Saturday, May 16, 2015


Everyone I know wants to quit their day job and start a small business.

I recently finished the Steve Jobs book, which I listened to as an audiobook, at home and in the car, over the course of several weeks.

A story that has strongly stayed with me is about the very first product that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak every built. It was an electronic box that mimicked the tones used by the phone system, so that the user could get free long-distance calls.  This was not the most noble invention, but the positive thing that struck me was that the parts for this box cost about $50, Wozniak wanted to give it away for free, because he was that kind of guy, but Jobs decided to sell it for $100, and they used the profits to reinvest and grow the business.

If you want to start a business, or anything, really, you need to figure out the first thing that you can sell at any kind of margin, and then use that to fund the next thing, and so on.

So, the first step if you have a business idea you want to realize, is to ask yourself, what can I do, from home, that someone else might value more than it costs me to make, so that I can make that first sale and get the ball rolling?

There was a story about the founders of Banana Republic that told a very similar story.  They started by purchasing remaindered shirts that a company wanted to dump, and used boxes and crates that they had, to set up a stall at markets.  The article points out that they used things other people considered trash, but sold them at a profit. Eventually (in fact in a pretty short time) they sold their business to The Gap for 48 million dollars.  Good example of how you  do it.

Here are some ideas I've brainstormed, although none of these lead to my actual business dream, so they're not really for me to pursue, but I'll throw them out there anyway:

Music School - start giving weekly lessons for free to a friend, to build up a curriculum.  Oh, and also, make sure you teach more than just music, give the student a way to discover their inner self and create an outlet for self-expression.  Word of mouth should build the student body, and with time you should have a good set of course materials to sell.

Music Instrument Shop - start buying old instruments at garage sales or via Craig's List, and flip them - take a Luthier seminar or something, so that you're able to tune up and mod an instrument so that it has more value.  However, the model for this idea - a Hawaiian native who used to mod and sell ukuleles, which I know from experience have magically better extraordinary tone that any other ukulele you can find - he did this but did not charge an extra margin.  So maybe that's not a good business plan, because there's not enough margin on the demand side.

Summer educational retreat - start running day-long or week-long classes out of your house.

Art gallery - Popping up does not cost that much (this idea actually came from someone else).

Maybe? : Consulting business - make time to write your ideas down, in a blog.

Time will tell....

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


Putting things into categories is hard.

Marketers put customers into categories all the time, must do so, or business would be unscalable and impossible.  Sure, in some ways each customer is a unique snowflake, unlike any other, and at some level deserves custom treatment tailored specifically to them, and resulting in a product portfolio that might be unlike any other.  But realistically, in order to have any sort of economic efficiency at all, on which to found their business, Marketers really have to communicate with customers and bring products to them in groups.

Sometimes even the slightest differentiation is enough.  I have worked on brands that sent out email newsletters, and divided the recipients into just two groups.  In one case, the first email to a new customer was different that the regular monthly email the rest of the subscribers received.  In another, the product was meant for people going through a particular phase of development that lasted, on average, only eight months, but definitely had a beginning, a middle and an end (the target age group for this product was between 3-5 years old, so that might give you some hint about what the product was).  Another separated customers into large and small, with five pieces of equipment being the cutoff.

Why five?  What was so different about someone who had six pieces of our equipment that they needed a completely different message, and why did the owner of six have more in common with the owner of 10,000 than with the owner of four?  The boundaries of market segmentation are where the artifice really starts to show.  The difference between someone with four and someone with 10,000 looks like an actual, verifiable fact of the natural world.  But five and six?  There you can see more clearly the stroke of the very human and arbitrary pen that drew that line.

I first dealt with this issue long before I worked in Marketing.  I was in Philosophy grad school, in a seminar on John Locke, the famous Empiricist.  The school of thought to which Locke belongs believed basically that nothing of the human mind is inborn or present innately, that all mental processing is learned from experience, through the senses, of the world.  So, the child is not born knowing the concept of "redness", the idea of the color red in the abstract.  Instead, a child sees an apple, and then a rose, and then maybe a fire truck or a stop sign.  Each thing makes an impression on the child's new mind, like an object being pressed into a mold of wax.  But after having several impressions, the child starts to compare them, and notices that the apple and the rose, while different shapes, share a characteristic in common.  And the name of that characteristic is "redness", being red in color.  The child's mental concept of red, the child's understanding of what redness is, is based on experience, and then abstracted from it.

I remember many debates about Empiricism and perception and mental categorization, during this period of my life.  I was a big fan, at that time, of the idea that minds were blank and formless, and shaped only by experience of the world (a point of view I've heard people say is naturally popular in a culture where at age 18 one separates from home and family, goes off to college and imagines one can break completely free of one's past and invent oneself anew).  I ran the argument that the categories with which human beings understand and talk about our world are completely arbitrary, made up by us, superimposed on the world but could all be otherwise.  A teacher of mine was much more a fun of the idea that our words for things and our conceptual categories that go along with the words "carve nature at the joints".  I remember one fierce debate, over coffee, about the fact that our word "table" picks out the table, and not the tables plus the surrounding two inches of air.  I thought it could very well have been the table plus the extra area around it.  I have softened somewhat on this stance in my later years.

But categorization is still hard.  Even though there seems to be a distinct difference between customers in the Construction sector vs the Manufacturing sector, a difference based on real, kickable stuff out there in the world, what do you do with companies that mass-produce the same metal house frame over and over, or companies that produce trucks used in mining that are so large that you can only produce one in the time sometime might take to put up a bridge?  There's an emerging field that calls itself MRO, for "Maintenance and Repair Operation".  But what is a Repair Operation?  That one can be vexing.  Do you put Repair in the same category as Construction because they typically only do one unique job at a time, and sometimes do it outdoors?  Or do you categorize them by what it is they are repairing, which could be fences out on a ranch property, or hot rod cars, or airplanes, or ships?

John Locke would say, go talk to lots of Maintenance and Repair Operations, and then think about your impressions of them and see what they have in common.  But be ready for the next one you meet you change your idea.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

On Fake Personalization

I often listen to NPR programs from other cities, via the NPR News app on my phone.  This morning I was listening to Car Talk as broadcast from station KCPW in Salt Lake City, Utah.  During a break, the station played a promo for the show that was coming up next, Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me, recorded by that show's host Peter Sagal.  He described the show, threw in a few light jokes, and then said, "Coming up at 10 o'clock right here on KCPW."

I know that Wait Wait is broadcast all over the country, so when I heard Mr Sagal pronounce the call letters of the station I was listening to, all I could think of was the whole afternoon he would have once spent in front of a studio microphone in Chicago, recording clip after clip for the hundreds of NPR stations all over the US.  It got me wondering whether he had to re-record the whole promo, or if they just cut in the last sentence since that was the only one personlized for each city.  I definitely did not image Peter Sagal sitting in Salt Lake somewhere recording this single message, or taking some time out to record a message for just this market, or even feeling some twinge of fond familiarity when it came up on the list during that long afternoon.

So that made me wonder whether it was worth the trouble they'd taken to personalize this message for this market.  If he'd recoreded instead, "Listen for Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, coming up soon on your local station," just that one time, and then gone home for an early dinner, would that really have been less effective?  Did my mind go to the image of the recording studio because I work in this field and I know too much?  Was the long list of station call letters in front of Mr. Sagal just too similar to the large customer databases I manage at work?  Do ordinary listeners of KCPW, the good people of Salt Lake City, feel a fond glow of affection and hometown pride when they hear this national radio star say their station's name?  Or would the more general phrase "your local station" have just the same effect?

That's the question, for all of us who work in CRM.  We do actually love our customers, and when we communicate with them we want them to feel like we know them as individuals.  But when you try to create that effect on a large scale, do you always end up in fake personalization, and do the customers always know that that's all it is?


Postscript: Listening to the actual show, I learned that Wait Wait was actually travelling to Salt Lake City in the near future to perform a live show.  So the city and station were in fact significant to them, and might have prompted the special promo.  But the fact that I just assumed the personalization was fake raises the question anew - is fake personalization not just worthless but actually damaging?

Sunday, September 25, 2011


I spent much of my young life living by an academic calendar, much longer than people using spend that way.  Every year had the same cadence of semesters, final exams, and summers off, so for me September has always seemed like the beginning of the new year, not the end of summer.

As soon as I was actually a teacher rather than a student, I found that the year just kept on, there was no true break over summer, I was never truly done with everything.  And when I left academia, even more so, the working year just rolls from task to task to project to report to budget planning, on and on without a break.  It's unusual even for people to take long vacations, lots of two days off and leave early on Fridays and frittering away one's annual vacation in tiny bits so you never really get a sense that you're done with everything, no one can ask any more of you.

This isn't true in every field, though. When I lived in Australia, all of my favorite personalities on the radio typically took two or three months off during the summer.  There were still broadcasts to fill the airwaves all day, but they were the second string, the substitutes, the apprentices.  It wasn't until February or so (the start of autumn in that hemisphere) that you heard familiar voices and settled back into the familiar schedule.

Here in the US, radio personalities don't seem to take long vacations, but the TV schedule does.  This week has been the premiere of all the commercial networks' new fall shows, and this weekend the new seasons of all the important, award-winning cable TV series have come back on the air.

So with this blog.  My hiatus was longer than a usual one this year because in May, I changed employers and started a new job, which took quite a bit of time and mental bandwidth.  I was pursuing some other time-consuming summer hobbies through the end of August, and then September has had a few family issues that delayed my intended return.  But now, with the TV schedule, I am back from hiatus and ready to start regular posts again.  I might make this an annual tradition, summers off from blogging.  I do feel refreshed, and I've stored up some new things to talk about.  Plus, now that temperature in my northern town creeps toward freezing every night and our nights are longer than our days, staying indoors and cozying up to a warm computer seems like a much more attractive pursuit.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Three stories that show that anonymity makes people behave badly

1.  Many years ago now, I had a job where I had to drive every day for work from Killcare, on the Central Coast of New South Wales, to Castle Hill, a surburb to the north of Sydney.  It was an hour and a half each way, the first half hour along a stretch of road where the speed limit has since been lowered about 30 kph, but where at that time the morning radio traffic report frequently features stories of accidents, usually "car v. rock wall", that would take whole lanes out of action for the morning.  For most of that year I did the drive in an old Jaguar XJ6, two tons of British engineering with a powerful engine but aging brakes and no modern features like side mirrors or retracting seat belts or window defoggers or little luxuries like that.  It was a dangerous stretch of road, and in the morning everyone on it was a stressed-out Dad or Mum heading into the city to do some job they resented, and they all went way too fast as a rule and acted like jerks.  One of the worst tricks, to gain unfair position in traffic, was to speed up to right behind me in the left-hand lane, which is the slow lane in that part of the world, then when we came to an on-ramp, zoom around me on the wrong side using the on-ramp itself as a passing lane.  This maneuver was always startling because you don't expect someone to do something so egregiously wrong, and the first time or two it happened I was filled with a red-hot, blinding, quaking rage.  But after a while I learned that I couldn't let other drivers get to me.  They might cheat and do studpid, unfair, dangerous things to try to get to work a little faster, but I just had to take a Zen approach, ignore them and drive my own drive.  I also learned to slow my mental metabolism down like a lizard in a freezer, so that the hour and a half seemed to take only a few minutes.  Both of these skills came in handy for international air travel as well.  They were Bodhisattva skills I developed in that cauldron of road rage, the F3.

2.  The next job after the one with the long commute, I was manager for a global company of their Asia, Pacific and Latin America websites.  This was way before the days of "Web 2.0" so it was unusual to hear any direct interations from customers, but we did have a "Contact Us" mailto link on each site, and as manager of all the sites those emails came to me.  It was a time when the US market included a direct sales channel, so US customers could come to our website and order products directly, but in the rest of the world sales still went through a distribution channel, and at every hop there was something like a 13% margin added so the local prices got nowhere near the price available to US customers, and the issue sometimes got a bit sensitive.

One time I got an angry, angry email from a local customer, I think he was in Perth.  He'd installed our product, got an automated screen advertising an upgrade for $99, thought that was great, clicked to order it, and then oops, at some point during the purchase process it became clear that the offer was only available to US customers, and his own upgrade would cost something like $367 (I'm making all these numbers up).  He had a very good point, his own product on his own computer had prompted him to take advantage of the sale price and nowhere was it made clear that the dollars in question weren't Australian dollars.  He had a fair point, we were completely in the wrong, but his email was spittingly angry, vitriolic in the extreme.

So as the manager, I wrote him back, apologized as profusely as a I could, admitted that our ad was misleading, that it had only been intended for US customers but of course launched from his product as well, and offered him a free upgrade which we could mail to him.  I signed my name and gave my title and full contact details.

Well, I got the nicest email back from him.  In order to get his mailing address and sent out the upgrade we had a few messages back and forth, and he was always extremely cordial and grateful and complementary.  I think the vitriol he spilled was at a computer, a set of machines, an impersonal mistake that had enraged him, but when he got a message from me, in my voice, with my name - a message from a real person who listened and apologized and made good (and we also instituted a policy that I tried to police regularly forever of saying "Offer good in US and Canada only" on the .com site, even though consumers should know that site wasn't for everyone, so we put preventative measures in that would prevent anyone else having the negative experience he had), I know that solving his problem made him happier but I still think knowing there was a real person at the end of the email address immediately calmed him down and caused him to behave much better.

3.  More recently, I worked on a product that had launched a change in the market.  This product had been around some 80 years, and they knew from research they had a loyal core of fans, but hadn't really been able to hear from them directly.  In what was in retrospect probably not a wise move, they instituted product reviews on their website at the very time this product change hit the market.  It wasn't quite as bad as New Coke, but they did get what felt like an overwhelming number of negative messages on the new reviews page.  Yes, these were the loyal fans, but they were not happy at all that the product had been messed with.  They had liked it for years, just the way it was, and didn't see why it had to be changed.  Some time later, that same brand launched a Facebook page, and they were worried the same thing would happen, but this time, it turned out that the loyal fans showed up and said mostly nice things, testifying to their long loyalty and how much the brand had meant to them.  The theory among the managers was that because when you post something on a brand's wall in Facebook it displays your own name and your own photo, it prompted people to be nicer.  When they were posting on an anonymous wall with a screen name as an alias, they were much meaner.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Emily Dickinson weighs in on whether internet relationships are real.

The Fourth Annual Fox Cities Book Festival is on this week, and I have volunteered all four years, although this year I was late to sign up and only worked at one session, which happened to be last night.  The session was called "Turn Up the Volume: A Riff on Creative Writing and Music", and it featured three different writers who incorporated music into their work in various ways.  Stephen McCabe was first - he would lay down repeated loops of guitar sounds with electric vibrophone or something as percussion and then read poems over the top of them; it was all very jazzy and beatnik and I loved it.  The last speaker was Bill Gillard, who read some poems and one story with themes drawn from his previous experience as a musician, including in the opening passage of the story the most perfect, moving description of a girl playing guitar (a Gibson 335 ES through a Fender Twin, to be exact) to make sounds in order to forget the boy she had lost, and also to remember him.  I went up to him afterwards to tell him that it was a perfect description of why girls play guitar - to make a sound that a boy made once.  It nearly made me cry when he read it.

But the one I want to talk about here is Ron Rindo, a Professor of English at UW Oshkosh down the road.  His thing is to set poems of other writers to original music.  Two of the pieces he did were Emily Dickinson poems, and to introduce one of them, poem 249 that starts "Wild Nights - Wild Nights!", he was talking about the different theories of her relationship with Susan Gilbert, the woman her brother had married and then they moved in next door.  There were many theories about this relationship and of what the poem was about, but he was in the camp that read it as a love poem, and believed Dickinson had a lesbian attraction to Susan Gilbert that was intense and passionate but also could never, never be requited.

Emily and Sarah used to pass notes between the houses, they lived next door but would communicate in writing, Emily in the end wrote more than 300 letters to Sarah, and he quoted her view that people in their flesh and blood were always disappointing, but she believed that in writing we are lifted up, and are our highest selves.

So, I thought, here is another vote for verbal relationships


Seeing an academic speak and then thinking of commenting on his work made me think about academic work and its research and rigor.  These little pieces haven't had much research or rigor.  I do know how to write properly rigorous academic prose, supported by full reviews of the existing literature and fully footnoted, revised and refined over months or years, carefully argued and vetted for being an original contribution to the field.  My dissertation was rigorous enough that the good people of the University of California thought it was worthy of giving a Ph.D.  But here, I am working to put out these little pieces for you at a higher frequency.  I read other people's blogs and know they have worked harder to refine their entries, and these in contrast are going to seem tossed off and casual.  I just wanted to make sure you realized that I know this.  I guess what you'll get here are many swift passes through a subject, like many cuts from a rapidly rotating blade.  Eventually I should get to the bottom of them.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Prioritize Quarterly

I'm drifting off of social media topics for the moment, and onto something more businessy, org-designy, productivity-y, but since I heard the following advice on the radio this morning it has stayed with me.

I was bored with NPR (Wisconsin state politics has reached a kind of stasis with nothing new to report), and switched over to the online stream of my old favorite talk radio station from Sydney, ABC 702.  Since morning here is night there, I listened to Nightlife with Tony Delroy, and one of his guests was an expert in organization and efficiency and time management.  I didn't catch the guest's name but will look it up and try to include it here soon.

The lead topic was how to manage an email Inbox, but this didn't grab me because I conquered the Inbox problem many, many years ago and it gives me no trouble at all any more - my technique is that I read emails, but I never delete or file any of them, I just wait until Outlook shouts at me and I move the whole lot of them into a folder called "Inbox - Old".  Then two or three times a year I group the messages into batches and create archived pst files, extract them back out again, and bang, I can find everything I ever need using Search.  This has saved me countless hours, and I recommend the technique to anyone.  It also helps if you sort of think of projects based on the people who were working on them, but what kind of Relationship Marketer would I be if I didn't do that?

No, it was the second topic that really grabbed me.  Tony was asking about prioritizing tasks, and said, "So, do you pick certain tasks to focus on that day?" and I was nodding in agreement because this is something I've been trying to do recently, to just focus on the most important accomplishments that need to get done, fill in with other little things but really pick just two or three things that day which should get done before day's end, and which will feel like real achievements.

Well, no.  This expert thought that a daily priority list was far too small a unit.  In order to really work on the most important tasks, rather than work reactively on shorter-term urgent tasks, he recommended that you work quarterly.

Quarterly.  Every three months, pick out two or three things which will be your main focus for that three-month period.  Then go back into your schedule and make sure at least 60-70 percent of your time is scheduled to spend on those two or three most important goals.  Then fill the rest in with other smaller term or even reactive tasks, but the bulk of your time should be devoted to the main things you want to accomplish.  And then the big goals can be reviewed annually.

This is how objectives are set in workplaces, but I'd never even thought of operating on that time scale in my personal life.  Quarterly objectives!  What do I hope to accomplish three months from now?  It seems almost fancifully far away.  But when I think of the kind of thing that would be an appropriate three-month goal, I do find myself drawn to much more grand and ambitious thoughts than when I think of daily ones ("Get the tax return in the mail, for real, by 5pm."  "Load of dark laundry including towels."  "Buy milk."  That kind of thing).

It resonates with another principle I heard some years back, advice for people going through difficult times, especially those who might be close to despair and giving it all up.  If you can get the person to agree to hang on for three months, usually things will turn around and they will gain a different perspective.  And this person said it's because within three months, the seasons usually change.  The world looks different, either sunnier or snowier or more autumnal or verdant, and it can give a different perspective and that in itself sometimes gives hope.  People work well quarterly.  I'm going to try this new approach and see how it works.