocket” was the phrase Steve Jobs used to introduce the iPod, which was by no means the first portable MP3 player. But he captured the biggest benefit for consumers.

Instant Gratification

I started buying music through eMusic and iTunes a few years ago. You can hear something on the radio or elsewhere, search for the band and download a song or an album in minutes—before the song has even finished playing. Smart radio stations post their playlists on the web so you don’t need to wait for an DJ to tell you what you’re listening to. XM radio displays the artist and song name and I’m so used to looking at it, I get annoyed when I’m listening to the radio and keep glancing at the screen.

Ease of Storage

There are two advantages here. Consolidation: you get everything in one place (which makes Searching easy). And physical size, or the lack there0f.  My iPod doesn’t get larger when I add a new song and it’s a lot smaller than the racks of CDs currently taking up space in my basement.

Transferability

This has been a thorn in the industry’s side but it’s a great feature of most digital media. Unfortunately, though, I can’t lend a friend a book I just finished on my Kindle.

Durability

Remember LP’s? Need I say more?

Searchability

Ever wasted an hour hunting through your CDs for a particular artist or song?

Price

Remember when CDs were all $15.99? Now we’re saving all those manufacturing, distribution, retail shelf space costs.

But it’s not all milk and honey. Digital media has some disadvantages.

booksDisadvantages

Lack of Tactile Experience

The pertains to mostly to books,which are wonderful physical objects, the product of centuries of development. A book is a wonderful thing to hold in your hand and to pass on to your kids. I can’t imagine a home without rooms full of books. I think books will become more special in the future. I still buy CDs from my favorite artists, whose work deserves to be purchased and preserved in a physical form. That airport paperback that you throw away when you’re cleaning house is, appropriately, replaced by an ebook file that you will simply delete.

Lack of Physical Context

The is the biggest disadvantage of digital media. The physical nature of a book, magazine or newspaper makes it easy to find something again. I remember that a passage or article I particularly liked was about about a third in from the beginning or just after a chapter break, or on the left hand page. I miss this on my Kindle and iPad and find it’s much harder to go back and find a particular section. Search solves this sometimes but I may or may not have the right search term.

Display and Platform Limitations

One example of this is that, until recently, Apple didn’t allow for recurring subscriptions on the iPad. So The New Yorker was in the crazy position of having to sell each issue separately. Another example is that you can’t read an iPad screen in bright sun. The Kindle is a well designed product (although we’re still in the stone age of such devices) but the only way to navigate is by going forwards or backwards, page by page.

UI/Learning Curve

We’re at the mercy of product designers, who are often very talented, but have to live with compromises they’ve made involving battery life, speed, display size, etc.

Steve Jobs—Innovator Extraordinaire

2011 January 25
by david

steve-jobs-3g-iphone1It’s impossible to say anything new about Apple and Steve Jobs but I couldn’t resist adding some comments when I read a recent article about him in the NY Times. Jobs was asked what market research Apple had done as they developed the iPad. “None,” he replied. “It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.”

From any other consumer marketing executive in the world this would have come across as laughable hubris and cause for an emergency board meeting to discuss the mental state of the CEO. Can you imagine the CEO of GM saying that? Why is Jobs so different?

Reputation

Jobs has launched his share of failures−Apple TV, the Newton, etc—but has almost 40 years of unparalleled success as a game-changer. His success gives him enormous credibility within Apple and in the technology world. He’s a rock star; his products have ineffable and irresistible cachet. His announcements are anticipated and watched by the whole world. Even a sub-standard product like Apple TV (the first version) sells millions of units. And he’s not resting on his laurels—despite taking a second medical leave of absence—he’s one driven dude.

The Founder Pass

Founders of successful companies are held to a different standard, often deservedly. They’re allowed to be unconventional. By contrast, think of Eric Schmidt, the recently deposed CEO of Google. He was brought in to be adult supervision and had to adhere to a higher standard of behavior  than Bryn and Page.

Product First

Jobs is surrounded by talented, driven people who are not yes-men but he exerts extraordinary control over the decision-making at Apple. And he is relentless in his pursuit of design perfection. He is detail oriented and obsessive. He rejected two iPhone prototypes and sent the team back to the drawing board both times. Were their feelings hurt? Did they go back to their department muttering imprecations about the tyrant? No doubt. And both of the rejected designs would have been a major improvement over any phone then available but they weren’t good enough for Jobs. Would you have had the balls to send them away—twice?

young jobsDesign Genius

From the first Macintosh on, Jobs has shown that he CAN build better products for users than they could have imagined themselves. I fell in love with the first Mac. And never looked back. Along with tens of millions of others. Actually he is a design AND a marketing genius.Who doesn’t remember the first Mac ads? How about the iPod campaign?

Apple is a technology company

Technology is based on what the Times article calls “around-the-corner innovation” and thus, by definition, users can’t define what they want because you’re offering them something totally new. In more mature industries progress is incremental and you can find out what consumer needs aren’t being met or could be better satisfied by doing research. Not so when you’re offering something that is totally new.

I wish Steve Jobs well as he deals with his health issues. I don’t care what anyone says about succession plans, creating a sustainable culture, etc., the company won’t be the same without him. He’s one of a kind.

The Dunbar Number and Tribes, Big and Small

2010 November 9

Wikipedia defines Dunbar’s number (commonly cited as 150) as a “theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person.” Dunbar is director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University and first wrote about this almost 20 years ago but the “tipping point” for disseminating his theory was Gladwell’s citation in his book, The Tipping Point in 2000. Wikipedia’s entry above is actually a quotation from The Tipping Point, which is an example of the downside of a crowdsourced encyclopedia. The ideal encyclopedia would have quoted Dunbar, the original source, not Gladwell.

I became interested in the Dunbar number when I was exploring creating a social network based on personal compatibility. It struck me that Facebook had two disadvantages: it recommended people primarily based on having friends (or acquaintances, or connections) in common and the number of “friends” easily grew to an impossibly large number.

So if Dunbar’s number suggests the ideal size of a community, what about smaller groups? During my research I came across the notion that in a hunter-gatherer society the ideal size for a hunting group was roughly a dozen. The blog, Signal vs. Noise, posted its thoughts on how small teams worked best, citing another British author, Antony Jay who wrote in his book, Corporation Man, that the ideal size for a team has been a “ten-group” for centuries. The basic unit for most armies is ten—and has been since Roman times. Most sports teams, juries … well, you get the idea.

It’s pretty obvious what the advantages of a team this size are: nimbleness, loose, flexible organization, quick decision-making, strong inter-dependence, well aligned interests, each individual plays a critical role. We’ve all experienced it. And when it works, it can be magic.

Dunbar’s number came from his research as an evolutionary anthropologist. Unlike other animals, primates bond by using their hands to groom each other and he found there seemed to be a natural size to a band of primates. Dunbar wondered whether the size of primate’s social networks was correlated with their brain size and found that “within the primates there is a general relationship between the size of the brain and the size of the social group.” He then tested his theory on human groups and found that, with remarkable consistency, for thousands of years early settlements and villages consisted of 150 people.

One feature of those societies was not just that you knew everyone in the group but that the group was also completely stable. No one left or entered.

This changed with the industrial revolution, which started the norm of social mobility we’re familiar with today. Once the village structure broke down, many of society’s self-regulating abilities died with it. Now we need policemen and courts of law. Obviously the Internet has given us the ability to connect with thousands of others, no longer limited by geography or social restrictions. But our brains are wired to live in these ancient societies. How do we adapt? Dunbar doesn’t think we can. If we accept his assumption that his number is related to brain size, in order to process significant relationships with 10 times as many people (1,500) our brains would have to be 10x larger. And we know that ain’t happening any time soon.

Obviously we’re living in a world in which we all have much larger networks than our parents did. But the point of the Dunbar number is that the number of meaningful relationships we can have is still limited. Dunbar defines meaningful as based on trust and obligation.

I’m interested in this because, as an entrepreneur, I’d love to find a way to connect people who have the potential to have a meaningful relationship. There’s no question that, in an era of 5,000 Facebook friends, people are craving tighter knit communities based on compatibility. But the question I’ve asked here before is, what is true compatibility? And how does it manifest itself online? It’s more than shared interests, it’s more than compatible personality types. Can you look at your close friends or your spouse and define what it is that connects you? It certainly isn’t picking lice out of each other’s hair.

A side note. When I lived in London in the early 80’s, I was a big fan of “Yes, Minister,” the popular BBC series. Turns out Antony Jay was a co-writer of that and the author of a book I enjoyed a few years later called Management and Machiavelli as well as Corporation Man. Interesting guy.

More on Hunch.com

2010 October 27

I’m seeing more and more written about the emergence of personalization on the web, a trend that has had me pounding the table for over a year. Recently Chris Dixon, a co-founder of Hunch, (which I covered in an earlier post), addressed a comment by an anonymous user of formspring asking (a little contemptuously) why Hunch’s approach was so broad. Others commented on Dixon’s thoughtful response and speculated that he was trying to sell his company. Several interesting points emerged from the discussion.

1. Is there a demand for a broad-based personalization site/service? I think there is.  I think Hunch is really on to something, even though I take issue with how they’ve implemented it on their current site.

Why? Let’s start with TMI. The web is vast and is only getting bigger. The amount of information we’re exposed to is humanly impossible to absorb. I heard a statistic quoted recently that human beings have generated more data in the last 24 months than in the past 2,000 years. So it’s obvious that we’re all going to need filters and curators to help us navigate the tsunami of meaningless, irrelevant data. Search engines are increasingly ineffective. Friends’ recommendations can be helpful or totally off base.

Complaining about a “generalized product” as the formspring user did is knee jerk prejudice. There’s nothing wrong with a site that is “broad-based” per se. Niches are all the rage these days among VC’s these days because traditional portals are struggling. “A mile wide, an inch deep.” “Trying to be all things to all people.” I heard those accusations at AOL over a decade ago. But the very nature of a personalization strategy that will appeal to a wide audience is that you have to cover a wide range of categories. We’re complex beings and we all have many interests. In my opinion, Hunch has too many categories and made a mistake allowing users to create their own topics.

There’s nothing wrong with being broad—aggregation is an underrated value-add these days, IMHO. It’s just hard to execute well in a world of angel investors and 3- person startups. (Believe me, I know.) In aggregate, a personalization engine ends up creating a bunch of niche sites. Which also happens to be an excellent monetization strategy.

2. Hunch faces a strategic issue: should they be a destination site or technology licensor or both? It looks like they’re aiming for both. But can they do it? Licensing a branded personalization engine to other sites builds awareness and ultimately drives traffic to your site. But it takes a billion $ and total focus to build a major consumer brand. And, whatever else they do, Hunch is clearly going that route. They’re either going to be the next Yahoo or they’ll go broke trying. But combining both B2C and B2B strategies is going to strain their resources and possibly cause them to lose focus. Hunch is lucky to be flush with cash for now thanks to a significant investment by Khosla Ventures but they’ll need to raise a lot more. My guess is that their “engine” strategy is a short-term effort to build their brand and to gain critical mass since acquiring giant amounts of customer data is the only way to improve their AI technology.

3. Dixon says they’ve talked to a “hundred” other web sites and they’re all building personalization technology. This is interesting news because not many have implemented it so far. Yahoo is missing a big opportunity with My Yahoo, in my view.

3. Several of the resulting comments to Chris Dixon’s post suggested that the “subtext” was that Hunch is for sale. I think that’s reading a lot into what he said in his post but there’s no question that it’s a natural outcome for him and his co-founders. I mean, duh! It’s very likely Hunch will be bought before it becomes a big consumer brand because its unique technology is going to be very much in demand. We all know who the potential acquirers are. As the saying goes, “Round up the usual suspects.”

I’ve been critical of Hunch but I’d answer the naysayers with this: kudos to Chris Dixon, Caterina Fake and the team for having the balls to swing for the fences. And kudos for their willingness to engage in discussion with the web community as their site gains more and more visibility.

Waiting for Superman

2010 October 22
by david

I saw “Waiting for Superman” this week and highly recommend it. Its subject is one of my hot buttons—the decline of public education in this country. The film reveals many statistics that illustrate the sad state of American schools relative to other developed nations. Just one example: out of 28 developed countries, the US is ranked 20th in graduation rates, 25th in math, 21st in science.

Every movie, even a documentary, has a hero and villain and you’re probably already familiar with who gets assigned these roles as a result of the extensive media coverage this film has received. The teacher’s union—embodied by its leader, Randi Weingarten—is the villain and the heroes are Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee. The movie oversimplifies things somewhat but Davis Guggenheim uses poetic license to elicit an emotional reaction from the audience. I think this is justified because facts alone don’t inspire people to act. Michael Moore uses rhetoric very effectively to inspire an emotional reaction. I’m a big fan of his but prefer arguments expressed in a fair and balanced way—even from people I violently agree with. “Waiting for Superman” has generated an enormous amount of discussion. Questions have been raised about the real effectiveness of the charter schools praised in the film. And word got out that Guggenheim cut a scene from the movie that showed Weingarten signing a contract for teachers at one of the charter schools featured in the movie. But, by and large, the movie strikes the right tone.

waiting-for-superman_400Obviously educational reform is an enormously complex issue. Our school system is a reflection of our society. Teachers and administrators often say that inattentive or lazy parents are part of the problem. So is poverty, TV, poor nutrition, video games, the loss of neighborhood communities, etc etc. There are too many chiefs: federal, state, county and local governments. Guggenheim touches on these issues but his biggest complaint is that public school teachers are granted tenure virtually automatically after two years. Obviously, this is an enormous barrier to reform. What other profession offers that kind of job security? Only 1 in 2,500 teachers is let go for underperformance whereas 1/57 doctors lose their license. Taking away accountability for job performance makes no sense. It breeds complacency and incompetence. I’d like to know how this issue is treated in other countries that have more successful systems.

The emotional climax of the movie is when we watch children whose struggles and ambitions have been documented in the film waiting for their numbers to be called in the infamous lottery proceedings that charter schools are forced to use to choose their students. Where did this system come from? Grades, entrance exams, recommendations anyone? I know grading is never objective but shouldn’t admission to these schools be based on merit? But what makes the scene so poignant is that there is so much at stake for these kids. Getting into a charter school vs. staying in a public school is a watershed moment with lifelong consequences. Bad public middle schools feed into bad public high schools known as “dropout factories” where the dropout rate is as high as 80%. Even their top students have almost no hope of getting into affordable state colleges because of how their schools rank vs. other schools in the state. It makes you weep knowing that you’re watching smart, motivated kids trying to come to grips with having their dreams destroyed. It’s outrageous that the alternatives to getting admitted to these schools are so drastic.

I was lucky enough to meet Davis Guggenheim before the movie. He was standing outside the theater and greeted me because he thought I was with one of two groups who had been invited to the (public) showing. He had invited teachers and officials from Venice schools and Education students from UCLA. (He was still friendly when he found out he was mistaken.) He and his wife, Elizabeth Shue, told me that they live in Venice and send their kids to private school. He makes reference to this in the movie when he describes driving by 3 public schools on his way to take his kids to their school. I told him my wife and I are currently applying to private schools for our two sons and we talked about the cognitive dissonance that arises when your actions don’t match your beliefs. It makes the whole issue much more painful. The problem I see after touring several private schools in our area that the difference between private and public schools is too big to ignore. There are many great teachers in the public schools but the class sizes are much larger, the facilities are unimpressive, the extra-curricular programs are not as good. Students in private schools end up with an enormous advantage over time. We’re not prepared to gamble with our childrens’ future. I wish it were otherwise.

Today my wife, Tracy is a Team Captain volunteer at USC where Obama is speaking in a couple of hours. I’m proud of her. She worked hard on the ’08 campaign and has continued to act on her beliefs. Please vote on November 2 and urge your friends to support the Democrats. We can’t allow the party of “No” to worsen the gridlock in Washington for the next two years.

A Crowded World

2010 October 11
by david

In last week’s NY Times, David Brooks writes that “In 1952, two-thirds of Harvard applicants were admitted.” Unimaginable in a time when Harvard publishes its acceptance rate as 8%. Incidentally, Brooks’ Op-Ed column is an interesting take on how one of the themes of the movie, “The Social Network,” is Harvard’s shift from a Wasp-dominated old boy network to a meritocracy.

Not long ago I saw a “CBS Sunday Morning” episode about Stagedoor Manor, a camp for kids who wanted to become Broadway performers. (To see it on YouTube, click here. Stagedoor Manor Summer Camp ) What struck me was the drastic change in the ratio of applicants to openings at the camp over the last 30 years. When the camp started in the 70s, boys had to be recruited to apply to the camp. Now there’s a long waiting list every year. In those days, there were fewer than a dozen performing arts camps in the US; now there are over 800. (Most likely all have wait lists.) And the admissions standards are no doubt much higher than they used to be. There are many more kids who want to be Broadway performers and they’ve all been singing, dancing and acting for much longer than they used to. Obviously, your chances of succeeding in one of the creative professions is lower than ever. Back in the days of The Beatles, there were only a handful of rock bands in the world. The Beatles have endured not because there wasn’t much competition back then but because John and Paul were songwriting geniuses.)

stagedoorIt’s obvious that our world is becoming increasingly competitive and the anecdotal evidence cited above could be supported by thousands of other examples. What does this mean for our kids? That the opportunities we found as college applicants and college grads are going to be much harder to obtain. Wherever you look, the growth in number of applicants is far outpacing any increase in the number of opportunities. This was the case even before the onset of the Great Recession and I feel for the legions of recent grads who are currently under- or unemployed.

This is analogous to what’s happening to our country as a whole in a globalized economy. Much has been written about how rapidly the US’s economic and cultural dominance of the world is coming to an end. One of the causes is the decline of our education system and how it’s affecting our competitiveness. This is the topic of “Waiting for Superman,” now in theaters. I have only seen excerpts and they are depressing.

What’s the conclusion? We need to prepare our kids to compete in the face of worsening odds. But how far do we go? My father in law is a football coach and tell stories about the kids whose parents hire personal trainers and private coaches for them at early ages. This puts them further ahead of other, well-rounded kids in the competition to make the team or get scholarships. And, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in Outliers, success that early become is self perpetuating. If you want to get to the top in your chosen field, you need to start early and dedicate yourself single-mindedly. But the opportunity cost of excelling at a sport or pursuit is that you end up, by definition, not well rounded. Is Tiger Woods an example of someone with enormous talent who was pushed too hard by his father and is now paying the price for personal immaturity?

We urgently need to reform our public education system so that opportunities are not just available to the well-off who can afford private education. Otherwise, within the US,  the gulf will continue to widen between the oft-discussed two classes: the rich and everybody else. We also need to reform our public education system because that is the only way our country will remain competitive. And finally, it’s more important than ever to help our kids become grounded and well balanced. Otherwise we risk turning them into either entitled monsters or bitter also-rans.

Crowdsourcing: Pros and Cons

2010 September 30

The term “crowdsourcing” always reminds me of the book title, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” (which has been on my reading list for years). A Wired writer coined the term in 2006 by combining “crowd” and “outsourcing.” Wikipedia (probably the best example of crowdsourcing) defines crowdsourcing as “the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, to a large group of people or community (a crowd)…” These days people usually use it to describe what Wikipedia calls “crowd wisdom.”

Mark Suster’s recent post about User Generated Content on his excellent blog got me thinking about this. (I met Mark last year and have a lot of respect for him. His blog is a must-read for entrepreneurs and anyone interested in technology.) He describes the 1/9/90 rule of user-generated content, which states that most content comes from 1% of your “Power Users.” The other segments are “Casual Contributors” and “Lurkers.” Mark’s point is that trying to convert lurkers to become contributors is wasted effort. They’ll never have that level of commitment. The challenge is to increase the number of Casual Contributors. And this holds true for any web site: increasing the level of engagement of the half-committed segment can make a huge difference to your traffic and revenues.

wisdom_of_crowdsNeedless to say, the concept of tapping into collective wisdom is very popular these days. There’s no doubt that a good team usually makes better decisions than an individual. (Unless that individual is Steve Jobs.) But collective action is a double-edged sword. Democracy is a great political system but it’s unwieldy. Businesses are rarely run as democracies. As Scott Kurnit once put it: “Input, not consensus.” Otherwise: paralysis. And let’s face it—crowds can do stupid things. (Hitler anyone? W. was re-elected.) Mass hysteria can be dangerous.

One area where collective wisdom is overrated is web-based reviews, a topic I’ve written about before. Call me old school but I’d prefer one movie, book or restaurant review from a super-smart, well-informed reviewer rather than hundreds of “reviews” from people I don’t know. I may not always agree with the reviewer but I respect his/her expertise and ability to delve into the subtleties of whatever experience he’s discussing. “What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” Reviews written by friends carry more weight but they aren’t always the answer. A friend who shares my music tastes doesn’t necessarily have a discriminating palate and I wouldn’t trust my foodie friends’ recommendations for new music.

But if you define crowdsourcing as using the Internet as a publishing tool for the collective efforts of millions of people, it can be enormously powerful. A great example of this was the emergence of thousands of song charts on the web.

It used to be that when you needed the chords or lyrics for a song, you sat beside the turntable or tape player, pencil and paper in hand, (I know I’m dating myself here). You’d start the player then scribble furiously, pausing frequently to allow yourself to catch up, until you had a rough draft of the song. Then you’d listen a couple more times to check your work. It was frustrating because sometimes you knew you didn’t have it right. Was that a two-beat bar? What kind of altered A7 chord was that? What the hell was Dylan mumbling in the second verse? Finally you’d copy it onto a clean sheet of paper, make photocopies (usually at the office), and hand it to your band mates at the next rehearsal (or gig if you were cocky enough). Laborious, time consuming? Yes and yes.

Musicians started to post charts (or guitar tabs) on the web in the 90’s. I was thrilled. What a time saver! You could find the lyrics and chords to almost any song without having to do the work yourself. But I quickly discovered that the charts weren’t always accurate. Transcribing requires knowledge of music theory and a great ear and rock musicians rarely possess both. I got accustomed to making corrections on most of the charts I’d downloaded. Sometimes it was still easier to write my own.

AndrewRogersLast week, I found an old chart for “Let’s Stay Together” for The Mojo Soul Band, my latest music project, when I noticed “another ace 70’s tab from Andrew Rogers” at the bottom. The chords were perfect. It would have taken me hours to get right. This guy had saved me time and taught me the right chords, not just ones that were close. I wondered who this guy was and what else he had done. I Googled him and found that he had done hundreds of charts and that he was a minor celebrity among bandleaders. People appreciated his dedication, the quality of his work and his willingness to share it. Sadly, he died of leukemia in 2000. His charts were archived on Olga but it was shut down by the music industry. Here’s a link to all his charts. Here’s a short tribute. R.I.P. Andrew and thanks for your great work!

What’s the lesson? Quality still matters, editorial still matters, curation still matters. Not all contributions have equal value. And, even collectively, people don’t always get it right. I know that flies in the face of conventional wisdom but it’s clear that the next generation of popular web sites is going to add value by trying to give more weight to some people’s opinions over others. Klout and others have already started.

P.S. If you use WordPress to write a blog, write it in Word first. I wrote a brilliant post on this topic and lost it all when WordPress logged me out before I’d saved it. It took me hours to recreate it in this much less brilliant version. ;)

Two Generations: By the Numbers

2010 September 24
tags:
by david

A comparison of my parents’ lives and mine.

Statistic My Parents Me
Times moved 4 34
Number of kids 4 2
Number of marriages 1 2
# Houses bought/sold 1 4
Yrs at current residence 52 5 1/2
Computers/household 1 3
TVs/household 1 4
Total # of employers 1 8
Av yrs/employer 45 4
Total cost of schools $0 $720,000
Total cost of colleges $25,000 $500,000

The Catbird Seat

2010 September 22
by david

“Pretty soon you’ll be sitting in the catbird seat,” my boss said with a sly grin.

I mumbled a reply, hoping to hide my confusion, and looked up the expression when I got back to my office. Yes, it meant something good was going to happen and I began to speculate feverishly about what he had in store for me. But my boss, Bill Young, General Manager of Content at Prodigy, hadn’t elaborated. As always, he seemed to delight in keeping me guessing.

Mysterious Ways Cat Bird's SeatI’d heard rumblings that a reorg was imminent but Bill said nothing as the rumored date approached. In fact, he seemed distracted and I tried to fight the feeling that he was avoiding me. Finally, on the day of the announcement, I learned he was leaving the company to be a VP at AT&T’s new Internet division. My new boss was someone named Clark M., a former media company flunky who’d been lurking in an obscure department. Everyone was shocked. Clark was a blowhard and know-it-all, one of those WASPs who embodied the well-deserved decline of the upper class hailing from Southern Connecticut. Clark did his best to rally the troops in his first meeting but we all knew he was utterly lacking in charisma, not to mention the mental agility to bob and weave in an industry undergoing hypergrowth.

I put my head down and shrugged off the “catbird seat” comment as another of Bill’s cryptic koans. His management style was to keep throwing you off balance and see how you did. The only praise I remember hearing from him was in my first annual review when he gave me an above-average raise. Other than that, you had to stay on your toes because you never knew what was coming next.

I hadn’t anticipated missing him but I did. Not only was Clark ineffectual, he was downright irritating. I didn’t like him but he seemed so lonely and vulnerable I couldn’t help pitying him. Bill was brilliant, an experienced marketer and had a way of getting more out of you than you thought you had in you. He would peer at you over his glasses and send you back to your office to take another pass on the deck or the marketing or product plan. The only book on his barren bookshelf was called “A Swift Kick in the Seat of the Pants.” That about sums it up, I told myself.

Then word came that Bill was seriously ill. Earlier in the year, he’d been out sick with a bad back but had seemed to recover. This time the diagnosis was bone cancer. I didn’t reach out to him. I was too busy and, heck, it seemed our paths had diverged.

The only time I talked to Bill after that, and it turned out to be the last time, was when I called to ask him for a reference. I had been interviewing at AOL and they were asking for references. “I’d be thrilled to give you a recommendation,” Bill said. He was still working, commuting between his home in Westchester County and the AT&T offices in New Jersey. He died less than a year later. He left behind a new wife—everyone who worked for him had attended his second wedding—and two sons in college.

I sat down to write this post about mentors but realized that I had something different to say. Bill wasn’t a mentor in the true sense. For one thing, we didn’t work together long enough. But I still regret not reaching out to Bill during his last days. I was young and focused on my career. And he seemed so tough. He was an old school guy, a hardass. I know now that he was hard on me because he was trying to teach me about my job and about life. He helped me in many ways and I owe him a sincere thank you. Rest in peace, Bill, wherever you are. The lesson: if someone has touched you, don’t wait to reach out and let them know. Because they may not be around when you finally come to your senses and have something to say.

I found out after leaving Prodigy that I was supposed to get Clarks’ job but at the last moment the president had intervened. He’d brought Clark into the company and needed to put him in a senior role to justify the fact that he’d hired him. Bill hadn’t been lying that day after all. He just didn’t want to speak too soon and it turns out he was overruled. Lucky for me because I might never have left and gone to AOL, which was the opportunity of a lifetime.

Use Mint.com, Forget Quicken

2010 September 14
by david

Recently I “upgraded” my version of Quicken for $49.99. It was a total waste of money. I used to have enormous respect for Intuit when I managed personal finance at AOL because they were the kings of user-based testing—something we didn’t do much of in the web business in the early days. “Ready, Fire, Aim” was one of our self-mocking mantras. Intuit was a more mature (in every sense of the word) business than we were. We partnered with them to launch the first marketplace for online banking and they truly embodied a customer-focused organization. But the web was a dual threat to their business a) because banks saw it as a way to disintermediate them and build direct relati0nships with their customers and b) because desktop software was a dying model.

I upgraded because the previous version of Quicken for the Mac was a mediocre product so my thinking was, heck the new version HAS to be better. Wrong! They advertised it as a better product with an interface that is more Mac-friendly. But they broke one of the cardinal rules of redesigning a site—they eliminated functionality. And not just any functionality. They took away what I considered was the core of the app: the ability to compare spending over one time period (say year to date) to spending over another time period (last YTD in the same month), and the ability to compare spending in a time period to the budget for that time period. They tout that it will import data from older versions of Quicken but neglect to mention it doesn’t import the budget so you have to recreate it. Yes, the UI is better but WHAT WERE THEY THINKING up there in Menlo Park?

After hours of trying to learn the new app (another no no), I got disgusted and signed up for mint.com. Almost immediately I discovered why Intuit bought them. It’s the classic example of an upstart taking on an incumbent and kicking their ass because they’re starting from scratch. Mint makes it super easy to sign up. You just enter in your user name and password for your financial providers’ websites and it retrieves your information seamlessly. When they import the transaction data, they automatically assign categories. (Well ok, Quicken does that.) They update the data seamlessly so you don’t have to do it manually when you log on. Their interface is gorgeous. They sent me an alert within hours of signing up saying I was paying “more than average for auto insurance.” Another alerted me that a credit card payment is due. I may get tired of their marketing messages but they’ll be easy to ignore if I can’t turn them off. Which I imagine I can because they seem to have done everything right. The only thing that looks a little daunting is setting up a budget. But it’s not their fault—there’s no shortcut for that.

There’s much more on the site that I haven’t explored yet: e.g. the ability to set specific goals and track y0ur progress toward them. All this and Mint is FREE! Kudos to Aaron Patzer and his team.

We vs. ME

2010 September 3

I’m often struck by the contradictions inherent in the powerful messages we’re bombarded with on a daily basis. One example is the emphasis on being thin (especially for women) contrasted with the constant barrage of ads from the food industry marketing foods that will make you fat, (if they don’t kill you first).

Another contradiction is the one between the veneration of the stars in the technology business and the fact that great businesses are built by teamwork. Stars tend to be narcissistic over-achievers who are charismatic self-promoters. Their success often magnifies the issue because they attribute it to their brilliance. We’ve all heard about Steve Jobs’ RDF “reality distortion field.” In a rare case like Apple this uneasy dynamic seems to work because Jobs is the founder and has an unusual amount of control. In other cases an overly-narcissistic leader can bring down a company.

A great article from the Harvard Business Review outlines the weaknesses of narcissistic leaders:

  • Sensitive to Criticism
  • Poor Listeners
  • Lack of Empathy
  • Distaste for Mentoring
  • An Intense Desire to Compete

Sound familiar? Anyone who’s worked for someone like this knows none of these qualities is conducive to building a great team.

A blogger/therapist relates this to corporate acquisitions: “CEO’s who suffer from overconfidence tend to make bad acquisitions. A narcissistic CEO is more likely to overpay for a company he wants to acquire, is more likely to act on impulse, and is more likely to overestimate his ability to manage the new company and to integrate its operations with the old company.” This too sounds familiar to those of us who worked at AOL in 2000.

In a recent blog post, Ben Horowitz describes “The Right Kind of Ambition,” which distinguishes between Me and We. He outlines an interview technique where you compare the number of times the interviewee uses “Me” or “I” versus the number of times they use “We” or “Us.” It turns out that therapists actually use the same technique for diagnosing narcissism.

Narcissistic leaders are not a new phenomenon. The blogs quoted above menti0n Napolean, Churchill, Ghandi. But, as Macoby points out, “narcissists thrive in chaotic times.”

‘Nuff said.